James Pate reviews Joanna Novak’s work of nyctophilic celebration.
Joanna Novak, Noirmania (Inside the Castle, 2018), 72pp.
“And the message of the yew tree is blackness – blackness and silence”
– Sylvia Plath, “The Moon and the Yew Tree”
When I first read the title of Joanna Novak’s Noirmania, I thought it might be a work somewhat akin to Roberto Bolaño’s Antwerp, where elements of Noir films and novels are reworked and rethought through an experimental writing style. And there are definitely aspects of the Noir aesthetic in some of the lines in Novak’s collection. But Noirmania is really more of a work of nyctophilia, being a celebration/exploration of darkness and its rich, multilayered manifestations. Death and decomposition are motifs — the speaker is in a state of perpetual departure (“It hurts to forget old names”), and the landscape is often one of autumnal earthiness (“twiggery, staunch / branchlets, painted glass”) – and yet, the verse is never morbid for the sake of being morbid. Rather, the speaker hears “alphabets in the megafauna,” even as she lives “on salt / and cemeteries.” If darkness is negation (“Feeding was more missing than absent from / my plot”), it is also night, with its stereophonic array of sounds and vast outer limits (“The Night Sky glozes behind daylight”).
In our harsh, daylit, neoliberal world, where everything is expected to have a purpose and an assigned value, “darkness” is often read as a threat, or a form of weakness. Darkness, in this view, is a symbol of ignorance, or a sign of undignified mourning (as in Hamlet), or an emblem of absolute nihilism (or all three at the same time). But there have always been alternative traditions: darkness as a comfort, darkness as fantastical minerality, darkness as masquerade, darkness as an acceptance of the nonhuman foundations of our human world. Poets such as Alejandra Pizarnik, Jaime Saenz and Sylvia Plath foreground our experiences of darkness and night, reversing the dichotomy whereby the connotations of light (the proverbial lightbulb flashing over the head) are held privileged.
And Noirmania is very much a work of that alternate tradition. In these pages, even “life” is seen in relation to nonlife: the book starts with the words, “I was dead less then,” as if being is always a momentary glimmer out from the realms of nonbeing. And an elegiac mood haunts the book. “Softly, I was bitten by / melancholy,” the speaker says in the first few pages. If the associations of light (clarity, presence, the very phrase “the Enlightenment”) tend toward order and logos, Novak switches the cultural code, suggesting that this discomfort with darkness is its own form of nihilism. As the speaker says in the opening lines, “And I could see / horrified, the pure white cloth chattered Nothing.” In contrast, “The black cloth / is versatile, like soup or grilled cheese or pears, / food you can serve to a child or a dog, / at a luncheon, a dinner, or a funeral.”
The style of Novak’s Noirmania relates directly to this fecund darkness. The words are scattered artfully across the pages, suggesting breezy dispersal and free-floating associations, the book presenting not a chain of arguments but a series of nocturnal mediations. The phrase “dancing on the feeling of wanting to slip” appears early in the book, a line that well captures the visual layout of the lines themselves. There are also blank spaces within many of the lines, as may be seen from some of the quotations above. (Bold is sometimes used as well, as may also be seen above.) The effect of this spacing is similar to a spotlight roving across a dark landscape and picking out various elements before roaming on. And a few pages don’t have any words at all. Here, the space is filled with tiny, swirling marks that visually seem like drifting snow, or maybe flakes of fire rising upward. These illustrative passages function as a way of highlighting the materiality of the writing itself: just as the words are black markings, so, too, are these. Language isn’t transcendent. It, too, crystalizes and decomposes.
The book also contains echoes of magic, but not in any denominational fashion. One of the most intriguing aspects of Novak’s work is how it threads in elements of ritual, but in a manner that relates more to art and poetry than religion. Early in the book, the speaker invokes “Dusk,” saying, “A collar / a wrinkle, the cheek drooling over bed is Dusk / I call her, slow pulse, dirge shoulders.” A little later in the page, the speaker seems to offer a brief ars poetica: “To fluoresce the gloaming.” Invoking and creating are linked to one another in such passages. This link is made even clearer in the final section of the book entitled “Kabinet,” where phrases from the poems are given enigmatic definitions. Dusk is defined as “a thick layer of gesso and a few good rubs with, from, for, and by collected, curious knuckles.” The figure of Dusk is also a tactile artistic process.
Near the end of this bold, inquisitive book, the speaker loops back toward the opening, telling us, “As I arrived, we were at the beginning with family / and enemies cutting faces. Someone threw a song / up to the stars and moon.” The eeriness of this passage is the implication that the “someone” is the speaker herself. The ego has possibly become multiple, an echo the speaker might not recognize as her own. In his collection of essays entitled The Weird and the Erie, the late Mark Fisher argues that the eerie brings to the surface “the way that ‘we’ ‘ourselves’ are caught up in the rhythms, pulsions and patternings of non-human forces. There is no inside except as a folding of the outside.” Considering how our current profit-driven ecological collapse is supported by a human-centric rage against the “outside,” works such as Noirmania are all the more important. Moving toward the dark might be one of the ways out.
James Pate teaches creative writing and literature at Shepherd University, in Shepherdstown, WV. His books include Flowers Among the Carrion: Essays on the Gothic in Contemporary Poetry (Actions Books Salvo Series) and Speed of Life (Fahrenheit Books).