Lorin Schwarz

Review of The Concession Stand: Exaptation at the Margins, by Arpine Konyalian Grenier

(Otoliths Books, 2011)

Standing With and For Concession

   It is difficult, when reading Arpine Konyalian Grenier’s new poetic memoir/essay The Concession Stand: Exaptation at the Margins, not to think of Helene Cixous. Both writers share a similar style, mastery of theory and concern for the poetics of reading and writing lives, selves, memory, history and the spaces between – and for both Grenier and the eminent literary theorist, it is the act of language itself that holds any possible hope for meaning. “You speak out of fear,” writes Cixous in Rootprints: Memory and Life Writing. “That we must erase the traces of fear and suffering. The loss of that memory is impoverishing and the concern of … writing is to reinscribe it. Because only the forge of language can give the truth of our feelings, the sensory knowledge of our affects.”

     These words sum up the essence of Grenier’s project in The Concession Stand. The very title of this work comes from a line of poetry spawned from William Bronk mocking the possibility of escaping language, or using words as a way to heal, sanitize or categorize the complexities of existence: as if at the concession stand / cured of speech. For Grenier, this is a non-concession – the one concession that must never be allowed if we are to hold on to the truth and sensory understandings that make us human. Language is paramount to being alive; throughout The Concession Stand, language, it’s limitations and the silences that define it act as a kind of love song to what is human and poetic about life – that which is inescapable and incurable, but which we spend so much of our lives trying to erase. Ultimately, it is language that matters even more than experience, for there is no way to understand either independently. “I can survive identity but not language,” Grenier writes. “The act of writing is always on … experience does not matter, aspects and the writing do.”

     Language works, Grenier insists, because it is never only about language, because it is all we have and because it always, ultimately, fails us. It mirrors art, history, theory, memory and our very own hearts. In this universe of poetics, it is only the attempt at language that matters – because the attempt is who we are, and more than what we are. “We’ll work with language,” she tells us, “we’ll hopefully use it and not adhere to it. We’ll also use heart and mind, and if we allow ourselves not to be driven merely by fundamentals, we may experience language differently. Because when the word hits the page or our vocal chords, it has already created more (or less) than itself.”

     The Concession Stand is in two fragmentary sections. The first, “With It,” consists of four chapters. Each of these is written in whimsical, elusive prose mirroring something like a Faulknerian center-of-consciousness fused with poetry – and verse is scattered liberally throughout. Grenier sets up the concerns of her writing in these first salvos, and they recur like the surprises of a dream throughout the work. In “Winter Reading” we encounter poetry alongside philosophy and a pseudo-review of several books written in thought and affect, memory and association. Grenier presents her readers with poetic responses to writing, to writing’s concern with the survival of the body, of desire, of its own limitations and needs – and its definitions of our own longings to escape definition. All roads in “Winter Reading” lead to memories and lost cities, of a missing and strangely undefined mother, an elusive language of abjectivity held captive by a world determined to commodify, capitalize and categorize, and set free by its inability to conform in any material sense to anything but the human.

     In “TB as Something Willed” Grenier plays with language, subverting expectations of TB by
coining the phrase “translation bastardization” – a deliberate process of allowing for the incompleteness of language and poetic experience. “The poem becomes more than I do,” she writes, and it is in this essence of translation from which a dual sense of the “bastardization” comes about. It might mean trying too hard to articulate what the poetic is all about, how we bastardize when we aim too much for the self-serving ambitions of the scientific, philosophical or virtually theoretical. Or, the poet reminds us, bastardization might imply the individual understandings that fuel what poetry is and how we all read it, live by it, interpret it. This sense of bastardization is ultimately a hopeful willing, the only true method of meaningful translation – exaptation par excellence.

     Grenier’s third chapter, “There but not There” moves readers into the shifting theoretical darkness of institutionalized culture and gaps between identity and the disingenuity of theory. This chapter pulses with a call for the generous intent offered by poetry, a new form of symbolizing the void of inarticulation from within inexperience, an evolving semantics outside the failed ambitions of academic and “knowing” discourse. Instead, we are asked to conceptualize a dialogue with the “divine in the fabric of the everyday,” the core of what poetry allows and offers lives, lived off the page. The final installment of “With It” is an intangible, playful and edgy poem called “There’s no Such Thing as Seamstress.” The concern here is memory and a celebrating as well as questioning look at the human traces we hide and leave behind as we move from the dramas of advice and critique to something wished for, something more natural and free.

     Now The Concession Stand makes a shift into a second segment, “For it.” In the first chapter, “Heritage Like Money Then: Risk to Reward” we immediately encounter the almost ubiquitous lost mother but discover that what has been lost is a language, and not quite lost in a traditional sense. “I have no mother tongue as my mother tongue has lost me,” Grenier writes. The chapter provides a first glimpse into diasporic identity and the betrayals of colonization. But typically, all is not lost and celebrations of contingency abound. Only the human longings and limitations can lead to a poetic (non-) survival of identity, only the longing for connection is real. “What transforms us will always be the expression of feeling, not the intellectualization of it,” Grenier insists, “remembering our power and limitations, our diversities and commonalities … difference has been embraced. Uncertainty is operative, so is solidarity. Then there is hope.” And always, the primacy of writing, inextricable from experience: “I had never met a Turk until I was 40 years old,” the poet notes, “and then I wrote about her.” Strangely, however, Grenier here warns against taking the metaphor too literally; that while writing and life are one and the same, they unfold in parallel ways only by some specific calculus. “There are no protagonists, antagonists or narrators, only participants. That is where poetic engagement occurs.” The chapter sets itself for “the expression of feeling rather than the intellectualization of it,” for hope and the hope of being heard and hearing both others and the self.

    “Gul of the Supernal Garden” is an intentionally dark reflection “from the edge of chaos” about what is repairable and permanently damaged in the refugee/diasporan experience. We have condolences for mothers we do now know have been lost, embodiments of unknown loss, a chasm to which loss itself is not immune. Swirling around this is a wish for healing and assertions of the present and presence, and again, a frightened response – perhaps a warning(?) against the inadequacy of theoretical engagement with relation. From this, the text’s most gloomy writing, we emerge into “A Place in the Sun, Malgre Sangre,” the core of The Concession Stand. A sort of inner-and-outer travelogue, this chapter offers reflections on movement not only from place to place but through time and space, between categories, from memory, towards self, hope, connection. “The only intolerance is that of non-communication,” she writes. Far more narratively cohesive than the dreamlike moments of prior chapters, the reader travels with Grenier on a trip from American airports to the Middle East. But the journey is never quite what it seems, and while the details of smoky restaurants and strong coffee hover wistfully throughout, the concern is always about other things: where and how the past leads to where the future exists, what we do with the remains of the past, how the foods we eat become memories of the souls we’ve met along the way and the selves we choose to exploit, experience and express in ways that are unique to each of us.

     Grenier’s final chapter, “Doing the Dishes, Aferim” is a return to the themes of earlier chapters in a hauntingly obscure language of affect. We see once again warnings against the limits of voice, rhetoric and persuasion, traces of the eternal in the pragmatic and a revered reality. Yet there is some sense of concession finally, the naming of a mother – albiet an elusive linguistic trick: “How does one face ush, when one is coming from anush (immortal, female energy, an is prefix for negation in Armenian.) Mother’s name was Anush.” At times funny, other times reaching for more of an answer than anywhere else in the text, this chapter breaks into a set of poems and prose center-of-consciousness writing about the factuality and actuality of language, about survival, history’s inheritance and – as always – our place within words and language.

     There is a tendency throughout to veer into popular metaphysical constructs – choosing the light, leaning on inner strength when the world fails us, a grace achieved only by receptivity to art. It’s impossible to disagree with these notions; they simply appear overly ephemeral to stand alongside Grenier’s assertions about the lack of depth in theory. On the other hand, writing concerned with poetics lives within the shadowy world of the ethereal; similar criticisms have been leveled against everyone from Muriel Rukeyser to Adrienne Rich. At its best, The Concession Stand is a warning against the defenses we use to anesthetize ourselves against a life fully realized: categorization and overt commodification, pat answers and denials of complexity, simplified narratives and language used as a kind of bromide to cure the very pains that define us. Grenier urges us to confront and embrace the insupportable, to live with what is lost and explore both lit and shadowed places of the human soul. “Vulnerability and flawed citizenship are integral,” she urges. “History belongs to the domain of the universe. We must be gentle with it, go around it. That may be the antidote to the shame of being alive.” The difficult and elusive prose moments presented in the text beg an unknowing; maybe we don’t know or fully understand, but can we keep going anyway – and can we feel something in the process? There is only language between us, but what traces does it leave after it has drawn us closer, changed us? Philosophy fails, but does silence? Science and poetry are limited, but how do they connect? “How to get from the heart to the brain is the task,” Grenier notes, and there is a sense that somewhere within the slippery but hopeful silences of her words, there, between the pages and her refusal to catalog and customize and cure us of the human, the way is lit. As she notes, hope lives there.