A SAND BOOK
By Ariana Reines
Paul Celan starts a late poem with the entreaty: “NO MORE SAND ART, no sand book, no masters.” That line seems to renounce his first book, “The Sand From the Urns,” and to argue for silence in the face of what is most difficult to bear. (Celan, a Jewish survivor of World War II, felt the concern personally.) It also gives Ariana Reines the title and epigraph for her new collection, “A Sand Book,” which remains in dialogue with Celan even as it updates his themes for the internet age.
Reines is a poet, performance artist, playwright and translator. Her aesthetic is distinctly different from Celan’s, but their interests overlap: philosophy, faith, belonging, Jewish identity, to name a few. You might say of her work what Celan’s translators Nikolai Popov and Heather McHugh once said of his: “It sometimes seems a domain of gamblers, Kabbalists, palm-readers, jugglers and tightrope walkers: domain of oddities and omens.”
The 12 sections of “A Sand Book” are distinct but in conversation, giving the volume a feeling of slow accretion. The first makes a kind of argument for the book, in the face of social media news “feeds” that fill so much of our attention. “We were lost in a language of images,” Reines writes. “It was growing difficult to speak.” Poetry, it seems, offers a means to engage with language again. At one point Reines asks, rhetorically, “But why am I trying to talk to you now / In this of all media.” The answer may lie in this book’s predecessor, “Mercury” (an extended engagement with alchemy, among other things), in which Reines writes, “Poetry’s not made of words.” If Celan despairs of transferring knowledge between people, he also shows how poetry, more than most genres, can sustain unnamable feeling in the reader. Even when a word is ground down to its smallest particles — its vowels, its “glottal stop,” as Celan put it in his most famous poem — the song remains.
With this as a guiding principle, Reines moves through a wide variety of topics, themes, forms and tones. The images can be as specific as visiting her homeless mother at Bellevue (“i felt i was sitting / with a shamed & ruined / god”), or as quotidian as the report of a celebrity breakup. Yet throughout, Reines whips us through emotional states (ecstasy, depression, self-loathing, infatuation), physical locations (Queens, Arizona, Lithuania, Haiti) and forms of communication (diary entries, dreams, couplets, aphorisms) — all to consider what we’re doing to one another. She writes, “Little truths beguiling / And infinitesimal roughnesses diverting one idea / Or the next into matter, glottal stops, fine white.” These beguiling truths are her primary focus here.
Sand is everywhere in this book, from the literal (deserts, dust, beaches) to the implicit (as a component of silicon chips or a sign of ecological crisis) to the figurative or allusive (Sandra Bland, Hurricane Sandy, Sandy Hook). One poem is called “Days of Our Lives,” summoning up that hourglass; another is called “Haboob,” after the Arabic term for a thick sandstorm. Sand here is connected to tragedies and violence — but also, crucially, to history. Early in the book, Reines describes looking at a tapestry of three peacocks when she suddenly became “wracked / With sobs,” feeling as though she were channeling the grief of others: “& there began my history / Following a bird thru / The sand & its people.” She provides a breathless list of sand, feathers and birds from antiquity to the present, taking us to “dust storms on Mars,” the dust on her tongue in Tbilisi blown from Azerbaijan, and the silica on peacock feathers themselves (“For the most part … sand”). If this sounds ecstatic and trippy, it’s meant to be, for Reines wants us to understand how she sees divinity and paradise in this single tapestry, and the connectedness of all people. And she doesn’t mean online.
In an interview once, Reines said she was fascinated by the idea that a revelation cannot be unlearned: “The moment of recognition can’t be canceled.” The vast swirling of humanity, once comprehended, is comprehended eternally. “Our days spun to particles that shine / even when we hate them,” she writes, “it is like freedom sometimes.”
Woven between the expansive philosophical ruminations, Reines also investigates the female body — from sex to periods to trauma. Her approach feels akin to that of Frank O’Hara or Leslie Scalapino in its wild specificity. Her writing is queer and raunchy, raw and occult, seemingly never pulling away from her deepest vulnerabilities. Yet Reines simultaneously maintains a feeling of epic poetry, of ancient intention. She moves between worlds in search of the divine and the self. At one point, in an emergency room while a man becomes agitated and nurses attempt to calm him with patience and kindness, Reines thinks: “Human touch / Human care / Human beauty / Divine mystery.” The divine manifests itself in human connectivity, connection.
This all culminates in a section called “Mosaic,” in which Reines enters a state of ecstasy, provoked largely by the sun’s warmth, while standing on a traffic island in Manhattan. “Whatever bliss was, if this was it,” Reines writes, “it steadily gave way to rapture.” She hears a voice speaking to her, and sits on the island’s bench to scribble what it says; these are the pieces in “Mosaic,” which appear on entirely black pages with a few lines of white text, aphoristic and godlike. “DIFFERENCE IS MEANT TO BE COMEDY,” the voice states in one; “DIFFERENCE IS A TOY.” In another, “WHEN FACED WITH EVIL / LEARN ITS SECRET.”
At one point Celan writes in an untitled poem: “Particles, patriarchs, buried / in the upheaval, spangles / of ore. / You make the most of things / with them.” Reines writes something similar late in her book — “I’ll go / Picking / Thru this / Mess” — and this is certainly her impulse: to make her way into the chaos, document what she sees and feels, and make the most of things with them.
DIANA ARTERIAN’S poetry collection, “Playing Monster :: Seiche,” was published in 2017.
A SAND BOOK
By Ariana Reines
424 pp. Tin House Books. $24.95.
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