electric infinites and cowabungaly yours at the end of the world are like rereading a field journal entry...
...from a hike where you feel like something important happened.
My copy of Ashley Cline’s electric infinities (Variant Literature, 2023) arrived in the mail and, before opening it, I placed an order for Cline’s cowabungaly yours at the end of the world (Gutslut Press, also 2023). I’d been waiting for more of Cline’s mysterious, nature trail plaque from a rogue forest ranger–esque poetry since her first chapbook, & watch how easily the jaw sings of god (Glass Poetry Press, 2021), and – wonderfully for my bookshelf, terrifyingly for my sense of my own productivity – saw that she had three chapbooks set to release in 2023. Truly how dare she.
Both of these first two 2023 collections position themselves at the end of the world. Thus, we have to talk about the end of the world. The vibe here isn’t apocalyptic, as you might expect. Instead these are poems of solace and simple, grounded joys in a world that will never prioritize them. Here, the end of the world is where “i will place my head on the table / & i will simply leave it there, forever / perhaps, one day, a flower will grow”, where “everyone is disappearing/not literally, though maybe”, where “you watch the birds–swallows, you think, or maybe martins–who don’t think of nothing but the moment–who don’t think of not existing, at all”. Here, the end of the world is the end of a more youthful world full of potential, a world which never exactly existed. The end of the world from which Cline writes will not literally end just because any one individual has realized how imperiled it is, nor will it be saved by growing an appreciation of how improbable the world is in the first place. The end of the world is instead active, wherein “a story i write over & over & over –/again / i am choosing you fireproof” and where “you decide to be endless (to be birdsong) too”.
electric infinities catalogs the end of the world, taking a library science approach to finding peace. “checklist for the end of the world” starts sensibly with “a healthy snack”, immediately dials it up to “money,/to burn: literally”, then spirals into “you will learn to see the/ash as/something beautiful, if not/a heaviness,/that you cannot place / like/rock sherbet, or/star signs, or/a sneaking suspicion/that this will all make sense, one day–”, still itemizing each line with a blank checkbox. cowabungaly yours, as suggested by the title, leans more towards the millennial dadaist side of the end of the world. “carbon dating, or Cher & Nikola Tesla walk into a bar (& there is no punchline)” shares that “the first time i heard “Skin Deep” / from Cher’s 1987 self-titled album / i thought she sang skin me / to the bone & i whispered / oh god, oh god – that’s what i want / to be made and undone by / the same edge that sips softly from our bodies”. cowabungaly yours studies pop music to ask what we’re even doing here living. But, the scientific approach remains. “how to fall into a supermassive black hole, or ode to the girl who stood on a maryland street & shouted ‘silver spring can suck two dicks’” presents a step-by-step process of cosmic and personal destruction:
1. as you approach the black hole, you will start to experience its strong, gravitational pull
scott says thanks instead of goodbye / & it is somehow summer again
Cline also playfully refutes that the poem could possibly be doing something so gauche as saying a difficult relationship is like being destroyed by a black hole, then teases the reader with the intentional fallacy anyway. The physics of a black hole are, on some level, as irrational as trying to reach a neat conclusion about what any of this means:
4. as you approach the event horizon, it will appear as though, to anyone watching, that you have frozen in place
& this isn’t a metaphor / though, i suppose / if it were / it’d be a metaphor for how hollowed out & hungry our cheeks were / the summer of 2009–how we filled them / with the greatest hits of celine dion / & stuffed our bellies with the power of love / how your neighbor said / if you don’t fucking turn that shit off, i will / & we turned it all up
cowabungaly yours is solely composed of previously published poems. I recently heard this scenario discussed on the poetry podcast Dead Darlings (one host of which, disclosure, is a friend of mine) in their review of the debut collection by Warsan Shire (who I do not know, just to be clear), published after becoming well known for her collaborations with Beyoncé (I don’t need to clarify I don’t know Beyoncé, right?). The hosts noted that some people were surprised to find they’d read all of the poems in prior publications, but that the collection had obviously been put together over a long period of time and “given that a lot of these pieces have had this other life, the fact that they all hang together as a really cohesive collection is a real testament to how good the work is.” I’m inclined to extend the same appreciation here; it’s satisfying to see a bunch of poems I’ve read before playing off each other with such energy.
In contrast, it’s surprising to see that electric infinities largely abandons pop culture in favor of nature and similarly shifts its voice against anthropocentric answers. The observations in electric infinities are so in the moment, the speaker seems to almost wish they weren’t there imposing themselves. It never feels too granola about it, although it edges up against it sometimes. “the way the universe will end, scenario no. 3” (four other scenarios are in electric infinities; again, cataloging is the chosen field of study) suggests:
this universe will balloon herself lonely & cold, one day / just like every
woman carved into my ribs has done before / so ask me, instead
about the late-afternoon sun
so that i may tell you all the ways in which / she tricks the water ever more
blue / & ask me, instead, about how she coaxes the gold from the
cheeks of this coast
But electric infinities’ thesis isn’t really “what if you just, like, paid attention to nature”. Although, like any act of ordering one’s findings and compiling knowledge, it can take a couple re-reads of these poems to figure out what the data is telling you. Cline’s voice – grateful, humorous, devastating – is compelling enough that, however mysterious her notes, you feel there’s a real secret within, worthy of study. “scenario no. 3” goes on to say “so that i might tell you”:
how i wish to be gutted with hands / far more steady than mine
there are no more electric infinities / until the horse flies circle overhead
& the horse flies buzz–they never stop buzzing–
& death unquiets
And speaking of the notes, an amusing highlight of both collections is the notes. Extensive notes and acknowledgments at the end of each chapbook source facts and inspirations from scientific articles and song lyrics. They’re delightfully detailed. Cline will explain a poem “borrows from–and deconstructs” a phrase from an article about Jupiter’s lightning, or that a line from a poem comes from a misread NPR tweet that nonetheless “i found relatable”, or that “the text found before [a] poem … is a summary of two articles”. One note just goes on an extended tangent explaining that the Johannes Kepler text cited by a poem resulted in his mother being put on trial for witchcraft and that Kepler spent the rest of his life adding footnotes to the text to dispel superstitious interpretation. The poetry already has plenty of notes – either as text before a poem or something more woven into them – and I love how the notes section just goes wild. This sort of thing is catnip for me, a person who spends more time reading and watching criticism and analyses of video games than actually playing video games. I’m drawn to how Cline’s poetry feels similarly obsessed with the evolution of any creative endeavor and is similarly ponderous about what it aims to do. You might be thinking this is quite a lot of review to spend talking about things that aren’t the poems; if so, you may not love these poems, which openly, citation-lovingly, find the process as fascinating as I do.
This point might best be illustrated by the title of the poem “an erasure poem of bonnie tyler’s “total eclipse of the heart” in which i erase everything but “i fall apart i fall apart i fall apart i fall apart i fall apart i fall apart””, which, then, does not actually do this. Makes you wonder how anyone winds up anywhere.
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