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We Are Pharaoh by Robert Fernandez. Canarium Books. 2011.

We Are Pharaoh

Reviewed February 24, 2012 by Caroline Davidson.

Robert Fernandez’s first book, We Are Pharaoh, reads like a thinly-veiled body in motion, on the verge of bursting open. Comprised of varied formal arrangements, from prose blocks, to couplets, to lists and fragments, this work circulates words like blood cells, utilizing them in distinct syntactic patterns, so that certain phrases and images reappear throughout the body of the book. These poems explore sensory depth (“opening the doors/of the senses”) as well as the interconnectivity of organic circulation, surface construction of the body, and the larger, external landscape it inhabits (“Stomachs ribbed with light/blood orange horizons tapering to cinema”). We see the surface of the body in constant motion, but it is indirect. We see veins, arteries, joints, and muscles moving, yet the continuous living changes of the body’s systems are masked by the skin, by textured surface. Such is the experience of reading We Are Pharaoh.

“You work construction,” states the speaker in the first poem of the collection. This refers to the literal construction of the poem on the “billowing page,” the tensions and balance necessary to create a solid figure, a functioning unit, one that combines multiple perspectives and features. Fernandez explores the complex interrelation of process and form (bodily, as well as external foundational structures), and causes the reader to question the materials that are meant to exemplify external solidity or permanence (pyramids, planks, paintings, et cetera). The reader is also led, via the symbol of the “Pharaoh,” to question authority, power, and hierarchical religious and political systems. Conceptual authority, seemingly permanent, solid, and unquestionable, is presented in these poems as puzzling, shifting, and fluid:

Let it be said that when we speak
the inscriptions of the muscle
speak through us in glyphs
of red jade or pearl

Let it be said that a fragrant mask,
as of sandalwood or cedar,
carries the slits of its eyes
over the tops of the trees
into the onrush of light.

In this excerpt from the poem “Departures,” how we speak is cryptic, it is “masked”; it is through muscle “inscriptions,” surface carvings, the body’s external movements, “[t]he throat-rod and its glyphs.” These are dynamic and textured surfaces—masks in motion that veil and encompass multiple senses, and the idea of a consistent “I” or perceiver of an object. Here, it is the mask that directs perception, not the wearer of the mask.

If a dynamic, functioning, but masked bodily unit is too limiting of a metaphor, the list poem entitled “The Root,” may function as an “ars poetica” for We Are Pharaoh. The poem in its entirety describes a diffuse root system “being active.” In such a system, there is no dominant, primary root; instead, the system branches in all directions. Its purpose is foundational—to anchor. Thus, the poems in this collection stand as roots that are “foundational, fanning to structure,” but they are also “hostile, dormant, couched in retreat.” They refuse to conform to one particular strain of logic. They “cluster, spore, sprawl” in their “design and concurrent enaction.” Formally, they refuse to narrowly enact one particular, dominant perspective, or present a singular speaker. However, this “sprawl” is also an engaged sprawl—an exploration of the boundaries of lyric structure, a deep pleasure in language’s technical possibilities. Although the materiality of language as a painterly medium is employed in many of these poems (“Souls surfacing/in cameos of hard art”), instead of focusing heavily on paintings or photographs themselves, Fernandez uses ekphrasis as a tool to create his own dense imagery. This form of ekphrasis questions the ability of the “language” of painting to convey stable meanings:

I became tonal blocs, the tall
grey one in
perfumed black suit
a host of death’s heads, cameras,
rubies surrounding me.

The speaker here imagines himself surrounded by flashes of death, and yet one can also picture a red carpet, cameras, and perfumed suits. This hint of mimesis, however, does not allow the reader to rest, because of the strangeness of the speaker becoming “tonal blocs,” an image that exists in another version of reality. The “real” images are closely pressed against those less grounded in reality, which causes the reader to question the perspective of the shifting subject:

One figure fleeing,
     swallowing a negative;
one with a flash of daylight in his head,

     asking for another.
A beach of primary whites,
     comets, distant lines

of clouds. One comet
     cracked in the skillet;

Here there is a definitive “figure,” but what is the “negative” he swallows? The beachscape seems real, but what is the comet? The sky lowers down to the domestic without warning. For Fernandez, the senses are a guide—thought is given agency, moving as a series of imagistic explorations. Thus, the language is rooted, but sprawls, and not into spirals of text that empty of meaning; rather, this work stretches lyrical boundaries, using the backdrop of a painterly perspective, the arrangement of which may skew perspective and reality: “That which arranges itself in backlight acquires a knotted sense of its proportion, an added set of repercussions.” The speaker is aware of the “knotted sense” and “repercussions” these explorations of lyric arrangement may provoke, especially in a reader who expects familiar versions of reality, transparently deployed settings, or a narrative that one might comfortably paraphrase.

These poems build upon one another, but refuse to accumulate into a cohesive, unified field wherein the reader can arrive at any “ah-ha!” moment. The systematic circulation’s purpose feels opaque, emergent, and continually in action. The structural foundations of the human body circulate and sprawl over the page, with bits of language often repeated: “blood,” “lobes,” “jaws,” “ribs,” “neck,” and “throat.” This repetition of somatic language across different poems forms within the book an opaque circulatory system, one that mirrors the functionality of the above-mentioned diffuse root systems. For example, early on the speaker “clips the water from the throat,” then later, “a mandrill clutches the throat in the billiard hall of Pele.” Sometimes “rags” are “piles of bread,” sometimes “rags” are “hands.” “Beaks” exist on vultures, then on nurses, and then, “[a] challenge appears. It wets its beak.” The meanings of these words complicate with each repetition, suggesting a desire to both contain and magnify their purposes, but perhaps one should allow the strange assemblages of surface material to expand one’s sensory perspective:

I was bleeding, I wanted
to stand and show you that in my chest
were compartments, riots of boys
scratching at their necks

The language here contains the assembly of a singular mass into bodily compartments, creating an image that, although wild and unnervingly visceral, is still “rooted” in physical sensation, exemplifying the futility, present through the book, of attempting to unify the senses. Fernandez is conscious of the multi-directionality of his language, of his forms (“We split silence’s red liver/ And became conscious of our art”).

One could read this book as a critique of political organizations, of historical, linear time, of “passing epochs” and the “Failure of Systems.” And if the phrase, “We Are Pharaoh” refers, in part, to a mobilized mass that makes up an epoch, if the “pyramids” are “pyramids of limbs,” then Fernandez is calling our attention to the terrors of our world. However, despite the moments of postmodern disillusionment and fear, (“Instead of daylight, I see/ cinder blocks, motels, pavilions/ drawing themselves into the earth/ I see a poisonous midnight and think/ swift, lethal fragments”), there is still a “dominant impulse: to survive.” And to survive is to construct, to remain in motion, to circulate like blood cells, to rebuild.

Fernandez finds pleasure in the material that makes up the world’s surfaces, the multiple surfaces of the body, of language, of society. Surfaces are rich and strange, they constitute this “hummingbird-red universe,” where humans wear “masks of light and intellect,” and where there is “sunrise planted/ in an acre of your back.” So much circulates. So much touches the senses. In this textured meshing, one finds a deep appreciation of language as sensual, exploratory material—a satisfying, “sentient light.”

Caroline Davidson is the poetry editor for Timber Journal and is an MFA candidate at the University of Colorado-Boulder

(The Volta | Friday Feature)