A review of Tim VanDyke’s Topographies Drawn With a Divine Chain of Birds
Lavender Ink 2011, 68 pages $10.00

By Nick Sturm

Tim VanDyke’s first book, Topographies Drawn With a Divine Chain of Birds, is an assemblage of concentrated, tantric, and viral musics that spawn into hybridic sacraments and visceral upheavals of body, knowing, and self. Animated by a totem of characters from Bluto to Parmenides, VanDyke’s ambition is ecstatic, potent, and pushing against the mystical, making for a collection of poems that seems to have been written by an unseen figure behind one of the manic, quasi-organic castles in Hieronymus Bosch’s “The Garden of Earthly Delights” rather than by a real person, here, in 21st century America. But then again, this book could only have come out of a person that bleeds. Indeed, Topographies keeps company with a rich, frenzied aesthetic tradition of visionary intensity that doesn’t typically announce itself in contemporary poetics. These poems come from the same internal place wherein Stevens found himself “more truly and more strange.” They believe Mayakovsky when he says, “We ourselves are creators within a burning hymn.” They take up the vocal chords of the Prophet Isaiah when he says to Blake, “I cared not for consequences, but wrote.” “[F]uck me with a statement / that emanates something more than beauty,” VanDyke writes in “The Lion’s Face with a Limp Gestures Turns Corrosive and Erotic,” and by this point these poems are beyond description, beyond communication, and moving candidly into the transcendent.

The book’s opening poem, “Let us align the light on the lion’s face,” is a ruptured prayer that informs these poems’ larger desire to act on another level of perception “below the seen pulse to pulse” in which the constant, yet infirm union between the physical and the spiritual is reconciled with the hope “to press what is sundered to light.” This craving to use language to push beyond our standard perceptions is one of the primordial energies behind Topographies. It’s true, there is a kind of mapping taking place, but it is an immaterial, untamable landscape, a swarming coalescence of things hoping and breaking both in the body and beyond. And this kind of breaking is for the bravest of readers. When a poem sets out “attracting tremors to clarity // To extend to wonder the rigid face,” (from “Wonder-Expand-Attract-Extend”) it becomes clear that a relaxed reading experience might not be in order. But what’s the alternative? VanDyke is willing to move towards the illuminated, the naked and virulent, and if that’s “difficult” reading my only recommendation is to read more Blake, or the New Testament. For example, these lines from “Directions for a Performance,” simultaneously possessed and emotive, unravel any kind of neat expectation with their audacious, primal ventriloquism:

        Assume a contradictory position.
        Attend the wedding
        go home.
        Talk with Mayakovsky in the tub.
        Pretend the tub is a wine vat.
        Then write your friends something
        behind your forehead,
        an animal that says

        Fuck you my bitches.
        I will love you always.

It would do well here to remember Baudelaire’s description of Goya’s paintings in Les Fleurs du Mal:

        A nightmare overswarmed with things of turpitude,
        A fetus braised and basted on the Sabbath day,
        Old women at their mirrors, small girl running nude
        Or straightening up a seam to catch a demon’s eye

VanDyke’s and Baudelaire’s obscenities may ostracize some, but if so it’s only because their obscenities are not common, have not been absorbed into the appropriate brand of kitsch. “[I]ntensity / needs a surface,” VanDyke writes in “Romances and Accidental Skin,” and that, these poems seem to suggest, is why we’ve come here. Unfiltered emotion taken up inside honest language will always make people turn their heads. And that’s all the better for those willing to open themselves to these harsher tones, the weird frequencies where “[m]y sunlight is colored liked tongues” (from “October 3, 3:35”) and “we live in the tiny explosions of things” (from “The Wolving Ritual”). “Derrida slapped me!” VanDyke writes in “A NIGHT OF EMPTY THREATS,” “But I will be the horse / that gallops over his cadaver.” If the architecture has fallen down around us, we should probably still be feeling something. How to infuse that feeling into a more necessary, intuitive architecture is why this book seems to exist.

Nick Sturm is a graduate student in the NEOMFA: Northeast Ohio Master of Fine Arts. His poems have appeared or are forthcoming in Aesthetix, Dark Sky, Dinosaur Bees, Forklift, Ohio, H_NGM_N, Hayden’s Ferry, Inknode, iO: A Journal of New American Poetry, Red Lightbulbs, Secret Journal, Sixth Finch, Stoked, and TYPO. He is associate editor of YesYes Books and curator of THE BIG BIG MESS READING SERIES.

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