Reviewed by Lisa A. Flowers
When CA Conrad’s A Beautiful Marsupial Afternoon was published, it immediately announced itself as raunchy and tantrumy, insightful and spiritually reverent, Rumpelstilskin-stampingly angry, and uproariously hilarious.
Years later, re-reading the collection is like experiencing it for the first time. The (soma)tic exercises in the book's title are derived from Soma, a sacred Vedic drink and the Greek word meaning “body.” And the flesh (and sacred memories of the flesh of the dead) are ingeniously preserved and remembered in Conrad’s hands as they are in no one else’s. The book may be preoccupied with an always encroaching theological ecstasy or doom, but it also (admirably) demands instant gratification.
There's something of the time-fear of Faulkner’s Quentin Compson here—a punk rock Quentin, too marvelously and electrifyingly pissed off to die, as the dead keep falling through the book rapidly, like a meteor shower, almost too frequently to be eulogized. As such, the most moving crux of Marsupial is perhaps best summed up by Conrad’s contemporary, the poet Ariana Reines, who wrote, in another context, “What is exhumed not from the earth but from a body itself is an addictive kind of beauty you can’t easily get over” and “Earth, I will have to miss you; I miss you already./and yet when I touch myself whom I should not trust/It is still the heaviest and most jealous feelings that bind me to you, like blood.”
Cum, blood, the body’s voluntary/desired and involuntary/undesired responses to love, passion, trauma. Conrad, one of the most head-on of poets, has rightfully bristled at being called an escapist. “I want my blood, my vomit, my piss and semen IN my poems”, he said in a recent interview. “I will be at war with Death for as long as I can stand it, and I have (Soma)tics prepared for writing poems under the influence of chemotherapy and other horrific ways we survive.” Indeed, this is work obsessed with restoring human beings, and moments, to the organic states of grace they might have been in before they became corrupted by illness, cynicism, tragedy.
Most religious or spiritual rituals seem to be seeking, in some capacity or other, to bring the living and the dead into the same space. Conrad longs to do the same, and this yearning is apt to be consummated in lines as lovely as white candles: “Everyone is in two places here/ and in memory holds porches to their light.” It's equally so in Musk, where dormancy enters a “flayed/ bond by/soda fountains of the world it/seems funny but it is/exactly funny how/exceptions cram/into the disappear.”
With its obsession with fluids, food, physicality, Marsupial sometimes has the wild, unhinged glee of a three-year-old Jackson Pollocking their feces across the wall, as in White Helium:
Smear snot or blood or semen or pussy juice or ear wax or piss or vomit or shit or spit or sweat or whatever excretion you have available onto your balloon. Hold onto the string as it floats above you. Relax on your back on the floor. Hold the string by your toes with your legs extended. Look at the balloon with binoculars. What emblem is this? What Jolly Roger?
Ditto, unforgettably, for the book’s politically-loaded title track:
Someone downtown bought a new refrigerator and I carried the large cardboard box upstairs to my apartment. Lined with blankets and pillows, it was the perfect marsupial pouch for the new poetry exercise. I punched a hole in the back and inserted a baby bottle filled with soy milk to suck on. Just outside the box DVDs of Pasolini’s films played, first The Decameron, then The Canterbury Tales … My boyfriend came over. We played Pasolini’s SALO OR 120 DAYS OF SODOM. We removed the baby bottle from the back of my cardboard pouch and my boyfriend used it as a glory hole. Graffiti around his cock and little wigs made of cotton and pillow stuffing. I glued a frame around the hole, asked him to back up and enter slowly, a portrait of a cannon at the castle gates.
Wherever it meanders, Marsupial has that quality that always has been and always will be characteristic of magnificently original work: completely magical and unpredictable imagery. A quality that, in turn, is summed up by the great Mina Loy, whose manifesto (“If you are very frank with yourself and don’t mind how ridiculous anything that comes to you may seem, you will have a chance of capturing the symbol of your direct reaction”) Conrad gives ample credit to.
“Sometimes you have to kill your darlings.” A time tested adage? Not necessarily. True to the reverence, often expressed in his work, for nearly everything as sentient life, Conrad kills nothing, and all the pretty chickens and their dam run free and pecking at our ankles through the streets of his poems like a brood of unruly children whose parents believe—with Monty Python’s stern Jehovah—that every sperm is sacred. Marsupial is full of wonderful, wacky proselytizing, a blend of radical humanitarianism and fabulously cathartic misanthropy—as in the beginning of this exercise:
Go to a shopping mall parking lot with trees and other landscaping growing between the cars to create this poem. Find a tree you connect with, feel it out, bark, branches, leaves. Sit on its roots to see if it wants you OFF! These trees are SICK WITH converting car exhaust and shopper exhale all fucking day!
There’s Feast of the Seven Colors, a series of exercises ornamented by titles like “Distorted torque of FLORA’S red (written after eating only red foods for a day while under the influence of a red wig, right side in curls, left side straight)” and “Rehab saved his life but drugs saved mine at the blue HOUR (written after eating only blue foods for a day while under the influence of Bobby Vinton’s 'Blue Velvet’ played on a continuous loop from 6 a.m. to midnight).” Yellow is concerned with both the young, doomed spark of high heeled boys (“glitter anchors an eye underskilled for death”) and missed intimacies (“So many things I’d like to smell/but am not allowed Franz Kafka’s crotch”).
Kick the Flush can be seen as a passive-aggressive reprimand to a God both revered and held in contempt:
HE could if HE
Wanted to develop
An odor to please us take
HIS shirt off
Aid our anticipation
But when HE demanded respect HE
Was surprised to
Find out what HE
It was HIS need to
Apologize that drove HIM
HIS fracture of listening
Causing whistle blanks
We woke the blue
Lights in HIS head
It’s how we earned our freedom
Now I open my gorgeous entrails to
Ultimately, though, Conrad understands that the things of life are not to be left behind, or “gotten over,” in the sense that such a term is usually used. They are, rather, the building blocks of wisdom and spiritual continuation, always aspiring to be the closest possible touching point of the dead to the living. “If you can’t believe you’re going to heaven in your own body and on a first name basis with all the members of your family,” Joan Didion said in The White Album, “what’s the point of dying?” One thinks of the ice hotels of Scandinavia that melt every spring, only to be rebuilt from the solidifying of their own elements in winter. Nowhere is the latter analogy more movingly turned around than in the AIDS Snow Family exercise:
In January gather snow. This is intimate, this calling to honor the shock of being alive. I made one tiny snowman named CA Conrad and one tiny snowman named Tommy Schneider. For six months they held hands in the privacy of my freezer while I visited the streets and buildings in the Philadelphia of our love. Snow crystals travel miles out of clouds into the light of our city. My snowman read to his snowman the letters I brought home to the freezer. It’s 2010, AIDS is different in this century you didn’t live to see…the day after Summer Solstice I took the snowmen out of the freezer. 90 degrees, we melted quicker than expected, even sooner than I could have imagined.
Sooner than we could have imagined, for, as Conrad reminds us, “another temperature of/human is/another/folded wing missed by/the tailor.” At its heart, Marsupial is a reassurance to the dead (and the memories and experiences of everyone who has ever–or will ever—live) that they are eternally recognizable in the hope of love’s total recall, through ages of death and transfiguration:
I’m not so
Lisa A. Flowers is a poet, critic, cinephile, ailurophile, the founding editor of Vulgar Marsala Press, and the Reviews Editor for Tarpaulin Sky Press. She is the author of diatomhero: religious poems, and her work has appeared in various magazines and online journals. Raised in Los Angeles and Portland, OR, she now resides in Colorado. Visit her here.
Note: This essay originally appeared in TheThe Poetry