By Keith Nathan Brown
Reviewed by Joe Milazzo
Somewhere along the way, we—authors and readers alike—failed reading. (Curious: how does one fail one's own invention, if not morally?) That is, we lapsed, via both commission and omission, into reading the experience of reading as entirely too teleological. Thankfully, Keith Nathan Brown's collection of unclassifiable, uniquely shaped texts cannot be read in any conventional way. Embodied is a book that trusts its readers because it sees no other choice. As such, Embodied is a book that almost literally refuses to close itself.
So, if not along traditional orthogonals, then how is Embodied to be read? Using one's eyes, of course, but, more than that, knowing as viscerally as possible how motive and utility are at pains to fashion our bodies... especially in the act of reading's welter of reconfigurations. The book provides as much warning of its texts' bodily threats as it can within its first 25 pages. The collection opens with an author bio in the form of a classified listing for a used car, a bit of genre goofing that nonetheless teases new meaning out of the notion of the self as vehicle. "X-Ray as Movie Screen" follows, a description of an Escher-like pantomime that establishes that recursion, in the sense of a strategy for ensuring integrity (if not coherence), will be one of the book's presiding notions. In both cases, although the content is "difficult," the language ultimately behaves: it takes the path of sentences that read from left to right, sentences themselves pacing meaning in units.
But then the reader encounters "Makings of an Amateur Meteor." Questions of genre (whether a prose poem, or narrative prose, or story in verse) quickly resolve as immaterial, for the material structure of "Makings" requires an interaction—better, series of interactions—that "sees" the space of the page in dimensions the page is not otherwise thought to possess. Perhaps the three columns into which the text has been divided are to be understood in terms of simultaneity, i.e., not arranged one after the other, but side-by-side. But these columns are not regularly outlined, and begin to swarm around each other. And they all "end" in a paragraph that, in re-reading these axes, one realizes was interrupted from the start.
And so Embodied continues, welcoming the reader into the strange interface (body / self / world) that is perception. ("Perception is an act of communication via oneself, and thus inseparable from the grid," Brown writes in "Gedanken Experiment.") Other pieces rely upon scientific formulae, their imposture of rationality. Still others, such as "Orange Wallpaper" (apparently a poem) in which words coil around themselves, segmenting and reforming in configurations that run aslant of ideas of conclusion and completeness. Another story (or is it a recipe? "Banana Slug In A Post-Global Warming Sauce") must mark out territory within itself for copy that approximates the tone of Google ads, only for products with names like "Psychic Fuel." Graphs, diagrams, a dotted line bisecting the page that then is transformed into a forsaken wail—so I hear it —of "I / I / I" sustained down the length of multiple pages: Embodied can be appreciated as an experiment in paranoid over-signification, or as a text in which meaning breaks down because there is too much meaning interfering with itself. It is to the book's credit, however, that this effect is cumulative and intentional rather than confrontational.
Questions uprooted from philosophy attempt to adapt to the new ecologies Embodied extends them. "What is this thing called life?" "Who is this negative space, this [ ] called 'I'?" "And you don't know which part of you to believe." "Wherein self-preservation, by some ironic twist of evolution, causes nothing but suffering and anguish?" To which I would add my own: "What did we think we were, but always better?" If this desire for self-improvement is an addiction, Embodied tries to break it. Not accidentally, then, the most memorable of its pieces merge impressionistic grace with existential agony. Elegantly rendered but unexpected sensory details in longer works like "Human-Based Surfactants" and "Clock Time (The Shape of Time Keeping)" remind us that every oddity and every convolution here is to be felt.
Much like CA Conrad's A Beautiful Marsupial Afternoon, Embodied is an attempt to solve, via the somatic, the problem of the self. Brown's texts do not perform so much as they fashion spaces in which readers can "see" how they are always already performing their bodies-as-interfaces. Unlike Conrad, however, Brown provides less in the form of guidance and more by way of diagnosis. Moreover, both the solution and values Embodied manifests is quintessentially American, emerging as they do out of an intellectual tradition both Emersonian and Thoreauvian. Embodied embraces Whitman-esque multiplicity, and, in its final pages, goes supernova in a jazz cosmology of curative expansiveness ("a communal I") that may strike some readers as too Beat. Ultimately, like Conrad's celebrated (instantly classic?) miscellany, Embodied may well be the precursor to a much greater work, an ars poetica for what long-lost newness might yet come.