November 13, 2007

Review: Cate Marvin & El-P: "The Muse: Wired Live"

Fragment of the Head of a Queen

Sarabande Books, $13.95 (paper only)

I’ll Sleep When You’re Dead


Def Jux, $17.95 (compact disc and record)

The Muse: Wired Live

This summer, somewhere between Staten Island and Brooklyn, Cate Marvin and El-P lip-synch to each other; it is frenzied, contagions rampant, bubbling forth from their mouths and the fire hydrants of the great municipality of New York City. Marvin and El-P are buoyed in this flood only by their insistence on continuing to make lines and phrases as the city crumbles, as if voicing these poems and songs will keep them from the great intangible sinkhole developing in the middle of the road.

Marvin’s sophomore book of poetry, following the Kathryn A. Morton prize-winning World’s Tallest Disaster (Sarabande 2001) is aptly titled, Fragment of the Head of a Queen. The book opens with, “Love the Contagion,” a celebration of common infiltrations, routine adulterations, and unrecognizable disease. Marvin implores her reader, both with the title and the first line, “Quest the contagion, funnel much muck,” and then treats them with an ode to the unsanitary:

master of pestilence, conqueror of white
clothes; mud prints, paw prints, germs

not even the physician knows

(Marvin’s “Love the Contagion”)
Beautiful, for all its grime, this book is a calmly articulated disaster area, not unlike the Arturo Herrera painting (“Study for When Alone Again,” 2001) Marvin selected as her cover: beneath a seeming implosion of red paint (scattered, but seeking-center on the obscured head of a human figure) we can discern a queen in her robes, cherub-like wings and draping cloths, the queen reaching up for her headpiece, in danger of obliteration. Marvin’s poems gather strength and momentum through rhyme and through bold outlandish strokes of imagination. They boil over with provocative and alarming visions from the voice of a narrator whose person is feverishly out of control and in danger of being eliminated by the polluting forces she cannot help but seek.

Similarly for El-P, the wings on his cover belong to a haloed pterodactyl (not far from the crowned queen) also in danger of being obliterated by red light. Following his gold-selling independent debut, Fantastic Damage, from his label Def Jux, El-P’s sophomore solo album, I’ll Sleep When You’re Dead, opens with his ode to the polluted minds of would-be emcees. Here El-P informs us:
to the ground function I’m munsoned
it’s the dreaded 7/10 split again

the medic made it out to be

epidemic shaded, wow for me

(El-P’s “Tasmanian Pain Coaster)
For all of their allusions to “physicians” and “medics” throughout, Marvin and El-P are consistent masochists, refusing to seek solace in the sterility of anything that resembles a hospital; instead, the defacement of their narrators is a necessary function of their projects. They fly into super and sub-human forms, riding sexual coasters and pets into fantastic deserts of former downtowns, literally decapitating themselves (Marvin’s “Lying My Head Off,” El-P’s “The League of Extraordinary Nobodies”). The reader/listener begins to fear for the narrators of these sustained efforts at self-effacement—will there be a respite? The short answer is, no. But this lack of respite begins to please, this relentlessness, this refusal to untangle; it is through such resolve that these projects succeed on their own terms.

With the hope that not only their content, but the texture of their lines and their lyrics reflect the self-inflicted contamination of living in a confused city, in a confused body (Marvin’s “Your Childhood”: “To walk? We slipped those tubes of pink lipstick up our/ sleeves) and in a confused bodily function (El-P’s “Smithereens”: “I became pure BK/ cause I grew up around the krazy kings and inhaled second hand spray”), both authors insist on communicating through, rather than about their condition. They are afflicted about admitting in any terms but their own what ails them. In one moment it seems like we are hearing the truth, but in the next they confide that it has only been a big lie. In, “Run the Numbers,” El-P laments:

Weak in the kneesy species
dreaming of future faded

seen where the suture stitches knit slipped?

I’m with you baby

let’s get obnoxious with it

I wanna know what brave is

I’m tired of sitting here pretending

I’m not fucking dangerous.

(El-P’s “Run the Numbers”)
To the same tone, in “Muckraker,” Marvin writes:
If you can’t trust people, you can’t trust books, since
books are people and people are books. Shall I ask him

to sign it? Beautiful dreamer, may all your beginnings be true

. You think this unseemly for me to confide?

Reader, don’t mistake me for someone who gives a shit,

or your bride. I have no loyalty and I have no pride”

(Marvin’s “Muckraker”)
Neither author makes concessions to the reader here, or anywhere for that matter. And why should they? Operating at the top of their respective genres, with young, smart followings (they both have cute photos as well!), Cate Marvin and El-P are aware not only of the message they convey, but the medium through which they convey it; and they are both apparently a little weary of that medium and that message. They want a reader/listener to know that they can only ever be liars, in a sense, because of the infiltration of what should be fodder for poems and songs. Further on in, “Muckraker,” Marvin writes:
How do I reply? And how shall I contend with
the fact, Reader, that this matter cannot mean

much to you, and that I, as author, am required

to consider how to tell this tale in a manner that

will entertain you, despite having never met you

and having no way of knowing how to affect you

(Marvin’s “Muckraker”)
To the same end, in “The Overly Dramatic Truth,” El-P writes:
I became for you what you had asked

You’re too young to ask out loud

I’m too old to not know that

I can talk like you’ve not heard

I know weapons

You think words

I’ve exposed you to these terms

(El-P’s “The Overly Dramatic Truth”)
Probably the biggest question that a reader/listener of Marvin and El-P will encounter, if s/he is not completely convinced by the language alone, is: how much posturing before the message am I willing to put up with? Can’t we come out and say anything for sure? Consider the following two moments from Marvin’s “Landscape with Hungry Girls” and El- P’s “Dear Sirs”:
There’s blood here. The skyline teethes the clouds
raw, and rain’s course streams a million umbilical

cords down windows and walls. Every things gnaws,

and the pink polish on their girl-nails chips, flakes

(Marvin’s “Landscape with Hungry Girls”)

If every office empties and all slaves walk in dazes

To a pool of liquid of liquid money where bath blissfully naked

And every open hydrant in a Brooklyn summer moment

Is opened up by cops and folds out into an ocean

(El- P’s “Dear Sirs”)
The cumulative effect of this textured delivery does at times test the reader’s resolve: is beautifully-rendered image of decay and danger after beautifully-rendered image of decay and danger all we need as readers/listeners to stay engaged? Especially considering whenever our voice or narrator appears, this appearance seems only to taunt us with what we would typically expect from the role:
I sold my mind on the street.
I learned another language. It translates easily.

Here’s how: What I say is not what I mean,

Nor is it ever what I meant to say.

You must not believe me when I say

there’s nothing left to love in this world.

(Marvin’s “Lying My Head Off)

I know I haven’t been walking a humble path
I know I cursed at your name and then laughed

And though I found it inane to bend calf

The servitude of groveling framed as pained task

I gotta figure it can’t hurt to ask

Suspension of disbelief in uniquely freak flash

(El-P’s “Flyentology”)
The more I read and the more I listen, the more I feel the answer to this question is, yes. Yet at the end of each virtuoso flight, as each poem and each song comes to a close, I am left with one question: who is the multi-formed “you,” the “you” of El-P’s title, the “you” of Marvin’s collection. When I ask that question and consult the texts, I find my narrators are pretty confused as well. The confusion comes from the convolution, from trying to reach us in a city where the skyscraper is as easily a domesticated animal as a lover, a drug as threat, or a mentor. When the reader/listener longs for a greater emotional truth behind these wreckages and the just finds more wreckage, well, that comes from the bottom of the heart. The beautiful fragments within these works assemble the beautiful fragments of the works themselves. This is what we are offered.

Finally, El-P writes in “Run The Numbers,”: “Five out of ten of these fuses are wired live/ if I’m gonna survive I gotta (find those detonators).” For Marvin, the analogy is clear; she replaces “fuses” with “muses.” Everything is in fact a detonator and we must seek its explosion onto the page and into the lyrics. In fact, the first dozen times I listened to “Run the Numbers,” I made the juxtaposition myself. Though the lyric book contradicts me, I am not certain El-P does not whisper it under his breath. Be leery of muses. Blow them up. See what sticks to the walls: from printer cartridge to skyscraper a sign of decay as quickly a sign of life, confusion as quickly consumption, and contamination as quickly nourishment.

by Thomas Cook