OЯACULE by Nicole Raziya Fong | Review by Bill Neumire

Nicole Raziya Fong
Talonbooks, 2021

There are enough examples of sound, pleasing poetry collections out there that quite often, what I look for in a book of poetry is simply surprise. Nicole Rayiza Fong’s second poetry book, OЯACULE, immediately announces itself as a different kind of reading experience–with a dramatis personae, staging, and theatrical dialogue, the collection embraces a hybridity of theater and verse. It takes most of the conventions of drama and imbues its characters with heavily abstract lines as vehicles for poetry. The visual experience of this book is also provocative, as Fong has attested in an interview with rob mclennan, “[t]he page [is] an expansive site of potential rather than a rigid, lineated space.” Look, for example, at this page from Fong’s collection:

Fong’s use of typographical flares, such as all caps, musical notes, vertical page divisions, and parentheses offers provocative variety, but she also works in echoes and repetitions, forms of stability. The book is built of six sections and, one of its more unique features, an afterword by Andy Martrich. Beginning with the book’s title, and with epigraphs from Socrates and Homer’s Odyssey, she intimates that these characters reside in a fantastical yet classical universe. Her characters—HEROINE, LUMINOUS–A STAR, MATERNAL LOVE, CHILD, CHORUS, and ANTI-CHORUS—spin in unspecified trauma, trapped, according to Martrich’s explicating afterword, in a “recurring cycle of life and death.” The collection’s title points us to the oracles of ancient Greece, magical divine sources of abstractly phrased answers to pain-driven questions. Fong, as in her previous collection PERFACT, hybridizes her titles just as she does her genres, and so perhaps there’s some “cure” in this oracle, but cure and recovery are largely process more than destination, and failure is an important part of this project—it revels and wallows in deeply cryptic lines (the signifieds are rarely tangible), both in staging and dialogue—and at one point HEROINE even admits,  “[i]n complete abstraction, I fail you.”

After the dramatis personae are introduced, a note in the beginning offers the instruction, “[d]o not sing these songs,” as though pre-scolding the reader for an assumption of lyric. Of her form, Fong has said, “[p]oetry can exist across forms (…) which is a kind of mutability catering well to the trajectories of my thinking.” Her voice is an unstable energy as we encounter our speaker and speakers, as if the characters are fractals of a larger speaker who tells us in “Luminous,” “I performed fate / I performed fate”  and in “A Vital Flower,” “I want to exit this fateful cinema.” Theater is presented as fateful script, and Fong’s book begins with a play within a play, wherein characters of the longer book—HEROINE and LUMINOUS—play Socrates and Theaeteus in Plato’s Theaeteus. We read of their entrapment in lines like, “I’m in a film where my distaste is heroic” and in stage directions such as, “HEROINE removes her mask, revealing a flickering countenance.” The trap of fate, performance, and mask offers disguise and protection as HEROINE says in “A Figurative Glance,” “Many times, had I suspected my mask was beginning to reveal something I hadn’t nurtured.”

Pain emanates from the lines of these pages as LUMINOUS says in “Blank Filigree Gloves of Intent (Stage 9),” “Oh, I can’t tell you / how I suffer!” and later, in “Failed Requisite,” “I am a ruin that wants time to / disappear” (and the text here is separated in the middle by an inserted anti-chorus box that runs down the centre of the page). Fong has said of her current work, “[m]y concerns right now are essentially phenomenological in nature. The process required in recreating a self that has been disassembled and dispersed by trauma, of re-peopling identity in the midst of previously unbodied experience, giving form to a self which can bring itself back from the past, giving it a new place to land,” and indeed we hear that the speaker “[i]n the oceanic seeming of continuance, / (…) lost [their] name.” In the long final section called “LUMINOUS,” the speaker says, “I waited many years as my burden became that which fed me, in a way, and as I spoke into the persistence of my surviving, I was able to articulate (in a way) this material of being as it transformed.” The voices seem to process and manifest anger and repulsion, such as in pronouncements like, “[s]top saying you recognize my suffering” and “[d]isgust maintains, as its solitary object, the only one capable of shouldering it: myself.” At times this is met with evasion, but there is also self-discovery as LUMINOUS asks, “[w]hat of the self which exists // to equal or greater exclusion within,” and mired in a distressed hope, ultimately hangs onto a “great belief […] that I will also persist.” It’s a voice in recovery who needs to write themself “into a thesis of change.”

The collection maps its own echoes, as LUMINOUS puts it: “the past’s diffusive echo might come to resemble an equally diffusive alliteration of future, or that future might exist in iteration of a past yet to occur.” It’s a voice that “extracted a semblance of future from the past,” imbued with a vulnerable power whereby “[a]ll I am able to see / gazes equally into me” and “[a]ll that appears / appears madly within me.” This book pushes at the boundaries of how large an interior a poet can convey to an audience as they attempt to “replicate / a system as / diverse as myself.” In ORACULE, Fong, in the words of her CHORUS, asks the reader to “[e]ngage [her] on these terms,” the goal of any earnest writer-reader connection. Her project is “to decode the answer to find out what the question was. Rather, what the question could have been.” One of her mouthpieces, LUMINOUS, toward the end, asks, “[w]hat else should I say // of this blatant masquerade?” And in a move I don’t think I’ve seen before, Fong ends not exactly with her own words, but rather with the words of Andy Martrich’s “SOME NOTES ON LIGHT AND MEMORY,” a critical essay appears as an afterword. Fong’s own poems end with LUMINOUS saying, “It’s late afternoon. // Nothing’s moving // but the dawn.” The afterword picks up this motif of light and illusion and offers a perceptive read that is at once part and not part of the text, colouring the resonance of the read and extending the book’s most powerful accomplishment: the inhabiting of multiple genres living in tense yet thoughtful dialogue with each other.

Reviewer’s Bio

Bill Neumire‘s second collection of poems, #TheNewCrusade, will be available in May from Unsolicited Press. He serves as poetry editor for Verdad.