The Tragedy Face: A Review of Madcap by Jessie Janeshek

Madcap – Jessie Janeshek
(Stalking Horse Press, 2019)
146 pages.

“Woe to those who, to the very end, insist on regulating the movement that exceeds them with the narrow mind of the mechanic who changes a tire.” -Georges Bataille

For some time now, Janeshek has been building a special type of untameable (madcap) madness in the laboratory of the underworld. A seedy downtown, no-name off kilter game of hide and seek. Think you found it, well you probably missed it. And that’s the jagged slippery point of Janeshek’s oeuvre. Her poems fall right out of your hands and back out onto the dance floor, a black forest rave wrapped up in the nightmare skin of a haunted butcher shop.

Much of contemporary poetry takes a walk on the mild side. Even what we would consider edgy dangerous verse most often has a mattress man waiting down below the jump line. But parachutes and safety protocols bore the living hell out of Janeshek’s characters. Not only are they ambivalent about the game society would want them to play, they even hate the costumes and frills that come with routine seduction. And here is where Janeshek’s philosophy comes bubbling up like hot lava; her characters are not who (which is to say what) you think they are.

As Luce Irigaray once noted, if we keep speaking the same old language to each other we’ll never say anything. Madcap’s characters speak out of turn, they ravage language like cattle yet to be slaughtered, talking to the linguistic-bovine while it’s still alive and shuffling along the fence-line, dumb in the eyes. Electricity doesn’t phase them, they are lightning brood de-naturalizing their common tongue into an un-genomic schizo-poetics.

 “I have a certain elegance / I don’t take down my Christmas tree / I’m afraid to go outside / but my kindred spirit  / is the man with tree antlers / and I masturbate / I watch / the glitter on my fingers / outside the dead mall. He has a huge cock / but all I have is surface / scratched palms and track marks.

Perhaps an odd analogy at first glance, but Janeshek seems to be beachcombing fields that French trickster Jean Baudrillard dynamited with his untimely (then and probably still now) concept of seduction.

Let’s start with what seduction is not; feminine wiles, party dresses, perfume, smoky glances, etc. Seduction is a secret, something held in reserve, the story not told all the way through. We have become obsessed with unveiling and revealing (controlling and dominating) I mean we need to know the name of the game here. But seduction, both in Baudrillard and in Janeshek’s underworld speakeasy, means not knowing, thrown mapless, into the dark. As Baudrillard states in Seduction, “No more uncertainty, no more secrets, this is the radical obscenity that is beginning.” The characters in Madcap are filled with uncertainty and secrets. The game they play is a fatal reversal of modernity’s obscene obsession for bland-brand. They are not depressive in the way we are accustomed to thinking of. There is, in fact, no diagnostics by which to label them. They peel off labels until the daily routine becomes a type of Russian roulette. They are sticky with the inner humid swamp water of a botched and bungled (overly sanitized) exterior of a civilization. Hungry, but not for food. For mystery.

“They say civilize your rituals / no makeup on the first night / cheeping through black netting / light a candle, make it better… They say civilize your bitches / study all the old scenes / but I don’t like the old scenes / a little blonde in pink flowers / swinging on a tire swing / catching all our tears in a poison ring.”

Everything that gets swept under the rug comes out to play and fuck shit up at night, tribal, haunting, shadow puppets of the eternal secret side-show. The Hollywood look-over-here glossy mirror becomes a portal that the anarchic feminine jumps into, but not without hesitation, mystery, that is. ‘Feminine’ without the professorial lecture. A back alley, off the truck, unnamed pill-thrill. No, more than that, it’s the secret extra layer that you cannot un-wrap (your same-language arms around).

“I found my art-deco heaven / in the Predicta TV / I found my oasis / it broke in half / profane angel on your fingers / true confession slumming / or dogging for quartz / the centrifugal way / talking ghost stories / ash blonde in the arsenic…I’ll be buried in a sportscar / the formaldehyde will wipe / right off your fingers / since comedy is a long shot / I don’t need / the tragedy face.”

Even the most experimental poems tend to tilt their hand at some point, not Janeshek. No, her characters play their cards close to their chest, dis-royal hush. “Success is hollow“, there is a longer long-game to be played here. And the truth is it doesn’t end. When you think you’re no longer playing you’re playing the fool. You’re being played.

We don’t have a mother / the camping girls gloat / we beat the drum / couldn’t care less / In this town I hear the bootlegger’s lounge / and I miss The Vapors / big bands used to play / and my sign is blank / but, hey, there’s the man with the cross that says God / loves you so much / across it horizontally and its arms aren’t that long.”

A society that needs a constant near-to-hand catalogue of all its desires revealed and phobias treated at its fingertips really doesn’t know shit about desire or bodily-psychic recoil. The characters in Madcap are directing their own mini-scenes while the surface shot is still unrolling. There are at least two films at work here (probably more), the director who thinks he’s running the show, and the ouija board sidereel that’s running deep in the veins of Madcap femme fatales who scramble the code, which is to say, restore it to mystery, (not mastery).

In the works that now comprise a trilogy of sorts,  Invisible Mink, The Shaky Phase and Madcap, Janeshek has launched one of the most subversive literary offenses since Kathy Acker’s Blood and Guts in High School. A lot of poets attempt to take a walk on the wild side, but very few actually have one. The women in Madcap, and in all of Janeshek’s previous books, prove once and for all, that theirs is a language of the secret code. Woe to the poetic mechanics who’ve been so busy changing tires they failed to notice the car left the shop years ago, that they’ve been working with air and that it is a dangerous, beautiful language now that blows this way.

Jessie Janeshek’s three full-length books of poetry are Madcap (Stalking Horse Press, in 2019), The Shaky Phase (Stalking Horse Press, 2017), and Invisible Mink (Iris Press, 2010). Her chapbooks include Spanish Donkey/Pear of Anguish (Grey Book Press, 2016), Rah-Rah Nostalgia (dancing girl press, 2016), Supernoir (Grey Book Press, 2017), Auto-Harlow (Shirt Pocket Press, 2018), Channel U (Grey Book Press, forthcoming), and Hardscape (Reality Beach, forthcoming). With Jesse Graves, she coedited the literary anthology Outscape: Writings on Fences and Frontiers (KWG Press 2008).

About the reviewer: James Diaz is the author of This Someone I Call Stranger (Indolent Books, 2018) and editor (along with Elisabeth Horan & Amy Alexander) of the anthology What Keeps us Here: Songs from The Other Side of Trauma (Anti-Heroin Chic Press, 2019). In 2016 he founded the online literary arts and music journal Anti-Heroin Chic to provide a platform for often unheard voices, including those struggling with addiction, mental illness and Prison/confinement. His most recent work can be found in The Collidescope and Elephants Never. He resides in upstate New York, in between balanced rocks and horse farms. He has never believed in anything as strongly as he does the power of poetry to help heal a shattered life.   

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