InkNoire blog reviews Touch To Affliction

By Aaron Tucker
April 27, 2007

It is fitting that Stephen’s book opens with the looping and layered string quartet of Gorecki’s “Already It is Dusk” as Touch to Affliction applies the same sonic qualities, the repetition of notes, staffs, phrases, words, woven on top of and into each other. The poetry here is a music stripped of the ideal of the pop chorus as the anchor of a song. Instead the text uses an alluring and hypnotic reoccurrence of pace and landscape, a long and beautifully drawn out cycle of reiteration stretching with a dream-like haziness that echoes as easily as any orchestral piece.

The integration of music with poetry is especially important when considering Stephens as one of the last bilingual poets in Canada, an identity that bleeds its way into the text. She expertly blends the two tongues together, interjecting them between each other and puddles them like the reoccurring water images throughout. Both languages grapple with each other, neither surfacing as dominate but only existing as parasites of each other.

This treatment is contrasted with the text’s constant concern with the cityscape and increasing individual compartmentalization, how people react and interact within a city, how the streets and buildings house and direct a person. The constant strain of ever-present language (dialogue, music, ads) in conjunction with the sea of stranger’s bodies that populate any city begins to erode language and the individual body itself. That strain slips between the sections of the brain that work the tongue and fingers and lips. This is at times a sensual process, at others a graphic and gritty one. This merger in the first half of the work is disorienting, a deconstruction of words and phrases into smaller and smaller parts, held tightly and repeated almost manically.

What is most impressive about this work is how Stephens in the second half builds that language back up into a city-like structure, creating her own lexicon within the work. The words, repeated in Stein-like fashion, begin to lose their own semantic identity and porously adapt the meaning of those words around them. “City” becomes a verb, a thrust; “body” is recreated as a tiny insignificant thing, always small within that city. The work begins to defining its streets, its busy intersections, the letters like people strolling the sidewalks. The text hums with the constant activity of a large metropolis. At the same time the words become deliciously dependant on the text as a whole. The reader has stumbled on to a separate tongue, one that evolves and becomes relational within the work and indefinable outside it.

Perhaps the most impressive part is how the language here is always doubled, not just repeated, but arranged in vaguely symmetrical patterns: there is a sense, even from page one, that this book is familiar, is a street corner or headspace every reader has been to before. This is especially alarming when the reader steps back to address the absent narrative throughout. There is no real story here, only the full dense lines of a speaker explaining and re-explaining her tiny spot in the world.

In the end Touch to Affliction is a bizarrely sad work. Despite being constantly surrounded within the claustrophobic density of the text, the book leaves the reader markedly alone, a stranger on a familiar street crowded with conversation. It is from this position that the reader begins to reassess the text again, again, repeating the same murmured phrases that grow almost as large as architecture with each reiteration.

Touch to Affliction is available through Coach House Books for $16.95

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