Steinesque or Gertrudish: Jason Mashak reviews Caroline DuBois’ You are the Business


You are the Business, Caroline DuBois, trans. Cole Swensen, Burning Deck

French poet Caroline Dubois reaches beyond contemporary poetics in her book You Are the Business (translated to English by Cole Swensen) with a refreshing reinterpretation of Steinesque (Gertrudish?) repetition, yet it is more organically fused to analytical obsessions with inner dialogues than anything Stein created. In short, if Stein applied painterly strokes with her words, then Dubois mixes the colours with her own. Dubois has a remarkable ability to observe human mental activity through her writing, but such can also be, at times, a dampener on an otherwise enjoyable reading experience. Nonetheless, her repetitions provide a key aid to fully understanding the layers of her work as repetition helps the reader to reread and thus to understand.

The book in seven sections contains untitled poems in a form not unlike square onions, in that each poem’s one to three stanzas, block-justified, represent a linguistic perception of thought, first read as the thoughts themselves, and next as another layer (or several layers) contemplating the first. Each square onion is thus a series of thoughts combined into a particular moment of awareness—a revelation that leads to further wonder. Consider:

Out of my mouth – being she – the words don’t
often come out in the form of speech but when
they come out to say something they almost always
do it several times in a row. For example when I
say listen mamma mamma I’ve got to tell you
mamma mamma mamma mamma comes out of
my mouth three times in a row three times the
first – pause – his wracking cough then the two
others fused fused at top speed.

As the narrator’s voice here contemplates the implications of how and why speech sometimes comes out of our mouths repeatedly, the naturalness of the mental rambling is enforced by an absence of punctuation in many places. Staying true on the page to patterns of thought is no easy task, but You Are the Business is frequently like a brain laid out on paper. Also, an absence of question marks in a book full of questions yields more authority to that voice. These tools, which lend every bit toward psychological authenticity, can at times leave the reader wondering what the hell is happening, as themes from earlier sections often weave back into later sections to create a book of poems that is a rather complex organism.

Dubois employs this scientific/analytical inquiry to contemplate such topics as the causes of the remains we embrace, as well as the remains of what we have caused. The poems are often in the voice of one or several characters, based primarily on “icons of cult film from Simone Simon to Blade Runner” according to the publisher’s press release. References to “Patty Duke” and “Blade Runner Rachel” and “Cat People” seem as if they are meant to orientate the reader, but can actually be less accessible than more abstract references to “x” and “fake x” (algebraic renderings about love) or “sister in two parts,” which explores one of its parts as “my / false twin sister.” Fakeness is explored as a layered concept, as is the idea of symptoms, such as coughs or words spoken: “symptoms get doubled and are not shared.” A certain postmodern psychological inertia can thus erupt in the reader, as media images, scenes, etc., tend to be over-wondered, intentionally, via neurotic self-analysis. In one poem, Dubois utilizes such fixation toward determining criteria, “and as for criteria whose.” The title of the book could as easily have been “My little scatterbrain,” a line that serves also as a stanza, as the poems’ contents are scattered yet inexorably connected, shuffling their tangents into an almost inexplicable whole. In short, Dubois’s ability to point to the complex contradictory nature in the connectedness of things makes this good reading for the psychiatrists of psychiatrists’ psychiatrists.

At times, the reader may get the notion that these poems are akin to something one would sing in the shower or try reading aloud in a foreign accent to the cat. They are not the masturbatory brainiacal wordplay some might categorize as Language Poetry, but rather a natural psychological sprawl—not in the sense of blah-blah yada-yada, but in the sense of movement— like that of a coffee addict tweaking out on whatever the subject is (one often can’t tell). These aspects, love’m or hate’m, are how one recognizes Pushcart Prize-winning Cole Swensen’s brilliant translation. It flows without hiccup, attentive to rhythms, voice consistency, and grammatical mutations.

You Are the Business is a shot in the arm with regard to the author’s style (and the translator’s magnificent reproduction of such). But a discerning reading acknowledges that the poems in this book might serve Art better by referencing characters more universal in nature, that is to say with images that can be more easily grasped without the aid of further research into their intended meaning (or necessary footnotes). If readers of You Are the Business can (figuratively) adorn their helicopter hats and try to read the book in the way Homer or Dante or Baudelaire or Whitman or even a curmudgeonly old friend might read it, then they will find a welcomed sample of contemporary French poetry. But a poetry that has unfortunately been infiltrated by one of the worst aspects of American media-culture, meaning that pop culture has begun to continually reference itself in a shallow and naïve approach toward the making of literature.

Further reading:
An interview with Dubois, translated to English by Swensen, can be found here:

One response to “Steinesque or Gertrudish: Jason Mashak reviews Caroline DuBois’ You are the Business

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