The Fissures of Our Throats, Guernica Editions
When I first picked up Edward Nixon’s debut poetry collection, The Fissures of Our Throats (Guernica Editions, 2014), I feared the book would bury itself taking a too-familiar stance in the all-but-exhausted debate around lyric identity, its denouncement by certain postmodern avant-gardes, and the ever-contentious role of “theory.” As an author, Nixon was certainly primed to do so: aside from his bio boasting of his “having stumbled inconclusively in the thorny woods of academe,” much of his writing reflects on personal experience with the music, culture, and philosophy of the 1970s and ’80s youth scenes in Toronto and Vancouver. I wondered: could Nixon discuss these ideas without simply reiterating positions I’d long ago decided to agree with or discard?
Luckily, The Fissures of Our Throats manages something that seems increasingly rare for a book with quotations by Camus, Lacan, and Wittgenstein: it fails—decisively and quite refreshingly—to be reduced to an argument. Graduating from Nixon’s almost, uncomfortably idyllic romances of the Western wilderness to the “puke-speckled theory” of “Nights in the City of the Dead,” one quickly learns that Nixon isn’t interested in imposing or enforcing his book’s “fissures” either as propositions or as proofs. Instead, he simply lets them speak—or not speak. By narrating their outcomes deadpan, Nixon takes the wind out of postmodernity’s hard lines, but in such a way that the resulting hollows are filled by a rush of things actually (even if not extraordinarily) lived.
Even as it embodies the ideologies of late 20th century cultural rebellion, Nixon’s writing refuses to validate any privileged interpretation of reality. Neither does Nixon insist on the opaque authority of “you had to be there” accounts of raw experience. What’s special about The Fissures of Our Throats is that it traverses and dismantles these realms, recognizing that life tends to be interpreted and, in turn, these interpretations tend to be lived.
In the collection’s opening piece, “At the Edge of the Dig,” this intertwining is rendered irrepressibly literal. We’re faced with a gutter of white space that both separates and juxtaposes academic interpretation and archeological evidence, or, equally, two distinct layers of sedimented history:
Possibly (bone stylus)
Suggest (cut tablet rhetoric)
Reason (grunt task argument)
Evidence (temple factory)
Like many of Nixon’s poems, “At the Edge of the Dig” teases us with a uniformity that’s always only in progress. It’s a poetry that’s trying to figure things out, oscillating between conceptual essay and the mystery of material things without succumbing either to an empty acceptance of chaos or to a pat solution. In this sense, the broad treatment of capital-H History in “At the Edge of the Dig” reflects Nixon’s exhilarating and often disarming approach to personal histories throughout the collection.
If the visual and syntactic experimentation of his opener seems to put Nixon in league with a generation of poets who aggressively sought to dismantle the unity of the poetic “I,” some pause is necessary. Beyond writing in the lyric mode through much of The Fissures of Our Throats, Nixon sometimes comes dangerously close to romanticizing it. Yet, the offhanded comments of his speakers and subtle discontinuities of their narratives tend to displace this sense just enough to keep the lyric self in transit.
1980s Toronto of The Fissures of Our Throats
Take “We Told Stories as We Ran.” On one hand, the poem features some of Nixon’s best efforts at using narrative fragmentation to minimize his speaker’s selfhood, while nonetheless weaving a densely and beautifully textured readerly trajectory: “You could have formed factions, but why? / We had been given the scouring wind. / When it was retold, most nodded with ease.” The effect is seductive, but it’s exactly that seduction that forces us to recognize the inescapable risk of rediscovering a strong personality behind the poem. It’s a risk Nixon doesn’t let us forget, as the piece finally coalesces into an uncomfortably Romantic, though no less captivating flourish: “So the hunt was blood-breath in green distance, / our chatter—sound chasing after absent game. / On the plain we ran on with a dangerous joy.”
As is apparent in inclusions like “Cahiers du Cinema,” Nixon’s poetics is heavily influenced by film. In Nixon’s unique re-deployment of the art form in literature, this translates to an ideal combination of close, sharp cuts—reminiscent of collage or William Burroughs’ cut-ups—and the languid, immersive cinematography of a Hitchcock love scene. I want most of all to call The Fissures of Our Throats a delicate exposition of mise en scène, a mutual contextualization of diverse elements through which the collection gives place to a surprising variety of experiences and ideas.
The Fissures of Our Throats really outshines its more imagistic cousins (both in cinema and in poetry) in its extension of these techniques to the interspace between the things we experience and the ways we think about those things. In “Lacan at the Ovaltine,” language specifically is the medium through which such an interpenetration becomes, unencumbered and on its own terms, the fabric of life:
Quoting Lacan at the Ovaltine,
keening tightly kerned positions—
lipstick on an Army & Navy mug—
hint of tin, wisp of lemon gasoline.
Even so, the poem in retrospect feels like little more than a prologue to the collection’s anchoring long sequence, “Nights in the City of the Dead,” which both brings Nixon’s strengths to their extremes and mixes them most aggressively with the political aspirations and realities of 1980s Toronto youth culture.
There’s probably too much to say about “Nights in the City of the Dead” (it was, in fact, published alone as an Aeolus House chapbook before appearing in this collection). Between dynamic scenes of Toronto’s ’80s underground, gritty flâneur narratives, Cold War hauntings, and coked-out monologues, the sequence compiles references to everything from artist collectives and literary magazines to trendy restaurants and after-hours bars. What’s key, though, is that everything comes together in a way that feels true to the grind of the Reagan era, doing justice to the radicality of its leftist youth culture’s political and aesthetic ideals while also letting them fall into a jumble of misdirected quotations, unassimilable performances, and a bustling overflow of divergent translations and transformations: “A mix-tape wobbles. The Clash blurts / ‘I Fought the Law.’ Themes converge, / precise as an essay deadline …” Like the similarly engaging “Summer of Love,” “Nights in the City of the Dead” is especially adept at capturing the downbeat, terminally unfinished interplay of radical ideas and mundane life, or of radical life and mundane ideas.
I was born at the beginning of the 1990s, but for much of my life I’ve been fascinated by the art, culture, and thought of the decades Nixon reflects on in his poetry. Especially since I count postmodern theory as part of my vocation, I’ve found it easy to imagine that these years represent the epitome of creative and political thought, while the leftist culture of my own time struggles even to understand, let alone regain, its predecessor’s energy.
The Fissures of Our Throats snatches this fantasy up by the roots; in Nixon’s hands, none of postmodernity’s flowers blossom without the filth of the Earth clinging to them . What finally strikes me is how much Nixon’s counterculture mirrors the after-class philosophizing and barroom poetry of my own Toronto. In spite of anyone’s ideals, both scenes have the same cloying stagnancy, the feeling that there’s something we’re not getting. Reading that absence in Nixon’s narratives of my intellectual heroes, I start to think that, finally, it’s only that misunderstanding that keeps us going.