How Like Foreign Objects

How Like Foreign Objects

Alexis Orgera
H_NGM_N Books, 2012
ISBN: 978-0983221517 

Poetics of Defamiliarization:  Alexis Orgera's How Like Foreign Objects

Kristina Marie Darling

In Alexis Orgera's stunning debut collection, the most commonplace items—such as "pint-sized titanics," "plastic jewelry," and "bowls of steamy chowder"—become a point of entry to compelling philosophical questions:  How do we derive meaning from experience?  Why do we construct elaborate narratives in order to make sense of the chaos that surrounds us?  Is there beauty to be found in disorder, pandemonium?  As Orgera poses possible answers to these questions, her collection offers readers a graceful synthesis of style and content, in which formal decisions illuminate and complicate the text itself. 

With that in mind, Orgera's poems progress not through plot in the traditional sense, but rather, through a wonderful, dream-like logic.  This subversion of traditional narrative structures suggests the arbitrary nature of the stories we construct around our experiences in the world.  By presenting an alternative mode of description, in which lived experience may exist in all of its complexity, Orgera ultimately suggests the multiplicity of possible narratives that may emerge from the most commonplace encounters.  Consider "Hello, My Name is Sighing Aura," in which she writes,

     Goddamn, it's a blight outside
     with the sun cajoling
     the way it does when it's a fishmonger
     or a cabinet breaker.  Makes young girls
     feel octagonal, the roar 
     of the city bus coughing out
     dehydrated babies' breath...  (13)

Here Orgera underscores the intricacy of even the most mundane experiences.  A ride on "the city bus" becomes a point of entry to questions about youth, girlhood, and the natural world.  By allowing these various potential narratives to coexist in the same rhetorical space, Orgera suggests that any attempt to narrativize one's experiences represents an arbitrary act of selection, and consequently, exclusion.  "Hello, My Name is Sighing Aura," like many other pieces within the collection, raises compelling questions about language, experience, and personal history while remaining grounded in tangible, often visually stunning, poetic imagery.

Along these lines, Orgera frequently defamliarizes the most mundane pieces of found language, fixating on the sonic qualities of words, rather than their semantic meaning.  By doing so, she ultimately prompts the reader to reconsider the ways that they assign meaning to linguistic exchanges.  She writes, in a piece entitled "The Black Dress,"

     It begins with a symphony growing
     tendrils in the bathtub
     or calls snails to dine in the cat's dish.

     Every footstep gathers filth to share—

     we discovered one night,
     buckled into our corners,
     that our house wanted a window's refraction

     at just the right angles
                  to start a flame...  (60)

Orgera suggests the multitudes contained within the words "black dress."  Their semantic meaning evokes associations with "night," dark "corners," and a "window's refraction."  Yet the sonic qualities of the words give rise to another series of dream-like images, as well as recurring sound motifs.  Orgera explains that the words themselves begin "a symphony," which proves difficult to domesticate, and to fit within the parameters of the traditional definition of the "black dress," its meaning, and its function.  Indeed, Orgera gestures toward the worlds contained within the plainest linguistic exchanges.  "The Black Dress," like much of the collection as a whole, suggests that this process of defamiliarizing language allows us to glimpse its possibilities for art and the imagination.  With that said, Orgera offers such thought-provoking insights in a manner that is neither didactic nor heavy-handed in the least. 

Her treatment of conventional linguistic structures proves equally compelling.  Frequently allowing chaos to exist within the sentence, the stanza, and the lyric poem, Orgera suggests that language often represents an attempt to impose an artificial sense of order on the world around us.  By allowing disorder to exist within the most traditional modes of communication, the poet prompts us to embrace the messiness of lived experience, and to expand received linguistic structures so that they may do justice to the world around us in all of its complexity.  She writes, for example, in a piece called "Summer Vacation,"

     You are you
           and I am I
     a flexing flame skimmer,
     sinkhole cavorter.

     Patience and cholera, my dear,
     platitudes and pampas brooms,

     and what I said to fifty other children
     that day on the bus... (83)

In passages like this one, Orgera creates a thought-provoking discontinuity between form and content.  Although the reader recognizes the structures of communication, and the familiar lyric form, the poet ultimately offers unconventional content within the confines of tradition.  Indeed, one observes a fragmentation of meaning within the sentence, each one appearing as a collection of fragments, rather than a coherent whole.  By presenting the reader with this provocative relationship between form and content, Orgera ultimately gestures at the arbitrariness of form as a structure for self-expression, and giving meaning to one's experience of the world.  "Summer Vacation," like much of the collection, proves to be as philosophical as it is finely crafted.   In short, Alexis Orgera's How Like Foreign Objects is a truly remarkable debut. 

Kristina Marie Darling

Kristina Marie Darling is the author of twelve books, which include Melancholia (An Essay) (Ravenna Press, 2012), Petrarchan (BlazeVOX Books, 2013), and (with Carol Guess) X Marks the Dress: A Registry (Gold Wake Press, forthcoming in 2014). Her writing has been honored with fellowships from the Corporation of Yaddo, the Hawthornden Castle International Retreat for Writers, and the Helene Wurlitzer Foundation, as well as grants from the Kittredge Fund and the Elizabeth George Foundation.