Tuesday, January 22, 2008

Review: Robert Olen Butler, Severance

Robert Olen Butler, SEVERANCE. Chronicle Books, San Francisco

After careful study and due deliberation it is my opinion the head remains conscious for one minute and a half after decapitation.
--Dr. Dassy D'Estaing, 1883

In a heightened state of emotion, we speak at the rate of 160 words per minute
Dr. Emily Reasoner, A Sourcebook of Speech, 1975

So reads the epigraph to Robert Olen Butler's, Severance, a book of 62 decapitations, each 240 words in length. The idea came to him, he tells us in the dedication, while standing before the guillotine at the War Crimes Museum in Saigon

Like a sonnet, this formal limitation shapes the content and development of each piece. Aside from an occasional Em-dash or coma, and italics where quotes might be expected, there is no punctuation; otherwise, printed without breaks in a single block, continuous streams of thought, reflection, reminiscence and observation, they are more prose poems than stories. Narrative elements are compressed; and such stories as they might generate, with a few exceptions (like that of Gooseneck, court jester to Duke Eberhard the Bearded, 1494 or the nameless Chicken, beheaded in Alabama for Sunday dinner, 1958--narrative jokes, one black, one bad) more often than not remain hidden, or merely suggested.

A few are, as you might expect from the epigraph, last thoughts, post decapitation; most are not. Butler has allowed himself wide imaginative freedom, a choice which both compliments the formal limitations, and saves his book from becoming a parade of the macabre and grotesque.

I was a young man, hardly more than an adolescent, when I first reflected on a curious inconsistency in the ways I thought about death. On the one hand, stated as a fact, an item of knowledge, that we are all going to die, myself included; how was it possible that I could state this fact--given the existential enormity of the subject----alone or in company...with complete indifference? Why should this idea have so little affective resonance? We have no knowledge of death, no experiential knowledge, I told myself. In that light, there was no reason that an idea, absent of content--a mere word, in effect, should make one anxious. What then, I had to ask, was I to make of those brief moments of absolute terror: waking at night to an absence, a black hole that seemed to have replaced the world, and was, perhaps, it's true reality?

Looking in the mirror and seeing the skull beneath the face--brief, passing waves of feeling, always coming unannounced, by surprise... no way to reproduce, to will those moments. What was I to make of this?

If this was not knowledge of death, then it was surely knowledge of a deeper kind. Not about death, I thought, which remains always beyond experience or comprehension, but something else--a wiping of the slate--a bright light, and this was how I explained it--a light so intense it makes transparent--no, invisible, all the idols we've made and allowed ourselves to worship. Those moments of terror--nothing but the stripping away of our illusions, all those things, beliefs, attachments we thought we needed. Whatever remains, whatever we can hold to, believe in, cherish--in those moments of perfect dread--whatever remains solid, withstands, reflects back the light--that alone is real. The ultimate test.

Because I had expected the subject of these stories... poems... to be the bleeding away of consciousness, first to last, it struck me from the first entry (MUD, man, beheaded by saber-toothed tiger, circa 40,000 b.c.), that this was not the case. It puzzled me, briefly... as I tried to fit the stream of consciousness depicted here into that last headless dream. But then I saw, and found confirmed in the other pieces, that it was something much like how I had explained--and reconciled myself to those episodic moments of death-dread; that each piece is not about death (how could they be?, but about life, each of the lives named in these 62 poems, ranging from the prehistoric MUD to William Olen Butler himself, each one as seen in that same penetrating and revealing light, each of them... of us, a presence standing in the face of an absence we cannot comprehend, and only in our incomprehension... do we come to understand what matters.

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