[Omnidawn; 2023]

I gravitate to ruins, perhaps as habit, maybe as ritual. It’s a practice of reflecting on what is not there, the remnants of what supposedly belongs to the no longer, not so much to make order as to see the ruins as everywhere and inescapable and to choose to move through them anyway. In Anthony Cody’s second collection of poetry, The Rendering, there is the dreamscape of The Dust Bowl, a kind of ruins lingering throughout The Rendering’s topology, resisting representation against the book’s name.  

In part, The Rendering is a historical text that moves through the Library of Congress’ archives. It comprises both interviews and photographs that document the dust storms of the 1930s, what the storms upended, and the migrations to California that followed. But this is only a surface reading. Peel back these layers and you begin to realize, “disintegration is not linear,” as Cody writes in “After Russian Thistle, Leave.” This is perhaps another way of saying there is no clear or complete way to tell this or any history. There is something about the wreckage that won’t settle on a beginning, or a single subject, the way a collision might also make one part of the rubble indistinct from another. In “Untitled Searches, Postmetaphor,” Cody repeats the refrain, “I am searching for a name not the dust bowl.” Here, the speaker longs for some other kind of precision because “visiting the grave of my grandparents will only provide a single piece of information their age.” He echoes Tavia Nyong’o, who writes, “Every attempt at getting closer to the historical truth by way of its archival remains leads to more dead ends and diversions.” 

The collection suggests that language is the topsoil, evoking the sense that “this is all postmetaphor and seeing nothing from the inside is a kind of clarity that statics my organs in a way I find filling with dread filling with sand.” I don’t read Cody as abandoning historical detail because there are many that are recounted. Instead, the author seems to move towards abstraction, towards “seeing nothing from the inside.” Cody takes up a critique similar to Monica Huerta’s in that the “photograph is like a poem: it betrays its limits by announcing that it is the limit . . .” In other words, what we think we know from within the frame is never enough. Cody knows this, reckons with “the limitations of my tongues,” and attempts again and again to trouble what the archive and its articulations would seek to affix. I see this pressure being applied to certainty again and again in the angular evolutions of this book’s many forms, how text in one moment is bleeding across the page and in another is swirling and circular, representing both foreground and background to a map. Cody searches for what is perhaps unattainable but continues to plow “until what is upturned ghosts.”

To read The Rendering is to enter into The Dust Bowl, where dying crops meet dying earth and ice caps are melting in the presence of beached whales who are “trilling and grinding” over a “loudspeaker.” To read this collection is to be unmapped and dis-catalogued, to refuse the rendering of empire which has its objectives in “ownership” and “in the taking.” Isn’t such taking the story of the Anthropocene? An Anthropocene which is already in the rearview while reading The Rendering.

For me, the potential within poetry is its ability to demonstrate the limits of any archival production to represent all the fragments, to give us something whole. Cody does this remarkably at the level of the line and in multiple forms where we find ourselves in the middle of the dust storm unable to see much outside of superimposed or vanishing text doubling as the mass of particulates ahead of us, around us, swelling in each attempt to inhale. And what might it mean to think of this as a kind of architecture, and one that is “not about determining a utopia of ultimate satisfaction, but simply starting from what exists—the present state of affairs and its material manifestation, from the rubble ‘unceasingly piled before our feet’”? This is to say, maybe there is another possibility being gestured at from the gathering of archival fragments that does not seek to refashion those fragments into something whole.

Perhaps what I appreciate most about The Rendering is its great skill in gathering, gathering all the dust, all the scattered debris of houses and barbed wire and bodies that like the dust accumulate in the lungs as well. Cody gathers the ruins of a moment that is ongoing and asks us to witness annihilation as happened, as happening, as to come. Cody considers who the devil in the dust of the narrative might be and how narrative and language might themselves be insufficient for the task ahead. In this fraught lingering, he gestures at a morning after when we’ll “look at all that sun.”

Chaun Webster is a poet and graphic designer living in Minneapolis whose work is attempting to put pressure on the spatial and temporal limitations of writing, of the english language, as a way to demonstrate its incapacity for describing blackness outside of a regime of death and dying. Webster’s debut book, Gentry!fication: or the scene of the crime, was published by Noemi Press in 2018, and received the 2019 Minnesota Book Award for poetry. Webster’s work has appeared in Obsidian, The Rumpus, Here Poetry Journal, Ploughshares and Mn Artists, and his second collection Wail Song: wading in the water at the end of the world, was published by Black Ocean in April 2023.

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