Reviewed by Brian Clifton
Early in Orient, which won the CSU Poetry Center 2018 Open Book Contest, Nicholas Gulig states, “Pronounced across an opening, the act of listening constructs a bridge that binds a single space. This despite the distance and the violence of difference.” This quotation encapsulates one way the collection of poems approaches the gap between the tongue and the ear, the self and other, the individual and the global. Gulig’s second book embodies opposition—neither traditionally organized (lacking a visible narrative and stable, well-defined characters), nor traditionally composed (much of Orient’s text, as stated in the book’s notes, “do not belong to it,” being the fruits of “a yearlong process of transcription, (mis)translation, erasure, and collage”). And opposition, as both a practice and concept, is turned over and over throughout Orient. By looking at noise and sound (as they collide in human language), Gulig attempts to understand how we define ourselves and how we define others. In this way, the book becomes both a thing that speaks and a thing that listens. Orient exists in-between, its chiseled poems straddling the boundaries of the lyric essay and poetry.
By omitting the final periods on most of the pages, Gulig implies the continuation of the utterance—a poem picking up the thread of the previous one from a different perspective, a poem interrupting another poem, a blurring between who is speaking and to whom. The blurring does well to complicate the book’s initial argument—there is a gap between the self, the “us,” and the other, the “them.” So much of Orient argues that we mainly process the sounds we make to define ourselves against those around us. This can be seen most plainly in section 2 of “Book of Origins”:
When I was ten, I watched the war begin on television. I was at a party. It was a birthday party. We were listening to the radio. I called the station and requested music. They played it. We sang along. I called again. We danced. I was drinking Coca-Cola. I was eating ice cream. I was American. My friends were all around me. I walked upstairs. In the living room, parents watched a sitcom in recliners. The news came on. I sat on the couch. The news washed over me. Quite specifically, I remember the green-bright traces of artillery, the way the night above the desert trembled. I had never seen a war. I wept. I was at a party. It was a birthday party. My father took me home.
In this section, self is defined primarily through sound and the other by sound’s absence. The “I” and the “we” are defined mainly by the music requested and played on the radio (keeping in mind the proximity those actions have to “I was American.”). Sound works two ways in defining the self: as it comes out of the body to communicate (requesting a song, singing along) and as it comes into the body (listening to the radio, dancing to music). In both these ways, the sounds made, the sounds enjoyed imply a position the speaker occupies, that of the American. On the other hand, the other is defined by the absence of sound: parents watch a sitcom, green-bright traces of artillery, the trembling desert. The war that is shown on the news acts as a foil to the sounds of the speaker’s life—that the war is silent negates the other’s ability to speak, to imply the other’s position.
That said, there are moments throughout Orient that offer counter-arguments to this view of sound and identity/position. One of these counter-arguments comes in the form of learning a new language, which is politically fraught. In between poems, there are photographs of Syria by Ian Wallace with captions that loosely follow the story of a mother and child. In one of these captions, there is a description of soldiers turning on a crowd while the mother and child hide in the basement. The caption ends with the mother teaching her daughter English, saying, “You will need this.” Another instance of this happens much later in “Book of Error.” The poem lyrically teases out the complex nature of identity and place, describing living in another country as:
beautiful, to mouth
the words of others,
to believe them,
to feel their language,
is your own, to own them
momentarily, to feel ashamed
of owning, to stare
In both of these instances of learning a foreign language, the self undergoes a fundamental change, a redefinition of identity and position, a shifting of hierarchies. While moving in opposite directions, both instances show the destruction that comes with imperialism (as embodied in English). If our identities are shaped and limited in part by our language, learning English as a child limits the feelings and thoughts a person might be able to entertain in their native tongue. What happens when the self is forced to conform to the other’s language? What happens when language becomes a monolith? Further compounding this idea is the opposite direction—learning a language and feeling as though it is one’s own. What does it mean to “own” a language? How is this—both the requirement of English knowledge and the owning of another’s language—a kind of imperialism? Gulig answers these questions in “The Path of Apathy.” On the poem’s second page, the lines “Painted broadly, the noise a person makes/contributes to, and therefore is,/atrocity” imply the sounds an individual, especially someone from a western first-world nation, makes are a kind of violence upon the other, the marginalized, the war-torn.
Yet despite the hardline Gulig draws here, he asks for further engagement from his reader. Throughout Orient, the phrase “Agree or disagree” peppers the work. It may dialogue with the “conclusions” the book has written—sound defines us both in what we hear and what we say, that to speak is to cause a violence against another—in that it calls for reciprocity. Orient wants and needs a dialogue to happen. It calls for it. For all the blurring the text does, it is still a limited perspective. In stating that one may agree or disagree with the text’s perspective, Gulig implies the reader and writer, the spoken to and the speaking, are equals whose differences are needed in order to communicate, to understand the world through language. One way Gulig gets here is through the contemplation of the mechanics of sound. Unlike his first book, North of Order (YesYes Books, 2015), Orient asks not who are you in light of myself but who are we together, who can we be. Like North of Order, Orient unfolds its lyric arguments with stunning concision and thought-provoking vulnerability.