Playing while praying: a reading of Jane Gregory’s YEAH NO
Jane Gregory’s YEAH NO bends in and out of words at the level of the syllable and pushes towards high-stakes epistemological questions: can we know anything, and is it unbearable if we can’t? In this book, I read an anxious theory of knowledge linked to how we use words to make meaning. I say this cautiously because I don’t wish to imply that YEAH NO illustrates theory. Rather, it intuits its trajectory, bumping into mysteries, particularly attuned to the complexities and paradoxes of experience. It’s shaky because it’s real. This is Gregory’s second book, following My Enemies five years ago, also from The Song Cave, and continuing lines of inquiry developed there: the instability of language manifested in the text through coined words and puns pointing toward divergent meanings; lyric images (light, fire, wolf, moon) that circle the speaker; devotion or—more accurately—anti-devotion, skeptical but sustained attention to questions of belief. Both books also include a series of poems entitled “BOOK I WILL NOT WRITE,” in which Gregory summarizes projects never realized, imagining them into being only for the duration of a poem.
The title YEAH NO encompasses a contradiction, a seemingly irreverent or petulant one. Reading this book made me realize how often I say “Yeah No,” most frequently to myself, emphatically, when I understand but disagree, or when I acquiesce to something but feel the need to voice protest. In the first lines of the book, Gregory loops us in to this polarity:
shall be well to oh
Everything is a pattern
of yesses and no (3)
What is meant by “Knock knock?” A joke? “No” arriving at the door? A spirit at a séance sending a message through tapping? Poe’s raven taunting us? Is “Knock knock” the text corresponding to the dots (larger than periods: •) that appear throughout the book, between sections of text and within some lines? At different moments in my reading, I felt those dots allude to Morse code, the moon, one of infinite points on a line, an uber-period, a hole in the page, a game of connect-the-dots, a coin, a bullet, a decimal point, the dot in “.com,” Hansel and Gretel’s breadcrumbs, a pixel, the indentations on dice, static. Another one: the dot as a swaying crystal used in pendulum divination, in which the movement of the pendulum indicates “yes” and “no” responses (the last poem in the book, “TO HYPNOTIZE SPACE AND TIME,” also conjures the swaying pendant as an act of mesmerism). That such a simple graphic element can be so variously interpreted helps illustrate the point (pun inevitable) Gregory makes repeatedly in language: meaning is unstable and arbitrary. We assert it in blind faith, over and over again, not knowing, but believing.
YEAH NO introduces a series of poems entitled “PROFICES,” a coined word evoking prophecies, profit, office, orifice, and the Latin Proficere (meaning to advance, to progress, to profit). This dive into words, demonstrating how they overlap in meaning based on visual and phonic rhyme, remains thrilling and engaging throughout the book.
with holes holes fill
the holes with its seed[s]
grossen your own things
juggle my thighs
the moon thru the treeees (17)
In these lines Gregory spells “treeees” with four “e”s, gesturing visually to the hole in the letter “e,” matching the three instances of the world “holes” in the preceding lines, and adding an extra “e” (possibly because the seed placed inside the holes will grow more holes). This poet pulls you into every letter as sound and cipher, inviting you to hold each with your eye and on your tongue. A traditional form of augury involved watching patterns of birds in the sky (“Augur” literally means “one who looks at birds”). In one “Book I Will Not Write,” Gregory imagines drones engineered to drop synthetic bird feces on unsuspecting victims “from courthouse to port to police murder scene to some sexual predator’s lawn, or office” (73). To write about the book you will not write is to imagine yourself reading it, simultaneously gesturing toward the power and futility of your own work in language. There’s an in-line dot at the conclusion of this poem (in the place of a period) that drips down from its center (a visual cue to the bird-droppings of the drones).
In her concern for the materiality of words and how meaning is made, Gregory is obviously influenced by Language poetry, but there’s another thread present that reminds me of Robert Duncan, a listening that carries the poem forward and a lyric energy that comes from looking deeply into words, but moves in Gregory’s poetry between the speaker and the reader: “I want to belong to the ocean” (45), “But bid the wings you send to lift/the universe by its corners” (58), “I am more/and worse than a coupon” (8). It’s exhilarating to move with Gregory along the “melody of thought” she pursues (9). Indeed, I felt these poems as a kind of singing. The speaker is deeply awkward, but thoroughly invested, a nerdy aria spilling from her self-conscious lips: “I have imperceptible knowledge/ a lot, guys” (12), “all I can do is stuff with my minds” (16). There are stretches that are Hopkins-esque in their leaping rhythms, pressed by alliteration and rhyme: “I cannot be but bothered with molecules, the study of/solutions, but infirm, fear inturned and that I feel/what I cannot feel I am proof/of concept” (20). The declarative is crucial here, often used in a turn or confrontation: “i know it was special for you, world, but I always have to go for I am the lung of the bio//sphere// and nondiscursive truth” (60). “cruelty built a bird’s nest out of birds or declaratives,” Gregory writes (29). Prophets declare the future. Then: whatever. Something happens. In her previous book, sentences often double back on themselves like an ouroboros: “I recognize the tongue of the wolf/before it is in the wolf’s mouth” (My Enemies 34). YEAH NO works toward a more prismatic experience: “one has observed the efforts of the tide and then directly seen the eyes of the wolf and then that whole wolf relinquish all the difficulty in how difficult it is to be a wolf, as it is so difficult to be a wolf, betides” (29). Scintillating difficulty, literally between “tides.” Gregory works to a place where language makes its own prophecies: “yay, so toil, smart women be mean, my brain, refuse all work that makes more for others” (60). This is a spell, a curse, and practical advice.
Some tools Gregory uses to emphasize the materiality of language and meaning-making: coined words, puns, homonyms, palindromes, misspellings, phonic echo, bracketed lines in lighter type, and the aforementioned dots. All of this points readers toward the grapheme turned symbol, the object held up to make meaning (as we do with letters and words):
vatic, the states,
s t a t i c (32)
Elsewhere, Gregory breaks into one word with the suggestion of another: “How tiny—/mistyped joy and pain/ as join—the differences and/ little, they mean, or failth (sic) the occasion/what tried for fails” (66). In a poem referring to a party, read “[, will come,]” in the margin, and you hear “welcome,” the unusual first comma in the brackets opening the door to you (70). In the audiobook for YEAH NO (available from The Song Cave website), Gregory annunciates each syllable, giving them an almost stilted equal weight, emphasizing sound-material, perceived for its sensory nature before words are reconciled into meaning.
But they will be reconciled: “even though I thought I could live in an actuary nevertheless I would go on to ULTIMATE A TRUTH” (49). This is key: prophecy anticipates what will happen next. The prophet perceives a grapheme (bird in the sky, lines in a palm, tea leaves) and reads in it a sign of what’s to come. We can’t exist without doing this, without taking what we perceive to mean something more than just the perception. We thrust forward on beliefs that could just as easily be read otherwise. This is why prophecy proceeds speech: “And profacie was prior to speech, the mistake the assumption it function’d as though what happened’d happen’d first in speech, when speech only suffers from what happens” (32). We prophesize from moment to moment. Speech (and everything else) suffers from what happens which, it turns out, really has nothing to do with our anticipations: “I understand where all this is going/ so nothing I anticipate happens” (8). The tabloid predicts the end of the world, over and over again. Agreeing that something is wet is not an absolute truth about the object: “how/ things feel wet, or weird, but aren’t, not/ made that way, only sensed” (9); “how do you know the raven to be no mirror to the leaf” (60). We even interpret each other as signs, attributing meaning to what we perceive: “Yr face ok’d /My shame & by it///Help it” (11). If what we know about words and objects is arbitrary, then isn’t also what we know of ourselves?: “or what if only I am the way//I think things are, weird,/how things seem ways” (26). One recourse available after finding that meaning is unfounded: pull back from knowledge to feeling (a kind of perception): “Let me tell you what I know/ of my own mind// The basic I feel myself to be” (27). And, perilously making the leap, even knowing it’s blind: “even unknown// to me// I will care for you” (50).
Gregory’s diction draws in vastly different bodies of language: theological discourse, colloquial speech, internet-memes. Her vernacular is OED-enthused, but also capitalist: “planets / are corporations too” (37). The internet becomes a repository for empty meaning (all that information, all that data—present, but intangible). Technology divorces graphemes even further from their original context, the outcome of progress (see the poem, “NOW THAT I KNOW DEATH BY RESIDUAL TECHNOLOGY”). Since Gregory is exploring a fundamental uncertainty of meaning, the internet also serves as our mirror, the form of the mind made external, a network of connections animated and engrossing, but virtual. Is every real thing like the internet—something we can’t touch? And if we exist on that network, what of the dead, also impossible to touch? Are they real and simultaneous with us? As prophecy collapses past, present, and future, the suggestion that the living have continuity with the dead haunts the speaker. Mere persistence can be painful: “My life is the fossil of/ me” (61), “Being dead, I play for you/what I’m scrolling through” (63), “Before it/included me, for it/included me, I knew/suffering” (63).
The speaker’s crisis begins in language but extends far beyond it. What happens when you realize that “belief became/ its proof” (74)? Panic. This isn’t an intellectual game: identifying the impossibility of making meaning in language, the speaker grows aware that the door of her experience is lacking screws in its hinges. When I look back to the first lines of the book, I see that there are many “yesses” and only one “no” because all of the yesses are refuted for the same reason: we can’t know what anything means. The only solution is to accept that you don’t know, even while you make meaning. In Gregory’s imagery, be “a man and the dog,” “master of and let go” (89). This leads Gregory to vibrant play, alive in her perceptions of language: “To what belong the concepts I stop caring” (82); “I would not/ put a fountain in a pond for it knows not what/ it is”(82); “There is an s between reason and treason/And it isn’t reason[’]s” (92).
Ultimately, Gregory is “against achievement” (82), evoking Tantalus, who reaches out but will never grasp what he seeks. As the word “Tantalus” leads us to “tantalize,” one should at least enjoy being teased. The Oakland-based poet throws local slang “hella” into a poisonous herb chant, “hellebore hellabore hellebore” (93). Be tantalized. Enjoy (hella) teasing. You won’t reach truth, but you may play while reaching. Having fallen over the precipice of meaning, play in the language that led you there (you were dropping through the abyss already). Make no mistake: this is not lighthearted play. It’s serious irreverence as a way to keep going when you sense that the continuity relied on from moment to moment is unfounded. It’s the little girl rolling her eyes in church, pretending to pray but making a dialogue with her own distraction, her own sense that belief is unfounded. This image is conjured in the last poem, a final, restless prophet expressing “YEAH NO.” Gregory wrestles with perception and meaning in a way that also wrestles with God, as if words were his angels. And we, Jacob—we know where this is headed. In winning, in pinning our words finally, we won’t actually win. Perhaps those stakes are always present in poetry (or even in language), but Gregory seems particularly adept at drawing them out and making them felt in her work.
This book’s dive into uncertainty asks a reader to sit with play and anxiety simultaneously. There’s a macabre sense of humor (Gregory nods to this in the book’s author photo, where she leans against a giant tombstone, the name and only word engraved on it—“Downer”). Still, there is a sense in which Gregory is a devotional poet in the heretical, contrary tradition of Emily Dickinson: for Gregory, meaning-making in language reveals how faith impels us beyond what we know—an approach of belief through word-matter. Like Dickinson, Gregory sometimes dares a higher power to exist: “there/ is something whose halo/is a collar for the world” (71). Elsewhere, she adamantly speaks her anxious conclusions: “there was no upperworld except/our exit from it . . . eff you what’s thinking and so smart” (74). Reading this book, I felt convinced: Gregory didn’t make this bird shit up; language actually does this. The prophet doesn’t make up the prophecy; she just opens her mouth and aspirates. One function of poetry is to transmit the pulse of experience, even (especially) when that pulse reveals a tremor, a crack, an awareness within a moment that the moment feels askew. The problem confronted in YEAH NO is familiar because it is fundamental to experience, but it is also eerily strange in being floated to the surface. The great achievement in YEAH NO is in making these revelations of language-play feel inevitable, already there in words, revealed by the poet. It takes keen intuition for language-as-matter to craft that experience, the reader tracing sound and meaning syllable-by-syllable till mesmerized.