“INVISIBLE. THIS IS WHERE I LIVE”: JULIE DOXSEE’S WHAT REPLACES US WHEN WE GO (BLACK OCEAN, 2018)
Representations of a place never quite capture the reality of actually being there. We might think of the experience of seeing a particular landscape at its peak greenness during summer or lying in the grass as birds pass overhead. We could take pictures of the pages we read from What Replaces Us When We Go in a memorable moment, the pictures of trees through the window of a car, the car moving, and the pictures focus on a blur. I read Julie Doxsee’s latest collection of poems aloud in the passenger seat of a car while traveling to places where I had never traveled. Doxsee, author of Undersleep (Octopus Books), Objects for a Fog Death (Black Ocean), and The Next Monsters (Black Ocean), writes poems entangled and blurred so carefully that they illuminate the bleeding edges between body and place and life and death. What Replaces Us When We Go yields a betweenness that deals with the simultaneous, radically imperfect re-presentations of place within the body and the body within space.
While reading What Replaces Us When We Go, I continue being with these poems as a way of being in a narrative of a world specific to a motion that resists the still image, in a small space for retreating to the surreal, telling us that the word “Go” is a ledge before our next fall. “Go” creates a space for words and bodies to inhabit themselves as real and imaginary, materialized in the image of spheres which appears on the cover and recurs throughout the poems. Like the spheres, our bodies and desires are constantly in motion.
This collection gives us strange definitives such as “sugar as gateway to the I, the body,” as well as questions that permit exploration: “I’ve breastfed forever, but who?” Moving through this collection, the reader might feel as though the words resist themselves, that the words wish to wilt but not erase themselves. The narrative movements in this collection consider the gateways of disappearance in opposition to absence, demonstrating how disappearance maintains its own replacement and that replacement continues an existence, that even when something is nowhere, it is somewhere. Doxsee provides the example of the afterimage of the sun behind the closed eyelid as a trace and replacement image. The sun proliferates until the remaining light is “the sun’s stabbed- / out eye parade.”
Moreover, syncing the beauty and shock of the word stun, the tone of the collection encapsulates the idea of what should stun us in the everyday, what could prove stunning if manifested into a reality beyond the page. One effect of enjambment is surprise, where the break between lines almost literally stuns us. In “I Am An Archaeologist,” Doxsee writes, “[t]o prove / I am God, I will step out of the ocean / to do the spooky dance,” placing the stun within the enjambment—revealing to the readers the blur of land into ocean, even if an ocean is not signaled by the words in the body of the poem. The curious (and humorous) final image gives readers a new form of motion manifested in the haunt of the “spooky dance.” Mirroring these enjambments, Doxsee attends to the dismemberment of the fragment as a form of motion, such as in the poem “Oh Oh Oh,” when she writes:
shockwaves. My naked leg cycles by
to the sounds of old men. My naked leg
finds a hammock & a black sheet & I ball
them up into a beehive in the shadows.
Actions taken by the dismembered "naked leg" with the bike that is dismembered in the action of "cycles," demonstrate fragment as a form of motion. The “hammock” signals a form of leisure, both sheltered and hidden from light and sight, while the “sounds of old men,” whatever they may mean for us, are meticulously geospatially sphered into a ball, tucked deeper into the place by “beehive,” more of a shape than a being, that must be behind something that remains if it is to cast “shadows.” Doxsee’s thoughtful placement of words at odds gives us the space for associatively feeling the invisible connections between things breathing through the white space of the page. Furthermore, Doxsee separates the collection into five sections: "Joy," "Oh Oh Oh," "In Search of Faces in the Dead of Night," "Orphans," and "●●●●●●." These sections overlap and build their own distinct places of both tone and landscape; they weave together as if they are "rollarcoasting the deep / pine woods," embodying immaterial and material links. The poems “travel through deserts as the speaker inhabits animal bodies, alternating between freezing and burning while moving through serpentine landscapes in a perpetual state of wish” (quoted from the description on the back of the book).
The title of the book comes from Sabine Gruffant and Ben Russell’s 2003 film The Ataraxians, which depicts a futuristic, leisurely man and woman in Southern France repeatedly being replaced by six spheres and a sharp, ringing sound without a source. The man states, "I can't stop looking. It's the only thing that doesn't bore me," when he cannot locate the woman after she is replaced by the six spheres in a grove. In a later scene, the woman stands on a tennis court, where she is replaced again by the six spheres, which cut from being in one straight line to being separated into different shapes, always evenly spaced away from one another rather than touching. In the final scene of replacement, both woman and man are replaced by six spheres that mirror themselves into a swimming pool. The six spheres shift around like the suns in Doxsee’s book. What Replaces Us When We Go imagines a beyond and the rustic ghosts of disappearances. Bodies lost in landscape roll into layers deftly lacking disconnect, such as in “Black Sea”:
the white is not white it is raccoons
& where your teeth should be
there are no teeth, there are only
footprints under which the animals sleep.
Here, if raccoons appear in "white," the "teeth" could then be the raccoons, but the teeth are gone and so everything created by the connections made in the above lines is replaced by the ultimate image: "footprints under which the animals sleep." However, the "under" of this final image signals the action of digging beneath a footprint if we are to locate the image of the sleeping animal; likewise, the teeth remain behind the lips to the mouth, requiring the action of opening in order to be revealed. These actions mirror the motion that denies the body, place, or word a space for stillness.
The leisure of the man and woman in the lines below is a form of this denied stillness; and Doxsee not only activates the leisure by this rejoining of animal to body, but she writes poems possessed by movement. She further pushes this idea of leisure being as impossible as stillness in the poem "Cocoons." While denying direct distinctions between human and animal embodiment, the humans of this poem take animals with them on their travels, and their bodies become the smallest parts or traces of themselves; all of the possibilities matter in the mysterious motion of replacement:
I pluck two cocoons
overgrowing the porch bulb
as pine needles stab my toes
by the hundred. You are the lungs
of a man I know I say
to the cocoons, then I cradle them
in my hand & take them
on a boat tour of the city
Also significant to the denial of pure leisure is the tension of being within the feminine body, which is being sought as she seeks the source of the gaze. The feminine bodies within this collection are subject to the gaze and rigidity of social form, recalling the man from The Ataraxians saying "I can't stop looking." The “perpetual desire” to look and to avoid the "source" of that which is looking is wrapped into the worry of wilting:
I wilt when echoes
their source, when
ears go stereo in vain.
To “wilt” is the threat of no longer becoming, and the collection as a whole interrogates what it means to counter becoming with wilting. The collection might ask, What does it mean to become rather than know? The space of the poems could contain and build their own cosmology of options for replacement and disappearance.
The final line of the poem “Sugar” combines the image of both presence and absence: “shapes. Invisible. This is where I live.” The image delicately depicts the poet being present as just a shape when in the presence of a man. The man, as he morphs or "looks" through the poems, is almost equally dismembered in the act of appearances as parts that resists a “source.” The bodies of the man and woman in this book, although separated from one another and from themselves, are considering and questioning their own presence as obstructions to being.
“Invisible. This is where I live,” as a sort of incantation, encounters the vision and darkness belonging between living things; the reader is invited to rethink betweenness as it applies to language, place, and bodies. We inhabit human and animal, sheering fur turned into messages, turning into “a beehive in the shadows” and bonding love to love back “into one concentrated corner / where only you are visible.”
Black Ocean, 2018
Recommended contemporaries to accompany What Replaces Us When We Go:
Houses of Ravicka, Renee Gladman (Dorothy Project, 2017)
Field Glass, Joanna Howard and Joanna Ruocco (Sidebrow, 2017)
Invasive Species, Marwa Helal (Nightbook Books, 2019)
G, Emmalea Russo (Futurepoem, 2018)
Baby, I Don’t Care, Chelsey Minnis (Wave Books, 2018)
Counter-Desecration: A Glossary for Writing within the Anthropocene, ed. Linda Russo and Marthe Reed (Wesleyan University Press, 2018)
return to ISSUE ONE