Thinking Around gowanus atropolis by Julian Brolaski

by John Pluecker

gowanus atropolis
by Julian Brolaski
Ugly Duckling Presse, 2011
104 pages / $15.00  Buy from UDP




We no longer reveal totality within ourselves by lightning flashes.  We approach it through the accumulation of sediments.

– Edouard Glissant


Every word in gowanus atropolis carries the traces of having been moved, altered, shifted.  Even the undergirding of the lines and stanzas feels rearranged and restructured to create a different kind of progression, far from a logical exposition.  Both syntax and spelling have been remade: “one ynvents a grammatical order / (& haf done).” We are in a specific post-industrial space, the New York City around the Gowanus Canal in Brooklyn, and we are listening to an elegy for the pastoral in a stridently non-pastoral setting, a polluted landscape struggling to survive. The experience of this landscape through words is only possible, Julian Brolaski seems to be saying, once everything has been pushed off its foundations a bit, with everything askance, a little slanted by the inclusion of a slew of portmanteaus, archaic words, macaronics, neologisms, transpronouns like xe, and of-the-moment slang.  Suddenly even the most obvious and brutal contemporary slang seems bizarre and highlighted in the mass of new or n-used words. In the thicket of all these strange words, there are some we recognize, some which very few readers could ever possibly know and then others that no one has ever read on the page before. These (queer) words open up all sorts of possible readings, mis-readings and failed readings, and they also open up a space for play, for contradiction and confusion, for being lost.

I found a guidepost to the poetics of Julian Brolaski’s work in two lines in the poem “an elegy to kari edwards:” “conturbabimus illa / let us confound them.” The Latin line is from a poem by Catullus that encourages lovers to live for each other and not concern themselves with maligners and haters. Throughout the book, the root word conturba appears and reappears in different contexts, sometimes more legible than others; in this poem, Brolaski seems to provide a translation of the Latin (“let us confound them”), but we could also understand it as: we will mix them up or we will throw them into confusion.  Words here are flexible, malleable, they have history and histories and somehow it’s up to the castaways of society to grapple with these words:

discoverd a name’s
an elastic thing
one writes not so much about
as around homosexual desire

There is no direct course to the subject matter, the message or communication.  gowanus atropolis often writes around that realm of plants and animals, fungi and sealife that surround us no matter our location. Brolaski is particularly interested in the tidal, river-sected landscapes of New York. But the natural world is nothing immediately recognizable, not a traditional landscape painting or a landscape poem. There isn’t so much a sense of beauty in the natural world as much as a loss and an insistent appearance of grossness, the grotesque realities of fleshy creatures. And these creatures are constantly showing up in contaminated locales and war zones; in fact, Brolaski’s poems never stray too far from the battlefields, whether those are Superfund sites in Brooklyn or the Euphrates in Iraq or Taliban hideouts in Afghanistan. Here, there’s an obvious affinity with the ecopoetic work of Jonathan Skinner: nature is not some distant, separate entity, but rather it is everywhere in war and strife and our failing cities (“a wave of velvet revolutions / where albino fishes / swim with no eyes”). If there is any future, it is in the suffocating inhabitants of the thresholds between different spaces. The book seems to ask: what is the process for a human to become an animal and for an animal to become a human?

The most constant animal compatriot in the book is Sludgie; this famous whale died in the Gowanus Bay in 2007 after becoming lost and disoriented and grounding itself.  The New York Times succintly headlined its story “Frolicking Visitor Delights Hearts, Then Dies.” Sludgie becomes a kind of totem for the book, a symbol of the “long bleak queer derailment” Brolaski writes around. Sludgie is an object of friendly regard, or sometimes seems to incarnate a guardian spirit who is appealed to or worshipped. The death of Sludgie is most profoundly discussed in the poem, “murder on the gowanus” in which Brolaski writes:

yr shining form to oil hath returned
yr helmet now shall make a hive for bees

Despite the elegiac qualities of the poem, it still ends on a strangely upbeat note:

till I may see a plumper sludgie swim
everlike rotund
buddha–smack aghast
everlike leo and thir friends
marching in lockstep
to the sunlit uplands

Somehow we shall still overcome, setting off into the sun; there are rare moments in the book where a rebirth does seem possible. And yet, Sludgie isn’t the only animal losing xir ungendered way in the murky, post-industrial depths.

In “astonishd fish,” Brolaski combines a translation of a poem by Brazilian writer Maria Esther Maciel with references to Alexander the Great, John McCain and the legions of fish living around oil rigs off the Gulf Coast. There’s a great video of Brolaski reading the poem on YouTube (poem begins about a minute into the video). A McCain epigraph starts the poem: “The fish love to be around those rigs!” The poem seems to ask us to think about how or if queers could become fish.  And then why are these queer fish attracted to crisis zones? What do we find in crisis zones that bring us back again and again? The poem begins:

the eyewall favorable for
ikonicity     an
ambivalence au bibliothéque
how eche rig shattrs
the hrt & gut & the spleen

The eyewall of the hurricane bears down, unleashing fierce winds and destruction. This place of crisis and catastrophe is favorable for creating icons (the “k” I read as a play on Hurricane Ike which struck the Gulf Coast in 2008) and also dismembers or re-spells the words themselves. In the second stanza, “the fish begin to speak queerly” and we get an onslaught of historical references: Alexander the Great (who successfully conquered Afghanistan (wink, wink)) and Ganymede (a Greek mythological saint for queers everywhere). These figures construct a web of historical references for the poem, an astrological map within which the poem does its work. Finally, the piece ends by questioning the rules and regulations that made oil extraction possible, that made it possible for all these queer fish to gather around the destruction point:

mariesther asks why were the fish not given any tediousness
indemnification and not being held
then what the heck ys love
my brinkly protocol?

If queers are fish, why can’t they be boring? Why can’t they be unscathed? And what is love anyway in this mess of resource extraction and the tangled mass of laws allowing exploitation and global warming?

There are some poems that deliver a more comprehensible flow, that work more in a lyrical way, even though they seem to push beyond it at the same time. In the piece “not/quite (cows in texas),” the poem highlights cows in a pasture, “the cow ringing its neck the cow / ringing its hands.” Once again the animal and the human are not that far apart.  By the end:

and the cow
not quite dead in the machine
but the cow is–and I
o cow   I
I vow
I vow to see cow as cow

There’s something melancholy and sweet in the poem, dare-I-say twee to it. Twee is not really a word I would use to describe any of the other poems in the book. But sometimes this mixture of sweet sadness does emerge in other places; it just usually appears for an instant, for a line or a couplet or a stanza and then immediately diffuses back into the more (un)familiar, unsettled landscape of Brolaski’s work.

This book is also an invitation (not an obligation) to research, to piece words apart, to run to the dictionary and encyclopedias, to struggle and to engage and to learn. The strangeness of the words open up a myriad of possibilities. Do you look up the words you don’t know? Can you invent meanings for these words?  Especially with the archaic words, you’d need a subscription to the Oxford English Dictionary with all of its etymological wonders to really begin to crack open the etymologies herein. Brolaski’s work invites the reader to be a sleuth. At the same time, I’d argue this apparent move towards the past is something else entirely; the move towards Karl Marx’s root (i.e. the radical) drives us towards a renewed present. In Meddle English, Caroline Bergvall writes that contemporary writers use historic language detail “as a rich field of lived and deductive approximations, some based on ground research, some on the mysterious pleasure grain of the vocalizing, materializing text. A way of surfing the uneven, unruly canopy of present conditions without assimilating them to a dive in the past.” Brolaski’s poems definitely embody this mysterious pleasure and also resist any attempt to define this work as somehow mining the past. These poems are clearly subjects of the present.

An example of this attention to the “uneven unruly canopy of present conditions” is the wordtutivillus which comes up at least twice in the book.  In the first poem:

and wen I am attired, thus arrayd
I sing for pretty things–tutivillus
rimmed by concrete blast walls
and concertina wire

Here the references to war zones and specifically the Iraqi green zone overshadow this first appearance of the tutivillus, as I was left thinking more about war and protection and fences than this odd word. But later in the book, there is a whole poem called “the pit of tutivillus.” The book gives no clues that tutivillus is a word with a history. Apparently invented words like “damesir” or “fishair” or “arbolaf” reappear so often that Brolaski ends up creating a new vocabulary and provides enough uses of these words in sufficient contexts for them to become familiar or at least comfortably unfamiliar. So I thought tutivillus could have been another “damesir” or “fishair” or “arbolaf.” However, on a whim, I looked up “tutivillus” in the OED and to my surprise I found that it is a form of the word titivil from the Latin word titivillus (which has a seemingly infinite number of spellings).  These words are the “name for a devil said to collect fragments of words dropped, skipped, or mumbled in the recitation of divine service, and to carry them to hell, to be registered against the offender.”

Titivil, titivillus, tutivillus: what shockingly delectable words. And what a concept, this devil who collects fragments of words deployed badly (mumbled or jumbled) in a holy service and collects them to use against the sinner in hell.  In my reading, the tutivillus becomes another totem of the book: a queer patron saint for experimental writers. We can see Brolaski as another tutivillus eagerly gathering up all the words “dropped, skipped or mumbled” in the “divine service” of daily life or the “divine service” of poetry. What words have been relegated to an irretrievable past? Why are some words marked as historical?  How can we circulate all these seemingly strange, queer, lost words and ground them in their present milieu? Is this the book of all the lost words we find in hell in the tutivillus’s lair? All the words long since removed from daily usage or words which long to be used more often? If this is so, who is Brolaski using these words to condemn? Who is going to hell?

In gowanus atropolis, the fish, the whales, the cows, the queers, the homosexuals, the “I”, the “you,” they all “speke englysshe / polymorphously.” As Brolaski puts it:

grotesques w/ crab claws
upglaring from down
inna thicket
of manahatta its edge
whos to say wots
a good person anyway




John Pluecker is a writer, interpreter, translator and teacher. His work has been published by journals and magazines in the U.S. and Mexico, including the Rio Grande Review, Picnic, Third Text, Animal Shelter and Literal. He has published more than five books in translation from the Spanish, including essays by a leading Mexican feminist, short stories from Ciudad Juárez and a police detective novel. There are two chapbooks of his work, Routes into Texas (DIY, 2010) and Undone(Dusie Kollektiv, 2011).