Reviewed by Ian Whittington
Croak. Coach House, 2011.
Here is a book much like a frog: between worlds and between shapes, the embodiment of transformation, alternately lithe and squat. Over some hundred pages, divided into three parts and a coda labelled “Catharsis,” Croak unfolds in a series of short monologues and dialogues featuring Frogs, Girls, Frogirls, and other mutants. Some of these scenes are in verse, some in prose; all feature stage directions as if intended for theatrical production. Furthermore, the scenes are interspersed with commentary from a group of choric Narrators. The press blurb calls it “a frog-and-girl opera in three parts,” but this tells only part of the story; with Croak Jenny Sampirisi has crafted a surprising and playful text whose defining feature—formally, thematically, and stylistically—is mutation.
The theme of contamination lies at the heart of Sampirisi’s aesthetic of mutation. Croak is, in part, about the bodily effects of environmental and linguistic pollution. The frogs hinted at in the title are under chemical attack; exposed to various human-made substances, their bodies are revolting, losing limbs and growing new ones, changing sex, dying. At several points, frogs stand onstage while they announce their physical deformities, their language cold and clinical: “Extra back right leg. / Deformed back left leg. / Unabsorbed tail” (24). As the text progresses, the discourse of mutation leans more heavily on figuration and sonic play than on empiricism: “limb loves fracture and we accept,” the Frogs announce at one point; “this limb gets off on linkage / an extra toe turns loose and flirty” (51). This is evolution gone haywire, as chemical agents speed and warp processes of adaptation to create grotesque hybrids unsuitable for any environment.
The thematic emphasis on bodily hybridity is mirrored by a textual hybridity, as Croak borrows equally from classics and cartoons. Sampirisi repeatedly quotes the famous call of “Brekekekex-koax-koax” from Aristophanes’ The Frogs, re-figuring onomatopoeia as verb (“fingers koaxing the page” ) and adjective (“coaxial cables weed the river bed” ). All is not highbrow, however: Kermit and Michigan J. Frog also make appearances, testifying to the persistence of the crooning and charismatic amphibian in popular culture. This playful citation means more than ironic recognition for the reader; as Sampirisi has noted in interviews, the figure of the frog in western culture often asks others (and women in particular) to compromise their values. Thus Michigan J. Frog’s “If you refuse me / Honey, you’ll lose me” (59) earns a threatening reply in its turn from the rapidly evolving Narrators: “If YOU refuse ME, honey” (89). It seems that among the victims of environmental breakdown we may count our amphibian messengers of sly sexual blackmail.
Sampirisi engages us beyond the sonic and intertextual layers of her poetry. The very shape of words on the page commands our attention: justified to the bottom of the sheet, the text occasionally rises only a few lines up the page, like sedimented language, leaving the rest an open expanse of white. Sampirisi is also unafraid to play with the shape of letters and symbols, which is unsurprising given her history of involvement with the visual poetry movement. Commas become tadpoles, parenthetical full stops — (.) — the eggy promise of future frogs. Far from relying overly on such visual gestures, Sampirisi incorporates them into her formal vocabulary just enough to add another iconographic layer to her poetry. She uses the materiality of text and type to index a linguistic breakdown attendant on bodily breakdown: “there are tt many limbs why limbs why ts nn limbs why limbs at all why fear ff limbs,” ask the Girls early in the poem, the nearly unpronounceable consonant clusters defying the body’s ability to register mutation (18). Similarly, as the poem progresses, Croak mixes in passages of “censored” text, in which blacked-out lines signal the loss of biological and textual information.
It is perhaps this merger of formal languages that is most breathtaking in Croak. Sound poetry, visual poetry, chemistry, biology, theatre, popular culture, and lyric poetry each lend their vocabularies to the text. Sampirisi handles this potentially volatile mixture by confronting it head-on, juxtaposing radically different registers across the turn of a page. The resulting text is at times thorny and at others beautifully smooth, alienating and viscerally appealing, comic and tragic. Like the frogs whose transformations it documents and mourns, this text is a material being caught between established forms.
Ultimately, Croak is about the relationships between bodies, words, and the natural and human environments. “There are actions here,” the Narrators tell us early in the volume, “that dissolve the question of time and language slash time and the body slash deformity and language green green and red red porous in the mud” (7). This rather fundamental system of relations and reactions gives Croak a reservoir of urgency and potent symbolism from which its elaborate linguistic experiments emerge. Its closing "Catharsis" offers a terse warning: “We spoke the chemicals into the mud and into water until they came looking for the source and climbed back into our mouths. In through the fingernails and the throat. Coarse songs. We forgot names and places. Whole classes of objects disappeared” (98). In the hands of a less skilled poet, and with a less poignant and perilous crisis as its catalyst, the boldness of Croak’s verbal contortions might threaten to stumble and fall. But in these hands, and with the momentum of catastrophe pushing it forward, Croak succeeds admirably.
At press time: Ian Whittington is a doctoral candidate at McGill University. Though interested in twentieth-century British literature and culture in general, he is currently focused on a dissertation about the intersections of radio broadcasting and literature in Britain, especially during the Second World War.
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