Tolstoy Killed Anna Karenina
(Wave Books, 2022)
It is radical to comprehend the importance of the simple act of naming something in front of another person. Yet, poetry engages in this particular kind of conversation all the time, naming what is, to make possible what might be. Humanity has always been profoundly involved in naming. Biblically, one of Adam’s first tasks was to name the animals. “It is not good that man should be alone” was God’s reasoning for this, as if to say that to be alone is to be surrounded by unnamed things. To address something is to create a new existence for it, and from this act poetry arises. “[Things] had their names and naturally I called them […] by their names with passion and that made poetry,” wrote Gertrude Stein. “I did not mean it to make poetry but it did.” We’re drawn to articulating what we experience and to communicate that to another, and in doing so, something previously unknown occurs.
Dara Barrois/Dixon’s fourteenth full-length poetry collection, Tolstoy Killed Anna Karenina, (Wave Books, June 2022) is a spectacular lyrical reflection on the power of language and how naming (and renaming) shapes reality. I think it’s no small thing that the author, (formerly known as Dara Wier), published this book under her new chosen name: Dara Barrois/Dixon. Moreover, the slim volume’s title is boldly comprised of two names, divided by a single verb: killed. The symbolism of this naming confronts us first, confidently in black lettering on Wave Books’ now iconic minimalist covers. The evocation of death in the title’s declaration of a man’s heinous crime, coupled with the clear “death” of Barrois/Dixon’s old name (with gallant forward-slashed hyphenation) stirs a deep-felt sense of reprisal and resurrection. Without even opening the book we know it is doing something drastic. A narrative has already begun and we are “drawn along in its wake” as she writes in the poem “Where Inanimate Objects Have the Sturdiness of Intoxication Momentarily Evanesced.” Already, “someone else’s thoughts / have taken up residence in your own" and “someone else’s life and death matters.” We are met with a poet who, at seventy-two is more new and powerful than ever, wielding with subtle onslaught the exacting power of poetry’s naming.
“To bring the subject to recognize and to name his desire, this is the nature of the efficacious action of analysis,” the French psychoanalyst, Jacques Lacan, wrote. For Lacan, it was not a question of what already existed, waiting to be caught, rather, by the act of declaration alone, one “creates, gives rise to something new, makes something new present in the world.” Like psychoanalysis at its core, great poetry participates in an authentic conversation between reader and writer and poem; one that has the power to make something different out of an inherited “destiny.”
In Tolstoy Killed Anna Karenina, Barrois/Dixon directly addresses this handling of our mildly grotesque and awesome godlike powers as writers to birth and obliterate. “All it took” she writes of Tolstoy’s Anna Karenina, “around 340,000 words, how casually we destroy one another.” This idea manifests in two other sources that stand out, Flaubert’s Madame Bovary, and Mary Wollstonecraft Shelley’s Frankenstein. Barrois/Dixon shows us how authors might passionately create their heroes, but they can also cruelly destroy them in our presence. What does that do to a reader to witness? These poems bring attention to the fact that strange realities are born out of what we put down on paper. In the “Notes & Evidence” section of the book she writes “fate and words pretend [Anna Karenina] kills herself rather than be her maker’s victim.” As a poet, Barrois/Dixon is able to appreciate the intimacy of creating voices and characters in books (which is what Mary Shelley explored in the voice of Frankenstein’s monster, quoted in the book’s epigraph: “Remember that I am thy creature; I ought to be thy Adam, but I am rather the fallen angel”). The “speaker” in poetry is a phenomenon in itself, a meta metaphor of self(s), or persona; oddly literal in that it allows for an authentic representation of consciousness’s relation to the self. Her name-change draws attention to the metaphor of our social identities. Barrois/Dixon picks up the dropped and bloodied sword of these past authors and slashes off the shackles of (what we can assume is) a married name, bringing to witness the dead women of canonical prose, and all the while investigating the sprawling lyricism that is consciousness.
In Tolstoy Killed Anna Karenina there’s proof of endurance and collaboration in the system of naming. A call and response, intelligently adjusted by a mind who feels the voices of authors and their creations across time. Shelley’s Frankenstein serves as a kind of foil to the respective males’ (“and from Mary Shelley I took to understand / a creator’s responsibility to what she creates”, she writes in “Credits”). But this is not a book about vindictiveness or victimization; Barrois/Dixon is too nuanced for that. Rather, like Lacan pointed out, “in naming it, the subject creates… [and] makes something new present in the world.” Addressing through the material of internalized history and desire, Tolstoy Killed aims—in musicality and playfulness—to co-create a new world with the reader. Barrois/Dixon sees the will of the beings in the books she reads, the movies, the poems, the paintings. Perhaps because a poet is uniquely situated to relate to the “speaker,” in the poem, whereas, in prose, the “character” is someone removed, someone we’re not required to participate with. Edward Hirsch writes that in poems, “I become its speaker and let its verbal music move through me.” Poetry stakes are high; and self is awry. To use a line from “Simile for Its Own Sake,” it’s “like being in your head not mine.” We embody poetry.
To occupy another’s body actually requires a great amount of trust. And it may seem surprising (being with a title condemning a kind of sadistic male authorship) that this is a book about love. The opening poem “If You Are Lucky,” starts with the line “The same person will fall in love with you / over & over & over & over again & again.” This poem is a quick foil to the person who will fall in love with you, then throw you under the train and say it was your idea. The form is written as gentle instruction: “you will need to endure / long stretches without love / & these you will need to endure with patience and grace / in order to be prepared for love when it comes,” she writes. Poets are their best Orphic-selves in poems: emotionally astute and prophetic. Giving and getting love is something we constantly fuck up. “If You Are Lucky” is a poem that knows what it knows because it’s had a lot of that. The poem addresses how art, and the objects around us in our world that we name, are very important in our practice of love. From other human beings and their art we can gain understanding into the unseen, more frightening things like feelings, that come with relationships. This poem is about curiosity and observation to the world and then the mind:
and love when it disappears
with the strength you’ve gained
because you’ve read poems
and novels and stories
and you’ve watched movies
and looked at pictures
and you’ve lived with animals
and you’ve loved them
and by virtue of all these things
you’ve practiced feeling something
as complicating as love without end
and as complicating as love no more
Love is something that we often think of as what we’re not getting—but really is something we’re often not allowing. This is crucial. The poem is talking about what happens when we read poems (these poems) and Tolstoy, and Shelley, etc., and how we’re not simply being entertained, we’re having real experiences. It’s our own responsibility to survive love’s contradictions, and we can be aware of the opportunities around us to investigate and value love’s many forms—and from it keep some kind of evolved conversation going in a great direction. We’re discussing art and reality, and poets ride the wave of ambiguity here. WE are truth-slant tellers. We take responsibility to naming what is true, but have the license of unconsciousness to get us to something beyond “narrative” logic. And in this book’s naming we see we need the courage to not throw love away and call it a fortuitous “tragedy.” It takes really good writing to actually do this, and damn this is good poetry. What these poems show is a kind of capability of great poetry to resurrect what has been made and destroyed through the language, and go deeper into the subtext of all the written language that represents human thought.
This book is genius in its ordering of contrasts. And if the poem “If You Are Lucky” is about not hiding from love, it’s followed by a poem about needing to hide, too. In “Being Nervous is Only Human,” she writes, “you might be eaten alive / without your natural-born / elements of deception,” showing us how it’s normal to be manipulative. The next poem, “Credits,” is a list of the experience of those aforementioned “practice” pieces and how she has constructed this self-made “luck.” Experience is information, from which we sculpt our world. “I borrowed this nipple / from my own mother” she writes, “who disowned me and chose never / to suckle me nor any of her children.” This “nipple,” in its electric, mysterious italics, ghosts the whole book and it’s hard to forget it. Winnicott talks of the infant believing her own omnipotence in creating the breast out of thin air. For the speaker of this poem, she manages still to get at the life-giving object, even if on loan. And in this book there is much by way of fighting and surrendering to an omnipresence. One senses that this devastating withholding of love made the “nipple” of great literature all that much more dire for her—indeed so, since right after that line we find that: “a tender heart I took / from John Keats.” But can art replace such a formative desire? I think this book makes a good argument of Yes. But by way of preparation. We must find something, and art can teach great, (often ineffable) truths about how to handle flesh-and-blood love when it appears. This speaker takes enormous responsibility within these scrolling credits of a poet’s life. “I took what I could when I could take it / I took what I wanted when I needed it,” she writes. “I took a long time to understand / how much power lies in / giving and taking a life.” What matters is how we go forth with our borrowed nipples. If we endure, in a kind of faith, we can build a system of new love equal to such loss.
The poems in Tolstoy Killed wrench the reader out of the destructive delusion of imposed narrative—ones imposed upon us by others, and ones we impose upon ourselves. She invites us to make something new out of it all. The stunning poem “Trance of Sorrow” shows the allure of depression, which feels like a “mesmerizing solution.” Again, it is emphasized that for this state, “you need a friend who isn’t afraid / of all the no trespassing signs you’ve left behind.” In life it is hard to distinguish between this and the stalemate of victim/victimizer, which is a deadly trap for real love. The book is set up in three sections, and all of the poems except the title poem are in couplets. The form is perfect for the subject, mirroring the dichotomy at work, and giving consistent space to pauses. She waits to drop “I Feel Sorry for You Someone Said to Me Over and Over Again,” which is nestled in the third section. This is a poem about projection (projecting one’s emotions onto someone else/objects/animals) and manipulation. Will the speaker survive this onslaught? “If you keep saying to someone you feel sorry for them / what are you doing to them” she asks us. This is a poem angry at being named incorrectly. Barrois/Dixon is done being told who she is, and so is this speaker. The conversation is replayed so ruthlessly that it becomes darkly hilarious: “someone says no don’t say you feel sorry for me / and then you say it again this time fiercely as if without compassion / without the compassion you believe you were attempting.” What is pity to love? Real empathy does not need to muscle its way in. Ironically, the speaker is a victim of the pitier in this way. And in terms of naming, things are repeated in the style of Stein, to emphasize and caress and betray the words: “you feel sorry for me / and you say it again oh and again I feel sorry for you” she says until we feel totally immersed in the confusion projection breeds. Yet, the poem stays on track and finds its way out: “if I agreed for you to feel sorry for me / and for that maybe you might wish / I were to remain to be pitied maybe for eternity.” A-ha! Should she accept the projection, when would that insidious dynamic end? Passed back and forth, neither person would be allowed grace of their own autonomy, or reality. It is not living that creates new things in the world. It is a trap. A dead end. The poem’s anger is like a guided missile, leading us to a place totally beyond pity; a place to someone and for oneself; “thirdness,” an “observing state,” as they say in psychoanalysis. She transmutes it entirely, stating that “the sorry is a big bucket of water / you throw on me.” The speaker then “shakes it off” like a dog in slow-motion, “slow enough to look and to see / each single drop of water / all of a sudden each drop its own / its own planet its own orbit / its own light over which / there is nothing / to be sorry for.” We end with seeing someone else’s emotion dumped on us, and our removal of it slowed down so drastically that we can see how changed it has become during the poem. This is exactly what poetry does. And what these poems do: slow down a conversation so that something more unseen can be named accurately. This conversation is in the presence of us, the readers, and thus a new conversation is created together: droplets of light, and each a kind of infinitude, a galaxy in a multiverse. And in the end no one needs to be sorry. Even Tolstoy. Barrois/Dixon doesn’t give us five pages of insight to blind—even cruel—behavior, to illicit apology (therefore negating the premise of not being victim) but to offer freedom from the whole debacle. This poem (and this book) gives the gift of insight, gained by a truly singular mind.
Falling in and out these states of wounded narcissism and misguided naming is human. Our love is messy and our failures inevitable. But great poets dwell in that particular realm, and that’s why poetry’s hard for a people who can’t handle nuance in emotion. But they lose out on an opportunity. Great poets name what is here, in language. But they also bracket it in the essential silence of the form, and the negative capability of the words. They know that naming is only limited performance, and that much will be left unsaid and up to the reader to name with them. Sometimes we need to be totally outside of all language—a symbolic death state in preparation for rebirth. “When wind winds thru my brain / it whips up not one word” Barrois/Dixon writes in the opening of “Thru,”
not one thought though this is not
the hour of my death yet
it still is
a microcosmic answer to the question
living cells persistently ask
who are you anyway
anyone I know
other than through the name I’m called