An Eros Encyclopedia by Rachel James sometimes feels like an autobiography of an eros. Sometimes it feels like a set of dream reports or a chorus of voices or a set of transmissions from a lost diary somewhere on earth. There are snippets from a play, too—voices in a psychedelic choir that pop up with the minimalism and verve of Aram Saroyan. It is, without a doubt, one of the most moving debut collections of poetry I’ve read in years. Stunning, electric, shimmering, unclassifiable. “Collection” might not be the right word. The individual pieces—fragments, I would say, if they weren’t in their individual ways so radiant and contained, so each complete—all without titles, cascading across 150 pages moving from prose to song to sardonic but sweet aphoristic quotes that turn the whole idea on its head, like:
Now I am a rock far away from the shadow of an idea
—exiled piece of mountain
The poet, who was born in Toronto to parents with a profound interest in what might be called alternative spiritualities, has rendered an account of a life that tells the story without getting bogged down in narrative—it is a book of and about representation, about the body as an instrument for knowing, seeing, perceiving, and the record that body might leave. So, Eros, in this context, is not only sex but the pulse of being, the creativity that is power. The book is composed under the sign of Audre Lorde and her classic Uses of the Erotic. Sex here is one thing among the many ways of sensual understanding, it is not the foregrounded obsession we see everywhere in our culture of shame, but rather part of—an essential part of—living, of intense being. So there’s this, for instance, that shows some of the disjunctive movement that energizes the book, lines that are equal parts earnest and sarcastic and funny and intimate and wise:
Volcanoes erupt on the ocean floor and the Ring of Fire. When I learned about Pompeii I remember noting the poor dentistry. 500 of the 1,500 active volcanoes have already erupted.
Rim the Pacific,
The first time a dirty talk request came in I didn’t know what to say so I laughed. Said everything without saying it out loud. He fingered my 16-year-old ass and I felt instant regret my ass hadn’t been fingered for the past three years. Ever since then my ass was like a wiggling pastry under my school skirt. I thought: it must take another person to show me things I’ve already got.
Which is followed, on the next page, by only this:
CHORUS: What she came here to talk about is
knowledge and faith and faith knowledge.
The book begins with a lyric that seems like a child—or something—being born:
An lo! Then I awoke
perceived the surroundings
first with skin then ears
it was dark
the walls dripped
the walls created a space
I could not see anything
for a long time. I heard a stirring,
scraping. I searched the shadows
and found a mound, it moved
I cannot be sure. It seemed to move
but very slowly, or not at once. I spoke:
“Lo! Am I alone here?”
A chorus speaks to me.
And what follows is a text that unfolds a “growing up” in flashes of awareness, in a context in which the adults seem often to be looking for the magic of religion or ideology as a way out of the uncertainty and the burden of being lonely humans in a physical universe. Late in the book comes this, with its lyric variation from plain to song, sentences enfolded with rhyme:
a, b, c, d, e, f, g, h, i, j, k, l, m, n, o, p things have just begun, go easy. Caress your own selves pay no heed to the others, with their fabulous push carts filled with grade A fish and drink, with their tall hair and freshly washed feet. Torment not! The grace lingering on the church roof is just the sun. The church has done nothing but stand in place to reflect the colors of the glorious dusk.
And then on the next page, only this:
Old texts coming through again and again,
Two friends and I discuss the importance of explaining things. I think explaining things has no importance. They disagree.
Old texts mix with new: the Bible and Japanese TV shows and Marxist call-outs like “The Uprising,” Franco Berardi’s brilliant essay. These aren’t poems that render judgment or rant or try to sell themselves. These lines learn with us, and so we see with them, see a world, and an eros, recording and alive on “the post-fire soil of a collapsed economy.”
JESSE NATHAN: The book has so many modes—sometimes documentary or descriptive prose, dream reports, mythmaking, short-lined lyrics, a child-like voice, a song-voice—and it covers so much ground in the culture, has such range of reference and knowledge. Can you say something about why you called the book an “encyclopedia”?
RACHEL JAMES: So much of my experience, as a poet and a person, is of not understanding. I mean literally, not in a mystical sense. I experience this book as a document of an activity and the activity is not understanding. I have the distinct impulse not to explain or describe what I (think I) know. I prefer to describe what I don’t know. Maybe the only way to do that is to describe how I, or an object, or an environment, a concept, fauna, try to know. The entries in the book follow a set of idiosyncratic categories, yet the book fails to function appropriately, encyclopedically. Maybe this is its form; failure itself and the pleasure of not continuing. The pleasure of change.
Encyclopedias are objects with a psychic history, they trace who holds the power to name the world. Calling the book an encyclopedia hauls the heavy weight of knowledge production within reified structures into poetry, the great disruptor.
I was educated before the mass use of the internet. I would go to the library and pull a big dusty book down from the shelf, turn its pages looking for, say, “E” for “Eros,” and undoubtedly get distracted by “Encratite” or “echoic memory” and mind travel. Something felt off about the definitions, even the categories themselves. Natural history, geometry, architecture, medicine, rhetoric, arithmetic, astronomy—these were two-thousand-year-old categorical systems. To go further back, the earliest records of written language were born from the desire to notate financial records. It is not insignificant to me that written poetry bears a history with debt. Experimental ethnography and autoethnography offered me a lens to read the historical record as a performance, a way to seek out dissident connections. If I had known about Theresa Hak Kyung Cha and Muriel Rukeyser at the time, I might have become a poet much sooner. This is just coming to me now, but volcanoes factor heavily into the book. Pliny the Elder burned up when Mount Vesuvius erupted!
I can confidently say I don’t know how to make anything other than what I make. If I weren’t so introverted, I would have been a clown. In spiritual communities, there is also a lot of performance. I was raised in multiple faith practices, from the Armenian philosopher G. I. Gurdjieff to the syncretic religion Santo Daime, and I experienced ideological systems as containers with permeable boundaries. The adults around me believed heterogeneously, fervently, transiently. In many of these communities, the audience is not separate from the performer, and could at any moment become the performer themselves. Poetry is a bit like this. Maybe the genre of An Eros Encyclopedia is epistemological performance.
Matthew Goulish’s 39 Microlectures is a longstanding influence: “Consider this book like an interrupted performance.” The writer has left the stage and will not return. “I have been asked to stand in.” Part of the sentiment is: that other book, the one that will never be written, that was the necessary one. It’s a way of pointing toward that which is not yet known. Audre Lorde is another longstanding guide: “What are the words you do not yet have?”
I love performance and entertainment—and action. I love three-act structures, satisfying endings, and like you mentioned, I pull from many places. I don’t approach writing as utilitarian, a vehicle for transformation. I often wish the literary quest for understanding weren’t so saccharine. I love the work of Octavia Butler, Christopher Guest, and Bernadette Mayer. I don’t ultimately know how the book knows what it knows, or if I’ve answered your excellent question. Since I cannot physically be in front of an audience in a big way, meaning I can only diverge a step or two from the performance of Rachel James, I had to trap my performance in this book.