Language Plays God: A review of Hypergraphia and Other Failed Attempts at Paradise by Jennifer Metsker – Michigan Quarterly Review
The cover of Jennifer Metsker's "Hypergraphia and Other Failed Attempts at Paradise" set over a red-orange background.

Language Plays God: A review of Hypergraphia and Other Failed Attempts at Paradise by Jennifer Metsker

In Hypergraphia and Other Failed Attempts at Paradise, Jennifer Metsker gives us over to a mind that makes and unmakes the world. Metsker’s speaker revels in sensory experience even as she troubles the notion that one’s senses are a pathway to truth. While the speaker leads us through a vivid landscape of dead pets and disintegrating language, she bobs in and out of psychosis and interfaces with the banal strictures of care facilities. Through visions and perambulations, Metsker renders a world in which the borders of illness and wellness, reality and unreality, remain perpetually unstable.

Metsker exercises an admirable command of space on the page throughout the collection. Her poems range from standard couplets to fragmented columns to blocky prose poem sequences which comprise two of the manuscript’s five sections. Metsker’s prose poems are straightforward in diction and syntax, but their content undermines any sense of psychological stability. In the sequence “Release,” the speaker leaves a psychiatric hospital and finds that ordinary objects have become estranged. Household items such as ice cubes and the microwave oven unnerve and delight her, while mysterious sensory encounters are full-fleshed and incontrovertible. The speaker observes her father watching baseball on television and proclaims, “there’s a gelatinous substance on the steeple, there’s a gelatinous substance, I’m sure of it, though I’ve never been up there.” Is the steeple an image on television, an object out in her surroundings, or a figment of her imagination? There’s no answer; instead, the speaker trundles forward with new images, new language. In Hypergraphia’s world, the rules are always changing. Any ability to predict them remains elusive.

Much of Metsker’s success comes from the sense of play she retains as she courts apprehension and disintegration. In “Dark Helicopter,” the titular helicopter haunts—and taunts—the speaker. The word “helicopter” repeats throughout the poem with a similar frequency to the end-word of a ghazal. However, there is no standard placement in its recurrence; the helicopter comes when it wants to come. The speaker’s attitude towards the machine flits between horror and humor. Early on, she cautions that “The lawn breeds black spikes in the oppressive geometric/shadow of the helicopter. This is how they grew the nails/for the crucifixion.” Just one stanza later, her affect changes. She announces, “Dark helicopter believes it is an improv coach. It shouts/its auto-message through crackling speakers: Say yes!” In a short span of time, the helicopter morphs from an executioner to a second-rate acting instructor. In some ways, this boundlessness is liberating. However, this freedom from logic is also unnerving because it is unclear what, if anything, is controlling it.

Other modes of play in Metsker’s manuscript include wordplay and soundplay which both amuse and confound. She favors close alliterative patterns and rhymes in which sounds knock against each other. One section of the poem “Gericault Paints a Portrait of a Woman Suffering from Obsessive Envy” begins, “The after-effect of flesh is where the soul resides,/but she’s nothing like the finch, they said.” When I read these lines aloud, I have to work to pronounce each one correctly. The syllables stick to my tongue; the line between enjoyment and frustration wears thin. Metsker’s speaker acknowledges as much herself. In her second prose poem sequence, “Day of the God-Sized Brains,” the speaker sings: “Repeated phrases in my head love to play with troubled things. Decaf is fine, I said, decaf is fine, decapitation is totally fine.” In language and content, Metsker’s speaker dances the line between humor and horror, showing that the line itself might be a façade.

Where is God in the middle of all this?

The speaker in Hypergraphia and Other Failed Attempts at Paradise searches for a higher power to anchor herself amidst the chaos, but this power-at-be remains elusive. Three poems titled “Deus Ex Machina” gesture at this wish for explanation or control. How wonderful it would be if a god could sweep down and resolve the anxieties of the speaker with the flick of a hand! Of course, this never happens. In the final “Deus Ex Machina” poem, the speaker reflects on a nighttime drive with an unnamed character. “Don’t take this/personally,” she says, “but I want you to stop/telling me what to do./You and your/tent revivals and/terrifying omniscience.” Is the “you” in this poem God? Psychosis? Is there a difference between these two beings? Are they even the players at hand? The poem ends with a series of damning couplets that float across the page: “you know/it’s disingenuous,/the way you never/know my feelings,/the way you never/wear my shoes.” Throughout the book, the speaker’s own senses course with awesome and total power—to create, to define, to destruct. This power is not providential; sometimes, it is note even bearable. But it is life, beautifully and terrifyingly rendered.

Amanda Lin Hayes writes about a variety of human and more-than-human animals. She received her M.F.A. in Poetry from the University of Michigan, where she is currently a Zell Fellow. You can read her work in The Margins, RHINO, Passages North, and elsewhere.

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