It is rare to be instructed upon the opening of a new book just how you are meant to go about reading it. “A-LOUD!” Joyelle McSweeney screams at you from the page. And further instructs the reader to pull hair, roll eyes, to become strange in all possible ways. I was slightly taken aback by this, and didn’t quite know what I was getting myself into but, without shying away, I shook out my fingers, cleared my throat and did as I was told.
I was pleasantly surprised to find a cleverness in McSweeney’s writing made up of tongue-twister poetry that stretches linguistic boundaries for the page and spoken word form. The collection starts with a panic-attack of emotion and expression through the words “Opeeeeeeeeshriek!” And “Opeeeeeeeentropy!” I couldn’t help but feel excited for the rest of the collection. As a poet, I have great word-envy for the (ridiculous) strings of letters and words that create overzealous sounds and luscious syntax. Onomatopoetic words are used to construct many of the poems throughout the collection, making Percussion Grenade a truly experimental and at times absolutely mad piece of art.
Split into various sections, the collection has an undulating feel between styles. The “King Prion” sections seemed so rhythmically reliant that they often read more lyrical or as a beat-box accompaniment. As I attempted to follow the reading directions laid out at the beginning of the collection I found myself chanting the words whilst making odd waving-arm motions. I can safely say that yes, I admire the outlandish and bizarre lists in McSweeney’s poetry, the nonsensical rhyming and even the strange spellings and grandiose sounds that make the collection “just-over-the-top-enough”.
The somewhat absurdly experimental poems may not be for everyone, but with stunning lines and creative associations, I was awestruck. McSweeney’s talent relies greatly on sound and the transformation of a text in spoken word form. But this is not a poet who experiments for the sake of being alternative. I have never thought about the hairs of an onion before or the similarities between a skull and a darkened theatre. Then again, she lost me when comparing a music band to a gastric band.
This is a dark collection. It ebbs and flows from excitement to cultural suicide, leaving the reader transfixed with bewilderment. Challenging traditions, McSweeney’s collection enters into a script format entitled “The Contagious Knives”, which goes on to translate poetry in a new manner. The scenes could not possibly be acted in fear of losing the poetic stage directions and the play that begins to take shape across the page.
Playful mixes of poetic approaches that are at times dark and unfriendly are wielded perfectly in a stream of consciousness (juxtaposed to madness). Perhaps at first read the writing feels like enjoyable codswallop or a darkened Dr Seuss for “grown-ups” but there are many layers to this work.
I have never seen a bird smile, but after reading Percussion Grenade, I believe this may just be possible.
Meredith Collins is an editor and writer from the south of England. She studied poetry in the UK and US and her work has appeared in various publications on both sides of the pond.