Mutant Neuron Codex Swarm
By Juliet Cook and Robert Cole
Hyacinth Girl Press, 2013
27 pages, $6
Reviewed by Liz Purvis
I approached Mutant Ninja Codex Swarm, written collaboratively by Juliet Cook and Robert Cole, several hopeful times, searching for a jolt of understanding that suddenly clarified for me the entire chapbook. This collection is dark and visceral, imagistic and dystopian. It’s an ambitious collaboration, but it breaks down because of its disjunctive nature and the confusion with which it leaves the reader.
Some states of confusion or discomfort are good places to be in at the end of a poem, but the issue with this collection is that so many of its poems come across as illogical; it is often impossible to make sense of the connections between titles and poems, even between poems and lines. Individually and as a collection, the poems did not feel cohesive. A reader might often ask, Who’s speaking here? What’s really being said?, finding themselves unable to come up with a coherent answer.
The biggest issue with this chapbook is that the speakers are unclear (and, therefore, it is increasingly difficult to connect with them or the poems themselves). Readers jump from poems like “Nether Chord,” written in third person with a ‘he’ and a ‘she,’ to poems like “Red Grout Echoes out Creepy Masks,” written in first, and others written seemingly from the point of view of an omniscient “we.” Still others, like “Blue Flames in the Nest,” begin with images, then introduce an “I,” or, as with “Superorbital Dive,” reverse this order. It’s confusion and muddled messages all over.
There are moments, brief but present, in which a line with simplicity and clarity breaks through. The first line and a half of “Superorbital Dive” reads:
I can’t remember the last time I had something inside me. / I’m orange rinds hurled into space.
Who hasn’t felt the kind of emptiness echoed in these lines? The visceral imagery of the second line serves to anchor what might be more self-indulgent in the first, and it works—it’s intriguing, curious. But tonally, this is so different from the rest of the chapbook, and even the rest of the poem itself. Just two lines later we find, “Suction cup goo streams need to cream.” And, by the end, in a sudden prose stanza, “Waist high in chlorine lake the clay pseudopod wakes up and smashes through a display case. A neon paste breathes deep inside.”
What is this? Why the anthropomorphized paste? The next poem in the collection, “Induction Obscura,” also begins by offering interesting, compelling first lines but devolves into confusion all too quickly.
They dig themselves out of the loam. / They kneel fast to the tether stone.
Though it’s not clear what’s going on here, these phrases are interesting—the off-rhyme is unusual, the sounds and rhythm hook the reader’s attention. But “Induction Obscura” can’t hold onto it with “Keep one (a)breast / and then switch her middle name to Shape Shift.” By those lines, there’s once more a sense of disappointment and confusion. There’s not enough information to grab onto here, not enough concrete lines to make sense of.
Later in the collection, readers are introduced religious terms which emerge, jarringly, in “Blue Flames in the Nest” and “Contamination Ward,” but there’s no explanation as to where this sudden and destructive religious imagery comes from.
I confess: I am at heart a narrative poet, albeit a lyrical one. My soft spot is for stories and the telling of them. Indeed, I think poetry collections often work best, work most cohesively, when they tell one story, or at least a linked succession of them. In Mutant Ninja Codex Swarm, I see snapshots of a dystopian world, but no real picture emerges. To mix metaphors, I’ve got a handful of pieces to a jigsaw puzzle, but not all of them—even enough to piece together the rest of the picture.