Review of Newcomer Can’t Swim by Renee Gladman
Renee Gladman’s 2007 release, Newcomer Can’t Swim, resists spatial binaries, forcing the reader to reevaluate “common ground,” to morph and change in both familiar and unfamiliar environments. Though Gladman writes in prose for the duration of this particular volume, we are forced to commit to the shifts in time and space that are just as likely to occur within a single sentence as they are within an entire paragraph. An unsettling anchor in reality is ever-present in these dreamy domains. While the poems fit in spaces both confined and broad, from the paradox of sexuality to a vast multi-cultural city to the seat of a folding chair, they are truly reminiscent of territories only a mind can go to thrive. Leave your body at the door.
Narrative and point of view play a dual role within the seven individual vaguely-titled “chapters” of the collection. These narratives are mind personas or forms rather than tangible bodies carrying out physical deeds in a concrete setting. We are taken from place to place (a city, a restaurant, a painting, a chair) all nonspecific where unique details are concerned. Gladman’s impressive use of somewhat cryptic and obscure description ensures that each word in every poem counts. From “Untitled, Park in City”:
Against the back, the mouth, when having to turn away from
It. Bodies move closer through the night, but remain sepa-
rate here in this park. The impulse hovers. Time makes the
long body short, small-waisted now: yellow skin, a brown tuft
of hair, you or I dreaming. With the back up.
Description is secondary. The subject of the poem links and thereby roots ambiguous, blobby people (small-waisted things with yellow skin, brown hair) to a generic, unnamed park. A separation between “bodies” or forms in this environment is crucial, but also allows for the impulse to draw nearer.
Similarly, in “Untitled, Woman on Ground,” Gladman navigates a habitat with her sketchy mapping. This time, the subject, a female form, is positioned on the ground, having been struck by a cab. Others perch on the sidewalks to catch a glimpse of her and to gain knowledge of her plight. This particular section is told in second person so as to invite the reader into her metamorphosing mind-over-body experience:
A woman bends down and wipes your forehead with a
cloth, perhaps a bandana taken off her hair. ‘The car that
hit you is parked around the corner,” she reassures. You
reach out for her retreating hand and bring it back towards
you. “Honey, you were crushed,” she whispers.
In the fourth section, “Untitled, Colorado,” Gladman’s sharp, dry wit is showcased as she sketches a scene from a restaurant in which two women (designated by letter rather than first name) leave their table to have a brief sexual encounter in a bathroom stall:
A. towers above me as we walk to the lady’s room. The restaurant is
working out fine, but the conversation we need to have can’t take place
at the table where we’re sitting. So we agree to continue it in the bath-
room. A. worries that her beer will be taken while we’re gone, and I’m
worried about my wallet, which I left in the middle of the table, under
a pile of napkins surrounded by hot-sauce bottles. The bathroom is un-
occupied. Once inside, I pull her tank top over her head and seize her
left nipple with my mouth. I have to stand on the toilet to do this. Well,
I have to kneel on the toilet. I tug on the nipple, and wrap my arms
around her waist. She does next what all day I’ve been hoping she
would do, and afterwards screams, “Re…!”
Time to go back to our table.
One gets the sense that the occasional body (form) in Gladman’s work is a wanderer and that we are merely invited to wander alongside them. In the “chapter,” “Louie Between Cities,” our chief subject is a dog whose understanding of the world both mirrors and contradicts that of a person-body’s and smudges the lines so that animal blends into human:
From the ship, as we made our approach, I watched the mud in dis-
belief. Something had happened to the sand, to the absolute blue of
the sky. When I was young, I stood between the two and burned. My
skin blistered and my ass wagged; I was excited. We called it “eating
heat.” We scavenged across the plains, like dogs, for the sun, and by the
end of the day, found enough to return home happy. This time, the
mud made everything brown, from the sky to the grass surrounding our
houses—yes my house was still there, just miserably brown—even my
family exhibited the cast.
Here, the reader is given disjointed clues as to the species of the speaker. While “ass wagged” would certainly suggest a canine narrator, “like dogs” challenges and disputes this theory. We recall the section, Untitled, Woman on Ground,” in which a speaker we can assume is somewhat human has a ground-level view of her surroundings. Here, too, we are back on the ground, this time as a dog-body, looking up at passersby. This is a fine illustration of Gladman’s literal attention to positioning, how it shapes and mold perceptions and informs environments.
Gladman doesn’t necessarily strive to fulfill specific goals in her work, nor does she attempt to operate in themes other than the overly general theme of disjointed dream-space. Rather, much like Thalia Field and Nicole Brossard, she blurs the boundaries between genres, expanding and tightening the perimeters of the traditional story with what I imagine is a great deal of ease and an enormous success. While her non-sensible (though, not at all senseless) outcomes may be somewhat standoffish, they’re always a surprise. Gladman, in writing Newcomer Can’t Swim, aims perhaps to challenge the conventions of prose, poetry, space, subject, and point of view. In this capacity, she doesn’t disappoint.