Gunnar Benediktsson

Jane Unrue, Atlassed, Triple Press, 2005

[Review Guidelines]

Jane Unrue's Atlassed has many of the characteristics of a short story sequence, but its carefully composed language recalls the prose poetry of Fred Wah or perhaps Lyn Hejinian. In a sense, Unrue reproduces the peripatetic urban roaming of Paterson or Leaves of Grass—except that the stomping grounds of her metropolitan flaneur is not the city, but the human body itself. The book is composed of a series of prose vignettes, some that are more or less narrative, and others that are more like stylistic improvisations, or prose poems that read like grab-bags of linguistic synergy. The result is both a mapping and an erotics of the body, as indicated by the evocative chapter headings (eg. "Brow and Chin Variations," or "Topmost Portion of the Forehead, a Common Omission"). These headings supply in large part the "unity" of this book, which attempts to nominally fasten these evocative if not necessarily transparent prose pieces to a conceptual map of the body which though present, hovers just beyond our comprehension.
      At first, the separate chapters seem thrown together, ill-fitting lyric improvisations, voiced by different speakers on different topics. By the end of the book, what unites these pieces becomes much clearer—a kind of aesthetics of dissection, a discomposition of the elements of the body and a re-rendering of the human form as mosaic. This is elegantly expressed in a phrase that I read as a sort of mission statement for the book, from a section titled "A Neatly Folded Pile of Clothes" (a title at once evocative and ironic):

That same day I'd seen a temporary residence designed by different architects to occupy a plot of land devoted to the exhibition of new works of art. Each architect had been assigned a portion of the residence; they brought their portions in by truck, then everything got put together. That the pieces did not fit and that the residence looked unappealing was, I guessed, supposed to be the beauty of it. (134, emphasis added)

      Perhaps this in part explains the continual linkage between love and violence in Atlassed, since one of the questions this book repeatedly asks is whether there is "any sort of line dividing deep-felt pleasure from the icy horror of a white-hot violent encounter?" (110). And this is in a sense, the exact experience of reading Atlassed; it is full of sequences that are at once erotic and horrifying, others that are evocative and enigmatic. Moreover, Atlassed always creates the sense that a greater conceptual unity exists, and that we are doomed to desire it forever. In "Table, Heart, Breasts, Kidneys," Unrue suggests that even a family on a road trip may feel an unrequited desire for a map, to render the events of their life, their stubborn anomie in the face of absolutism, easier to comprehend:

A sense of loss like nothing ever known is passed from family member on to family member in the car, each person holding fast to something: steering wheel, a seatbelt buckle, handle on a door. A slippery drop of rain has hit the windshield, and the father conjures up an image of two massive feet of stone adhered for centuries to the ground. (119)

The family knows that "mapping" is an impossibility, and that any attempt at its broad, totalizing vision will result in an image that is incomplete, disorienting. Unrue goes on to say that

This miracle, this nightmare, this at once so terrifying and enchanting scenic drive—it winds from left to right across the outer portion of the mighty granite wall, diminishing the sense of trust felt by the mother and the children toward the car, the tires, and the ability of the man behind the wheel to keep the car from swerving suddenly and plowing through the railings in the road. (119)

In the end, the book is a sort of revelation in reverse—Unrue brings the veil of language between the reader and the illusion of realism, suggesting dark and frightening possibilities beyond our ken that are at the same time exhilarating. Like the "leafy vines" in "Passion (Asleep)," Atlassed "rocks you in the manner of the darkest pleasures you have yet encountered" (155). Reading Atlassed is at times mystifying; but in the end, its alchemic blend of imminent horror with immanent revelation and its apocalyptic mixture of mystery and desire, create a dark and evocative beauty that is both enigmatic and enlightening.