Noirmania by JoAnna Novak
Inside the Castle, 2018; 66 pp
Reviewed by Zack Anderson
“I was dead less then,” declares JoAnna Novak’s speaker in the opening line of Noirmania, her new book-length poem. Novak’s initial announcement sets the book within a gothic lineage ranging from Maldoror’s fiendish swagger and Emily Dickinson’s “little cottage” of the grave to contemporary poets like Danielle Pafunda and Chelsey Minnis. While Noirmania’s seductiveness derives in part from its revelry in gothic imagery and diction, this book also serves as an important reminder that the energy of the gothic project has always been tied to its formal innovations.
The book is organized into five sections divided by abstract drawings resembling blowing leaves, scattered bricks, or a kind of asemic writing. As it proceeds through these five movements, Noirmania offers the reader the ambience of narrative—declarative sentences, past tense, identifiable subjects and objects—counterbalanced by syntactical diversions that resist narrative logic. In the second untitled section, for example, Novak writes, “I thought I should be honored to be winner / of rose-smoke, and evil. My bad new / rifle saw a Tuesday. And I’d only had a / side dish.” Here, the strategic line breaks allow the poet to establish an expectation for the line and immediately divert it in surprising ways. In Noirmania, the line itself becomes a miniature gothic castle, full of hidden traps and secret passageways.
Novak’s composition process sheds some light on the collection’s dream logic and surreal syntax. In a recent interview, Novak explains that she “put about 80 pages of poems through a series of Google translations, randomized all the resulting text, did a Find/Replace of one word with another ... I ended up, over the course of the weekend, writing Noirmania, which was a process of Sharpie-ing out text, retyping it, and, of course, creating the nine-line form, which I started thinking of as a loose Spenserian stanza.” The book’s resulting form assembles lacunae and fragments, playing with ruin and pastiche, much like Horace Walpole’s Strawberry Hill House. Novak deploys large blank spaces within individual lines as well, creating a tension between a modernist accumulation of fragments and the gothic dilapidation of the ruin. This move also recalls Chelsey Minnis’ use of ellipsis, as these gaps simultaneously slow the pace of the text and introduce a syncope-like effect, as if the speaker is passing in and out of a swoon. Finally, Novak’s alteration of the Spenserian stanza also seems like a gothic gesture, since the mode historically repurposes past forms and thrives on the significatory excess that follows.
The gothic’s project has always been a political one. In an essay on the gothic castle, Maria Negroni points out that “[t]here is also, above all, a centrifugal force, a fragile and contradictory mobile space that...rests on the void and sets up a phantasmal framework—one that, in reaffirming its essential state of incompletion, wards off the petrified and petrifying completeness of all realist and totalitarian discourse.” Similarly, James Pate writes that “in a word, the Gothic runs counter to the totalizing, the categorical.” Novak’s book emphasizes multidirectional readings and refuses stable categories and linear narrative. The “Kabinet,” an appended glossary, works to this end as well, as it makes occult connections through its lyrical definitions, but refuses to clarify its terms. At other points in the book, Novak challenges familiar epistemological systems more directly:
I was living on salt
and cemeteries, finding a suitable mound, usual, quiet,
vanilla, the sort of place that leaves you with a taste
like flipping through a book and dealing straight knowledge.
Through its process-heavy composition and revelry in baroque diction and quintessential gothic imagery, Noirmania corrupts the expected stability of the lyric I and challenges received ideas of poetic form. As a genre, the gothic is certainly rife with contradiction. Novak’s book provides a strong argument that this contradiction can catalyze intense aesthetic experiences: “More! More! The antidote is order. / It takes the hair off your brain.”