Review: Fluid States by Heidi Czerwiec Print E-mail

Czerwiec cover(River Teeth Blog August 2, 2019)

Shapes Shifted, Senses Altered, Values Freely Altered

There may be no more startling way to bait readers into an essay than this: “Is there a word for the unsettling sensation of sitting down on an unexpectedly warm toilet seat, because someone used it just before you and sat there for a good long while? Maybe something in German?” The author titles it: “FREUDENSCHANDE: PRIV(AC)Y,” translated as “joyful-shame.” Using more of these “made-up” German compounds as section titles, she goes on to compare the “bowel mover” in the “public privy” to the commodious confessions of the personal nonfictionist, the emotional “shitshow” so many memoirists and essayists insist readers have to sit with. All this “warmth sharing” breaks “the illusion of privacy” and invites us into the shape-shifting, sense-altering, fearlessly original prose of Heidi Czerwiec.

In this high-voltage little book, which won 2019’s Robert C. Jones Prize for Short Prose at Pleiades Press, we find a jagged mountain collection of nine probes, experiments, Frank Gehry-like edifices of distemper and delight. These probes do not circle a thematic center, but are separate spates of the author’s lusty ingenuity, at times, voiced in pithy lines of poetry. The book is best exemplified by the almost chillingly inventive, thirty-page stunner, “Decants,” a masterpiece of sophisticated mischief about perfume.

Czerwiec, with several volumes of verse under her belt, is a “perfume collector.” Bottles, sprays, elixirs, bouquets, notes, whiffs. Favorite fragrances (grist for her smell) include Chanel No. 5, Vent Vert, Bandit, and Scandal. Her scent decrees cast a wide net. They epitomize crime in general, robbery and affairs in particular; they eroticize such figures as Marilyn Monroe who when asked what she slept in replied, “five drops of No. 5”; and they recall those nasalized magazines, first fueled in the 1970s, that included as inserts scratch-and-sniff cards.

Czerwiec’s language is liquidly thick. A lover’s odor, she recalls, as a “vivid viridescence,” his body redolent of bright green. Her flesh applications are “like a cloak, a second skin I can’t shed.” Extracts that mimic gardenia manifest her “hormonal flux” with an “indolic floral,” the scent of moth-balls. Lab-made fragrances catalyze desired if fleeting personas: the aggressive (the “iciness” of Chanel No. 19, “an iteration of the sleet in the streets, its cold metallic hiss”), the gamey (La Parfum de Thérèse with its “dark animalic notes and bright pepper, melon, and jasmine extracts”), and the sexed (the French perfumier Germaine Cellier whose Bandit perfume “juxtaposed components [that] fight and fuck within your nose”). Bathe, dress, scent, score, undress, make love.

While Czerwiec wears fragrances to stimulate play and libido, she also does so to challenge identity. There’s a kind of dropping-of-the-veil about the scented body that I’ve experienced but never fully understood—perfumes transcend gender, they befuddle roles, they incite us into unzipped passion and wanton frenzy.

One of Czerwiec’s craftiest touches is how the vignettes in “Decants” enact the intimacy of aromatic bodies and the open-endedness of prose. By which I mean scent and prose create their impact by dousing the air around the body and by lingering from one page to the next, but soon enough that impact evaporates. Many of her pieces and their parts perform a fade—the last sentence is poem-ed out, if you will, an evanescent-like use of William Carlos Williams’s “variable foot.” An example:

A boy I loved and favored for a lover took me to prom twice. The first time, I wore black satin overlaid with black lace. The second time, I wore red satin, gathered and draped as though wrapped in a post-coital bedsheet. Both times, I wore Chanel No. 5, borrowed from my mother’s boudoir since my own everyday scent—Anaïs Anaïs—despite evoking a favorite eroticist, smelt too candy-sweet, The Chanel felt stately, grownup, untouchable.

I wanted the boy
to touch me, wrap me in his sheets;
he never did.

What to make of the other probes? Uneven. “A Child of God Much Like Yourself” is a head-scratcher, an essay of bitter revilement on nuclear annihilation with lathered-in quotations from a Cormac McCarthy novel (the master of oblivion), a fact I would not have known had the endnotes not alerted me. The writing is slippery, the references oblique, the subject matter ghostly.

The soliloquy of “Bear” reads like a grizzly paw swipe against an ex-husband who has no substance or voice in the piece other than to be (to have been) the author’s dalliance and scourge of her person and pen.

I was taken by the two expository essays in which reportage dominates and Czerwiec adumbrates her subjects with clear outrage and stinging judgments. “Sweet / Crude: A Bakken Boom Cycle” is a substantive drive-through of North Dakota in the mid-2010s when the deep-drill-dive for new energy sources trucked in. It’s a layered tale of the rapacious takeover of Ag by Gas. I admire the author’s digging into the polluted remnant of the under-earth whose treasure the oil companies targeted (and still swill) via shale extraction and fracking.

Czerwiec skewers the profiteering class of Americans who’ll do-anything-for-$, much as past avaricious stampedes exploited Alaska, the Sierra, the Gulf, Florida coastal real estate, the cities of San Francisco, Austin, Portland. She piles on contempt for the environmental wreckage Big Oil & Gas wrought in a few short years. In the end, we are astonished at how easily investors used (and threw away) the roustabouts who were less victims of their own greed and suffered just as much, without the livable infrastructure of education, housing, and healthy food, as the land.

Finally, “Anatomy of an Outrage” is a classic fulmination, chronicling an incident of domestic terrorism, which the author witnessed and fought bravely and which will one day rank in the annals of the vilest Internet assaults on a citizen’s right of free speech.

In 2016, Czerwiec sees out the window of her campus office at the University of North Dakota men in camouflage with guns, running amuck through the quad. She calls 911: It seems like there’s an active shooter or a military takeover of the school. Wrong! It’s an ROTC drill, which, we’re sorry, was neither preapproved nor advertised nor should pose any problem. No worries. Thanks for the alert.

Czerwiec is livid, only to be cast later as the problem: Her reaction, scathing emails and enraged phone calls, proves it. The result is that no one—not the president, not the English department, not the students, not the ROTC, and especially not the gun rights’ advocates—acknowledges her fear, let alone her fury at how dangerous these maneuvers are. Men and guns running amuck is no big deal, she’s told. Relax and shut-up, she’s told. Our student-soldiers are protecting your freedoms.

Czerwiec attacks the mean-spiritedness of the trolling nutjobs whose bullying and death threats she has to manage—to keep her job as well as her sanity. It’s a tour de force, so well done, in fact, because she uncovers the incident’s unifying idea: It’s a story “not about the failure of language” but “about how effective language is,” whether Czerwiec keeps defending herself with the letters and emails of a civil English-teacher practicing dissent or her Second-Amendment abusers who keep gaslighting her online, which, in the end, do nothing to assuage her feeling of being “Fucking. Terrorized.”

Fluid States is a prose mélange with a (good) maddening quality to it. The writing overheats its lyric and bricolage elements and backseats its essayistic and discursive range. (It’s more Charles Mingus than Miles Davis.) It’s maddening not in the sense of certifiable or institutional like Macbeth. But maddening like Rimbaud’s derangement of the senses, a vitriolic performance, language less an expository tool, more a libertine value.

Trying to represent Czerwiec’s wildness is like trying to turn literary consciousness into an algorithm—the point of the work is its disobedience, its dissociation of the whole. It’s shaped chaos, fractal-like in posing what a quilted or ragged volume “should be.” Such is the work’s strength. But that strength feels precarious. There is a broken-glass beauty to the book’s variability that stands solidly alone. But how that beauty coheres as a unified testament or as an integrated narrative—for some the sine qua non of a book—the collection by its nature cannot answer.

The fluidity of these states stays with me, something windy and will-of-the-wisp about it all like a clothesline of circus outfits—the ringmaster’s tails, the showgirl’s bodysuit, the bearded lady’s muumuu, the strongman’s tights—resisting an amalgam, vexing the reviewer.