Species Counterpoint: Reverberations of Jenny Sampirisi’s Croak

Croak, by Jenny Sampirisi. Coach House Press, 2011.

Reviewed in this Sight-Reading:

Croak, by Jenny Sampirisi. Coach House Press, 2011.

Why did I introduce into the text all those extraordinary frogs and

legs and things, all that fermenting matter, isolating them on the page

only by the style, the cold and disciplined tone, and demonstrating to

the reader how completely I dominated the ferment?

–Witold Gombrowicz

When opening up Jenny Sampirisi’s Croak (Coach House Books, 2011) it may help to approach the work as a new type of “species counterpoint”, a mutated version of ancient Greek drama in which the charming and often contentious voices of Frogs, Girls, and Narrators undergo fugal transformations and musical deletions, at times experiencing lyrical and linguistic disintegration:

this is dd (zzz uff) there are tt many limbs why limbs why ts nn limbs

why limbs at all why fear ff limbs this isn’t ww where are legs ww legs

where are ws why nn why ns instead of hh why xx why tt explain why

Sampirisi provides the reader with a number of her source texts, and based upon these, when dissecting Croak, one may consider the decadent communicative height Samuel Beckett reached in Murphy only to cast it down as a minimalist text of mood and mind in his infamous novel trilogy prone to proneness and spillage of consciousness until at last reaching the fragmentary paragraph form of Comment C’est (How It Is), essentially a not-so-divine comedy in three parts about a figure face down in the mud. Sampirisi does not merely mimic How It Is but rewrites the textual process for getting to and beyond its style.

The book’s title happens to be the name of the character CROAK in Beckett’s Words and Music, and there is a great deal of poetic style splicing, although Sampirisi’s murky imagery also calls to mind Beckett’s casual obsession with Belacqua, Dante’s slothful friend in Ante-Purgatory, along with the mythically punitive slime in yet another hellish circle. Clear as mud?

One problem with writing, for Beckett or Proust or any author, including Sampirisi, is how language may adequately communicate the present moment, without falling into the trap of time itself—how the telling may occur without being influenced by the illusion of the past and the falsified muck of memory that clings to us, as The Narrators show with self-conscious anxiety in Part Two:

thinging about I I love love YOU YOU does that work or is it II loves

put a period on the whole damn thing this is limbo ha ha this is

comedy or something worse but we did make a problem of numbers

even before we started so catch up we need to share and get along for

a while though part three is coming and three is a bigger problem

than two and one combined I’m already nostalgic for those cafés

from part one where life was simpler

What is most definitely relevant and crafty and very elegant is Sampirisi’s three-part adaptation of a similar style to form the nutrient base of her froggy bog. This periphrastic approach to language has an exquisite animality and even as it is poetically progressive, it is also regressive in this descent into the muddy darkness of a neurolinguistic centre one would expect to encounter in the recesses of the reptilian brain:




dangle udder butter better

hub bub if you need anything

Another aspect of this cheeky experimentation bears comparison to semantic processes that are scrutinized in the field of artificial intelligence, if not the way Søren Kierkegaard repeated his treatise on repetition and if not the way Gertrude Stein thought a thought is a thought in stewardship of our attention:

Pink line. Red line. Pink line. Red line. Pink line. Brown brown brown.

Closed box. Wood. Marble. Open Box. Wood. Eyes close.

Pink line. Red line. Pink line. Red line. Pink line. Brown brown brown.

Closed box. Wood. Marble. Open Box. Wood. Eyes open.

What is so fascinating about Croak is the way in which literary concepts intersect and evolve into newly enriched forms, transcending the limitations of some of Beckett’s shorter absurdist theatre pieces. In the Classical Greek play The Frogs, Aristophanes parodies the common theme of the heroic descent to the underworld (katabasis), depicting a poetic contest between Aeschylus and Euripides, to the tune of a frog chorus in lieu of the traditional societal chorus. Sampirisi cleverly lifts a transliterated fragment of sound poetry from the ancient realm of The Frogs (brekekekex koax koax) and applies it to her own voices which combine most effectively in the third act:

this is my fault the way I

said where Part One and Part Two were just humming zzzit zzzit

from right to left mentioning the girls and the frogs and this silliness

of brekekekex-koax-koax as if it might mean something more than the

time it takes to listen how long have I been please check for me for the

sake of completeness

detail from the cover of Sampirisi's Croak

There are also echoes of works such as Lisa Robertson’s XEclogue, another recent revision of a classical work, except more in keeping with the playful but sincere expressiveness of Aristophanes.

And although the chirpy sales copy stresses that this text is “played out like a YouTube mashup of mid-century cartoons set to a contemporary pop song”, there is a darker, more serious element to this sublime subliminal music that leaves the reader tremulous in its erotic wake. Once again, animality wins out and nature conquers nurture—it is as if all of the girls seduced in Kierkegaard’s Either found their own voice and their own way of loving and maybe even a spotty type of revenge. Parts are eerily reminiscent of Pelléas et Mélisande and to paraphrase Lorca, some of her lines are more mystifying than all of Maeterlinck:

GIRL ONE: I had a dream. I dreamt of a well.

GIRL ZERO: I dreamt of a fountain.

GIRL ONE: There was no bottom.

GIRL ZERO: The water was black.

GIRL ONE: Nothing but darkness.

GIRL ZERO: Inside, a golden ball.

GIRL ONE: I couldn’t find you.

GIRL ZERO: I couldn’t find you.

Of course, this book would not be fashionable without trending erasure poetics, which are (dis)appearing more and more these days. Though in this case, Sampirisi’s applied erasure to biological texts and her alteration of environmental reports becomes a commentary upon what is happening to “real” frogs in a physical sense. By including obscure chemicals as dramatic characters and blotting out texts about environmental damage, Sampirisi mercilessly wrings out all the endocrine to create her own plaintive stunted Metamorphoses—stunning the reader with the most beautiful of imperfections.

Whether in Dantean mud or Beckettish muck or coaxing brekekekex-koax-koax out of coaxial lines, there are brutal, passionate, sorrowful, and pathetic undercurrents in the text where even the voices of affection and love express a kind of unwieldy contention as they defend their own aural area and as nature conquers nurture (even awfully mutated nature), behaving like hypertext in so much hypothalamuck:

Listen: is there any thing here that is not you? Notwithstanding the

arrangement of things. Notwithstanding the time it took to get here.

Certainly ‘we.’ There are ghosts that continue to suppose the present.

Legs taste and we sever them as parts of throats.

The terms ‘opera’ and ‘libretto’ have been used rather loosely for at least a century but in this case, Sampirisi has put together a bona fide libretto, and not to say that any of our best and brightest have gotten stuck in the mud, but it is surely refreshing for the purveyors and voice boxes of sound poetry to have such a thrilling and trilling text to perform. It is of course still up for debate whether the mechanistic process of dry-eyed poetical innovation has resulted in something rather bloated and otiose-ish sitting upon the delectable frog legs of narrative form, but in the same breath it is a pleasure to perceive that by mingling these sonic experiments with traditional literary forms, Sampirisi is bringing the lexicon back while helping to usher in a plashy new age of poetry:

Slippery skin. Such slick limbs. Who are we while dancing? Mud

suckers. Toad trotters. Pollywog dodgers. Stay afloat. Tread water.

Whoop! Draw out your conclusions. And the frogs? They’re singing.

Can’t you hear? Listen:

Perhaps our reaction is slightly hyperbolic. However, were we green courtiers at Versailles under Louis XIV after the Fronde, faced with all those admonitory frogs about the base of the Bassin de Latone, lulled by all the Lully in our ears, we could not feel more overwhelmed by this dominant theme nor more subservient to the beckon of its seductive ribbits.