“I’m trying,” we read early in Joshua Trotter’s captivating Mission Creep, “to make my words as portamento as possible here.” Befitting the collection’s title, ‘portamento’ is the ‘gradual slide’ (literally, ‘carrying’) from note to note, often in a style between ‘legato’ (smoothly unbroken) and ‘staccato.’ And this, indeed, is the tempo, an unnerving semi-fluency in which all 12 ‘pieces’ in the book are played, leaving the reader, at least this one, both riveted and drained, thirsting for more varied pacing. Why, in fact, would Trotter want to make all his music as ‘portamento as possible’?
The main text Trotter ‘plays’ is the CIA’s notorious Human Resource Exploitation Training Manual, dating from the 1980s and declassified nearly 20 years ago. Perhaps, then, Trotter evokes through ‘portamento’ the deliberately unsettling orchestration of hostile interrogation aimed at a ‘gradual slide’ toward confession, disclosure, breakdown, a style itself subject to ‘mission creep’ across the borders of ‘enhanced’ questioning to psychological (often allied to physical) torture.
Trotter’s interrogation of the perverse prose of the CIA manual is supplemented by “echoes, borrowings, remixes and frequency bleed-overs from countless texts, films, broadcasts, podcasts and websites”: again, a sliding between radically different modes, media and contexts of expression aligning this daringly experimental work with the traditional, dare one say, ‘mission’ of poetry, metaphor’s ‘carrying’ of different realities in a single, ‘transporting’ image.
The scrambling produces, on a consistent basis, memorable imagery: “we lit the fallen with torches but they just smoldered”; “the arms dealer’s caravan crisscrosses desert schist. On the sat map, a scimitar of Humvees”; “the wailing siren parts the traffic with its sorrow.” The results, in the Joycean vein, can be as laughable as the parodied attempt to maintain cold control, to cruelly exercise the agency of central intelligence: “if you’re looking for rubble you’ve come to the right palace”; “the mists of Time Warner.” And sometimes, just as “lightning unblindfolds the landscape” (another metaphor for metaphor), a miraculous juxtaposition of the sublime and ridiculous: “It’s hard not to imagine the Icarus in all of us, backslash…”
And where is poetry’s “fallback position” in a world capable of “being blown, being blown away” by monstrous military-industrial instrumentalities, the “postmythic” age of “the Minotaur, built by Lockheed Martin”? Trotter makes occasional reference to “cognitive dissidents,” malcontents capable of operating what he (or one of his voices) says he has “constructed”: “an instrument designed with the intention of recording its own mechanisms and features,” a self-exposing transparency antithetical to the compulsive lying and disguise of the surveillance-state.
When such an instrument is playing, we hear behind “common, everyday words” the “suggestiveness of words heard in dreams, phrases spoken in nightmares.” Gliding, eerie, underwater blues: portamento.
Sean Howard is the author of Local Calls (Cape Breton University Press, 2009) and Incitements (Gaspereau Press, 2011). His poetry has been published in numerous Canadian and international magazines, and anthologized in The Best Canadian Poetry in English (Tightrope Books, 2011 & 2014).
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