Michaels S. Judge’s The Scenarists of Europe is unlike any other book I’ve encountered. At novel-length (297 pp.), Scenarists—Judge’s third book—occupies a middle ground between the gnomic ...And Egypt Is the River (2013, Skylight Press; 114 pp.) and the behemoth that is Lyrics of the Crossing (Fugue State Press, 2014; 734 pp.). Each of these works of extravagant, lyrical fiction interrogates history, power, myth, and language, but Scenarists is unique in taking the legacy of Modernism as its focal point. The three main characters—Djuna, Tom, and Ezra—are radically mutated versions of Djuna Barnes, T.S. Eliot, and Ezra Pound, and allusions to the authors’ books and biographies are scattered throughout. However, in no way is this “historical fiction;” this is writing as both oracle and autopsy—a text at once violently disorienting and deeply revelatory.
Judge offers little more than a ghostly preface and three section headings as guides: “Before Europe,” “During America,” and “After Europe.” Tracing the book’s arc, one sees it begins in third person—mapping the cities of Djuna, Tom, and Ezra—until a first-person voice, Patient, begins an hallucinatory travelogue across America searching for anything resembling a world. Patient dominates section two, but by the third, “After Europe,” the focus returns to Djuna, Tom, and Ezra. As this third section unfolds, we encounter the Dawns, mythical figures of Judge’s invention, who are alone capable of reawakening the three characters, now locked in the “phosphorescent trench” of history. Eventually, Tom and Djuna seem to disappear, and Patient alone bears witness to Ezra’s release from captivity.
However, to recount the book this way betrays the experience of actually reading it. What one finds on first contact is a protean, hybrid text. Some chapters are several pages in length, some merely a few lines. Among the narrative episodes—syncretic blends of the surreal, erudite, and mystical—one finds lists, songs, free verse, and what resemble prose poems. One chapter in full reads, “A dragonfly writes druggy cursive on the heat. Its script is the only wind. The loops and strikelines hang, then slowly sink: tapeworms in formaldehyde” (230). Here, one might see an allusion to Pound’s “In a Station of the Metro,” where a colon works as a suture or portal between two juxtaposed images. And this is typical of the tension Judge sustains between allusive homage and a radical deformation of the source.
What pushes all this beyond mere style, however, is that Judge—the text’s scribe—is acutely aware of the violence of inscription itself. For instance, the sole first-person character, Patient, is “prescribed” a book, Patient’s Series of Americas, “meant to realign his childhood mechanism” (150). And in tracking Patient’s fugue from these inscribing forces, the book struggles against apocalyptic defeat in search of new forms of resistance against those forces writing one out of existence. Moreover, in a page-length dedication to the journalists and activists of Black Lives Matter, one sees that—despite its early 20th century references—this is ultimately a trans-historical plea and protest against all those who would inscribe for us a cruel, dehumanizing world.
The primary sites of inscription and resistance are Ezra, Tom, and Djuna—domains of imagination more than persons. Each signifies its own city, and each city presents its own chaos and degrading trials: imprisonment, abortion, birth, decay, subjection to the (alien, invasive, non-Newtonian) elements. Significantly, given his vexed political legacy, Ezra’s city is a focal point here. We are told at the outset that “his city is the most complex. Or least, or both. It’s not precisely anywhere: it wakes in different countries. It walks with two minds, one like a clarity of knives, the other always dizzy from the changes in altitude” (14). As stated, the book drives towards Ezra’s deliverance, and he comes the closest of any to emerging as a recognizably distinct person; he even manages to speak and, eventually, write.
In Tom, we have Judge’s poignant scarecrow of T.S. Eliot. Introduced “at funeral ease,” as though “he expects a routine Armageddon with its trumpets out of tune” (6-7), he is “the last redundant bee, who’s forgotten what bees ate and how they bred” (7). Much as they were for Eliot in “The Wasteland,” fertility and breeding are a concern here, and in one of the book’s most memorable passages, we see Ezra perform an abortion on Tom as he tries to give birth to mandrakes: “Roots studded with pockets of conducting fluid, hard electric polyps full of pulp” (78). It is disturbing material, to be sure, but if one recalls Eliot’s own preoccupation with abortion in “A Game of Chess,” it becomes clear Judge is keeping close to his material—the legacy of Modernism—even as he maddeningly dissects it.
This dissection is particularly charged in its treatment of Djuna. Interrogating the unique stakes posed for female authorship, Judge portrays her as highly subject to textual and social inscription: “I found her all in public...I found our Djuna all decked in manuals...I found her under scribbled light...They were real gods when Djuna was broken underneath them” (33). Elsewhere in Djuna’s city, what begins as a simple distinction between girls and women in Djuna’s city transforms into something like the record of an alien civilization, or one horrifyingly like our own:
Women are another thing. They’re said to grow from girls, sometimes. We hear that girls disemboweled or laid in fields can be the birth of women. It may be true. For now it’s just a legend...There may be nights you wake paralyzed and say: your world is a chain of women’s birth...
There’s bootleg film of a woman getting born. A husk, like a shed exoskeleton, is flat at center-frame...
We don’t know whether the film is real.
If it’s authentic, another question is: is the birth it shows a common one, or special? And then: if common, where are all the husks? (32)
Here, our language has been infiltrated and reconfigured by a strange intelligence: “woman” signifies both woman and this feral new idea Judge has grafted onto our imagination. Doing so, he indicts the patriarchal degradation of the female while also opening a space of strange, mythical power.
Ultimately, Judge offers a vision of literature as an engine of connectivity. In one scene, Patient experiences the sensation of being momentarily “stitched to Ezra”:
A thread of heated writing sews our skins together...I look one direction, Ezra looks the opposite. But we share one another’s seeing...
We run our hands over the words...He knows what I know. I know at least something of him.
It lasts for just an instant.
For days afterward, I can feel him buzzing in my arms. (130)
Emerging from the chaotic surgery of preceding episodes, this testament to the power of writing to connect and transform is a moment of moral victory. This is echoed again in the book’s conclusion, when Patient watches Ezra finally emerging from captivity onto a beach, and in the final lines, which poignantly commemorate the ambiguous fate of both the book’s Ezra and the actual Ezra Pound: “And on any Earth, though it’s only ever here and always now, we can watch Ezra begging first for shelter in, and then for shelter from, the maps he has composed” (297). Ezra’s is “the tragedy of the dream”—of the visionary who goes astray and writes a prison and a lie, and of the forces beyond his control which set him free. Arriving here, after three hundred pages of insomniac vigilance and daring, The Scenarists of Europe manages to chart new possibilities for the inscribing force of language; new registers for wonder and transformation; and new work, even now, for myth.
R.M. Haines is a writer from southwestern Ohio. His poems, reviews, and interviews can be found in American Literary Review, Denver Quarterly, Image, KROnline, Poets.org, Poetry Northwest, Salamander, and Spoon River Poetry Review.