Towards the end of her debut book, Some Beheadings, Aditi Machado’s speaker in “Prospect” ponders their ontological nature: “…I think/I’m not human, I’m grammarian.” It is not a surprising thought by that point in the collection. Machado consistently interrogates how grammar, diction, and syntax all constitute personhood or being. She does this by relentlessly destabilizing traditional grammar throughout Some Beheadings. Poems contain constant references to the “textual” nature of everyday objects and experiences, an awareness that recognizes both the expansiveness and the restrictions of language and words. As the poetry editor of Asymptote, a journal of translation, and as a translator in her own right, one gets the feeling that Machado is more sensitive to these notions than most.
Some Beheadings consists of twelve poems, most taking up a number of pages, complete with subheadings. Some poems seem to really be about three or four different smaller poems, others have wild variation in form from one page to the next, shifting from prosaic lines and paragraphs to three words and two lines on a single page. Machado’s ambition to question all the conventions of poetry, from grammar to structure, is the greatest strength of her book, because with such a lofty goal (one Machado will never be able to fully realize), we cannot help but start asking the same questions of other texts present in our lives.
The reader might feel perplexed when the entire foundation of language shakes under their feet, but Machado likely intends for her readers to experience this shakiness in order to force us to interrogate the grammar around us. She is mostly successful in her effort, while a few times the reader gets lost trying to figure out which critique of conventions is given priority in a certain poem. I’m not arguing that this multi-faceted attempt at destabilization is flawed, but rather at points it is hard to detect the formal disruptions when you are having trouble figuring out who is speaking, and the other way around.
For example, in the first poem “Prospekt” (note the different spelling), Machado gives the reader what might be the best clue to finding a key to unlock her book: “…when I speak/the fascist in me speaks” and “..there is a house/I move through.” Machado is clearly influenced by Heidegger’s most famous idea “language is the house of being,” through which we understand that Machado’s project fully explores what it means to challenge the traditional grammar that restricts and norms Being into an easily digestible thought. It doesn’t take long for Machado to push that grammar. On page 7 in one of the smaller sections of “Prospekt,” the speaker states “When I think myself I do not disappear. / When I think my thinking my thinking disappears.” Machado deftly maneuvers the reader along the logic the speaker decides to follow. How does one conceive of themselves, and what does thinking about thinking look like? It looks like the erasure of typical sentence construction, since the speaker is mainly talking about themselves and for themselves. But the greatest elision of grammar comes on page 18, still part of “Prospekt”: “I were an I wending the garden, I there way out there/ picking flowers in the heat.” The speaker has moved to a place where their various selves are not just in their head but also out in the physical world, multiple “I’s” occupying space. But Machado’s messing with grammar becomes “this love of grammar” that her speaker “cannot resist.”
Once Machado’s speaker has been freed from the constraints of grammar, the poems in the middle of the book have a more liberated feel. Whereas “Prospekt” typically stayed at the top of the page, and didn’t argue much with the left margins, these shorter poems jump all over the page, creating acres of white space. The middle poems, “Speeches, Minor” in particular, attack the foundations of “textual experience” with their form, while the grammar stays fairly typical, if still in reflection of the grammar breakthrough in “Prospekt.” “Speeches, Minor” contains several voices, one in particular offset by carrots (<<) seems to have a more honest and direct approach than the more academic tone of the main speaker in these poems. “In a kernel I admit/ I am deeply/ but have not yet found/ my apathy,” says the (perhaps still internal?) voice, speaking to the feeling one has that Machado’s speaker has exploded the boundaries of grammar, but they haven’t accomplished their goal of relating their lived experience as fully as possible. The speaker admits this and wants to continue trying, stating “There is a richness in saying everything we know./ There is a richness in saying everything, we know,”.
But for now, meditating on how a Being operates in the physical world is the speaker’s main task. The speaker also spends a lot of time in natural and garden spaces across the collection, another echo of Heidegger and his obsession with primal, natural beauty as a metaphor for language. Machado’s speaker explains this fascination best when she states in “Prospekt”: “One way to see grammar is to think fields, how bare they are until you/ look underneath. At their limits are nouns to which you run & you pick/ them up & cannot.”
By far the most significant poem in Some Beheadings is the eleven-page “Route: Marienbad,” the climax of a series of long poems with “Route” in the title. “Route: Marienbad” takes advantage of every technique Machado has used so far, with stanzas appearing on both margins, lines on the bottom of the page, entire stanzas capitalized, and of course destabilizing grammar. Roughly about how dreamscapes can seem real while in the dream, and for some time after, “Route: Marienbad” is the perfect synthesis of Machado’s varying goals. A dreamscape is where all of her concerns (about being lost in language, sexuality, and all life as a textual experience) can exist without one consuming or overpowering the others. Perhaps “Route: Marienbad” proposes that the rest of the poems in Some Beheadings need to be viewed in that context, but its specific lines about dreaming indicate otherwise. “…[C]an you wake up/ from a sentence like/ you wake up on the porch?” asks the speaker of “Route: Marienbad.” The only answer that can be given is “I SLEEP AND WAKE AND SLEEP AND WAKE AND/ THIS IS PROSODY.”
Machado’s poems make the reader reconsider just what the line between speaker and poet looks like, and whether the poetry world at large needs to reconsider whether that line is just a bit smaller than we usually think. If all of life is a textual experience, if our actions are a form of writing in and of themselves, then we are all constantly speaking and having poetry written around us. But more importantly, Machado forces us to consider that even as we create a textual experience, for some that experience is not as liberating as it is for others. Machado, a poet of color, knows this from living in our biased culture, and knows that the act of translating words, or action, or anything, means that something pure can be lost in the process. In an interview with Chicago Review of Books, she summed up her philosophy on poetry quite succinctly: “Poetry is untranslatable.” Some Beheadings understands that the poetry of life and dreams can’t be translated either, as it is just another form of language that is molded and crafted when put on the page. But maybe, as we wander down the garden paths, we can see a clearing, as Heidegger would say, and that is where a meaning might be found, if only for a passing moment.
Michael Pittard is a poet currently in the MFA program at the University of North Carolina at Greensboro. He plays bluegrass fiddle and is an avid Manchester United fan. He lives in Winston-Salem with his partner and their cat, Roosevelt.