REVIEW: The Politics of Knives

The Politics of Knives

By Jonathan Ball
Coach House Books (2012)

Read by Katherine Sehl

Jonathan Ball’s oeuvre is quickly subsuming every form of art, his previous poetry collection, Clockfire (2010), having explored the violence of theatre and in Ex Machina (2009)—a book about books. The Politics of Knives chooses film as its medium of focus and as with his previous publications, Ball interrogates the medium by bringing its mechanics under scrutiny and exploring the ways in which it enacts violence through its mode of communication.

The conceptual framework behind the book and much of his other work is in part Ball’s extension of a meditation Žižek puts forth in his book Violence: “What if, however, humans exceed animals in their capacity for violence precisely because they speak?” As Ball explains in an interview with Open Book Toronto, “I think a further violence, a more personal and political violence, occurs when we use language to develop narrative.” For Ball, there is a parallel to be drawn between the way language and narrative are elicited for the same purpose as violence: to impose an order on things.

The project behind The Politics of Knives, then, is twofold: to poetically examine the violence of cinematic narrative while remaining conscious of the capacity language has for violence in doing so. As a result, language becomes slippery and ruptured. Near-narratives either falter and break off or linger edgily on syntactical ambiguity and the poetic line cuts sharply, like a knife.

This process is most evident in the poem “Psycho” which rather evidently, is a poetic “re-watching” of Hitchcock’s classic horror film. Much like the steady lens of a camera, the poem presents images intended to educe setting and possibly tone: “Water falls thrumming, hard on motel. Vacancy wet, / mother in window” (39).

As Norman Bates (the soon-to-be-knife wielder) looks on through a peephole into Marion’s room, the reader and riled poetic narrator are forced into complicity, “in holes place our eyes”… “watching as he watches” (43). When the poem reaches the dramatic murder scene, although the camera’s passive gaze is still coldly persistent, the reader/watcher has transgressed from merely watching to violently entering the narrative, conflated with the scene’s murderer: “She’s dead while the camera / keeps looking, as we stalk through this room mopped so clean” (45).

All of the collection’s poems are connected by themes of violence, but they range in form, voice, and content. The titular piece of the collection enacts a violence of censorship, appearing as if some government agency used black censor bars to occlude portions of the poetic text. “K. Enters the Castle” following Kafka’s The Castle, imagines K. entering the Castle by becoming a camera.

As with all of Ball’s books, The Politics of Knives was released under Creative Commons license, with remixes allowed and encouraged—an appropriate gesture that enables Ball’s readers to brandish their own knives on his text.