Photo: Brian J. Green.

Tears, lava, syrup, rain, booze, drool, pee, cum, and other forms of “rancorous nectar” flood the dazzling closing volume of Wayne Koestenbaum’s trance trilogy, Ultramarine (Nightboat Books), which urges both reader and author to “stay liquid / and internal, don’t / reify your thoughts / into aspic.” In his work as poet, painter, pianist, and Sprechstimme performance artist, he incessantly and sometimes maddeningly interrogates and expands the potentialities of artistic practice, deploying the color ultramarine as material and conceptual ground for mark-making, “base and superstructure, / return and embarkation.” In Koestenbaum’s paintings, ultramarine comes first: He slathers his canvases with blue Flashe paint before laying down glyphs and figures atop it, smearing pigment into cleft and crevice with his finger. In his poetry, ultramarine serves as language’s fundament, prosody’s lapis lazuli undergirding. Begetting fluidity and surreptitious inversion, “it makes possible / the lines that seem / to be the bottom / layer but are / secretly the top.”

Whereas his earlier poems luxuriated in expansive lines separated by the snap of an asterisk or reveled in ottava rima, Ultramarine opts for short, percussive stanzas, grape clusters at a bacchanalian feast. Urges, observations, memories, directions, and aspirations scissor, smear, and echo one another within and between verses demarcated by austere, unbroken dashes. The book is filled with carbonated queries—philosophical, literary, homophonic, ontological—that burst and fizz on ultramarine’s oceanic, auratic surface. When Koestenbaum asks, “Isn’t art / a transcendent category?,” the answer can only be an emphatic yes.

Christine Pichini is an artist and translator based in Philadelphia.

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