The High-Low Collapse in Dana Ward’s The Crisis of Infinite Worlds
Dana Ward’s 2013 collection, The Crisis of Infinite Worlds, is in many ways the very picture of postmodern poetry. Compulsively self-conscious and concerned with the act of writing as much as with the subject of his writing, Ward employs classic postmodern techniques, such as the juxtaposition of very highbrow references (an excerpt from a Rimbaud poem, an offhand mention of Anne Boyer, etc), with very lowbrow pop culture references, from Jersey Shore to “Love You Like a Love Song” by Selena Gomez. But in spite of this dizzying string of down-to-earth references—or perhaps because of it—the primary theme of the book is the sublime, or more specifically, how the sublime is contained in the everyday.
All of the poems in the collection are vastly different, but share a Whitmanesque concern for the epic scope of internal and invisible journeys; in the first poem, “Aeolian Phone,” the narrator ruminates on humanity’s morbid fascination with death in the context of the Iraq War and how he connects the “harp of his phone” to his mouth in order to say “Aeolian thoughts” and how writing is “looking for a blurring of surfaces somewhere over the rainbow of what can be thought and what can’t,” all while he buttons his shirt. In the untitled third piece, the narrator recounts the birth of his daughter as a version of the Rapture, a monumental event that brings some sort of heaven on Earth, while referencing Jay-Z, the Death Star, and “The Greatest Love of All.” And in the cheeky final piece, the narrator leads a séance in honor of Alvin and the Chipmunks 2: The Squeakquel, complete with candles and a Facebook-type quiz about favorite songs and movies, in order to meditate on “the ‘object,’ what it was in my, in anyone’s life.”
Ward is hardly the first postmodernist writer to make these kinds of references; as the narrator acknowledges near the beginning of the collection, “everyone knows about the high-low collapse.” But where other postmodernists were making the heavily ironic argument that there is no meaningful difference between high and lowbrow art, Ward freely acknowledges the hollowness inherent to certain pop culture works. The Squeakquel “enticingly empty… an objective correlative of dead but active space around which we could stage a social intervention that would generate content for art.” He also calls the experience of watching Twin Peaks and Jersey Shore “the realest experience of non-being I’ve ever had.” The tone of the collection is definitely self-aware and occasionally humorous, but it never rises to the glibness of the classic postmodernist high-low collapse. The collection is making an honest effort to illustrate the uniquely human and deep-seated desire to find transcendence in all elements of life, no matter how trivial.
And Ward does, in fact, primarily reference works that either earnestly stab at transcendence or, in their own way, imagine a completely different world. The narrator identifies with Kirsten Dunst’s character in Melancholia, a 2012 film that draws a parallel from one woman’s depression to the apocalypse. Twin Peaks is lauded for its highbrow themes, and certainly takes place in a world that could only exist in the mind of the creator. Then there’s a brief mention of Avatar which, for all its faults, imagined a fully realized otherworld to which many fans desperately wanted to escape. And according to the narrator, Jersey Shore, like Twin Peaks and other works in surrealism, “features these graphic expenditures of spirit / guided by midgets and giants.” Ward is interrogating not just the distinction between high and lowbrow culture, but also the ways in which oblique connections between these cultural touchstones are used to create individual subjectivity.
The title of the collection, as the narrator acknowledges in the eponymous poem, is itself a reference to the DC Comics story line Crisis on Infinite Earths, in which the many parallel worlds in the DC Comics collapse into one streamlined universe that readers would better be able to follow. But like all of the other references in the collection, the title is a subversion, a rejection of the desire to reduce the infinite number of worlds into one:
realized only later that I’d
made a rather telling trans-
position, putting the word
‘world’ where ‘earth’ was & thinking
The Crisis of Infinite Worlds
I guess because anyone will
occasion the world as a
world its commonality precarious
but real, & the person
beside them does the same
In these lines, Ward is illuminating the paradoxical nature of his collection’s thesis: the world is common to us all, we all acknowledge the same touchstones of reality (including culturally-specific references), but at the same time the “world” contained within any one person is vastly different from the next. Where DC Comics wanted to collapse its worlds, Ward wants to expand them, allowing the sublime to be contained in the everyday, the universal to be contained in the specific, and the meaning of life to be contained in something as trivial as Alvin and the Chipmunks 2: The Squeakquel. In The Crisis of Infinite Worlds, Ward uses pop culture to get to the marrow of what people seek in their day-to-day lives: a world of their own, one that is both small enough to house their specific subjectivity and large enough to be connected to the infinite worlds around them.