Review by Alina Stefanescu
Dandying Through the Agora
of Jon Riccio’s Head
The figure known as the dandy uses his body as counterpoint to polite society and parlor aesthetics. He articulates a decadent self to shock, unsettle, and refuse the consolation of cultural redemption. Against the aesthetics of self-improvement, the dandy notates dissolution, hierarchies, the anomie of crowds, the esculent feasts of commercial display.
A neo-dandy energy resounds throughout Jon Riccio‘s recent poetry collection, Agoreography. Drawing on his own experiences as a classical violist, an agoraphobe, a logophile, an OCD-ist, Riccio opens with self-invention. The title word, agoreography, is a neologism, a coin of the realm to Riccio’s imagination. There is a gore in this fear, but there is also a performance, a choreography of phobic flaneurism.
The ancient Greek agora served as a public space for poets to declaim their odes and elegies. The word agoraphobia comes to us from that time and language, where agora means ‘place of assembly, marketplace’ and phobia means fear. Although used to suggest a fear of open spaces or crowds, agoraphobia is an anxiety disorder characterized by panic in situations where the person perceives their environment to be unsafe with no easy way to escape. Symptoms include fear and avoidance of places and situations that might cause feelings of panic, entrapment, helplessness, or embarrassment. Treatments include talk therapy and medication. There is no cure.
“I know that out of the worst, the unexpected, we gain,” wrote Anne Sexton, in the quote selected by Riccio as an epigraph for this book. If the worst is the least ideal outcome, the “worsted” is a fine, smooth yarn spun from combed long-staple wool. The worsted is the poem Riccio worsts from the room of the enclosed mind, the life set apart by illness. He invites the reader into it with a wry grin, only to immobilize us with the relentless drive of meter and rhyme.
In contrast to the whir of Riccio’s language, the images provided by Philip McKay digital artwork evokes sparsity, solitude, disquiet. The cover piece, “luminous-times,” features a man in a business suit seated on a simple wood chair, back to the audience; the room is empty, dark but for one light bulb dangling near the face which remains invisible to us. Two suitcases sit to the left of the chair. The antiquated hat on the man’s head is a provocative anachronism.
An invisible frisson discomposes the darkness. Riccio’s hatted dandy forsakes the stage of sociality and moves within his head, inventing a stage from the stanza. He parades his symptomatology, his humiliations, his break-downs across the page. Like the dandy, Riccio’s virtuosity relies on captivating display rather than explanation. Etiology is absent, or keyed satirically.
Historically, phobias have been associated with demonic possession, madness, and immorality on the part of the phobic. Contemporary culture leans more towards therapeutic resolution—the science of psychology treats phobia and anxiety as a personal problem to be managed within the privacy of a medical encounter. Anxiety is still largely unsayable in its shamings.
If play is the mode and rhythm is the gesture, cunning is costume in which Riccio approaches the unspeakable. Near-anagrams and word-tweaks (“Tagalong in apogee”) appear immediately. The first poem, “Jedi Kiss,” moves from spectating the six-year-old self on a bed to addressing Princess Leia of Star Wars, blurring the line between the real and the fantasized. Surreality seeds the images and streaks the conditionals (“If enmity were a fork tine, / I’d be a silversmith’s drawer.”)
In this poem about the boy who kissed him, Riccio’s details grow their own shadows, escalating into paranoia. The speaker identifies with his fears, and repeatedly builds from definition and analogy:
fears, and I’m not touching
that Jedi. Culpability: the family
that blames together blurs
together. Agoraphobia —
schadenfreude on a full
stomach. Worries, all other:
tourniquet for your Loch Ness.
His name was .
He smelled like a salon cape.
Because the monstrous is simultaneously paralyzing and unspeakable, Riccio sidles up to it through humor and self-parody. The monster shifts shapes, leaps between blanks, rendering others nameless.
Rendering definition, itself, as the site of parodic gest and suggestivity, the poet subverts the definitive. Language is both constraint and revenge in the irresistible tension he enacts between phobias which define the speaker, and the definitions which fail to define anything solid.
“My twenties were bravura,” the speaker confesses in “My Handwashing Explained.” The poetics of post-bravura flaunts demise in Riccio’s verbal pyrotechnics. Nouns become verbs (“they Fahrenheited my derma”), while musical metaphors (“Pathogens, a steam fugue”) irradiate context.
Phobia-portraiture emerges as a mode in “The Poet as Fluidphobe.” After downgrading his perfect pitch to “a party trick,” the speaker lays himself into the weirdness by amplifying it. “I’m the wig hair in your hotel bed,” he tells us. I’m the horror and the contamination and the fear, itself. There is no distance between them.
Snatching away the solace of conventional grammar, anastrophe reverses the expected syntax, as in “I’m harder of hearing but know at what intervals /birds are fucking.” The images and analogies are visceral, synesthetic, stitched by sanitation:
Fear of semen
loving a fluidphobe
Riccio makes it clear that illness also complicates desirable enclosures. Sex, eros, and romance—none is spared the shadow of monstrosity.
“Home” is absurdly mesmerizing. Structured as a Q & A in a therapy session, the poet becomes an apologist for fear of germs. “Is it true you only wear / slip-on shoes?” the therapist asks the patient in cascading rhymes composed from metric clap-backs. Laces may come undone, the speaker tells us, laying the stress on “undone” and allowing it to resonate: “Undone, fear they’d touch whatever / calls the pavement home.” This pattern of modified askings and answerings ping-pongs back and forth, as represented by indented margins, in a series of melodious couplets.
We are pinned to the game on the grass court of language. To the question “The ground begat your brand / of awareness?”, the poet-patient shrugs, answers, “It could’ve been the ether’s glitch, / the boogey mensch.”
Complete this sentence
as only an agoraphobe
of your standing could:
is the new bullet train.
Riccio’s dissection of therapeutic language feels like a psychiatrist appointment in a scene staged by Samuel Beckett—language fails, fumbles, reveals its futility as a vessel for understanding.
A metronome ticks within the one-stanza sonnet, “The Agoraphobe’s Guide to Flight.” Like Peggy Guggenheim upon being first introduced to Beckett in Paris, I was dazzled by this poem’s second half:
Minneapolis, I want to be your airport,
the postcard for turbulence that connects
scorch to frost. Hands guttural, helipad
dimmed to blithe. What I confide
in furloughed you: the nectar
is missing its drone
of most stripes.
Idioms, neologisms, and novel adverbs reveal the land of germophobia, Riccio also gives us the landscape of the mind which reads the world as dangerous – someone “should thank his / bacteria-free stars” — luck is useless unless it’s bacteria-free.
I prefer the term contagion–avoiding.
Eons, websites after now, they’ll refer
to us as the society that gave preservation
a new lukewarmth.
The sonic fireworks don’t stop. Riccio’s appetite for iambs appears as a closing strategy, a swift cinch of sound that sears a memorable image to the mind. “The Area Code for ESP” ends with an iambic tetrameter couplet: “you Ziploc tomorrow the night before. / My star chart has Brillo deposing it.” Even the star’s decree is feeble when faced with “the weakest link” of phobia and OCD.
The language and meter is stellar, hilarious, and eviscerating. The book’s first section ends with a long prose poem, “When Agoraphobia Intensified,” which functions as a sort of self-emptying. Anxiety clears the stage for nausea, for rupture.
“Nothing is more real than nothing,” said Democritus, anciently, in one of Samuel Beckett’s favorite quotations. And Beckett’s themes revisited me while reading Riccio’s book. Mired in a sense of motion that goes nowhere. I thought of how Waiting for Godot palpates a static situation by revisiting it, and reframing it, and how Riccio also gives us a box—a constraining condition, a phobia which encloses and limits the lived range.
The stage is inside the mind everyone misinterprets. The phobia and the performance are hitched to the anxiety of being mis-seen. Riccio closes the curtain with “Intermission,” a blank page midway through the book. A massive silence descends, signaling a pause, a break, a breaking. In his end-notes, Riccio cites Michael Ondaatje’s The Cinnamon Peeler, where “this title was used as a section divider.” I was intrigued by the work done by “title” here, or the particular titling of a dramatic silence that resembles the programmatic gesture of a music program or a play. Abruptly, one senses the performative, staged nature of the poems; one feels the pressure this applies to their speaker.
Curtain and image. The following page displays McKay’s “agoraphobia.” The man in the hat sits in the chair, his back to the audience, but this time, there are no suitcases. There is no plan to go anywhere. There is no darkness: the room is lit, we can see the stars all over the wallpaper. The man faces a large, paned window and watches a quaint house just beyond the glass. If “luminous times” felt nervous and disoriented, “agoraphobia” seems resigned, intrigued, and strangely settled within the artifice.
The dandy reminds us that artifice shouldn’t be read as a gesture towards inauthenticity. Instead, artifice shifts the focus to technique, skill, play and virtuosity. Like a man tap-dancing over a fire pit, Riccio leverages the tension between the agoraphobe’s anxiety and the dandy’s exhibitionist costume-shifting. He can’t go on—so he goes on after changing costumes. The poet returns in new form.
The second part of the program (titled “II.”) commences with an off-modern apologia, “Jon, Magnet,” a long poem, enumerated into sections. Again, Riccio orchestrates a disorientation; the anastrophe defamiliarizes what the internal rhyme binds through sound:
I recall the finale of Brahms’ A Minor String Quartet.
A key with neither flats or sharps—one vise sweetens
another—it terrains the conveying. Skill feigning a phrase.
A portmanteau word, “Hollywoodiard,” combines Hollywood and Juilliard to speak to what performing musicians know about diva power and anointment.
“Musician’s Epithalamion / Illness’s Height” subverts the traditional marriage-blessing poem by leaving the groom unpartnered. “Pop Concerts, Sex” touches on the awkward pyrotechne of arousal, the elliptical angles of sex nailed down in tactile images.
“Three Epitaphs” reminds us that anxiety disorders are states of mind which have encountered their death. Anxiety dallies with death in three couplets. Accusingingly, the second epitaph names the phobia’s impact on the poet’s life: “Arson, the way agoraphobia / cauterized him.”
“Spoke/Synthesis” uses italics in order to create a sense in which there is a conversation occurring in this interior room, and the conversation seems to be an imaginary interview. Riccio creates the characters, the strange sorts of beings each poem needs in order to speak. “Spokesmonarch” pretends to answer the questions, and speaks in italics: “Kim Bassinger’s dabbling in / agoraphobia made it fathomable.” The personification of the technology both conveys and mocks the conditions for this “umbilical” cord of the earpiece which has become a lifeline.
How to describe the brutal splendor of “Ice Sculpture Turned Life Coach”? I refuse to even try. Ostensibly, this is a book about ‘trauma,’ but Riccio prefers to inventory such things in a resume of things he has done, among them “abided”; “bungled”; “eddied”; “Oberlined”; “mangled”; “Sally Jesse Raphaeled”; ” vacated”; “vociferously whittled” and so on (“Vermont Test”).
Throughout history, queer bodies have bent language to help it carry the unspeakable. We are talking about deformation, the abnormal, the problematized, the sick, as illness itself is often defined as a failure of form, or an inability to match the norm, the form we take for expectation.
There are many ways to talk about the abnormal, but none is as honest and ostentatious as the absurd. How else to say the unsayable? “Better than telling people I believe my viola is contaminated,” Riccio admits in “Explications Scolaires.”
After World War I ended, Cabaret Voltaire opened in Zürich. At one point, Vladimir Lenin lived across the street from this raucous establishment, where performances celebrated nonsense, syllables strung together by sound. Dada was grown there. War refugees and exiles gathered to watch Tristan Tzara’s flamboyant performances upset every aesthetic category. Nothing had prevented the absurdity of war, the cruelty of violence, the canonization of war generals. The performers scandalized the audience with absurdism, dark humor, anti-elitism, and self deprecation. The cabaret was a space where music performed its refusal of normalcy.
Cabarets also flourished on the ruins of the 1871 Paris Communes’ collapse. Convinced that radicalism had been nurtured by musical performance, by this link between the song and the masses, French authorities censored the arts, and blamed decadence on “orgiastic” music. Commentators likened the café concerts to an epidemic, contagion, a sickness “spreading across the country like leprosy.” This has always been true of decadence, a word insinuating cultural degradation, disability, and destruction of civilization.
Despite the absence of stage and café, Jon Riccio makes a solo cabaret of agonizing interiority and phobia. He orchestrates the entire performance and stages it within a poetry collection. (The end notes resemble the sort of detailed program notation that drove Gustav Mahler crazy.)
There are many ways to fall apart. Nothing strikes fear into the heart of average humans like disintegration. On the surface, Samuel Beckett’s writing seems like a refutation of Marcel Proust’s heavily-pedaled emotional language and brocaded syntax, but Beckett’s study of Proust reveals two writers obsessed with loneliness and incompletion. In Proust, neither love nor friendship can be “realized” between humans, Beckett surmises, due to “the impenetrability (isolation) of all that is not ‘cosa mentale,’ at least the failure to possess may have the nobility of that which is tragic, whereas the attempt to communicate were no communication is possible, is merely a simian, vulgarity, or horribly comic, like the madness that holds a conversation with the furniture.”
Dance with me for a minute in this “madness that holds a conversation with the furniture.” It is a fruitful madness. It is the backbone of loneliness in Beckett, Proust, and Joyce, as well as the performance in Riccio’s poetry. It is the unspeakability of disintegration.
Although best known for his plays, Beckett’s first stand-alone publication was actually a poem printed as a tiny booklet titled “Whoroscope.” In it, Descartes meditates on the consequences of his own theories concerning the mind-body problem. Pondering chickens and eggs, temporality and embodiment, Descartes watches time pass.
How silly that I should keep pressing my thumb on this imagined kinship between Riccio’s loquacious phrasing and Beckett’s sparse repetitions. There is something that wants saying, something outlandish and yet obvious. Humor me.
At various points in Agoreography, an itch drags me to the Beckett shelf, where I learn that the affinity between James Joyce and Beckett existed in relation to silence. In his 1959 biography, James Joyce, Richard Ellman gives us a stage:
Beckett was addicted to silences, and so was Joyce; they engaged in conversations, which consisted often in silences directed towards each other, both suffused with sadness; Beckett, mostly for the world, Joyce, mostly for himself. Joyce sat in his habitual posture, legs crossed, toe of the upper leg, under the instep of the lower; Beckett, also tall, and slender, fell into the same gesture. Joyce suddenly asked some question as ‘How could the idealist Hume write history?’ Beckett replied, ‘A history of representations.’
Beckett refused to historicize. Meanwhile, Riccio historicizes profusely, scattering pop culture references throughout the scenes of his self-representations. But there is a profound relationship to silence in the tread of Riccio’s riotous language—there is a magnificent absurdity in his juxtapositions, and in the way he uses reversals and rhymes to knot unlikes in perfect coherence. Sound coheres in Riccio’s lines. Vowels glue together, infecting each other, insolubly licked by the same tongue, tamed and flattened into the same bathtub, roused into action through various noncompliant objects. And there is a defensive edge to extraordinary skill. Or a costume, a smile, a hat.
Like Beckett, Riccio’s attention to form is musical, inextricable from his extensive knowledge of music theory. What connects the paucity of Samuel Beckett’s words and the effusion of Riccio’s is that both are formal responses to fear of enclosure. Beckett’s linguistic precision was influenced by his perception of space and time, his fear of being enclosed. “I was walking up Dawson Street and I felt I couldn’t go,” Beckett said, recalling a particular day in 1933, in the months after his father’s death. Something just stopped, and Beckett marveled at the strangeness: “I found I couldn’t go on moving.” This physical incapacity led him to a heart specialist, who recommended that Beckett try psychoanalysis.
Due to the Catholic Church’s monopoly on confessional forms, psychoanalysis was illegal in Dublin at the time. To be psychoanalyzed, one had to go to London. Since the inherited allowance from his father wasn’t enough to cover the costs, Beckett’s mother paid the enormous fees with her own money. What happened in those sessions remains a mystery. After six months of therapy, Beckett decided he’d had enough. He parted amicably with his therapist, feeling less ‘healed’ than opened, or disclosed. If anything, Beckett said, therapy enabled him to respond less chaotically to the night panics that plagued him. But Beckett also credits the “night panics” for his worldview— the night panics enabled him to recover “some extraordinary memories of being in the womb, intrauterine memories” which he took to be formative. Beckett recalled “feeling trapped, being imprisoned and unable to escape… crying to be let out, but no one could hear, no one was listening.”
Arts patron Peggy Guggenheim mentioned this in her memoirs. Admitting that she had been “terribly in love” with Beckett, Guggenheim described the apathy which kept him in bed, and the conversational challenges presented by Beckett’s cerebralness, his reticence, his head always up in the clouds of some idea—unless he drank whiskey, at which point he became more sociable. “He retained a terrible memory of life and his mother’s womb,” Guggenheim wrote. “He was constantly suffering from this, and had awful crises, when he felt he was suffocating.” She lays incommensurability to rest at the feet of this fetal trauma: “He always said our life would be all right, one day, but if I ever pressed him to make a decision, it was fatal, and he took back everything he had previously said.”
I don’t know if Beckett was ever diagnosed with womb-related agoraphobia, or if such a diagnosis exists—but I thought of how this latent phobia shaped his writing as well as his subjects, and how selfhood and phobia tangled in his work. Recalling his days in London with Beckett, Duncan Scott marveled at how his friend described Murphy, the protagonist who was “suffering from terror in the night… erratic heartbeats and panic attacks.” In the novel, Murphy goes through voluntary hypnosis to deal with his night terrors. The end is tragic.
Beckett wrote Murphy in English and later translated it into French. And there is something like self-translation occurring as Scott and Beckett strolled through Hyde Park, pausing when Beckett pointed to locations from the novel— “It’s Murphy’s old haunt,” he said of a path Murphy had supposedly walked. Weaving between his own experience and Murphy’s, Beckett said the psychiatrist concluded that “something must have seriously alarmed him in the womb.”
Given Beckett’s acedia-tinged memories and hatred for London, Scott wondered why he kept returning to it and roaming through Hyde Park. Why return to the scene of one’s desolation, one’s unreconstructed self? Scott concludes that his friend must have been “exorcizing old ghosts.”
The music ghosts the speaker a bit. It’s hard not to grieve how agoraphobia sabotaged Riccio’s career in music. It’s hard to ignore the music. “Life Reckoning with Lineage and Viola” makes technique personal for Riccio. In a similar vein, “Bach Fugue State” compares the musical fugue form to the neurological fugue state by running over the same configurations. Like the fugue, the poem is divided into four sections, where the third section pays tribute to the mentor on campus who encouraged the poet to write poetry, and the fourth section skips around an echolocating, internal repetition of the word “choice.” Riccio leaves parenthetical hints, indications of how this plays out, or how one is played by it: “viola over violin (tact / versus technique).”
Perhaps Beckett’s polyphonic phrasing resembles Riccio’s in its staging and orchestration, in the interpenetrating relationship between vocalizations, sounds, and instrumentation. Although the writers do not sound the same, they obsess over the same notes. The subject waits without knowing what they are waiting for. Riccio makes this explicit – this uncertainty is articulated, rendered baroque, highly stylized, through language. The absurdity of irresolution is the bind. The queer agoraphobe cannot relate to the object of his desire in the way that he would like, given the nature of the phobia. But time passes anyway. One waits inside it.
Both writers elected stilts of sorts. Beckett chose to write in French, his acquired language, in order to discipline his impulses and better control the emotional valence of his own words. Riccio performs the dandy on the page which he turns into a stage—but one cannot see his face. Despite the smiling headshot, one is aware that Riccio smiles from within a suit, a muted gesture towards the man in a hat who sits in the empty room. Both Riccio and Beckett use syntax to undercut the logic of language. Both can be read with an eye to the questions they pose as much as the technique they use to hide the difficulty of these questions.
Like a termite intended to reveal the fragility of form, absurdism reminds us that each work of art must be held against its own intentions, and measured against its own ambitions. I say this because Riccio’s poems resist progress or development. Against the assumption that reality is clear, or that humans can be legible, Riccio’s language challenges our worship of effective communication. What a thing seems to be is undercut by the inability of fellow humans to decipher it. The polish of form and meter tricks the mind into assuming something has been understood, but even clinical language fails to do more than daub at the site of meaning. The absurd reveals alienation by rendering the outcast impossible to ignore. As readers, we are unable to exit the outside-ness. We are forced to witness the ruin of cherished certainties—the clinical, the therapeutic, the institutional, the magical cult of positive thinking, and the poetics of cuteness the dignity of our institutions and coping mechanisms will not save us from what Martin Esslin called “the laughter of liberation.”
There is an “Afterword,” a tomb that is also a womb. Like avant-gardists prior, Riccio makes the poem a proclamation in “I Propose a New Poetry Movement,” dedicated to Jadyn DeWald. Relegating surrealism to “an accommodating safety net,” the poet tells us that “individual letters are where the spellcasting begins.” What Riccio dubs “Confessional surrealism” relishes “word lustre in the service of absurdity.” The self-parody is as earnest as it is countercultural—play is the coping mechanism for the phobia. Disclosure is critical; Riccio acknowledges his own “disclosure prefers density and higher diction.”
Aggressive metrical patterns and pounding stress patterns are essentially musical; self-exposure and lacerative first-person nudges the confessional; queer juxtapositions and luscious pageantry characterize neo-decadence; and improvisational, phantaste-courting tone leans surrealist— but the totality is confurreal, as Riccio explains in “Introducing the Confurreal,” an open call to establish this confessional surrealism in order to expand the definition of intimacy involved in confessional poetics. His love for Anne Sexton is evident. As is his close attention to queer theory and to cyborg selfhood.
“My downfall is micro-imagery: / I’ll give you the snowflake’s papilloma but not the snow,” Riccio parries. In closure, or to diss the enclosure of third-person bio forms, Riccio replaces the gratuitous with a lineated “About the Author” poem featuring “trial-by-OCD” and careerist opportunities for the phobic.
In January 1938, Samuel Beckett was stabbed by a pimp in Paris; the blade narrowly missed his heart. His dalliance with Peggy Guggenheim crossed temporal hairs with his affair with pianist Suzanne Anna Déchevaux-Dumesnil, who visited him in the hospital and later became his wife. This has no apparent relation to Riccio’s work apart from the pleasure he might derive from a lubricious anecdote. But the unapparent is the subtext—it is the hat on the head of the enclosed man who seems to disclose everything.
After his lung recovered from being stabbed, Beckett went to visit the pimp in prison. He wanted to know why this man had stabbed him. “Sir,” the pimp replied, “I do not know.” No one knows why agoraphobia exists—whether it begins in the womb or the classroom or in the overexposed, nervously-attuned perception of existence. The show must go on—and one is sorry that it doesn’t, even as one rests assured that it does.
Nevertheless, one grows pouty when the confurreal curtain closes. Notice me trying to drag this out into infinity? One returns to the normie world with the riotous music of Riccio’s poems. One returns to the book to re-hear the world afire at the jousts, to recover the monstrous and magnificent “boogey mensch.” May the confurreals continue. May the poems laugh at their loneliness, “and in doing so be undone,” as no one but John Ashbery said.
NOTE ON SOURCES: Definitions of agoraphobia are from The Mayo Clinic’s website. Quotations and information about Samuel Beckett come from Conversations with and About Beckett edited by Mel Gussow (Grove Press, 2001) and The Theatre of the Absurd by Martin Esslin. Quotes on cabaret and the Paris Commune come from Ted Gioia’s Music: A Subversive History (Basic Books, 2019). The Cure lyrics come from the title song of their 90’s album, Disintegration. Other materials, including direct quotations from Beckett’s plays, come from the morass of the author’s notebooks.
Alina Stefanescu was born in Romania and lives in Birmingham, Alabama with her partner and several intense mammals. Recent books include a creative nonfiction chapbook, Ribald (Bull City Press Inch Series, Nov. 2020) and Dor, which won the Wandering Aengus Press Prize (September, 2021). Her debut fiction collection, Every Mask I Tried On, won the Brighthorse Books Prize (April 2018). Alina’s poems, essays, and fiction can be found in Prairie Schooner, North American Review, World Literature Today, Pleiades, Poetry, BOMB, Crab Creek Review, and others. She serves as poetry editor for several journals, reviewer and critic for others, and Co-Director of PEN America’s Birmingham Chapter. She is currently working on a novel-like creature. More online at alinastefanescuwriter.com.
Jon Riccio teaches literature and creative writing at Beijing Jiaotong University and the University of West Alabama. He serves as the poetry editor at Fairy Tale Review, and an editor at Ran Off With the Star Bassoon and 1-Week Critique.