Archive for the Victor Schnickelfritz Category

Nathaniel Tarn —Ins and Outs of the Forest Rivers

Posted in Victor Schnickelfritz on November 22, 2011 by Victor Schnickelfritz

Dilemma: After perceiving eight decades of absolute loss in the world and bearing witness to the exploits of the poisoned species of man, how does one find hope? Nathaniel Tarn seems to solve this dilemma by nodding towards birds and trees as member species of his coveted clan, proclaiming them to possess extreme beauty, then letting his darker instincts peer out a bit from under the cuffs of his jacket. He wears his emotions on his sleeve. What punches does he need to pull now?

This is not to say that there isn’t an admirable quality to his unmitigated gloominess. Who am I to say he has not earned his world-weariness? I am not suggesting that his weltschmerz seems put on for size. Tarn has done more and seen more in his life than I presume I have in my last ten. And some readers may not find his darkness as remarkable as I do. They might see hope in his homage to those things that he finds beauty in as he resists the pressures of a ravaging world.

The ravaging world has become ever more present in this his 80th year. Tarn was born in 1928 in Paris, rose to become a leading anthropologist and a translator of Neruda. His influence on ethnopoetics is unquestionable. He is also unquestionably a great world traveler [the poems in Ins and Outs of the Forest Rivers find such settings as Sarawak, Borneo, East Malaysia, the Greek Islands, Megiddo (a hill in modern Israel), Los Angeles, Maui, Bali], and astute observer (particularly of birds).

The poems are almost never populated by specific humans. These are left out of the picture to a very large extent. Like a good anthropologist, he generally addresses humans in collective form. When the human world is invoked, it is almost always as a “we” (when Tarn wants to appeal to our sense of humanity) and a “you” when he wants to lecture humans on the errors of their ways. This seems very strange to me to have a book populated mostly by animals and ideas. But I believe that Tarn has had quite enough of endeavors so that their specific meanderings and tribulations are trivial. Indeed, compared to the geological time scale that Tarn’s work exists in, the human is unimportant.

Tarn takes this turn to such a great extent in the final (and title) piece of “Ins and Outs of the Forest Rivers” that we learn only in the endnote that during the trip that inspired the poem his friend and colleague during the trip died halfway on the trip out and how Tarn had to arrange for his removal from the forest. All this at the age of 80. Yet nowhere in the poem is there any mention made of the colleague’s calamity. Instead, Tarn is true to form, remarking on several bird species and talking of imminent encroachment on bird habitat. The birds are his angels: Kingfisher


Buceros [Rhinoceros Hornbill]


Terpsiphone a! paradisi [Asian Paradise Flycatcher]

These are the stars of his poems in which nature can do no wrong. I would not completely refrain from using the term “romanticized” notion of nature, for its harshness and vicissitudes are never mentioned. The term “food chain” does not appear once! Even the animals he refers to are very well-behaved. Tarn’s role, then, is as the birder/witness come to drink in the scenery and gather what he can about the differences between human social behavior and how birds behave in their tree canopy.

It is also interesting how Tarn refers to these birds by their scientific name instead of their common name. In this way, he also makes reference to Celan in what I believe to be Celan’s native Romanian in one epigraph for “La Citta´Morta.” Tarn is ever the one for scholarly exactitude, and perhaps one could say of him like Eupolis, an Athenian comic playwright, said of one of his influences, Pindar, that the poems of Pindar “are already reduced to silence by the disinclination of the multitude for elegant learning.” Could it be that in modern times, too, Tarn, like Pindar, is more respected than read?

Let us not give in to our age’s ignorance completely (though I think Tarn has, in fact, already acknowledged this kind of capitulation). There is reason to read Tarn if we need to be reminded of how man, in the name of “progress,” so often overreaches, how the irritations of modern life juxtaposed against the majesty of the untrammeled natural world.

These moments of juxtaposition are an indicator of what Forrest Gander refers in a recent Harriet Blog post (see below), as environmental literacy.

The United States and China are locked in a tug of war to determine which country can spew more carbon. For both, natural resources are plundered for short-sighted ends. Perhaps these facts place particular responsibilities on the poets of both countries. Maybe the development of environmental literacy, by which I mean a capacity for reading connections between the environment and its inhabitants, can be promoted by poetic literacy; maybe poetic literacy will be deepened through environmental literacy.

Tarn’s switches between the excesses of the modern world, its blindsightedness, and the natural set up the “connections between the environment and its inhabitants.” The associational qualities of poetry make it an excellent vehicle to pursue these relations. I think probably pursues them better than fiction, which must always be plot-bound to a much greater extent.

These moments of juxtaposition are also, for this reader, the most satisfying parts of the book. One moment in “Hummingbird-Sandwich” he will be rhapsodizing about the virtues of gardening and the next he will be damning the irritating calls of solicitors looking for donations to feed the vast numbers of hungry and homeless elsewhere in the world. Then he calls down the hummingbirds to be witness to his good deeds the way gods would come down to witness the past good deeds of humans. Lamenting the passing of the gods, he desires for Nature to come and bear witness to his acts of kindness. He says, “Let hummers come in then or perish in a sandwich.”

This is one of the very few moments of levity in the book which usually inhabits a much more serious tone. Usually, very serious, condemning, perhaps even with a vengeance for modern life. But this moment of acknowledging the absurdity of man’s interaction with nature provides a different window, if ajar only for a moment. Its presence raises a question for as a reader. The experience of reading a text that demands justice and equality for nature is well-documented [Tarn’s texts are but a few in a long litany]. However, is there much of a tradition for comical interaction with birds and species outside of the human in general? I guess it can’t be expected that animals have a sense of humor, or perhaps humor is so species-specific that one couldn’t expect a hyena to laugh or a hen to cackle. One means of approaching, it seems, the comical side of nature is in the anthropomorphizing of animals. I could expect Tarn to scoff at human hubris in projecting our mental life onto animals (at least this is why I presume he never engages in any anthropomorphizing of his animal subjects), but this act of awkward empathy is often the most sympathetic effort we can make as humans. Without placing ourselves into the mental, and therefore emotional life, of animals we are never going to get past the point where Tarn would like humans to be: beyond our anthropocentrism. In fact, I don’t trust anybody who doesn’t anthropomorphize animals once in a while . . . or even routinely.

Too much of Tarn, for this reader, is as witness, watcher, locator, namer of the natural. His birding tendencies get the best of him. I respect birders in their quests to see. Some, in my opinion, go too far in trying to catalog these events with a “life list.” However, I question whether the extent of one’s interaction with nature must be the visual (or in the case of birdsong — auditory). Where does play enter into the picture? Would this signal encroachment for Tarn? I would like to ask him this.

Certainly there is very little that is gestural in Tarn’s engagement of the natural world. the gardening is the one indication of the speaker moving his hands. However, there is a premium placed on human gesture as redemptive. In “A Smile” after, once again, Tarn has contemplated the absence of humans in this world at some distant point in the future, Tarn anthropomorphizes Juniper as mother and Piñon as father, Juniper waving with her many yellow hands. Then, quickly, he shifts to the abominations of the modern by invoking “seven cool million tons of bombs” and “tortured prisoners” which lead to

defoliation, that especially, the dying trees around
. . . a devastated head, beauty devoured by age, needles
of grief worn deep into the skin, small rivulets
of patience also, running down cheeks
into the chin and neck: the mirror image of the face
that’s watching it across the room, a face
broken on the same wheel, a marriage wheel
of fortune—though all’s been positive to date!
Even the grief! Time passes and will not
be seized in any way, will not allow itself
to be held down by its frail shoulders,
arrested, stopped there in its tracks to be enjoyed.
It must, alike all else, be seized against the wind,
caught on the wind—“eternity” some said. Yet, still
from time to time, the smile may flash, the smile
still dazzles and whole lives light up—as if
illuminated by a tender fire, a burning, not
destructive of our wood, but granting life, quick,
urgent life, inclusive patience and refreshing love.

The sentiment at the end is rooted in the mother’s smile, the Juniper mother. It is an extraordinary sentiment, one that requires a great act of imagination to tease it out from the Juniper. However, I wonder if a smile’s capacity for “whole lives lighting up” appears a bit too Debby Boone. Perhaps I am just allergic to earnestness, that heartfelt moment that should cause a clamor in the soul but to me feels too much like schmaltz, a moment of overt sentiment strictly to produce an effect.

The book is organized into four parts. The first section deals with poems that contemplate death, the animal world, gardening (some of the best of this section) and an examination of Matthias Grünewald’s altarpiece circa 1526 in Alsace, France. The second section is entitled “Dying Trees” and it deals with the devastation of trees in the American West (the subject of “A Smile”). The third part is entitled “War Stills” and the main themes are of mindless devastation of the environment and the mindless pursuit and guarding of property that is at the heart of so much of modern warfare, particularly the madness that is the Iraq War. The fourth section, (in the reader’s opinion, the most effective) is the one which aims most effectively at distinguishing the relationships between the natural world and man’s civilized and urban instincts. The final section “Arawak” is comprised of the long title piece mentioned above that documents the loss of the natural world and its impact on the indigenous tribes.

Ascending Flight, Los Angeles

It is characterized by a pale subtle happiness of light and sunshine, a feeling of bird-like freedom, bird-like altitude, bird-like exuberance, and a third thing in which curiosity is united with a tender disdain. —Friedrich Nietzsche

1.
Seen face to face in a domestic converse:
no compassion. Seen in a group of persons
in social converse, none either. Seen solo
waiting, far off and isolate, colorless as
a grounded, wingless, songless passerine,
compassion’s ocean rises, flooding chest
chasm, a fraction further, extrudes tears up
and into eyes. Here, vastness of the Angels’
heart downtown, close to all arts and music,
sparsely filled up with buildings, their al-
zebras in crazy inundation of Californian
light. Always a few degrees above our own
and riotous with varied flowers and greens.
Airwise, blinding green parrots and such e-
xotica as might seem to belong here crackle.
Little Tokyo, Little Beijing, good rebates on
blouse-grown wings. The tears sink down to
rest in curiosity. Inveterate explorers wake.
Abandoned leftwing veterans rot on streets.
Beyond a world mayhem continues. Crying
sees murder; curiosity: consumption. through-
in a day, hang out, eat, drink, shop & consume.

2.
Birds from colorless to color: flowers color
to colorless. To stop life’s turn to nightmare
adopt the colorful patience of birds. Flowers
take flight and become birds, add color to
the birds in sky, so high, their colors hit in-
visible. This is the level we desire to reach:
bird high, plant low—famose cosmogony.
Out there in Hollywood, air-breasted women
trying to become birds and failing even, why
at ascent to flowers! To conjugate, lone mind,
all that is beautiful way and above all man, &
human understanding. Planes in their traces
along sky move white from unknown city-
unknown city, and this for no known purpose
you can witness low—but bird is clear in
purpose how much high, as hummer was at
nose the other day while gardening. Since I
was raising flowers to the power of air. As
child, remember Mitchell in the movie, eyes
up intently at a lone seagull—and she’ll be
loveliest ever to fly, him whispering, and so
she was in metal clad, flying countries alive.

3.
In cities, when the noise by day is overwhelming,
birds have evolved in time to sing by night, thus
to be heard by other birds. That’s what we birds
are doing now, that once were poets of the day.
We sing at night, all hope on standby, but we are
heard by our own kindred. Meantime, deliberate,
people may rot into sweet angeleños. We crummy-
nals! dropping them there while shopping! O! O!
Wait! Wait! For ages now I shall read self-same,
very same book over and over, not skipping book-
book, place-place, or landscape-into-landscape.
I’ll persevere presentially with one enlightened
me, ago when we could not even climb castles.
My darkness lifted and, suddenly made mirror, I
sent back simple verbs to one scale of our time.
Emotions are dead leaves; yet some may carry
to sing as if a world were morning, as if light,
still tinted by the birds, were truth and possibly.
After the night, after angelesque dreams, a great
light sphere rolling into the room, a rubber cage
with convict bird inside—clothed in all colors
the despised can dream. World granted. Novel day.

The most gratifying thing about this poem for poets should be that we, as poets, are the chosen people according to the birds, that we poets are ones who have evolved to sing by night. The idea of birds evolving to sing by night is the kind of observation about animal and life and the natural world that I expected more of during the course of the book. As an apparently lifelong veteran birder, I had hoped to learn about more specificaspects of unusual bird behavior, something that would make me stand up and say, Wow, would ya’ look at that? But these moments were too few. This poem also offers up my favorite line of the book: “To stop life’s turn to nightmare adopt the colorful patience of birds” This just about sums up all of the didactic turns that Tarn is taking in the book.

Technically speaking, there are some interesting things going on with this poem as well. The unusual hyphenation at the ends of some lines lends to multiple suggestions. I especially like the “e-xotica.” This is very novel manipulation and underscores the juxtaposition of our current e-crazed phase of development with the birds. “Crummy-nals”? This bordered on being a little too cute for me and again a bit heavy-handed. Most of the piece seems like an accumulation of fragment; therefore, the piece feels very dense as one reads it, and its turns are quite labyrinthine. Those readers who do not bring a ball of string with them, may be eaten by the Minotaur.

All five sections of the book are preface by the prefatory poem Pursuit of the Whole & Parts. In this poem Tarn provides philosophical meditation of the relationship of the individual to the larger world-system outside of the individual. Tarn says that the perception of the general is not sufficient without the particulars to coincide with it. He goes further that it is the moment of those particulars crystallizing in a moment of gestalt where one can rationally pursue the general, the whole, the “firefly of spirit” again. Once that crystallization occurs it may recur in various forms, endlessly like the patterns of nature themselves. This sounds very much like the idea of “attractors” in non-linear dynamical systems. I wonder if this is what he may have had in mind as he tried to poeticize this concept. As a piece of poetry-philosophy, it is one of the finest in the book.

However, I would take issue with the line “the selfishness of the light-hearted, the cloud-walker, alone with his invisibles, his intangibles, all those angelic wings . . .” It seems to me that he might be thinking about a different concept of light-heartedness” than I am used to or he is attempting to excuse his own darkness as that which is necessary for the kind “firefly of the spirit” to arise. Perhaps because my own temperament seems to be so far from such heft which Tarn considers to be the opposite of selfishness, I object to this characterization or at least confess that I do not understand what Tarn means. But if rightly interpret Tarn as meaning that the considerate man is by all manners dark and brooding over his many unnamed and unrecognizable atrocities (which presumably would indict all contemporary urban humans), then I might detract from this position by pointing out a little light-heartedness sometimes can be a better teacher than the perpetual extolling about the woes of the world. Can one reach a point where one has witnessed too much?

Tarn’s project in Ins and Outs of Forest Rivers is that of the impassioned environmentalist who, seeing the horrible disfigurement of the natural world, will not go quietly into that good night. He has set upon a group of particulars that has locked into place as a conceptual whole. He gets the picture, and he is going to carry out his versification to that aim. Perhaps his age sets him toward the goal of preservationism. One tends to want to preserve everything. The hint of progress means the world is getting up and taking a few more steps without you. I remember this in my mother quite well, who, a few years before she died, took to standing out in front of a bulldozer and a contractor’s team which wanted to cut down a huge oak tree just off my parents’ property line in order to build a new road. She stood there in a showdown with them for three days until they got a court order for her to desist. When she told me about it, I was shocked that she had found such a passion for a tree. Assuredly, it was a beautiful tree, but I had hardly known my mother to put up a fight before this moment. In fact, she had idly stood by while my father had felled scores of trees in the past.

Hopefully, some day I will inherit some of her sentimentality.

I wanted to directly and vigorously connect in a prolonged manner with this book in the worst way, but I found in the fits and starts that I devoted to it, that I could not sustain any long sittings while reading it. I chipped away at the book and then came back to re-engage with some of the pieces. I think this is perhaps the way Tarn intended for it to be read. If it is not, I can only provide the usual excuses of not having sufficiently large blocs of time to dedicate to it or perhaps I am part of the “multitude not ready for elegant learning.” Or the attention span needs some Cialis. Whatever the case, Ins and Outs of the Forest Rivers is a book for anyone who tends to perk up when the conversation turns toward the abuses and devastation of man. Though it does not always seek to display the full variety of colors desired in elaborate plumage, it quietly instructs to adopt the colorful patience of birds, both overtly and as an object lesson.

Pam Ore —Grammar of the Cage

Posted in Victor Schnickelfritz on November 22, 2011 by Victor Schnickelfritz

How does one write about an imperfect world, a sick and tired and poisoned world that sets up numerous cages for its inhabitants? Indeed, Pam Ore in Grammar of the Cage [Les Figues Press] asks exactly this question: how can poetry function as transcendent when human success threatens so many species? A former zookeeper in Oklahoma City and Portland, Oregon, Ore is concerned with the status of caged animals, and the first section of the book provides meditations on zoo animals. But she understands that the earth is the human cage. Her project then for the rest of the book is tending to and caring for the earth the way a parent would care for a child with a bad case of the flu—the parent keeps acknowledging the strength of the child in order to counter the child’s misfortune, all the while waiting and hoping for the flu to run its course. Perhaps, Ore, though, would change the diagnosis from bad flu to inoperable cancer.

The fact that Ore ranges from experiential narratives to meditations on nature (which often run to the extreme of being overtly surreal and dream-like) to curious poems as language games à la L=A=N=G=U=A=G=E school makes this a collection that never gets fusty or drab. There is much intelligence and alertness that surface. However, the main chorus that is heard throughout the book is the deep and sincere feeling of empathy for the earth. At times the appeals are made with such raw emotion that they paint Ore as someone devoted to the doctrine of PETA, which for all its bravery and progressive thinking about the place of animals in the human world, too often displaces human concerns for those of animals. An indication of this mindset in Ore’s book is the near complete lack of human actors in the book. In only one poem, “Kitchen at 2319 E. Park Place,” does the 3rd person “she” appear to address a human form and then only as a foil to illustrate human misunderstanding of the speaker. Elsewhere in “November/Screaming” the “she” appears, but in this poem the “she” refers to the sun.

The 2nd person “you” appears a couple of times, but it never refers to a specific speaker, just a generalized one. A reader might conclude that the speaker is a very lonely one, one who has replaced human interaction with that of beasts and flowers and the vicissitudes of nature. At times, in fact, Ore seems contemptuous of all human effort and institutions as in “Cutting Up Tamba” where after the mercy killing of a diseased hippopotamus, the speaker refers to “researchers and scientists [who] moved in like a cloudbank, with wishlists and priorities.” The speaker is distraught by this demand when, later, the speaker says “[we] began cutting up Tamba into scientific and renderable pieces.” The double entendre on the word “renderable” suggests there is disdain for scientific analysis by equating its aims and goals as nothing more than exploitative in the way that rendering plants exploit the death of animals. One might ask if any human interaction is legitimate.

In “Scatter Creek, September” the antipathy is made explicit by the speaker:

Trust the grass,
the rusting oak.
Lie down there,
where the sun goes
on blue wings.

Dry wind blows away
the yellow flowers
of love for people,
bares pods and seeds
for the thirsty tongues of bees.

It should be no surprise then that at the end of the poem “extinction [begins] sing[ing] in the brush.” Perhaps the exclusive attention paid to the non-human realm is exactly the point of this book though. If earth is the human cage, then Ore is ticking off the items that comprise its grammar and lamenting the loss of its proper usage like a community college English instructor.

Sometimes the juxtaposition of the human world against the natural world becomes heavy handed like in “Spring Cedars.”

Wrens settle battles
over shade territories
with song.

Humans slit the clean
throats of trees.

This criticism aside, there is exceptional facility within this idiom. The natural world is invoked in a way that reflects deep understanding of its mannerisms. Ore effortlessly strings together images from the natural world in sonically rich and sometimes surrealist turns of phrase. In “Wind Light Leaves,”

These twigs weave valid walls
and vines handle
the leaves’ wages.

This night a swan will stand
inside a well
and idle wings will seal the halls
we gave tall wind.

When we tell and need these veils,
a seed digs its shell in silt,
while light, leaving in waves,
heals and heaves night.

Still, white hills lean into view:
we live elated, with delight we swing
new and even. At last the wide weeds
have shed their sting,

and I sing with living
in all this wind,
seeing all this light
and all these leaves.

In these near forays into animism, sound seems to have as much sway as sense. Certainly the sensibility here is one that peoples the wild. The qi’s signature is in the leaves and the light. One can almost imagine the pre-dawn of man apes thinking this poem without any words. Ore is aiming for an almost pre-literate sensibility in many of her most rapturous poems about the natural world.

In “Saint. Say It.” she writes:

some would say the saints
needed lithium
for these same days in the name
of human love that fling you
armless, alone
into a night borne by the blue
petals of gentians

you see the grace
there is in a day & sometimes
you succeed in naming it even
while hummingbirds
suck out your brains
through the flowers that are
your ears

if you are flung and running
into this night and find
beauty in the rain
that sinks through you
if you find the stars
beading up on your forehead
as you sniff out the fragrance
of saints

you live with a heart
that beats you to death

a hive for a mind
and lungs that barely pull you
to being

dependent
as they are

on the air
shared
with the lungs of warblers,
mice and kinglets

and the generous
exhalations of flowers

The speaker is becoming earthen. There is a figurative and literal move to be one with the earth. The speaker has negated itself as human form. All that remains of the human are the curious little trails of language that are left on the page which serve as the last remnants of the human realm, the cage, if you will, that no longer contains the human.

This is perhaps the central guiding theme of the book, the notion that language serves as the defining attribute that separates human from animal. It is the bars on the cage, and these bars do not permit animals from entry into the domain of humans. In “Grammar of the Cage,” she captures this idea most explicitly.

I want to say how it was, because it happens
without words, without time,
the kind of time implied in sentences, the kind

built into language, the cagewire of our brains.
Somehow you can go between noun and verb
as between bars, with calm intention and usually sideways.

Language time has a beginning and an end,
a producer and a receiver. Non-language time
is something produced between us, in endless collaboration.

When I see the bears behind the blue bars,
and know language put them there,
what should I let stay unsaid, unprojected,

and what must I pull through myself
to help humans imagine a different
perspective? What is it I should not write

in order to give the earth half a chance?

In this piece Ore sets out to show how language is also a weapon, the product of the objectifying thought of humans that marks the world in terms of “this” and “other.” It is this sensibility that Ore ultimately finds discomfiting. She feels that if the earth is to stand “half a chance” then somehow the human tendency (do we dare say instinct?) to objectify must be eliminated. However, Ore’s take on this is a little confusing. She defines “language time” as finite, yet non-language time is produced in collaboration. This would suggest that there is exchange of information in this collaboration; otherwise there would just be signaling in the dark. Perhaps I am being too picky about my definition of “language,” but this in a very great sense suggests that there is a language being developed in this ad hoc collaboration. It may be a language of gestures or even a pheromonal language, but this is language nonetheless. It, therefore, seems odd to me that Ore, whose attention is so riveted to the life of animals, would fail to make this distinction. It is confusing why she would privilege human communication over what many would see as the more honest communication of gesture and scent. On this note, I am uncertain what the line “When I see bears behind the blue bars,/ and I know language put them there” means. This seems to negate that the animals have their own language. On first reading I presumed that the language referred to was human language that put them there. There was something particular and special about human language that inscribed animals as other, as lesser. One might surmise this is what Ore means when she says language has put the bears in the cage, but it is not clear even though it probably needs to be. After all, Ore seems to be making an indictment of (human?) language, but one is left wondering what the specific harm is that has been issued.

One of the most exciting aspects of Grammar of the Cage is how Ore incorporates some poems that are virtually linguistic constructions and are designed to be meditations on the structure of language with poems that are her meditations on the natural world. [Les Figues Press deserves credit for taking on these two disparate styles within the covers of one book. Too often poetry publishers are of a mind that poems should be of one stylistic piece.] While the language is breaking down in some of her magical language of the natural world, the pieces that are language constructions serve as tall and dark edifices. Some of the language games she plays are lighthearted, such as in “Pop Quiz,” where she mimics the different parts of a school test with directions to the reader to “fill in the blanks” or “match” or “circle the true answer.” This piece as it asserts its absurdity is meant to question the validity of the rational excesses of the human mind. Other pieces like

XXX
XXX
XXX

xscience
is the opposite of
Silence.x

xthrough measured sequences
of neglect, separation and intervention,
I constantly kill you.x

xIf: I can write an alphabet,
Then: I can make a cage.
Language is the key singing in the lock.x

Trees and the lack of them
are an underlying structure,
an architecture of poetry.

Apples hang in the morning fog,
redden the scarves of trees.
Who will do the night’s laundry?

xI killed you with direct observation,
thesis questions,
discovery and publication.x

xWords do not apply to everything.x
x x
Let these words point towards the roots of spaces left

to realms beyond scientific inquiry,
let them serve as stars’ noise, as sanctuary,
not zoo

x

are both an overt look at language’s impact and an object lesson of how the presence/absence of language behaves. The X’s almost suggest targets where X marks the spot. Again, Ore displays her disdain for observation and analysis. She prefers the realm of the magical, the pre-rational often associated with the poetic. Yet is her inclusion of these kinds of poems complete with their thesis-like utterances an acknowledgment that there can be no escaping this outlook? The speaker in the book seems to be trapped by objectifying language every bit as much as humanity is. In fact, the moments of magic language that occur when the speaker is engaging with the natural world seem to be punctuated by the experimental brainy pieces. These are Ore’s dominant modes in the book. However, she manages one piece which is an amalgam of these two modes, an interesting direction for Ore to have pursued.

Evening

Now that the air is let out of despair
a moth is flying out of my mother.

My path leads straight to apathy
and humans sound like humming.

Sacred things are filled with red,
thinking requires ink

and my brain is composed of 80% rain.
I feel the harm in harmony,

how numbers are numb, and how this
is the eve in forever.

In “Evening” Ore manages to successfully merge her “soft” side with her “hard” side in a way that produces a satisfying poem at the level of sound and image as well as exist as a statement of her controlling idea in the book.

All in all, Pam Ore’s Grammar of the Cage is an ambitious effort for its generous inclusion of disparate styles and its expeditions into the realm of the undisclosed minds that linger solely within the animal world. Her passion for the questions she raises about the human relationship to animals is notable, and the conclusions she draws about this relationship, though at times a bit vague, exhibit a strong penchant for doing right by the earth and its animals, sentiments which cannot be stated too often or with too much certainty.

—Victor Schnickelfritz

Kathryn Cowles — Eleanor, Eleanor, Not Your Real Name

Posted in Victor Schnickelfritz on November 21, 2011 by Victor Schnickelfritz

Kathryn Cowles’s Eleanor, Eleanor, Not Your Real Name is a book in which a good deal of effort is made to carve out a space for a person who does not exist. Or does she? The main concept guiding the book is whether the imagined Eleanor (who emerges little bit by little bit over the course of the book as an imagined character rather than a real person whom the author is addressing) is not the same as the author herself. The question that lingers is whether Eleanor is the author’s alter-ego or not. The details of Eleanor’s life are so closely observed and confidently enumerated that one assumes an intimacy between the author and Eleanor that hints at the lack of distance between the two.

About Eleanor

1) was small and is still for all I know
2) the wart under her lip looked like a beauty mark
3) was a beauty ad still is for all I know
4) a beauty with a limp
5) was always dusted with dirt; during a stint at a bakery it was flour
6) could climb trees well; her smallness was an asset
7) one leg nearly always broken
8 broken or with a limp
9) brown hair
10) at leant one of her bones came from a donor
11) legs unshaven, like trees in the wild
12) could ride her bicycle downhill when her leg was broken, but not back up
13) not a swimmer, but able to swim; superior floater
14) on Sundays we would float down on a mossweedy stream and when churchgoers walked by, we’d duck under the water and breathe through reeds
15) they could still see us, of course; that was not the point
16) was a knitter, scarves and hats
17) one summer we planted a purple petunia behind some bushes in memory of our favorite swingset, removed for safety; we watered the petunia at night in secret until someone found it and pulled it up as a weed
18) green eyes, greeeennnn, with extra eeeeees and nnnnns, slivers-of-triangle iris her strongest muscle of all
19) needless to say
20) was allergic to cashews; craved cashews
21) was a painter and is still for all I know
22) purchased thrift-store paintings just to paint over the canvases
23) sometimes all white or all red or all green
24) was not really called Eleanor
25) that part’s mine

Preceding by several years the current Facebook craze of listing 25 random things about oneself, Eleanor is treated to an eerily bio-like exposé here. The knowledge of detail about Eleanor’s life spans quite a bit of time. The author has known Eleanor through many life instances, activities and preferences. Already from this poem that appears early in the book one is assuming that the author has practically lived inside of Eleanor’s pocket.

The tension between author and Eleanor is continued on the next page in a poem entitled “Eleanor is Generous” that begins “She gives me a Catholic upbringing. She gives me a father who couldn’t read and a grandmother with hard candies stuffed in her bosom. She gives me a toy truck.”

The equation between Eleanor and the author-speaker is established here. Eleanor is physically and psychically present. The lists of items about Eleanor lengthen, and one begins to see the I is an other held at arms length yet lovingly observed.

The following poem “Letter To Reuben #3” reveals the following information: “Some things I remember that you don’t.” This sets up the expectation that there is not an exact equivalence between speaker and Eleanor. One is teased back into the notion that Eleanor is a third party, perhaps a real person whom the speaker knows exceptionally well.

In following poems we learn that Eleanor is a “painter of portraits,” laying another scrim on the game of identity tag we are watching. Who is it? Are we watching a portrait being painted? A self-portrait? The instability of the self that is Eleanor is writ large.

The biographical details keep coming about Eleanor and Kathryn (which we can presumably map on to the author . . . or can we?). There is Paul and Andy, a former friend/lover to Kathryn/Eleanor. Brian is the husband of Kathryn. We learn the speaker is not herself . . . that she is “the same yourself.” As a reader, one feels trapped inside a soap opera that is trying to be a lot like the movie Syriana with its many different personas and personages interacting with each other. However, unlike the movie, the strands of self are never completely sorted. One must persevere as reader with the uneasy feeling that a conclusion will not be wrung out of the book as it weaves its labyrinth of persona and projection, split personality and hard identity.

This is either annoying as a reader or a great liberation. For some readers I suspect that the inability to pin down who is who will frustrate the way it frustrated my wife when she watched Syriana. After 45 minutes she decided that the task of washing the dishes was more urgent and certainly more comprehensible.

For me, the thing that made the book most compelling during this game of pin-the-tail-on-the-author is how Cowles racks up personal detail to portray the sense of a life lived. The experiential is magnified and submitted to the thrills of the kaleidoscope. One is not sure how the pattern will change with each poem in the sequence.

However, as its strength, the details (in many poems just flat out listed) make for an interesting display, a racking up of mileage points in the body of another. However, as singular units the poems are not particularly exciting to read on the level of language used. Many read as laundry lists of self or to-do lists for the newly inhabited persona.

At times I found it discouraging how poems would end with another detail instead of trying to bring the speaker to a more reflective place about the nature and condition of being within the hall of mirrors that is the self. Of course, it is quite fashionable to resist making the big statement, the philosophical entreaty which might provide some distance on the self that has been created. Cowles’s depiction of self seems to say: just give me the stuff of self, the mounds of experience, and I’ll sort it out later when I have time.

Over the course of the book, though entertained as I was, I began to long for a more canny speaker that was self-aware of the predicament and willing to risk commentary on it, to attempt a psychological review. Perhaps to do so would have meant the game was up, that a centered self had been identified and pinned down. Eleanor and her many manifestations, however, do not wish to be pinned down. The game is to be played until the final buzzer.

The poems work within the concept of the book, but standing alone, they do not make much of an impact. [In fact, only two of the poems appeared in literary journals . . . this could be a result of Cowles’s not sending them out]. I can’t remember one particular piece in my readings that struck me as the poem that a reader could step back and say “That was the quintessential poem in the book in the way it summed up all the rest.” Each poem is an integral part of the overall effect. This is why the book hangs together so well. Each poem seems crafted to further the central idea of a slippery persona that may or may not be the author herself

As I think about the flatness of language and the accumulation of detail in the poems, I wonder if this strategy (if it is a strategy) has the effect of not making any of the poems “identifiable” in the same way that neither Eleanor/Kathryn in the poems is clearly distinguishable from each other.

Cowles very successfully chooses different modes by which to approach the concept of the slippery Eleanor. At the end of section 1 Cowles employs and interview with Eleanor in which the interviewer lobs a question at Eleanor that she is supposed to answer with full candor. The Eleanor character is not up to the task. She purposefully evades the sincere answer, then at the end arrives at the mock conclusion that “you can learn a lot about a person by asking.” Of course, the aim of the poem is to illustrate that she is not sincere about this claim either.

As events unfurl during the course of the book, Cowles takes great effort to level all events to the same level of impact. None has any greater impact than any other. In “Poem with Real Historic Event at its End” she says “Here is my historic event: One of my hairs got stuck to your shoe.” Later she confesses that this historic event wasn’t so historic. Finally, the poem ends on the note of the death of a famous person. The speaker realizes, “I never had to hang around my house with him dead before.” One can almost hear Mike Myers in the background saying “No big whoop.”

So, Cowles has killed off the singular psychology and the historical event . . . or at least brought them out onto the field of play.

The very next poem after “Poem with Real Historic Event at its End” finds the poem “Requiem in Five Parts” which is dedicated to Paul Cowles. Is this a family member? one wonders. The poem is delivered in first person and there is no winking at another voice in this poem. It is told with an affection for the dead man. The speaker effects some lovely details about this man before his funeral, but the final parting comment on the poem is about how the speaker’s will to see him flags because she assumes he had died heavy. While the word heavy here is loaded down by several valences, it is hard not to read this at face value as another attempt to reduce the life down to biographical detail found on a driver’s license: height, weight, eye color. The other meaning of heavy suggests that his life was one full of pain and burdens carried. The superficiality that pivots with heartfelt empathy on this use of “heavy” draws one back to the notion that there is duplicity in a single word.

The multiplier effect continues in Section 3 of the book. The title of the poem “Telling Eleanor from Eleanor” suggests that finally the author will reveal the real historical truth about the identities of Eleanor. The subtitle even states this explicitly.

in which the author describes how, though she has not seen them in the same room together, she knows they are not the same person.

The author, of course, like a good trickster, does not describe this at all. She makes comparisons between two Eleanors which enhance the confusion. Again she turns to equivocation; this time with the word “them.” One is left to wonder who the them is referring to. The two Eleanors? the father of Eleanor? Cowles is letting the conundrum hang out there, reveling in the lack of definition.

A sample page from a dictionary then intrudes on the next page of the book masquerading as “poem” with the definitions of the words Elamite, elán, elapsed time, elastic, elasticized, elect, electric. Through this juxtaposition Cowles raises the prospect of words having as multiple and slippery definitions as people. Eleanor, Eleanor is definitely rich with different media representations. Despite its adherence to largely experience in the content of the poems, the forms and strategies she employs inform the reader that she is savvy about how the structure of texts impacts experience, how one’s life becomes mediatized by the page.

The leveling of events in the book roots itself in a touch of graphomania. The speaker/author is aware of this in “No Name #3”

A handful of decimated raspberries
and I am writing it down again all of it
I can and you are peeling
oranges in the kitchen

And on the eighth day god said: Everything shall be reported. Cowles is aware of this tendency, and she seems to champion it from the perspective of a generation that understands every bit of information is weighed the same as every other bit of information. In the digital age everything has the same value as information as any other information.

Is this a tip of the hat to
Kenny Goldsmith?

What seems psychologically false about this is that with experience one tends to value certain experiences over others. One selects on the basis of their curiosity, their emotional impact. Then one goes to sleep at night and the counters are reset. Still, certain experiences leak through to the next day, to the next week, the next year. Enough of them leak through and you have the semblance of a “self.” Perhaps this explains why the self has become so diffuse, so dissipated in Eleanor, Eleanor. In the absence of giving priority to events, in selecting out for some value, the self withers on the vine.

Without insight can the health of the self ever be improved? Consider:

Poem containing a line from a song

Let’s say I broke up my heart again. Let’s
say it’s my own idiot fault. Let’s say that
although it was my heart, when it broke, I
felt it in my stomach, like when I see a
snake, and that it lasted for half an hour, and
that I saw it coming.

Let’s say I got stitches in my side again for
the first time in months when I was running
the next day, like leftover slivers stuck on
m insides, let’s say, it’s the aftershake that
wrecks the weakened sidewalk hours later.
Not the earthquake.

I saw the Northern Lights for the first time
from an airplane flying over an ocean, green
and cold and cold and moving arbitrarily.
Brian was asleep.

Aurora Borealis, the icy sky at night

That’s right.
That’s it exactly.

The last line seems to agree with Neil Young and not with any of Young’s pithy insights in his song but with just a bit of his description. This is what a poem delivers, description? Clearly Cowles is expressing a fatigue with insight. In this world a thing is exactly what it seems. A cigar is just a cigar, of course, except when it isn’t, like with Eleanor. Is Cowles deliberately hinting at this tension with this strategy?

Section 4 of the book becomes much more lyrical. An unaffected I begins to appear in full form. There is even a heartfelt poem to Uncle Paul entitled “Wake” which provides a little more back story to the man who was grieved previously in “Requiem in Five Parts.” The tone is much more nostalgic here. The speaker seems much more codified. The scenes remain intact without intrusions from the contemplation of Eleanor. But right after that piece Eleanor does intrude again in “El El El Eleanor”:

2

Eleanor is a stutter I keep spitting her
Ella el Elenea N nn nor either or
everything I say

The alter-ego as stutter. Persona is speech impediment. Given the penchant for flippancy from Cowles, we can hardly believe this is a serious declaration. And so we move on.

Section 5 of the book is the conclusion to the drama of whether Eleanor is who the author says she is or whether the author can continue the ruse that she is wholly other than distinctly real. Will ephemeral Eleanor materialize in the back of a pickup headed towards the Mexican border wearing another woman’s boots and clothes? Confused yet? Stay tuned. You are beginning to enter entirely into this book’s aesthetic.

The soap opera aspect of the book continues. Brian, whom the speaker was married to earlier in the book gives way to Geoff, who is clearly the new love interest in the speaker’s life. Meanwhile, Eleanor is sighted with a body. She is beginning to materialize again as she had in the 1st section, not just a phantom lingering in the margins. The speaker is writing postcards to her as Eleanor ambles off in a distant land (is that New York City?). We are told that the speaker and Eleanor are two ships that passing the night at the very end of the book:

today some signs you left
on my porch chair
a hair a page from the Bible
the core of an apple
and you threw dandelions into my yard
next time stay longer at least just until I come back please don’t go.

So it is unresolved, this specter of Eleanor.

The first time I read the book I was confident in my reading that Cowles had signaled a congruence between herself as author and Eleanor, but on 2nd reading I’m not sure that Cowles, in her insistence in distancing herself from Eleanor at the end, isn’t positing her as a real entity whose imagined form holds sway in the material world. The immaterial, like language, is made manifest as concrete entity. It constructs reality, even a persona or two . . . maybe one for a friend if you’re feeling generous. This is the constructivist view of language as opposed to the evidentiary view of language that has language specifically relating to the tangible world. While arguably both views are important and mutually reinforcing, it has been suggested that the constructivist notion of language should enjoy primacy as the main part of the poet’s concern. Some suggest that perhaps the constructivist approach should be the exclusive domain of the poet. Poesis should prevail over mimesis. To dwell in such an outlook for too long, it seems, is to risk the physical health of the poet. A solely linguistic construction simply doesn’t have enough fiber, and then later on in the day, you’ll see that avoiding the dictates of the tangible is what causes so many poets to fare poorly in a fistfight.

More pointedly, in the case of Eleanor, Eleanor the elaborate construction of Eleanor that Cowles has endeavored to create is alluring in how it attempts to carve out a place for the imaginary alongside the ordinary pots and pans and potted plants. My questions is whether it does so at the expense of how selves apparently function in most functional adults. Are there not many stable points in the construction of the self that allow for one to get through the day? I think I’d get pretty confused at the grocery store if I thought Eleanor was going to tag along and interrupt my thoughts, to appear and disappear, as it were. In the end I wonder if this notion of alter-ego/constructed persona in continual flux has veracity.

I’d venture that Cowles is not trying to leave the reader with some big gestalt at the end about what the experience of the whole book was about. This would probably strike her as beside the point, perhaps even absurd.

Cowles, who might be watching (or is it just my construction of Cowles who is watching?) steps back and says, “Dude. You missed the whole point. Just relax and enjoy the book. Let your thoughts flow into it, into the moment. You don’t have to fake an intellectual orgasm for me.”

But if no intellectual orgasm, what then is the use of all this foreplay?

Thylias Moss — Tokyo Butter

Posted in Victor Schnickelfritz on November 21, 2011 by Victor Schnickelfritz

I remember a graduate seminar at the University of Minnesota for Professor Bruce Lincoln’s discourse analysis class. Lincoln was a tough-minded, straight talkin’ son of a gun, and he would quickly disabuse you of any notion you might have that was even the slightest bit fluffy. But he was willing to take on all comers despite their area of expertise. For the final project of the class we assembled at this home and listened to various students give a talk or presentation. One woman from the theater department began her project that I believe had something loosely to do with the notion of the construction of identity. She sat down with an array of greasepaints and a mirror. She proceeded to apply one layer of paint to another, going through the changes of several different hues, until her face was very dark. Then she continued to reverse the darkening by lightening her face with many more applied layers of paint, each time dabbing on a little bit more until the hue of her face had lightened considerably. This process continued for some 30 or 40 minutes while the rest of us patiently watched her apply make-up to herself. Certainly we had gotten the gist of it after 5, but it was interminable. We all agreed that what she was doing may have been art, but we weren’t sure whether it was something we could ever tolerate watching again.

So it is with Thylias Moss in Tokyo Butter. The amount of infinitesimal detail from the lived life of the speaker (presumably Moss herself) and Deidre (or is it Deirdre), a dead cousin, offered up in the space of the book is mind-numbing. I haven’t experienced such a blankness of mind since I read Geraldine Kim’s Povel, another book that nodded toward the great concept but whose execution of it left me baffled. Tokyo Butter is no Povel, thankfully. Moss is much more generous, and occasionally, when she departs from chronicling every last angstrom traversed in her life, she provides some interesting forays into other materials, not the least of which is the work of Utamaro and the method by which Paul Tessier devised his surgical techniques on the skull.

These bits are swirled together with so much other ephemera that they are lost in the shuffle. When Moss does focus on them, it is for just a brief moment and then they are gone. Sometimes they reappear later in another context. Often they do not. All of the info-bits dumped into her long lines serve to illustrate the concept and theory behind her work, something she calls Limited Fork Poetics. From the back of the book (though you can read the entire thesis [“A Generalized Mapping of Limited Fork Poetics as of May 2006”]) she writes:

Limited Fork Poetics (LFP) believes that Poetry is a complex adaptive system, and because of that, page is unrestricted, and means “location of the poem.” Some poems will inhabit places for which there is not yet means of detection or interpretation. A dynamic poem is event, occurs in time, and in its totality includes all versions, all thought that the person encountering a form of the poem supplies—this can be a reader (who remakes the poem through interacting with it)or what is considered the primary maker (poet) of the poem. A dynamic poem is a system of poetry, so (shifting) interactions between the subsystems (all that the poem contains) is essential to making (mutable) meanings. A dynamic poem hosts interacting language systems(including sonic, aural, and visual forms besides/in addition to/instead of text). The activity of interacting systems takes place on all scales immediately. The landscape of a single poem can include multiple areas of constituents of the poem taking shape in multiple forms (including sonic, aural, and visual forms besides/ in addition to/ instead of text) simultaneously, in varying degrees of stability (forms of accessibility/incoherence). There is no definitive beginning or ending. A portion (or portions) of a poem is joined, is left in progress. Interactions at a given time help determine the observable stability or instability (and the perceived direction[s] of the activity). Metaphor is a tool of navigation that can enable instantaneous access to other event locations on any scale—akin to navigating wormholes. The journeys to and from what is considered the same metaphorical events may not be identical.

Amid the extensive pomo jargon and barrage of theoretical language, I derive the notion that Moss’s poems are supposed to be complex adaptive systems, which are inherently limitless and open to multitudes of artistic maneuvers (“the page is unrestricted”) and multitudes of interpretations. In short, the poem is the be-all and end-all of anything the poet or reader desires. However, my great concern is that in inscribing this space for free association and scripting, if it is determining anything at all. Certainly as I read large portions of Tokyo Butter and feel my mind go numb from the excess, I sense there is nothing to be determined. Perhaps this quavering vagueness is the feeling I am supposed to be having, but if it is, I wonder why this is the desired outcome for a reader.

Now I know that Moss is only invoking the term complex adaptive system in a very metaphorical manner and does not wish to be taken literally that her project is trying to create the equivalent of a complex adaptive system in poetry, but I wonder why this scientific terminology is invoked unless there is going to be some attempt to come to terms with and understand the real discipline that surrounds systems theory. Is this attachment to scientific language just an affectation?

For instance, it would have been useful to address some of the interesting qualities of complex systems such as what is noted in Duncan Watts’s excellent book for the lay reader Six Degrees: The Science of a Connected Age which discusses systems theory and complex adaptive systems with respect to economics and sociology. Towards the end of the book Watts provides this overview of some of his insights about networks:

claiming that everything is a small-world network or a scale-free network not only oversimplifies the truth but does so in a way that can mislead one to think that the same set of characteristics is relevant to every problem. If we want to understand the connected age in any more than a superficial manner, we need to recognize that different classes of networked systems require us to explore different sets of network properties. In some cases it may be sufficient to know simply that a network contains a short path connecting any pair of individuals, or that some individuals are many times connected better than others. But in other cases, what may matter is whether or not the short paths can be found by the individuals themselves. Perhaps it may be important that in addition to being connected by short paths, individuals are also embedded in locally reinforcing clusters, or that they are into so embedded. Sometimes the existence of individual identity may be critical to understanding a network’s properties, and at other times it may not be. Being highly connected may be of great use in some circumstances and of little consequence in others—it may even be counterproductive, leading to failures or exacerbating failures that occur naturally. Just like the taxonomy of life, a useful taxonomy of networks will enable one to unify many different systems and distinguish between them.

I fear that, as a system, what Moss has constructed in Tokyo Butter is neither complex nor adaptive. The result is more like a random graph, a system of nodes randomly connected together without respect for distance and likelihood of connectivity, rather than as small clustered groups tied together by a few overarching connections which is most often the characteristic of a complex adaptive system.

I could go on and question whether the “Limited Fork” has anything to do with bifurcation theory, but I know I would be taking what Moss offers in her theoretical speech way too literally. Though I must admit that bifurcation theory could be readily associated with the phase transition of a complex adaptive system. However, with Moss her Limited Fork poetics is, if anything, hardly very limited at all.

Moss does not make apologies for not recognizing boundaries. She sees her work as not recognizing any limitations because in putting up a limit in one’s work, one is privileging certain material that is included in the poem over other material that does not get in. Her project is a radical flattening of all material so that the most quotidian and droll information is not positioned any differently than “poetic language” that is immediately recognizable as such. It is a project of radical inclusion. It does this in order to avoid excluding anything. However, one person’s exclusion is another person’s selection. We all have preferences, and it is impossible to say that any work doesn’t have “symptoms.” isn’t symptomatic of certain things that draw our attention as opposed to others that don’t. I would go as far to say that all informational scanning has an aspect of selection associated with it. I do not randomly search for info when I jump on the net. It would take too long for me to come across something that might resonate with me, and I don’t have that much time on the earth to sift through all the info. Poetry, it seems to me, relies on some kind of selective attention for the reader to engage and trust the voice. Otherwise, one might get the same experience from a poem as one does by randomly clicking on hyperlinks, the flarfist’s game. I suspect that this kind of experience is not what poetry readers are looking for. But perhaps it is the experience of the radically distracted, those in perpetual need of being thrilled. Maybe this is who Moss is writing for, and she suffers only from a bit of a marketing problem by appealing to the more dull-witted poetry reader.

I might also offer the observation that Moss, like Geraldine Kim of Povel is not part of the WASP mainstream that is the dominant culture in the US, a dominant culture that puts up many roadblocks (read as “limitations”) to those who are not viewed as part of that mainstream. Both writers want to include everything in their work with particular emphasis on the minutiae of everyday life.. Is this a symptom of having so many limitations placed upon them that they may want to so radically unshackle themselves?

Without any limitations at all about what is included, readers must come to terms with the fact that any rendering of a life and its informational byproducts is on the same plain as any other. Anything that is collected is equal to anything else, perhaps even equal, by implication, to that which is not collected.

The effect is almost like one who is drunk on information, falling in love with it for the first time. So there is a great rush to include everything that is found like a beginning composition student just beginning to flush with excitement after discovering ProQuest or the Project Muse scholarly databases. What is even more pernicious is the fact that Moss dresses this up in a conceptual framework that justifies the practice. All is done in the name of a complex adaptive system that can adapt to any information thrown into it and, churned, (like butter, to use a much maligned metaphor of Moss’s in the book) will be integrated and functional. I felt like I was reading flarf at the paragraph level. Unlike flarf where short words and phrases were juxtaposed with other short words and phrases to produce an amusing word salad (wasn’t the point of flarf always irony?), Moss incorporates much larger blocks of information. Often this occurs without much metaphorical or thematic value being added. It is simple information dump offered in the name of poetry and expression. All of it goes to reaffirm what has become my growing suspicion: what goes on in the privacy of a person’s home is between her and her search engine.

But apart from this theoretical quibbling (though it is interesting to note how Moss, reminiscent of the best of the L=A=N=G=U=A=G=E movement, has dressed up her poems in a poetics that is potentially more enticing than her poetic output), I should try to say something about the poems themselves.

The central poem in the collection is “Deidre: A Search Engine.” This piece is an assemblage put together with the help of Google, something that Moss seems to refer to as a Google odyssey [so much for complex adaptive system; the main metaphor for this piece is “the trip”]. The “system” (assemblage) that Moss puts together is of a string of info-bits connected at the terminal ends to each other with the theme of the missing cousin Deirdre folded into the loose structure for the purpose of some semblance of coherence, a kind of hierarchical node that many parts of the system immediately relate back to.

One important aspect of the poem that makes it seem more like trip than system is the glaring absence of any kind of prolonged connection (except that of the Deirdre variety) between elements (read nodes) at the beginning part of the poem to those at the end. Apparently, all connections that tie in the superstructure of the poem must run through Dierdre. This, as I have mentioned before, is not a quality of a complex adaptive system. Complex adaptive systems generally employ more connection between sub-nodes. They do not all connect back to the primary node. Such a system architecture is inefficient. The basic architecture for this piece is of the thread with a few connectors to the main theme (main node) of the missing Deirdre.

Another manner in which the poems and book fail to serve as complex adaptive systems through their structure is if we consider the notion of node failure. Often within systems, if a particular node fails, then a cascade effect will occur which will eventually make the system shut down. An example of this might be with the electrical grid. If an important node goes down within the electrical grid, the excess capacity is pushed onto another part of the network and thus makes it more susceptible to failure. And if this second connection in the grid goes down, then even that much more capacity will have to be transferred.

Let us look at how the poem “Diedre: A Search Engine” is structured. [Pardon my crude Photoshopping.]

If one agrees that this is how the poem is structured, with the main node of “Deirdre” being the point of connection for all of the subsystems of the poem, then what would happen if that main node would be knocked out? I would argue that system failure would be inevitable. There is no considerable linking between the lower orders of the system.

I will quote from John H. Miller and Scott Page’s book on Princeton University Press Complex Adaptive Systems: An Introduction to Computational Models of Social Life

The behavior of many complex systems emerges from the activities of lower-level components.

Ostensibly, What Moss has created is a linear system with one hierarchical node.

This poem and Tokyo Butter as a whole lacks this kind of linking between subsystems (with the possible exception of the many references to flowers sprinkled within the poems . . . however these are usually just brief mentions and do not serve as any kind of prolonged attraction within the system of the poem). I can certainly imagine what a poem that might have more subsystem connections would look like, but with that kind of poem it would be difficult to talk of what it is about though I think most readers would be able to discern that a number of attractors were resonating with each other in interesting ways (and not in random ways).

On the other hand with a complex adaptive system:

Each of the subnodes has a considerable number of connections to other subnodes, which are, in turn, minimally connected to other sub-sub-nodes.

But, by indulging in a little bit of mathematics, we can begin to speak of how these systems operate.

According to Stuart Kauffman in The Origins of Order there are two important variables to consider:

N=the number of nodes within the system
K=the average number of inputs to each node in the system

When K=N (a situation where every node in the system is connected to every other node) this is a completely random system (in other words, a random graph). These systems are highly chaotic.

However, as the value for K approaches 2, the system undergoes a phase transition from being a disordered regime to being an ordered regime; in other words, order begins to crystallize. These systems are poised nearr the chaotic regime and are ones which possess the most ability to adapt (self-organize) yet are still fairly robust and stable. They are ones which closely resemble those of natural biological systems. They abide at the edge of chaos.

The system I have drawn above utilizes 20 nodes; therefore, N=20

There are 44 inputs to these 20 nodes; therefore, K=2.2. This system is slightly into the chaotic regime, but it is approaching the K=2 range that Kauffman mentions.

Also, quite puzzling to me is the manner of the connection in this assemblage. Many of the connections forged are quite random (Florence Nightingale—Florence, Alabama), (blue nightingale, blue tongue, blue mouth, blue tattoo, methylene blue, etc), (“Snow often articulates as feathery as implications of her name,” “the living snow,” “The best historic attempts to photograph snowflakes . . .”). It is almost as though one could have focused on any other noun or verb in the text and built up connections to other texts based on those nouns or verbs. For that matter, Moss might have focused on adverbs or articles. Though perhaps I am dense, I don’t very readily see how the various connections relate to each other with any semantic force. The connections between the items in the poems are done with no apparent interest in making anything other than surface connections. The main aesthetic value that Moss is going after in this approach seems to be raggedness (as one can glean from the aforementioned “A Generalized Mapping of Limited Fork Poetics as of May 2006.”

The structures formed by complex adaptive systems, even when they occur within bounded or regular spaces, tend toward manifestation (especially over time) of irregularities and unpredictable details (a kind of raggedness) possible
within the limits of the boundaries (that are [or become, for some interval of
time] generally fixed though not infallible or immutable or without signs of
wear, signs of consequences of existing) of dynamic events. Clouds, and trees
with their bifurcating root and branch systems at either end of a comparatively
linear trunk, are both examples of complex adaptive systems and products of
complex adaptive systems. Clouds tend to form within the boundaries of clouds
though the precise details of each cloud formation as it appears at various times
from various angles are not predictable. The same is true of the human body and
of most natural objects and natural systems.

This aesthetic of raggedness (in bold above) is prevalent and may go a ways to explain Moss’s lack of restraint. Some of the moves she makes can be seen as either endearingly idiosyncratic or outright embarrassing. Here is a section from “Deidre: A Search Engine” on page 95 right after one of her riffs on butter, where she ends that section with “These are cures in alternative medicine. / This is the way it should go. Butter residencies / in apothecaries”:

In under an hour, a man with one leg,
the best way to single him out of the crowd doing this,
carved an entire butter army

and then there was a contest to defeat it, and it was defeated,
and an entire army was in one stomach. The carver had carved
no weapons for his army. Every soldier
was a general soldier, nondescript

—necessary for the time constraint, the detail an hour could hold.

              They had no mouths.

Where he pushed in with fingernails, resulted at best in chins.

              They had no mouths.

In the end, he went home successful
until daybreak

              when the yellow flooded

        so thoroughly even his spirit

        was back in the butter

        so he took a bath.

I am at a loss to accurately decipher the tone of this offering. I am not sure if some of these lines are meant to be funny or not, like “he was back in the butter / so he took a bath.”Or is this just a documentation of the minutiae of a life? Is the whole butter army supposed to be taken at face value or is this a brief humorous jaunt? I’m sure the reader-response theorist will jump up and say—make of it what you want. [Note: I don’t think the reader-response theorist really wants me to do that for fear I might deface the page, write over lines, cross out large sections.] Similarly, on page 94 Moss writes “The vow of poverty taken on by yeast, / single cells in the budding Order Saccaromyces. / Yeast priests.” I’m pretty sure that this is supposed to be humorous rather than just a flight of fancy, and I hope that I am the only one who has to pause a moment to decipher the tone of that statement. But there are many other instances where Moss’s wordplay makes me uneasy about whether I should snicker or marvel at her linguistic play, her verbal agility. I am often caught in these similar moments when I read Heather McHugh. McHugh is a great biofeedback poet. I read her when I need to tell if I’m having a good time or not.

I am also curious why the spelling in the title “Diedre” does not correspond to the rest of the book where the spelling is “Deirdre.” Only one reference in the poem seems to speak to this:

[at various times, goat has translated as ghost, ghost as goat
          and continued after the error was exposed
          for the sake of poetry,
          for the beauty of leaks,
for the conquest possible only through translation]:

The main justification seems to be that this kind of variance can be exercised in the name of poetry. I guess I am supposed to be left wondering, and for that, I will be a better person for letting this question linger. Or perhaps the proofreader’s eyes glazed over.

I have looked at Moss’s earlier work from Slave Moth and The Last Chance for the Tarzan Holler, and in it she appears to show more restraint than she has in Tokyo Butter. I am able to derive more sustenance from those efforts. Perhaps I should stop trying to eat poems and just be inside them.

There is a good deal of exciting research that comes up from a variety of sources. During the course of reading Tokyo Butter I have learned terms like williwaw and druse, vitiligo and arowanas. These multi-syllabic gems are impressive. I have used williwaw to impress the mail carrier and the neighbor’s exterminator already. At this molecular, if not sub-atomic level, Moss delivers. But just as often Moss will torture many of the words/subjects she uses by making them undergo fantastical transformations. A good example of this is in “The Culture of Snowmen” where the snowmen seem, like the majority of Moss’s oeuvre, to have no limits. This is the delimited snowman, atomized, then put back together. With all of this fantastical morphing, the metaphor of the snowman (to stand in for human men?) becomes unstable. Again, the raggedness.

There are times when her selection seems right on, like in this passage in “The Magnificent Culture of Myopia”

our whole house of sons, drums,
saxophones, keyboards, replicas of hippos, and canaries
are now beneficiaries of peaches, heirs of fuzz,
scant fur of beginner mold about to bless
bread with blue beards

Other times, I find myself wading through my exasperation at the verbal flourishes:

and my presence     which must be dealt with     gets churned into
the meaning of what occurs there.
Assumptions butter the mind         or coat it so that
what it doesn’t want can’t easily get through: butter barrier
greased pig thinking         but once on your skin
butter can feel like your own secretion, your own rich oil:
bounty ooze     crown melt  —if only there was toast
in the picture, deli buns, biscuits, croissants, beignets
more obvious reasons to lay it on thickly, but sticks of butter
come architect-ready to build a house, plantation columns
and nothing is easier to sculpt
than pale butter skin all the way through, bone-free, dull knives
glide renewed,       resuscitated: ghee glee.

Come to think of it, the exasperation occurs at a ratio nearly 5 to 1 with respect to those times I am imagistically or sonically satisfied. What is wrong with me? Let’s see. Butter is churned. It butters the mind and puts a protective barrier over it so that nothing can penetrate. This is similar to the secretion of the sebaceous gland. Then toast is introduced (and other delicious bakery items). Then the butter is used as building blocks, which quickly transforms us back to the notion of butter as skin.

All of this one in one stanza. One stanza in a poem that lingers for four pages, offering us more of the same along the way. God help us if Moss ever develops a penchant for rhyme as she does for metaphor. The result would put Dr. Seuss to shame.

Also with her venture into Limited Fork Poetics, Moss has begun to put together multimedia presentations of her work. This page at Limited Fork provides a collection of this work. One of the pieces that is posted thereThe Culture of Funnel Cake [mp3] is taken from Tokyo Butter. Moss’s son, Ansted, provides the background keyboard and Moss proceeds to half-sing/half-chant every line. The recording does not extend to reflect the entire 9 page poem. This self-described elliptical offering seems to meander in phase space between the abscissa of women who wait too long to realize their fertility and the ordinate of the dominant state of living things.

While Moss provides an interesting direction with her POAMs [products of the act of making—read as “improvised ad hoc pieces”] that fuse spoken/chanted word, manipulated images and ethereal keyboard soundtrack, I find that these “systems” also tend to make my mind drift for their bricolage approach to making videos. However, because she is one of the few poets out there willing to venture into the videopoem world in academia, she should be entitled to carve out her trace in a world where conventions are minimal. She seems to embrace the “go for it” spirit with these efforts. Sometimes, though, like with her poems, the presentations seem overly long. For example, I challenge anyone to listen to [The Song of Iota] with anything like full attentiveness.

With so much of the videopoem seeming like it owes a credit to the 30-second spot, I can’t help wondering if there aren’t lessons to be learned from the advertising industry for videopoem makers. Moss decidedly undermines all of that by diffusing the attention of the watcher. Her videopoems seem to be the antithesis of locating power squarely at the center of the presentation. [Yet it is curious how many of Moss’s videopoems feature images of herself.] She seems unconcerned if we get the tag line. She uses the language of “interacting language systems” to describe the multi-layered vocalizations. Another word for this might be cacophony. The effect of simultaneity is achieved. Again, though, I question the “interaction” of the utterances. Often there seems to be a talking-at-cross-purposes that is going on. I suppose this brings us back to Moss’s prevailing aesthetic of raggedness.

The raggedness defines the POAM, and it defies the description of poem as a consumable. I guess I can’t help wanting the poem as it is performed to be something that is ultimately reflective of experience, something where a person can say “this is what happened”rather than the poem as happening itself. I never understood rave culture either. But strangely enough, I have found the work of the Situationists to be interesting grist for the mill . . . perhaps because the cultural critique was sharpened in their presentations. Too often I get the feeling that Moss’s POAMs are advertisements for herself or the technology she uses. Or both.

Perhaps I am stubbornly boneheaded in my thinking that a poem is a “speech act,” one which reflects a community of speech acts and tries to place itself within that community by connecting to the history of those speech acts. I’m sure that puts me firmly within the grasp of tradition in the eyes of someone like Moss, but I don’t really feel like a traditionalist.

It is interesting to me that the types of inflection Moss uses in her videopoems are that of a somewhat melodic chant and a voice-in-slow-motion when she wants to underscore words for their weight. There is no throwing of one’s voice or snarkiness or any other kind of affect in her voice. In this manner, the renditions of her poems seem disconnected with the community of speech acts that I mentioned above. I suspect, though, that these observations of mine would be met with a rejoinder that poems are not “acted, “ but spoken. I would like to welcome anyone who makes such a rejoinder to go see a poetry slam. There is where poetry meets drama. The spectacle is upon one there, but I, usually, am not there. However, I am advocating for a larger vocabulary of vocal presentation than melodic chant/song and straight spoken “reading” voice.

As I look back onto what I have written about Tokyo Butter, I realize that I have been fairly harsh in my comments and criticisms. I wish also to applaud Moss’s individual spirit that makes her go it her own way. She deserves credit for acting on her vision for the possibilities of what a poem could be or should be. She trusts her own imagination in ways that few dare to emulate. Certainly I am not as daring. I don’t want to seem as if I don’t get her brave new world. But perhaps I don’t. Perhaps my resistance to her work is also because I have spent so much time thinking about how the ideas of those who are pioneering the new science of networks relate to contemporary poetry. I think it is important that if one invokes those ideas, even in the process of making them one’s own, one is responsible for upholding the integrity of those ideas and really coming to understand them, not just appropriating them for the sake of artistic expression. For me, poetic license doesn’t extend that far.

Like everything else, treading on another’s territory, in this case the intellectual territory of network science, is more bearable if it is done with some appreciation for what is there and what has been established. If not, then such appropriation looks more like a wildly exploitative move. Or worse yet, a dalliance. A whim that that fails to take the efforts of others into consideration.

Peter Richards — Oubliette

Posted in Victor Schnickelfritz on November 20, 2011 by Victor Schnickelfritz

While most seem content on labeling Peter Richards as a kind of classic surrealist, I’m not sure that there aren’t other elements at play, particularly the kind of language play and breakdown of language that some deconstructionist/LANGUAGE poets might employ.

There can be no doubt that Richards’s insistence on focusing on surreal image is central to his work. However, the quality of his image making is more subtle than the kind of Breton/Peret/James Tate kind of surrealist image-making. Most of the items that are invoked are “poetry” items, a small inventory of natural items (items like weather, haze, buried hand, seaponds in “On the Dangers of Reading Alone”) There seems to be almost a kind of primitivism attached.There are very few specific references to proper nouns of the modern world. In fact, many of the characters invoked seem like imagined personages (The Some-whats, Barbelo the Virgin, Hebdomadal, the Fourth Book of Nathan, Shutesbury,”In Between Jed and Yeul,” “Castrovalva”) Mythical places, people.

“Paradise: Directions For Reading” (26) seems to give instructions to a reader about how to read, but sets these instructions up as discrete scenes, as though the act of reading is a drama in itself. Many of these directions seem like ars poeticas. They are meditations on the act of writing “the line.” A “narrator’s glide” is invoked. This seems like an apt description of what he is doing. The narrative impulse glides to the next set of images, but it hasn’t completely cast aside the possibility of story [in this way it maintains its sense of orality).He keeps stepping laterally, associatively.

These poems seem to want to be spoken. This might be a point of difference from classic surrealism because Breton et al. didn’t seem to care too much about how close to regular speech his verse would come. In fact, the more extravagant, the more he would proclaim this as emblematic of the kind of project that underscored the secret connections between things that belied the “superrealism” (surrealism). Richards seems to want to count everyday speech within the constellation of those things that can be counted on as being within the realm of the surreal.

Speech also makes these poems sound convincing as truth statements even though they have gone awry (like breached software). This makes them seem as though they really are mapping onto the real world. This is the essential tension that surrealism relies on. The secret connection of things acts in tandem with the apparent reality of the world, and in this way enhances it.

Wilderness is a concept that seems to come up frequently in the book. Often it seems like he is creating parallel wildernesses to the ones we are familiar with, wildernesses where different sets of assumptions exist about how the way the world works. You see this in “A Third Tree.”

“Wilderness—the very word made us go wild and feel like an island sang for the sea” (45, “A Third Tree”)

O we had sunrises and such natural effects as a cowbell and wood violets comprising the quiet”

“I saw no good reason proceeding and the death mask gardens can be” (45) It is easy to ask what. Can be what? Here he leaves off the direct object in the sentence, a subversion of proper grammar. But by asking the question “can be what?” The answer to that question lingers as a mystery.

“Ours was always one part collision, two parts roam, and not even this hurled city corrupts our all time fuchsia.” It seems that this could sum up Richards’s technique to an extent. The verbiage collides with itself. Collisions: There are subversions of previous historical forms, direct contradictions of previous statements and what is known to be true, there is the collision of disparate images. On top of this, though, is the roam. There always seems to be new ground for images to cover in the poem. An image may repeat (part of his recursive tendency), but when it repeats, it is usually going off into a different context than when it was originally brought forward. In this respect it is disorienting, but not so much that the reader gives up on trying to get a foothold, in trying to orient himself/herself within the kaleidoscope.

You can’t quite tell where you are as a reader at the end of many of his pieces, but you get the sense that you have just gone through something experienced. This is what differentiates it from being just language play. A reader gets the feeling that there is a sensibility at work here, a mind seeing and organizing elements in order to reveal something about its world view.

In “Wilderness” (43)

Put them scraping together./Divine them where the willow is cut./Do as my haste trade them for shell./You can have languid./You can have dusk.

There is something interesting going on in this section which is indicative of his technique. A grammatical language play is at work. With “Do as my haste trade them for shell” there is a feeling that Richards employs a kind of Burroughs cut-up technique. The first half belongs to some other declarative sentence than the first. Then he uses an adjective in a sentence in a place that needs to take a noun (he is playing with the object incessantly). [It is almost as if he is underscoring the notion that the sentence breaks the world up into the actor and that which is acted upon. He subverts this connection and refuses to acknowledge that language is sufficient to even capture imaginary spaces. In this way he can be more LANGUAGE than he appears]. Right after this he correctly uses a noun after the object to achieve a diversified effect.]

In “The Hood” (15),

An elaborate tableau seems on the verge of becoming crystallized. There is a pictorial logic that seems in place, yet a firm grasp on what is happening is elusive. It is almost as if the whole tableau is quavering.This kind of resonance between a gestalt and non-gestalt state is the aim of many surrealist images. So why would this kind of thing be desirable to put together as a literary construction? For the reader it recreates the feeling of being on the verge of crystallizing a gestalt. That feeling of “everything coming together” can be kind of addictive. It is what “the enlightenment” was originally about, the idea that the world can be understood. This is very much at odds with the absurdist tendencies in the book that lampoon the ability to know the world, but much like the surrealist image, these two urges are contained within the same space. It is not enough to know the world. One must make room for, acknowledge, its unknowability. at the same time endeavors to know it. One must inhabit that contradiction.

It is said that this kind of poetry is all intellectual and not very emotional. However, if one buys into the notion that experiences are the building blocks of the self, and the many pinpoints of experience that make up the self are processed, aligned, compressed by language within an integrated self, then what is going on when a poet reformulates and plays with language as it relates to experience is a kind of reconditioning of that experience that can be very cathartic. The refashioning of experience by manipulating the language around it can lead to very powerful emotional responses. These emotional responses can arise in very unpredictable ways that a “straight” telling or fashioning of experience cannot approach.

Noah Eli Gordon — Novel Pictorial Noise and A Fiddle Pulled From the Throat of a Sparrow

Posted in Victor Schnickelfritz on November 20, 2011 by Victor Schnickelfritz

So why has American surrealism taken a tumble in the eyes of American readers (particularly within academia) recently? This tradition championed by the likes of many notable French writers, Lorca and Alberti primarily among the Spaniards, Sachs and Trakl in German (to name just a few on the short list) has spread its tentacles throughout the world, boasting of adherents in many eras and nations.

I suppose the kind of juxtaposition of disjunctive-yet-strangely-associative imagery has found its own orthodoxy, right down to its sensibility seeping into the everyday pop song and band name. This kind of strangely associative (dare I say resonant) imagery was reminiscent of a kind of subconscious treatment of the world. Many of its adherents would look either fondly or negatively upon another’s work for the full commitment a poet might have to this subconscious ideal. A poet whose work seemed to be fully subsumed by dream might be afforded authenticity among surrealists. Ones whose work might embrace just some of its absurdist accents might be relegated as one of its more marginal constituents.

For the surrealists, the essential tension was between that of the world as it was experienced, mostly seen, the visualized world, and that of another world which was not seen but was somehow ever more present, present at a level which could be apprehended subconsciously. Perhaps more essentially, surrealism pitted the experienced world versus the subliminally perceived world.

This essential tension has been supplanted more recently by what seems to be the two immovable objects which some may claim have hardened into poetry “schools” today in American poetry. These two immovable objects are one’s direct experience of the world (primarily through the senses) and one’s experience of the world as it is brought to an individual through various different mediated forms. In short, direct experience vs. mediatized experience.

The category of mediatized experience is much broader in its critique of a fully observable and interactive physical world than the critique of the physical world that the surrealists advanced.

Those who understand the world primarily through its mediatized forms (ostensibly through reading — or, in effect, language — through moving image, through information dumps and news sources, to name just a few) inhabit a post-modernist world, and those poets who try to deal with the realities of this world tend to make their poems more and more like these sources, and in so doing, comment on what life is like in the highly mediatized 21st century. One essential question these poets tend to ask is what human life has become when it has become various kinds of sucking at these mediatized sources. They do this at the expense of asking what someone’s experience is who might be miliking a cow or scraping the remnants of food off of another person’s plate.

Another way of thinking of this dichotomy is through the categories of Ron Silliman, who tends to break the world of poetry down into two main groups: post-avants vs. the school of quietude. I will refrain from rehearsing these ideas again except to point out how the post-avants in their often hyper-disjunctive and perambulatory episodes seem to mimic the behavior of a person with a remote control and a Red Bull. In other words, all experience seems to be delivered from elsewhere and the poet is parsing his environment. On the other hand, the school of quietude seems to refer to those who have actually experienced the world in some tangible and physical way and the moment of quietude, the moment of reflection, if you will, is what the poem swirls around. That moment is the illusion (the post-avants might say) of an utterly comprehensible moment in one’s life that delivers a milligram of truth and insight about human experience in the physical world (something that seems to me to be not only relevant but also at times enjoyable).

While the dichotomy I refer to above is an arbitrary one, for one could easily enough break the poetry world down into other categories, there is a certain utility to these terms which Simon DeDeo over at Rhubarb is Susan has discussed in his “Opinions I hold About Poetry”,/a>

“post avant” and “school of quietude” are irritatingly useful terms, we all know what they mean, and given a room full of poetry books any three poets chosen at random could easily sort them into the two piles with little disagreement.

Or Eliot Weinberger in an interview in BOMB

Getting back to poetry, what’s surprising to me is that, with all these things in the world, American poets are mainly preoccupied with autobiographical anecdotes, or pomo ironic skating on the “surface” of language. Every man is an island in the sea of information.

I don’t dispute Simon’s and Eliot’s claims. I just can’t resist conflating their categories no matter how time tested they seem.

This brings me to Noah Eli Gordon, who if he isn’t a surrealist, he most assuredly is a post-surrealist, whatever that means. In his prize-winning book Novel Pictorial Noise Gordon navigates between the immediately experienced world and the mediatized one, asking:

Would you choose the event or the box from which it’s broadcast? A shadow mars the screen. Light blinds the owl

And we are off chasing down the margins of the natural world and the hungry mediatized one, presumably reflecting an image of the natural world that can be experienced.

Novel Pictorial Noise persists in setting up a tension between a fluid block of prose that moves in interesting thought patterns (almost always with a clever end rhyme at the end of the block) and a disarticulated erasure on the opposing page. While one is reading it, one gets the feeling that one is receiving the detritus of a post-apocalyptic English on the left hand side and on the right hand side a monologue of one of its frantic denizens poised at the tipping point before it slides into the abyss.

These monologues are the meeting place of (as the book title suggests) of the sheer novelty and invention of language, the image and sound. The delightful playspace that Gordon carves out as these three things converge make for an interesting read. The erasures I was not as taken with. I kept waiting and hoping for them to engage in some sort of cross-talk with their opposing pages, but any connection I made seemed forced and arbitrary. The erasures page is not commentary. It stands alone and challenges you to name what is missing. Or perhaps these are fragments of dilapidated language machine. In any case, as items to ponder they held my brief curiosity but were mostly just that, curiosities.

The monologues are where the “real” meat of the book lies. Whether you like the portrait of a mind moving a million miles an hour as it twists through the air like a bullet, one must find that the sheer energy that is felt rising out of these text assemblages is impressive. Many readers might find that this reckless speed is showy and unnecessarily risky. I found myself reliving moments of the car chase in The French Connection, my scrawny hide mounted right up there on the dashboard next to the rolling camera.

But sometimes the meditation is more involuted:

When the actual is transformed into its representation, representation becomes actualized, as though a net were cast not to catch whatever punctures its vicinity, but to make transparent the lapse of possession one proffers through the introduction, disappearance, and reappearance of an image whose architecture is such that in setting forth one is simultaneously building a synonym for backtracking, a barrier torn down, erected again in a slightly more ominous manner, the knowledge of instability orbiting, uncertain where to land, until one realizes that every action contains a kind of flag waving, a constituency worthy of saving.

[Note: the block nature of this prose poem has been sacrificed as well as the drop cap letter that starts the poem]. The old surrealist ploy of subverting the authority of the speaker is at work again here. The block prose and the drop cap lettering suggest that this could be some sort of encyclopedia entry from a turn-of-the-century tome.

The authority might be highly suspect except for the fact that if one stays with it long enough (lets face it: there’s an outside chance of this happening), one can derive some sort of commentary on what it is like to hold an image in one’s head and then recapture it. Certainly the piece is metatextual, setting up its own barriers that force the reader to backtrack. This kind of perversion of setting up text as object lesson seems like a noble gesture to the reader, not as coyness as some readers might submit. Or if you need the author’s intention to be stated a little more directly:

It is “the knowledge of instability orbiting, uncertain where to land.”

I can also imagine a reader who might see this kind of writing as a male fantasy of word play and thought play which is being substituted for other playthings no longer publicly allowed during the course of adult malehood.

I, however, as a male, resent this implication, for playing with words is its own distinct pleasure.

The other technique that comes to mind when reading the monologues is that of the cut-up. The shifting diction that Gordon employs suggests this technique, yet Gordon maintains a tautness and control that other practitioners of the cut-up might not opt for. Disjunction is often the theme that these writers underscore. To his credit, with Gordon I get more of the feel of insane lecture than I do of sampled text. I can get text samples from Google searches [enter: flarf].

I like how both Gordon and Ben Lerner use the prose poem as a container for very elaborate and labyrinthine thinking which might not be approved by the American Philosophical Association. This is magical thinking the way God intended it. Gordon writes, “I hold that thinking is an image of art.” Does he really mean here that the artifact is dead? Or does he mean that the thought process that goes into creating an art object is itself the object? Both possibilities are intriguing, but one might assume that his thought is the spectacle he is creating.

It is wild. It circles back. It leaps. It rolls over itself. It turns back and attacks. It sends a Hail Mary into the end zone. It habituates to the tall grass. It bites off and refuses to swallow. It darts and drifts, darts and drifts. It denotes and expects to forget the denotation. It’s hyperactive and it sighs. It creates surpluses and then mails them off to relatives for free. It slices. It dices. It even makes Julienne fries.

There should be no doubting it is part of the lineage that John Ashbery has spawned, and the argument you might be having with yourself while you are reading it is the same argument you had with yourself twenty years ago when you were reading Three Poems. Artifice and surface are clearly foregrounded. The act of reading [note: a mediatized experience] is of great concern as well. However, to return to my main point at the outset about the dichotomy between the mediatized and the actual experience, I get the sense in Gordon that among the surfaces he is creating and while he does his semiotic squirming, he is pointing to actual experience.

. . . A shadow mars the screen now that the night sky has dislodged a light snow. I think of the hunt I’ve no dog in, invert the thought to return to an heirloom of excess conjecture to the auctioneer’s kennel. The owl is asleep. The sunflower is asleep. Dogs are sleeping. Snow falls over my perpetual excuse, turning the narrative loose.

Here the object lesson is definitely “turning the narrative loose.” But there is a perfect pictorial logic in this series of images. Gordon is not referring to another world. He is referring to the physical world. Yet while he makes this reference, he is also talking about the technique of how the surface of the text has been assembled. We arrive at commentary on the mediatized life as well as the immediately experienced.

Crafting a line like “To annul a model of the universe one need only assemble it in reverse.” signals a spatial awareness which suggests intimate knowledge, perhaps such intimate knowledge that Gordon can point to its absurdities.

The question arises then: why does he point to its absurdities so often and not to its plainness, its comprehensible beauty? I think that this is a valid question that should be put to all surrealists. My own surrealist homunculus responds by saying that absurdities are the little knots of thought where if we pull on a loose end hard enough, something will miraculously break free. I still care about that something that breaks free. That is vital experience, wondrous. The rest sometimes feels like an exchange of commodities.

As Gordon surges forward in the book, he explores many more object lessons: generating the imperceptible fable, wearing the face of the inadvertent anti-sage, an assertion of descriptive speech where “one need only to climb a real tree to see the artifice rooted in the external world,” “the attribution of captions to an otherwise blank page,” sustained advance to capture interest, the uprooting of ornamentation, self-erasure. All of these strategies are played out for a while within the monologue blocks. They are contained within them. It’s like he is playing hopscotch on every page, but in each case employing slight permutations of the rules.

Towards the latter half of the book Gordon turns his attention to not so much the reading of text but the creation of music, another form of mediation, but quite different from the textual concerns he addresses earlier on in the book.

And yet, perhaps it is among the wavering bits of music, the clang of percussion cutting through any discernible melody, that rays of light bend the whole of landscape in some nameless seed growing over the course of several millennia into the hardened stuff of history, as one must, after all, master microscope as well as telescope, not as well as chord, the dynamics of solvency and subtle exchanges of the plant kingdom, in order to see not only the square mesh in front of one’s face but also the slant of the hills just beyond the screen door, the exterior’s decor.

Here sound and light wreak havoc on the natural world so that it becomes a mere copy of itself, artificial even in its reality. Gordon seems to imply that even the natural world has artifice embedded in it.

Cherry Creek Road is, of course, composed of concrete, another neorealist line on the abstract canvas of the earth.

The conflation of the real and the unreal until they are indiscernible entities exploits the postmodernist fetish for the surface as the breeding ground for what is most important. Plant language in one of these surfaces and watch it grow.

However, I am not interested in Noah Eli Gordon as a postmodernist. There are enough of those kind around for the word to grow a little bit flabby. I referred to him earlier as a post-surrealist.

Now here is what the post in post-surrealism means. Surrealism is no longer about the subconscious floating around in an image bath. The new surrealism is more structural in its approach. No longer does the subconscious mind do battle with the perceived world and rehash it as imagery. It also does battle with all the forms of information and “packaged” elements within its browsing window. All of those appropriated forms.

Gordon not only successfully navigates them, exploiting their diction along the way, he comments on how his language imitates them, parodies them. His object lessons buried in the blocks of prose are the key for how a reader is supposed to read them. They are the machine code that, once gleaned, tells the reader how that information should be processed. And the subconscious is riffing on all of this and barely allowing the hint of the machine code to bleed through to conscious awareness.

It’s an insidious thing he does.

This insidiousness might not be something that hits a good number of readers at gut level, but Gordon’s percolating self-consciousness and daredevil movements have a visceral impact on me. They evoke a sensibility that is hard to articulate. I might even hazard that such a sensibility is close to being an emotional state that I can almost come to terms with. Gordon isn’t just telling his readers what to feel the way an American film does, he allows the nebulous to creep in. Others who are surer about the emotions that they want to have via poetry may feel a bit cheated.

Gordon may insist (though maybe insist is too strong of a word) he is “veering toward rhetorical extremes by assigning each a human face.” Each human face he assigns is a reminder that there are emotional markers attached to all the data flow. All the data really does make us feel an intoxicating nausea, and that’s the closest way, that I can imagine, of describing the human reaction to the physical world as Breton envisioned it.

A Fiddle Pulled From the Throat of a Sparrow achieves the same supercharged movement of the mind and concatenation of language. His language is a set of K’nex. I watch how he builds the lines on the page to serve some strange superstructure, a Merzbau subdivision.

Stephen Burt — Parallel Play

Posted in Victor Schnickelfritz on November 19, 2011 by Victor Schnickelfritz

All hail the critic, Callimachus. who appears at crucial moments in Stephen Burt’s book Parallel Play [Graywolf Press 2006] to provide structure and commentary on the life of the poet-critic. Stephen Burt may perhaps be best known for his criticism on Randall Jarrell, who was himself another poet-critic. Throughout Parallel Play the spirit of critique persists and underscores much of the book. It is laudable that Burt wanders into the space of critique, as it is seldom visited by many poets today for its perceived vulgar and elitist strains, for the prevailing perception that critique cuts only to build up the critic. Burt’s aesthetic views are informed (as a critic) by the notion that the world of the self is a smothering one, and as a keen observer of American culture, it is this tendency that he is addressing in Parallel Play.

On the book’s back [read blurb] cover, the reader is told by the publisher (as there is no credit given for this verbiage):

Consult virtually any childhood development guide and you’ll run across the term “parallel play” : when children under two are placed together, they’ll play separately but won’t actually interact. Stephen Burt’s second collection of poems, Parallel Play, describes lovers, friends, travelers, and revelers attempting lives dependent on each other but still pulled inevitable into preoccupations of their own self-awareness.

This is the intellectual conceit (or is it “project”?) of this book. Burt intends throughout Parallel Play to point his focus towards those things that are not just reflections of his self but delve into those things that are normally the domain of the critic—art and literature, with a good helping of politics and pop culture. Enter Callimachus. Callimachus parallels Burt’s own life in many of its dimensions (though I doubt that Callimachus would have been a fan of the WNBA). Callimachus was the caretaker of Greek literature in the second century B.C., most of whose works have been lost. However, he is largely responsible for collecting the work that came before him and making sure that it survived. It is the ironic fate of Callimachus’ work that so few pieces are extant. Burt addresses his affinity for Callimachus in his first piece entitled “After Callimachus” (there are four of these pieces with the same name” that appear at the end of each section of the book).

After Callimachus

Cover me, quietly, stone.
I wrote verse. I meant little in life,
blamed few and injured none;
I tried to get along.
My writings kept me warm.
If I with my featherlight pen
confused prestige with worth
praised evil, or ever wronged
the few who wanted a fight,
allow me, generous earth,
to do no further harm—
let me atone in my sleep;
I with my good will,
so lightly and often given,
who rest with nothing to keep,
and nothing to offer heaven.

Burt’s apologia for his critiques operates in this piece. Though one doubts that it is possible as critic to “blame few and injure none,” it is apparent that, like Callimachus, Burt is willing to accept that he may not have anything to offer heaven, that ideal place that bears no blame or fault. Burt’s East Coast sensibility is very much apparent in this manner, a manner which can be very foreign in some places where the appearance of fair play and ample praise are expected. In this piece Burt reaches back to the past to legitimize his efforts, and like Callimachus, whom Ovid described as dwelling within the arena of art and learning but devoid of any real poetic genius, Burt seems willing to acknowledge that his learned efforts may not endure (like Callimachus’ literally haven’t) but that, as long as his critiques are given with good will, they too belong to this earth.

In “After Callimachus (1)” Burt has provided his raison d’etre. He takes solace in the lives of critics from a previous age (hence his affinity to Jarrell) who offered substantive critiques without resorting to criticism as powdery snow for everyone to ski easily down hill on, which generally passes for criticism today. From his critical perspective, he can venture into observing his surroundings and making statements about them. Those surroundings are often the world of visual art (Burt offers meditative poems on Pierre Bonnard, Gerhard Richter, Franz Kline, Richard Diebenkorn, and Christine Willcox—fellow instructor at Macalester), the world of literature (a very witty piece on the maddening presence and influence of John Ashbery, a piece dedicated to Jorge Guillen, and a sestina dedicated to Barcelonan poet Jaime Gil de Biedma) and the world of pop culture (pieces on the New York club scenes, Buffy the Vampire Slayer, Lindsay Whalen of the WNBA). The result of “Parallel Play” is that it provides very little biographical detail about Burt’s life, a detail which some readers might find disheartening in a book of poetry. However, a careful reading might point out that Burt reveals much of his thought life, if not his felt life. In this there is a kind of honesty by which a reader can come to know him. For sometimes it is not necessary to know the details of an individual’s life, but to see how that individual thinks, in order to see the individual’s passion and suffering. Perhaps the thought life even emphasizes a speaker’s plight because with the speaker’s awareness, it brings the attention of a reader to the speaker’s recognition of his/her circumstances (which is likely to be more sympathetic than one who is blindly trapped by his/her circumstances).

In “After Callimachus (3)” Burt invokes Conopion, the workmanlike Athenian, who was charged with burying the ashes of Phocion, after Phocion was unjustly charged by his enemies among the Athenians and sentenced to die by ingesting poison (similar to Socrates). In Burt’s poem, Conopion is able to sleep without worrying about the misfortune of others who may, in fact, be close by while Conopion slumbers.

In “After Callimachus (4)” Burt invokes Eudemus, the Greek astronomer and mathematician, who pared back his life in order to avoid debt—which came with mortal penalty. In both (3) and (4) Burt is taking contemporary America to task (through showing parallels to our esteemed Athenian friends). In (3) Burt does this for the American tendency to dismiss the cries for help presenting themselves to Americans on a daily basis. In (4) raises his critical hackles by reminding Americans that in another time, debt came with the penalty of death, yet with Americans taking on more and more debt (and the Congress voting to raise the debt ceiling for the government again just this week), Burt is slyly pointing at what Kevin Phillips in his new book American Theocracy calls one of the three most clear and present dangers facing America today, American indebtedness.

With such a voracious appetite as Burt’s, it is not surprising that Burt’s poetic/critical eye turns to his own generation. In Parallel Play Burt seems to be invoking the notion that his own generation is too self-absorbed, too willing to move within the territory it has colonized in the past. It is engaged in “parallel play” without any intersecting points of mutual contamination (with infants one always has to make mention of germs). Neither with work outside one’s oeuvre or with the past. For this reason, Burt is traveling the time-tested path of those many who have trod before him, that is, namely, if one wants to make art, then one must deal with something larger, something outside of the self. If all one wants to do is retell stories of one’s self, then one should join any number of support groups. Burt is reiterating the longstanding note that art should aim to offer more than personal accounts. It should be ambitious. In this, Burt counters the idea that there is no obligation to what art should be anymore. After all, “It’s all good.”

The “it’s-all-good” mentality is, of course, what the critic fights against. It nullifies his/her existence, his/her perspective on the world. It figures in strongly in the crusade against progressivism. Why should anything be better, after all, if it’s all good? [This is the primary reason I am turning down any invitation I get to heaven; there’s nowhere to send back the food.] Burt in his discussions of politics similarly favors the progressive. His homage to the late senator Paul Wellstone was one of his most affecting pieces, placing him firmly in line, again, with Callimachus, who was known primarily for his elegies.

Thanksgiving 2002

The government froze, and then
we found it hard to breathe.
Bus stops where no one spoke
remembered other queues,
where flyers underfoot
dissolved like garlands, or
the ghosts of a belief—
of willful false belief.
Once we were on TV;
we counted and we lost.
Apparently permanent clouds
blew in, and funereal bells,
and then the freezing rain.

*

This month the lots of rain
meant thumbs down and warped wood,
doorbells in Cottage Grove.
How often can you trust?
Twenty-nine percent
of those eligible, I
salute you. Sunset struck
late voters from their lots.
The people I came to like,
who slogged through wind all day,
and traffic, could almost drown
in one another’s thin air.

*

Against the morning air,
I sat in our car and cried.
Heart, do not give your heart;
better to follow a sport,
where telling the truth won’t hurt.
For how could you compete,
Being honor bred, with one
Who, were it proved he lies,
Were neither shamed in his own
Nor in his neighbor’s eyes?

Only the fine art
of replacing the pins on a map
could save us, and even that
seemed almost entirely lost.

*

Obscured and almost lost
amid commercial hosts,
the Origins poster read
Win the Cold War. We tried
a water-painting kit,
whose strokes fade like applause.
The last drawbridge outdoors
stood lonely, and to scale
it seemed almost antique,
while taxicabs passed, and vans,
unwilling to give, backed up,
sounding their basso horns.

*

The fabled Gates of Horn . . .
On the way to their airport, the glow-
ing glow-in-the-dark signs point
straight up before the night,
Who owns the state? Who will?
Jets boom and stagger west.
Drivers, you hope for more
and self-sufficient lives.
When you are sick or alone
or miss the city, what
will you discover you want?
What will you tell the men
who own your roads by then?

i.m. Paul Wellstone (1944-2002)

Those who were in Minnesota in 1990 when Paul Wellstone drove his bus across the state and captured the imagination of youthful voters (far from the 29% of the electorate whom Burt references here) recognize how Wellstone and his ideals did arrive through the Gates of Horn. He won despite being outspent 7 to 1 in that election by the incumbent, Rudy Boschwitz. While some might see this piece as simply a lament for poor sports and losers of elections, it registers as a worthy successor to Callimachus. It is elevated, with classical references to the Gates of Horn. It employs the formal sensibility of repeating the main noun in the last line of the previous stanza in the first line of the following stanza. It quotes Yeats’s “To a Friend Whose Life Has Come to Nothing.” In short, it is felt as an elegy, not only for Wellstone, but an elegy for a lost era of political idealism.

If there is still any home for the ideal, it is in art. Burt’s poems on Kline and Diebenkorn, found here and here find Burt not bashful about abstraction when dealing with art that seems to call to its viewer to ponder it. The Diebenkorn piece in question (found here is described by Burt via one of its many possible interpretations. The fact that Burt uses traditional end rhymes with the piece suggests that even in the realm of the far-flung, the pointedly abstract (such as with Diebenkorn), there are classical moorings through which one may enter the piece. Burt is very much aware of similar nods he makes in the direction of traditional form (such as with “Six Noodles” the aforementioned sestina on Ashbery and eating out). This tendency reminds one of older Donald Revell a little, only instead of the meandering sestina (such as in Erasures), Burt’s focus is on end rhyme and refrain. Therefore, it is not surprising that Revell is one of the blurbers for the book.

Some readers may find Parallel Play a little too icy, too clinically detached. For them, Burt’s observations and commentary are not their kind of prescription for what ails this age. At times the language is difficult. The turns of phrase can circle back on themselves and then move with blinding speed a la Ashbery. The intelligence on display may unsettle for the time being the way Ashbery unsettles (though Burt is far more penetrable in my opinion), but the uneasy feeling it provides clearly marks Burt’s work as something that aspires to be art. It may not be meant for easy access like American Idol where everyone is urged to get up and become a star. Catching up to the intelligence of the poet could very well be one of the hallmarks of difficult poetry.

I am reminded of Forrest Gander’s insight that he offered after his reading here in February when someone asked him to comment on the tension between the intelligence displayed in his subject matter and the strong emotional current that also resides there. Gander said, “Emotion endures.” I suspect, if pushed further, Gander may have conceded that in his work, his emotion needs his intelligence as much as his intelligence needs his emotion in order for it to endure. Emotion that justifies its own existence solely because of its presence quickly and easily devolves into bathos, into “parallel play,” where anything goes and “it’s all good.”

Can the poetry of critique endure? Or after the age it critiques floats by, will it cease to be pertinent as well? By referring to ancient Greek writers, much of whose work presumably does not exist anymore, Burt seems to suggest that such a question doesn’t matter.

Will Burt’s specific “steely” reign endure? Perhaps in a time in this country where thinking seems to have so little worth compared to doing [read invading(?)], it is a foregone conclusion that Burt will not be championed in the end and will be described by the Ovids of our time as “not having the right stuff.” However, Parallel Play serves as an invitation to another place and another time where other possibilities are vivid. For this, it should be cherished. It resists the natural temptation to move towards hermeticism, to avoid the contentment that comes with being self-contained. In the 50s American poetry moved towards confessionalism. Is it any coincidence that in a similarly conservative time when critique is not ventured very much (see the consequences for Joseph Wilson and Valerie Plame), there is a similar turning away from the world towards the personal space? Burt’s biggest contribution in Parallel Play is showing readers that they don’t have to turn away from the outside world. Readers can always turn to the past or an abstract landscape (where politics never goes because it never matters that much) for solace in such a time.

Though there may be much dispute about our being in a hermetic age, it would serve us well to heed Burt’s admonition about our propensity for parallel play. Otherwise, the confessionalists will dare to return, and we will have to brace ourselves to look at lots of poopy diapers.

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