Brian Teare Sight Map

More often than not, Brian Teare’s Sight Map presents a diffuse scrim of language that is resistant to any easy ascertainment; it is meant to be slippery and quizzical — ineffable. This is how Teare consistently approaches language in its many tears and fissures, its inadequacies and insufficiences (especially with respect to knowing some deeper and spiritual part of the self. The effect reminds me of how one might blow paint through a straw to produce a map of colored effect on a piece of paper. I also imagine Teare creating a similarly constructed map of vision and image. He blows it through a straw to have it land in Rohrschach fashion on the page, creating this book.

Clearly, the tour de force in this book is the first piece,
“Emerson Susquehanna”
. The poem is constructed from a quote that is derived from Ralph Waldo Emerson’s journal in 1834. The first section is “When we have lost our God of tradition” where the abstractness of God is seemingly substituted for a much more experiential one. Even the ritual’s surrounding God have been emptied and replaced by a mother braiding the hair of the speaker’s sister. The word in its old abstract guise seemingly makes little sense.

The second section “& ceased from our God of Rhetoric”. In this section Teare’s language hints at the ineffable quality of God as though it had become a mystical word whose utterance immediately deconstructs its referent. The word is seemingly a way to pry at the spiritual notion of God. However, like in the first section, even the rhetorical construction of God is too diffuse to have any apparent meaning. When the speaker says, “birds / without names / fly anyway /ceaselessly / up the ladder” he intimates that in place of the construction of God there is only animal instinct.

Finally, in the “then may God fire . . . with . . . presence” section, the speaker is underscoring his allegiance to the notion that the experience of God manifests itself in the present moment and no mediated form of that, be it language or symbol is sufficient to capture that notion. Even when one is transfixed within that experience (like “a photograph / in a bath of chemicals”) the presence of God is fuzzy and only becomes more refined with more time, more experience of doing battle with the ineffable spirit. The mind has a hard time approaching the spiritual. One takes leave through action, becoming animal.

I was intrigued by Teare’s notion of the spiritual being depicted as so fragmented and fluttery. I wondered if he wasn’t playing with a more traditional sense of the spiritual as more contained and continuous, if in the choppiness of experience there might be another sensibility of the spiritual. So I asked him this when he came to Sacramento for a reading recently. Teare cited Dickinson as his model for one who might apprehend the spiritual as a fragmented experience and not a holistic one. God comes to him and Dickinson in shards, little experiential info-bits, as if it were a breakfast cereal that one consumes spoonful by spoonful. But Teare also pointed out the longing for spiritual truth is always there, that this desire for spiritual truth is continuous but that access to such a truth is highly contingent. He pointed out that in the days of Emerson that one was more certain about the spiritual truth one had derived from experience compared to today, where doubt is the centerpiece of much of our spiritual experience. Dickinson’s refusal to embrace and covert to the truth of religious experience is what makes her work so moving and powerful.

A sense of the ineffable dominates Sight Map. Teare’s language is almost always gentle and carefully rendered. It is diaphanous, a strange beast of highly cerebral and stylized writing that longs for a ground in experience, often touching down there (but not for long).

Frequently, the main tension in Teare’s work is between nature and textuality. The speaker writes down observations of the natural world only to bridge those observations with textuality. This is a world built of the natural element, the text and the contemplation that joins the two together (with the ultimate goal of rooting that tension in a real live animal body). The movement to this goal can be seen in the following poem:


(White Birch)

how a birch shirks its skins : strange
grain of the language of prayer : to disturb
words addressed to where God is is
what writing is : alphabet alive beneath
the alphabet so far into whiteness
each mind to itself creation come crawling
matter out of nothing : always
longing inquires at the threshold a question
unanswered : what once overheard the talk
of God became matter : ask the birch
did the soul have a choice :

When I asked Teare if he felt he was “cheating” Emerson of his sense of continuity in apprehending transcendent spiritual truth, he responded by reading this poem. As far as I can tell, it is a rather cryptic response. However, the speaker asserts that “to disturb words addressed to where God is is what writing is”. From this I sense that creating a disturbance (particularly in the visual field) is an element of genuinely convening with the spiritual, experiencing spiritual truth.

Throughout the book there is a strong sense of scatter and shifting of the visible. Perhaps this due to the fact that large portions of the text were compiled from Teare’s notebooks when he went on his walks.

“the poems began in the pocket-sized journal I took with me on walks, and no one who’s writing and walking at the same time can keep his or her notes left-justified and of regular length.”

The notes jotted in this journal are then disturbed or upset throughout the book. In “Lent Prayer” these observations are upset by etymological ruminations and sentence place-holders.

Lent Prayer

The way prayer is root to precarious : two crows creep
the steeple. Not winter

not spring. Given a chance
a season out of season will write

bastard pastoral, elegy
full of errant splendor and spent sheets of sleet, rain all spondaic

and unrelenting. Pallid nouns look familiar
but they’re dead :

after thaw, after crocuses, even tulips : new snow, and robins
caught on a border without name, lost

to a scrim of frost, dozens
dead, each a lace of lice. the way soul has

no certain etymology, how weirdly what’s rootless goes
wrong-like, fog

erasing syntax that holds
nouns in the sentence called landscape, looks like : streetlight tree

snowdrop stray-cat tow-truck leaves sidewalk snowmelt : except
what’s visible

shifts, wind
arranging things,

the neighbor’s lit window gone down the block like a dog
off its lead.

Textuality is the counterpoint to the natural world. [Note: this is the same way that the concept of God is interrupted by the rhetorical construction of God in “Emerson Susquehanna”]

However, by the end of the first section (each section is given the title of a specific latitude and longitude) the interceding textuality has given way to the interceding bodily experience. The beloved appears, and the ecstasy of the body begins to serve as the counterpoint to the speaker’s beautiful natural elements.

In Section Two [42:53:6 N, 71:57:17 W] the influence of the Poetics of Field becomes even more apparent. Earlier in “To Be Two” large blank spaces were surrounded by brackets as if to suggest that what belonged in that space was unable to be rendered, unable to be articulated. In Section Two the words on the page become even more sparse. The majority of the page is blank. The sections of “Morphology” appear to be slowly melting icicles as the reader’s eyes run down the page like water. The poem’s subject appears to be its form. The notebook fragments are forced into the shapes that Teare devises.

Perhaps the most interesting piece in this section is “Long After Hopkins” which is pure nature meditation and its effect on faith. Hopkins’s ecstatic faith is addressed in the line “Faith / what is it / abides, what’s left of pastoral / but unreality.” The speaker in this poem asks “what principal / animates the natural”, and the answer to this seems to be a kind of Taoist force that has an entropic, if not violent, streak.

Section two concludes with a long poem “Pilgrim” comprised of many short prose pieces which rely heavily on the nature journal to carry the poem. Occasionally, the prose sections are interrupted by a stray moment of articulated doubt or a brief fetish with a word. If “Morphology” attempts to portray nature’s forms in words, then “Pilgrim” is short little footsteps of the devotional traveler whose final image delivers the speaker kneeling in any kind of weather.

Section Three explores the appointment with the beloved as an accessible substitute for the religious ecstasy of God. “Sanctuary, Its Root Sanctus” establishes this from the outset in the first section, “ I walk inside memory of his / movements inside me, and it is this fullness most resembles my experience / of God” this line appears twice in the poem, and it hints at the disturbance of fucking within the natural realm. The fucking has taken the place of the meditation on textuality that interceded earlier in the book. Indeed, when Teare mentions fucking it seems like a sharp contrast to the rest of the piece which is meditative and longing. At first I thought this a flaw of the poem, that it was not handling its transitions very adroitly and was using the fucking to serve as a contrast to the gentler language in the piece. But after a few readings I began to see that the fucking was supposed to be jarring, disturbing. If Teare is coming at spiritual truth through disturbance of the natural realm, then this fucking is just part of the program.

One wonders, though, if the word fucking isn’t already too loaded with the ability to jar. My first reading of this piece saw the fucking presented to shock the reader out of the complacency of the beauty of the language of nature that surrounds it. Stravinsky counterpoint (think Rite of Spring). Perhaps I am just hypersensitive to the word fuck in a poem, which seems strange to me because, in general, I love the act of fucking, but the word in print — not so much. I think I might have issues.

“Genius Loci” relates more juxtaposition. This time it is the tranquil bucolic natural world with its short sparse lines full of observation in parts 1 and 3 buttressing section 2’s manic and overactive long line that is reminiscent of Ginsberg’s eyeball kicks. The commotion is section 2 is subordinated to the slower, plodding contemplative sections of 1 and 3. The life of the body is surrounded by the life of the mind and the visible world during the walk through nature. The sense of place is the real focus of this piece. Adapting to one’s immediate environment is the kind of genius that Teare explores.

The last poem of the book is “An Essay To End Pleasure” where the beloved is absent and the speaker must inevitably recreate the beloved from memory. The mind focuses on the small instances of physical pleasure, “the voice / full-throated with noticing; the mind / precise.” As the speaker departs the scene, it is as though he is drinking the scene up one last time before he leaves the pleasure it has given him. He is just one more migrating bird who will leave to populate some other environment, just as the “new bird” will take his place where he had been.

Teare’s language in Sight Map is extraordinarily beautiful throughout the book. It is is lovingly crafted and displays some gorgeous nature imagery throughout. The plain details are as exquisite as are his more ornamental ones. Occasionally, they are rescued by a retinue of disturbances, each disturbance a minor portal to spiritual truth. This is an odd mechanism to achieve a spiritual aim, but Teare has invested in it with Dickinson as his spiritual guide. I’m not sure if I’d want to hunker down with ol’ Emily in order to breach the religious ecstatic, but Teare ventures there and makes a satisfying offering.

—Victor Schnickelfritz


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