Ken Babstock — Airstream Land Yacht

Remember in poetry when you used to be able to get credit for a mind that moved in interesting ways? Now it’s just incessant talk of markets, markets, markets . . . how do you get a reader to swallow so that it can move like crap through a golden goose? Or you might measure who’s got the biggest one with demographic studies that seek to prove how Americans have moved beyond the word and are now looking at the pictures. Perhaps the loss of this form of valor is due to the fact that in the U.S. we no longer make anything and this fact can make us hope we can market our way out of our own mess.

However, in Canada, there seems to still be a focus on that which is more interestingly wrought, for which the gold standard is not what is most immediately accessible to a larger market. At least that is the case with Ken Babstock’s Airstream Land Yacht. Finally, after so many poetry books on the American market designed to capture the attention of this group or that group, we have a book, a major prize finalist at that, which forsakes the saleable niche and aims for the big questions again. The star of Babcock’s book is consciousness, and Babcock pushes his star to the point of breaking, and to the point of many other adjectives: crystalline, shivering, blackness, coated (in oil), off-and-on monitor, blackly stumped, Imperial. For Babstock it is almost as though the will to cerebrate is the will to live itself.

In the title piece, which appears towards the end of the book after many dense ruminations and hyperdriven narratives, Babcock equates an antique Airstream trailer to that of his consciousness. His consciousness is his Airstream Land Yacht.

Airstream Land Yacht

Where in the world to go, to go?
          O where in this world to go?
This big old wagon’s slos, it’s slow.
          My beautiful wagon’s
                    slow.

It shines a silver sheen, though,
          its silver sheen a-glow,
This silvery ovoid’s sturdy, ho!
          metallic armadil-
                    lo.

Born in nineteen six-and-oh, and Oh,
          she’s factory clean.
Awesome to behold but slow, but slow;
          she’s sort of like a
                    brain.

She’s sort of like a model brain, no?
          Just sits there unless towed.
And a constant need to unload, to forego,
          what we couldn’t take or
                    know.

The intimation in this piece is that his consciousness is too big and bulky to make a streamlined path through the media debris. It hangs on to places develops wind resistance in all the meaning it tries to extract. This year’s model of consciousness is much more stripped-down. It moves quickly enough to keep with the traffic, and there is very little storage for those who are inclined to stop at garage sales to load up on ephemeral bits. In fact, you can often watch like with the Prius, the progress of its mechanical function take place on the screen.

Or perhaps Babstock is making a comment on the state of consciousness in general which is just not built to keep up with the barrage of information of the everyday, the cutting from one application screen to another screen, the absorption of thirty different commercial contexts in an hour, then still needing room to pack in the news. How many sites have you surfed since you started this paragraph?

Though this is just the sad tale of the medical profession speaking. When I ask my programmer brother, he feels that the human brain is definitely designed for speed.

Yup. This is your brain. This is your brain on Internet hyperlinks. How fast can your brain move from context to context? Do you think it was designed to move that fast? A doctor says no. A software designer says yes.

Babcock seems wired for speed and possesses a good sized hard drive, but I like how he handles recall errors, errors of slippage, such as in his delightfully funny address to Christian (no doubt Christian Bök). Towards the end, of “Think, Pig” (the title itself cribbed from Beckett) he writes:

something he could
in good faith call
a project which might
take me years but
would leave me
in good stead with
certain people
in Buffalo, I said
Christian do you
remember Abraham
and Isaac and that
terribly sharp cleaving
instrument and
the talking shrub?

That “terribly sharp cleaving instrument” is, of course, a knife, and the fact that he “forgets” the name of this weapon, an item that would most likely sharpen the focus of attention on it, makes the poem even more of an immediate gesture. One attends to the speech act quality of the poem. It also reminds the speaker of the brain’s fallibility, both the speaker’s and presumably Bök’s (or God’s as the case may be). Whatever the case, we know from Gödel that any system (in this poem’s case, an algorithm-driven infinite loop of page references) is incomplete. It is incomplete because the system is unable to successfully refer to what is always outside of it. The brain can’t keep up with its context.

This, to me, epitomizes much of Babstock’s work in Airstream Land Yacht. The brain that can’t keep up with its context, but oh how it miraculously tries and it does manage to contextualize a damn sight more than most). It is that kind of effort that keeps me coming back to read individual poems again and again. In his miraculous efforts he covers enough ground with the trace of his consciousness that I want to wind back through the coils of his language to arrive at how Babstock’s compressed language extracts its funky localized meaning at the same time it hammers away on its superstructure.

In one of the “Explanatory Gaps”(there is one for each section: Air, Stream, Land, Yacht) Babstock writes:

Explanatory Gap

Would Form, Colour, and Motion please report to Area 17
where you’ll be met by Memory and Recognition. An unbroken
field of light is uninformative. The cracks,

the jinks, what won’t cohere or blend but bends, fissures,
                    falls to the field
or becomes figure. A visual percept is degraded light.
We all like to sound important. I was convinced I’d actually loved

by a hot tinny pain spreading downward from the sternum. She
                    was gone, though,
by the time the evidence appeared, and I’d moll around the train ditch
of an evening, reading German dictionaries and pulling
                    loosened spikes

from the tie braces, designing industrial versions of croquet.
                    Home shot:
through the St. Louis Arch to the CN Tower. Oil derricks and
                    wrecking balls.
I had no friends for a time. Whether

it happened or didn’t it felt as it did and affected the weather. I
was being fleeced, still I paid
for entertainment. It helped feel worse, and worse was where

lovely numb wet its tongue. I sucked it like a strip of dripping lamb—

From the moment where the brain is administrating its sectors to the bulk of the poem where the speaker is opening and closing many doors that lead to a variety of information holding pens, I, as reader, arc through with him and invest myself in his diet of images and anecdote and emotion. It is particularly exciting how this rich blend avoids becomiong twaddle (which is what happens when I often try to enter into this Friederike Mayröcker-like mode). It suggests that everything might get into the poem but it doesn’t. there is still a highly selective attention occurring. It is an attention that is also perfectly at ease with reflecting on itself, not an easy trick to accomplish without the bugaboos raising their heads and intimating a kind of navel-gazing going on.

The title of the piece helps in this regard. Even though it is willing to provide such an abstraction as “a visual percept is degraded light,” the poem has no pretensions about explaining anything. The explanatory gap is the place where this poem happens. It is the place, presumably, where Babstock places his poetic faith in serving as the locus for his work. It nods and nods and nods but never reveals.

Myself, I had an intense desire to order an gyro after reading this poem.

Another thing that I admire about Babstock’s writing in this book is how adeptly it follows the creed of the old Black Mountain School in its edict that content gives rise to form rather than form bringing about content. There is a lot of variation of form in Airstream Land Yacht. From this I can surmise that Babstock waits for his content to congeal in a manner that his consciousness apprehends, again making (his?) consciousness the star of the book. He describes this himself in an interview with CBC Radio’s “Words at Large”:

I start with a few words that make a particular noise, then I go in search of others. As I’m searching for the others, I try to be simultaneously allowing the new ones and those initial ones to inform me of some kind of appropriate patterning device or guiding principle so that they don’t simply dissolve into a meaningless verbal porridge like this sentence…

Similar to many poets, Babstock allows his play [“Sometimes making is play, only that” from “Found in a Sock Monkey Kit”] to be his constitutive method, and then he assembles his various “outtakes” into an “appropriate patterning device or guiding principle.” The organizational impulse comes after, and it is guided by his trust that he will be able to find that organizing impulse afterwards. That kind of confidence that he will find a way to organize his tangle of threads (or it will find him) makes the book a pleasure to read as well. there is no style fatigue that one often finds with highly cerebral poets who find a particular method and then grind it out through the course of 60 to 70 pages.

In Airstream Land Yacht we find the architecture of sonnets, variously end-rhymed (or near-end rhymed) poems, a poem that grows and grows its end-rhymed lines [“Subject, with Rhyme, Riding a Swell”], a poem with open six line stanzas that ends with six aphoristic couplets, [On the Dream of union Ceasing”], a stanza mimesis where the first stanza looks, sounds and feels like the first with a few variations but produces a a very different meaning [Epochal”], dialog between texts of Kierkegaard and a hog raising manual, and a list poem of brief instructional language [“A Setting To”], as well as others that are too hard to classify.

In all of this variation one might hear Babcock underscoring his objection to Bök’s insistence on a single rigorous form. his method is to be highly unmethodical.

Further in that same interview Babstock describes the tool of poetry as:

Think of a compact case or powder kit for the mind. Small enough to carry around and helps deal with blemishes, imperfections, swellings that mar our pictures of ourselves and the world. Only it’s not always about improvements to the reflected image

Poetry as putting on make up, another metaphor, but one that assumes a “fatigued” self in the morning barely able to cobble oneself together before the whole project falls apart by noon.

In this way, Babstock seems to be making a model (the male counterpart to putting on make-up) of himself. In a poem that uses this metaphor for talking about the construction of the self as well as comment on his poetic project, “Scale Model”

Scale Model

Tricked out in phantom gear, I imagined myself
          perfected, at least made better to the extent
that I wanted nothing more, and could hurt no one—
          which is when the world disappeared. Or
the world’s model displayed under glass with figurines
          passing through parks and purchasing things
and boarding trains at dawn then transpiring, shattered
          or melted, receding back into the far hills
of the false. The story of Stories Connected, and I
          among them, constructed of them, a notch in the wood
of what’s happened, wound down to a farce, just
          a face extemporizing the facts and making a meal
of what it had felt like to be. What had it felt like?
          I remember a latch on a low gate; a kiosk on a platform
that smelled of diesel and grease; a rowboat blown
          into reeds and the oars in the oarlocks; remember
my flesh on the flesh of another but limbs needed
          moving and the air needed stitching with words, or
just murmurs, it all demanded doing and seeing,
          removing the black box of immediacy to its place
on a shelf near a pot of dahlias gathering dust and
          dying. Alone now, in the glow of an Imperial mind,
I curl to the chilled sense of being other; am bench, bolt-
          hole, view of the Baltic coast, brother, or crayon set,
want to be implemented, bent to, used inside
          the watched life lived—

“Used inside the watched life lived.” That says it all. Babstock very often uses the things he watches and sees through media (as well as his direct experience) as grist for the mill of his own actions. Experience and his media diet are conflated. Where does one begin and the other end? They appear to be continuous, contemporaneous. He has bridged the great divide that plagues the American scene between those mediatized poets, whom Silliman refers to as the post-avant and those experiential poets, whom Silliman refers to as the school of quietude. Babstock’s world is boisterous and smart, but it does not pursue its own end so that it might live one day serve as great intellectual achievement that may live on in the annals of glory at SUNY-Buffalo.

Babcock describes his writings in Airstream Land Yacht as multi-vocal poems which curiously end up sounding even more like himself. Yes, one feels the stitching but in doing so, one is even more assured that a singular consciousnes has weaved them all together and is talking at you.

It is the immediate removed (“to a shelf near a pot of dahlias”) only to be fed back into immediate experience after it has been filtered through the various sieves of books, emotions, stories, dictionaries, films, instruction manuals, travel brochures, conversations, etc. It is experience writ large with all its distractions and imperfections. He establishes the truth of his poetic project this way.

Each section of the book seems to provide poems that might be derived from “Air,” “Stream,””Land,” but in the last “Yacht” section Babstock seems to spend a lot of time on cruises. Or at least he imagines that he is on them. Most of them seem to depart from Schleswig-Holstein and ruminate on or react to the Baltic Sea. The Baltic is the ominous force that is shaping lives.

The Tall Ships Docked in Kiel Harbour

for Don Coles

Norwegian, Russian, Polish, Estonian.
A spectral mist had curtained the port and spread,
silken, dewy, over the crosded park grounds.
Can we say spectral or even mist, wasn’t
it more like a greased, Baltic fog? We can say
the masts appeared broken, occluded at times;
the water that slapped the low stone rampart
could be heard clearly but relied on inference
to be known or to be there, or, looking back, at the very
least, the edges of things went grainy, lost
substance, and shivered; mothers with kids
in their care sampled baked sweets or nudged hand
crafts on display tables then sank away into
enveloping dampness from which cries of
where are you carried through a muffled din—
No, this would have reached us as
Wo bist du and could we really have
isolated a phrase like that, being new to a tongue?—
An area roped off for children held rough-
hewn, log play-structures, the bark left on so they
looked ribbed and reptilian; metal boxes strapped
to lamp poles spat out cigarette packs if you
thumbed in the coins. We might have thumbed
in the coins. The masts, when they split
the slate-coloured veils, leaned and rattled, or
knocked against parts of their rigging, and small
triangular flags hung limp from the upper reaches
where the masts narrowed. Gulls landed—or terns
landed—on the crosspieces where the sails were
furled and tied like camping gear. It might have
rained, as our feet were soaked through, and we wanted
not to be where we were, but felt also an internal
pressure, like a note left for oneself in a home one
has yet to move into, to look, to take in the thick
beams of each building, the docks buried in fog,
the cider smell and steam from steel vats, the layer
of beaded wetness on things and the people who
handled those things: cups, wallets, paper containers
of food, rucksacks, umbrellas, the odd camera or
brass-handled cane. The ships lumbered away, sniffing
each other’s sterns; someone’s future warmed into
high resolution as love’s rags clapped in a weird wind.

The project is as rudimentary as any creative writing teacher could make it. Scene description. But it is so exquisitely visualized and intensely perceived that the scene is possibly more alive than if one visited it. Babstock goes beyond surfaces, but with the subtle inclusion of the speaker in the scene, “the we who might be thumbing the coins” and whose “feet were soaked through” that by the end of the poem the “someone” whose “future warmed” is almost assuredly a member of that group, that couple. The scene transforms the speaker. It is heartbreakingly rendered and mined for its hidden value. It seems to me a great object study in what can be wrung out of what is essentially a still life.

Oh to be so patient so as to let the scene come to oneself the way Babstock has done in this piece.

Then a few pages later we get “Compatibilist” [3:34] with its interest in compatibilism, the idea that free will and determinism are not mutually exclusive entities in the world. Babstock is not afraid of the overtly philosophical, the big idea. It is a marvel how he can do so much else. As readers we should be obliged to take of this kind of weighty territory as well, territory that too frequently poets in the US fear to tread, or if they do, they do so ponderously. I guess they still grow ideas in Canada. Here in the US we just sell rock stardom.

I will be dipping into this book for a long time I feel. Every time I pick up the book and read a few pages I am indebted to its author for his ability to recharge my own instincts to write. He keeps it thrilling, and I encounter Easter eggs on every page. It is hard to encapsulate within one small space such as this the freshness that is contained in this book. Airstream Land Yacht is certainly one of my favorite books of the last several years.

But probably we should give Babstock the last word on his oeuvre in Airstream Land Yacht:

The Lie Concerning the Work

Most were written at home,
some done away,
a few in a bar,
one inside his head.

Many had a tendency to roam,
some felt grey,
a few went too far,
that last refused to be read.

—Victor Schnickelfritz

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One Response to “Ken Babstock — Airstream Land Yacht

  1. this is a thorough, emotionally invested and focused reading of Babstock’s finest book to date. It is one of my favourite books, and this is the best reading of the work I have seen

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