Archive for April, 2011

George Kalamaras—Even the Java Sparrows Call Your Hair

Posted in Victor Schnickelfritz on April 1, 2011 by Victor Schnickelfritz

When I first read the title piece “Even the Java Sparrows Call Your Hair” in Facture 3 back in 2002 (a magazine which, by the way was seemingly a replacement for Sulfur but unfortunately lasted only three issues), I had an immediate pull towards the piece. It was a piece that immediately set me on fire for the kind of linguistic pyrotechnics, the energy and drive of the hurtling rhythms, the variety and breadth of the things invoked in the poem. It struck me as a kind of tour de force, one which I immediately tried to emulate in order to see if I could approach the daring movement Kalamaras practiced there. It’s not often after many years of reading that you read something that “takes off the top of your head.” I was compelled to pick up my pen, and Kalamaras has continued to be a model for me whenever I feel that my lines lack verve and nerve.

It seemed to emulate the Clayton Eshleman writing dictum of “driving 100 MPH with your foot on the brake.”

I imagine that upon first reading many readers will feel put off by Kalamaras’s tendency to overreach with his images in a way that I can hear many say is “bad surrealism,” the kind of overwrought juxtaposition that tries just a little too hard to be jarring but which doesn’t quite resonate in a semi-logical manner with a reader the way the best surrealist images do.

Watching someone overreach on the page like Kalamaras does is a lot like watching kids of the current generation who wear their jeans down below their ass. It seems ridiculous, even embarrassing, to wear them like this, just barely held up, but at the same time one has to acknowledge that, both literally and figuratively, it takes a scrotum filled to its capacity to do so.

Examples of the kind of imagery I am talking about abound in Even the Java Sparrows Call Your Name.

“Lice of sorrow, lice of squid, lice of the torn kite tail your breath remembers but cannot swallow when it inhales nine times again beneath that star over you when you were nine.”

“A sparrow like the like the clarity of a broad-shouldered man housing beeweave as mound in the tube hidden in his limp on a rainy street.”

“Bone of ground red cloud, of the snapped tentacle of swarmed lice that surrounds moon with moving light that bathes the tongue’s afternoon rain, dark Indiana oak pain that makes your prayer an urgent yet crass reciting of calm.”

In short, this kind of image-making employs a kind of overly indulgent form of surrealism straight out of the Breton school of surrealists. I have this impression also, but in his essay “The Death of the Self: Poststructuralism and a Rhetoric of Silence” from his book of critical essays, Reclaiming the Tacit Dimension: Symbolic Form in the Rhetoric of Silence, Kalamaras gives us some idea of what he is up to when he does this.

In the essay Kalamaras explains that the poststrucuralist gap (read aporia to the converted), that place which no utterance abides, the death of words, is similar to the notion of the paradox among Eastern mystics. He questions whether this silence is equal to the death of the self as the poststructuralists would posit. Kalamaras invokes Blanchot’s concept of silence which is not so “oppositional.” Rather, it is “reciprocal.” It nourishes and reconstitutes the discursive. Therefore, silence, far from being the death of the self and of its will toward empowerment, is seen as an ally in the self’s development.

I believe this is the central reason why Kalamaras engages in so much befuddling imagery that clearly does not aspire to logic, even in a pictorial way (for an example of this, one may look at the title of the book  . . . what does it mean to have a Java sparrow call your hair? Would this be different from the way a sparrow in South Carolina would call someone’s hair?). The images seemingly fail to map onto anything. They are just there as verbal constructs resisting any attempt to unpack them. They are, in fact, paradoxes. As they litter the page in so much of Kalamaras’s work, these can be seen as reconstitutive moments in the text.

But so much of surrealism’s project is based on the moment of illumination that arises when disparate images rub up against each other in a moment of passionate frotteurism. Usually, the desired result is a recontextualizing of the items that are involved, rendering them each larger than what they were before they were thrown together to exchange electrons. But such a hideous organic compound cannot occur without that magical moment of gestalt that accompanies it. Surrealism relies on magical thinking.

For this reason, surrealism has not been a very good friend to academia. Academics tend to go for sharp, analytical modes of thinking. Their modes of discourse are usually geared to achieving power (perhaps this is why poststructuralism has gained so much caché). Graduate students become mad about discourses of power. They enage in various kinds of discourse analysis. Across the country they align themselves with the disempowered (even though most or many come from relatively privileged backgrounds) and study and analyze their claims to power. Then, when they graduate and the need to integrate into the machine for the purpose of recapturing the social position they inherited arises, they use their knowledge about claims to power to subvert other people’s attempts at making them [everyone knows the story of the middle class suburban Marxist who is weaned on revolutionary proclamations in graduate school only to understand the beauty and clarity of cooperation later]. However, surrealism’s project is not analytical or constructive. It is an invocation of the visionary, and it’s hard to rationalize a vision.

For this reason, I think that Kalamaras’s work does not offer itself up as critique of anything, not does it provide any real intellectual grist for the mill. It does not argue for anything or claim anything other than its own existence. It invokes, invokes, invokes. The things that it raises on the page in a kind of neverending blitzkrieg of a parade are ends in themselves, and their presence is designed to work on a reader the way op art does or the way Yolngu bark paintings are said to induce fantasies among the Yolngu Aborigines of Australia. For someone looking for greater insight in Kalamaras’s work, they may not find any other than what is appropriated by accident.

So, I am suggesting that the reason for Kalamaras’s “fluffiness,” is for readers to reimagine the world via that next technological innovation that is beyond technicolor. It should induce some psychological twist that underpins seeing the world in a different hue and changing the way the tongue works.

Is Kalamaras “beyond technicolor”? I tend to think so, but I suppose this depends on the ratio of gestalts achieved per cubic centimeter of lined poetry.

All of this is much like Rimbaud’s reasoned derangement of the senses also (which he achieved through absinthe). But it might be the altered state of mind that is achieved by Kalamaras in yogic meditation. Here is Kalamaras from his interview in Spoon River Poetry Review:

I hope that the lines achieve both a heightening of the senses and a neutralizing of opposites. That’s one reason couplets, as a structure, are so very important to me—they connect to my practice of yogic meditation. One basis of all the yogic techniques is to neutralize opposites so that one may not be bound by binaries and the changing tides of “good and bad,” “right and wrong,” “inner and outer,” “you and me”— those tricks of conceptual thought that block a deeper psychic reciprocity with the universe.

In the same interview Kalamaras goes further:

The perspective of paradox is central to the collection and to meditation in general. It is similar to a koan, but I prefer not to see koans as riddles, because riddles imply a specific question and answer. It is the process of the koan that is the transformative agent by its structure, and not the answer. The koan, like poetry, can momentarily short-circuit one’s rational hold on the universe and evoke a meditative state.

While I am not sure I achieve a meditative state when I read Even the Java Sparrows Call Your Hair, I wouldn’t rule out that possibility. The mental space I occupy is somewhere between awe and beleagueredness. I start out reading and I am thunderstruck by the linguistic jolt I recieve. Then after the surprise and pleasure have firmly taken hold, I wonder how I can continually achieve the immaculate again and again—without becoming dehydrated. It’s like trying to dance Irish jigs all night. Not even Lance Armstrong’s heart can take that. At times one senses that Kalamaras is trying out every product he can find at Wal-Mart on you.

The problem with much of the surrealist project is: after my subconscious has been liberated, now what? After all of my dichotomous constructs have been rendered as part of a unified flow, then what? Is this really enough to build an alternative world as Breton suggested? Or does one begin to get the nagging feeling that one has taken on some of the rather nasty peculiarities of a none-too-intelligent mammal?

Strangely though, despite the beating the senses take after reading Kalamaras for a while, I always get the sense that Kalamaras is readying the mind for something. Mostly it is this reason I find his work valuable. I read his pieces as warm-ups when I am about to engage in my own form of mental gymnastics. In this way Kalamaras’s Even the Java Sparrows Call Your Hair serves like a book of etudes for a practicing violinist.

Each piece is a bite-sized candy in a Halloween treat bag, but take care that if you eat too many at one time, you might get sick.

But what of the pieces themselves? How do they work? In “Your Insides Have Some Explaining to Do” there are an accumulation of extraordinary images. They pile up, and at times refer back. There is more than one mention of the “counting of toes and only coming up with one”, “writing on the insides (the intestinal tract)”, “sparrows”, “the theme of adult vs. child.” Also, Kalamaras moves off of images from line to line. The fire ants from Namibia arrive (a mention of Africa where Rimbaud sails exists in the previous line) and implant themselves beneath the skin (another semi-reference to the “insides of the body”). This leads to eczema, then to the psoriasis of the scrotum and a brief encounter with the erotic in a “bout of almost-kissing.” The items he invokes are always out of the ordinary. One might comment that he is indeed fetishizing strangeness throughout. The items themselves, though, are not particularly strange; just their actions and environment are out of the ordinary. There is a good mix of the exotic and the familiar, which is almost always the case in first-rate surrealist writing. We get Rimbaud, Ethiopia [Shoa], Namibia, Java sparrows, the Gobi, and the Punjab. But we also get, popcorn, toes, dice, ravens, cabbages.

The line-to-line references provide structure at the local level. One can almost feel the mind using association as its navigational tool, its compass. The brief episodes of looking further back provide more of a global structure for the piece. These instances are the folding of the protein that leads to its three-dimensional form. What I find invigorating about pieces that employ this structuring technique is the unique protein-folding that goes on in each. Sometimes the hardness of keratin emerges; sometimes it is hemoglobin.

I imagine there are those out there who will judge Kalamaras on the protein scale to be more like lambs wool rather than any of the nobler proteins. He is quite fuzzy for sure. This often has to do with his tendency to not even give away what his mind has been meditating towards in the last line. Frequently, the last line is meant to resonate with a point that the mind is moving towards. When we encounter,

That writing inside you may or may not be sparrow, be blind, become, is more like bird track, I hear, or frustrated fists of ordinary cabbage railing to get out.

There is little to gather about what Kalamaras’s linguistic performance has been building up to. One might venture that the last line is an ars poetica referring to the difficulties of “calling out” language onto the page. The “frustrated fists of ordinary cabbage” suggests that it is some inner emotional state like frustration that serves as the engine for his language generation.

In “Looking For My Grandfather with Odysseus Elytis” the last line also seems to echo an ars poetica (if not more generally what it means to be a language-producing animal in the world).

He gently undoes my trousers, the buttons of my shirt, dabs sweat from my brow, rubs olive oil on my groin, in slow circles at the sensitive tip of my penis, on my chest just above the nipples where the crushing begins. Push, push, he says. Vowel without end in the chest, he says. Soon you will speak, Giorgos. Soon you will speak.

In this situation the moment of manifesting language is at hand, the creative moment has arrived, and like most of us, Kalamaras is comforted to have a master like Elytis by his side. Surrealists are often keeping company with their cultural stars. There are an assortment of writers: Elytis, Wang Wei, Miguel Hernandez, Breton, Rimbaud, Vallejo, Shinkichi, Georges Seferis, John Bradley who make appearances. There are visual artists like Max Ernst and Paul Delvaux, many musicians like George Harrison, Laura Nyro, Rory Gallagher, the group of poems dedicated to Paul Kossoff, Tommy Bolin, John Cipollina and Randy California, who are members of the obscure rock bands, Free, Zephyr, and Quicksilver Messenger Service. There are very few references to people or works outside the arena of the arts. It is safe to say, then, that Kalamaras is highly concerned with aesthetic experience.

The largest question I am left pondering after touring with the Kalamaras light and visual effects show is whether work that makes exclusive claims about the aesthetic can be fulfilling over the long run. The absence of any fully fleshed-out ideation (or reference to the same) presses down on me. However, I keep reminding myself that if Kalamaras is comfortable with his work being replete with urges toward a fundamentally different aesthetic experience, then I should be OK with that. However, along with this project of his comes an abdication of any responsibility for the world the way it actually is, for any responsibility to make any statements with any claim to veracity and power. Inscribed by the power relationships of human hierarchies, Kalamaras repeatedly refuses to face them.

So, what of poetry that refuses to make a statement about the world as is? Does this refusal ultimately delegitimize? History is full to the brim with critiques of the aesthete. The greatest of these is that the aesthete makes of his/her life a kind of useless ornament. He/she loses the capability to be effective; he/she loses power. For most, there is a perceived obligation for the poet to speak to the truth of his/her age.

But what if a poet challenges this obligation? What if a poet has no other aspiration than a pretension to illuminate? Even “serious play” seems too much like work, too involved with the practical virtue of seeking rigor in one’s work. What if the poet sees himself/herself as having no great cause to buy into the world? And to the extent he/she does buy into it, is this the ultimate buyer’s remorse?

I don’t want to begrudge Kalamaras his aesthetic space, especially when I find it such a pleasure to tread upon it, but I have my doubts at times in his work that it never fully ventures an episode in life. The blood, bone, guts and gristle he invokes are an attempt to represent the living, but they fall half a breath short.

This discussion originally appeared in Oct. 2005