Peter Richards — Oubliette

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.


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