The Most Foreign Country

Alejandra Pizarnik

Ugly Duckling Presse

2017

Thursday, December 8th, 2016

MostForiegnCountry_Cover.inddIn early 2017 Ugly Duckling Presse will release for the first time in English Alejandra Pizarnik’s debut collection, The Most Foreign Country, translated by Yvette Siegert. First published in 1955 when Pizarnik was 19, she was later to renounce the book, which remained all but buried, even in Argentina, until it was reprinted in Poesia completa, published in 2000, 28 years after her death. This first book begins precociously self-aware with an epigraph by Rimbaud on adolescence: “Ah! the infinite egotism of adolescence, the studious optimism: how the world was full of flowers that summer! Airs and forms dying…” and moves into 24 associative poems that demonstrate the influence Pizarnik’s early work takes from automatic writing. After these poems a suite of six fairly conventional love poems under the section title A Sign Upon Your Shadow conclude the book, beginning a practice Pizarnik was to continue in her later work of ending a volume of poetry with a new title and a handful of poems taking up a new trajectory. While the two sections of the book are substantially different in style and content encouraging us to read the project as two books put together—the first fully realized, the second a new beginning—it also makes sense as a complete work. Considered as a whole, The Most Foreign Country articulates a movement from adolescence into adulthood.

Along with the manuscript’s repudiation and neglect, this description might lead one to suspect it should only interest aficionados of wunderkind and juvenilia and the most serious of Pizarnik groupies, rapidly expanding thanks to Siegert’s translations and the efforts of UDP, which published Diana’s Tree in 2014, and New Directions Press which recently released a decade of Pizarnik’s later work under the title Extracting the Stone of Madness: Poems 1962-1972. While wunderkind aficionados and groupies are likely to be drawn to The Most Foreign Country, the volume has much to recommend to others: Pizarnik’s investigation of adolescence is sharp and self-aware, relevant not only to a specific time of life but to the tensions and freedoms inherent to liminality—as well as to the forms and orders that foreclose its possibilities.

As is fitting for adolescence, the first 24 poems in The Most Foreign Country employ whimsical imagery such as “stars,” “horses,” “roses,” “a blues brooding boredom,” and “the wish to grab hold of everything.” These images persist while at the same time faltering around their sharp edges: there are stars, yes, but “time strangulated my star”; horses fold into “the regiment will come”; the wish to grab hold of everything” is coupled with “the feel of heels and teeth.” Often disjointed and highly associative, these poems have the exuberance and experimental spirit of late adolescence, not yet tamped down into the cultural form of the adult. The love poems that follow in The Sign Upon Your Shadow are closer to adulthood: they are smoother and more unified, and with lines such as “my temples teem with YOUR name a million / times / if only your eyes could come!” they are symptomatic of the conventions that educate girls into women, reflecting the process of forming identity in response to an idealized romantic partner. On the cusp of adulthood, these last six poems practice romantic feminine subjectivity rather than inhabiting it, which leads this reader to appreciate lingering in the end-tones of the book as if drinking a final sweet nectar, relishing, even, the melodramatic note that adulthood will surely try its best to indoctrinate out. The concluding poem, “Distance,” reads:

My being brimming with white boats.
My being bursting with sensations.
All of me beneath the memories of
your eyes.
I want to destroy the tickling of your
eyelashes.
I want to reject the restlessness of
your lips.
Why does your phantasmagoric vision drink
from the chalices
of these hours?

Even in the later work Pizarnik’s poems never fully inhabit a stable subject position. While this fact may have come from a psychic orientation that made her life unbearably difficult, it also led to a strong body of work subversive in its rejection of normalization. And so we shouldn’t be surprised to know that she was drawn to deviant writers and figures, returning again and again to Rimbaud and Lautréamont; translating Breton and Eluard’s Immaculate Conception; and writing a cross-genre book on the 16th-century Hungarian aristocrat Erzsébet Báthory, rumored to have tortured and killed hundreds of young women.

Pizarnik’s various ways of rejecting convention no doubt attracts contemporary English-language readers to the work, which displays a frank dislocation of subject position while, at the same time, creating poems that are fiercely voiced. English-language poetry’s late 20th-century “either/or” game of a strongly voiced unified subject or the washed-out ambient noise of multiplicity is recent enough to find many readers still hungry for writing that pulls off a slippery self while also having the traction of a life lived. Pizarnik’s later poems in Extracting the Stone of Madness achieve this by creating a stunning array of doubles who stand in for the speaker and operate within surrealist-inflected interior landscapes. The poems are populated by figures such as the “ragged angel,” “she who died of her green dress,” “my shipwrecked selves,” “dead little girls,”—so many little girls—“the solitary ladies who cry,” “the doll in the cage,”—so many dolls—“a girl drawn in pink chalk,” “shadow,” “someone who cries,” “little castaway,” “a statue uninhabited by her self.” In addition to these doubles who are constantly proliferating, shifting, and unwilling to be held down are vehicles of multiplication: mirrors and masks—green masks, paper masks, wolf masks, the mask in your hand.

Pizarnik herself was to draw parallels between her interior struggles and the doubles of her poetry. In a diary entry from 1963 she writes her own version of Rimbaud’s Je est un autre: “To say ‘I’ is to be evacuated, to make a pronoun out of something outside myself.” And, in a move that is likely less appealing to the contemporary reader wary of the tortured female artist narrative, Pizarnik equated herself with her doubles, often referring to herself as “the lost little girl” and “the little castaway.” However, as Cesar Aria proposes in a lecture published in the excellent Music and Literature issue featuring Pizarnik’s work, these metaphors are not only reductive but were useful only as a tool that allowed Pizarnik to write work that transcended such “museficaiton.” Her work, Aria insists, transcends by its living fluidity and pursuit of poetic quality. I can’t help but agree: while Pizarnik may have been a “lost little girl,” the work she left behind, and the accounts we have of her process, tell us that she was also a serious and rigorous reader and writer, famously crafting her mature poems by (for example) writing lines on the chalkboard hanging in her minimalist room, erasing and replacing words until the poem had reached its perfect form.

This image and narrative of an engrossed language-worker productively contrasts with sentimental and problematic assumptions about the adolescent techniques the “little castaway” and “dead little girl” might deploy: in a flurry, all at once, without editing. And rather than replacing the “little castaway” with the hermetic perfectionist, there is in Pizarnik an example of the way both impulses might simultaneously exist in a single author—a “yes/and” approach that feels particularly apt when considering work by writers who do not fit into the expectations dominate culture maintains as to who should get to be an artist, how an artist should compose, how emotional (or not) those compositions should be, how self-referential (or not) those compositions should be, and what kind of intelligence (or not) those compositions should express.

In addition to whatever interest can be found in tracing an author’s biography through her metaphors (if you are a reader who delights in doing so), or in thinking about the extent to which the poet might fabricate a figurative body (or bodies) with which to somatically experience and create in a figurative medium (as I delight in doing), there is also something intriguing in the miniaturization of Pizarnik’s doubles and the amplified voice that emanates from them. Further, while her poetic prose sprawls far beyond the limits of the prose poem’s modest box, most of her lineated poems are physically small: from her 1965 book Works and Nights the poem “Clock” reads in its entirety: “A tiny lady, so tiny, / who lives in the heart of a bird / goes out at dawn to utter her only syllable: / NO.”

Perhaps because Pizarnik’s mature work remains so invested in imagery of the miniature, of the child and of adolescence, the largest contrast readers will notice in The Most Foreign Country is not one of theme, but rather of mode. The Most Foreign Country organizes not around the metaphorical doubles for which Pizarnik has become known, but around the metonymic parts and fragments of the surrealist. The body here is rendered not as doll or girl but as teeth, hair, eyes, pupils, retinas. And as Pizarnik repeats these parts they begin to feel elemental, as does the interior-exterior landscape of weather—the wind, rain, sun, and stars that are much more primal than the forests and gardens lining many of her later poems. For example, compare the opening poem of her 1962 Diana’s Tree, said to be the first of her books to articulate her major mode, with the opening poem of The Most Foreign Country. The Diana’s Tree poem—titled simply “1”—reads in its entirety:

I have made the leap from myself to the dawn.
I have placed my body alongside the light
and sung of the sadness of the born.

And, “Days Against Illusion,” the first poem of The Most Foreign Country reads in its entirety:

Not wanting targets that roll
around on tilting surfaces.
Not wanting voices that steal
the grainy arching airs.
Not wanting to live for a million breaths
the trivial crusades with the sky.
Not wanting to alter my lines
without waxing the current blade.
Not wanting to resist the magnet
in the end of the espadrille unthreads.
Not wanting to touch abstractions
to reach my final chestnut hair.
Not wanting to conquer the loosened tails
the trees positioning their leaves.
Not wanting to attract without chaos
the moveable words.

Notice that while “1” discusses dislocation—the leap from the self into dawn, abandoning the body for light—it does so in a contained, located way by using the first person pronoun and narrating the event in a clear arc. And so even though it narrates dislocation and the dissolution of self, the poem upon initial reading does not dislocate me or create the sensation of dissolution. It is only until I think further about the poem that I understand the game Pizarnik plays. If the speaker has leapt from herself and dissolved into the light what, then, is signified by the first-person pronoun that narrates the poem? What is this “I,” then? Here the “I” becomes the poem’s “body double,” remaining after the self of the poem has left the page, and perhaps, the poem argues, this pronoun, vacated, is what “the self” really is after all. This subtle slipperiness is what makes the poems of Diana’s Tree so wonderful—and so very easy to miss.

“Days Against Illusion,” on the other hand, begins The Most Foreign Country with a poem that boldly performs dislocation, basing its statements of agency on acts of negation that point in different directions. The poem vectors from a rejection of “targets that roll / around on tilting surfaces,” which is a rejection of instability, to the last line, which courts chaos as a desirable part of the “movable words” of poetry. If the poem holds together it is through structure and repetition: each sentence is a couplet beginning with a statement of negation, “Not wanting,” followed by a particular, fine-grained detail. But even this structure is unstable: the use of negation creates a mental jigsaw puzzle wherein the reader must first imagine what is not desired in order to decode the desire that stays always off-page. With this negation Pizarnik creates a performative version of resistance, of what she will come in 10 years time to figure as the fanciful “tiny lady, so tiny, / who lives in the heart of a bird / goes out at dawn to utter her only syllable:/ NO.”

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A Timeshare

Margaret Ross

Omnidawn Press

2015

Tuesday, January 5th, 2016

My favorite thought experiment, run by analytic philosophers, is called “The Brain in a Vat Argument.” Imagine that instead of being the living, breathing body that you think you are, you are actually just a brain in a vat in a lab hooked up to a computer simulating the experience of a body and of an outside world. Think about it: how can you know for certain that this is not the case? Furthermore: given this uncertainty, how can you assume that any of your beliefs about the world and about your self outside the mind’s environment are true? If this sounds familiar, it is because the Wachowskis made a movie version of this. Swap in an evil demon for the human-controlling computers and you’ll see that Descartes has a version of this too. These scenarios are entertaining, yes, but also productively unsettle conventional assumptions about consciousness while illustrating the fundamental role mental activity plays in the construction of reality. Once unsettled we become hard-pressed to come to any sort of agreement as to what the mind actually is—let alone how best to use it.

Such vexing problems might cause philosophers, psychologists, and gurus to tear their hair out, but Margaret Ross’s A Timeshare proves that the terra incognita of the mind is a rich territory for poets. While to some extent all poets map the mind, this book, Ross’s first, joins the body of work set out by writers such as Wallace Stevens, James Merrill, Jorie Graham, and Timothy Donnelly—the last of whom likens Ross to a “jumpy mystic” in his introduction to the book, which he selected for Omnidawn’s 1st/2nd Book Prize. Like these writers before her, Ross engages the contours of consciousness via both abstract philosophical statement and the metaphorical imagination.

This focus on abstraction and imagination may challenge contemporary readers who’ve become accustomed to a poetry that favors the mental actions of description and documentation over abstract thinking and imagination, which tend to operate differently and to evoke a different set of responses. Through description and documentation the mind translates present-tense sense data and history—the external world—so that we might see it with greater clarity. Books like Claudia Rankine’s Citizen and Anne Boyer’s Garments Against Women are examples of the power of description and documentation to bring issues of our problematic culture more immediately into thought, conversation, and ideally, political action.

Abstraction and imagination are more private; they are interior actions of mind that contend with inner vision and exercise the uniquely human capacity to engage that which is not physically present to us such as the past, the future, the lives of others as well as objects that do not, outside the mind, exist. And through abstraction and imagination we form an interior sense of self, a construction in flux that exceeds and eludes. Ross’s A Timeshare employs these qualities to illuminate the mind as it experiences and thinks about itself in time—which is to say in flux. Hyper-aware of internal and external shifts and changes, she threads her book with various aspects of time: memories of childhood, the shifting present moment backed by the ticking of the clock, the ageing of the body, the elderly.

Imaginative, philosophical, the book opens with a scene reminiscent of “The Brain in a Vat’s” lab. The poem “Of Late” begins:

Countdown. Steady ruby pulse of the security
bulb as usual at permanent zenith to receding
chrome knobs of the multiple doors. All locks
secure. Halls clear. Walls bare between the hooks
from which starched whitecoats plunge like so
many ruined candles in a row that once could
light one’s passage in towards
innermost enclosures. Labmice there glow
green and beautiful, infected shades expressing

jellyfish genes like telegraphic fires flared
from hill to hill once meant “land
conquered, staked,” and such
slight flames prove helixes mastered.
Their slopes these days swept bright
and dull, equipped with footlights, lightning

While these stanzas are longer and less shapely than most of the work in A Timeshare, they exhibit many of the traits that make the book so stunning, full as it is with vivid, ecstatic motion, here in evidence as the images twist from labmice “green and beautiful,” to jellyfish, to telegraphic flares over an exterior landscape. Throughout, sonic resonance laces particulars: the steady pulse of the long “e” sound ending the first line’s “steady” “ruby” “security”; the snapping-to of the short sentences and sounds of “All locks / secure. Halls clear. Walls bare between the hooks”; the long “o” of “so” and “row” and “enclosure” and “glow,” etc.

Also characteristic of A Timeshare is the use of unique similes to drive its poems: “starched whitecoats plunge like so / many ruined candles.” Although initially striking in its oddity, the comparison intelligently addresses time by hinging together images from different eras and registers. Set against the red glow of the “security / bulb,” these “starched whitecoats” have the feel of a sci-fi lab while the “ruined candles in a row” illuminate a passageway down which I can imagine Jane Eyre scurrying. This collision of worlds gains depth as Ross parallels the temporal texture of these images with diction and syntax. The clipped, one-word sentence “Countdown” and the crisp “Halls secure” linguistically reflect the scientists’ apparel, while the more languid syntax of the stanza’s longer sentences, along with word choices such as “permanent zenith,” “plunge,” and “shades,” extend the context of the “ruined candles.”

Ross continues the pace and layering established by these first stanzas through the book’s 28 poems. Most of these span two or three pages, and for the majority of them Ross wisely trellises her dense and spooling sentences over stanzas of fixed line numbers. This enjambment over fixity creates a meter or measure, an external rhythm that works, if you will, like a clock, ordering what ultimately cannot be measured: the mind’s whirl. At times the image-collisions, a bit too close together for comfort, muddy, and I become unsure where Ross is taking me. Yet even in these moments I remain fascinated by the work’s brilliant motion and ultimately find my own uneasiness fitting. When you watch it closely, the mind is both gorgeous and unsettling. This is true, at least, of watching Ross’s mind.

I’m most keen on the poems where, like an enchantress of logical proofs, Ross shows her work. For example, “In Parts Unknown” I am captivated observing her build a word, shift it, dive into it, and then dismantle it. The first third of the poem unfolds as follows:

Then any sense of where we were
gone. Then gulls like paper
angles sat on their masts
for a while. Foam on the water
laced maps whose every route

unraveled. “Then” unraveled. Routes
retraced as frothing monsters
sketched in the margin by faith
that fear took forms men had
devised for it. Where

does the time go? Steered by
balancing his thoughts
against imagined ground, in this
way holding it steady
open-winged as beech

moths pinned to carry home
for evidence. Faith sailed
on white silk panels of a dress
she wore the day he left
whispering Imagine that

While this passage certainly moves, Ross moves me with it, allowing interaction with her mental process. She begins by creating a blank slate: any sense of where we were, we are told, is gone. Okay, I think: Terra incognita here we go. Next, she begins to build a place, a world, adding gulls that sit like angels on masts, foam on water. Nice, I think. I also think: I like the ocean. This rather realistic setting-based scene then shifts: the foam on the water is not actual water but map water, “whose every route // unraveled.” Cool, I respond, watching the sea become paper. Next, the poem’s language—its “then”—unravels and the seascape, including frothing imagined monsters, becomes part of a book. Part of this book, perhaps, the book we are reading. Engrossed I read on, agreeing: Where does the time go?

Because I’m included in the process of this world-creation I’m anchored enough to notice that I’m not at all thrown when a character—a “he”—arrives unannounced in the third stanza and then is accompanied by a she—“Faith”—sailing on the white silk panels of a dress. This introduction of characters both without preface and without disturbing the reader happens throughout A Timeshare and evokes a dreamlike unexpectedness as characters enter and exit without comment. Some poems even dip into what feels like other characters’ narrations. This happens in “‘Our Eyes are Not our Own,’” which operates via abstract association until roughly three-quarters of the way through when the poem gives way to a long narrative about childhood presented in quotation. This narrative has the feel of the life of another—be this other another person or the remembered self.

These shifts are dreamlike, yet the sensation also reminds me of the familiar act of noticing a stranger, perhaps projecting onto her or him for a moment before turning the mind to other things. It is also evocative of the habit characters of our lives have of popping up on our smartphones for a moment of interaction and then, without comment, blinking out. In these poems the characters often come in waves. In the poem quoted above “he” and “she” appear in the third and fourth stanzas and then come back in the ninth stanza when the narrator tells us that “The shore they reached / finally was sifted grain / from their dreaming // eyes.” Between these appearances the narrator spins through a meditation on distance (“Not only hours // but miles can be rigged / like this to vanish under cell phone / towers extinguishing the ground / you would be forced to cross / to speak with me // face to face”) and arcs into a wonderful, theatrical—and again temporally disjunctive—moment where “five girls / in white leotards climb into / a tall-case clock.”

Ross’s metaphor for our mental and physical habitation of the world is the timeshare—the vacation home you afford by owning it with others. This is an odd kind of sharing: contractually you never spend time together in the same location, and it taps into something significant about a first world, 21st-century way of being. The metaphor speaks to sharing mental space as various characters move instantaneously, virtually and physically, in and out of our lives. It also works as a model for the self. Ross proposes in repeated but various ways that this self in time is a “many-personed sequence.” In one instance she writes: “every / day I woke inside another stranger’s / shape and dressed it in the same // red sweater, ditch I’d fallen into, pooled, and would soon / under heat evaporate.”

The book’s many transitory settings include a lab, ships, rented living rooms, planes, subways, a fitness room, a public restroom, a hostel, a chapel (in which the narrator fittingly encounters Bernini’s “Ecstasy of Saint Teresa”), a bus, and an assisted living home. These settings, often interiors, serve not only to create a background simulating the quick shifts embedded in our rather transitory lives, but also act as figurative states of being that push perhaps uncomfortably on the popular 21st-century mantra that you are not your thoughts. This mantra may be true but, as Ross writes squarely, boldly: “I live in the mind. I wanted to live there.” Engrossed in this book I find myself coming to a more heightened awareness that I, too, live in the mind—a mind connected to and shaped by an ever-changing world. In fact, whether or not we want to—we all do.

Though an old problem, the problem of mind—what it is, how it is best trained and employed—carries on in increasingly complicated fashion, unresolved. And no wonder: artificial intelligence continues to advance, we become increasingly mentally, physically, spiritually and socially wedded to our smart phones, and psychopharmaceuticals refine and evolve—all of which challenge conventional mind-body, self-other concepts of what it means to be. Ross manages to illuminate this experience, proposing that we take seriously the importance of our capacity for thought and its direct relationship to the kind of humans we are and imagine we might become.

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The Great Medieval Yellows

Emily Wilson

Canarium Books

2015

Thursday, June 25th, 2015

The contemporary moment of critique manifests, among other ways, in a pressing call for artwork that overtly raises consciousness of the racism, classism, sexism, and environment-gutting anthropocentrism permeating our culture. Answering this call, many poetic projects such as Claudia Rankine’s Citizen and Brenda Hillman’s Seasonal Works with Letters on Fire confront the deeply-entrenched narrative and rhetorical frames serving power structures—frames that secure relationships between self and other in a perpetual network of damage and exploitation.

Augmenting this critique is a hunger for other forms of thinking and being that re-tool subject-object relations (the core of self-other relations) so sufficiently that the old frames no longer make sense because what we are looking at—what we are living—is not the type of thing that can be understood and represented in such a way. As the philosopher Timothy Morton writes:

a fresh approach to objects as profoundly strange, uncanny, withdrawn, unknowable entities, as strange as the thing we call “subject”—maybe “subject” is also one of these strange entities, not something totally different from a book of matches or a nebula. Ontology should respect the strangeness and uncanniness of things, acknowledging that objects are unique entities, and thus ontologically separate, no matter how much they may interact or be entangled with one another.1

Perhaps, then, even “framing” has no purchase at all. While this may seem a utopian project recent philosophy (object oriented ontology and new materialism) argues that our current frameworks are still grounded in conventional subject-object models while quotidian aspects of contemporary experience ache for another model.

***

Beginning with The Keep, published in 2001, through Micrographia (2010) and into The Great Medieval Yellows, Emily Wilson has developed a body of work that, like the natural world she conveys, encompasses great range: now torrent, now ripple, now swell of grasses and the sea. This most recent book focuses on making—techné, art as craft—concerns itself with ecopoetics and ekphrasis, and contains Wilson’s most compressed work yet. Nearly all of the poems glimmer and shiver, jut and thrust, alive with delicate voracity. But they are not merely, or solely, beautiful creatures. Rather, the work’s tamping and honing create a series of generative, explosive experiences attuned to the world in a way that ultimately suggests—perhaps even demands—a re-tooling of subject-object relations to reflect both the mysterious autonomy of the non-human and its deep entwinement with us.

Encountering Wilson’s latest poems is akin to coming upon an orchid in the wild. Just as the carnal beauty of the plant stuns, a sonic richness, exotic (because precise) word-choice, and sculptural beauty in The Great Medieval Yellows encourage me to remain on the surface of the work. It is easy to become transfixed by descriptive phrases of the natural world like “Calcareous crinoline/ what’s unwound in” (42) and “dense infringings on/ sort of a rote/ blue openwork” (27) and “a small Egyptian frond/ tree, tissue trace incised in stone” (44).

However, just as I eventually come to realize that the orchid doesn’t appear a certain way to please my human eye, but is instead a complex organism engaged in its own interactive life-death work, Wilson’s book doesn’t merely please. Rather, it rewards careful reading and re-reading—to lending oneself, slowly, to the poems’ complexities. Words and phrases like “spars” “semaphores” “dinge” “pileated seed-crown,” and “glister-ground” beg not only to be looked up, but their etymologies traced, the (extinct/endangered) lexicons from which they come considered, their sounds repeated and savored. Wilson’s syntax—an intoxicating combination of elision and rhythm at play along grammatically stable sentence units and sturdy lines—rewards unpacking and invites meditation on relationships between part and whole. Sure, you might read the book quickly in a single sitting, and as result achieve a lingering sensation much like the rust of pollen residue. But a slower reading grants greater reward, particularly in suggesting ways we might reconfigure our relationship to the nonhuman.

Take, for instance, the collection’s title poem:


THE GREAT MEDIEVAL YELLOWS

Massicot mosaic gold
saffron buckthorn weld—
how to get your gilding on
it will not take part in
ruination of the blue.
Or drubbing through the known earths
in preparation for
the flesh
would it be upheld,
its chalcedony.
What you are here for
your ardent understanding of
what self in many
moving faculties
that make it so like self—
suckers through the roots of
the undulant woad
it has been living
all along
oxidizing under the topic
brilliance, hematite, lime white,
a little pinch in the dish
you have only to wait for it.

“Massicot mosaic gold”—is the chant-like beginning, attention fixed on materiality. “Materiality” because “Massicot” and “mosaic gold” name minerals, and “m” is the sound made with closed lips—i.e., when the face is in closest proximity to the earth. But also because this moment of language itself has been cut from another text and placed into the poem. Courtesy of Wilson’s epigraph, a sentence from Daniel V. Thompson’s history of medieval paint technology, The Materials and Techniques of Medieval Painting, the transformation is made visible. Thompson’s sentence, “The great medieval yellows apart from gold, are orpiment and ochre, giallorino (probably usually massicot), mosaic gold, saffron, buckthorn, and weld,” folds neatly into Wilson’s “massicot mosaic gold/ saffron buckthorn weld.”

Notice the fracturing and compression that the original sentence undergoes as it moves into the poem: Wilson makes the first four words of the sentence her poem’s title, excises the next 10 words, and picks up Thompson’s highly rhythmic list, sans comma and and—“massicot mosaic gold saffron buckthorn weld”—to create her first two lines. The elements of the sentence Wilson has decided to keep show her propensity for lexical particularity and musical richness, cutting out portions of the source that are rhetorical or evaluative like “apart from gold” and “probably usually.” “Somatics,” we should not be surprised to realize, is an anagram for “massicot” and Wilson’s choice in this particular poem illustrates the quality of her attention throughout The Great Medieval Yellows, which she places on raw materiality and physicality—nouns and sounds—instead of upon rhetorical and narrative frameworks.

The movement to the opening lines of “The Great Medieval Yellows” from Thompson’s text also reveals something significant about the way in which The Great Medieval Yellows as a whole concerns itself with the stitching of the language-material of a poem—and by extension the human body—to objects in the world. Thompson’s sentence appears in a short sub-section of his book on painting titled Fustics and Others. “Fustics” are both bright yellow dyes and the plants—smoke trees (Young Fustic) and Dyer’s mulberry (Old Fustic)—from which the dyes are made. What is painted on a canvas—something yellow—is thus not a mere representation of something yellow. It is actually made of a yellow thing: the yellow wood of the tree becomes the yellow pigment of the paint, which is, itself, used to create a yellow object—let us here imagine a yellow tree—on a canvas.

By taking up Thompson’s language and transplanting it into her poem, Wilson creates a similar transfer of qualities, grafting the materiality of one lexicon into another. Working into this liminal space between textual and physical materials is one of Wilson’s primary actions and she performs this in other ways throughout the book. Poems like “Digitated Lemon” and “Siphonophore,” for instance, blur the lines between looking at images in illustrated natural histories and looking at objects as they are in the world. Poems have titles such as “Florilegium”—from the Latin flos (flower) and legere (to gather)—a medieval compilation of excerpts from other texts. And “Exhibition” and “Kunstkammer,” a cabinet of curiosities: often whole rooms given over to natural wonders emphasize the way thought collects—idiosyncratically, at times eccentrically—the world around it. These poems address spaces where objects and the language we use to pin them to the world commingle to create material-textual microenvironments.

Returning to “The Great Medieval Yellows,” we can see the way this focusing down into the blur where one material ends and another begins—catalyzed by grafting in Thompson’s text—extends through the poem into deep-tissue levels of word choice and syntax. Track and notice, for example, Wilson’s use of the pronoun “it” and the instability surrounding its occurrences. This personal pronoun, which we reserve for the world of animals and things, is always potentially indeterminate, but “it” in this poem, as in most other uses in the book, flits and flickers in and out of reference with such volatility I almost want to call it a verb. “It” is clearly important to Wilson’s project: for a book in love with particular vocabularies “it” is used surprisingly, pointedly, often. Within the span of 48 very precise poems, “it” “its” or “itself” appears 132 times. In many of these appearances, the pronoun serves to open the poem into layered readings, overlapping references such that different objects or states of being might fill the space held open by the pronoun. Both so familiar we hardly notice its utterance and entirely mysterious, “it” very well may be the signifier par excellence for exploring the profoundly uncanny and strange reality of the nonhuman.

The poem’s first “it” is fairly unambiguous, and refers back to the action of “gilding”:

Massicot mosaic gold
saffron buckthorn weld—
how to get your gilding on
it will not take part in
ruination of the blue.

However, notice the way that grammatical elision, tucked into—hidden in—the linebreak separating lines 3 and 4—“on” from “it”—makes the context of the pronoun strange, and invites questions of agency. This is registered most clearly if we flatten out the sentence:

Massicot mosaic gold saffron buckthorn weld—how to get your gilding on it will not take part in ruination of the blue.

Notice how the sentence changes depending on what we imagine has been elided between the words “on” and “it.” Is causation elided—a “so” or “therefore” snipped out? Restored, the phrase would read: “how to get your gilding on so it will not take part in ruination of the blue.” If so, the sentence reads as a question, and a question of ethics: how to gild, make more-precious, more godly. How to preserve or secure, such that the blue—the natural sky above, the undecorated—is not ruined. The first part of the sentence perhaps provides an answer: gild via materials that are, themselves, part of the natural world: massicot (lead oxide), mosaic gold (tin sulfide), saffron, buckthorn, weld.

Or, alternatively, does Wilson’s elision remove an end-stop, which we might replace thusly: “Massicot mosaic gold saffron buckthorn weld—how to get your gilding on. It will not take part in ruination of the blue.” This period, then, would split off “it will not take part in ruination of the blue” into a statement of certainty, a statement of refusal, an ethics of refusal. Furthermore, this version gives gilding—a material process and material artifact—itself agency: gilding will not take part in ruination of the blue.

With elision’s subtle crimping Wilson manages not only to condense the movement of the lines, but also, at the same time, open up this beginning moment of the poem to alternative readings, to questions of cause and effect, to the non-human, to the ethics of making, to the integrity of refusal. This blur, created by syntactic dislocation, is particularly effective because it is set in relief against the lexical precision of the poem’s opening nouns.

In the second sentence, reference (and not just grammatical context) begins to destabilize, again around the use of “it.” We can highlight this by re-stating the sentence without linebreaks:

Or drubbing through the known earths in preparation for the flesh would it be upheld, its chalcedony.

Here we might point “it,” again, to gilding. The sentence becomes: “Or drubbing through the known earths in preparation for the flesh would gilding be upheld, gilding’s chalcedony.” So: when we go drubbing—beating, thrashing—through “known earths” (both artist’s pigments hewn from the earth and earthy things: sex, eating, elimination) in preparation for the flesh, is what is gilded, masterful, upheld? While I like the sense of this sentence and its clarity, I’m also tempted to play with the word “would.” Notice that Wilson ends the passage with a period rather than a question mark. Mightn’t we read “would” as command rather than question, read “would” as “wish”? And so the sentence might become a directive: “Or drubbing through the known earths in preparation for the flesh wish gilding be upheld, gilding’s chalcedony.”

As a further alternative, we can point “it” to its most immediate antecedent, “flesh”: “Or drubbing through the known earths in preparation for the flesh would flesh be upheld, flesh’s chalcedony.” Upon this reading, a different tension is activated. Rather than an opposition between the earthly and the godly (the gilded), the known and the unknown, there is an opposition between the actions we do to daily prepare our flesh—as something “chalcedony.” That is to say, flesh as something of us that is part of the object-world, a sound-sibling to “chalice,” that is quartz-like: onyx, jasper, agate, these materials so much less mutable than daily drubbing. And so the question becomes: do our daily fleshy human actions support and uphold what is more mineral, more stable, in us?

Wilson’s work asserts that what is in us, what is us, is intertwined with what is in the world surrounding us: a realization that happens both in this poem and repeatedly throughout the book. It feels important to me to note that such realizations are never rendered directly as epiphanies or truths, delivered cleanly. Rather, such concepts are folded within, are part of the work’s compression. The third and final sentence of the poem is where this action happens here. Again, I will write the sentence out without lineation so that we might understand its sinewy qualities and the tactile sense Wilson gives an arc of thought:

What you are here for your ardent understanding of what self in many moving faculties that make it so like self—suckers through the roots of the undulant woad it has been living all along oxidizing under the topic brilliance, hematite, lime white, a little pinch in the dish you only have to wait for it.

Notice that this sentence begins differently than the previous two short sentences. While those sentences focused primarily on the physical world of minerals, pigments, and earths, this sentence begins by foregrounding the human. We begin with the pronoun “you”—and with the very human concept of “what you are here for.” What you are here for: considerations such as this, we have learned to believe, are the very things that set humans above animals as conscious, thinking things. Ghosting behind this phrase is one of the most fundamental human questions: what are you here for? And also perhaps the even more human drive towards: what’s in it for me.

By the middle of the sentence, however, the instrumental quality of the language evaporates: the distinction between human and non-human, thought and physicality, breaks down, blurs. Any sense of the primacy of the thinking thing, as thinking thing, is sharply undermined: rhetorical structures are evacuated, agency is reformulated away from human use. “You are here,” the speaker tells us, “for your ardent understanding of what self” insofar as it is a self, “suckers through the roots of the undulant woad.” Notice that the self, halfway through the sentence, comes to be figured not as something autonomous among plants and animals, but as something that “suckers”—something that at the very least acts like a plant, and that may be, itself, part of a larger plant, one of its root suckers. And so we find ourselves to be a self-plant, an undulant woad defined not by our ability to create rational arguments at all but rather by our impulse to, plant-like, sucker through the roots of the woad/world. The human is only one object in the world among many.

As a final turn, by the end of the sentence even this act of self—this self-defining act of searching, grasping, suckering through the world—is futile. For what we have been seeking we needn’t seek: it does not seem to be the type of thing that one might seek, with seeking’s fantasy of possession and framing for display. Rather, “it” is something that will be given, will give itself, of its own agency. Notice that while Wilson leaves “it” indeterminate and thus not-frameable, she accentuates the materiality, the bodily feel of the word at the end of the poem by massing up the letter-form “i.” The “i” is visually present as a mark on the page, and the sharp “i” (/ɪ/) sound of “it” is repeated and echoed in “living,” “topic,” “brilliance,” “little,” “pinch,” and “dish” while the round sound of “I” (/aɪ/) filters through “oxidizing,” “hematite,” “lime,” and “white”—a filtering-through particularly resonant given the metallic “t’s” that tick with the memory of “it.” As such, the poem ends with an entanglement of pronouns and an entanglement of sounds. “I” and “it” are, if we listen, recognized as the autonomous morphemes we use to signify ourselves as human (I)—and not-ourselves, as non-human (it). At the same time, /aɪ/, /ɪ/, and / t/ act as phonemes—parts of a whole, constructing the other objects in the line. It is thus, the poem and the larger book propose, that as readers, as humans, as we wait we might attend the world. And that as we wait, we might listen.

______
1 Morton, Timothy. “Treating Objects Like Women: Feminist Ontology and the Question of Essence,” in Greta Gaard, Serpil Opperman and Simon Estok, eds., International Perspectives in Feminist Ecocriticism [Routledge, 2013], 65.

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the L notebook

Sabine Macher

La Presse

2014

Friday, June 27th, 2014

As temperatures hover in the upper 80s, summertime’s fantasy of ease takes over, gives rise to a self that, in lieu of work, throws on flip-flops and a swimsuit and heads to the pool. This summerself, only partly satisfied by hours under the shade of an umbrella reading trashy novels, contemplates a fling with that gorgeous creature sunning across the patio. In such a mood the summerself might think romance too much work—unless, that is, one was able to keep the pleasure simple, physical, charming. But is this possible, the summerself wonders, shifting in her lounge to get a better view: the dangerous ones start out easy and charming but then maneuver into mystery and complexity, creating the kind of bliss that does more than just please. Such experiences alter us.

Sabine Macher’s the L notebook, translated by Eleni Sikelianos and published in La Presse’s extraordinary series of translated contemporary French writing, immediately lends itself to summer’s mood of languid seduction. Chronicling a love affair between the speaker and a man named only by the letter “v,” the book moves from attraction and expectation through rendezvous and climax to the affair’s likely dissolution. Narrating the romance is a speaker whose intimacy and details fascinate with sensory precision, holding us so very pleasurably in physical and emotional space. Here’s a taste, the entire first page, which unfolds as follows:

it’s cold again

it’s the day before easter

the computer lights up

the yellow rose is before me

everyone in the house is quiet

the hosts and the guests

i think of whom i thought of when i bought this notebook

yellow outside red within

of the shadow around his eyes

shadow in his mouth

i don’t know his hands very well

i’m on the mezzanine with a daisy in an eggcup

i turn the first page of the l notebook

there are notebooks for everything

the left hand is poised fingers fanned out

a fingernail pins the page

the index curved like a claw to keep it company

i’ll make no record of the hour or date

we’ll bathe in the sea once

Like so the book continues, without punctuation or stanza break, for 39 pages until the narration, still without punctuation, ends.

This short passage, representative of Macher’s writing in form and tone, contains many of the elements that create the book’s seductive atmosphere. First, there is the conceit of the notebook and the pleasure of transgression and voyeurism that this framework affords. We are invited to imagine that were the book not published we couldn’t—or at least shouldn’t—be reading it. Such a notebook-journal, the game goes, is private. And even though the book is public, published, the framework provides a feeling of documentary intimacy creating easy access into the narrator’s emotional flow.

This notebook conceit is reinforced by the mise-en-scène with which the book begins: the narrator is at her desk and tells us she turns “the first page of the l notebook”: the very notebook that we are reading. If we aren’t curious about the intimate contents of the notebook at this point, Macher deepens the play by suggesting that “there are notebooks for everything,” implying that this notebook is no ordinary day book of random thoughts and appointments. Instead, it revolves around a specific, mysterious subject: that of l, which, given the context surrounding it, we can’t help but to surmise that l = love.

Along with the seduction of the notebook conceit, Macher’s craftswomanship of form and narration creates a reading experience that feels “natural,” and it is so easy to be swept up into the book’s world. Notice, in the passage above, the power of the lack of punctuation and lowercase “i” to create a casual, unedited tone. Notice the short, stable sentence structures ghosting beneath the unpremeditated effect of doing without punctuation. Appreciate the way that these structures—along with linebreaks that pause where punctuation or speech would pause—allow us to move effortlessly down the page without stumbling on syntax. The smoothness of Macher’s (and here I must add Sikelianos’s) unguarded effect requires technique that anyone who has written sans ponctuation can appreciate.

Just as sentence structure and lineation offer scaffolding for the casual “diaristic” movement of language, narrative context scaffolds plot, cluing me in to what is going on without breaking the conceit of private writing not meant for outside eyes. The first page tells us what time of year it is: spring, “the day before easter” (by the end of the book, when the romance seems to have run its course, we are told that it is July). On this first page we also learn that the narrator is a guest in a house, that she is a writer and has a lover. We also learn, at the book’s opening, that the speaker does not know her lover extremely well: “i don’t know his hands very well” she writes and, on page 3 we learn: “i don’t write to him/ it’s too early/ first i must write to the paper/ to the ink.”

By continuously providing us with such narrative scaffolding Macher eases anxiety we might have as to what is “going on,” floating us through the plot so that we can relish the intimacies of tone as the narrator reflects on her surroundings. Most often these reflections focus directly on the topic of romance, such as “l unfolds in time/ the windows have been shut again/ we spend all day in bed/ we sleep separately at night/ most beautiful is hair” (13) and “we woke up together/ i hear his voice better on the telephone than next to me/ i have an image of the red couch melting” (21). At other times the narrator provides us with the raw physicality of the self alone: “i’m at the very little window in my niche/ i fart out the strawberries more gorgeous than good/ i slept in the single bed without leaving a dent” (6). Lacing these moments together are observations on the act of writing: “i look out the paper-sized window/ the pen i’m moving registers the temperature in letters” (8). Remarkable throughout is Macher’s ability to carry across the role of physicality, of sensuality, in the acts of writing and consciousness.

If what I’ve written of the L notebook thus far leads you to believe that Macher’s book would make a perfect summer fling: fairly uncomplicated, easy on the eyes and on the mind, I haven’t misled you. The book could be read solely on this level should such a “readerly” reading experience appeal. However, I also would not be giving you the whole truth if I were to end my thoughts here, for when, in the course of reading, I became attuned to the theme of the self in the act of writing—which is to say the self in the act of forging relation, for what is writing if not this—the work deepened with complexity and mystery, inviting me to take a writerly relation to the book and follow its traces and clues.

While this happens on several levels, I will focus on what I have come to think of as “the mystery of the letter l.” The letter repeats, in solo italic, throughout the book and is, of course, importantly displayed by the book’s title. It is also, we have learned on the first page of the book, the subject of the notebook. Given the plot-context of the book, we are invited to assume that the notebook of l means “the notebook of love”; however, throughout the book l’s referent is continually revised, upsetting the easy equation of l = love. This invites a reader to play the game of solving for l. In doing so, we might pull out all of the references to l and create a sequence of clues, a skeleton text:

i turn the first page of the l notebook (1)
the notebook of l of lack (2)
words of l (2)
notebook of l and notebook of o (5)
the sun’s light on the paper of the l notebook dazzles me (7)
l like the yellow and black leafhopper: brought (7)
notebook of l and notebook of o (9)
in the end we won’t be able to tell when what was written of l (9)
notebook of o and notebook of l
forget the l (12)
l unfolds in time (13)
the lure of l (13)
absolute l (14)
l l and so l (15)
i forget l in the l notebook (18)
a desk of l with two inkwells side by side (19)
in the tgv bathrooms l is honored (19)
parsimony and cruelty are in l (20)
after l after the acquisition of the house (20)
l sleeps when man is a dream (24)
an enormous notebook of l (25)
i rest in l laid to waste (27)
l of all the notes in his voice (27)
l in the armoire (33)
l ends here? (35)
the world without l (38)

The allure of this running list shows me that the simplistic level, upon which I equated l with the word love, got me close to nowhere. This makes sense: like other abstract categories such as “pain,” “love” opens itself into a series of questions such as “how do I know if what I mean by ‘love’ even somewhat approximates what you mean by love?'” By defining, re-defining, circling around—embroidering—the referent to which l, love, points, Macher creates an associative portrait not only of this particular relationship (from “lack” to “the world without”), but also suggests the range of emotions that accompany love in all of its complexity. Love is the pure physicality of sound (“l l and so l“) it is philosophical (“l sleeps when man is a dream”), playful (“in the tgv bathrooms l is honored”), hurt (“parsimony and cruelty are in l“); melancholy (“i rest in l laid to waste”).

And, if you like your texts complex, we can take “the mystery of l” one step further, although, in doing so I must admit that I might be guilty of over-stepping the boundary—if there is one—between what is in the text and what is in me. But I wonder what you make of the fourth, sixth, and eighth reference to l in my list above: “the notebook of l and the notebook of o” (page 5); “notebook of l and notebook of o” (page 9) and “notebook of o and notebook of l/ forget the l” (page 12)? These lines pique my curiosity, for they contain the only references to “o” in the book, and there are no other “notebooks of __” mentioned in the text. Furthermore, unlike lines such as “l unfolds in time” and “l like the yellow and black leafhopper” these lines are opaque and certainly difficult to unpack while their repetition, which doesn’t seem to be in the service of clarity, shows that they are particularly important to the text.

Here’s the story I made up about what these lines are doing: When I read the line “the notebook of l and the notebook of o” on page 5 I become curious. Who or what is “o” I wonder. Maybe oooo or orgasm or, perhaps, the lover’s name? Oscar? On page 9 I learn that the lover will be referred to as “v”: “i’d like to see v’s lips move around the pearly teeth”. This line, with its solo v, is followed, three lines later, by the repetition of the phrase “notebook of l and notebook of o.” Naturally, I string these solo letters together and begin spelling l-o-v. L-o-v of course lands me at l-o-v-e and I begin wondering if the book performs a writing-through of the word “love”. I further speculate that perhaps this sort of writing-through, wherein the affair will end when the word has been written in full, offers an alternative structure to the book, one that functions simultaneously with the surface narrative that spins the love affair from Easter to July.

The fact that the solitary letter “e” does not appear in the book makes me wonder if I was over-analyzing the text, but the prevalence of the letter “e” in the book’s last lines:

i wait for him near where he told me the age difference makes no

difference

it’s the softest of separations

the heat makes an oily bath of everything

everything you feared comes to pass without exception (39)

makes me think, again, that perhaps I am not entirely wrong. Of the 66 vowels in these lines there is 1 u, 12 i’s, 13 o’s, 12 a’s and…28 e’s. While “e” is the most common vowel in the English alphabet, the fact that it appears twice as many times as any of the other vowels stresses its importance. Not only is there a certain metaphorical charm to the notion that the “e” that ends an affair is present in echo instead of solo, but the end of this particular affair is narratively ambiguous. On page 35 we read “when love is said to be over it can begin again”; on page 39: “i am in the world/ the world without l“. Although the writing is on the wall, so to speak, perhaps the romance is not entirely over. There is a feeling, a tension unexpressed, that the “e” is yet to come, but must come to pass in order for the romance to be fully written.

After reading that Théâtre Typographique first published the book in French as carnet d’a, I considered emailing the translator to ask if the French text suggests a writing-through of a-m-o-u-r. I considered this, but decided not to, preferring to wonder. I wondered if my reading of the text spoke to my (admitted) predisposition to complicate all things. And I considered whether or not I had a fear that the book—and my attachment to it—would seem sentimental unless I compensated with a conceptual lens. And I wondered what other complexities I missed when I allowed myself to be swept along by the romance of the text. For example, near the end the speaker writes not only of “v” but of “he” and “you”. What happens to the narrative if these are read as separate characters? Alternatively, how does this plurality speak to the multiple ways we relate to any singular person: the lover as “v” is not the lover as “you, the lover as “he”.

After all of this wondering—is the mystery in the book? in the reader?—I knew that both the readerly and writerly qualities of the book created a rich experience by which I came to understand more about the act of relating to both other breathing humans and to those found in texts. As such I find myself doubly-bewitched by this pleasurable and stimulating book.

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Transfer of Qualities

Martha Ronk

Omnidawn

2013

Saturday, February 1st, 2014

I find myself wanting to tell you contradictory things about Martha Ronk’s Transfer of Qualities. Not because I am of mixed-mind about the book, but because, upon dwelling, contradictory forces show themselves to drive the work, unleashing its power. This might give you the impression that the work is chaotic, jagged, jutting out in disagreement with itself. Let me make clear that this is anything but the case. Transfer of Qualities is one of the most seamless books I have read in quite some time. Organized in three sections (“Objects,” “People,” “Transferred Stories”), this cross-genre book builds from the one-paragraph prose poem through longer forms of sequenced lyric meditations, and then, into 2-3-page personal narratives. Mirroring this arc of form, Ronk composes the first prose poem as a single, pronoun-less sentence that focuses on the most ordinary and simple of objects: the cup. She ends the book addressing the complex subject of the body as object, employing an I-based personal narrative that moves through the topics of time, practicing martial arts, and death. Throughout, the work maintains a continuity of voice, attention, and poetic prose form.

Thus: an arc from the simple to the complex. But, underneath, energizing the experience, the individual pieces of writing create and maintain their own recognizable motion of thought. The varieties of poetic prose—prose poem, lyric meditation, and short narrative—allow for distinct mental action even as sentences and paragraphs create an organic whole. And so here I am beginning to launch into contradiction as I try to develop a global view of the volume. It is a book that treats of the borders of things—objects, processes, people, and narratives—exploring the simultaneously bounded and unbounded condition of being. This is a beloved subject of poetry, but so rarely do we encounter the hard truths of this condition with the subtle tension created by Ronk’s blend of self-awareness and feeling-in to the gasp and draw of experience. Reading Transfer of Qualities lends us to experience, and so to understand, that although we are indeed permeable in the world and of the world—absorbing and transmitting the qualities around us—we are also, (and here is the hard truth), irrecoverably singular.

Even before entering the work, Ronk’s title and epigraph announce this ontological disposition. Henry James’s The Sacred Fount is the source of both the book’s title and her first epigraph: “The liaison that betrays itself by the transfer of qualities.” James’s novel considers the possibility of apprehending the intimate relationships of others by attending to shifts in physical and psychological traits between partners. As the novel opens an unnamed narrator muses over the fact that an acquaintance—a middle-aged woman—is almost unrecognizable because she suddenly appears much younger than her years while her husband, who is in fact quite young, now appears dreadfully old. From this and other such observations James’s narrator hypothesizes that secret liaisons can be detected by noticing shifts in acquaintances’ behaviors: a once-vivacious woman, now listless, must have lent her energy to her lover. Find the suddenly energetic man and you uncover their intimate secret. The novel, you should know, ends in deep ambivalence, inconclusive as to whether or not this theory carries any truth. We are left feeling that while the concept of such transfer of qualities may resonate as true to life, it is, however, highly unlikely that we can have knowledge of such transfer in the way James’s narrator proposes. Being, simply, is not that simple; the truths of others’ interior worlds not so known.

A charming blend of psychological analysis and detective work, the novel gets at the larger question of individual minds—a question that also catalyzes Ronk’s book and that is written out plainly, boldly, in William James’s The Principles of Psychology:

Each of these minds keeps its own thoughts to itself. There is no giving or bartering between them. No thought even comes into direct sight of a thought in another personal consciousness than its own. Absolute insulation, irreducible pluralism, is the law. It seems as if the elementary psychic fact were not thought or this thought or that thought, but my thought, every thought being owned. Neither contemporaneity, nor proximity in space, nor similarity of quality and content are able to fuse thoughts together which are sundered by this barrier of belonging to different personal minds. The breaches between such thoughts are the most absolute breaches in nature (227).

Anyone who has paused here, in The Principles, compelled by this description as feeling true to experience, can attest to the loneliness of such “absolute insulation, irreducible pluralism.” The paused reader would not be to blame if she were sleepless with worry over whether or not we are locked into our own heads, whether or not empathy can be possible. Such a reader might then even understand the desire of The Sacred Fount’s narrator to see the internal worlds of his friends written on their bodies. And anyone who, after taking a deep breath, ventures on in The Principles may very well gasp again when they meet W. James’s assertion that even in one’s own stream of thought “no state once gone can recur and be identical with what it was before” (230). Which means that not only is it impossible to pry into other minds, but it is not possible to keep company with an anchored version of one’s own.

Ronk’s Transfer, in conversation with this condition, accepts it as being’s necessity—but not as its limit. Plying around edges of self-and-object, self-and-self, self-and-other, Ronk shows us that while we cannot mind-read, we certainly and necessarily connect otherwise. As W. James ultimately saves us from isolation by the fact that sensation and physical encounter with the world are the source of thought, Ronk’s writing explores the way that “Each shift, each bend of one’s body, turns out to be related to the potency of objects” (“Talking to Things,” 47). Objects—which include both the concrete (bowls, jars, tiny seashells threaded on a sting), the abstract (lectures, absence, air) and the in-between (books, photographs, quotations)—anchor us to the world and transform us: “Nothing has an essence of its own, but is what it is only in relation to all that is around” (“Talking to Things,” 47).

Transfer of Qualities includes many such philosophically-tuned statements. Some are quotations from other texts (more Henry James as well as Baudelaire, Benjamin, Blanchot and others) and some are Ronk’s own meditative findings. The book begins, however, with a more elemental gesture, unfolding from the simplest of encounters:

The cup on the shelf above eyelevel, the reach to get it for the first morning glass of water, the running of the water now clear after the silty water yesterday, the large dragonfly drowning in the cup, now in the bottom of the sink, and the sudden understanding of the whirr that edged the room last night, the unlocatable whirr that stops and starts and finally falls still as the lights are put out and what is left is the neighborhood barking, unidentified sounds pushed to the edge of consciousness, the sudden storm in the middle somewhere, and the knowledge that there must be a reason for what is now silence, a reason lodged in the absent muted clatter, as in the sudden morning appearance of venational wings, each the size of a thumb, folded inside the cup from the top shelf.

The poem, descriptive, is not merely descriptive. Rather, it is a phenomenological articulation of the action of thought, of the mind, as it tracks its surroundings until it catches, eddies, and then flies off. All one sentence, the poem begins by listing the objects in the present field: the cup, the reach, the running of water, the dragonfly drowning. Ronk then moves us to the plane of thinking, of connection—a “sudden understanding”—linking the dragonfly in the bottom of the sink with the until-now-forgotten moment an “unlocatable whirr” “falls silent” in the night. The poem pauses here, eddying in the imagination of the world as it might be when one is at “the edge of consciousness,” then dives into metaphor (“the sudden storm in the middle somewhere”) and a quest for meaning, for “a reason for what is now silence.” Which is death (the drowned dragonfly) and the passing of time. All one paragraph, all once sentence, pronoun-less, deceptively simple, “The Cup” manages to map thought, to provide us with a model (a language-object) that bridges the gap between the mind of the reader and the mind of the author.

While neatly bound into a prose poem, “The Cup” creates motifs that are threaded—are transferred—throughout the remainder of the book. The first of two motifs that I’ll mention here is one of imagery, of hollowed-out vessels. Cups, bowls (celadon, cut-glass, chartreuse glass, glazed), tea bowls, Chinese jars, vases, seashells and canoes populate Transfer of Qualities as objects of contemplation and interaction. For example, in another poem several pages later, upon considering a glazed bowl Ronk tells us “it is no longer a prop for what went on in the awful heat wave that consumed the day we stood in the shop handing the small objects back and forth between us or the role it played at the diner when there were eight of us, glasses flung to the street to celebrate the New Year, a small piece of the theater on which the curtain is now drawn” (“The Glazed Bowl,” 17). In such passages—and by repeatedly handing us one type of hollow vessel after another—Ronk reveals presence’s absence as well as objects’ abilities to anchor flux, to catalyze memory while at the same time acting as tactile call to the singular present, replete with all of its differences to the past. Ronk’s objects remind us of what I can only say by calling again on William James: although the mind and the world is in flux, “What is got twice is the same OBJECT. We hear the same note over and over again; we see the same quality of green, or smell the same objective perfume, or experience the same species of pain” (231).

Ronk makes deft use of her passages of comparison,object against object, escalating the emotion of interacting with the anchor-object through the course of the book. In “The Glazed Bowl,” the emotion is nostalgic. By the time we arrive at “The Unfamiliar,” on page 59, Ronk has handed us many small objects. Now, she hands us the “object” of a former partner. She writes this 3-paged poem in the second person, and when she considers this encounter, first recognizing her former lover by “the back of his head several rows up, the tilt of his shoulder as he looks to the program,” I respond with the cold lump in my stomach that I have felt on my own similar occasions. Ronk then pushes further, showing why, exactly, such moments are not just awkward and regretful but also full of a deeper existential queasiness. It is not only a former lover that one encounters, or a former version of one’s life, but a former and now absent version of oneself:


When he phones you can’t recognize the voice in its then greeting, it spacing and turns of phrase. And then you realize it’s the voice you’ve overheard from the other room when you are the person slicing radishes in the kitchen and able to hand him a note reminding him to remind the person on the other end the exact date, whereas now you are the person on the other and have, in consequence, the same sort of unreality those others have always had for you […] (61).

The second motif that I locate in “The Cup,” so important throughout Transfer—is one of process. In this opening poem—and throughout the book, Ronk again and again reveals to her readers the process of physically engaging with the world, of charting the way thought arises from interactions with objects and people around us. As we have seen, the book begins with the simplest of conditions—a discrete prose-poem-sized moment of awareness. As the book progresses, Ronk builds to meditations on more complex objects such as the postcard, the photograph, the photogram and the book. In considering these objects—complex because they are both objects of representation and objects in and of themselves—Ronk extends the prose poem form into several-paged poems that unfold in meditative sequences. “Photograms,” for example, might be classed as a short lyric essay on ekphrasis. It spans 6 pages and allows for a study of individual photograms (paper clips, spoons, eyeglasses, shadows, petals) as well as meditative speculation on the nature of art: “Writing about the transfer of qualities between objects and people also works a kind of exchange as if the paper on which the words appear were like photographic paper, and as if the form of the prose poem dissolved more boundaries than between prose and poetry” (36).

By the end of Transfer the book turns to relationships between people and, so, employs a slightly more narrative form. Poems begin with phrases like “It was embarrassing; it was always embarrassing, the sense of having been there before” (“The Unfamiliar,” 59) and “I was listening to the radio interview with a woman who had written a book on her own autism” (“The Pressing Machine,” 74) and “For seventeen years I practiced kung fu” (“Posada,” 77)—and then launch into narratives that treat personal experience of topics such as love, loss, disability, and death. As with the poems in the beginning of the book, these later narratives work back and forth from physical objects of experience to mental objects of experience, showing us the action of mind that makes sense of the world by telling stories about encounters with the world. The themes of Ronk’s stories (which are the themes of all stories: love, loss), layer as we move from narrative to narrative. Although the details of Ronk’s stories cause them to feel singular and distinct, this layering allows for the qualities explored in previous narratives (for example, the former partner in “The Unfamiliar”) to transfer to encounters with others (in this particular case, to all encounters featuring a potentially romantic “he.”)

While the ideas and emotions that surface from Transfer of Qualities span a range of registers, this process of engagement and catalyst remains consistent, proposing that the way we make sense of simple physical objects threads through to the sense we make of the more complex. Not only does this motif create a tightly-woven book, it also argues for the fundamental importance of writing and reading. As Ronk’s encounter with a cup reveals the process of engaging life’s largest complexities, the way that we interact with the particular object we hold in our hands—her book—transfers into the way we encounter our lives.

——


James, William. The Principles of Psychology. New York: Holt, 1890.

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Hello, the Roses

Mei-mei Berssenbrugge

New Directions Press

2013

Wednesday, November 6th, 2013

As a term, Empathy, from the Greek em-pathos, in-feeling, is the translation that Edward Titchener, a psychologist working at the turn of the nineteenth century, gave to the German Einfühlung—sympathetic understanding, or, literally, feeling into another’s subject-position. Since the late 18th century the concept has had more, and then less, and now more attention in the fields of psychology and aesthetics. As affect, as one of the ways we act and are acted upon, this state of being has likely always been with us. It comes upon us unwilled, but we also consider it a state that can be cultivated, practiced, and theorized. The desired end of such projective feeling is to understand another from his or her perspective.

Such feeling into another’s subject-position on the one hand seems like a happy answer to the self’s well-worried solipsism. However, in the hands of so many writers, attempts at empathetic projection become a sort of “crude empathy” (Brecht’s worry), a feeling into not based on real understanding of an other, but based on the assimilation of the other’s experience. This problem is embedded in the way we think about what makes us individual selves and the necessarily singular experience of one’s own first-person perspective. Inhabiting another’s first-person perspective in the same way that he, she, or it, does, not only seems psychologically impossible, but also would efface the very thing that ensures the existence of all that is not-me in the world. As Husserl among others points out, had I the same access to the consciousness of another as I have to my own, that other would cease being another and instead become part of myself.

Thus the bind: one cannot inhabit anyone else’s first-person experience, and it is precisely this limit that makes another other to me. At the same time, we don’t want to say that we have completely no access to another’s first-person perspective. We want to say that what we feel in affective, empathetic moments is not merely a solipsistic self-projection.

While studies on the problem of mind hash these problems out via the discipline of philosophy, worries over the lyric I reflect the way these problems circulate in the language of poetry. As we know, the lyric I is the poster-child for the expression of first-person experience. And while we might grow tired of the limits of this perspective—of the hemming and hawing of these I’s, aching through their embodiments, bemoaning the fleeting nature of relational connection—we balk at lyric expression that “feels into” the first person experience of another. The ethical risks of such attempts at empathy include the effacement of fundamental difference with fantasy—and passing fantasy off as some sort of emotional truth.

But this need not lock us into a Cartesian box, for “Je est un autre” (Rimbaud). Or, if you prefer philosophy, “The other can be evident to me because I am not transparent for myself, and because my subjectivity draws its body in its wake” (Merleau-Ponty). We can open the box from a trap door built into its bottom: there are many ways that we experience ourselves as other to our first-person experience of the world, for we exceed our pronouns. And this first-person experience of excess, of self-as-other is kin to an experience of the otherness of that which is not the self. The otherness of other humans, animals, nature, and objects.

Perhaps we first recognize otherness because it is a fundamental relationship that we have to ourselves. Simply touch your right hand with your left and you are both touching and touched. Catch your image in a mirror unexpectedly and who is that, for a moment, you wonder. Leafing back through old poems—through a poem you wrote yesterday—you have the distinct feeling that you did not write what is on the page. As such, one way to think about empathy is along the self’s subject/object edge, considering the fact of the self as simultaneously occupying a subject and object position and exploring the object-self’s relationship with other objects.

*

A genre of contradiction (prose/poem) and of addition (prose + poem), the essence of the prose poem is a tension of opposites, creating a space for writing into territories of seeming-contradiction. This makes the form an ideal vehicle for exploring the subject/object edge of empathy. The form, in the right hands, accommodates a deeply embodied lyric I as it inhabits a first-person perspective while, at the same time, affording a meditative self-reflection that articulates the object-nature of the self. When practiced together, these impulses form an empathetic field.

By “deeply embodied lyric I,” I am thinking of poems that work like the first stanza of Plath’s “Ariel:” “Stasis in darkness/ Then the substanceless blue/ Pour of tor and distances.” This moment arises from and into embodied experience, conveys in language the feeling of a first-person experience of embodiment. By “meditative self-reflection,” I am thinking of Descartes’ Discourse on Method, a textbook example of thinking about thinking: “…I supposed that all the objects (presentations) that had ever entered into my mind when awake, had in them no more truth than the illusions of my dreams. But immediately upon this I observed that, whilst I thus wished to think that all was false, it was absolutely necessary that I, who thus thought, should be somewhat; and as I observed that this truth, I think, hence I am…” Such movements of mind make of one’s own mind an object of speculation to be considered just like one considers the articulations of another. In prose poems that combine these impulses, the pulsing embodiment of the lyric spans through the meditative essay’s self-reflective articulations of thought.

*

Known for her phenomenological poetics, and author of a 1989 book titled Empathy, it will come as no surprise to her readers that Mei-mei Berssenbrugge’s newest book, Hello, the Roses, performs such tensional, empathetic work. The book’s 18 prose poems explore empathetic connection with humans, animals, and nature on physical, conceptual, and spiritual levels. This is evident in the poem-titles themselves.

In the first section, loosely organized around human-animal empathy, we have poems such as “Animal Voices,” which features “Barney” “an ordinary terrier with hair over his eyes” (7) who “shows me his dream of smelling violets” (5). The second section, which features connections with nature we have poems titled “DJ Frogs,” “Green,” and “Hello, the Roses” wherein “The entire rose, petals in moving air, emotion of perfume records as a sphere, so when I recall the emotion, I touch dimensionality” (58). With poems titled “The Lit Cloud,” “Karmic Trace,” and “Immortals Having a Party,” the third section extends the themes of the first two sections, but focuses them on a spiritual plane. One of the last sentences of the book reads: “She imagistically transforms uncertain space into a cosmos from watery time, the pre-forms of plants, stones, animals, by drawing them” (92).

The book’s work with empathy is, however, much more deep-tissue than merely thematic. Berssenbrugge uses the tensional space of the prose poem to inhabit both the embodied perspective of the lyric and a meditative, self-reflective perspective. As such she simultaneously foregrounds first-person experience and also the otherness embedded in one’s own embodiment. Let’s look at “DJ Frogs,” the first poem in the second section, as an example of the way this simultaneity works throughout the book. Here are the first 7 sentences of the “DJ Frog’s” first section:

We stand in a vernal marsh surrounded by spring peepers so loud I feel like a tuning fork vibrating.

The half moon rising over trees sends shadows across water in complexities of light reflections, of opaque grasses, skunk cabbage, violet, indigo streaming into saturation like blowing sand.

Why don’t we enjoy night more often?

A density of peepers, bullfrogs, crickets, cicadas rounds the corner of my hearing.

Where rhythm should be, there’s space around an expected beat I don’t hear; my pulse falls through subtracted space.

It’s not communication breakdown or break in feeling, it’s abstract.

Frogs communicate para-acoustically with the future, grabbing the potential beat (silence) and materializing it from far off in light years.

The second sentence of this section particularly exemplifies the embodied perspective of the book. Descriptive of the world outside of the speaker, locating the speaker in physical context, it unfolds in a way that reflects the unfolding of perception. It conveys to us as much about the perception of the speaker as it does about the landscape context. Notice the present tense of the sentence (nearly all of the sentences of the book take place in the present.) Notice the focus of the sentence, which is upon the action of the tree-sent shadow, tracing the shadow from its play across objects (opaque grasses, skunk cabbage) to pure color (violet, indigo). With its simile translating indigo into blowing sand, the end of the sentence shifts emphasis from the visual into the tactile—from seen to felt. This motion perhaps registers the path of shadow from the foreground, where distinct objects can be recognized, to distance, where all is indigo blur. Or, perhaps it registers the shadow’s fade and flux. Or, more likely, the movement of the sentence outlines the simultaneous transformations of perceiver and perceived as they interact in time.

The sixth sentence of the section exemplifies the self-reflective, conceptual aspect of Hello, the Roses. This perspective is distant from the sense-based experience at hand and categorizes experience into larger, abstract systems. Notice the definitional quality of the sentence, which serves to objectify experience in order to name it. Notice also that the pronoun “it” succeeds in bundling the preceding experience into an object, into a singular entity. Notice that this conceptual utterance is, like the other sentences in the sequence, also written in the present tense. But while sentences exploring physical experience are weighted towards detailing-out nuances of perception, sentences exploring concepts are condensed and succinct.

The oscillation between these two kinds of sentences proposes that when we perceive the world—when we live in it—we simultaneously identify ourselves with our experience and objectify our experiences. It proposes that any present-tense moment unfolds in excess of what a first-person perspective can contain. And we have access to this excess. We are not trapped solely in our first-person perspective but are of this excess, this energy common to all matter. The simile with which the poem begins—a tuning fork vibrating—encapsulates this commonality. The tuning fork, a purely physical object, resonates according to its surroundings. As bodies we resonate with our surroundings in ways that our minds can only attempt to conceive. In such resonance empathy resides.

Berssenbrugge’s particular form of the prose poem affirms these tensions between embodiment and concept, between the self that identifies with experience and the aspects of the self that transcend identification but are no less part of the fabric of being. By giving each sentence its own space followed by white space, she invites her reader to engage in a pattern of identifying with experience and then reflecting upon experience. When I read “We stand in a vernal marsh surrounded by spring peepers so loud I feel like a tuning fork vibrating” all of my language and focus is given-over to the sentence, dwelling within its sounds, imagery, syntax. As Lisa Robertson articulates in Nilling: “As I read my self-consciousness is not only suspended, but temporarily abolished by the vertigo of another’s language. I am simply its conduit, its gutter. This is a pleasure” (26). Berssenbrugge leads us to be filled with the not-I, practicing self-as-conduit. And then to fill the white space that follows with self-reflection, or silence, which may be another name for pure presence. In this way the poems do much more than model or depict empathy; they engage readers in its practice.

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The Invention of Glass

Emmanuel Hocquard (Translated by Cole Swensen and Rod Smith)

Canarium Books

2012

Wednesday, September 4th, 2013

The Invention of Glass. To begin with titles and what does a title propose:

Thanks to volcanoes, lightning, and meteorites, glass has always existed in nature, but like many of our oldest technologies that we daily take for granted, glass-as-human-invention has a mysterious and un-namable source. Our oldest known glass objects are glass beads dating from the Middle Bronze Age, but who fashioned them and why and if not by accident upon what natural or established model remains a mystery. Glass is also mysterious for its many forms, which we value for contradictory traits. In glass we have a material that can be transparent, such as a windshield, valued for its visual near-absence, its ability not to stand, visually, in the way of the world. We also have a material that can be quite opaque, such as a stained glass widow, valued for its visual presence.

“Transparency” and “opacity” also, of course, describe different qualities of language, a resonance particularly significant for this book whose original French title, L’Invention du verre, yields a homophone with vers, that is to say, with verse. “Transparent” language lends itself to window metaphors illustrating the kind of writing that seeks to make language as unobtrusive as possible, leaving the reader with the impression of a vivid external landscape, a clearly communicated idea, a definable interior state, etcetera. “Opacity,” on the other hand, foregrounds the material aspect of language, keeping readers on the level of syllable, typography, syntax, and word—the writing, itself, as experience rather than the writing as window onto experience beyond the page.

It is easy enough to fall into a rehearsal of a transparent / opaque dichotomy that transposes these terms onto genre (prose / poetry), discipline (philosophy / poetry), philosophy (analytical / continental) or aesthetics (conventional poetry / experimental poetry). But this is not what The Invention of Glass wants, for the book embraces the tensions between transparency and opacity as necessary elements of language—entailments of the always contextual, always multiple, and always unfinished properties of language that make of it an inventive material:

When the two elements that compose glass fuse, they’re freed from their natural limits which lets them disappear.

and

A taste for glass does not explain the appeal of experiments in language.

and

Poetry does not speak of the world.

and

If it does what it says poetry is in all cases a matter of physics.

and

There is an abyss.

_

Within and against the opacities of the abyss structure and naming order and clarify. Transparent aspects of The Invention of Glass are due in large part to Hocquard’s elegant and simple structure. The book has three distinct sections with straightforward names: “Poem,” “Story,” “Notes.” It is mainly in virtue of the structural, formal, and tonal similarities within each section that the book has transparency and can be held onto intellectually.

The first third of the book, “Poem,” is a series of 20 numbered sections and, although each section creates the feeling of an autonomous poem, the series works as a continuous whole. Uniform in form and style, each section is headed by a number (1-20), begins with an italicized phrase, and unfolds in a single stanza of 48 lines long. Each line is roughly between 5 and 10 syllables long; the poem’s sentences are grammatical and relatively short (except for section 11, which is one long sentence) and enjamb, creating a fairly tight path down the page. The tone throughout is meditative, asking questions and pursuing ideas. But this surface is not smooth and rhetorical: Hocquard leaps from subject to subject without supplying overt connections. Particular details balance abstract concepts to address such themes as coming into being, the textures of the material world, and the nature of naming. These themes rise to the surface and come back across the series. Section 7, which of all of the sections most overtly treats of the theme of glass, serves as an example of the way “Poem” feels. It begins like so:

There is glass. The respite
sheds light on the passage.
A broken branch
across the path.
How to see this pink
cloth? It’s right. Prisoner
of his perspective
the commander missed
everything. Ancient walls
become paths.
Affirming and negating
can be equally energizing.
Why these forms?

and traverses 23 more lines while passing through subjects such as direction, parentheses, and color and ends with the following 12 lines:

There is means something
rather than nothing: the bisons’
trail still visible
beneath Broadway. Here is
the sea. Through the extravagant
machinery of voices,
sibilants, no border
passes. Becoming
is not a discipline
and no one has ever tried
to find the name
of the inventor of glass.

Qualities that create the transparency/clarity of “Poem” include the solidity of the sentence as syntactical unit; a particularity of diction; repeated formal elements, which go far to—if not teach us how to read the sections—habituate us to the way that they unfold. In many respects the poems create the feeling of what it might be like to be inside Emmanuel Hocquard’s head—not being, ourselves, Hocquard, but rather listening as he pulls through thought. Here we might employ the image of double-paned glass and think of the poem as a window of language that gives out onto the language-window that this particular self uses to speak to himself about the world.

Although consistent formal features afford the text a measure of transparency, “Poem” is, at the same time, an opaque text that resists summary and overt aboutness. Swerves of consciousness and allusions to references that readers do not have access to create an experience of opacity. Take, for example, the lines: “The respite/ sheds light on the passage.” The respite from what, we might ask. What passage? Literal passage? Textual passage? The passage of time? And before we can surmise an answer we move on to the image of “A broken branch/ across the path.” Is the path the passage? Is the broken branch the respite? Again, before there is an answer, we move on. As such, the movement of “Poem” is largely opaque, creating a rich, mysterious experience. As I read I am not sure where I am going, but I do not feel abandoned by the author: on a felt level I have the sensation of being carried by “Poem” from the movement’s beginning to its end.

__

The book’s second section, “Story,” consists of 20 prose entries that correspond to the series of 20 poems in “Poem.” These prose entries range from quotations from other sources (indicated by quotation marks and superscript numbers) to what feel like journal entries and written observations about ideas, texts, and experiences. Each of “Story’s” entries clearly connects to its counterpart in “Poem” by three formal devices: ordering, titling, and page numbers. For example, we know immediately that the seventh prose entry in “Story” corresponds to the seventh section of “Poem” (cited above) because—along with being seventh—it is titled with the same italicized phrase that begins the seventh section, (There is glass), and also cites page numbers (P. 33 and P. 36) which correspond to the pages of the seventh section of “Poem,” which spans from page 33 to page 36. The entry reads, in its entirety, like so:

P. 33. “They say that nitrate merchants, camping along the Belus, a Phoenician river, used some blocks of their merchandise to support their cooking posts and that the action of the fire transformed this nitrate, mixed with the sand of the riverbank, into a transparent lava that was instantly rendered solid by contact with the air.” 8

P. 36. “Roads in the United States often follow old Indian paths, but this is also true of certain city streets. Broadway is the best known example.” 5

We can make many connections between these textual fragments and the text of “Poem.” Most obviously, we have the note on Indian paths and Broadway, which corresponds to the lines:

There is means something
rather than nothing: the bisons’
trail still visible
beneath Broadway.

After reading the rather concrete and crystal clear sentence about Bison and Broadway in “Story,” the rather airy lineated musing in “Poem,” solidifies: the mysterious “bisons’ trail” becomes an “old Indian path” and I experience an “ah ha” moment. But the revelation goes both ways: when I read “Story’s” note I through “Poem’s” assertion that “There is means something rather than nothing” what is rather plain fact begins to vibrate with significance. While I don’t know that I want to say that the fragments of “Story” explain “Poem,” (or that “Poem” invests “Story” with meaning), the connections and layering that happens when we read back and forth across sections creates a deeper experience of the text: an experience that is on the one hand more opaque (more layers), but on the other hand, an experience that brings the language into focus and clarifies via contrast and difference.

The particular entry that I’ve cited above happens to be entirely from source texts, which is not true of the entirety of “Story.” Hocquard makes the fact of “source” clear by conventional use of quotation marks and the superscript numbers that we have learned indicate notes. If we flip to the third section of the book, “Notes,” we find the corresponding citations. 8 corresponds to the entry “8. Henri Havard. La Verrerie (The Glass Factory), Librairie Charles Delagrave, 1897.” and entry 5 corresponds to “5. Giles A. Tiberghien. Notes sur la nature, la cabane et quelques autres choses (Notes on Nature, Cabins, and Several Other Things), École supérieure des arts décoratifs de Strasbourg, 2000.”

While the content of “Story’s” prose entries varies from entry to entry, “Story’s” format remains consistent. This consistency shows us how to read “Story”—from beginning to end, as one would read a “story,” but also, more rewardingly, along with its corresponding section from “Poem.” It also provides a kind of transparency of connection and poetic process: we can trace movement back and forth between “Story” and “Poem.” Sometimes “Story” seems to provide a source text (the story behind the poem), sometimes an interpretation (the story one might make up about the poem’s sense), and sometimes a more-or-less mysterious association with the material of “Poem.”

The third section of the book, “Notes,” only runs from pages 115-117. Although “Notes” consists only of citations corresponding to the quoted material in “Story” (and to the book’s two epigraphs, taken from Keith and Rosmarie Waldrop), Hocquard gives it equal status with the rest of the book by using the same bold, sans-serif titling as “Poems” and “Story” and by listing it in the Table of Contents just as they are. Hocquard’s inclusion of notes provides a generous transparency of source. And his elevation of notes to the same status as “Poem” and “Story” implies a map for how a poem is made with and through a writer’s engagement with novels, poetry, criticism, history and philosophy. Here again we have transparency and opacity: “Notes” renders the process transparent, but, it is essential to note, the mystery that brings a poem into being out of a source text remains an opacity. Tracing section 7 from “Poem” to “Story” to “Notes” and back again provides the gesture or outline of composition, and provides material for creative reading, but does not answer the more intense questions of creative mystery.

__

While the formal structures of The Invention of Glass brilliantly create a transparent window onto language’s capacity to be ordered and made into poems, the book’s genius resides in the way in which Hocquard does not deny language’s opacities. The opaque quality of language is most beautiful in “Poem,” with its mysteries and leaps, but I want to end by mentioning two moments in the last two thirds of the book that comment on language’s innate opacity.

1. In “The letters are,” the second to last section of “Story,” Hocquard writes about his use both of the ampersand and the word “and,” highlighting the multiplicity embedded in even one of the simplest words, even in and and &. Given such systemic multiplicity, language is deeply rooted in opacity:

p. 82. Here, the ampersand (&) is not a replacement for and. Rather, it denotes a tautological aim. Which is to say that it tends to mark, between two terms, a relationship (but can we still speak of relationship?) of identity: “Table & hands” (p. 10), “Person & path” (p. 86), or indifferentiation, closer to or. You could also say an augmentation. “The painting shows Alvina’s photographed arm augmented by a shoulder as if it’s a birth…” (p. 55) is less the description of an image than the development of a formula such as “Alvina’s arm & shoulder” while the other formula “Alvina’s arm and shoulder” denotes an addition.

2. The last endnote of the book provides citation for a phrase that comes much earlier in the book&#8212a phrase that separates the book’s first two sections. Between “Poem” and “Story” the following phrase appears, all alone and italicized in the center of a page:

(The rest is wanting) 24

“Notes” provides the following citation:

24. (Reliqua desiderantur), the final proposition of Spinoza’s On the Improvement of Understanding. 1662.

On the Improvement of Understanding was Spinoza’s last text—he died before he finished it. And this, the last proposition of Spinoza’s last text—”The rest is wanting”—was not written by Spinoza, but by an editor. Here we have a different kind of opacity: an opacity of source, authorship, and context. An opacity of the inevitable incompletion of a text.

These moments are significant because they remind us that opacity isn’t something that a poet—at least a good poet—does to language. It is part of what language is as it appears in the world—always contextual and, so, always over-layered with multiple textures and never, finally, finished. Hocquard’s work is a testament to possibility: to invention not in spite of, or in denial of, these excesses, but in virtue of them.

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Selected Days

Stephen Ratcliffe

Counterpath Press

2012

Sunday, April 21st, 2013

One of the most tricky questions surrounding poetry is one of the most common: “what is this poem about?” While the question seems casual, easy—a way of filling unoccupied air—answering the question requires a fair amount of precision. Unless the answer has a grasp of the “aboutness” relevant to the poem at hand, the response is apt to be empty and misguided at best. Furthermore, the kind of aboutness that a poem has is fundamental to whether or not the poem is significant, by which I mean how much work it can do in the world and to what end.

In a 2010/2011 lecture available from Omnidawn Press in chapbook form titled The Given & the Chosen, Ann Lauterbach provides a rich response to the question of aboutness: “I might say, in answer to the question, what are your poems about, what is this talk about, that they are about what might arise between the given and the chosen.” This response, so rich in complexity and usefulness, for some time allowed me to play a game of separating the world into categories. To the category of the given I thought: the body, language, the physical world, one’s own native culture. I thought “given” as in present (Lewis Hyde), present (as in breath breeze sound), and as in always already given-to. To the category of the chosen I thought poem, gesture, word, form, location, and non-native language/culture. I thought agency, but with a question mark, and wondered to what extent. And then I thought about the space of possibility held open by the hinge-word between

Later in her lecture Lauterbach hints at a connection between “aboutness” and significance, articulating a high call for art’s practice:

Many years ago in 1973 or 1974, I gave a course at Saint Martins School of Art in London called “choice, decision, and judgment.” I was interested then, as I am now, in asking questions about the possible relation between forms of life and forms of art…I wanted to know if the sequence of choice, decision, and judgment in one’s quotidian life might have some bearing on that same sequence, choice, decision, judgment, in making art…Contrarily, could the process of making choices, decisions and judgments in art-making in fact condition and shape a person’s life?

++

Aboutness as what might arise between the given and the chosen. Significance as art that conditions and shapes a life and is itself conditioned and shaped by a life. This form of aboutness and this call for a praxis of quotidian significance particularly resonates with experimental texts—by which I mean texts that reflect upon, and wrestle with, language itself. Stephen Ratcliffe’s Selected Days, recently out from Counterpath Press, is such a text.

In the book’s “After/Words” Ratcliffe outlines the scope of the project thus:

All these ‘days’ (poems/pages) selected from six previous books — Portraits & Repetition, REAL, CLOUD/RIDGE (each one being 474 pages written in 474 consecutive days), HUMAN/NATURE, Remarks on Color/Sound and Temporality (each one likewise 1,000 pages written in 1,000 consecutive days); all these days, 4,422 pages written in 4,422 consecutive days…all this writing (in/of ‘days’) still going on…

A writing in days, of days, Selected Days presents the last 20 poems of each of the 474-paged books and the last 40 poems of each of the 1,000-paged books. As a “selection” the book necessarily employs the given-chosen dynamic: the given = the six volumes of poems, the chosen = the selections. Selected Days operates serially, as do the six volumes, functioning within an ethic and aesthetic of the daily, using modular forms to create poems that record and participate in the passage of time. As such, this serial process immediately engages one of the most fundamental givens of daily life—time and the space in which it unfurls. And, the commitment to daily writing that the project entails articulates, again and again, the gesture of choosing. Ratcliffe’s particular choice: to attend the world in perception and word, to choose the poem as the form of this attention.

The poems of this project—both those included in Selected Days and those that remain unselected in their respective books—are not only held together by Ratcliffe’s commitment to daily, serial composition. The poems also share many structural and stylistic features, both within individual books and across several (or all) of the six volumes giving the overall project (which I will call, here, “days” to indicate all of the poems of the six books, selected and unselected alike) a quality of deep continuity. In many (though not all) respects the poems are fundamentally modular: lines and stanzas from any given poem would be quite at home in any other poem in the six volumes. From CLOUD/RIDGE, the poem titled “9.29” serves as an example of the features that recur across poems, giving the work of “days” this feeling of interchangeability. I quote it here in its entirety:

blue white sky above plane of still dark ridge
in window opposite the unmade yellow and blue
bed, shadow of tobacco plant branch slanting
across wall on the left

man in blue jacket
noting yellow orange of aspen leaves in left
foreground, whiteness of snow falling through
grey of sky beyond it

man in red truck noting
Wagnerian influence in Bruckner’s Ninth, light
and shadow on planes of ridges in front of it

Lily Briscoe thinking that “one wanted fifty
pairs of eyes to see with,” remembering Mrs.
Ramsey “sitting in the window alone”

grey
clouds moving across circle of sun in right
corner, snow on rock in foreground below it.

Each poem in “days,” titled by its date of composition, is bookended by un-peopled landscape description, often juxtaposing domestic interior landscapes such as the “unmade yellow and blue bed” with exterior natural landscapes such as the “grey/clouds moving across circle of sun.” In all six books most often this external landscape is of the sea, the movement of weather, and/or a view that feels like it gives out through the same window. This repeated bookending of each poem allows the reader to become familiar with the books’ physical spaces—the given physical world—and affords the feeling of coming back to a location again and again.

Accompanying these repetitions of image and perception are Ratcliffe’s repeated typographical choices. All of the poems of the “days” series sit cleanly on their individual pages and are set in the same typeface, Courier, a monospaced font which allots each letter or character the same amount of horizontal space. This font-choice resonates with the project as a whole: as each day is equally worthy of an equal quality of attention, each letter is worthy of the same amount of physical space. Additionally, each book employs a distinct, repeated formal structure: for example, all CLOUD/RIDGE poems have the features of “9.29” above: 5 stanzas of 2-4 lines each that tab over to begin where the previous stanza ends, and each CLOUD/RIDGE occupies 18 lines of space.

In addition to this physical-visual repetition, each of the six books pays deep attention to sound: both ambient sound occurring in the world in which the poem is composed—and the sound of the words of the poems. The line “shadow of tobacco plant branch slanting” from the poem above exemplifies the careful aural gathering that happens all of the “days”: here we hear the deep pull of “a’s,” the up-spike of the “t’s.”

You will do yourself a favor if you reread “9.29” to yourself, now, out loud. After doing so, note that while the ambient sound going on around you as you read is something that cannot be easily shut out (your ears do not have the equivalent of the eyes’ lids), hearing the sounds of a poem-in-air is the result of a choice—your choice to articulate the poem out loud and to attend that particular sound above the radio, the traffic, the neighbor’s baby crying. If sound is the poem’s given—embedded in the words themselves—listening is an act of the reader’s choosing. Here we might consider the between that separates and joins the given and the chosen: this sonic “between” depends upon the reader’s participation in uttering the sounds, and listening to them—an act that itself happens within the passage of time.

Also ubiquitous to the project of “days” is “9.29’s” incorporation of language happening within the physical space of the poem: the “man in the blue jacket” and the “man in the red truck” “noting”—Lily Briscoe “thinking.” Throughout “days” such incorporation might include thoughts expressed by the poems’ figures—men and women who drift into the poems and then exit, sometimes thinking sometimes talking as in “the red-haired woman in the long black dress/ claiming a third of all new cars are leased” (6.29, REAL) or the “man on phone recalling man asking ‘what kind of sparrow/ was it, imagine not knowing what kind of sparrow'” (“6.30” HUMAN/NATURE).

The books CLOUD/RIDGE and HUMAN/NATURE incorporate quotations from outside texts in every poem. “9.29,” as you see here, cites Virginia Woolf’s To the Lighthouse in its fourth stanza—as does each poem in CLOUD/RIDGE. Poems from HUMAN/NATURE cite both named and unnamed visual artists, philosophers and composers (for example, Hegel, Stravinsky, Picasso, Matisse—along with an unnamed “man” who might or might not be Ratcliffe himself) in the second and third stanza of each of its poems. It is important to note that Ratcliffe does not privilege one form of language above another: the citational is as significant as the notational or the perceptual; thought as significant as an overhearing. This inclusion of language within the frame of these daily poems insists that the fabric of our lives is in large part constituted by many materials of written and spoken language—and that this aspect of our lives is every bit as much a necessary given as our physical landscapes.

Also of note: as with “9.29,” all of the books avoid excessive use of articles and pronouns. In the Selected “I” is only used in quoted material and he/she are used sparingly. Here again we might think about this choice: the poems of Selected Days are everywhere filled with Ratcliffe’s thoughts and perceptions, but he chooses to give them to us in a form that privileges the eye and the ear over the I. And it is important to remember that he does this not only in a handful of poems, but as a gesture continued through a daily practice of writing that began on 2.9.98, accumulating in 4-5,000 poems, and that is still, to this moment, ongoing—an event you can participate in by reading of Ratcliffe’s blog where he posts daily poems along with photographs.

These features, shared across books, allows the work to read as one long, continuous project, admitting only the most subtle modulations in form and tone. However, the reader of the Selected soon becomes aware that each of the six books has its own repeated elements, native only to each particular book. And it is in allowing us to track and consider these choices—these subtle variations—that Selected Days offers readers not only an experience he or she can’t have reading one or two of the six individual books, but also offers valuable insight into the significance and power of the overall project. Take, for example, “6.12” from the book REAL. I quote it in its entirety:

Silver brightness of small cloud at top of ridge
a moment before the sun suddenly appears, a long
thin grey white finger of fog drifting below it.
The woman in Paris noting a “violent uprooting,”
moving in thirteen hours from being eminently
happy to awful state of “withdrawal.” Man’s
body under a white sheet whose eyes look up
toward camera, blink a few times before he
drifts off to sleep. The woman who takes
overdose of Seconal telling her husband and two
sons that she has been searching for something
all her life, now sees that paradise is right
here in the room. Upturned curve of waning
white half moon in pale blue sky above grey
white wall of fog above the tip of the point,
white line of wave moving in toward the GROIN
sign.

Of all six books, REAL is the only book to employ a single-stanza structure: as in “6.12,” all of the poems in REAL are composed of a single stanza spanning 17 lines. Also unique to REAL is the use of periods: poems in the other five books rely on sentence-like syntactical structure, but do not observe the stops and starts of the period and beginning capital letter. This compositional choice draws my attention to the sentence as modular unit within the whole. When I take a closer look at each sentence as an individual unit, I notice the paratactic nature of each sentence, and that each and every sentence is structured in two parts with a significant shift in perception in the space between the two.

For example, in the first sentence a comma divides the visual perception of the “silver brightness” and “small cloud” from the “long thin grey white finger of fog drifting below it.” While both halves of the sentence are part of the same visual scene, the perception of the sentence tracks in discrete motions: first brightness and verticality, then a grey wisp and horizontal drift. The second sentence in the poem also divides in two along the comma, but instead of a visual motion from top to bottom it hints at cause and effect: after the woman in the sentence notes a “violent uprooting” her mood shifts. The third sentence plays with readerly expectation: the man is first depicted in a position that leads us to believe he very well might be dead (his “body under a white sheet” his “eyes look up toward camera”). After the sentence’s comma, the man blinks and falls asleep: by giving us more visual detail—by staying with the image of the man longer—the context of the situation is extended and the event of the scene is clarified. And so on—each sentence of REAL creates a microclimate, wherein shifts of attention articulate the extent to which our experience—of poems, of days, of time—is constituted by, and made meaningful through, subtle shifts in perception.

Just as a reader can compare the differing qualities of attention in the sentences of the poems of REAL, Selected Days provides readers the opportunity to engage such a project of reading across portions of all six books. In comparing “9.29” with “6.12,” for example, we will see parataxis at work in both, but we will also come to ask what difference is made by the definitive endings and beginnings constructed by REAL’s periods and capital letters. One reader might say: not much difference. Another reader might say: a sensibility of beginnings and endings vs. a sensibility of pause and ongoingness?—here resides all of the difference in the world. Ratcliffe’s work does not answer this question of difference, but in presenting it in this way, he invites the thoughts of both readers, equally.

Just as Ratcliffe attends the shifts of light, sound, weather and language in his perceptual world, by attending “days” shifts we experience and think-through the difference between perceptions that deepen and qualify, or vector out and shift away, or equally note and observe. The significance of such a project—by which I mean both the project undertaken by the readers of Ratcliffe’s work and Ratcliffe’s “days” as a whole—should not be measured in terms of poetry, solely, for such a project creates an opening for us to become more conscious of the given world, the details to which we attend, and the significance of our modes of attention.

++

An “aboutness” such as Ratcliffe achieves, that hinges on such even care of, and attention to, what happens on some of the most basic levels of the given might seem to some readers to be, in the grand scheme of things, so very particular and minute as to not matter in the larger troubled world. Or, to other readers, the abstract and thinkerly qualities of the text might seem too subtle a sensation in the face of the cymbal-crash of narrated emotion that we have come more accustomed to think of as “mattering.” However, the kind of aboutness that Ratcliffe achieves can show us how to answer, in the affirmative, Lauterbach’s difficult question of whether or not choice in one’s quotidian life can have bearing on making art. It is such writing that answers, and shows us how we might answer as readers and writers, in the affirmative, the question of whether or not the process of making choices in art-making has the potential to condition and shape a life.

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Continuous Frieze Bordering Red

Michelle Naka Pierce

Fordham University Press

2012

Friday, September 14th, 2012

Our engagement with art objects depends largely upon culture, and the kind of relationship our engagement affords depends largely, of course, upon how we mean culture. If culture is the performance of a refined set of principles, then the object bears instructive potential for perpetuating its own system. Call this art as indoctrination. If culture is a catalyst for release from custom, from institution, then the object bears the potential to open the world anew. Call this art as revelation. The aesthetic and ethical implications of each type are quite different, and we know which version the poetic tradition sides with, with its lens-cleaning, its ostranenie, its make-it-new.

Gertrude Stein, of course, had a genius for the revelation-kind, as evidenced by the visual artists she collected, and by her own innovations. To quickly rehearse, as example, the well-worn story of the Cubists: their release into multiplicity, on canvasses, of once-seemingly-static everyday objects. And Stein, deploying language likewise to pry the thing away from its noun, and our focus away from the thing. And such prying then revealing our assumptions concerning a work’s “aboutness.”

As Marjorie Perloff has pointed out, Stein is quite conventional in terms of reference, writing Tender Buttons as still life artists paint, with the objects the poems refer to before her. Stein’s revelation comes in renegotiating how we represent. Where we had expected an object to be linguistically depicted by static imagery, Stein gives us something else. “A carafe, that is a blind glass,” the first poem of the famous book famously reads:

A kind in glass and a cousin, a spectacle and nothing strange a single hurt color and an arrangement in a system to pointing. All this and not ordinary, not unordered in not resembling. The difference is spreading.

With such sentences Stein transposes the Cubist’s visual fracture onto syntax and movement from sentence to sentence. The result: the paradigm that places meaning primarily on what art represents, rather than how the representation unfolds, is flipped on its head and troubled. After Stein, we find ourselves much more capable of seeing the way a text’s how just might be its most interesting what.

Continuous Frieze Bordering Red, Michelle Naka Pierce’s book-length ekphrastic meditation for Rothko’s Seagram murals, exhibits careful absorption of Stein’s innovations. Like Tender Buttons, CFBR foregrounds the how of the art:

The doorway flanks the left 24 inches of one painting and the right 24 of another. That pale blue wall between two maroons [so deep in their tone]; earth on either side of water. Each time you step, even if ever so lightly, granules break away. You are this borough, straddling both sides of the canal, waiting for the swell to dissipate.

Here we have gentle layerings that call up the feeling of Rothko’s color fields. Notice the way Pierce brings us into the gallery at the Tate to stand before the murals, but does not stay on the level of literal physical description. Instead, she enters into the paintings. This happens through the hinge of metaphor, “earth on the other side of water,” which, along with envisioning the space between London and the US, imagines the two maroon Rothkos as earth. This phrase allows passage to the next sentence: “Each time you step even if ever so lightly, granules break away.” This step takes place, for me, on the earth’s crust, in the gallery, and inside of the painting itself, an apt layering of movement in response to an artist who, we learn from the book’s epigraph, once proclaimed: “To paint a small picture is to place yourself outside your experience, to look upon it with a reducing glass. However you paint the larger picture, you are in it. It isn’t something you command.”

Befitting an ekphrastic project based on murals, Pierce builds her book sentence by sentence into blocks of prose. These blocks are spare and orderly: each of the book’s sixty-eight oversized pages has only five lines, right and left justified at the top of the page. While the lines are long and give a sensation of strength as they span nearly into the gutter, the placement of the lines near the top of the field leaves much of the page blank. Exactly a third of the way into the book Pierce floats clusters of phrases, in small sans-serif font, at the bottom of the pages, underneath the prose blocks. This clustering goes on for twelve pages and then stops and is, to my mind, the weakest aspect of the book. The floating phrases often feel much too easy (“The problem was to image an image” and “You must acknowledge this scar tissue and proceed,” for example) and have the effect of wall text mounted by a curator who worries her viewers just won’t get the artwork. Luckily, the floating text does not go on for long and doesn’t ruin the visual sensation of moving through the book, which is rather like the visual sensation of being in a gallery of Rothko’s work: a repetition of shape that gives way to variation as you lean into it.

One of the most compelling features of the book is the fact that it can be read through in two different ways: line-by-line down each page, as is conventional, or line-by-line across pages, following, first, the path of first lines from page one to sixty-eight and then the path of second lines and so on and so on. Syntactically, the most linear and smoothest way through the book is the latter trajectory, creating a nice tension between convention and innovation. Our habit of reading has us move line-by-line down each page, and the decision to read along these conventions results in a fragmented poem. The first page of the book, for example, reads like so:

This is an inauspicious way to begin, inside your country bolt on, oxygen feeding the cellular white. As [elapsed turquoise] around the wrinkled eye. Tourists here are on a steady diet of art consumption, and non-breathable sweaters. Referred pain emerges in the shoul[der] behind the scapula: you are left with You confuse the other word for carrot with the other word for onion. You don’t know the difference languages taste, though “synthetic” comes to mind. Self-portrait transfer. You arrive on a Thursday or

Though fragmented, the poem still communicates many of the book’s themes, and, though ragged, the page is comprehensible. We understand the notion of beginning a journey, the confusion of language and culture brought on by the mode of the tourist. We understand the insistent ache of a body one never quite manages to leave at home. However, the experience of the text is quite different when read in the alternate, unconventional way—line-by-line across gutter and turn. For example, here are the first lines of the book’s first five pages:

This is an inauspicious way to begin, inside your country bolt on, oxygen feeding the cellular white. As you sleep metaphorically, you try to understand the dorsal aspect of the body. Though not your first crossing, you are on the outside, inside this once removed zone, just beyond the cit. Underground you hear languages not easily recognized, and the sounds are muffled, as though submerged. All around citizens rush to their destinations, minding gaps and such. You are caught between two lines, wondering

Here we receive a much more concrete sense of context and begin to unfold the book’s narrative frame: the speaker, who we learn from text is on a reprieve from her job in the US (a sabbatical from her position at Naropa notes her acknowledgments) has arrived in London to write. She finds herself at the Tate, meditating over the Rothkos, which afford the book’s central theme: a reflection on the unstable nature of boundaries as experienced through the particulars of mixed-race identity, citizenship, family, language, body, and art.

One of the book’s biggest risks is that it overtly admits to the conditions of its making: the fact of the author’s sabbatical, the ekphrastic tradition, the high-art of Abstract Expressionist paintings exhibited at the Tate. Add to this hot-button terms such as “hybridity,” the deployment of fancy formal devices (which I say as a fellow-practitioner of fancy formal devices), and a display of Stein amplified by collaged Stein-bites (the text echoes with Tender Buttons’ “out of kindness comes redness” and “the still life is a small lesson on perspective”)—and you risk writing a tract oozing with indoctrination…counter-culture inflected, but oozing nevertheless.

However, after considering the history of the Rothkos as told by Jonathan Jones in The Guardian, I conclude that it is not just Pierce’s intelligence and lightness of touch that saves the book from falling short. Commissioned for a handsome sum by the Four Seasons Hotel, the Seagram murals were to hang in the hotel’s restaurant but never did. One account says that Rothko hoped the intensity of the murals, which Jones describes as “lovely in their oppression and erotic in their cruelty” would ruin the appetite of rich diners, overwhelming them with a feeling of entrapment. However, after eating in the restaurant Rothko realized that none of the diners “eating that kind of food for those kind of prices” would ever be able to really look at his paintings. He withdrew the work and the paintings were gifted by Rothko to the Tate eleven years later, arriving at the museum on the morning of his suicide. The mood of the Rothkos leaves none of this struggle out.

One of the book’s graces is that it addresses the nature of boundaries—an enormous and generally over-treated theme—through a life’s particulars without creating chaos, self-indulgence, or boredom. Pierce achieves this via evenness of tone, consistency in tense and point of view, and by the fact that she returns to the site of the Rothkos again and again. As such, the book creates a vectored conversation with one of Rothko’s greatest achievements: to manifest an experience of the layering that creates a self. A layering, in the case of the paintings and in the case of this book, that doesn’t flake off and thin into air, but deepens with each pulse each breath each bruise.

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Threshold Songs

Peter Gizzi

Wesleyan University Press

2011

Sunday, February 26th, 2012

One of the great pleasures of editing the Constant Critic is that my fellow critics consistently bother me with what they say in their reviews—providing the good kind of discomfort that causes me to revisit, revise, abandon, or sometimes (admittedly) re-entrench some of my previously held pet convictions. Because I comment on drafts in progress as well as proofread and post to the site, I get quite close to their ideas and so find myself walking around nursing the knots of trouble they’ve given me until I find a way to massage them through my own mental muscles. While this work doesn’t necessarily result in a review, it is a necessary part of any review-writing that I do.

I say all of this in service of bringing the process of reviewing into the review. Which is in larger service of questioning the distinction between poetry and other forms of writing and life-lived. Particular projects like Bernadette Mayer’s Midwinter Day and Gabriel Gudding’s Rhode Island Notebook—or Julie Carr’s 100 Notes on Violence or Kenneth Goldsmith’s Fidget overtly take the breakdown of this distinction as their subject matter. Works of this kind, we are eager and right to say, manifest a poetry of the daily, a poetry that does not circumscribe itself in a space apart from life. However, isn’t it the case that, at least potentially, poetry that isn’t overtly anchored in representing an accepted register of the quotidian is nevertheless equally part of readers’ and writers’ daily lives? I propose a deeper consideration of text and the role that poetic materials play in the constitution of our daily realities. We are still enormously and ever-more text-based creatures and oughtn’t we take this into consideration when we consider what it is to be? What modes of being does something like Facebook, with its new timeline format organizing our personal histories, open or close for us? What modes of being-daily does a Peter Gizzi poem encourage in us? What modes of textuality act like “a room opening/ next to the head,” (“How I Remember Certain Fields of Inquiry (and ones I only imagine)”)? What modes slam the door shut? What amount of responsibility do you, dear reader, take for your text-based life? What modes of text do you invest in&#8212and how?

++

Lately, two sentences of Ray’s recent review won’t leave me alone. Writing about Open Winter he tells us that the book presents a “reasoned and ultimately evocative concession to the treacheries and sweetnesses of what prompts figural language. Just as distrust of rhetoric doesn’t mean you can eliminate it, distrust of selfhood doesn’t make you disappear.” Ever since reading these lines in draft form I have been walking around nagged by the non-disappearing self and, in particular, its relationship to the question of “what prompts figural language.” I have to admit that my gut says that it is, indeed, the treacheries and sweetnesses of this non-disappearing thing that act as catalyst for making and needing the figural. But what does this mean?

The massaging I’ve given this question has, as is often the case, created more, rather than fewer, knots. And so I wonder: what condition(s) of selfhood, of being, necessitate figural language—and not only as an accurate form of conveying information to a reader. What I wonder is more important to me than information-conveyance: for what conditions of being is the figural form of expression—the act of making figural language—itself a state or mode of being. Being as figural form. Figural form as a particular mode of being. And so the question has become not “what experiences does a poet translate into figural language,” but “what form of being does the figural mode—the act of reading or writing or feeling and thinking through figural language—allow us to inhabit?” This kind of question has fall-out not only in terms of the value and conditions of poetry, but the way in which poetry butts up against lived life.

Peter Gizzi’s Threshold Songs has me deep-reading-writing-feeling-thinking in this direction—offering a particularly powerful occasion for mulling through questions of poetry, language and thought. In fact, moments such as this last stanza of the poem “Hypostasis & New Year” overtly position the book in such territory:

I can’t remember now if I made a pact with the devil
when I was young
when I was high
on a sidewalk I hear “buy a sweatshirt?” and think
buy a shirt from the sweat of children
hell
I’m just taking a walk in the sun in a poem
and this sound
caught in the most recent coup

In this passage the heard phrase “buy a sweatshirt?” poses a question and commands a specific answer at the same time. The use-value of this utterance aims at persuasion, at procuring a purchase, for this is the language of commerce where a signifier (“sweatshirt”) stands for a thing you can buy. As such, this form of language-use proposes that what the sweatshirt is (what things are) in essence, is a purchasable object. Gizzi then gives us a contrasting “thought phrase”: “buy a shirt from the sweat of children”—a phrase that uses figurative language in a way that undercuts the purchase-aim of the heard question. Here the figural version of the phrase—a shirt being made from the sweat of children—renders the language of commerce strange, revealing a larger truth about the means of the object’s production. This is an action of language where a thing is not named by its noun, but by its process of making. As such, the figural phrase “buy a shirt from the sweat of children” invites us to perform a shift wherein we view what a thing is not by whether or not we can own it, but by the way it has come to be.

The last three lines of the stanza deepen this consideration of the how of being, applying it to subjectivity itself: “I’m just taking a walk in the sun in a poem/ and this sound/ caught in the most recent coup.” Who the speaker is—what the speaker is, is someone who “is just taking a walk in the sun in a poem and this sound […]” This expression of being interests me because it admits to its own textuality: what the “I” at this moment is, is a text-based thing (an I in a poem). This is a category of being that most writers, at least, can relate to: there is the I that does the dishes and the I that does the dishes in a poem. And both are me. Is one more-me than the other? Well, this probably depends on where you stand, but I would hazard to say that, at the very least, when one is writing a poem, one is more I-writing than I-dishes washing. Furthermore, might we not say that, by extension, what the reader is, when she is engaged in an act of reading, is also a text-based thing, an I-reading? Yes, also a fleshy breathing itching searching thing, but also a text-based thing who is in the moment of reading defined by the process of reading. And it is this mode of existence, the I-writing, the I-reading—the textual-I—that requires figural language. Without figural language we can afford ourselves no such identity, no such “room opening/ next to the head.”

The contours of such a room are beautifully figured by the concepts of “threshold” and “song” which together of course make up the title of the book, but also serve as a way of considering the textual-I. The book anchors firmly in the lyric traditions of voice-overheard and musicality: “I wonder if/ you hear me/ I mean I talk/ to myself through you” Gizzi writes in the beginning of “The Growing Edge,” the book’s first poem. And it is remarkable to me the way that Gizzi claims investment in lyric voice, by which I mean both investment in the materiality of making voice sound (the passage of air and syllable through the mouth) and investment in a speaking subjectivity—in the textual-I as form of being. As we have seen in the above quotation and in the last stanza from “How I Remember Certain Fields” the book considers voices overheard outside of the body as well as the voices of thought and mind, exposing the extent to which what we are is composed of both. Perhaps even when we are washing the dishes we are more of a “textual-I” than we generally admit.

If we remember the work Gizzi has done editing Jack Spicer’s lectures and poems, the I-as-threshold echoes softly, organically, Spicer’s notion of dictation and the poet as radio transmitting the “invisible world.” In part four of “History Is Made at Night,” a ten-section sequence, Gizzi writes: “Gmail/ invites me to ‘go visible.’/ Is being invisible not enough?/ A kind of vow like poetry/ burning the candle down.” As threshold, this book is full of lullaby and elegy, full of edges, shores, curtains, openings, shifting clouds, fractures, winds—all things that act as a moving-through. Here, the I-writing a poem is a state of being that recognizes that we are necessarily thresholds, places crossed when entering from here to there, past to present, virtual to actual horizon, waking to sleep. While perfectly common, thresholds are also potential states of intensity, modes of relationality that have the capacity take fixed systems (“sweatshirt”) and turn them, deploy them otherwise (“a shirt from the sweat of children”). Far from proposing that such turning is “merely poetic” or “merely figural” or abstracted from the stuff of lived-life, Threshold Songs insists through and through that process and material compose life: “A chromosome has 26 letters, a gene just 4. One is a nation. /The other a poem.” (“Eclogues”)

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I’ve been carrying a hard-back copy of Threshold Songs around with me for about three months—the corners of its sage-green dust jacket are worn to white, a large black ink splotch bleeds along the creamy paper of its bottom edge. It has been a busy three months and I’ve been reading the book in Baltimore, Philadelphia, Los Angeles, Budapest, and rural Pennsylvania mulling over Gizzi’s poems on airplanes, in cafes near the Danube, at the beach as someone surfed in a Santa hat, in bed, on the stationary bike at my university’s gym. I read and re-read its phrases, write them out long hand, type them out, say them, memorize them. I text or call friends—poets and non-poets alike—and leave them messages quoting fragments of these poems because it seems important that they have them stored in their phones, important that these phrases speak into their eyes and ears as they walk down the street in western and midwestern and foreign cities and towns. I feel that this figural language, as it speaks into these friends’ eyes and ears, can do what I, in my distance, cannot. But also that I, in transmitting the phrases out loud, am recognizing the extent to which I am a threshold of voice, actively participating in the porous edge. There is great pleasure to be had here, and I am not exaggerating when I tell you that I take great pleasure, right now, in this very instant, in the action of typing for you—and knowing you will read, right now, these lines from a middle section of one of the most stunning poems of the book, “On Prayer Rugs and a Small History of Portraiture”:

The figure in green blossoms too next to every rotting blade,
every bleating sow, bird de-

caying with an aroma of green, word transmogrophy-
ing green, the mint

in the flame, the heat of
the brain expiring steam, steaming thought

and the piles stacked archival thinking pyre.
This is the drudge of fire.

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