Fourier Series

Josh Corey

Spineless Books


Thursday, June 30th, 2005

Folded into an outsize, intricate engraving of a gorgeous (if bizarre) desert flower, Fourier Series is a lavish affair, a pleasure for the eye and the hand. The winner of the Fitzpatrick-O’Dinn Award for the Best Book Length Work of Constrained English Literature (!), the book is structured along the eccentric principles of its namesake, Charles Fourier. This Utopian Socialist contended that a carefully structured society which enabled each individual to pursue his or her passions would achieve ultimate harmony. Corey’s book follows Fourier’s manically categorized worldview, divided into sections such as the Five Senses (the usual ones, but in French), The Affective Passions("L’amitié, " "L’ambition, " "La famille, " and, curiously, "La céladonie"), and the Mechanizing Passions (i.e. those along which people organize to accomplish tasks, given as "La cabaliste, " "La papillone, " "La composite" etc).

Not only is the macro-structure of this book modeled on Fourier’s blueprint, but the content of each poem is also predicated on Fourier’s themes and, presumably, imagery. So, for example, "L’ambition" is associated with climbing or rising; ladders, balloons, and a moonscape appear in this poem. Meanwhile, the cozily erotic passion, "La céledonie," features phrases like "night’s apassionata/pinwheels overhead" and some humorously tender reference to panties: "I see France darling." As a final level of constraint/complication, Corey splits each page of these main poems into four quadrants, allowing Fourier’s theories about the way forces combine in society to determine the pattern in which the page’s quadrants are filled, thus producing the ‘series’ of the title.

Got all that? Fans of Corey’s first book, the elegiac Selah, may be surprised or possibly dismayed to see his generous lyric sensibility sliced and diced into so many cool quadrants; these same will be pleased to learn that his ear and heart survive the operation entirely intact, and that the yearning which drove Selah is still very much a force in this book. What is utopic thinking, after all, but desire writ very, very large? Indeed, the book’s antique field of reference allows Corey to employ loaded words like ‘heart’ with frequency, at times to troubadour-ish (and therefore Pound-like) effects. In "L’ou&#239e"

music needs mass
your string + bones will do

as the beams in the throat
seem to part + part
a heart in ¾ time

dunce heart seeks its mate
fife + drum you dance to

This passage with its “string + bones” could be taken to describe a musical, say, vaudeville, performance, but “dunce heart” seems like an apt phrase for the broken music a 2-beat heart forced into ¾ time would make. Read this way, the passage becomes a demure love lyric, set and dedicated to circadian rhythm itself. It sounds the body from the inside out.

Like the above passage, the poems in the early part of the book seem mostly self-contained, freed from a sense of narrative, a habitual addressee, or even a continuous speaker. This departure from Selah‘s heavily-inked lyric positionings allows Corey to stir up pleasant little snatches of music while complying with the particular ethical and mathematical requirements Fourier has set for each installment. The close quarters of the divided page produce some engaging phrase-making. "It’s no hair shirt/your decaf no-fat latté," jokes the poem "La goût", wearing shades of Harryette Mullen; later, the passage bearing the aforementioned "apassionata" deflates its high tone with the couplet "up with people/or else." Apart from all this joshing, a true tenderness ripples among the fragments dealing with Corey’s habitual subjects, the lovers and the family. "Nadja’s daughter," confides "La famille," "dances in a dew sheen/by the port-a-potty." On this same page, "the young mother lights/her cigarette” while “a smiling child/overturns her brimming glass." As with Selah, the potential for catastrophe written into these shining scenes provides their resonance, and lends heft to their brevity. "No meadow is a mother," the poem reminds us, and while "mother’s the sole/ metal of your earth" and emits a "magnetic vocative," the response to her call is, "O electric emptiness."

It is this very notational quality, however, which also tilts Fourier Series into slippery territory. Throughout the book, Corey pairs the Fourier-determined subject matter with content related to the American West—its historical conquest, its landscape, its mystification by Hollywood. Thus, the book’s final section is titled "Manifest Destiny." It’s a big theme, yet even the prefatory prose-poems which signpost the book are built up from phrases, with unsettling results. The first prose poem, "Four Corners," (after the tourist attraction where Utah, Arizona, New Mexico, and Colorado meet?) features this stanza:

Out there in the desert night the century was born. Navajo codetalkers
hunched in Nissen huts to protect it. Duke Ellington lived in a limousine
receiving signals from Southern roads. Jewish physicists built it one place
+ another.

To my mind, this stanza deals in na&#239ve-feeling generalities which render the landscape and its people through vague, sentimental strokes. The elision of the Navajo’s problematic involvement in WW2 is unsettling, yet so is the book’s habitual gloss on the plight of Native peoples. Thus the Hopi enter the book as an epithet for Reno: "the ruins of the Hopi future." The Anasazi appear in another breezy trans-historical turn of phrase: "Dinosaurs settled into clay. The Anasazi ate their bones to become oil." One searches for some mollifying bit of irony through which to read these lines, and finds some, in some poems—but never enough to provide a vantage on the book’s overall glib tone. As for other non-white people, they also appear peripherally at best. In its inventory of a roadside produce stand, one poem includes "the woman brown as dirt joining hands with the scenery." Corey brings his own Jewishness into the mix, playing with the ethnic double entendre "lost tribe," at times claiming solidarity with Native peoples through the use of "we," yet the connection seems only shallowly developed. A more thorough-going investigation might have evinced a more convincing empathy and a fresher reading of the West. A particularly offensive insertion of intercultural allusion comes during a description of a lynching, wherein "no angel plucks strange fruit/from the terrible kafkas /of thought//tamping medicinal leaves". The fact that the song "Strange Fruit" was written by an American Jewish Communist is interesting, and perhaps the Fourier-constraint keeps Corey from examining the matter further. As is, that neologistic ‘kafkas’ seems shoehorned in, and clever to a fault, in that the real and perhaps analogous persecutions of American Blacks, European Jews, even American Communists seems merely winked at, emblematized rather than examined, masked rather than revealed.

When the poem does deliver a tide of empathy, it’s for, of all people, John Wayne, and once again the gesture is troubling. The empathy the speaker feels for Marion Michael Morrison ("What ropes you together without phylacteries, hurt man?") seems based not only in identifying him by his birth name, and as a Jew, but also, contradictorily, in subscribing to his movies’ philosophy of the Western landscape— "the human figure crossed by incomprehensible space"—overwritten with ethnocentric European allegories, to the very "agape cabin door." Is the space so incomprehensible to the Hopi? To the Navajo? To the Anasazi? This book doesn’t know, or care to say. The pentultimate poem in the book also meditates on John Wayne. "Vers l’archibras," a fragmentary poem in long loose lines, seeks to unravel the DNA of the West-as-myth, but inevitably also restores to it a heroic stature: "landscape plus suicide plus waterrights plus doxology//=lewisodysseus a johnwayne caduceus."

Is John Wayne really the only human figure Corey can identify with at length in this landscape? Certainly not. Rather, the book’s distorted priorities might be a result of its ingenious structure. The Fourier project has produced, in its quadrant format, some lovely writing, and has given Corey a new way to explore the family romances that occupied his first book. Yet the utopic trope and antique source material also seems to have driven the book to sound some Romantic, sentimental, and mythologizing chords which drown out its more delicate linguistic flourishes. Though the book occasionally decries this kind of thinking, as when one poem construes an "[a]rroyo for the showdown walling out our romanticism," the next sentence reintroduces the gelid, Bierstsadtian ethos: "Sun’s brief hour in the lubricated gap is a garden is an idea of wilderness charged with yellow god." This may be intended ironically, but given the tenor of the rest of this poem, featuring maximalist descriptions such as "as color a thin tort as sunset layers the world’s oceanic skin riches are red dust tuning the crosshaired lyre," irony is lost.

The most upsetting aspect of this book, then, is not its ultra-casual treatment of Native peoples or its occasionally purple prose-poetry, but its view of landscape itself; it can’t quite seem to wall either Romanticism or romanticism out of the arroyo. If there is one poet Fourier Series recalls, it is not Breton, whose Ode to Charles Fourier, written in Reno, may well have inspired this poem’s project—it’s Eliot. "Those are not the same stars over the Mojave glimpsed through gravebranches of the Schwarzwald," the poem damply opens, apr&#232s The Waste Land, but soon a telltale peach becomes a motif. The most surprising echo of Prufrock occurs in the final piece, "In place of the poem," which in fact appears in place of an author’s bio, in that it refers to the places Corey has lived and is spoken in the first person, as if in the poet’s own voice. This final poem ends with a stanza that is at once unabashedly Prufrockian and an apparent endorsement of the paradisical myths which so sturdily underwrote American colonization and expansionism:

Heaven of hell: in the ebb of negativity we wash up in a momentary Arcadia. For
a moment we stand in the clearing with others of uncertain invitation. Straining
for Pan’s song + not hearing it until we lapse into apperception; something we’ll
remember; waking. At that moment the tide turns + we’re swept back out to
battle the world as it is: hell of heaven. The memory of it lifts our exhausted arms.

To be fair, the repeated mention of "hell" and the consigning of this vision of "Arcadia" to the dream state admits knowledge of the horrific results that have often followed from such fantasies. Yet the wistful positioning of this "momentary Arcadia" nevertheless rehabilitates this dangerous worldview. Clearly the American West is compelling to Corey, but in this volume it gets less than a quarter of the space the complex subject deserves, and the result is a thin current of elided, sketchy, and off-putting thought which manages to capsize a sympathetic reading. Hopefully, this otherwise thoughtful and always sonorous poet will take up this subject again in a volume which gives him the space and unconstrained freedom to explore its contradictions and resonances in more generative depth.

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3 Responses to “Fourier Series”

  1. Robert Strong Says:

    Ack! What’s this? My world turns upside down, Joyelle McSweeney suggests the poetry store is down to two flavors: “endorsement” or “irony.” Doubledip of undeliciousness, o dull world of reading that would be. JS at least makes clear that Fourier is not dull reading. It is certainly arguable that “Native peoples” and “other non-white people . . . appear peripherally at best”- welcome to the West! It’s surprising that a poet-critic as sharp as Joyelle seems to have missed how well this book worked on her; Corey has attempted, I think, to enact (certainly not repair!) the American West etc. and “manages to capsize a sympathetic reading of it.” The reviewer is exactly right. Giddy-up.

  2. Dudes, I posted to this SOOO long ago -RS Says:

    Dudes, I posted to this SOOO long ago -RS

  3. Rachel Current Says:

    Thank you very for you blog.Really thank you! Really Great.

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