Wednesday, October 20th, 2004
Three cheers for Cole Swensen and her consistent effort to bring contemporary French poetry to an English-reading audience. Her latest labor, OXO (the French title is the more pungent Kub Or), is the second Pierre Alferi title Swensen has translated, and it renovates the space- and shape-conscious dynamics of the earlier volume, Natural Gaits. Natural Gaits explored the physics of the vertical column of text; accordingly, concern with speed and sequence self-consciously directed its apparent currents of thought. With OXO, Alferi compacts and converts this frame to a more abstract and yet culturally fraught shape: the square, at once the paragon of inhuman perfection and the model of human rationality; at once the window through which one peers at one’s urban neighbors, and the shape of the tidy, well-kept box that is one’s own apartment, one’s own self-concept.
The overall form of OXO is deliberate and ingenious, and is ably implemented by the book’s elegant design. An airy, thinlined, textless square appears on the first page of the volume and six times thereafter, at the beginning of each of seven sequences of poems; each poem takes up only that much space on the page as is bounded by the square. While the title, which in English is a brand-name bullion cube, directs us to think of the book as a conceptual cube, with seven sequences of seven poems of seven lines each, it is the square we move through so deliberately to get through the text. Moreover, the book is without page numbers and the inscrutable squares do not present us with an ideology or hierarchy for reading the poems that follow; they merely mutely, and acutely, present them. The strangeness of this irreducible structure is the dominant experience of reading OXO, rather than the expansive volume a mathematical cube connotes.
As for the poems themselves, they are boxlike, consisting of seven occasionally enjambed lines with an italicized undertitle below. The relationship of the title to the poem it underscores is deliciously inconsistent. Sometimes, the undertitle will provide the metaphorical key to the poem one has just read, as in this poem which appears in the first sequence:
because they crawl flat on their
bellies held only by the
brittle voice of another
down here on earth it’s heads names
ads hear-say in place of steps
it weighs or it jams too much
to groove with the jellyfish
Here a series of phrases establish a sideways, horizontal motion which stresses the difference between above and below, bottoming out in the final image of those depth-traversers, “the jellyfish.” The undertitle, “roofers,” appears as the “answer” to the riddle of the brief poem whose lines could be re-read as riffing off their crawling figures; at the same time, the image of the roofers sprawled like benthic life opens up a vista across rooftops of an urban seafloor, which by implication reworks the sky as sea.
Other poems in OXO posit a less apposite relationship between the poem and its title:
there’s still the liquid pleasure
of the demonstration of
the insult gratuitous
as stomping on cherries as
pissing on a tree you find
enough to cry over in
the gas good the sausage bad
Here the undertitle seems like a detail pulled out of the “demonstration” scene recorded (and the word “demonstration” seems to pun at the poem’s overall interest in demonstrating a writing as well as a seeing process). At the same time, the status of the undertitle as a command is like a second movement for the poem, a second speech act which veers off in another direction. The undertitle is more pointed, more concise than the verse, which gets diffused in bourgeois matters of stomping fruit or eating a disappointing lunch. In this case the undertitle has linguistic activity apart from just explaining the poem or renaming it. It throws a dart in another direction.
If there is one shortcoming in the poems of OXO, it is that they more than occasionally charm. The petite, humorous poems have the cleverness of bonbons. A rotation through the poems of Parisian types (the gallery owner, the cafe owner, the street vendor) and sites (the cafe, the cinema, the ground floor shops) plus a piquant concern with literature give the poems a definite Decadent flair. Yet Alferi’s tongue is firmly in-cheek on the subject of national/literary lineage:
ah how these lines of whalebone
unfold are read and refold
with the faint sound of firing
a salute when it’s just wind
without rain the reverence
for this foolish foolscap and
its morose literature
Indeed, it is through their lack of ponderousness that the poems of OXO escape the heavy savor of Decadence.
Finally, while total experience of OXO casts the reader as a habitual flaneur/voyeur, a concern with cinema and its ability to create an illusion of motion from a series of static units runs through the volume and proposes, by implication, an alternate version of the book in which the individual poems form a continuous thematic or narrative motion. For the most part, OXO resists this engineered arc. However, and tellingly, in the central section of the book, cryptic photographs by Susan Doppelt are annotated by a series of undertitles which may be read together and thus add up to the kind of seven-line poem found elsewhere. This central section, then, represents a recycling and remaking of the energies employed through the rest of the book, here compressed and pressed into tantalizing service of the visuals. Alferi’s ability to render his intellectual and aesthetic speculations in productively mutating forms leaves the reader hopeful for a future installment, and indebted to Cole Swensen for the intelligence, flexibility, dedication, and skill she brings to these translations.