Tuesday, March 11th, 2014
I started reading Lucy Ives’s Orange Roses in the local library; I enjoyed the architecture of the building, the clerestory, but the screaming children did me in. As I walked out, I thought about the modernist ambitions of the library, a concrete brutalist bunker with touches of the International Style. I thought of the modernist ambitions of Lucy Ives’s book, complete with its own architecture of interwoven temporalities, prosodies, and rhythms attempting to engage and understand the space between somatic and intellectual existence, the time between planning and realizing, between counting ahead and being in time, in space, in language. This doesn’t touch on the careful architecture of Ives’s book, which in thirteen pieces, whether poem or lyric essay, creates a text both variegated and toothy.
Both the library and Ives’s book rely on the clerestory as a way of making some sort of meaning, directing the reader’s gaze, allowing us to see a space above the street and below the sky. The slice of life we see in Ives’s texts references philosophy and literature, urban living and relationships, and some sense of being young in the world. This is a book dealing very directly with seeing and images, illusions. Although the book opens with this George Oppen quotation, “Approaching the window as if to see/what really was going on,” it’s evident that when reading this book we can never approach the window itself. We are architecturally removed from seeing directly by Ives’s sly constructions.
Many pieces in Ives’s book seem like they’ll follow the confines of a conceptual frame before fizzling out, running off course. In the middle of “Orange Roses,” the long poem at the center of the book, we find: “For me conceptualism could be something like, ‘Write a 1200-page novel set in 1872, detailing the travels and observations of a French novelist in the North American countryside.'” As exemplified in this poem, Ives’s poetic concerns cycle through a series of questions related to self/artist in society, narrative and the role of characters, and the role of authorial identity. There is a frequent desire to slip away from the present. This poem, which spans 16 pages, brings together the range of a poet’s notebook by gathering quandaries, aphorisms, memories, images, quotations, and lists. Through the details we can surmise that the subject of this poem is likely a graduate student in comparative literature living in New York, going to the gym, gallery openings, and partaking in other mundane city activities. There is almost an absurdity to the routine here; the banal necessarily part of this thought stream. At its most kinetic, “Orange Roses,” embodies the energy of New York School bon vivants without the parties. This poet seems removed from the parties of today or tomorrow.
Near the end of “Orange Roses,” Ives writes: “I have never known how to write poetry,” and after reading this, I recalled Marianne Moore’s own take on “Poetry”: “I, too, dislike it: there are things that are important beyond all this fiddle./ Reading it, however, with a perfect contempt for it, one discovers in/ it, after all, a place for the genuine.” Moore closes her poem: “In the meantime, if you demand on the one hand/ the raw material of poetry in/ all its rawness and/ that which is on the other hand/ genuine, you are interested in poetry.” Ives’s raw material is the refreshing stuff of life, the mind and the body. The genuine is trickier territory, but I think for all her concerns with imitation and transference, this is a book about the wonder of discovering yourself as writer in language. The practice of writing, here, is genuine, complete with a sense of bewilderment. I’m not sure whether Ives would endorse Fanny Howe’s notion of bewilderment as a poetics and ethics, but I think the book wrestles with these questions.
The book’s opening text takes on this quandary; titled “The Poem” it’s comprised of eight prose stanzas. Thick with contradiction, it starts: “The fallacy of the poem is beautiful because it is already the embodiment of a reader, presaging the eventual arrival of a releasing eye”; it doesn’t matter what the poem argues, or tries to argue, for the fact of reading brings beauty to the proceedings. The engagement with the text is rendered as an aesthetic situation, but this moment is short-lived. The reader’s realizing eye in turn reveals “figures of the landscape,” half-clothed and “in their…witness thereof.” The second stanza closes with a reference to 19th-century industry: “steam tugging incessantly forward,” serving, rather beautifully, as a bridge to the third stanza, about John Keats, his benefactor Richard Woodhouse, and questions of name and character. We are told: “Thus has the name, ‘Keats,’ as ‘Character,’ been relieved of duty: Keats has no ‘Identity,’ therefore no relation to which his name might confirm.”
Take this to be a warning as you start reading Orange Roses, to be wary of any narrative claim or aesthetic claim. Ives goes further; in the third page of “The Poem” we find: “For the vision of the artist arises from illusion, in the form of an illusion, with illusion as its base: illusion is there/ Returned, demoted, to an identity with itself. Art does not/ represent the ‘Wahrhaft-Seinde,’ but rather point to that which cannot imprison truth.” Ives’s book isn’t only about the shaky role of truth in art, but also about the act of making poems too. In the close of “The Poem,” she writes of the ordering of The Sonnets, stating that it “does not have to do with ‘chronological… development,’ but instead, with ‘a pause,’ and ‘[b]alance and a sense of humor about himself,’ the fact of ‘cut[ting] up’ already serving as a metaphor (for life)/(in its own right)”. In Orange Roses, there’s a constant swing between the role of experience (and the thought it produces) and the complexity and instability of the poetic process. This uneven terrain defines much of this book (as well as life): although there is great pressure on the role of the poet to consider aesthetic and political questions, there is the pleasure and spontaneity of the process—the cutting up, the humor, the license to break from chronology and character. This tendency gives the aesthetic discussions in Orange Roses surprising lightness and flexibility, and because of that, real resonance.
We move from the philosophically-minded prose of “The Poem” to two well-defined pieces: the five 14-lines poems compromising “In Sonnets” and the 100 sentences of “Early Poem” (although I could not find the 18th sentence during my reading/counting, so perhaps its only 99). “In Sonnets” reads like the concatenation of cut up lines, while “Early Poem,” is an extended proof-like-meditation on language as a unit for measuring life, or failing to measure life. It is in the end a poem about a relationship, ending, perhaps pausing: “You are moving out of earshot now. We are not going to miss each other. You have an excellent memory. Please never forget I was the one who told you that”—the last sentence doesn’t have a period. No proper ending, but a poem, a love affair, rendered incomplete, open and less determined than we first thought.
The path of the book (and the poet) comes to the fore in the penultimate piece, “On Imitation.” It relates, at some level, the author’s journey to poetry, starting with chronicling Ives’s struggle to create language in the light of film and photography’s effectiveness—the power of the image—through the discovery of certain poets of effective imagery, namely John Ashbery. This leads her to a search for a “written language that spoke, plainly, stupidly, of things.” She writes of driving up the California coast, pondering suburban towns and the Pacific, while she “practiced writing landscape.” She writes: “Repeatedly I stopped the car and attempted to write down what I could see.” Those landscape writings are lost, if they ever existed, but the trip resulted in the book’s short, final poem, “I Don’t Know,” which ends with “What was I doing?”
What is Ives doing here? At one level it’s a gathering, as she states in the press release that arrived with the book, of ten years of work, so it therefore has a chronological aspect to it, taking us from her college days at Harvard to the near present. This is her third book, following her first poetry collection, Anamnesis—defined by its conceptual constraint in which Ives states the command “to write,” which is immediately followed by the command “cross out”—and last year’s novel, Nineties. Orange Roses seems to straddle a place between the poems and the prose, expressing the tension between the author’s interest in language and method and the narrative and characters of her fiction. The commands to write and cross out have left us with the space that reflects Ives’s now, or as she states in the final line of Anamnesis, “Older now.” Even older now, in Orange Roses, Ives deepens her engagement with philosophical thinking, with ethics, without losing play. The instability between forms and content provides pleasure and tension, throwing us out of the chair of knowledge or certainty.
I return to architecture, thinking now of Orange Roses as an archipelago of different parts of buildings. Some of them complete, others not. In all cases, the builder has relished in the materials. Ives’s materials are words and she has a distinct way of using them to create structures that invite us to wonder, question, and entertain a modicum of trickery. That might be a magic all its own.