Commentaries - September 2009

Marjorie Perloff on Ron Silliman

if it demonstrates form, they can't read it

Marjorie Perloff on Ron Silliman's "Albany:

As in his long poems Ketjak and Tjanting, both written a few years earlier, "Albany" relies on parataxis, dislocation, and ellipsis (the very first sentence, for example, is a conditional clause, whose result clause is missing), as well as pun, paragram, and sound play to construct its larger paragraph unit. But it is not just a matter of missing pieces. The poet also avoids conventional "expressivity" by refusing to present us with a consistent "I," not specifying, for that matter, who the subject of a given sentence might be.

At the same time--and this has always been a Silliman trademark--indeterminacy of agent and referent does not preclude an obsessive attention to particular "realistic" detail. Despite repeated time and space shifts, the world of Albany, CA. is wholly recognizable. It is, to begin with, not the Bay Area of the affluent--the Marin County suburbanites, Russian Hill aesthetes, or Berkeley middle-class go-getters. The working-class motif is immediately established with the reference to "My father withheld child support, forcing my mother to live with her parents, my brother and I to be raised together in a small room." And this is the white working class: "Grandfather called them niggers." Later, when the narrator is living in a part of San Francisco where, on the contrary, many ethnicities are represented, we read that "They speak in Farsi at the corner store." The poet is a political activist: he participates in demonstrations and teach-ins, is briefly jailed, avoids the draft, and so on. There are many explanations of everyday things the activist must deal with: "The cops wear shields that serve as masks." But the paragraph is also filled with references to sexual love: couplings and uncouplings, rape, miscarriage, and abortion. And finally, there is the motif of poetry: "If it demonstrates form they can't read it." And readings: "It's not easy if your audience doesn't identify as readers." Writing poetry is always a subtext but one makes one's living elsewhere: "The want-ads," as the last sentence reminds us, "lie strewn on the table."

From her essay, "Language Poetry and the Lyric Subject." Here's the entire section of the essay devoted to "Albany."