First, some a priori statements. A poem is made out of language. Language arises out of need; most of our basic communication needs are denotative. Poets play with language in ways that other language users don’t (and when they do, we might say that such use of language is poetic).
I try instinctually to fit the poem into the literary contexts I’m familiar with, and to ask questions about those contexts: in this case, domestic fiction and its stylistic markers (why the generic anonymity of the couple?), the dream/vision tradition (am I supposed to view this through the same kind of lens, perhaps a psychoanalytic one, through which I would view a report of an actual dream?), and the inescapable implication of allegory (what is the “something else” I am supposed to arrive at via the poem?
I don’t usually wake to find myself without a clue about where I am. I generally have some sense of how my location relates to the broader world and the larger story of how I got there. Similarly, my first reading of a section from a larger work is usually preceded by an examination of the entire poem and a reading of any contextualizing text — back cover copy, introduction and afterword, perhaps even other discussions of the poem, including “First Readings.”
David Colón here presents the first of five first readings of a new poem in our series — Sawako Nakayasu’s “Couch,” a prose-poem in Insect Country (A) (Dusie, 2006). We will subsequently publish first readings of “Couch” by Lee Ann Brown, Hank Lazer, K. Silem Mohammad, and Robert Archambeau. — Al Filreis, Brian Reed, and Craig Dworkin.
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There’s a moment, a fraction of a second, when I first look at a page and recognize the thing. Ah, a poem. It’s the form of the white space that registers as much as the black. Words taking shape? Poem, poem, poem. My pupils spread, irises thin, no doubt some region in my brain changing color.
I first read M. NourbeSe Philip’s Zong! #6 within the context of her book-length work, Zong!, which I had ordered after hearing about it from several friends who had attended, or participated in, performances of the work while it was still in progress. I approached the book with a feeling that this poem was crucial and I needed to catch up with what my friends had experienced. I also longed for my poetry communities in San Francisco and Philadelphia, where I had at times attended multiple poetry readings within the space of one week. I felt an increased sense of urgency indicated by the capital letters and exclamation point on the book’s cover: ZONG!
My most recent scholarship focuses on what I term the Afro-Modernist epic. I have found that understanding the contextual framing of these long works is essential to reading any of their individual parts, and the poem text of Zong! is surrounded by numerous frames.