Stu Watson: A Review of NINE by Anne Tardos
· Paperback: 148 pages
· Binding: Perfect-Bound
· Publisher: BlazeVOX [books]
· ISBN: 978-1-60964-226-6
Anne Tardos’s Nine is a sequence of nine-word lines grouped in nine-line stanzas. This metric which involves the counting of words rather than accents or syllables has a radically leveling quality. Suddenly “temporomandibular” and “I” are of the same metrical value, based on their simple, monadic quality as “words.” As employed through Tardos’s artistry, this form, sometimes referred to as “counted verse,” feels appropriate to our historical moment. It is as though these nine-by-nine grids are architectural blocks, constituent elements in a particular kind of linguistic structure. In its porous inflexibility the form mirrors the empirical reality of infrastructure, of the walls that separate our homes and the streets and subway tunnels that convey us through the world—the commonplace yet all-but-invisible concrete around which our lives are constructed. But it also parallels our desire for ratiocination and “numbers”—“more data”—on which to base our political or personal decisions. The meaning of these poems is often generated by the resistance, dissonance, and lateral freedom they demonstrate within such bounds.
This dissonance leads the poems to express a curious kind of self-referentiality aimed at their form. And so we see concluding lines that offer statements like: “The ninth line is often problematic, as we see.” “The ninth often gets to deliver a punchline.” “The ninth usually knows the way out of here.” Each line of each poem is end-stopped, which further delimits the language, yet Tardos at times follows up a line in such a way so as to hint at enjambment, as in “It’s So Quiet Somehow”:
It’s so quiet today—don’t know what to say.
The uncertainty of the uncertainty and then the uncertainty.
Is the road we take imagined or already given?
Are we inventing our lives as we live them?
Why do we ask questions no one can answer?
Have we finally found a groove, you and I?
A modus vivendi that’s livable for both of us?
Don’t you hate a poem that’s full of questions?
Shouldn’t I try to answer some of them somehow?
The way the second and third lines abut suggests a continuity, as though “uncertainty…Is the road we take…” but the poem resists this interpretation in its syntax, as the third line instead “resolves” into a question. The final seven interrogatory lines modulate between concrete images and abstract musings before concluding by turning on their own need for questioning—and raising the specter of an “answer” that, by virtue of its appearance in the terminal ninth line, cannot be offered. Just as an individual, when faced with some bureaucratic encumbrance will sometimes comply but do so unhappily, so these poems always reach their appointed end, but are not always “happy” in doing so, and they let us know this.
This brings us to one of the most powerful, and, I would argue, original, elements of Nine, namely the way these poems employ a procedural poetic mode to explore highly abstract concepts in the manner and with the vocabulary of an analytic philosopher—Nine 75 is titled “Wittgenstein Says”—while simultaneously using that mode to engage directly with the raw, personal material of the author’s life. It is in this regard an autobiographical work, in contradistinction to the impersonal qualities often associated with procedural or conceptual poetics. Though there is no overriding sense of narrative, one feels a kind of progress as narrative and imagistic abstraction are interwoven, as in “I Stop”:
I survived everything so why do I feel defeated?
The rule of the game is that we lose.
Because the meaning of life is that it stops.
And the meaning of stopping is that we’re living.
The eccentric biography will have to be sprinkled in.
Russian school in Hungary, French school in Austria—true.
The artist controls what she allows into her work.
Teeth clenched, she pushes and pulls until something breaks.
A danger to herself, the artist decides to stop.
Tardos was born to a Jewish family in Cannes in Nazi-Occupied France and grew up in Communist Hungary; in the late 1950s she relocated to Western Europe due to the imprisonment of her father in the aftermath of the Hungarian Revolution. Then in 1966 she moved to New York City, where she has engaged in a prolific career as a poet, composer, and visual artist, for many years working alongside her partner, the pioneering procedural poet Jackson Mac Low until his death in 2004. It is perhaps this loss, as well as those felt through the many forced relocations of her childhood, that is invoked in the “everything” which the poet has “survived,” but this survival has not necessarily occasioned optimism, per se, rather an imaginative endurance. “Life” is figured as a kind of “game,” its inevitable ending as a “rule” and a “loss,” but also as the only source of “meaning.” This is presented as a relation that is simply true, not something to be necessarily mourned or embraced.
Employing chiasmus, it as if in these lines Tardos erects a kind of abstract frame around which to “sprinkle” her “eccentric biography”, the formal and abstract totality standing in for a geographical centering that, in her childhood, was continuously disrupted (“Russian school in Hungary, French school in Austria—true.”). The figure of chiasmus—as seen in “the meaning of life is that it stops. / And the meaning of stopping is that we’re living,”)—has long been employed by poets in figuring personal, internal torment, most famously perhaps in Catullus’s Odi et Amo. The artist “pushes and pulls until something breaks,” a description of artistic process that seems informed by the struggles and violence of her personal past as a refugee, but also by her long career as an avant garde poet. Indeed, Nine stands as a potent reminder that much of the most powerful conceptual and procedural work has been made by female poets and that the time for a full critical appraisal of such groundbreaking art is overdue.
In its totality, Nine has something of the feeling of a sonnet cycle, even as some poems look quite un-sonnet-like, with lines containing several polysyllabic words, extending across the page like the long lines of Walt Whitman. This is a profitable comparison, because in some senses, in its mixture of “high and low” themes with autobiography approached in an unveiled but indirect manner, Nine taken as a whole leaves one with a feeling not alien from that of Whitman’s “Song of Myself.” It is an abundance of lists, of catalogs both visual and aural, and in its unsparing artistic focus it approaches both the personal and the abstract with equal rigor. Some of the most touching lines of Nine are remembrances of her life with Mac Low: “Jackson was blessed with perfect kindness in his heart. / Our cat understood this reality as a direct experience.”
Also within the sequence we find lines like “Heartily herzlich epicentric épicure Salvatore di Benedetto charming man.” or “Funky feline insomnia petulant bonbon Zigamoff polymorphic celebration reference.” which resist any location of grammatical meaning, zig-zagging through words in different languages and proper names as though in search of pure sonority. These moments offer us a seemingly unmediated experience of the poet’s ear, a chance to hear her compositional engine at work unchained from any anxiety over semantic meaning. These flights are a necessary counterpoint to the gravity and density of the work’s other, philosophical and autobiographical modes, and the weaving together of these disparate elements gives Nine the feeling of a fully realized dwelling, a home that has been elaborately and tastefully decorated.
It was Heidegger who said “Language is the house of Being,” and on finishing Nine, these nine-line, nine-word blocks have taken on the familiar yet variable feeling of a home. Yet Tardos eschews the rooted grandeur of Heidegger, conceiving of a notion of “Being” that flourishes in transition and movement, not fixity. As she makes clear there is nothing permanent or profound about the choice of form in itself (“And why am I writing everything in nines, anyway.”). As we move to other books and encounter other forms so too will Tardos move on to shape language in new ways. The value then comes not from the form, but from these poems’ status as a particular material documentation of an expansive imagination’s interrogation:
“Maintaining form and the inevitable urge to change it.” Tardos draws us into this building so that we might share her view and thereby spy vistas where others might also take foundation.
[N.B. Excerpts from Nine can be found here on Poems and Poetics.]