Reviews - January 2013

To transform hearing's ear

A review of Charles Alexander’s ‘Pushing Water’

Pushing Water

Pushing Water

Charles Alexander

Cuneiform Press 2011, 220 pages, $20, ISBN 9780982792674

In his “Olson Memorial Lecture,” Robert Duncan questioned what it meant “to cultivate a locality — to have a precinct.” I have recently looked into a precinct called Pushing Water, Charles Alexander’s serial poem recently published by Kyle Schlesinger’s Cuneiform Press.

Alexander knows how to make a precinct. Indeed, Alexander reposes Duncan’s question: “if I place this word on this page will a here develop.” Pushing Water spends a large part of its fifty-two sections answering this question, giving out typographical pointers, replacing salt and pepper shakers, and walking us through the grave procedure of attaching a breathing tube. 

Pushing Water gives way to the “rage of the / open page,” as Alexander follows his ear much like Alice following the White Rabbit. This leads to what Alexander phrases “the transition from ear to oar,” the trajectory of a poem beginning in its sound and from the annunciation of that sound finding its stroke in the world of things. In this poem, sound qualifies as Thing, just as the author admonishes us in section 14:

the whole of the work is
the sound of the work
is the structure of the
work is the measure
of the work

With regards to the physical qualities of Pushing Water, it is hard to resist thinking of Alexander’s affinity for baseball: 

Just writing a sentence whose syntax allows one word to enter while
another waits the manager’s decision, sacrifice or swing away the
string theorizes a plie

Shift back then to an earlier misreading of pliable as palpable. Bending/turning of the sentence allows one to “find a place         in this place of phrases” because they are as marked and distinctive as they are physical. The knee bends. The sentence bends. The poem bends. The book bends. The eye bends. The light bends.

Ultimately, the orientation of bodies in space links this work up with Olson’s investigation of proprioception, but Alexander makes his own way by turning that investigation toward the poem more, so that the body of the poem (I speaks) becomes the subject more and more the further we climb into its system of references and intertextual suggestions. Take this:

physical fact is a line of verse curving to the right spiraling
into the air incising itself into a sheet of paper

Pushing Water constructs a soundmap compassed partly from the recycled lines of other poets to extend this physical engagement to become physically engaging. One particular line of Creeley’s (“when I speak and I speaks”) surfaces throughout the entirety of the poem, becoming a mantra of the poem’s belief in the sounds of its own precinct.

While there can be no question of Alexander’s allegiance to Duncan and Creeley, there are a multitude of influences beyond Black Mountain. Stein and her Geographies linger throughout the poem (“because my dog is not / so little she now knows / a rose a sweet tea”), as does Dickinson in “certain slants.” Lorine Neidecker appears, following Duncan’s note to Alexander in Pushing Water 15, the kind of dissolve between figures that feels as filmic as it is poetic. The space of this particular poem takes on an extraordinary significance, especially as it relates to a kind of switching off between two poetries embodied on one page. 

The openness of Alexander’s field is perhaps nowhere as evident as when Alexander explains how these influences gird his work: “one / wants to address an epic, conscious of all the antecedents.” We see this consciousness play out in the bob and weave between Alexander and his lineage as the poem expands its push. At the bottom of section 40, after ruminating over a string of misread words, the page concludes, “fool, space is never blank,” which I misread by slipping first into the voice of Mr. T followed swiftly by the wise croaking of Yoda in the marsh, the very same voice that tells us, “dispersed is not lost.”

Throughout the entirety of the poem, the identity of the maker disperses itself between the roles of poet, printer, husband, son, and reader. Self-descriptions in the poem waver between the various roles, with Alexander referring to himself as a “stumbling” poet as well as “a person near to knowing paper as air.” Pushing Water reveals a poet who is finding and making and making something of his findings (“seek air once unknown / old bodies, Render!”). Identity is often at the center of these findings (“I am the inkman / you are the inkman”).

The materiality associated with printing experience (“and letters can be placed / into the paper / or emerge therefrom”) becomes a way of looking through all subjects. Alexander’s poem contains as many typographical advisories as it does various statements of the poet’s own poetics. It is a delight to experience the world outside of the book as seen by a printer, as when Alexander describes birdsong as “the splendor / of italic speech on the boughs.” If that is bookishness, we should all be book-ISH (emphasis by Rob Brydon). Not surprisingly, reader, printer, and poet often join forces to produce memorable self-assessments:

remaining ever in the company of small
words like of and around and
tulip yellow green lilac dance

around what I cannot live with
and what identifies passes and
carries me away

The convergence of roles and influences in Pushing Water illustrate what Duncan meant in describing the relation between parts as bound “by the resonances in the time of the whole in the reader’s mind, each part as it is conceived as a member of every other part, having, as in a mobile, an interchange of roles, by the creation of forms within forms as we remember.”

The predominant form within form is Alexander’s rewriting of Fulke Greville’s sonnet cycle Caelica. This closing meditation extends over a fifth of the book’s length. Three word lines often substitute for entire stanzas from the original in what amounts to a “thick condensery” of adoration where “constant devotion lives like vanes.” Alexander rewrites the poem towards his wife, painter Cynthia Miller. By the end of this love poem, Alexander has clearly demonstrated that “one finds a word / or makes one / the difference is of faith.”

Revisioning history

A review of Jill Magi's 'Slot'

Slot

Slot

Jill Magi

Ugly Duckling Presse 2011, 136 pages, $17, ISBN 978-1-933254-87-6

In Slot, Jill Magi asks that we travel with her to those sites where we have instantiated our historical consciousness and regularized its narratives. Part lyric, part excavation, Magi’s work mirrors, in a way, the processes she critiques in offering us this: a new form of articulation, political, collective, lyric. It seems that post-9/11 America has become a place where nuance and deliberation have been systematically effaced in public discourse; instead, knowledge, fact, volume, and the language of officialdom stand between us and our lived experience of history. Dedicated to the city of New York, a reader can certainly understand this work as one assembled in response to post-9/11 discourse, but it is not exclusively so. Instead, Magi makes possible (again? for the first time?) those elements of language, thought, and history that have been banished from our (public) consciousness by the demands of national identity, its retaliatory bravado and compulsion for redemption, however illusory. She states:

Wrenched from the tendency to ignore, I want memory wrenched from the
tendency to protest,

from the ruin of argument, saying,

“Come crowd yourself with me in rooms of the ruin.” (122)

Slot takes us to many “rooms of the ruin,” and Magi’s lyric impulse intertwines with languages designed to inform and to prepare, to frame, and to explain. What the lyric impulse offers this collection is a subtle mishearing, a slip of the language, really. These branchings of official discourse, from an examination of the Rosewood massacre to the disturbingly sensationalized Colonial Williamsburg Escaped Slave Program serve to question our memorializing and to implicate it in our language of the present. In Magi’s work, specters of the past haunt these memorials — both living within their narratives and yet somehow always existing outside of them.

An earlier work, Threads, suggested that the search for authentication inevitably leads to the fraying of narrative (historical, personal, or social), and that the “facts” of history are little more than threads of tissues of knowledge, tiny nodes existing in relation to each other — pieces, photos, letters, scraps. Magi’s process of assemblage, then — in Threads a more personal archaeology, in Slot, a broader cultural (and bibliographical) excavation, perhaps — offers us a new way to approach history and to approach the problematic of the lyric speaker without eschewing the potential of consolation. Her work is, in fact, a form of active remembrance, an opening up of implicit finitude of the process of memorialization. While one can take a walking tour of slave quarters or enter through the gate of a concentration camp, these simulations of authentication mistakenly suggest to the visitor — always nameless, always idealized — that the museum, and its extensions into everyday language, is the repository of true experience rather than its approximation.

The danger Magi sees in the rage to historicize and memorialize rests, in part, in its damaging obedience to the language and logic of capital. The “visitor” of Magi’s long book-length hybrid poem is implicated in this sensationalization to which she objects. “The visitor” is the promissory note and justification of this brand of cultural encounter, a passive accomplice to the rendering palatable of historical tragedy. “Please, no more memorials” one voice says; a phrase echoed in other sections of the book, and it is clear that this mindless consumption of historical narrative (and avoidance of its relation to present conditions) is at the heart of the plea.

Slot incorporates its own bibliography into the body of the text, thus turning the book inside out, and troubling our encounter with it. This form of transparency challenges both the reception of the lyric and its Romantic inheritance and the institutions of collection. While Magi unlinks the airtight logic of the architectural construction of museum space and its inherent social relations, so does she reconfigure knowledge with respect to the poem. Here, the long poem appropriates and incorporates the language of the official tour, in part, by challenging its authority though direct address. Where the tour itself is a kind of singular narrative processed and generated for a group of people, it also advertises its expertise — informational, and, in a way, unquestionable.

Dear Floor Plan:
These three photographs that depict the torture and hanging of Frank Embree
were laced together with a twisted purple thread, so as to unfold like a map.

Dear Palette:
And those of us who came to look at the fascinating distortions of steel have now
been silenced by that tiny figure —

Dear Fascinator:
The museum will be an exemplar of accessibility; it will speak different
               languages;
it will provide access to our stories through a diverse palette of multimedia
techniques.

Dear Seeker:
Far more affecting are the unaltered fences and blown-up gas chambers.
Tip: You may camp nearby from April to October. (43)

If, as Foucault notes, the examination is the most obvious expression of the functioning of power, one may read the consistent interruptions of “the survey,” and its related questions accordingly. Not only has historical experience been packaged, or slotted, but also the survey, the questionnaire, the guest book, and the viewing instructions have preconditioned our subjective response and, of course, our exit through the gift shop and the relationship this implies. Magi counters:

Dear Survey:
More than a structure, what do you feel? More than a sentence. (45)

Magi’s Slot works against these architectures of power and reification — both in the sense of the museum space and the space of the book itself. Where the museum consolidates and narrativizes, Slot offers a polyphony of voices and registers, marginalia, and a subtle mishearing. Bits of song inhabit this unlinked territory, as does personal (private) speech. Black and white documentary photos offer counterpoint to these more synthetic narratives, suggesting, in part, that Slot itself is an artifact that organizes through multiplicity; an altogether different sort of museological encounter.

Slot, likewise, considers the “designed” aspect of experience — architectural, situational, or artistic — and offers a sustained meditation on political exigencies inscribed in public space. Indeed, one can trace the threads of her bibliographic procedure and enter public discourse about the Berlin Holocaust Memorial, or the representational value of the Twin Towers and the inevitable forgetfulness that is preserved in any attempt to memorialize. Indeed, one may watch an unidentified Berliner jumping from stone to stone at the Holocaust Memorial or consider new configurations of trauma with respect to large-scale processes of suffering and mourning.

Slot, then, is an assemblage of site-specific language, and Magi culls this information stream for bits and pieces of escaped / reshaped knowledge, offering us a sensibility that is comprised of both.

“Various cultures conceive of aberrant behavior as hostile and anti-social and
thus miss what is common and everyday about violence.”

Possible title:

Everyday Violence (93)

Here, the effect is one of slowing down; the distilled “Everyday Violence” is repositioned within her text from the citation presumably included in the book After the World Trade Center: Rethinking New York City, included in her continuing bibliography. The commentary here, as occurs many times throughout the book, offers a subjective response to mitigate structures of information. Insofar as “Everyday Violence” operates categorically, it mirrors the structural logic so prevalent in the museological encounters she includes in her work. Indeed, a reader might imagine this possible title as one of the forms of address listed above: Dear Everyday Violence. That Slot begins to feel like a self-portrait is a surprise, a result of this long poem in conversation with itself, and a testament to the versatility of the work. Just as we are not meant to draw distinctions between “textual elements,” so are we discouraged from separating out the “lyric speaker”; instead, we must view both subject and her environment as one.

In Slot, both subject and environment are conditioned by history and by its growing repositories of official meaning. Despite this seemingly inescapable progression, Magi’s work is redemptive, in its way. It isn’t the redemption of bravado or vengeance, nor is it the redemption of purification or ascension; instead, Magi’s work testifies to the complexities of the here and now, the multivalent utterance of the present. And despite our growing reliance on a louder and/or more streamlined utterance — soundbyte culture and its talking heads or the too pat facticity of a repackaged history — Magi stitches reality out of tissues and silences, slippages and repositionings, thereby restoring the world to its irreparably damaged yet multifarious grammar.

They're on now

A review of Geoffrey O'Brien's 'Metropole'

Metropole

Metropole

Geoffrey G. O’Brien

University of California Press 2011, 112 pages, $21.95, ISBN 978-0520268876

“The struggle’s right, the method obsolete,”[1] writes Geoffrey G. O’Brien in his new long poem Metropole. I can’t help but think of this statement as an initial answer to a question important to so many contemporary poets (and one that Metropole engages formally and thematically throughout): now that Language writing as a new and subversive poetic form has been incorporated to a larger degree into the academic world of important prizes and “essential texts,” and the social and economic power structures it sought to disrupt have grown ever more powerful, what does a satisfactory response to both the “new sentence” (as a poetic form) and late capitalism (as a power structure that poetry might want to trouble) look like? Metropole is, perhaps, O’Brien’s fully elaborated answer; it’s one brilliantly conceived and deserving of generous thought.

In his influential 1987 essay “The New Sentence” Ron Silliman proposes to restore the materiality (or status as a culturally produced construct) of prose writing through a new structure that frustrates and thereby renders conscious its reader’s ability to integrate sentences into higher orders of meaning. Silliman cites and approves of Ferrucio Rossi-Landi’s notion that this kind of integration in prose is generally accomplished through syllogistic leaps.[2]

His proposition relies upon, of course, compositions using the “new sentence”: paragraphs of non sequitur sentences organized, like some poetry, according to quantitative rather than logical principles that remind their consumer of her reading as they constantly solicit and reject syllogistic integration. Instead of a paragraph’s length being a product of its ability to, say, describe a scene or thought, each paragraph will, for example, just contain five sentences. In this kind of writing a measure of meaning(s), often a multiplicity of potential meaning(s), can be achieved between adjacent sentences, but they are purged just as quickly by a third sentence that fails to complete the syllogism. As a reader’s will to integration repeatedly advances, fumbles, and retreats within a paragraph form (that she expects will provide a clear, syllogistic progression) she is left with a distinct experience of the integrative process itself, which, Silliman contends, restores the paragraph’s materiality. I want to quickly stress here that Silliman is thinking about integration at the above sentence level: words, clauses, and grammatical structures that form sentences are not as much under contemplation.[3]

Perhaps it is at the sub-sentence level, then, that it makes sense to begin thinking about O’Brien’s Metropole as a departure from this kind of Language writing text. A quick orientation to the poem: it is a thirty-nine-page prose poem, and there are three paragraphs per page each containing between four and six sentences; superficially, it might resemble a “new sentence” composition. To read it, however, is to realize that Metropole has internalized the disjunctive drama of Silliman’s frustrated syllogisms within the sentence unit and that this drama has evolved from mere obstruction into a type of participatory suspension. The following is a line from the beginning of the poem: “The lights go off in all the subway cars they won’t come back they’re on now.”[4] This is a fairly simple example of what we can refer to as the “hinge” structure at work in many of the poem’s sentences. I’m going to repeat the line, this time capitalizing the hinge: “The lights go off in all the subway cars they won’t COME BACK they’re on now.” The sentence pivots from the scene of a power outage on a subway train to the command to return once the power has come back on through the shared phrase “come back.”

I think it’s interesting to imagine this hinge structure as the formal enactment of a syllogism. If the first clause (“The lights go off in all the subway cars they won’t come back”) is the first proposition and the second clause (“come back they’re on now”) is the second proposition, then the entire sentence becomes the conclusion and the hinge word or phrase becomes the combinatory principle. This is not to say, of course, that the original propositions integrate perfectly into a conclusion with one intended meaning. Rather, the completed syllogism performs the unit of time encompassing the power outage and the imperative to return. It cannot fully combine the contradictory states of the power off and the power on; instead it accumulates and displays them both.

The scene becomes more complex as we consider its articulation. “The lights go off in all the subway cars” sounds like straightforward narration. It moves into “they won’t come back,” which is a projection of the narration’s future state, occurring most likely in either speech or internal thought. “Come back they’re on now,” as I mentioned before, sounds like spoken imperative, inaugurating a mutual point of reference between speaker and implied recipients (fellow train riders as well as, possibly, the reader). As we progress between the contradictory states of the lights off and on, we also move between perspectival possibilities of the scene’s expression. Further, the moment of returning power coincides with the imperative to come back; the transformation is from darkness and isolation to illumination and sociability accomplished by the grammatical progression of “come back” from the object of the verb “will not” to the imperative, from the negation of activity to activity.

What I want to illustrate here is that rather than simply suppressing integration in the manner of “new sentences,” the sentence as syllogism in Metropole is able to suspend the time unit between lights off and on as it cycles through possible articulations of that time. It accumulates a fluid sequence of meanings that seem to crystallize briefly even as they churn in transit. It is participatory, then, in that readerly action, residence, and perhaps even accomplishment remain possible. Integration is still deeply felt as artificial, but the sentence’s form, modeling the progress from alienated darkness to public light, affords the reader an opportunity to sustain the syllogism. She is left, certainly, with a complex unit from which meanings might unpredictably protrude, but she is left with those accumulated meanings as well as their tentatively integrated sum. Through poetic form, then, an imagined (and partially integrated) world is achieved.

I’d like, in a bit, to continue thinking about this quote as it compromises and enriches what is probably the other most salient formal feature of Metropole: its streaming iambism (that is, every sentence in the poem is nearly perfectly iambic). First, though, some preliminary thoughts about other meanings of the poem’s prosody. This sentence announces many of them: “Chased around the room at night, the cars of conversation seeking refuge on TV, ideas become impossible to know as anything but raw materials added to a pulse.”[5] O’Brien’s recuperation of iambics in the contemporary and prosaic world of the Western Metropole occupies both the music of tradition and the tradition of colonialism and oppression (“raw materials added to a pulse”). It inhabits both the prosody of Romantic lyricism and the incessant, mnemonic drone of capitalist production and standardization that “chases” conversation into television shows and subsumes ideas within commercial possibilities. The point is, again, that the poem doesn’t make a choice; instead, it models and acknowledges readerly potentialities.

So let’s look again at the scene in the subway car. When the hinge (“come back”) modulates from the object of a statement (“They won’t come back”) to spoken imperative (“come back they’re on now”), the accentual stress alters from iamb to spondee, compromising metrical continuity and providing the reader with the option of either preserving the machinelike drone (that both resulted in the scene’s darkness and also is, remember, the rhythm of iambic song) or asserting speech by the next clause’s human interlocutor. In a very helpful discussion between Keston Sutherland and O’Brien in The Claudius App, Sutherland elaborates his own relationship with a similar kind of action:

The decoupling of enjambment from the verse line in “Metropole” makes for a special indeterminacy, as I experience it. I must decide where the break should fall — a test of pleasure and scruple — so that enjambment can be preserved, but also to keep audible the unique forms of terminal stress that are only ever heard in the first and last words in a verse line … One of the most complex tests of metrical discipline — the one that most often forces enjambment into sentences, promoting them from metrical units in prose to verses — is the occurrence of syllables that I would naturally stress if I were speaking, but that the streaming iambism dictates must not be stressed.[6]

I find this idea particularly interesting because it not only details the attention required to maintain the poem’s prosody (an attention that will likely keep the reader focused on the text’s materiality), but also identifies a site in which readerly choice is essential. When spoken stresses are different from stresses intended by the iambism, the task becomes whether and when to privilege meter over semantic coherence. Sutherland goes on to relate his experience of reconciling such an instance by breaking the sentence into two sets of iambic trimeter, resolving a metrical ambiguity but creating the potential for increased semantic ambiguity. If one chooses to order the scene according to meter, then meaning is distorted (acknowledging, perhaps, the pervertive capacity of colonial violence and capitalist commodification). Vice versa and the rhythm falters, the song ceases.

The poem, though, will offer other chances to make this choice and rereading allows the bestowment of alternate privilege: first I read it prioritizing meter, then I read it prioritizing sense made from a pronunciation based in speech. Importantly, one choice isn’t, in the end, any better than the other and the presence of both options amounts to a kind of pedagogical equality with the poem: it can teach me, I can teach it. Again, the relationship between reader and text thus described is very different from both the “fully referential” prose that Silliman challenges and the “new sentence” compositions that he proposes. Referential prose instructs the reader. “New sentences” frustrate the reader and teach her to mind materiality. Grammatically in these instances, the text is the teaching subject and the reader is the object being taught.

By contrast, the pedagogical equality of Metropole that I’m imagining above manages to also manifest itself grammatically in the poem’s “hinge” syntax. I’m again going to capitalize the “hinge” word: “Let the messed-up sheets record a CHILDISHNESS retains its virtues.”[7] Childishness, the object of the first clause, morphs into the subject of the second. Anthropomorphized sheets demean the narrator as “childish” in a world in which things (in this case sheets) objectify the condition of a human speaker. At the moment of the “hinge,” at the moment (if we resume the analogy of this structure to a syllogism) of the combinatory principle, subjectivity is celebrated and wrested back from the commodification that would make us all into objects. That is, as Metropole sustains and accumulates the world’s variety, a utopian chance at individuality occurs at our point of participation and indefinite integration. The text finally offers a glimmer of liberation.

How, then, does Metropole envision the state of contemporary poetics? The world is now perhaps too chaotic for disjunction and non sequitur to seem revolutionary. Instead, prose that neither fully integrates nor fully obstructs is proposed as a way in which readerly effort, participation and instruction might do more than simply enforce textual materiality. They might also create a site in which poetic form can offer a creative and subjective refuge from capitalist uniformity. The text that wants to transcend art and enter the realm of the historical (the “new sentence” desire to reformulate prose on a national (global) scale, moving from an aesthetic object to a historical one) now appears an impossibility if not also a naïve sacrifice of the more intimate freedoms participatory art can afford us. Additionally, the dialogue of historical forms proposed by avant “new sentence” restoration of external verse traditions to experimental prose is more fully elaborated by a form (iambic prose) explicitly defined by this irresolvable dialogue than one (“new sentences”) sporadically informed by it. Where “new sentence” composition employs formal duality toward seductively disjunctive ends, Metropole intentionally renders a conversation about the historical deployment of traditional forms. Again, the emphasis for O’Brien is on communication and analysis; the world seems mutable and beguiling enough on its own.

As a closing I’d like to quickly consider the very short lyric “To Be Read in Either Direction” that precedes Metropole. As the title indicates, “To Be Read In Either Direction” can be read coherently beginning with the first line and reading down or beginning with the last line and reading up; the action is similar to the hinge syntax in Metropole that moves fluidly between clauses. If we continue the analogy of the syllogism to “To Be Read In Either Direction” then the first proposition would be reading the poem forward and the second proposition would be reading the poem backward. The conclusion and the combinatory principle become one and the same site: the poem in its entirety. That is, to engage the poem is to reside in the moment of combination, in a moment of duality that, by its very nature, is impossible to objectify.

 


 

1. Geoffrey G. O’Brien, Metropole (Berkeley and Los Angeles: University of California Press, 2011), 72.

2. Ron Silliman, The New Sentence (New York: Roof, 1987), 77.

3. Silliman, New Sentence, 79–81.

4. O’Brien, Metropole, 58.

5. Ibid., 61.

6. O’Brien, interview with Keston Sutherland, The Claudius App 1.

7. O’Brien, Metropole, 96.