Reviews - August 2013
A review of Gale Nelson’s ‘This Is What Happens When Talk Ends’
Gale Nelson’s most recent book, This Is What Happens When Talk Ends, is his first full-length book in eleven years. In earlier works such as stare decisis and ceteris paribus, both published by Burning Deck, Nelson displays acute and often humorous attention to the sound in language rather than the meaning one may derive from language. In the serial poem “Corporate Blessings,” from ceteris paribus, for instance, he writes:
great gobs of goose grease
following tie culls
sweat on the
representation of jar.
One gets the feeling reading Nelson that language is a physical thing. Read any of his poems aloud and one’s mouth will feel thick with speech.
This Is What Happens When Talk Ends is similarly invested in the texture of language. Here, the work derives some of its energy from Shakespeare’s “To be or not to be” soliloquy in Hamlet. Nelson’s book, in fact, consists of eight sets of eight poems that follow the vocalic pattern within eight different Shakespeare speeches. Regarding titles, Nelson also works a rotation of eight. In “Post Hoc, Ergo Propter Hoc,” his informative afterword detailing his method, the author writes, “Where Shakespeare cleaved music to sense (or was it sense to music?), I have done my best to persist with each verse as problem at hand, and hope for the best.” The mathematical sounding “problem at hand” makes clear Nelson’s Oulipian lineage as does the procedure he followed while composing these poems.
Nelson’s first step in his Oulipian procedure was to strip the soliloquies of all their consonants, leaving only the vowels. In this system, the author mentions, Y does not count. Next, he “did [his] best to forget what Shakespeare had written and sought [his] own set of words to build (italics mine) from these vowel strings.” This notion of building poems illustrates further the materiality of language for Nelson. The goal, he goes on to write, “was to simply get somewhere else,” someplace other than where Shakespeare had gotten. The poems within This Is What Happens are translations, though not versions focused on sense. Instead, as Nelson suggests, the poems shed light on vocalic structure.
The second component of Nelson’s method is yet another link to Oulipo. After culling consonants from plays such as Macbeth and The Tragedy of Richard the Third, the poet wanted to avoid organizing the poems by play. Instead, he recalled George Perec’s usage of the knight’s circuit in a game of chess to shape the action in his book, Life: A User’s Manual. Where Perec mapped out his own knight’s circuit, Nelson’s eight sets of eight poems corresponded perfectly with the standard sixty-four squares of a chessboard. This correspondence enabled Nelson to rely on the earliest surviving knight’s circuit, which dates back to 840 AD and is associated with al-Adli ar-Rumi of Baghdad.
Throughout these procedural poems Nelson writes in diction that occasionally conjures past literary figures such as John Milton. In “Lycidas,” Milton turns towards closing his pastoral poem with this famously attention-shifting line: “Thus sang the uncouth Swain to th’ Okes and rills.” Nelson reformulates this line in the first rendition of his pastoral, “Sparse Fields Plowed Last,” when he writes, “thus spake / this bad-shamed boy in long, loud cadence.” In both Milton and Nelson the word “thus” insists that the preceding lines be read in a different light. Within Milton’s poem, the reader sees a distinction between the shepherd’s song of loss and the final eight lines that are spoken by another voice.
In his book, too, Nelson plays out this tension between song and speech in poems where words such as argot, jargon, and patois continually crop up. Argot and jargon refer to specialized language, such as Cockney Rhyming Slang or Esperanto. Patois, on the other hand, refers to any nonstandard language, such as pidgins and creoles. Interestingly, the French word signifies rude, incomprehensible speech. Nelson’s second rendition of “Sparse Fields Plowed Last” closes with these lines:
as egret’s shrill emboldens avis argot. Send
this bitter age in dust, send us swans,
another eagle. Ovations doom tug’s lost
exacting droplet. Is that it, or is no
gem sparkling? Egret’s eggs!
The “Shout” here, perhaps rude, turns up the volume on notions of speech while the poet links the “egret’s shrill” with “avis argot.” The piercing sound of the egret instills courage into the avis’s specialized language. In Latin, avis is a word for bird. So, this argot would be the specialized language of birds, song. Nelson’s attunement to birdsong links his work to one of the oldest and most traditional tropes in poetry. Notably, though, this song in contrast to Keats’s “Ode to a Nightingale” would be shrill. In conjunction with the opening shout, this makes clear that Nelson wants readers to consider heightened instances of talk and song rather than so-called normative forms. Perhaps This Is What Happens When Talk Ends is another way of saying “song is what happens when talk ends.”
Nelson’s intention “to get somewhere else,” as mentioned above, starts in Shakespeare. But where does Nelson get to exactly? A place? A state of mind seems more apt. One that is unhindered within the constraints of what one might call traditional tradition, Milton and Keats et al. Nelson’s other companion from the outset, Oulipian technique, opens up this crowded path. In a book indebted to two literary traditions such as This Is What Happens When Talk Ends it’s clear that the poem for Nelson is a place after all, a place where the ear attunes to the textures of language.
A review of Caryl Pagel’s 'Experiments I Should Like Tried at My Own Death'
Caryl Pagel’s Experiments I Should Like Tried at My Own Death concerns itself with liminal states, the between and beyond that haunts the here and now. It is apparent from the opening lines of “Levitation,” the book’s first poem, that the very experience of having a body is going to be difficult and complex in this world of ghosts and shadows:
It is night & I am lying — my body level — low along the floor until I take a hold of me; I slowly rise Each scientist in the room reaches for his pen (breast pocket) at once (13)
The speaker’s levitation is experienced as an uncanny split in her self-awareness; an “I” takes control of a “me” to produce the mysterious motion, rising from the floor and eventually floating “out an open window & into the evening” (13). The scientists, meanwhile, behave in machine-like synchronicity, reaching for their pens in unison and drawing the standard, unanimous conclusion that everything they’ve seen “is made: string smoke mirrors” (13). So who is pulling whose strings? The speaker is eerily both present and absent, the object of the investigation and woefully unable to investigate herself: “Tell me how that is possible; I could not see it but I was there” (13).
In this poem, and throughout this collection, the body appears uncanny and alien — both to those inhabiting it and those observing it. A series of poems called “The Botched Bestiary” draws on a variety of source texts and replaces the names of specific animals with the word “body,” to intriguing effect: “The body from North America was considered . . . extinct in the 1980s but recently it has resurfaced. Little is known about the body, but what is known is very strange. It can grow up to three feet in length[,] and when handled gives off a smell like lilies. The body is believed to be able to spit in defense” (16). These archival assemblages challenge us to think in unusual ways about our own human bodies, but their cumulative effect is curiously deadening: instead of a rich and varied “bestiary,” these animals are stripped of their identities and appear as blank “bodies,” which perhaps they are. Like the levitating woman and the mechanical scientists, animals are animate without awareness — a state that suddenly appears uncomfortably close to “undead.”
In addition to bodies without names, Pagel gives us names without bodies in a poem titled “Common Plant & Animal Names (Existing & Not Existing).” This alphabetical catalogue begins this way:
Abandoned Eyelet, Absenting Fact, Absolute New Bus Stop. Alarmwireseed, Amberweed, Appalling Forgotten Flavor. Army Ant, Arson Day, Asphalt And, Awe-to-Death With Breakage. (28)
Some of these names are real (“Army Ant”), some sound real but are not (“Amberweed”), and many sound (and are) completely absurd. The poem works as an amusing, fanciful litany — but to read it is also to realize how much humans have projected themselves on the natural world, understanding it in their own terms. If there is a plant called “Forget-Me-Not,” why couldn’t Pagel’s inventions “Lie-To-Me” or “Magnificent Not” also be real? If such names are arbitrary, they are also intriguing, inviting questions about both the namer and the named.
Each of the three sections of this book begins with an epigraph about names, suggesting their centrality to Pagel’s concerns. Perhaps the most interesting is the one from Jacques Derrida, who writes that names inherently signify their own longevity beyond their bearers, “announcing a death to come” (33). All names, that is, are destined to end up on tombstones — or printed neatly beneath a specimen in a naturalist’s collection. In one poem called “Herbarium,” which Pagel explains was written with Emily Dickinson’s girlhood gardening album in mind, the identities of the namer and the named are perilously intertwined. In this section, the specimen seems to speak on its own behalf:
CORRECTION OF IDENTIFICATION:
I is stem with no leaves I
is body with
no mind I blooms in sight of pressed stem still
yet blooming When first did I
body that pressed this body I mean when
first did I inhibit it
Mis-named have I (40)
The pairing of the first-person pronoun with third-person verbs (“I is,” “I blooms”) suggests an object struggling to understand itself as a subject. Like all specimens in an herbarium, it is suspended in a two-dimensional imitation of life, its fleeting bloom fixed for eternity in “living” color. The shift from “inhabit” to “inhibit” shows how serious misnaming can be: one letter makes the difference between the presser and the pressed. Pagel’s investigations of names, bodies, and classification systems reveals them as a complex series of containers “inhabited” by the elusive spark of life, constraining it while also being its condition of possibility.
One reviewer has read Pagel’s frequent use of gaps and caesuras in this book as similar to “a moth-eaten journal or ancient scroll,” inviting the reader “to wonder what may fill the space.” But I don’t see anything missing in these spaces; syntax, ideas, and even words flow smoothly across them. Here are the final lines of a poem called “Occult Studies”:
one more soul could crack the surface (No) Why not collect your own throat in order to
answer yourself later from beyond We are a scientist We say: “you are not
your body you inhabit it” No name can contain this in- visible protest (65)
I read these gaps instead as the thresholds with which the book is so obsessed: the chasm between life and death that is so profound and yet so narrow that Pagel can write “I held his hand / I did not / know when it was over” (53), and the chasm between subject and object that collapses in a construction such as “I blooms.” Particularly in the several poems that are both right- and left-justified like this one, Pagel seems to have created separate spatial regions where words can interact with one another along a different axis, in new combinations, as though in another world alongside the “real” one. From start to finish this book howls, rattles, and whispers like a ghost trapped in the walls, reminding us that a different, stranger world may be closer to hand than we realize.
A review of William Corbett’s ‘Elegies for Michael Gizzi’
Late in September 2010 Michael Gizzi passed away. This shocked all who knew him. He was young, only sixty-one. During the course of his life he lived mostly in New England, and was in the lineage of other great New Englanders such as Frank O’Hara and John Wieners. If you listen to Gizzi’s readings on PennSound you will hear how fine an ear he had, an ear that descended directly from Jack Kerouac’s own demotic taste. Amongst his contemporaries Gizzi found himself with Clark Coolidge, William Corbett, Bernadette Mayer, and Craig Watson. During the 1980s through the 1990s Gizzi lived in Western Massachusetts where he ran a series in the barn behind Arrowhead, Herman Melville’s house in Pittsfield. Notably, James Schuyler gave one of the few readings in his life in this barn. As Corbett puts it in his new book, Elegies for Michael Gizzi, a brief and beautiful book of poems with drawings by Natalia Afentoulidou, “[Michael] was one of those generous souls who served poets and poetry.” When I met Gizzi in the early 2000s he was back in Rhode Island and running yet another series in Providence with Michael Magee. During a memorial reading organized for Robert Creeley in 2005, Gizzi mentioned that Creeley always wanted to be where the action was. The same was true for Michael.
William Corbett, like Gizzi, is a New Englander in the New York School lineage, a point he touches on frequently throughout Elegies. The first poem, “Answer,” opens with a question that O’Hara poses in “A Step Away from Them,” “But is the / Earth as full as life was full, of them?” Following those lines Corbett thinks through the question, parsing it out:
These lines get to me, always have.
We stumble over what in death
Is uneven — “as life was full”
For my friend, the handsome tree surgeon
Michael, poet of soul-ache and slapstick
Played poker-faced, who saw double
And minded two voices that didn’t rhyme.
In the stutter of the dash after “Is uneven” and line break that follows “as life was full” is a burst of emotion that brings Corbett to the conclusion that “You can answer O’Hara’s question, / Yes, fuller. The depths we enter / Have room for everyone.” “Answer” sets up wonderfully what’s to come in the interplay between Corbett’s poems and Afentoulidou’s visual art.
A native of Greece, Afentoulidou has illustrated Greek editions of Leo Tolstoy’s Three Hermits and The Power of Darkness as well as Elizabeth Gaskell’s Ruth. Her work in Elegies, lovingly reproduced by Kat Ran Press, consists of abstract curves of bright color mixed with white and black suggesting amoebic sea life. These drawings are also astounding in their gentle playfulness, feeling as if they’re still under water. The drawing after “Dubrovnik and Split,” for instance, looks in part like a tongue sticking out. This dovetails nicely with Corbett’s humor in the poem:
I’ll be Alan Hale
To your Errol Flynn
Pineapple to your ham
Bonkers to your apeshit
Though this is a book of elegies Corbett’s and Afentoulidou’s willingness to be funny makes sense, because Gizzi’s poems, even at their most melancholy, were always out to have some fun. Since there are only sixteen poems in Elegies Afentoulidou’s work encourages the reader to slow down. Her images become objects of reflection and meditation between Corbett’s poems. This is exactly what’s needed. It’s as if these drawings help the reader, whether you knew Gizzi or not, parse through the emotions of death. And the emotions of death are really questions.
In his book, Corbett never asks the trite “Where are you now?” Instead, Corbett focuses on the concreteness of living in the untitled poem that begins “What was the last food tasted, / The last music heard, / Last line read, last line written?” In other words, it’s not where the deceased has gone after life that holds concern so much as what he did during life that matters to Corbett. In this regard, Corbett draws attention to Gizzi’s service in the name of poets and poetry in the last couple of pages of Elegies. It’s this aspect of Gizzi’s “life and work that needs amplification,” according to Corbett, “because it will, as part of what made the world go round, be lost or obscured in a footnote.”
In these final pages Corbett, who in addition to being a poet is also the author of the memoirs Philip Guston’s Late Work and Furthering My Education, shares some wonderful anecdotes from his friendship with Gizzi, all of them focused on the various reading series that Michael had organized over the years. One of the first was at Embree’s Restaurant in Western Massachusetts, Corbett tells us. “Poets,” in this series, “received $100, drinks and a good meal for entertaining a room full of people with an ear for poetry, many of them friends.” What Corbett mentions next might tell us more about his own taste in locations than Gizzi’s, but it’s scene-setting nonetheless. As the author puts it, this series at Embree’s wasn’t held in a “grim basement once frequented by Trotskyites or John Birchers. [Or an] art gallery with floor to ceiling mind-numbing art.” Corbett goes on to mention the real advantage of this series when he writes, “The reading over, we did not have to look for a Chinese restaurant no one had ever been to that might be empty enough to accommodate us.” Because they were already comfortable in a welcoming place they could sit around to drink and talk. Corbett’s description of the Embree’s series is telling, because it demonstrates what he sees as one of Gizzi’s most valuable contributions to poetry. For Corbett, Gizzi “was a natural scene-maker unintimidated by the size of the crowd or the out-of-the-way-ness of the scene.” Gizzi, like Creeley, wanted to be where the action was, even if that meant creating the atmosphere necessary for it. Thanks to Corbett’s skills as a poet and memoirist this aspect of Michael’s life will not obscured in a footnote.
What’s also notable here is that Corbett draws attention to the fact that poets like Gizzi are rare, closing with this thought: “Now he is gone and someone will replace him. But not, I’m guessing, right away. Michael’s kind comes along infrequently, does what they do outside of any system and leaves the memory of all that.” While poets with Gizzi’s dedication certainly are uncommon this is only part of what’s important here. Read through any of Corbett’s work, whether it’s his poems, art writing, or memoirs, and the reader will find the author continually placing value on what’s done “outside of any system.” For Corbett, as for any poet perhaps, the value of any undertaking ought to be determined by one’s own need to do it, not whether the project will bring you any prestige. Because of the author’s own willingness to disregard the system, whatever it may be, and focus on his memories of Gizzi, Corbett and Afentoulidou’s book is a testament to one of the most prestigious gifts of all: friendship.