On the poetics of Duncan and O'Hara
(Re:)Working the Ground: Essays on the Late Writings of Robert Duncan
Frank O’Hara Now: New Essays on the New York Poet
Most welcome and necessary are these two collections of new essays on the poetry of Robert Duncan and Frank O’Hara, respectively. Poets of literary imagination of the first rank, each has contributed divergent but complimentary perspectives to American poetry of the latter half of the twentieth century. Ezra Pound is daddy to them as much as Gertrude Stein is momma. Play, mirth, and wit with plenty of informal as well as formal reading and study inform the gridwork anchoring the poems and lives of these poets. They live according to the life of the poem that is in them, firmly refusing to have any sense of their art as separate from the rest of their daily affairs. In this, these two serve as models beyond compare.
Both poets share in common an open homosexuality, at odds with society of their time, that is central to their identity, along with a predilection for surrounding themselves with visual artists: O’Hara wrote art criticism, worked at MOMA, and modeled for painter friends, the likes of Larry Rivers and Grace Hartigan; Duncan settled into setting up a household with his life partner, artist Jess Collins in San Francisco, which lasted until Duncan’s passing in 1988 and during which time together they befriended several San Francisco artists from Wallace Berman’s Semina group to the filmmaker Stan Brahkage, who lived with them for a time in his youth. Each was politically committed in his own fashion, within the poetry world (the infamous feuds between Duncan/Jess and Jack Spicer, later his defense of Zukofsky against Barrett Watten; O’Hara’s social-poetic juxtaposition reading “Poem ‘Lana Turner has collapsed” while sharing the stage with Robert Lowell) as well as the public domain, taking firm stances against the oppressive gloom of the 1950s racial and sexual mores (Duncan’s groundbreaking essay “The Homosexual in Society,” O’Hara’s strident friendship with LeRoi Jones/Amiri Baraka).
Yet each poet remains distinguishable from the other, most notably by way of how personality manifests itself in the work, a matter of style and taste. O’Hara is very much the singular poet of Manhattan and all the protoplasmic buzz of activity that’s to be found there, while San Francisco with that ever-vibrant West Coast ethos is indelibly tied to Duncan’s poetic mythos. O’Hara’s poems are fast, full of witty remarks, quick moving, and in the world in which he is living. Current events are abundant, both personal and public. Duncan’s poems are shrouded in a projection of his own life’s reading, deeply otherworldly while ever pursuing profoundly mystical insight. Events occurring within the poems are timeless as he weaves references from ancient lore on up through the entire Western tradition of thought into a seamless blanketed cape of his own uniquely startling vision. The discussion of the poetry behind these charismatic figures will be long-lasting and not likely exhaustible any time soon.
While the great wealth of critical material readily available on O’Hara is continually expanding, rarely does the writing measure up to what’s on hand in this collection, superbly gathered by Robert Hampson and Will Montgomery. All the essays are exemplarily readable and nearly as entertaining reading as O’Hara’s work itself, making the book tremendously rewarding and quite the surprise. Hampson and Montgomery note that “the O’Hara that is quite so widely known and loved is often not quite the same O’Hara that we, in our separate ways, have loved” (3). They set out looking “to suggest that O’Hara is not as easily assimilable — or indeed as friendly — as he might appear” (4). There should be no doubt that they do indeed succeed in achieving this goal. As they point out, O’Hara’s “poems can be difficult and recalcitrant, their surface fluency concealing obdurate lacunae and hesitation. O’Hara’s cheerfulness is the cheerfulness of one who has encountered and embraced suffering. The ready wit conceals doubt and uncertainties” (4). And one essential component of their success in presenting a fresher, broader view of the poet is contained in their “desire to produce a response to O’Hara that had a transatlantic dimension” so when seeking contributions they drew in “established and emerging voices from both sides of the Atlantic,” resisting any easy slide into formulaic flack (5). It is not overstating the case to declare this collection an indispensable contribution to O’Hara studies.
For each subsequent generation of poets O’Hara’s work consistently proves an energizing force, fertile ground over and over again for sparking lively poems derived from reading his own, the best of which resist being wholly imitative. O’Hara is often cast as “Frank” in such work as if he’s readily around, a pal these poets might be meeting for a commiserating drink during a rough patch, personal and poetic. Reading these essays leaves the feeling that the writer approaches writing on O’Hara as if the essay-form might allow itself to be a poem. I’m not saying these essays are in any way hybrid or otherwise experimental in form, but the overall charge that is felt, the vibe as leaps in connections are made and the abundant quotes of O’Hara and others in relation to him pour forth, unleashes a steady thrill that long outlasts first reading.
David Herd’s “Stepping out with O’Hara” centers around the demonstration “that in O’Hara’s poetry he allows his thought to settle around the gesture of the step” (71). Much as mentioned above, his poems are occasions full of such charge that the reader feels as if they’re out for a stroll with the poet himself. As Herd says, “one quite readily finds oneself thinking about the way he places his feet” and “one thinks about it because he [O’Hara] thinks about it” (71). O’Hara’s projected presence is so near viscerally manifest within his poems. It is not surprising that when speaking of O’Hara’s “Poem [light clarity avocado salad in the morning]” Josh Robinson offers up a reading of “O’Hara’s Poetics of Breath” wagering that in an O’Hara poem “breath is presented as essential to cognition, which is itself something almost immediate, a bodily state of being” and “the speaker presents an intense degree of familiarity not with the absent addressee but rather with his own body: ‘and all thoughts disappear in a strange quiet excitement / I am sure of nothing but this, intensified by breathing’” (153). Adding to Herd’s comments on O’Hara’s “step,” Rod Mengham notes how “In O’Hara, the poet-as-walker and his reveries are equally mobile. In fact, the later poet maintains an equilibrium between the claims of the virtual and the real” (55).
O’Hara enjoyed having a body and celebrating its occupation of space. The preponderance of instances of his likeness being conveyed in artworks by friends and associates, and which he no doubt took much pleasure in, mirrors the prevalent physicality of presence within his writing. As Redell Olsen’s essay focusing on O’Hara and the painter Grace Hartigan reminds us, “O’Hara is similarly noted for his collaborative self-staging through both photography and art. The artists Jane Freilicher, Nell Blane, Larry Rivers, Grace Hartigan, Phillip Guston, Alez Katz, and Fairfield Porter all painted portraits of O’Hara” (188). Reading O’Hara’s poems the references to his body are inescapable, as are those to artist friends who convey its image in numerous works of art. There’s no commentary possible which refuses to acknowledge the actions of O’Hara’s busy social life amongst artists. As John Wilkinson comments, in “O’Hara’s Odes works of art are presented and become present as at once marmoreal and pulsing, exact, mobile, and sexual — and this is true of the Odes themselves” (104). He continues arguing that the Odes “work within a Romantic project, and a secular one: the confusion of unborn, living, dead and undead, and the unbinding of tenses” (105). Wilkinson sees the odes demonstrative of O’Hara’s poems as physical manifestations that exist in the instant: “The artwork lives and dies only in encounter” (105).
Undeniably it is in the encounter that O’Hara thrives. A humming electiveness that in Nick Selby’s consideration of memorial artworks to O’Hara by Jasper Johns and Joe Brainard shows itself in
the pressure of such a reimagining of the poet’s body that we have seen in relation to the work of Joe Brainard and Jasper Johns that is, I want to argue, absolutely critical to the power and affectivity of “In Memory of My Feelings.” By continually renegotiating its relationship to the poet’s actual body this is a poem that courts ambiguity, and juxtaposition, in order to discover the poetic possibilities of living as variously as possible. The closing lines of the poem resonate powerfully because of their ability to demonstrate feelingly how O’Hara’s sense of being in the poem is subject to his exploration of a complex set of relationships between performative positions available to him as poet. While sounding sincere, authentically troubled by the sense of lost feelings and the poetic occasion that calls for their memorializing, the poem’s closing moments also announce that its nostalgia for a lost self is a mere performance, a ruse in which intimacy and feeling-ness, even the body itself, are exposed as effects of the poet’s textual negotiations:
and I have lost what is and always and everywhere
present, the scene of my selves, the occasion of these ruses,
which I myself and singly must now kill
Daniel Kane’s extensive commentary on O’Hara’s collaboration with film artist Alfred Leslie on The Last Clean Shirt probes similar territory, as O’Hara mined lines from “In Memory of My Feelings” for the subtitles he provides for the film where “film becomes poetry — or film interacts with poetry. Or poetry extends film” (174). As Kane describes: “such moves invite the spectator/reader experiencing the no-longer-autonomous work of art to ‘pay attention,’ to participate in making meaning in response to a form that no longer adheres to conventional definitions of genre” (174). It is such challenging and subversive tendencies which draw in readers ensuring there will always be an audience for O’Hara’s work. He sticks you full throttle behind the moving set-changes of the poem, revealing and concealing as the surprises keep arriving. There’s nothing quite like it.
The fast-moving flexibility in the best of these essays responds in kind to this energy embodied by O’Hara’s poems; working through the poems with the same quickness of combining careful logic with fast action, risking absurdity, perhaps, but nonetheless making connections not matched — at least in energy — by previous critics. Will Montgomery’s tackling of the comparison and relationship of O’Hara’s verse to that of avant-garde composer Morton Feldman provides an example:
Although O’Hara rejects an all-encompassing “poetics,” I think it is possible to identify an important attraction to instability in his thinking in his praise of a quasi-metaphysical “unpredictability” in Feldman. Feldman sought to let “sounds exist in themselves — not as symbols, or memories which were memories of other music to begin with.” His aim in this early work to “unfix” the formal relationships between “rhythm, pitch, dynamics” is broadly comparable to O’Hara’s rejection of a “poetics” of “form, measure, sound, yardage, placement, and ear.” Feldman too scorns metre, seeking to recover a more complex and subjective experience of temporality: “I am not a clockmaker. I am interested in getting to time in its jungle — not in the zoo.” In this last statement, Feldman is close, I think, to the formal and conceptual negations of some of O’Hara’s poems — the nihilism of “Hatred,” for example, the darkness that fringes some of the Odes, or the dizzying temporal and referential leaps of “Second Avenue” or “Biotherm.” (201)
It is high time for such fabulous reading of terrific work. Frank O’Hara Now serves its purpose and then some. These essays bring acuity combined with a strong dose of good cheer. There’s a new standard set here, not only in future critical assessment of O’Hara, but that of his contemporaries as well.
After what feels as a slight lapse of critical attention from academics as well as publishers, Robert Duncan’s work is garnering further well-deserved notice. Publication of his seminal study The H.D. Book as the first of a promised multivolume Collected Writings by University of California Press finally saw the light of day in 2011. Lisa Jarnot’s long-overdue biography appeared from the same press in 2012. There’s also a “collected interviews” promised for publication by North Atlantic Books. This is the time for celebrating the worthy contributions Duncan’s work continues to offer. An ongoing cause that (Re:)Working the Ground is in part the product of, as editor James Maynard notes: “This book began as a series of papers presented at a three-day symposium entitled ‘(Re:)Working the Ground: A Conference on the Late Writings of Robert Duncan,’ which took place in the Poetry Collection at the University at Buffalo April 20–22, 2006. This event celebrated the single-volume republication by New Directions of Ground Work: Before the War/In the Dark” (10), Duncan’s final two collections of poems published together in a singular volume. Stephen Fredman reminds us how Duncan himself established the significance of the original 1983 publication of the first of these final volumes of his poems, writing in 1972 “I do not intend to issue another collection of my work since Bending the Bow until 1983 at which time fifteen years will have passed” (59).
Although subtitled “Essays on the Late Writings of Robert Duncan” and while the focus throughout is on the poetry found in Groundwork, the majority of contributions take advantage of the quite circular nature of Duncan’s poetic practice in order to revisit earlier writings while in the process addressing the later work. The result is that unfamiliar readers are not left behind in the larger discussion. These explorative essays into Duncan’s oeuvre serve to provoke initial readings of the poems and entice a fresh generation of scholars as well as poets into their own explorations of the wonders spun in Duncan’s arcana. This is especially the case since Groundwork is not so much a life’s summation of poetic work, as The H.D. Book is a midlife’s summation of reading, but rather a realization of the work’s own being. In these later poems, Duncan is as if afloat among texts whose language comes to life adrift around him as he samples as he may. These essays assist with gaining a firm foothold amidst the swirling wonder that is Duncan’s work.
This collection notably brings to print a previously unpublished preface which at one point was intended for the original publication of Before the War. Drafted in a notebook by Duncan and left off incomplete, for those readers dedicated to as complete an understanding as possible of the weave Duncan throws across his writing, this is the cat’s meow. Reminiscent of Duncan’s reading diary style he implements in The H.D. Book, as well as previous prefaces to his earlier volumes, even left incomplete, there’s plenty here offering fresh introspection into Duncan’s practice. In this preface, Duncan recognizes O’Hara’s work as an essential resource in time of need, holding it up as essential mythic poet lore in line with Whitman as well as “Old World gods” (a lineage in which Duncan views his own work aligned).
Whitman calls for an end of the Old World gods, the thralldom of ancient bonds to the codes of what the Lord abominates or the relentless Goddess demands, and Frank O’Hara, in this a true fellow to Whitman, in my own time called again for such a Liberation in Time of Emergency.
Also printed here is a short poem, “In Passage,” which was originally intended as a preface for In the Dark. The closing line demonstrates the subtle powers shaping the exchanges between Duncan’s reading and writing, where he situates a statement of prime intent he holds to in all his work: “what I divine I come into and change” (26).
Maynard’s telling of the source for Duncan’s inspiration for the title In the Dark gives example of Duncan’s tendency to “divine” and thereby have rights to “change,” making his own claim to use whatever material serves his purposes:
[D]espite its many suggestive associations with alchemy, Norman Austin’s book Archery at the Dark of the Moon (1975), James Hillman’s The Dream and the Underworld (1979), and its appearance in several different contexts throughout these same notebooks — the phrase “in the dark” officially announced itself to Duncan from one of his favorite pulp genres: science fiction. In this case, it was the opening chapter of Andre Norton’s novel Forerunner Foray (1973), with its description of the protagonist Ziantha’s membership in an intergalactic organization of psychically gifted thieves: “She was part of an organization that operated across the galaxy in a loose confederacy of shadows and underworlds. Governments might rise and fall, but the Guild remained, sometimes powerful enough to juggle the governments themselves, sometimes driven undercover to build in the dark.” Compare this passage to one of Duncan’s earlier descriptions of Ground Work: “Underground Work, the ‘new book’ might be called: not the ‘underground’ of the Revolution, but the underground of a life not in tune with the powers that rule above.” (8)
In full confirmation of this being Duncan’s source, Maynard relates in a footnote: “this exact quotation, dated March 25, , appears in Notebook 66 with the note: ‘In the opening chapter of Andre Norton’s Forerunner Foray I think I have found the title of Ground Work II: ‘in the dark’” (13n29). For Duncan the separation of literature into distinction of genres, some considered more literary than others, bears little merit when it comes to what’s fuel for furthering his own writings. He pulls from all over as needed, and as come upon. At times, as seen above, readings of a later date might lead to alteration and expansion upon an earlier idea or thought in writing. Nothing for Duncan is textually static, but rather fluid, and thus in eternal transformation as the interactions of reading and writing continually feed off each other, propelling the comprehensively combined action of which Groundwork is accumulative example.
As Eric Keenaghan picks up on, “For Duncan, poetic composition is first and foremost an act of reading, which itself is the cornerstone of secular humanism” (111). A few pages further on Keenaghan continues:
Ultimately, we are readers. Our own reading praxes can be read in light of how Duncan himself would characterize that activity as an engaged participation in the process of life itself — rather than a removed position of Kantian judgment — and how he characterized reading as the means for bringing his own agency as a writer and a humanist into a productively aporetic crisis. It even produces a new kind of political engagement. (115)
Or as Robert J. Bertholf summarizes a passage from Duncan’s poem-series “The Regulators”: “The appeal is for the Muse to enter history and change the nature of our lives by altering what government regulates so that the message of the song will be present and available ‘where we wonder’” (38). Duncan expects others to continue the practice his own project takes up. At least in part, Duncan seeks to breed responsibility into his readers. There’s an urgency to respond in kind that’s welcomed and called for by the work. Duncan intends his poetry to participate ad infinitum as part of an ongoing conversation to engage with and alter the world’s imagination.
This is a conversation Devin Johnston expands on in his discussion of “Poems from the Margins of Thom Gunn’s ‘Moly’” (written during Duncan’s unanticipated immersion in an interactive reading of Thom Gunn’s “Moly,” during a long bus trip): “In terms of compositional practice, Duncan did not make firm distinctions between marginalia, inspiration, and translation: for him, all three constitute responsive or reactive dimensions of poetry. By habit and conviction, he thought that writing should arise spontaneously from reading, blurring the line between the two activities” (99). In his closing Johnston emphasizes: “for Duncan as for Gunn, poetry proposes no settled relations or certain origins but remains essentially reactive or responsive. It might include translation from one language to another or a mysterious transference of love from one person to another, according to the rhymes and resemblances that run throughout Duncan’s writing.” (107)
The looping nature of Duncan’s poems being given to reach out and draw from texts he’s reading in order to service the needs of his writing led to his referring to himself as “a derivative poet.” Stephen Collis argues this self-identification of Duncan’s is evidence of his worry over “poetry’s ‘real estate.’” Collis suggests we “see in Duncan’s use of the term a concern for the status of poetry as property. Indeed, I suggest that this was very much his increasing concern during the 1970s and his ‘slow down’ in production between 1968 and 1984. Duncan, in this reading, is revealed to be a critic of intellectual property and a defender of the poetic commons” (42). Collis distinguishes between “Duncan’s most extreme expressions of derivation and literary ‘commoning’ — his ‘emulations, imitations, reconstruals,’ et cetera of the metaphysical poets and Dante” and the “outright appropriation of found materials” claiming that “Duncan’s ‘duplications’ operate within a quasi-academic ‘citational economy,’ with the poet, in most instances, acknowledging his sources” (47). In his own work, both critical and creative, Collis pursues the use of just such means to reach active results of which Duncan would no doubt approve.
There’s a new wealth of interest in writing on Duncan by poet-scholars such as Collis, following in the wake of figures such as Nathaniel Mackey and Lisa Jarnot. This work continues to yield a bevy of potential readings for the future which prove Duncan’s weighty presence remains quite lively. Duncan’s hands, as it were, are alive in the vivid influence he plays in such writing, much as they are in his own. So it is that Peter O’Leary’s unpacking of the appropriation of angelology in “Duncan’s Celestial Hierarchy” rightly gives fair warning that “Duncan’s approach to these angelic powers is predatory — but the ‘gnostic’ invasion he imagines stains his later work not as a form of knowledge but as one of disease” (140); but as he points out, “the pleasure of these poems doesn’t come from solving them or answering them but from reading them” (133). Readers infected, as O’Leary argues, by Duncan’s “disease” suffer in delight. As Duncan writes in the poem intended but not included as preface of In the Dark, “in time you must terrify” (26). This directive is to: the poem, the poet, as well as the reader of the poem; all three after all are in some sense the same. Accepting Duncan’s terms on the level he literally did himself, i.e. life or death, no joke; it should come as no surprise if we do “terrify” ourselves on occasion. These are times without solace.
Duncan’s work demands of readers, as it should, as total an embrace as he himself gives. His willingness to release hold when writing, no clinging “to the self,” is reflected in Brian M. Reed’s study of correlations between Duncan’s work and that of Gertrude Stein. Duncan, “like Stein in the late 1920s, more narrowly inquires into the act of composition and corollary problems of identity and representation. He works from the premise that ‘ideas’ and ‘the self’ are not independent entities that an author can mirror in a poem. Instead, they come into being in the very process of ‘writing writing’” (173). Writing is never an activity Duncan takes lightly. He seeks a universal depth transcending present realities in his role of poet-as-assembler. Working on the poems in Groundwork his sense of purpose only intensified. As Clément Oudart quotes from a letter Duncan writes to his friend, Australian poet Chris Edwards:
With a note of urgency in his remark, Duncan pointed out that besides an essential ‘kindred strain … the art needs too the foundational — to address the ‘ground’ — and the declaration and carrying through of an architecture.’ Duncan’s constant grappling with the origin of creation (poiesis) — his perpetual attempt to find, found, and sound the ground(s) of his restless poetic practice — is embedded in his (at times abyssal) grounding in intertextuality. (151)
Readers should not to be turned off by Duncan’s intensive realignment of sources but rather recognize the openly inviting greeting in his wanton collaging of texts that is his intention. Dennis Tedlock relates hearing from Robert Bertholf how “when [Duncan] took a notebook with him somewhere, he often left it behind, which is why he was careful to write ‘Return to Robert Duncan’ and his street address on the first page of each notebook” (201–2). A trick to up the ante on the writing the notebook contains or a sign of willingness to have the writing be freed of ownership? I myself know poet friends who would be inclined to use such a trick to compel a soft edginess into their current manuscripts; intentionally introducing the threat that their handwritten drafts of poems might be found in the hands of indiscriminate strangers. A threat which while perhaps minor is nonetheless real all the same: even imaginary, such a threat might swell a manuscript with force that would otherwise be absent. While impossible to fully ascertain Duncan’s intention behind the practice it is clear he relished the freedom provided by so relinquishing his personal ownership of writing.
For Duncan, as with O’Hara, poems are fleeting and ethereal yet sustained as acts; grounded byways where the dedication of the poet’s life to the writing is clearly unveiled. The work holds an imbued hue which clings to the world long after the poet’s own physical presence has departed. The poems are too of this world to ever remain long gone from out it. The daily activity the poetry proves propels it into our lives easy as air and hard as stone. The poems represent the rarest of happenings, elevated beyond any transcendent feeling by the matter-of-fact occurrences of their making. In The Maximus Poems Charles Olson declares “I believe in religion, not magic or science / I believe in both man and society as religious.” Reading Duncan and O’Hara we approach an understanding of Olson’s terms not limited by parochial concerns of current political debate or filtered through academic acerbity. Caught up in the vast breach of our mundane separation from things; when it is things themselves we most long to have and hold. We’re thrown off guard, surprised that poetry might so deeply embrace gossip on one hand, as with O’Hara, yet also clamber after the counter-draw found in Duncan’s enchantments which reach roots of the imaginative core of our being. Yet it is with both our identities enjoin, reveling in the heady pleasure of bearing witness to lasting realities so gracing the page.
A review of ‘This Constellation Is a Name’ by Michael Heller
Michael Heller’s This Constellation Is A Name: Collected Poems 1965–2010 is a culmination of over forty years of poetic exploration by a major voice in contemporary poetry. From his experimental poems of the 1960s to the more assured (though no less experimental) work of recent decades, Heller’s poems wrestle with all the implications of “history and the constellated night,” as he writes in “Gloss.”
Heller draws on lyric, epic, and prophetic traditions of poetry as they inform the modernist writers he most admires: Walter Benjamin and George Oppen primarily, but also Paul Celan and Eugenio Montale and a host of older sources from Heraclitus to Blake to Montaigne. Like these writers, Heller continuously attempts to locate, as Oppen calls them, “handholds” and “footholds” with which to navigate the elusiveness of being in the whirlwinds of history. His work is haunted by the past, by historical forces with which we must contend yet never quite understand, and by the mediation and interrogation of the events via poetic language.
Heller in an interview with Edward Foster offers what might suffice as his ars poetica:
I tend to think first in my poetry about meaning or personal and public discovery and in terms of a vocabulary of self, history, terms which in the present critical climate are often viewed as irrelevant or debased … I’m someone on a quest, my energies directed at what can be said about one’s life or about how the act of writing might impinge or enlarge … one’s life.
Heller, who studied engineering prior to his career as poet, sees similarities in the process of discovery in both science and poetry as requiring “tremendous precision” (51). Both involve a fusing of the rational and intuitive — of knowledge and creativity — with a willingness to forgo past results in order to clarify and articulate new understandings or discoveries. Heller sees that articulating an “upsurge of the world” is accomplished by remaining open to possibility. We live with language and not in it, Heller insists. Writing therefore becomes an act of “individual witness” (52) dependent on honesty, clarity, and sincerity, the same virtues Heller’s so-called “Objectivist” forebears espouse.
Heller’s work is complex and always fascinating. The work collected here means to upset our habitual and nearly always under-scrutinized use of language; how it obfuscates, or worse. His poems restore the tension that exists between the potential for truth and clarity in language and its degradation, its capacity to confuse or deceive. As Heller’s practice demonstrates, the uncertainty that comes with all exploration and the concomitant excitement of discovery exists in the relationship between word and world, the poetic solitude of the “estranged observer” surveying events. By observing, the poet alters events through perception, assigning meaning via complexities of language, the attenuations of its sounds and rhythms, all the discrete adjustments one makes in the careful calibration of thought-event into object-poem. Accordingly, the poet seeks (but may never attain) synthesis, totality, and truth.
The earliest poems collected here date from the mid-1960s, and fit well with the avant-garde poetry and art of its time. Some of these poems (as Heller’s helpful and enlightening notes to this volume tell us) were written in Nerja, a Spanish seaside village, from September 1965 to October 1966. “In my late twenties,” writes Heller, “I came to poetry via a bizarre, accidental and blundering path that began with meeting former students of Louis Zukofsky who worked, as I did, at Sperry Gyroscope in Garden City, Long Island.” On their automobile rides to and from work, Heller and these former students discussed poetry. Heller began writing, taking one workshop at the New School in 1964 with Kenneth Koch and then, soon after, leaving for Europe, where he published his early poems in The Paris Review. “I try to imagine what went into these poems,” he reminisces of this work, later collected in 2006 under the title A Look at the Door with the Hinges Off: “my love of Webern’s ‘pointillist’ music, the background, not yet fully formed, in my love of poets like Williams, Creeley, Oppen, Olson, Zukofsky” (553). Indeed, with titles like “OK Everybody Let’s Do the Mondrian Stomp” (containing such lines as “small red block / beside a long / white block” [Heller 2012, 4]) or the four-line poem “To My Auto Horn” (which reads “Be beep // preserve / my / radiance” ), these poems capture the unbounded creativity of improvised jazz and the repetitive thematics of that heady era, as well as some of its more self-indulgent tendencies. Thus, the primary interest of these early poems is of witnessing Heller’s evolution, and suggestions of his eventual maturation, juxtaposed with the initial approach of certain themes. “Weather Eye,” for example, shows, in its crystalline language, a meditation on the relationship between word, world, and self, particularly in the captivating lines “All things written / in their own lines // perhaps we, one day … // a resembling // the rhymes of many things // … convinced of a common // clarity // before it rains” (14).
Earth and Cave, composed in 1966 while the author was in transition from Europe back to the United States, is a remarkable book, published in 2006 in a handsome edition by Dos Madres Press, which contains both illustrations and prose interpolations between the poems (not included in This Constellation). This work, Heller tells us, begun in Nerja, was completed upon his return to New York City in the fall of 1966. The book’s introduction, reprinted here, points to his original intent: “These pages … are a quick register, haiku-like and notational, of the dissonances not only in the transformations I sensed going on around me” — meaning the political disasters of Franco’s Spain, then in its twilight — “but also of the twists and turns within me as a would-be-poet, semi-tourist, and sentimental traveler” (555).
Heller’s first full-length collection, Accidental Center, published in 1972, received high praise, most notably from Heller’s mentor George Oppen, who described its contents as consisting of “tone perfect poems.” Heller struck up a friendship with Oppen in the late 1960s, which also began a notable correspondence. By now, Heller had worked through his youthful approximations of others’ voices (Williams, Creeley, Oppen, Olson, and Zukofsky), but by that weird alchemy of influence managed to develop his own voice, which made its initial appearance amidst all the echoes and imitations of his forebears. Accidental Center is Heller’s first mature work and it contains, to date, some of his strongest poetry. The assurance of his voice is already apparent, and his work here is fully formed.
Interspersed among its pages are some poems beholden to the pressures of that experimentalist era (notably “Pressure” — reminiscent somewhat of Paul Blackburn’s work). There are also poems comprised of discrete sections, as Oppen often employs, but by now Heller already commands a fiercely original vision, one that at times borders on the surreal: “the way frost coats / a tree // to the finest tendrils / of its branches” (“The Cardiac Poem,” 57). Heller, in these poems, evinces a willingness to explore, always in pursuit of discovery, but at times also displaying a levity that refreshingly sets it apart from most other poetry with a metaphysical bent. He is in his first book confident enough to risk irreverence, playing against tradition, testing it. Always the poems’ integrity trumps the dictates of its idiom. Also apparent here is Heller’s gift for prose poetry, as in “Three Bar Reflections on John Coltrane,” the most impressive of which is the last:
History is a joke. Personal history: unfunny.
Knowing everyone to be serious when sick and banging
on the bed for some stranger, but that he should be
like ourselves. And come get drunk or delirious, falling
into someone resembles us. On this, the heart realizes
itself meaningless — its words have moved off beyond
their meanings, as in the music, the whorls of sound
are an eternal trope — an eternal equivalent. Not to be
admitted to my world — I come to his. (69)
The title of Heller’s memoir, Living Root (2000), reflects a dynamic everywhere apparent in Heller’s careful, attenuated writings, something that is at once fixed and ever-changing. The “fixed” aspect is, as Burt Kimmelman has noted, Heller’s Jewish heritage, something that, from the collection Knowledge (1979) forward, particularly Heller’s much-praised poem “Bialystok Stanzas” (originally published in Accidental Center and reprinted and unpacked by the author in Living Root), is an increasingly prominent aspect in his later work. That poem, subtitled “from a book of old pictures,” is a haunting meditation on Jewish identity in twentieth-century America — in particular, what it means to be tied to a heritage that is without place, in possession of an identity that at times seems fixed in textuality only. For Heller, the Torah and the commentaries upon it are central defining works holding together a people whose culture, post-Diasporic, consists of a continuous struggle to maintain cohesiveness and identity. This dichotomy within the fixedness of identity based in textuality and separateness from a place (an ongoing theme in Heller’s poetry from this era forward) binds the Jew to the written word, making the text into an almost living presence. From “Bialystok Stanzas”:
The scene filled with photographer’s light
The sparsely furnished room
In the corner of which
A china-closet Ark
The old men
Under green shaded bulbs
The prayers are simple,
To what they think larger
— the place almost bare,
The flat white light
Adds no increment
But attention (135)
Another poem, this one from In the Builded Place (1989), entitled “For Uncle Nat,” perhaps most succinctly summarizes Heller’s view of what it means to be a post-Diaspora, second-generation Jewish American:
… Not to make
Too much of it, but I know history
Stamps and restamps the Jew, our ways
Are rife with a momentary deliverance
May I borrow you for a moment Nat. We’ll celebrate
By twos, the world’s an Ark. We’ll talk in slant
American accent to code the hidden language of the Word. (274)
Because of the entwining of Jewish history and world history (and history as text, as narrative), the past is like the word: another living presence. Thus, the more Heller explores what it means to be Jewish, in particular a Jewish writer, the more memory comes into play in the poems.
This relationship between history and text for Heller has as a precursor the work of Walter Benjamin, a writer “whose thought,” explains Heller in Living Root, “flutters inextricably through my own work.” Heller writes of his first encounter with Benjamin’s work while living in Nerja: he found in Benjamin something that “paralleled my own early thoughts on the modern poet’s role one where the poet was no longer able to tell the tale of the tribe but rather had to relate the tale of the tribe’s uncertainty, of its adjustments and compensations to a transformed socio-political and cultural world.” Benjamin’s writing helped Heller to realize that the modern poet was adrift in what Heller calls “a field of disorientations and linguistic traps created by media, culture — the very arts themselves — and the debasement of thought and language in the public realm” (161), in particular the difficulty in language of capturing an increasingly elusive and fragile notion of truth.
In many ways, Heller’s next collection, the appropriately titled Wordflow (1997), represents a culmination (it was his first “new and selected”) of these concerns. The powerful “Without Ozymandias” is a gathering of artifacts treated as a poem, replete with stunning aphorisms and imagery that pulses with a newfound confidence:
Ink and effacement
— only companions
of last things owned
Sand has its texts
mica and feldspar,
stars and nestled bones
to write you to your shadow (This Constellation, 344)
In these later poems, Heller is more willing to trust the poem to its own logic and, I would argue, the poems from this collection forward are experimental in a more original way than his sixties output, more willing to challenge notions of what a poem can mean. With experience, confidence, and less need for caution, by now Heller knows the handholds and footholds well enough to turn his attention away from the immediate footing and gaze out at the distances below and above him.
Wordflow represents a major turn in Heller’s oeuvre. The books that precede it (Accidental Center, Knowledge, and In the Builded Place, from which Wordflow selects) might adequately be considered a kind of trilogy. Aside from another selected, Exigent Futures (2003), Heller did not publish another full-length collection until Eschaton (2009), some ten years after In the Builded Place, and with that work Heller has arguably achieved his masterpiece, both a culmination and an enlargement of his major themes — history, memory, the limits of language and knowledge — and of decades of increased sophistication, maturation, and sublimity. In his notes, Heller remarks of the title poem that Eschaton “is from the Greek … meaning to be about last things. In some contexts, the word refers to a dramatic transformation of reality from what has been known or imagined” (564). Heller captures this transformation in poems rife with temporal shifts, quizzical ponderings, jarring transitions, and philosophical struggle, animated by an ever-incisive wit. The poems’ temporal awareness is often juxtaposed with the burden of history, their visual equivalent that of a tapestry or a mural. The collection’s opening poem, “Looking at Some Petroglyphs in a Dry Arroyo Near a Friend’s House,” questions the concept of language reduced to some idea of its own materiality, that is, as anything more than “just stuff and the proof of stuff” (385). The petroglyphs, a human record of a desire to communicate, are “just there, exposing all this / and we are deluded for thinking elsewise,” and it is only love of the world, of others that “is at the end of it” (386). In “On a Phrase of Milosz’s” (the phrase being “He is not disinherited, / for he has not found a home,” an epigraph on page 387), Heller remarks how “History has mucked up” language’s ability to “resolve” experience: “the words / on the way to language dangling possibility” (387; note the intentional reference to Heidegger’s book On the Way to Language, a study of the metaphysical properties of language). Words are at best potentialities; we cannot resolve language, Heller contends, because “Being is / incomplete; only the angels know how to fly homeward” (387). We cannot be disinherited, Heller implies, because we never had a home to begin with; we have always been stranded among the ruins of a discourse that cannot possibly bridge the gap between word and world. Yet what the words do afford us, Heller maintains, is a “desperate situation … clarified.” “The worst thing is to feel only irony can save,” Heller concludes, and one cannot help but feel the statement is directed at much of modern discourse, poetry included. “The worst thing,” Heller warns, “is to feel only irony” (388).
“Stanzas Without Ozymandias” (a recasting of the earlier “Without Ozymandias”), another of Heller’s finest poems, is inspired in part by the Shelleyan image of the broken statue of Ozymandias in the Egyptian desert and the desertscapes of southern Colorado, where Heller, a New York City native, typically spends his summers. Here, Heller utilizes the image of sand as representative of text: “grain fixed to speech,” “the geometer / who mourned the mirror’s lack” … “only the colorless semblances of their desires” (443). The word is a pale shadow of an already muted recollection of experience. Of this poem, Heller remarks: “The unwarrantable sermons are what that kind of natural world tells us — remembering that what we derive from that world is already our projection on to it.” The poem is ambiguous without losing any of its clarity and rewards repeated readings, as does “Letter & Dream of Walter Benjamin.” (This poem derives from and distils a much longer work, Heller’s libretto for the opera Benjamin, itself derived from Benjamin’s letters.) The italicized dream portion of the poem (“He climbed a labyrinth, / a labyrinth of stairs, / past other stairways / descending” [Heller 2012, 462]) is almost verbatim from one of Benjamin’s recordings of this dream. In the libretto, it is the very last thing said/sung. The poem appears to be an extended meditation on the Fall that is also a fall of language, the separation of language from object, as in “unknowable names” that should have been knowable, that might have kept us in an Eden of logos. Benjamin’s lamentations concerning politics and politicians, though they derive from circumstances quite dissimilar from our own, take on an eerie familiarity to our difficult times:
They too have created infinities, blind alleys, endless monuments to
iniquities, a multitude of pains for others to bear.
They will outlive their brief immortality and leave a grubby ration of
murderous hopes (460)
In the last poem of the collection, the stark, grief-stricken prose poem “Mourning Field, Note Card,” Heller addresses the tragedy of those events on that September day in 2001, a poem that defies clichés or unearned sentimentality. It was rightfully included in the major anthology September 11, 2001: American Writers Respond and to this day stands out as a heartbreaking meditation on that day’s implications, not just for the city or the nation, but also for humanity itself. For we are all, regardless of our separate identities, contained in this world and subject to history’s machinations, even in the smallest, imperceptible ways. Walking past the iron railings bordering the walkways of Union Square plastered with photos of lost family members, Heller observes:
... the faces of lost ones gazed out of photos. Grim details surrounded these: the company worked for, a floor in one of the World Trade Center towers, and saddest of all, identifying body marks, scars and moles. With words, the dead were being washed as in a funeral home, swathed in language, touched in secret places by words that only lovers or family members usually know. The disaster had traduced all intimacy. Similar photos and details papered the city. They covered phone booths and kiosks and were taped to the plate glass windows of storefronts and banks.
Like many faces on the notices, most of those in the park were young. They stood and milled around as young people do. And they spoke, and their writings on the long rolls of paper spoke, with that intensity only the young seem able to summon at such times as these. A few guitars were being strummed, playing old folk plaints of solidarity, weariness, and misery. Overheard, the thick canopy of leaves, black against the night, absorbed these sounds, compounded and cupped them in the sickly-sweet smell of incense and burning wax. The crowds had driven off the pigeons, but in Union Square, the notices of the dead flapping in the breeze formed a new immense flock of anguish and grief roosting together. (473)
Heller considers his obligation as poet to register these small, nearly imperceptible encounters, and he does so with exceptional acuity. The poetry on display in Eschaton is rare, striking, and subtle, and, as such, Eschaton registers the increasing refinement of this contemporary master. Moreover, Eschaton is also evidence that Heller shows no sign of slowing down; Beckmann Variations and Other Poems (2010) followed soon on its heels. This work in its original form consists of prose meditations and poetry on the paintings by German painter Max Beckmann. According to his notes, Heller based this poem on Yeats’s Per Amica Silentia Lunae, with its “interweavings” of poetry and prose, and its “ruminations on power and violence” (566), the same qualities Heller saw in Beckmann’s paintings. The thesis of the book is helpfully summarized by a quote from Beckmann included in the book’s first poem, “Space”: “If you wish to get hold of the invisible, wrote Beckmann, / you must penetrate as deeply as possible into the visible” (480). In the following poem, “Every So Often,” which consists almost entirely of quotations from Beckmann, Heller quotes the following: “Ugh, this unending void whose foreground we constantly have to fill / with stuff of some sort in order not to notice its horrifying depth” (481). The poems here find humanity populating its world with Gods and kings in an attempt to buffer themselves from the blind force of physics, and the unsettling knowledge that in fact no one is in charge. From the poem “The King”: “Kings bear the force of statuary. Statuary seals up the force of kings” (483). Beckmann Variations is Heller at his most existential; not since Beckett perhaps has there been as convincing a portrait of the remoteness of the world from human consciousness, the ineffectiveness and relative unimportance of human action and experience in relation to the vast experience of the universe or to geologic time. What is it kings do — “how can I still make the planetary systems tremble?” asks Heller. “Only by this — surrender” (483).
Heller’s achievement is having strived to express, if not that which is inexpressible, than at the least the expressible, in an original, insightful, and challenging way, in poems whose torsions with the ineffable manage to extract radiant nodes of poetic language that open up new vistas, new avenues of expression that can only be described as visionary. Heller sets a high bar for himself, and with rare exception, always meets his own strenuous criteria.
On Lori Anderson Moseman’s ‘All Steel’
Made up of three sections — “Teaching Tools,” “Labor Pools,” and “Work Cycles” — Lori Anderson Moseman’s All Steel builds a complex series of cause-and-effect-like inquiries. These inquiries are based on a trio of typological metaphors: tool (is to) genre (as) type of worker (is to) building or social space (as) month or holiday (is to) ritual. The need to process events, experience, and empirical reality emerges as the impetus behind classification and naming.
Surrounded by excesses of material and sensorial information, these poems, and people in general, seek a means of organization and compression. Language itself is a means of shaping currents of thought. Here, tools, buildings, holidays, ritual, careers, and genres shape — All Steel highlights this correspondence.
Both the large metaphors and the titles highlight manmade classifications. Within the scope of objects and categories, form reduces the range of possible responses and actions. For example, in the case of a hammer, there is a way of letting the weight of the tool fall to avoid tiring one’s arm, the resistance of its form to a punching motion effectively prevents people from using a hammer in such a way. The subtleties of genre make it more difficult to define in any concrete way. Thus, by positioning it against tools, All Steel invites the extension of a tool’s capacity to dictate actions to the way that genre may dictate modes of writing.
Titles in All Steel seem to test specific versions of the text’s larger juxtapositions. Thus, the sum of these comparisons becomes most solidified in the table of contents, where we can see title after title positioning a tool next to a genre:
Crooked Knife |
Spar Pole |
Axe Handle |
Core Bore(r) |
Increment Borer |
Drip Torch |
Paper Cutter |
Hoof Pick |
Through titles that bring together specialized tools and genres of writing, such as a “Drawknife | Testimonial” or “Core Bore(r) | Oral History,” the table of contents makes typological and comparative strategies visible before one even arrives at the first poem. Divided by a vertical bar rather than connected by the conjunction “and,” or even the semigrammatical “ : ” or “ :: ,” the table suggests that connection and comparison will be performed as a spatial activity.
Within moments and spaces of excess, such as the traumatic death of a firstborn child, or walking across the aftermath of a forest fire, categorization and naming become most necessary. I get the sense that Moseman passes material, source texts, sensory information, and memory through a sort of invisible sieve. In the opening poem, “Harrow | Melodrama,” the title, minimal and typological, is the result of sieving:
Nineteen and nearly blind, she runs
across fenceless acres to her husband.
He and mule are at the plow. No.
He’s at the rake. No. Must be the harrow.
She’s just learning each season’s blade.
Unsure even now as she runs to him,
dead baby in her arms — their first.
When she reaches him, they become
one-winged birds destined to fly
as a pair — broken nest in their beak.
The ground below always in need
of breaking, of poking, pecking. (15)
Beginning at the moment when an excess of emotion bursts into the range of an unplowed field in the form of a “she,” the poem describes a trajectory and reaction between a husband and wife. However, before we arrive at the final image — “they become / one-winged birds destined to fly / as a pair — broken nest in their beak” — the poem runs up against a listlike sorting of farm tools: “He and mule are at the plow. No. / He’s at the rake. No. Must be the harrow.”
Tools are sorted and classified by the “she” racing, “nearly blind,” across the field. Functioning as a series of attempts to place herself, the tools recede only to reemerge, by proxy, in the final two lines of the poem as “the ground below always in need / of breaking, of poking, pecking.” By this logic, the work performed between the harrow and its operator becomes embedded within the tool.
The absence of actual melodrama in the poem and proximity of “Melodrama” to “Harrow” in the title invite the extension of this conception of a tool to the realm of genre. The similarity of the plow, rake, and harrow, plus the possibility of mistaking them for one another — all three instruments mentioned in the poem are designed to tear through and loosen the topsoil of a field — call to mind the subtle distinctions between classifications of writing. Often overlapping and borrowing techniques from one another, genres function as tools in a space of writing by laying down a series of general expectations. These expectations allow some questions to go unasked; some possibilities go unexplored.
To the extent that a tool is designed to perform a particular function, it restricts and calls for particular actions — there is a proper way to drive a harrow or to swing an axe. Overwhelmed by material, text, sensorial experience, and memory, genre can function as a filtering tool by which the excesses can be processed and sorted. And indeed it is almost through genre or choice of a tool that one may begin, literally, to handle that which overwhelms.
Moseman’s frequent use of two-column structures also functions as a filtering mechanism. However, in these, connection is made where the poem seeps across the right margins of the column to bleed into the other. A reader is always faced with the desire to read both columns at once, but due to the impossibility of doing so, must settle for reading each poem twice — once moving left to right across the margin of the columns and again reading down each column — as in “First Tools | Fairgrounds”:
2nd wave [1978
axe – the first tool we’re issued on site
then, a rusty file to sharpen our blade
steel on forged steel – a skinned knee
we stroke unidirectional to the edge
drought hills our brittle California gold
we whittle underbrush arbutus strung out
we whack all day & boys stalk our thighs
count out militia songs hurl insults
until we swing a labyris their way
cane – the first tool we’re issued at home
the one granddaddy broke to poke his bore
tap tap we girls with our champion gilts
move them slow in front of the judge slap
the jowls the front quarter bruising shows up
on white pigs on a Hampshire’s white stripe
that thin beauty queen sash on a shoulder
roast) future farmers we parade market hogs
for the joy of slop and being singled out (41)
Parallel descriptions come together here despite, or perhaps because of, the length of time between 1978 and 2004. Beginning with two tools, the lack of punctuation (other than several em dashes) suggests that one might read each column as distinct until the sixth line, which runs over into the right column. The way the smooth left margin is displaced by the interference of the first column indicates that the line might have merged or have been replaced. Even if reading across the margins had not occurred to us before, we must do so now, and it’s as if an unnerving echo has introduced itself into the poem. When reading across the columns, we’re faced with parallel sentence structures and a sense of call and response at once.
It is a slippery sense of relation and commonality which All Steel builds in this poem. Leaving this reader tantalized, the text constantly eludes — there is always the possibility of something else, something one’s missed. The complexity of the work as a whole, with organizational and classifying structures shaping on several levels, and its innovative use of titles, keeps me diving in again and again — if not to grasp, then to be within the moments of these poems again.
A review of Jennifer K. Dick’s ‘Circuits’
Jennifer K. Dick’s third collection of poems, Circuits, tells us on the title page that it is a “rereading/revisiting of George Johnson’s In the Palaces of Memory,” a 1993 work of popular science. But the result is not an analytical kind of poetry. Circuits is a reminiscence of Dick’s adolescence and early adulthood, when she was learning to be a scientist, a career path that she would give up for literature — which means that scientific conceits provide the awkward and heated language of first loves and first abuses: “‘You’re getting along with science,’ her lover claimed, faded, ‘You want touch’” (73).
Behind Circuits is the idea that obsessed Johnson when he was writing In the Palaces of Memory: “Whenever you read a book or have a conversation, the experience causes physical changes in your brain. In a matter of seconds, new circuits are formed, memories that can change forever the way you think about the world.” Circuits is not about biology. It’s not about the relationship between our daily selves and our cellular selves. Dick makes no distinction between the substrate (brain or chip) and the experience that’s supposed to be inscribed on it or by it or through it. Neurons and dendrites have the same status and even the same “size” as the people and dishware of our memories. Everything is outside the body, soaking up an emotional charge:
Tubes measuring crackers, white flour, keeping like she, turning back to the clotting of blood cells called dislike and smooth hook. Together change occurs — is increased. Erythrocytes evolved in their cafeteria counters where students didn’t feel hungry. […]
Later — into the world, the other door band-aided sobs outside. Who knew she’d dine in the institutional hall? Through the tiny capillary? […]
“The A-cell is not a solid 40-weight motor oil,” she would say. “Language came. Was.” But then, waiting outside, she wrestled to bandage the skeptic looks of silver forks. Spoons’ ability to change openings. (4)
So a capillary can be walked through, erythrocytes can be stacked on tables, and a door can be band-aided, spurned and sobbing. The elements of the body join our landscape, a landscape that is, in turn, continuous with our bodies. Every object, being sensitive, is capable of knowing and remembering. Dick is not trying for strict metaphors. She’s giving all causes, from little to big, from physical to psychological, from inanimate to animate, from AI to I, the same scale and putting them on the same plane:
A neuron’s nucleus is located … Or perhaps a whole true central, genuine, as in origin, middle banded by beginnings, begging synthesized to produce the proteins, receptors, all the baseball diamond backgrounds over beers, country lanes, over you. (35)
Dick brings science down from Platonic skies, so that its content can get rained on or sunburnt like the people who make it. Science is done by humans, is a game of patterns played by humans. It comes from and returns to the human body:
Lynch’s lab once and for all staring at LTP in the Toronto Sheraton concocting the demise of the rival. No one was ready for theories yet — still in the if-then premise of a bit of irony, the coup de grace which could end its only winning hypotheses, inference by inference climbing a tower to nowhere. “We could be wrong,” he said one afternoon. (29)
The “We could be wrong” is one of Dick’s motifs, in a book where motifs act like enzymes, provocatively. The more I read over Circuits, the more it seems like a series of clues for a puzzle that cannot be enunciated. Facts are accepted because of pride, convenience, and, most crucially, intoxication. “Lynch wrote: implications for being able to focus. Lie” (39). The Lynch speaking here is named after the real-life biologist Gary Lynch, author of Synapses, Circuits, and the Beginnings of Memory. He pops up in a few poems, often to warn us that “one of the terrible things [is] to be selective” (27). He’s something of the mad scientist, the one who understands the dark corners of method: you can’t look closely at A without ignoring B. You can’t master C without letting D go to pot. And once you have your facts, then what? On this point, Dick is skeptical of any logic except the organic. If facts are lived and breathed, full of retribution and lust, then so is the logic that gets us from one fact to another. Details and half-stories sprout out or cluster, and the connection between them is sometimes as thin as a fiber. Because the organic is almost never linear, but a net or mass of the vaguely linear, Circuits is replete with passages, portals, gateways, diners, highways, restaurants, hotels. In this world, we are driven recklessly by the people we meet along the way. That is, if Circuits has an organizing principle, it must be whomever we love at first sight:
“Why’d you choose now and not some other?” she asked, curled up candlelit by the tie-dyed, batiked wallcovers. In the first dead-head’s minivan, stoned, PCP-laced, fields pitched … More complex networks. “The synaptic frequency is graphed against the other, harder-to-analyze,” they explained. This live blonde, this lanky US Championship, everything I’d ever met. (13)
Circuits does not try to locate itself in one place or one time, because it’s never sure where it will go from one line to the next. But it’s quite sure of how an event will be said. The book has an almost overwhelming lyrical voice. With that much drive, however, the eye can pass over some of the best lines without appreciating the details that make them brilliant. I suggest that the reader move upwards as well as downwards, randomly as well as conventionally, and take none of the networking for granted. I have called Circuits a lyrical book. What I mean is that it assembles all data points within desire. Memory might be the subject, but desire is Circuit’s logic and sine qua non:
“Tell me,” I said, “why light, as in toward night, masters emblazoned zones, enchanting theorists? Did the singing end?” (48)
A review of Calvin Bedient’s ‘The Multiple’
Calvin Bedient’s fourth full-length volume of poetry, The Multiple, realizes the lines of multiplicity initiated by his previous three collections (Candy Necklace, 1997; The Violence of Morning, 2002; and Days of Unwilling, 2008). These earlier collections suggest the plurality of experience by gathering and juxtaposing snapshots of perspective to insinuate the whole. The Multiple takes this approach a step further by explicitly pointing its particular sampling of reality’s permutations toward the infinite outline of the unexcavated majority. The poems of The Multiple are as interested in communicating the negative space of what can’t be captured as they are in the positive space of what can. Bedient’s unwavering fix on the subjectivity of everything unleashes a “huffing accordion commotion” whose implied poetic production spreads well beyond the constraints of the physical book that delivers them. “Becoming’s a broken idea,” these poems insist (16).
Bedient frames his text as a series of fragments drawn from not one, but a choir of indefatigable epics, whose sample size has been limited to the standard length of a contemporary volume of poetry. Bedient’s distinctive poetic timbre permeates these poems, yet he maintains a stance that is distinctly more curatorial than authorial. Bedient positions himself as an archaeologist — or perhaps more accurately an astrobiologist — listening for “a palmful of memory-pollen” to reformulate “the lost chord innumerable in the dark / hubbub of the stars” (47, 67). Just as the presence of exoplanets can be inferred by the gravitational wobble they induce on the observable stars they orbit, the restricted space established in The Multiple resonates with implied systems of unseen verse and unrealized sequences.
Indeed, to describe this book as a “collection” of poetry is to underestimate the complex relationship between these poems and their poet. An anthology of reworked translations might be a more apt description of “this thing come into my heart / many centuries old” (13). By presenting himself as the conduit rather than the origin, Bedient further emphasizes the inevitability of missing elements — and the primacy of negative space. Bedient boldly declares his fixation on the overarching specificity of everything.
Bedient’s typographical choices reinforce this sense of universal expansion. One striking example is the use of nine different typefaces to present the titles of the forty poems that appear in the text. As The Multiple progresses, many of these typefaces are additionally filtered through a variety of fonts. These typographical signposts label a series of poetic systems and sub-systems that extend and overlap those already established by the book’s three asymmetrically weighted sections. While the most abundant typeface is used to title more than half of the book’s poems, others, including the typeface used for the body of the text, introduce only a single poem. As a result, there’s a distinct sense that many poems are missing here, if not entire groupings. What might otherwise read as typographical frivolity outlines a web of resonance that establishes each poem’s membership in a series of interleaved groupings, both observable and implied.
These phantom limbs further extend themselves by overlapping those systems already established in Bedient’s previous volumes. For readers familiar with any of these three works, The Multiple’s “discriminate/indiscriminate rain” (59) might become the “unitemized rain” of Candy Necklace; The Violence of Morning’s “arrhythmical mass writing of the rain”; and/or “the imperial redundancy of rain” from Days of Unwilling. In this way, each of Bedient’s earlier books becomes a potential recruit in realizing the implied fragments of The Multiple.
While the text is filled with the sorts of finite moments that define the human condition, The Multiple rarely stops to muse for long on any single moment in the multidimensional field of experience. Bedient relentlessly underscores that each of us is “W E T C H A L K, / several, probably, WET / CHALKS swimming together” (54). There is no single reading of the self, no need for prolonged introspection, because the construct of “I” is itself understood as a collection of systems. This interplay, this hybridization and amalgamation of perspective — historical, personal, artistic, scientific, and imagined — allows Bedient to name the expansive negative space that exists between the pages, poems, and lines of The Multiple.
“This thing this thing this thing this thing,” Bedient intones as he launches into the recursive routine that closes the book’s opening poem (13). There is no feasible way to name the infinite except through such logical machinery. Bedient happily embraces that limitation from the outset. To insinuate the gestalt of perspective that necessarily ricochets from a singular “I,” these poems strive to make themselves “electric with you, / with you, pronoun so sweet and burning” (81). The inevitable result of Bedient’s inclusive “you” is an endlessly equivocal “I.” When it’s a historical figure, we see ourselves. When it’s an abstraction, we see a community of lovers. When it presents itself as the author, we necessarily suspect fiction. We’re never quite sure who we are.
It isn’t that Bedient eschews personal experience. These poems are littered with the leavings of individual perspective, including some we’re encouraged to suspect might be the author’s own. Even as The Multiple declares poetry of the personal irrelevant, these poems rely on a communal, disjunct slurry of personal particulars as the only available raw material for communicating what Bedient describes as “an impossible totality”. This tension between relativistic gestalt and quantum-mechanical particulars is explicitly addressed in the self-contradicting dialogue of “There are as Many Universes as there are Phrases”:
I can’t stop to explain
every little thing
to you, I no longer
write about the personal,
my theme is the moment
— bottomless, self-
destroying — and anyway
the door of the trailer has
opened she steps down
like a long-legged bird
testing a thawing river,
watches me play,
smiles, turns away. (31)
We can’t know if the particulars on the trailer steps are drawn from the personal experience of the poem’s “I” or not, especially given the speaker’s initial assertion that there will be no personal anecdotes. The second stanza might be read as a contradiction of the purpose outlined in the first. Alternatively, the experiences of the “me” might be read as a distinct offering from an alternate first-person perspective. The “me” and “I” are analogous and autonomous, both self and other.
Throughout the text, this equivocality of perspective establishes smaller systems of internal overlap, which mirror the larger systems established between poems. The Multiple relies on this ongoing ars poetica of contradiction to conjure its expansive landscape of ambiguity. The layout of this poem — twin stanzas arranged in columns that read vertically even as they adhere horizontally — emphasizes that uncertainty. This is personal, but it isn’t anyone’s personal in particular. Or rather, it’s everyone’s personal.
Against this backdrop of all-embracing perspective, “The Gordon Stewart Northcott Murders of Boys in Wineville, California, 1928,” provides an unsettling moorage for the epic fragments that both precede and follow it. The poem, the most distinctly narrative in the text, presents the gruesome particulars of the Wineville Chicken Coop Murders not to shock, but to insist that the totality proposed by The Multiple be taken to its logical conclusion. The interchanging perspectives of both perpetrator and victim are filtered through the second person pronoun “you” by an unidentified, authorial “I.” Bedient’s unflinching amalgamation of this narrative with all other narratives, including his own, emphasizes the depth of the plurality for which he argues. You are innocent; you are culpable; you are Gordon Stewart.
The poem appears on page thirty-three, one third of the way into the text. This central placement allows the presence of the poem to be implied well before it arrives, though its full gravitational pull is only realized retroactively. Over the course of the first thirteen poems, tropes of birds, butchers, axes, and eggs set the stage for this outpouring of terror, violence, and unexpected empathy:
We are suspect men birds earth wrists cuffed
bent over the hood of evening (15)
O doctors of the butcher-shop, the finger-painting on your aprons is
the masterpiece in my chest, I ignore it, I am salty like (21)
It was there that the headless chicken ran, excited with the news,
while your father stood unmanned in the yard
holding the short red skirt of the ax. (22)
Like bees that crawl on an egg hot from a hen’s ass
(they do not know what’s inside
they will kill this thing hot from the hen’s ass), (24)
the wave-shovels cannot pick up the dead duck fucking waves hats off
to the dead duck (26)
The violence in these threads registers immediately, but because the hard-hitting motion of “Gordon Stewart” hasn’t yet arrived, that violence is still situated exclusively within and between the systems of these earlier poems. The butcher, the father holding the ax, and the destructive bees are all positioned within a community struggling to understand this violence as an aspect of itself. If this community feels at times as though it might teeter into the depths, it also tempers that violence with a measure of hopeful resistance.
Once the poem announces itself, this earlier imagery is suddenly rife with unwanted particulars. It’s impossible not to see the unfettered violence of Gordon Stewart nested everywhere within these poems, within ourselves. Rather than allow this realization to drag the text into abject despair, Bedient employs “Gordon Stewart” as a hinge that allows this process of insertion to continue in both directions as the text proceeds. In the second and third sections, these tropes continue to push forward and morph into new threads that reinform not only our understanding of Gordon Stewart, but also the perspectives that precede the poem. The Multiple insists we struggle to integrate even our most disturbing potentials into any understanding of reality we construct.
Like the typographical systems established in the poems’ titles, the new communities that develop in later sections overlap without erasing. In this way, the coop that contains both the chickens and eggs of the first section provides Bedient with the communal prefix “co-” that informs the tenor of the second and third sections:
the sun scratches the tulips out of the dirt
“co-“ that makes sense,
“and” is a sovereign good (50)
The violence of Gordon Stewart doesn’t disappear, but instead is reversed and reapportioned as the book progresses. Here, it’s the physical violence of the sun that coaxes organic bodies from the soil. This isn’t a different violence. It’s the same violence from a new perspective. This communal dissection of the word “coop” continues in the third section with another recursive routine that suggests the word’s resonance with its heteronym “co-op” by repeating it until it begins to dissolve into its component parts (65). It’s no coincidence that the title of the poem where this repetition occurs is the only other to share its typeface with “Gordon Stewart.”
Again and again, The Multiple takes hope and despair on equal footing, enveloping both in its ever-expanding collection of particulars. Bedient rejects the primacy — and authenticity — of individual perspective. These poems embrace community in its totality, violence and all. They argue that acknowledging this totality is the only way to initiate a shift in our relationship to that violence. By acknowledging our communal culpability, we inevitably acknowledge the possibility of our own humanity. The Multiple employs the unlikely figure of Gordon Stewart as a vehicle to demonstrate how such shifts might occur. The bloodied axes, butchers, dressed carcasses, and serial killers of the opening section eventually morph into the scents, breaths, and purrs of the unfettered body calling out for a more hopeful mixture of community and violence: “or why not a moan from far-off sea-sucking clouds? / Why not love?” (76).
4. Bedient, “A Brief Interview with Calvin Bedient,” by Rusty Morrison.