Reviews

Reading 'Iovis' in Bolinas

A review of Anne Waldman's ‘The Iovis Trilogy’

The Iovis Trilogy

The Iovis Trilogy

Anne Waldman

Coffee House Press 2012, 1013 pages, $40, ISBN 978-1-56689-255-1

In Bolinas, California, on a sunny late spring afternoon, four of us are sitting at a small round table set for tea. The table setting is unquestionably Joanne Kyger’s: woven bamboo mats trimmed smartly in black, small dishes of nuts, seeds, and cookies, a cheese board with a local cambozola, crackers, fruit, a small tray of spicy dried seaweed, delicate china plates and silverware tipped with arabesque, and everyone with their drink — some with chamomile tea in small jade-green cups, sparkling water in translucent blue glasses, white wine in stemware — around a centerpiece of pale purple Hydrangea and a few sprigs with tiny white flowers all fringed in broad, sphere-shaped leaves. We are passing around The Iovis Trilogy, because Joanne — who is always pulling book after book off a shelf or from a small table nearby and putting them into your hands one after the other, so that you place one book on the table to empty your hands to receive another book until the table is full of small heaps of books and in need of clearing — insists that one can not read Iovis alone, that it’s meant to be read aloud: “for it was her song, & / she always wanted to sing it / moving as she did among his waves” (213). Donald Guravich, Joanne’s companion of over thirty years, who so often serves as a verbal counterpoint to Joanne’s proclamations, emphatically agrees, and we, Eleni Stecopoulos and I, having just arrived from a quick picnic lunch at a windy Limantour Beach on Point Reyes National Seashore where a horse had rolled his huge, muscular body down onto the sand, and where children rolled and ran, and sand got in our hummus, we agree, too. We have all seen Anne Waldman’s ‘Socratic rap’ at Naropa University’s Summer Writing Program, have been at her elbow for some social occasions, have seen her perform her poems with and without musicians, and sharing a sense of her, we are all one in agreement on this point. This is an occasion to read Iovis aloud.

But this is not the only point Iovis brings us to. It is, instead, Joanne, a moment ago, pulling book and stool over from the periphery of the tea zone (and this looks like a significant struggle, to move this 1,013-page book and its stool only a few feet across the floor [when “the poet positions herself in the cosmos” it’s going to be big (7)]) so that it becomes, also, another seat at the table where the four of us sit. The point is that Joanne, insisting we now in turn read aloud, reveals that Iovis is not so much “meant” to be voiced as it requires it, demands it. This book must breathe, and our breath carries its words into the verbal open. “Because I’m so enthusiastic on this logopoeia” (829).

At this juncture, while the book and its stool are being dragged to the table, I quietly point out that I have been reading Iovis alone, and it’s not so much that I’m compelled to divulge this fact as that I am struck by this coincidence, so that it feels as though there is something in this moment directed specifically toward me, a current reader of Iovis, though one who failed to follow her own disciplined agenda, which was to read one section of Iovis as a daily meditation and to thus let it accumulate in me while jotting the notes that would become the review. Reading one twelve-or-so-page section is a considerable commitment (and it would be best to really live with it, to spend all day with each section rather than the morning hour or so my schedule afforded), and with each book (published consecutively in individual volumes by Coffee House Press in 1993, 1997, and 2012) containing about twenty-five sections (and weighing in at 300 or so pages), it would take three months (skipping a day here and there) to finish. In the process of reading Iovis, my notes themselves had become epic, because Iovis, being a work of an expansive mind and heart, at so many points sutures itself to our familiarly troubled world: “suffering suffering / what is it like / graphomania” (847).

“Iovis omnia plena” — “all is full of Jove” (2), all is “full of,” ruled by, the laws and social order laid down by the male god’s principle. Virgil’s phrase becomes the initiating emblem for patriarchy in Iovis, at once a personal epistle and a highly staged response to our time of military imperialism and myriad collateral damage:

what are we dying for?
58,000 of “our own”
did die, then died on them
did die them, then
& now?
       we die others, many thousands
they die on us
die on me (725).

With her roiling, roving, inquisitive, and accusatory words on our lips, Anne (we all refer to her as “Anne” as though she were here among us in her book) combats the masculine energy to which all of Iovis is a huge heave-ho. History is an unavoidable invocation “to take on the manifestations of patriarchy in writing, tracking, tracing, documenting” (xi) and, aided by “investigative travel” (xi), this project spans the globe. Iovis thus draws on and expands the modernist American epic — she cites “masters Williams, Pound, Zukofsky & Olson” (3) as precedents. And as for H.D.: the fact of her lone female predecessor is significant. It’s easy to recognize both Helen in Egypt and Iovis as acts of productive counterforce to the ideologies and imaginations that came to dominate the long poem tradition.

Above all, Iovis is Anne’s “narration of a time […], a way of being in the world” (xi). Opposite the title page we encounter a snapshot of the world Anne was born into: she is a buntinged baby on the knee of a uniformed soldier, her father; it is 1945. Her epic fully embraces this world, unflinchingly passing on the story of the tribe. But it is also passing on a family history (relatives’ letters are consulted, their memories plumbed), and this frontispiece image is echoed in the repeated references to her son, Ambrose Eyre Bye, to whom the trilogy is dedicated and who, as a small child growing into a young man, was her male-companion-spirit in writing Iovis, because the adult male story is of war and the boy-child’s is of the hope of reparation and she is between these stories, literally: “if she includes him he understands the world better, simple as that” (240). The photograph serves as a humanizing counter-image to the state of perpetual war and conflict that keeps her busy: “Here are your spoils little girl, little Annie. / Here are the spoils of war” (715). The poet’s life and its antecedents bump up against and break up and slide over one another like tectonic plates. Here is a hot, living poem.

Iovis challenges the generic boundaries of the masculine epic tradition, expands them as Anne inserts herself in it, writing a vast archive “to see how the woman poet-mind would fare and flow” (xi). Wrought through multiple formal propositions — chants, dream narratives, reportage, letters, lists, and rants — attacking from myriad angles and playing in voices, it rejects unilateral male energies and breaks open an insular American-centric vision: “Add[ing] other voices that inform and infuse a life” (xii). It proceeds episodically, but refuses to adhere to a linear temporal logic, instead pinning its “narrative” to sequential explorations of spaces, material and immaterial, through which meaning is made, inhabitance undertaken, in its epoch. It broaches the question of “what is ‘appropriate’ stuff for epic attention” (529) and even, in one of several instances of self-reflection through the lens of others, documents the front lines of this discussion in a letter from “K,” a student in a class on Olson taught by Robert Creeley, which reports on his dismissal of Iovis (Book I was then in print) as too “personal” to be an epic (370). As a conscientious citizen, “Anne-Who-Grasps-the-Broom-Tightly” (15) attempts to be fully aware in a time of innumerable social inequities and injuries. As a Buddhist, Anne compassionately responds. How can one (a woman) assertively be in the world and not take any of it personally?

As I’m sitting at Joanne’s table, I’m realizing that this visit for tea in Bolinas has unexpectedly offered an opportunity to rightly read Iovis, and no one is paying any mind to my tiny confession, drawn as we all are to the book (feeling the pull of the book pulled over to the table). And I do mean we are drawn as readers of Anne. And we are drawn, in this moment, by Joanne, into a community. Joanne opens the book by what logic I know not to Book III, somewhere in the middle of section XIX, “Matriot Acts,” in which Anne plays the legislative and theatric senses of “act” against each other. Somewhere near where I had put the book down a few weeks earlier (I had put the book down on section XIV, in fact, but the nearness is uncanny enough to reconfirm the notion that there is something in this moment directed specifically toward me), and passes it to Eleni on her right, and we begin reading aloud, first Eleni, then me, then Donald, then Joanne, reading a page and passing the tome to the right. We land down past these words — the solid zigzagging line down the middle of the page effects the sense of its having been torn in half and reunited:

                                                             \ She will write out a new creed for
the protection of all the animals / therein And the entire world &
the nations therein & the trees, \ the greenery, & so on therein” (901)

We land down past these words — and we run along with them. We listen inwardly, laugh, perform for each other and comment and hear through each other and this collaborative reading becomes consistent with, threads into and out of, our conversation, the one we were and are now having, sometimes as a group or broken into pairs or in threes (when hostess Joanne temporarily leaves the table), our words resonating, not always pointedly, with different stratum of Anne’s words — “When you think about it what are the stakes? The end of Nature, the end of civilization, a truly inhumane Dark Age if this keeps up on the horizon …”(918) — for someone had said she felt we were entering a new dark ages, and someone else responded that we’ve been there for a while.

The breadth of Iovis is huge, spanning a spectrum pegged down on one end by the prose that prefaces each individually titled section noting the events personal, national, and global that create the lived space-time of the text that follows. On the other end, not so much pegged down. The page is energetically inhabited anew through an array of textual strategies: prose in various forms, poetry stanzaic and idiosyncratically spaced, the whole range of typographic marks on your keyboard deployed in signification, hand-drawn images, photographs, and collages, are but few. Even within one section, the words are rendered through a shifting subjectivity: sometimes I, sometimes she, sometimes another; sometimes female, sometimes male, sometimes androgynous; sometimes pedestrian, sometimes psychotropical, sometimes theatrical, sometimes scholarly, sometimes prophetic, sometimes not-quite-nameable. Reading Iovis requires an act of faith. You have to trust not only the poet but your experience of your own moments of dark and light or uncertainty and clarity that the poem recalls or opens up in you. Take the imperfect alignment of prose summary and poetic text to announce that there can be no single lens onto this multiple, shape-shifting, knowledge-and-subterfuge-investigating text. She cannot “read” her own unfolding journey to provide a succinct summary — it remains an open text written by “an open system (woman) available to any words or sounds [she’s] informed by” (1).

Whatever the time/space consciousness a section springs from, the overall effect of Iovis is to make visible the previously covered-over or unimagined female heroics of deep inquiry, replete with all the critical and responsive mechanisms that could possibly entail. And it’s clear that the heroics of deep inquiry are those of listening: Anne delves into a wealth of histories and cultural materials and delivers up in Iovis multiple myths and daily lives, so that, for instance, we learn in detail aspects of Hindu texts and temple rituals in one section (“Because life is short / & suffering is infinite / we study the Texts / to keep a shine on our universe” [437]), while another explains Beat generation gender dynamics (in the form of a letter to one Jane Dancy), while another reports on acts of domestic terrorism, provides a ballistics lesson, and “call[s] upon the President of the United States to reassess the easy availability of guns” (365). Iovis is the multimodal poetic equivalent of a people’s history of the world, striving to reach back and through its many beginnings: “I come here trembling, to remember how we studied the past to understand the future. Remember?” (727). Says the book’s flyleaf: “Iovis goes beyond the old injunction ‘to include history’ — its effort is to change history.” Indeed. When we read together, we become community theatre, all creative potential. “You will be a community of eyes. And you will create the world in your heart” (329).

On the page that I read I encounter “Invoked here then, was a host of fluid active female principles in the imagination and psyche of public space” (918) — and I stop to comment on it, voicing my reviewer’s mind, that here we have an articulation of the very heart of Iovis, of what it is “about,” how it is driven by an ethic to publically act — to write, teach, investigate, enable, organize, demonstrate, document, and perform, often ceremoniously — to act as a counterforce in an age guided by war and seemingly bent on destruction. This Anne lives in how she conducts her life as academic program director and global emissary and poetic community member, and Iovis is bound up with that, a part of this cloth, is her daily experience and thoughts and readings and spiritual practice and travels, so that Iovis is, grandly, a millennial poetics, a guide to being a poet of this world now-as-it-is-and-got-to-be, offering lessons in mastering “weapons like articulate speech & poetry, beauty” (154) — and this, if you read even a small slice of Iovis, you find made in its pages.

We are lovely people for each other when we read Iovis together. We are forces of good together; we witness for each other and together what is and what may be imagined. Together we witness as Anne experiences and imagines, as she assembles and teaches and indeed it feels as though she has materialized among us when Joanne performs her page in Anne’s deep down voice and with Anne’s dramatic hand gestures. Then we have all read. We commend Joanne for her idea, and agree with her, it must be read communally. Donald says you can’t read it silently, it won’t come off the page, it has to be read aloud, it’s the fact of the book. He’s right, we’re all right in that moment, and I’ve been reading it all wrong, sitting alone, silently absorbing, as though I could be a giant sponge to it all, a critical sponge that can pull out pertinent passages to stud the review I imagine I am writing. It’s simply too much to take in alone. It’s a culture, it’s many cultures, it’s your culture with the face of the thunderbolt-bearing head-of-statesmen sky god Jove. And you’re in it, and you draw it into yourself, which is not advisable, you need the space of other voices to bear the burden, the way Anne needs Kali, goddess of time and change in her benevolent guise, to “resume a dark shape. Fade into the street, down the alley, be invisible. Be the small shadowy quiet thing you are” (919). As Donald read these sentences, I felt again as though there was something in that moment directed specifically toward me. But isn’t that the sign of a great epic work, that we feel articulated in and through it, and surely there is something for anyone on even one page of all of Iovis. With its energies animated on the breath of its readers, it is how we acknowledge, is our communal, public voice. At the heart of the epic Anne insists, “Community is ‘voice’” (2), and through her insistence (and Joanne’s) “one” is invoked into “we” through the words of Iovis. But that is not all. “This is everything, this is nothing, this is not a conclusion” (831). With its energies animated on the breath of its readers, it is how we make space and, how, most importantly, we, along with Anne, create a cultural document, “leave a trace so that poets of the future know we were not just slaughtering one another” (656).

Devisable matter & sheer overjoy

A review of Peter Richards’s ‘Helsinki’

Helsinki

Helsinki

Peter Richards

Action Books 2011, 97 pages, $16, ISBN 978-0-979-9755-9-2

Even though I might try to define Helsinki in Peter Richards’s latest collection of the same name, I don’t think it would be all that constructive an endeavor. It is, however, important to note that location is integral in that it is a reoccurring motif as well as the gesture of the book’s title. But when I say location, I hesitate to affirm the specificity that the word implies; rather, the locative forces that energize Helsinki do more to strip the idea of location of its specificity, transforming the lyric into a mode that sustains placelessness, a medium through which lush imagery and skewed perspective enact a state of being instead of a particular setting.

The poetry that populates Helsinki’s five sections does not have titles, only three addition symbols at the top of each page occupying the spaces where titles might go. Instead of the narrative suggested on the book’s back cover, we encounter the vestiges of narrative — phrases, words, and lines that haunt the space of the poems with their narrative signification, preying on the expectations of readers who want language to follow the same narrative patterns found elsewhere. This is no ordinary narrative; it is one that holds a funhouse mirror up to its own absence, distorting and distending where it would continue its usual causal relationships:

My own bad recollection landed me too much alive 
to the first signs of disintegration in a prairie in a baby 
metabolizing bees was the first sign my illness had presented 
the feminine smell of devisable matter and sheer overjoy

 

The opening lines to the ninth poem of section one exemplify the narrative haunting of which I speak. The lines have no punctuation and allow for a kind of reading that shapeshifts and morphs. We encounter verbs that denote a feeling of narration (“landed,” “presented”), but this feeling is subverted by the way the lines hinge upon a precariousness that gives the poems a sense of wonder. “Was” sets up this precariousness; we seesaw between readings: “in a prairie in a baby / metabolizing bees” is a way of reading that forces the “was” to dangle indefinitely, whereas “metabolizing bees was the first sign” is another reading, but one that jars the line’s causal relationship to “the feminine smell of devisable matter.” And yet these readings coexist, rendering much of our desire for sense-making irrelevant.

Further on in the same poem, we read, “all the flash clubs / in Helsinki had the foresight to be in Helsinki everywhere,” which, on the surface, has all the familiarities that encourage us to read briskly (the lack of punctuation adds to this tempting briskness). But when this second line is read on its own — “in Helsinki had the foresight to be in Helsinki everywhere” — we are presented with issues of language’s visual trickery. The ‘i’ of Helsinki slips away from its word and forces us to reckon with a shadow line that occupies the same space: “in Helskini [I] had the foresight to be in Helsinki everywhere.” This moment captures placelessness in real kind of way — the “I” is everywhere and, thus, nowhere in the sense that it is also hidden in words that contain it. 

Similarly, these poems contain beautiful lyric moments that seem to lift off the page just like the “I” separates from “Helsinki.” Take, for example this moment:

I think it must be cold so cold the cold outnumbers ice
From when the ice was young no tear has taken its place 
So it must live beyond the great doors of winter and sing 
As many flesh and blood songs as a frozen tear can sing

 

These beautiful lines arrive at the end of its poem, out of the memory-dreamscape of a “villa / my parents shared between them each room holding / a portrait of one of my parts.” While I would be inclined to suggest that these moments break the sustained tonality of Helsinki’s lyric mode, they operate with the same formal techniques as their surrounding lines creating a kind of netherworld where the lyric sustains its continuity as well as its breaks, giving everything equal resonance. Lines that precede or follow these lyric eruptions have the same feel to them, giving readers the odd sensation of being lifted out of the lyric space even when they are fully entrenched in it. 

Considering this feeling of entrenchment, it comes as a surprise to encounter lines that provide a key to Helsinki’s many folds: “I am afraid my body will not convey so / let us melt as two rocks of pink flake.” The anxiety that one’s body and thus, one’s language, cannot adequately convey experience is not in-and-of-itself surprising, but when it is contained within a text so concerned with sensation and image-making, one cannot help but look to all the shape-shifting and morphing in Helsinki as a kind of struggle to make the lyric an immediate, transformative experience just as our experiences in the world have the capacity to bypass mediating forces (e.g. language) to transform us in a very real way. Regardless of the way the lyric struggles for immediacy in Helsinki, what we read cannot escape what muddles our world — our words and our desire to make sense of things — and so we have the rocks of pink flake, which still retain the same collection of molecules even when rearranged into melted form.

The impression that one cannot escape what creates us — for humans, sensory experience, for the poem, language, etc. — is manifested in various ways in Helsinki. The series of three plus signs that exist in place of titles as I previously mentioned are an example of this impression, linking the pages in anonymity, fusing them together into one poem, the poem, that which stands in for the lyric as well as the vague state-of-being evoked by allusions to specificity vis-à-vis Helsinki. Additionally, the occasional appearance of “yes” as a tick of affirmation — as in, “some light study yes but also on occasion they’d go out / dressed up as brash Catalan characters” — is another manifestation of this impression, revealing a related anxiety, an anxiety about the nature of truth and whether it might be possible to convey. Truth may not be able to be conveyed, so what we have in its place are the images and sensations that give our lives some semblance of shape, which is to say, “it feels really good / just letting the waves make their own history.”

It also feels really good letting the waves of Helsinki wash over you. That Peter Richards is able to sustain the book’s rampant curiosity for ninety-plus pages is a gargantuan feat. And though I might not be able to identify where Helsinki is in Helsinki or what it means with any exactitude, I revel in its placelessness and am no less awed.

Literature's nuisance: (Riding) Jackson's memoir

A review of ‘The Person I Am: The Literary Memoirs of Laura (Riding) Jackson’

The Person I Am: The Literary Memoirs of Laura (Riding) Jackson, Volumes 1 and 2

The Person I Am: The Literary Memoirs of Laura (Riding) Jackson, Volumes 1 and 2

Eds. John Nolan and Carroll Ann Friedman

Trent Editions 2011, ISBN 9781842331439 (Volume 1); ISBN 9781842331446 (Volume 2)

Rarely do authors talk back to the literary apparatus — criticism, reviews, biographies —that builds up around their work. In the two-volume collection of Laura (Riding) Jackson’s “literary memoirs,” (Riding) Jackson does just that, while also providing new insights into her theories on literature, ethics, and the topic of memoir itself. As (Riding) Jackson wrote in 1984, she faced “a stream of published erroneous representations of myself, my thought, my writings” (2:229). In responses to her work and in accounts of her life, (Riding) Jackson has indeed been villianized, marginalized, and ignored. Many in academic and poetic scholarship (including myself) have attempted to reclaim (Riding) Jackson from these representations; adding to these recent scholarly attempts, The Person I Am offers a valuable, personal defense of the author and her work.

Rather than a complaint, a correction, or an autobiography, this collection is more, as (Riding) Jackson explains, an aid to understanding. Both volumes will be useful to those seeking additional knowledge about (Riding) Jackson’s philosophy and point of view. (Riding) Jackson put together the first volume herself; the second volume, which consists of essays, short pieces, and correspondence, was put together by the editors. The editors selected the title, explaining that (Riding) Jackson considered others, including “Praeterita” and “Later-Life Commentaries.” The term “memoir” here is somewhat awkward, as (Riding) Jackson and her editors acknowledge. The text includes several points of interest which broaden our knowledge of (Riding) Jackson’s biography — including new information about her relationships with figures such as Robert Graves and Geoffrey Phibbs, her participation in the Fugitives poetry group, her life in Wabasso, Florida, and her personal thoughts on a range of other artists, from filmmaker Len Lye to Sylvia Plath — but these volumes do not take the form of a typical autobiographical narrative.

(Riding) Jackson’s “literary memoirs,” in the spirit of her own devotion to etymology and linguistics, are more in line with the origins of the word “memoir” than with our contemporary understanding of memory-based personal autobiography. Older, more obsolete definitions trace “memoir” to “memorandum,” “note,” “record.” The Person I Am operates more as a collection of extended footnotes than as a tell-all life story. (Riding) Jackson documents her perspective, supplementing critical studies as well as giving us a theoretical guide to her writings. The result is a significant contribution to the expanding body of interpretations and reinterpretations of (Riding) Jackson’s consistently perplexing and often uncategorizable work.

Throughout the text, (Riding) Jackson conflates herself with her written work. She says “I have not known … a sense of writer-identity in separation from my sense of human-being identity” (1:177). (Riding) Jackson views both her life and writing as part of a moving “continuum” (1:17); she writes,

In trying to help those who have applied themselves in writing doctoral dissertations on my work, I have in each case, offered the recommendation: ‘Think of me as, generally, in movement.’ It is a kind of movement not for solitary attainment to points forward. I have proceeded, and proceed, in expectation of the necessary appearance of company at some point, or points; it is a spiritually natural human condition. I do nothing in my writer’s course inconsistent with what it befits us all spiritually to do, in being human. I have labored towards, I labor towards, our knowing, our knowing how to rightly tell, and truly live, our story. (1:190)

The Person I Am, in its refusal to accept existing accounts of (Riding) Jackson’s life and work, contributes to this ever-changing process. In layering new information and interpretation on top of scholarship, (Riding) Jackson does not allow her work to stagnate; instead, she participates in self-analysis and encourages readers to join her in this type of midrashic reading.

(Riding) Jackson’s carefully developed and defined belief in the role of literature and language conflicted with what she found when, as a younger poet, she encountered the “literary world.” She poses the “literary world” in opposition to what she calls “reality” or the “plain world.” She sees herself occupying this more “human,” “plain world.” In her introduction to the memoirs, she explains how her “way of being” led her into a “literary life-course,” but that her view of literature differed sharply from others in her time-period. She critiques the “literary world mentality” as ingrown, out of touch, and stifling: she writes,

In the special literary world, writers of natural-writer identity are exposed to various dangers of unacceptance or suspicious or hostile treatment, if they do not accommodate themselves to codes of autonomous literary-world legislation, and rituals of literary-world self-worship. (1:23)

(Riding) Jackson turns to the example of Robert Graves (with whom she had a working and romantic relationship) in order to illustrate her position and to distinguish herself and her writing from the selfish motives of the literary world. Much of the literary criticism and biography that (Riding) Jackson responds to in The Person I Am depict her as either subordinate to or smothering of Graves’s talent. She dismisses Graves’s intentions as self-interested and lacking seriousness, characterizing him as driven by “ambition to achieve importance in some field of activity” rather than committed to the sacrifices required of the truly devoted writer (1:210). In conveying her religious-like belief in language, (Riding) Jackson forces others to examine their commitment to writing and avoid distractions such as ambitious “self-worship” and literary-world “codes.” She questions the motives behind writing and the processes of criticism which can (unfairly) elevate or erase particular authors. These explanations both give new depth to her decision to renounce poetry and recharge debates about literary attention-getting.

To critics, (Riding) Jackson says, she is “a nuisance” (1:145): “my work has an effect of dampening, discouraging, literary interest in it because it asks no favors of good regard, and offers no congratulations for attention paid to it as manifesting sensible discretion and sagacity” (1:201). It is in fact her work’s demanding, unapologetic quality — and its continuing relevance to writers and readers — which provokes fascination and literary investigation.

A longer stay

A review of Stacy Doris's ‘Fledge: A Phenomenology of Spirit’

Fledge: A Phenomenology of Spirit

Fledge: A Phenomenology of Spirit

Stacy Doris

Nightboat Books 2012, 100 pages, $15.95, ISBN 193765804X

Media vita in Morta Sumus (In the midst of life we are in death). — Bobulus Noctar, 10th century

As with all last words or nearly last words, we are left wanting more. For, if we have known the writer and her work, we want to hear the words spoken in her own voice. We want more words, more books, a longer stay. We are left with Fledge: A Phenomenology of Spirit, the book Stacy Doris finished shortly before her death in January 2012 at the age of forty-nine. The project as any — but with the additional urgency of it being her last — asks the reader the fundamental questions — what state of being/mind preoccupied Stacy Doris composing this last book? Why these pressures enacted on the page to “braid us,” writer and reader, into the “rope of me by me” that is Stacy’s Fledge? As any mourner, I am left holding an object, an affront to my deeper desire for “more light” from this poet’s brilliant mind to range over decades more. I am left with previous and singularly inventive poetry projects, prose, translations, and pieces for sound and performance and her ultimate book, no means a summary of what preceded but as usual with Doris, playful and audacious, a private journey shared. Doris’s preface — her “take” on the project that has survived her, is her statement introducing Fledge. “This book,” she says, “stands for”:

a) “a close translation of Hegel’s Phenomenology of Spirit,” which one writer has called “a bildungsroman that follows the protagonist Spirit through a history of consciousness,”[1] phenomenology derived from the Greek “to appear.” Doris’s gaze is fluid and rapidly fluent, as if her spirit needs to locate a harbor on restless water: “So we bring them to cage / honeysuckle let slide / know itself more than we / know so we pulse at once / in and out while the dips / coax your mouth sealed and mine / chimes / prehensile, whole / curlicue-paved, sails on.” Fledge is a narrative of flux and change, action and reaction, a story of connection and love, and the body’s miraculous and sometimes terrible transfigurations in the transfiguring power of Doris’s mind/spirit. It is a human abstract with many possible points of attention, none of which comprise a single narrative but all that compose a story of presence fleeing from absence by small interventions and a large hope. The pursuit of stasis or change is as elusive as the story itself: what does one do as one lets go of life? In nearly every poem, one feels a grappling to impose language on inexplicable complexities of feeling, to address and implore others, to speak of the body and let it respond, a process filled with love, collusion, anger, silencing, befuddlement, wisdom and endless transformations of mind as Doris moves through the shadowy and sometimes dark regions of being toward non-being. Objects get taken up and discarded, transmigrated, identities changed. Movement and cessation of movement and blunt gestures append scattered parts and render them “prehensile,” “whole.” Rhythms truncate smooth progress leading to abrupt stops. Hinges are missing. Clarity is replaced by ambiguous gesture. Meaning scatters. A history of consciousness overflows as consciousness itself: cues and miscues, movement and delay, intervention and cessation: “What I hold in my hand / which is just now flies more / glad and yours veined to sky / call so when you leave / I miss but patch and bolt.” The rhythm of the book, its gorgeous play with the momentousness of small and obscure actions, is the form of “pure looking into” that defines phenomenology. It is at once the most natural and unnatural of acts to compose a text to bridge the rift between life and death. One thinks of the form of Fledge: its half-Alexandrine line without caesura since nothing can hold the tension of the project Doris attempts in one-syllable words that create sonic presence and a demand for strict attention.

b) “a mainly at arm’s length appropriation of some poems by Paul Celan.” Uncertainties are entertained and enjoined to appear in her songs and spells and conjurer’s art: “The mouse rag as much in / immediacy as / immediacy shreds / to mouse-rags …” Fledge is an homage to Celan’s own brave venture in language renewal.

c) “a log of disasters,” her personal journal of the plague year. As with all of Doris’s writing, even her disasters are infused with mirth and antic joy: “With my rag I play mouse / is stuck the mouse is stuck/down behind the armoire / I can’t get her mouse mouse / mouse ut-oh slid part through” … to the end of the poem, an invocation of love: “all must be hugged hard once / each rag particular / more than we undertow.” Disasters redeemed by Doris’s sense of play, her embracing, even as she is letting go, of all the rags of existence. Six syllables to a line measure loss and leave much untold, hesitancy in telling, lines enjambed often nearly unbalance the reader with so much movement and activity, so much letting go and holding and piecing together involved in both parts of the process: “… I try / to swing out through rock’s webs / and am caught, twist in there / now the fact of blue can’t / tow me, want, want a way.”

d) “A register of miracle”: the miracle of attentiveness is the book’s entire project, its way of exploring error and purpose: “Let’s get out of this skunk’s / house, out of this old noise” restored by such lines: “Since we break things to shreds / since we clip them and spit them / we tarnish awareness. / But since acts are all love / nothing stops our fingers.” The negotiation is in a currency foreign to us all, the poet most importantly, perplexed and inventive (“we paid it in grape coins”) — endlessly poised between breaking and repair as usual devices are discarded (“toss the blue fast up there”) and retrieved (“I undo the bloom / so you can change the nectar”). An economy of spirit animates the gestures and the many turns toward action. But what action can heal or instruct in such a register of miracle (“Our faces swell of love”) and disaster (“the rest’s a raft of noise”)? What is needed for this journey? It is as if we are reading a things-to-do list never adequate to the task of impossible transition or the metamorphoses of being, from self to other, from rag to mouse to horse to rag. Perhaps the conjurer’s art can delay or circumvent death, perhaps enough commands can be issued to stay in the game longer or dare not to: “I’ll walk off this huge plack / of lawn, why not? / Why if it’s to reach that why since / our braid roots obscenely, floods down the wonderment.”

e) “also this is a bunch of love poems of undying love”: as such, it is an instruction manual for those she loves to survive the leaving that her words cannot delay: “Lengthening / you grab all my colors / lengthening I let you,” “blueberry don’t you cry,” “Is to tell each / my way to hold me an- / other, if another”; and it is a book of gratitude, pain, and grace for those whom she held and have held her: “Hold my hand or / else I can’t walk,” “Without your hands I can’t / walk, so flung drops in drops / slow from wet wove kiss … / to laugh / face to face puzzling / solidity I bang / your head as merriment” “all must be hugged hard once / each rag particular / more than we undertow.” It is also a love letter to her young children, begun when they were learning to speak in the small words and playful and strange songs that provide Fledge its characteristic lexicon.

If a can rolls in wind 
We go songless or dull. 
We lose the can or rag

 To watch it roll in wind 
left repeating turned out

so that we know what
separates and may build
the afternoon in sips

The penultimate poem in Fledge is a stratagem for lingering by measuring in small doses, time lengthened by attention, each moment built upon its predecessor through nurturing social conventions that hold us in time, so that nothing gets lost. The loss described in the opening stanzas is one in which natural forces take hold of an object that a viewer observes without intervention. Lack of intervention is the cradle of loss and songlessness.

In the last poem the penultimate line invokes “this panoply of door.” The meanings of panoply include an impressive array or display, a protective covering or armor, something that covers and protects: the door to perception, the door to words used in the manner of all living to venture and dare and tear and break and recover is the panoply of techniques in Fledge. The door that protects is also the exit, and the marvel of the book is how Stacy Doris leads us through that door as well, we, her fledglings, ready for flight, but reluctant, as she, to take our leave.

 


 

1. Jean Hyppolite, Genesis and Structure of Hegels’s Phenomenology of Spirit, trans. Samiel Cherniak and John Heckman (Evanston, Illinois: Northwestern University Press, 1979), 11–12.

The snapshot poem

A review of Frances Chung’s ‘Crazy Melon’

Crazy Melon and Chinese Apple: The Poems of Frances Chung

Crazy Melon and Chinese Apple: The Poems of Frances Chung

edited by Walter K. Lew

Wesleyan University Press 2000, 189 pages, $17.95, ISBN 978-0-8195-6416-0

Photographs furnish evidence. — Susan Sontag

In Frances Chung’s posthumous collection of works, Crazy Melon and Chinese Apple, the first book[1] begins with a series of untitled poems. Several reviews following the publication of the collection describe these early poems as, at best, “compact and oddly moving,” or as whimsical poems that nevertheless lack “great virtuosity.” Yet these poems — which evoke the visceral immediacy of the snapshot photograph in subtly complex ways — provoke observations that capture much more than just “things” recorded by the “darting, naming eye.” The virtuosity of the snapshot lies within the contradiction of capturing quotidian, seemingly arbitrary encounters, which unravel structurally rich sociocultural meanings. Chung’s snapshot poems — dense, direct, brief — give way to questions of decoding what exactly is being described, of what Donna Haraway refers to as the "epistemologies of location, positioning, and situating, where partiality and not universality is the condition of being heard to make rational knowledge claims.”

* * *

In one of the opening untitled poems in Crazy Melon, the narrator describes Chinatown as captured through the camera lens of a tourist. We the readers are uncomfortably situated as tourist/viewer:

welcome to Chinatown ladies and gentlemen 
the place where you tourists come to look 
at the slanted eyes yellow skin scaling fish 
roast duck in the windows like a public hanging … 
oh look the cute Chinese children with they schoolbags 
hurry grab your camera to take a picture
next to a pagoda telephone booth
to show your grandchildren what you know …

 

Chinatown has long been imagined and represented in mainstream American culture as a place of deviance and difference. An ethnic enclave of crime and vice. A tourist destination defined by Buddhas, dragons and dumplings. When Walsh in Roman Polanski’s film noir classic Chinatown says, “Forget it Jake, it’s Chinatown,” he invokes Chinatown as a space of inexplicable bad luck. And as once described by San Francisco health officials at the turn of the century, Chinatown’s residents were “unscrupulous, lying and treacherous.” What Chung recalls, reconstructs in this poem, are the racial (and racist) discourses related to Chinatown vis-à-vis visual descriptors: “slanted eyes”; “yellow skin”; “scaling fish”; “roast duck”; and “pagoda telephone.” Each descriptor transforms into a synecdoche of Chinatown, becoming what Roland Barthes might describe as a symbolic objects in photographs. Their connotative meanings arise from the intersection of ideologies — in this case, a racialized ideology shaped by and shaping a systematic body of legislation, ideas and ideals pegging Chinatown as a place of exotic difference – and representation. What then is being captured in Chung’s opening invectives in Crazy Melon; what is captured in the snapshot frame?

In another introductory snapshot poem, the narrator gives a “scenic” description of a Saturday night in Chinatown:

The visitors do not hear 
you when you say excuse me. They are 
so busy taking in the wonders of Chinatown … They are 
busily looking for Buddhas and gifts to take home … 
There is a deficiency of Chinese couples … 
The irony reeks.

In this poem, “you” has shifted from tourist-consumer to the insider. You become enfolded into the scene as a pedestrian-participant whose worldview coincides with a “‘cross on the diagonal,’ … the laws governing the flow of traffic, across streets, and across ghettoes and ethnic communities.”[2] In this sense, the navigational routes and rules are different for you than for the tourist-consumer, as absence underlies the snapshot of neon lights: the streets noisily jammed with tourists eerily parallel the “deficiency of Chinese couples.” Here the narrator evokes questions related to this absence, which can largely be explained by the exclusionary legislative acts (1882, 1917, 1924, 1934) that banned Asian immigration during the nineteenth and much of the twentieth century. Absence—and persistent loneliness—becomes palpable as much as “Buddha,” “pagoda,” or “dumplings.” In another snapshot poem, the narrator again raises absence hand-in-hand with loneliness as a causal effect shaped by exclusionary immigration laws, as older Chinese men are  “seen in different parts of town / scanning windows. .  .waiting for a bus / tonight. Womanless.”

If Crazy Melon explores visibility and subject making through descriptive snapshot poems that deftly reframes visibility, Chung’s second and later collection, Chinese Apple, collapses the viewpoint of tourist/reader to that of speaker/insider. Throughout this second collection, the denotative defines the literacy of the image: that is, dumplings are no more than dumplings; Buddhas are Buddhas. Walter Lew alludes to this change vis-à-vis changes in poetic form and narrative strategy: “‘Chinese Apple,’ unlike ‘Crazy Melon,’ contains no prose poems or vignettes, and it could be suggested that this is one perhaps negative consequence of the manuscript being prepared for a conventional poetry competition.” If it has been argued that Chinese Apple displays a greater lyrical finesse than Crazy Melon, the tensions so deftly built within the snapshot poems in the first collection are somehow too easily alleviated into pleasant lyrical depictions in Chinese Apple. There is the danger, then, that ethnocentric descriptors in the second collection reproduce the same ethnographic desires that construct the tourist’s desire to “know” Chinatown through the snapshot image.

For example, like the initial untitled poem/invective that “invites” tourists into Chinatown, Chinese Apple’s “In Search of Chinese Madness,” also acts as an “invitation” to readers. What we get as reader/viewer is more or less a bucolic description of a world defined by “rosewood cabinets sandalwood fans / salty balls sea horses / the ladies on the tea tins / carry baskets of snow pears / meet their lovers by the gate / hear the music of the abacus beads.” In the poem, Chinatown is “open tonight” for “curry tart / shrimp dumplings.” The destabilizing of cultural rhetoric and stereotypes that the early snapshot poems achieves are, disappointingly, romanticized vis-a-vis a lyrical finesse. As in the elegiac elegance of ekphrasis poetry, lines like “the old women in homespun tam o’shanters / move through Tai Chi Chuan / elegant and timeless” freeze actions into essentialized motions;  there is nothing to be known or questioned outside of the picture frame.

By reading the two collections side by side, I was left to ruminate on their notable distinctions in poetic strategies, why the latter collection was more “well received” by poetry residencies, and the Romantics’ ideal that poetry was a literary form that could also define itself as a “criticism of life.” Although Chinese Apple might possess a lyrical expertise that has been said to be absent in Crazy Melon, I prefer the rich, abrupt ruptures of the snapshot “photographs” of Crazy Melon. As frames, these snapshot poems powerfully confront the complex contradiction and tensions centered on identity- making in a dynamic space such as Manhattan’s Chinatown. These initial poems are also moments of useful criticism, aimed at the social discourses that have simultaneously constructed Chinatown as “ghetto,” “ancient tenements” and “Chinese wonderland.” As visual descriptors, the snapshot instances in Crazy Melon are not so much voyeuristic as they are indictments.

 


 

1. The collection includes two separate manuscripts/books, Crazy Melon and Chinese Apple.

2. See Barbara Jane Reyes’s excellent essay on Crazy Melon and Chinese Apple.