A review of Gail Scott's 'The Obituary'
Gail Scott’s The Obituary occupies and animates the tantalizing space of the in-between. Between English and French, poetry and prose, lurid gutter noir and stylish Hitchcockian thriller, Scott’s novel (though it is in some sense an injustice to characterize it simply as a novel) inhabits these elusive gaps, experimenting at every turn with subjectivity, grammar, and the poetics of lapsus. Set in Montreal, The Obituary reflects the city’s gleeful heterogeneity — its negotiation of old, new, and postmodern, francophone, anglophone, allophone, and native cultures. The novel’s main protagonist, I/Rosine/Rosie is haunted by the latter and by the suppression of a secret history — her Métis origins — in her journey from rural Alberta to Montreal, Quebec and present-day Mile-End, a culturally diverse neighborhood at the heart of Montreal’s artistic community. Scott’s previous novels, especially Heroine (1987) and Main Brides (1993), are likewise about Montreal as signifier: neither European nor American nor conventionally Canadian, nestled on the fringes, happily bridging a French sensibility for the subtle and the erotic and a North American desire for openness — a metropolis that, like Scott’s writing, is polyvocal, swerving, and elegantly eclectic.
The particular vibrancy of Mile-End, with its working class history, bohemian aura, and quintessential architecture, is as much a character as it is a backdrop for The Obituary’s plot — an oblique murder mystery, for which the French term intrigue is, not accidentally, the mot juste. Scott presents us with a matrix of narrators, scenarios, histories, and dialects, all tinged with amorous conspiracy. We are made to inhabit the often voyeuristic perspectives of its many narrators — I/Rosine, who rides the bus through the city soaking up its “little conflagrations” (7); an anachronistic gendarme who obsessively tracks Rosine’s comings and goings; the multiple, ghostly voices of her mother, Veeera, Uncle Peeet, and Auntie Dill; MacBeth, the dubious neighborhood psychoanalyst; Face, the all-seeing visage behind the blinds at 4999 rue Settler-Nun (the triplex at the novel’s center); “I/th’fly,” a lascivious fly-on-the-wall, whose multilensed eyes probe when others would turn away; and the elusive Basement Bottom Historian, who “guards against overinterpretation” (10), often in the footnotes. From the outset, then, The Obituary asks us to immerse ourselves in a delightfully tangled sonic landscape whose silences and gaps are as telling as its declamations — a symphonic reading environment in which we loiter hoping to discern the “tale encrypted mid all these future comings + goings of parlour queens, telephone girls, leather divas, and Grandpa’s little split-tailed fis’” (6).
But it is Scott’s clever use of the triplex as architectural signifier, historical marker, and poetic space — “Is not landscape the supreme historian?” a narrator asks (42) — that ties these many threads together. The triplex at 4999 rue Setter-Nun (a fictional address) becomes the literal and figurative space of intrigue in The Obituary, a three-dimensional palimpsest that defines, even as it is defined by, the characters who inhabit its walls. As one of Scott’s narrators puts it, “If material conditions shape the spirit, we may empirically declare the Triplex the place where what is happening is the place” (16). Indeed, the three-dimensionality of the triplex, “awkward as 3-D set of Dial M for Murder” (18), is echoed in the structure of the novel, as layers of language accrue and it comes to resemble a relief sculpture — a surface we have chipped away at, but whose depths we have not quite set free. In this respect, its murder plot might be read as an intentional red herring. Solving the crime (or even determining of what the crime consists) is not nearly as important as the various ways of seeing/sleuthing enacted throughout the book, and the search for clues, i.e. the experience of Scott’s experimental style, is far more captivating than the brute information — the corpse — we eventually discover. A perfect example of The Obituary’s franglais sensibility, each errant “clou” we stumble upon — “Here is a clou in th’case.” (71) — is literally one more nail in the coffin. As readers, then, we peer through various portals — the doorways, the blinds, the “oeil de beouf” windows, and an entire section entitled “VENETIANS THAT EVEN PRIVATE EYES HAVE TROUBLE SLEUTHING” — all of which happily conceal as much as they reveal.
Yet, the novel’s experiments with the lure of language, its “slippy-slidey sentences, switching this way + that” (33), do not amount to wordplay for its own (beautiful) sake. Just as the Mile-End triplex encodes a history of its many renovations, The Obituary constantly revises its own story and method, “little by little revealing why we meandering in speaking” (33). This process of revision gestures toward a “future novel space” (24) that Scott portrays as a prosthesis for the past, a scarred signifier that takes the place of a history that was never written: the novel’s indigenous secret, its “Indig-nation” (56). In this way, the textures of everyday life and its intrigues, so expertly rendered through the eyes of Rosine and her cohort of narrators, are emblematic of the kinds of diagetic repression that allow her (and her family, her city, her nation) to not-quite-forget, for “Do not skyscrapers bear, deep within, straw huts? The person, her ancestors” (115)?
Ultimately, then, Scott’s novel performs the desire to uncover that which has been “nearly totally felt-pen redacted” (61), the crucial details — shards, flashes, and “scintillas” — that explain the present via the “past + its objects, as saying great Walter B” (116). Benjamin, who was an interlocutor in Scott’s My Paris (1999), appears in this novel as a ghostly reminder of these chance interactions between surface and depth and of what Benjamin calls our “tenden[cy] to deflect the imagination … back upon the primal past.” Scott’s Montreal, like Benjamin’s Paris, vibrates with our “collective pathos” (145), and The Obituary, in the process of writing that collective history, invents a new vernacular for its (and our own) hybridity.
Building is a Process / Light is an Element: Essays and Excursions for Myung Mi Kim
Andrew Rippeon and Michael Cross, editors
In my language of Tagalog, the word “dura” means spit. In this way, Myung Mi Kim’s Dura is potentially a circumstance of utterance as much as it risks the gesture of contempt as much as it attempts to manage one’s digestion as much as its perceptions clarify cultural practice as much as it risks the evanescence of spitting. Zhou Xiaojing’s essay “The Nomadic Poetics of Myung Mi Kim’s Dura” elaborates further on the word’s plasticity as it exists in the present:
“Dura” “is the name of a critically endangered language of Nepal, [and] of the ethnic group that historically spoke it” (Wikipedia Encyclopedia 2006). But the meaning and spelling of the word vary and multiply with geographical and historical differences, evoking “translinguistically” (Kim’s word 2007) the nomadic and rhizomatic movements of Dura. According to Standard College Dictionary, “dura,” or “durra,” is a variety of sorghum of southern Asia and northern Africa. It is also “spelled dhoora, dhourra, doura, dura,” and “called Guinea corn.” Another variation of its spelling is “durr,” or “dhura” in Arabic (1963). In addition, “dura” has yet another rhizomatic line of mutation: as [Josephine] Park notes, “dura” in Spanish is the adjective “hard,” which modifies “a feminine noun.” And in Western medicine, the phrase “dura mater” has evolved from the Latin “tough mother.” According to OED, “dura mater” refers to “the dense, tough, outermost membranous envelope of the brain and spinal cord.”
Movement created by the sensation of recession and advancement is at the heart of one’s pronominal constitutions. Kim’s poems are dwellings in constant states of contraction and expansion akin to breathing and, by extension, flesh out the responsibility of reading amid the plastic states of language on the page in the here and now.
Kim states the complexity of this dwelling in an interview with Yedda Morrison titled “Generosity as Method”: “I’m interested in augmenting or complicating that model of change by opposition, by friction, by overthrowing the law of the father, in order to embrace a model of radicalization that doesn’t solely rely on that kind of direct opposition.” In this way, Kim’s works also attempt to question my capacity to utter the aforementioned potential of “dura,” which makes inquiries on her work, published or otherwise, necessarily a part of her work.
A relentless refrain heard all throughout Building is a Process / Light is an Element: Essays and Excursions for Myung Mi Kim, edited by Michael Cross and Andrew Rippeon, comes from a line in Dura: “Propose: constant translation.” This proposal fills the book with those attempting to document their own impressions of Kim’s inquiries of, off, and on the page. By enacting this end on the page, Kim’s poems question the terms of their arrival in our reading:
Propose: constant translation. Propose: the
application of the compass to navigation. Propose: from
a settlement, a capital grows. Propose: foray, expansion.
Propose: as relates to an America. Propose: as relates
to immigrant. Propose: knowledge becomes the parlance
of the state. Propose: sound combinations. Propose:
The anaphoric repetition of “Propose:” creates an experience of motion rooted on the etymology of the word “propose” and the spatial movements it proposes inasmuch as it becomes an attempt to redefine the word “propose” in Dura. According to the OED, the Latin propositus “put or set forth” and Old French poser “to place” influence the word “propose.” One can read the first “proposal” in three ways: 1) a call to put forward or set in motion the act of constantly translating (or carrying across from the Latin translatus), 2) a redefinition of propose as “constant translation” and 3) an attempt to reconstitute the event of proposal in relation to the various spatial configurations the poem posits.
In Building is a Process / Light is an Element, Michael Cross, a coeditor of the book, states the struggle of the question in his essay “Becoming-Subject”:
As the opening volume in a long poem including both Commons (2002) and Penury (2009), Dura  signals a mode of listening that, most importantly, takes the diaphanous nature of legibility as its premise — that legibility must be practiced or maintained — that our whole bodies must listen, and, in turn, struggle to respond.
Yet, what is at stake in this struggle? And, how is this struggle not merely a way to postpone a writer’s responsibility to make legible the circumstances and conditions of our dwelling today? These conditions of legibility are discussed in Maryanne Wolf’s book Proust and the Squid: The Story and Science of the Reading Brain:
We were never born to read. Human beings invented reading only a few thousand years ago. And with this invention, we rearranged the very organization of our brain, which in turn expanded the ways we were able to think, which altered the intellectual evolution of our species. Reading is one of the single most remarkable inventions in history; the ability to record history is one of its consequences. Our ancestors’ invention could come about only because of the human brain’s extraordinary ability to make new connections among its existing structures, a process made possible by the brain’s ability to be shaped by experience. The plasticity at the heart of the brain’s design forms the basis for much of who we are, and who we might become.
At the same time, Walter Benjamin states the following in the seventh thesis from his essay “Theses on the Philosophy of History”: “The nature of this sadness stands out more clearly if one asks with whom the adherents of historicism actually empathize. The answer is inevitable: with the victor.” We were never born to read, yet the reading and justification of history is inextricably woven into the violence in history. The interaction between the page and our pagelessness has informed our sense of humanity as much as it has been used to violently revise it.
The struggle to respond to Kim’s work is a circumstance of how her work attempts to enact and resist this interaction. It attempts to recognize the ways in which we as readers are already implicated in these processes inasmuch as there is a belief in the capacity of reading to affect these processes. Her poetry is a circumstance of rendering legible the implications of her being a Korean-American who participates in the revolving door of language as it pertains to history. The proposal for constant translation becomes a form of attuning the selfsame movement that diaspora creates on the page and, by extension, its interrogation of history inasmuch as it can also be observed in pedagogy. Kim’s interrogation is one that implicates itself by the fact of its taking place on the page and the weight of history inextricably woven into the page. In this way, the act of reading her poems is in constant motion as it enacts and interrogates history thereby changing the conditions of the reading inasmuch as her work interrogates the terms in which we as readers are historical. This can be seen in her poem “311” from Commons:
Hours whose length varied with seasons
Hours held by mechanical clock
An abstract metric to gauge daily time
Compendium to dispersals of currency
Farm and factory, bank and municipality
travel . athwart
What would identify the speakers of the idiom
The conditions of our historicity begin with the way we participate in rendering time legible. The poem “311” belongs to the section “Lamenta,” where enumerated poems unfold chronologically albeit fragmented while interspersed with poems composed of historical accounts of dissection all titled “Vocalise.” Between the numbered poems and the “Vocalise” poems, the logic of the number to create value as it is vocalized is consistently present.
The poem’s first two lines engage with the development of time harnessed from the seasons and inevitably constituted as technology (i.e. “mechanical clock”) to manifest repetition that is similarly enacted in the repetition of “Hours” on the left margin. These repetitions are understood as abstract in the third line once hours are translated from designating the passing of seasons to numerical repetition in the mechanical clock’s organization of a day. The figurative use of “compendium” in the fourth line highlights the relationship of valuation created numerically with the clock and currency, yet it is also a way to address the legibility of the two in relation to the pagination of the book.
These inquiries in value are explicitly addressed in the development of spatial centers that harness and manage the relationship between clock and currency in the fifth and sixth line. Here, measurement (i.e. work hours of “farm and factory” and money of “bank and municipality”) implicates space by creating its mobility within the frames of measurement’s fluency. The poem ends with the question and explanation of fluency created by these mutations in measurement through time. These abstract metrics become fluencies that become idioms that are vocalized in order to create the enclosures of historicity.
We were never born to read, yet these movements and inquiries on legibility serve “To mobilize the notion of our responsibility to one another in social space,” which is the last line from Commons. The capacity to think through the responsibility of reading is inextricably woven into Kim’s vocation as a teacher. Andrew Rippeon, the other coeditor of the book, observes this practice in his essay “‘Once we leave a place is it there’: Radical Pedagogy”:
To say Myung’s practice is radically pedagogical, then, is to say that it wants to make the primary scene of pedagogy — that dislocation of the plural subject by positioning it in a spatial-temporal interval, rather than at a particular location and time — the very place to which we’re being taken, the very matter of the way we’ve set out upon: “A time of writing as a time of reception. Relativizing” (Spelt, np). The epistolary Spelt, with Susan Gevirtz, is one example, in more ways than one, of this bringing of the interval to itself. Writing as on the way to each other. Writing as the ground upon which each sets out with the other. Writing as on the way to itself … In such a gesture as Spelt is in its entirety, the writing becomes the paidagogos: plural, restive, led and leading, facilitator of later transformations for other subjects.
Rippeon’s theoretical engagement with Kim’s pedagogy continues Kim’s proposal for constant translation as much as accounts of Kim’s pedagogy are encountered time and time again in Building is a Process / Light is an Element, especially Zack Finch’s account from his essay “Among Passages: Studying with Myung Mi Kim”:
Myung offered her own metaphor on that first day of class: what if we modeled our meetings in terms of the studio rather than the workshop? ... Whereas only one activity takes place in a workshop, devoted strictly to production, a studio is a space where an artist works, studies, eats, sleeps, and idles. It’s also a place where one welcomes friends and visitors every so often for a studio visit. Entering into that space, one often finds the margins to be just as interesting and informative as whatever’s being framed as “the work.” Every fragment, every clipping, every piece of kindling speaks of a world of material potential, a practice very much in progress.
Kim proposes the form of this potential at the beginning of her work “Fell (for six multilingual voices)” from Penury:
: | Measure streets by the number of uniforms
: | It’s the pitch of the cry that carries
: | Hunger noise thirst noise fear noise
: | Inside acts conducted outside
: | Decades of continuous drought
: | Weapon and deed
Each multilingual voice posits a pattern that vocalizes the space it disperses. The private and public, through the process of their interactions, create a dwelling as the aforementioned model of radicalization observed in the reorientation of the workshop to the studio. Here, dwelling is manifested as pedagogical practice, where one’s thinking in the present progressive is the space in which others can reside.
From the streets and uniforms as echoes of the public it aims to account for in the first voice to the valences of noise sounded out by the demands of the body (i.e. hunger, thirst, and fear) that harmonizes with “Inside acts conducted outside” in the third and fourth voice to forms of technology that impose voice (i.e. weapon) and space (i.e. deed) in the sixth voice, every line renders a sensation of recession and advancement in the revolving door of language framed by the potentiality of multilingual voices. This sensation, much like my experience of the word “dura,” the book Dura and the utterances in Kim’s oeuvre renders the word legible the moment it disperses and is carried.
3. Michael Cross, “Becoming-Subject in Myung Mi Kim’s Dura,” in Building is a Process / Light is an Element: Essays and Excursions for Myung Mi Kim, ed. Michael Cross and Andrew Rippeon (New York: P-Queue/Queue Books, 2008), 119.
The spiritual materials of Hank Lazer and giovanni singleton
Hank Lazer’s most recent collection, N18 (complete), and giovanni singleton’s first collection of poetry, Ascension, deploy similar formal strategies to remind us of an old truth: the bone of spirit means just that, the inseparability of the spiritual from the material. Lazer uses handwritten shapewriting as a kind of “first tool” to meditate on song, knowledge, and being in relation to the quest for transcendence embodied in his ongoing projects. singleton frames her more normative meditative lyricism with shapewritten (non-standard) typographical differences. Moreover, singleton’s book title, an allusion to a John Coltrane composition, might very well describe the strategic turns and twists of N18 as a kind of Nocturnes 18 — serpentine handwriting as night music (and an allusion to the name of the poetry journal singleton edits) that points toward what hovers “above” or “beyond” while Days, a previous Lazer book, could serve as the alternate title of “Eye of the Behearer,” a section of singelton’s book composed in honor of the forty-nine day passage of Alice Coltrane’s soul into eternity. In citing an earlier Lazer publication as well as singleton’s magazine Nocturnes, I am suggesting that the paths of these two poets have long been intertwined even if they do not know it (or each other’s work). I refer here not to their metaphysical ruminations — we could cite everyone from Nathaniel Mackey to Elizabeth Robinson, Noah Eli Gordon to Fanny Howe, on that score — but rather to the specific procedural methods both poets deploy as gestures toward the ineffable.
N18 (complete) is the latest incarnation of Hank Lazer’s work as a series of Benjaminesque dreambooks: allusions to, and quotations from, Levinas, Heidegger, et al. dominate the text (qualitatively if not quantitatively). The Nietzschean-Heideggerean subtexts offset each other rather well, the former’s humor and hubris compensating for the latter’s solemnity, though as absorbed and refigured through Lazer’s writing, these serpentine citations still make for some fairly “serious” reading. On the other hand, the spare, fierce lyricism of Ascension, harmonizing with the late music of Coltrane, has the effect of the epigram and aphorism, though without the despair underlying, say, Pascal. As for “content,” the differences are stark enough. The cultural contexts of singleton’s work — in general, what do “we” do in the wake (in every sense of the word) of the Black Arts Movement and its “political” wing, the radical Black Power movement — grounds her work in a specific culture and epoch even as it attempts, ambivalently, to go beyond the last century’s very real social and political possibilities, however much compromised, internally, by sloganeering and posturing. By comparison, as its apotheosis of shapewriting implies, N18 is both more iconoclastic and “universal” inasmuch as the Big Topics — “the downpour of holiness goes by the name each instant is miraculous the …” (21) — processed through Oulipo proceduralism, explicitly inform its trajectory. Still, each book, in its own way, seems to presuppose an impasse — spiritual and political, metaphysical and materialistic — that is both specific to our epoch and, possibly, a general condition of human existence. In that sense, as Elizabeth Robinson notes in her Rain Taxi review of singleton’s book, Ascension must be understood, pace its title, as a refusal of verticality and its hierarchical implications.
In that spirit, Ascension opens with a mandala entitled “The Odds,” essentially a spiraling series of hedged bets — “read the leaves roll the dice shuffle the cards lay the runes write some poems and pray pray pray” (3) — and closes in “silence” with “Eye of the Be/Holder,” an abbreviated journey toward (Buddhist) self-abnegation (the three movements of the poem are “I,” “I,” and “.”), that “final” period a nano-mandala purified of language. Between “The Odds” and “Eye of the Be/Holder” three serial poems challenge verticality even though they, as more or less normative poems written in English, invite left-right, top-bottom, reading practices. “Eye of the Behearer” and “Melanin Suite,” comprised, respectively, of forty-nine and nine movements, link the bardo of Alice Coltrane’s soul to the dialectics of negrophobia (e.g., Jim Crow) and negrophilia (e.g., the Black Arts Movement). Singleton imagines this “argument” regarding the “negro” transcended by the spiritual flights in “Exodus” (“this earthen soul, a flock / of birds // where we are new / we are new / we are new to this body”) (62), a poem situated between “Eye of the Behearer” and “Melanin Suite.” The thesis-antithesis-synthesis structure, traditionally represented by the pyramid (replicated in “Day 45” of “Eye of the Behearer” as a triangle comprised of the repeated sentence “The World Is Round” — thematizing the mandala — and punctuated at its heart by the tag “Ain’t it”), is echoed by the last poem in “Melanin Suite,” an acrostic tribute to ecumenism that spells out Alice Coltrane’s name, the first letter of which represents both pyramid and triangle: “vedAntic / tempLe prayers / tambourInes and / hallelujah Claps for/Krishna, GanEsha, Shiva” (75). Unlike the normative wordprocessed fonts of the bulk of “Eye of the Behearer” and “Melanin Suite,” both “Exodus” and the acrostic are reprints of pages typed on a “broken” typewriter (the right column of “Exodus” is a handwritten series of Greek letters). These typographical irregularities mimic handwriting, suggesting that, for singleton, the “moments” of transcendence can only appear, from the perspective of the world, as apotheoses of iconoclasm.
In N18, Lazer accepts the apotheosis of iconoclasm, of handwritten shapewriting. In our historical moment, such a gesture can be understood as both pre-and post-conceptual, pre- and post-flarf, even though it approaches the former’s solemnity more than it does the latter’s humor. The tension Lazer enacts here is largely (though not only) formal: a personal hand writing its way through largely Western philosophical and theological arguments, ideas and values. Though Lazer’s “own” thoughts are given more than their due here, neither his ideas nor his procedures reverse the text-marginalia relationship; rather, N18 emphasizes the ideational (rather than the sensory) level of citation in general. The centrality of the a priori text — here, as direct quotations — and its authoritative potency is only partially mitigated by Lazer’s handwritten shapewriting since his ideas bear the traces of his predecessors. For example, the page dated 10/16/10 is comprised of two quotations in the shape of mandalas linked by two lines of “original” writing: “pay attention pay attention to what / what exactly it is that calls us into attention.” Echoing singleton’s “pray pray pray,” this page of writing has the shape of a quarter note, not the first or last time Lazer (like singleton) links the possibility of transcendence to music (cf. Days). Despite their mutual valorization of the uppermost limits, the Heideggerean-Levinasean undertones in N18 pigeonhole Lazer as the prototypical scholar-academic poet. Of course, to put it that way only reinscribes what N18 (as well as some of Lazer’s previous books) is at pains to dispel: the Romantic notion of originality as the aesthetic value par excellence of poetry. Indeed, what marks Lazer’s writing is its insistence on playing with the tradition, somewhat along the lines of jazz improvisations of popular tunes: “on the bridge to sing with the sound of what passes by / this way / his way / the play // of sway machinery” (37). In that sense, Lazer’s handwritten shapewriting is not teleological or, if it is, if it does tend toward the answer or the truth, it insists on dancing down the many roads already traveled. That traditional, if ecumenical, impulse also links N18 to Ascension. Still, if N18 is more scholarly, more academic, than Ascension, Lazer’s apparent aversion to titles — the book is one long poem — and narrative makes it even more serial, more radical, than the poems that comprise singleton’s book. Or does it? After all, a few of the pages of N18 are dated. At any rate, Lazer’s writing, largely shorn of the lyricism that informs Ascension, can be read as a critical “commentary” on singleton’s work. And need I add that Ascension can be understood as marking the limits of the sweeping grandeur that shadows N18?
1. Do dates of composition function as titles? Put another way, does the shift from thematic or structural markers — the usual function of titles — to temporal ones reduce the normal stop-and-go reading process? Is the difference between a title of letters and one of numbers merely the difference between red stop and yellow slow down signs? And in the context of reading practices in our age, what is the significance of the fact that Ascension asks us to occasionally “stop” while N18 (complete) “merely” asks us to slow down?
A review of Noel Black’s ‘Uselysses’
In the Proverbs of Hell, William Blake stated that “Exuberance is Beauty.” In Uselysses, poet Noel Black unravels each word in Blake’s proverb: the beauty, the exuberance, and especially the is. In this unraveling, Black’s poems find nothing too sacred or too mundane. Here, exuberance and beauty are abundant givens (take titles like “Ballad of the Homeopathic Pony” and “Huckleberry Finnegan’s Wake”), but it’s the poet’s subtle inquiry into being — the ontological ground we’re standing on — that drives these poems, and their reader, forward into new terrain. Uselysses candidly traces a journey through space and time, from rural Colorado to New York City and back to the poet’s very birth. Along the way, it manages to ask the most daunting questions about who we are and why we’re here in terms that are simple, funny, and full of a singular voice. The result is a pursuit as heroic as the book’s title suggests.
One of the first things to notice about Black’s work is the valence of the epic lyric merged with that of the delightfully banal. “I wish I had time to work / on my zombie novel / down at the Dunkin’ Donuts / all day long,” ends “In the Manner of Gerard Manley Hopkins, Sort Of,” the first poem in the book. The mind that occupies these poems delights in the full spectrum of its experiences and desires, often tied in with playful idioms: Dunkin’ Donuts, Dr. Pepper, the poet’s son calling the Beach Boys “The Beach Brothers.” The tendency toward play coalesces early in the book with “8 Dead Poets,” a series of tombstone-sized poems that disclose the deaths of canonical poets (Whitman, Dickinson, Shelly …) in their own diction:
“If I had my way I’d go on & on
and never go to sleep,”
said Frank O’Hara just hours before
he got hit by a Jeep. (19)
All eight of these literary giants influence Black in ways that emerge throughout the book. Here, he honors them by building them a new kind of pedestal, one that includes both their genius and their mortality. I can’t help but think it’s what each of them would have wanted. Black’s use of puns and rhymes (“Sylvia Plath / turned on the gath”) makes this poem as memorable as the works its subjects wrote. The section of the book titled “Moby K. Dick” expands on this project by combining the titles and styles of seemingly-disparate works of literature. I laughed aloud at “Miss Lonelyhearts of Darkness” and “The Spy Who Came in from the Cold Blood,” and there’s a beating heart behind the obvious wittiness, evidence of the deepest kind of admiration.
These homages represent a meeting between the book’s main themes: the personal versus the universal, the major versus the minor, what makes a life meaningful — and a death. Seen as a sort of Venn diagram, Uselysses overlaps the sphere of the quotidian with the sphere of the great cosmos, what Charles Simic calls “the secular divine”; the place of intersection manifests as both reverence and humor. There’s a human dialogue with poets of yore who also dealt, coincidentally, with this same intersection.
Like Whitman, Black revels in his multitudes. Despite the simplicity of the poet-narrator’s desires — adventure, comfort, fast food — these poems spring from a complex identity. Many of the poems in the book seem to begin with unremarkable events in the poet’s life, which then set off chains of thought and feeling leading toward something much larger. “‘The Truth Is Right Here,’ / says the little plastic box of tea tree toothpicks,” begins one poem, before carefully investigating why Truth and toothpicks should occur within the same ordinary thing. A few pages later, “Another Poem” starts with “The mysteries of the universe are contained / in a single varicose vein.” Many of the poems in Uselysses that deal with the ordinary and the divine — and the lack of difference therein — were written during Black’s time living in New York City, far in every sense from his native Colorado. Take “Poem on My 36th Birthday”:
I wonder if I ride my bike through Brooklyn fast enough
if the particles of Walt Whitman
would smash into my face
revealing the mysteries of the universe,
which means what — one singing or one seeing? (45)
There’s a dense, searching quality to the New York poems, noticeably shrugged off once Black and his family return to Colorado. Places and travel are significant to this work — San Francisco, Bogota, Crete, Oklahoma. A necessary tension among urban, suburban and rural environs yields some of the most interesting material in the book. Places have particular and almost totemic character that colors everything that happens within them. This character comes across effortlessly. “You’ll take [Ron Padgett] to buy a bowl of potato soup at the Safeway where you learned to shoplift …” stands alongside “You’ll get flashed by a wanker in a park outside Ephesus.” The care taken with places and events confirms a sense of awe at the very fact that we are here on Earth, sharing our lives in the present.
Having lost his father to AIDS, Black makes no secret of his own intimate experience with cosmic impermanence. The generosity around sharing this experience opens up the reader’s awareness of her own most meaningful experiences. Uselysses concludes with a long poem, “Prophecies for the Past,” a series of lushly-wrought “predictions” about what will happen to the poet over the course of his life. Autobiographical details range here from pathetic to outrageous to dazzlingly tender. Throughout the book, Black directly acknowledges the immediate forebears of his poetics — Padgett, Schuyler, Kyger — but it’s the spirit of Joe Brainard that this poem owes its life to. Far from a simple imitation, this reenvisioning of I Remember proves what a wild journey a single human life can be.
Uselysses touches a wide spectrum of sincere feeling, although perhaps the image of a spectrum is too linear. In reading, expect to enter a whole field of feeling, a palpable space, where arousal and boredom interact freely humor and tenderness. Expect to remember what it is to be friends with the dead, friends with the living, and ultimately, joyfully curious about being here at all.
A review of Anne Waldman's ‘The Iovis Trilogy’
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
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” ), 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).