Reviews

Transitionary framings, a case

A review of Geoffrey Gatza’s ‘House of Forgetting’

House of Forgetting

House of Forgetting

Geoffrey Gatza

BlazeVOX [books] 2012, 38 pages, free at scribd.com, ISBN 978-1-60964-099-6

For readers of Gatza who have already come to expect the unexpected; for those fascinated with emerging innovation in book-structured polygraphies, then House of Forgetting is yet another contribution to what is becoming a prodigious oeuvre. For those who have come recently to poetry and poetics, or desire a greater understanding of Intermedia poetry, House of Forgetting offers an attractive entrée.

While there is a “heart” to House of Forgetting (human figures with human concerns) and an ekphrastic narrative (the death of a beautiful woman/gifted revenant), there are also elements of language-image that transform temporal and human identity. Such transformations themselves form book “frames”; generate a hypertextuality, (“of moving frame to frame”) as Charles Bernstein notes; an alternative to the perceptual limitations of “frame fixation” and “frame lock.” Such transformations seem to invite the display of “an art of transition through and among [interpretative] frames.”[1]

The idea of elastic, transitionary frames in which material assumes the provisional form of the book is as true of this collection as it is of Gatza’s other work: the five seasons of rewoven myth in Black Diamond Golden Boy Takes Bull By Horns; the hagiography of saints and celebs among word images (coinages consisting of gray-scale mutations and other unique treatments), seemingly aleatory and unrelated, found in Secrets of my Prison House, and the most notable of these may be Kenmore: Poem Unlimited, that four-volume satire on American suburbia, a pataphoric world risen on a foundation of assumptions, fantastic as they are amusing, revealing angles of cultural significance.

House of Forgetting consists of two temporal frames: each interacts with the other in transfiguring human form and identity. The first is “The Twelve-Hour Transformation of Clare,” a woman who morphs into words, and the second section, “Recipe for Water,” is that of an artist who is drawing his wife’s portrait while she is in her deathbed, beginning “Now,” going into the past (“17 Days Ago,” “Last Saturday,” and fragments with similar titles) to conclude with “Five Years From Now” told in the voice of cultural assumption: a radio announcer. The “artist” becomes a reported figure; the “subject,” a fictional image no less real than the figure it re-presents. These are not pairs, but multiples. Their reappearance in alternative contexts suggests, rather strongly, an operative multeity of figures, an ongoing dance with interchangeable partners.

Clare (“after Clare of Assisi,” 26) is, at noon, the “last day of January twenty twelve … staring in her v[s]anity mirror” (12), and the other face she sees becomes, six hours later, the notable American painter and poet Dorothea Tanning,[2] who died on the day the poem begins. Clare is transformed by newsprint, by Tanning’s obituary, and the features attributed to Tanning are hers also:

Her dark hair is a tangled thicket of possibility (20)

This thicket may be seen not only in her hair, but the folds of her dress, like roots, primal, exposed, and tangled, the cover image equivalent of what we find of “her” in

music peace, words, and resistance (26–27).

By “Midnight” (the concluding poem to the first section), Clare has morphed into Tanning, but leaves, in the last line, this disclosure:

Your face was an illusion that lingers still, bless you my darling angle (28)

The subject of the sacred angel of perspective occurs again in the recollection of the artist-announcer’s wife in Recipe of Water. On “Our third date” his wife claims that “When I dance for them they see an angle” (32). By this association, the three women — Clare, Tanning, and the artist’s wife — speak for the presentation of their own emergence as shapes of sense; art is technique.

The cluster of surreal images that morph into others, changing perspective in a continual pattern throughout House of Forgetting, absorbs the factorialization of time as it appears (often comically and ironically) in the fragment titles; assumes the space occupied by predication, the syntax of tense, and the insanity of grief derived from thinking in linear time.

Perspective is both subject and result of the surreal shuffle; images that float, collide, attach themselves to others until we experience the reality of continual interchangeability in an atmosphere of the metatemporal, a supra-reality:

… Forgetting
We are all the same, we are one (27)

All human identity may be derived from the same letters of an alphabet. The same may be said of titles, chronological time, even texts. Art has no owner.

There are Dada echoes in the house, the surreal (as seen in the only word collage),

and in the Flarf-like assembly of words,

thanking thankless thanklessly thanks thanksgiving
triggered triggerhappy troubleshooting troublesome
troublesomeness troubling trite trounce triumphalism
zigzag zippy zips zither zithers zombi zombie zombies
zonal zone zoned zones zoology zoom (23)

may easily lead to an incomplete reading, if these word ensembles were regarded as Da-Daesque, or Flarfist alone.

The cluster of words (15) approximate an oval, as might be found in the shape of a mirror, Clare’s mirror, and re-present her transformation into words, the ultimate “Birthday” portrait of her noetic ontogeny. Other clusters (23) convey the frenzy and meaning of her revenant nature; how it is that similarity (their alphabetic closeness) disperses in new morphemic graftings, like those root-tentacles in the cover portrait, the differentiations in her seemingly endless extensions of experience. The displacement of meaning may be seen clearly over six stanzas, and thirty lines, arranged in a similar manner, beginning with Latin and Spanish, moving into French, and concluding in Latvian which suggests the isolation of the subject beyond itself, and thus the frustration of the subject-language, and subsequently, its/her freedom. There remains, among and through the chains of innovation, if not truly original word ensembles (which beg for new classifications), the glimpse of hysteria, and the place it plays in establishing an equilibrium, the way laughter bursts out during the worst of our tragedies, a neurological compulsion, a survival. The last entry:

Ohmigodohmigodohmigod! No, you do not understand, I lived
those moments they are my memories. Not this false vision. It
was Tuesday and hot, and she was cold and we were late. … It
would be painfully banal if it were not her last moments on earth (36)

Among all this, there emerges with some frequency what the formalist might understand, if not accept — dare it be said — as a kind of wisdom, that is with the provision that such wisdom is often irony itself and uttered by the poem’s personae:

… black speckles, words upon words metastasize her body (13)

… the eyes of the living are as clear as the eyes of the dead (30)

The trees are infected and the leaves are turning orange and falling,

[and] To be a great poet, one would have to keep
One’s mouth shut (36)

In the poetry of art perspective, House of Forgetting is itself “an object of pure conception” (11) and extends language in a visual art substance whose dimensions create ongoing multiples of sensory experience, expanding as they do so, and it is in this context that Gatza’s book-“frame” polygraphies continue to absorb, intrigue, and proliferate.

 


 

1. Charles Bernstein, My Way, Speeches and Poems (Chicago: University of Chicago Press, 1999), 44.

2. Dorothea Tanning, 1910–2012, had not given a title to her painting, a self-portrait created for her thirtieth birthday and the cover image of Gatza’s collection. When Max Ernst saw the painting in Tanning’s New York studio in 1942, he gave it the title “Birthday.” Tanning and the surrealist became lovers shortly thereafter.

Drenched

A review of Ethel Rackin’s ‘The Forever Notes’

The Forever Notes

The Forever Notes

Ethel Rackin

Parlor Press 2013, 75 pages, $14, ISBN 978-1-60235-370-1

“My Sister’s Drawings of Trees,” from the third and final section of Ethel Rackin’s The Forever Notes, concludes in lines that could serve as a primer to the book’s development of the lyric, especially Rackin’s amendments to its use as an instrument of discovery and dissent. This poem begins singling out for consideration one of many drawings made by a sister with the precise deictic “This,” but ends in three lines hinged by a simile (“like ghosts”) that turns the poem back on itself in a “generative act” like the one described at its center:

This red-lined tree with leaves —
where does it come from
where does it go?
Time we play
queen & servant
for a day —
how I wish
it could be different.
A generative act
splits the street
with no trees at all,
still becomes greener.
Flowers that wilt and bloom.
We learn to grow things
like ghosts
we put things away. (46)

In an act of mental sounding, the poem touches off the final line, moving back up into its one stanza to review the ways we might “learn to grow things / like ghosts” and also “put things away” like ghosts, as well as the ways growing things and putting things away relate to each other. The doubled simile and the repetition of “things” pressurizes the placeholder generalization so that the word that comes closest to meaning merely “nouns” (both concrete and abstract) ripples with curious, competing possibilities: in the context of these multiplying lines, “things” might be living, literal, and sustaining (like flowers and food) or conceptual (like ideas and poems) or alive but lethal and informative (like diseases).

These multitudes draw the eye up through the poem’s expertly broken and syntactically fragmented lines, returning to the surface of the opening question to circle it, as is often done in “red-lined” editorial ink for emphasis, expansion, or deletion. Within the poem’s compressed consideration of sibling play and children’s attractions (their “drawings”) to natural objects, however, Rackin’s lyric also recalls and recasts Emerson’s meditations on the relationships among human sight, imagination, and moral pursuits in “Circles,” an essay that begins, “THE EYE is the first circle; the horizon which it forms is the second; and throughout nature this primary picture is repeated without end … and under every deep a lower deep opens.”[1] The ungraspable expanses of the natural world may thwart answering “where does it come from / where does it go?” but in Rackin’s poetics the infinitude of experience leads to deeper concentration and more intimate contact with the words and symbols through which the world is known.

In the ambitious re-creation of Emerson’s dual figures of concentricity and depth supporting his contention that the “universe is fluid and volatile,” Rackin’s “My Sister’s Drawings of Trees,” like most of the poems of The Forever Notes, exhibits characteristic properties of what Elizabeth Willis has termed the “late lyric,” a descriptor Willis uses to clear up persistent misunderstandings of the lyric as a kind of confessional verse resulting in epiphany and transcendence of personal and historical specifics. Contemporary instances of the late lyric don’t evade their histories, but instead “exis[t] in a present that contains the past” — a past that stirs and is stirred by the present.[2] In the context of Willis’s theory, one that recognizes the universe Emerson sees, the things “we learn to grow” and “we put … away” in Rackin’s poem about sibling role-playing and creative freedom include drawings of trees and youthful wishes for a different world. But among the things cultivated and the things stored out of sight are traces of the dolls, childhood, spool necklace, and Christian name put away in Dickinson’s famous poem of maturity, “I’m ceded — I’ve stopped being Theirs —.” “My Sister’s Drawings” encourages this association with the famous Dickinson poem of self-confirmation through its trademark em dashes and the syntactic doubling[3] of the lines “with no trees at all” and “like ghosts,” and in the earlier lines’ allusion to the poem’s central trope of a queen who replaces the infant servant to actual and religious fathers. Dickinson’s gestures of dissent against man-made rituals of salvation gather far more quietly in Rackin’s poem about play, representation, and the power of creativity.

In containing the past that holds Dickinson’s lyric, Rackin’s poetics reroutes the expected circuits of intertextuality. The particles and particulars of Dickinson’s poem circulating in “My Sister’s Drawings” don’t so much direct reading to Dickinson as through its shorthand history of American selfhood envisioned as isolate, regal, and aristocratic, in which individuality is always a matter of ascension and separation, from servant “we” to royal “I.” The presence of other mediums in Rackin’s poem — performance (playing queen and servant) and drawing — complicates the poem’s ekphrastic movement to open a horizon of a remediative consideration. Here, Dickinson’s poem that ends in self-coronation and declarations of self-sovereignty (“With Will to choose, or to reject, / And I choose, just a Crown —”) opens into “a lower deep” through Rackin’s reopening of its terms for power, oppression, and childish imitation.

This opening and circling are generative acts of the intellectual imagination animating The Forever Notes, not only redrawing poetic relationships but also reviving the lyric’s most basic elements. Repetition of words and phrases within poems and from poem to poem demonstrates the late lyric’s capacity to “evoke alternate experiences” and to “provoke an excess of meaning.”[4] In poems “You lie in a tree told sure,” “Story where I kept you,” and “You and the laborious night of trees,” Rackin avoids enjambment in favor of lines beginning traditionally with capitalized words but ending openly, unpunctuated, as in “You and the laborious night of trees”:

Trees and the night around you
You and the laborious night of trees
Trees and the night around you
Laborious night
You and the trees (19)

Emerson’s cosmic horizons seem to intersect at several points with Stein’s insistence, her method of rolling words over and over a line to fill various syntactical positions, gaining and halting momentum in ways that shake habits of consciousness to expose the luxuriance of the everyday. Rackin’s lyric pressurizes this play of reference, shifting “you,” “trees,” “laborious,” and “night” to provoke many simultaneous identities for speaker and addressee. In other poems, like “Leaflets,” repetition operates in ways similar to patterns established in HD’s early poems in which desire fuels vision in violent bursts:

There are those whom I need
to be singing
there are those who are singing
so I tear myself — (48)

The rending of self and song and of self by song illustrates the late lyric’s tendency to push and rupture the boundaries of identity rather than to repair or preserve them. Rackin’s work scatters the speaking self sometimes violently, sometimes playfully, often joyfully. These are volatile poems, but their explosiveness often drives toward hope and receptivity. “A generative act / splits the street” and in splitting the street, traffic moves more freely, more dangerously and unpredictably, in two or more directions, like infinite lines radiating from the vanishing point of a sister’s drawing.

In these poems, the foundational materials of the lyric seem in a continual state of regeneration. Even the most poetically handled words, like “tree,” “flowers,” “dreams,” “leaves,” or “sea,” become not just revived but disturbing and uncontainable, detonated within the ample margins. The vocabulary of the idyll so frequently occupies Rackin’s poetry that, when terms from the modern world of consumerism and entertainment appear (as they occasionally and discreetly do), a vibrant recirculation of temporal and perceptual modes takes place, as in “How wonderful to go riding”:

And to feel the sadness
That loneliness leaves
When it leaves
How wonderful to go riding
To fall into that sadness and know it
The breath of fall and the buds that spring
To experience sales also
In the adrift of language’s departments
How wonderful to feel sadness
That springs from summer monuments (10)

The setting is almost entirely impressionistic, although the sense of lushness and intensity of understanding is certain. Images of the Romantic natural world press into the poem’s emotional alertness, although there’s little that explicitly ties the poem to a remote countryside where riding is an experience of being carried along for the ride rather than driving or pedaling to a destination. Pleasure seems central to this poem, especially the pleasure in opportunities to move at a speed that allows one to notice subtle shifts in season and to recognize layers of emotion, “to feel the sadness / That loneliness leaves / When it leaves,” layers condensed by contemporary (and literary) inclinations towards closure and the contentedness emotional clarity is supposed to bring. Wonder, the roots of which mean either “a sight” or “a panic,” is clearly separate from private happiness or a release from the modern world of consumerism and bureaucracy. There is wonder in “sales” and in the lingo of contemporary popular discourse, too — “the adrift of language’s departments” is an ingenious clause, letting “adrift” drift out of modifying departments and into double occupation as subject of the prepositional phrase and newly minted noun, conspicuously awkward in its unfamiliar pose.

Rackin’s orientation in widely recognizable poetic materials accomplishes The Forever Notes’ greatest renovations of the lyric, its ability to gesture toward and even coax into view the untapped, untraveled expanses of perception. This embrace of old, even clichéd matters defies the new and improved, “fresh” and “emergent” criteria dominating contemporary poetry, but in Rackin’s poetics, that defiance is far from reactionary. Instead, The Forever Notes argues, implicitly and persuasively, that the lyric, even stripped down, remains a potent resource for imagination, beauty, and explorations of consciousness. Rather than find new subjects and forms for poetry, this stance implies, we must look harder at the ones we think we already know. “Meet me in the cabin,” the book’s first poem, presents a tiny, puzzling accumulation of repetition and metaphor (that also demonstrates Rackin’s archaic but multifunctional presentation of titles) that directs attention to some of the lyric’s most primitive matters — desire, love, and the struggle for immersion in the present:

Meet me in the sea
Meet me where our love’s a shirt
Drenched, dried out, and drenched once more (5)

Structuring this love lyric urging an erotic reunion, the miniature anaphora of “Meet me” turns the public emphasis of repetition marking the epic into the lyric’s intimate voice. Familiarity itself is the poem’s focus; familiarity comes from repetition and wear, like the homely (and metaphorically compounded) love shirt drenched and dried, over and over again. The poem’s delight comes from its speaker’s expectation of the cycles of meeting, love, drenching, and drying — of what’s known, but not completely, ever. Rackin sets aside the epiphany’s shock of recognition to wring from the lyric the slow, fluid volatility of knowing — our widest, most complex and elusive horizon of recognizing — what we see and feel, for days and for centuries, again and again, once more.

 


 

1. Ralph Waldo Emerson, “Circles,” in Ralph Waldo Emerson, ed. Richard Poirier (New York: Oxford University Press, 1990), 166.

2. Elizabeth Willis, “The Arena in the Garden: Some Thoughts on the Late Lyric,” Telling It Slant, Avant-Garde Poetics of the 1990s, eds. J. Mark Wallace and Steven Marks (Tuscaloosa: University of Alabama Press, 2002), 225.

3. In her Emily Dickinson: A Poet’s Grammar (Cambridge: Harvard University Press, 1987), Cristanne Miller identifies Dickinson’s use of “a single phrase to cover two nonparallel syntactic contexts or to describe two different subjects” (37) and names this technique “syntactic doubling.”

4. Willis, “The Arena in the Garden,” 229.

Standstill moments

A review of Piotr Gwiazda’s 'Messages'

In his first book, Gargarin Street (2005), Piotr Gwiazda, after “meandering slowly from nowhere to nowhere”[1] in a self-deprecating manner, after revealing his motto “Give Chance a chance” (36), and after postulating,

What if the script of human life is full of typos,

missteps, mishaps, false starts, false alarms,
wrong turns, dead ends, distractions, digressions —[2]

(notice the language here playfully falls into that “poetic misstep” of cliché), he tells us how to see the future: “Think of it as an enormous blank, a sort of dream” (60). In his latest book, Messages, Gwiazda enriches his conversation about the future, situating it within the present (and past), as in the last section of the last poem, “Messages”:

Here on this planet,
with no future,

where the wilderness has the color
of worn-out dollar bills,

rivers are covered
with oil and graffiti,

and civilizations of dragonflies
evolve in the parking lot

behind a shopping plaza,
your mission

comes to a standstill:
the horizon.[3]

The horizon is both there (stated in text) and not there (crossed out). And by implication, the future, or a world broadening out from the present (and past), is there and not there. What seems to matter is the present “with no future”; what matters is our deliberative purpose — whatever “mission” that may be — that comes to a “standstill” before this ghost of a future. Gwiazda plays with these “standstill moments” throughout this book. They are observable and delightful (especially through language), contrary, and ever-changing and ultimately unknowable.

Gwiazda frames this book with a long epigraph from Joe Milutis (Ether: The Nothing That Connects Everything). Milutis argues that too much analysis (i.e. rationality) leads us to lose connection with each other, connection that seems to form when we allow illusions (i.e. irrational sense) to form. That we have to get back to developing illusion “because within it is a fundamental sense of direction and source of energy” (from the epigraph), which, according to Milutis, allows us to be more like who we are. In the three sections of this book, Gwiazda works towards illusion, or points it out in some form. He rubs and plays into the following paradox: the search for illusion (that irrational sense), and thus an energy of connectedness, is rooted, at least partially, in a search that is inherently rational.

In especially the first section, Gwiazda rarely veers into the personal. Rather, he broadly addresses culture, critiquing its blindness and excess, which can become boring and meaningless in its quest (or assumption) of grandness and rational meaning:

This small round floor that makes us passionate —
“HOSTAGE BEHEADED IN AFGHANISTAN,”
“ISRAELIS SEEK REVENGE
IN DEATH OF TODDLER” — is it past reprieve (5)

Even though the speaker is Dante here, these lines reveal a difficulty in this collection: the tendency to tread the border of cultural critique in the language of lecture/instruction, essay, or warning — and less in the language of a particular poem. Gwiazda moves into this problem infrequently, even though this implicit or explicit critique occurs consistently throughout the collection.

“Three Pieces for Two Hands,” the ninth of ten poems in the first section (there are ten in the third section as well), marks a stylistic break. Unlike the other poems in this section, there is no compression in the lines, which are visually expanded and spaced. There is a dreamy quality to this poem, a bit fragmentary in its first two parts. The poem foreshadows the second section of the book, where he creates a space to reflect on time in the only poem in that section, “Time.”

Besides being a spatial break, “Time” seems a break in tone as well. It focuses inward, in the more personal realm. It seems to be showing Gwiazda as he struggles in his role as a poet in which “I observe everything, / record everything” (22) but “I don’t know what I’m feeling // and so reserve comment” (23). He perceives (and perhaps purposefully exaggerates his capabilities) but may not understand or know the depth of his responses. This inward manifestation of the poet seemingly at home in uncertainty contrasts with the rawer, more observational poet of the first section, “a hacker” (3) or “assassin in the boardroom” (3) poet, the outspoken poet.

The third section of the book starts by alternating between cultural infusion and critique with the spatially open “breathable” poems. In these “culture poems” (“Before America,” “Island,” and “Ohio and West”), there is a sense of static, repetitive compression of American cultural history. These poems seem to implode. Gwiazda’s America is the antithesis of Whitman’s expansive America. The language here is at once stimulating and exciting but it also encroaches upon itself, enclosing and suffocating. The spatially open poems (“In Transit” and “Purgatory”) intercede these cultural blocks with a more “breathable” critique:

The banality of morning clouds.
                                            Vivaldi in the shopping mall.
                                                                          Jury duty. (36)

What comes out of these juxtapositions is the poem “Clouds Moving In.” The first section of this poem is the only place in Messages in which Gwiazda mentions Poland, which was an integral place in his first book. Here, Poland is distanced from Gwiazda (as in third person). In the second section of this poem, the scene shifts to “Dear New Yorker” (38), which can be taken as the literary and cultural center of America. It shifts to the first person, yet even here, “What really concerns me though is the way my body reacts / in front of an onrushing car. How it’s wafted by the wind // from late October to early April” (38). The poet is obliterated, almost surreally. There is disintegration, as Gwiazda points out later in an interview at the end of the book: disintegration of the poet and the poet’s culture.

In the third and last section of Messages, Gwiazda delves into the personal, which also stays somewhat impersonal since the speaker refers to his love interest as “X.” This tactic is Gwiazda at his best: on the border of irony, not meaning to be ironic but meaning to get to the essence of experience, struggling for it. That experience itself, at least in his writing, is both there and not there. It changes: “Anything, anything / can be put into a poem” (3). He writes of that trace of anything. He writes the ghosts of experience, enacts it in his writing, especially in the physical cross-outs in his text (“Clouds Moving In,” “Things She Didn’t Say,” and “Messages”). The cultural breaks down into the personal, which ultimately breaks down in the text. There is no “permanent” marker. There are markers of perception, which are ever-changing.

Gwiazda’s language percolates out of the mundane context. He compresses images and lines in many places (e.g., “Ghost Photography” and “Removable Tattoos”), so that when the language becomes “uncompressed,” as in “Time” or “Three Pieces for Two Hands” or in moments elsewhere at the end of “Purgatory” or “In Transit,” the work breathes. Even the pace of his language and form is impermanent.

Gwiazda in most of this book is comic and delightful in his play. In fact, it seems the first part of the collection has a more comic tone, perhaps because its language and form enact the qualities of misperception. It extends the grotesque (“Aardvark, Fat”); it lumps closely together the on-the-surface dissimilar (“now it’s a robot ablaze with intelligence, / now a bad cop, now a mullah” [8]); it brings out explicit cultural idiosyncrasies (“Every six months you are required to change / your email password and/or sexual partner” [12]); its titles invite wit (“Three Pieces for Two Hands” or “Life after People”); it sings out a manifesto song (“Ether”) and later critiques poets who align themselves with manifestos (“Removable Tattoos”); it serves irony (in “Dante on a Plane,” Dante looks down from a plane, from the “heavens,” into the “hellish” earth; Dante observes, in essence, from the other side).

Gwiazda’s word choice resonates:

Poetry is silence in drag (27)

Poetry is dressed up (“loud”) in the cultural fringe (as “drag”). At the same time, it is silent, especially in the mainstream. It’s hidden but there. And to stretch these words even further, poetry drags on (in time). Poetry and its silence create a drag, stopping the momentum of mainstream observation. There’s effort in poetry; there’s the dragging of this silence through the throat. Here, as elsewhere in this collection, Gwiazda zooms in on rich, evocative words, exposing the contrariness of experience — from plain to poetic language and even to the made-up word:

Everywhere you turn
only readymade language …

People have organs
and messages inside them. (44)

“Readymade language” is at once natural in its flow, especially to those persons speaking this language. At the same time, it’s as unique and unnatural as the word “readymade.” It’s both sonically mundane and visually not mundane. This phrase enacts a perfect compression of contrariness rooted in experience.

Gwiazda’s work shows the convergence between the mundane and not mundane. In “Daylight Saving,” the last poem of the first section, “The apartment replies with pebbles and stars” (17). Gwiazda frames an answer without actually answering a question. He frames an answer in a poetic form that verges on breaking the poetic, a prose poem in five section-vignettes. He frames an answer in the resonance of the poem’s silent answer, and allows the reader to own the answer (and question). All this poem reveals is that an answer will come from the mundane (pebbles) and from the not mundane (stars in the grand universe). Both aspects are so different, yet both are “nothing” or “small,” from where we stand. Both are “far” from our actual, human experience of perception.

Messages revolves around interpretation. In the first section, Gwiazda implicitly looks sometimes broadly, sometimes abstractly, and sometimes (especially at the end) personally at what it means to interpret. He delves into interpretive uncertainty, “a thing unknown” (8). Ultimately we are “beginningless and free” (6). In other words, we are unrooted and open to possibilities. Even in The Golden Age, a world of rationality, we do not achieve certainty; the monuments from faith and irrationality, “These marble hands. These limestone eyes. / The boiling earth. The swollen sun” (10), keep us from understanding the world in more rational certainty, which ends up being “mostly boredom” (10) anyway.

Gwiazda is very conscious of the role of the poet, of himself, and his place in this interpretative scheme of communication, which by itself has a lack of coherent, obvious meaning.

All is not lost, however, when poets —
tired of contests, fed up with manifestos —
improvise in softly toned sprechstimme
song of dubious importance and vague beauty. (12)

Here he beautifully subverts any manifesto or theory he set up in the book’s epigraph and in his first poem “Ether.” Such a perfect word choice: Sprechstimme, a German word meaning “between singing and speaking while using an imprecise pitch.” This word strikes an imprecise balance in the stanza. It is a foreign word which introduces a “foreign” concept — that of an indeterminate, uncertain role of poets who have nowadays been conditioned towards a competitive certainty of theory, or “schools of poetry,” and of winning contests (to get published) and perhaps being viewed as better poets. Gwiazda undercuts this oeuvre in the plain last line, reducing his own importance. His verbal skill and tenacity undercut and destabilize the standstill moments.

Gwiazda repeats and revises throughout the book, moving into the personal by the end so that perhaps cultural becomes personal and personal becomes cultural. He constantly overlays his previous poetic words and ideas through cross-outs, repetitions, reimaginings: “Poetry is a matter of / perspective (perception rather)” (3). Even here, in the first poem, Gwiazda starts to “cross out” and change his interpretation of “perspective.”

Messages concludes with an interview, “Messages Without a Message: An Interview with Piotr Gwiazda.” When I first wrote a draft of this review, I did not read the interview. The title alone told me the danger: this interview interrupts the penchant against analysis with the possibility of analysis. Gwiazda, for his part, must have been aware of this contrariness/juxtaposition by titling the interview as it is. But it’s an informative read that adds a little more depth to my understanding of the book. There are three main points about the book in this interview I found most interesting: 1) There is no message/meaning to a poem but what the work itself does to you, and this take fits well with the enacting of experience in language that Gwiazda employs; 2) How a poem and its “message” — whatever it is — evolves on you, the reader, is the crux of his interest; and 3) These poems try to account for the human capacity for illusion.

By the end of Messages, the future is no longer an “enormous blank, a sort of dream” (Gargarin Street, 60). The future is no longer out there, neither outside the self nor in dreams. Rather, the future is in the “reconstruction of dreams” (4), the ever-changing revisions of perception, and ultimately of consciousness. Gwiazda suggests the interdependence of humans on this earth and environment. The damaging human interaction and continual response of nature has all but wiped out that future’s enormous blank, defraying this dream as a ghost. The future itself has essentially become fixed in time — actually, going along in time — ever-changing as these “standstill moments,” dependent on our present choices and active perceptions.

 


 

1. Piotr Gwiazda, Gargarin Street (Washington, DC: Washington Writers’ Publishing House, 2005), 12.

2. Ibid., 50.

3. Gwiazda, Messages (Washington, DC: Pond Road Press, 2012), 45.

'This language materialized'

A review of Mary Burger's 'Then Go On'

Mary Burger, right. Photo by Alan Bernheimer.
Mary Burger, right. Photo by Alan Bernheimer.

Then Go On

Then Go On

Mary Burger

Litmus Press 2012, 93 pages, $15, ISBN 9781933959146

In her new book Then Go On, Mary Burger explores how to occupy space and time with language and thought, how to expand the self, transgressing its borders, how to exhaust thought, how to suspend time and the self, and how to exceed language with itself.

As if a harbinger, the following text presented itself a few months prior to Burger’s book, handwritten in kid’s scrawl and posted in a ground-floor window in my neighborhood:

tital
a chrip to chin

wus a pontim
thar wr too
grls tha
wr sistrs
and tha
wnt to
chin and
tha likectit
dsidid that
tha liketit

First I was fascinated to decipher the phonetic spelling, then to consider the author’s radical relationship with words. The story fascinated me too. How liberating: shaping the words, to shape the story, shaping the story as opposite to what we “know” as possible (i.e., kids in California imagine China/“chin”). I love to make these words with my mouth and breath because it feels like the usually ineffable thing is piecing itself together right next to my vocables. Mary Burger writes with the same immediacy. Indeed, two pieces in Then Go On, “Two Little Mice” and “Fire Cat,” begin with facsimiles of Burger’s own phonetic poems written at age seven.

A first word that comes to mind to describe Burger’s new book of poetic prose-prose poems is muscular. The writing has a material quality, and does rigorous work to fill the void with taut braids of itself. What void? That which a being confronts in space and time. I mean both the negative and double negative senses of the word: that is, void as meaningless empirical reality, and void as gap, opening, or rupture of reality, i.e., space of possibility.

In “Necessary,” Burger writes: “This language materialized, or coalesced I suppose, as if a fog had been there all along but gradually became opaque so that the air that I had seen through became instead the thing that I could see” (48).

I often wonder how to spend my time. There’s never enough or else too much, so the wonderment is couched in anxiety. In “Orbital,” Burger writes, “This will take up all the available time for a while. I can see from your face that I’ve made an impression” (56). She’s just discussed “the scale of things entrusted to us [that] staggers even ourselves,” and suggests the gamut from subatomic to outer-orbital. The next strophe proceeds: “This paradigm shifts so that words are as nimble as neurotransmitters. Like a small chemical messenger, a word can do anything you can think of. A word can move muscles. A word can hold eyes” (57). I’m encouraged by the time I fill with Mary Burger’s book, as the flexible, capable word toils to trace the contours of an intricate topography. The sense of effort here is a solace not a suck because it activates the subjectivity of everyone involved. The prose invites me into its gullies of white space and other deferrals — so I’m the living thing that bridges its gaps; the immense tensile strength, poise, and lucidity of Burger’s writing grips and focuses my attention as I cross over.

In the first section of “The Man Without Stumps IV,” Burger outlines how language falls short of her wishes for it: “the alphabet was not the moving topography I’d been imagining” (77). Yet by gathering and applying language materially onto “the vastly featured terrain that shifted around me,” she vanquishes these limitations. The section comprises a single sentence that extends over nineteen lines, kinked with equal parts repetition and caesurae. “This sequence of individual graphemes does not map the parabolic movement of the knife-edge ridge of a sand dune,” but in a sense she casts the dune in negative, parallel impression — unspooling the sentence against it. In other words, torqued by the interplay of repetition and extension, the writing enacts the “parabolic movement,” “striations,” and “shifting” of the terrain with its own sinuous shape.

Burger’s thoroughness accomplishes an occupation of time and space that yields agency. She starts with nothing, beginning at the beginning — her phonetic protolanguage — and never denies nothing’s constant, in the cracks of contingency to either side of reason or its semblance. “The Man Without Stumps,” for example, foregrounds an absence of legible form. Mid-careen down a crumbling cliff face, the man “notices then that he is not standing on anything, that he is in fact surrounded by nothing … Not just nothing he recognizes, there is nothing at all” (68). The man is nondescript, bouncy, soft, the terrain sliding and loose. Any form they retain is a turbulent blur. In a strophe on raising tents: “Always at the fulcrum of the lift there is a chance someone will give out. One pole will swerve wildly, others will waver, suddenly the whole sky will lurch to one side and collapse” (65). No determinate shape or area is reliable, all’s in flux, spanned by “the cloud of being that dispels millions of colors in gray matter, an atomized mist, [that] surrounds us and is chilly, we can’t separate ourselves from it or feel any perspective, we can’t look at it because we are in it” (69). Burger manages to write in, of, and by this cloud, manifesting not only that form is fluid, but that myriad appearances coexist of a truth that can’t be defined.

The final pages of “The Man Without Stumps” comprise a succession of interpretations of “the graininess in the picture that might be me”:

The graininess in the picture that might be me could be a ball caught in mid-
bounce, a Frisbee powered by a good throw. It could be a dog with a Frisbee in its mouth.

The graininess in the picture that might be me might be a glass of lemonade. That
might be you behind me, reaching for me, a cool glass wet with condensation, the
pale lemony water choked with ice.

The graininess in the picture that might be me is part black part white and faintly crescent-shaped.

The graininess in the picture that might be me, it gives just enough information to
go on, just enough texture and contrast for me to almost hold together. Stay with
me now, I am almost about to exist. (82)

Each reading of the picture is just as true as any other, and just as false. Burger’s communication is authentic not as external fact, but insofar as it activates and engages an I. The rotation of hypotheses answering the anaphora, “the graininess in the picture,” builds a formal concatenation that carries the thinking subject and almost embodies her; constant motion and plurality match the ever-unmade, ever-in-the-making subject.

Revelations, repetitions, questions, contradictions, hesitations, violations: all arise and weigh the same. What matters more than the particular shape of the word-bodied thought, is its engagement in the traversal of time and space. Burger’s word is not “spent” in the sense of expended: extinguished, dead, switched off, etc. Nor is time itself used up or killed. Rather, the word and time may be said to expand — and thereby open vital lacunae in the blah everyday. In turn, in this breaking space, “aesthetic” experience becomes possible.[1]

In “Rusted,” Burger deals explicitly with “pure aesthetic gesture” (4). “We believed the most extravagant, precise, deliberate, but utterly nonutilitarian gesture to be the most perfect” (5), she writes. Pointing to the impracticality and stupidity of “photographs of ourselves sitting on the thing [a defunct pipe] and grinning” (5), the poem celebrates a free realm for play and the suspension of sense-making. In the poem prior, “I Like Purple,” another nonsensical zone blossoms weirdly in “the transformation of an embroidered peasant shawl into a wriggling hallucination — girls lined up, one row above another, as if in the corridors of a cell block, a bar or scarf floating across their middle, and below the heads of the next row, the bars moved and danced with the girls, and it seemed the whole system might split, but it didn’t” (3). A vivid, extraordinary vision defies understanding but endures anyway.

Burger’s writing reaches far, pressing into multiple dimensions. An aphoristic character surrounds sentences with auras of implication, in the way that parables and miniatures are both tidy and infinitely extensible. Still, however resonant with compression, abstraction, and calm, the proffered advice is not easy or reasonable. Burger answers complexity with complexity, with grammar that unwinds and divagates interminably even as it’s wrought with utter precision. As a consequence, where precariousness matches attention to detail, we adopt a discipline of deep focus — or risk substance’s dissolution.

Here again is the book’s substrate: in the face of formlessness, Burger activates the present by way of ideas — contemplating contingencies one by one as they appear — as well as formally, with deftly woven prose. She notes potential pitfalls: inauthenticity, by attempting “to seize the impossibly ephemeral moment, to hold onto a reflection which was not the moment itself” (“A Series of Water Disasters,” 16), excess, or “the nature of mind, that wants to be elsewhere” (“Necessary,” 49), and denial, by answering “the ubiquitous emergency as if it wasn’t happening to us” (“Blush,” 46). In the last, ongoing catastrophe just beyond our scope takes the form of a “subtly pulsating, high-pitched whine,” that provides a constant, abstract threat but no real compromise to sitting “in this shady backyard sharing a meal” (47). Yet the repercussions of the alternative — not to attempt to examine one’s experience, not to question, think, or write — are worse than these habits that the subject strains to break. In Then Go On, Mary Burger coaxes a body of writing as changeable, fluid, serious, and vulnerable as a living body, in evidence of a mindfulness that awakens, in turn, the reader’s reciprocal attention to new spaces of possibility.

 


 

1. I understand (via Friedrich Schiller’s definitions, via Jacques Rancière and Claire Bishop) the aesthetic object of free appearance as that which maintains total autonomy from sensible, ordinary, productive modes of reality. As such it creates space for play and pointless activity, questioning and reimagining.

The quiet influence of patience

A review of Linda Norton's 'The Public Gardens'

The Public Gardens: Poems and History

The Public Gardens: Poems and History

Linda Norton

Pressed Wafer $14, ISBN 9780983197515

Prior to the publication of Linda Norton’s 2007 Etherdome Press chapbook, Hesitation Kit, and her 2011 Pressed Wafer book, The Public Gardens: Poems and History, which was a finalist for the 2012 Los Angeles Times Book Prize, many readers didn’t know that Norton had already exerted a quiet influence on them in her work as a poetry editor at the University of California Press. Since the 1980s Norton has made her living as a publicist and editor for a variety of publishing houses. Today, she works at the Bancroft Library in Berkeley, California. All these years, as the reader learns in The Public Gardens — a book that begins with poetry, continues with journals from the late ’80s into the early ’90s, and finishes with more poetry — she was writing and making collages, though few people were aware of this work. As Norton put it in a 2010 interview with Kate Greenstreet, “I like to do readings because I like to participate, to contribute, and I often hear people say, ‘I had no idea you wrote!’ or ‘I had no idea you were a visual artist!’” Norton’s response suggests that she prefers the communal to the individual, a preference that provides shelter to work without the burden of attention. Without a doubt this communal impulse shapes the interrogative quality of Norton’s writing.

Many of the concerns in The Public Gardens start to crystallize in “Landscaping for Privacy,” the first section of the book. Two of the most recurrent themes center on the question of what it means to be a woman who is first a girl and how to make art. The poem “Rose with No Name” contains these lines:

Red roses on a rose bush looped with garden hose­­ —
The first paintings were made with blood,
beauty out of carnage, or was it red ink
from the body of the first girl, from the first
wondering about what was happening
and how it might look and how it might smell.

Throughout The Public Gardens Norton shares with her readers the sense of wonder found here. This sense, though, is not clouded by fanciful idealism or lofty dreams. The earthy wonders are life and the art that people make from it. Norton’s speculations in this poem along these lines are fascinating. Were the first paintings made with blood got from killing? Or, more powerfully, were these paintings made with the menstrual blood of a young girl? As the poem continues it’s clear which question bears further interest:

The heirloom roses in this garden smell old
which means they smell fresh as the first girl
unlike some of the new roses bred to blossom
thornless, fast, synthetically, to resist pests.

Norton goes on to write that these synthetic roses “smell of money and garden hoses” and that “anyone / could do it, could do them; pornographic. / The first girl, the first rose: Sapphic.” In addition to Norton’s focus on the role women play in the arts, these lines mark yet another concern in The Public Gardens: authenticity. Norton often arrives at what she considers genuine by asking questions.

In the prose section of the book, entitled “Brooklyn Journals,” many of her queries focus on the burden of class. It’s particularly clear why in a passage dated October 11, 1987, where she’s reflecting on an interaction with her younger brother, Joey:

He glamorized my conventionality, my oldest sister ways, my pious lapsed Catholicism and my working-class pedestrian nature. But he knew this was not a pose established in order to subvert the establishment. It was something real and stolid and unconscious, something that made me old, and I hated it while I defended it. 

The fact that our pasts are real and unconscious mean that they follow us wherever we go like unleashed dogs that somehow know the way home. Norton is always conscious of this in her work.

In her journals it’s particularly compelling how Norton depicts her siblings and their reactions to their shared upbringing. Joey wanted to escape it. Near the end of the October entry Norton recounts the moment when her brother picked up her gloves she had bought at Filene’s Basement: “‘Vinyl,’ he said, smelling the gloves. ‘Can’t you at least try to get real leather gloves?’ I frowned. I hadn’t realized they weren’t made of leather.” This is another of Norton’s strengths, her self-deprecating sense of humor.

Within this frame of class and sibling tension comes perhaps the most startling thread in The Public Gardens, an unfolding story of Joey and his death from AIDS in 1986. In the first journal entry of the book dated May 10, 1987 Norton introduces readers to Joey, or Joseph as he’s referred to in the entry, with an insightful comparison of her and Joey’s notes in the margin of Ulysses — the copy is Norton’s and Joey has borrowed it. Her notes were “parochial — all about Catholicism — the intense familiarity, though we were Americans, of Joyce’s Irishness, names and rituals, guilt and materials,” and his were “all about modernism and European intellectual and literary history.” As “Rose with No Name,” cited above, foregrounds the female, so too does this example, but here the gender difference Norton wants the reader to see is even more direct. Tellingly, the notes Norton made in the margin of Ulysses are recurring concerns in The Public Gardens, and it is a stronger book for it.

In the same October entry discussed above Norton is already asking about Joey’s death: “Was my brother Joseph able to prepare for his death? There was no time. Death by sex, shame, rage.” In the journal entries that follow we learn how bitter Joey had become in his last days. Especially haunting is the entry dated August 23, 1987, when Norton is listening to Duke Ellington’s “Sacred Mass” and remembering that the nurse for her brother at Lenox Hill had told her that Joey’s bed was where Ellington had died. At first, Norton writes, “My brother would have loved to know that.” But, in the following paragraph she rescinds that thought:

No, he would have hated to know that, as he hated everything the last year of his life, spitting at people, even biting my father to try to infect him (he went home, to blame or beg, and my father threw him out; as my parents threw us all out, one right after another). He was trying to leave his goofy older boyfriend, but there was nowhere to go — he’d lost his job after he threw one of his tantrums at work — the job he loved, editing guides to the national parks.

Norton’s entries through the rest of the eighties makes clear how new and confusing AIDS was for her, as well as for society at large. In September 1987 Norton mentions “An emaciated man in a wheelchair with Kaposi’s lesions rolled past me one day in the rain. It’s everywhere. But none of the sick men I see are as young as my brother was. Why?” Then, in August 1990 she touches upon the fact that her family back in Boston refuses to admit that anyone but Joey has died from AIDS, and acknowledges to herself “At least in New York I’m not alone with it.” In the midst of all this the reader learns that Joey died a week before the discovery of AZT.

Norton’s skillful writing in her journals shows the complexity of the AIDS legacy, and more acutely how layered Norton’s difficult memories are concerning her family. The ability to weave these layers as honestly as Norton does in The Public Gardens is rare. How often is one willing to look hard at one’s family and milieu, write about them, and then publish it? Certainly, there are acres of memoirs published every year that proclaim penetrating introspection, but few are as probing as Norton’s.

Alongside entries regarding AIDS, her family, and class Norton also pays considerable attention to issues regarding race and ethnicity in The Public Gardens. In the entry dated October 19, 1990 Norton is waiting for an office-building elevator in Manhattan when a man steps out with “an amazing head of dreds, volumetrically astounding.” Another woman, a suburban blonde, about fifty, awaits the same elevator. Once on the elevator the blonde tries to catch Norton’s eye: “assuming we’ll conspire: ‘These people!’ I look down, avoiding her, because I don’t want to be forced to be white with her.” It’s clear that Norton’s self-awareness, even self-consciousness, is not restricted to class difference or familial tension. It’s as if Norton’s eye specializes in the issues that divide people. 

As the journal entries through the early ’90s continue, Norton touches on race and the art world. Much of what she writes on this subject pertains to observations in her then-husband Andrew’s studio and at parties. An entry from June 1992 describes an afternoon with Andrew in his studio when they receive a phone call for his studio mate:

The phone rings and these days it’s always someone asking for Hodge Park. It is currently extremely cool to be anything but white in the art world. I half expect him to start using Ho-jun, the Korean name his parents gave him.

Then in May 1993 a painter friend, Steve, and Nancy visit Norton and Andrew at home. At some point during the visit “the guys grumbled about the plight of young white men in the art world — there’s no place for them now.” On the surface these examples seem to be only about race, but they are also about gender, particularly the white male version. Norton delivers her criticisms on this matter in the book brilliantly by simply observing and writing down what she sees and hears. If one misses what she’s after it’s the fault of a shallow reader.

The most wonderful journal entry comes on June 18, 1994, offering a bit of levity in regards to some of the heavier moments dealing with race and ethnicity. At the time, Norton is five months pregnant, on a business trip to London, and alone. As she’s walking down a road lined with tall row houses in Camden she encounters a young man, “high,” Norton guesses, “but not murderous, or insane,” so she relaxes. He asks, “How are you?” In her response he realizes she must be American, and then wants to know where she’s from. “Brooklyn,” she says. Interestingly, this young man is aware that Baruch Goldstein, “the guy who massacred Arabs in the mosque in Hebron,” is from there, too. Internally, this causes Norton to become a little tense, especially when the man asks, “Are you Jewish?” After wavering on how to answer, Norton replies, “No, I’m not Jewish.” At this point, the man “stopped and scrutinized [Norton’s] face intensely, like a surgeon accustomed to handling warm, throbbing ethnicities with his bare hands while the clock ticks.” The man is spot-on when he asks, “Irish and Sicilian?” When Norton expresses her amazement at his expert “ethnic dissection,” as Norton calls it, the man laughs and asks her “to drop some acid with him.” Norton points out that she is pregnant, so they walk “companionably to the corner, where [they] say goodbye, and good luck to each other.” Norton’s terminology, throbbing ethnicities, is perhaps the most accurate way to describe the ancestral forces that shape, at least in part, who we are. More often it seems that one forgets the throbbing part — the fact that ethnicities are alive — and treats these issues coldly, clinically. In The Public Gardens Norton is compassionate and aware. Like the young Londoner she finds a way to bridge this compassion with a surgeon’s grace in her writing on race.

As the journals come to a close Norton gives birth to a daughter, Isabel. Her description, written on November 18, 1994, of the birth is moving, filled as it is with tension and laughter. At the end of the entry Norton describes Isabel’s significance:

It’s not like she fulfills me, exactly. It’s as if her existence, her coming through my body and out between my legs, authorizes me as an animal.

She cries every night for three or four hours, and sometimes I think I’m going crazy. I’m so tired. But her shit really does smell sweet.

In the last section of poems, “The Commons,” Norton continues to share with the reader her relationship with Isabel. “Stanzas in the Form of a Dove,” written in the aftermath of September 11, 2001, moves with feelings of thought and love when she describes an evening she “caught a whiff of Isabel, and realized she needed a bath.” Though tired Norton gives her daughter a bath, puts her to bed. Just when she thinks they’ve both fallen asleep Isabel starts talking:

I have a question about being good or bad. I know you should be good,
        but if you’re not, what can

they do to you? I mean, my question is: Do I always have to be good?

Does she always have to be good? When I was a girl, I knew I must
        always be good. Because I was bad.

The filth. Look what original sin has done for me.

So I say to her: “No. You don’t always have to be good. You are good.”

She breathes a sigh of relief: “Thank you!” Then falls right to sleep,
        smelling so sweet.

It’s startling how continually aware Norton is of her past, and impressive to see her determination to help shape a life that’s distinct to Isabel, perhaps one less burdened by class anxiety and built-in Catholic guilt. The care that Norton takes with each of her subjects in The Public Gardens — the feminine, art making, and family life to name a few — ought to have much influence on her audience. Norton not only applies the attention of her eyes and mind, she also attunes her heart to these matters. Importantly, she’s never afraid to ask questions of her subjects, even if only to herself. In these ways her book is an achievement built on her years of quietly working in the background, which is to say this book is a testament to patience.