A review of Fiona Hile’s 'Novelties'
“Mondrian Green” is the final poem in Fiona Hile’s Novelties, and one of the most significant in this significant book. It refers to the famous absence of green in the Dutch abstract painter’s mature compositions. Mondrian is said to have hated the color, perhaps as a result of having compromised himself for years while young and struggling, painting floral still-lifes for bread and butter. Mondrian, who would apparently sit with his back to windows in order to avoid gazing out at any greenery, said during a 1915 walk in the moonlight that “all in all, nature is a damned wretched affair. I can hardly stand it.” This was part of the justification for his commitment to abstraction: “Non-figurative art,” he wrote, “shows that art is not the expression of the appearance of reality such as we see it, nor of the life which we live, but … the expression of true reality and true life … indefinable, but realizable.” This is typical of Mondrian, the spiritualist and theosophist (and of other pioneers of abstract art — especially Malevich): the retreat from the figurative is grounded in terms of a rejection of the merely physical; abstraction becomes the royal road to ultimate reality, which cannot be depicted or defined.
Of course, there are other ways of understanding Mondrian’s hatred of nature and commitment to abstraction, and psychoanalysts have made very much of the repression of sex they have found at the heart of his project. James Hamilton, for instance, reads Mondrian’s avoidance of diagonals, rejection of secondary and tertiary colours, and refusal of motion in his work as part of a psychic defense against his early exposure to the primal scene (in terms of which he also explains the painter’s ambivalence toward dancing, changing signatures, and obsessive fears of electrical storms, spiders, and eye injury). While Hamilton’s work displays the kind of reductionism that is only too easy to mock (‘primal scene’ turns up nearly sixty times in the book), there must be a grain of truth in it. Part of what I find compelling in Hile’s poems is how they have helped me find this grain: for them, abstraction is always bound up with what it disavows; the mathematical never completely transcends our desire (we might even say it excites it). At the same time, however, abstraction is certainly not denounced here. “Mondrian!” she writes, “There isn’t a poet alive who would disagree/ with your conception of nature.” The word “alive” seems crucial: these poems are alive to themselves, taken up and struck by their own creatureliness. Horror at nature is not just a form of disavowal: in modernity, it may also be one of the few authentic ways in which we can form some kind of relation with the fact of our being alive. The point is not that abstraction must be rejected or unmasked because of how it denies the material; rather, it is that abstraction permits no real escape from anything. If it is a retreat, in other words, it is always a failed retreat, an attempt at getting away that inevitably leads us back again. I think of Freud wandering through “the empty and to me unfamiliar streets of a small Italian town”:
I found myself in a district about whose character I could not long remain in doubt. Only heavily made-up women were to be seen at the windows of the little houses, and I hastily left the narrow street at the next turning. However after wandering about for some time without asking the way, I suddenly found myself back in the same street, where my presence began to attract attention. Once more I hurried away, only to return there again by a different route. I was now seized by a feeling that I can only describe as uncanny, and I was glad to find my way back to the piazza I had recently left and refrain from any further voyages of discovery.
For I submit — and I believe the poems will support me in this — that abstraction is more than a bald refusal of what may be unbearable in the life and desires of the human animal. At the same time, however, it is also less than a means of accessing some Platonic world of forms or spiritual or mathematical truths. Hile’s interest in the mathematics of the infinite is clear enough: the French philosopher Alain Badiou, who inherits a Platonist/Cartesian form of rationalism and subscribes to the idea that mathematics give us the only language in which pure being can be expressed, looms quite large in the book. Yet the poems are not really Platonic, nor entirely rationalist. For them, abstraction is above all a social condition, part of what happens to life, labour, and indeed the physical world itself under the capitalist mode of production. Think of what becomes of things once we start to produce, buy, and sell them on a mass scale as commodities: it becomes possible to say “one coat = twenty yards of linen.”  This is a kind of levelling out. When things become measureable in terms of their exchange value, they lose their particularities. A particular coat is no longer irreducibly particular: once it goes on the market, the coat is abstracted; it is not just a coat, but also potentially a certain quantity of linen, or gold, or (literally) whatever. It is this historical sense of abstraction that I believe informs Hile’s book, which is part of why it can get on board with Mondrian while simultaneously teasing him, part of why nature keeps returning even though the poems know — and on one occasion explicitly state — that it does not exist. Take the scribbly gum from “Stripes”:
That scribbly gum is acting
out again, throwing its
fruit, forcing itself to
appear; the vertical fins
outside the library window
won’t stop striping the scene
with dorsal light, shades
of all types filtering the
loss of that blossom
you twirled between your
finger and thumb; collage and
cut-ups can only mean one
thing: what we’re half-seeing
through this collagen
opening is not what we’d
hoped: just another Eucalyptus
Hamestoma, calibrating the
thrill of the cut and paste
The leaves won’t stop striping the scene even though the blossom has been lost: the gum is not not there, but it isn’t fully there either; it does not present as the irreducible and particular natural object we’d hoped for, but merely as a token of its type — yet it still makes a claim on us. It is half seen. This is the liminal space in which this poet places us as readers: we cannot fully repudiate or transcend the material world, yet we are unable to simply remain embedded in it, caught between the corporeal and the mathematical, the concrete and the abstract, nature and its liquidation. The poems do not let us off the hook.
Or take “Entrances North.” This short, rather sardonic poem sets a bourgeois conversation about real estate against a seascape that is progressively emptied of content: we get an image of the void of outer space; we get “Pale ontologies”; we get “The surf club car park” which is “littered with empty”; we get “indifferent” surf; and I’m not sure, but perhaps in the “reverse fossilized sprays of / ancestral Fred Williams” we also get Quentin Meillasoux, Badiou’s philosophical protégé. The talk that ensues is typical of this particular brand of Australian whimsy: “‘Why don’t the four of us buy that unit over- / looking the ocean?’”; “Isn’t / there just a tiny bit of gravity in outer space?” someone asks as the surf “gambles on the negative / gearing of light over sound.” This confluence of ontological musing with talk about property investment — the combination of real estate speculation and speculative realist metaphysics — is already pure Hile, but then we get the land as a G-string, and finish with a weird pun masquerading as a Freudian mondegreen: “Love is assault, you think / he said, or maybe — love is a sought.” As the abstraction of ontology and mathematics give way to the financial abstraction of the property market, we move via abstract painting and the question of what it is to view a landscape to sex and, finally, love. This is the crazy confluence of registers these poems get the reader working with. As usual, however, it is more than just postmodernist collage. Hile does not simply mine discourses for linguistic gems, though of course that is part of her procedure. It seems to me that the poem really means it: it really wants to think what abstraction might entail, and how it might be connected to the social and economic totality in which we find ourselves. And of course, it wants to know where desire fits in — or rather, it wants to know the precise way in which desire doesn’t fit in at all. This is to say that Hile’s work carries out genuine poetic thinking, and it does it with grace, humour, and relentlessness.
As these poems show, poetic thinking has to be more than a simple dressing up of cognitive, theoretical, or philosophical content. It is not about taking abstract ideas and putting them into the form of verse, and it is not simply about referring to the work of philosophers and thinkers; rather, poetic form just is part of how poetry thinks. And if form is essential to poetic thinking, it will mean that, unlike perhaps in philosophy, the same thought cannot be expressed in two different ways: rather, the thought and its expression are inextricable; there is no separating what one says from how one says it. Or put more strongly: what one says just is how one says it; the what and the how are the same. This is why a thinking poem demonstrates something that traditional philosophy can’t fully countenance: there is a thinking that happens not in but as language, a thinking that always takes place in a particular context of reading and/or performance. Poetic thinking, when it happens, happens as an event: in particular places, with and on particular bodies and minds. When it happens, it is a material encounter: an encounter with the unique cognitive capacities evoked by a writing that resists the philosophical ideal of transparency, and the distinctions between mind and matter, consciousness and embodiment, with which philosophy has defined itself. So another way of formulating this is: poetic thinking is a type of embodied cognition. There is a line from Peter Minter’s poem “Garden Estates” that sticks with me: “the head is awake in the heart.” This is a perfect motto of poetic thought, and I have found this awakening again and again in Hile’s poems. Here are the opening stanzas from “The Owl of Lascaux”:
I imagine you chopping the head off eel
catfish blossoming from the underside of fir
trees tangling with the pneumatic branches of the law
wasted pornographic observations instilled as the capital of excess
profanation. The political task of your right to capitalism
remains slipping through the shadow
of, the potential for the transformation of a polity
huddled like a worthless slave in the bed of speech.
Destitute poppies, my spoken limbs are available
for prophylactic conveyance. These poor hands,
they quiver thus: trouble my protrusions and turn
my paint to flesh. In lieu of actual declension
The cyclical head wants lopping, the imagination bears
the loss with patience, declares all allegiance to a merciless
conclusion sweeter than the listing of the earth’s difference
from itself. I gave you a book and you wrote in the back of the book:
Infiltrated by the idea of prose, barking like an owl …
It’s quite an astonishing poem. And there are a few things to be said about its references. Lascaux, obviously, names the French cave complex famous for its Upper Paleolithic art. There is an owl depicted in the caves, but I also wonder if Hile’s title may refer to the “Owl of Minerva” which — because it only spreads its wings at night — provided Hegel with a metaphor for how philosophy always misses its moment. The profanation of the first stanza is a nod to Italian philosopher Giorgio Agamben, who describes it as “the political task of the coming generation,” a phrase Hile cheekily changes into “The political task of your right to capitalism.” The “idea of prose” mentioned in the fourth stanza is another borrowing from Agamben. Later in the poem we get a series of references to Daniel Paul Schreber, the German judge whose memoirs of psychosis were hugely important for Freud. “The cyclical head” sounds like an allusion to John Forbes.
But I take all that to have explained little: it may (or may not) be interesting background information; it may tell you why certain phrases from Hile’s poem have caught my ear or eye (or hers in the first place); it may explain some of the terms at work in it; it might help you like the poem (as if you needed any help!). What it doesn’t do is tell you anything binding or definitive about the meaning or significance of the work. References do not explicate in this way; it’s not as though finding and listing them explains — if anything, references just call out for further explanation. Even though the poem refers to philosophy, then, I don’t take this to be where it does its most philosophically interesting thinking. There is something, for instance, in the enjambment of the first couplet that is resistant to prose paraphrase. Perhaps most obviously, it repeats in a strikingly physical way the very act described in the lines themselves. But that’s not all. I’ll admit I was not even aware of the existence of eel catfishes before reading this poem. Wikipedia assures me they are real, but the enjambment does too: it underscores beautifully my sense of shock at the possibility of such a weird creature — a shock that, I think, might tell us more about the poem than any of its references. Embodiment is crucial here, along once again with the category of nature. If this poem is ‘about’ anything, I would say that it’s about creatureliness, about what it’s like to be (and to be confronted by) a creature, to be a member of an animal species for whom animality provokes anxiety. And of course, to be shocked at the mere fact of one’s aliveness is to experience an abstract sort of shock. It is a shock at something that has been emptied of all content, a shock at something that makes no particular claim on us at all, even though it certainly makes a claim. There is something in this thinking that just isn’t quite captured in the philosophical texts that Hile is referencing, even as it speaks to the ideas in them. This is what poetic thought does: it calls out for philosophical reflection even as it adamantly resists it.
There is an orthodoxy in contemporary poetics which says that abstraction in poetry is something to be avoided: it is awkward and pretentious; it is unmusical, relying as it often does on clunky Latinate terms; above all it fails to do what poetry should — render immediate human experience with the greatest possible degree of intensity. “Go in fear of abstractions” may be the most quoted bit of Pound. And no doubt it is good advice (if there is anything that Hile’s poems show, it is that abstraction is shot through with fear). But it has been interpreted in unforgivably anti-intellectual, provincial terms. Part of the achievement of these poems is to show that abstraction in poetry is in no way opposed to beauty and pleasure, nor just occasionally necessary, but absolutely crucial if one wants to muster anything resembling an authentic response to contemporary life. In any case, what could be more abstract than the demand that we avoid the abstract, the demand that we ‘be concrete’? As these poems show, abstraction is just basic to what it is to be a member now of that deranged species we humans call the human.
A review of Thomas Meyer’s ‘Beowulf’
In being caught between two times, that of composition and circulation, Thomas Meyer’s translation finds itself in harmony with its source text. Meyer translated Beowulf in the 1970s, after completing a 1969 senior thesis at Bard translating the rest of the surviving Anglo-Saxon poetic corpus. Our introduction to Meyer’s electric translation, however, is more recent, as it was released by punctum books, an open-access and print-on-demand publisher, only in 2012. Meyer’s source, Beowulf, survives in only one fragile, burnt manuscript, copied about a thousand years ago, but the poem was composed earlier, though scholars continue to debate how much earlier (possible dates for various portions and composition circumstances range from the seventh to the tenth centuries). This poem’s delayed debut does not diminish its freshness or its power to surprise with a new perspective on a familiar friend. Better still, Meyer connects Beowulf to a history of avant-garde mid-century poetry, especially an inheritance of Poundian Imagism and modernist experiments in long-form poems. Meyer thus also — unintentionally, perhaps — opens up Beowulf to resonances both contemporary and surprisingly medieval. Meyer designates his translation as “commentary,” but “collaboration” might be a better term for the interplay between the Anglo-Saxon original and Meyer’s present-day English version.
By making the poem larger and longer, more about expanses of space and time that need more pauses and divisions to be felt, Meyer also ultimately makes the poem more intimate, more about a specific time and space with its own emotions that must be observed in detail. In the interview published as an appendix in this volume, David Hadbawnik quotes Meyer claiming that “Instead of the text’s orality, perhaps perversely I went for the visual,” identifying the look of the poem as “a kind of typological specimen book for long American poems extant circa 1965” (264). Yet the oral becomes starkly visible on the page in Meyer’s text. In an oral culture, as depicted in Beowulf, your spoken word is everything because there is nothing else. When Beowulf introduces himself in Heorot, the mead-hall in which most of the first third of the poem takes place, Meyer gives his first words an entire page:
followed by a full page of white space (61). Once Beowulf has the opportunity to address the king himself, Meyer condenses his speech into a column running down the page, a few words per line. He stands upon his reputation and oral self-presentation.
Meyer’s willingness to play with line lengths substitutes his own chosen breaks for the caesura of the original long alliterative lines, with four stresses and three alliterations in specific set patterns. The effect of the visual layout — always thoughtful, never quirky or affected — stresses the poem’s essential orality. The plain, white space opens up the impact of the spoken oaths, boasts, songs of valor, and tense exchanges among the characters, emerging as deeply-freighted units of meaning from existential emptiness. When Beowulf responds to Unferth’s challenge about his past deeds, Meyer’s variation of line length draws attention to the alliteration. One can clearly hear the crisp note of scorn running through Beowulf’s retort to the unfriendly man, doubting that Beowulf really has accomplished so much. Beowulf declares:
Grendel’s evil gyre could have never spun
so much humiliation or
so much horror
in your king’s Heorot if your heart & mind were
as hard in battle
as you claim. (79)
Meyer uses alliteration enthusiastically but sparingly, relying upon line spacing to prevent the alliteration and parallel clauses from becoming repetitive and dull. Beowulf explains how he killed Grendel, ripping off his arm:
I’d meant to
wrap my arms around him, bind him
to death’s bed
with a bear’s,
a beewolf’s hug
but his body slipped my grip:
God’s will he
jerked free. (101)
Meyer’s alliteration, assonance, and Anglo-Saxon diction — which emphasizes compounds, kennings, and Germanic vocabulary — keep the feel of the poem close to the original Beowulf, but not slavishly so.
Meyer’s most drastic intervention may be his division of the poem into two sections, “Oversea” and “Homeland.” The emphasis on away versus home sensitizes the reader to time and space, natural landscape versus human-forged structures. The barrow where a dragon slumbers, guarding treasure, eerily collapses these divisions. Resting on a forgotten golden hoard from a died-out civilization, the dragon slept “wallowing / in pagan gold / 300 winters. // His earth encrusted hide / remained as evil / as ever” (186). The menace of the three monsters — Grendel, Grendel’s mother, and the dragon — comes from their sullying of the lines between civilization and its wild outside, destroying the raw material of creation itself. The mere over Grendel and his mother’s lair has become corrupted by their evil, as Hrothgar explains:
keeps that spot.
Black water spouts
lift off the lake
& lap the clouds
Wind surges into
deadly storms until
all air grows dark.
The skies wail.” (125)
Meyer beautifully sketches the contrast between the natural, dangerous, even malevolent environment and the man-made world of golden rings, shields, weapons, mead, and poetry.
Meyer’s divisions into two sections slow down the poem. In addition to the splitting between “Oversea” and “Homeland,” Meyer further divides the “Oversea” section into twenty-six “fits.” (Meyer wittily names the first introductory section of Beowulf “Forefit.”) These divisions are reminiscent of the second-most famous anonymous English poem from the Middle Ages, Sir Gawain and the Green Knight, which is broken into “fitts.” In contrast, “Homeland” has no such breaks, emphasizing the (idealized) wholeness, continuity, and integrity of this space. With these continual breaks, the longer histories embedded in the poem finally have the chance to capture a casual reader’s attention as much as the stories of Beowulf battling the monsters. The monsters, of course, capture our imaginations as readers. Like so many twentieth-century readers, Meyer is alert to another source of tragedy in the poem: the sentience, the internal life of the three monsters Beowulf defeats. Grendel in particular, the outcast antihero, has garnered modern empathy, and Meyer voices Grendel’s death agonies in a Joycean stream-of-consciousness. Beowulf grapples with Grendel, and Meyer imagines the desperate thoughts of the monster:
Meyer lets us glimpse Beowulf from the perspective of Grendel’s desperation. Yet Meyer’s translation, perhaps most importantly, allows the larger tragedy of Beowulf to become clear, and it is fundamentally a human tragedy. The constant intimations of danger and destruction — that the mead-hall Heorot will someday be burnt down, that the tribe of the Scyldings will not always be at peace, that Beowulf’s people are doomed to depredations and invasions after his death — gain urgency from the inset narratives about other, earlier feuds and battles. In Meyer’s translation, those narratives stand apart, visible, constantly breaking the headlong line of action and of verse. Recently, lovers of poetry and Beowulf had our own loss of the most famous of Beowulf’s recent translators, Seamus Heaney. Heaney produced what may now be the most familiar and well-known Beowulf translation for a generation of readers, a rendering sensitive to the poetry of the Anglo-Saxon original yet creating something new from it. Yet as Meyer’s translation reminds us, this poem that has survived for so long still has so much to teach us.
A review of Geoffrey Gatza’s ‘House of Forgetting’
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.”
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, 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:
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.
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.
A review of Ethel Rackin’s ‘The Forever Notes’
“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
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.” 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. 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 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.” 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
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.
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.”
A review of Piotr Gwiazda’s 'Messages'
In his first book, Gargarin Street (2005), Piotr Gwiazda, after “meandering slowly from nowhere to nowhere” 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 —
(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,
comes to a standstill:
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” ); it brings out explicit cultural idiosyncrasies (“Every six months you are required to change / your email password and/or sexual partner” ); 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.