A review of ‘This Constellation Is a Name’ by Michael Heller
Michael Heller’s This Constellation Is A Name: Collected Poems 1965–2010 is a culmination of over forty years of poetic exploration by a major voice in contemporary poetry. From his experimental poems of the 1960s to the more assured (though no less experimental) work of recent decades, Heller’s poems wrestle with all the implications of “history and the constellated night,” as he writes in “Gloss.”
Heller draws on lyric, epic, and prophetic traditions of poetry as they inform the modernist writers he most admires: Walter Benjamin and George Oppen primarily, but also Paul Celan and Eugenio Montale and a host of older sources from Heraclitus to Blake to Montaigne. Like these writers, Heller continuously attempts to locate, as Oppen calls them, “handholds” and “footholds” with which to navigate the elusiveness of being in the whirlwinds of history. His work is haunted by the past, by historical forces with which we must contend yet never quite understand, and by the mediation and interrogation of the events via poetic language.
Heller in an interview with Edward Foster offers what might suffice as his ars poetica:
I tend to think first in my poetry about meaning or personal and public discovery and in terms of a vocabulary of self, history, terms which in the present critical climate are often viewed as irrelevant or debased … I’m someone on a quest, my energies directed at what can be said about one’s life or about how the act of writing might impinge or enlarge … one’s life.
Heller, who studied engineering prior to his career as poet, sees similarities in the process of discovery in both science and poetry as requiring “tremendous precision” (51). Both involve a fusing of the rational and intuitive — of knowledge and creativity — with a willingness to forgo past results in order to clarify and articulate new understandings or discoveries. Heller sees that articulating an “upsurge of the world” is accomplished by remaining open to possibility. We live with language and not in it, Heller insists. Writing therefore becomes an act of “individual witness” (52) dependent on honesty, clarity, and sincerity, the same virtues Heller’s so-called “Objectivist” forebears espouse.
Heller’s work is complex and always fascinating. The work collected here means to upset our habitual and nearly always under-scrutinized use of language; how it obfuscates, or worse. His poems restore the tension that exists between the potential for truth and clarity in language and its degradation, its capacity to confuse or deceive. As Heller’s practice demonstrates, the uncertainty that comes with all exploration and the concomitant excitement of discovery exists in the relationship between word and world, the poetic solitude of the “estranged observer” surveying events. By observing, the poet alters events through perception, assigning meaning via complexities of language, the attenuations of its sounds and rhythms, all the discrete adjustments one makes in the careful calibration of thought-event into object-poem. Accordingly, the poet seeks (but may never attain) synthesis, totality, and truth.
The earliest poems collected here date from the mid-1960s, and fit well with the avant-garde poetry and art of its time. Some of these poems (as Heller’s helpful and enlightening notes to this volume tell us) were written in Nerja, a Spanish seaside village, from September 1965 to October 1966. “In my late twenties,” writes Heller, “I came to poetry via a bizarre, accidental and blundering path that began with meeting former students of Louis Zukofsky who worked, as I did, at Sperry Gyroscope in Garden City, Long Island.” On their automobile rides to and from work, Heller and these former students discussed poetry. Heller began writing, taking one workshop at the New School in 1964 with Kenneth Koch and then, soon after, leaving for Europe, where he published his early poems in The Paris Review. “I try to imagine what went into these poems,” he reminisces of this work, later collected in 2006 under the title A Look at the Door with the Hinges Off: “my love of Webern’s ‘pointillist’ music, the background, not yet fully formed, in my love of poets like Williams, Creeley, Oppen, Olson, Zukofsky” (553). Indeed, with titles like “OK Everybody Let’s Do the Mondrian Stomp” (containing such lines as “small red block / beside a long / white block” [Heller 2012, 4]) or the four-line poem “To My Auto Horn” (which reads “Be beep // preserve / my / radiance” ), these poems capture the unbounded creativity of improvised jazz and the repetitive thematics of that heady era, as well as some of its more self-indulgent tendencies. Thus, the primary interest of these early poems is of witnessing Heller’s evolution, and suggestions of his eventual maturation, juxtaposed with the initial approach of certain themes. “Weather Eye,” for example, shows, in its crystalline language, a meditation on the relationship between word, world, and self, particularly in the captivating lines “All things written / in their own lines // perhaps we, one day … // a resembling // the rhymes of many things // … convinced of a common // clarity // before it rains” (14).
Earth and Cave, composed in 1966 while the author was in transition from Europe back to the United States, is a remarkable book, published in 2006 in a handsome edition by Dos Madres Press, which contains both illustrations and prose interpolations between the poems (not included in This Constellation). This work, Heller tells us, begun in Nerja, was completed upon his return to New York City in the fall of 1966. The book’s introduction, reprinted here, points to his original intent: “These pages … are a quick register, haiku-like and notational, of the dissonances not only in the transformations I sensed going on around me” — meaning the political disasters of Franco’s Spain, then in its twilight — “but also of the twists and turns within me as a would-be-poet, semi-tourist, and sentimental traveler” (555).
Heller’s first full-length collection, Accidental Center, published in 1972, received high praise, most notably from Heller’s mentor George Oppen, who described its contents as consisting of “tone perfect poems.” Heller struck up a friendship with Oppen in the late 1960s, which also began a notable correspondence. By now, Heller had worked through his youthful approximations of others’ voices (Williams, Creeley, Oppen, Olson, and Zukofsky), but by that weird alchemy of influence managed to develop his own voice, which made its initial appearance amidst all the echoes and imitations of his forebears. Accidental Center is Heller’s first mature work and it contains, to date, some of his strongest poetry. The assurance of his voice is already apparent, and his work here is fully formed.
Interspersed among its pages are some poems beholden to the pressures of that experimentalist era (notably “Pressure” — reminiscent somewhat of Paul Blackburn’s work). There are also poems comprised of discrete sections, as Oppen often employs, but by now Heller already commands a fiercely original vision, one that at times borders on the surreal: “the way frost coats / a tree // to the finest tendrils / of its branches” (“The Cardiac Poem,” 57). Heller, in these poems, evinces a willingness to explore, always in pursuit of discovery, but at times also displaying a levity that refreshingly sets it apart from most other poetry with a metaphysical bent. He is in his first book confident enough to risk irreverence, playing against tradition, testing it. Always the poems’ integrity trumps the dictates of its idiom. Also apparent here is Heller’s gift for prose poetry, as in “Three Bar Reflections on John Coltrane,” the most impressive of which is the last:
History is a joke. Personal history: unfunny.
Knowing everyone to be serious when sick and banging
on the bed for some stranger, but that he should be
like ourselves. And come get drunk or delirious, falling
into someone resembles us. On this, the heart realizes
itself meaningless — its words have moved off beyond
their meanings, as in the music, the whorls of sound
are an eternal trope — an eternal equivalent. Not to be
admitted to my world — I come to his. (69)
The title of Heller’s memoir, Living Root (2000), reflects a dynamic everywhere apparent in Heller’s careful, attenuated writings, something that is at once fixed and ever-changing. The “fixed” aspect is, as Burt Kimmelman has noted, Heller’s Jewish heritage, something that, from the collection Knowledge (1979) forward, particularly Heller’s much-praised poem “Bialystok Stanzas” (originally published in Accidental Center and reprinted and unpacked by the author in Living Root), is an increasingly prominent aspect in his later work. That poem, subtitled “from a book of old pictures,” is a haunting meditation on Jewish identity in twentieth-century America — in particular, what it means to be tied to a heritage that is without place, in possession of an identity that at times seems fixed in textuality only. For Heller, the Torah and the commentaries upon it are central defining works holding together a people whose culture, post-Diasporic, consists of a continuous struggle to maintain cohesiveness and identity. This dichotomy within the fixedness of identity based in textuality and separateness from a place (an ongoing theme in Heller’s poetry from this era forward) binds the Jew to the written word, making the text into an almost living presence. From “Bialystok Stanzas”:
The scene filled with photographer’s light
The sparsely furnished room
In the corner of which
A china-closet Ark
The old men
Under green shaded bulbs
The prayers are simple,
To what they think larger
— the place almost bare,
The flat white light
Adds no increment
But attention (135)
Another poem, this one from In the Builded Place (1989), entitled “For Uncle Nat,” perhaps most succinctly summarizes Heller’s view of what it means to be a post-Diaspora, second-generation Jewish American:
… Not to make
Too much of it, but I know history
Stamps and restamps the Jew, our ways
Are rife with a momentary deliverance
May I borrow you for a moment Nat. We’ll celebrate
By twos, the world’s an Ark. We’ll talk in slant
American accent to code the hidden language of the Word. (274)
Because of the entwining of Jewish history and world history (and history as text, as narrative), the past is like the word: another living presence. Thus, the more Heller explores what it means to be Jewish, in particular a Jewish writer, the more memory comes into play in the poems.
This relationship between history and text for Heller has as a precursor the work of Walter Benjamin, a writer “whose thought,” explains Heller in Living Root, “flutters inextricably through my own work.” Heller writes of his first encounter with Benjamin’s work while living in Nerja: he found in Benjamin something that “paralleled my own early thoughts on the modern poet’s role one where the poet was no longer able to tell the tale of the tribe but rather had to relate the tale of the tribe’s uncertainty, of its adjustments and compensations to a transformed socio-political and cultural world.” Benjamin’s writing helped Heller to realize that the modern poet was adrift in what Heller calls “a field of disorientations and linguistic traps created by media, culture — the very arts themselves — and the debasement of thought and language in the public realm” (161), in particular the difficulty in language of capturing an increasingly elusive and fragile notion of truth.
In many ways, Heller’s next collection, the appropriately titled Wordflow (1997), represents a culmination (it was his first “new and selected”) of these concerns. The powerful “Without Ozymandias” is a gathering of artifacts treated as a poem, replete with stunning aphorisms and imagery that pulses with a newfound confidence:
Ink and effacement
— only companions
of last things owned
Sand has its texts
mica and feldspar,
stars and nestled bones
to write you to your shadow (This Constellation, 344)
In these later poems, Heller is more willing to trust the poem to its own logic and, I would argue, the poems from this collection forward are experimental in a more original way than his sixties output, more willing to challenge notions of what a poem can mean. With experience, confidence, and less need for caution, by now Heller knows the handholds and footholds well enough to turn his attention away from the immediate footing and gaze out at the distances below and above him.
Wordflow represents a major turn in Heller’s oeuvre. The books that precede it (Accidental Center, Knowledge, and In the Builded Place, from which Wordflow selects) might adequately be considered a kind of trilogy. Aside from another selected, Exigent Futures (2003), Heller did not publish another full-length collection until Eschaton (2009), some twenty years after In the Builded Place, and with that work Heller has arguably achieved his masterpiece, both a culmination and an enlargement of his major themes — history, memory, the limits of language and knowledge — and of decades of increased sophistication, maturation, and sublimity. In his notes, Heller remarks of the title poem that Eschaton “is from the Greek … meaning to be about last things. In some contexts, the word refers to a dramatic transformation of reality from what has been known or imagined” (564). Heller captures this transformation in poems rife with temporal shifts, quizzical ponderings, jarring transitions, and philosophical struggle, animated by an ever-incisive wit. The poems’ temporal awareness is often juxtaposed with the burden of history, their visual equivalent that of a tapestry or a mural. The collection’s opening poem, “Looking at Some Petroglyphs in a Dry Arroyo Near a Friend’s House,” questions the concept of language reduced to some idea of its own materiality, that is, as anything more than “just stuff and the proof of stuff” (385). The petroglyphs, a human record of a desire to communicate, are “just there, exposing all this / and we are deluded for thinking elsewise,” and it is only love of the world, of others that “is at the end of it” (386). In “On a Phrase of Milosz’s” (the phrase being “He is not disinherited, / for he has not found a home,” an epigraph on page 387), Heller remarks how “History has mucked up” language’s ability to “resolve” experience: “the words / on the way to language dangling possibility” (387; note the intentional reference to Heidegger’s book On the Way to Language, a study of the metaphysical properties of language). Words are at best potentialities; we cannot resolve language, Heller contends, because “Being is / incomplete; only the angels know how to fly homeward” (387). We cannot be disinherited, Heller implies, because we never had a home to begin with; we have always been stranded among the ruins of a discourse that cannot possibly bridge the gap between word and world. Yet what the words do afford us, Heller maintains, is a “desperate situation … clarified.” “The worst thing is to feel only irony can save,” Heller concludes, and one cannot help but feel the statement is directed at much of modern discourse, poetry included. “The worst thing,” Heller warns, “is to feel only irony” (388).
“Stanzas Without Ozymandias” (a recasting of the earlier “Without Ozymandias”), another of Heller’s finest poems, is inspired in part by the Shelleyan image of the broken statue of Ozymandias in the Egyptian desert and the desertscapes of southern Colorado, where Heller, a New York City native, typically spends his summers. Here, Heller utilizes the image of sand as representative of text: “grain fixed to speech,” “the geometer / who mourned the mirror’s lack” … “only the colorless semblances of their desires” (443). The word is a pale shadow of an already muted recollection of experience. Of this poem, Heller remarks: “The unwarrantable sermons are what that kind of natural world tells us — remembering that what we derive from that world is already our projection on to it.” The poem is ambiguous without losing any of its clarity and rewards repeated readings, as does “Letter & Dream of Walter Benjamin.” (This poem derives from and distils a much longer work, Heller’s libretto for the opera Benjamin, itself derived from Benjamin’s letters.) The italicized dream portion of the poem (“He climbed a labyrinth, / a labyrinth of stairs, / past other stairways / descending” [Heller 2012, 462]) is almost verbatim from one of Benjamin’s recordings of this dream. In the libretto, it is the very last thing said/sung. The poem appears to be an extended meditation on the Fall that is also a fall of language, the separation of language from object, as in “unknowable names” that should have been knowable, that might have kept us in an Eden of logos. Benjamin’s lamentations concerning politics and politicians, though they derive from circumstances quite dissimilar from our own, take on an eerie familiarity to our difficult times:
They too have created infinities, blind alleys, endless monuments to
iniquities, a multitude of pains for others to bear.
They will outlive their brief immortality and leave a grubby ration of
murderous hopes (460)
In the last poem of the collection, the stark, grief-stricken prose poem “Mourning Field, Note Card,” Heller addresses the tragedy of those events on that September day in 2001, a poem that defies clichés or unearned sentimentality. It was rightfully included in the major anthology September 11, 2001: American Writers Respond and to this day stands out as a heartbreaking meditation on that day’s implications, not just for the city or the nation, but also for humanity itself. For we are all, regardless of our separate identities, contained in this world and subject to history’s machinations, even in the smallest, imperceptible ways. Walking past the iron railings bordering the walkways of Union Square plastered with photos of lost family members, Heller observes:
... the faces of lost ones gazed out of photos. Grim details surrounded these: the company worked for, a floor in one of the World Trade Center towers, and saddest of all, identifying body marks, scars and moles. With words, the dead were being washed as in a funeral home, swathed in language, touched in secret places by words that only lovers or family members usually know. The disaster had traduced all intimacy. Similar photos and details papered the city. They covered phone booths and kiosks and were taped to the plate glass windows of storefronts and banks.
Like many faces on the notices, most of those in the park were young. They stood and milled around as young people do. And they spoke, and their writings on the long rolls of paper spoke, with that intensity only the young seem able to summon at such times as these. A few guitars were being strummed, playing old folk plaints of solidarity, weariness, and misery. Overheard, the thick canopy of leaves, black against the night, absorbed these sounds, compounded and cupped them in the sickly-sweet smell of incense and burning wax. The crowds had driven off the pigeons, but in Union Square, the notices of the dead flapping in the breeze formed a new immense flock of anguish and grief roosting together. (473)
Heller considers his obligation as poet to register these small, nearly imperceptible encounters, and he does so with exceptional acuity. The poetry on display in Eschaton is rare, striking, and subtle, and, as such, Eschaton registers the increasing refinement of this contemporary master. Moreover, Eschaton is also evidence that Heller shows no sign of slowing down; Beckmann Variations and Other Poems (2010) followed soon on its heels. This work in its original form consists of prose meditations and poetry on the paintings by German painter Max Beckmann. According to his notes, Heller based this poem on Yeats’s Per Amica Silentia Lunae, with its “interweavings” of poetry and prose, and its “ruminations on power and violence” (566), the same qualities Heller saw in Beckmann’s paintings. The thesis of the book is helpfully summarized by a quote from Beckmann included in the book’s first poem, “Space”: “If you wish to get hold of the invisible, wrote Beckmann, / you must penetrate as deeply as possible into the visible” (480). In the following poem, “Every So Often,” which consists almost entirely of quotations from Beckmann, Heller quotes the following: “Ugh, this unending void whose foreground we constantly have to fill / with stuff of some sort in order not to notice its horrifying depth” (481). The poems here find humanity populating its world with Gods and kings in an attempt to buffer themselves from the blind force of physics, and the unsettling knowledge that in fact no one is in charge. From the poem “The King”: “Kings bear the force of statuary. Statuary seals up the force of kings” (483). Beckmann Variations is Heller at his most existential; not since Beckett perhaps has there been as convincing a portrait of the remoteness of the world from human consciousness, the ineffectiveness and relative unimportance of human action and experience in relation to the vast experience of the universe or to geologic time. What is it kings do — “how can I still make the planetary systems tremble?” asks Heller. “Only by this — surrender” (483).
Heller’s achievement is having strived to express, if not that which is inexpressible, than at the least the expressible, in an original, insightful, and challenging way, in poems whose torsions with the ineffable manage to extract radiant nodes of poetic language that open up new vistas, new avenues of expression that can only be described as visionary. Heller sets a high bar for himself, and with rare exception, always meets his own strenuous criteria.
On Lori Anderson Moseman’s ‘All Steel’
Made up of three sections — “Teaching Tools,” “Labor Pools,” and “Work Cycles” — Lori Anderson Moseman’s All Steel builds a complex series of cause-and-effect-like inquiries. These inquiries are based on a trio of typological metaphors: tool (is to) genre (as) type of worker (is to) building or social space (as) month or holiday (is to) ritual. The need to process events, experience, and empirical reality emerges as the impetus behind classification and naming.
Surrounded by excesses of material and sensorial information, these poems, and people in general, seek a means of organization and compression. Language itself is a means of shaping currents of thought. Here, tools, buildings, holidays, ritual, careers, and genres shape — All Steel highlights this correspondence.
Both the large metaphors and the titles highlight manmade classifications. Within the scope of objects and categories, form reduces the range of possible responses and actions. For example, in the case of a hammer, there is a way of letting the weight of the tool fall to avoid tiring one’s arm, the resistance of its form to a punching motion effectively prevents people from using a hammer in such a way. The subtleties of genre make it more difficult to define in any concrete way. Thus, by positioning it against tools, All Steel invites the extension of a tool’s capacity to dictate actions to the way that genre may dictate modes of writing.
Titles in All Steel seem to test specific versions of the text’s larger juxtapositions. Thus, the sum of these comparisons becomes most solidified in the table of contents, where we can see title after title positioning a tool next to a genre:
Crooked Knife |
Spar Pole |
Axe Handle |
Core Bore(r) |
Increment Borer |
Drip Torch |
Paper Cutter |
Hoof Pick |
Through titles that bring together specialized tools and genres of writing, such as a “Drawknife | Testimonial” or “Core Bore(r) | Oral History,” the table of contents makes typological and comparative strategies visible before one even arrives at the first poem. Divided by a vertical bar rather than connected by the conjunction “and,” or even the semigrammatical “ : ” or “ :: ,” the table suggests that connection and comparison will be performed as a spatial activity.
Within moments and spaces of excess, such as the traumatic death of a firstborn child, or walking across the aftermath of a forest fire, categorization and naming become most necessary. I get the sense that Moseman passes material, source texts, sensory information, and memory through a sort of invisible sieve. In the opening poem, “Harrow | Melodrama,” the title, minimal and typological, is the result of sieving:
Nineteen and nearly blind, she runs
across fenceless acres to her husband.
He and mule are at the plow. No.
He’s at the rake. No. Must be the harrow.
She’s just learning each season’s blade.
Unsure even now as she runs to him,
dead baby in her arms — their first.
When she reaches him, they become
one-winged birds destined to fly
as a pair — broken nest in their beak.
The ground below always in need
of breaking, of poking, pecking. (15)
Beginning at the moment when an excess of emotion bursts into the range of an unplowed field in the form of a “she,” the poem describes a trajectory and reaction between a husband and wife. However, before we arrive at the final image — “they become / one-winged birds destined to fly / as a pair — broken nest in their beak” — the poem runs up against a listlike sorting of farm tools: “He and mule are at the plow. No. / He’s at the rake. No. Must be the harrow.”
Tools are sorted and classified by the “she” racing, “nearly blind,” across the field. Functioning as a series of attempts to place herself, the tools recede only to reemerge, by proxy, in the final two lines of the poem as “the ground below always in need / of breaking, of poking, pecking.” By this logic, the work performed between the harrow and its operator becomes embedded within the tool.
The absence of actual melodrama in the poem and proximity of “Melodrama” to “Harrow” in the title invite the extension of this conception of a tool to the realm of genre. The similarity of the plow, rake, and harrow, plus the possibility of mistaking them for one another — all three instruments mentioned in the poem are designed to tear through and loosen the topsoil of a field — call to mind the subtle distinctions between classifications of writing. Often overlapping and borrowing techniques from one another, genres function as tools in a space of writing by laying down a series of general expectations. These expectations allow some questions to go unasked; some possibilities go unexplored.
To the extent that a tool is designed to perform a particular function, it restricts and calls for particular actions — there is a proper way to drive a harrow or to swing an axe. Overwhelmed by material, text, sensorial experience, and memory, genre can function as a filtering tool by which the excesses can be processed and sorted. And indeed it is almost through genre or choice of a tool that one may begin, literally, to handle that which overwhelms.
Moseman’s frequent use of two-column structures also functions as a filtering mechanism. However, in these, connection is made where the poem seeps across the right margins of the column to bleed into the other. A reader is always faced with the desire to read both columns at once, but due to the impossibility of doing so, must settle for reading each poem twice — once moving left to right across the margin of the columns and again reading down each column — as in “First Tools | Fairgrounds”:
2nd wave [1978
axe – the first tool we’re issued on site
then, a rusty file to sharpen our blade
steel on forged steel – a skinned knee
we stroke unidirectional to the edge
drought hills our brittle California gold
we whittle underbrush arbutus strung out
we whack all day & boys stalk our thighs
count out militia songs hurl insults
until we swing a labyris their way
cane – the first tool we’re issued at home
the one granddaddy broke to poke his bore
tap tap we girls with our champion gilts
move them slow in front of the judge slap
the jowls the front quarter bruising shows up
on white pigs on a Hampshire’s white stripe
that thin beauty queen sash on a shoulder
roast) future farmers we parade market hogs
for the joy of slop and being singled out (41)
Parallel descriptions come together here despite, or perhaps because of, the length of time between 1978 and 2004. Beginning with two tools, the lack of punctuation (other than several em dashes) suggests that one might read each column as distinct until the sixth line, which runs over into the right column. The way the smooth left margin is displaced by the interference of the first column indicates that the line might have merged or have been replaced. Even if reading across the margins had not occurred to us before, we must do so now, and it’s as if an unnerving echo has introduced itself into the poem. When reading across the columns, we’re faced with parallel sentence structures and a sense of call and response at once.
It is a slippery sense of relation and commonality which All Steel builds in this poem. Leaving this reader tantalized, the text constantly eludes — there is always the possibility of something else, something one’s missed. The complexity of the work as a whole, with organizational and classifying structures shaping on several levels, and its innovative use of titles, keeps me diving in again and again — if not to grasp, then to be within the moments of these poems again.
A review of Jennifer K. Dick’s ‘Circuits’
Jennifer K. Dick’s third collection of poems, Circuits, tells us on the title page that it is a “rereading/revisiting of George Johnson’s In the Palaces of Memory,” a 1993 work of popular science. But the result is not an analytical kind of poetry. Circuits is a reminiscence of Dick’s adolescence and early adulthood, when she was learning to be a scientist, a career path that she would give up for literature — which means that scientific conceits provide the awkward and heated language of first loves and first abuses: “‘You’re getting along with science,’ her lover claimed, faded, ‘You want touch’” (73).
Behind Circuits is the idea that obsessed Johnson when he was writing In the Palaces of Memory: “Whenever you read a book or have a conversation, the experience causes physical changes in your brain. In a matter of seconds, new circuits are formed, memories that can change forever the way you think about the world.” Circuits is not about biology. It’s not about the relationship between our daily selves and our cellular selves. Dick makes no distinction between the substrate (brain or chip) and the experience that’s supposed to be inscribed on it or by it or through it. Neurons and dendrites have the same status and even the same “size” as the people and dishware of our memories. Everything is outside the body, soaking up an emotional charge:
Tubes measuring crackers, white flour, keeping like she, turning back to the clotting of blood cells called dislike and smooth hook. Together change occurs — is increased. Erythrocytes evolved in their cafeteria counters where students didn’t feel hungry. […]
Later — into the world, the other door band-aided sobs outside. Who knew she’d dine in the institutional hall? Through the tiny capillary? […]
“The A-cell is not a solid 40-weight motor oil,” she would say. “Language came. Was.” But then, waiting outside, she wrestled to bandage the skeptic looks of silver forks. Spoons’ ability to change openings. (4)
So a capillary can be walked through, erythrocytes can be stacked on tables, and a door can be band-aided, spurned and sobbing. The elements of the body join our landscape, a landscape that is, in turn, continuous with our bodies. Every object, being sensitive, is capable of knowing and remembering. Dick is not trying for strict metaphors. She’s giving all causes, from little to big, from physical to psychological, from inanimate to animate, from AI to I, the same scale and putting them on the same plane:
A neuron’s nucleus is located … Or perhaps a whole true central, genuine, as in origin, middle banded by beginnings, begging synthesized to produce the proteins, receptors, all the baseball diamond backgrounds over beers, country lanes, over you. (35)
Dick brings science down from Platonic skies, so that its content can get rained on or sunburnt like the people who make it. Science is done by humans, is a game of patterns played by humans. It comes from and returns to the human body:
Lynch’s lab once and for all staring at LTP in the Toronto Sheraton concocting the demise of the rival. No one was ready for theories yet — still in the if-then premise of a bit of irony, the coup de grace which could end its only winning hypotheses, inference by inference climbing a tower to nowhere. “We could be wrong,” he said one afternoon. (29)
The “We could be wrong” is one of Dick’s motifs, in a book where motifs act like enzymes, provocatively. The more I read over Circuits, the more it seems like a series of clues for a puzzle that cannot be enunciated. Facts are accepted because of pride, convenience, and, most crucially, intoxication. “Lynch wrote: implications for being able to focus. Lie” (39). The Lynch speaking here is named after the real-life biologist Gary Lynch, author of Synapses, Circuits, and the Beginnings of Memory. He pops up in a few poems, often to warn us that “one of the terrible things [is] to be selective” (27). He’s something of the mad scientist, the one who understands the dark corners of method: you can’t look closely at A without ignoring B. You can’t master C without letting D go to pot. And once you have your facts, then what? On this point, Dick is skeptical of any logic except the organic. If facts are lived and breathed, full of retribution and lust, then so is the logic that gets us from one fact to another. Details and half-stories sprout out or cluster, and the connection between them is sometimes as thin as a fiber. Because the organic is almost never linear, but a net or mass of the vaguely linear, Circuits is replete with passages, portals, gateways, diners, highways, restaurants, hotels. In this world, we are driven recklessly by the people we meet along the way. That is, if Circuits has an organizing principle, it must be whomever we love at first sight:
“Why’d you choose now and not some other?” she asked, curled up candlelit by the tie-dyed, batiked wallcovers. In the first dead-head’s minivan, stoned, PCP-laced, fields pitched … More complex networks. “The synaptic frequency is graphed against the other, harder-to-analyze,” they explained. This live blonde, this lanky US Championship, everything I’d ever met. (13)
Circuits does not try to locate itself in one place or one time, because it’s never sure where it will go from one line to the next. But it’s quite sure of how an event will be said. The book has an almost overwhelming lyrical voice. With that much drive, however, the eye can pass over some of the best lines without appreciating the details that make them brilliant. I suggest that the reader move upwards as well as downwards, randomly as well as conventionally, and take none of the networking for granted. I have called Circuits a lyrical book. What I mean is that it assembles all data points within desire. Memory might be the subject, but desire is Circuit’s logic and sine qua non:
“Tell me,” I said, “why light, as in toward night, masters emblazoned zones, enchanting theorists? Did the singing end?” (48)
A review of Calvin Bedient’s ‘The Multiple’
Calvin Bedient’s fourth full-length volume of poetry, The Multiple, realizes the lines of multiplicity initiated by his previous three collections (Candy Necklace, 1997; The Violence of Morning, 2002; and Days of Unwilling, 2008). These earlier collections suggest the plurality of experience by gathering and juxtaposing snapshots of perspective to insinuate the whole. The Multiple takes this approach a step further by explicitly pointing its particular sampling of reality’s permutations toward the infinite outline of the unexcavated majority. The poems of The Multiple are as interested in communicating the negative space of what can’t be captured as they are in the positive space of what can. Bedient’s unwavering fix on the subjectivity of everything unleashes a “huffing accordion commotion” whose implied poetic production spreads well beyond the constraints of the physical book that delivers them. “Becoming’s a broken idea,” these poems insist (16).
Bedient frames his text as a series of fragments drawn from not one, but a choir of indefatigable epics, whose sample size has been limited to the standard length of a contemporary volume of poetry. Bedient’s distinctive poetic timbre permeates these poems, yet he maintains a stance that is distinctly more curatorial than authorial. Bedient positions himself as an archaeologist — or perhaps more accurately an astrobiologist — listening for “a palmful of memory-pollen” to reformulate “the lost chord innumerable in the dark / hubbub of the stars” (47, 67). Just as the presence of exoplanets can be inferred by the gravitational wobble they induce on the observable stars they orbit, the restricted space established in The Multiple resonates with implied systems of unseen verse and unrealized sequences.
Indeed, to describe this book as a “collection” of poetry is to underestimate the complex relationship between these poems and their poet. An anthology of reworked translations might be a more apt description of “this thing come into my heart / many centuries old” (13). By presenting himself as the conduit rather than the origin, Bedient further emphasizes the inevitability of missing elements — and the primacy of negative space. Bedient boldly declares his fixation on the overarching specificity of everything.
Bedient’s typographical choices reinforce this sense of universal expansion. One striking example is the use of nine different typefaces to present the titles of the forty poems that appear in the text. As The Multiple progresses, many of these typefaces are additionally filtered through a variety of fonts. These typographical signposts label a series of poetic systems and sub-systems that extend and overlap those already established by the book’s three asymmetrically weighted sections. While the most abundant typeface is used to title more than half of the book’s poems, others, including the typeface used for the body of the text, introduce only a single poem. As a result, there’s a distinct sense that many poems are missing here, if not entire groupings. What might otherwise read as typographical frivolity outlines a web of resonance that establishes each poem’s membership in a series of interleaved groupings, both observable and implied.
These phantom limbs further extend themselves by overlapping those systems already established in Bedient’s previous volumes. For readers familiar with any of these three works, The Multiple’s “discriminate/indiscriminate rain” (59) might become the “unitemized rain” of Candy Necklace; The Violence of Morning’s “arrhythmical mass writing of the rain”; and/or “the imperial redundancy of rain” from Days of Unwilling. In this way, each of Bedient’s earlier books becomes a potential recruit in realizing the implied fragments of The Multiple.
While the text is filled with the sorts of finite moments that define the human condition, The Multiple rarely stops to muse for long on any single moment in the multidimensional field of experience. Bedient relentlessly underscores that each of us is “W E T C H A L K, / several, probably, WET / CHALKS swimming together” (54). There is no single reading of the self, no need for prolonged introspection, because the construct of “I” is itself understood as a collection of systems. This interplay, this hybridization and amalgamation of perspective — historical, personal, artistic, scientific, and imagined — allows Bedient to name the expansive negative space that exists between the pages, poems, and lines of The Multiple.
“This thing this thing this thing this thing,” Bedient intones as he launches into the recursive routine that closes the book’s opening poem (13). There is no feasible way to name the infinite except through such logical machinery. Bedient happily embraces that limitation from the outset. To insinuate the gestalt of perspective that necessarily ricochets from a singular “I,” these poems strive to make themselves “electric with you, / with you, pronoun so sweet and burning” (81). The inevitable result of Bedient’s inclusive “you” is an endlessly equivocal “I.” When it’s a historical figure, we see ourselves. When it’s an abstraction, we see a community of lovers. When it presents itself as the author, we necessarily suspect fiction. We’re never quite sure who we are.
It isn’t that Bedient eschews personal experience. These poems are littered with the leavings of individual perspective, including some we’re encouraged to suspect might be the author’s own. Even as The Multiple declares poetry of the personal irrelevant, these poems rely on a communal, disjunct slurry of personal particulars as the only available raw material for communicating what Bedient describes as “an impossible totality”. This tension between relativistic gestalt and quantum-mechanical particulars is explicitly addressed in the self-contradicting dialogue of “There are as Many Universes as there are Phrases”:
I can’t stop to explain
every little thing
to you, I no longer
write about the personal,
my theme is the moment
— bottomless, self-
destroying — and anyway
the door of the trailer has
opened she steps down
like a long-legged bird
testing a thawing river,
watches me play,
smiles, turns away. (31)
We can’t know if the particulars on the trailer steps are drawn from the personal experience of the poem’s “I” or not, especially given the speaker’s initial assertion that there will be no personal anecdotes. The second stanza might be read as a contradiction of the purpose outlined in the first. Alternatively, the experiences of the “me” might be read as a distinct offering from an alternate first-person perspective. The “me” and “I” are analogous and autonomous, both self and other.
Throughout the text, this equivocality of perspective establishes smaller systems of internal overlap, which mirror the larger systems established between poems. The Multiple relies on this ongoing ars poetica of contradiction to conjure its expansive landscape of ambiguity. The layout of this poem — twin stanzas arranged in columns that read vertically even as they adhere horizontally — emphasizes that uncertainty. This is personal, but it isn’t anyone’s personal in particular. Or rather, it’s everyone’s personal.
Against this backdrop of all-embracing perspective, “The Gordon Stewart Northcott Murders of Boys in Wineville, California, 1928,” provides an unsettling moorage for the epic fragments that both precede and follow it. The poem, the most distinctly narrative in the text, presents the gruesome particulars of the Wineville Chicken Coop Murders not to shock, but to insist that the totality proposed by The Multiple be taken to its logical conclusion. The interchanging perspectives of both perpetrator and victim are filtered through the second person pronoun “you” by an unidentified, authorial “I.” Bedient’s unflinching amalgamation of this narrative with all other narratives, including his own, emphasizes the depth of the plurality for which he argues. You are innocent; you are culpable; you are Gordon Stewart.
The poem appears on page thirty-three, one third of the way into the text. This central placement allows the presence of the poem to be implied well before it arrives, though its full gravitational pull is only realized retroactively. Over the course of the first thirteen poems, tropes of birds, butchers, axes, and eggs set the stage for this outpouring of terror, violence, and unexpected empathy:
We are suspect men birds earth wrists cuffed
bent over the hood of evening (15)
O doctors of the butcher-shop, the finger-painting on your aprons is
the masterpiece in my chest, I ignore it, I am salty like (21)
It was there that the headless chicken ran, excited with the news,
while your father stood unmanned in the yard
holding the short red skirt of the ax. (22)
Like bees that crawl on an egg hot from a hen’s ass
(they do not know what’s inside
they will kill this thing hot from the hen’s ass), (24)
the wave-shovels cannot pick up the dead duck fucking waves hats off
to the dead duck (26)
The violence in these threads registers immediately, but because the hard-hitting motion of “Gordon Stewart” hasn’t yet arrived, that violence is still situated exclusively within and between the systems of these earlier poems. The butcher, the father holding the ax, and the destructive bees are all positioned within a community struggling to understand this violence as an aspect of itself. If this community feels at times as though it might teeter into the depths, it also tempers that violence with a measure of hopeful resistance.
Once the poem announces itself, this earlier imagery is suddenly rife with unwanted particulars. It’s impossible not to see the unfettered violence of Gordon Stewart nested everywhere within these poems, within ourselves. Rather than allow this realization to drag the text into abject despair, Bedient employs “Gordon Stewart” as a hinge that allows this process of insertion to continue in both directions as the text proceeds. In the second and third sections, these tropes continue to push forward and morph into new threads that reinform not only our understanding of Gordon Stewart, but also the perspectives that precede the poem. The Multiple insists we struggle to integrate even our most disturbing potentials into any understanding of reality we construct.
Like the typographical systems established in the poems’ titles, the new communities that develop in later sections overlap without erasing. In this way, the coop that contains both the chickens and eggs of the first section provides Bedient with the communal prefix “co-” that informs the tenor of the second and third sections:
the sun scratches the tulips out of the dirt
“co-“ that makes sense,
“and” is a sovereign good (50)
The violence of Gordon Stewart doesn’t disappear, but instead is reversed and reapportioned as the book progresses. Here, it’s the physical violence of the sun that coaxes organic bodies from the soil. This isn’t a different violence. It’s the same violence from a new perspective. This communal dissection of the word “coop” continues in the third section with another recursive routine that suggests the word’s resonance with its heteronym “co-op” by repeating it until it begins to dissolve into its component parts (65). It’s no coincidence that the title of the poem where this repetition occurs is the only other to share its typeface with “Gordon Stewart.”
Again and again, The Multiple takes hope and despair on equal footing, enveloping both in its ever-expanding collection of particulars. Bedient rejects the primacy — and authenticity — of individual perspective. These poems embrace community in its totality, violence and all. They argue that acknowledging this totality is the only way to initiate a shift in our relationship to that violence. By acknowledging our communal culpability, we inevitably acknowledge the possibility of our own humanity. The Multiple employs the unlikely figure of Gordon Stewart as a vehicle to demonstrate how such shifts might occur. The bloodied axes, butchers, dressed carcasses, and serial killers of the opening section eventually morph into the scents, breaths, and purrs of the unfettered body calling out for a more hopeful mixture of community and violence: “or why not a moan from far-off sea-sucking clouds? / Why not love?” (76).
4. Bedient, “A Brief Interview with Calvin Bedient,” by Rusty Morrison.
From commodity fetish to form
Poetry’s capital is cultural: this “state of being / text,” for the polyvocal speaker of Cathy Wagner’s fourth full-length collection, Nervous Device, is the state of being “cave-droppings” whose center is a “stone-hole soup.” The valuelessness (as evacuated site, or shit) of poetic “unmoney,” however, is for the speaker no less valuable than economic capital (also symbolic), which, like language, conditions value: “The unmoney is structured like a / Money is structured like a language. / Give that thought some currency” (55).
Giorgio Agamben’s theory of language as the prototypical state of exception in which the sovereign (metalanguage) determines the boundaries for territories of mind makes poetic language’s exilic state under capitalism heavily ironic, when considering language as a foundational matrix of “inclusive exclusion” by which things accrue value by virtue of belonging and being named.
Labor (the third component of production along with land and capital), while referenced in classical political economics from Adam Smith to Marx, has been neutralized as well as concealed (reduced to quantitative variables of work and time), which is to say, abstracted: the logic of capital reducing labor to labor power and time (a commodity reduced to the effects of value produced, stripped of its concrete, qualitative specificity and historical reality). Modernist arguments for aesthetic autonomy, followed by leftist platforms (labor politics, civil rights) of the ’60s and ’70s, have been supplanted by those of neoliberal aesthetics and marketization, what the wry speaker of Nervous Device refers to as “The Autonomy of Art Has Its Origins in the Concealment of Labor,” a one-line poem in which the abstraction of labor is shown to be the genesis of poïesis (aesthetics, and the construction of self): “My heart beat very hard by itself” (32).
The speaker of “A Well Is a Mine: A Good Belongs to Me” (couplets of quotations that can be read as isolated fragments or microconversations) articulates the fear of essentializing difference within these structures (“Anybody here who’s de facto ‘black’?”), and speaking from outside of one’s nonidentical subject position: “I’m afraid to speak for anybody in a different identity category.”
The addressee of this poem, and others, is, in the funhouse mirror of globalization, the speaker, the faceless profit-monger of the 1 percent, and the other friends and foes in the room, in turns:
“Who is responsible for the oil spill in the Gulf?”
“And how many slaves will you need to maintain your standard of
living sans oil?”
“Can’t come to your birthday party, it’s my slave week.”
“Need categories of us.”
“A use for identity politics.”
“A use for identity. They also serve who only stand and wait.”
“Heidegger called them ‘standing reserve.’”
The splintering of this poem into citations substitutes authorial stance, however problematically, for polyvocality: these iterable speech acts without signature suggest that wage labor is bonded labor, exchanged in the marketplace along with the soft goods of subjectivity and sentience and (re)packaged for consumption as “identity” and “categories of us”:
“If some of us are to be slaves, it’s a good thing there’s this income
“It does make it easier.”
“A feudal system, stabilized —”
“By international trade.” (3–6)
The “I” of Nervous Device is internally divided: “I built this tone / ironically; that is, / it goes against itself.” This alienation of any “natural” unities (vocal, identitarian) under capitalism makes poetry an act of ventriloquism. From “Unclang”: “reaching two prosthetic limbs out as far as you / can on either side to grab something in front of you. You can’t grab / it but maybe you’ll take flight” (10–11).
The split between the “glamorous avatar” of exteriorized body-consciousness and the speaker’s own body is, in “Innocent Money,” posited as necessary equipage for a neoliberal subject (doubly so for a woman under capitalism, already alienated by exclusion from a linguistic or market category other than “not-male” or as an object of consumption and exchange). With hilarity, the poet appoints herself divider of her own personhood, and as distinct from a male subject, in the direct trade interaction between capitalist-entrepreneurs (and, as Nervous Device argues, exploitative wage labor between those market subjects without a product to sell other than human capital, unskilled labor, or, in countries controlled by the IMF, natural resources). “I must maintain / our separation, boys / so that you will continue to invest” — albeit founded on the commodified body’s dead, yet penetrable, form: “She is / I am handling / my carcass / with strings”; “I enter my carcass / to embrace you” (12–13).
In this poetic performance, Wagner shows the body to be not only metonymic of capital (a physical object possessed by self or other), but of the miasmas of self, character, voice, and “presence”: of, in short, art. If, however, owned (bought back, or repossessed), this very capital becomes the foundation of (literal) self- and body-possession, and by extension, time (the subject becomes not just a representative “I” but subject experiencing interiority through self-reflexivity: a sense of “herself”).
The creation myth of a fungible, late-capitalist subject (a bonafide “nervous device”), this collection’s central question is how poetic statement can remain nondiscursive “play” (“How can I knock be clear about my intentions”) after the incident of “Meaning / brutally dragged in.” Intentionality, here, is represented by the speaker’s choice “never to be obscure”: “I understand why I was: explaining / is a bore, and flattens lang, so, it takes experience to write a real poem / that is well-lit” (10, 66).
The transformation from commodified language and alienated subjectivities, produced by the corporate state or culture industry, to human capital, restored to the agency of the poet-producer, frees the speaker to “mean” nonsense (or resist fetishizing a totalized meaning): “I emerged from postlanguage // What’d I say? // Green clamp pulleywamp” (27). It also marks a shift from exclusively aesthetic to ethical claims: “refrain from all damn harm” (39).
The enactment of perception creates a schism between subject and object: “I split the sun into parts when I look”; “I was differentiating the page / From itself by writing” (72–73). This is the event of language, occurring after the sensory-somatic learning of a language (oral muscular activity), when language is meta-phored (symbolized) and begins to circulate as social currency.
Moving from “normative anomaly” (“The dummkopf vice / Gets me stuck on things, bad habit”) to innovation beyond the recombinatory guises of the lyric (as “prosody whore”) entails accepting that the goods poetry offers (perspective, position) are as solvent as what the speaker can offer the poem (form), necessitating — for actuality’s sake — union: :Voracious view, / climb tree from inside speedway, // willow, meet my will” (41, 50, 72). Nervous Device constructs sites in which the other, without prostheses, may appear (“I recognize you with surprise. / In this poem you are by yourself”) within the emergent field of (who knew!) verticality and color: “Blue probable/ should I look up” (70).
But before sentience, the bloodletting of the real: “Let miserere deep. / Be mine for air” (42).