Reviews

Leaving language

A review of Maureen Thorson's 'Applies to Oranges'

Applies to Oranges

Applies to Oranges

Maureen Thorson

Ugly Duckling Presse 2011, 59 pages, $13, ISBN 933254852

The experience of loss most often presents itself in the form of sensitivities: not just to the vacant space formerly taken up by the missing object — a beloved, an earlier way of life, a prized possession — but also to the environment we see on a daily basis. Almost immediately, the sense of deprivation starts to seek a new wholeness. The mind of the mourner looks around, attaching new weight and firmness to the previously inconsequential. In this sense, the rhetoric of the elegy is one of filling a void — looking for pattern, discovering surprising beauty in the trivial, and, most often, leaning on the power of utterance. We make speech and look for the patterning of language as a way of seeking a new totem, a new love that can replace what’s missing.

               You took off
with the oranges and spiders,
the endings and the plot, and left me
with the Zenith’s chrome housing,
the cruise ships in their moorings.
The tender tourists with their trinkets
and tight-fisted maps. The orphans
and beachheads, so lovelorn and solemn.
The satellites’ red signals. The hotel’s
common gestures. Once you were gone,
there were only these few things left.            (1)

Maureen Thorson’s first book, Applies to Oranges, functions as a project of elegy: a lyric sequence that tracks the speaker through a period of grief into a new semblance of wholeness. Located on a nameless tropical island, the poems inventory “these few things left” as the speaker moves through solitude and grapples with loss. At times the language is restrained, grafting the speaker’s interior state onto the environment that surrounds her: “Three months on, the stumps / remember being trees, waving in the wind” (14). Elsewhere, the sentiments of grief are directly owned: “I gather / your fallen phrases and soak in them / until my skin is wet with promises / that only one of us believed” (33).

Yet, as its title suggests, Applies to Oranges also maintains a consistent self-consciousness of the processes of language and of representation. The voice in these poems allows for the sentimental through the familiar rhetoric of loss: things used to be this way, and now they have changed. All the while, though, Thorson animates the poems with the awareness (and suspicion) of the linguistic mechanisms of mourning, like a grieving lover who can say, “I know everyone says this when they’ve lost someone, but …”

The object in Thorson’s title is the primary device for acknowledging the always-familiar in the language of loss. The word “orange” appears in nearly every one of the fifty-nine lyrics in the book. As a result, the elegiac process is thoroughly conscious of its own fruit: something is growing into fullness here, as the speaker gradually gains emotional strength after the beloved’s departure.

But still, a tension suffuses. The orange becomes a peculiar floating ghost throughout the book. It has considerable totemic value, but it is also estranged from its meaning. The very fact that the reader quickly learns to expect oranges on each page erodes the signification of the word. Orange. And consequently, this repetition becomes a value in itself: as when we seek comfort in loss, the words mean little, but saying them, over and over, is crucial.

Thorson’s grace with rhetorical strategies is immediately visible in her title. The phrase “apples to oranges” suggests the need to compare things, but also the inherent failure of doing so — the objects are not equivalent, so likening them is false. And the applying of “orange” to each of these poems performs a drama of repetition, intending to grapple with loss through the word’s very superabundance.

The arc of Thorson’s book runs its course from sadness to a new fulfillment, in keeping with the elegiac tradition. The act of consolation seems to have worked. But more alarming is the new absence that replaces it. By performing such an elaborate study of repetition, Thorson draws attention to another loss, as language risks the bleeding away of sense. In the end, these poems may elegize the words themselves, as they fall away from meaning.

At first, heartbreak made me beautiful.
My skin fluoresced. I hypnotized trees.
The orphans followed me around town,
drunk on my pain. I ate only my own
hunger, gave off a scent like bitter oranges
or chlorine. Loss left me strangely whole,
as if my sadness, were it strong enough,
could turn your ship around. That was back
when I aged. Now, like an astronomer
who seeks no first causes, but only to map
the connections pinned out over the sea,
I want to diagram the light that shines out
through the holes you pricked into me. (6)

The process of reading Applies to Oranges, at least at first, is a peculiar form of self-awareness. As soon as the patterning of “orange” on every page becomes evident, the reader’s focus begins to waiver: it is harder to pay attention to the content of the individual poem when you need to keep your eye on the single word that moves and flits around, that hides itself in the tall grass of the lyric. Like a callow reader who peeks at the end of the book prematurely to know what happens, one can’t help, upon turning to each new poem, first looking for where “orange” will show up. The reader becomes that edgy, partial person who mourns and awaits the return of the single, critical element to the island of each page.

For that expectant reader/lover, nothing else seems to matter. Thorson’s lyrics cleverly endanger themselves: for awhile, the reader can’t give full attention to any of the other rich substances in the poems — not the “horse opera” played on the Zenith television, not the orphans selling snow globes of “the whole island made in miniature,” not even the table “where / a hardbacked Sonnets from the Portuguese / stands idly tented in its orange binding” (37, 27, 19).

But gradually, the reader’s attention returns to the substance of the poem, to the actual world growing full on the page. One comes to notice the precious word as it recurs, without being arrested by it. Still, though, through repetition, “orange” can never again be a proper sign. Its recurrence makes an absence: the reader becomes too conscious of its artificiality, too aware that it arrives here, on the page, against its will. Orange — as fruit, as color — is no longer active in the poem; not in itself, at least. It becomes a shadow of its meaning, a shell — or peel, perhaps — the albedo of its former light.

The more time Thorson spends on the word, the more one wonders whether it is out of love, or out of hate. What can we do with this word any more? How can we use it again? But there may be a reason here, too. There is a freedom that comes when the sign breaks down from overuse. This, in a way, may be a stratagem for untangling oneself from the attachment to a lover: as if saying the name until it’s robbed of meaning might rescue one from love.

In his work on the elegy, Peter Sacks has suggested that one of the primary functions of repetition in the poetry of loss is as anáklisis, or “leaning-upon.” Thus, the bereaved finds a new thing to attach to, in lieu of the lost love-object, as “a form of verbal ‘propping.’”[1] While typically in elegy this work is performed by repeating the name of the beloved, Thorson circumvents this act of consolation, and moves straight into repeating the name of the stand-in. “Orange” is, in a sense, the name of the lost love, but it is also an absence. The word is used with full knowledge that it marks the spot that can’t be filled on the page, giving name to the unnamable. The speaker in Applies to Oranges simultaneously repeats herself in order to recover from the loss of the beloved, and repeats something other, as a way of getting out from under the weight of the beloved’s name.

This strategy is highly successful in terms of the character’s arc in the book. The early lyrics are etched with a sense of emotional deprivation: either in “a memory that won’t fade away” or in dreams of revenge: “I am reading up on horticulture and boats. / I am making a plan of attack” (14, 20). After the mention of “forgiveness” in the exact middle of the series, the speaker’s process of healing becomes more evident, admitting to “what I said or failed to say,” and finally acceding to “the demand that I get up and go” (39, 48).

But at the same time that the voice in the poems seems to recover, another element drains away. The elegiac use of repetition saves the speaker, but perhaps at the cost of the words themselves. This demise is inevitable: when we say a word too many times, its meaning blurs and breaks, even if its musicality heightens. We lose the sense for what we say in saying it over and over. And, while that loss might be a welcome one to the mourning lover, who needs to shed a certain skin, it carries with it a flouncing of language’s ability to mean.

Thorson is deftly aware of this bait-and-switch. In one poem she refers to her “handbook on the mechanics of gloom,” providing rules and methods for herself: “it shows exactly / how to ratchet up the melancholy / by accumulating neutral symbols” (29). But how long can symbols remain neutral, before their repetition bleeds them empty?

               We’ve found cracked gray pictures
gummed in albums, and stripped
them slowly, fed them to a fire
of blue-then-orange flames. We’ve
all hid our feelings in the greenery
and when the greenery whistled,
we set our phasers to terminate,
and — no quarter asked, none given —
made sure no words escaped. (34)

Elsewhere, when not destroying the words, she sends their meaning packing, shipping it off into the ether, much as the beloved has abandoned the speaker:

                           I resolve to exploit
these mnemonic boxes, their tapes
and reels and electric sparks, to transfer you
from one tune to another, spinning
like an orange into the cosmos,
lonely locus for twisting in the wind,
for recalling all the anger I can sing.            (47)

The strategy is a sound one, but it means death to certain faculties of language. Thorson’s poems move from observing the absence that she describes through language to acknowledge instead the absence within language itself. The sense of loss within the self is transferred to the medium of speech, and the loss now must be carried by language, with a hole where the meaning of orange used to be.

This is a masterful alchemy, albeit a frightening one. While Thorson plays with and gives in to the conventions and the succoring powers of the elegy, she also laces the form with its own destruction. What happens, then, if in order to shrug off the weight of one’s own loss, one must transfer that absence into language? What if the means by which we heal ourselves is to make a hole in meaning? Thorson’s sequence posits a chilling idea: that perhaps our own capacity to communicate — to love, to make poetry — is constantly being harmed by the losses we endure. In the end, the remainders in the poem are oddly ambivalent: “the things that fail are the only things that stay” (59).

 


 

1. Peter Sacks, The English Elegy: Studies in the Genre from Spenser to Yeats (Baltimore: Johns Hopkins University Press, 1985), 25–26.

The light of happenstance

A review of Colleen Lookingbill's 'a forgetting of'

a forgetting of

a forgetting of

Colleen Lookingbill

lyric& Press 2011, 64 pages, $12, ISBN 978-1-889098

In the first of five poems that share the book’s title, Colleen Lookingbill’s “a forgetting of” introduces the book’s alertness to the body as place and planet. Both domestic and cosmic, intimate as impulse and DNA but open as a portico, identity forms according to the unpredictable terms of mortality:

radiant once
our spiral lineaments
impulse here a portico
she who opens
safekeeping or because traces unfold (7)

Each of us is a “radiant once” whose illuminations burn against the clock, our brightness fed by the concentration and release of experience, knowledge, biology, and memory. This spare lyric suggests we tend to realize our radiance after its passing, the way a star becomes visible on earth years after its light dims.

The poem further implies, however, that to see ourselves as “radiant once” is less the consequence of nostalgia for youth than the reward of maturity and its keen vision. Here and in many ways, Lookingbill limns the celestial and the terrestrial to twist and expand Wordsworth’s proposal in “Ode on Intimations of Immortality,” which states famously “Our birth is but a sleep and a forgetting.” Lookingbill’s poetics sees more than just hints of immortality, but its primary concern is with the sublunary world of everyday things and actions — what we have to forget, all that slips our minds. “water bearer” begins with a witty invocation of the universal ordinary, the bland blindsidings of housework and family:

eternal familiar
river of rhythms
without sadness
more food and stories
wood against wood
bundled between us

all at once
everyone is up
ordinary domestic appliance
like a bell or
fresh coat of paint (11)

The expansion and contraction of attention under the pressure of daily expectations, like keeping house or leaving the house to interact with other people and scenes in the course of our errands, leads to creative immanence, a relatively peaceful way of living “clear enough / to go on looking” that will “save us from / a real fight” (11). Choosing our domestic battles — as well as picking fights — protects against real damage, irreversible conflicts — and prevents flight from our precious annoyances, the household noise that distracts from writing, which, like food and stories, is as necessary as water.

The book’s creation testifies to the mixture of drive and rerouting, purpose and accident the lyrics articulate so beautifully and varyingly. In an interview with Kate Greenstreet, Lookingbill explains she tried to publish the manuscript that later became “a forgetting of” in the 1990s, not long after she published her first book. Many years later, she brought the poems out again and into a writing group. There, she got the idea to include visual art, which created new contexts for the poetry and inspired further revisions. The production of the color illustrations nicely parallels some of the book’s meditations on time. Lookingbill explains the pictures combine “scanned assemblages” of photographs and layers of “visual ephemera that [she’s] collected” in a process she describes as “relatively low tech,” made with “the image program that came with [her] printer.” What strikes me about this sweetly apologetic description is the ways in which technology and circumstances contribute to art. Until very recently, color art has been prohibitively expensive to print for most poetry presses, and in the nineties, many of us were still marveling at the speed of our inkjet printers — a color printer capable of producing layered collage work was beyond imagination.

Yet the poetry seems unimaginable without them — they are not merely add-ons or supplements to the stripped verse. The collages keep in view what the printed page conceals: the palimpsestic nature of words and of identity. These interacting mediums further changed the poet’s view of a long prose poem that had been part of the original collection so that she welcomed a friend’s suggestion to break up the poem, which appears in urgent italics, interleaved among art and lyrics. Together, these mediums, each carrying multiple contacts with genre, consider the body’s experiences and the ways in which those experiences create and elude consciousness, periodically shuffling to make a self of consciousness.

These works recognize the body as a changing but specific biological materiality that matures and ages in patterns very different from the linear rise and fall accompanying evolution and history, like those chronologies we’re given in textbooks to help us imagine the progression of literature or the important years in an author’s life. In “near the coast looking out,” who we are and how we become resemble “handfuls of spindrift / unwilling in every direction,” part of a process “too rapid for intervention” (10). This process includes the random quality of attraction, impulse, and memory. Throughout, the poems track the attendant consciousness of one’s body as it recognizes and responds to the condition of living as a visible object in a land of scopophiliacs, a body marked by sensory and linguistic contacts, the looks and remarks offered about one’s appearance and its meaning.

In “glimpsing venus,” Lookingbill remarks with good-natured wit on the always-already over-read occupation of gender — of being a woman writing in a time of writing the body: “writing female subjectivity introduces a shift in the allegorical as / our body approaches void and tension” (14). Here, Lookingbill laughs at the critical discourses that read women’s writing as only either a subversion or a reiteration of traditional representations of “female subjectivity” we glimpse in the mythical (and planetary) Venus. These interpretive frames encase the body in theoretical, cerebral territory — “subjectivity” is a far less vulnerable state than being a person, especially an American woman. Such forms of intellectual armor may only jostle the gender scripts of western civilization, but they can also provide real sanctuary for the woman writing — or, really, any woman wedged into the impossibly tiny space for social approval allotted mature women, who must find ways to wrinkle “without / seeming eccentric or deficient” (15).

In “she is laughing,” the sense of meta-selfhood pronounced in critical theory gives the speaker command of her own narratives:

our heroine crowded among cupboards
and an old paint box, waiting house of poetry 

better to say we are alive, completely invented
while etymology wanders among
more suitable artifacts (35)

These moments don’t dismiss feminist hermeneutics or literature, only note what they’re up against: “sparks of opulence amid extreme scarcity” (14), a scarcity often disguised as the abundant fulfillment of romantic love. At the heart of romantic ideals lies the pleasure (and fear) of looking at a beautiful person and being seen as beautiful. The literal and figurative ways we are seen keep us all caught in the web that caught Venus and Mars — the net of Hephaestus — as well as the web holding the romantic and intellectual promises of the internet, those often championed for offering a disembodied (and therefore safer and more neutral) identity.

What makes the book tick, though, is that it doesn’t settle on one theory of beauty or selfhood or the body or mortality. The assemblage of forms, voices, and images allows a panoramic consideration of identity, of selfhood as something we inhabit and abandon and to which we return through different doors at different times and in different ways. Theoretical consistency is no more a priority than style or genre, although the book holds together well. I would never have guessed the circumstances and long history of its making. The line “impulse here a portico” from the first “a forgetting of” sets in motion the book’s multiple lines of consideration — the many wrinkles in concepts of self and experiences of life. “Impulse,” impudently,” and “impulsively” show up throughout the book’s first half to circle questions of free will and self-making. Dostoevsky’s underground man contends that whim or impulse provides the only real evidence of a self independent of biological, environmental, and even economic imperatives to survive and triumph. Our ability to sabotage ourselves on impulse, for Dostoevsky’s sad fellow, is our greatest asset. Impulse seems equally important in “a forgetting of,” but not because it can defy the self that’s programmed to survive at all costs.

For Lookingbill, impulse echoes divine consciousness that is an escape from self-consciousness, a forgetting of self. It is pure intention without object, energy overriding aim. Impulse is “she who opens” into possibility, a doorway into immortality: “I have a feeling I am responsible / happenstance is all light anyway” states “she is laughing” (35). Impulse disrupts and delights, opens and connects — it is the residue of creation and the substance of friendship, too. Friends, like poems, are the porticos in which we live and through which we enter ourselves. “where you find me,” one of my favorite poems in the collection, recounts friends’ contradicting opinions that body forth their personalities in mere phrases. The poem concludes, addressing them and the reader, “relax half of me in last year’s calendar / tethered to an offering meant only for you” (46). Readers of “a forgetting of” will feel, as I have felt, this sense of private connection, of having received a personal gift, the lingering light of happenstance.

The landscape at present

A review of Joseph Massey's 'At the Point'

At the Point

At the Point

by Joseph Massey

Shearsman Books 2011, 103 pages, $15, ISBN 9781848611665

Joseph Massey’s second ‘full-length’ collection of poems, At the Point, expands on the work in his previous Areas of Fog. While that collection’s detail of and attention to place finds a natural extension in At the Point, this collection finds not just an increasing awareness of the immediate presence of the Californian coastal landscape where he lives, but an active restraint in the face of the landscape. In the earliest lines of “Found”:

There’s little
to say. The landscape

overwhelms an impulse
to speak. (33)

Here, these first two couplets are devoted to the impulse ‘to say’ — an impulse found throughout At the Point. Yet this impulse is overwhelmed by the sheer fact and immediacy of the landscape. Accordingly, the poem then turns its attention outward, and becomes filled with all manner of sensory experience. The visual sense is marked by the openness of sky and time, while vaguely recognizable sounds filter in to the field of perception:

… Sky clouded

by cloudlessness.
Almost dusk.

A dog or a child’s sound
ricochets through the park.

And the ocean’s drone
drones.

Indeed, the focal point in these lines rests with the presence of both the geographic and sensate terrain, which lends the poem its real force. In Massey’s refusal to speak for the landscape, the world is left with its own sense of immediacy and power. While the “impulse / to speak” is acknowledged in the opening lines, this impulse is restrained in the face of the overwhelming presence of the landscape itself. There’s no melodramatic touch lent to the lines; there’s no symbolic import: the quiet insistence of the world speaks for itself. At the poem’s close, we are left with the acknowledgement that:

… The impulse

is enough.

Though the poem’s core is framed by an admission of the desire ‘to say,’ Massey’s refusal to take something awayfrom the environment by speaking for it and bringing something else into the space of the poem, marks a crucial aspect of Massey’s work in At the Point. Here, it is enough that the impulse itself exists; nothing more need be said.

A similar moment appears in “The Dunes.” After a handful of couplets given to the description of a beach and the debris found there in the morning, Massey writes:

The panic
that would

pull me
under

somehow
recedes as

something’s
shadow

clambers
from a tire-

flattened
tuft of

bush lupine. (66–67)

Again, we find the recognition and tension of the meaning-making self again giving way to the sheer presence and fact of the surrounding environment — in this moment, a shadow clambering “from a tire- // flattened / tuft of // bush lupine.” Massey navigates the temporal space in which the environment and the self take part. In this space, little is fixed. Yet what remains is the fact of the world itself, its presence in the face of all else. In the tension between determining how much of the self must reside in the poem, similar questions arise — how much of this self must appear in the landscape about which Massey is writing? How much of this can actually be conveyed by the language of a poem? And how much of this can appropriately be conveyed by the language of a poem?

Speaking to that, here is Massey’s “Forming” in its entirety:

The languages
we dream —

their dissolution
into morning’s

striations,
what scores

the contours
of the room

we find ourselves
breathing in —

how they leave us
without speech,

in pieces — a part
of the pattern

day consumes
to become. (44)

Massey’s attention to place throughout At the Point rests in the geography of the landscape. And the landscape that Massey’s collection depicts is constantly in a state of having been altered. That language too can alter a landscape, Massey is aware. In his poems, we are conscious of presence — that of the world, and of humanity. We read of debris and trash as often as of the beach, grasses, or sky. Still, in this there is a kind of coexistence.

This is what I find to be one of the singular achievements in Massey’s collection: that for all his attention to presenting the tension between the natural and manmade worlds, there is still an acceptance of each of them. In this way, Massey focuses our attention on the actual, without dragging along a bunch of other baggage. In his poems the manmade and the natural coexist. At the Point gives us a world where we constantly run up against the question of how much is too much. It embodies the impulse to resist going too far. And yet we find that in places where we have, there is still a kind of understanding in a world where:

              cobwebs
embody a breeze
              neither of us feel. (54)

'The problem with being numerous is a problem of memory'

A review of Joshua Ware's 'Homage to Homage to Homage to Creeley'

Homage to Homage to Homage to Creeley

Homage to Homage to Homage to Creeley

Joshua Ware

Furniture Press 2011, 84 pages, $12, ISBN 9780982629932

In a certain sense, to write an homage to something or someone is to admit a failure: one has neither the initiative, creativity nor means to attempt to create something new, something less overtly indebted to one’s specific interests. Paying homage displays a writer’s embrace of influence — especially artistic influence — and posits that it is so pervasive in our contemporary culture, so slyly insidious, that to try and write anything other than an homage (of some sort at least) is to be willfully, woefully ignorant. The sentiment here is that nothing is new under the sun — nothing has ever been new under the sun — and, consciously or not, every writer writes nothing but homages of varying degrees every time he or she sets pen to paper, finger to keyboard.

Winner of the 2010 Furniture Press Poetry Prize, Joshua Ware’s Homage to Homage to Homage to Creeley acknowledges the above postulation in a variety of often jarring ways, ones rarely seen in contemporary American poetry. “I believe in secrecy, that is, in the power of falsity, rather than in representing things in a way that manifests a lamentable faith in accuracy and truth,” Ware — by way of the influential French theorist and philosopher Gilles Deleuze — writes in the poem “bringing you closer to what you speed from.” This belief, then, permeates the entire collection: that which is secret and unknowable is more poignant and powerful than something wholly open-faced, glaringly transparent, and thus representative of a “lamentable faith,” one arguably half-didactic.

Going back over fifty years, the lineage and history of Homage to Homage to Homage to Creeley is half-complex, but it can fairly easily be reduced to two key players: poets Jack Spicer and Rod Smith (and not the poem’s namesake, Robert Creeley, whose person and work is not directly referenced or mentioned in any of the three works). In his 1960 collection The Heads of the Town up to the Aether, West Coast Renaissance poet and noted contrarian Jack Spicer wrote the initial “Homage to Creeley,” a long poem that made up a third of the content of The Heads of the Town up to the Aether. Dedicated to Jacques Cegeste, a character in Jean Cocteau’s film Orpheus (part of Cocteau’s famed Orphic Trilogy), Spicer’s “Homage to Creeley” discourses often tantalizingly obliquely on a variety of subjects: hell, Joan of Arc, the American novelist Booth Tarkington, the sound of the voice of Cegeste, and, perhaps most pertinently, the various loves and would-be-loves of “The Poet” (“Love isn’t proud enough to hate / The stranger at its gate / That says and does / Or strong enough to return … What was”).[1] Spicer’s “Homage to Creeley” is essentially a clever, caustic farce, one that often references its own “failure” (especially with regards to the direct, open-faced nature of what Spicer believes a proper homage poem might consist of). Poetically the most interesting aspect of the poem is its set of “Explanatory Notes”: directly beneath each lineated portion of the poem there is a solid black line and below it, in prose, an “Explanatory Note” that ostensibly purports to explicate the lineated work above it. Yet — in typical Spicer fashion — many of these “Notes” roundly refuse to elucidate anything for the reader. In contrast, some of them go out of their way to further complicate matters. With the lineated portion of the poem reading in its entirety “Our father that art in heaven / Christmas be thy name / Our father that art in hell / We’ll tell / Them,” the “Explanatory Note” for “ Prayer for My Daughter” reads, in part, “Jim discovered Christmas and the diamond in the back of the diamond. In spite of The Poet’s invention of his name … Hell is where we place ourselves when we wish to look upward. Eurydice and Orpheus and Hermes were all simpleminded” (274).

At just thirty-one pages, Spicer’s “Homage to Creeley” poem is fairly short and — with the exception of the distinctive, deceptively playful “Explanatory Notes” — in the context of his entire oeuvre not particularly notable. But Spicer is a poet that since his premature death, in 1965, has become increasingly widely read outside his adopted hometown of San Francisco. His “Homage” captured the attention of a multitude of different poets, one of them Rod Smith. Included as the last section of his 2007 book Deed, Rod Smith’s “Homage to Homage to Creeley” is, at just five pages, far shorter than Spicer’s poem. It essentially takes up where Spicer’s poem left off, albeit forty-seven years later. In the penultimate poem of the section, “The Life of a Dime,” Smith writes in the lineated portion of the poem:

“A dime does not think.
This makes it enigmatic.
The dime thinks “I do not think”
“This makes me enigmatic”
A bad poet might then write
“A penny for your thoughts”
This would not be worth a dime”[2]

In the accompanying “Explanatory Note” for “The Life of a Dime” Smith (just like Spicer before him) roundly refuses to explain nearly anything about the poem that sits above said note:

              The erotic idea of a or the erotic dime is a dense erotic eroticism of erotic
longing says the bread & circus thief to the analyst, erotically.

Old dimes are removed from circulation & treasured. Or melted down.

Does this resemble consciousness? I still love you.

Taken as a whole, “The Life of a Dime” presents many of the hallmarks that Spicer’s “Homage” poem did. Pervading in it there is simultaneously an ironic slyness — “The dime thinks ‘I do not think’” — and an unreserved earnestness —“I still love you” — that endearingly mystifies the reader, plain and simple.

Sans an “Explanatory Note,” Smith’s final “Homage to Homage to Creeley” poem, “pour le CGT,” reads in its entirety: “We work too hard. / We’re too tired / To fall in love. / Therefore we must / Overthrow the government” (87). The CGT being the French General Confederation of Labor, one of the major trade unions in France, “pour le CGT” ends both “Homage to Homage to Creeley” and Deed on a wholly satisfying note, one that of course answers a question that has yet to be asked. On a syntactical level the poem is straightforward enough — but why exactly is the poem dedicated to the French General Confederation of Labor? Why not “Overthrow the government” here, there and everywhere? Like Spicer before him, Smith isn’t telling, and although the black line across the page is still there, “pour le CGT’s” “Explanatory Note” is left entirely blank. Within the context of the now-established “Homage to Creeley” tradition, however, one can’t help but desire it any other way.

Ware, then, does both Spicer and Smith one better. Consisting of three sections and over double the length of “Homage to Creeley,” Homage to Homage to Homage to Creeley continues the set “Homage” formula — lineated poem with accompanying “Explanatory Note” — but in many ways extends it even further than Ware’s predecessors did. The book begins with a dedication page to “Jack Spicer’s Ghost and Rod Smith,” a dedication that it is immediately made clear is little more than a “ploy to fill an unspecified function. While unspecified, the ploy’s failure should evident, nonetheless, to readers.” Whereas Spicer invoked the persona of “The Poet” in his “Homage to Creeley,” Ware utilizes “the poets,” and he furthermore plays up the nature of his debt to Spicer and Smith. Language from and allusions to Spicer’s work show up throughout, whereas Rod Smith’s persona is a recurring figure in the book, albeit one that — via the same dedication page — “is a pseudonym for a former lover of the poets; the proper noun Rod Smith is not a reference to the poet Rod Smith.” Over the course of the collection Ware plays up the always tenuous nature of identity, both poetic and literal: in the “Explanatory Note” of a later poem he writes, “The poets once asked: “Why should you assume that ‘the poets’ are us? We have almost nothing in common.”

Homage to Homage to Homage to Creeley is a dense, occasionally openly divided volume: the word ripe does not do justice to how many historical, political and poetical references are encased in the book. In its first section, “Termination Shock,” one learns how “[French theorist Jacques] Derrida’s concept of grafting” can be understood poetically, the significance Bob Dylan’s motorcycle crash on July 29, 1966, had on “the poets,” some of the often-nonsensical rules —“Keep your Nails clean and Short, also your Hands and Teeth Clean yet without Shewing any great concern for them” — included in George Washington’s 1748 tome Rules of Civility and Decent Behavior in Company and Conversation (Washington’s stern visage appears on the cover of Smith’s Deed), why “the poets” reject gravity as a “once-upon-a-time story,” and the nature of mimetic art in contemporary society. And all those references appear in just the first half of the book’s first section, each in a separate “Explanatory Note.” Many of the lineated poems in the volume, then, are lyric in nature, some ringing with homophonic language. Taken from the poem “The form it now maintains is only the illusion of fullness,” the phrase maple tree appears as “May / pull tree”; in “at any moment. / What else” the word elegy reads: “Elle, O gee!” Ware’s reasoning for incorporating such phraseology is no doubt one of expectation, or rather the thwarting of such. When reading a poem (or piece of prose, for that matter) the reader expects to see the word maple tree exactly written as such; elegy is elegy is an elegy. Yet homophones force the reader to understand each word and phrase in ways rarely encountered. In the “Explanatory Note” to “Blushing to a Concrete City,” Ware discusses Louis and Celia Zukofsky’s homophonic translation of Catullus, a translation that endeavored to capture “the sound, rhythm, and syntax” of the original, “instead of replicating its semantics,” and in many of the homophone-based lyric poems in the book Ware attempts a linguistic complication of a similar sort.

This is the same out-of-the-box reasoning that dedicates Homage to Homage to Homage to Creeley to “Jack Spicer’s Ghost” and a “Rod Smith [that] is not a reference to the poet Rod Smith.” And just like Spicer and Smith before him, Ware very rarely directly explains each lineated poem in the included “Explanatory Note.” Homage to Homage to Homage to Creeley thus asks something different of its readers than most poems or volumes of poetry tend to, and there is really no one way to “read” the book; its multiplicity is seemingly endless, and the fact that so much of its “poetry” is actually in “Explanatory Note” prose further aggravates matters. There are also — somewhat problematically — no page numbers included in the collection. One can’t recommend to a friend the poem “Eris” “on page 74”; instead he or she is forced to mutter, “I really liked the poem ‘Eris’ — it’s kind of near the back but not all the way at the end.” Although again thwarting reader expectation, the lack of page numbers in Homage to Homage to Homage to Creeley is the most frustrating aspect of the book since — unlike every other linguistic, conceptual, and poetic device Ware utilizes throughout each of its three sections — there seems to be no clear aesthetic rationale behind it.

A number of quotes in Homage to Homage to Homage to Creeley might encapsulate the volume as a whole, among them: “Poetry … should be considered a multiplicity if one has any chance of understanding it, or better stated, moving comfortably through and within it” (“cities / thought becomes”), or: “The problem with being numerous is a problem of memory: everything eventually dissipates … no matter how well documented. Something new emerges” (“A Kiss Less Consecrated”). The two most pertinent to the collection, however, appear in “But, Since I Am a Dog, Beware My Fangs,” the final poem of the first section of the book. In the “Explanatory Note,” Ware quotes two statements made by the conceptual American artist Sol LeWitt. The first reads: “When words such as painting or sculpture are used, they connote a whole tradition and imply a consequent acceptance of this tradition thus placing limitations on the artist who would be reluctant to make art that goes beyond the limitations”; “Illogical judgements (sic) lead to new experience,” states the second. Within the context of the lineage, scope, and form of Homage to Homage to Homage to Creeley, it is of course no accident that Ware chose these two LeWitt statements to quote. “When words” alludes to the fact that the book Ware has chosen to write is one that simultaneously accepts and reacts against “tradition” and “limitation.” By writing a volume so firmly entrenched in the “Homage” mode as written and conceived by Spicer and Smith before him, Ware accepts, even flaunts, tradition’s necessity. Yet at more than double the length of Spicer’s initial “Homage to Creeley,” not so subtly dedicating itself to “Jack Spicer’s Ghost” and a “Rod Smith” that “is not a reference to the poet Rod Smith” (one that instead is “a former lover of the poets”), Ware’s Homage to Homage to Homage to Creeley insists that the “limitations” placed on his work will be ones negotiated and accepted by him and him alone. And “Illogical judgements (sic) lead to new experience” by virtue of their sheer newness: elegy is not spelled “Elle, O gee” but one appreciates the word differently when it is done so; “Art / amiss” forces a different understanding of Greek goddess Artemis’s possible being and nature. Ware thus plays up the infinitude of language’s every possible permutation, and Homage to Homage to Homage to Creeley’s reader comes away with a greater respect for language’s elasticity and durability as a result of his frequent manipulations.

Involved, long, occasionally obfuscating, Homage to Homage to Homage to Creeley is not a book for everyone (is any?). What Ware accomplishes in the collection is noteworthy, however, especially in terms of how refreshingly distinct the Homage is relative to so much contemporary American poetry. Ware dares to forgo what Tony Hoagland describes as the prevalent current aesthetic of “goofiness, with its quick-sequenced non-sequitur enactment of clever, addled adolescence,” or simply “cluelessness” as a “characteristic pose[s].”[3] Although Homage to Homage to Homage to Creeley is only his first full-length collection, Ware’s is a voice that heralds something more forceful, something new, and perhaps eventually something that shall garner an “Homage to Ware” work of his own. And a failure his Homage is not.

 

 


 

 

1. Peter Gizzi and Kevin Killian, eds., My Vocabulary Did This to Me: The Collected Poetry of Jack Spicer (Middletown, CT: Wesleyan University Press, 2008), 261–274.

2. Rod Smith, Deed (Iowa City: University of Iowa Press, 2007), 86–87.

3. Tony Hoagland, “Blame it on Rio: The Strange Legacy of New York School Poetics,” The Writer’s Chronicle, September 2011, 80–84.

The poetics of patience and mutiny

A review of Carmen Giménez Smith's 'The City She Was'

Carmen Giménez Smith (left) and Julia Cohen (right).

The City She Was

The City She Was

by Carmen Giménez Smith

University Press of Colorado 2011, 64 pages, $16.95, ISBN 978-1-885635-19-8

We have the terror of collectivity. And then we have the joy of collectivity. Carmen Giménez Smith reminds me that frenemies lurk around the Hard Rock Cafés of any city. But she also reminds me that we don’t have to go to the mall alone to pierce our ears and I’m relieved. And when we return to our homes and look at our freshly pierced ears in our solitary mirrors, Giménez Smith’s poetry forces me to confront the fallibility of the self, how “the houses project their occupants.” Her poems are riddled with both acerbic acceptance and sincere longing for transformation, so they live in a constant or conflicted state of attentive revision. She writes: “We’ll live off the grid. We’ll live sort of off the grid and spend too much money on organic marmalade.” She writes: “Some of it will be true and some of it will test what we know.” Giménez Smith’s newly released fourth collection of poetry, The City She Was, tests what we consider comfort, how we approach or appreciate disguises, how we recognize forgiveness, and whether smugness is our nation state.

Comfort: If we’re comfortable with the familiar, the expected, then what happens when we become aware of the staid quality of existence? Giménez Smith examines this strange purgatory and illuminates the various voices struggling to decide, on a very basic level, how to live. In the titular poem, she writes:

The day is bare as white,
so I stay inside
lest the wind change me.
I sort my miniskirts to trade
with skinny girls at Buffalo Exchange.

Here, the speaker retracts from an outside that might inflict unwanted “change.” This possible, uncontrolled transformation contrasts the safe alternative of considering what clothing items might be out of fashion and ripe for exchange. Irony and sadness emanate from the recognition that trading attire could be considered “change,” but not one that welcomes the unexpected or is removed from the dictation of current trends. The decision is safe and it’s hard to resist safety. “This could get serial,” Giménez Smith threatens.

If we choose to read the collection as housing multiple voices, then Giménez Smith never fully sides with any particular speaker. If we choose to read it as one voice, layered through the complexities of human inconsistency, then we’re given a candid battle between will and awareness, need and excesses of desire, compliancy and risk. The poems that grow from discomfort abandon the familiar for a more startling adventure. In the first poem, “For About Five Minutes in the Aughts,” the speaker is defiant, confrontational, and explains, “Pills / made me shaky, but I filled myself with pills because they made me shaky.” In contrast to the prior excerpt, this narrator does not avoid a level of potential distress. The altering experience is worth the adventure, and the exposure to newness, to this modification, becomes the primary reason for engagement.

Disguises: Puppets, apartment ghosts, hair, and costumes embody and animate the emotional landscape of The City She Was. Giménez Smith investigates how much of the daily is artifice and whether deception and authenticity can simultaneously share space within this city. In “The Walk,” the female character recognizes the fakery but then becomes complicit to its puppetry:

That’s the way a walk renews —
she makes her way through
the imperfect city and discovers
how the world is people
with hand puppets. People who shiver
metal sheets for thunder,
and then she squints her eyes
to fuzz it more, to prettify.

She notes the people creating false interaction with hand puppets and the unnatural thunder booming from ground level. Yet, the discovery stagnates when she chooses to squint “her eyes / to fuzz it more, to prettify.” Disguise instigates denial.

In “Under a Wan Sun” and “The Grand Tour,” however, disguise is the springboard that enables invention. The first stanza of “Under the Wan Sun” begins:

Blue gets plucked from the dresser for today’s
costume. I’m feeling demure, so I want
the faux-priss of the opera-princess-drag queen.

If we’re dissatisfied with or feel trapped in a particular behavioral pattern, costumes offer a device to extricate ourselves from a pervasive mood. The speaker shifts from being reserved and shy to embracing a flamboyantly gender-bending stance. Freedom from expectation. “The Grand Tour” considers how artifice could actually evolve authentic love:

I want to be the thinking I invented last night,
but I’ve already run out of disguise.
Instead it’s some amour, plush velvet,
some pretending to read Proust. We’re propping
up the corpse of romantic love.

In this instance, disguise allows the rethinking of non-romantic love. After it “runs out,” the corpse comes back. When available, disguise offers the space for experimenting with a new, undefined kind of love, possibly one that can flourish when the energy of “propping up” the old is redirected. Giménez Smith asserts, “my costume, my itinerary,” and thus, the clothing’s performance transforms into a journey of unexplored territory.

Forgiveness: If we are to be forgiven, if we are to boldly ask for forgiveness, then to what are we admitting guilt? And do we need to distinguish the self from the other in order to ask this of someone else? Forgiveness is concerned with the boundaries of identity and how it permeates the edges of our temporal location to transform notions of the self. The poems of The City She Was confront the reader with the voice(s) of someone who recognizes and relishes a distinct selfhood, yet finds culpability in its behavior. Giménez Smith contradictorily admits:

I am blameless but not blameless.
I am pristine but not pristine.
I am hugged but not hugged,
all of us not hugged. All of us teem
with shame but most of all me …
These halting plaints remain basis
for the teeming discord I am,
a patient with a gram of mutiny.

If you’re changing the disposable diaper of your child then you might be an attentive mother but a bad environmentalist. If you’re helping a student with a paper after class, you might be a diligent and supportive professor but at the same time, completely forget that it’s your brother’s birthday and be a neglectful sister. We might be distinct, but we’re also inconsistent, complex, and ultimately many things at any moment, rendering us “a teeming discord,” “blameless but not blameless.” And importantly, we’re not alone in these contradictions. Yet, we have a limited perspective in that we do tend to prioritize the self both in negative and positive terms. As Giménez Smith writes, “All of us teem with shame but most of all me,” and in another poem, “Turn me in, offer me coffee, take me soup, and privilege my opinion.” Here, she captures what we are always asking forgiveness for: the desire to have our opinions privileged, to seek out and love those who show us this favor.

And through our love and kinship we inculcate others. Giménez Smith commands, “Whisper that secret name we learned from the movies. I’ll forgive you. / We’ll puppet voices and mug shots, and you can forgive and forget. We’ll bury our past.” In these suggestions, the language of pop culture creates bonds that either lead to forgiveness or the need to be forgiven. Costumes are the shovels that bury memory’s corpse. But then what happens in the present and the future?

Last night,
I couldn’t stop describing my flaws to you as serious
and possibly fatal, but you darned every incision.
Which is to say

I can tell you everything that ever happened
because it’s already done. What about
what I am capable of? I’m afraid of the next day.

Candid fear and the possibility for revision mark the shift between the city she was and the landscape she can become. The speaker must figure out how to draw the blueprints for this new city with some, all, or none of the “darned” flaws. Capability is patience with “a gram of mutiny”; it reads as both/either a threat of continued failure and/or a fresh prospect waiting to be lived out through interaction.

Smugness: I’m not sure if I mean self-satisfied, in that these poems know the audience, wink at the reader. Or if they embrace the humor of pointing at the mirror. Or ironic insouciance that actually reveals a deep concern for how our language connects us. The City She Was constructs a skyscraper of tragicomic stanzas that towers over us:

“I stuffed his inbox with amendments and bloated metonymy.”

“I collected fancy pens / and yeah, I’m working on an article
about animé and Marxism

“We deforest, we slay with biting humor, and wait for what is
offered in return. / It’s what we vow because we’re caught in
each other’s complex web.”

“You refer to everything through cinema, say, this is so Before Sunrise
or I had a Last Tango in Paris yesterday. You’ll blush. You’ll twist away.
Oh, the trash you’ll read in magazines as scripture!”

Is it more understandable to name the emotion you experience or name the movie that embodies a similar emotional atmosphere? Giménez Smith plays with mixing highbrow and lowbrow language to remind us how concentric circles of cultural referents shape identities and systems of communication. Maybe these are the modern versions of O’Hara’s “I do this I do that” poems. They don’t exclude in order to show a picturesque world nor do they preach. Instead, they revel in all aspects of the contemporary, even the spirit-crushers: “the tiny babies and the IED-blown / leg” or “because of baby bear not finding mama bear.” O’Hara writes, “and my heart — / you can’t plan on the heart, but / the better part of it, my poetry, is open.” Giménez Smith echoes this sentiment when she claims, “my sloppy heart a sponge filled with blood to squeeze onto / any circumstance. Because it is mine it will always bleed … / I’ve got so much blood to give inside and outside of any milieu.”

When I finished this collection, I realized that I wasn’t a tourist in this city, but a citizen (for better or worse or blood). Giménez Smith does not rely on us to discover the city she is now, but I think she asks us to consider our culpability and interconnection as we glide into the next moment. We must sit ourselves “alone / under the single bulb of self-interrogation.” And from this solitary place we can open: “You start as strangers with each one and they become a compartment in you with her habits and her sweaters, with all his stray bits: a Cornell box in you, the wreckage, each of the hims, the hers, the them.” Toward the end of the book Giménez Smith asks, “Is it okay to say Bible in here?” There is no answer. Does God offer an alternative to the self’s privileged opinion? This is one possibility. Regardless of where you place your faith, and how faith might center or decenter the self as a gesture to the Other, Giménez Smith encourages us to question the responsibility of location and where we’re situated in relation to others: the human voice, touch, literature, cinema, our wreckage, and the love habituating within.