Reformulating precision as excess

A review of 'Portrait of Colon Dash Parenthesis'

Portrait of Colon Dash Parenthesis

Portrait of Colon Dash Parenthesis

by Jeffrey Jullich

Litmus Press 2010, 136 pages, $15, ISBN 978-1-933959-10-8

“Tenterhooks,” the opening poem of Jeffrey Jullich’s 2010 collection Portrait of Colon Dash Parenthesis, begins:

The whole world broods upon one answer.
Every living being mulls over the response.
Resting his weight on one foot
By keeping that leg straight for now, while
Slightly bending the other knee (9)

To open a book of poetry by placing the “whole world” in a subject position would seem as the most unfortunate of all possible beginnings. And, to be sure, there are many beginnings out there from which to choose. Such a choice portends just the opposite of what John Ashbery and David Shapiro call, in their blurbs of Portrait, Jullich’s “precision.” After all, one could neither begin less precisely, nor make a less decisive choice of how to begin. The “whole world” is not really a choice at all, but a delay. The opening subject holds in suspense, puts “on tenterhooks,” the matter of whether the book is to begin at all.

It is in just this way that Jullich “speaks out” (ek-phrases) from Michelangelo’s David, whose contrapposto posture he proceeds to describe (“Resting his weight on one foot”). This marble statue, as we well know, suspends the young man who would be king at the very, just the very, moment of decision: he will step toward Goliath. His first step is always just about to be: as Jullich writes in a later poem, “constantly, always ‘about to’ — about to occur” (22). David’s choice is made, but he has not begun. And so Jullich commences his precision, in a book whose language is as rooted as it is fleeting, with “bated breath” even as it is in the movement of speaking.

If Jullich’s Portrait should be called precise in its diction, its precision lies in its continuous redundancy. The tautology of the book’s opening two lines are, for a third time, recapitulated two stanzas later: “There’s no one who doesn’t ponder that antiphon” (9). This technique of rephrasing runs through the entirety of the book, inverting the poet’s range of selection into a progression down the page. At times, the reader will need to wait for pages to reach a line’s antiphon, as with the description of David given in the second stanza of “Tenterhooks”:

His hips and legs are turned
In a different direction from that of
His shoulders and head. (9)

These lines are then called back to twenty pages later in “Chi con la vista ancide I circustanti”:

The horizon line of his pelvis is
Angled against the sum of his collarbone. (30)

By presenting the range of selection from which he has to choose and refusing to make that selection, Jullich reformulates precision as excess. In this excessive diction, Jullich alludes to the tautological praises of the Davidic psalms, as in Psalm 117:

Praise the Lord, all you nations!
Give Glory, all you peoples!
The Lord’s love for us is strong;
The Lord is faithful forever.

Here David’s redundancy constitutes an offering of the excessive expenditure of his speech, wherein voice becomes the poet’s sacrifice (“let my prayer be like incense”); it also exemplifies that gratuitous naming which is to be found around any object of affection. When Jullich takes the marbled David as his object, he erects his redundancies as columns, surrounding the artificial body in a verbal “loggia” (“In Florence they would build an entire / loggia around him, if he were made of marble”). In so doing, he demonstrates the necessity of the artificial, the denaturalized, and the “masked” as the basis of discourse as well as desire.

The redundancy of the human body marks a central concern in Jullich’s Portrait. And whereas sculpture can present in art a one-to-one relationship to the human body, this human body will always appear in poetry as a circumlocution. Jullich powerfully captures the tension wherein the body will at once be poetry’s origin and its secret. Jullich’s preoccupation with the articulations of the body, both in terms of its anatomy and its movement, courts an object whose arrival is as necessary as it is impossible. In “Terpischore,” titled after the muse of lyric poetry and dancing, Jullich obsessively phrases the contours of the “kinetic” human foot as though, with enough words, a real foot may alchemically appear:

the arch of the foot — might never equal
the sole of the foot, its heel,
in being the first body part put down
onto earth since time immemorial —

as we say “limb” for both tree branch and leg.
The bedroom slippers wait for the toes, the ball

of the foot descending off the edge
of the mattress, a wax figure melting. (16)

 And just as we say a doubled word in “limb,” so too Terpsichore’s Greek spoke a doubled melos, which meant both “limb” and “song.” This derivation of poetry from the parts of the body (e.g. dactyl, “finger”) is never beyond Jullich’s attention. But in focusing not upon the animated body as much as on the frozen, mimetic body of art, Jullich interestingly questions whether the de-melodized, written text must likewise derive from a secondary, static body.

The disease of roots — the foot having to “plant” itself as a limb, which seems altogether gratuitous to the human person — is for Jullich as much an embarrassment to the body as it has become to the poet. And what was once the Adamic shame of genitalia is instead transferred onto the concupiscent desires of the foot:

 A carpet covers a floor as if it were obscene
pornographic floorboards;--every rug a fig leaf (16)

Indeed, the real scandal of Michelangelo’s David is not that the biblical hero is stripped naked, but that his foot should still rest on the ground. So too while reading through Portrait, I am struck with unease, scandalized even, by the over-groundedness that indicates over-determined poetic speech. And it is just this determinedness of his language, his historical mythology, his haunting ancestrality, that Jullich converts into kinetic motion. For just as the moving foot must be the planted foot, so too the rooted word must be the moving, the intractably moving, word.

An orangutan transfiguration — a pygmy synonym
For the handcuffs and chains
Of their gender, race age, sexual orientation, would
Stop the from growing downward, tentacles of roots (12)

 The pygmy synonym incapacitates the poet by the monstrous specter of its independent volition, establishing roots where he wishes he had none. The terror, which is also the rapture, of confronting the self-moving creation (we cannot help but remember) is just the fortune of mythology’s most famous pygmy, Pygmalion, whose affection for his own marble statue brought it to motion before him.

Jullich’s ability to invoke and be laid subject to the uncanny motion of his own poems result in a work that is radically punctual and postponed; it has been made, but is always about begin. The reader will continually wait for his poems to go one way or another, observing their kinetic rest, left standing “for now.”

A memoir of exchange

Michael Gottlieb and the praxis of essay

Memoir and Essay

Memoir and Essay

by Michael Gottlieb

Faux/Other 2010, 170 pages, $16, ISBN 9780982549506

Are there passages I have marked, underlined, annotated, or starred in Memoir and Essay to return to, to quote, to point out to others? Insofar as the narrative evidences personal knowledge and judgment regarding others whom I have known and cared about, I want to hold it and let go of it at the same time, I want to know and to forget. Insofar as the narrative lets me know about the life, career, thoughts, and feelings of Michael Gottlieb, whom I have known for over 30 years but never as well as I’d have liked to, I want to retain everything.

Author Michael Gottlieb (left) and reviewer Steve Benson.

Memoir and Essay breaks into two pieces, one of which is incontestable — “The Empire City” is a narrative of his life in New York over many years, a life with which I was only occasionally and marginally acquainted — and another that provokes argument at will — “Jobs of the Poets” is a philosophical and social inquiry regarding matters pertinent to any writers who might choose to remain economically viable as persons in American culture while continuing to write and seek readers, especially if their work is not intended for mainstream marketing.

Having written that, I then did begin to write in the margins and underline and draw arrows in the text of the remaining fifteen pages I hadn’t yet read. Most of the book I’ve read last thing at night in bed, close to sleep, but the last part I read in early afternoon in the shade of a huge maple, my son’s terrier leashed to one leg of my wooden chair, with the pencil. The book works either way. It’s a “must-read.” You don’t have to read it, but I was glad I had put everything else aside to read it first.

The “essay” comes second, after the “memoir,” and bears no ostensible relation to it, although they share concerns with the interface of the problem of a remunerative career and the development and sustaining of a poet’s life and practice. The “essay” is written in numbered sections. Each section, about one page long, begins with a question or set of questions in italics, and then these are responded to by discussion that typically launches other, related questions.

Like the “memoir,” the “essay” is what it says it is; the memoir is obviously a memoir, and the essay is, exactly, an essaie — a trial of various concerns and ideas, elaborated and interrogated and brought to judgment, although for the most part the matters are not ultimately decided.

The “memoir” and the “essay” are both written in pieces that could have found a different sequence but this sequence works well, and both are written in a style that, to my mind, suggests that the writer is not looking back but focusing on what he is trying to say, so that the writing seems to me unstudied and spontaneous, at times garrulous or inexact or roundabout but authentically presentational and aiming toward candor and justice. Notes at the end of each of these two parts indicate who read and commented on the manuscript prior to final edits, and nevertheless the writing is marked by occasional errors in idiom or punctuation that can startle a former proofreader like me but that also mark the text with the materiality of an event in one life, putting something down on paper, however mediated by technology and the counsel of friends.

During the year that feels like ten years, or the ten years that feel like one, that have just passed, I’ve written and published a book made mostly of works entirely in the interrogative, as is much of “essay,” and I’ve written and published dozens of pages of memoirs relating to my formative years as a Language poet in an urban culture shared with other Language poets, so I am interested in what Michael has attempted and what he has come up with in this work at hand. I also prepared and presented a lengthy public talk about careers in the arts back in 1978, in the city I lived in with the other Language poets, which a few years ago I presented online in audio with transcript, notes, and a handful of the completed questionnaires that I circulated as research at the time. So Michael’s way of working and his concerns here have been on my mind, though I had not read any of this work before its publication.

I had been busy with that writing and presenting, with a full-time job and developing family, with marginalized activities like exercise, peace-and-justice work, and meditation, and I hadn’t gotten around to reading this work of Michael’s in draft form, though I could have. How other responsibilities interact with what one takes to be one’s responsibilities as a writer of poetry is a major issue in Michael’s book; it circulates through and ultimately determines the arc of the “memoir,” even more than do the emergence and atomization of the New York Language school or the shifting ethos and demographics of the city itself, and it is the urgent concern of the “essay.”

Although this is an engaging and intriguing narrative to read for tactfully lancing vignettes about prominent figures in that group of writers, it is not primarily about them but about choices made, fallen into, and discovered by a young man no longer a boy and becoming a writer. Its emphasis is on how an unanticipated set of possibilities discovered in some printed matter and the persons coordinating it provoked a re-set of life priorities, and the enthusiastic, diffident, capricious, and insidious ways that initiation played out in this person’s career as a resident of particular homes and neighborhoods, as a writer, as a lover of other persons, and as a participant in the life that art takes on in New York City.

Balzac’s Lost Illusions and Flaubert’s Sentimental Education are forebears Michael doesn’t try to emulate but must have learned from. His approach is contemporary, casting off each literary posture when it does not eschew them altogether. His “memoir” is not set in the twenty-first century but makes a palpable effort to address its reader within these times, while conscious of their difference from the 1970s, in which most of the action takes place. It will interest all those who want to think about how these things work and don’t, and how their functions and dysfunctions may change over time.

The reader will likely think about many things that are not on the page, including concerns of impoverished and unemployed people, people of other countries and social ecologies, women and minorities, who are largely absent from these pages. The reader will also ricochet from the page toward reflections on her or his own experience, his or her ways of handling ethical problems, her or his rationalizations and doubts and reconciliations with the choices he or she has made. The text as presented is in no way authoritative, except in that only Michael could have written it; the reader will find much to complain of, to second-guess, to object to, and to regret.

I enjoyed the qualities of the writing even while I edited them and adjusted them in my mind, and I felt warmly engaged and compelled and at times thrilled by the narrative, in my identifications and differentiations from the speaking mind and the life detailed. The book appears written from the vantage point of appreciation of the possibilities of such a participatory reading, and to invite analogous revelations from others of their experiences of discovering, exploring and surviving alternative poetry scenes.

The value of its publication lies in its potential to enter into and encourage a discussion, the collective debate and interrogation that is more than ever underway within the larger-than-Language contemporary poetry community, concerning the social praxis around poetry and the implications of socially constructed ideas of community, systems of behavior, organizations of labor, analyses of linkage, options within interdependence, and evaluations of responsibility. These concerns are argued here in the representation of an individual life replete with wishful hopes and nagging misgivings that confront one another unforgivingly to generate more than the sum of their parts.

Writing the nothing that is

A review of 'Visiting Wallace'

Visiting Wallace: Poems Inspired by the Life and Word of Wallace Stevens

Visiting Wallace: Poems Inspired by the Life and Work of Wallace Stevens

edited by Dennis Barone and James Finnegan

University of Iowa Press 2010, 184 pages, $18, ISBN 1-58729-811-2

Visiting Wallace, edited by Dennis Barone and James Finnegan with a foreword by Alan Filreis, is presented as a collection of seventy-seven poems “inspired by the life and work of Wallace Stevens.” That’s problematic, because Stevens mostly hid his life in his work. An elegy by John Berryman included in the book puts the matter this way: “Ah ha & he crowed good. / That funny money-man. / Mutter we all must as well as we can. / He mutter spiffy. He make wonder Henry’s / wits, though, with an odd // … something … something … not there in his flourishing art” (10). Henry’s judgment is the greatest strength of this book: criticism, regularly hedged and guarded, can benefit from the candor that writing a poem often fosters. I share Henry’s mixture of wonder and suspicion at Stevens’ sustained posture “that he does not wound.”

More than that, though, I appreciate the way that Berryman and a few others make demands on Stevens that scholars can’t and critics mostly don’t, yet. Adrienne Rich’s “Long after Stevens” argues with the coldness of “The Snow Man” — Rich gives an image of a “locomotive pushing through snow in the mountains” and describes a landscape in which “snow defies the redefinition // of poetry” in which a woman gets down from the train to “lick snow from bare cupped hands,” finding herself “searching toward a foreign tongue” (109). The poem takes seriously “the nothing that is” of Stevens’s poem. Rich gives it its place and continues searching, too intensely experiencing her relation to the earth to accept alienation as wisdom.

Finnegan’s “At the Casa Marina” and Edward Hirsch’s “At the Grave of Wallace Stevens” also seem to me to explore the limits of the way Stevens used poetry as a hiding place, in reflections on death. There’s an undercurrent of dissatisfaction with mortality in these poems, but also with Stevens on mortality. Finnegan tests the claim of “Sunday Morning” — “death is the mother of beauty” — and Hirsch tests the “distance” of Stevens’s later poem “Of Mere Being.” They’re poems that engage with some of the disquieting aspects of life that are, at most, eerily muted in Stevens’ work.

If the strength of the book is its critical exploration of Stevens as a poet of experience, what should one call its approach to Stevens as a philosophical poet? Inevitable and mostly unfortunate. Martha Ronk, Charles Wright, Susan Howe, Michael Palmer and Forrest Gander pay a visit, each of them with big-idea poems. Stevens’s philosophical poems — and that probably means all of them — sometimes seem like they are written on mirrors, so strangely do they situate depth. With the exception of Howe, the admirable and skilled philosophical poets appearing in this collection seem too serious for the occasion. One asks oneself the purpose of their visit.

Inside-jokey poems abound, including John Ashbery’s spoof-homage, “Some Trees,” and Carl Martin’s “No Sop, No Possum, No Jive,” Jeremy Over’s “A Poem Is a Pheasant,” and Mark DeFoe’s “Thirteen Ways of Eradicating Blackbirds.” The humor is not unsettling — even DeFoe’s poem uses humor mostly as charm — and the poems establish a sense of community that might be called familial: comfortable and unwilled.

That’s also problematic about the book. Stevens’s social world was small, and the social world of his poems can be worse than small.  Stevens’s “Like Decorations in a Nigger Cemetery” is a troubling poem for a lover of his work — perhaps too troubling to be framed as a matter for criticism to approach alone. But there’s no mention of that poem here. So I propose an un-neighborly visit.

On returning

A review of 'A Book of Unknowing'

A Book of Unknowing

A Book of Unknowing

by John High

Talisman House 2010, 137 pages, $17.95, ISBN 9781584980681

The goal of a quest is often return: in John High’s A Book of Unknowing, a mute girl and a one-eyed boy move through a war-marked landscape, orphaned and adopted and orphaned anew. They seek to return not to pre-lapsarian purity but to the vivid articulation of “a brilliance of green across meadow in this / day when we find so much arrangement in myriad trees. Coming to terms with fine / bladed yellow grass” (99). That is, aware that “in order / to get out we have to go through / language,” the characters in High’s poetic sequence “come to terms” with the hardy arrangements underlying innocence and loss. Traveling the “wounded way / back to our beginning” (116), they return to an advanced childhood in which they parent themselves and forgive all, having found “how / a question might endure alive internal workings / in mutual air moving / toward a quiet believing and awe” (111).

This arrival is gorgeous, paradisiacal without the Billy Graham bromides of Beatrice browbeating Dante and that pilgrim’s attendant forgetting of earth. Rather, this arrival remains committed to the world High has been at pains to show, in which “sometimes what / we live in order to affirm / a truth” brings us ashore with scarred clarity. The book’s singular language permits its culminating vision, and High’s breathless neuro-cinematic syntax unifies his story and ideas. Yet the ambitious content at which High arrives is more than a linguistic effect: it shows a place not just made of the book’s guiding questions but made for them to continue in, allowing his readers, as well as his characters, to recover and retain “a sense of awe & condolence” (129). This sense makes the larger questions one may have about poems — why even read? what do you do upon finishing a thrilling volume? — part of the work; it investigates them expansively rather than whittling them away in a perfection of posture. As a result, as in this untitled verse from A Book of Unknowing’s final sequence, High’s lines take on cosmological and moral significance:

Where do we go now the fisher boy
asks looking into a blue winter          horizon
rising around wooded vessels moored
over waning flashlights          if you have come
this far why stop now the monk says
wings flapping first snow over wing
a woman beside me laughs as the boy
casts nets off a dock drinking coca
cola cormorant flock around him nothing
left to prove no need for approval only
coming back to where we are
touching fingers and reeds as I see her bend
again kiss a scar on his left eye reaching
inside & past all reckon & shame (115)

Pound’s “make it new” may be the most misconstrued statement in poetic history — he was concerned with continuance, not blithe novelty — but High’s “where do we go now” and “if you have come / this far why stop now” take up its truer sense. If a poem, or spiritual journey, culminates because one has moved mindfully through the things of the world, one undercuts that culmination by subsequently turning from those things; you can’t treat emptiness as a view without continually constructing its frame. Thus, the “unknowing” High arrives at knows well the questions and motives it is made of. In this passage, realization does not stop perception but leads it through memory (“again”) to a further moral possibility: the potential loss of shame.

High’s “small insistence” (137) on the ongoingness at the heart of all arrival super-saturates A Book of Unknowing. The moral and philosophical vision he insists upon is “clear” with the true roots of the word — not “easily understood,” but “luminous, bright” and “to summon or call.” I love this book for reminding me that poetry does not need to be flatly wise or flatly wild but can accommodate the luminous summons of “a woman tying her / tennis shoes in a make-believe diary” (65) and of “a boy hungry / for cake & pineapple” who sees in his companion “a 1000 years / of sorrow already ended in / her touch of a finger” (77). The vision, here, sees past itself by the light it makes.


A sense of being reminded — that mental return — comes over A Book of Unknowing’s characters as well, enriching their experiences of the present. Sometimes, these reminders come through refrain: early in the book, in a passage that foresees war’s effects in its earliest tidings, High reports, “the TV is alive he shouted out the window / dying in the moment of the images before war / & the girl out there already peeing in an alley” (33). Later, “the mute girl mouths in an alley” (122) and we recall her earlier posture and all that has happened since. Elsewhere, High sows reminders through motifs that, in their use of character and place, recall Nathaniel Mackey’s worlds of displacement and migration. High, though, typically stays more closely with his emblematic figures, for whom there is a “hum breaking thru the poverty / Once settled in the bone of a gone nation” (9). His iconic motifs — pelicans; monks; frogs; Paul Celan, occasionally — crop up in the poems’ continuous present. Their recurrences feel more like memory than outright interruptions, however, because the present adapts around them, becoming larger. High conveys this adaptation through syntax that swells as it lists, making fruitful use of ambiguous but distinct capitalization and punctuation:

As if in an old movie only
the actors ourselves & this
Miraculous set of cliffs who
Could ever unrepresent the
Bell chiming the leaves on
shore the girl in her plaid
Skirt as turtles & pelicans
Gather around her language
forgets itself Celan sips on
a brandy looking out the café (8)

By moving in and out of such lists, High suspends the reader’s knowledge (and perhaps knowledge is an attempt to systematically “unrepresent” the world, to sift it into human sense?) of what is another item in the sequence and what is the beginning of an off-shooting phrase, like the one above beginning “as turtles.” This technique is especially poignant when a long run settles in tenderness, reminding us that the world can arrive there as well, even as the momentum of arrival skids: “One tall sycamore loomed a sparrow lighted / The first utterances the boy read aloud / I love you.” Characteristically, High does not conclude there but just pauses a moment before showing the continuing world. This world now seems changed by the realization of love, so that the resulting “finely tuned” images enlarge human emotion, even if they do not stop for it: “All these figs & mustard seeds / Arising around us in finely-tuned grass” (96). Juxtaposition seems the wrong word for High’s mingling of emotion, memory, and perception, perhaps because language leaves traces more continuous than Eisenstein’s images could, letting High move swiftly among setting, character, and plot. It shows that the possibilities for narrative in verse extend beyond the sturdy detailing of posed moments or plodding gestures at epic. Instead, High mobilizes the elements of story, as though dangling them from a mobile he then spins. You can feel his fondness for the characters and you can also feel as the characters do:

The child reading an autobiography
outside the marquee where in another
city she studies foreign films
flickering across a white screen this
movement located outside time & the
sidewalk cold on her legs tonight a
manuscript (the woman had found it for
her) looking back in her eyes a face
missing all but the last pages of a first
kiss the girl recognizing there a
blossoming of her own life & evening
stars as migratory owls appear above
the theatre ants & grasshoppers
moving south as winter again approaches
the boy walking out of the deserted
storefront now holding a piece of
looted film called Rublev of an icon
painter in the 15th century who he
tells her once saved his life at the movies (58)

Frequently, High orients readers to the wide-ranging present with overt references to vision, allowing us to witness the action rather than decipher it. In this complexly staged passage, for example, High tells us our relation to the whirlwind, bringing us into the moment “where we are seeing”:

Today in a rose bush
& an insight of blighted rain, thrush in
marsh, small feet as a child
walks further & despair, the skin
Of it, a father leaving his peers for war in a
History obliterated now & she laughs & cows
Come forth where we are seeing her (88)

These overt moments of “seeing” function like the ampersands in the passage above: they create clear relationships, so that walking and despair meet like the woman and the cows do. At times, these relationships nest. Here, we see the man because of the monk’s “looking,” the boy because of the woman “who saw,” the monk and the man because of the barn, and the entire scene by the narrator’s interjection:

bring us cookies a monk said looking back
at a man whose own name forgotten in these
last hours autumn & the woman who saw a boy’s tall
figure by arcade lights after many years silent
absence yet now a man & monk talking yes
by a barn we came toward late at night dreaming
rivers & a set of tracks almost empty —
still we saw you (11)

This final line returns us to the narrator’s orienting perspective, much as the boy “after many years silent” returns “yet now a man,” leaving tracks he seems to barely fill even though they are his own.


It would be difficult to film those “almost empty” tracks. Yet the pacing of phrases in A Book of Unknowing suggests a camera drifting into and out of and through the eye. High encourages these cinematic associations with many references to film. His poems suggest that cinema can be a training ground for reading complex linguistic landscapes and for understanding individual experience, as it is for the girl who recognizes a first kiss in the passage quoted above. This instructional dimension — the viewer learns from moviegoing, realizing learning is a kind of recognizing (“wow this is you” [27]), then reenters the migratory world — echoes the overarching philosophy in High’s writing. The quest returns, we see. In which the quest is return.

But what we see when we meet “in another film” (108) can also be horrifying revision, as when High describes a film of a child’s rape and tells us the “Narrator fell back without / Sound for what is there anyone / Can ever say in the face of / Such beauty as hers” (73). And yet, it is this terrible beauty that allows the audience and narrator to grasp individual life which one page earlier was lost among corpses “stacked randomly” (72). Film may make “shades of history” (108) disappear, but it can also give them new life, changed by preservation to look back at us with a “necessity / of theory & love” (64) in the face of suffering.

When the Narrator falls silent, High gives us language of the interior that functions as “an imaginary eye,” letting us “myth it together” (124) despite the limits of perception and knowledge. For the figure of the one-eyed boy, language becomes a second eye, providing dimension; language returns us to our senses, even obstructed ones. Because someone must continue speaking for words to continue perceiving, language demands we go on, even if “the best / antidote is nobody     to be Nobody / just to live & walk.” But the next moment is already upon us: that evocation of the good life, of an arrival into non-being, immediately also includes “indistinguishable / bombs exploding around my girlfriend” who is then immediately “laughing on a corner near the bar & dropping / her purse” (122). The language of the interior keeps us from asking what is the present by insisting that we must respond to a larger present and what it asks of us:

cry & caterpillars the figs & nettles
look you become a child
she shouts now running toward
sounds from books & love
an empty field where a
boy spots a horse waiting he
thinks to carry all the war’s dead home (98)

We return, thus, to “another & same place / passing cobblestones & nursery rhymes,” thoroughly composed by the “call of leaves & trees / & olives & peaches,” like lips we can hear moving before we can comprehend their words or even read them in silence (136).

A catalogue of poetics as community

A review of two Slack Buddha Press chapbooks

Ladybug Laws

Ladybug Laws

by Laura Moriarty

Slack Buddha Press 2009, 24 pages, $6, ISBN chapbook

Weak Link

Weak Link

by Rob Halpern

Slack Buddha Press 2009, 32 pages, $6, ISBN chapbook

In the very place where the machine he must serve reigns supreme, [the worker] cunningly takes pleasure in finding a way to create gratuitous products whose sole purpose is to signify his own capabilities through his work and to confirm his solidarity with other workers or his family through spending his time in this way.
— Michael de Certeau, The Practice of Everyday Life

La Perruque Editions, the chapbook arm of Cincinnati publisher Slack Buddha, takes its name from philosopher and social critic Michael de Certeau. In his book The Practice of Everyday Life, de Certeau introduces the term “la perruque” to describe the act of individuals using company workspace, time, and materials to pursue their own creative endeavors — all while maintaining the appearance of working for their employer. It’s a humorously subversive name, one that speaks to the basic condition of many contemporary poets and visual artists (even as I type this now at my office, I’m glancing back over my shoulder to see if my boss is about to round the corner).

The concept of “la perruque” deals with a question that often seems to be at the forefront of discussions concerning what it takes for the contemporary creative act to exist, especially in a culture that increasingly devalues it: how to make the time to read, write, publish, or otherwise actively engage oneself with a poetic community when stuck in a cubicle eight or more hours every day? Exemplified by the Flarf Collective, who used their time in office spaces to create an internet-based, email-exchanged poetic practice, or projecting even further back to the image of William Carlos Williams, doctor’s pad in hand, crafting poems in between patients, the time, space, and conditions of contemporary work models have provided poets with new ways to reclaim the everyday vitality of the creative act — ways that also subvert the increasingly mechanized roles of individuals working in the office environment.

Since 2003, La Perruque Editions has released chapbooks by more than thirty poets as well as work by visual and performance artists including Mel Nichols, Ric Royer, Benjamin Friedlander, and Susan M. Schultz. The press’s aesthetic is, for the most part, simple: heavy cardstock, screen-printed or photocopied covers, often with overlays or cutouts, which highlight the idea of each of these works as something tactile, handmade, as coming from an individual or small group. This attention to detail, as well as the work itself, which tends to focus on the visual/concrete and the political, speaks to Slack Buddha’s efforts to craft a catalogue of poetics as community, as a return to conversation and physical exchange between people in an increasingly dissociated time.

In the chapbooks Ladybug Laws by Laura Moriarty and Weak Link by Rob Halpern, this act of reexamining and renewing the interpersonal becomes central to both thematic concerns and prosodic choices.

Slack Buddha Press is located in a nineteenth-century brewery-cum-ice cream factory in Cincinnati, Ohio.

Laura Moriarty, Ladybug Laws

Examining the life of patterns and color, Moriarty’s poems in Ladybug Laws suggest the various intersections of both backdrop and detail, or what can also be seen as the interplay between an autonomous unit and its larger environmental setting. These concerns persist throughout the chap: how the dot patterns play (or write) upon a red field of the shell; how both the small and the large react to and alter aspects of each other, much like the proverbial butterfly who, by flapping its wings, creates a monsoon thousands of miles away: “I produce enormous events” (“Smitten”). Ladybug Laws spells out a basic connectivity that is, at once, neither absolute nor categorical. Instead, Moriarty’s ladybugs move in spaces of indeterminacy, of fluidity: “Coating Thoreau / With herself preferably / A verb now […]. Swaps thy for thou / thee for me” (“Green Lady”). The space between the body of the poet and bug shrinks until it becomes virtually nonexistent, in a lighter, more conceptual take on David Cronenburg’s phantasmagoria: “Ladybug obvious / Hybrid of bug and lady / Unthinkable state […]” and “Not of but was / Jeff Goldblum / Sloughs off // his Human in / the Fly —” (“Flown”). Or the space between selves fills with the endless reproductions of life, as in her response to the Andrew Bird song “Imitosis”: “Read as the green / Of the creatures / Between us.” Imitating mitosis, on the level of relationship, invokes the sense of an aggregate body; Moriarty’s ontological examination is filtered through the perspective of a swarm, imagining how the individual positions herself in relation to another. Incorporating the language of other writers, such as Elizabeth Robinson in “Green Lady” or Alan Halsey in “Ladybug Honey” and “Ladybug’s Lament,” also evokes the sense of a swarm or colony: the language of others becomes part of the poet’s own movement throughout the poem as different source words work together to enact ever-changing structures.

A focus on blurring the borders of voice and body gives interrogative shape to this collection. However, the sonic and referential porosity of words further defines this shape: “Read red as read / Lady as later // Song as wrong” (“Ladybug Song”). The words bleed into each other, drawing attention to the inherently elusive act of definition. The chapbook’s repeated theme of “read” versus “red,” its use of homophony to shift or morph meanings, emphasizes Moriarty’s inquiry into the act of recording: “We can barely see what’s out there / Overwhelmed as we are by repetition / Though I depend on it for what sense / Of continuity remains to me when / I see you I know I am at work” (“Ladybug Laws”). Moriarty’s consistent use of mondegreens and homonyms also illustrates both the cloudy repetitiveness of perception and the infinite, subtle variations that occur both in the creative act and in the natural world. The action of navigating currents of musical, social, and biological variations sustains these poems’ presences, their immediacies; it also makes for a beautifully lyrical, intellectually astute, and finely detailed reading experience.

Rob Halpern, Weak Link

 It’s time that intellectual discourse of the left learn from the operatic emotionality of the right.
— Dodie Bellamy, “Body Language”

In a remarkable combination of emotional and theoretical speech, Rob Halpern’s chapbook Weak Link calls attention to a series of erosions, social spots that have lost their stability. In the wake of overwhelming U.S. military violence and political abuses within an increasingly apathetic and amnesiac culture, Halpern reconnects the experiences of the body to these larger, political movements, effectively drawing the reader back into their immediate physical existence. Through this embodied reconnecting, Halpern’s poetry enacts a social critique that doesn’t proselytize or dictate, but rather reminds the reader, like Charles Olson before him, that the root of politics, the “polis” (sharing a source term with the Ancient Greek for “pelvis”) is always centered in the physical.

Weak Link opens with a quote that is attributed to, as Halpern notes, a “Forgotten Source.” This draws immediate attention to and simultaneously obscures the authority of a outside source voice, one that could otherwise provide an accurate point of introduction to the concerns of these poems. Decentered from the very beginning, Halpern’s book next provides a stylized “Legend” for the work, which functions as a sort of list poem and apophatic description of the collection’s prevalent use of em dashes surrounded by brackets. This prefatory piece moves through statements of what a weak link does not equal, and in doing so allows the occurrence of each weak link in the chap (visually represented by the bracketed em dash throughout the poems) to function as a space of, often, indefinable loss.

[—] pumping my disturbance with phonation
Days go by, open vowels, not generating much future
Sound [—] losses where all this will have happened

Any common place [—] strung out on being still
Produced disfigured gently now my ratcheted dejecta
[—] his leg becomes my fluted stump, my lip

His anal spur [—] missing tongues insert the word
Whose shock force grids resistant salvage, ours
Being squandered in advance, we molt in network

Fibers, having traced the place of future action
What can't be named in a field of roots, so come
Inside my fjord of mannered stools [—] watch

                    —the eyes peel back, so pasted to the blazing. (13)

This focus on the ineffable and its correlation to the embodied, as well as the collection’s varied use of caesura and enjambment for corollary meanings across lines, creates a natural affinity between this chap and Halpern’s excellent book-length Disaster Suites (Palm Press, 2009), a lyrical engagement struggling to speak in spaces of disaster and dis-ease.

In Weak Link, the dialectic between the lyrical and the disastrous event occurs as a blurring or merging of the two, often describing a tandem loss of physical and emotional space: “Here we feel the pressing [—] the loss of woodland / Scenery under national, yr transmission // Just bellies up and dies” (8). The body moves from the arboreal to the mechanical, and loss— the breaking down of self-contained systems, in conceptions of both nature and industry— occurs concurrently. The mechanical mirrors the loss of the natural, as the transmission (word/message or gear system) reveals itself to be alive, organic, ultimately dying “belly-up.” Here Halpern fills in the space between often opposing concepts to get at the root of weakness, of the inherent vulnerability at the foundation of all systems, as well as the necessary loss of illusionary control this entails.

The intersection of the abstracted/mechanical and the immediate/physical also frame moments of intense intimacy between individuals in these pieces: “I have / Sown dark clouds above our bed the beautiful // Sounds of circuits memory and capital my treat- / Ment of the subject won’t save us from the total / Oblivion in becoming objective social fact” (20). In lines that introduce another core dialectic at play—the body/mind dynamic—especially as it speaks to historical record in the act of writing, Halpern makes a strikingly pointed statement about the opaque, endlessly complex relationships between the physical body and the body politic: “In public we reckon impossible tense, shame // On our white floors, becoming impossible / Bodies extracted by the thousands” (7). What is so effectively brought into focus here is the extreme reality of lost life: a body displaced or victimized by war and foreign occupation is consistently abstracted into conceptual forms such as “alien,” “enemy,” or “collateral.” This is a process of “othering” that Halpern draws close attention to, a system used to reduce or negate individuals’ basic humanity, which, in turn, serves to “weaken the links” in social consciousness, allowing for untold abuses by a hypermilitarized state. Ultimately, in this system it is never just the “other” but also the self, the connected “our,” that is labeled suspect: “Skins glow, organs crave yr foresworn illegal / Touch, they’ve traced powder in our stools // Therein lies the nation’s intelligence, a gap in stills” (24). In this charged journeying between philosophical concerns and the immediate processes of the sensate body, a closeness that reaches past obscure rhetorical gesture is delineated. The poems in Weak Link call for a movement of the heart, engaging readers to perceptually restrengthen the links within themselves.

More from Rob Halpern in Jacket 40
More from Laura Moriarty in Jacket 40