A review of Thomas Meyer’s ‘Beowulf’
In being caught between two times, that of composition and circulation, Thomas Meyer’s translation finds itself in harmony with its source text. Meyer translated Beowulf in the 1970s, after completing a 1969 senior thesis at Bard translating the rest of the surviving Anglo-Saxon poetic corpus. Our introduction to Meyer’s electric translation, however, is more recent, as it was released by punctum books, an open-access and print-on-demand publisher, only in 2012. Meyer’s source, Beowulf, survives in only one fragile, burnt manuscript, copied about a thousand years ago, but the poem was composed earlier, though scholars continue to debate how much earlier (possible dates for various portions and composition circumstances range from the seventh to the tenth centuries). This poem’s delayed debut does not diminish its freshness or its power to surprise with a new perspective on a familiar friend. Better still, Meyer connects Beowulf to a history of avant-garde mid-century poetry, especially an inheritance of Poundian Imagism and modernist experiments in long-form poems. Meyer thus also — unintentionally, perhaps — opens up Beowulf to resonances both contemporary and surprisingly medieval. Meyer designates his translation as “commentary,” but “collaboration” might be a better term for the interplay between the Anglo-Saxon original and Meyer’s present-day English version.
By making the poem larger and longer, more about expanses of space and time that need more pauses and divisions to be felt, Meyer also ultimately makes the poem more intimate, more about a specific time and space with its own emotions that must be observed in detail. In the interview published as an appendix in this volume, David Hadbawnik quotes Meyer claiming that “Instead of the text’s orality, perhaps perversely I went for the visual,” identifying the look of the poem as “a kind of typological specimen book for long American poems extant circa 1965” (264). Yet the oral becomes starkly visible on the page in Meyer’s text. In an oral culture, as depicted in Beowulf, your spoken word is everything because there is nothing else. When Beowulf introduces himself in Heorot, the mead-hall in which most of the first third of the poem takes place, Meyer gives his first words an entire page:
followed by a full page of white space (61). Once Beowulf has the opportunity to address the king himself, Meyer condenses his speech into a column running down the page, a few words per line. He stands upon his reputation and oral self-presentation.
Meyer’s willingness to play with line lengths substitutes his own chosen breaks for the caesura of the original long alliterative lines, with four stresses and three alliterations in specific set patterns. The effect of the visual layout — always thoughtful, never quirky or affected — stresses the poem’s essential orality. The plain, white space opens up the impact of the spoken oaths, boasts, songs of valor, and tense exchanges among the characters, emerging as deeply-freighted units of meaning from existential emptiness. When Beowulf responds to Unferth’s challenge about his past deeds, Meyer’s variation of line length draws attention to the alliteration. One can clearly hear the crisp note of scorn running through Beowulf’s retort to the unfriendly man, doubting that Beowulf really has accomplished so much. Beowulf declares:
Grendel’s evil gyre could have never spun
so much humiliation or
so much horror
in your king’s Heorot if your heart & mind were
as hard in battle
as you claim. (79)
Meyer uses alliteration enthusiastically but sparingly, relying upon line spacing to prevent the alliteration and parallel clauses from becoming repetitive and dull. Beowulf explains how he killed Grendel, ripping off his arm:
I’d meant to
wrap my arms around him, bind him
to death’s bed
with a bear’s,
a beewolf’s hug
but his body slipped my grip:
God’s will he
jerked free. (101)
Meyer’s alliteration, assonance, and Anglo-Saxon diction — which emphasizes compounds, kennings, and Germanic vocabulary — keep the feel of the poem close to the original Beowulf, but not slavishly so.
Meyer’s most drastic intervention may be his division of the poem into two sections, “Oversea” and “Homeland.” The emphasis on away versus home sensitizes the reader to time and space, natural landscape versus human-forged structures. The barrow where a dragon slumbers, guarding treasure, eerily collapses these divisions. Resting on a forgotten golden hoard from a died-out civilization, the dragon slept “wallowing / in pagan gold / 300 winters. // His earth encrusted hide / remained as evil / as ever” (186). The menace of the three monsters — Grendel, Grendel’s mother, and the dragon — comes from their sullying of the lines between civilization and its wild outside, destroying the raw material of creation itself. The mere over Grendel and his mother’s lair has become corrupted by their evil, as Hrothgar explains:
keeps that spot.
Black water spouts
lift off the lake
& lap the clouds
Wind surges into
deadly storms until
all air grows dark.
The skies wail.” (125)
Meyer beautifully sketches the contrast between the natural, dangerous, even malevolent environment and the man-made world of golden rings, shields, weapons, mead, and poetry.
Meyer’s divisions into two sections slow down the poem. In addition to the splitting between “Oversea” and “Homeland,” Meyer further divides the “Oversea” section into twenty-six “fits.” (Meyer wittily names the first introductory section of Beowulf “Forefit.”) These divisions are reminiscent of the second-most famous anonymous English poem from the Middle Ages, Sir Gawain and the Green Knight, which is broken into “fitts.” In contrast, “Homeland” has no such breaks, emphasizing the (idealized) wholeness, continuity, and integrity of this space. With these continual breaks, the longer histories embedded in the poem finally have the chance to capture a casual reader’s attention as much as the stories of Beowulf battling the monsters. The monsters, of course, capture our imaginations as readers. Like so many twentieth-century readers, Meyer is alert to another source of tragedy in the poem: the sentience, the internal life of the three monsters Beowulf defeats. Grendel in particular, the outcast antihero, has garnered modern empathy, and Meyer voices Grendel’s death agonies in a Joycean stream-of-consciousness. Beowulf grapples with Grendel, and Meyer imagines the desperate thoughts of the monster:
Meyer lets us glimpse Beowulf from the perspective of Grendel’s desperation. Yet Meyer’s translation, perhaps most importantly, allows the larger tragedy of Beowulf to become clear, and it is fundamentally a human tragedy. The constant intimations of danger and destruction — that the mead-hall Heorot will someday be burnt down, that the tribe of the Scyldings will not always be at peace, that Beowulf’s people are doomed to depredations and invasions after his death — gain urgency from the inset narratives about other, earlier feuds and battles. In Meyer’s translation, those narratives stand apart, visible, constantly breaking the headlong line of action and of verse. Recently, lovers of poetry and Beowulf had our own loss of the most famous of Beowulf’s recent translators, Seamus Heaney. Heaney produced what may now be the most familiar and well-known Beowulf translation for a generation of readers, a rendering sensitive to the poetry of the Anglo-Saxon original yet creating something new from it. Yet as Meyer’s translation reminds us, this poem that has survived for so long still has so much to teach us.
A review of Geoffrey Gatza’s ‘House of Forgetting’
For readers of Gatza who have already come to expect the unexpected; for those fascinated with emerging innovation in book-structured polygraphies, then House of Forgetting is yet another contribution to what is becoming a prodigious oeuvre. For those who have come recently to poetry and poetics, or desire a greater understanding of Intermedia poetry, House of Forgetting offers an attractive entrée.
While there is a “heart” to House of Forgetting (human figures with human concerns) and an ekphrastic narrative (the death of a beautiful woman/gifted revenant), there are also elements of language-image that transform temporal and human identity. Such transformations themselves form book “frames”; generate a hypertextuality, (“of moving frame to frame”) as Charles Bernstein notes; an alternative to the perceptual limitations of “frame fixation” and “frame lock.” Such transformations seem to invite the display of “an art of transition through and among [interpretative] frames.”
The idea of elastic, transitionary frames in which material assumes the provisional form of the book is as true of this collection as it is of Gatza’s other work: the five seasons of rewoven myth in Black Diamond Golden Boy Takes Bull By Horns; the hagiography of saints and celebs among word images (coinages consisting of gray-scale mutations and other unique treatments), seemingly aleatory and unrelated, found in Secrets of my Prison House, and the most notable of these may be Kenmore: Poem Unlimited, that four-volume satire on American suburbia, a pataphoric world risen on a foundation of assumptions, fantastic as they are amusing, revealing angles of cultural significance.
House of Forgetting consists of two temporal frames: each interacts with the other in transfiguring human form and identity. The first is “The Twelve-Hour Transformation of Clare,” a woman who morphs into words, and the second section, “Recipe for Water,” is that of an artist who is drawing his wife’s portrait while she is in her deathbed, beginning “Now,” going into the past (“17 Days Ago,” “Last Saturday,” and fragments with similar titles) to conclude with “Five Years From Now” told in the voice of cultural assumption: a radio announcer. The “artist” becomes a reported figure; the “subject,” a fictional image no less real than the figure it re-presents. These are not pairs, but multiples. Their reappearance in alternative contexts suggests, rather strongly, an operative multeity of figures, an ongoing dance with interchangeable partners.
Clare (“after Clare of Assisi,” 26) is, at noon, the “last day of January twenty twelve … staring in her v[s]anity mirror” (12), and the other face she sees becomes, six hours later, the notable American painter and poet Dorothea Tanning, who died on the day the poem begins. Clare is transformed by newsprint, by Tanning’s obituary, and the features attributed to Tanning are hers also:
Her dark hair is a tangled thicket of possibility (20)
This thicket may be seen not only in her hair, but the folds of her dress, like roots, primal, exposed, and tangled, the cover image equivalent of what we find of “her” in
music peace, words, and resistance (26–27).
By “Midnight” (the concluding poem to the first section), Clare has morphed into Tanning, but leaves, in the last line, this disclosure:
Your face was an illusion that lingers still, bless you my darling angle (28)
The subject of the sacred angel of perspective occurs again in the recollection of the artist-announcer’s wife in “Recipe of Water.” On “Our third date” his wife claims that “When I dance for them they see an angle” (32). By this association, the three women — Clare, Tanning, and the artist’s wife — speak for the presentation of their own emergence as shapes of sense; art is technique.
The cluster of surreal images that morph into others, changing perspective in a continual pattern throughout House of Forgetting, absorbs the factorialization of time as it appears (often comically and ironically) in the fragment titles; assumes the space occupied by predication, the syntax of tense, and the insanity of grief derived from thinking in linear time.
Perspective is both subject and result of the surreal shuffle; images that float, collide, attach themselves to others until we experience the reality of continual interchangeability in an atmosphere of the metatemporal, a supra-reality:
We are all the same, we are one (27)
All human identity may be derived from the same letters of an alphabet. The same may be said of titles, chronological time, even texts. Art has no owner.
There are Dada echoes in the house, the surreal (as seen in the only word collage),
and in the Flarf-like assembly of words,
thanking thankless thanklessly thanks thanksgiving
triggered triggerhappy troubleshooting troublesome
troublesomeness troubling trite trounce triumphalism
zigzag zippy zips zither zithers zombi zombie zombies
zonal zone zoned zones zoology zoom (23)
may easily lead to an incomplete reading, if these word ensembles were regarded as Da-Daesque, or Flarfist alone.
The cluster of words (15) approximate an oval, as might be found in the shape of a mirror, Clare’s mirror, and re-present her transformation into words, the ultimate “Birthday” portrait of her noetic ontogeny. Other clusters (23) convey the frenzy and meaning of her revenant nature; how it is that similarity (their alphabetic closeness) disperses in new morphemic graftings, like those root-tentacles in the cover portrait, the differentiations in her seemingly endless extensions of experience. The displacement of meaning may be seen clearly over six stanzas, and thirty lines, arranged in a similar manner, beginning with Latin and Spanish, moving into French, and concluding in Latvian which suggests the isolation of the subject beyond itself, and thus the frustration of the subject-language, and subsequently, its/her freedom. There remains, among and through the chains of innovation, if not truly original word ensembles (which beg for new classifications), the glimpse of hysteria, and the place it plays in establishing an equilibrium, the way laughter bursts out during the worst of our tragedies, a neurological compulsion, a survival. The last entry:
Ohmigodohmigodohmigod! No, you do not understand, I lived
those moments they are my memories. Not this false vision. It
was Tuesday and hot, and she was cold and we were late. … It
would be painfully banal if it were not her last moments on earth (36)
Among all this, there emerges with some frequency what the formalist might understand, if not accept — dare it be said — as a kind of wisdom, that is with the provision that such wisdom is often irony itself and uttered by the poem’s personae:
… black speckles, words upon words metastasize her body (13)
… the eyes of the living are as clear as the eyes of the dead (30)
The trees are infected and the leaves are turning orange and falling,
[and] To be a great poet, one would have to keep
One’s mouth shut (36)
In the poetry of art perspective, House of Forgetting is itself “an object of pure conception” (11) and extends language in a visual art substance whose dimensions create ongoing multiples of sensory experience, expanding as they do so, and it is in this context that Gatza’s book-“frame” polygraphies continue to absorb, intrigue, and proliferate.
2. Dorothea Tanning, 1910–2012, had not given a title to her painting, a self-portrait created for her thirtieth birthday and the cover image of Gatza’s collection. When Max Ernst saw the painting in Tanning’s New York studio in 1942, he gave it the title “Birthday.” Tanning and the surrealist became lovers shortly thereafter.
A review of Ethel Rackin’s ‘The Forever Notes’
“My Sister’s Drawings of Trees,” from the third and final section of Ethel Rackin’s The Forever Notes, concludes in lines that could serve as a primer to the book’s development of the lyric, especially Rackin’s amendments to its use as an instrument of discovery and dissent. This poem begins singling out for consideration one of many drawings made by a sister with the precise deictic “This,” but ends in three lines hinged by a simile (“like ghosts”) that turns the poem back on itself in a “generative act” like the one described at its center:
This red-lined tree with leaves —
where does it come from
where does it go?
Time we play
queen & servant
for a day —
how I wish
it could be different.
A generative act
splits the street
with no trees at all,
still becomes greener.
Flowers that wilt and bloom.
We learn to grow things
we put things away. (46)
In an act of mental sounding, the poem touches off the final line, moving back up into its one stanza to review the ways we might “learn to grow things / like ghosts” and also “put things away” like ghosts, as well as the ways growing things and putting things away relate to each other. The doubled simile and the repetition of “things” pressurizes the placeholder generalization so that the word that comes closest to meaning merely “nouns” (both concrete and abstract) ripples with curious, competing possibilities: in the context of these multiplying lines, “things” might be living, literal, and sustaining (like flowers and food) or conceptual (like ideas and poems) or alive but lethal and informative (like diseases).
These multitudes draw the eye up through the poem’s expertly broken and syntactically fragmented lines, returning to the surface of the opening question to circle it, as is often done in “red-lined” editorial ink for emphasis, expansion, or deletion. Within the poem’s compressed consideration of sibling play and children’s attractions (their “drawings”) to natural objects, however, Rackin’s lyric also recalls and recasts Emerson’s meditations on the relationships among human sight, imagination, and moral pursuits in “Circles,” an essay that begins, “THE EYE is the first circle; the horizon which it forms is the second; and throughout nature this primary picture is repeated without end … and under every deep a lower deep opens.” The ungraspable expanses of the natural world may thwart answering “where does it come from / where does it go?” but in Rackin’s poetics the infinitude of experience leads to deeper concentration and more intimate contact with the words and symbols through which the world is known.
In the ambitious re-creation of Emerson’s dual figures of concentricity and depth supporting his contention that the “universe is fluid and volatile,” Rackin’s “My Sister’s Drawings of Trees,” like most of the poems of The Forever Notes, exhibits characteristic properties of what Elizabeth Willis has termed the “late lyric,” a descriptor Willis uses to clear up persistent misunderstandings of the lyric as a kind of confessional verse resulting in epiphany and transcendence of personal and historical specifics. Contemporary instances of the late lyric don’t evade their histories, but instead “exis[t] in a present that contains the past” — a past that stirs and is stirred by the present. In the context of Willis’s theory, one that recognizes the universe Emerson sees, the things “we learn to grow” and “we put … away” in Rackin’s poem about sibling role-playing and creative freedom include drawings of trees and youthful wishes for a different world. But among the things cultivated and the things stored out of sight are traces of the dolls, childhood, spool necklace, and Christian name put away in Dickinson’s famous poem of maturity, “I’m ceded — I’ve stopped being Theirs —.” “My Sister’s Drawings” encourages this association with the famous Dickinson poem of self-confirmation through its trademark em dashes and the syntactic doubling of the lines “with no trees at all” and “like ghosts,” and in the earlier lines’ allusion to the poem’s central trope of a queen who replaces the infant servant to actual and religious fathers. Dickinson’s gestures of dissent against man-made rituals of salvation gather far more quietly in Rackin’s poem about play, representation, and the power of creativity.
In containing the past that holds Dickinson’s lyric, Rackin’s poetics reroutes the expected circuits of intertextuality. The particles and particulars of Dickinson’s poem circulating in “My Sister’s Drawings” don’t so much direct reading to Dickinson as through its shorthand history of American selfhood envisioned as isolate, regal, and aristocratic, in which individuality is always a matter of ascension and separation, from servant “we” to royal “I.” The presence of other mediums in Rackin’s poem — performance (playing queen and servant) and drawing — complicates the poem’s ekphrastic movement to open a horizon of a remediative consideration. Here, Dickinson’s poem that ends in self-coronation and declarations of self-sovereignty (“With Will to choose, or to reject, / And I choose, just a Crown —”) opens into “a lower deep” through Rackin’s reopening of its terms for power, oppression, and childish imitation.
This opening and circling are generative acts of the intellectual imagination animating The Forever Notes, not only redrawing poetic relationships but also reviving the lyric’s most basic elements. Repetition of words and phrases within poems and from poem to poem demonstrates the late lyric’s capacity to “evoke alternate experiences” and to “provoke an excess of meaning.” In poems “You lie in a tree told sure,” “Story where I kept you,” and “You and the laborious night of trees,” Rackin avoids enjambment in favor of lines beginning traditionally with capitalized words but ending openly, unpunctuated, as in “You and the laborious night of trees”:
Trees and the night around you
You and the laborious night of trees
Trees and the night around you
You and the trees (19)
Emerson’s cosmic horizons seem to intersect at several points with Stein’s insistence, her method of rolling words over and over a line to fill various syntactical positions, gaining and halting momentum in ways that shake habits of consciousness to expose the luxuriance of the everyday. Rackin’s lyric pressurizes this play of reference, shifting “you,” “trees,” “laborious,” and “night” to provoke many simultaneous identities for speaker and addressee. In other poems, like “Leaflets,” repetition operates in ways similar to patterns established in HD’s early poems in which desire fuels vision in violent bursts:
There are those whom I need
to be singing
there are those who are singing
so I tear myself — (48)
The rending of self and song and of self by song illustrates the late lyric’s tendency to push and rupture the boundaries of identity rather than to repair or preserve them. Rackin’s work scatters the speaking self sometimes violently, sometimes playfully, often joyfully. These are volatile poems, but their explosiveness often drives toward hope and receptivity. “A generative act / splits the street” and in splitting the street, traffic moves more freely, more dangerously and unpredictably, in two or more directions, like infinite lines radiating from the vanishing point of a sister’s drawing.
In these poems, the foundational materials of the lyric seem in a continual state of regeneration. Even the most poetically handled words, like “tree,” “flowers,” “dreams,” “leaves,” or “sea,” become not just revived but disturbing and uncontainable, detonated within the ample margins. The vocabulary of the idyll so frequently occupies Rackin’s poetry that, when terms from the modern world of consumerism and entertainment appear (as they occasionally and discreetly do), a vibrant recirculation of temporal and perceptual modes takes place, as in “How wonderful to go riding”:
And to feel the sadness
That loneliness leaves
When it leaves
How wonderful to go riding
To fall into that sadness and know it
The breath of fall and the buds that spring
To experience sales also
In the adrift of language’s departments
How wonderful to feel sadness
That springs from summer monuments (10)
The setting is almost entirely impressionistic, although the sense of lushness and intensity of understanding is certain. Images of the Romantic natural world press into the poem’s emotional alertness, although there’s little that explicitly ties the poem to a remote countryside where riding is an experience of being carried along for the ride rather than driving or pedaling to a destination. Pleasure seems central to this poem, especially the pleasure in opportunities to move at a speed that allows one to notice subtle shifts in season and to recognize layers of emotion, “to feel the sadness / That loneliness leaves / When it leaves,” layers condensed by contemporary (and literary) inclinations towards closure and the contentedness emotional clarity is supposed to bring. Wonder, the roots of which mean either “a sight” or “a panic,” is clearly separate from private happiness or a release from the modern world of consumerism and bureaucracy. There is wonder in “sales” and in the lingo of contemporary popular discourse, too — “the adrift of language’s departments” is an ingenious clause, letting “adrift” drift out of modifying departments and into double occupation as subject of the prepositional phrase and newly minted noun, conspicuously awkward in its unfamiliar pose.
Rackin’s orientation in widely recognizable poetic materials accomplishes The Forever Notes’ greatest renovations of the lyric, its ability to gesture toward and even coax into view the untapped, untraveled expanses of perception. This embrace of old, even clichéd matters defies the new and improved, “fresh” and “emergent” criteria dominating contemporary poetry, but in Rackin’s poetics, that defiance is far from reactionary. Instead, The Forever Notes argues, implicitly and persuasively, that the lyric, even stripped down, remains a potent resource for imagination, beauty, and explorations of consciousness. Rather than find new subjects and forms for poetry, this stance implies, we must look harder at the ones we think we already know. “Meet me in the cabin,” the book’s first poem, presents a tiny, puzzling accumulation of repetition and metaphor (that also demonstrates Rackin’s archaic but multifunctional presentation of titles) that directs attention to some of the lyric’s most primitive matters — desire, love, and the struggle for immersion in the present:
Meet me in the sea
Meet me where our love’s a shirt
Drenched, dried out, and drenched once more (5)
Structuring this love lyric urging an erotic reunion, the miniature anaphora of “Meet me” turns the public emphasis of repetition marking the epic into the lyric’s intimate voice. Familiarity itself is the poem’s focus; familiarity comes from repetition and wear, like the homely (and metaphorically compounded) love shirt drenched and dried, over and over again. The poem’s delight comes from its speaker’s expectation of the cycles of meeting, love, drenching, and drying — of what’s known, but not completely, ever. Rackin sets aside the epiphany’s shock of recognition to wring from the lyric the slow, fluid volatility of knowing — our widest, most complex and elusive horizon of recognizing — what we see and feel, for days and for centuries, again and again, once more.
2. Elizabeth Willis, “The Arena in the Garden: Some Thoughts on the Late Lyric,” Telling It Slant, Avant-Garde Poetics of the 1990s, eds. J. Mark Wallace and Steven Marks (Tuscaloosa: University of Alabama Press, 2002), 225.
3. In her Emily Dickinson: A Poet’s Grammar (Cambridge: Harvard University Press, 1987), Cristanne Miller identifies Dickinson’s use of “a single phrase to cover two nonparallel syntactic contexts or to describe two different subjects” (37) and names this technique “syntactic doubling.”
A review of Piotr Gwiazda’s 'Messages'
In his first book, Gargarin Street (2005), Piotr Gwiazda, after “meandering slowly from nowhere to nowhere” in a self-deprecating manner, after revealing his motto “Give Chance a chance” (36), and after postulating,
What if the script of human life is full of typos,
missteps, mishaps, false starts, false alarms,
wrong turns, dead ends, distractions, digressions —
(notice the language here playfully falls into that “poetic misstep” of cliché), he tells us how to see the future: “Think of it as an enormous blank, a sort of dream” (60). In his latest book, Messages, Gwiazda enriches his conversation about the future, situating it within the present (and past), as in the last section of the last poem, “Messages”:
Here on this planet,
with no future,
where the wilderness has the color
of worn-out dollar bills,
rivers are covered
with oil and graffiti,
and civilizations of dragonflies
evolve in the parking lot
behind a shopping plaza,
comes to a standstill:
The horizon is both there (stated in text) and not there (crossed out). And by implication, the future, or a world broadening out from the present (and past), is there and not there. What seems to matter is the present “with no future”; what matters is our deliberative purpose — whatever “mission” that may be — that comes to a “standstill” before this ghost of a future. Gwiazda plays with these “standstill moments” throughout this book. They are observable and delightful (especially through language), contrary, and ever-changing and ultimately unknowable.
Gwiazda frames this book with a long epigraph from Joe Milutis (Ether: The Nothing That Connects Everything). Milutis argues that too much analysis (i.e. rationality) leads us to lose connection with each other, connection that seems to form when we allow illusions (i.e. irrational sense) to form. That we have to get back to developing illusion “because within it is a fundamental sense of direction and source of energy” (from the epigraph), which, according to Milutis, allows us to be more like who we are. In the three sections of this book, Gwiazda works towards illusion, or points it out in some form. He rubs and plays into the following paradox: the search for illusion (that irrational sense), and thus an energy of connectedness, is rooted, at least partially, in a search that is inherently rational.
In especially the first section, Gwiazda rarely veers into the personal. Rather, he broadly addresses culture, critiquing its blindness and excess, which can become boring and meaningless in its quest (or assumption) of grandness and rational meaning:
This small round floor that makes us passionate —
“HOSTAGE BEHEADED IN AFGHANISTAN,”
“ISRAELIS SEEK REVENGE
IN DEATH OF TODDLER” — is it past reprieve (5)
Even though the speaker is Dante here, these lines reveal a difficulty in this collection: the tendency to tread the border of cultural critique in the language of lecture/instruction, essay, or warning — and less in the language of a particular poem. Gwiazda moves into this problem infrequently, even though this implicit or explicit critique occurs consistently throughout the collection.
“Three Pieces for Two Hands,” the ninth of ten poems in the first section (there are ten in the third section as well), marks a stylistic break. Unlike the other poems in this section, there is no compression in the lines, which are visually expanded and spaced. There is a dreamy quality to this poem, a bit fragmentary in its first two parts. The poem foreshadows the second section of the book, where he creates a space to reflect on time in the only poem in that section, “Time.”
Besides being a spatial break, “Time” seems a break in tone as well. It focuses inward, in the more personal realm. It seems to be showing Gwiazda as he struggles in his role as a poet in which “I observe everything, / record everything” (22) but “I don’t know what I’m feeling // and so reserve comment” (23). He perceives (and perhaps purposefully exaggerates his capabilities) but may not understand or know the depth of his responses. This inward manifestation of the poet seemingly at home in uncertainty contrasts with the rawer, more observational poet of the first section, “a hacker” (3) or “assassin in the boardroom” (3) poet, the outspoken poet.
The third section of the book starts by alternating between cultural infusion and critique with the spatially open “breathable” poems. In these “culture poems” (“Before America,” “Island,” and “Ohio and West”), there is a sense of static, repetitive compression of American cultural history. These poems seem to implode. Gwiazda’s America is the antithesis of Whitman’s expansive America. The language here is at once stimulating and exciting but it also encroaches upon itself, enclosing and suffocating. The spatially open poems (“In Transit” and “Purgatory”) intercede these cultural blocks with a more “breathable” critique:
The banality of morning clouds.
Vivaldi in the shopping mall.
Jury duty. (36)
What comes out of these juxtapositions is the poem “Clouds Moving In.” The first section of this poem is the only place in Messages in which Gwiazda mentions Poland, which was an integral place in his first book. Here, Poland is distanced from Gwiazda (as in third person). In the second section of this poem, the scene shifts to “Dear New Yorker” (38), which can be taken as the literary and cultural center of America. It shifts to the first person, yet even here, “What really concerns me though is the way my body reacts / in front of an onrushing car. How it’s wafted by the wind // from late October to early April” (38). The poet is obliterated, almost surreally. There is disintegration, as Gwiazda points out later in an interview at the end of the book: disintegration of the poet and the poet’s culture.
In the third and last section of Messages, Gwiazda delves into the personal, which also stays somewhat impersonal since the speaker refers to his love interest as “X.” This tactic is Gwiazda at his best: on the border of irony, not meaning to be ironic but meaning to get to the essence of experience, struggling for it. That experience itself, at least in his writing, is both there and not there. It changes: “Anything, anything / can be put into a poem” (3). He writes of that trace of anything. He writes the ghosts of experience, enacts it in his writing, especially in the physical cross-outs in his text (“Clouds Moving In,” “Things She Didn’t Say,” and “Messages”). The cultural breaks down into the personal, which ultimately breaks down in the text. There is no “permanent” marker. There are markers of perception, which are ever-changing.
Gwiazda’s language percolates out of the mundane context. He compresses images and lines in many places (e.g., “Ghost Photography” and “Removable Tattoos”), so that when the language becomes “uncompressed,” as in “Time” or “Three Pieces for Two Hands” or in moments elsewhere at the end of “Purgatory” or “In Transit,” the work breathes. Even the pace of his language and form is impermanent.
Gwiazda in most of this book is comic and delightful in his play. In fact, it seems the first part of the collection has a more comic tone, perhaps because its language and form enact the qualities of misperception. It extends the grotesque (“Aardvark, Fat”); it lumps closely together the on-the-surface dissimilar (“now it’s a robot ablaze with intelligence, / now a bad cop, now a mullah” ); it brings out explicit cultural idiosyncrasies (“Every six months you are required to change / your email password and/or sexual partner” ); its titles invite wit (“Three Pieces for Two Hands” or “Life after People”); it sings out a manifesto song (“Ether”) and later critiques poets who align themselves with manifestos (“Removable Tattoos”); it serves irony (in “Dante on a Plane,” Dante looks down from a plane, from the “heavens,” into the “hellish” earth; Dante observes, in essence, from the other side).
Gwiazda’s word choice resonates:
Poetry is silence in drag (27)
Poetry is dressed up (“loud”) in the cultural fringe (as “drag”). At the same time, it is silent, especially in the mainstream. It’s hidden but there. And to stretch these words even further, poetry drags on (in time). Poetry and its silence create a drag, stopping the momentum of mainstream observation. There’s effort in poetry; there’s the dragging of this silence through the throat. Here, as elsewhere in this collection, Gwiazda zooms in on rich, evocative words, exposing the contrariness of experience — from plain to poetic language and even to the made-up word:
Everywhere you turn
only readymade language …
People have organs
and messages inside them. (44)
“Readymade language” is at once natural in its flow, especially to those persons speaking this language. At the same time, it’s as unique and unnatural as the word “readymade.” It’s both sonically mundane and visually not mundane. This phrase enacts a perfect compression of contrariness rooted in experience.
Gwiazda’s work shows the convergence between the mundane and not mundane. In “Daylight Saving,” the last poem of the first section, “The apartment replies with pebbles and stars” (17). Gwiazda frames an answer without actually answering a question. He frames an answer in a poetic form that verges on breaking the poetic, a prose poem in five section-vignettes. He frames an answer in the resonance of the poem’s silent answer, and allows the reader to own the answer (and question). All this poem reveals is that an answer will come from the mundane (pebbles) and from the not mundane (stars in the grand universe). Both aspects are so different, yet both are “nothing” or “small,” from where we stand. Both are “far” from our actual, human experience of perception.
Messages revolves around interpretation. In the first section, Gwiazda implicitly looks sometimes broadly, sometimes abstractly, and sometimes (especially at the end) personally at what it means to interpret. He delves into interpretive uncertainty, “a thing unknown” (8). Ultimately we are “beginningless and free” (6). In other words, we are unrooted and open to possibilities. Even in “The Golden Age,” a world of rationality, we do not achieve certainty; the monuments from faith and irrationality, “These marble hands. These limestone eyes. / The boiling earth. The swollen sun” (10), keep us from understanding the world in more rational certainty, which ends up being “mostly boredom” (10) anyway.
Gwiazda is very conscious of the role of the poet, of himself, and his place in this interpretative scheme of communication, which by itself has a lack of coherent, obvious meaning.
All is not lost, however, when poets —
tired of contests, fed up with manifestos —
improvise in softly toned sprechstimme
song of dubious importance and vague beauty. (12)
Here he beautifully subverts any manifesto or theory he set up in the book’s epigraph and in his first poem “Ether.” Such a perfect word choice: Sprechstimme, a German word meaning “between singing and speaking while using an imprecise pitch.” This word strikes an imprecise balance in the stanza. It is a foreign word which introduces a “foreign” concept — that of an indeterminate, uncertain role of poets who have nowadays been conditioned towards a competitive certainty of theory, or “schools of poetry,” and of winning contests (to get published) and perhaps being viewed as better poets. Gwiazda undercuts this oeuvre in the plain last line, reducing his own importance. His verbal skill and tenacity undercut and destabilize the standstill moments.
Gwiazda repeats and revises throughout the book, moving into the personal by the end so that perhaps cultural becomes personal and personal becomes cultural. He constantly overlays his previous poetic words and ideas through cross-outs, repetitions, reimaginings: “Poetry is a matter of / perspective (perception rather)” (3). Even here, in the first poem, Gwiazda starts to “cross out” and change his interpretation of “perspective.”
Messages concludes with an interview, “Messages Without a Message: An Interview with Piotr Gwiazda.” When I first wrote a draft of this review, I did not read the interview. The title alone told me the danger: this interview interrupts the penchant against analysis with the possibility of analysis. Gwiazda, for his part, must have been aware of this contrariness/juxtaposition by titling the interview as it is. But it’s an informative read that adds a little more depth to my understanding of the book. There are three main points about the book in this interview I found most interesting: 1) There is no message/meaning to a poem but what the work itself does to you, and this take fits well with the enacting of experience in language that Gwiazda employs; 2) How a poem and its “message” — whatever it is — evolves on you, the reader, is the crux of his interest; and 3) These poems try to account for the human capacity for illusion.
By the end of Messages, the future is no longer an “enormous blank, a sort of dream” (Gargarin Street, 60). The future is no longer out there, neither outside the self nor in dreams. Rather, the future is in the “reconstruction of dreams” (4), the ever-changing revisions of perception, and ultimately of consciousness. Gwiazda suggests the interdependence of humans on this earth and environment. The damaging human interaction and continual response of nature has all but wiped out that future’s enormous blank, defraying this dream as a ghost. The future itself has essentially become fixed in time — actually, going along in time — ever-changing as these “standstill moments,” dependent on our present choices and active perceptions.
A review of Mary Burger's 'Then Go On'
In her new book Then Go On, Mary Burger explores how to occupy space and time with language and thought, how to expand the self, transgressing its borders, how to exhaust thought, how to suspend time and the self, and how to exceed language with itself.
As if a harbinger, the following text presented itself a few months prior to Burger’s book, handwritten in kid’s scrawl and posted in a ground-floor window in my neighborhood:
a chrip to chin
wus a pontim
thar wr too
First I was fascinated to decipher the phonetic spelling, then to consider the author’s radical relationship with words. The story fascinated me too. How liberating: shaping the words, to shape the story, shaping the story as opposite to what we “know” as possible (i.e., kids in California imagine China/“chin”). I love to make these words with my mouth and breath because it feels like the usually ineffable thing is piecing itself together right next to my vocables. Mary Burger writes with the same immediacy. Indeed, two pieces in Then Go On, “Two Little Mice” and “Fire Cat,” begin with facsimiles of Burger’s own phonetic poems written at age seven.
A first word that comes to mind to describe Burger’s new book of poetic prose-prose poems is muscular. The writing has a material quality, and does rigorous work to fill the void with taut braids of itself. What void? That which a being confronts in space and time. I mean both the negative and double negative senses of the word: that is, void as meaningless empirical reality, and void as gap, opening, or rupture of reality, i.e., space of possibility.
In “Necessary,” Burger writes: “This language materialized, or coalesced I suppose, as if a fog had been there all along but gradually became opaque so that the air that I had seen through became instead the thing that I could see” (48).
I often wonder how to spend my time. There’s never enough or else too much, so the wonderment is couched in anxiety. In “Orbital,” Burger writes, “This will take up all the available time for a while. I can see from your face that I’ve made an impression” (56). She’s just discussed “the scale of things entrusted to us [that] staggers even ourselves,” and suggests the gamut from subatomic to outer-orbital. The next strophe proceeds: “This paradigm shifts so that words are as nimble as neurotransmitters. Like a small chemical messenger, a word can do anything you can think of. A word can move muscles. A word can hold eyes” (57). I’m encouraged by the time I fill with Mary Burger’s book, as the flexible, capable word toils to trace the contours of an intricate topography. The sense of effort here is a solace not a suck because it activates the subjectivity of everyone involved. The prose invites me into its gullies of white space and other deferrals — so I’m the living thing that bridges its gaps; the immense tensile strength, poise, and lucidity of Burger’s writing grips and focuses my attention as I cross over.
In the first section of “The Man Without Stumps IV,” Burger outlines how language falls short of her wishes for it: “the alphabet was not the moving topography I’d been imagining” (77). Yet by gathering and applying language materially onto “the vastly featured terrain that shifted around me,” she vanquishes these limitations. The section comprises a single sentence that extends over nineteen lines, kinked with equal parts repetition and caesurae. “This sequence of individual graphemes does not map the parabolic movement of the knife-edge ridge of a sand dune,” but in a sense she casts the dune in negative, parallel impression — unspooling the sentence against it. In other words, torqued by the interplay of repetition and extension, the writing enacts the “parabolic movement,” “striations,” and “shifting” of the terrain with its own sinuous shape.
Burger’s thoroughness accomplishes an occupation of time and space that yields agency. She starts with nothing, beginning at the beginning — her phonetic protolanguage — and never denies nothing’s constant, in the cracks of contingency to either side of reason or its semblance. “The Man Without Stumps,” for example, foregrounds an absence of legible form. Mid-careen down a crumbling cliff face, the man “notices then that he is not standing on anything, that he is in fact surrounded by nothing … Not just nothing he recognizes, there is nothing at all” (68). The man is nondescript, bouncy, soft, the terrain sliding and loose. Any form they retain is a turbulent blur. In a strophe on raising tents: “Always at the fulcrum of the lift there is a chance someone will give out. One pole will swerve wildly, others will waver, suddenly the whole sky will lurch to one side and collapse” (65). No determinate shape or area is reliable, all’s in flux, spanned by “the cloud of being that dispels millions of colors in gray matter, an atomized mist, [that] surrounds us and is chilly, we can’t separate ourselves from it or feel any perspective, we can’t look at it because we are in it” (69). Burger manages to write in, of, and by this cloud, manifesting not only that form is fluid, but that myriad appearances coexist of a truth that can’t be defined.
The final pages of “The Man Without Stumps” comprise a succession of interpretations of “the graininess in the picture that might be me”:
The graininess in the picture that might be me could be a ball caught in mid-
bounce, a Frisbee powered by a good throw. It could be a dog with a Frisbee in its mouth.
The graininess in the picture that might be me might be a glass of lemonade. That
might be you behind me, reaching for me, a cool glass wet with condensation, the
pale lemony water choked with ice.
The graininess in the picture that might be me is part black part white and faintly crescent-shaped.
The graininess in the picture that might be me, it gives just enough information to
go on, just enough texture and contrast for me to almost hold together. Stay with
me now, I am almost about to exist. (82)
Each reading of the picture is just as true as any other, and just as false. Burger’s communication is authentic not as external fact, but insofar as it activates and engages an I. The rotation of hypotheses answering the anaphora, “the graininess in the picture,” builds a formal concatenation that carries the thinking subject and almost embodies her; constant motion and plurality match the ever-unmade, ever-in-the-making subject.
Revelations, repetitions, questions, contradictions, hesitations, violations: all arise and weigh the same. What matters more than the particular shape of the word-bodied thought, is its engagement in the traversal of time and space. Burger’s word is not “spent” in the sense of expended: extinguished, dead, switched off, etc. Nor is time itself used up or killed. Rather, the word and time may be said to expand — and thereby open vital lacunae in the blah everyday. In turn, in this breaking space, “aesthetic” experience becomes possible.
In “Rusted,” Burger deals explicitly with “pure aesthetic gesture” (4). “We believed the most extravagant, precise, deliberate, but utterly nonutilitarian gesture to be the most perfect” (5), she writes. Pointing to the impracticality and stupidity of “photographs of ourselves sitting on the thing [a defunct pipe] and grinning” (5), the poem celebrates a free realm for play and the suspension of sense-making. In the poem prior, “I Like Purple,” another nonsensical zone blossoms weirdly in “the transformation of an embroidered peasant shawl into a wriggling hallucination — girls lined up, one row above another, as if in the corridors of a cell block, a bar or scarf floating across their middle, and below the heads of the next row, the bars moved and danced with the girls, and it seemed the whole system might split, but it didn’t” (3). A vivid, extraordinary vision defies understanding but endures anyway.
Burger’s writing reaches far, pressing into multiple dimensions. An aphoristic character surrounds sentences with auras of implication, in the way that parables and miniatures are both tidy and infinitely extensible. Still, however resonant with compression, abstraction, and calm, the proffered advice is not easy or reasonable. Burger answers complexity with complexity, with grammar that unwinds and divagates interminably even as it’s wrought with utter precision. As a consequence, where precariousness matches attention to detail, we adopt a discipline of deep focus — or risk substance’s dissolution.
Here again is the book’s substrate: in the face of formlessness, Burger activates the present by way of ideas — contemplating contingencies one by one as they appear — as well as formally, with deftly woven prose. She notes potential pitfalls: inauthenticity, by attempting “to seize the impossibly ephemeral moment, to hold onto a reflection which was not the moment itself” (“A Series of Water Disasters,” 16), excess, or “the nature of mind, that wants to be elsewhere” (“Necessary,” 49), and denial, by answering “the ubiquitous emergency as if it wasn’t happening to us” (“Blush,” 46). In the last, ongoing catastrophe just beyond our scope takes the form of a “subtly pulsating, high-pitched whine,” that provides a constant, abstract threat but no real compromise to sitting “in this shady backyard sharing a meal” (47). Yet the repercussions of the alternative — not to attempt to examine one’s experience, not to question, think, or write — are worse than these habits that the subject strains to break. In Then Go On, Mary Burger coaxes a body of writing as changeable, fluid, serious, and vulnerable as a living body, in evidence of a mindfulness that awakens, in turn, the reader’s reciprocal attention to new spaces of possibility.
1. I understand (via Friedrich Schiller’s definitions, via Jacques Rancière and Claire Bishop) the aesthetic object of free appearance as that which maintains total autonomy from sensible, ordinary, productive modes of reality. As such it creates space for play and pointless activity, questioning and reimagining.