Taking the concept of meaning-making by storm
a review of 'Cyclones in High Northern Latitudes'
I struggled with this review for a very, very long time. Both Jeffrey Side and Jake Berry's aesthetics are deeply invested in maximizing each reader's unique contribution to the process of meaning-making, and both would vehemently resist any effort that might seem to reduce a poem to a "stable and finite" reading. Side in particular has powerfully encouraged readers to resist merely being "passive witnesses," and to consciously search out "less obvious or appropriate" meanings.
The problem is that a review would seem to work against this aesthetic principle because, by definition, it privileges a single, authoritative interpretation: "Like this poem because I liked it;" "Look for the elements that I found most interesting;" "Mistrust the elements that I found offputting."
I've tied myself in knots trying to avoid the ethical paradox of publishing a review that is a univocal, potentially stultifying, interpretation of a ferociously polyvocal text -- and the result is less a review of Cyclones in High Northern Latitudes than a review of my reading of Cyclones in High Northern Latitudes.
In the interview released on Jake Berry's blog "9th St. Laboratories," Berry and Jeffrey Side variously describe the long poem Cyclones in High Northern Latitudes as "a conversation," "an amalgam," "a poetic symbiosis," and "a work that would have been impossible by either of the poets alone." Side describes the creation of the poem in terms of musical improvisation: a "spontaneous 'call and response' approach, whereby we would each simply respond poetically to what the other had written." The poem would be mailed back and forth between the authors, each adding something new. Even after the text of the poem was finalized, the organic artistry of the volume continued to evolve through Rich Curtis' contribution of eight visual images and Bill Lavender's orchestration of the layout and design.
The final product is very much a collaborative effort, yet the poem itself is a lyric "quasi-narrative," the single narrator an unnamed "I" in circular, polyvocal conversation with himself. Narrative hints suggest that the poem is voiced by a paranoid schizophrenic man in a psychiatric ward, physically trapped but mentally traveling across continents and through time -- "hiding" while "on the run" (22, 23, 40, 41) from unidentified assailants that may be the ward supervisors or may be wholly imaginary.  Because the tale is told from his fractured, inconsistent point of view, it is never clear whether the hospital is literal or metaphoric (or, indeed, how/if the distinction might be relevant).
The poem is full of decisive statements that somehow avoid meaning decisively, and the opening lines foreground Barry and Side’s aesthetic of making/unmaking:
could not be effaced
by the quality
of her clothes. (9)
The apparently simple statement -- a claim on behalf of "her dignity" -- is actually negated by the narrator's defensive tone. Instead of affirming her status, it invites a series of undignified questions, most importantly: What is wrong with her outfit? In effect, the poem opens in negative space, stressing a sense of absence rather than moving forward with a cohesive plot.
The mysterious woman’s dignity is further undercut by the next lines, but, again, only indirectly. The narrator does not say anything against her, but his choice of language pushes her into the background, further obfuscating her concerns and feelings behind an overwhelming self-preoccupation:
I knew this
back near the border
when I was not satisfied.
I recommend highly
a new approach
to the situation.
Such was the time
spent together. (9)
Throughout, Cyclones draws attention to readerly expectations without catering to them. Side and Berry's poem offers just enough of a narrative form to indicate story-ness, but it withholds the kinds of detail that would make up a clearly denoted plot.
The woman of the opening line is mentioned on several occasions, but her significance is all but lost in a narrative that is also a high-speed whirling psychological cyclone, tangled with narrative detritus: bits and scraps of half-memories ("I remember, but I do not recall" 11); pained, introspective questions ("Was freedom as tangible then/as I remember it being,/now that/it is so elusive?" 21); otherworldly proclamations ("The greatest difficulty/may be with the terraces/or the third,/secret hand,/of the gardeners/ that tend them." 17); and allusions so oblique as to be uncertain ("I didn't bother to answer/or even turn away/from the window./I learned long ago/to distinguish between/strong memories and/whatever the world is," 27).
The absence of a familiar, intellectually comprehensible plot contributes towards a raw, visceral sense of readerly disorientation and vulnerability. In Berry's terms:
By its very nature art is subjective -- that is what makes it work so well and gives it such long life. We can appreciate cave paintings from 30,000 years ago, each of us in our own way. How many theories have survived that long? […] Even in its ideal environment theory is just a collection of ideas that may or may not be validated. Art, at least for me, works the other way around. Though an artist might make preliminary sketches, and a poet might revise, without the inspiration -- the air one inhales -- that which comes from outside -- the artist is damned to repeat the past, to reproduce what is known. […] Whether the artist or poet accomplishes it or not, he or she should always try to discover something. Perhaps that discovery is old news to someone else, but that doesn't matter. At the very least the work will be charged with the enthusiasm of that moment of discovery.
In Side's terms:
A satisfying poem is one that enters your mind and turns the key to your imagination. It enables you to find specific meanings and emotions that only you can recognize because they are filtered through your memory traces. A poem that fails to satisfy does the opposite: it tells you what it is about, the feelings you are to feel and the understanding you are to have. The words and images of a poem should be looked upon as devices that you can use to paraphrase every thought you have had, are having, and will have. The words should be twisted, stretched, moulded and freely associated to mean anything you want them to mean. In this way you become, in effect, a creative talent in your own right-you write the poem as you read it, so to speak.
At every turn, Cyclones enacts an aesthetic that demands readerly involvement because the text is tenuously suspended around gaps, elisions, and highlighted erasures. Even in the layout, Bill Lavender carefully and humorously spaced the page breaks so that the enjambment interferes with a reader's ability to process the poem as a linear narrative. A reader may flip back and forth -- mentally and sometimes physically leafing between pages to re-conceptualize images that have been carefully built up on one page and substantially modified by an unexpected final phrase on the next.
of her now
the inevitable (10)
The very dry visual joke works at two levels, both to lighten the slightly lugubrious narrative tone and to "distance" the rather grim narrator -- who ostensibly controls dialogue -- from the mischievous artists (Berry, Side, and Lavender) who control both narrator and the mise-en-scène of the published page.
Throughout, Cyclones treads a very fine line between "inchoate" and "incoherent."  It skims from point to point, moral to moral, swirling with non sequiturs and sustaining no stated purpose beyond the self-evident act of storytelling. There are few moments of relative clarity, but they primarily serve to highlight the overall refusal of clarity. For example, two sentences (given about a third of the way through) seem to offer readers one lens through which to interpret the mad narrator's struggle with "the institute" that confines him. In this passage, the careful deployment of academic language playfully/cynically conflates the physical safeguards that secure a high-risk psych ward with the intellectual assessments and conventions that define a typical university campus and, perhaps more to the point, a literary canon:
Me, I tried
to enter into things
but my maps
and the institute
Now I am
who have denied me
within the hallways
of pedantry. (18)
The lines echo a 2008 interview with Jake Berry:
There seems to be two kinds of poetry in the academy these days. One of them has been there for a while; the anecdotal, usually free verse or some modification, that was originally associated with the Iowa School. The other is Language Poetry. Both have produced some excellent work. As with anything that succeeds and succeeds in being taught, the second and third generations produce work that isn't as strong as the first. Innovation comes from the outside, but by the nature of the institution, the work becomes formulaic. Students try to reproduce what they are taught to please their teachers. […] I suppose that every poet hopes to compose great poetry and every publisher hopes to bring great poetry to light, but there is no road map.
If to willfully discard the roadmap is to risk ostracism from the hallways of pedantry, then it is possible to read the poem as an allegory of non-mainstream poetics: the narrator is always trying to find mental loopholes that will allow him to finally escape "the institute."
Alternatively, it is also possible to read the poem as a drawn-out metaphor for the difficulty of coming up with something new in language when language is already so overburdened with pre-set narrative arcs, given poetic forms, and mainstream priorities.
For the narrator, there is no escape from narrative conventions even though no one form, no one plot, no one image holds it all together. He must stitch together a reality for himself from the only pieces he can grasp -- a scattered confetti of learned narrative patterns: diary form ("As I went out this morning/I had misgivings/about Netscape"), medieval epic ("Over the hills/they came in hordes,/led by two men on horseback/with a cross emblazoned/on their chests" (35-6), spy thriller ("I was/intercepted/when I tried/to cross the border. […] you exposed/my cover/and left me here" 51), horror ("Last night/when the cold dark settled in/I lit it/and immediately/saw your shadow/move across the floor" 53), and many, many others. In 32 pages of text, there are 254 personal and possessive pronouns, including 146 uses of "I," "my," or "mine" -- as if the frenetic assertion of selfhood in the midst of pre-determined narrative plots, stock characters, and archetypal relationships will somehow constitute an identity. But the urgency of self-identification is muted by the frequent use of passive voice that distances both narrator and reader from the details of the (possibly imaginary) narrative action:
Now I hustle
through my days
to stay ahead
of the guards,
the dogs of cognizance
who know nothing at all
to masters that
none of us have seen
or believe to exist.
From my vantage point
on this promontory,
I can see all around.
Sometimes I look up;
sometimes I look down.
look too good.
That may be
from my condition. (22, 23)
Ultimately, every apparent narrative interpretation suggested by one part of the text is undermined by another. In this case, by juxtaposing very serious and frightening circumstances with bored, bland reflections, Berry and Side effect an unlikely and precariously balanced meterological/psychological ambiance of…panicked ennui. The narrator describes the drek of a vivid imaginative life flying at phenomenal, chaotic speeds, but notes it with calm, slightly quizzical detachment -- to read this poem is to watch the storm from the eye.
Rich Curtis beautifully captures this oxymoronic ethos in the cover illustration -- a taut, menacing funnel cloud writhes down from a luxuriously languid storm drawn in fat, slow, curly loops and whorls: lax urgency, frantic tedium, homey adventure, ardent indifference, rational insanity. The structural strength of the poem is in the sequence of impossible tensions because it enacts exactly the kind of "non-mainstream" poetic that Side advocates as the editor of The Argotist Online: "poetry that is aware of the plasticity of language and which places connotation and ambiguity over denotation and precision of meaning. This sort of poetry invites interpretation and allows for plurality of meaning as opposed to hermeneutic closure."  Or, to borrow the narrator's words: "Just at the moment/you think you have/discovered its physics/it explodes into/wild distortions -- " (30).
Enough symbols recur through the text to suggest that meaning is possible, but the symbols never relate in such a linear fashion as to define that meaning. For example, "hands" (literal, metonymic, and adverbial) appear six times: "the third/secret hand,/of the gardeners" (17); "We both played/our best hand then,/but I lost;/or did I really win?" (33); "any sharp implement/they had at hand" (36); "I cough into my hand" (47); "This blood/I look at/on my hand/now remains/for you" (51); "This blood/on my hand/speaks clearly" (52).
Tuberculosis. The red hand of Ulster. Caught red-handed. DNA analysis. Genetic mutation. Gambling. Uncertain stakes. Violence.
The ambivalent associations help create what Berry might describe as a poem that is also a "discovery," not just "the road less traveled" but something of an emotional and psychological "choose your own adventure." The energy of the poem is manifest in the fluid movement between half-related images ("wild distortions" 30) and declarations of identity that are also declarations of purpose ("I must pursue/something" 33).
The multitude of possible combinations are meaningful but unanchored, a pattern of fluid imagery that works toward an organic poetic that Berry has praised in the work of Michael McClure: "direct phenomena that reflects, is in wholeness with, the world through his concept of myriad mindedness and from that, through an alchemy is that is more biological than abstraction."
Having said that -- a fragmented narrative is neither formally nor conceptually innovative in its own right. It raises the stakes without determining the outcome: at best, the gaps in the narrative will inspire the reader to leap between them, forging an electric, emotionally and intellectually galvanizing, unreproducible poetic experience; at worst, the reader will be baffled rather than inspired, fail to connect emotionally, and find no resonance between the language of the poem and her/his own experience.
It is possible that the complexity of the mental exercise involved in reading this kind of poem inspires a more nuanced emotional reaction.
It is also possible that the mental exercise of recognizing and parsing out alternate meanings can act as a buffer to the reader's personal emotional response. A reader can treat a complex, connotative poem like a crossword puzzle to be solved rather than as an emotional stimulus.
I can see how Cyclones could be powerful for another reader, but my personal experience with Cyclones was anticlimactic. I didn't even hate it; I thought the language was banal. The poem opens in negative space, and I think it stays there. Throughout Cyclones, the elusive woman of the opening line incarnates a dozen patriarchal archetypes of woman-as-Other. But to demonstrate that many two-dimensional archetypes of "woman" exist in stock narratives is hardly provocative. As a feminist, I found it a bit dreary and disheartening.
Could these archetypes be deployed ironically? Yes. But ironic to what purpose?
The poem seems like an attempt to be "non-mainstream" that negatively demonstrates the inadequacy of the mainstream by reproducing it in pieces without achieving enough of a unique, positive aesthetic to become persuasively "otherstream." Yet even as I write this, I second-guess myself. If the reader is responsible for meaning-making, can there be "failed" poems or only "failed" readings? (failed readers?)
I worry that some heavily connotative poetics are only perpetuated because they punt any communicative or artistic failures to the reader, as if to say: "If you can't make magic with this, then you are 'mainstream,' lazy, and severely lacking in poetic imagination." Yet that statement seems to sell short the whole concept of poetry -- if it is all in the reader's head, why not make magic with the Reader's Digest? But I still worry that elements of that statement are probably accurate. [How can you tell whether the emperor is wearing clothes in language -- where there are no emperors or clothes that aren't manufactured in your mind?]
I didn't care for the aesthetic outcome of this particular poetic experiment, but it did push me to think about the relationship between the poem and the reader. A review is not the place for a full-blown theoretical quarrel, so I've corresponded with Side about some of my questions, and he agreed to post an interview that follows up on some of these questions in the Argotist Online. [link forthcoming]
The value of any texts' aesthetic to an individual reader is in what the reader chooses (and is able) to connect with in any given moment. Which is to say that I'm glad I read it, but I didn't like Cyclones. Chris Mansel, Matt Hill, and Bill Lavender loved it. 
You may love it.
Go read it and find out.
Berry, Jake. Blog. "New from Lavender Ink: Cyclones in High Northern Latitudes." 9th St. Laboratories <http://9thstlab.blogspot.com/> Posted 15 April 2010. (Accessed Aug 2010).
---. "Interview with Jake Berry, Editor of Outré, Artifact Collective Texts, Anomaly, The Experioddicist, and Currently 9th St. Laboratories." by Alan May. The Serials Librarian 55.1-2 (July 2008): 296-303.
---. Review. Michael McClure. 3 POEMS - Dolphin Skull, Rare Angel, Dark Brown. <http://www.thing.net/~grist/l&d/mcclure/mc-jb1.htm> 2 January 1996. Accessed Aug 2010.
Side, Jeffrey. "Abstraction and Ambiguity in the Lyrics of Leonard Cohen" <http://www.leonardcohenfiles.com/side.html> 1998. Accessed Aug 2010.
---. The Argotist Online <http://www.argotistonline.co.uk/> Accessed Aug 2010.
5. Cf. Lord Dunsany, "The Wonderful Window" and "The Coronation of Mr. Thomas Shap" from The Book of Wonder (1912). Full text available here.
8. Lavender's sense of humor is even evident on the library page: "Copyright © 2010, Jeffrey Side and Jake Berry, all rites reserved" (2). The line is a recurring joke that prefaces all the Lavender Ink publications.
9. Cf. Side's blog "To Connote or Not to Connote." In this context, I use the term "inchoate" (suggesting that the text is not wholly unified in a narrative structure) to contrast with "incoherent" (suggesting that the text is incomprehensible).
14. "She" is the unattainable object of desire ("There would be/half a smile/and polite rejection" 9), the lost beloved ("I had a wife then,/and a son on the way./But to dwell on the past/just serves to bring/the present into grief," 18), the soul mate ("When I met her,/those first months,/we had/complete command/of the skies." 21), the object of regret and blame ("I hated my life/because of a beautiful woman" 28-9), the enchantress ("She bound me/so fast/that I half expected/to go mad." 33-4), the damsel in distress ("…I would find her/and save her/from these men/in case her love/became transferred/to them" 39), the sex worker ("…a picture of you,/scantily clad,/apparently/from a silent porno,/1920s." 47), the femme fatale ("You knew/I was never/a security risk/yet you exposed/my cover/and left me here/to bargain/for my freedom." 51), and so on.
16. Quotations available on Berry's blog