Textures for the mouth and ear
A review of Gale Nelson’s ‘This Is What Happens When Talk Ends’
Gale Nelson’s most recent book, This Is What Happens When Talk Ends, is his first full-length book in eleven years. In earlier works such as stare decisis and ceteris paribus, both published by Burning Deck, Nelson displays acute and often humorous attention to the sound in language rather than the meaning one may derive from language. In the serial poem “Corporate Blessings,” from ceteris paribus, for instance, he writes:
great gobs of goose grease
following tie culls
sweat on the
representation of jar.
One gets the feeling reading Nelson that language is a physical thing. Read any of his poems aloud and one’s mouth will feel thick with speech.
This Is What Happens When Talk Ends is similarly invested in the texture of language. Here, the work derives some of its energy from Shakespeare’s “To be or not to be” soliloquy in Hamlet. Nelson’s book, in fact, consists of eight sets of eight poems that follow the vocalic pattern within eight different Shakespeare speeches. Regarding titles, Nelson also works a rotation of eight. In “Post Hoc, Ergo Propter Hoc,” his informative afterword detailing his method, the author writes, “Where Shakespeare cleaved music to sense (or was it sense to music?), I have done my best to persist with each verse as problem at hand, and hope for the best.” The mathematical sounding “problem at hand” makes clear Nelson’s Oulipian lineage as does the procedure he followed while composing these poems.
Nelson’s first step in his Oulipian procedure was to strip the soliloquies of all their consonants, leaving only the vowels. In this system, the author mentions, Y does not count. Next, he “did [his] best to forget what Shakespeare had written and sought [his] own set of words to build (italics mine) from these vowel strings.” This notion of building poems illustrates further the materiality of language for Nelson. The goal, he goes on to write, “was to simply get somewhere else,” someplace other than where Shakespeare had gotten. The poems within This Is What Happens are translations, though not versions focused on sense. Instead, as Nelson suggests, the poems shed light on vocalic structure.
The second component of Nelson’s method is yet another link to Oulipo. After culling consonants from plays such as Macbeth and The Tragedy of Richard the Third, the poet wanted to avoid organizing the poems by play. Instead, he recalled George Perec’s usage of the knight’s circuit in a game of chess to shape the action in his book, Life: A User’s Manual. Where Perec mapped out his own knight’s circuit, Nelson’s eight sets of eight poems corresponded perfectly with the standard sixty-four squares of a chessboard. This correspondence enabled Nelson to rely on the earliest surviving knight’s circuit, which dates back to 840 AD and is associated with al-Adli ar-Rumi of Baghdad.
Throughout these procedural poems Nelson writes in diction that occasionally conjures past literary figures such as John Milton. In “Lycidas,” Milton turns towards closing his pastoral poem with this famously attention-shifting line: “Thus sang the uncouth Swain to th’ Okes and rills.” Nelson reformulates this line in the first rendition of his pastoral, “Sparse Fields Plowed Last,” when he writes, “thus spake / this bad-shamed boy in long, loud cadence.” In both Milton and Nelson the word “thus” insists that the preceding lines be read in a different light. Within Milton’s poem, the reader sees a distinction between the shepherd’s song of loss and the final eight lines that are spoken by another voice.
In his book, too, Nelson plays out this tension between song and speech in poems where words such as argot, jargon, and patois continually crop up. Argot and jargon refer to specialized language, such as Cockney Rhyming Slang or Esperanto. Patois, on the other hand, refers to any nonstandard language, such as pidgins and creoles. Interestingly, the French word signifies rude, incomprehensible speech. Nelson’s second rendition of “Sparse Fields Plowed Last” closes with these lines:
as egret’s shrill emboldens avis argot. Send
this bitter age in dust, send us swans,
another eagle. Ovations doom tug’s lost
exacting droplet. Is that it, or is no
gem sparkling? Egret’s eggs!
The “Shout” here, perhaps rude, turns up the volume on notions of speech while the poet links the “egret’s shrill” with “avis argot.” The piercing sound of the egret instills courage into the avis’s specialized language. In Latin, avis is a word for bird. So, this argot would be the specialized language of birds, song. Nelson’s attunement to birdsong links his work to one of the oldest and most traditional tropes in poetry. Notably, though, this song in contrast to Keats’s “Ode to a Nightingale” would be shrill. In conjunction with the opening shout, this makes clear that Nelson wants readers to consider heightened instances of talk and song rather than so-called normative forms. Perhaps This Is What Happens When Talk Ends is another way of saying “song is what happens when talk ends.”
Nelson’s intention “to get somewhere else,” as mentioned above, starts in Shakespeare. But where does Nelson get to exactly? A place? A state of mind seems more apt. One that is unhindered within the constraints of what one might call traditional tradition, Milton and Keats et al. Nelson’s other companion from the outset, Oulipian technique, opens up this crowded path. In a book indebted to two literary traditions such as This Is What Happens When Talk Ends it’s clear that the poem for Nelson is a place after all, a place where the ear attunes to the textures of language.