To transform hearing's ear
A review of Charles Alexander’s 'Pushing Water'
In his “Olson Memorial Lecture,” Robert Duncan questioned what it meant “to cultivate a locality — to have a precinct.” I have recently looked into a precinct called Pushing Water, Charles Alexander’s serial poem recently published by Kyle Schlesinger’s Cuneiform Press.
Alexander knows how to make a precinct. Indeed, Alexander reposes Duncan’s question: “if I place this word on this page will a here develop.” Pushing Water spends a large part of its fifty-two sections answering this question, giving out typographical pointers, replacing salt and pepper shakers, and walking us through the grave procedure of attaching a breathing tube.
Pushing Water gives way to the “rage of the / open page,” as Alexander follows his ear much like Alice following the White Rabbit. This leads to what Alexander phrases “the transition from ear to oar,” the trajectory of a poem beginning in its sound and from the annunciation of that sound finding its stroke in the world of things. In this poem, sound qualifies as Thing, just as the author admonishes us in section 14:
the whole of the work is
the sound of the work
is the structure of the
work is the measure
of the work
With regards to the physical qualities of Pushing Water, it is hard to resist thinking of Alexander’s affinity for baseball:
Just writing a sentence whose syntax allows one word to enter while
another waits the manager’s decision, sacrifice or swing away the
string theorizes a plie
Shift back then to an earlier misreading of pliable as palpable. Bending/turning of the sentence allows one to “find a place in this place of phrases” because they are as marked and distinctive as they are physical. The knee bends. The sentence bends. The poem bends. The book bends. The eye bends. The light bends.
Ultimately, the orientation of bodies in space links this work up with Olson’s investigation of proprioception, but Alexander makes his own way by turning that investigation toward the poem more, so that the body of the poem (I speaks) becomes the subject more and more the further we climb into its system of references and intertextual suggestions. Take this:
physical fact is a line of verse curving to the right spiraling
into the air incising itself into a sheet of paper
Pushing Water constructs a soundmap compassed partly from the recycled lines of other poets to extend this physical engagement to become physically engaging. One particular line of Creeley’s (“when I speak and I speaks”) surfaces throughout the entirety of the poem, becoming a mantra of the poem’s belief in the sounds of its own precinct.
While there can be no question of Alexander’s allegiance to Duncan and Creeley, there are a multitude of influences beyond Black Mountain. Stein and her Geographies linger throughout the poem (“because my dog is not / so little she now knows / a rose a sweet tea”), as does Dickinson in “certain slants.” Lorine Neidecker appears, following Duncan’s note to Alexander in Pushing Water 15, the kind of dissolve between figures that feels as filmic as it is poetic. The space of this particular poem takes on an extraordinary significance, especially as it relates to a kind of switching off between two poetries embodied on one page.
The openness of Alexander’s field is perhaps nowhere as evident as when Alexander explains how these influences gird his work: “one / wants to address an epic, conscious of all the antecedents.” We see this consciousness play out in the bob and weave between Alexander and his lineage as the poem expands its push. At the bottom of section 40, after ruminating over a string of misread words, the page concludes, “fool, space is never blank,” which I misread by slipping first into the voice of Mr. T followed swiftly by the wise croaking of Yoda in the marsh, the very same voice that tells us, “dispersed is not lost.”
Throughout the entirety of the poem, the identity of the maker disperses itself between the roles of poet, printer, husband, son, and reader. Self-descriptions in the poem waver between the various roles, with Alexander referring to himself as a “stumbling” poet as well as “a person near to knowing paper as air.” Pushing Water reveals a poet who is finding and making and making something of his findings (“seek air once unknown / old bodies, Render!”). Identity is often at the center of these findings (“I am the inkman / you are the inkman”).
The materiality associated with printing experience (“and letters can be placed / into the paper / or emerge therefrom”) becomes a way of looking through all subjects. Alexander’s poem contains as many typographical advisories as it does various statements of the poet’s own poetics. It is a delight to experience the world outside of the book as seen by a printer, as when Alexander describes birdsong as “the splendor / of italic speech on the boughs.” If that is bookishness, we should all be book-ISH (emphasis by Rob Brydon). Not surprisingly, reader, printer, and poet often join forces to produce memorable self-assessments:
remaining ever in the company of small
words like of and around and
tulip yellow green lilac dance
around what I cannot live with
and what identifies passes and
carries me away
The convergence of roles and influences in Pushing Water illustrate what Duncan meant in describing the relation between parts as bound “by the resonances in the time of the whole in the reader’s mind, each part as it is conceived as a member of every other part, having, as in a mobile, an interchange of roles, by the creation of forms within forms as we remember.”
The predominant form within form is Alexander’s rewriting of Fulke Greville’s sonnet cycle Caelica. This closing meditation extends over a fifth of the book’s length. Three word lines often substitute for entire stanzas from the original in what amounts to a “thick condensery” of adoration where “constant devotion lives like vanes.” Alexander rewrites the poem towards his wife, painter Cynthia Miller. By the end of this love poem, Alexander has clearly demonstrated that “one finds a word / or makes one / the difference is of faith.”