What lyric itself thinks

A review of 'Canto'

Canto

Canto

by Dan Beachy-Quick and Srikanth Reddy

The Offending Adam 2010, 18 pages, $12, ISBN chapbook

              … Infinitely far away,
Where you or someone wrote the first word,

Wait for someone or something to wander by
And push down on it. Then the tower
Will topple, then the field where the band plays

Will lift upward, the music will stop, but the river
Rushing back to its source will be a new music,
No melody but wildness, no finalé but forever.
(Canto 3, lines 32–39)

His eyes are staring, his mouth is open, his wings are spread. This is how one pictures the angel of history. His face is turned toward the past … The angel would like to stay, awaken the dead, and make whole what has been smashed. But a storm is blowing from Paradise; it has got caught in his wings with such violence that the angel can no longer close them. This storm irresistibly propels him into the future to which his back is turned, while the pile of debris before him grows skyward. This storm is what we call progress.[1]

1.

From Benjamin forward, there is a decided strain in aesthetics that finds the wrecks of history to be the proper object and responsibility of the artist. In this current of thought, it is the artwork that recognizes and maintains the cut in time drawn by historical trauma; the artist, belated to her own occasion and in the manner of Benjamin’s angel, backs into her own future while looking backward to the living past of trauma. And either the form or the content, or both, of the artwork must commemorate this backward orientation (so the thinking goes) or admit of its own decadent self-involvement. “There is no document of civilization,” Benjamin notes, “which is not at the same time a document of barbarism. And just as such a document is not free of barbarism, barbarism taints also the manner in which it was transmitted from one owner to another” (256).

The vision of the human in Canto, Dan Beachy-Quick and Srikanth Reddy’s latest collaborative effort, might seem to echo Benjamin’s own vision of Klee’s “Angelus Novus,” as in Canto 13:

                 … I have seen
A human head: a circle with two circles gleaming
And a dark circle below. Look inside, pilgrim.
Write down in musical notation the screaming (lines 27–30)

And to admit, as Canto does through its title as well as in its form (fourteen verses of varying length in a modified terza rima) and in its persistent imagery, of a decided interest in lyric, is in the twenty-first century an invitation to the epithet of barbarity.

As it is, though, the barbarity of lyric after trauma (to which critics have responded by charging lyric in particular with remembrance, with the sudden precipitation of historical condition) is itself predicated upon a presumed isolation, doubly-articulated, at the scene of lyric: first, an isolation of the poet herself, after J. S. Mill’s notion of the lyricist as she who, imprisoned and oppressed, is overheard by the auditor (herself also imprisoned) sighing and singing consolation to herself in the next cell over; and second, an isolation of the lyric poem itself, as Celan in his “Meridian” speech shifts the isolation from the lyric poet to her poem, and casts the two adrift:

The poem is lonely. It is lonely and en route. Its author stays with it.

Does this very fact not place the poem already here, at its inception, in the encounter, in the mystery of encounter?[2]

While Mill relegates to separate cells the lyric speaker and her auditor, and Celan imagines her song frozen in the moment of its drift through the transom overhead, theories of lyric sound, too, have imagined something of a backward-looking (or -listening) angel. Susan Stewart, for example, suggests in her “Letter on Sound” that “…unless we are listening to a spontaneous composition of lyric, we are always recalling sound with only some regard to an originating auditory experience.”[3]

But Beachy-Quick and Reddy’s Canto offers a decided challenge here — to those who condemn lyric outright, to those who charge the lyricist with an always-backward gaze in an obligatory mourning, and also to the sort of lyric temporality that Stewart theorizes in her “Letter on Sound.” Canto is certainly studded with the ruins of its moment (whether that of infinite war or of financial disaster):

I woke up and let the war sleep in my bed
Dreaming of garlands and a bride
Displaying her diamond garishly mounted

On a grenade’s ring. The hole in her face lied:
It was no mouth, it was no eye … (Canto 3, lines 1–5)

At the halfway marker along our life’s path,
I found myself lost. It was a dark would,
Green selvage dripping from last night’s bath

Of fog, steam rising from a jogger’s hood
As she passes, no guide in sight, only a forest
Of For Sale signs sprouting up in the neighborhood

We will be leaving soon … (Canto 13, lines 1–7)


Srikanth Reddy and Dan Beachy-Quick

But, at the same time, the sequence erodes the foundation upon which many lyric fictions rest. In so doing, Beachy-Quick and Reddy’s work, in Canto and elsewhere, offers a reinvigoration of lyric — a testing of its values and our expectations, by two of its most careful and ardent practitioners.

2.

As a distillate of “culture,” lyric like any other artifact bears the stain of Benjamin’s barbarism, the thumbprint of the historical victor. And if we continue to assume lyric to be self-involved and belated to its own era, we’re confirmed in our condemnations. But if we consider how lyric sounds — or, more radically, what lyric itself thinks — we can achieve a lyric that at its limit-cases may turn against the very barbarisms that have made it possible. As the charge to the “pilgrim,” above, concludes:

           … Look inside, pilgrim.
Write down in musical notation the screaming,

The sighs, and the laughter. Set it to three-four time,
A waltz for the living, all grace notes, no coda,
Scored for orchestra, fire engine, and mime. (Canto 13, lines 29–33)

Stewart would note that lyric is always recalled sound, and further that, “[b]ecause lyric maintains the convention of the individual speaking voice” — wherein spoken rhythm, even in rigid metrical forms, always trumps the metronome — “[lyric] will not, in the Western tradition, be synonymous with music” (34). In writing Canto, however, Beachy-Quick and Reddy have constructed a useful ambiguity wherein the “dark circle” from which shrieks an angelic horror is also and at once the warm mouth of voiceless human pleasure.

The score imagined in the above lines waltzes forever forward, motivated by the ghost of the fourth beat that haunts every such dance’s time signature. “All grace notes” — themselves free from the very metrical structure they normally ornament; “no coda” — no restatement of “theme” carried throughout, lodged in a memory and repeated at the end. And played upon ensemble, errand, and gesture. In the ambiguity of its at once angelic and human mouth blending its shrieks and sighs, in its regard for ensemble as instrument, and in its mobilization of the balletic or gestural as vehicle of lyric meaning, I’d suggest that Canto imagines itself as that which is written by “pilgrim” in “musical notation,” as its own fourteen verses enact the collaborative, the epistolary.

With only the entire sequence subject to attribution, and then attributed equally to both men, the authorial uncertainty of any given line or stanza or verse emphasizes the persistent lyric appetite that metabolizes author for speaker, person for persona. But while the speaker or persona — nearly always singular in Canto, and when plural, often suggesting a domestic couple rather than a team of writers — in any single instance of the sequence are, of course, markedly different from Beachy-Quick or Reddy themselves, the creation in their poem is no more different from them than is the one in any other lyric utterance issuing from any other poet. In this, Canto’s song is lyric itself, sung of the moment of transformation between historically particular author and aoristic lyric speaker. And as a collaborative project, Canto mobilizes that transformation as an active force at the scene of its reception. Canto’s choral voice, sung in unison, focuses such lyric resource upon cultural transmission — an inoculation, perhaps, against the enabling barbarity beneath such exchange.

With a composite speaker as a sort of open secret underpinning the sequence, emphasis in Canto falls instead upon questions of construction. In their chosen verse-form for this effort — terza rima, but modified through careful use of slant-rhyme — Beachy-Quick and Reddy turn a lyric form based in recollection instead towards an anticipatory uncertainty, in which the return isn’t a memorializing but rather a play upon the given. (Here we might remember Louis Zukofsky’s aside in his “‘Mantis’: An Interpretation”: “Is the poem then, a sestina / Or not a sestina?”)

In their constructions, Beachy-Quick and Reddy give us an organic, unfolding architecture-in-process, one that is perhaps nostalgic — I recall that in the middle of their sonnet-sequence Möbius Crowns, the two men underwent a change of place, and found themselves no longer living in the same city, or even time zone, after years of local exchange — perhaps nostalgic, then, but not with the apparently requisite mourning of the twentieth- and twenty-first-century lyric.

It’s with a maker’s ear trained upon the future and its materials that we hear such as their Canto 7, wherein “duets” jostles against “votes” and “note”; where “home” leads to “the poem” and “his name”:

Response, call and, 49–51.
Members of a flock may emit a sound
In order to remain in touch with one

Another. Some birds engage in round-
Robin calls, while others sing duets
In unison, ie. the quail, shy ground-

Dwelling birds, casting their votes
In song from the long grass’s half-shade,
Half sun. They sing as one the same note

But lay eggs in nests they haven’t made—
Their song may be considered their home.
Cut out of the text with a razor blade,

Figure seven’s gone missing from the poem.
Was it a sonogram of the adult male’s vibrator?
A photo of the author signing his name

In his book for a stranger? … (Canto 7, lines 1–16)

A reader’s reading becomes the plural song of songbirds singing becomes the desperate phatic song of the scattered flock becomes the lyric cycle of here-and-there becomes the dissolution of number into unison becomes “their votes / In song.” Canto 7, then — the lead-up to the silence at the midpoint of this fourteen-canto sequence — might suggest that the one and only fact of “political” belonging (number) finds no purchase in the lyric moment.

As elsewhere in the sequence (Canto 3, for example: “I woke up and let the war sleep in my bed / Dreaming of garlands and a bride / Displaying her diamond garishly mounted // On a grenade’s ring. The hole in her face lied: / It was no mouth, it was no eye … [lines 1–5]), the “public” and the “private,” the “single” and the “plural” are found to intersect with and inflect one another, and precisely at the moment when the individual is called upon to submit to number and republic (even, in each case, of two).

3.

And, finally, Canto, part of The Offending Adam’s Chapvelope One, is not a one, a two, or even a three or a four. Beachy-Quick and Reddy’s sequence, in its own beautifully austere sunflower-yellow saddle-stapled 8.5-by-5.5-inch format (no image on the cover; just a gorgeously oversized printing of title and authors’ names), comes accompanied by a postcard and a microbroadside. The postcard itself is multiple, with visual work by Shawn Stucky and a poem by Jennifer Sweeney. And the microbroadside, containing prose by Melissa Kwasny, is letterpressed in a brown on a fine heavy cream stock; as all such items are an implicit collaboration between the writer and the (here unnamed) printer. So we have a group of three, which is a group of five, but actually a group of six … themselves (as the large round sticker sealing the chapvelope proclaims) all a group of one.

The editors of The Offending Adam have written of their Chapvelope series that their “interests were to create an object for book fetishists, something unique and special, something that can only exists as a print project and can only exist in this specific form.” And while this certainly strikes a chord among all conscientious printers (myself included), the nature of the project itself, at all levels, requires its readers and handlers to consider precisely these sorts of questions — those of number and kind, of how material and exchange dissolve into acts of each other, even as they become more particular and defined. I certainly find that the Chapvelope with Beachy-Quick and Reddy’s Canto speaks to my own interests in the nature of lyric, and how lyric might at once be caught up in as well as fugitive from the networks of exchange, capital, republic, and the like, and I imagine (I can only imagine …) the process of that text’s construction as somehow analogous to the state of the Chapvelope in my office this evening: one piece facing me from atop the bookshelf, another propped up on the door-frame, yet a third (the envelope itself) scrawled with notes, and Canto itself splayed open at my elbow. Where is it? (Where is lyric? I then turn to ask. Could these be the same sorts of questions?) Fragile, insurgent, invasive, and scattered; as the editors at The Offending Adam have noted that they hope to “foster an intimacy of reading, a closeness or [an] ability to draw close to the text,” Canto and its fellow travelers inaugurate a publishing venture that will require close attention in the future to come.

 


1. Walter Benjamin, “Theses on the Philosophy of History,” in Illuminations, ed. Hannah Arendt (New York: Schocken Books, 1968), 258.

2. Paul Celan, “The Meridian,” in Collected Prose, trans. Rosemarie Waldrop (New York: Routledge, 2003), 49.

3. Susan Stewart, “Letter on Sound,” in Close Listening: Poetry and the Performed Word, ed. Charles Bernstein (New York: Oxford University Press), 29. Emphasis in the original.