Some notes on Lisa Jarnot's 'Sea Lyrics'

Lisa Jarnot. Photo on left by Joan Beard Photography, 2012.

Through my exploration of the poetic sentence and the prose poem, I have become fascinated by the work of American poet Lisa Jarnot, author of the trade poetry collections Some Other Kind of Mission (Burning Deck, 1996), Ring of Fire (Zoland Books, 2001/Salt Publishing, 2003), Black Dog Songs (Flood Editions, 2003), and Night Scenes (Flood Editions, 2008). A New York City poet born in Buffalo, Jarnot is also the author of chapbooks that include Fall of Orpheus (Shuffaloff Books, 1993), Heliopolis (rem press, 1998), Nine Songs (Belladonna, 1999), The New Mannerist Tricycle (with Bill Luoma and Rod Smith; Beautiful Swimmer Press, 2000), The Eightfold Path (a+bend Press, 2000), One’s Own Language (Institute of Further Studies, 2002), Reptile House (BookThug, 2005), Iliad XXII (ATTICUS/FINCH, 2006), Amedellin Nosegay Cooperative (Song Cave, 2010) and Joie de Vivre (Dirty Swan Projects, 2011), as well as the new biography of the poet Robert Duncan, The Ambassador from Venus (University of California Press, 2012).

Opening Jarnot’s collection Ring of Fire, I became struck by the thirty-page prose poem sequence “Sea Lyrics,” previously produced as a chapbook by Situation Press in New York in 1996. Jarnot favors the long sentence, it would seem: each poem but the first is made up of a single, staggered line, and I’d be interested to hear how she managed to read these publicly, whether a combination of quick-pause inhalations at commas or somewhat breathless, or slow enough that her breath becomes more subtle, measured:

I am a partially submerged boat on the waterfront of
Jack London Square on a Sunday morning buying jam.
I am flesh-colored and pale, in an Indian head dress
cracking chestnuts and eating roots, in the fissure
between the bus lines, with the smell of burnt toast in
the can-crushing lot, in the inside-out tomato yards,
where I am riding all the bicycles through tunnels to see
lawn, where I am on a downtown bus, partially
submerged, I am krill and various large birds, the color
grey on the sidewalk, a small opossum, in the breaking
glass in isolation in the sun, I am waiting for the
swamps and smoke of eucalyptus in the breeze, I am
stuck in traffic near the mudflats on the bay, I am
aimless and have several new tattoos.

In an interview in VERSE magazine (issue 16, no. 3/issue 17, no. 1 [2000]), she says:

Sea Lyrics was written after Some Other Kind of Mission, though I drew it from information (memories) previous to Some Other Kind of Mission. I lived in California for three and a half years (from 1989 through 1992) and Sea Lyrics sorts out all of that. It has some Whitmanisms, but it also has some Ferlinghetti-isms (“I am waiting”) in it. Sea Lyrics was very much a response to living in New York in two ways. Firstly, I had just enough distance on the terrain of California to start to understand how shell-shocked I had been by its culture (in a good way, for the most part). Secondly, I had moved to New York early in 1994 and found myself in the midst of a community of young people who had come into poetry primarily through Language writing, and that also seemed very foreign to me. I realized at readings that it was entirely shocking if someone used the word “I” in a poem, so I decided to run with that, to exhaust the “I” and to bounce it off the particulars of Oakland and San Francisco.

Jarnot plays with the movement of the “I,” and in her “Sea Lyrics,” interplays the narrative “I” with what is seen, “I/eye” echoing a similar binary in Vancouver poet Meredith Quartermain’s equally small work The Eye-Shift of Surface (Greenboathouse Books, 2003). In her chapbook, Quartermain composes shifts such as “Can one ever cease to invent one’s self? Apart from death?” and “Deliberate I am fixed. You are flickering — a light. Him to have slain beside / the haystack the gazers strike. Quick eyes gone under earth’s lid — I, an epic.” It’s interesting to note that Jarnot studied with Robert Creeley, who himself wrote poems replete with the narrative “I” as domestic patter, but with a stripped-down language of point and counterpoint, as opposed to Jarnot’s own collage of point, scatter, and repetition, often looping back to meet itself. The poem pushes forward, in part, through referencing and reworking what has already come. Writing of Ring of Fire in Boston Review (February/March 2002), Andrew Zawacki describes the book as being “replete with poems that move within closed circuits, indulging in the so-called pleasures of merely circulating, of scouting ahead and then doubling back.” He goes on to say:

This issue of the self’s permeable, continually gerrymandered boundaries is revolved and left unresolved in the book’s middle section, “Sea Lyrics.” The epigraph, taken from an eighteenth-century Encyclopedia Brittanica, notes that it is “uncertain” whether California “be a peninsula or an island,” as Jarnot begins inquiring tangentially into the dynamism of the self, which dreams of independence and apartness, but is realized only in locked relation to the landfall of others. Conjuring Donne’s admonition that no man is an island, “Sea Lyrics” equally recalls his “Metempsychosis,” about the transmigration of the soul. The objects, ideas, and atmospheres that this speaker inhabits are seemingly endless, rendering the “self” not lone but legion. Sometimes these temporary incarnations disturb the distinctions between surface and depth: “I am the waterfront and I cover the waterfront.” Sometimes they offer a plea, by admitting incapacity: “I am not quite yet the harmony of spheres.” Sometimes these ulterior, alter egos deploy paradox or solicit contradiction, in the service of estrangement or difficulty: “I am dangerous and undangerous also.” Often they figure the self as the sum of its complex itineraries, as in the remark, “I am almost to Japan”; the convoluted admission, “I am not sure where I am and I am travelling to edges made of night, I am not sure where I am and I am travelling to edges made of rock in avocado night”; and the observation, structured like an ouroboros, “this is from where I came and to which I came.”

Who was it that said the coast is but a line? In responses to “Sea Lyrics,” there seems to be much fixation on Jarnot’s “I,” as David Kaufmann writes in “Repetition, Noise and Pleasure, or Why I like John Yau and Lisa Jarnot,” that “Sea Lyrics plays with the words that people use to make up identities. It shows how identities are fabricated at the same time that it renders that process of linguistic self-creation rather comic, in that it is susceptible to grammatical fun, if not absurdity.” Earlier on in the same essay, Kaufmann goes further, specifically targeting the “I”:

What saves this from being oppressively narcissistic is the equally obvious point that these pieces are not biographical in any conventional way (“I am underwater buying jam”). The identities of this “I” range from the whimsical (“I am all the hot dogs and the roof of city hall”) to the almost incomprehensible (“I am of the new year sober now”). What is more, this poem can in no way be construed as a report on the whereabouts of its supposed speaker. Unlike the artist in “830 Fireplace Road,” Jarnot’s “I” is here, there and everywhere and all at once.

Part of the wit of this series lies in the way it plays the verb “to be” (I am) off the present continuous (I am writing, I am dancing, etc). It shows quite clearly how the same words can have quite different uses, at the same time that it raises the question of the relation between identity (I am) and action (I am doing). To what extent, then, is the poem actually about the bits of language it puts into action?

Why is there such a fixation on her narrative “I”? It nearly distracts from what else the poem is doing. Another perspective on Jarnot’s “I” comes from Patrick Pritchett, who reviewed Ring of Fire in Jacket 15 (December 2001), writing:

Yet another of the great pleasures afforded by Ring of Fire is the poet’s anaphoric “I,” that acts like a fractal integer, the secret number divisible by everything it is not. Divide this “I” by any object you choose and come up with a mise-en-abyme, an infinite regress of the same figure — the figure of the Other — across a landscape of mirrors. To say “I am this,” or “I am that,” with such repeated, hungry insistence, is not to say “I” at all. Or if it is, it is to say the little “i.”  The I that has been emptied out, that stands as the sign for its own erasure. The “I” of Sea Lyrics, then, is the kenotic I. Evacuating itself, it permits everything to occur, and all at once.

It is as if the poem opens with uncertainty, citing uncertain placement and impossible grounding. The “I” might be there, but floating, unreliable. It’s as though part of the point of the collage included a lack of interest in any one particular, fixed point of view, which is about as far away from narcissism as one could imagine. What is the purpose of referencing Oakland’s Jack London Square, and then, London himself (who grew up in Oakland)? Throughout the poem, Jarnot repeats and twists references to Jack London, tides, San Francisco’s Cliff House, avocados, waterfront, and tattoos (the latter three mentioned nine times each), turning this poem of the Bay Area back in on itself with some of the same language, in some of the same ways Toronto’s Margaret Christakos resequences her own language. As the fifth poem in Jarnot’s “Sea Lyrics” reads:

I am the waterfront and I cover the waterfront and all
the boats all know me, I am the foreignest of birds and
the shadows of sails upon martinis, I am underwater
buying jam and drinking stolen coffee, I am pelagic now
and sober, having recently discovered all the birds.

In a review posted in 2009 on Gently Read Literature, Gwyn McVay refers to the sequence as “terse prose poems” that “meditate on dislocation and violence.” Dislocation, perhaps, but less a violence than a layering of perspectives, overlapping and even overwhelming in places. The twenty-first poem in the sequence reads:

I have been a long time in this story on the bridge inside
tattoos and wearing avocados, and I can think only of
myself, and I can steal the books in bookstores, and I
can collect cans at all the can and crushing lots, and I
am here to wait in line with others near the lawns, and I
am being shot at on the sidestreet, and I am hording all
the plastic pigs, and I am practicing with others for the
dawn, from rooftops where the hills are all on fire with
the most usual of circumstances, where the fish are kept
in large tanks and a black smoke settles on the roof,
where the neighbor harbor pitbulls between the cars,
where the strange small apples bounce across the tar
upon the roof, where opossums cross against the flow of
traffic, where the streetlights blink and flicker on, where
the plastic and the airplanes fill the sky, where we live
beside the most chinese of oceans, where I gamble in the
empty and where winterless I am.

Not a dislocation, but a collage of perspectives, kaleidoscopic and almost allowing the reader to pick and choose which thread to follow. Kevin Varrone ends his review of Ring of Fire in ixnay 6 (summer 2001) with:

Ring of Fire seems to me a testament to rhetoric, to the varied powerfulness of language, to all that is said and is meaningless and that which is said and is not. The matter here, a la Hamlet, is words. And things. There is some sense of Hemingway in Jarnot’s poems for me: Stein, perhaps (the Stein in Hemingway, that is) — something beautiful, conjunctive, repetitive, childlike, intelligent. The things themselves become less themselves as they more become words in a highly wrought rhetoric. In the first poem of Sea Lyrics, the speaker says, “I am aimless and have several new tattoos.” That aimless speaker becomes, in the sequence’s sixth poem, “the foam of / obstruction in the foam of obstruction I am,” then “… how lost I am” in the eighth poem, then “I am not sure where I am” in the final poem of the sequence. But it is just such aimlessness and lack of surety that make Jarnot’s poems so engaging — her willingness and ability to leave readers in a labyrinth or city, in the ocean or the sky. And the fact that there is no real progression toward anything — a speaker is aimless at the start of a thirty-poem sequence and not sure where it is at the end. And so the wandering is both means and end, and the landmarks signal existence, not direction. This is the pervasive sensibility of this book: a writer overwhelmingly involved in the world and the things of the world yet somehow lost in them, in the experience of them, in the saying of them, so that the things become just things and the I’s just I’s: apparitions reminding themselves to identify the things the[y] are seeing: “This is a jumbo prawn,” and “This is the sound of my television.”

Jarnot composes her “Sea Lyrics” as an accumulation, a collage-aspect, with the informative, deceptive “I” stretching less a narrative impulse than a lens that captures a variety of perspectives and reports them, overlapping and contradicting, one by one. “Sea Lyrics” exists as a song that remains firmly on the land, stepping out only as far as the waterfront, barely stepping foot in the water. Even as the narrator becomes submerged, the land is unbearingly close, leaving the threat of open water both an absence and a psychological presence. Is it something in the air? The poem opens with a passage as epigraph from Encyclopedia Brittanica 1768 that reads:

California, a large country of the West Indies, lying between 116º and 138º W. long. and between 23º ad 46º N. lat. It is uncertain whether it be a peninsula or an island.

We might know, as readers, the geography of California well enough to know the difference, but the poem doesn’t stray far enough from shore to know, from the openings of the “partially submerged boat” to “I won’t go to the waterfront anymore,” and closing in on the end of the sequence, writing “I am bludgeoned by this most exotic ocean, currently,” to “I am getting better like / the oceans on the sidestreet, I am surrounded by water,” and “down the surge of waterways in dark,” to “the pier with all / the sink hones on the edge,” and “I am at the ocean from the tops of / towers.” With so many references to surf, moisture, fog, rain, water and hottubs, but for the single reference to the actual ocean, these lyrics are more often for an abstract sea, or is she at the waterfront, staring out? Should these, instead, be waterfront or even bay lyrics? The poem stands, but can’t it also swim? Jarnot repeats, rewrites and alters, and her California, it would seem, includes references to San Francisco’s Grateful Dead, Carol Burnett, Huey Newton (the Black Panther cofounder shot in West Oakland in 1989), Huey Lewis (stepson of San Francisco poet Lew Welsh), Lucretius, “the church of Thelonius Monk,” “Lammas Tide” (the tide that comes up on Lammas Day, August 1, referenced also in Romeo and Juliet), “this Saint Ana wind” (a wind that comes up the southern California coast), and Atlantis. Is this “Sea” or “See” lyrics?

Part of this is reminiscent of Sommer Browning’s 2011 sequence “Vale Tudo,” from her first trade poetry collection Either Way I’m Celebrating (Birds, LLC), a twenty-two-page prose poem sequence that explores a geography not her own (but from a much shorter stay), mixed in with the locale of a late writer who, on the surface, has little to do with the author. More narrative than Jarnot’s piece, Browning’s sequence blends hotels with mixed-martial arts with Walt Whitman, the Walt Whitman Mall, and the Walt Whitman Birthplace State Historic Site:

Some of you will never go to Long Island. Some of you will but will never go to Walt Whitman Mall. Some of you will enter Walt Whitman Mall and head straight for Foot Locker. So let me tell you about the façade of Walt Whitman Mall, how it’s carved with passages from Leaves of Grass, how the block Emigrant Savings Bank sign is bolted to the poem.

A child said what is the grass? Fetching
Emigrant Savings Bank it to me with
full hands How could I answer Get more
money for your money the child?…I do
not know what it is any more than he.

But the best line of Jarnot’s sequence has to be on Susan Gibb’s site, in her 2004 piece “Writing: As One Reads,” where she quotes a source I can’t find:

Katey at One Good Bumblebee says, “And if I write out Lisa Jarnot’s complete Sea Lyrics longhand because mere reading isn’t good enough dammit, it’s okay.”