James Berger, “Naive and Sentimental Poetics”

Excerpt from a new book in draft

James Berger

James Berger, whose books include The Disarticulate: Language, Disability, and the Narratives of Modernity, Under the Impression, The Obvious Poems and the Worthless Poems, and The OBU Manifestos, is writing a new book to be titled Naive and Sentimental Poetics. Ive happily prevailed upon Jim to share with Jacket2 readers an excerpt from this new work in draft.

Naive and Sentimental Poetics, part 2

Bouncing Back

Daylight exists for everyone, shows everyone the world as visible–the world we live in and share (share in misproportion, of course; dominate, steal...but all under the same light); but each of us experiences daylight as our personal revelation, each dawn as miracle. The same is true of art. There it is: the formal contraption, the utterance, the epic, the wheel barrow. It exists in public, as public. It is for everyone, though it may not appeal to everyone. But, as Whitman continued, the encounter is personal:

“This hour I tell things in confidence,
I might not tell everybody, but I will tell you.

There is a universal language. Its called language. I mean, universal within the human universe.

In 2018, Mark Scroggins published Pressure Dressing, a book in two parts. The first part is short, one or two page poems, something along the lines of his earlier work; but also different, less allusive, more on contemporary topics – suburban life; museums and bookstores; a spinning class; inferred dialogues with a spouse about a movie or the attitudes one should have about a movie; sentimentality. There’s a poem called “Sarah Palin,” but I can’t tell what it’s really about. The poems are performances, dramatic monologues (with implied other voices). They are staged inventions, variations; maybe improvisations (within boundaries, shaped by theme, by duration). I didn’t find them interesting. I especially didn’t like “The Heights and the Grange.” It seemed like a kind of satire of satire – not satire, but the use of a tone.

          “It was time for dinner anyway, light dishes
          for a warm July evening; asparagus and trout,
          perhaps, and of course a salad. Watching a lover
          move around the kitchen in the twilight,
          before one turns on the lights, is comfortable,
          like settling into a favorite chair with a book–
          a novel maybe, just on the verge of trashy–”

What’s with the “perhaps” and “maybe”? Why “of course”? Why so arch and coy? What’s actually at stake here? Not much that I can see. The poem ends,

“... All behind glass,
the vast incline of the lawn. We can’t see Catherine, Linton,
or even the gormless Hareton; perhaps they’re behind
the ha-ha, fumbling at each other’s drawers in the gloaming.

Really? Am I supposed to be interested in this? It’s clever, but there are only so many hours in a day. I guess you can ask, is there such a thing as “decorative” poetry, as there is decorative visual art? I don’t think so. There’s wit, but wit has to pierce you; it has to be sharp. Otherwise it’s dull. There’s no tasteful, ambient poetry that, say, “fumbles at each other’s drawers in the gloaming”; the gentle indeterminacy of aimless paradox....

There’s a poem called “George Bush.” It seems rococo. It doesn’t matter. George Bush mattered, unfortunately. But there’s no sense, to me, in this poem of why he mattered, of how our democracy degenerated during his reign. I know that Mark knows, but why doesn’t he try to say?
Has his language here become some Rube Goldberg device, marvelously intricate and built to accomplish no work. I don’t know. In his earlier poems, I knew I was missing a lot, but I was convinced that it mattered. Here I’m not sure.

But Scroggins was searching for something, bobbing for something, some new mode of expression of the contemporary. I don’t believe he found it in these poems of the first half of Pressure Dressing. But he found something in the second half. This is a long, fifty page poem, written in ten line stanzas, two to a page. 100 poems. 1,000 lines. Very round. Each stanza is complete. Each ends with a small turn, something like a sonnet. There are no rhymes. The stanzas vary in organization (i.e. nothing resembling the 8-6 format of standard sonnets). There are sometimes themes or topics that carry across a few stanzas, but often it seems that each is complete in itself. Never does a sentence extend from the end of one stanza into the next. The stanzas are not numbered. (It occurs to me that Mark’s form here resembles the form of Boccoccio’s Decameron: ten narrators each tell ten stories. One hundred stories. But this may not be relevant. The poem preceded the pandemic. The resemblance is probably coincidence).

The stanzas are containers. They transport portrayals of emotion, ideas, visual impressions, turns of syntax. The poem might be seen as a train, a sequence of containers. Or it might be seen as a ship, loaded with these containers. The entire poem is in motion. Each container is stationary.
Or it might be that each stanza is a picture, a landscape. The landscape contains solid features–mountains, rivers, clouds, trees – but also things in motion. There is motion inside the solid unmoving structure. The poem is a conveyance.

This is a very ingenious poem. I feel the first half of the book is a set of doodles. This poem is the real product of his work. What are the poems about? They’re about desire. They’re about vision. They’re about how to approach composition. They’re about debt (“How much of that debt/ is mine, how much yours? And who/ do we pay it to? Era, earful, any time/ of day...”). And even I know that’s a reference to Zukofsky (“An era any time of year,” from one of the final “A” poems).

The poem is about finally figuring out where he is as a poet, now as who he is, in this moment. He’s not Geoffrey Hill, not any of the Objectivists, not a Victorian or Pre-Raphaelite. He does have a beard, but it doesn’t matter. He can wear whatever sharp shoes he likes, but it doesn’t matter. He can be as clever as he likes, and that doesn’t matter either. What matters is the poetry and how he is going to live in it. He has found the vehicle and container that he needs, now, at this moment for this act of transport from the present outward. To where?

Interesting that the stanzas have extensive enjambments in their lines, but there’s none between stanzas. Topics go everywhere. I could just paste first lines and you’d have no idea what the poem is about: “A touch on the audio screen and one/ harsh word...”; “The natural position is upright. Natural / position. Problem of the ‘natural.”; “The dream of great icicles fallen, smashed / on the sidewalk”; “The valley opens up below you as/ you ascend.” That’s just four.

Or I could quote last lines and the openings to the next: “Some fifty pages of Victorian prose/ painted over with the precision/ of Persian miniatures.” //// “The word of the day/ is ‘embedded.”.... “I’m embedded all right, and in bed/ with and what have you.” //// “What’s that     again? My hearing’s/ not what it used to be.”..... “Fooling myself again;/ those songs are the best, change/ that station right away.” //// “Black and white furred lightening.

These are good lines. This is a long poem of consistently good lines.

What is a good line? A good line brings a state of urgency. You may not know the source or the meaning. You just know you’d best pay attention, because here it is.

Those lines about the “fifty pages of Victorian prose / painted over with the precision / of Persian miniatures” sums up something of his method.

There are still a few resident “Markisms” that bug me... his “wee intricate repro-/ ductions of famous paintings.” Mark thinks he can get away with wee. I don’t think so. And then a few lines later, “the inevitable / smeared yawps of expression.” “Wee” juxtaposed with “yawps.” Once you enunciate the yawp, you’re locking horns with a Yawper that you’re not going to outyawp. Your yawp’s going to appear a bit wee, I think. But then there’s the great bit of the Victorian prose and Persian miniatures.
Each stanza is a modulation. Each stanza is like one of those holographic cards whose image changes when you shift it in the light. Each stanza is a frugal extravagance.

Each stanza is a small monument. They are like epitaphs on mysterious graves. The book is a takeoff on the Greek Anthology. The poems are steles.

Each stanza is a contemplation of finitude. It creates a boundary and observes it. It creates cerebral motion within its boundary. Each stanza shakes in its stillness and is never still.

     ...small journeys of thought, as the poem as a whole is a longer journey.
     ...enacts a small closure, each a complete poem.

The poems do not, formally, disrupt. They are echoes of prior disruptions.

One stanza invokes Milton: “Happier far the believer / with a firm, untranslated/ text in hand” (248). The next, Freud: “So when, as we trudge forward, does/ neurotic misery finally become ordinary/ unhappiness?” And the stanza concludes, “No bounds / to your reading, no end / to your compulsion to repeat” (249). These say a lot! Paradise, such as it may be, is within the textwhich is to say, it’s lost. And the untranslated text can only lead toward unbounded readingwhich is thus repeated, compulsive, neurotic, whose ultimate origin is trauma. The stanzas are nutshells of infinite space.

Pain is invoked. I don’t know if it’s felt or more repressed. “You’re right, it’s beyond me, beyond / my little stretch of mind, my wizened / and blinkered emotions” (251). There’s sex, “the scent still on my beard...” (251).

There’s some broader catastrophe — contained, transported.

And in the container, as the container, is the performance, each stanza a room lacking a fourth wall. You see in. The painting opens itself, its inner movements the trompes l’oeil. The dramatic skills of his earlier poems are still here re-positioned... “all merely players, no more or less. Lover, / spouse, orphaned child, bereaved / mother. Cardboard masks, flesh masks.” Right. Is this something of a key? The one mask can be removed, the other cannot. But the drama continues. (Which reminds me of the Spenser Holst story about the middle aged, somewhat jowly, paunchy bartender who gets off work and inadvertently joins a Halloween parade where everyone is in costume. He falls in with a beautiful woman dressed as a cat or something. They have a wonderful evening. Then, at midnight, she says to him, Darling, take off your mask).

It’s a bleak picture, very pessimistic – unjustly so? The boundary is porous, and yet it has no outside. Let me quote a complete stanza to try to understand it:

        That border is permeable, so we’re
        told, or semi-, or at the very least
        shot through with portals. The magic
        leaks out, like fumes from the sriracha
        plant, brightens our day and makes our eyes
        water. A blank wall, really, cinder-
        blocks, and on the other side–there is
        no other side. Everything, in the half-light
        of the real, like a joke: the food is lousy,
        the portions–harpied away–too small. (255).

There is a border, a limit, call it a stanza, call it a lifetime, call it a range of perception-experience-cognition-subjectivity. Finitude. But it’s permeableor we’re told it is; or partly so. In any event, there is some way out of it, some sort of portal. We’re not, therefore, trapped in it. Something can get out. “The magic.” OK. And this magic leaks out like a gas, a fume. The magic is a peppery spice that irritates the eyes. And what is meant by “magic”? I have no idea. Magic is that which leaks out of the permeable border or its portals. The life leaks out; the imagination leaks out; whatever it is that cannot be confined, that is able to change its shape, become immaterial and therefore discover the smallest apertures ... all else remains trapped. All remains trapped except that movementof mind? ... that “brightens our day and makes our eyes water”? That might work. But it seems diminutive. One hopes for something greater that would make it through the barrier. But maybe that’s part of Mark’s point. What we think will be sublime or some such is just akin to the tears one gets chopping onions, a mere physiological reflex.

I don’t believe that, by the way. I’m not sure Mark does either, but the poem suggests it.

Or maybe it’s true. In some reductive neurological sense, I suppose it’s true. But I’d say that what we know from neuroscience is that our neural physiology is of magical complexity and far in excess of our ability to reduce it. To be a materialist in neuroscience is to be a fully committed mystic. But then we return to the barrier: “a blank wall, really, cinder blocks, and on the other side–there is no other side.” Not permeable. No magic. No art, empathy, no mirror neurons, alterity. Wittgenstein wrote that in order to imagine a limit, a boundary, one must be able to imagine the other side of the limit or boundary. Not necessarily to be able to get there, but able to imagine that space on the other side. The prisoner can always imagine freedomthat is the continual object of his imagining. And yet, one can also say that thinking inside of the System, there is only the System. One thinks in terms of totality, for the complete, impermeable System contains all conceptual alternatives and converts them back into its own terminologies.

The food in this place tastes like poison.

Yes, and such small portions!

And what are those damned winged things that keep swooping down and stealing my fries?!

And so, yes, we’re trapped. The magical escape is magic, not real. The “half-light of the real.” We’re trapped in a bad joke, a cruel joke. Materialism without the dialectic. We’re approaching Beckett territory. “Do we laugh?” “Nothing so funny as unhappiness, I’ll grant you that.”

But the reading is pleasure. I keep reading. These are good little poems, and they build, they have beauty, wit, some wisdom, whim, mordancy. They are active, each room closing its door, the next one opening.

For some reason, I’m thinking of these poems in relation to Spenser. It seems a reach. The stanzas are very different. Pressure Dressing is not a narrative. But the movement inside each stanza reminds me more of Spenser than of Shakespeare. And the way the stanzas end, always with such elegance, yet not like couplets. The feeling is not of a couplet. It’s more like that strange, magical elongation you get at the end of a Spenser stanza, the extra foot. Mark’s poem is not metrical, obviously. But he gives you the extra foot–that both shuts the current stanza and, in a way I don’t think I’m able to explain, opens up toward the next stanza. A bow and a leap at the same time.

Mark believes in closures, but not in epiphanies, which is the trap a lot of poets ascend toward. The little gasp, the escaping wisp of transcendence, or its verbal substitute. They’re neat, sharp, tight, good machines. The ending is a mechanism for continuing, not for stopping; and yet it is an ending. It doesn’t mean that anything is settled.

“The poem is the cry of its / accumulation.” (258).

And then, the poem turns toward the idea or figuration of trauma. The “accumulation” turns out, turns into an accretion of “scar tissue.” That’s what the repetition and accumulation is, or has been, about. One does not feel the scar; it’s a sign, an index, of the wound. It is the sign of pain, but is not itself painful–anymore. It’s a good way to put it. He quotes half a line from Wittgenstein: “If a lion could speak.” I’m trying to remember the conclusion... “...we would not be able to understand it”?? I’ll look it up. Yes, not the precise wording, but the idea. A language is a form of life. But, you know, the lion does speak. Its life is its utterance. The scar does not speak, but it signifies. Cathy Caruth’s theory of trauma originates in a speaking wound, a wound with a mouth and an utterance. And the poem speaks... If a consciousness could speak... But it does. “The poem is the cry of its accumulation.” What is “it”? It seems to refer to “the poem” itself. We have on one hand the thing itself and then the symbolized “aboutness” of the thing. Right. OK. But my gloss is already less interesting than the poem. That’s not what I’m going for. Trauma lends itself to boring exegesis.

“How to weave it all/ together...” and then somehow make it seem in unison? “This humid faceless broadening/ sky–how to speak in unison,/ chorally, it all together–single/ voice...”

Why the need for the unison? Why not the chorus? And this is not the poem he’s writing, I don’t think. Is it an aspiration? He indicates feeling more and more alone. The move toward unison is a consequence, not an aim?... “tenuous line across/ the page of vast faceless/ broadening grasses, humid.” End of the stanza. Sounds uncomfortable. Why “humid,” a word echoed from a few lines before: “single under/ this humid faceless broadening/ sky–”

The previous stanza ended: “No break in the sky’s/ gray, the endless prepositional phrase.” Right. The preposition is the grammatical term denoting a relation... in space, or possession, or time, or consequence, or intention: to, with, for, by, at, between, beyond, after, despite, under, on account of... And it’s true. Every prepositional phrase is potentially infinite. Once relation is established, there is no end to it.

But why “humid”? I don’t know. I understand the relation between the grasses and the sky, and how both are prepositional. “How to weave it all together”? Humid.

The poem does not need to end. In theory, the “endless prepositional phrase” and all its generated and generative stanzas could go on forever. Till the end of the poet’s life, or till the end of his patience. That’s what Rachel’s Drafts moves toward more earnestly. But this poem of tight containers is not drafty. It is prepositional, but we all know that the preposition as commonly used will have a finite object, even if a lengthy one. And Mark loves his closures, his containers. Openness, yesbut always in a shape. Liquid takes the shape of its container. He loves the links, like playing with a toy train set. The cars link together, the tracks link together. If this metaphor has merit, though, it also indicates that the child always builds the track in a circuit. Its ending connects to its beginning. It is, therefore, by-to-with-for-about-as a result of... itself! The Pictures at an Exhibition return at last to the Great Gate. But this is not a reduction. It is an accumulation.

How to say it, how to speak it, how to write it. You’re not a lion, but even so, the commitment to utterance must smash through so many impenetrables.

What is the ending to this poem?

The next to last stanza turns toward form:

        ...Curled arpeggios, twists
        and pining curls. Fiddleheads.
        An arc, graceful, between one sector
        of horizon and an immeasurable
        other. Tug and weep, whimper –
        snarl to silence, curve.

Yes. Is the “immeasurable other” another horizon, or an autre, some sublime etc. other of language or consciousness. Well, it’s that too, regardless. Every horizon is immeasurable. Or not? No, the horizon is just exactly what’s there to scan. Your eye can trace it, calibrate it according to some metric. You look out at the ocean and you can take in its limit. It’s the limit of what you can see. Beyond it is what you can’t see. But there, juxtaposed to form, is a response, a mix of actions, emotions, sounds: “tug and weep, whimper–snarl to silence” and a return to form: “curve.” A lot of curves, curls, twists, arcs all in a few lines. And of course the lines perform all these motions, as they do in pretty much all the stanzas. This is characteristic of the style, this sort of movement, the constant dance of syntax and line length – for which “enjambment” seems a reductive term. Oh, yes, Scroggins makes excellent use of enjambment. Yeah, you can say that. But that’s not saying a whole lot, given what he’s actually doing and how he’s doing it. Can an arc curl? Can it twist? Watch it. A horizon?

Then the last stanza:

        It eats us all, those gears and
        wheels, concatenated struts,
        organs, levers, flesh, pulleys.
        Measure the days, hours, the pounds
        and ounces–counted off against some
        great clockwork machine behind
        it all, measuring it all. She turns
        in the dark, the last moments
        before dawn begins to soften
        the black. Warmth pulsing, ticking.

This is a very moving poem, isn’t it? An aubade on mortality. Pulsing and ticking. Life as flesh, sensuality, the lover in the dark just before dawn... and the measurement of time, the “great clockwork machine behind it all, measuring it all.” Gears and wheels. Warmth. It eats us all.

I love this. Finally, just say it. The final container, the last picture, the movement not stopping even at the end of the vast, accumulative poem. After all this journey, this transport, where else could it end?

But I’m just understanding, in part, my small sketch of it. Every stanza is worth taking apart and figuring out its mechanism. And Mark’s got a word on that, about sixteen stanzas from the end. Language is great because it doesn’t work. It’s all synonyms and generalities, likenesses, connotations. How is it that one word, say, “beauty,” can apply to so many disparate objects? Can’t we be precise? “Defect of vocabulary,” he says. The “toolbox of words, more like an adjustable wrench.” Exactly right. But that’s to the good, at least as far as our ability to make poems goes. We make verbal containers, infinite prepositional phrases and continually transport, translate, carry across (in the “half light of the real”) the material (as mundane, as sex, as trauma, as history, as weather, as feeling) into the uncertain symbolic with that adjustable wrench of a frontal cortex. That’s where we are, pulsing, ticking, uttering, shaping.

What does a poem mean? It means what it says.