Strange galvanics (PoemTalk #75)

Will Alexander, 'Compound Hibernation'


Tracie Morris, Kristen Gallagher, and Michael Magee gathered together in PoemTalk’s garrett studio to discuss a poem by Will Alexander: “Compound Hibernation,” published in Zen Monster, then performed at least once at a reading (Alexander’s Segue Series performance at the Bowery Poetry Club in March of 2007), and then collected in the book Compression & Purity (City Lights, 2011). The text of the poem is now available at the Poetry Foundation site, reproduced with the poet’s permission. The recording of the poem in the Segue event is available, also with permission, at PennSound’s Will Alexander page.

The group began by discussing the poem’s relationship to the Ellisonian strategy (or condition) of invisibility, in which one “ingest[s] ... a blackened pre-existence” through a glaring, nine-sun-sized brightness while maintaining the feeling that “Those who glance about me / ... cannot know me.” Its poetics — or “galvanics” — presents a speaker residing in “a pre-cognitive rotation” in an “invisible tremor” yet made of a complex compound, and “aloof” because of such “interior compounding.” Mike Magee observes that Alexander is attempting to locate the speaker “in an other-wordly space,” possibly inside the sun, the ur-source of our light. Tracie Morris adds that magic (including sleight of hand) is about dispersing light, teaching us the misdirection of seeing, “making you distracted by not seeing what is in front of you.” For Kristen Gallagher, all during the discussion, Alexander’s interest in surrealist writing practice seemed not just important to our following, or not following, the words of the poem, but helpfully connects with the magic of distracted vision Tracie sees in misdirected (in)visibility. (Kristen later notes that relevant here is Alexander’s work on Haiti and specifically voodoo; from that one sees here the poet’s engagement with an identity established not by denotative declaration but through “possession,” a non-Western tradition of declaring selfhood that doesn’t presume location.)  Tracie adds that writing about space becomes here a strategy of talking about blackness — space being a site pre-existing, an imagination "before racism," a sphere not predicated on whiteness. “Before light there was space.” Mike notes that one senses from such an aesthetically eccentric (as perhaps distinct from concentric) poem, as too from the poems of Harryette Mullen (whom he quotes), that “‘it's dangerous to be the only one,’ so you try to figure out a way to be both inside and outside the circles.” And “Compound Hibernation,” Mike feels, is a very canny poem in that way.

Following the PoemTalk discussion, Tracie Morris wrote an additional note on this poem; Jacket2 is pleased to publish that short essay here.

PoemTalk this time was directed and engineered by Steve McLaughlin, created and produced by Al Filreis as always, and edited by Allison Harris, whom we gladly welcome once again to the PoemTalk community as the new editor of the series. PoemTalk is cosponsored by PennSound at the Center for Programs in Contemporary Writing, the Kelly Writers House, and the Poetry Foundation.