Reviews - January 2013

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

Revisioning history

A review of Jill Magi's 'Slot'

In Slot, Jill Magi asks that we travel with her to those sites where we have instantiated our historical consciousness and regularized its narratives. Part lyric, part excavation, Magi’s work mirrors, in a way, the processes she critiques in offering us this: a new form of articulation, political, collective, lyric. It seems that post-9/11 America has become a place where nuance and deliberation have been systematically effaced in public discourse; instead, knowledge, fact, volume, and the language of officialdom stand between us and our lived experience of history.

They're on now

A review of Geoffrey O'Brien's 'Metropole'

“The struggle’s right, the method obsolete,”[1] writes Geoffrey G. O’Brien in his new long poem Metropole. I can’t help but think of this statement as an initial answer to a question important to so many contemporary poets (and one that Metropole engages formally and thematically throughout): now that Language writing as a new and subversive poetic form has been incorporated to a larger degree into the academic world of important prizes and “essential texts,” and the social and economic power structures it sought to disrupt have grown ever more powerful, what does a satisfactory response to both the “new sentence” (as a poetic form) and late capitalism (as a power structure that poetry might want to trouble) look like? Metropole is, perhaps, O’Brien’s fully elaborated answer; it’s one brilliantly conceived and deserving of generous thought.

In his influential 1987 essay “The New Sentence” Ron Silliman proposes to restore the materiality (or status as a culturally produced construct) of prose writing through a new structure that frustrates and thereby renders conscious its reader’s ability to integrate sentences into higher orders of meaning. Silliman cites and approves of Ferrucio Rossi-Landi’s notion that this kind of integration in prose is generally accomplished through syllogistic leaps.[2]

His proposition relies upon, of course, compositions using the “new sentence”: paragraphs of non sequitur sentences organized, like some poetry, according to quantitative rather than logical principles that remind their consumer of her reading as they constantly solicit and reject syllogistic integration. Instead of a paragraph’s length being a product of its ability to, say, describe a scene or thought, each paragraph will, for example, just contain five sentences. In this kind of writing a measure of meaning(s), often a multiplicity of potential meaning(s), can be achieved between adjacent sentences, but they are purged just as quickly by a third sentence that fails to complete the syllogism. As a reader’s will to integration repeatedly advances, fumbles, and retreats within a paragraph form (that she expects will provide a clear, syllogistic progression) she is left with a distinct experience of the integrative process itself, which, Silliman contends, restores the paragraph’s materiality. I want to quickly stress here that Silliman is thinking about integration at the above sentence level: words, clauses, and grammatical structures that form sentences are not as much under contemplation.[3]