Jordan Scott's 'Night & Ox' and Andrew Joron's 'The Absolute Letter'
In his previous book, Blert, Jordan Scott gave us his autobiographical stutterer’s poetics. Casting the stutterer as “a threat to coherence,” as a rebel against standardized, disciplined, regulatory language, Blert challenges linguistic (and by easy extension, political) hegemony. For Scott, this stuttering poetry is “an inchoate moan edging toward song,” the beginning of a redemptive lament.
Scott’s latest, Night & Ox, takes the stutter further into the cry. The book-length poem opens at the “sunny edge / of outcry’s / tastic harpsichord,” and from these opening lines the cry never quite drifts out of earshot, even as the poem’s interests range across state surveillance, climate change, the liberal subject, and images of a comet hurtling through space. Scott tells us in a concluding prose note that he wrote Night & Ox while learning to be a parent, explaining that he typed “the first lines of the poem with one hand, holding [his] son Sacha as he slept” (81). Composition complementing cradle, “the lines took on a shallow and hurried breathing” (81), an effect available to the reader, like little gasps between wails, in the rapid line breaks. In these insistently short lines, almost always three words or less and most often only one, we find “cry’s / inky stampede” (22).
Ink, though, puts cry at one remove, reminding us that Scott’s autobiographical bent aligns the poem with a listener of the child’s urgent cry. Often Night & Ox refers to an elsewhere cry absent from the poem itself, as in “sackdawn weep,” pun-wise the sackcloth of mourning, but contextually also an infant thrashing in a sleep sack (15). Like a new father, Night & Ox is cry’s witness.
But parents cry too, of course — in frustration, in exhaustion, in sympathy — and occasionally the poem seems to respond to the cry it references by voicing a cry of its own. Thus a line like “agalaxia tiptoes” (15) gives us cry’s cause (not enough milk) and hoped-for solace (a delicate hush), but also onomatopoeically the cry and response themselves (the open vowels of the child’s wah wah wah and the pattering of the parent’s sneaking feet). Much as Blert puts a stutter in its reader’s mouths, so does Night & Ox sometimes put a cry there. In such moments, cry’s witness cries also.
The pattern here — crying in sympathetic response to the heard cry — indicates something of the poem’s broader stakes, and here we can see Night & Ox circle the cry back around to Blert’s politicization of the stutter. The parent welcomes the child into a world in which a disciplinary impulse to “rectify galaxy’s nonviolent stammer” still lingers ominously (49). “I cede dysfluent / one seme / as dessert spoonfuls away” declares the poem’s fatherly speaker, suggesting a mealtime lesson (the disjunctive one-word line “fuselage,” not far below, brings to mind an eating game of “here comes the airplane”) in conventional fluency. The defiantly tongue-tied father trains the child to speak fluently, effectively giving up his stutterer’s rebellion and ceding ground to the norm he fights against (15). The cry pours out, in part, because there is no freedom from the authoritative demands of order and coherence:
The child’s hungry moan is also a prisoner’s lament: we are trapped in an inescapable regime of speech, one intolerant of stammering deviance. The demands of Blert go unfulfilled, so in Night & Ox one cries because the child’s cry is justified, but also because the cry itself is inarticulate, supplementing the stutter’s defiance.
It is helpful to think of such poeticized stutter and cry in terms of what Nathaniel Mackey has called “a telling ‘inarticulacy,’” which serves a “critique of a predatory coherence, a cannibalistic ‘plan of living,’ and the articulacy that upholds it.” In Mackey’s formulation, spoken inarticulacy expresses “a need for a new world and a new language to go along with it, discontent with the world and the ways of speaking we already have.” The stutter and cry, irreducibly embodied forms of utterance, highlight the inadequacy of articulation: sign systems cannot contain everything meaningful and vitally important in life. Rather than rejecting language altogether, however, the paradoxical effort to make such inarticulacies speak is an attempt to reclaim the interpersonal connection enabled by signification, working towards the possibility of social, linguistic coherence that is not predatory.
Andrew Joron’s latest collection of poems The Absolute Letter provides another recent, compelling iteration of telling inarticulacy. Like Scott, Joron relies on stutter and cry to critique and circumvent authoritarian articulacy, the demand that life be restricted to a set of codes. The cry in particular is familiar in Joron’s poetry. In his earlier collection Fathom, for example, he figures poetry as something that “does not communicate at all, except to announce the incommunicable, as abyssal groan,” “the release of the Cry.” Joron’s poetic ideal confronts the inadequacy of semiotics, trying to move beyond communication into embodiment, “except to announce,” a crucial caveat that lets the poem still speak, allows the “poem’s saying of the unsayable.”
The Absolute Letter continues Joron’s project of saying the unsayable or making inarticulacy speak, turning to the cry as a response to contemporary politics’ Benjaminian permanent state of emergency (even if that theoretical anchor is less explicit here than it was in his more immediately post-9/11 writing). The cry finds little hope in discursive language, with Joron asking skeptically, mockingly, “Does the Revolution wait in words? Where do we find those (s)words?” (23). But the revolutionary violence embodied in weaponry fares no better: “Violence seeks to escape the Law, yet / it is an Imposition of the Law” (47). Neither words nor swords are sufficient; to bypass this revolutionary impasse, the poetics of the cry aspires for bodies as free as signs and signs as motive as bodies.
That is, Joron seeks in the cry the possibility of signification that does not erase or repress its own embodiment. Joron repeatedly expects us to both read and see, refusing any binary decision between these two ways of facing the letter on the page. The letter “A” is both “two sticks / [that] point toward / A / vanishing” as well as the thing pointed at; two sticks lead us to a perspectival vanishing point in the distance, but they are also self-referential, pointing back at “A.” Joron permeates this kind of play, asking us to equate “Fallen letter, avian V,” with “in- / verse A,” using “V” as ornithological diagram and visual opposite of “A,” but also connected, in a purely semiotic sense, to “avian” and “in- / verse” (4). Or, after glancing off the scientific meaning of “c,” the speed of light (“C defines the speed of the deeps”), he asks us to “Say O for C: the rhyme / Of eye & symmetry fails,” again drawing our attention to signifiers’ materiality while also refusing the melodramatic sign “O” as the universal constant for mourning (9). Joron demands we read these letters as symbols at the same time that we see them as shapes. Against articulation’s (the Law’s) presumption to contain everything within itself, the cry insists that there is always an excess, unaccountable within any representational framework — while, importantly, still holding onto signification as necessary to social community.
The Absolute Letter often makes moan difficult to distinguish from stammer; like the cry, the stutter manifests irreducibly embodied signification. We get this through Joron’s incessant bombardment of rhyme, broadly conceived: perfect, slant, internal, and eye, homophones, homonyms, and anagrams. Joron’s play reminds us of the way sobs rhyme with themselves, but it also suggests a tongue toiling to make different sounds, a “statement corrected, as sonically connected” (63). The cry-stutter conflation is prominent in the book’s opening pages, in Joron’s treatment of the letter “A,” (alongside a few other letters such as “C” and “O,” a potential candidate for or displacement of the titular absolute letter — a concept which Joron explains only obliquely but is something like a transcendent union of the sign’s infinite reproducibility and the signifier’s material singularity). Joron juxtaposes examples of the signifier (“A” in quotation marks, referring to the letter as such), words beginning with the letter (sometimes enjambed mid-word to leave “a-” to its own line), and the indefinite article (occasionally even truncating a would-be “an” to “a”) (1–4). Childhood abecedarians lurking in the background, the tumble of vowels, orthographically linked but aurally varied, evokes both wail and stutter.
Or, perhaps, maniacal laughter, “Half / laugh: / a mental lament” (14), anagram reinforcing the deviance of the cry-stutter-laugh. Indeed, Joron’s lines can tickle even in their solemnity — “U- / nite night / To Center / Said cinder, sad sender” — hitting us with sonic and visual play that reminds us laughter also is a form of spoken inarticulacy, non-words spewing from the mouth to nevertheless tell us something (55). Scott, too, can induce a childish giggle in his lingual acrobatics, and Night & Ox still gives us much of the delightful tongue-twisting that characterized his previous book. It almost gives butterflies to tumble through lines like “fulm and flume / windchill reflex / starlit parsnips / frill underfur / cushion croaks” (10). Laughing of course can supplement or substitute for crying — we laugh until we cry and we laugh to keep from crying — and we should remember that laughs can be mad, bitter, or defiant as easily as joyous. Scott’s Night & Ox and Joron’s The Absolute Letter are two discontented books; but Scott’s and Joron’s buoyant games of ear and eye just might modulate stammer and lament into laughter.