He who sees and listens
A review of Mark Weiss, 'A Suite of Dances'
Suite of Dances is composed of a series of apparently disconnected statements in verse. A slight detour can help highlight the central formal questions at work in this book. In Wittgenstein’s Ladder: Poetic Language and the Strangeness of the Ordinary, Marjorie Perloff describes what Herman Rapaport called “negative serialization”:
“Two and two is four” is a simple sentence, as is “The rose is red,” but there is nothing in the first sentence to make the second follow. “In each sentence,” as Rapaport puts it, “there is compulsory connectivity. But in thinking of the sentences serially, the question of reciprocity becomes vexed. In short, despite appearances, they are Other to one another.”
A Suite of Dances ostensibly operates according to this “negative seriality”; the disjunctions between the statements that constitute the book constantly strain the reader’s ability to draw connections, so that statements often appear “Other to one another.” Yet the fundamental operation of reading is to create relationships despite and against this reciprocal otherness. Here is an example of relative initial disjunction, and of subsequent readerly resistance to it, from the first page of A Suite of Dances:
When I was a boy I’d run
to shining seas
and back again.
The multiple displacements.
What do you say to cosmetic innocence?
As Perloff and Rapaport explain with regard to negative seriality, these statements do not at first appear to be arranged metonymically; what associations tie them together is not on obvious display. But what are the limits of metonymic association between two statements? Cannot any two statements be made associative, given the plasticity of human cognition, its inexhaustible desire to make connections? While “The multiple displacements” may not seem associated directly to the other two statements, this proposition does seem to describe the movement of one fragment to the next, by thematic displacement; one might even see the boy’s move from “shining seas / and back again” as an example of physical displacement, tying the two statements together (as for “cosmetic innocence,” this perhaps recalls the innocence of the same traveling boy, a motif placed here as a “cosmetic” gesture, beautifying the poetic discourse in a deliberately artificial way). The initial strong impression of thematic disjunction dissolves under readerly scrutiny, as new connections are established between the scattered pieces.
As a jumble of morsels, A Suite of Dances has its origin in, and resembles, the poet’s notebook: it seems to gather together the observations, the glimmers of thought of many cumulative moments, in a provisional order, one that might well be rearranged into other formations, other poems. The reader is invited to scavenge for tidbits among the wreckage, as much as they are inclined to build connections between the poem’s disparate parts, just as one might forage in a notebook of pensées, some of which hit home, while others miss their mark. “Follow the dots. / Connect them differently,” writes Weiss, suggesting that his poetry is to be read as susceptible to recombination (40).
In Weiss’s book, the exception to inorganic unity is found in the inserted minimalist lyrics that interrupt the flow of statements, like so many poems inside each poem. Each of these bears a title; some of them are extremely short:
slayer of foreskins. (59)
This lyric fragment bears the form, of course, of the epitaph. It interrupts a series of fragments that have no apparent relationship to it. But in the longer ones, the series of statements appear thematically tied together into miniature wholes. Each of these wholes is set off typographically from the flow of discontinuous fragments, so that each is identifiable as a semiautonomous poem within the poem.
But the distinction between “continuous” and “discontinuous” statements is not clear and neat. There is a porosity between the two: no statement is completely cut off from its surroundings, just as no desire for continuity and coherence can knit the holes of language completely shut. In “A Pair of Dimes,” one gradually notices the return of the thematic motif of the dog:
Nobody wants a melancholy dog
a choleric dog
a terrified dog
Old dog with a learnèd nose.
Hold scent like a dewlap. (37)
Table scraps—what a concept.
They love us for our sloppiness. (38)
That’s not the dog I thought it was
who eats neither snails nor roses. (39)
Between these statements, many apparently unrelated ones proliferate, but the recurrence of the dog motif provides a sense of continuity lurking underneath the heterogeneous surface. The rule of language is one of contamination: one statement infects the next, and the next, and the next, so that even disjunctive series breed interconnection. The occasional metapoetic, self-reflexive comment yields similar conclusions:
Shards of the painted window that once
See how it scatters gems that when one bends to find them
and seen again when one ceases gathering.
Over and over, until worn out by the dumb wonder of it.
Imagine a gestural language, ephemeral as dancing. (30)
The analogy of the disappearing gems is particularly apt for Weiss’s shimmering constructions: when extracted from their cumulative effect, the statements — or gestures — of A Suite of Dances often seem like bits of ordinary language, bereft of ornament and appeal; it is only when placed back among the other propositions that they begin to shine. The same goes for gesture — alone, they are insignificant and without effect; combined, they create a dance, in which each gesture disappears as soon as it is made, yet contributes to an evolution of the whole. One may well, in light of such effects, doubt the existence of “negative seriality” as such, at least where language is concerned: relationality is the rule of language; for there, even discontinuity is a mode of connection (this is what Gilles Deleuze called “disjunctive synthesis”).
The appearance of disjunction can sometimes hide linguistically observable connections between the poet’s propositions. Here is “A Miracle,” a minilyric encased in the poem “Traveler’s Tales”:
Identified with fire,
as his ancestors came from the house of bread.
born in the manger. “One in the oven,”
they must have snickered,
another girl gone bad, slipped
it to her when she wasn’t watching. (23)
While the overall theme of the miracle of the virgin birth is obvious — the vicious commentary of onlookers before Mary’s pregnancy, for instance — some of the connections are disguised by multilingual punning. The “house of bread” in Spanish is “la casa del pan,” and it yields the mention of the god Pan in the following line as well as the association with ovens (the oven is “the house of bread” logically; hence the ancestors “identified with fire”), while “manger” is the verb to eat in French, yielding the mention of the bun in the oven in the immediately following statement. The associations are tightly woven here, quite different from the sense of arbitrariness other connections yield in these poems. This emphasizes the formal diversity of Weiss’s verbal mosaics, some of which yield coherent and identifiable shapes, others merely the changing colors of glass shards disposed according to purely intuitive patterns.
As befits these verbal shards, many of Weiss’s fragments are themselves fragmentary:
And taught his bird to bark. (161)
Learned from the birds to dance. (170)
Itch the answer. (188)
Pronouns, verbs, and articles are elided; nominal phrases arise very frequently; there is a sense of a language suddenly cut short, not merely terse, but almost brutally abbreviated (one thinks again of poor Robert Zipper’s victims). This lends a consistent flavor to the series in spite of other forms of variety in their operations.
Indeed, Weiss’s A Suite of Dances is nothing if not a smorgasbord. The poet’s notebook is the most accepting and versatile of forms; it rejects nothing outright, from the most trivial to the most exceptional of observations, from the vulgar impulse to the most noble human aspirations. It admits of disjunction and continuity alike. Disjunction is, of course, a preoccupation of poetic modernity, and postmodernity no doubt still more so; and Weiss’s book investigates the possibilities of disjunctive form as exhaustively and definitively as any work of the twentieth or twenty-first century. It is “An argument with language” (188). But as such, it is also an argument with the world, bubbling with the keen observations of the poet ever on the lookout for the endless surprises of the present:
Am he who sees
and listens. (68)