"You have just this plain thing to do, and you have to decide how you will do it. So it teaches how to pace, how to suppress unnecessary impulses . . . "
-- Mikhail Baryshnikov
IT'S PLEASING The New Yorker relaxed its exclusionary policy about photographs, especially when you come across this lavish snap by Robert Whitman. From behind, a youthfully middle-aged Mikhail Baryshnikov, arms and upper body rotating and curved as a sphere, clad in all-black (as far as we can see), pacingly, unimpulsively lures Raquel Adeo into the foreground, she also in black, the gamine within Baryshnikov's orbiting ring. We can't peer that far into their dance, since the photograph is cut just below their waists, but we catch sight of the air parting overhead. The air and what we glimpse of Baryshnikov and Adeo fill the photo's surface. Their grooming is a feature, their hair (his blond-grey, cropped like the photograph, fuller at the top, close on the sides; hers black, un-hennaed but Piafflike, with forelocks). Enough of their faces and blurs of their hands are visible so that they fit together in an austerely expressive form of clothed sexual attachment. And since Adeo wears a sleeveless tank, we can examine her flexing limbs, which revolve around inside Baryshnikov's, as we watch her nape go slack, her shoulder bones tilt forward by force of Baryshnikov's encirclement. Co-encirclement is the choice term, I think, to depict Baryshnikov's and Adeo's relational pairing down, a dual arithmetic progression in the good work of dance.
Martin Corless-Smith's The Garden. A Theophany or Eccohome A Dialectical Lyric is a mask in 13 titled sections, some of the first dozen titles bearing repetitions of "Garden," "Death," and "Ecco Home," and a final section titled "Return to the Garden : ECCO HOME." The book fits squarely in the palm of one hand, a breviary of verse to earth and sky, past and future. Since this is a choral groundwork, "a field / meaning flowers," and a "rupturing of a habitual dwelling into a surprise," The Garden encircles matrices of wonder -- implementing near-homophones and neologisms to recoup antiquarian ceremony --
My darling notword planted in the sound-- sounding old-timey to submit the botanical and antique to present understanding --
A cloud of blood burst in it dazling [sic]-- and substreaming archly poetic and "high abstracts," from a language-past, with more current, postlanguage prosody, as in
my impressions of movementand
Event is presence is presentedOne might infer from the above that Corless-Smith's concerns are centered mostly on lyric hybridization. Not so. In The Garden we have the choral equivalent of a counterinsurgency whose agents' trained responses befuddle all captors in flexing a lyricism to argue and demonstrate against it: "The text is not secret / Part two / all manner of nones / your objects float before you / choice is jested and irrelevant." The sporter's choice Corless-Smith makes is to pray publicly in lyric's black underwear: "we must learn to be content / here-in-our mea-ning-less sentence." More austerely, "he experiences true sorrow," Corless-Smith says, "who knows and feels not only / what he is, but that he is." Abstracts here are indeed "high," pressing the key distinction between, on one hand, that which derives from a procedural understanding of what one is, how to behave and so forth and, on the other, "true sorrow" derived from a propositional understanding, knowing that one understands, for example, and knowing "the daff profusion" this entails. The Garden's profusion is less daff than stringently argumentative or "dialectical" as the poem's subtitle suggests. The argument fixes on The Tradition, having it and eating it, too.
Songs & Scores by Tina Celona features more than a dozen narratives, including seven from the series "22 Songs For The Moon." The narratives are really praise- and blame-metanarratives on poetry that come in different formats, prose, "Notes" of as few as two- and three-word lines in stanzas of five to 23 lines, and longer poems. Some long poems contain longer lines, and this explains the oblong shape of the book Songs & Scores; the pages need to be almost as wide as they are deep to set off the extended lines, such as these in the lead-off poem "Not Modern But The Modern World" --
i'm inspired by nick twemlow's poem in which he refersand
i've been thinking about why i think its okayand, one of my favorites,
a pig & yet interesting to my students, is this because.This last line alludes to Charles Bukowski's poetry "which depresses me because he is such / a pig..." So, like Corless-Smith, Celona is arguing in and about The Tradition, but fixated on American texts and American poets. Celona singles out "jimmy schuyler" and his "a few days" for special praise status ("cute without being trivial"). In contrast, she discloses a shift in attention, admitting that she has a bone to pick with "a holy forest" by the unnamed Robin Blaser, that while "i cant read / the holy forest just now, i could / last year but now its just too / gay & too educated..." While Celona pushes a number of other poets' buttons -- Susan Howe, Frank O'Hara, Paul Blackburn, Bernadette Mayer, Louis Zukofsky and Katy Lederer, among others -- she stays with Schuyler's light strategy, exemplifying Schuyler's ability to go on about about oneself, one's life and the people who pass through, sensualizing everyday occurrence:
. . . suddenly i coughThe poets mentioned in "Not Modern But The Modern World" seem as much a part of her everyday life as "matt" and her students, everyone brought together by Celona's metanarratives, her referencing of poetry and writing poems as topics for composition: "the poem without the moon in it was a disaster"; "i thought i could write a poem without a camel..."; "the squirrel in this poem..." When Celona reports in "Spectacular Emotion" that "our poems are almost over / real life is coming on," we can feel her suppressing an obvious comeback, perhaps something like 'but my poems are real!' Yet the plain thing Celona is aiming for is pessimism down to the bone, doubt about poetry's worth and her own personal relevance. Eight stanzas after reading that the poetry is "almost over" we find
the world is stupid! i hate itFollowing two stanzas later, in the penultimate stanza, Celona's emotion is inscribed as "also spectacular / my tears have tears / and i wipe them off with poems." Toward the poem's end, brash words militate against our casually taking them in -- words of self-loathing, of world weariness, of tears. But in rereading the poem we go back to these words as Celona had to have -- notwithstanding her conditional claim to the contrary. Celona's poetry is imbued with the contrary, but to borrow a phrase from Emerson, it overflows from "latent conviction," giving us a life that's light and dark, with no existence apart from a succession of convictions and writing it down.
Juliana Spahr's Spiderwasp or Literary Criticism has its own bone or two to pick with The Tradition, doing this by "joining things," that is, unschooling poetry and, notably, telling stories of the pepsis wasp, of metaphor, of "powerful masses...brought down," and most notably, opening and flipping pages to practice telling the story of literary criticism.
To read Spiderwasp triangularly you need to keep asking yourself questions, such as, what do you bring to the progression that is a "refusal of allegiance to any specific school" and how do you proceed from the idea that "Everything has flipped to the other side. / Like a page." The latter question might lead you to acknowledge the divide between prose and verse is arbitrary, not an original response, but an insight that Spahr amply illustrates. And while you keep questioning and formulating responses, you can't help but start tallying the more than 40 citations in the text on the right, which, no doubt, serve as evidence of (a) an appetite for poetry -- Spahr's and now yours, partially, because you've been brought into the metaphor of opening and flipping pages in the imagination, part of the rotation -- and (b) lots of literal open pages
. . . pages are always opening, opening. Its linesThis feels seductive. Spahr touches your experience in situ reading her texts. As you open and flip through her texts of poetry about criticism and criticism about poetry, they and you co-encircle one another in that clothed form of attachment I alluded to at the outset. By 'clothing' I mean the temporal distance between Spahr's moments of composition and the now as you experience it. Under temporal apparel you're a poet yourself or a naked fan of poetry, and so you're at minimum a passive consumer of criticism as well. By reading Spiderwasp you and Spahr's texts fit together in a story whose "narrator is all these he or she things, all these animal things, all these ceramic things, all these pieces of things" (p. 15, on the right). Further,
He or she came home and he or she and he orThis is seductive. You've been bridged.
I walked with him at his alderman-after-dinner pace for nearly two miles I suppose. In those two miles he broached a thousand things. -- let me see if I can give you a list. -- Nightingales, Poetry -- on Poetical sensation -- metaphysics -- different genera and species of Dreams -- Nightmare -- a dream accompanied by a sense of Touch -- single and double Touch . . .Dreams, Nightingales, Poetry! -- a thousand things co-broached and double-touched is more like it. In gathering a diverse text set from Corless-Smith, Celona and Spahr, a writer / publisher of Lederer's caliber herself voices a shared temperament as much as she exalts their poetry.
That temperament is lyrical, the music paced within a personal formalism that prepares for antecedent influence, desire and emotional liberties. On the acknowledgments page of Faith from Idiom Press, Lederer expresses gratitude to, among others, Poe, Valery, H.D., and quite markedly, The Bible. So much for antecedents. As for desire and emotional liberties, this untitled couplet suppresses nothing but its need to be told more:
I don't know what I'd do -- these can never be -- besideWhere is "that ridiculous thing"? And "these"? Other poems in Faith, perhaps? What is the one wanted thing? Be it this nameless poem or another in dialogue with it, the bauble of notation is "broken open," as Spahr would say, its dashes daring you to complement its brilliance, to walk with it in dialogue. And while the couplet hangs on your response, the facing page gives up "To Perfect an Imitation of Myself," which I quote in full:
I will not venture --Not just in the breathy parts -- dwarfish lines, dashes -- but also in word whiffs of mock propriety (defect; consolation; venture), "To Perfect an Imitation of Myself" borrows from Dickinson as much as from H.D.; its repetitions remind me of Poe, whom Lederer acknowledges, but the plain-spokenness suggests a starker pitch, a sizably riled Beckett or a furious Stein. The mood swing from "To Perfect an Imitation of Myself" (which in fact precedes the couplet) to the two lines beginning "I don't know what I'd do" curves between moons of rage and despair over Planet Desire, "this one thing -- that I want," an orbit which in the context of this survey recalls Celona's light and dark pulsations.
To speculate about affinities between Lederer and others won't divert me from admiring her formal invention. So far, I've cited a couplet and a poem with lines of one or two phrases for the purpose of connecting Lederer, provisionally, with contemporaries and predecessors. I would be waving in the wrong direction, however, not to point out the patterned elements in Faith contributing to Lederer's distinct clamor: that most poems are in block prose, that all poems here are punctuated with dashes, and that the lexicon is uncannily simple, at times ecstatically so. In the second of two poems titled "Ode" Lederer writes, "I wait -- /For its name -- " A tree now enters. "It will quiver...The idea -- of the tree -- " It's a beech and then a birch -- the name is quivering, we guess. The verbal spareness is recuperative, clearing our senses for these economies of meaning:
You are so -- I want it --As it happens, the first "Ode" (four pages earlier) is nearly identical to this second, save the earlier Ode is blocked in prose. Here are the lines just cited as they appear in the first Ode.
you are so -- I want it -- I come -- hang my belt -- from the -- move me -- the all -- me --Lederer is urging us to second and further helpings. Her words are so commonplace they compel us to test them for variations in tone and semantic interaction. In comparison with the second Ode, the ecstatic capacity of the 'prose' Ode seems muted. The prose version tips the scale toward a narrative whose gaps are inviting enough, yet one that moves us on a bit too efficiently without the additional air of line breaks. Perhaps the efficiency and muted quality of the prose are why there is an encore, and why Lederer saves her best line to tack on the end of the more delirious second Ode: "It will have me."
If it is not yet apparent from the parts of things cited, let me be obvious about Lederer's sublimity. Without any of the wisest-boy-in-the-sandbox pyrotechnics of strong predecessors, Lederer picks up their pail and shovel in taking on big, encompassing landscapes of meaning. Here are three opening lines: "The bright red horse -- and the blue -- slaughter one another -- and the twenty-four oxen -- a third of the trees..."; "Your cities and you -- who are mountains -- shall -- return..."; "We begin -- with -- a thought -- with a doctrine -- of the sympathy -- of thought." The dashes are, again, important, a relaxing element, letting us breathe and be entertained by the fact that neither Eliot nor Stevens nor even Ashbery could do this with such a minimalist shrug, plainly luxe. Nor could they get as personable as Lederer in Music, No Staves, from Potes & Poets Press, in even airier poems about her father's impending death. I reproduce text excerpts, but not the spacings from pages 8-10:
I remember my father eating chocolate donuts over the sinkLederer restores her father's health by picking pieces out of her life with him, good work. Verse more abstracted from the controlled chill and ire and love sung in poems from Faith and Music, No Staves is smug for a reason, but that reason is less radical, less endemic of poetry's dwelling in the plain things we do.
Update (May 2000): Jack Kimball returns to New England this (Northern) summer after living in Japan for the last eight years. He'll continue to curate The East Village (at http://www.theeastvillage.com) and take on the full editorship of Faux Press, a new publishing house based in Cambridge, which plans to release three-to-five books of poetry each year. Jack has taught at two national universities in Japan, as well as at Harvard, the University of Massachusetts and MIT. You can read his essay "Mad in Craft: Hannah Weiner and Alan Sondheim" in Jacket # 12.
J A C K E T # 8