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Patrick Pritchett reviews

POLYVERSE by Lee Ann Brown
Sun & Moon Press, 187 pp., USD$11.95
This piece is 1,700 words or about four printed pages long.


Lee Ann Brown's Polyverse is the most entertaining book of poetry I've read in years. That's not an adjective too often employed to describe a book of postmodern poetry, but in this case, not only does the shoe fit, it fairly gleams with the kind of insouciant glee that only the canniest combination of pure naivete and knowing craftsmanship can produce. Brown sounds the mockingbird's note in these delightful poems: a virtuoso jubilance and daredevil derivation that commingle in all the ways that the postmodern revolution in sensibility has made possible. There is no anxiety of influence at work here, rather, a liberating poetics of permission, by which the poet openly embraces the always already omnivalent intertextuality of ecriture. Such a poetics renders moot the question of originality, that bugbear of mimetic procedure. Not only is an entire section of Polyverse entitled "CoLabs," but the book abounds throughout with the spirit of collaboration in its deeper and perhaps truer sense, that is, with a seemingly endless self-morphing abundantia, or spilling over, where poetic form itself both defines and resists boundaries, engaging in a continual melting and reshifting. The moving locus locates, then moves on.
The title itself may be read in several interrelated and illuminating ways, and offers an excellent example of and key to Brown's method and intention. Above all, "polyverse" suggests Oppen's "being numerous," his "shipwreck of the singular." The destruction of the monolithic and ceaselessly self-aggrandizing subject, with its narcissistic craving for experience and epiphany, opens the possibility for a radically new poetics. "Polyverse," then, signals more than "many poems." More importantly, it grants "many ways into the poem." A poem, any poem, is the result of the author's collaboration with the polyphonic forces of language. Or again, "polyverse" as the heterogeneous, Deleuzian strategy by which the poet may oppose the universalizing discourses of our culture and its literature. "Polyverse" may also be read as the playful conflation of "polymorphous" and "perverse". This last, with its lighthearted twist on Freud's gloomy reading of human behavior, really goes to the heart of Brown's focus and accomplishment -- namely, the book is a paean to sheer joussiance.
Polyverse, coverThe sign that hovers over this book as an invisible epigraph is Wallace Stevens' "It Must Give Pleasure," as filtered through the mischievous resistance to coherence of Gertrude Stein. Brown invests her poetry with a palpable physical pleasure and she does it without sacrificing either rigor or acumen. Besides Stein, her other presiding angel in this endeavor is Bernadette Mayer, to whom the book is dedicated. Mayer's presence in the form of direct collaborations is scattered throughout these poems. Beyond that, however, she plays the role of sprightly psychopomp, leading the way for the younger poet not so much down, as in, out, and all around the garden of poetry.
The gate to that garden opens, appropriately enough, with a section entitled, "Her Hearsay Hymnbook." The three poems in this section are homages to Emily Dickinson, partially by way of Pierre Ronsard. Colorfully and sincerely parodic, these poems display Brown's delicious gift for inventing at the intersection between herself and another poet. The dislocating effect of lyric provides an infectious melody, as well as its very own roadmap. This is from "The of a The:"

Alphabet uniforms steadily assault abroad --
      +     +     +
Beds never can contain words
Whose ample deathless axis stands
At June -- and each color
Has my one blank snow to bed.
I would read her an invisible genesis --
A rack the many syllables define --
No me is there --
Well as anybody is
If ecstasy was --
This comes of whose period
Can make the sentences soon.
The self here is conjured up like a ghost, from out of a hostile (read phallogocentric) alphabet, only to be dispersed: "No me is there." It's a very Dickinsonian, now-you-see-me, now-you-don't gesture, a kenotic movement of release through ek-stasis, that primal upwelling of energy that carries the self beyond its limits, and so dissolves it. Subjectivity is casual, a thing of rhythm, rushing in, then ebbing, itself subject to periodicity. Whether the "period" in question refers to the female menstrual cycle, a moment of literary fashion, or the syntactical impulse to closure is left for the reader to decide.
Similarly, in the poem, "Love," Brown wreaks exquisite havoc with a simple, traditional love lyric, by putting it through the anaphorical/cataphorical Mixmaster. The poem appears to have been written, or at least, arranged, backwards. The first two parts (consisting of eight lines each) are distorted versions of the third part, which itself reads with perfect clarity. Here are the first four lines of "Love:"
Love of manifestos motion slow,
heavenly like smell will. We
cock and you suck. I'll breasts
my squeeze if event cultural favorite.
And here, the last three lines:
O my favorite cultural event,
if you squeeze my breasts, I'll suck your cock and we
will smell like heavenly slow motion manifestos of love.
The sweet ingenuity of this poem is that it's the same eight lines, recombined three different ways. The gradual build-up from heady distortion to clear reference doesn't describe the erotic play of the poem's lovers -- it enacts it. Language, like love, is a delightful confusion, a bewilderment and a playing. It's as a playing that Brown's poetry most thrives and disports, recalling Johan Huizinga's observation, in Homo Ludens, that,
poesis, in fact, is a play-function. It proceeds within the play-ground of the mind, in a world of its own which the mind creates for it ... [it is] born in and as play, sacred play, no doubt, but always, even in its sanctity, verging on gay abandon, mirth and jollity.
The sanctity of the ludic is indeed the hallmark of these poems. Lee Ann Brown rejects the pose of the omniscient author who wields a Big Idea. Instead, she opts for Many Little Ideas: protean swarms of energizing poetic quanta colliding and recombining inside the electric field of the poem itself. Though the diversity of poetic forms, styles and voices is rampant, the multiplicity of registers at moments dislocating (yet continually full of surprise), what runs through them all, like a rhizome of tissued fire, is a single polycantic hymn of desire. At their best, language in these poems acts over and over again to reterritorialize its relationship to itself and the world it signifies. As Deleuze and Guattari remark in A Thousand Plateaus: " ... the song itself is already a skip: it jumps from chaos to the beginnings of order in chaos and is in danger of breaking apart at any moment."
And break apart they do, these poems. Only to recover themselves, in the nick of time, with a laughing pirouette, or a grave and formal bow. A lovely example of the latter can be found in the haunting "Present Beau for Robin Blaser." (A "present beau," I'm informed, is a form invented by Harry Matthews. It uses only the letters available in a person's name).
Able laser seer in rose
An eros orb or ball
Rare, rare lobelia rails
A noble nib
Robed and born
Other sections of Polyverse, such as a museme (which can be read as the museum of "amuse me") expand on this kind of verbal terpsichoreanism, albeit more in the manner of tapdancing than ballet. Here is the entirety of the first poem in this section, "Clio Loco."
O Oil Loci
I Loll, I Coo,
I Coil olio.
Lo, O ill ici,
Cool C. O.
Col. Clio
What's going on here? Only a vivifying exuberance of language that asks, over and over again, what is poetry? by defying, that is, re-imagining, all the existing criteria for a poem. Brown expends her poetic largesse with pagan abandon. "Daybook," for instance, is an affirmation of candid inflorescence:
So I found an anatomy of aerial bodies:
          Arms: Azure on a bend O.
The first day back we sleep like athletes as if
          There's no end in the speaking of bees.
In contrast, "Resistance Play" spells out a compact methodology of composition:
Small daily
      resistances insist
corrosion of conformity

Re sister your self
          as also an act of kindness to the others
          who enjoy you
You who pleasurably
enjoy your register of pleasure you
These poems perform by turns a daedal frolic and a measure of the dance that is song. There's a radical devotion at work (at play) here. Part Five of the closing section of the book, "Crush," clues us further in.
Reinvent love.
Can we reinvent love.
Why reinvent love.
Crush is a way of knowing.
Is it the only way of knowing.
It is a good way of knowing.
"Crush as a way of knowing" creates what might be called a poetics of infatuation, where infatuation is privileged as an intuitive mode of cognition, a kind of Blakean wise folly.
For language in Polyverse is more than polysemous; it's downright polygamous -- a zone of erotic interplay, in which linguistics takes on its originary meaning, the movement of the tongue in forming words. The physical formation of words is a deeply sensual act, after all. Going beyond concerns with the materiality of language, it becomes nothing less than an osculatory event. The poem as kiss: the celebration of a poetics of desire in which the only thing forbidden is the idea of the forbidden. The poet resembles Cixous' conception of Eve, in which, "the genesis of woman goes through the mouth, through a certain oral pleasure," the eating of that storied apple. The poetry of Lee Ann Brown bites into this apple with relish, over and over again. For Polyverse doesn't point to a new aesthetic, it embodies it. Cixous again: "There is a bond between woman's libidinal economy -- her joussiance, her feminine Imaginary -- and her way of self-constituting a subjectivity that splits apart without regret." To gather and disperse the energies of the poem, with an endless fluidity -- an abundantia, a joyous spilling over -- means reconfiguring the poem so that attention shifts from the experience of the subject to the intricacies of the poem's enactment. It means thinking of form as process, form freed from stasis, form, indeed, as ek-stasis. The idea of form has always implied a kind of obedience or fidelity. In a poetics of shape-shifting joussiance, however, the poem's avatar must rely on disobedience -- that sovereign and indispensible sense of transgression and expansion which for the poet constitutes the most radical kind of obedience possible.


You can read other poems by Lee Ann Brown in this issue of Jacket magazine.
Patrick Pritchett
Patrick Pritchett is the author of Ark Dive, (Arcturus Editions), and Reside (Dead Metaphor Press). His poems have appeared in New American Writing, Rhizome, River City, Mirage, Antenym, Bombay Gin, non, and Prairie Schooner, among others.


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