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Mark Scroggins

Review of Norman Finkelstein, Track

New York: Spuyten Duyvil, 1999. 90 pp. US$12.00.
This piece is 1,800 words or about six printed pages long.


SOME seven centuries ago, a Florentine poet began his long poem in the midst of a dark wood, having gone astray from the straight path. Dante's selva oscura is a forest, Norman Finkelstein implies, in which we still wander. But is there a track through these woods, or is the forest a "collage," "an endless expanse of commentary"?

The collage is the only version
the only version of the forest
in which there is no repetition

but an endless expanse of commentary
Listen carefully
as something disappears. (16)
Track is trackless. This volume, the first installment of an open-ended project whose title brings to mind Robert Duncan's "Passages," is a single poem - or a series of poems - invoking the obliquities of Dickinson's fascicles or Kafka's parables. Unlike those parables, however, these lines disclaim realistic portraiture or singular "motif":
In these operations
no single motif
or portrait

called Emily or K
so long as the letters
arrive to be destroyed. (7)
This is an epistolatory poem, one suspects, a series of letters - and this becomes explicit further on in the book, where lines begin "Dear J," "Dearest K," "Dear M" - in which the condition of the dead letter office has become the state of all correspondence.


But even "series" is wrong for the elements of this poem, implying a sequence in which one statement, one image follows another in some logical progression. Instead, the fragments that make up Track constitute a collection of paths, of Holzwege through a dark, trackless wood which gives way to no comedy, divine or otherwise. The book is a "track," but to what end? Martin Heidegger entitled one of his essay collections Holzwege - literally "wood-paths" - , a title rendered by his French translators Chemins qui mènent nulle part, "paths which lead nowhere." It's not that the poetry of Track leads nowhere, precisely, but that each of the various movements - or segments, or sections, or what have you - constitutes a new approach, a new track into a labyrinthine forest: a forest, one ultimately realizes, of language.

The ultimate source of such a poiesis, of course, is Biblical: the Torah, that primal, most familiar, and radically strange book; and the multiple layerings of commentary and interpretations that make up the Jewish textual tradition. "One thinks of the decalogue . . . Here the lines intersect / Here the lines are parallel / Thou shalt not thou shalt" (36). Like endlessly multiplying midrashim, the poems of Track both promise and withhold closure, seem to point in determinate directions but then veer off in others:

This history
this biography

A frenzy
of interpretation

it were to lead elsewhere

No inscriptions
or erasures. (38)
But this is only supposition - "Suppose," as well, "there were only numbers" (39), a phrase which gestures towards the kaballistic practice of gematria, or number-divination. (Each of the letters of the Hebrew alphabet has a numerical value; according to the Jewish mystical tradition, then, "words or phrases whose letters are equal are at some level meaningfully connected" [in Jerome Rothenberg's words].) But only gestures: "so much for rules / / about words or numbers . . ."
So much repetition
in the beckoning depths
it cannot be encompassed

by parts of speech
so that everything connects
or nothing does. (8)
Finkelstein is too serious, too Western a poet literally to base his practice on the shuffling of the numerical values attached to letters. Or rather - for gematria can be an endlessly subtle and engrossing practice - he hasn't quite the faith in the numinous qualities of letter and number that would allow him wholeheartedly to count: "everything connects / or nothing does." The sections of Track are indeed numbered, but they are headed not by numbers themselves - 1, 2, 3, etc. - but by the emptied-out sign of number: "#." (Larger divisions are headed "##.") Anti-gematria.


Duncan, late in his life, arrived in a similar neighborhood when he began to leave the poems of "Passages" unnumbered. They would no longer be a sequence - from Latin sequor, "follow" - but a cluster, a constellation of poems that could be entered at any point, read in any order. The "order" of "Passages," then, is something like that described in a sentence of Emerson's Finkelstein paraphrases: "The center is everywhere / and the circumference nowhere" (79).

But Finkelstein - no transcendentalist he - has fashioned in Track an order both looser and more vexed than Duncan's. To renounce number and sequence altogether, as Duncan did, bespeaks a homespun, very American antinomianism. To renounce number and sequence, but simultaneously to cling to the sign of number - for every "#" that appears in Track (and they are on almost every page of the book) can only remind the reader of the ordering principle the poet has renounced - is an act of troubling responsibility. In an era of textual freeplay, of bacchanalian indeterminacy, we would have our poets sever their bonds completely. Perhaps Finkelstein himself desires such freedom - freedom from titles, from numbering - but part of the pact in which his poetry engages is precisely to acknowledge the ultimate incoherence of pure freedom. Pythagoras found a divine order in number. For Finkelstein the trace of number, the doubled crucifix of the #, is the fingerprint of a deus absconditus.

Perhaps I make too much of typography; multiplying commentary, however, is very much in the mode of the Talmudic ruminations to which Track repeatedly alludes, and which in part provide the poem a model:

In some versions
there are many versions
and in some versions only one

around which the commentators
weave endless versions
as if to explain. (15)
A single event-text, about which weave endless commentaries ("Eden gives way to forest")? Or endless initiatory moments ("forest gives way to Eden" [16])? Is there an ur-text on which these fragments of verse comment, or do they gesture towards Eden (a moment in which God would walk in company with his human creations), only to deny that moment any historicity? Of course they do - there is no ur-text to Track, but Finkelstein, in best postmodern fashion, is fascinated with the myth of originary wholeness precisely because it is myth. We have no Acropolis, we latter-day romantics, but the ruins of the Parthenon enthrall us as no whole Parthenon could. Like the Wailing Wall, they take on holiness in part through their very dilapidation:
The ruins were holy
wholly ruins

The fathers came and went
fathers found there

We had come this far
entering the present

Only holy ruins
wholly in the present. (58)
The Talmud is an echo-chamber of voices, arguing over millennia. Track is as well haunted by voices, fragments of others' words that enter the poem and unsettle its surface. There are dying words: Jack Spicer's - "My vocabulary / did this to me" - and Emily Dickinson's - "Little Cousins, / Called back" (50). There is T. S. Eliot's claustrophobic description of history - "the contrived corridors / the cunning passages" - and Paul Celan's faux naïf description of his own poetics - "Ganz und gar nicht / hermetisch" (89). There is Genesis: "And the seven lean ones / ate up the seven fat ones" (64). And, in a bizarre moment -
all the combinations
all the coincidences
take on a spooky radiance

called the bright light of shipwreck
called the gentle flame of his story
strong light of the canonical (65)
- George Oppen finds himself where he would never be in life, in company with Harold Bloom. Unlike the rabbis of Edmond Jabès's Book of Questions (and its many sequels), who argue, speculate, and parabolize at a hyper-Talmudic rate, such outside voices enter Track only in bits and pieces, broken sentences picked up on a late-night channel-surf, foundation stones stumbled upon in a weedy meadow or beside an overgrown forest trail.

They are, that is, bits of ruins. But ruins are perhaps the fundamental condition of our knowledge, or at least of the ways that would lead us to knowledge:
Sightseers should note
the grandeur of the architecture
though much is in ruin

on the road to K
also called Gnosis
in some texts. (9)
Dante's ultimate moment of knowledge - we ought not to venture to call it a gnostic moment - came in a vision of the godhead, "the Love that moves the sun and the other stars." Finkelstein's Track, if it can be said to "arrive" anywhere, arrives at a rapprochement with ruination which recalls Ferdinand's joyful cry in The Tempest - "Let me live here ever!" (4.1.122):
Only in the present
entering the ruins
fathers found there
came and never left

I want to live
here forever
what you have given me
came and never left. (58)
In our present wandering condition - textual wandering, mid-life wandering - there is still the opportunity for perhaps the nearest experience to gnosis we can reach: human love.
Say in this sentence
two people are in love

Say love come quietly
at the end of the sentence

which has no ending

This bed they center is,
these walls thy sphere . . .

So that in the space evacuated
by a retreating deity

Two lovers embrace. (78-79)
It would be disingenuous, and untrue to the complexities of Finkelstein's poem, to claim that love settles all uncertainties, or serves as the panaceic human consolation in an uncertain world, as if Track were a postmodern rewriting of Arnold's "Dover Beach." The passage I have quoted is far from the last in the book, which ends on a far more unsettled note. But this arrival at love is for me one of the most luminous moments in Track, and its "spooky radiance" consoles one in the "cunning passages" and "contrived corridors" of the poem's darker movements.

The darkness is indeed all around us here - in the vibrating, buzzing confusion of a media society, in the still jarring echoes of the Holocaust, and in the chilly "space evacuated / by a retreating deity." But Track, with its impressive array of forms, tones, and voices, excavates an exhilarating variety of paths through that darkness. Only a fool would deny love its enlightening - perhaps preëminent - place in the poem. MFA programs and creative writing manuals, the favorite whipping-boys of the avant-garde, have made suspect the notion of a poet's achieving his "voice": who wants to find a voice, only to sound like everyone else? The voices of Finkelstein's Track, however, as various as they may be, speak to the heart of an unsettled time. Following them, we may not see precisely where the paths are leading, but we know we're getting somewhere.


Mark Scroggins
Mark Scroggins is coeditor of Diæresis Chapbooks, and is writing a biography of Louis Zukofsky.
Photo: Mark Scroggins, sitting in on bouzouki at his own wedding reception, with the Irish punk/folk band The Big Shillelaghs.

You can visit the Internet site of the publisher of Norman Finkelstein's Track at Spuyten Duyvil.

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