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J A C K E T   #   E L E V E N   |    A P R I L   2 0 0 0  


Andrew Crozier

Writing by Numbers: A Preview

A review of Tony Lopez, False Memory, The Figures, Great Barrington, MA, 1996. 40pp. ISBN 0-935724-69-9. $6.00.


SOME OF False Memory has already been seen, but Lopez's poem remains to be seen full scale: one hundred fourteen-line stanzas deployed, on the decimal system, in discrete proportionate sections, six out of ten being given here. Of these the first and second, "Corneal Erosion" and "Studies in Classic American Literature", were published in Negative Equity and other poems (Equipage, 1995), where they bracket four other, free-standing poems, amongst which the title poem is exceptional by its foreclosed brevity. Four stanzas of the third section, "Assembly Point D", made a fugitive appearance as a Short Run Press item. False Memory continues a history of work in circulation while in progress, now complete in MS and in search of a publisher; this is by way of a reader's report on what of it is currently available in this edition.

In any of these sixty stanzas language emits the toxic glow of an intertextuality for which a functioning media awareness is its sufficient context. Much of it has been heard before, or heard already after being read, with or without accompanying visuals. What stands between False Memory and print journalism is that Lopez has no story to tell or opinion to editorialise; if anything he's beguiled by the tectonics of number systems. The even number series of the poem's exposure as parts of work in progress requires the shifting point of the decimal fraction to be given its values (2, 0.4. 6 sections), and this ratio, however fortuitous, is more or less the parodic inversion of how for the poem as a whole the relation between higher and lower units, the decimal system coordinating the whole to its subordinate sections, does not include the sum of its parts. Quite different properties of cardinal numbers are implied by the poem's stanza, even if qua sonnet its antecedents reach no farther back than Ted Berrigan's fourteen-line accumulations. These number systems have in common the integer of the line of verse, but are thereafter incommensurable; discontinuous number systems exclude the possibility of dialectic, there's no talking to them, and to preclude synthesis at this structural level turns out to be crucial to Lopez's project. This systemic stand-off of arbitrary limits sustains the effort to attain them; at this size it is not quite compulsive repetition, and as an instrument for producing verses its effect is prodigious rather than profligate, though I might review my opinion if he were to let rip on another 12,600 lines.


I suppose that the decisions on which the poem's schema was based were more simple and pragmatic than description may suggest, though not the less significant in their consequences. For this is a work conceived of as massively flawed, without prospect either of resolution or the complete exposition of variables, only of termination: there could be no stopping, short of exhaustion. The flaw does not occur in either the stanza or the system on which it is deployed, for both are flawless abstractions rigorously  conceived to be embodied almost anyhow, but the mutual constraint of their separate embodiment is felt throughout the writing, in effects of tension and compression, both locally and in the aggregate.

I suppose also that little or no adjustment of details or passages was required as the writing proceeded (the manner of publication may bear this out), and that despite explicit specification of the finished article work on it could be brought to a finished state as it was carried out. Whatever the case, the writing has not, it appears self evident, been undertaken to realise a preliminary concept of the poem itself, which requires some notion of corresponding perfections of idea and execution -- indeed, the more completely the poem is apprehended as meeting its specification with so much the less urgency will be felt the driven purpose of its writing which, while demonstrating skill and resourceful artifice both of a high order, is yet more striking for its persistence in rehearsing damaged and painful matter.

Section titles in False Memory replicate concepts contingent on public discourses which in their globalisation cross-contaminate while keeping open a place for local colour. Here they are knowingly not to be taken lightly or on trust, though not because they're not the things of which they're replicas. Inauthenticity is not what hurts in this case, indeed Lopez's replicas must by design be intended to outlast their originals. For while the operations of the originals sustain a topical immediacy, a democracy of received ideas, in the medium term their character is to be received as dated mendacities, conceptual replication scarcely speeding up the process from participation to the onset of dismayed recall, let alone the active pleasures of memory.

From the start, therefore, this writing anticipates the post-modern as a future condition of the person; and since participation in public discourse is an experience of its virtual reality to replicate any of its items is never the perpetration of an unmitigated irony, inverted commas measuring off distance, adding reference as if value. Knowingness is painful, the hurt acknowledgement of complicit discourse, fifth column of an invasive other, the wonted symptom of a known agent, though hardly a foreign body, doesn't amount to diagnosis. Hence no prognosis, let alone cure. Therapeutically it's like with like, and a lot more of the same, not turning round hostile weaponry even in small doses.

Participation in the misfortune of others has been stoic, charitable, the debt to be paid by any sinner, but we can no longer bear such a universal figure of ourselves and incline instead, as occasion serves, to gloat, feel bitter or, as here, undergo the abjection not of the sinner but of the other in us. This is the condition of language in False Memory and the significance retrieved by its title: the utterances of and about the way we live now of accredited others, professional, corporate, &c, &c, are encouraged to refract and mingle episodically in a garrulous, monologic continuum. Lopez's writing, more than ever, engages with dystopian anxiety the grievous fictions of contemporaneity: it is beset and irked by its inexaustible material on every occasion, but by its denial to Lopez of his own voice, so fully has he read himself into and written himself out of it, genuine horror is forestalled. And if there could be a better life for one and all how, from personal wishes, can it be imagined for others?

This is the ostensible double-bind of poetry with a conscience, compromised by utterance in the very act yet compelled in default of responsible utterance to impute of itself, we are told, its intrinsic value. Lopez eludes this mise en abîme by implied acknowledgement of what is alleged to be both mutually entailed and excluding, for on the one hand utterances are kept sedulously incomplete and attributed by type, and on the other hand the writing, by sheer productive efficiency, disclaims any but added value. Such deference draws attention away from the demonstration, nonetheless, of a situation in which incompatibles manage to co-exist, but it is not thereby misconceived, for while the poem is so contrived as to disconcert any reading, it delights in being read. Such reader friendliness is scaled to a short attention span, and is neither too much nor too little, and if the problematic proposed of this kind of writing remains uncontroverted its mordant humour has been relieved by a lightness of touch both wary and assured.

Lopez will be old enough to recall the slogan "the private is public", False Memory is premised on the reverse proposition, which more resembles common knowledge, the more forceful for that without being echoed from the rooftops. Supposing language to have been privatised, that it is alien, but that it can be impeded from speaking of and for us, the poet must then make the best of a bad job and become its consumer, connoisseur of false consciousness. In its wary assurance this might seem to fit Lopez's writing, but falls short of acknowledging the ambition evinced by it, out of the ordinary and instructive. Lopez situates his writing in relation to current discussions of the very possibility of poetic language, but does so fully intending that the poetic require the public; whatever the condition in which he finds it.

There is a necessary ambivalence here, however minimal the concept of the public as the domain of the poetic, in view of the closures and appropriations of public discourse accepted to underpin the method of composition, but such ambivalence is a genuine attainment requiring the recalcitrance of ambition in the face of obdurate theory. It doesn't amount to a politics, since the public and its opposite are not commutative terms battling for priority, but it is a demonstrative critique of the cultural pessimism of that homologising rhetoric bent on seeing the whole in the part but never, in its misery, vice-versa. In the face of pseudo-dialectical stasis Lopez's ambivalence can be salutary.


English poet Andrew Crozier founded the Ferry Press, and was co-editor with Tim Longville of A Various Art (Carcanet, 1987). His many books of poetry are collected in All Where Each Is (Allardyce, Barnett, 1985). He teaches at the University of Sussex.

The second half of Tony Lopez's False Memory project has recently been published as Data Shadow, Reality Street Editions, London, 2000. 64pp. ISBN 1-874400-17-2. £6.50. Reality Street Editions, 4 Howard Court, Peckham Rye, London SE15 3PH.
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