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Jacket 15 — December 2001   |   # 15  Contents   |   Homepage   |   Catalog   |

Andrea Brady reviews

Left Under a Cloud by Stephen Rodefer

Alfred David Editions, London 2000. ISBN 1 874433 07 0

This piece is 2,000 words or about four printed pages long.

Stephen Rodefer’s Left Under a Cloud collects and reasserts his writing of the last ten years. Rodefer has, tactically and syntactically, been a remarkably consistent writer since the fantastic Four Lectures of 1982. In Left Under a Cloud , two rival tendencies characteristic of his work bundle and spark: the hard candor spat out by a fictionalising racy self, exemplified by ‘Anemic Cinema’; and the wordplay of ‘Stiller Blemish’ or ‘Harkening Still’. Usually Rodefer’s indiscriminate muse drawls over cinematic stories — Bogart as the Poet, tapping gruff lyrics in a hotel room as he waits for a down-at-heel Princess Di.
    Some of the other poems in the collection might be the next day’s unraveling of that poetry jag. These are crammed together by phonetic suggestion and anagrams, disparate words that flip over and clank. While sonically supple, they can degenerate into such baby-talk as ‘Mon Canard for More Lectures’ — a pretty affection, maybe a bit boring for those who don’t own the baby. But the extemporaneous Rodefer can always rattle up a bit of precious mettle, as when in ‘And Reawakement’

The fracas of desire collates us in an endgame
Enumeral and viratic and like a signal guy
Jacketted at the coupling coming on
There is still there, still sizing up the sky
A man and an amalgam, blinded by the parentheses
Hard on belts and stuff
Velvetter, tenemental and most ravenous

It’s a synopsis for a work in progress. For Rodefer’s poetry documents the wanderings of man as amalgam between the parentheses of cultural experience. It cuts nothing out; it collates recklessly. Standing at the junction where lives cross or are wrecked or too fast, he annotates the whir and whiz of human transport without overmuch concern for the value of the freight.
    Rodefer has always pointed out the particular, fleeting; it’s part of his performance. As he wrote in Four Lectures , ‘I am an archaeologist in the archive of everything now’. Actually, make that anthropologist. He is an astute witness to absurd and reckless human behavior as it happens, and consequently brings now with him, whether you want it or not. Walter Benjamin warns in ‘The Storyteller’ that ‘The value of information does not survive the moment in which it was new.’ By contrast, Emergency Measures signaled that is was

Now time to immortalize a little of the immediate they’ve been shoving interminably at  us. Thumb your noses at the conduit by cutting out the content. Embarrass the whole arrangement by staying what has no duration.

    Rodefer invites us to rebel against the authorities who mow down language as if it were just blades of information. His love of the immediate transforms the mediated, revalues the debased currency of ads and slang. Part of this love washes through spoken language, ‘set down as heard’ so that ‘the imagination of the listener and of the poet are left free to mingle’ (Four Lectures p. 25). His ear has long been tuned to the musicality and errors of daily speech. But look at the expression: that mingling also serves a copulative need.

*           *           *

Is Stephen Rodefer American? The review quotes packaged with Cloud document his democratic impulse deployed as verbal inclusion. The deep breaths exhaled by his broad lines, his declarative sentences and their assertive plangency, his deliberate tactlessness and brave humor, redirect the reader to a history of poetic Yanks: Whitman, Williams. The sharp-shooting humor and quick transitions owe a great deal to Kenneth Koch.
    His is also a multilingual poetry: from ‘a rent-controlled apartment without | a Dubuffet in the quinzième’ he ambles to the Place du Général Beuret in ‘Toil Tel’, poor but pleased, or rephrases O’Hara’s New York scene in comically incompatible French. More than those tags, though, Rodefer wears the tartans of too many places and cultures to be a simple throw-back to expatriate obduracy on its European Vacation. He infiltrates clans, itemizes, poaches and then ties up their tailored knowledge as a fabulous headdress or neckerchief. Everybody look. Having done the hard work of acquisition in some misty past, he dispenses the anecdotal evidence of joyful reading and living like a witty and sensational conversationalist. In Left Under a Cloud , first sign of these magpie instincts are the superfluous epigrams he has scarfed up without attribution.
    But beware: his acquisitive instinct is deliberately opposed to the liberal orthodoxy of academic learning. Rodefer often props up his poetic dignities with the staff of voluntary rustication. In ‘Answer to Doctor Agathon’, he is the rude, uninvited guest who gets caned by an exclusive syndex of academic types. Rodefer’s writing self soaks up some of the attributes of Agathon, his Athenian predecessor, who famously barged into the Symposium: he is innovative; he is fun and voluptuous; he is late. Fitful and disdaining, they accrue knowledge in generalities and are addicted to manners. Rodefer, by contrast, absorbs knowledge through a vital love of particulars. For example, he is blasé about political correctness, which transforms the names of sexual individuals into gender neutrals — ‘and bugger Plato I want God | and I desire him in the form of a woman please’. He characterises these restrictive academic communities as fascist colonies, while the residents are often enough associated with cows — grazing blindly along the backs*, drinking too much, bulked up for a career that will culminate  in ‘a round | rump fed senate house’.
    Rodefer claims (in ‘Brief to Butterick’) that because he refuses to be the poet laureate

   retiring to his Connecticut
pasture, some alumnus to be
the rector of poetry
                    to play some tennis
while he can and putter around
his garden, waiting for a poem
to hit him on the head,

    he is the true laureate. But while it may not be sporty and leisurely, his poetry certainly is occasional, composed in Cambridge between King’s College Bar and kebabs from Gardenia’s. He celebrates the occasions because they prove his fidelity to the social; his poems are living in-the-world. He survives on luck and funds outside the academy, preferring to drink with people in the real world dealing with ‘death and sloppiness’ (‘Brief to Butterick’). A poet of remarkable affectation who packs high-calibre allusive firepower, Rodefer nonetheless berates the high-minded rarefied vates

Ahem, when I hear the words
                         oh poesie
               I reach for my pyjamas
and punch out the pillows in the living room

Rodefer’s poetry is about waking up naked with a grump or a stranger in the bed, not about sleeping through a chaste poetic fantasy and mistaking it for oracular truth.
    For, like much of his earlier work, Left Under a Cloud endorses sexual congress as a miniature of political union, but also as a crucial way of knowing. His poetry is, consequently, focussed on his person. Left Under a Cloud ’s excessive virility is just one of the risks of self-exposure; as when in Four Lectures he vowed to expose

myself to language. It makes a goal. I am open mouthed.
It arrests me. The crowd roars. They long to eat English.

Rodefer’s sportive heroics encourage users of English to reacquaint themselves with its possible applications, and the wide field for poetic exploit. His hyped-up persona may be self-indulgent, but it is not therefore egocentric: because Left Under a Cloud communicates most effectively that through love of others we can come to a universalizing knowledge. It’s intimate (often erotic) not philanthropic love which binds the subjects, and the reader and poet, together. His poems consequently seem intended for particular readers who inspired them; most are dedicated, and many use plaintive or possessive direct address. But the general pleasures of human company are themselves exposed through repetition of the particular. The artful fiction of intimate closure suggests itself in all its glorious history in allusions to Shakespeare or Wyatt.
    Sometimes, his speakers remind me of quarrelsome Donne, shooing the unruly sunne away from the boudoir. But crucially, for Rodefer the great intimacies are public and visible, not private and distinct from regular ‘business’. He questioned in Emergency Measures ,

Is the desire for pleasure as unworthy as it appears to be
nearly random?  What’s love of things to do with discretion,
living like strokes in the book of the small?

Rodefer’s poetic affairs are wholly indiscreet. In ‘Erasers’, the moving love poem which climaxes this book, as he waits to meet a lover he meditates on the decline of empire and the narrowness of contemporary political or epistemological goals. He sits in King’s College Bar, staving off the reinvention of knowledge through institutions and terminology.

Statues, temples, libraries
                    safety’s belly
                                       gravely miscarried
for its future.
                   So there is black-suited
                                        laughter all about us
                    for broadcasting,
                                        not to be recollected.

Rodefer holds onto the particulars of experience, love, eating, pissing, as well as the extravagances of the literary past. He is didactic and effusive. His poetry would revitalize knowledge made anemic by the over-documentation of an information age. Sadly, ‘Erasers’ advances his campaign against the ambitions of a woman who is about to abandon him for an academic post, to join ‘the hottest adornettes | of your era’.
    Despite the inclusive and universalising tendencies, there are always intense and ambivalent losses in Rodefer’s poetry. Its elegiac grumbling does not simply recall lost empires and ways of knowing. It also echoes the regrets of an orator made obsolete by changing political conditions. This is mastered by constantly, artfully deflected attention: for every new subject of fascination, another subject has had to leave the poem. When the rustics of a better georgic plot abandon their holdings for ‘a cheaper loaf | of bread | half a penny of love | less taxing’, the poet with his immaterial needs is left pathetically holding fast,

        like a lunatic
soldier awash
                    in his boots
    cradles in her arms
a wet sleeve of rain
                    beside the vision
                                        and memory
of an independent village.

But the militancy of his vita contemplativa has softened. The republican writer, who could always get a sinecure in the new academic empire, opts instead for prolonged Tusculan exile.
    From there, Rodefer still courts the ‘peuple roi.’ This translates the American constitutional call, through Whitman, into a happy invitation to ride ‘on the buddy seat’. Poet and reader squeal through ‘hot air belted | with the latest naked emperors.’ Repeated references to sovereignty alert readers of Left Under a Cloud to Rodefer’s ongoing battle with designated, spectacular authority, whose ‘gold | lace and red | employment’ inspire both desire and disgust. Like its ambivalence between love of the immediate and fascination with the ancient, this poetry seems to hesitate between flamboyant dissidence, rejecting authority in all its academical gear, and lust for the princess, to join the company of kings.
    Freud wrote in Civilisation and its Discontents that ‘Civilisation behaves toward sexuality as a people or a stratum of its population does which has subjected another one to its exploitation.’ In Rodefer’s poetry, liberated sexuality and civic freedom are associated aims, personally achieved if generally impossible. He laments that

In the unsettling West, we think our fellow
     creatures perpetually in danger
                                of losing their dignity
                        and value because of their incapacity
to resist the temptations of drink and sex.
     But things get miserably done.

Left Under a Cloud refuses the misery of responsible efficiency; its surplus diction and luxurious decadence entertain us for a good time, in which anything can be consumed and concocted.
    For a long time, Rodefer has skirted the dangers of a bargain between ambivalences. His poetry is compelling, finally, because it does maintain the ‘negligence | and the indulgences of the Supposes | in which we live’, the fictions of a contemporary imaginative life from which is spun the twine

                               to thread the hole
which is the invisible axis of the world
and the iron tether of the beating heart

I can love it in return, for the generosity of that risk and these instances.

Cambridge Cows

* backs — the grassy verges of the River Cam at Cambridge at the back of the older colleges, the haunt of wandering groups of cows.

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