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

Patrick Pritchett reviews

Ring Of Fire by Lisa Jarnot

Zoland Books, Boston MA, 80 pp., USD$13.00

This piece is 2 200 words or about five printed pages long

THE REMARKABLE POEMS in Lisa Jarnot’s Ring of Fire seem to come to us out of some profound, yet distant, sadness. Rising on wave after wave of near endless iteration, like a linguistic Mandelbrot set, they arrive in the long moment after loss as the signature and enactment of an initiation – the primal collision and redemptive force of breathing between the tensile structure of the poem and the frangible space of living. At once claustral and emancipating, these poems announce that the event of life is meaningless without the form we give to it, that, in Robert Duncan’s words, the poem is what bears “testimony to the experience of spirit in language.”

I am the waterfront and I cover the waterfront and all
the boats all know me, I am the foreignest of birds and
the shadows of sails upon martinis, I am underwater
buying jam and drinking stolen coffee, I am pelagic now
and sober, having recently discovered all birds.

This is indisputably lovely. And yet a friend has complained to me, perhaps not without good reason, that “the poems are good, yes, but their use of repetition is oppressive.”  Welcome to the Ring of Fire , I want to say. For this is what it’s like to go down and down inside its burning whirlwind body.
    Camus observes that “to be classic is to repeat oneself. And to know how to repeat oneself.”  Jarnot seems to have caught the trick. From Camus’s statement an entire theory of ontology may be inferred, taking as its guiding principle the startling thought that presence cannot be present to itself without some form of re-presenting. At the heart of language, then, exists a primordial repetition, as Derrida calls it, by which we signal that we are signalling. John Taggart, whose own m.o. owes as much to Stein as Jarnot’s does, quotes Augustine on repetition approvingly: “A mode of assuring the seeker that he is on his way and is not merely wandering blindly through the chaos from which all form arises.”
    There it is, then. Repetition is what gives a body to the event. Called the poem. Or as that Hall of Fame repeater Heidegger puts it: “Echo must encompass the whole of the rift and above all be articulated as the mirroring of playing-forth. Echo for whom? Whereunto? Echo of the essential swaying of be-ing in the abandonment of being.”

And how terrific it is to write a radio poem
and how terrific it is to stand on the roof and
watch the stars go by and how terrific it is to be
misled inside a hallway, and how terrific it is
to be the hallway as it stands inside the house,
and how terrific it is, shaped like a telephone,
to be filled with scotch and stand out on the street,
and how terrific it is to see the stars inside radios

The poem as a set of Chinese boxes, the word nested inside the further word, its double and its mirror and shadow. “Terrific” blurring over into terror, for on the road of beauty, as Rilke noted, that is the overawing station.
    It would be a mistake, though, to read Ring of Fire as simply an exercise in Steinian repetition. Its real power should be understood as deriving from the same source drawn on by such mad masters as Smart and Blake, Whitman and Ginsberg, poets for whom the phrase “catalogue poetry” seems incredibly puny since their aim was to make a poem that would include or advocate nothing less than an entire world. Likewise, Jarnot’s method is to “encompass the whole of the rift” through a doxological litany of concrete minutae, suffused with a pervasive melancholy.
    By that I mean simply that these postmodern poems are ancient songs of praise to being-in-the-world, accomplishing their song by an accretion of fantastic and loving details. If they ride a wave of affirmation, shot through with wry, undercutting wit, they also point to Virgil’s sum rerum lacrimae – “the tears inside things.”  A haunting sense of pathos runs throughout this book, like a submerged ostinato.

That there are things that can never be the same about
my face, the houses, or the sand, that I was born under the
sign of the sheep, that like Abraham Lincoln I am serious
but also lacking in courage,

That from this yard I have been composing a great speech,
that I write about myself, that it’s good to be a poet, that I look
like the drawing of a house that was pencilled by a child,
that curiously, I miss him and my mind is not upon the Pleiades,
that I love the ocean and its foam against the sky...

These, the opening lines of the book’s first, stunning poem, “The Bridge,” sound the plaintive and ennobling note of the entire collection. They call to mind Benjamin’s words about the German mourning play: “ultimately everything depends on the ear for lament, for only the most profoundly heard lament can become music.”  Poem after poem here yearns for the words that will connect, the incantation that will spell sorrow’s true runes, and so dispel them, as these lines do, from “The New Life”:

I close slowly the avenues of poise assuming love and folds of lover’s hair,

I close slowly the sidewalk to find the broken glass, going toward my lover to find the folds of likeness in the mirror made of glass and waiting slowly close,

I, slowly, closed with lavender, wake the lover waiting on the avenue of glass.

This is an erotics to match all lamentation. Not the predictable emplotments of consolation, but the deeper longing for a sustaining logos.
    The logos I am speaking of here is mapped out in Ring of Fire both exhaustively and negatively. The dense prose-poem “The Age of the Velocipede,” for instance, charts the  anaphoric figure of an infinitely elastic “you” that is “not a wounded animal... not a bright and shiny terradactyl... not the springtime... not a terrier... not a lupine,” but finally just “an animal,” “unextinct and glowing in the moonlight.”  The poem is a tour de force, the kind that leaves the reader limp and gasping. But beyond its virtuosity, something more powerful is happening. Through its dazzling, almost numbing, catalogue of emotional and linguistic sites, it becomes the script for a massive ontological thrust into the heart of language, a poetic language that restores us to the world by giving us the names of the things of the world.
    To catalogue, then, is not a simple matter of listing the names for things. It is more primal than that. To catalogue is to inscribe presence on presence. The cascading sheets of words and iterative networks of phrases Jarnot employs are more than a single-minded obsession with repetitive effect. They continually leverage loss back into  the here-now. In this book the catalogue regains its old foundational eloquence (as old as Homer) that is also a prolonged stammer, as if to ask of language what is language?  What, indeed, if not the Ur-catalogue?  Arresting in their circularity, these poems achieve a primeval force that is like some great lost original rhythm.

I am not quite yet the harmony of spheres, I have been
hunting prey and building bridges for several years now
on and off, I am the foam of obstruction in the foam of
obstruction I am, I am the open bridge, I am the falling
away from a baseball game across the earth on the edge
of the islands and jail.

Accenting the thingness of things – the bridges, the baseball games, the islands, the jails (not to mention the aadrvarks and the lemurs) –  she seems the most anti-metaphysical of poets, at play in the field of objects, their swirling multiplicity, which she skillfully re-maps, through repetition, through palindrome, even, into territories , regions of occurrence, rather than discrete things, whose most identifying feature is not what they are, but how they overlap one another. The monad gives way to the fold and it’s this Deleuzian esprit that gives to Ring of Fire its most compelling aspect, for these poems are nothing if not Baroque, that is, folded over upon themselves along a line of fractal iteration.
    As Deleuze notes, “the problem is not how to finish a fold, but how to continue it, to have it go through the ceiling, how to bring it to infinity.”  The task of the fold is self-perpetuation ad infinitum, but within a finite space. It is, to borrow a phrase from Michel Serres, to obtain to a state of controlled Lucretian turbulence, where the work of transformation is to spawn multiplicity, the place where the universe is continually breaking down into the diverse. So, the poem here is what folds over on itself, turns inside out, produces a headlong momentum of self-resembling replication. The ideal site, then, to situate the multiple things of the world, whether it is “the stray opossum at the undersides of the highways,” or “a drag queen named Heather who is not quite ready for New York,” as Jarnot names herself in the book’s middle section, Sea Lyrics .
    Yet another of the great pleasures afforded by Ring of Fire is the poet’s anaphoric “I,” that acts like a fractal integer, the secret number divisible by everything it is not. Divide this “I” by any object you choose and come up with a mise-en-abyme, an infinite regress of the same figure – the figure of the Other – across a landscape of mirrors. To say “I am this,” or “I am that,” with such repeated, hungry insistence, is not to say “I” at all. Or if it is, it is to say the little “i.”  The I that has been emptied out, that stands as the sign for its own erasure. The “I” of Sea Lyrics, then, is the kenotic I. Evacuating itself, it permits everything to occur, and all at once.
    It’s rare for a book of experimental poetry to come bearing such delight for rhetorical figures, but Jarnot claims them for her own with real brio, as well as the sense that under their dry histories lies a well of secret sadness, as if by using anaphor, kenosis, or apostrophe she also acknowledges their complete incommensurateness for the job she has set for herself, encompassing a world. But to write poetry is always to write the impossibility of poetry. What better trope for the undertaking than the apostrophe?  

O life force of supernalness of
world, o supernalness, decapitated
mice upon the tracks, o ear muff
head gear of the subway trains in
spring, o the day I saw Lou Reed
on a sidestreet near 6th Avenue

               +  +  +
spring, o snow, the snow, the sno
cones and the ski lifts of the snow,
the snow, terrific snow it is, the
spring, the snow, the lack of snow,
the snow itself, o snow, yourself,
the snow upon the human engine
as it waits to be the snow, go out
and be the snow, unloved and
melting in reflections in the grass

Here, apostrophe is what ravishes in the call beyond itself. It’s a ravishing that both makes and unmakes the body of the poem, that attests to the absolute necessity of the poem as cri de coeur , and the utter impossibility of a response. Except, that is, from itself. For the genius of apostrophe, if I may call it that, is to announce itself to itself, to make the occasion of its utterance the impossible gift of its own reply. It is the Heideggerian echo, “the essential swaying of be-ing to the abandonment of being.”  And in Lisa Jarnot’s hands, it is brilliant and heartbreaking.
    The utopian gesture implicit in many of these poems points to the possibility of a world where words possess the power to liberate us from the chains of normative discourse. What might be called the utopian wager here acts like a fuel accelerant: by the piling on of words, by the response of one word to another, just by mere contiguity, something is kindled that simultaneously affirms and surpasses the material quiddity of language. Out of this crucible, where language is the dream that has us, emerges the availability of a genuine alterity, that radical posture that sees both the word, and through it, the world, as otherwise.
    In Ring of Fire , it seems to me, presence sheds its monadic aura of exile, to appear as the coming-to-be-inbetween of two subjects, or of any two things at all. The unitary gives way to the multiple: “I am in the dreams/ Lucretius, I have helped you to assemble all the mammals on the lawn.”  This seems to me a distinctly feminine way of envisioning the way we relate to one another. Would it be too much to say that it implies a whole new ethical system?
    Thriving on anaphor and echolalia, these poems configure, then re-configure, the lyric “I,” through a mounting series of iterations, into something both more and less than the human subject. The Ring of Fire is where the human stands before itself as the sign of everything that can be transfigured – in other words, as the site of poetic possibility.

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. He is a contributing editor to Facture and a member of the mysterious School of Continuation.

You can read the prose poem “Valley of the Shadow of the Dogs” by Lisa Jarnot in Jacket 6, and five prose pieces from “Sea Lyrics” in Jacket 2.

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