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Jacket 19 — October 2002   |   # 19  Contents   |   Homepage   |  Catalog   |
This issue of Jacket is a collaboration with Verse magazine

Mark Tardi reviews

music or forgetting by E. Tracy Grinnell.  O Books, $12.

This piece is 1,200 words or about three printed pages long.

How rare and refreshing it is to read a book of poems with considerable range, but the formal, rhythmic, and emotional register of E. Tracy Grinnell’s first collection, music or forgetting, is truly remarkable. Grinnell’s work is a poetry with integrity, reminding me of Jennifer Moxley’s debut Imagination Verses, if not in style and subject matter, then in its balance between the intellectual and the emotional. And it is the emotional depth within music or forgetting that I find especially striking, particularly given that many younger so-called ‘experimental’ poets are afflicted by and far too convinced of their own cleverness.  

The opening poem, ‘36/ a tower is evident,’ is a solid entryway into the collection, indicating both Grinnell’s interest in her recent literary predecessors (namely the Language poets), as well as her clear desire to move beyond their legacy. The self-reflexive posturing of  ‘all the while a sentence is forming // a sentence is form,’ quickly shifts, as Grinnell writes later in the same poem: ‘it is a tree full of not one kind of bird.’ And she’s right. In the two sections that follow, the relationship between memory, place, and time is much more ‘evident’ than preoccupations with semiotics. Process and artifice are of interest to Grinnell, and contribute to the poems, but largely as points of proliferation.  

After the opening poem, we encounter the first sequence, ‘thirty-one poems.’ Place figures prominently in this section, as evidenced by the epigraph from Italo Calvino’s Invisible Cities, along with the fact that one-third of the poems’ titles are names of cities and states (‘Bluefield, Virginia’ and ‘Oakland, California), and another five point to potential locales (‘rockport’ and ‘to the tropics’).  C.D. Wright suggests in her comments on the book that it is a ‘distillation into human memory,’ and I wouldn’t disagree. Yet this is a memory as migration, with gaps, fractions, and folds as much markers as any map. It seems somehow appropriate that the migration should begin in the aptly titled ‘backyard’:

I was never on the isle ——— beckon, chance, or fingerprints —
— I am not agrarian — not mainland ——— not solo

suppose a meaning of my position

The formal structure present in ‘backyard,’ with its long em-dashes and accentuated appositives, unifies the bulk of the poems in this section, as well as recalling two other formidable women poets — Danielle Collobert and Emily Dickinson. In part, the poems ensue as conversation, traversing generations and geography, and for as much as Collobert and Dickinson give to music or forgetting, Grinnell provides generously in her returns and belongs in their company.  It is hardly insignificant that all three poets are women, offering strong examples of work that is both emotionally resonant and intellectually generative. In ‘backyard’ and elsewhere, Grinnell’s speaker hovers in a half-state, neither here nor there, trading places, not necessarily alone, not necessarily answering (or asking) a loaded ‘Where am I?’ Yet narrative emanates from the ‘remnant fraction of remain[s]’ (‘to the tropics’), with auto- and biography converging as a singular compelling idea, while simultaneously maintaining their own discreteness, juxtaposed against each other, at odds.  

Although not easy, this is a poetry about something, a work with humanity, unafraid to dwell on uncommon ground. Grinnell’s reflections on places like Utah or Virginia are attentive and nuanced, and if critical of the surroundings, she refuses condescension when exploring landscapes and subject matter often unusual in more experimental poetries, especially by younger American poets. Her articulations of temporality in the ‘place’ poems are both subtle and direct in one of the two poems titled ‘Bluefield, Virginia,’ as she writes that ‘time was. place,’ and later, ‘place. was the effect it had.’ Here, ‘where’ is a question of context, and place is narration as much as narration is place. She continues:

grain or. air                                      (no light ever)

variation is such. shedding
every time

dismay affects a field.

Much like a musical variation, the fragments are shed by — or perhaps into — contemplation, are notations that moves time. And again, like music, the results are atmospheric, the response emotional. It is unclear whether ‘dismay affects a field’ of writing or else some pasture in Virginia, but this between-time of Grinnell’s language is at the crux of her questioning.  

If much of the ‘thirty-one poems’ sequence explores migration within the planes of memory and geography, many individual poems are rich with surface tensions that only add to the emotional complexity of the work. Poems such as ‘marmalade,’ ‘emotional pink bikini’ (a marvelous title), and ‘thin blue strap’ are loaded with powerful juxtapositions and narrative shifts:

or thirteen versions of — solitaire ——— a friendly german
shepherd — a Lassie dog — a deaf setter — a lap dog ———
labrador — Hiroshima ——— a continuous slap

(from ‘thin blue strap’)

In scarcely three lines the poem reflects upon a lonely card game; those most loyal creatures, dogs; and finally, one of humanity’s darkest, most horrific moments, the dropping of the atom bomb. The tone is at once isolated, playful, and downright despairing. The fragments move amid echoes, of each other, previous words, associations, sounds, while managing what seems like weeks’ worth of silence between them.  

The second, shorter sequence of the collection, simply called ‘thirteen,’ trades numerical places with the previous ‘thirty-one,’ and acts as a kind of inverse. While ‘thirty-one poems’ is stabilized by references to place and formal consistency, ‘thirteen’’s titles are far less directive, the poems looser. The arrangement of the nonsequential numbers — 33 through 45 — could be placeholders for age, days in the year, reflections on the number itself, or merely a formal device to note the quantity of poems, a numerology shifted to begin in the middle. Despite the ambiguity in the numbering, many of the titles’ fragments act as first lines to the poems, such as in the ‘adrift/ 41 (the opulent fall’: ‘as it is vaguely predestined.’ Or ‘adrift/ 40 (heaven is no wishes’: divided into time / and time again.’

The kind of geography that figures into ‘thirteen’ is a ‘viscous geographics/ cataract’ (‘open-ended refrain (38)’), ‘blind-mapping the woods’ (‘42/and do they circadian’). The place of these poems is tenuous and diffuse, and although largely devoid of a recognizable speaker, they are intensely imbued with presence and reflection, albeit deeply atmospheric. The migration in this sequence is an internal one, introspective and ‘all-so mnemonic’ (‘45/a lark, a wish-refrain (II)’).    

Taken as a whole, the oscillations in emotional texture and geographic locale within the collection mirror Grinnell’s own migration across the United States. Her exploration of memory, place, and time is stark, resonant. As Michael Palmer once wrote, the ‘parts are greater than the whole,’ and although I think this might be true, I think its inverse equally so in music or forgetting. This is a poetry that is generous and generative and — as if we were already there with her — Grinnell is free to reference fractions of what might be an otherwise private conversation, careful to remind us: ‘nor memory / benign.’

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