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Jacket 21 — February 2003   |   # 21  Contents   |   Homepage   |  Catalog   |

Noah E. Gordon reviews

A Test of Solitude, by Emmanuel Hocquard

trans. Rosmarie Waldrop Providence: Burning Deck 2000, USD$10, paperback

Hourglass Transcripts, by Susan Gevirtz

Burning Deck 2001, USD$10, 70 pages

These reviews first appeared in Chase Park.
This piece is 1,300 words or about three printed pages long.

A Test of Solitude, by Emmanuel Hocquard

In his Remarks on Colour, Wittgenstein writes, ‘Sentences are often used on the borderline between logic and the empirical, so that their meaning changes back and forth and they count now as expressions of norms, now as expressions of experience.’ It is precisely this tenuous border — that of language or logic’s dialectical relationship with experience or the re-creation of it — upon which Hocquard’s test is played, further emphasizing Wittgenstein’s notions of the language-game.

The book’s title, A Test of Solitude, immediately evokes Zukofsky’s, A Test of Poetry, the anthology which attempted to clarify Zukofsky’s own poetic lexicon through the juxtaposition of poetry and terms for consideration ( inevitability, intellection, grace, duration, etc.). Also present is the echo of Rilke’s conviction of solitude as the foundation for all works of art, although the playfulness with which Hocquard’s text unfolds seems, at times, to be in opposition to Rilke’s somewhat didactic Letters to a Young Poet; regardless, Hocquard has created a new thing — which is perhaps the highest praise one can give — by employing tautologies (‘Viviane is Viviane’), a self-referential intimacy and the underpinnings of philosophical inquiry to construct two longish sonnet sequences. Here is the second half of an early sonnet:

This book — I undertake to write it for you — will be the simplest possible.  Take it for what it means to be: a real picture book drawn directly from circumstance. And if there are some echoes of philosophy mixed in with the discreet sentiments of the writer it is because, for the author of these pages, philosophy can also be done in pictures.

Playing at once with Spicer’s dictum, ‘I would like to make poems out of real objects,’ and Stein’s (whom Hocquard evokes by name along with a cavalcade of others: Oppen, Dickens, Reznikoff, etc.) grammatical distaste for nouns, Hocquard writes, ‘Objects are grammatical reference points./ Are the kind of object grammar needs in order/ to fabricate perspectives. Gardens in the French/ style.’

The book works toward a coalescence of the empirical (‘October. Return of the robins. What’s in front of/ my eyes.’), the ‘Viviane’ tautological narrative — and its subsequent commentary (‘Tautology fills the entire space of language. If/ you look at any sentence as a tautology the/ sentence disappears.’) — and the amusing leaps each sonnet makes, from a meditation on Plato’s Cave to a recipe for clams, creating the sense of solitude via a journal-like approach, albeit one of a logician at play.

In a talk given in 1987 at the University of California, San Diego, and later translated and published as The Library at Trieste, Hocquard states, ‘I’ve changed my mind over the years about many things, but remain convinced that poetry is, above all, concerned with the logical organization of thoughts.’ It is through such organization then that the idea of solitude unfolds onto the field of each poem, which are, interestingly, quite social; one is reminded at times of Berrigan’s sonnets, as various characters weave their way in and out of the sequences.

Ultimately, Hocquard’s test is one of a poetics of precision, of logical conclusion, and yet one which precludes complete comprehension; one could, of course, make the same argument for the philosophy of Wittgenstein.

Hourglass Transcripts, by Susan Gevirtz

Through its half-vocalizations, interruptions and fragmentary multi-taskings, Susan Gevirtz’s Hourglass Transcripts embodies the inability — and thus the failure — of language’s attempt to ground or (re)create experience without rupturing all claims to complete authenticity. Such a project engenders a locus ‘half way between written tides and diatribes,’ with its insistence on ‘stripmining the superfluous,’ while, ‘cradling protecting walking around a thing/ that had happened.’

Divided into four longish sequences, which all straddle elision and lacunae even within their titles, ‘Resuscitations,’ ‘Hollowed Out Book,’ ‘Syllabary Dispossession,’ and ‘The Hourglass Transcripts,’ the book is centered around absence as an almost primal state. Gevirtz’s disregard for normative syntax allows for the dynamic juxtaposition of words and phrasal units to generate a multiplicity of meanings as they collide like atoms, exchanging phonemes rather than electrons:

phone perforations "so our errors" err
You might want to hum this "heir" the
appearance of resemblance the impression
"hair" style of pretence practiced by all
"all" all our heirs the inside-out of air

At times Gevirtz’s self-reflectivity hinders her project’s success, (‘reversible sentences the phantom of a concept and/ the like/ this writing/ like writing then’) as one feels lead through the book’s various chambers rather than allowed to explore on one’s own. The occasional combination of her direct engagement with language and that of the solid, sustained image offers an interesting respite during such exploration (‘In the second insistance of and at arrive one carrying the other/ on a stretcher the way a live ant carries a dead ant’s body’).

Surprisingly, there are also moments of pure lyric beauty imbedded within the text; these function, again, as a grounding point of sorts, tempering the book’s proclivity toward truncated and dichotomized utterances (‘How love happens coaxed from/ the dark where sleep is an animal/ wakeful and directionless’).

Reading Hourglass Transcripts feels as though one is entering into the process of creating meaning; while not a particularly groundbreaking approach in our current post-L=A=N=G=U=A=G=E landscape, Gevirtz’s poetic ticks — purposeful misspellings, lines which are split in their center and reconfigured slightly askew — do add to and deepen one’s apperception of her work, as nothing is allowed to be taken for granted, not even letters. However, some of the more apparent engagement with issues like feminism and identity politics that ran through her earlier work is obfuscated here, buried under all of the linguist mutations and breakdowns.

Pointing to the way in which language itself is responsible for the creation of limitations through definition, how words both explore and exploit boundaries, Gevirtz, quite hauntingly, asks, ‘but on what stage and while turning/ we turn into what cargo?’

Hourglass Transcripts refuses to ground itself, to answer any of the multiple questions it raises. It is in this refusal that one is made aware of how questioning engenders the deconstruction of the authoritative, how absences themselves are loaded with meaning, as Gevirtz paradoxically declares, ‘The silence was full of tone.’

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