I’ve built nothing; you are the architect.
You are near me like the sound of an archaic car.
I know that I love the verb not to know.
Do you love it? The distance is like a Chinese garden.
I pluck pomegranates out of the Halloween stores.
Then I keep looking at this phrase like summer hills.
The mountain represents nothing, the mountain air
Represents nothing, but two birds seem bad enough.
In these things there is an immense exile like a surface:
And when we try to stop expressing it, words are successful. (To an Idea 76)
In an essay entitled ‘Migratory Meaning,’which stresses that readers are trained and thus seek to bring all the parts of a literary text into relation, and to do so as ‘parsimoniously’ (115) as possible, Ron Silliman lists aesthetic devices in a poem by Joseph Ceravolo that strenuously resist this effort and, thus, in Armantrout’s terms, cause readers to be conscious of ‘underlying’ linguistic ‘structures’: ‘key terms which resist specificity’; ‘evidence that the title does not “name” the poem as a whole, but functions instead as a caption’; ‘a seeming rejection of anaphoric connection between sentences’ (The New Sentence 119).
Certainly, Shapiro’s title, ‘November Twenty Seventh,’ provides no awareness of the poem’s totality. The only seasonal reference is to Halloween, and, if this is supposed to be a diary entry, it grants no access to the ‘inner life’ of a diarist. As a ‘caption,’ the poem could refer to the day it was written, and the date may have some private resonance to the poet, or it could ‘represent nothing.’ As in much of John Ashbery’s work, identification of speaker and addressee and their placement in a dramatic context in Shapiro’s poem above are unavailable. The indeterminacy of the pronouns ‘infects’ and is further ‘infected’ by other undefined ‘key terms.’ What is it that ‘the architect’ has ‘built,’ literally or metaphorically, and why is the speaker unable to ‘build’ anything? Is the ‘mountain’ an architectural or linguistic structure or natural ‘thing’? And how and why is it, along with the surrounding ‘air’ (atmosphere or song?) and ‘birds’ (real birds or odd people?), not a source of representation? How can ‘exile’ inhere in the solid presence of ‘a mountain,’ unless that mountain is but a word?
On the one hand, at least in the first six of the poem’s ten lines, ‘rejection of anaphoric connection between sentences’ is apparent in the strange shifts from image to image. For example, how does the ‘Chinese garden’ relate to the ‘Halloween stores,’ as if any store is confined to the sale of items for one holiday (other than Christmas)? And yet, there is a tenuous ‘narrative’ push/ pull involving a ‘you’ and an ‘I,’ and one may impose a scenic quasi-continuity in the movement from ‘hills,’ to ‘mountain air,’ to ‘birds,’ and finally to the ‘we’ (you and I?) asked to refrain from ‘expression’ to allow language to ‘succeed’ when its users do not presume to make it represent more than it can.
The concluding sentence does seem to indicate that the poem can be read as a performance of Armantrout’s ‘ambi-centric’ gesture: poetry attending to its own materials and representative possibilities and, in some mediated way, to the ‘world’ of unstable selves, ‘mountains,’ and ‘birds.’ Perhaps the ‘I’ is the poet who does not ‘construct’ language (the ‘you’), since the ‘architecture’ of linguistic possibilities precedes him/ her. In writing a poem, the poet expresses ‘love’ for (and perhaps frustration about) his own inability to know and experiences the intense pleasure and/ or pain and, finally, acceptance of an ‘exile’ of phenomenological imagery from symbolism and meditative coherence, the severance of ‘surface’ (or what Shapiro in the Ashbery book calls ‘palpability’) from ‘depth.’ Given all of the disjunction and sounding of ‘nothing’ in ‘November Twenty Seventh,’ such a reading can be no more than plausible, if unverifiable speculation.
In concert with the skepticism about narration and transparent ‘referentiality,’ both Shapiro and many of the Language poets are deeply committed to an expansion of poetic possibilities and a resistance to limitation of stylistic avenues. In ‘An Interview with Hannah Mockel-Rieke,’ Charles Bernstein observes ‘that the interconnection among the poetic styles attended to in L=A=N=G=U=A=G=E has to do with the rejection of certain traditionally accepted techniques for poem-making and an openness to alternative techniques — together with a distrust of the experimental as an end to itself,’ as well as the refusal to valorize ‘any new style or technique or device’ as ‘the gold pot at the end of the rainbow’; for Bernstein, ‘a commitment to the need for a multiplicity of stylistic approaches among a multiplicity of poets, and even for one poet’ (My Way 64) is central.
Admittedly, Shapiro’s forays into prose-poetry have been less sustained than those of many Language poets. However, sequences in his last three books juxtapose different strophic and stanzaic patterns, prose and verse, relatively coherent narrative elements, dream elements, and fragments of meditation. The elegiac opening of the sixteenth section of the sequence, ‘Voice’ (1994) entitled ‘A Note and a Poem by Joe Ceravolo in a Dream,’ provides a cogent lyric explanation, not only of Ceravolo’s approach, but of the drive of Shapiro’s own poetics to expand possibilities:
He was a poet of grammar
and a love poet and what
is more he showed the re-
lationship between grammar
and love. When he perturbed
syntax he seemed to in-
vert? reinvent? universe?
the possibilities of love
by making so many multiple
relations possible and/or
present or present tense.
He is a possibilist poet
entrances with its naïve
or Utopian anti-grammar. (After a Lost Original 70)
Rather than being ‘anti-grammar,’ Shapiro often pushes for ‘Utopian alternative grammar’ that abandons unitary utterance for multiplicity. The fragmentation within (or following) the second sentence in the passage above is a good example. Two infinitives are followed by a noun (‘universe’) that can either be interpreted as the object of the infinitives, banging against the most obvious object following the last question mark, or as a new verb coinage.
Shapiro’s question hinges on the subtle shift of the second to last letter in two verbs (‘r’ to ‘n’). According to the first reading, the poet asks whether Ceravolo desires through syntactical innovation to shuffle the ‘universe’s’ existing elements or to make new ones, and ‘the possibilities of love’ stand in an apposite, hence equivalent, relation to ‘universe.’ According to the second reading, Shapiro seeks to know whether his late friend and colleague attempts to ‘invert’ and/or ‘reinvent’ and/or bring a ‘universe’ into being out of the materials of love’s ‘possibilities.’ (The verb ‘universe’ is not merely a synonym for ‘universalize about’; it is something more actively generative.) There is no compulsion to choose between the two alternatives, but their co-presence tells us that multiplicity exists in the uncertainty of grammatical and syntactic relations, as well as Shapiro’s heterogeneous imagery and frequently surreal tropes. Of course, those who have scorned Language Poetry tend to confuse multiplicity of these kinds—the insistent cultivation of possibility that can be characterized as ‘possibilism’—with total randomness and utter unreadability.
The second example of ‘perturbed syntax’ in Shapiro’s passage involves the lack of punctuation separating the weird enjambment of ‘poet’ and ‘entrances,’ the unsure identification of ‘entrances’ as plural noun or third-person singular verb, and the jarring use of the pronomial adjective ‘its.’ An ordinary sentence might read: ‘He is a possibilist poet whose/ work entrances with its naïve/ or Utopian anti-grammar’ or ‘...poet who/ entrances with his naïve/....’ or ‘He is a possibilist poet./ He provides entrances with its [the poetry’s] naïve/....’ None of my versions have the compression, lyric charge, or range of what Shapiro wrote, and that distinction indicates that commentary can only chase after the poetry without catching it.
Could the Marxist contexts of Language Poetry significantly negate my attempt to sketch common ground between the ‘possibilist’ practices of Language writers and those of David Shapiro? Leaving this question to other readers and other critical occasions, I maintain that it is important for Shapiro’s work to be part of the general conversation about contemporary poetry that, in Silliman’s terms, advocates for ‘the tangibility of the word’ over ‘the illusion(s) of reality.’