Thomas Fink reviews
The Frequencies: a poemby Noah Eli Gordon
Tougher Disguises Press, 2003. 88 pages,
This piece is 1,220 words or about three printed pages long.
Noah Eli Gordon’s The Frequencies is a book-length poem consisting of single-paragraph prose sections (and two including verse lines). Each section carries the name of a station’s number (its frequency) on the radio dial, and the jumping around from number to number in no particular pattern indicates each station’s inevitable loss in its ‘battle against station surfing’ (36). Gordon’s poem explores how the cultural format of radio structures and is structured by notions of community and, of course, communication.
In the opening section, ‘106.3,’ we encounter the unhappy possibility that the radio may be slated for obsolescence: ‘The radio came to in a dead city. There was alloy on its arms. Its mechanical parts were no longer its moving parts & a winged ant was crawling on the antenna. Less & less people are humming Howlin’ Wolf like less & less people are learning to fix the typewriter’ (7). Appreciation of master blues practitioner Howlin’ Wolf should not be going the way of the typewriter. This reference parallels the sense that the ‘city’ is ‘dead’ (and later, ‘lead’ or ‘leaden’) because its denizens are soullessly abandoning radio’s pleasures in the exclusive pursuit of new communication technologies, themselves potentially deadening.
However, Gordon sees no reason to give up on radio; the fact that it simultaneously allows for both community and privacy may maintain its allure, even in the epoch of chat rooms and AOL Instant Messaging. This is suggested by a parody of a jealous love-dialogue in ‘89.7’: ‘You found a lipstick stain inside my radio, said “I knew someone else was listening.” “That’s the thing about it,” I told you, “radio is a collective agreement to a community built & maintained in private”’ (56). As in poetry, intimacy of communication is framed by anonymity, as well as the inability of one listener to calculate how many others are sharing this experience.
There is titillation, pathos, and perhaps edification when one is the ‘private’ recipient of so much anonymous or semi-anonymous communication. To return to the book’s first section, directly after the Howlin’ Wolf/ typewriter sentence, ‘I got an anonymous postcard yesterday — a picture of tumbleweeds, no return address. It might be adding amnesia to my watering can, but the saddest thing in the world is someone’s to-do list stuffed in the pocket of my new thrift store coat’ (7).
For the radio-station-surfer or the contemporary poet informed by the collage strategies of the New York School, Language Poetry, and other recent experimental groups, not only is the ‘new’ generated or ‘grown’ from ‘old’ discarded materials, but from ignorance of sources and, possibly, willed amnesia. If the ‘to-do-list’ sadly loses its original performative potential, it is at least recontextualized as a cultural artifact of potential interest, in juxtaposition with others.
In fact, Gordon ensures that almost every section of The Frequencies defies the centering impulse of a ‘straight’ meditation on radio by making it act like a collage — and, often, successive sentences do not directly ‘speak’ to one another. Referring to ‘the collage radio in pieces on a pedestal in Musée Picasso’ (56), the poet reminds us that the concept of listening to the radio while switching stations is comparable to the process of collage-making. This can provide a welcome distancing from the tedium or frustration of one’s own daily living, and from an unwholesome egocentricity: ‘The tiny red spiders were spilling from the speakers & you said, “It’s better to listen to the conversation of strangers than to engage in anything as hollow as a list of the day’s little disappointments”‘ (73).
For Gordon, market factors both enable and endanger possibilities of radio as a vehicle for community. “The station manager” in ‘94.5’ explains that a DJ (the speaker) ‘was fired because [he] failed to cultivate what he called The Friendship Factor’ and ‘“left too much space,”‘ which perilously stimulated listeners’ dread ‘of silence’ (74). ‘The DJ’ in past eras as ‘unofficial arbiter of good taste’ (30) in pop music was probably always a convenient fiction for the problem that the producer in “87.7” articulates:
‘I’m hitting a brick wall here,’ the producer said, handing me the playlist. ‘On the one hand, we’ve got to make it new,’ he went on, ‘on the other, we don’t want to alienate our audience — they expect certain things from radio, you know’ . . . . ‘A little autonomy might be nice,’ I said, forcing a half smile. ‘Look, this isn’t an art gallery,’ he answered. ‘It doesn’t matter what you like; there’s big money driving the music.’ (78)
Ironically, as the inflated 1980s art scene and its diminished 1990s counterpart both manifested, metropolitan art galleries have a great deal to do with ‘big money’ that constrains the autonomy of dealers and perhaps critics. ‘The producer’ has little room for Ezra Pound’s modernist dictum in his scheme of things. The ‘brick wall’ that he hits involves his own obsessive commercialism. Can he risk acting on the idea that audience-expectation may include diversity and the willingness to expand taste? He cannot admit the benefits of giving his DJ some autonomy, which must, therefore, be realized only in another medium: “radio-poetry.”
This freedom of selection is most evident in the delightfully sudden clang of elusive, at times insanely surreal trope-clusters that punctuate many sections of The Frequencies: ‘The producer was rolling up his sleeves, riddled with the kind of honey from the heart of a helicopter’ (23). If the ‘helicopter’ is a trope for an elevated mood, then its ‘honey,’ not fuel, is the sweet, liquid impact of radio music that the producer wants to figure out how to find and play.
Physical impossibilities enliven phrases like ‘I’m whittling a needle from your tin shack’ (35), and at times, a punny piling of imagery resembles the uncanny signifying of a Harryette Mullen, Clark Coolidge, or David Shapiro: ‘To walk an unwound radio in the dark infested with harm’s length, you raised your dress, skirting the question of whether a hike implies an uphill movement’ (14). There are also startling reversals of expectations about spatial relations in already provocative imagery: ‘You told me that in the center of every bird there is a tiny radio’ (34).
Texts labeled prose-poetry implicitly invite the reader to determine poetic features that separate this hybrid genre from discursive prose and prose-fiction. Unlike Lyn Hejinian and Ron Silliman in some of their major prose texts, Gordon does not regularize the number of sentences in each paragraph, but the modulation of sentence-lengths is especially salient to an appreciation of the poetry in the prose. For example, ‘95.7’ begins with a remarkably dense, abstract 57-word sentence, followed by a very simple and personal-sounding nine-word sentence, and then an even more syntactically straining sentence of 76 words, and ends with an extremely accessible eight-word sentence (13).
‘88.9,’ the longest paragraph in the book at a page and a half, is aesthetically overwhelming (and much less satisfying than ‘95.7’) because it consists of a single sentence with dozens of commas — caesura overload (79-80). Even if most paragraphs are less extreme in their approach than ‘95.7’ and ‘88.9’, usually, the juxtaposition of short, medium, and long sentences evinces a musical variety in keeping with Gordon’s multi-faceted approach to radio’s intriguing ‘fiction[s] and friction[s]’ (8).