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Shivaji Sengupta reviews

After Taxes
by Thomas Fink

103 pp. Marsh Hawk Press (, November 2004. US$15.00 ISBN: 097591975X/ paper

This review is 1,700 words
or about 5 printed pages long

Absence, Presence, and Meaning:

Thomas Fink’s ‘After Taxes’

She thinks it’s witty to be rude,
And placing raillery with railing,
Will tell aloud your loudest failing.
                    — Jonathan Swift

Post sexualis, gravitas. After orgasm, seriousness. After taxes, sobriety turns illusion to reality; plenitude to subtle emptiness. In poetry, as in modern life, absence is presence, a silence reminding us that something is violently lacking, deferring endlessly the promise of fulfillment.

In Thomas Fink’s After Taxes, what is absent is made present. His poetry is about illusion, temporal and material; words unfolding in the present even though by the time you’ve read the next word, it has already passed! They construct images of sight, sound — and of the mind — through a complex interplay of words and what they signify, the slippage between the present and past creating différance, a gap between a word and its meaning in which Fink rushes in, seemingly, conjuring up chaos.

Someone commented “Tom Fink makes sense.” I agree; but I would add that Tom Fink makes sense and reference. The meaning we make out of his poetry is the result of a complex process of reading him in the house of distorted word-mirrors, where the signifiers miss the signified — on purpose — creating in us an intoxication of meaning, perhaps even an anarchy of meaning, were it not for: reference.

In Thomas Fink’s After Taxes, despite this “tattoo riot” of signifiers and signified endlessly exchanging places, the stability of the message comes from the knowledge of the world — the “truth” as Frege, the early twentieth century philosopher would have said — that Fink shares with his readers, frames of references that most people, if not everyone, would agree with. One might say, Fink may play games with words, but he doesn’t fool around with the truth. They are fixed. They are his referents.

What are the significant referents in After Taxes? In my opinion, it is important to know them because without them the word-play may seem too frivolous, even chaotic. These referents give the poems their philosophical foundation, perhaps even political anchoring. They are not negotiable. About them, the poet is not polemical. They form the vertical meaning of the poems, as it were, running through them paradigmatically, acting as the organizational principles of the poems.

Yet, to identify them in this review might ruin the fun of reading the poems. Each reader, by the end of the reading, must decipher what these are from the plethora of syntagmatic — horizontally laid out — choices that Fink puts before us, the verisimilitude of plentiful.

Let’s take the very first poem, “Do Dayglo Nights Defile?”

that gaggle of hinterlands, your willow
campus? Prude studs prone to
prune accord
for a priapic clambake.
Skewers are hot, eh?

When I first read the poem, I immediately fell into misprision by reading “do daylight nights defile?” instead of “dayglo.” Seconds later, realizing my error, I was both disappointed and impressed by Thomas Fink’s ability to play with signifiers, and avert the signifieds, a bit like a boxer swaying away from jabs. I say “avert” because as a poet, Fink starts the questions with rapid succession of signifiers, but, like jesting Pilate (via Francis Bacon), would not wait for the answer: he subverts them with another set of signifiers that do not logically follow, catching the reader on the wrong foot: “Prude studs (of whom I write later) prune accord.” So many signifieds for that word, “prune” are possible — all the way from a shriveled fruit to unpleasantness, to shorn leaves — or hair. Which one fits? And what about priapetic? Who has the perpetual erection? (general erection, as John Lennon used to say)

We, or the studs?

Then again:

rat tattoos riot in buff

Note that it’s not the rats who run riots, but tattoos, “in the buff.” Assuming (at our own peril) for a moment that tattoos in the buff signify muscular, naked studs (of the opening stanza); and “colon.” How does that fit? Is it a body part, reminder of an excremental vision — a la Swift — or a systemic sign indicating the expectation of something, an explanation that doesn’t materialize? We are once again caught in the maze of Thomas Fink’s traps.

Homo significans! Don’t interpret! Susan Sontag is dead!

Before anything can be signified, there is an assumption of presence. In the First World, spanning intermittently from Australia to the United States, there is an abundance of presence in the form of plenitude. The “dayglo” poem, for instance, fortifies this impression: gaggle of hinterlands, prude studs (an oxymoron to define morons?); rat tattoos running riot; yet the shadow around the glow reminds us of the terrible hoax of the present, foreshadowing the haunting penumbra of absence:

carnival as guest
of a cancelled voice... conjugate
every speck

of gust that may speak
of all but conjugal exchange...

I would prowl a specular curve
in the spectator
chasm’s bias
or hypothesis. In
the crystal bed of
shadow bodies.

It seems to me that Fink is fascinated by the conceptual connection between ontological presence and the primal truth, so that over and over and over again, he gives you a set of signifiers, to suggest something — a meaning, a possibility, even a promise — and immediately scuttles it, with other words that follow logically, but not according to what we expected:

chow down, crow
in monkey jewels
bang stucco gold

palooka crowns. Who
siezes the bride’s
amen, far within
pew stooge’s charred


Not entirely subscribing to the traditional western theologies, Thomas Fink creates complex and a complicated interplays of the traditional notions of god, man, and meaning in language, each hoodwinking the next by a logical poetic assonance: meanings slide off, refract away from the obvious signifier, and show us the gap between the poem’s potential meaning, and the meaning.

“Tell the truth, but tell it slant,” as Emily Dickinson would have said.

The manifestation of any presence depends upon the concealment of some absence. Thomas Fink seems to have an intuitive understanding of this. His poems can be seen to be almost as much of a raillery, like Swift’s scatological poems, except that Swift shouts out human flaws; Fink whispers it. You aren’t sure of what you’ve read, once you get to the end of the horizontal line in the process of creating a vertical meaning.

Vertical meanings run through the text — vertically — acting as a sort of organizational principle for the poem. From my perspective, Thomas Fink is a poet of vertical meaning, giving his reader through mysterious codification of the Sign, paradigmatic messages. Take his two poems on the American economy, for instance, or perhaps, more poignantly, on the not-so ecological and humanistic aspects of American economy:

we tour the caviar
until it’s hacked.
Squamous greenhouse
breathing debt.

The words “caviar,” implying fish, and “hacked,” join “squamous,” to give a sense of a forced standard of living where wealth is acquired through “greenhouse breathing debt.” This is a vertical message, given cynically, but jovially, “to our bank,” where our bank balances “gape,” and Socratic hats (but not heads) sit invisible.

An astute reader might say that Thomas Fink’s love affair with the scrambling signifiers with signified may be too much, a little pointless. Since the signifier and its assigned denotation is somewhat arbitrary in the first place, any further scrambling of the assignation (!) may run the risk of anarchy in meaning-making. If that were so, it would be tempting to dismiss these poems as mere word-play, verging toward nonsense.

But that’s not the case.

What transforms the poems in this volume — and transcends them — is a parallel process of meaning-making, one that may, in fact, be a lot more logical than semio-logical.

It is possible that one may not be able to account for the meaningfulness or logical behavior of certain sentences simply on the basis of the denotations (names and descriptions) in the sentence. Instead of looking at language purely as “parle” — a complex subterfuge of the sign system that writers engage in for creativity and style — it may be possible to look at language — in this case, into the poetry of Thomas Fink — that has both a sense and a refrent, i.e., that is, at least two semantic relations explaining the significance or meaning. Fink’s subject position, like other writers’ interested in human polity and social phenomena, represents society. After Taxes speaks to us — only differently.

Looking closely at his poems, one may find that lurking behind Fink’s seemingly arbitrary signification, are a set of word-combinations that act as cognitive signifiers, i.e., the bond between what they are, and signify, is established between something other than arbitrary signifiers. For instance, the sentence, “Skewers are hot, eh?” has behind it the cognitively significant assumption that skewers (in the fire) will be hot, whatever its symbolic signification. In other words, I am suggesting that for a writer to play around with signifier/ signified, there must be a knowledge of the truth that is undeniable. In fact, the poet depends on the irreducibility of such cognitively significant meanings in order for him to be creative. In this poet’s case, all of his works — not just After Taxes — depend on this kind of stability, what Gottlob Frege used to call, the stability of sense and referent. Sense, according to Frege, is the meaning that is produced in and of the words themselves, through the complex interplay of signifiers. But the referent is something fixed, a knowledge about the world that the words refer to that is not in question. I conclude with the following verse to prove my point:

Yinglish Strophes III

Yesterday was sitting near me

an old man.
Ours is only praying and praying,
and he should forgive us,

and we go out and sin again.
I haven’t got lately,
but can’t be bothered now
a nice reception.
Open for me all the two doors.

They make a child for a god.
We at least believe on a ghost.
There’s nowhere such a sunset.
Boats, not much.
Very seldom there is a boat.
He didn’t come yet.
I was waiting a long time.
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