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Joel Bettridge reviews

by John Tipton
Flood Editions, 2004, US$13.00

This review is 2,250 words
or about 6 printed pages long

Is language reliable?

The first poem of Surfaces, “flat,” begins, “here the horizon is the geography here / Oklahoma moves him in ways he forgets” (1). As the main figure of the poem, a man named “Square,” drives west to Oklahoma City listening to a ballgame on the radio he “ruminates that / stacking things is a form of prayer” (1). The poem then starts to move into Square’s mental landscape:

A. Square takes an approach called liminalism
treating each English word as a threshold

chalks the flat tree of a sentence
onto a colorless blackboard in his brain

the surface is bright — no question but
who will it bridge the gap without?

afraid to imagine a town where tornadoes
this he’s paralyzed at the thought of

the truth is somewhere further to the west
Los Angeles maybe — he’s never been there (2)

Although the language of geometry runs throughout Tipton’s book, Surfaces’s fascination with edges does not aim, I think, to explain how things like trees and sentences, or a road trip and a baseball game, fit together. Rather Surfaces is engaged in a kind of testing. The poems of this collection seem invested in the question as to whether a “surface” indicates that there is something we might call a below — something that exist beyond our experience, understanding or ability to articulate — or if the surfaces of our words and world is all there is. And this sincere examination is what is appealing about Surfaces, a remarkably thoughtful first book.

Most books, unsurprisingly and perhaps necessarily, already have their aesthetics settled, which is to say, their authors have already made their minds up about how language works, and what makes a poem meaningful. I do not mean here to refer only to the history of the various and ongoing poetry wars, or in particular to the argument over referentiality and the proper role in poetry of the material elements of language. I mean to point to a more difficult problem to address, one that does not fall easily along party lines: is language reliable? If a writer believes that words always fall short of their goal, that a poem can never fully get at the full meaning of an idea or an experience, then the surface of our words are their own tragic limit, and readers and authors must find ways of dealing with their words’ failure to comprehend the world fully. If a writer believes that words are all we have, that there is no depth, no knowledge or experience outside language, then readers and authors must use poems to interrogate their lives and their situation of being in the world. The slips and breaks of meaning, from this perspective, do not evidence a word’s or a poem’s inadequacy, but are the means of coming to terms with how our words and poems actually compose our circumstances. It is the possibilities that exist between these ways of thinking about language that Surfaces seems to be testing.

Much of the language of “flat” is a vocabulary of limits — the “horizon” and the “threshold” — both of which imply that there is something just out of sight, and so what is limited is one’s vision. The attempt to get beyond the confines of one’s experience in the “stacking” that “is a form of prayer” suggests too the desire for an experience that transcends those restricted circumstances, the poem’s “geography” (1). That these constraints are tied at least in part to language becomes clear later when the landscape, a plain (suggesting both a prairie and a sheet of paper) “absorbs the light” of the clouds “like ink” (2). This merger of writing with the landscape becomes more vivid when Square, having just imagined himself traveling on a raft, “dips his hand” to trouble “the illegible lines / of a newspaper bleeding onto the pavement / / the page blotted & stained with rain” (2). Several lines later when we read the long quote I cited above — Square’s taking “an approach called liminalism / treating each English word as a threshold” — it is clear that the poem brings forward the idea that words can take us only so far towards understanding. But here the poem’s longing for transcendence gets complicated. Troubling the illegible lines of the newspaper reveals “the riddle of the true reader” (2). Importantly, the “troubled” lines are already “illegible” (2). In its sense that there is a reading that happens after accepting that words can be “blotted & stained,” “flat” seems to be arguing for the possibility that understanding begins, rather than ends, with the trouble of reading words that are always unfixed. In doing so the poem ask if there really is a beyond to get to. If reading occurs after words become “blotted” then words susceptibility to blotting is not a limit but a condition. And without an border there is no other place.

The “here” of the first line suggests as much: “here the horizon is the geography here” (1). Anchoring the line on both sides “here” stresses the overwhelming immediacy of the landscape in the poem and calls to mind the sense that on the prairie where one’s line of sight is not blocked there does not seem to be anything in the world but prairie — you get the sense that the prairie goes on forever. Many of Surfaces’s linguistic breaks then do not get in the way of seeing what’s going on, but help make what is being articulated possible. Take, for example, the stanza, “afraid to imagine a town where tornadoes / this he’s paralyzed at the thought of” (2). You don’t need an explanation of what the tornadoes might do to see what Square is afraid of. The gap after “tornados” and the absent noun in the second line instead makes the fear recognizable by making it intense enough to be unspeakable. In this way the fear that Square experiences is precisely understood.

The challenge that these lines present to the idea that words fall short of experience, however, is itself tested four lines later. In the midst of such articulate gaps the “melody” of a Sonny Rollins song on Square’s car radio “frays into jammed tattered phrases / like a letter from an ancient author / / one from Tully to his brother Quintus / full of opaque idioms & inside jokes” (3). Here “flat” does not appear hopeful that we can read one another’s words. Although the possibility remains that Rollins’s saxophone communicates like the absence of the previous line (the frayed music expressing a peculiar emotional violence) there remains a clear sense that we can’t understand exactly what that emotion means. We don’t get the jokes and we don’t understand the idioms because while we can read the words, they won’t mean that much to us — we don’t share the experiences that would make the words comprehensible. Moreover, it is not words, but music that is the means of understanding in the first place; what there is to be understood is conveyed by emotional, physical reference and association.

In the midst of this testing of language’s character Surfaces intriguingly makes a deliberate move away from solving its own linguistic dilemma by refusing to align its formal elements with any singular view of the matter. For example, the vast majority of the poems in Surfaces appear to use word-counts to determine line length. “[F]lat” uses seven word lines, as do the later poems “syntax at Moab,” “patterns,” and “taxicab logic”; poems like “composition in 90 words” and “pictures of snow” use three word lines, and a poem like “barriers” has lines with varying word counts, but each stanza has three lines, and the first and third stanza have the same words per line. Because the poems are themselves exploring the mechanics of language’s reliability it is not altogether clear whether the mathematical division of lines emphasizes the malleable quality of language, and perhaps even the arbitrariness of how words come to mean anything at all, or demonstrates a trust in language’s superficial potential to arrange itself in meaningful ways. The real possibility that these options are not in conflict, and might even depend on each other, suddenly comes into view.

As Surfaces moves between faith in and skepticism toward language its interest in the edges of meaning becomes an acknowledgment that we are always in pursuit of our words. Square, and we along with him, constantly comes up against an absence that feels palpable in stanzas like “the truth is somewhere further to the west / Los Angeles maybe — he’s never been there” and “jet crickets wrinkled the weatherless August twilight / curtaining the unseen border of the night”; the pressure of this lacuna suggests that Surfaces is more invested in how we find ourselves in language than it is in answering a philosophical argument. The book’s testing of words, its desire to come to terms with language, is in the end not an attempt to map language, but the search for a method — a means to find a way of living in it. Putting off a desire for transcendence, the longing that pervades Surfaces (and rises from the tangible absence which centers it) is an interest in how the people and things in our lives make us ache and hesitate in ways we don’t fully understand.

In a poem that has the Russian mathematician Andrei Markov writing the American mathematician Claude Shannon, Surfaces’s investment in the unsure present reveals itself as an attention to how words make our strange, conflicted, and beautiful experiences possible; and more importantly, how in doing so (in making us aware that our experiences are strange, conflicted and beautiful) our words also make us feel in danger of not fully inhabiting those experiences. As Markov writes to Shannon “you counted the words but you failed / to go & speak with that Eskimo / bent over a hole in the ice / waiting for anything to rise & breathe” (34). It is this awareness of people living at the edges of their own experiences that Surfaces lays bare. The spiritual, intellectual, and emotional complexities of such a project finally overtake the book’s own linguistic puzzlement that I began with; or better yet, Surfaces’s testing of language can in retrospect be seen as always in the service of working through the terms of living, to borrow Charles Bernstein’s formulation, “near” the world. In turning to what is mystical and compelling about where we already live, and what we are saying, Surfaces clearly makes a risky move. And yet, I think Surfaces succeeds because it does a wonderful job of examining the ways words are always harder than we think they are, but not so hard as to keep them from being useful.

I don’t want to end, however, before giving a somewhat better description of Surfaces’s range. Like “flat” all the poems in Surfaces inhabit the same tenuous emotional, spiritual and intellectual landscape, but they do so in a wide variety of forms, from a kind of minimalist Sestina, to a film script, to longer, Zukofsky influenced poems with three word lines. The poem that stands out the most as it captures the lyrical urgency of the book is “52 surfaces,” the poem that gives the collection its title. Composed of fifty-two numbered, single lines, the poem moves between lines like “1/ how often have we spoken of branches in winter” and “26/ oaks & oxen & crows” (26, 29). What “52 surfaces” does extraordinarily well is insist upon a musical, sparse line not divided from thinking; each line stands by itself as a tight phonic unit and connects with the lines around it. There are lines that stretch out “8/ this is the line about all lines that aren’t about themselves” and lines that collapse in on themselves like “52/ & so it snows” (27, 31). And like these lines, most of the “surfaces” of the poem fluctuate between playful self-referentiality, stark natural imagery, and a bizarre assortment of cultural references; you get “14/ Jasper Johns told me in a dream to cut off his hands” next to “15/ this is the beginning” next to “16/ black against snow” (27). In juxtaposing these lines “52 surfaces,” like the book itself, works to make connections between disparate objects and literary modes.

Like much innovative writing, readers have a good deal to do with which of these connections are made and how they are executed, but what is in important about Surfaces is the degree to which it pushes back against readers. Each poem is open enough, has enough compelling gaps for readers to work with, but at the same time the poems keep readers’ connections on uncertain ground — each poem, with its variety of oral textures, images and arguments, presents possible challenges to the personal interpretation of any single reader. While I like the philosophical and lyrical compulsions of Surfaces, and, somewhat differently, the philosophical and lyrical concerns it enables me to address, I find that my understanding of what the book is about and my interpretations of it are constantly complicated and undercut. In the end, this troubled reading is what I want most from poems — something that I want to call beauty, but beauty that keeps me thinking and shifting.

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