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Eileen Tabios reviews

The Passion of Phineas Gage & Selected Poems
by Jesse Glass

173 pages, 3 extra pages, West House Books (40 Crescent Road., Sheffield 57 1HN, U.K. or 3158 Bentworth Drive, Burlington, Ontario, Canada L7M-1m2) & Ahadada Books (Meikai University, 8 Akemi, Urayasu-shi, Chiba-Ken, Japan 279-8550_, Paper. C$18.95 or US16.50 or GBP£9.50. 0973223383. Paper.

This review is 2,300 words
or about 5 printed pages long

As, much, as, I, perceive, the, Future,
Lo: the, Future, perceives, me:
A, Mutuality, of, Eyes.
    — Jose Garcia Villa

The color of
                   S, E, E?
    — Jesse Glass

I’ve long been interested in how poets approach punctuations beyond grammatical considerations. This interest first surfaced while I was researching Jose Garcia Villa’s poetry; later, I came to edit The Anchored Angel: Selected Writings by Jose Garcia Villa (Kaya, New York, 1999). Villa was a late modernist poet who was known partly for his ‘comma poems.’ In my Editor’s essay, I wrote:

One of Villa’s most controversial innovations was his ‘comma poems,’ in which he placed a comma after nearly every word — partly, he says, to effect a “time movement” whereby his poems would be read with a slight pause after each word. By using commas to regulate the reading of the poem, he tried to endow its words with ‘fuller tonal and sonal value.’ I personally find a difference between reading the same poem with and without adhering to Villa’s suggestions (though I do not privilege one mode of reading over the other). I have found that the pause after each comma facilitates a meditative mode in reading the poem that, in turn, enhances the intimacy between the reader and the text. In a fast-paced world, Villa’s commas can help create another door to that space where the reader may best be able to pay attention to what the poem is saying — a place where the reader releases life’s [more] mundane realities to commune as directly as possible with the poem (or any other work of art). Indeed, Villa’s comma technique evokes for me the intentions of the designers of the acropolis at Lindos, built during the third and fourth centuries B.C. In order for visitors to reach the acropolis, they must climb a hill through a series of entrances that were designed to be non-parallel, forcing them to turn left or right to get to the next entryway. By compelling visitors to walk on this meandering path, the architects intended them to concentrate on reaching the acropolis thus leaving their worldly concerns behind at the foot of the hill. Presumably, by the time they reached the top of the hill, they would be fully focused on the goal of the trip — praying at the Temple of Athena Lindia. Similarly, Villa wished the commas to facilitate the reader’s focus on reading — and responding to — each word within his poems.

As a result of Villa’s approach which he concocted not just to regulate (slow down) the reading pace but also to evoke dots in pointillist paintings, I came to explore other poets’ use of punctuations, from Alice Notley’s quotation marks to P. Inman’s periods to A.R. Ammons colons.

More recently, I’ve addressed punctuations by developing a series of poems revolving around what I imagined to be the secret lives of the semi-colon, colon, ellipsis, parenthesis and strike-through. I am fascinated by how these tiny marks can generate such significant changes in meanings, and these punctuation-exploration poems form my forthcoming poetry collection, The Secret Lives of Punctuations, Vol. I (xPress(ed), Espoo, 2006).

With my decade-long interest in punctuated poems, I was delighted to discover Jesse Glass’ new book, The Passion of Phineas Gage & Selected Poems. ‘The Passion of Phineas Gage’ deserves its titular position as it synthesizes many of the strategies sprinkled throughout the other 52 poems in Glass’ collection. The poem is also partly inspired by Villa’s comma poems, even as Glass adds his own contribution to how commas may dance their way poetically.

First, here is Glass’s introduction of Phineas Gage:

On September 13th, 1848, 25-year-old Phineas P. Gage was transformed in an instant from a responsible foreman for the Rutland and Burlington Railroad in New England to a profane, social outcast who could no longer abide life as husband and father. The medium of this remarkable change was an iron tamping bar 3 cm. thick and 109 cm. long that was sent rocketing through Gage’s brain in a bizarre accident with black powder. Gage that day was involved in blasting rock. First a hole was drilled in stone, then black powder was poured in the hole and a layer of fine sand poured above the black powder before the explosive was tamped into place with an iron bar. On the day in question, Gage, busied in conversation, did not check to see if his assistant had poured the sand above the charge and proceeded to tamp directly into the powder. The resulting explosion stunned, but did not kill him. Remarkably, Gage lived another 12 years after his transfiguration, but the accident seemed to have deprived him of all moral sense. He became a drifter, working as a temporary help on farms and in freak shows. He seems to have had a special affinity for horses and a mania for collecting. He worked as a coach driver in Chile — enjoying a brief return to normalcy — had a relapse and returned to his family in the U.S. When he died in 1860 he was buried with the bar that changed his life.

Glass is the first poet to address Gage’s life by writing a long poem of 23 sections with five exhibits. In the sections depicting Gage’s efforts to recover from the accident, including later in his life as he coped with the iron rod’s aftermath, the poems are written as comma poems. The strategy is successful for regulating the pace of the poem, thus helping to evoke the persona’s fumbling thoughts as he starts to recover from the accident, as in this excerpt:

Someone, called, my, name,
&, it, didn’t, blind, me,

I, can, yet, see,

bullet, hole,
in, cellar, door,
down, Klinamen, street,


In another excerpt, Gage seems confused. But he’s lapsing to something that I know is not unusual because I’ve experienced it and have also seen others do it: when confused, one sometimes lapses to surrealistic if not morbid humor. Here, the insertion of the commas facilitate the sense of fumbling about, before falling back to absurdity:

Doctor, stepping, round, me,
touching, this, packing, that, with,

cotton, &, long, nippers. Carbolic,
like, pig’s, breath, larding, my, nostrils,

tied, to, the, bedsides,
so, they, don’t, crawl, away,

The poem also quotes from third-party accounts of the accident, e.g. the attending Dr. J.M. Harlow.

Phineas Gage, life mask, made for Henry Jacob Bigelow in 1849 or 1850.

Phineas Gage, life mask, made for Henry Jacob Bigelow in 1849 or 1850. Courtesy Warren Anatomical Museum.

These sections are presented as prose blocks or free verse, and the contrast in forms further strengthens how the comma poem style in Gage’s sections facilitates his various tones (thus, his presence); Gage is discombobulated, amazed, bemused, and humored as he copes with the bar’s intrusive effect. It’s wise to offer various third-party accounts unaccented by the commas. In reading something like, for instance, an account from Dr. Harlowe to the Boston Medical and Surgical Journal, the reader really wants to read the text at his or her own pace since the focus is on trying to understand what happened in the way one might read journalism:

The tamping rod is round, and rendered comparatively smooth by use. It is pointed at the end which entered first, and is three feet, seven inches in length, one and one quarter inch in diameter, and weighs 13 ¼ pounds. I am informed that the patient was thrown upon his back, and gave a few convulsive motions of his extremities, but spoke in a few minutes. His men (with whom he was a great favorite) took him in their arms and carried him to the road, only a few rods distant, and sat him into an ox cart, in which he rode, sitting erect, full three quarters of a mile, to the hotel of Mr. Joseph Adams, in this village. He got out of the cart himself, and with a little assistance walked up a long flight of stairs, into the hall, where he was dressed.

Still, a comma after every word can become tiresome. What keeps the reader from being irritated is not just the changing emotional keys in Gage’s personas but at times an evocative intensity in the poems. Here’s a section depicting Gage four years after the accident:

I, searched, a, map, for, death, &, said,             ok,

Came, a, wagon,        jingle,       wheel, ruts, filled, with, bouncing, wood,
rolling,    felloes, shadows,           old, man, woman,
&, a, slab-footed, mule,       stumble,
Hauled, me, up, &, in,        Mud, Mother, Dust, Daddy,
clay, scab, of, a, home,      civil, Cherokees,     they, jabbered
leaned, me, in, a, corner,    thru, sacking, curtains, saw, black, snakes, raced,
across, the, level,       trackless, trains,     full, throttle,

&, One, above, the clouds,    ached, along, I, finger-roofed, my, eyes, &, saw,
dust, devils, prance, beneath, it,
pulverizing, sand,     my, head, unsteady, in, a, grid, of, pork, grease, smoke,
turned, to, Crystal,    afternoon,    Mule, slobbered, his, oats,
a, snake, drank, from, a, puddle,    color, of, whiskey,
I, stood, &, walked, unsteady, toward, the, flies,
huddled, on, a, copper, hand, that, pointed, Where(?)...Then, saw,
among, the, eagle-crowned, cacti,
a, reedy, Head, of, Black, Clay, lips, working,
                  cool, vowels,
water, dribbling, from, chin, a, spring, of, green, water, welling, from, each, eye,
    &, the, nose, a, broken, clam, &, the, fuming, hair, the, color,
            of, the, moon, at, dawn/ called, me, brother,
                       &, taught, me,
           songs, of, those, who, have, lost,
                      fly-blown, thing,

While I consider ‘The Passion of Phineas Gage’ to be the book’s high point, the other 52 poems both affirm why Glass pulled off the long poem and also show Glass adding his own spin on commas, other punctuations and other strategies. Glass displays strong story-telling skills, as in this excerpt from ‘New Years Day’:

A lady I once kept at lips’ length
is now one hemisphere and six hours difference
from this time zone gone,
obviously memory is still here when I need it
love needs no new fuses
and hate in its little black box
hums merrily on.

In other poems, disjunctiveness, fragmentation, collage and open-endedness surface. Like Villa, Glass utilizes such strategies from not just a literary but visual perspective. For instance, Glass puts commas after each letter in certain words, such as in ‘Puppet Psalm II: For Ventriloquist, Booming Chorus, & Percussion’ with this section:

their purposeful maneuvering
t,h,e,i,r p,u,r,p,o,s,e,f,u,l

As the above excerpt unfolds, the pace slows down while manifesting an aptly increasing resolve. Moreover, Glass apparently reads these poems out loud by spelling out each letter, further slowing down pace while increasing emphasis.

Another excerpt that attests to Glass’ visual orientation is this exhibit-poem from the Phineas Gage poem which concretizes the image of an iron bar — the text is slim and in bold face to textually evoke the iron bar):

s is
of Mr.
ge at
h, VT.
14, 1
He fu
lly re
the in
& de
ed th
is bar
in the
um o
f the
cal C
ard U
sity. P
hin. P
Jan 6

‘It was subsequently reclaimed by the patient.’

With concrete poems, three poems that are actually reproductions of drawings incorporating text, and various variations of typeface and type sizes, Glass shows an ease that seems to come from prolonged consideration of such strategies. Sure, when saying ‘no’, why not write it as NO! in all caps and boldface? Why not use open parenthesis or beginning quotation marks without the usual close parenthesis of close quote mark to facilitate the notion of an idea maintaining unending resonance? Why not use extended white space to make a reader pause?

These devices are not unique to Glass, but he makes them more effective than mere play  for the same reasons he was able to keep the reader’s attention during his long poem about Gage: a strong story-telling ability, vivid descriptions, and lyricism so that he often doesn’t tell a story so much as sings it. From ‘Lexical Obelisk’:

where have we been
to lose so much. where
in the dark world did
we stand and for how
long. while magpies
cried above our heads and
shadows hobbled our
feet. while the locked
nostrils opened like death
and lean men dowsed
our pockets for loose change.
what did we do to help the rocks
grow in their secret chambers

And then there’s more: first and foremost a clear love for words so that you want to read out loud his poems and feel his words flesh out against the internal skin of your mouth. In this excerpt from ‘A/ a,’ Glass combines narrative with his evocative presentation of blank spaces between parentheses and brackets — an excerpt that also shows that Glass chooses not to abide by the binary set up by some poets between narrative and various experimental strategies:

Moon in a mirror
crushed beneath pneumatic hammers.
from its center            hound-like light
speeds beyond our walls

drags a radiant chain
along the earth.

A restless (                 ) in a rusted [                 ].

These are the poems of a matured poet — he’s read a lot while writing a lot. From wide exploration, he’s chosen his own influences. For poems good to read, hear, then speak. Or as Glass puts it in a poem:

stuff of teeth & pearls
burnt to lime
stanzas, slogans

clearly the work of a century of slaves

You can read more about Phineas Gage here:
The page is maintained by Malcolm Macmillan,
School of Psychology, Deakin University,
Victoria, Australia 

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