Jacket 31 — October 2006        link Jacket 31 Contents page        link Jacket Homepage

Edmund Hardy reviews

The Places As Preludes
by Gustaf Sobin

76pp. Talisman House. US$14.95. 1584980400. Paperback

This review is about 3 printed pages long.

Sparkling signatures

A toponym is a place-name descriptive of the place. Then the physical place shifts and re-forms while the name may itself change spelling or lose its currency as contemporary description. A clear relation between place and name then becomes a fixed originating point from which spirals a complex history, a relation of movement and rest through ongoing changes in place and language forming a body which is now itself a prelude, a place, one in which people are living. The constituent elements of this body, its differences, are what Sobin’s poetry obsessively returns to in these preludes: what question, what arrow, will point to a “pleat”, “socket”, “particle”, what pinched syllable will incarnate mass. What lyric ideation is possible.

A voice of sober instruction forms a vade mecum on how to sing difference. The subject is always “you”: a mirror for the writer, a mirrored mirror for the reader:

there’s somebody else here, and it’s
you if you’d
listen; tune, if only you could, to those tenuous
frequencies. you who aren’t, who
would, who, in

languishing in the vibratory fields of the
cipient, had cherished, so doing, the

headed insects. isn’t anatomy but antecedent, the cells but seeds to

premonitory expanses? [. . .]

(from ‘Prelude VIII’)

The rhetoric consistently piles multiple questions in such a manner that any reply would have to be complex and partial. The speaker has adopted a rhetorical elevation, writing from a height: the poems become upbuildings from which the audience can dissent.

The form which is Sobin’s signature, present throughout this book, is a combination of long and short lines enjambing one or two sentences down the page, often hyphenating several words across line-breaks and beginning with an ellipsis. The inorganic long-section of a spiral, which is one way of seeing this shape, is an idea of eruption-irruption through the complex and yet composite body of place and name which is, for Sobin, the prelude to life:

would begin anywhere, wouldn’t you, as
if there
were still there, and you
still yourself in this phenomenological drift to-

wards some all-but-

lusory absolution. scintillae, you’d
called them: those
sudden stations: shrines that the gaze makes in

bout a palmful of pebbles. [. . .]

(from ‘Prelude I’)

This upright crossed through with long arrow-like lines allows for an infinite variation of possible series because enjambment and hyphenation create a polysemic epitasis as semantic construction is played against syntactical cut and stretch. Up (or down) building essays which have found a remarkable form. Confusingly, the Preludes are simply titled with numbers though some appeared in magazines with specific titles: for example, ‘Prelude XII’ was published as ‘Lingua Franca’. The stripping of these titles folds the preludes into each other; it also diminishes each poem by removing one element from the reaction. ‘Lingua Franca’, a trading language now in fragments but with its name still in currency, seemed the perfect “irrecusable isn’t” for the poem to “wrap adamant a- / bout”.

The existents, towards which the poems – “meter, therein, in search of matter” – try to reverberate, are referred to as “irrecusable” and yet also as nothing, vanished, the “isn’t”. The self is simply one category of these existents. The location of a vanishing point which is also a becoming-real is thus of supreme importance, “there”:

[. . .] there, where thirst alone

constitutes measure, [. . .]

(from ‘Prelude I’)

what, in fact, does the
breath, in its running braille, interpolate that the
lips, in

paraphrase, never

(from ‘Prelude II’)


vibratory under-
worlds: there where the breath, at last,

might find

(from ‘Quinces’)

increments of
substance itself. there, that
is, where the
rose, so accorded, might bud ebullient [. . .]

(from ‘Testament’)

The poem becomes an arrow, diagrammatic, and each time “there” (which is also a realm of implicit signs, “the very stars of / their sparkling / signatures”) is pointed to, we are reading in from a different direction; ontological allegory is embodied as lyric.

Interspersed with the Preludes are other pieces. Of these there are three ‘Scattered Itineraries’, a yearly series continued from earlier books, the ones here running from 2000 to 2003. These have a notebook feel, the lines stretched right across the page like shuttles, “the sonorous looms of syntax” on which “matrices of pure intent” can be wrapped – though this structural take could be briskly undermined: a “virulent literality”. If the constant questions – Does the mirror reflect backwards? How can we track breath? – start to seem like limiting obsessions, then in these notebooks, long sequence of a life, the questions run back



towards the adequate question which would bring the invisible to light, manifest ideation: Then the preludes would finally open onto the beginning of a hymn, the rediscovered life. Populations are not missing from this wily baroque, rustling on the page: a population of vertical lines,


digmatic decors (as much the
overlapping foliage of
our voices as that of the leaves them-


Gustav Sobin, an American-born poet and author of a critically acclaimed novel (The Fly Truffler) about truffle-hunting in the South of France, died of pancreatic cancer in July 2005 at the age of 69. Sobin attended Brown University, and moved to Paris in 1962. He then went to live in Provence, where he remained for more than forty years, publishing more than a dozen books of poetry.