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

Bridie McCarthy reviews

Strange Attractors
by Louis Armand

118pp. Salt Publishing. GBP£9.99. 1876857595 paper

This review is about 6 printed pages long.

Cosmopoetics: ‘dimensions unknown’

If one thinks of a particular object, it is easy to distinguish matter from form, and an analogous distinction can be made with regard to organic beings, with form taking on the value of the unity of being and of individual existence. but if things as a whole are taken into account, transposed distinctions of this kind become arbitrary and even unintelligible. two verbal entities are thus formed, explicable only through their constructive value in the social order.
— georges bataille (Strange Attractors, 35)

In multilingual, Latinate verse — ‘sounds, words, corresponding foreignly — and what do they / contain?’ (‘[the rain has stopped… ]’ ) — Louis Armand constructs and deconstructs his poetics. His Strange Attractors willingly separates matter from form, interjecting in the structural order of ‘distinctions’ with the various logics of the sciences, philosophy and linguistics. In other words, Armand’ s poetry interrupts the transmission of meaning from text to reader by lengthening the distance between certainties.

Prague-based Armand — aficionado in Joycean hypertext and a significant mover in international poetry circles — offers a generous collection of poetry in Strange Attractors which is more rooted in the mind than in physical or national terrain. In its cosmopolitan, internationalist precepts, this book is, in some respects, of its time. It behaves like a retrospective, however, in its habit of accentuating the modern in the postmodern, the surreal in the hyperreal.

Strange Attractors requires a diligent reader, keenly attuned to the demands of Armand’ s poetics. This book asks to be read as text-under-interrogation. It has the affront of an innovative poetics — hard to pin to categories. Avant-garde in a most literal sense, it will be best appreciated by readers prepared to abandon the baggage of identity-driven poetry and systematically naturalist prose. Readers must be prepared for the loss of stable subjects and well behaved contexts; the erudition of a linguist who ushers the languages of science in to poetry; and a manipulation of form which reveals titles as poems, as well as macro poems that stretch across pages and are knitted together in symbolic, translucent webs.

Armand’ s project theorises itself as it appears, as perhaps ‘simultaneously the beginnings of long / chains of thought and their ends — dividing each time / by a subtle integer we never remembered the key to’ (‘some heliotropes’ ). From the oblique, to the abstruse, to the refractory, this poetry travels far beyond the cult of subjectivity, pursuing instead the ways in which the object can override/overwrite the subject, even within ontological contexts such as Bataille’ s.

As Armand dances around images, puns, synonyms and idiomatic constructs, he responds in kind with a glibness about the European context that informs the book. As the primary referent for place, Europe becomes shapeless and stateless, as ‘europe’ , a territory denied the sociological footing of ‘real’ archaeology, which is anti-gravitational, yet compelling, as:

a city in europe, after one war & before another —
in which she would write ‘archaeology in a place
known to be fictitious’ — the room slopes
upwards at first imperceptibly, but is it a location? (‘[a city in europe… ]’ )

Opting for surrealistic scenes beyond the strictures of location, Armand’ s poetry haunts ‘real’ geographies, preferring to occupy the space of ‘something un-finished, or in retreat’ (‘[tomorrow there will be fewer… ]’ )

To borrow his own words, Armand’ s Strange Attractors amounts to:

… an ensemble of diversions,
like the crow behind the tree, like the impenetrable glass of
factory windows — in every metaphor there slumbers a
catachresis… (‘oxygen as a socially useful substance,’ )

This catachrestic inability of words to ever appropriate their function within a given context impels Armand’ s pursuit of Bataille’ s ‘unintelligible’ (and his playful titles, no doubt), but is matched with a syntax finely wrought and inspired by classical philosophy, pure and applied sciences. His work sets up endless tensions for itself to occupy, not the least of which is the abandonment of the traditional muse (and behind it, the human subject) — replaced by the poems themselves as their muse.

Enjoying such slippages between subject and object, Armand takes on the absurdity implied in Bataille’ s ‘social order’ by exposing deconstructive strategies as if to naturalise them (in a language which works paradoxically against their apparent affront to scientific inquiry). In this vein, Strange Attractors provides the space to think about form, aesthetics, narrative, and language — even poetry at large — without letting go of the abandonment of these systems, their critique. The text seems to ask itself how to undo centuries of (literary and cultural) tradition and poetic technique, in order to allow the controlled and monitored dissolution of diction, metre, versification — in this sense, this postmodern interrogation has also a scientific objective and hypothesis.

When confronted with such an intensely complex poetics — a writing which is, of course, also always under erasure (overtly signalled in Armand’ s use of strikethrough text, almost reminiscent of Mina Loy’ s aesthetic) — it can be difficult to get your bearings, particularly when old familiar landmarks such as the unified human subject and the complete material landscape are missing. However, Armand counteracts any perplexity inspired by his poetry by installing in it other kinds of landmarks.

His mythopoeic universe of ‘dimensions unknown’ , where ‘real’ terrain is cancelled out playfully by ‘a landslide of maps’ is characterised by its iconic reflective descriptors of itself, as in:

an inverted naturalism, even
to the point of a rigidly entropic
state… and with it
the very possibility of meaning:
a borderline condition — the
resistance of solids, excreta (‘dimensions unknown’ )

The ‘resistance’ to the ideology of the real mentioned here has perhaps inspired previous critiques of his work as ‘cobbled together from ephemeral observations, frequently with little regard for sense’ (Dennis, Oliver, ‘Poetry Survey,’ Island 101 [2005], 75), ‘with few signposts to guide the reader as to meaning,’ which ‘seems to address only academic telepaths’ (Williams, Lauren, ‘Poetry Shorts,’ Australian Book Review 205 [1998], 39).

This, it appears, is the symptomatic entropy that Armand’ s poetry predicts. It potentially represents the ‘genre of stasis posed in immediate / relation to what lies beneath, and is / yet to be exhumed’ (‘dimensions unknown’ ). Rather than attesting to the impossibility or lack of utility of Armand’ s work, this criticism seems more suitably emblematic of the intractability of Armand’ s poetics; the inability of readers to let go of the realist narrative framework where, regardless of how ‘postmodern’ the moment, the syntax encourages the narrative through strategic cause and effect, charting a sociological landscape encoded for easy recognition.

Indeed, away from aspiring to a realist ideology, Armand’ s work is attenuated to the hyperreal in the real — that ‘inverted naturalism’ — and carries with it recognisable remnants (or revenants) of hyperrealist discourse:

the realism is oppressive & too artificial, a trompe-l’ œil
in which all the elements are calculated to heighten the
sense of impenetrability — though everything is “in
the mind,” the illusion is concrete, the architecture solid (‘[under cover … ]’ )

Setting up the conditions for contradiction and tension here, Armand concentrates on the distance and the intimacy of the real and the non-real, the tactile and the intangible — an apt model of his ‘strange attractors’ .

There is certainly magnetism in the insistence on inertia, unease and absurdity in this book. Moments are happily awkward; logics are in the process of unravelling; bodies are dismembered or abject; the syntax is wilfully disjunctive; and all of this is accounted for with Armand’ s emphasised irrational numbers. In what could be called a negative theopoetics, Strange Attractors investigates how to deter poetry from outlining its function with obvious clarity, an alienation effect encouraged by Armand’ s gentle and complex skirting around both subject and object.

Revelling in digression and abstraction, his ‘omitting the weather’ is shorthand for those forces behind social convention which shadow the social. Hence, the following passage is wonderfully rewarding for those readers prepared to accept its wilful chaos; its neat design of ‘strange attractors’ :

erroneous confessions kept poised
in antique bedrooms, & restless homunculi
stooped behind curtains, under sheets
whenever the light outside became too
inspired, intimate, for what had always been
considered the stranger. a chorus of unspeakable
words bitten hard between the teeth, to
purchase a few requisites of authorship
past lives, more than cheap lustre…

Cyclonically picking up the debris of both the quotidian and the metaphysical, this poem evinces Armand’ s construction of a postmodern, but also strikingly Brechtian ontology (with the subject as witness), which finds its dénouement in:

…the last scene in that drama, when such
fictional personae as we are lie in the afterglow
of performed sentiments (though these too exist
and are real) & the backdrops fading against
the fatuous applause of decembers…

Again, it is tempting to use his own verses to assess Armand’ s poetry, which here echoes the declaration:

… (yes,
it’ s better to dissolve in carefully staged

digressions & then use needle-films to sew
together the scattered shreds) — a dark
vaudeville full of tautologies… (‘[not now, but when?… ]’ )

This poetry deals with how absence inheres in presence; how the rational mind collaborates with the imagination to produce untrustworthy accounts of events; how the body (mal)functions and/or is otherwise just a singular object amongst many others (very rarely transformed into a human subject). The (denied) subjective universe of Strange Attractors is encapsulated in the concluding lines of ‘symptomatologies’ :

… waking is nothing more than

neutralisation along subtly resemblant lines — not
‘waiting for something to happen’ but terminal

The brand of ennui encountered here is itself a symptom of Armand’ s particular evocation of postmodern malaise, where ‘whatever comes next / is contingency, fascinated by / not understanding’ (‘lazarus’ ).

As much as it is constructed of these ‘carefully staged / digressions’ , Strange Attractors is also ‘anticlinal’ (to borrow a term from ‘footnote to a bride’ ), leaning beautifully away from itself. Much like his ‘cloud canyons’ , where ‘such an expanse / exceeds the frontal visual field, or the image dissolves in the / aerial snapshot — defying realism,’ Armand’ s words are held together by an often imperceptible design, exacted scientifically one assumes, but ultimately ephemeral rather than blatantly naturalist.

The ‘abject relations’ that characterise human interaction (for the most part) in this book, are the stuff of the poem ‘une femme de trente ans,’ which starts from an anti-hagiographical study and moves to a statement about existence which adequately encapsulates the leitmotif tension in which Armand’ s characters are caught — that between the forces of apathetic inertia and overactive analysis:

… for how many years
will it go on? confined to the matter-of-fact
record of somebody acting out
their daily routine (appearance, habits, contacts
with the outside world), describing an intent or merely an
alibi? — we are reading between
too many lines, possessed of a wrong
clairvoyance: tomorrow & the day after & the
day after that, what will be the
outcome of such an accounting?

The strength with which these musings interrogate themselves (as, in the above excerpt, human existence is represented as a tribute to the absurd), provides the tone for Strange Attractors, which is always as derisive as it is exploratory. Even the difficulty of how to read this poetry is concentrated on in the text, and the following statement is yet another example of Armand’ s relentless self-reflexive acuity:

… it has
its lost names & its distant
re-namings, per accidens — even as the lines themselves
‘resist interpretation,’ a problem of
purpose, syntax…
which is to say
a derelict cadence (‘alembic’ )

The problem posed by a ‘derelict cadence’ that favours abstraction and satirises rhetoric, is how to find a name for this — and this is the very problem (or set of problems) prefigured by Armand, who defines most commonly by negative association, or evades by distraction.

Is it only possible to talk about this poetry in its own tongue: the oblique, the refractory? Does it impel its own criticism as it impels its own progressions of imagery and metaphor? Does the reader or critic necessarily rely on the philosophical-linguistic premises offered by Armand?

Words repeat amongst the poems (as do metaphors), stitching the text together with an Armand vocabulary from which the reader can derive as much ‘sense’ as from each separate poem, if they so desire. These linguistic units — blood, bone, bride, x, screen — repeat often enough to suggest that they might constitute another stratum of magnetic poles that interrelate by attracting and repelling each other across the text.

As an associated effect, the prevalence of clichés in Strange Attractors is somewhat disconcerting for poetry that otherwise exhibits a (multi)linguistic prowess. The most troubling feature of this habit is the inability of these clichés to always work ironically — and this is further evidence of the risk factor in Armand’ s poetics. In mutually ambivalent territory, the casual and perhaps ironic reference to the sonnet form in many untitled poems, grouped sequentially en masse, seems to sit without a striking effect.

In other moments, however, Armand’ s rhythmic acuity is particularly notable, as in the following untitled poem, where a syncopated and consonantal English almost reads like a language in translation:

…persisting in that demarcation
of tragic parodic kitsch — the depressive archetype

babbling in its dark night of the soul — a functional
aesthesia, addressed to the species & not the individual? (‘[conversion of another sort… ]’ )

Where this is sonic, other poems favour imagism and it is this willingness to celebrate isolated elements of versification that both typifies Armand’ s aesthetic and establishes the literary merit of this work.

‘parthenogenesis’ is a good example of Armand at his crystallised best. This is elusive enough to be fruitfully suggestive; sensory; chopped up considerately into an appropriately disjunctive rhythm; and full of indulgent pauses. It is replete with both evocative phraseology — ‘the stale smell of / cigarette smoke on unwashed sheets / & subterranean messianisms…’ — and hard-working imagery — ‘the hands gesture / by increments towards their / designated arrival, surface / intentions…’ Overwhelmingly, though, what lingers is its cognitive design, as it contemplates abjection, intimacy, alienation and convention.

Strange Attractors is richly rewarding for open-minded readers — in short, a sharply clever and accomplished collection. Although this book demands an attentive reception, it continuously reviews itself through detailed auto-analysis and is always aware of its own construction: ‘an imbecile stands winking at you in the rain, / & did you find significance in that?…’ (‘serial noir’ ).

Bridie McCarthy

Bridie McCarthy

Bridie McCarthy is a scholar and writer living in Melbourne. She has published articles on Australian, Latin American and Caribbean poetry and currently works as a Research Assistant at Deakin University and Victoria University.