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

Craig Perez reviews

Involuntary Lyrics
by Aaron Shurin

108 pp. Omnidawn. Paperback. US$14.95. 1890650234 paper

This review is about 4 printed pages long.

Lyric knife

We’ve our business to attend Day’s duties,
bend back the bow in dreams as we may
til the end rimes in the taut string [… ]

The whole
composition of surfaces leads into the other
current disturbing
what I would take hold of

         — Robert Duncan, ‘Bending the Bow’

In Aaron Shurin’s Involuntary Lyrics, his first full-length poetry collection in about a decade, we enter a ‘composition of surfaces’ where the speaker tends the body and soul of experience in the visible dimensions of the poem. Shurin’s lyricism transforms music into a ‘current disturbing’ every textual moment of attention, taking hold of us at our deepest heartstrings.

This collection experiments with an ambitious and intriguing constraint: the end-words of each ‘Involuntary Lyric’ mirrors (and sometimes refracts) the end-words of a correspondingly numbered Shakespeare sonnet. In a footnote, Shurin describes the value of such a process:

poetic constraints quicken me, foils to my florid sensibility and voluptuary lexicon. An art like S&M, perhaps (which isn’t my Eros) where boundaries pressure the interior that cooks.

While this establishes a unifying element, Shurin skillfully manages to unloose disparate formal and thematic measures with ‘swinging indeterminate line-lengths, and wide-open topical windows.’ Shurin isn’t an illusionist who escapes the form at the moment of crisis; he’s a magician of the real (in the Duncanian sense) who allows the constraint to develop its particular architecture and transform the confined space into an indwelling of experience.

As master and servant of form, Shurin disrobes both roles in ‘alternating modes high or low, meditative or notational’. The poems teach us to read outside our expectations by continuously shifting syntactic and semantic frames:


If the judgment’s cruel
that’s a wake-up call: increase
energy, attention. These little pumpkins ornament
themselves with swells, die
pushing live volume packed spring-
form hard as a knock: Decease
and resist. Content
surges exactly as memory
closes its rear-guarding
– world rushes in not by! just be
steady, receptors, measure is fuel:
whatever moves move with the
drift which moving never lies.

Shurin occasionally mutates the end-words (e.g. niggarding becomes guarding, thee becomes the, thine becomes underline, woe becomes whoa), thus avoiding unexamined racist discourse and antiquated diction. Also, he rearranges the traditional end-word positions, what he describes as ‘unring[ing] the sonnet.’ This opens the sonnet to a wide range of sonic possibilities beyond iambic pentameter, moving us across fueled measures:

& fortify
syntax sentences, oof, lyric knife
to brow
excise memory

The ‘thrall / of pure syntax contiguity’ propels the poems towards and through the hinging end-words. Projecting a lyric pulse within the inevitable ‘little-death’ of the line break accentuates the poems’ immediacy. Shurin’s ‘lyric knife’ remains incisive; even the longer-lined poems maintain a receptive spring:

[… ] words are frangible, pliable, pitiable dust but oh what traces they leave! One longs
for specificity in abstraction, presence in absence, love-
in-idleness, the magic of translucence and the skeletal superiority of fact. . . . The spasms
of bright
light show what’s there then not there, there then not there, the perch of his just-fallen
hair over brow, sharp wag of Puggy’s tail, Mary’s first pinafore, Rusty’s erection,
Steve’s freckled nose, a Texan trout rumored to be gigantic but never rising kept
[… ]
rumors of cars, rumors of people, rumors of gunshots, champagne corks, tra-la-la-ing,
obsessive argumentation, squeak of the ol’mattress spring, gurgle of Gallo hastily
slurped, slam of the front door solid oak, siren far off then near then far off, one
listens carefully, dutifully, calibrating as if to repudiate or approve. . . .

Beyond these formal base notes, there is a surprising array of experimentation. For example, ‘CXXV’ integrates intra-linear space, ‘CXXXVI’ uncovers minimalist columns, ‘LII’ explores fragmented columns, and ‘CXXIX / CXXX / CXXXI / CXXXII’ combines 4 sonnets.

Another interesting innovation occurs in poems ‘LXIV’, ‘LXV’, and ‘LXVI’: on the bottom of each of these poems, there is a quote from William Burroughs (an engaging counterpoint to Shakespeare). One quote reads: ‘Trails my summer dawn wind in other flesh strung together on scar impressions of young Panama night. . . .’ Shurin highlights Burroughs’ ability to weave a prose metric with lyric torque (a sensibility we feel throughout Involuntary Lyrics). Another quote shows Burroughs’s ‘high and low tones’: ‘That heart pulsing in the sun and my cock pulsed right with it and jism seeped through my thin cotton trousers and fell in the dust and shit of the street. . . .’ Placing these passages at the end of the poems allows us to re-read the poems through the voices of Shakespeare, Shurin, and Burroughs juxtaposed ‘in glorious guise multiplicitous who take / from heave and rest / the pulse to make / measure.’

Involuntary Lyrics is not simply about formal range and inventiveness; amidst the constraint, the content (those ‘wide-open topical windows’) explores Shakespearean themes such as Age, ‘Love-called-Desire’, Eros, Friendship, and Loss; post-Stonewall themes such as AIDS, Sexuality, the Body and the City; and post-modern themes such as Language and Narrativity. In ‘unring[ing]’ these themes, Shurin is lyrical, confessional (‘each line warmed / by particulars fore and aft’), thoughtful, and spontaneous. His tones shift from elegaic to ecstatic, sonic to imagistic, language-centered to sensuous:


San Francisco, ah, west
of ascension, none of us wanted posterity
before we got to pleasure it! Another
sick, sickening, the
last newest
in his prime.
You, for all of us came crawling through dim alleys to mother
and shining see
even if still we’re trailing in and out of city’s womb
calls us and too discharges time
alone inside our tender bodies – dry,
do, my still-seeing eyes; nightmare’s made me raise my fearful head again. Be
extravagant meaningful polis, clearful sky, the
really it has been loving gesture of light undoes the tomb!

This exemplary poem captures the ascension of content within the unfolding formal architecture. Shurin’s ‘still-seeing eyes’ guide us through an emotional matrix of love, loss, and desire. Returning to the footnote, he explains: ‘I wanted “involuntary” to include what experience was doing to me.’ We witness this lyrical phenomenology as a ‘loving gesture of light’ that radiates through the ‘dim alleys’ of memory. Shurin performs the recovery that occurs when we are ‘alone inside our tender bodies’.

The emotional and formal complexity of Involuntary Lyrics engages us on various prosodic and semantic registers. This collection ‘unrings’ the reader at every textual moment, allowing the ‘torque one feels in the body of thought’ to flower in what Shurin names ‘the tension of attention’. Besides attending ‘Day’s duties’, his business is to sing the ways in which the bow bends the taut strings of reception and to love the language of what takes hold. Involuntary Lyrics is a necessary, innovative collection that illuminates what it means ‘to be’.

Craig Perez

Craig Perez

A native of the Pacific island of Gua’han (Guam), Craig Perez migrated to California in 1995. He received his BA from the Johnston Center of Integrative Studies, and recently completed his MFA at the University of San Francisco. He was an assistant fiction editor for Pleiades literary journal, and is currently a poetry editor for the online journal Switchback. His work has appeared in Watchword, the Redlands Review, Quercus, Galatea Resurrects, MTD, and String of Small Machines. Visit his blog at