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   Jacket 33 — July 2007        link Jacket 33 Contents page        link Jacket Homepage

Stephen Cope reviews
City Eclogue
by Ed Roberson

Berkeley: Atelos. 2006.

This review is about 4 printed pages long.

remembering the more complete
            the more perpetual
jar of things
            lends no aright,            nor tapped,
no center on the wheel. all form, all voice
            is clay. in different we
are right only
    to what we give birth to, anyhow,
we are correct only within
         what we create,
            the examinations we make
up out of each
            last hour’s erasures mark us right.

”In different we.” Is this “othering” alienation? Or is it a kind of perpetual liberation from the tyranny of permanence? Is it both? The passage as a whole, from Roberson’s “Lucid Interval as Integral Music,” demonstrates not only a singular characteristic of his writing – what Nathaniel Mackey calls its “double-jointed syntax,” where words and phrases double and redouble contexts (thus meanings, thus identities, thus differences: the book from these lines are taken is called Voices Cast Out to Talk Us In (U. of Iowa, 1995)) – they announce the issue of temporality as one of Roberson’s preeminent concerns: what must be always composed, as a second or belated consciousness of self and knowledge, and then re-composed. Therefore, Roberson writes serial poems almost exclusively, works that re-currently (and at times recursively) ramify, retread, and reiterate “each/ last hour’s erasures” in the process of witness and testimonial. That it is often a social concern that motivates such activity becomes as clear in his subsequent volumes as it was in his earliest work. From Atmosphere Conditions (Sun & Moon, 1999): “Graffiti          appears only on what/ is disappearing           marking the going out:”

The wall the state the sainted             toppled shit on,
this signing      spray of their prefiguring star
wandered back as ghost            outlined as fallen

on the pavement sky of heaven            chalks upon
arrival which mark defaces      which adorns,
a cloud or glory    time flies our object through.

Roberson’s latest book, City Eclogue (Atelos, 2006), takes up such a concern with urban inscription in terms of both his hometown of Pittsburgh, adopted home of New Jersey/New York City, and elsewhere. As the volume’s title would suggest, however, the division between culture and nature – between remote pastoral and the crowded contemporary cityscape – is all but broken down. We encounter here an “ornithology” of “grey gulls” as well as “flapping metal panels/ of numbers and letters arrivals and departures,” and flight itself, in keeping with Roberson’s insistence on displacement and polysemy, evokes the city as a zone of perpetual migration and transport (forced and/or otherwise). “The counsel of birds” that is the subject of one of his poems is for Roberson not Chaucer’s “parliament” (although it may have more than a little to do with al-Attar’s “conference”): it consists of car alarms announcing a “hybrid re-birthing” in which “without enough answers answering/ the alarm is our alarms aren’t working.” Yet even as such punning jostles around in Roberson’s poems, this is not a poetry of the New York School type; it’s not about wit, but witness (a piece about the gunning down by the NYC police of Amadou Diallo is particularly jarring). And Roberson is rarely ever urbane. Rather, as in much of Roberson’s writing, an autobiographical ground here informs an almost visionary presentation of public space as itself a culture of nature (“the culture// of petri dish architecture”), while recording changing and, indeed, atmospheric conditions with a rare attention to detail and the profundity of ephemera. At times, the work is reminiscent of Oppen’s “Of Being Numerous,” a similarly detailed and socially conscious portrait of a one-time hometown:

The flesh form of the city doesn’t move
in the same time as the city’s material
forms move into era and monument.

The lovely women styled in as no other
time are not the body of this space they make
only the flow through it.        And all

this to river deep into shape
the city             rosetta stone            the populace
pours in             An ocean            each say moving
its grain at its one time.          The corners move

into their large design                a Times
or a Washington Square          a park
of the highest form of pickup
basketball in The Village in Harlem sound —

and like that sound from which musics are made,
the day’s whole city of words is not language.

Consider the forms of “flesh” that move through Oppen’s poems; like them, the flow in Roberson’s City Eclogue of living flesh that both contrasts and contests the forms of “era” and “monument – “ the static memorials of passed (rather than passing) time – is valorized as the literal embodiment of human substance, human temporality. Thus, the invocations of music that Roberson’s poems revisit, or the musical movements that they enact, not only in sound but in form: to read a series of Roberson’s poems is to encounter recurring motifs with subtle shifts, inconsistent but compelling rhythmic edges, a cut-and-mix syntax and diction, sometimes balladic and sometimes wailing laments – there’s a way in which Roberson’s poetry “dances about architecture” in the sense that Ornette Coleman once suggested, in an analogy having to do with writing about music, was absurd. But these poems are also partial and unresolved – at least in the lyrical, rather than serial, sense – as a “whole city of words” may be material (may be made flesh), but do not by that constitute some abstract notion of “language.”

Not that Roberson’s forms are always jagged. He opens the third of the six sections that comprise City Eclogue with a sonnet, albeit one that runs both formally and thematically counter to the traditional stringency of that form. It’s called “Urban Nature”

Neither New Hampshire nor Midwestern farm,
nor the summer home in some Hamptons garden
thing, not that nature, not a satori
-al leisure come to terms peel by peel, not that core
whiff of beauty as the spirit. Just a street
pocket park, clean of any smells, simple quiet —
simple quiet not the same as no birds sing
definitely not the dead of no birds sing:

The bus stop posture in the interval
of nothing coming, a not quite here running
sound of underground, sidewalk’s grating vibrationless
in open voice, sweet berries ripen in the street
hawk’s kiosks. The orange is being flown in
this very moment picked of its origin.

As if a Hamptons garden were nature (or iambic pentameter was), any more than buses, subways, or the shipping routes that bring fruit to urban sidewalks — or the slant-rhymed speech the poet here adopts to sound out (to “flesh” out?) the form: “farm/garden;” “satori/core;” “street/quiet:” the language does indeed “sing”. I am often reminded when reading Roberson of the likes of a Thelonious Monk or Miles Davis, not because of any specific structural similarity, but because, like them, Roberson’s output is so singularly recognizable. When one hears Monk, one knows its Monk; ditto for Miles (one might mention, say, Creeley, Olson, Mackey, or Susan Howe in such company). This is the case with Roberson as well: his signature is that unique, and his sincerity – in the Objectivist sense of the term – is precisely that complete.