“I’m writing from the weather / inside a dictionary of difficult words,” writes Noah Eli Gordon in his new book, A Fiddle Pulled from the Throat of a Sparrow, at once a paean to sound and its unstable residence in words. “Details solidify with each retelling,” he tells us later in the same poem, “but someone coughs and the theater caves in” (“A forest burns into later time”). That cough, our weather, is recursive, and echoes in Sparrow as books, myths, birds, names... nouns. The equivalency of their articulation finds its way into Gordon’s poems with an ebullient apposition. Here’s the recombinatory DNA of a contemporary poetry at ease with the transitive lubricity of media. Sound obtains image; it is a theater and everyone — every thing — is present. It is this gifted poet’s task to measure such forms, their frequency, wavelength, period, amplitude, speed.
Winner of the 2006 Green Rose Prize, Gordon’s fifth full-length collection is obsessed with music. Like Jack Spicer plying his Martian radio, Gordon tunes the cadence of our cultural predicament. From the first section of Sparrow, “A Dictionary of Music,” to the Novalis-inspired section “A New Hymn to the Old Night,” his new book propagates the aural medium by playing matter through the various increments of hearing and association we apply to music or, as often, speech. It is very much interested in the ways of Zukofsky’s famous interval: “Upper Limit Music/Lower Limit Speech.” Refreshment comes in assuming the always already written. Here is the bricoleur’s retelling “astray in the circumstantial music of the crowd” (“A fiddle pulled from the throat of a sparrow”). And the story repeats quickly: “another November, another animal moving across the earth / another breeze & someone to call it gentle / any stranger, any shapely mouth, any sound dissolving to noise (“A New Hymn to the Old Night”).
Not surprisingly, we are in this book restlessly in medias res. The journey turns out to be a prop; destination’s rarely a there. This might be evasive to some, but in acknowledging corporeal motion I think Gordon discovers a useful, and indeed inevitable resistance. Destination’s a voice seeking embodiment. And the body hums: how “the oars were carved out of bone” (“The book of journeys”). Admitting our contingency, Gordon seeks the trace, the experience of experience. Or, as he puts it in “A tuning fork turns all this noise to glass”:
a dance as old
as the circle, antique
poison of a dead wasp,
its wound potential
miming the music
of one digging a ditch,
the rough sketch
of an abbreviated calm,
a further conjugation of focus
or just something to fill the afternoon —
all of this work on balance,
an anodyne for falling in
In the vibrational matrix of Gordon’s Sparrow work is conceived of as both presence and its simulation; we mime the music to focus our babble. Is the glass of the title a hardening of possibility or a “further conjugation of focus”? In our general approximations we discover an anodyne for the poison of late capitalism. It might be false but it passes the time. More to the point, it’s a way of accounting for noise, that unfocused signal that sputters the daily massacre.
How to write a lyric that contains music and speech, but also reports of war?
One solution is to invoke theater. Both poet and reader are contractually caught looking, listening. As he says in “Phrasing and Form,” “the landlord calls this part an opera...the dusted shaft of dying light / dust on the surface, on everything / everything suspect, already ash / the terrible skull under such a pretty face.” The analogical seeking of these poems unsettles the surface of both words and bodies toward an ethical recognition of agency. Too often it’s in bad shape: “My machinery has a terrible horse” but “it’s enough to be on stage with a rifle” (“Untragic Hero of the Epic Theater”). Is it, one might seriously ask? The antic play of Gordon’s book will exhaust some, or position the riflebearer too easily (too innocently?) in the middle of the predicament. How did we get here? How can we get off the stage? It’s a question the book doesn’t, to my mind, entirely answer. Nonetheless, the perspectival positioning produces a kind of anxiety that’s operatic and oddly familiar: “Hello helicopter! Hello trees! / The chandelier is something.” The transitive ambiguity of objects and actors sets off a mythic echo. This seems more or less happily, more or less sadly, our story; and “what’s the difference hedges toward a structure.”
As structure, the book is composed of eight sections, published variously as chapbooks, pamphlets, individual poems. Written between 1999 and 2005, the texture of a poet turning over concerns and obsessions colors the book with a particular sense of duration. It’s Bergson’s durée stretched into echoic vessels. Series and sequence, via various procedures, are the formal means, while rhetorical address reveals dictionaries, speech acts, paintings, prayers, and the ubiquitous theater. There are sonnet sequences (the wry. Twombly-inspired “Four Allusive Fields”), 7/8 line mirror pages (“How Human Nouns”), and sets of openly punctuated, fluidly enjambed poems that suspend syntax, or repeat it anaphorically (“A Dictionary of Music,” “A New Hymn to the Old Night”). Prolepsis, too, links both adjacent poems and sections in a generally reiterative structure that foregrounds sound. Gangsta and Gilbert & Sullivan, homophones and Noir — it’s as if Duchamp’s chocolate grinder were set on whir. For a decidedly sectional book written over a long period of time, there’s a good deal of formal and thematic echo.
In one of the most interesting sections, “How Human Nouns,” the predilection for theater positions narrative against grammar. Story willfully makes worlds, a transaction seething with acts of replacement. “An oar for a lyre...a winged thing for a gypsy’s chime,” Gordon’s metonyms are always moving. However surreal they grapple as resistance. As he says rather stunningly in “To map the wearing away of things,” “...how human nouns what the nucleus of commerce won’t replicate.” We want and will a retelling; the contemporary impulse to source our longing expresses drift, a need for home. Here’s “Nothing under the stones but the story of lifting” in its entirety:
in one scene we stood on a bridge
watching boats catch in their sails late wedges of light
there was grace, ease, a hero’s mask assembled
from an hour’s background music
our inclination to trail a supposed mother toward the concrete
a crow calls out its lineage
a surrogate thorn an imperfect Xerox
The filmic description is characteristic. Here the particular balcony constructs a myth; we hear the soundtrack soar. The crucial line, though, is the fifth. In our “inclination to trail a supposed mother toward the concrete” we find a need to substantiate origin. Everything, including the crow, “calls out its lineage.” We noun imperfectly, and the prick of language reveals our willingness for deception. Still, in a world where “everything [is] pretty transitive, aleatoric” (“Phrasing and Form”), the surrogate might suffice.
The challenge of this poetic is limit: how far can one push the assembly before it seems arbitrary? Avowedly musical, how do Sparrow’s strategies of replacement substantively mean? There are gists of memory, syntactic transformations, pun as discovery, echo, the gathering force of a voice as personality. Whether its successful will depend on a reader’s patience. Fortunately, in this book filled with noise, the measure of sound is always speeding towards song. Cultural dissonance may force the metonym, but Gordon’s essentially lyric utterance keeps reminding us of our past. As he says in the wonderfully allusive “Book of Names”:
Allow the little ghosts
Duration’s their say
Allowing the little ghosts
Location and function move homophonically; so too the associative chime of names — Bernadette, Rebecca, David, George, Cy. Is it a poetry reading, our ancestors? “Duration’s their say.” It’s an interesting equivalency, and Gordon explores it well. Not surprisingly, sound generally finds the image. Sparrow’s melodic and visual virtues confirm each other; Zukofsky and Stein are inside it, but so too is Surrealism: “a girl / breathing //into an / umbrella //of a boy / covered in mud // cross-legged // under an ash tree.”
Perhaps then it’s fitting that we move from the campy speech acts of “Book of Names” to the praise-driven “A New Hymn to the Old Night.” If there is a trajectory to the book it’s from “the timbrel’s return to nowhere” in the first poem of the book to the devotional praises of a recast Novalis. For all of Gordon’s Languagey sophistication, he wants to believe in the lyric. Is the shore we arrive on a bit conventional after all the cacophony, all the semiotic play? Perhaps, but as John Cage illustrated, the line between sound and music, sound and sense, is always moving. If Sparrow is interested in cultural noise, it’s also trying to find a use for the human voice. What a lovely-true thing it is to hear a poet declare: “the earth a synonym for self, for you are here & otherwise” (“New Hymn”). He ends with “A Little Book of Prayers,” a final salvo of three lyrics that holds the “weight of dove & the waiting dove.” In this thoroughly strummed collection, acts of replacement discover the relational prolixity of the world and so return syllabic specificity to the mouth, that fiddled lyre.
Matthew Cooperman is the author of two full-length collections, DaZE (Salt Publishing, 2006) and A Sacrificial Zinc (Pleiades/LSU, 2001), as well as three chapbooks, Still: (to be) Perpetual (Dove/Tail Books, 2007), Words About James (Phylum Press, 2005), and Surge (Kent State, 1998). Recent work can be found in such places as New American Writing, American Letters & Commentary, Green Mountains Review, Denver Quarterly, Conduit and Sentence. A former Fellow at the Fine Arts Work Center in Provincetown, as well as a founding editor of Quarter After Eight magazine, Cooperman teaches poetry and poetics at Colorado State University. More information can be found at:
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