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Anthony Hawley
The Concerto Form
reviewed by Andrew Rippeon
92pp. Shearsman Books, UK. £8.95 / $14. 0-907562-84-1 paper

This review is about 7 printed pages long. It is copyright © Andrew Rippeon and Jacket magazine 2008.

Listening to change


The cactus needle of the past that could be broken by a mere earmuff, plays the phonograph record of its record never again. This is called the concerto form.


In four sections — ‘Vocative,’ ‘Awhile,’ ‘Afield,’ and (again) ‘The Concerto Form’ — this book is a performance of both tremendous formal range and finely tuned listening. Across the book, Hawley is comfortable working in stanzas of varied length (favoring couplets, tercets, and quatrains), large prose-like blocks of sonically dense language, as well as dialogues, modified sonnets, and a number of differently conceived series. The ‘Icefield Sonnets,’ in ‘Vocative,’ are a fine example of the listening, thinking, and experiencing that make up Hawley’s practice. Here’s the first (of three):

paragraph 3

Cold is a cell
In which one is allowed

To walk around the lake
And think of walking

Or defend the logic
Of glacier water

Sing the oval
With a skate’s blade

Habits of its shape
The way a lip

Leaves an imprint
On glass a trace

Air enough just
To shake the frame


The proposition is that phenomenal experience is always individual, and perhaps solipsistic: ‘Cold is a cell / In which one is allowed...’ Yet this is also its special liberty: what ‘one is allowed [is] / To walk around the lake / and think of walking.’


And here the poem demonstrates the integrated experience I think Hawley is working toward. In the meditative space it’s marked (‘cell’ as cloister, where one is free to walk ‘[a]nd think of walking’), the poem moves among the simultaneous vectors of the subject in the always ongoing moment. From the seventh line on, with its careful record of sound, sight, and proprioceptive awareness in an ice skate’s oval song, we encounter a subject making synaesthetic sense of the world: particles of memory, touch, sound, sight, and the hint of taste interact to produce an experience of the unfolding present.  


Perhaps it goes without saying, but you’d have some difficulty finding a poem like this in The Heads of the Town Up to the Aether, Hawley source for the title of the book (Spicer’s poetry is of course inquisitive in its own ways). While The Concerto Form owes its name to Spicer, in its immediate surfaces Hawley’s is not a Spicerian poetry as one might expect from a familiarity with the older poet’s work.


Something like Spicer’s ‘Coda’ (to which the lines about ‘the cactus needle of the past’ are appended) —


Love isn’t proud enough to hate
The stranger at its gate
That says and does

Or strong enough to return
Or strong enough to return (and back and back and back again)
What was.


— would read as out of place in Hawley’s collection. Where Spicer seems to be experimenting with the effects of doggerel and the paratext, and dictation as always, Hawley’s stance toward language is very like an Objectivist’s sincerity (I’m thinking especially of Zukofsky or Niedecker). And Hawley’s regard for the poem (especially in the middle sections ‘Awhile’ and ‘Afield’) calls up what some have named ‘New Western’ — the poem as recording encounter, as itself an encounter, a document of and as wilderness experience.


So we see in Hawley the claim that ‘what is certain is / all in the eye’s reach’ (‘‘Awhile’ — Field Guide for Voices’), but while he and Zukofsky might share this epistemological conviction, try then to imagine Louis hiking in Anthony’s wet boots:


For hours walking without a sign without
a sentence

Awhile now the coralroot
around our feet
which is to say

My socks got
wet in crossing          loudly

the mountain run-off and listen to
the distance

Some time ago
my toes
pruned ...


And try next to imagine a ‘New Westerner,’ someone like the Gary Snyder of ‘Milton by Firelight’ or ‘Axe Handles,’ writing his landscape in the following manner (these from ‘Afield’):


Black zinnias abloom our arms askance
strained and trained the torso’s riot
a buckle then shiver or loosened the
breathers coupling daylong pat down
flowers all about pelted in scrimmage
we carve and fossil our habits slough
layers of work off exhale pant
pressed petals mark us crawling
to fro nails dug in huff puff


We ponder and harken an adze’s
flinty music blade of steel against
thick trunk flirt its nose in the dirt
awhile horse’s bit beside boots we
clown and mime scary stances stuff
grapes in the mouth a whole
winter’s worth


‘Awhile’ leads us into this wilderness, ‘Afield’ — eighteen untitled poems like the two immediately above, welter of sound and/as perception — is wilderness experience.


Both sections offer a departure from the norm in landscape or nature writing. Poems of that sort, as different as Frost’s ‘The Wood-pile,’ Bishop’s ‘The Fish,’ or Snyder’s ‘Foxtail Pine,’ often take the wilderness experience as text, to be paraphrased in the poem for the reader. It seems to me that we tend to want this sort of poem to be clear, with easy metaphors, beautiful tableaux, and epiphanies brought on by great heights and physical exhaustion. The closest Hawley comes to this set of conventions is the first poem in ‘Awhile,’ ‘Field Guide to the Umbrian Dish,’ the poem that launches his speaker on his wet-booted hike:


On the body of a rock we stopped to sketch signs
of bones and ferns using porcupine quills striped
black and white like the outside of a medieval church
pausing to worship and say this is how you make a fossil
of your own writing with earth oil resin and solubles
wrung from the body’s interior. Hornets swarmed on
a fir’s leaves red poppies flared and all the olive’s
silvering leaves! The cypresses varying in size
our loosely tethered collection of appetites


The manufacture of hieroglyphs on a rock face here unites reading and writing, history and religion, internal objectivity (‘solubles / wrung from the body’s interior’) with external and expressive subjectivity (‘a fossil / of your own writing’), experience and expression. In this moment, environment becomes language becomes action, and yet another chord sounds in the chorus of American poetics, this a distant echo of Olson’s Mayan hieroglyphs in ‘Human Universe.’


Like Olson, Hawley suggests that corporeal experience and textuality are linked, ‘loosely tethered’ in certain experiences, events, or circumstances. This, in Hawley’s practice, leads to a nature poem of a different sort. Perhaps at the price of hiking for hours in wet boots, these poems are sung the way Zukofsky sings his 80 Flowers, but felt, or lived, the way Snyder lives his Myths & Texts.  


So when Hawley poses as epigraph to ‘Afield’ Emerson’s question, ‘[T]o what end is nature?’, the poems themselves stand as answer: nature in the poems of ‘Afield’ is not an Orphic audience of trees and stones to be moved, nor a text — be it wood-pile, fish, or pine — to be read to the reader. Instead, Hawley’s work approaches a sort of sonic glyph, one that means itself, through itself, composed of the body’s humors, the local environment, the processes of sign-making, and the textures of language and of the physical sign. These poems propose, among other things, sound as a way of seeing, a song that counters the Orphic by singing not at the trees and stones, but with them — and the particulate body — as notes in the song.


Hawley’s sense of language is certainly a sense of music — and by this I mean the local music of micro-tonal variations in vowels and consonant clusters, as well as the larger musics of conceptual counter-point, and of patterns carried out across stretches of time. So we have Zukofsky in the hills, Snyder in the concert hall, and Olson not researching but fabricating his own Mayan glyphs, and these in and across a series of books themselves containing multiple series of poems.


It’s from this vantage that Hawley’s practice reveals itself as an intensely Spicerian practice, not only in the poetics of structure (one book of four books, two of which have been published as books with small presses, each book working on some level in series), but also in its willingness to be contrary, to frustrate expectation — to voice, as Hawley has it, ‘a mind / bred upon / division.’


In this regard, The Concerto Form becomes a multiply-inflected reference, at once musical composition featuring soloists against orchestral accompaniment, Jack Spicer’s name for the one-time-only relationship between the past and the ongoing present, and — combining these — an idea of the scene of writing as listening, as performing, as playing:


The cactus needle of the past that could be broken by a mere earmuff, plays the phonograph record of its record never again. This is called the concerto form.


The present moment is a listening to itself and to its past at once, and the multiple voices that play through Hawley’s text in his range of forms and stances make this ‘concerto form’ an arrangement of echoes, make Hawley the medium for a range of ghostly soloists. It’s not to say that Hawley’s poetics aren’t his own. As in the epigraph to ‘Awhile’ — ‘To dwell means to leave traces’ (Benjamin) — Hawley’s work is a record of the traces of those, himself included, who have come to dwell in poetry.


So it’s not simply a ventriloqual poetry, and interestingly enough it’s in the ‘The Concerto Form’ (the title series in the title section of the book) where Anthony Hawley is at his most intimate and personal. In four sections, interspersed with ‘Rehearsal Pieces,’ untitled poems, and a ‘Tuba Eclogue,’ Hawley writes to ‘B’ (whom one must assume is the ‘Becca, without whom never’ of the acknowledgements) through and of varying degrees of separation:


Dear B morning’s fog folds I delight bands fall unfurl since then
I’ve been in the breeze all day you know how end of august is &
these certain hours I am sorry you are not here the benches too by
this I mean the crowds are gathering please join me this meaning
hurry I will do my best & police the empty spots only so long I
have seen some left open there in the crescent park there in the
snowfield tell me which do you prefer we’ll keep it


The series ‘The Concerto Form,’ beginning with the above lines, becomes an extended direct address that constantly revises itself (‘I am sorry you are not here the benches / too by this I mean the crowds are gathering’) and changes direction (‘I’ve been in the breeze all day you know how end of august is & / these certain hours I am sorry you are not here’) in the process of its own articulation. These changes and swerves position ‘The Concerto Form’ at the phatic — it is less important what is being said than that it be said; language, and especially poetry as an open channel between two people, themselves situated at once in time and language.


The Concerto Form is both musical composition featuring soloists against orchestral accompaniment and, as in the lines Hawley quotes from The Heads of the Town Up To The Aether to open the final section of his book, Jack Spicer’s idea of the one-time-only relationship — performed at the scene of writing, as listening, as playing — between the past and the ongoing present. If ‘No / One listens to poetry,’ as Spicer has it, The Concerto Form is throughout a form of language, poetry, listening to itself. And as the various voices in American poetics sound, this collection proposes saying as listening, proposes the act of poetry as an act of relation — to oneself, to others, to the past.


And if I could end on a speculative note, the concerto form, as one voice against other voices, offers an interesting way of thinking about a young poet so finely aware, as Hawley is, of his poetic predecessors. The concerto form suggests the poet as person, as intersection of voices and times and thus folds the subject into the work rather than using the work to take the subject apart. As Hawley practices it, the concerto form is radically present, radically now — a listening to the past that can only occur once, never the same listening, the same playing, the same performing again. This one-time-onlyness in Hawley’s title seems to hint at why his newest work (see ‘Apple Silence’, for example) reads, at least on its surface, as quite different from The Concerto Form: in a practice predicated on a careful listening to change, as Hawley seems to suggest his own is, the cactus needle of the past plays the record of its record never again.

Andrew Rippeon

Andrew Rippeon

Andrew Rippeon edits P-Queue (a journal of poetry, poetics, and innovative prose) and QUEUE (a chapbook series adjunct to the journal). He lives in Buffalo, NY, where he is enrolled in the Poetics Program at the University at Buffalo.

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