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‘I was really dreading doing that book review’ writes Sharon Mesmer in ‘In the Spiritual History Office’ (107), ‘but as soon as I started it/ the revelations began.’ Faced with the assorted wonders of OCHO # 14, edited by poet and critic Nick Piombino, my initial reaction was not dissimilar. Not that I have been ‘dreading’ the review of this newest incarnation of Didi Menendez’s vibrant publishing ventures, but I have been wondering for some weeks how best to put into words the impression of the volume’s simultaneous unities and diversities.
At this point, Sharon Mesmer perhaps gives the humble reviewer some insight on how to proceed:
as I scanned the perimeters
of each poem for infractions,
I suddenly felt relieved of the need
to join the merry parry,
which seemed to require more cohones
that I imagined could exist
in all parts of the universe at all times
expanding and verifying
and installing and importing
and diving off particular points
of the gospels of Christ, into
the engulfing and fulgent radiance
of three copies of Kafka
In our critical attempt to break these poems’ specific ‘borders’, perhaps we may realize, with some relief, that it is not entirely necessary to ‘join the merry parry’ — to find a point of absolute aesthetic cohesion — in order to experience an ‘engulfing and fulgent radiance’.
It is for this reason that, finding ourselves midway between such cohesion and diversity, an appropriate window into the functioning of the issue as a whole may be granted us by Charles Bernstein’s opening piece, which, as its title explains, is a list, in descending order, of the 428 most commonly used words in his recent book, Girly Man:
Ron Silliman recently remarked of Bernstein’s piece that it ‘is cute for a few seconds but no one, least of all Bernstein, actually expects you to read it. It has a different relationship to the page than that and on that level is the most radical work in the issue.’
But is Bernstein’s piece indeed ‘unreadable’? I’m not so sure. I would rather suggest that Bernstein’s poem explicitly plays up — and with — the tension between ‘traditional’ and ‘non-traditional’ reading strategies: between a linear and a more disjunctive method, a ‘teleological’ and a more ‘circuitous’ approach. It thus establishes itself, like many of the poems in Nick Piombino’s issue, directly against explicitly New Critical exegetical strategies; but crucially, the debris and remnants of these strategies remain in its base framework, like so many battered nails.
I say this because, perhaps foolishly, I took the time to read Bernstein’s piece from beginning to end: each of his ‘428 most commonly used words’, in descending order, as if nothing in literary history had occurred since the ‘triumphs’ — the presence of the inverted commas depends of course on one’s literary-critical persuasion — of a William Empson. This sort of willful misreading — the choice of an obviously ‘inappropriate’ receptive method, which lies in apparent conflict to the very formal and contential impulsions of the work at hand — can, I feel, be revealing.
For we could be convinced, as Silliman is, of the poem’s unreadability (according to traditional readerly techniques or parameters), and see this element of resistance as constituting in itself the poem’s fundamental radicalism. But I’m not sure if there is not another, perhaps even more radical, underwriting, which is here at play, one common to almost all the poets assembled in this issue. As what is interesting for me in Bernstein’s piece is that I’m not convinced a ‘traditional’ — that is, a more linear or fundamentally discursive — reading strategy, is entirely fruitless here. The poem yields up, for instance, some intriguing instances of syntactic, and even near narrative, clarity. To take a fragment from our first quoted extract:
Read ‘linearly’, this could almost seem a channeling of a certain moment of twentieth century minimalism through a Robert Creeley cipher. That is, it is not so difficult to imagine Bernstein’s poem as being formed by a different process as that of its ‘true’ praxis or its ‘actual’ procedurality (such as that of a Creeley poem subjected to a procedure of Mac Low-like erasures).
Another, almost random choice of such listing, further reveals the rich and often comical combinatory powers of language submitted to such a deceptively simple formal device :
These words — if we trust Bernstein in his claim to this statistical procedure — are united by their ‘simple’ arithmetic recurrence; but such is the coherency and effectiveness of this erotico-objectivist gem, that it is difficult to entirely believe — though ‘in procedure we trust’ — that there is not a discriminating hand behind such procedurally epiphanic instances. Or, to take the poem’s conclusion:
To state this in simpler, more dichotomous terms: it is as though the purely ‘statistical’ procedure behind the poem’s formation invites us, as Silliman does, to reject its contential value. And yet, as I’ve attempted to show, we are still able to construct at least a degree of intriguing semantic sense from out this procedural ‘debris’. What seems to matter then is the tension between what the poem seems to say, and its ostensible ‘origin’, which itself attempts to negate this saying.
Why, though, the reader may wonder, am I spending such time discussing Bernstein’s initial piece, instead of the entirety of OCHO # 14 as a whole? The reason is that I came to feel that there is something of the entirety of Piombino’s OCHO in Bernstein’s flagship display. That is, all of these poets are linked simultaneously by ‘mere’ statistical recurrence — those of places, times, friendships, relationships, marriages, boundaries — but also by a deeper coherency which operates at the level of their aesthetics and praxes.
Moreover, Bernstein’s poem, in my reading, simultaneously plays on assumptions of radicalism and normativity: it is perhaps ‘radical’ in its procedure, which seems to demand a new and specific hermeneutic approach, but it also allows the possibility of deciphering its semantic resonances according to other, older modes. In spite, or even because, of a text’s fundamental ‘radicalness’, readers can thus attempt, if they so wish, to construct differing types of coherence, (something akin, in linguistics and cognitive sciences, to the principle of parsimony or redundancy).
Confronted with OCHO # 14, there are perhaps then two visions the reader feels equally drawn to: on the one hand our ‘linear’ desire to emphasize the coherencies of the issue, and on the other the more ‘circuitous’ impetus to recognize here a vibrant and powerful diversity, a forceful surge of very often conflicting poetics.
That these striking manifestations of coherency and diversity vibrantly overlap in Piombino’s uniquely successful editorial vision — much in the same way as they overlap in Bernstein’s poem — is to me one of the most fascinating aspects of this issue. For we have here a collection of poets — to play for a moment the list-game: Charles Bernstein, Alan Davies, Ray DiPalma, Elaine Equi, Nada Gordon, Mitch Highfill, Brenda Iijima, Kimberly Lyons, Sharon Mesmer, Tim Peterson, Corinne Robins, Jerome Sala, Gary Sullivan, Nico Vassilakis, Mark Young — who, as well as being familiar to many of us, represent an at once diverse and coherent spectrum of the contemporary poetic: from proto to post Language Poetries to Flarf, New York ‘Schools’ and perhaps even (though the critic declines to elaborate further) that most dreaded and elusively plural Hydra of the ‘post-avant’.
These variations of the spectrum thus represent forms of that most problematic term: ‘innovation’. But it would be a disservice to categorize these poets solely according to such nomenclature, when we could just as easily, and perhaps more precisely, emphasize their ‘quality’. As Piombino says simply, but admirably, in his preface:
This selection represents a range of work, from among the large number of outstanding writers known to me.
In the model of Bernstein, which is also somewhat Piombino’s, I’ll thus attempt to progress in a rather inclusive way, singling out the diverse point of light of this most vibrant contemporary writing, without necessarily striving to situate each poet under the shadowy archway of a specific contemporary perspective.
We have, then, for our delectation, Alan Davies’s most delicate displays of sonic effect and spatial architecture:
There is neither reason nor rhyme
in this sequence
of things taken out of time
and spelt here
as if they had
some kind of presence (22)
Here, we feel that it is the poem itself which is seen as a ‘sequence’, in this case one made of syntaxes and semantemes, though in the ‘sequence’ which is the poem, ‘things’ — the elements of the world — are ‘taken out of time’, and reduced thus to the new and specific ‘time’ of our reading. This gives the ‘illusion’ of their permanency, of their inherent ontological weight : ‘as if they had/ some kind of presence’.
Particularly important for me is Davies’s complex re-deployment of rhyme in the midst of this rewarding poetics: a gesture which removes this feature of verse from its current unfortunate associations with a range of poetic conservatisms. Rhyme, in Davies’s intricate sonic schemas, appears less then the eclectic flotsam of a washed-up canon than simply another formal feature, laden with possible powers:
Eagerness is just a game
the keeper of the flame
the keeper of the flame
just the same
all the same (20)
This type of writing seems an effort then to rehabilitate rhyme from its more ill-fated associations with a stricter type of formalism that Davies is too clever for. These are poems which, dancing deftly among assonance, dissonance and diverse repetitions, while adroitly avoiding the risk of sounding like a bad Celan pastiche, are excessively difficult to get right.
Luckily, they are right, and Davies concludes with a series of aphorisms worthy, for their tensile theoretical strength and dense rhetorical play, of Nick Piombino himself. There is, moreover, a gentle humour running beneath these faux-philosophical tones, which though never leading to a deflation of sense or a bathos of emotion, still delicately underplay such conceptual tonalities in order to achieve their effect:
Between branding the page with mental celibacy and branding the page with
mental synaesthesia there’s lots. (37)
Such colloquial underpinning — ‘there’s lots’ — takes nothing away from the hermeneutic possibilities of the fragment: it simply softens it edges by means of a more verbal and vocal intimacy. And (and) again:
Poetry is driven by masses of emotion. And (and) of erudition. (37)
In another manifestation of the semi-aphoristic mode, Ray DiPalma makes the register function in an altogether different way:
arranged the same distance from the wall
as the wall is thick
divides the distance (42)
It seems difficult to imagine a more precise diction and distillation of sight and sentiment than this. Again, and following still my methodology of revelatory coincidence, DiPalma’s first stanza seems an almost-appropriate description of his own poetic, which is itself ‘partly aesthetic, partly mathematic, and consistently architectural.’ This architecture reveals itself in a careful deployment of the tensions and torques of the line :
The seven parts of page seven
yield the 8th & 9th parts — where the shades
are shadows on pewter — accostive uncertainties
complicated by the spoken
declining the vatic (44)
This last alliteration (of c’s and t’s) and assonance (in i’s and o’s) of the final lines is luxuriant; and while such images of mathematical coherence and geometric consistency are key in DiPalma, we discover that, just when the tone feels its most descriptively ‘scientific’, the next moment we are in the midst of an imagistic mode which contrasts all the more effectively (and affectively) with these prior, drier statements:
a miraculous command of simplicity
narrowing but pliant privileges the impatient light
that flickers and divides the room — this room
as well as the one to which you will return
and ignore the approval you derived from expectation (45)
Arriving at Mitch Highfill, we enter perhaps still denser territories, those of the poignant disjuncture between conceptual questioning and the quotidian moment:
World is text. No mirrors or photographs will help. The tea leaves settle in
the bottom of the cup. Wasting at a finite rate. The penetration of intuition
follows upon the expectation of thought. We stood there shaking our heads
and nodding. Clients are no longer turned on by benchmarking. The study
of regression models and life tables. (71)
With Highfill, an important motif in regard to all these poets emerges: namely the persistence, albeit beneath a surface of play and intelligent disruption, of an implicit Longinian Sublime, a lyrical thrust and pull which remains, albeit darkly, the monster beneath the surface of these most contemporary poetics. To quote an ideal example from Highfill himself, from the end of his beautiful poem dedicated to Gary Sullivan, ‘When You Were Born’:
Now it has been revealed to me
that you are not who you were
and never will be again who you were
when you were you and only you
and the sun was moving across a certain
section of the sky which has since been removed
and placed in a quiet place titled Gary. (79)
There is a fragile intimacy to this, yet also, at its close, a desire perhaps to briefly dissipate any too-earnest overtones of prior reflectiveness by way of a lighter wave of the poetic hand.
A question thus emerges: for Piombino’s poets, does language, in spite of our underwritings, thus sometimes retain the more sacred arc of its older lyrical registers? The question is of course complex, for though not necessarily the death of the Sublime, we see here in OCHO its criticism, its parody, its contextualization and its taking to task, as in the complex work of Corinne Robins:
It’s a battle of time, watching the artist growing older,
telescoping women’s images
friezes of Helen, hated by all of Greece,
scrolls of women’s history arguing childbirth
always the battle, the sacred text. (126)
From the sublime to the political, another of the volume’s preoccupations is embodied by the discursive vibrancy of Brenda Iijima, with her awareness of language’s dissimulations and various rhetorical risks. From ‘Rev Says’:
Rev says stand up and stand
Believe what believe I believe, you
Ever rev severe some
Though people gotta give some sever (89)
The elevated bombast of the sermon is here unpacked into its syllabic parts, the call to ‘belief’ shown to be, at its base, simply another use of phonemes and semantemes: of the base units of our possible expressive arsenals. Specifically, and crucially, Iijima seems to ask us what such an arsenal — as dangerous as any of our other arms — is consistently being used for:
Ghosts behind each person’s insistence
Don’t you think we slathered the place with gel
One time there were people rallying for snow
Another time there was hell to pay up (87)
Similar to this, and particularly impressive for me in their density of poetic effect, is the diverse contemporary and historical engagements evidenced in the poems of Mark Young:
In Antwerp he asks the truck drivers
but in vain. The day starts fading
& they, without being trapped by
retrospective, exert no influence upon
judgments of distance. He walks away
from them. All totalitarian dystopias,
in life & in art, seem to be obsessed
with the everyday crimes of the
middle classes. The Texas Chainsaw
Massacre keeps looping in
his mind. Incongruous in it is
the figure of Beatrice as Dante saw her,
in shadows, lighting them, diffusing
them, her hand raised, frozen. In time
the opacities may affect his vision. (171)
In these fragments of sufferings broken off, we feel ourselves almost in the presence of the condensed remnants of historical narratives denied. Like the speaker, we walk around them, or ‘away’ from them, but they are finally left to extend into our own current, personal narratives, where they can perhaps only, forever, ‘loop’. In this ‘incongruous’ mingling of histories, we have difficulty reconciling the sublime adulation of Beatrice ‘as Dante saw her’ with our more terrestrial preoccupations. Is our ‘vision’ thus affected?
Confronted with Mark Young’s vignettes, the reader feels then a certain perspectival discomfort which the entirety of this writing is able, in a very positive sense, to evoke. A similar feeling occurs for me regarding the poems of Tim Peterson, to the extent that, in attempting to come to terms with the complex tonality of his work, I often feel a sense of initial, but very pleasing, readerly displacement:
We linger tongue of whiteness, backchannel silliness.
Now I draw near to your website. I am painting it (121)
There is a dense ambiguity of register to this, though the critic may err badly in confusing it with ambivalence. The effect is often unsettling: a mix of apparent affirmation with a subsequent veering into less ‘affirmative’ ephemera. Interestingly, the lyrical voice of Peterson’s intricate, compound poems, seems occasionally aware of this process of readerly questioning:
She deserves a good rent.
I can never desire an earnest reader.
He will be allegiance to dock
prices off. You flew out your
own month. The powells were false fronts. (122)
The declarative statement, ostensibly concerning poetics and coming from a sort of subjectival nowhere, is here embedded amongst such heterogeneous stuff that we must first attempt to determine its intriguing rhetorical status.
This technique is repeated, to similarly successful effect, in much of the other work in the volume. How to read, for instance, such fervent yet also fundamentally amusing flourishes as those evidenced in the work of Jerome Sala? :
when my lover touches me
I become the mascot
of the apocalypse! (133)
The consummate practitioner of this over-the-top turn, and its various variations, is perhaps Nada Gordon, though in Gordon such excess has reached a point of pyrotechnic flaunt, where the reader can often only watch, infused with a degree of near-painful wonder:
but ah? poetry
for all its rawness, I still dislike it:
the fledglings leap,
tiny suicide bombers,
into the great maw
of banausic night (62)
There is much more to say, little time, and we must finish our catalogue. Kimberly Lyons’s work is excellent, Nico Vassilakis’s most perceptive moments are as luminous as ever, and Elaine Equi’s pieces as consummate as we have come to expect. Gary Sullivan’s brilliant plays in verse are, as usual, a source of pleasure, such that they formed for me one of the keystone to the volume’s vaulting concerns. For in such discussions as those between Mozart and Salieri, Jefferson and America, we are witness to a new incorporation of cultural histories, as far from our tradition and individual talents as one might ever hope:
What profundity! What boldness!
What perfect foam!
Oh, come now, Salieri.
What’s foam to the starving man? (140)
The entire issue is in fact best summarized — in what can only seem for us another appropriately self-reflexive turn — by Alan Davies’s playful ‘review’ of Anne Waldman:
Actually — this is the kind of book I like — a form admissive of its (many) parts. It’s a compendium — a sort of anthology of itself. It’s a place where the various voices of the one author can blend — and disseminate — and this is rare among the many authors with only one voice (and frequently a frail barely-held-to one at that). It’s good to allow different types of texts to conflate — in and among themselves.
There’s no way out of the contagious fury of the moment.
The value of Nick Piombino’s vision is that we are invited to accept this volume’s most vital paradoxes: the true fury of its moment. Arriving at the end of our diverse yet unified catalogue, we can thus only hope, in praise of Piombino’s catalogue, to have avoided the two poles of reductionism and dissipation in the ‘listing’ of a poetics which, in its occasional equidistance from sublimity and irony, obliquity and linearity, seems as diverse as it is in the end remarkably ordered, and motivated always by vital concerns. As Mark Young lucidly says in ‘Genji Monogatori I’:
To reread a
text that has been thus
deconstructed does not mean
to tear it apart or render it
meaningless; instead, the goal
is to do a high-tech version
of what theater folks call
tearing down the fourth wall. (170)
Nicholas Manning teaches comparative poetics at the University of Strasbourg, France. In 2004 he took his MA from the Sorbonne, and from 2003—2006 held a scholarship at the Ecole normale supérieure of the rue d’Ulm. His PhD thesis concerns questions of rhetoric and sincerity in contemporary European and American poetics, with chapters devoted to the poetry of Louis Zukofsky. His chapbook Novaless I-XXVI is available from Achiote Press, (www.achiotepress.com), and a new chapbook, Hi Higher Hyperbole, is forthcoming from Ypolita (www.ypolitapress.blogspot.com). He is the editor of the video forum for contemporary poetics The Continental Review (www.thecontinentalreview.com), and maintains the weblog The Newer Metaphysicals (www.thenewermetaphysicals.blogspot.com).