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Tell the truth but tell it slant
means to allow
a little of the light in
to the place of the telling
and certain slants are ways
of walking toward either
story or truth as much
as one becomes the other
in the wave on the beach
where glass grinds smooth
retains color and waits
the slanted push of
Certain Slants by Charles Alexander was the only one book I brought with me on a recent trip to China. Usually I choose a book or two that will allow me to escape the airports or train stations along the way from one place to another, but having already read this book, I knew that it might offer a very different kind of companionship and might offer a way of attending to aspects of travel I have often ignored or even tried to avoid (the frenetic sounds of airports for instance). I chose this particular text precisely because it has found a way to house or lodge often radically heterogeneous materials and sounds within a single, albeit vast space. The poems weave materials from the intimately familial and erotic to wider social, political, scientific, historical, and literary discourses culled from over twenty years (1986–2007) of Alexander’s work.
The bulk of the volume is composed of two long sequences entitled Pushing Water and Cardinal but also includes poems like Certain Slants from which the title of the collection is taken and “Aviary Corridor,” which the composer Tim Risher recently set to an ensemble of a string quartet, soprano vocal, flute, and piano. It is easy to imagine Alexander’s work being interpreted as music for few poets writing today are more guided by what Ezra Pound called “melopoeia.”
Not unlike Pound, Alexander integrates the wide scope of his materials into a sonic composition that follows sounds themselves rather than Pound’s notion of a “musical phrase” to overflow the communicative requirements of differential phonemes into pure sonorous excesses that, for this reader anyhow, remind me every time I read its poems, why I read poems in the first place. The voice makes language audible, and regular speech tends to disappear into the communicative event itself.
But poetry (this poetry specifically), with is heightened sensitivity toward and manipulation of the sonorous qualities of language (alliteration, assonance, rhyme, rhythm, timbre, pitch, euphony, cacophony etc) doesn’t allow the voice to fall away into what is “said” in terms of semantic content, but instead offers readers a sonorous language that mobilizes a range potential stimuli (physical, psychological, emotional, etc) that cannot be “stated” through referential language proper (so-called content). The words are here, it would seem to open up windows upon polyvalent shifting horizons of meanings, and the sounds that escape the words are here to open our ears to places where words, as such, cannot follow.
In Pushing Water 22 for instance, Alexander follows the ambient residues or the sonorous excess of words toward passages of phonemes freed wholly from their communicative instrumentality to become moments of “sound poetry” proper. Once scattered by way of the ear, they are gathered back together by the eye in dynamic patterns of visual prosody:
are we? (112).
In “Pushing Water #14, Alexander seems to capture the centrality of sound in his poetics more generally when he writes,
The whole of the work is the sound of the work
Is the structure of
Breaks to the surface breaths
The breathing of the sonorous in his work is not as much captured here within the clarity of the phrase, but by rupturing syntax to allow the openness of sound to emerge into our wider interpretive (and felt) horizons. I suppose we could read “Pushing Water,” as a commentary on the push and pull between goal oriented reference and process oriented (aural) experience as the title of the sequence could be read as an extension of Camus’ “Myth of Sisyphus,” who eternally pushes the stone up the hill only to have it roll back down. One could even see the act of pushing water as far more overwhelming, as it cannot be pushed against even once, its surface area so much greater and intangible than our small hands.
While Camus urges us to accept the existential burden of life’s futility, Alexander reveals how pushing water is a generous offering of experience more generally, of simply if not sensually being in a textured, dynamic and continually transforming and transformative world. Within the sheets, waves, and bodies of sound here one feels (visually, aurally, referentially) the buoyancy of being within water in the first place (after all, when it pushes back, we float). Far from a prison house, language figured as water, or just as regularly in this work, as light, is infinitely open, playful, oceanic.
While Certain Slants is a richly intertextual work, his writing through Jackson Mac Low’s “Light Poems,” creates an especially poignant fabric of references that integrates Mac Low’s ethereal bright points into his work again by way of sound:
sun light through window
airplane light through window
flashing light through window
where light through
when light after
designation of light
remembrance of light
creation of light
The movement of light through a prism.
Alexander is a very strong reader of Mac Low (who was the first poet Alexander published as the editor of Chax Press), and this intertextual bridge into Mac Low’s chance derived and/or later intuitive operations appears to catalyze (at least in part) the rapid forms of breakage and flight Mac Low’s work is known for as the language takes off like sparks from flint once separated from itself in short bright bursts.
On several mornings during my trip I woke up early enough to watch the hundreds of old-folks who practice tai-chi in the parks and realized that Alexander’s “pushing water” is not so far from the pushing one sees in tai-chi, as the hands extend as antennae into the air with such receptivity that the air itself can be felt flowing around even the most precise efforts to push it. Of course, the point is not to move the air around us, but to engage it, feel it, and respond to it. Opening Certain Slants in less idyllic spots along the way was no less effective in restoring my attentiveness to the ambient textures of travel,
As if air as if song
And a space between one
Group of words and another
To lie down among.
I cannot claim to have kept myself wholly receptive to the many textures of otherness that brush up against and by default often concretize the dimensions of what I think to be my self. But more than once the apertures which these poems open, or the ruptures within the membrane of sameness that their sounds make possible, allowed more than one experience of being in wherever I was at the time. Most readers of experimental poetry of the last several decades are already aware that Alexander knows how to make singular, beautiful and influential books (his Chax Press has published such a dynamic range of poetry of the 80s, 90s, and today) and they will no doubt come to know (as many already have) that can write them as well.
Dr. Jonathan Stalling, an Assistant Professor of English Literature at the University of Oklahoma, specializes in twentieth-century American poetry and East-West poetics. Stalling’s publications include articles, translations, poems, and reviews in Boston Review, CLEAR (Chinese Literature: Essays, Articles, Reviews), World Literature Today, and Chain as well as several book chapters on American poetry and poetics. He is the co-editor with Haun Saussy of The Chinese Written Character as a Medium for Poetry, A Critical Edition (Fordham UP 2008), and Poetics of Emptiness (under review), which traces the contributions and transformations of East Asian philosophy, religion, and poetics in Twentieth Century American poetry and poetics. He is also the translator of a collection of poetry entitled, Winter Sun: The Poetry of Shi Zhi 1966–2007 (in progress).