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In the diaries of Franz Kafka, there are many recurrent passages which each begin with the imagined opening of a door. In these moments of condensed possibility, the eponymous diarist, seated most often in the middle of his nondescript urban room, uses each instance of the door’s opening to allow a new act of writing to begin. Often, following the removal of this solid veil covering over potential histories, we see something entirely ‘normal’: a familiar person or quotidian object. Other times, the presence is rather more fantastical. In the diaries, Kafka’s door, acting as a generative coup de dès, comes to seem metonymical then of the creative moment itself. As the diaries progress, such passages recur. They mirror, split, repeat. It is a fascinating progression. The door’s opening, each time, is an occasion. Though an ‘excuse’ for the beginning of a writing’s procedures, its arbitrariness strangely morphs into a pressing reason-for-being. Importantly, the ‘occasionality’ soon becomes then so cyclical, homogenous and rich, that it resembles nothing so much as an established form.
Form and occasion? These are not two terms which we have the habit of associating in the landscape of poetic modernity. In any conventional 20th century topography, these terms may even be seen as antinomian. For if the first implies the procedural mastery of a given praxis, the second seems to carry different implications, in which the birth of a writing is more closely linked to the stimuli of particular experience.
OuLiPo against O’Hara? Ion against Socrates? Our tekhnai against our Muse? In short, the conflict seems to have a history. I mention this dichotomy however between form and occasion in the specific context of this important collection from a vital contemporary New Zealand poet, not because the dual exploration of these conflicting terms seems to me rare–though it does–but because what Mark Young accomplishes with this dual assertion of form and occasion seems to me so intriguing.
My reason, then, for talking of this division at the beginning of this review, is that Young’s poems are apt to make us feel that it is possible to attain a poetic event-horizon–a glittering if often imaginary crossroads–where form and occasion seem almost one and the same. Where there is no necessary division between immediate Romantic gestation and sluggish Classical shaping. Where the value of the initial moment–a poem’s experiential ‘beginning’–may come to be justified by the complexity and value of the subsequent procedures which come to bear on its genesis.
I will try to explain what I mean. Firstly, we must note that a large number of the poems in Pelican Dreaming are not based on an abstract, atemporal time, but are rather acts of writing born of a specific instant which, as for Kafka’s, may be imagined or real. The very fabric of this ‘momentousness’–this real or imagined ‘now’ of poetic composition–is so often an inveterate origin of these poems, that we may finish by deciding that it is in fact one of their primary preoccupations. Among the Olsonian echoes of ‘The distances’, for instance, we read:
This is 1 a.m. Auckland;
a time of dead houses, where only
the streetlamps perforate the darkness.
But in Australia it is
11 p.m. E.S.T., & in Cairo
it is eight hours earlier. To turn
the dial is to turn back the clock.
1 a.m. Auckland. The night is just beginning.
In line with this complex view of occasionality, many of these poems are appropriately dedicated: to specific individuals in memory of specific moments in time. The occasion asserts itself, then, in a variety of complementary ways. From Series Magritte, for instance, takes as the occasion of each of its structured variations the experience of a particular act of visual reception: a painting or image, seen. In contrast, Falsely Goethe takes as its own ‘opening door’ the moment of imagined or real deliveries, with each poem begun by the intonations of a generative mantra: ‘Today the / postman brought / me’. These poems, in spite of their beginning from the same apparent point, are able to encompass a wide breadth of imaginary and lived experience–both the veridical and the fantastical–in the sheer productive possibilities of their moments.
In certain poems, Young brings the richness of what I’ve identified as this ‘formal occasionality’ to the fore. To take, for instance, ‘The Correspondence of M. C. Escher’:
Each evening he would write
what had happened to him
on the back of an envelope. Sometimes
would add an address
to the front & send them
off to people he knew
or to others picked
at random from the pages
of the telephone directory. He
kept no record of where
they went; paid little
attention to what he
wrote. Now & then
he would send them to
himself. Could not bear
to throw them away
when they arrived. A pile
grew on the table in the
hallway. One day he read
them. That evening
he wrote about it. Addressed
it. Sent it off. To himself.
The real or imagined ‘occasions’, then, of Young’s poetic, are like the imperative spark in an immensely productive formal machinery. The impetus of these poems extends then from real news-bulletins to imaginary packages, true readings of the dictionary to counterfeit dialogues. They are playful, colloquial, facetious, serious, amusing and dark. This is not, then, the ‘occasionality’ of a Frost or Lowell in American Confessionalism, nor of its various British and Australian counterfeits. It is not looking over Tintern Abbey, nor even the casual opening of a newspaper on the day that Lady died. This is the poetic ‘occasion’ in the sense of Witold Gombrowicz or Daniil Kharms: it is an exploratory leap, rich in possibilities, where each ‘occasional’ origin seems to us, as reader, rather like the diving-board from which may be performed a formal somersault into larger cultural and imaginative waters.
Across the entire latitude of the forty-nine years of poetic life encompassed here, we are witness then to an extraordinarily wide-ranging and diverse poetic praxis, ranging from vispo to experimental sonics, free series to procedural play. This formal diversity is rivaled only by a comparable cultural and contential scope.
Indeed, the extent of this engagement is perhaps what begins to indicate to us one of the important differences between Mark Young’s poetic, and those we may mention as possible forbears. He is, for instance, a consistently more political poet than Frank O’Hara, yet also consistently successful in the subtlety and rhetorical cleverness manifest in his political engagement. Perhaps we may even say, in reference to Young’s poems, that if O’Hara’s tone was his engagement–style the marvellous substance and clothes the beautiful man–then Mark Young often seems to take the original flair of O’Hara’s cosmopolitan insouciance, only to then use it to devastating argumentative effect. Against the heavier political anger of an Ed Dorn or Alice Notley, Young consistently surprises us then with the sting at the end of his apparently more idiomatic rhetorical tale. From ‘The Road to Damascus’:
There is shouting in the street.
Children’s voices. It seems
too late for them to be out &
about. I cannot help myself. I go
to the window even though
the television screen at the other end
of the room is showing the downward
plunge of missiles, the subsequent
eruptions. No colour as we normally
think of it. Instead the washed-out
green & white of night vision lenses.
When birds dive for food
part of their flight inevitably follows
the same parabolic curve that missiles
take. Kingfishers start from a
branch above the river. Flashes of real
colour as they plunge. The water
broken & then broken again with the
upward thrust. They take only
what is needed when needed, return
by the same path to the same spot
save for the time spent under water.
Would that missiles would do the same.
And thus surges again the complex formal occasionality of Young’s work. For in our lives, it seems–in our Olsonian ‘distance’ to lived experience–a semanteme such as ‘war’ cannot help but seem ‘simply’, ‘merely’, occasional. Can it be in any way contiguous, linked, with the reality of our disconnected experience? An image of night-vision, white and black. A screen drained of its colour. This is all we ‘see’. A horizon of apperception, rather than of proprioception. This is, then, our modern, ‘washed-out’ Tintern, with which the contemporary poet may work.
But let this isolated stimulus be an ‘occasion’ for a poem. Let also–coming after this acknowledged occasionality–the form and procedures work and contort, strive and bend, contract and conflate, to make of this seen material something complex, truer, dark. Throughout the reading then of this most rewarding, welcomed Selected, I recurrently felt as though a dense, formal procedurality was steadily at work on all these ‘innocent’ initial instants: steadily cutting away their veils of preliminary experiential dross.
Thus the delivery of mail extends, in Young, and with break-neck speed, to encompass art, politics, history, images, languages, concepts. Moreover, it sometimes seems almost as if the more apparently simple or quotidian the poet’s occasion, the wider the reach of his praxis. From the poem ‘Oranges’:
Not a particular
aspect but the
entirety. That there
are parts to
though. Words for.
Such as. Pith, zest,
navel. Varietal. That
go together. That
together go together.
So. Taste, the juice.
All of which. Without
even talking about
the colour. So. Or.
Say to you. This is
This is an orange. In
the hand. Peeled.
This is as precise and detailed as the best of high-Objectivist Zukofsky–a sink or a mantis perceptively transformed–though there are elements here too, quite obviously, of Frank O’Hara, William Carlos Williams, and perhaps even Robert Creeley. There is precision here but with a perceptive, phenomenological depth. The formality is not dry or overworked, the occasionality never sentimental or gratuit. In this way, the two aspects harmonize one another: they exist, not only together, but with an extraordinary complementarity. It is perhaps for this reason that Young’s poetry seems almost more comfortable with itself–with its status as well as with what it has to say–than much of the poetry of the New Americans which constitutes its vital, and readily declared, lineage.
The same type of intriguing reconciliation between form and occasion also occurs in the tone of this poetic. There has always been, for me, a strangely almost cosmopolitan flair to Mark Young’s poems–the sophisticated frime of a repressed flâneur–which sits intriguingly next to the down-to-earth pragmatism. To watch him one moment lunch with O’Hara, converse with Magritte, then dream with Bosch, is to experience the breadth, not so much of influences, but of interests and of an intelligence. Also, and just as for O’Hara, Berrigan or Rexroth, there is something sly, and darkly astute, to Young’s plays at insouciance. Every clever click of the lexical fingers or flick of the grammatical wrist carries beneath it an undertone: an analytic, and often political, force.
It is perhaps for this reason that what I feel to be one of the most achieved and complex sequences here–from Series Magritte–is another example of form and occasion’s stunning complementarity. For, though each poem here takes as its apparent origin an image by the aforementioned surrealist, this sequence of very strong poems is far beyond mere ut pictura poesis. It is also more than any unidemensional ekphrasis: the density of effect here belies the simplicity of its presentation, and the results are unexpected, and always impressive. The following poem, ‘Not to be Reproduced’, is reproduced here in its entirety:
Shown from the back the
subject is androgynous–think
k.d.lang in her man’s suit
phase. It is a portrait of the artist
as a young (wo)man. It is not
a portrait of the artist. Magritte says
it is not to be reproduced
though he reproduces it
anyway. We do not see
the face. Magritte does not
produce it. Or reproduce it.
Is not reflected in the mirror
for what comes back from there
is not mirror-image
but reproduction. Almost as if
we were peering over a shoulder
only to see the shoulder that we
were peering over. But it is
reflection. The mantlepiece
is reflected & the copy of
Edgar Allan Poe’s Adventures
of Arthur Gordon Pym that rests
upon it is partially reflected. It
is a book about an imaginary
journey. Magritte’s painting
is a journey of imagination about
what happens between two points
that are the same point
though there is distance
between them. He says it is not to be
reproduced. It is reproduced here.
This seems like a simple ‘telling’ of the painting: it seems, then, like a reproduction of a painting. But all reproduction, Mark Young continually shows us throughout this important body of work, is a new story, version, image, or face. All reproduction is production, and vice versa. Magritte’s painting seems simply then, like Young’s poem, to be a ‘telling’: a transparent representation. But both painting and poem, like the image presented, hide themselves from our gaze. We see them–poem and painting–only from the back. No matter how many mirrors we might use, we never stand directly before them, contemplating their face . . .
Since his much-welcomed return to poetry in the 1990s, Mark Young’s contribution to contemporary poetics continues to be remarkable. It is important to note that the poems of this new Selected have been chosen and arranged by Thomas Fink, and Fink has done an exceptional job. Moreover, his excellent preface gives us a vital introduction to Young’s achievements, his continuing progressions and past influences.
But the influences, as always–and as Thomas Fink also eloquently indicates–give merely a hint of the surface of what’s here. As in the end it is above all surprising what Mark Young, in these unassuming, yet impressive poems, is able to reconcile: form and occasion, procedurality and experience, visual constructivism and sonic play. Perhaps we should not be surprised, then, at an initial impression of false-modesty in these poems’ procedures: their claim to small truths, and ‘merely’ particular moments. For as we read in ‘Chaos Theory Does Hollywood’:
that’s the way to influence
the universe. Don’t just
make the movie, change
something small in the
real world & eventually
the film may be seen
as cinema verité by the time
its time has come.
 Of course, all this only serves to confirm a known critical truism: that such misleading adjectives as ‘immediate’, ‘expressive’ or ‘transparent’, need often simply to be replaced by ‘modulated’, ‘shaped’, or ‘worked’.
Nicholas Manning teaches comparative poetics at the University of Strasbourg, France. His new collection, Novaless (elements towards a metaphysic), will be released by Otoliths in August 2008. Hi Higher Hyperbole, a chapbook of new poems, is forthcoming from Ypolita Press (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).