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In Robin Blaser’s poem “As If By Chance,” he writes “the Private Sector worries me / it can, the ubiquitous ‘they’ say, solve — that is, clear up—” (347). This engagement with thinking through the quickening pace of privatization that saturates our post-industrial North American society, places the reader at the nexus of the provisional thinking of Blaser’s poetics. At stake is the embrace of a public world, a world-image that persists in salvaging an expanding narrative not just of the self, composing itself through languages, but of the multiplying discourses in conversation and negotiation with reading the world. Blaser’s self-reflexive writing practices find him on the interstices of a labor that attempts to reposition his network of learning to include textual companions, philosophical discourses, and the folds and interruptions of multiple selves to induct an act of thought. The challenge is in reading Blaser not as a signatory of uninterrupted authorship, but as informed by a multiplicity of tongues, a resonant and spiritual data mining that recovers the voices of history often lost inside the technological reinforcements of simulated imagery flashed back to the public realm as if navigating through a homogenous body politic.
In 2006, the University of California Press published the The Fire: Collected Essays of Robin Blaser and The Holy Forest: Collected Poems of Robin Blaser. These monumental publications make available the consummate work of a poet and essayist whose breadth of reference, citation, and engaging poetic practice stand among our most heterogeneous currents of poetic thought in modernity. For as Blaser says in his short essay “out of the velvet — the denim — the straw of my mind,” “I have chosen a poetic practice of entangling discourses, including the running about of my lyric voice” (97). Blaser’s poesis, or the art of making, which is always an active element of thinking about reality and the Other, pivots around how Blaser thinks through and with a poetics of the relational, conceived through the “multi-dimensional and multi-logical” (65). His concerns are emphatically discharged in the plural, thereby speaking through a “secularity of concern” (90).
This reclamation of language from the positivisms and discourses that attempt to claim what we call reality is one of Blaser’s fine imprints on his art. Instead of the singular discourse lighting the way towards meaning — Blaser critiques the humanities departments for the way they “tend to become closures of our thought of reality” (66)—we have in Blaser’s cosmology a territorial remapping of consciousness. According to Blaser “We need to know how old we are… We need to trace the consciousness of that ageing” (86). The exegesis inherent in this thinking folds not into a neat category of the “simply subjective or personal” (199), but recasts the management of materials, the recombination of dissimilar discourses into a flexible poetic practice.
In Robin Blaser’s essay, “The Fire,” usefully included in Donald Allen and Warren Tallman’s The Poetics of the New American Poetry, a groundbreaking collection of voices cast as an alternative poetics, Blaser says the “imagination is more a power to take in and hold than it is a power of making up, though it must in its activity take responsibility for the uncreated” (7). This quality of conceiving poesis as a necessary function of the real, as a “processional aspect of the world… to be caught in language” (4), gives Blaser the topography in which to maneuver, and provide an oppositional thinking to the cultural policing of hierarchical values. That Blaser’s project is a special kind of recovery, a continuum of “poetic speech” among the myriad discourses that proceed to hinder human particularity in favor of generality such as “the will of the people,” is no small task. Blaser’s work marks the accumulation of a poetic investigation into our modern condition, and attempts to work inside the “notion of a consciousness of the human record in art” (92).
In the preface to the sequence of poems “Syntax,” Blaser charts himself inside what he calls his “cultural orphanhood” (203), meaning that, at base, he is a populist whose configuration of selves applies a functional plurality of possible origins much like the intertextuality his poems enact. The caliber of this position locates Blaser on the seams of emergence, privileging the protean thought. There is no absolute typescript to which his conception of self can measure against itself. Rather, the possibility of staging an act of subjectivity relies on building a network aesthetically attentive to both burgeoning and fossilized thought. Thinking with Blaser on his own terms of seriality, enable the reader to wander restlessly through The Holy Forest. In his essay “The Stadium of the Mirror,” Blaser says the “serial poem constantly circumscribes an absence that brings its presences to life” (34). It is in this indeterminate space that polarities of self and order can be played out and tested, though they may be completely incongruous to each other as discourses.
The intermittent poems, “Image-Nations,” which surface then fade out into other worlds of thought, perform a narrative without an “imposed story line” (5). Blaser draws on Ovid’s carmen perpetuum, or “continuous song” (5) to describe his sense of seriality as it folds and unfolds throughout his work. In “Image-Nation 2 (roaming” Blaser says: “then we, the apparatus, burned by a night / light, are traveling in company with the messenger” (90). As the “Image-Nation” builds through a continuum of utterance, the messenger or messengers become exceptionally dense and parlay any sense of finding home. Subjectivity is explored as in “Image-Nation 3 (substance” where “I define / the dark correct allowing that I to appear / naked, an unyielding form of I acting apart” (91), to complicate one’s sense of ownership within language. This negation of a wholly integrated identity encompasses an employed ambiguity that allows for the constructing of selves. Moreover, the insistence of subjectivity as explored through the Other is acted upon within a search for a world-image wrested from the seat of personal agency. Polarities such as darkness and light are employed, not as metaphorical elements by which meaning’s implied, but to engage the reader in a wayward oscillation of “absence suddenly melding with / presence and vice-versa” (173). This experience of dislodging proposed materiality’s of self requires the poet to find a form capable of enacting the very grounds for posing the problems of subjectivity. On a formal level, the emphatic gaps between phrases propose a lacuna, the cavity of white space where silence, or the lack of continuity, cues to the reader that meaning and utterance are performed in a constellation of textual affects.
“Image-Nation 24 (‘oh, pshaw,’” finds Blaser’s psyche circulating around memory as a mechanism for testing what might make the composition of a self. This particular poem reads like a biblical genealogy set in a more distinct prose style, but in a larger frame particular to The Holy Forest, the poem is withdrawn from any synchronous elevation of materials functioning outside of history. This is to say the poems in The Holy Forest are not atemporal or ahistorical. They orchestrate specificity against a backdrop of memory, textual companions, and a community of travelers within language.
Blaser’s movement is a wandering through the rethought and reconceived contours of his “cultural orphanhood” from childhood to adulthood. The end of the poem sounds a poetic condition that bears all the tracings of existential experience: “on a startled day — the ashen boy — becomes — exodic” (388). This last image of exile provides a crucial relation with Blaser’s condition. In fact, the relational aspect of Blaser’s thought is a matrix of reference that privileges memory as a recalling of the orders one thinks to forget. Like the image of Proteus, the Greek sea-god in the early poem “War for Those Who Are Not Soldiers,” “Grab Proteus and he becomes a snake, an eel, / a bear, a crow. Touch him, he insists upon changes—” (8), Blaser’s formal decisions compel perpetual change in order to erect the values within a template of specificity.
Blaser’s work has been activated under the particular pressures of diminishing cultural memory and in constant negotiation with the multiple strains of modernist practice while continuously exploring the possibilities of reimagining a world. This is not a utopian project, but an indwelling in language. Elsewhere Blaser says: “Where our words become uneasy as to meaning and designation, it is just there that a life in language begins again” (134).
Singularity and particularity are recurring values Blaser employs against the deafening postures of political dominance over the notion of a public world. As Blaser contends, “Words are instruments.” From his essay “Particles,” Blaser explores the need for the singularity of human agency as a reinstituted form of freedom and argues for the efficacy of poetic thought as a response to our experiences in the twentieth-century as a “crisis in meaning” (230)
Obviously, I am arguing the ancient view that politics is a public activity, for which space and freedom are guaranteed, and I want further to say that this activity is discourse, — in which words grasp whatever we know of meaning. Twentieth-century poetry and poetic theory by its poets have repeatedly worked out the ground of this activity. What has to be understood is that form and content combine in an activity which reveals meaning, grasps the mind of the reader, so that he is forever changed, because, if he has understood, there has been a meeting. And that meeting has permanence since it is held in public words. Now, it is objected that the particularity of modern poetry, its concern with deeds, thoughts, place, make it private and irrelevant. This is not so much ignorance as it is disrespect for particularity. (22)
The predominant concerns of this passage are to position the thought inscribed in “poetic speech” not as an anodyne to a public infused inside a generality, but to enlarge our sense of immediate agency within the fields of thinking beyond the displaced notion of the collective. The argument in “Particles” is built around the breaking down of the epistemologies in which we read poems for their political content on a surface level, and reopens the possibility of reading as political, the instance of the singular. Towards the end of this essay Blaser writes: “It is in the concrete nature of poetic speech that integrity remains and endures as a permanence in human affairs” (24). Blaser’s conception of language, it is worth noting, participates in and performs a crucial reading of what we have thought to forget, not only of the twentieth century, but of a larger cultural effacement: the erasure of difference. It is reclaiming experience that’s at stake.
From the early serial poem, “Cups,” Blaser writes that “A path emerges / without the necessary guide” (44). Parallel to this from the later poem “nomad,” “the grounds shift all / the time / as paradises must” (429). The singular “path” and plural “grounds” meet and unseat any hierarchy of values while all the while proposing that “Shapes / of poems / fly out of the dark” (34). We may read these statements as a trope for the entirety of The Holy Forest where we are frequently lost inside the insistent provocation of recovering a foothold through Blaser’s relentless philosophical inquiry through a poetics of citation. To focus on Blaser’s usage of citation would certainly be a reduction of his work, but it does offer a grounds for reading both the poems and essays.
In Even On Sunday: Essays, Readings, And Archival Materials On the Poetry and Poetics of Robin Blaser, edited by Miriam Nichols, she writes in the books introduction that “citation cannot be read as filiation” (28), meaning that Blaser is not adjudicating a proposed system of writers that he privileges over the other. Rather, discourses are modes of thought that Blaser employs through association or dissociation. The juxtaposition of the multiple discursive fields of thought onto a intertextual canvas is where form and content negotiate their confirmation for coming into being through a language act. Both Blaser’s poems and essays partake of this accumulation of source texts, troubling the relationship between author and subjective agency, author and reader, but enabling a negotiation that opens the text into a spatial density promoting participation, rather than total disclosure of a poem’s or essay’s materials and meaning. Blaser’s texturing, by prolonging and extending the possibility of making meaning, creates a cosmos that’s larger than ourselves, attentive to the meta-narratives of human consciousness and the necessary performance of language where “the poetic reopens words into action” (139).
We can further enunciate where Blaser’s citation enacts what Charles Bernstein has called a “lyric collage” in order to investigate Blaser’s poetic project. Thinking about poetic assemblage is another way to reconcile form, content, and Blaser’s lifelong seriality that unfolds throughout The Holy Forest. The poem “The Art of Combinations” reads:
‘we conclude with cosmography, the
connection of subjects to each other’
‘consumed in the overwhelming
nothing simpler than what I have said because
I didn’t say it, nothing simpler than what
I have said, because I said it— (293)
Blaser’s usage of citation finds its source in Gottfried Wilhelm Leibniz. Cosmography as a kind of mapping becomes the directive and actual movement of Blaser’s inquiry into where we’ve been, where we are, and where we can possibly go. This marriage of past, present, and future, is another way to valorize the experience of human agency as against the “amalgamated voice” (99) of modern society. The poem above, though a small example of Blaser’s reading of a writer who authorizes him into his poetic practice, is but a dot in the field of Blaser’s cosmology. Blaser’s companions in thought who range from Hannah Arendt, Ernst Kantorowicz, Alfred North Whitehead, Jack Spicer (see his magisterial essay “The Practice of Outside”), Robert Duncan, Charles Olson, and Robert Creeley, to name a few presences that inhabit his life-long project, provide a series of concerns that layer Blaser’s texts with an openness to question the given.
From his 2003 essay, “The Irreparable,” we are among “This war with its eyes out” (99), a post-911 image that evokes experience, perception, and the potential for human destruction. Here, we are in the territory of Blaser’s thinking in and through the Italian philospher Giorgio Agamben. Central to this essay is Agamben’s “destruction of experience” (99), which Blaser identifies through a contemporary reading of our social, political, and material conditions. Blaser’s “secular task” (100) is a reckoning of the imagination, almost a reclaiming of how we value the tasks of the imagination. But in our contemporary world, the imagination becomes undervalued, pushed to an aporia where we have only the disappearance of individuation within its nexus of the other. In this way, imagination and experience become separated and folded into the exclusion of singularity. This essay leads Blaser through Agamben to “discover an opening into our contemporary task: ‘to redefine the concept of the transcendental in terms of its relation with language’” (103).
The work of envisioning an alternative to the disappearance of the individual Blaser calls the “poiesis of thought” (107). This condition of being within a making, always processional, is central to Blaser’s poetics, as it allows him to posit writing as thought, reaching into the public sphere by the disclosure of particularities. Part of our cultural forgetting of the public, the silence being written over with the discourses from the private sector, is a dislocation within language. In “demi-tasse (an elegy” Blaser writes us into our condition of forgetting with a tone of lament:
the silence surrounds me
the words were deeds once upon a time and space
social silence where a fragile good composes bankruptcies
of ideas run through two centuries my centuries, watching
the poets sit on the shelves,
joined by musicians
painters, sculptors not one of them weeps (330)
For us, language is primary to our experience of the world, and Blaser’s wonderment in and through language creates a template, or meeting place, for that which becomes the record, not the source of human interaction. Blaser says in “The Fire,” “Language is given to us and in the most insidious way it controls sight, sound, and intellect, but it is also the medium which can be shaped” (4). This notion of language as bestowed upon us from an undefined source, targets a retroactive consistency whereby language is an invisibility that we shape into a “composition of a world” (27). In other words, from the essay “The Stadium of the Mirror,” “The Language is not a consciousness of ourselves, but rather an inherence in the world” (27). This declarative may seem contradictory given that further on in the essay Blaser says “Poetry always has to do with consciousness” (29), but the point consists of a rethinking of what we might called the relational. We don’t invent our language, but participate in what Blaser calls a “continuous forming” (30).
Blaser posits language as an action. In the poem “Salut” from “The Moth Poem,” Blaser writes “there is no meaning here, / there is all meaning here” (84). Here, Blaser may be read in a paradoxical lens, but the generative push of this juxtaposition calls attention to the way meaning becomes decommissioned from any act of intention. Blaser is not lobbying for any particular meaning, yet the extremity of its seeming contradiction places us within an improbable geography: where do we go from here? Listening to Blaser alongside his reading of Jack Spicer we hear that the “final aspect of Jack’s work is in this — that the reader participates in the meaning of the poem — that the poet is only one voice alongside another — that the poetic reopens words into an action” (139). The gesture of Blaser’s companionable reading of Spicer calls for a renewal of what we might call the poetic task.
The task Blaser places at the forefront of his “poetic world” is wholly a contemporary concern for all involved, but it does implicate a reader. What are we to imagine might be a reader’s responsibility when faced with textual discourse? Once discourses and words have left the realm of public thought and consideration, they are relegated to history as if they represent a vacuum of time. This is a past that can no longer be contextualized as a part of human consciousness. Our present experience is read through a series of totalizing systems that attempt to disclose human agency in the discourses at hand. By investing in language, we bare our responsibilities to the composition of the real, which is finally not a closed system of totalizing discourses, but an opening, or fissure. When speaking of the real, is it important to gather Blaser’s sense of how we come to terms in our thinking of how we define the real. If Blaser consistently posits the real as problem, than what is its terrain? Blaser tells us “Part of what is meant is a valuation that includes the world of earth and sky” (197). Indeed, Blaser brings us to the ground of consequence.
Blaser’s “Great Companion: Dante Alighiere,” a long poem that concludes his companion poems to date, stands among the The Holy Forest as a maze of convolution and clarity. It engages the reader with Blaser’s reading of Dante, which has been a lifelong endeavor. According to Blaser, “Dante was a toiler in discourses in the full range of thought, not in what the modern mind takes to be the merely personal voice of poetry” (73). The elucidation of Dante by Blaser as man capable of withdrawing from the singular word, gives Blaser a particularly fertile historical figure in which carry out a poetic modality of wandering through the substance of thought utilizing a “Odyssean language” (448) informed by a desire to understand our “poetic condition”:
Dante’s Hell, Purgatory, and Paradise are signposts—
of tradition, which implicates us — of shifts in their
landscapes, which implicate us — in imagination
of language — Hell, where we are lost in the un-
redeemable time of our own century — Purgatory,
renames the poetic condition — the experiment of
writing — the feel of writing — Paradise, where words
wander in the wildwood — (449)
The lyric compression of this section of his companionable poem to Dante, hints to the emotional strictures inhabited by Emily Dickinson’s poems. On a surface level, the dashes perform as if to indicate a stutter, an effusion of thought that’s almost stalled in a grandiose reverie. These utterances are sounded through a kind of paratactic structuring, a formal technique frequented throughout The Holy Forest that foregrounds Blaser’s democratic vision by creating associations only apparently without logical connections.
The undisclosed vistas of Blaser’s philosophical inquiries put the poet as the maker into the condition of testing the possibilities of a new world. The openness of his bardic breath, musically dissonant in its climatic registers and formal knots, fold and unfold us to the “signposts” of our times. Blaser’s aim is not to incite nostalgia into a complacent gaze of our past, present, and future. Rather, Blaser lays his claim on the efficacy of poetry and poetics to re-pose our multiple conditions, to constantly revise our epistemological systems so that the shadow of our thinking might alight on the deviance of our institutions’ systematic thought. This is Blaser’s “continuous song,” a cosmology in a perpetual state of composition.
Matthew M. Gagnon grew up in northeastern Massachusetts and has since lived in Vermont, Colorado, and western Massachusetts. He is currently a student at the University of Massachusetts MFA Program for Poets and Writers in Amherst. His reviews and essays can be found in Octopus Magazine, Word For/Word, The Poker, and Jacket. Poems are forthcoming in Model Homes.