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206 pp. Double covers, Howling Dog Press. Paper. US $19.95 978-1-882863-98-3 paper
Inimitable independent book publisher Michael Annis has done it again. Determined to showcase some of America’s best and brightest poets, Annis’ latest publication is Heller Levinson’s Smelling Mary (Howling Dog Press, 2008) which posits a new poetics through a theory of language — and a theory of language through poetry. Drawing from his extensive knowledge of philosophy, and the proposition that math is the foundation of all life — including language — Levinson positions his poems, and has created a method for them to position themselves, as a means of studying the human condition in a place charged with Universal laws. This is poetry acting as theory of language through language that posits a Theory of Everything, including poetry. For Levinson it cuts both ways, and this is surely some of the most exciting, creative, and intellectually stimulating poetry to come out of America in years.
In Smelling Mary, Levinson uses minimalistic means to engage the reader in the many tenets or propositions of philosophical thought while facilitating critical analysis of language itself, particularly as a function of universal order. Levinson calls his poetics “Hinge Theory.” Hinge Theory provides living poetry as an endless means of studying not just language, but language released from constriction in the attainment of its proper alacrity.
Heller Levinson’s prismatic poetry as Hinge Theory is like a study in refraction, and language is the bend making perception up-for-grabs while sending out its myriad implications through endless possibilities as signifiers combining on the page. Hinge Theory is nothing short of a major paradigm shift in the landscape of contemporary American poetics.
Among the many fascinating things I find in these poems is their physicality, their seeming indirection organized by what energizes them, like a pulse you can feel, a sensuality that enters into you with directness and indirectness, like the best of jazz musicians, like the randomness of chaos with sensitive dependence on initial conditions, chaos that is self-organized in its mere coincidence, its seeming accidentalness that is anything but accident. In Levinson’s poems Thelonius Monk, String Theory, Bocciano, Derrida, Fibonacci, Pythagoras, and Wittgenstein collide, “with particularity,” “with implication,” in poems that function as “linguistic strips carriaging,” and whose words are palpable form that through contraction expand with “ascensional alacrity.”
Smelling Mary has done nothing less than set the stage for a new poetic concept as old as universal breath, transpired into language, where the figurative and literal are equally suspect, where interpretation is transmigratory, and where each word, each unit of word, each space between words is sound; and sound, like that expansive A-U-M, is vibration: vibration out of which all is born.
As poetry, Hinge Theory starts with a “pivot” word from which is hinged its associative “particle,” as if the science of space and object were not distinct from the science of language, meaning its properties are not just a connotation (“nuance”) of/by/through linguistics (morphemes and the like), but are a physics of word/sound itself, mathematically based, and which also, at some level, mean. The particle word that derives itself from the pivot word leads to the “postulate” that essentially expresses the poem’s energized self-creation in-hypothesis, as it were, sustained through its own energetic possibilities in universal expansion.
Reading “Captain Hinge Smells Kindergarten,” the book’s opening how-to lesson staged in “elementary” time, one need only consider the setting in which this lesson is given (elementary) to grasp what it is Levinson is suggesting, which is key to understanding the implications that make up much of the heart of these poems. That is, they are derived from and grounded in the elementary, element, elemental, mental, mentality, to, totality…. A physics of words and thoughts, synaptic in nature, hinging on their predecessors while waiting on their future, unknown words-to-come, transmitted as signals as the brain’s electrical impulses fire into language.
But Levinson doesn’t leave it at that. There is also silence to contend with. All words begin and end, like life itself, like consciousness, with silence. It is an elementary precept of any visual, aural or spoken craft that silence plays as much a part in the making of sound as sound itself. Levinson’s silences are demarcations, interpreted not only through deliberately numbered line breaks and spaces, but through ellipses and commas acting as transitional (sometimes ghost) notes to each poem’s composite energy flexed through its hinged intellect, made manifest by, and self-propagating through, the act of language. In the same way music has endless possibilities through infinite combinations of notes and silences, in the same way endless compounds are made out of the elements, Hinge Theory asserts the possibilities for language within a hinged dynamic are infinite in source through a streaming po[e]t[ic]ential attained not only by the known synapses of the brain’s endless firings, but also by the unknown, by what is, in final analysis, simply mysterious.
“Smelling Mary is electrical, but not electronic,” Levinson asserts, and “ruling the visible we are ruled by the invisible / sensorial reset / subterranean jollities / annihilation javelins / savage the way we surrender” (“with electronics”). It is that human savagery that interests Levinson as the thing in juxtaposition with the order the universe has set down.
In “Hinge Theory Diagnostic,” about one-third of the way into the book, the reader is offered a deeper analysis of the poetry, its theory and devices (in this case using the module “with”):
… ‘With’ is the pivot… whose function is to spring (to unleash, to unmoor) the particle into a climate of free fall and unpredictability. And by free fall we mean that we are liberating the particle from its normative, conventional context and tossing it into question. It might land anywhere and to any effect.
The fact that Levinson terms the third dynamic of the module the postulate (as verb and noun) calls into observation everything asserted through that word’s relationship to math, philosophy, language, and — one might infer — history itself. A quote from M.C. Escher opens the book: “One cannot possibly understand mankind, if one doesn’t see that mathematics and poetry both have the same roots.” These are Pythagorean roots. The last poem, “smellingπ,” asserts pi is “a number enumerating a wild hair….” Math is at the root of everything and energy is the source for math. Levinson works between the two with a poetry theorizing everything out of a Theory of Everything.
Pi as metaphor is one of transcendentalism and irrationality. As symbol it literally and figuratively represents ad infinitum. What Levinson has done is to strip poetry to its primordial c[h]ore[d], where universal numbers and outer space around the poem are as much a part of the poem as the symbols (letters) comprising its linguistic sense, even as the poet asks: “out of what substance / the notes arise … / rock? canvas? / nuclei?” (“with trespass”).
Publisher Michael Annis, who designed the book, cleverly inserted the word “sin” into the graphics behind the Publisher’s Imprint Indicia, suggesting Smelling Mary’s transcendental theory — Platonic in its tendency toward the intuitive as source of knowledge — is a cure for “sinful” poetry. Taken from Aristotle’s “hamartia,” sin is a term whose meaning has to do with (archery) “missing the mark;” as well as a hero’s flaw or error in Greek tragedy.
Annis’ use of the word calls into question poetry on the whole, and whether poetry, or Man for that matter, must be destined to always “miss the mark.” Regarding his use of the word “sin,” Annis says, “It refers to poetry, formerly,” that is, poetry adapted to an environment of and for missing the mark. Smelling Mary, the cover tells us, is “a hinged universe” of “no more dead poetry,” poetry refusing to miss the mark.
Like the Periodic Table, Hinge Poetry functions as the elements in infinitely combining possibilities, its language as much born of those elements as notes are of rocks. In a poem titled “in the temperature of barn,” Levinson asks (considering the plight of the barned horse’s life while thinking of one of the Paleolithic panels of horses in France’s Chauvet Cave): “Did these horses emerge from rock, massaged forth by some celestial sorcerer… ” In context that is a literal and figurative question, but as the poet continues analyzing the “pedagogy of enclosure,” he contemplates “the need to reallocate territory / to chamber a domain & / trot it forward,” remarkable phrases reminding that the domestication of the horse, along with the development of lethal weaponry, was a pivotal moment in the Neolithic age as the onset of organized, human violence took its foothold in history. Trotting it forward, Levinson writes:
barn: a recruitment center to insure perpetuity / a holdout against evolution’s exclusivity, its disallowance of retreat … / this conference center schedules to resist the vanishing, dedicates to shape, to / perpetuation configuration … / the abyss — a de-shapement, an utter dis-figurement, the realm of no corners … / is the abyss the theater of disappearance
/ a monstrosity of vacuity … / with no shape can we speak of an impulse, a charge … perhaps, a petulance? / is the music of vanishing Franck, Satie, Rachmaninoff, … Little Walter
Chauvet Cave, with its many panels, is the Paleolithic “conference center,” full of chambers once dedicated to shape, to perpetuation. A Society of the Spectacle (Debord) that sets itself up toward its own abyss, its theater of disappearance, is the same Society to which Levinson would show that theater, pointing to it not just as linguistic construct, but a place we actually find ourselves in, struggling against the many impending earthly disappearances, including Man’s, as wild horses near their human-imposed hour of extinction. This is a cry against inhumanity and the refusal on our part to change that behavior which threatens earthly life, now teetering on the edge at that abyss of disappearance.
While Levinson postulates through Hinge, he does so with pleasing sensuousness and there is an appealing sexuality within many of the poems. Levinson is also not averse to humor or acknowledging the old while ushering in the new. Throughout Smelling Mary there are references to other artists, philosophers, and poets: “to have, or have not, that is the resource” (“with democracy”) rephrases Hamlet’s famous question on being. Frost’s “Mending Wall” is heard in the sexually humorous remark “something there is that loves a tail” (“with mermaid”). A quote from Eliot’s Prufrock, “time yet for a hundred indecisions” (“with time”) stands as critique of inaction. Additionally, Levinson’s overall alliteration and internal rhyme, his rhythm and the sheer sound of words he dangles into verb-ed nouns and participles become –ing, recall a Hopkins-like quality with a Césaire-ian arresting brilliance as in the surreal “with tower cranes”:
the profile that arises / telling the cranes dwelling / joinery & leer authorial accountant silence blossoms / source bestirment a lighting (alighting) / lightening lightning / crane the enduring lightning shaft thunder writhing in the hoist undergirdments / the instrument that moves without motion that / dips and davens / tutued in clouds – perfect leg / soaring mission preceptor lording apertural stalk winding a narrative puncture truncheon / loom Saurian slink choral conductor legacy seeding sallies on heathen drumships pirating / conversational tendons / reardom scouts / lurch outreach piercing their beyond / the appearance that disappears
Here, the ugliness of the framed, metallic machinery, building, is juxtaposed with the beauty of the natural bird, and “disappears” functions as a transitive verb, so that the result of the cranes appearing, the result of the “profile that arises” is an appearance of something making another disappear.
Like the supreme surrealist he obviously is, Levinson writes in such a way that nearly begs certain poems to be accompanied by jazz improvisation while daring the reader to say each line out loud, as in this amazing opening in “the road to apocalypse road”:
ash winch columns of absentee drift / clouds unbellying / drums a battered bricolage
spasticized / bilious macadam mordant engine sputter / shofars muffled glued
intestinally from shovelfuls of outcry at extremity / no vessel no lesions for passage /
food a ruminant a memory for clause…
This is free-fall poetry, without constraint, restraint, the kind of writing that primes the reader for a poring over of words to grasp all the accidentals thrown out in Levinson’s poetic scores. Again, here is the opening of “in the Wing of Mongolian Eagle” beginning with “resource,” one of the book’s motifs:
resource, … loft / caucus blither / perspiring equinoctial gales burble eyeball gallops gutter updraft fiesta jubilee sprees / … … hammocking solar clumps a rouse / of ocean harps swiggle sea shells / the spell / of lore of rumors shuttling
Using intuitive sense Levinson harnesses re-cognition, or as he writes (in “with ideology”), “cog-Ni-tion,” where “Ni” calls immediate attention to the poem’s element, nickel, a transition metal, as if alerting readers to the human trespass of forgetting (not recogNIzing) not only what we’re made of (that “stuff of stars”) but our relationship to that make-up, as Earthlings, subject as much to elements as to Earth’s magnetic waves, its pulse, which Levinson argues is our impulse, or in-pulse, toward which he manifests poems as hinging cultural critique:
with / ideology, … manifesto / terrain terrain & compass / cog-Ni-tion / coordinates scrambling stern / (consternation / calligraphy non plus gathering / demarcation / cohesion groupings & groupies / adhering to / the road to knowable road / the knowable as fireside lugubrious skate / sullen doin eight to say / lubricity / assist
Levinson’s Hinge Poetry is an ideology of the infinite and Smelling Mary is its manifesto as a world of word synapses fire from the base of thought, where thinking is expressed in a universe of morphemes spiraling into and out of their connectedness, energized by their own will to exist. It is philosophy in a symphony hinged of sounds, and a symphony of philosophically hinged sounds, each a permutation unfolding into its counterpart as inner and outer text, like galaxies, like stars, like cells, as modules existing to coincide with their next [con]text. Like the universe itself, as living expansion of unseen vibration, or as earth’s magnetic waves unfelt, Levinson’s Smelling Mary is a theory in poetic “sets” staged to [de]/[re]compose through postulates that engage the reader in that which is as much energized in its desire to simply be what it is (poetry, alive through its own pure self-regulating essence), as it is designed to expose what kills the life-force, including poetry’s. That is, this is poetry that also stands in opposition to “official verse culture;” poetry that positions itself toward survival through linguistic revivification, attained, in part, by functioning to “induct and order materials from the subconscious as well as from those untoward regions of human experience that defy rational explanation” (Clayton Eshleman, “Introduction,” Conductors of the Pit).
This is poetry that stands against the culture of vanishment. It is anti-contractual in every sense of the word, purposeful in accepting the terms of implication and inference inherent in language, with words functioning as Levinson’s signs, as mediators between what is said and not said, where the “not said” (Wittgenstein) holds something to be understood, leading the reader to the enlightenment of what is knowable within the mysticism of what is un-say-able, which might be the place of “smelling alacrity,” or the place where I, during a brief time in childhood, was able to literally smell blue before an adult convinced me synesthesia was impossible. It is by this mystery then, held in theory, by re-cog-NI-tion of the mysteriously numbered order, that we will enable a reinvigoration to counteract the “road to bumpy road,” in which we find “trajectory waste / … counterfeit war zones, counterfeit & overexposed, trespass & war zone….”
Only on occasion do the ideas behind Levinson’s Hinge Theory seem to overwhelm the process of certain poems. These stand out then as too elusive. On the other hand, as most of these poems ironically prove through their elusiveness, there is indirect knowing, something to be understood, intuitively gleaned from even the most abstract of abstractions — even if that something is nothing….
What Heller Levinson offers in Smelling Mary is not only an augmentation of argument toward a purposeful poetics, but a language as cure for language that has carried with it all its history, which is language containing and contained by so much errancy. And this is not just a cure for poetry, but also, perhaps, as Ninian Smart has written, for the philosophy risen from, that is the result of, “diseases of language” (Wittgenstein). Whatever is next for Heller Levinson, Hinge Theory proposes all, and as he hurls his work toward its own unfolding future, Smelling Mary is here, delivering nothing less than poetry at its best, ensuring Levinson will be studied for centuries to come.
Leigh Herrick is a poet, writer, critic and hand drummer. A two-time Pushcart Prize nominee, and recipient of various awards for poetry, she is currently at work on her first novel, a third CD, and a presentation she will give at York University, Ontario, Canada, in October, 2009, on the ancient and contemporary relationship between poetry, drumming and women. Please visit: www.mnartists.org/Leigh_Herrick