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Photo: Ron Silliman, photo Jeff Hurwitz 1998
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With its novel-like sweep and time-capsule economy of luminous and memorable details, Ron Silliman’s work ought to have come in for dozens of belletristic appraisals by now. The irony of the so-called New Sentence, in which narrative sequence takes second place to the juxtapositions of an evenly-hovering attention, is that, in Silliman’s best work, most of the sentences themselves are not new, but are perfectly recognizable. Properly contextualized — say, as short fiction in which one or two or the submerged narratives are highlighted, and five or ten horrific reminders of social injustices and physical needs are deleted — most of his sentences wouldn’t be out of place in The New Yorker.
The Silliman work I go back to most is What. I remember seeing its beautiful glossy John Moore cover faced out on the shelf of some uptown bookstore in early 1989. I remember reading it as a college freshman and mistakenly concluding that the world would put books like it in my path every year. I remember being disappointed to revise my opinion a couple decades later: the world does not put books like it in my path every year, even/especially the writers I admire who publish a book every year. You can dip into it anywhere and find amazing things:
in black sweatsuit at night
must want not to be seen. Small guy
in huge straw cowboy hat, eyes watery drunk,
holds onto the chain fence
just to keep himself standing. Mid-day
till we reach downtown. Man reaches
into his briefcase, pulls out a comic.
That’s a rabbit, says she,
repeating the noun for the child’s sake.
The hole, with or without the w,
is never complete (Donald Duck
underground in the land of the schmoos).
Dawn’s haze spreads sun’s gleaming brilliance –
from the copter the tops of cars just shine.
Is he growing a beard (did he forget to shave)?
Did you forget to shove? Chivalry
is not dad. Sunglasses on a chain
hang from the neck. I watch you toweling off
after a shower, one leg up, foot
on tub’s edge, silent, serious –
what are you thinking? Thus
three meals’ dishes crowd the sink. (791)
In the endnotes to the Alabama edition of The Alphabet, Silliman remarks that What is “the poem I usually suggest when new readers ask what work of mine to read first.” Written in a long scroll format that recalls both James Schuyler’s and Philip Whalen’s longer masterpieces, Whatcompiles excited observations and silly detourned allusions to Silliman’s contemporaries, elders and canonical moderns, recorded during travels between the San Francisco area, the destroyed zone called Detroit, and pre-bright shadow New York. As in the characteristic tranche quoted above, he moves instantaneously between public and private, between real and literary, Technicolor and black and white. It sounds dizzyingly drifting and his work can be, but What is not. Narrative anchors the book. The main submerged narrative appears to be Silliman’s impending second marriage; subsidiary aspects of the narrative concern his grandmother’s possibly psychotic episodes and the ever-present fear that he and his work will go the way of so many writers and disappear. The chiaroscuro of bright and tempered hope against pain and anxiety is, as with Schuyler and Whalen, an occasion for humor and beauty. These affects are present everywhere in Silliman’s work — and there is a lot of work — but my observation is that they are centrifuged to fissile grade in a few places: Ketjak, Sunset Debris, Paradise, Under Albany, What.
Schuyler, it has to be said, had psychotic episodes. Whalen was a zen abbot. Neither was exactly at home in this world. Silliman is. His author notes describe him as a market analyst in the IT industry. His blog can be depended on to provide provocative statements daily. Some of those statements consist of submerged business book jargon along the lines of “stick to your knitting.” He believes wholeheartedly in branding, even if he is aware who in the cattle industry wears the brand. He’s led to this impasse by the contradictions of class, the imperatives both to leave a precarious existence behind as well as to make a lasting contribution to art. The longest sentence in What comes a little more than three quarters of the way through:
for poetry not being ‘the masses’ can be
quite specific — you choose the poem
or it chooses you (years later possibly
you meet the author at a party, a little, bald
bespectacled fellow, taking not art or politics
but baseball and gossip, the edges of everything
general and rounded) and your life is altered
irreparably by that decision, you change majors,
jobs, become passionate suddenly in ways
opaque to your lover, and frightening:
you didn’t know poetry could be like that
‘ but it’s what you’d wanted all along,
so deeply in fact that you think for awhile
it might be genetic or that you were “destined”
as that poem seems also to have been destined
for a particular life, and maybe you are
and it was, if not in that sense that some other,
the way it has for all the others been just likewise,
each one choosing the poem, the poem choosing them,
even the ones who seem to you (for who are you
to judge?) completely muddied in what they do,
in how they think, the ones who publish
a single chapbook and get no response, no one
coming to their readings and they
going to fewer and fewer each year, writing less and
one day they realize they haven’t even thought
of publishing in ages, the job is harder, the kids
demand time, and yet almost as if at random
copies of that chapbook dot the crowded shelves
of small used bookstores, just waiting
to be chosen and to choose, loaded
as a minefield.
I note that my mistaken belief in the perennial appearance of masterpieces is mirrored here by the pathos of Silliman’s faith that the minefields of used bookstores would remain in perpetuity. And who knows, maybe the Patriot Act won’t get around to chilling random interest in downloading poetry chapbook ePubs, maybe the time-delay effect of the secret work of unaffiliated poets will persist. I hope so. In the meantime, there’s What, a book that deserves a place in any poet’s shadow canon.