when new time folds up, Kathleen Fraser
A Reading 8-10, Beverly Dahlen
Beverly Dahlen's A Reading 8-10 and Kathleen Fraser's when new time folds up, both from Chax Press, offer exquisite meditations on the simultaneity of life and death, memory and experience, memory in experience, and on the interplay of culture, history and the poet's subjectivity. Since Chax Press is run by an artist-printer-poet, it is not irrelevant to point out that both books are very pretty, featuring cover paintings that promise the perception and exuberance that the contents deliver. Both draw on multiple intertexts, including Keats's urn (Fraser explicitly, in her "Urn Pictures," which describe fragments of sexual tableaux; Dahlen also explicitly but more understatedly, in the fleeting phrase "thou still unravished") and Derrida's writing and differance (Dahlen explicitly by repeating the italicized word "differance;" Fraser implicitly by referring to an always already present even in a prehistorical, now "abandoned" setting), to find a relationship between inner psychic lang(uage)scapes and outer time/space landscapes.
Dahlen's book is fun, beautiful, and smart. The cover, Cynthia Miller's "Red Chair/Tree of Life," shows a child's painted and decorated chair with a more abstract but equally exuberant, flowering "tree of life" rising from behind it. Joyous, childlike artistry combines with natural cycles of production and reproduction. (The waitress at the cafe where I read the book stopped to exclaim with excitement, "I had a chair just like that when I was a kid!" In a sense the book made her day.) The "contents" comprise three longish chunks of writing identified by time/place of completion and revision; the book addresses and speaks from an explicitly gendered experience of power, frustration, creativity. Her meditations include observations like: "she has mistaken it, mistaken the call. the brotherhood will not include her. it is madness for her to think so. and for him also madness, or pious sentimentality. she has a different story"(60); and the provocative apokoinu "guiding his hand, please me, since I am your mother, all women are"(8). Throughout, Dahlen invokes fictional, mythical and historical women such as George Sand, de Beauvoir, Austen, Eve, Cordelia and Mary Shelley, in order to explore the interplay, through language, between socially patterned relations and creativity. "What is language?" she asks, and answers catechistically, "a pattern, an archaic heritage" (120).
This q&a could easily serve as epigraph to Fraser's book. This volume is more
contemplative and fragmented, though equally beautiful. The cover art work, by
Mary Hark, offers a photo of an assemblage of blue rectangles, a handmade paper
painting that suggests the traces and artifacts of ancient cultures-Etruscan,
Roman, and medieval Italy-along with present-day Europe; the cultures that Fraser
works with in the four poems that make up the book. Fraser uses a traveler's
curiosity to receive intuitions about how past and present cohabit consciousness
and the material world, how sensory traces of memory/culture resonate but remain
tentative and mysterious: "temple rubble abandon... Grief is simple
and dark/ /as this bridge or hidden field/ where something did exist
once/ /and may again, or/ your face receding behind the window..." (32-3).
Figuring Etruscan as "she," Roman as "he," Fraser also genders
memory and art. She also juxtaposes her own letters to women friends with a poem on
Giotto's and Dante's artistic correspondences, not for contrast but for resonance
and mutual illumination. In the final piece, "when new time folds up," we
are in the present, in the presence of a muted violence (car accidents overheard
from indoors, urban construction sounds) that, retrospectively, has also accompanied
all of the Western civilization she honors. This personalizing of cultural loss
and/or survival is ethereal, grounded, haunting.
Teth, Sheila E. Murphy
Sheila E. Murphy makes small, versatile containers and reuses them again and again. The containers in Teth are page-long (or shorter) assemblages of centered, unpunctuated phrases that vary in length; they are also holes in the sidewalk, a Mormon storage pantry, a sexy Chevy, a humming Frigidaire, a silo, trashcans, a "prescient creekbed / pathing trance into a keepsake," a "telepathic art museum," a small train station whose occupants want to be mentioned, clay pots cast on a wheel. The fillings have different strengths of syntactical linkage, so that phases of narrative or exhortative talking, brainpuzzling, ambience-tuning, and portraiture swerve into one another. Often there is one big swerve (as in sonnets) that takes you from pop culture to sacrament, abstract to honkytonk, free enterprise to stolen leisure.
Reading the Teth poems is like attending to moments that would otherwise
pass away unstored-moments of fleeting critical focus, or those between one and
another exercise in holding sense together. During such intervals nonviolence works
on its job description in postindustrial capitalism, the journey home from
self-employment becomes infinitely complex, and Thanksgiving, sexism, and
the "insulated enemy" get their due. As for poetics,
Murphy's "out-to- lunch" sign hangs unconcealed; as the canon
reverberates, she ties her craft to the previously anonymous and sequestered. But
the poems do not aspire to shut you out. A book may be a lapdog, "genuine
pronounceable and free to vary," or salvaged pieces of screen to be shared with
a "wide awake new audience."
-Janet S. Gray
Wheel, Gil Ott. (Gil Sans type and linoleum block prints pressed
into Frankfurt, Mohawk, and papers handmade by Thomas Leech, Sonia Telesco and
Gil Ott's Wheel is a meditation on the circle of life, the cycles of lives and the ambiguities of existence. Eight of the ten sections of this serial work consist of succinct lyric poems paired with equally terse prose passages which contrast with or comment on the preceding poem. Typical of Ott's work, the line between statement and question is constantly drawn and erased as the sequence prospects the nature and notions of the actual and the illusory. The text is accompanied by four quasi-representational linoleum block prints by the author.
Like all Chax fine print editions, Wheel is beautifully designed and lovingly printed. Its varied textures creates a tactile reading environment in which to experience Ott's work. This is particularly relevant because Wheel is, at another level, an investigation of the book, both in Jabes' metaphorical sense and in terms of the actual book this sequence is coming to be (has become):
wave uponSmart folio, as if a knot could lead to an agreement. Answer in the words of the interrogator, the same words, your words. Appearance has nothing to do with it.
taut by repetition of a cry:
gull plowing wind
In printer's jargon, a folio is a sheet folded in half resulting in four pages. The
above passage appears on the right hand page of the center folio of this book where
the hand-sewn binding is knotted. This kind of understated, supple interaction
between the text and the actualization of this book is its principal charm.
Wheel is an intriguing exploration of the dimensionality of the book.
Individuals, Lyn Hejinian & Kit Robinson
Some individualsñpublisher (Charles Alexander), designers (Alexander,
Jennifer Beigel, Lisa Cooper), writers (Lyn Hejinian, Kit Robinson)-have produced
an indivisible book. I nd I v I duals. Duals over entitlement to what title I has
meant for individuals are absent. I & I vs. I? duals,
residual & verbal: I & I find favour. Indivisible I, divisible
delight. "[A]ccess to letters opens the possible / clasped tight
in change" (KR). 'Social change': surplus in pocket after day's transactions,
subtractions. Individuals mint for it. "Written individually"
sealed by initials & date then mailed back & forth there are twenty-four poems now
twelve lines long with accretional effects of intratextuality
dispersing1. Shared first person
pronoun, second rarely used (address never excludes reader)-with the regularized
verse form may suggest one serially reiterated I. Except linguistic uniformity is
contested at every poem's abrupt close by the facts of dual authorship, time-based
construction, & book design. Neither is I stabilized within disjunctive effects
as a "Self-Portrait in a Convex Mirror": "My portrait is a bowl and
I tap it with a spoon" (LH). Word values for a world spinning like
a "neutral band" around a curiously vertigo-free I, as in Ashbery's
poem, are inverted: any number of I's concavely refract a world stabilized as
language-objects. When "language"
individuals have defaced the ontological oligarchy. The book has an accordion-like
spine & slatted page. Pasted on each inside fold are two postcard-sized cream
papers. Each bearing one letterpress poem, the cream papers are separated by a black
paper strip, I on its side, libidinalized band as threat projected by the
indivisible skin of individualism these poems separate from & reseam. A split I
fractally replicated at various material levels of production-book, context of
composition, languageñIndividuals is a crypto-leftist reworking of political
address for the craft aesthetic inside the commodity form.
1 Intratextuality is a signature effect of LH's poetry.
Many of her poems in Individuals are reworked in The Cell (dedicated to
KR) & "The Composition of the Cell" (in The Cold of Poetry).
2 "Every place the imagination / occurs replace it with the word 'language'" (LH). (Cf. Nov. 7, 1986 entry in The Cell.) (Return)
Demo to Ink, Ron Silliman
With the publication of Demo to Ink (1992), Ron Silliman's ongoing project for an American longpoem adds six more sections (Demo, Engines [with Rae Armantrout], Force, Garfield, Hidden, Ink) to the previously completed seven (ABC 1983, Paradise 1985, Lit 1985, What 1988, Manifest 1990) and brings him to the halfway mark of a project he originally thought would take only five years to complete. These new sections continue the main features that have marked almost all of Silliman's work since Ketjak (1974; published in 1978). Each work is generated by a different formula, method, or set of generating/governing procedures that is conspicuously arbitrary and non-"organic," reminding us that the alphabet itself imposes a completely arbitrary order on an arbitrary set of phonetic signifiers. Each new section features what Silliman has called the "new sentence," his alternative to the "line" as the micro-unit of composition in free verse. The emphasis foregrounds parataxis, and resembles structurally and functionally the ways in which the "shot" is the fundamental unit in the cinematic system. In the cinema, the framing of an image selects a block of data from the flux of the world, the selection itself constituting an assertion of significance. Montage, the art of assembling individual shots into a dynamic system, demands instantaneous transitions that have no analogue with the objects of the "real world," but are comparable to the mental shifts that mark human consciousness. Silliman's mastery of the poetic montage allows him to range from the brooding, elegiac mise-en-scene of Ink to the breathless pace of Force, calling to mind William Gibson's self-descriptive lines in Neuromancer: "Night City was like a deranged experiment in social Darwinism, designed by a bored researcher who kept one thumb permanently on the fast-forward button." Or Silliman's sentence from Ketjak : "Burma Shave parataxis."
With a very few notable exceptions, these works are relentlessly urban in theme and focus, suggesting the image of a proletarian flaneur, notebook in hand, prowling through the streets of San Francisco and environs on public transportation ("I ride the bus." Ink, 143), ready to catch any new sentences that present themselves to eye or ear:
Woman in the seat next to me (we're barrelling downtown) inhales the mucous in her sinuses, loud deep gravelly sound. Front page of the Wall Street Journal has drawings and graphs, not photos, a 6 column page and seldom a headline more than one column wide (ah, but their verbs, the implicit metaphors of business as war, circus, game, are pure bunk) [Ink, 148].
As those who have studied John Cage's aleatory procedures will appreciate, the seeming effortlessness of the results can be deceptively simple, masking the intense artistic discipline and discrimination of eye and ear necessary for their production. Lyn Hejinian puts the emphasis on composition, implicitly reminding us of the literal meaning of that word: "What presses as a question upon writing now ... Is how to arrange words, or word groups, rather than how to choose them. How to lay them there, or, rather, string them...." Silliman's favorite model for his poetic practice is the urban artisan Simon Rodia, maker of the Watts Towers, who illustrates "the right way to think about the construction of art in its relation to life. You find the materials about you and just keep adding them on as it feels necessary. Your sense of the work will guide you." Silliman rivals Stein and Ponge with the persistent rigor of his attention to the literary text as an event of writing, and his tendency to absorb the unfolding work into the "present" discourse of the writer in the process of writing-what Michel Foucault calls "discourse bound up with the act of writing, contemporary with its unfolding and enclosed within it," that has replaced the "voice" trope as sign of authenticity. (Stein: "This is a sentence if it is an event." How to Write.) And perhaps only Stein can make it look easier than Silliman; or an outfielder casually shagging a fly as if he didn't really have anything better to do at that moment. In such acts the better it's done the easier it looks.
In a recent parody Gary Sullivan presents himself as a fan of Silliman who is disappointed that the author "hasn't risked much in the `development' department" and that The Alphabet is "little but ... a one-trick pony." He claims that "we Silliman fans could probably write the remaining sections of The Alphabet in our sleep," and proposes that we should do so in order to allow Silliman "freedom to begin to explore new territory." The problem here is probably that Sullivan is reading Silliman in his sleep, or pretending to as an occasion of wit. The amazing thing about Demo to Ink, and The Alphabet as a work-in-progress, is the way Silliman continues to explore the same lines of practice and development without being reduced to writing generic Ron Silliman. Each section in this collection is utterly different from the others in almost every respect: form, procedure, tone and affect. Affect? Yes, affect; or (in fact) E=M=O=T=I=O=N ("This is about my emotions." Ink 162). The biggest surprise for me in this collection was the pronounced move into the elegiac mode in Ink. Prior to this only Garfield had hinted, very slightly, at the potential in Silliman and his procedures for fulfilling that oldest of poetic functions: words spoken (written) over corpses. I would urge anyone who shares Sullivan's view to give Ink the careful readings it deserves. It is a good example of the cumulative functional importance of context in the ongoing production of "new sentences," and how emphatically such sentences are contextual objects. The mise-en-scene for Ink, this "Ballad of the body reduced to ash" (166), is so far unique among the books of The Alphabet for its fog-bound saturation in dreams and memories, a world of age, sickness, death and decay, of infancy and birth, children and parents. Longer sentences appear, with actual syntax, parallelling the webs of familial and social relationships (mother, father, grandmother, son, uncle, friend). The people who appear are not merely glimpsed through the windows of a moving bus; they have names (Krishna, Darrell, Asa, Val....) and suggestions of identities and pasts.
This is not to say that Silliman is becoming a "confessional" poet, or renouncing his often-repeated belief that "That which is merely personal should soon appear in APR" (Garfield, 37). His foray into the more personal realm is marked by continued attention to the textual nature of the enterprise:
I don't write these texts so much as shed them, shells left behind that should you find them years alter should prove no less opaque to you than to me: who was that masked man? But I remember (often, not always) having written these words-what I recall are my emotions, where I sat, what the weather or light were like, what else was active, charged in my life at that moment-not to be confused with understanding the text (Ink 148).
As a longtime reader of Wittgenstein, Silliman knows that we can understand words
that seem to signify inner experiences (thoughts, feelings, sensations) only if they
belong to a public language, so that understanding of a
person's "individual" or "private" or "personal"
experience cannot be separated from our understanding of the larger world of
experience. His Lone-Ranger allusion ("who was that masked man?") reminds
us that our word "person" comes from the Latin persona, meaning
an actor's mask. The personal in Silliman, even when it may seem rhetorically
conventional, continues to be rooted in a profoundly social conception of the human
condition and in the awareness that it is shaped by and in language. And language,
in its written form, is the endless recombination of the same old same old
twenty-six signifiers, Joyce's "Alphybettyformed verbage."
Outlantish ("mu" fourth part - eleventh part), Nathaniel Mackey
The poems of Outlantish are readily available in Mackey's recent City Lights collection School of Udhra, but the astonishingly sumptuous presentation they receive in this deluxe limited edition volume puts them in a whole new light. It's hard not to dwell on the purely physical pleasures of this beautiful volume: the handsewn signatures, the immaculate two-color letterpress printing, the handmade paper, and the enigmatic and thoroughly appropriate drawings and collages by Sonia Telesco. Unlike many such packages, however, the elegance of the presentation in no way overshadows the poetry. Mackey more and more confirms himself as one of the most consistently fascinating poets of our moment.
Quirks & Quillets, Karen Mac Cormack
Some tricks, some quillets,
grids are common in some way crops shape the elsewhere occupied needles health derives its singular strand fluid clear circle through (30)-to the weight of the pages. The pages stay open, hold open in your hands (the way children's books can have the same shape, insistence, the pages weighty and W I D E enough for the eye to roam with comfort-that is, the page says: read me here or dally with me or do you see this is also a visual "feeling").
Each page is itself a self-constituting typographic work. A generous point size makes words physical, engages, corralled into a justified "plot" at the center of each page. White space gathers the words into a physical fete in the center of the frame. ("Not rhythm yet repetition she said so it was/ written to be recorded but if heard then/ listened to attentively without false moves.")
The words are slippage within this frame. Where they might point is slipping ("minus cement lessen/ the load," i.e., lesson). The lesson of their texture is that it bleeds (slips) into the pattern of their fabric. ("In this small way the body translates to taste or/ smell compared for lack of equilibrium...") Or, the words are the weights that hold the semantic "pages" open, as the parsing itself has weight as solid as atomic weight (and plays):
Assigned blue water is clear conception's more than that could show fox prints early in the h's night swift owl or surly bands signal the impression wind before window whatever that means to the letter... (35)THE PLAY. Show becomes snow to both a fox and an owl (h issue). Water is a linchpin with blue and clear similar weights, radiating outward to assigned and conception's equal weights. The "h" in night as the ahhh or quirk or night activity. The wind before window is both the wind outside the window but the word itself. (And where are the willows?) The four letters of "wind" wind up attached to "ow" and though both wind and window are transparent, one is something that you look through while the other might blow through you. (My ear still hears the "ow" from "owl." That's MY "h," still howling...) Of course the point is that this is PRECISELY what is meant-indeed "to the letter."
So then what is a quillet? (Is this word less frequent in U.S. English?) We can presume to have a sense for "quirk" (an oddity). However, present day usage denies much of what is buried there in "quirk" since it is not only a "sudden twist, turn, or curve," a flourish-with particular reference to writing and drawing-but also a "verbal trick, subtlety, shift or evasion" as in "quillet"-so that the title itself is circular, "a plaster likeness admiration comatose." Quirk, in this sense is not quirk alone but is chased by quillet. A "quillet" is a small plot or narrow strip of land or a verbal nicety or subtle distinction, a quirk, quibble. Otherwise it is a small quill or tube (Mac Cormack has a previous book titled Quill Driver. I would note here the phrase in Yonge's P's & Q's: "Rolling up her papers into little quillets.") Or, as a verb, to quillet is to quibble.
with insoluble quirkes and quilits...These words written in 1609 were only waiting for Quirks & Quillets. So that the sense is physical, something is actually moving, not just flourishes, but quibbling over each letter-the composition TURNS on these. As indeed the original sense of quirk WAS physical-as these quirks here (echoed in the physicality of this edition) are physical-not figural.
Mizu, Mei-Mei Berssenbrugge
Wisps of grey-blue fibers float as if on watery currents on the smooth white cover of Mizu, a handmade book of the long poem of that name by Mei-Mei Berssenbrugge. "If the boy goes under the water," the poem begins, and then unfolds (both in the narrative sense and in the physical shape of the book itself) as an extended, exquisite meditation on an afterlife in the sea. Mizu evokes the passage of time, as well as a coincident sense of both awareness and forgetting. Berssenbrugge's lush and vivid details make the story at once tragic and reassuring.
Text and context work well together here as the soft, spacious pages support both
the tender exploration of the tale and a thin blue ribbon of watercolor that flows
across the top of every page. The wide, horizontal format makes a good home for the
poem's extended lines and its long, slow sense of breath. Originally written to
accompany a piece of choreography and also based on a Japanese fairy tale, this
steady, mindful text dances well on its own in this long river of continuously
glued pages that can open out to a full length of nearly 14 feet.