by Brian Lennon
Lately there is much talk about the burgeoning interface of "mainstream" with self-styled avant-garde poetries in the United States. The vaporous quality of this distinction belies its usefulness. What Marjorie Perloff has called the "aporia of literary journalism" is the tendency of poetry reviewers to minimize or ignore the differences of trade in books of poems published, on the one hand, by imprints of big New York or Boston houses or university presses, and, on the other, by small collectives or individuals. The failure to understand this distinction may be no grosser than mere ignorance, or lack of curiosity. Yet it tends to check or inhibit a perspective from which to evaluate the meeting of what is considered "established," institutionally funded literature with a literature that simultaneously aspires to, and resists, becoming established.
Jena Osman and Lee Ann Brown are far from "new" poets, in the sense that a "new" poet is customarily only beginning to publish her work. The poetry of both Osman and Brown has long circulated in chapbooks, limited editions, and broadsides issued by various collectives and basement presses in Buffalo, Providence, and New York (some, actually, with a limited institutional support of their own). The works under review are, however, these poets first "full length" volumes, which is to say they run to a minimum of 48 pages, with a registered ISBN and a sticker price above ten dollars--and also that they issue from respected "independent" publishers who stand in a coveted middle zone between the for-profit and adamantly not-for-profit press.
While from one perspective, this sort of thing may be viewed euphorically, as the hybridization of contemporary literature, it might with equal justice be seen as the commoditizing of dissent. It seems to me that the hyped renaissance of American poetry in the 1990s owes something to this conflict, which becomes more public and vigorous even as "po-biz" turns it to caricature. Rarely, however, does an actual poem resolve the two views, which in their abstraction are implicitly naive (the euphorics: poetry liberals) and implicitly cynical (the avant-purists: poetry radicals). A reviewers job is not to speak for anyone else; yet I, for one, am glad to have Osmans first full-length volume arrive as the winner of the 1998 Barnard New Women Poets Prize, an award that hasnt always honored the diversity of new poetry written by women. If the best context for Osmans poetry is, as prize judge Lyn Hejinians introduction suggests, something called the "post-postmodern"--horrible as that formulation may be--then it would make sense to find it in (or find in it) a place containing not only the sage plurality of emergent perspectives, but also a limit on the banal plurality of "anything goes." The debate over "disjunctivitis" in American oppositional (or experimental, or avant-garde) poetries is, in other words, no longer vital. It is a sorry truism of contemporary poetics that writers isolated by creative writing programs must discover it anew each year.
Disjunctive lyric is currently something of a rage, yet not always equal to the challenge of what to do after the so-called Language poets, whose legacy includes a version of the challenges critical theory has made to organic notions of voice, personality, character, and lyric sentiment. Osmans readers will immediately sense that The Character is no single, cohering persona; that this fails to surprise suggests that it makes no sense to speak of a poets "project" as though it could be fixed. For me, The Characters intriguing texts converse most profitably with the work of poets of a preceding generation (Hejinians)--specifically, the Washington-area poets Joan Retallack and Tina Darragh. Essayistic, formalistic, and collagist, Osmans texts request the poetic forms of an age characterized by the incessant recycling of information, and they bring to mind such work as Darraghs on the corner to off the corner, and Retallacks Errata 5uite, AFTERRIMAGES, and How To Do Things with Words. Here is a section of the series "Ellerbys Observatory":
Here one consults an imaginary reference work, locating not answers but answerings forms, which have been emptied and refilled with "erroneous" matter. It is less a case of the miscegenation of texts (as though the poet had bodily trotted through a library ramming together volumes from Poetry and volumes from Linguistics) than of their cross-pollination in a database where such spatial delimitations are inherently solvent. In "Invention," the historiography of mechanic events is a ghost structure for the poem, running a spectral narrative through shop inventory and the vacated syntax of an encyclopedia or instructional manual:
Such "theft texts" (Osmans term) graft acknowledged and unacknowledged source material into alien data forms, reflecting a working context in which (Internet hype aside) texts or information are not so easily distinguishable from "experience" or "real life" than they may once--truly, or merely in fantasy--have been. This "middle-tech" paradox play sets the work apart, not because it is apodictically more attractive or momentous to aesthetic taste, but because it works in a specific sense to expand the work of poetry rather than play its variations. That specific sense aims itself at poetrys inhering antilogy, which at its most vital point slips past tradition for traditions sake just as it eludes innovation for innovations sake. Many of these texts might well live exclusively in digital RAM, yet it is no accident that we find them "anachronistically" in print.
A fine example is the series "From The Periodic Table as Assembled by Dr. Zhivago, Oculist." Osman notes, "This is a fragmentary hard-text rendition of what is meant to be a hypertext poem a rough hypertext version of which can be found at [SUNY-Buffalos] Electronic Poetry Center." And indeed this electronic work, for which the readers participation in textual regeneration seems crucial, stands out in a medium where what is technically possible ranges far ahead of what is interesting. Yet somehow it is the "reverse engineering" of print, this portage back to the less "appropriate" medium, that lends the book version in The Character its more complex, peculiar, and productive tension. What does it mean when a work created in and for the electronic medium then evolves "backward" onto the page? Only--if it is an only--that there are more, and more unforeseen, paths for poems to follow than we have thought.
Lee Ann Browns Polyverse was chosen as winner of the 1996 New American Poetry Competition and published by Sun & Moon Press in mid-1999. Literally a personal anthology or album amicorum, Polyverse presents 187 pages of short lyrics and fragments that together enact a life lived in the process of autocommemoration. Its fascinating reading in so far as one cant quite shake the sense that the works animus is somehow as self-abnegating as it is narcissistic. Polyverse is a brilliant way of going at the problem of "the subject" without resorting either to modernist personae or postmodernist self-emptying. (Or, alternately, to some pretense that the problem is no more than the hallucination of theory-crazed academics.) An unusually high count of poems are either inscribed to Browns contemporaries, or present themselves as collaborations; the phantom of poetry-as-community actually materializes--against all odds--as the act of writing a poem for ones friend sheds its cliquish tint and seems not mere po-biz, but real love. (A more solitary nature may yet feel the combined tugging of envy and critical doubt.)
Where so much of our self-styled avant-gardism has been style-repellent, Polyverse is style-amorous. Tributes to Dickinson, OHara, Ginsberg, and Stein are undisguised; more submerged, one suspects, are myriad song-echoes and ventriloquies that, through sheer voice abundance, achieve something of the same celebration effected by the No-saying-Yes recursions of poststructuralist theory. If there is a single, secret attribute fueling Polyverse, particularly in the work labeled neither as tribute nor as collaboration, it might be the antic tropism that marks a poem like "Those with the Pointed Hats Consult Secretly with My Mother in the Corner"--a radio-mix of surrealism, chant, platitude, and popular tune:
Brown reanimates what might be termed the mixed-genre poem, which moves in and out of prose. The forms on the page own a kind of lovely ungainliness, tumbling through what seems to be speech, but isnt quite, to what seems to be epiphany, but isnt quite. "Point Blue," for example, unlaces a long paragraph into lists and chorus rhymes that do the hit single in different voices:
Osman and Brown are poets with assured support bases in their own communities, and it does no good, in my view, to blow their horns for them where they are best known. I trust that these two volumes will be initial offerings for at least a few curious strangers. Those intrigued would do well to examine Chain, the annual that Osman co-edits with Juliana Spahr, and the publications of Browns Tender Buttons Press. Chain is one of the most exhiliratingly unreadable journals in print, pressing the paradox of its medium on a scale thats without much to compare. Tender Buttons imprints a straightforwardly wordier, yet no less integral, poetics, with volumes by Bernadette Mayer, Harryette Mullen, Hannah Weiner, and Jennifer Moxley that, like the works under review, offer more evidence not for discarding the politics of poetry, but for reconstituting it in forms more descriptive of actual, evolving practice.
Brian Lennon is the author of a chapbook, Dial Series One. He received an MFA from the University of Iowa and is a doctoral candidate at Columbia University.