Boston Review

Comp.
Kevin Davies
Edge Books, $12.50 (paper)


by Brian Kim Stefans

Published last fall, Comp. is already enjoying a reputation among readers of "alternative" poetry as a book that is both humorous and political, informed and elegant yet colloquial and engaging, with little or none of the suspicious misgivings—that the "moment has passed," that the syntax/society homology is no longer relevant, or that cultural capital accrues as readily around experimental work as that of the "mainstream"—that have greeted much recent writing in the Language vein. Davies, a native of Canada but a resident of New York since the late 1980s, published his only other full-length book, Pause Button, in 1992. While his style has changed somewhat since then, both books share a heightened concern for a heterogeneity of expression, an Olsonian interest in the line by breath (or at least in the various freedoms and maximal rhetorical gestures), and a pinpoint accuracy of tone and reference—which justifies the long wait between the two.

Indeed, as many younger poets show renewed interest in the lyric—whether it be elliptical, "new," or even surrealist (most notable in West Coast poets such as Jeff Clark and Garrett Caples)—Comp., which is both recognizably lyrical and yet rigorously unsentimental, is a breath of fresh air, though in basic technique it differs little from the volume of nine years ago. There are probably several reasons for this positive reception, not the least of which is the incredible sense of humor that Davies brings into his poetry. This humor is never entirely glib or self-satisfied—if Davies has a New York School, it is that of Frank O'Hara's "Khrushchev is coming on the right day!" the "meditation in an emergency" mode that cracks its teeth on the news of the day. And yet it is more geared toward a positive, communal experience of disgust with the social world than, say, the work of Bruce Andrews in I Don't Have Any Paper So Shut Up (Or, Social Romanticism), where "negative capability," the free fall among meanings without search for a moral core, is distinctly aligned to a program of counter-socialization. Consequently, the diction of the poems is also entirely clear of any of the neo-Parnassianism or -decadent style that has recently come into vogue, for example at journals like The Germ. Davies's poetry seems very traditionally romantic or early-modern (à la Spring And All) in this way. What is written appears to be out of emotional (or perhaps neurological) necessity, with no patience for flashy baroque flourishes or camped-up emotional exhibitionism.

The musicality of Davies's writing, apparent in the careful line breaks, staccato rhythms in the prose passages, and distinctive orchestration of different modes of address—not to mention the presence of a protagonist of sorts—makes the poetry approachable by readers not given to experimental work. Yet the depth of his concerns—in this world of info-avatars and hip techno-geek millionaires that eschews the sort of easy countercultural bonding that may have been more prominent in the 1960s—is conveyed with precision and an interest in sheer verbal pleasure. Like a George Oppen with flights of Dennis Millerish tirades, plucking tunes on the rhizomic interconnections of a freebasing economy, Davies may be the poet who best expresses the mixed emotions of the progressive youth of our time: the optimism and anger of the Seattle World Trade Organization riots, the anxiety and awe of such developments as mapping the human genome and our first hologram president, and the pathetic but predictable denouement of the dot-com meltdown. The fact that he is generally modest in his production only makes him more attractive—he has nothing up his sleeve.

Davies shares with Andrews the desire to mobilize every element of the poem—the syntax, the white space, the non-sequiturs, the references, etc.—in the project of social critique. Because each takes the site of the poem, and not the poet, as the mechanism that will engage with the world, Davies and Andrews have something of a satellite's view of social relations: they never center their writing around a specific personal perspective, but instead let the materials they include play off of one another. The primary mode is a juxtaposition of vectors of meaning, a "collage" aesthetic set in constant motion. But Davies permits a vulnerability in his writing; he may even be said to be "humanist"—that much debated, or degraded, term—in that the laughter is partly pointed at the failed project of personal enlightenment, some desire to transform oneself, or "the self."

My heart—the one I never
learned to notate—flips
flapjacks in the trailer camp
of a Yellowknife gold mine.
It doesn't know why.
And if I want to feel
good all over again
I give up
and feel good giving up
all over again.
No he said probably the guy
is changed somehow for the better or
worse, or dies or,
is blackmailed. Because if
it's an experiment who's
monitoring? Or maybe he's
a woman. I don't know.
Was the details in the middle that
interested him or her.
Easier to fill out a form that's already replaced you. Information
wants to be me. O
K

If this is "humanism," it's not of the sort that puts us to sleep in our cardigans, sipping hot cocoa while the snow infuses the sky with miasmic bleaches and all good little boys become men. Nonetheless, the creature—a version of the human—that stands opposite the information (and hence opposite the idea of the "socially determined" psychology) and needs some sort of spiritual or psychological assurance in a world of opaque, socially indifferent economic commerce, is a major player in Comp. This figure is, consequently, almost always a worker (certainly never in power), almost always filled with thwarted utopian strivings, almost always veryangry—and yet has some sense of personal flaw, of not being up to the demands of the panopticon, whether these be to conform or, more likely, to rebel.

In fact, if one were concede that Comp. operates more in epic (or novelistic) rather than lyric terms—the dialogic nature of its rapidly shifting rhetorical modes suggests this—and grant it some sort of narrative structure, one could imagine this protagonist as a cross between a laboratory chimpanzee and Milton's Satan. That is, it is a figure who is either totally helpless to act and is subsumed under total observation, but who does threaten to act (or at least think) and is immediately rebuffed by a public morality it doesn't believe. It is also a figure for whom knowledge, including self-knowledge, is a mixed blessing, since any visionary perspective, any anticipation of pleasure or self-control, is thwarted by repressive, opaque power structures. Hence, the shifting frames in Comp., especially the long middle poem, "Karnal Bunt," are more than a mere formal, collage device displaying the interrelations of different social vectors; it is neither parataxis of the classic "new sentence" variety, nor entirely the "rearticulatory," which another Canadian poet, Jeff Derksen envisions as a development from the "new sentence." Rather, they permit the subjective "hero" of the poem to mess with—diabolically—the welter of smaller theatres in which power exposes itsdeviousness.

The unique nature of Davies's use of the page—the individual page-long sections of this poem are perfectly balanced images of textual presence and absence, like Calder mobiles hanging in space—allows this sort of leapfrogging across frames without leaving the reader too much in the dark about what's happening:

I apply for work
                          In the War Room.


Friends aren't art and can't read.


   
   Tragic life, drunkenness, religious mania, these
four last songs — fish jump at the periphery of the chorus — Unflinching
in their adherence to democratic centralism, fast forward —


I'm propped against
a tree I didn't plant,
a tentacle-held paradigm that is the
policy of our organ.


                     Why be sad?
                     Kissinger will die
                     before they can upload him.


Yet
   what if there's a perfectly natural
form, and god wants us to kiss it and talk dirty?

The "god" in this last line is not just a trope; there are periodic references in Davies work to certain perspectives—call them Platonic and metaphysical, religious, or scientific—that exist beyond that of the pragmatic, experiencing individual. Davies's jokes about the unknowable nature of these perspectives are serious and pained; it is as if unlocking the key to the "tentacle-held paradigm" could offer a promise of liberation, and yet it's a key that we—if we are good Wittgensteinian anti-essentialists—don't want, as it's a key to false power, perhaps false perspectives. In the worldview of this book, power is best displayed in tiny bursts of illuminating mischief; nowhere, except perhaps in the long final poem, "Untitled Poem from the First Clinton Administration," does he attempt to overwhelm with literary pyrotechnics, rhetorical overload, or final descriptions. And even that poem, which floods the gates with a sort of pomo duende, consistently deflates and cuts itself up "like unanswered mail in a bag of doughnuts."

In her Pamela: A Novel, Pamela Lu writes that she and her cadre of intellectual friends were "living structuralism." She means that people of her generation had grown up with such an incredible stock of casual and not-so-casual knowledge of scientific "paradigm shifts," Marxist cultural studies, Foucauldian "knowledge and power," and structural anthropology that they had interiorized the observational modes that rigorous thinkers had once applied to cultural phenomenon. As a result, the twenty-somethings of her generation were not capable of the revolutionary fervor that once came readily following the mastery of new scientific tools with which to analyze society. Society was looking at itself too much already, was caught in recursive loops, and could more or less do this blindfolded (or on TV). Thus it produced a new sensibility that was neither romantic and longing for origins nor entirely "post-human."

The conventionality of the mode of writing in Pamela—despite its pedigree as an "avant-garde" work and the truly radical way that it follows through on all of its premises (and doesn't bow down to "entertainment")—suggests that it is possible to survive as a laughing, living, loving, not-entirely-programmed human being even with a plethora of exterior viewpoints plaguing the synapses. This is a switch from a view of the individual's identity considered entirely socially determined, which was a hard pill to swallow for many, especially members of ethnic or sexual minorities. One might, if it didn't sound totally ridiculous, consider this a sort of "cyber-selfhood," a view of the self as a virtual avatar of the "real" self that one read about in books but never encounters in the flurry of infinitesimal transactions and calculations involved in living amidst tumultuous data flows.

Like Lu's band of precocious outsiders, Davies may also claim to be "living structuralism," for he appears to have naturalized a plethora of viewpoints that once may have seemed incompatible. But he is different, in that he demands a reassertion of the "agent," the subject who acts and lives rather than survives, in every page of this book; none of Lu's elaborations can impede him (though he enjoys their extreme nature). Unlike much Language writing, the rapid-fire delivery of the writing is not related at all to issues of "process"—there are no constructivist logics underlying this work, at least on the surface. Rather, this delivery can very much be attributed to a "voice," or to a series of spontaneous utterances that have come together, edited and arranged on to a page, to be a poem. Comp., like Pamela, becomes one of the first great anthems of this denatured, alienated, but multi-valenced subjectivity, and whether his comedy is liberating or fatalistic—on the edge of social emancipation or simply finding a balance (or expressive imbalance)—is not a question to answer. It is both, but is also begrudgingly transcendental, which often is the best that art can do. •

Brian Kim Stefans's most recent book is Angry Penguins. His Web-based work, "The Dreamlife of Letters," a Flash piece, can be seen at www.ubu.com.

Originally published in the Summer 2001 issue of Boston Review

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