Little Field of Self
By Reason of Breakings
8 Judith Goldman's avant-garde is not the soft kind prevalent in most of the more lively contemporary poetry magazines (among them The Colorado Review, Conduit, Fence, jubilat, New American Writing, Verse, and VOLT); it's the hard kind still associated with Language writing. But, unlike much of the latter, Goldman's work isn't earnest with didacticism. Almost always, it wants to delight as well as instruct, as in this snippet from her long burlesque-elegy, "The Axe Man Cometh":
this is another poem for the death of William Jefferson Clinton, this is not about me; this is about the republican party of dick, christ, this little teacup were always between us, huh, she uses a barb that brings me to cower, lady of the lake, I hate you, this was your life, a punk kid, huh, o to be a kid clone in togethernesses of dick in the republican party of dick
Here, the poet herself wields an axe-head of soft rubber. She's not out to kill, exactly, but boy it would be good to knock some sense into some people.
Hard-core avant-garde writing is mostly about its own assumptions and intentions. Self-reference is its obvious poverty as well as its opportunity (even now) to hold up a boldly refracting lens to certain ideas—choice irritants. For instance, by now everyone has heard that words are only systematized grunts and twitters, not the transparent shed skins of things; but you have to like a poet who can play with and play up the idea as Goldman does in "travesty where 'exactly' is used":
1 No! says the Tree/it says No! a representative will be with you shortly/
…and on down through "56 /a representative will be with you." Assumption: language is like picking imaginary cherries ("suppose my cherries"). Assumption: the comforting "hearth" of a namable reality is only a would-be-protective vital illusion, "would-be" because the protection is really on hold ("protection can be /…with you shortly"). Absurdly confident, the mind introduces irrelevant enumeration, even as the jumble of phrases indicates what it is up against.
Goldman is rather wickedly smart, "promiscuous with force," a true if not always strong inventor, and unpretentious: "Nobody is a king of France, licked / all over like a stamp, my every garbage at / the actual border, / making it, making it over, taking up the slack." But at times in Vocoder she commits prose, dutifully raising Language writing's "I have too much integrity to give way to lyricism" banner. In the second "[untitled]" poem for example—the ugly font is the first warning—she impugns "emptied myths" and the "fetish" of the poem as a work bent on "a momentary destination" (whereas it's really a "bogus crutch to the precipice"):
we secured the means of provocation, but
Pulseless, this writing seeks to be superior to the vital illusion of a reality that is really only a bright shadow on this side of dark matter, as also to its toadies, the "perpetual hustlers who fuck the virtual" (though Goldman's lines, too, suppose cherries, practice reference). "Get your hands off / my ticket," Goldman says. But her ticket is already self-cancelled.
In theory, not only your coded breath but your infinitely divisible hand may pass through the infinitely divisible cherry without touching any part of it, but in fact you can pick it, pinch it like a nipple, pop it into your mouth, taste it. And you can have a certain feeling about it.
During the last century, philosophical movements such as phenomenology drew attention to the possibilities of exactness in describing the richness and novelty in our experience of things. In his classic analysis of the philosopher Henri Bergson's aesthetic theory (arguably a large influence on modernist poetry), T. E. Hulme defined art "as a passionate desire for accuracy": "The motive power behind any art is a certain freshness of experience which breeds dissatisfaction with the conventional ways of expression because they leave out the individual quality of this freshness." So, "in order to be accurate," poets "are compelled…to invent original ways of stating things": "poetry "always endeavours to arrest you, and to make you continuously see a physical thing, to prevent you gliding through an abstract process." Put otherwise, there are all those ways of experiencing cherries—picking, pinching, popping, tasting—and poetry is about openness to that essential multiplicity in things themselves. The theory may be partial (as Hulme notes, the use of imagery is only part of the "field of art"), but whenever you find the younger of the softer avant-garde poets, "hustlers of the virtual," moodily posturing and using a language of gutted abstractions, you could wish they had, and conveyed, a fresh impression of cherries.
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Typically, this avant-garde performs a disenchantment already cut and dried, even if the poet herself is promiscuously forceful. In 4, Noelle Kocot voices with late adolescent zest the woe of having to pop down "metaphorical / Tranquilizers by the dozen." Uneasy with her adoption of the metaphysical blues, she's anxious to entertain:
—Why all this irony?
Her comedy is at once over the top and facile—slapdash, violent, vulgar. Of "Bad Aliens," for instance, she says that "They're really here, spreading their ideas / Like vulture droppings, conniving to sow / Their brazen ontologies like bone-encrusted wheat / Along our field of vision yellowed like an almanac"—a veritable shindig of uninspired, arbitrary images, and continued for eleven more lines before a merciful period. (Kocot's long sentences are like Shelly Winters whaling underwater in The Poseidon Adventure in a life-or-death effort to keep going despite a rapid depletion of breath. Through momentum and quantity, they would make up for what they lack in quality.)
Kocot, then, trades the Bergsonian discipline of a novel accuracy, an accuracy in itself "often almost grotesque in its individuality," for the outrageous newfangledness of hit-or-miss, boisterous, mixed, and whacky metaphors: "And we dissolve into our private eyesores / As snowflakes on a great, lolling tongue // Bleating from a far-off, far-off fog." There are occasional approaches to gravity in 4, but almost all swerve into sentimentality—talk of how "precious vowels, / The most turbid flowers of our being, evolve" ("Conversation at 5 O'Clock"), an exhortation to "fly into space" and "Listen to what it brings back, / To what it is trying to tell you" ("Dasein"), and so on.
But a few poems—among them, "Brooklyn Sestina: June, 1975," "Sestina for Lizzette," and "Bicycle Poem"—are rich and delightful. "Bicycle Poem" may be too translucent, too anonymous in style, to satisfy Kocot's baroque sensibility as a standard to hold to, but what a lovely thing it is:
There were cathedrals falling out of your eyes
* * *
Most of Andrew Zawacki's By Reason of Breakings conveys the exhaustion of mundus and cosmos, the end of the "presentable" world. Compared to Kocot's, his disenchantment is wan, taking the form of desiccated sentiment, not grotesquerie:
Daylight, which does not arrive
Zawacki's style is all over the place, a restless scene of imitations. Affected even at its plainest, it has not yet found itself (or found a way to be compellingly protean). The manner is the thing. At its most ornate, it is both a mixture and an automatism of tony scriptural echoes ("Wrest us not asunder or aft"), Elizabethan rhetoric ("Whose crux it wore aghast without reason, where else traveling led roulade to linger past augur and singe"), and pretentious description ("the sceneries sculpted their marble seductions in luminous balance"). The writing doesn't half mean what it says; it goes for "effect." "Your face is the afterimage of a lost trajectory," and so on.
But Zawacki shows flashes of considerable promise. Best of all is the prefatory poem, premonitorily called "Vespers." I quote the final third:
October has the look of a crow in a river. It's a year
That "but" in line four belongs at the beginning of line seven (to be almost crowblue and moving is to be like clouds, whereas to say "I did not say nails" is to hold off the supposition that movement is doubtful); and "bodies' whispered accounts" is just rhetoric. But the passage is extraordinary, the statements and the run of it attractively wild yet compelled, dizzy with honest ambivalence. What a thrill it must have been to write so genuinely new a thing.
* * *
Most of the poems in Spencer Short's Tremolo are cheerfully verbose as they complain about life. They're like Kocot's, a way of burning off excess youthful energy. Typically, Short can't "do" disenchantment without having a good time: "Now he's / lost on the music-boat of youth, sighing justice.—ice. Ice. Ice." "I am slow of words," he says; but his is an aesthetic of clever glibness and gab, as in the pseudo-bright poem "The New Math":
To be an artist is to live always in the wake
…and so on. "I am / both circus & sarcophagus," Short says, but he favors the circus, if chiefly in the crimped form of romantic farce—the college student's favorite theme, love gone wrong. The subject tends to take over the poetry long-windedly and makes many of the poems interchangeable.
Short acknowledges his weakness: "Random discharge & inessential whatnot, / Our bright idea to write our way in, or out…" The good news is that, even so, brilliant things keep coming: "And yet, / there's X, standing by the car, I'm clinging to her / like a sock, the night charged with static." And, operating on the assumption that "Nothing means what it did ten minutes ago," Short almost succeeds in making loquacity a form of accuracy.
On the "sarcophagus" side, he can be ominously percussive. Consider the following sonnet from "The Bedbug Variations":
Arduous. Night atop its grey grey horse.
Ultimately, the trashing of the earth in favor of a majestic transcendence may be yet another pose (one sees here one more example of how Paul Celan's spiritual terrorism toward the terrestrial has infected American poetry). Meanwhile, at any rate, a clawing power of invention.
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Tom Thompson also writes a variant of the style just now so popular with young poets: wits flayed, the mirror of representation splintered, the language jazzed: "Jesus I'm tense. Well, aren't we / just pure idea now" ("Quarry"). But Thompson's version both exceeds and redeems the type it otherwise illustrates. Unlike the poets discussed above, Thompson delves; he doubles the meaning of "work" (the least one can hope for from a poem). Live Feed makes new, difficult language-moves: "Time for the feed." Its imaginative peculiarities and affective intensities argue a resistance to, a power to disenchant, disenchantment. Witness this greeting of a "boy" (Thompson's son, perhaps, but in any case a boy playing the part of day): "Who are you blue rage and idle / winged? You left midnight with holes in your shoes" ("And a Flock of Pigeons Shall Lead Them"). Here is the true thing, ravishing.
Thompson hardly ever packages images of despair that have cost him nothing (on the order of "One cold rumor in the body these days / and the whole plant shuts down. Light / takes the lid off, sniffs, then seals us up again," which is in one of the generic styles of current poetry). But as he modulates among varying shades of oddity and opacity, the stranger and denser of these shades may prove unappealing:
It's been a cool, bad night. The bodyframe
Overwritten, overwrought: there is nothing here for a Hulme. The lines illustrate a common contemporary weakness, that of going too intently for the peculiar.
Even at its best, Thompson's extraordinary poetry hardly allows one to read it through. Instead, one has to reckon with it, endure and surmount it, connect up its obscurely consecutive lines, and generally be prepared to be either puzzled or thrilled. The phrases jump out of the person who writes so violently that they are no longer his possessions. They send you into anonymous newness, much of it at the splendid edge of the sublime:
And in the burrowing lake
Here is the imagination at its most exciting, rushing ahead of comprehension, bidding the reader to hurry, hurry, I have something to show you.
Many of Thompson's poems are about family, but no persons emerge out of their haunted, radioactive glare ("You turn / to the meat shard your hand's become, / I think it's you"). Really, his subject is the sharp peculiarity of the Something in which we live and the confusion as to whether we live it or are lived by it and whether "through the heart or through the head." Thompson avoids the usual small feedback loop of disillusionment, if also the rich "here and now" available to naturalism (everything in his poems is imaginatively torqued). His courage and large apprehensions keep his work out of the slough of despond. "What a mucusy place you've wrecked on," he says, but he locates a nice ambiguity in the question, "What choice do we / have in the manner of happiness?" ("Cease Thou Never Now"), where even the avoided phrase, "in the matter," would still have had a welcome equivocation.
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Kathy Park Hong both loves and hates to be concrete. Strung between Korean and English like a narrow suspension bridge, her "I" dreads "the courier that exacts a proper name." Her brilliant, feisty, and formidable persona would resent being pegged to one language or culture as much as she resents kicking at the air between them. What could satisfy her? She's afflicted with the malaise of being human. Translating Mo'um reminds me of Emmanuel Levinas's statement that people search for themselves in their unconditional and unforgiven foreignness.
Hong mocks the ferocity with which her heroine suffers her bicultural halving: "When they undressed her at night, they found / hoarded manifestoes taped to her flesh." This late-adolescent persona is chagrined ("the struggle to speak with a mouth full / of water without spilling"); rebellious ("I tear you apart as I have been torn"); cynical ("She followed fair confession home / and copied her, without leaving smudges"); mechanically sensual ("I am here to lick your shoes, your hairy shins, your eventual cock"); and so dryly detached as to appear unsympathetic ("Mother and father obsessed with hygiene: / as if to rid themselves of their old third world smell"). Yet she's easily as hard on herself as she is on others. Of her mother's journey south across the 38th parallel:
She carried too many bundles, unknotting them
In part, Translating Mo'um is a work of mourning for a language never securely possessed by the poet. Her parodic translations are as incensed as a girl beating on a door locked by her Asian double, her sister, who ought to be sharing the room. In "Translating Pagaji," all the blanks are to be filled with the never-defined Korean word, as in "She hollered _______! and turned the school into guerilla— // __________ with a straight face. Later they found out that / it was stolen from ___________, a dystopic novel."
As "discourse," the poems are fitful, like a succession of angrily snapped peas. True to her split tongue, Hong refuses to write what will impress you, impress her, with what Goldman likewise scorns as "orchestration." The clauses are short, the lines often held up in twos, like dukes. Hers are the poems of a"lone / pugilist."
Hong's poetry is not disabused, then, in a flattened road-kill way, or even in Kocot's hectically gesturing way. Rather, its unhappiness makes itself known through belligerence and a drumming, "painfully exact" power of observation:
Korean characters, like stiff phonetic Legos,
Translating Mo'um stings, is "vinegary," has passion and startling imagery. It makes for a strong, painfully cocky debut.
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Doreen Gildroy's The Little Field of Self certainly illustrates what T. S. Eliot meant by the individual talent, but is more traditional than the other books here under review. Yet Gildroy is a poet after Hulme's heart, her eye constantly on individualities: "the artist," Hulme says, "is the person who in the first place is able to see an individual curve." (Once, too openly, she even calls attention to this difficult practice: "Around me the trees…in / place particular— / this one charcoal; this, / glaucous green—hovering, / honing / my attention.") Though she risks seeming self-congratulatory in her meditations on her character and her lot ("Everyday / I live a little more"), her book quickly gives off a crystalline ring and sustains it, thanks to her great sweetness and intelligence.
Real as is the darkness in The Little Field of Self (the title is drawn from Marcus Aurelius), it stays under the trees: it lies in marital and moral anguish, the terror of failing oneself and another, the need to wait out another's spiritual self-repairs while suffering as well as benefiting from the process. No poet I know of is better at showing convincingly the courage by which happiness is seized or at conveying joy simply:
Love, and rooted in it
None thinks through a problem more thoroughly and delicately in words so few and plain, if often in an endearingly quirky syntax. Everywhere, a just-piquant simplicity:
When I wanted to study myself,
Things as they are in the moment seem to disclose themselves willingly at Gildroy's approach, as if they trusted her, as they should: she's like an animal that comes along and doesn't demand anything of them. This effect is so constant in the book, so quietly the case, that one may forget how remarkable it is. Hustling the virtual? A grace of creative attention, rather, as in "Stereoscope":
Actually the trip is when
The novelty of the opening idea, the limpid still life of the turnips and their leaves, the reciprocal sensitivity of crane and poet, the lightly touched-in sweet confusion of animal being and daydream, the identification of phenomenological observation as a "strange occupation" (indefinably singular in the animal kingdom)—all this is exquisite, as syllable after syllable offers itself as essential. (Gildroy could not be further than she is from "Random discharge & inessential whatnot," from writing her way in or out.) The poem ends: "Today the fresh tulips / (I brought in), the plate of pears." Even though this line lacks original imagery, the words, made sensitive by their context, convey an individual feeling about tulips, an individual feeling about pears.
Gildroy's style is classicism made light as a feather, true as a plumb line. A classical style is certain to remain an exception in the climate of subjective crisis dominant since William Carlos Williams (whose "Nantucket," for example, "Stereoscope" resembles). But where it appears so natural it remains current, a freshet in the stubbly landscape. <