Reviewed by Chris McDermott
Rupert M. Loydell’s tenth book, The Museum of Light, confronts a world where epiphanies are everywhere for sale, and explores the creative process as the sole means for discovery and understanding. Whereas Yeats proposed that one must choose “Perfection of the life, or of the work,” Loydell is weary of the easy confidence behind any such formulae--as if the initial choice itself were the true difficulty--and is loath to rally behind any fixed motto for long. What he does instead, and his project is decidedly an active one, is a celebration of the interchangeable ars poetica. Insisting upon the freedom of choosing any path of investigation only insofar as it remains interesting, Loydell is quick to interrupt any direction with another. In the book’s first poem, one of five called “Background Noise,” he writes:
My own specialties
are beginnings and endings.
Everything used to be plausible.
Curl up and enjoy the possible,
draw nearer to the process
which forges the world we live in.
Garner a fair amount of interest.
How much do you need at the present time?
Become the object of your desire.
A recurring pattern in the book is the use of the imperative, the commands that set the process of vision and revision in motion. Like Eliot’s Prufrock who asks “how should I begin?” already midway through the poem, Loydell seeks freedom from the momentum of habit, but his tone, rather than conveying defeat, is much more varied, shifting between despair and optimism. A book’s overall tone is very often established by the echo of its ending, and Loydell’s final line, “Try to understand everything. Language is remarkably persistent” is an affirmation of using language as a material for making art, and art as a vehicle for understanding life. In this respect, he has much in common with George Oppen and the Objectivists, for whom life itself was always the greater canvas. Loydell, who is also a painter, is aware of “creating within the constraints of materials” (“Background Noise”), but refreshingly, he doesn’t wallow in a complaint over language’s inability to signify. In a poem titled “Instructions for the Journey,” he explores a wide range of word as deed, with such imperatives as “Consume novels you would not otherwise read,” “Possess superficial scraps of detail,” “Sit writing at a table,” and then swerving to such wryly ambitious “to do” items as “Eliminate social problems. Wipe away centuries of class division, inserting a layer of ironic distance.”
At the end of the book, Loydell lists more than twenty “sources,” including writings by John Cage, Charles Bernstein, Gilles Deleuze, and Loydell’s private correspondences. This raises the question as to which lines are Loydell’s, and which have been appropriated. In “Background Noise 3,” subtitled “The Museum of Light,” Loydell addresses this matter: “The poem does not need its own citations, otherwise it will never surprise you. // Do you know the source of the quotation? / Does it bother you?” It is as though citing quotations will lead to perceiving them not in a new context, but instead with a deadening, habitual association. The effect of the book’s title, then, is to propose a place where moments of “light,” as short-lived illuminations or epiphanies, can be stored. Whether they are perceived as curiosities, to be visited not for any redemptive clarity, but for evidence of a process of inquiry, or for something to try out for a while, would depend on whether the reader finds nostalgia or surprise. In “Background Noise 5,” he writes:
Any piece of information is potentially mine;
I am moved by the wish to preserve something.
I nearly always have a specific mission
when I insert myself into the work this way.
Loydell has alluded to the nature of this “specific mission” in “Background Noise 2”:
History gives us cause for flexibility and adventure.
There is an enormous amount of trash in this room;
a need for stability and order in the flow of events.
Scrawled translations prove discussion took place--
I end up letting myself be convinced.
It is belief, then, however tenuous or transitory, that serves as the catalyst. Doubt leads only to passivity, waiting, death. In “Adagia,” Wallace Stevens, who allegedly converted to Catholicism on his deathbed, wrote, “The final belief is to believe in a fiction, which you know to be a fiction, there being nothing else. The exquisite truth is to know that it is a fiction and that you believe in it willingly.” Loydell’s museum is one where either belief or doubt can govern as long as the process is alive. One of the book’s epigraphs, by Helene Cixous, includes the statement, “writing is writing what you cannot know before you have written: it is preknowing and not knowing, blindly, with words. It occurs at the point where light and darkness meet.” For Loydell, this process must be an individual one. As he writes in “Background Noise 2,” “It’s a self-refining process which takes for granted / that meaning exists and, if you press the point, / will form the basis of an equation for anything else.”