Tuesday, December 07, 2004

NEW! Review of Ted Greenwald

The Up and Up by Ted Greenwald. Atelos, $12.95.

Reviewed by Lawrence Giffin

Ted Greenwald, a poet associated with Language writing, has produced nearly thirty books in the past forty years. His newest work, The Up and Up, is number nineteen of a proposed fifty volumes of cross-genre poetry commissioned by the Atelos project and edited by poet Lyn Hejinian and poet/designer Travis Ortiz.

At first glance, The Up and Up seems to walk the line dividing the long poem from the novel. The book is divided into 32 prose poems or chapters of roughly three pages, each poem/chapter divided into short paragraph-like stanzas. Each stanza/paragraph is composed of phrasal fragments of various lengths, consisting of bastardized clichws, decontextualized mottos, puns, paragrams and permutations. The spontaneous, interrupting/interrupted clauses of The Up and Up closely resemble the form of ad copy, randomly bombarding the average person from walls, buildings and billboards, in restrooms and in magazines.

Formally, The Up and Up is a struggle to personalize the public and to publicize the personal. The fragmented non sequitur that makes up the content of the poems reveals itself as an intensely human strategy to consciously create a personal history from impersonal fragments that, on their own, have little meaning. Consider a few stanzas from “Self Phone”:
The perfect place    Keep changing into    Cunt and
prick       Dollar after dollar      Love      Nor money      And meld
Tuesdays    The boat sinks
Well you might ask    That’s what I’ve been      Asking,
asking myself      There’s never enough      Who has       The time
of your life
      It’s that time, again      Moving right along       More left
Where that      Where’d that      Come from?
      I’m coming to      Bear with me      The wolf’s at the door
Crying shh perdition       Hold your horses      Twinge hasp for
sari      Have you heard this one?

The phrases shift between curious bewilderment and formulaic experience. By refusing to distinguish between the value of a sentence fragment and the value of certain common constructions imbedded in everyday English, Greenwald levels the playing field, allowing lines and phrases to shatter and recombine randomly, while allowing the reader to glean a vague narrative through her own interaction with and experience of the text.

What is most remarkable about the book is the range it achieves through seemingly random fragments. One might imagine that prose poetry consisting entirely of disparate fragments would lend itself to a certain unreadabilty, and, to the book’s credit, it does. Greenwald’s work creates a very pleasing ambiguity by delaying semantic finality. Thus, the reader is empowered to join in the struggle to make meaning, becoming personally involved in the poem. One of the more striking examples of a poem that obliges the reader to make her own connections is “Knows What Stop”:
Personal computer      Emerges from a coma      A differ-
ent person      Those are
        A cross between ebb and flow      If anything, something
A sense of bring there      Try describing a good place      Due
to happines      Happen to pass
        A past someone      Feel good time    Line by line      Long
past admission      Prettily wrap pain      But failing for
Pronoun removal
. . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . .
        Membrane salutations salutation pen      Tonight’s
request      Only you      And you alone      Without backup
Twelve-step      Or otherwise
. . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . .
        Crosshatch hair      Recedes tidally       Laughing hysterical-
ly      Which someone    Too shall pass      Way to go      See and

The beauty and pathos of The Up and Up is a lot like the classical beauty and pathos, only it has been modernized, industrialized and capitalized. The old tropes of time and loss from “Dover Beach” recur in “Knows What Stop” as “A cross between ebb and flow      If anything, something” and “Recedes tidally.” The decontextualized phrases evoke a sense of loss and dejection. The way in which the phrases are presented, separated by large spaces, one is able either to read them as aggregating toward a comprehensive meaning, or to read each phrase alone and attempt to infer its usual context. “Tonight’s request” may be a quote from a deejay or an emcee at a wedding reception. “Only you” could be the song played, perhaps as a long distance request. “And you alone” might be the tail end of a conversation that began, “I love you.” Being “Without backup” is the officer’s greatest fear. Alone, the phrase “Or otherwise” seems opaque, yet in the context of “Knows What Stop” this little non sequitur is the equivalent of a lyric moment for which the reader and writer share responsibility. Finally, what could more succinctly express the book’s project to reclaim language from the uses of ad agencies than the phrase “Pronoun removal” where one is so emotionally bound to someone as to be equally as bound to their semantic presence. “Knows What Stops” is the poem that best illustrates the project of The Up and Up, that of revaluating the purity of our relationship to language and to each other through language.

The Up and Up is a testament to the productive element of reading in conjunction with a text that does not dictate an experience from a sovereign perspective so much as present the reader an object with which she can work and play. The Up and Up is essentially what its title suggests: it is straight with the reader, offering what by right it can--language, and a language that is at face value as unassuming as the speech between friends. The more two people know each other, the less obligated they feel to qualify everything they say; their speech becomes free and fragmented, each trusting in the other’s ability to complete the sentence, sometimes to complete it more perfectly.

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