Reviewed by Mark Bilbrey
Barbara Maloutas's first book, In a Combination of Practices, tests and eventually maps operations of artistic creation. Each of its three sections works out its own project, basing the relationship between these on method rather than on content. Rather than offer narrative structure, the poems fixate more on procedure than on purpose, on tools of measurement rather than on data.
The first section of the book, “In the Best Sense,” is explicitly about dreaming and often calls up the language or images of suburbia: dogs, cats, bathtubs, patios, and cashmere. Yet these poems are most concerned with creating, exploring, understanding, and then undoing a creative process. The sequential numerical titles for each of these seventeen poems serves as evidence that the first poem, for instance, is more importantly “1”--a first poem of a series--than it is a poem about a “dog as big as a house.” Here the form acts as a driving force; most of the section operates in couplets and uses only semicolons as punctuation. That form starts to break down in the unusually long fourteenth poem, and finally explodes in the prose sections of “15.” The next poem, “16: Oh Dish Say Us,” attempts to return to the couplets, but rebels against itself with a wordy title (breaking the numbers-only pattern) followed by eight divided sections labeled with roman numerals, a new form that is retained in the final poem, while ultimately abandoning the couplets.
This evolving form demonstrates a sense of pragmatism, exploration, and a dynamic state of perception that would more readily allow itself to be changed than to project conformity upon that which is perceived. The poem “8” seems to speak directly of this method: “the walls are chaos; a machine / of imaginative creatures . . . all together now forward / communication and control; a factor.” Murphy's Law comes to mind; understanding requires definition and measurement, but measurement always alters its subject. As Maloutas writes, it is “particularly true that stability modifies effect.” For Maloutas, form may be both necessary and disposable, as it balances always against the reality of chaos that it misrepresents; her tendency to impose a form only to watch it disintegrate becomes an elaborate experiment in perception.
The book shares its title with the second section, which refers not only to the combination of pictorial and textual information she uses here, but also to the different processes involved in the composition and perception of each. Notes at the end of the book explain that the technical diagrams she presents are from the U. S. Department of Agriculture's Yearbook of Agriculture 1957. If “foundness” and arbitrariness is important to this project, even more vital is the authorlessness that comes across as a destabilized subjectivity in the poetry, but as complete voicelessness in the diagrams. Even after learning the source of the diagrams and reading the captions listed on the “Notes” page, the diagrams still appear disembodied and without context. Thus, the “Notes” page itself becomes its own found, uncrafted artwork: “'You think you can think about': A device for illustrating hydraulic effects.” Here, a practice is more like organic growth than a stylized craft; every bit of language appears as interesting as any other when placed under a microscope. The language of agriculture and science suddenly reveal their artistry: “special practices are needed to use them successfully / rainfall may increase moisture in the heap.” These lines from “The Land of Heaps” express both the art of creation and its complete reliance on unmanageable factors. Maloutas exposes this paradox in “Too Silly” when she writes, “we must make what we find.” This process of making is presented as a process of perception, turning traditional expectations of art upside-down. Maloutas reconfigures what already exists, forcing new perceptions and new meanings. Of this mixing and recombining, Maloutas writes (or finds), “Contact with solution enters solution / It grows into fresh solution.”
The final section, “Matins,” returns at times to the dream-state of the first section. It also returns to systematic titling; a single word suffices for each title, usually obsolete and always Latinate. The process driving this section is best described in its first poem: “There is a way called thither. Assuredly, left over and not to be trusted.” As in previous sections, the process is both natural and unnatural, both fruitful and destructive. These are poems of “unexpected explosions” and “the hope of opposites.” After all, in such a paradoxical state, violence and fragmentation may yield unimagined rewards. In any case, there may not be an alternative to such struggle; Maloutas writes in “Acuminous”:
At least we have no choice. Still the awareness of details along the lines of skill.
Feeling her hip. And knowing too. While trying to avoid discomfort, disembodiment.
The added advantage of a window. Of the world. Not tied to a single solution. The abandon of flight.
Here, Maloutas directly addresses these issues of perception, of craft, of process; and she understands both the cause and the effect: through a single window, no “single solution.” Discomfort is embodiment, is feeling and knowing. Awareness is necessarily self-aware and therefore compromised. The “abandon of flight” sums up the problem with a pun on “abandon,” leaving “flight” both completely free and completely lost.
In his book Syncopations: The Stress of Innovation in Contemporary American Poetry, Jed Rasula claims that “innovation is now distinctly associated with women writers.”. The legacy of L=A=N=G=U=A=G=E poets has been handed down to a new generation of largely female poets who may not consider themselves “language” poets but have nevertheless benefited from the work of those writers. Brenda Hillman, who selected In a Combination of Practices for publication, falls into this group of innovative poets working between Language and lyric modes. Maloutas's work also seems to situate itself in this new terrain, a risky place for a first book. While this book stands as evidence of a larger development in poetry, it does not simply carry out the directives of any school or group, nor does it only follow the trail blazed by Hillman and others. Instead, it attempts its own experiments and makes its own contributions. In this case, we see the image of a mad scientist, frantically combining chemicals, unafraid of--maybe even hoping for--a reaction that would destroy her own laboratory. In “14” she writes of the kind of discovery she hopes for, both simple and powerful:
the other scientist
asks what's that new
green he's working on