Reviewed by Thomas Fink
Self-reflexivity is built into the structure of Open Clothes. The “After Notes” cites the procedures that Steve Benson used to generate the book’s poetry/prose-poetry and experiences he underwent in the process: “The words in the texts in this book are, with extremely rare exceptions, just the same words as were written or spoken in the acts of composition described below.” Benson also includes a transcript of a question and answer session with him about a talk-piece transcribed in the book. Framed from within, this volume by a noted Language Poet features three poems composed of mostly declarative sentences and eight--like Ron Silliman’s quarter-century-old Sunset Debris--entirely in question form. The book’s first poem “’Until the Fall’ was written over thirteen months, one line at a time, on a folded sheet that Benson kept “in a back pocket of [his] pants.” He sought “to come up with each line at a different occasion, without trying to stay faithful to any other governing plan, theme, or principles about how to write the poem.” Some poems, like “Crows Landing,” were spoken without premeditation into a tape recorder; others, like “Did the Light Just Go Out,” materialized in front of a live audience.
What, then, is “open” about Open Clothes? If actual words are “clothes” (fabric) on the body (process) of writing, Benson’s procedures, precluding revision and thus discouraging a great deal of conscious control over theme, development, patterns of imagery, and tropes, etc., “open” his texts to accident and heterogeneity, including unanticipated elements of closure (“clothing”?): “So there’s the quality of closure and openness that occurs at every point, at least potentially.” Contrasting his “talk poems” with David Antin’s more narrative work, Benson admits that, since he is “channeling from all the contingencies . . . of thought, mood, the room, what I saw this afternoon . . . to make some verbal material,” “whether the . . . material is continuous or discontinuous is . . . pretty much out of [his] control.” This is no paean to Ginsberg’s “first thought, best thought”; Benson understands the risk that “first thought” might be dully thought:
It is winter
Can I write a poem one sentence at a time?
I can do anything
Still I hope for more
I hope the sky will pop blue
In a moment, it has
It has a place in the remote present
One frame at a time.
Given how revision is proscribed, the poetry of Open Clothes cannot always manage this opening passage’s lyric energy, balancing evocative concreteness and cogent abstraction. “Crows Landing” includes the following forgettable lines: “The darkness / the loo k/ we’re almost there / raindrops glistening on the windshield / streams in the darkness.” But why hold Benson to higher standards than someone like the less experimental A.R. Ammons, whose meandering Tape for the Turn of the Year, for example, has its share of dull stretches about weather?
In some of Benson’s question-texts, exploration of the process unfolding and its contexts and intriguing juxtaposition of questions foster powerful overtones and undertones. The five-page paragraph “Am I just listening to myself think” begins: “Am I just listening to myself think? What makes you say that? Who do you think you are?” The defensive second question and indignant third one suggest that a respondent has somehow given an affirmative answer to the first, but ironically, by acknowledging the perspective of a “you,” the talk-poet may undermine the sense of solipsism. In holding the floor, he lacks access to the audience’s spoken words, but he may scrutinize their reactions while “listening to [himself] think.” Of course, “you” could be a signifier for another side of him. Further, the third sentence might serve as a literal, honest call for audience-members’ articulation of subject-positions--outside this procedural framework. Many of the prose-poems’ questions point to the irony of exclusively using the interrogative mode while being unanswerable, except perhaps in an interpreter’s transposition of a subsequent question into an answer. Benson soon asks: “Can the answers trail slowly behind like slugs on leashes, or do they have to race ahead like frisky terriers?”
Clearly, Benson in this prose-poem is not “just listening to [himself] think”; as its ending indicates, he raises problems of political intersubjectivity. First asking whether the tremendous “inequivalence . . . between the experience of someone who is safe and faced with the challenges of balancing wants and needs and” that of one “whose physical and psychological integrity is so repeatedly in jeopardy and occasionally violated to the point of trauma” destroys possibilities of “communication between them,” the poet pursues the issue from various angles:
Is it possible to get on the phone with someone in this kind of fix and not waste their
time? Is there any good reason not to, again, write to Washington, read the data, talk
with friends and family about it, and get to work organizing? Is your heart a safe place? When do you listen to your fatigue and try to stop putting out so much energy? How do you know when to research and when to act out? What inner disturbance undermines that impulse to engage in social organization to correct injustice and cruelty? What makes private, intimate distress at humiliations suffered in an intimate relationship overwhelm pragmatically evaluated efforts to do the right thing?
Even if Benson, speaking in the middle of W. Bush’s first administration, overtly criticizes how the “inner disturbance” of individual egos undermines the efficacy of social justice movements, the accretion of his questions shows how the economics of the expenditure of physical and psychological “energy” in both “private, intimate” matters and public efforts becomes too complex for simple yes/no answers or black/white moral judgments. For the reader/listener, these questions can be much more than rhetorical.