Home on the Range (The Night Sky with Stars in My Mouth) by Tenney Nathanson. O Books, $12.00
Reviewed by Thomas Fink
The author of a major tome on Walt Whitman, Tenney Nathanson in Home on the Range (The Night Sky with Stars in My Mouth) has produced a long collage-poem of Whitmanian energy and scope. The poem consists of 108 dizains (ten-line stanzas), and Nathanson has created diverse effects within this form in an unusual way: he has packed in so many overgrown “versets” in some sections that they take up much more space than others. Occasionally, two-and-a-half dizains fit on one page, whereas one section sometimes occupies more than a page. While there is variety in the alternation among medium length, long, very long, and outrageously long lines within a single section, the overall impression given is that of a breathless onrush of poetic data.
Much of this data, a little more than half in each section, comes from “intertexts,” as Nathanson’s list--one book per section (except in dizain 70)--at the end of the book calls them. Many major British, American, and continental modernist (and nineteenth century) fiction writers serve as sources. Poetry by Whitman (of course) and Frost, literary criticism, critical theory, cultural studies, Zen texts, a scientific treatise, and a diet book are also included. The variety of intertexts allows for ample diversity in verbal texture.
Dizain 5, whose source texts are three different essays from Walter Benjamin’s Illuminations, begins with the line: “messengers is law a gloomy way a firm place in a long existence impossible here.” Nathanson’s source is the essay, “Franz Kafka,” in which Benjamin writes: “What may be discerned . . . in the activities of those messengers is law in an oppressive and gloomy way for this whole group of beings. None has a firm place in the world. . . . There is not one that is not either rising or falling, . . . none that is not deeply exhausted and yet is only at the beginning of a long existence. To speak of any order or hierarchy is impossible here.” Notice that Nathanson severs the copular link of discernment and “law” (and the secondary importance of “messengers”) in the original passage and gives us the grammatically strange equation making the servants of “law”--which might include language as well as human functionaries--identical to this authority. Indeed, in the “gloomy way” of Kafka’s work--and the feel of this comes through in dizain 81, whose intertext is The Castle--bureaucrats embody the full force of coercive regulations for hapless citizens. While Benjamin emphasizes individuals’ lack of security (“firm place”) and the “long existence” of their suffering, the poet ties “firm place” and “long existence” to the “law” before undercutting the notion of firmness with “impossible here,” which in the original passage was linked with a declaration about “order’s” absence. However different Nathanson’s deployment of the intertext’s words, effects of his collaging convey some of the darkness of Kafka’s work and Benjamin’s interpretation of it.
Obviously, the kind of intertextual labor I performed in the previous paragraph is not a practical overall reading strategy. But a general awareness of possible traces of the source text in harmony or conflict with Nathanson’s own words enhances the reading experience, as in dizain 44, where scientific discourse from Brian Greene’s The Elegant Universe: Superstrings, Hidden Dimensions , and the Quest for the Ultimate Theory is juxtaposed with “natural” imagery of Nathanson’s own approximation of a Thoreau-like transcendentalism: “Focused on the electron, this discussion charged particles the same way that rocks on everyday sanctum increase in strength / sitting and dwindling down into wind, rain, the flecked rocks hunkered and washed by the lake, your insight breathing / short theories of 10 space-time dimensions.”
The poet’s mode of collagistic presentation does not deliver hard information like scientific findings to the reader; his “discussion” can “charge” heterogeneous “particles” of discourse to “increase” the “strength” of multi-contextual suggestiveness. “Rocks” could be stable enough to support an “everyday sanctum,” but the phrase’s potent strangeness exceeds its aptness in importance. Note how enjambments between the first and second and between the second and third lines are not arbitrary; for example, phenomenological “insight” about nature can inspire (“breathe”) much more abstract, theoretical formulations; the two are parallel ways of experiencing/measuring “reality.”
Depriving canonical fiction of its narrative motion through fragmentation, Nathanson retains some of the thematic charge and feeling tone of not-so “empty words.” Lines taken from Hawthorne’s The Scarlet Letter foreground the pun in a central after-effect’s name and convey the pleasure/agony of Hester’s union: “on the wooded hills of no scandal, shine, pearl/ passionately his burning walked among kindred, so pure in horror. He bids you” (Dizain 33). The “range” (scope) that Nathanson is at “home” on is a wide array of scriptive cultural artifacts. Collage deployment of that scope engenders the “homelessness” of the between, of intertextuality: such poetry ranges in ways that a time-traveling Whitman would probably judge to “contain [new and old] multitudes”: “say I also return, translucent, beetles rolling balls of dung, winds surging, shaded, are the others down / and sundered, no, they’re down where the tall grass twines under the oak tree having a Swabian picnic. swell” (Dizain 92).