Introduction: Peter Gizzi / Andrew Joron / Elizabeth Willis
Verse Festival / Thursday, March 29, 2007 / Mercury Art Works, Athens, GA
-itsy / -antsy / -ing / -oid / -ed
-ology / -ocracy / -onomy
-ation / -ality / -archy
-obic / -etic / -ectric / -ency / -istic / -esse / -esque
These are a few of the lyrical, laconic, lapidary sounds that Peter Gizzi makes in the second of two title poems from his latest book, The Outernationale, while “Standing,” as he puts it, “at the corner of nth and twilight.” Partly suffix and partly self-sufficient—that is, part part and part whole—these fag-ends /slash/ ends-unto-themselves seem to me a fitting way to open this poetry festival, the poem being what, among other things, celebrates the life of words, however mutated, mutilated, or mute. Characteristically plainspoken but elegant, Peter Gizzi seeks, despite all ruptures, “to be complete inside the poem / To be oneself becoming a poem,” “that one day / we might find ourselves lit up.” But not so fast: for poetry is likewise mourning, the cry of an existence that, as the hyphens in Gizzi’s litany of terminations indicate, is at best a half-life. For language, especially poetic language, inevitably standing in for reality by erasing it, to replace with a parallel real, finds itself not only present, as matter placed on a material page, to be manipulated or measured, but also transparent, absented from the reader’s immediate awareness. As a visible, tangible medium, poetry is awake as its own message, and elegizes the thing it signifies, singing a song of itself over the object’s open grave; but as a forgotten, always already posthumous word, poetry eulogizes its referent by effacing none other than itself, keeping quiet so things as they are can speak. In the shorthand of one of Gizzi’s titles, the word, like any corpus, is “Bipolaroid,” with “continuities, gaps.” The fractured once-were-words, or words-in-waiting, scattered throughout Gizzi’s poem—gathered into alliterative and associative phrases of two, three, or four elements, like a verb being conjugated, or a noun declined—are at once dead in spirit, we might say, and alive to the letter. They call out to be completed, but they can also make a go of it alone. As “broken tiles,” to quote another poem, as “sine and cosine,” as both “written speech” and “barely legible,” these crippled but nonetheless breathing bodies arrive “almost home.” Allergic to teleology, then, but nonetheless ambitious to function in our actual world, among human being, the poetic word is, on one hand, revolutionary, a mode of revelry, what Gizzi calls a “Protest Song,” poised anarchically at the outer of the nationale, like an American word with no foothold in France, or a French word unwelcome here; while on the other, poetry is a form of respect (or what we might term reverence), a mode of knowledge (or revelation), and a conduit of dreams (or reverie). The Outernationale makes me think of these things, for it stakes out the frontier not of a poem wherein a fugitive ‘we’ might hide, but of an ‘us’ in which the outlaw poem may remain at large. Across his several poetry books, from Periplum and Artificial Heart through Some Values of Landscape and Weather and this year’s volume, Gizzi offers us a poetry that is as compassionate and communal as it is turncoat and torn-from: “Confetti in April / Confetti in May,” he writes, “This was the last party . . . Bird, enough of your trill.” Gizzi is concerned with the “tink tink” and “Clank, I love you” of language; with the “Ça va?” and “everyday sprecenze” of speech; with the “A is for knee socks” and “O stymie dewy” and “H I J K L banner” of our alphabet; with the “Whoa, Saturday. / Whoa, morning” and “Dear Saturday, thank you” of our ordinary time—but never for their own, lonely sakes. “When I asked what happened,” he says, “I meant what happened to us?”
Andrew Joron is not alien to poetry as the perfumed word, both a rose in its own right and a sign that only signals a further flower. As early as his debut poetry book, Science Fiction, he has been revolving the Mallarméan bouquet within his mind and heart. In his most recent volume, he elaborates this meditation on the mirrorlike traffic between “rose” and “eros” to embrace yet another anagrammatic form, “sore,” thereby returning poetry to its primordial status as pain, as a wound that will not heal or even close. Indeed, we cannot help hearing in the book’s title, The Cry at Zero, an exhilarating cacophony of open channels: zero-degree writing, for instance, and its effort to strip the author of any authority; Dickinson’s “zero at the bone,” her figure for an afterlife of interminable dying, that is, of writing itself; Ground Zero, a placeless place where many of Joron’s most poignant, pressing, responsible remarks on American imperialism are situated; Zeno, who plied the paradox of the halving of halves; the Greek letter tau, often an abbreviation for zero, and also the title of Philip Lamantia’s ‘lost’ poem, to which Joron feels an affinity; and “O, the grieving vowel,” as Joron names it. Joron has staked his poetics, not exactly on the Heideggerian privilege accorded to etymology, but on the hunch that any word is likely the harbinger of other words, whether by homophonic vibration or unexpected coincidence, and that often words appearing to collude in fact collide. Dedicating his book to the late Bay Area writers Lamantia and Barbara Guest, for example, he appropriately conjures “lament” and “ghost.” Elsewhere, though, as when he interposes a colon between “rending” and “rendering,” Joron indicates not equivalence, or even valence, but opposition: to render, of course, is to give, whereas to rend is to sever; so while they seem to share the same root, what the former joins together the latter sunders. Consciously deploying what he calls, in reference to Jacob Boehme, “a musical chord of morphemes,” Joron is far from merely playing semantic games. “Where language fails,” he argues in his opening text, “poetry begins.” For Joron, poetry is the emergence of a Cry that, while composed of language, nonetheless constitutes an emergency for language, which cannot contain it. Poetry is the part that overwhelms the whole. “A poetic impulse,” Joron avers, “will cause the system of language to exceed its own boundary conditions, and to undergo a phase transition toward the Unsayable.” Steeped in the pre-Socratics, in German philosophy, and in the Surrealist hasard objectif, Joron espouses a poetics most indebted to the post-structuralist tradition that has attempted to think the impossible relation between a restricted economy and its exception: for Joron, poetry claims a radically disruptive role, akin to that leveled by the “Autrui” of Lévinas, say, and the “jews” of Lyotard; by Bataille’s “free expenditure” and Blanchot’s “scandal”; by Barthes’ photographic “punctum”; and most recently, by Jean-Luc Marion’s “saturated phenomenon.” Like the human body, our most immediate site of self-disruption, poetry is non-dialectical and non-identical. Bearing out the “structured randomness” so frequently his theme, Joron has organized his so-called “Selected Prose” as a cross- or perhaps non-generic work, wherein essays, book reviews, and even a personal letter are situated alongside ‘prose poems’ that had appeared earlier, in Fathom and The Removes. This is further evidence, if we needed it, that poetry, at once urgent and insurgent, is “the Opening to Otherness” by which we, in turn, are opened.
“We are living in an era,” Andrew Joron argues, “. . . of the convergence of science, mathematics, and poetry.” If that’s true, then we have, among other writers, Elizabeth Willis to thank for it. Science has impelled her art from the beginning, in the guise of thermodynamics. Her first book, Second Law, set decimal to decibel, claiming in the sharded minimalism of her title sequence, “No meaning was before there was a night / No mention before there was Divide.” What was scattered throughout Second Law has been newly bound, as if by gravity’s tug, in her most recent volume, Meteoric Flowers. Yet even its dense prose poems, however compact in rhetoric and thought, are perforated and internally fissured: partly literary and partly “unfixed by science,” their words Willis’ own but their titles taken from Erasmus Darwin, they will not decide between the prose and the poetry that constitute their duality. The title says much about Willis’ style and investigative methods. Whereas a meteor hails from afar, hurtling down to earth from outer space, a flower moves up and away, growing from the inside of the earth toward the sun. From a human vantage, the meteor is vatic, and can harm us; the flower, like us, is veined: “We’re only clay,” Willis writes, “blossom machines.” One is hard, comprised of astral bits broken off from something larger, and rushes headlong toward its destruction, unique insofar as it will never be heard from again, while the other is soft, composed of tiny organic elements, and flourishes slowly before fading—only to return the following season. The marriage of meteor and flower, like the strange harmony proclaimed in the title of her earlier book, The Human Abstract, is Willis’ way of saying that poetry is singular—and plural. So she is sometimes given to lyrical glissando, à la Wallace Stevens, whose epigram, “A poem is a meteor,” provides the book’s epigraph. “What gives, or gave, to get us here, what wired fluorescence?” Willis asks in “Rosicrucian Machinery.” Her answer, from elsewhere in the book: “As luck conducts the inner man, a trumped up art will fly beneath the wings.” But Willis is also pragmatic, demotic, terrestrial, socially and politically savvy: “America owns the moon,” she ventures, not entirely hyperbolically, and “We all live under the rule of Pepsi,” in “the garden of western expansion,” walking around as we do, daily, in Rutherford, or Gatorville, or Brownsville with its flying flag, or Sweet William, Virginia. Whether “at the edge of L.A.” or “the edge of Venice,” according to Willis, we are “living in a desert of bolted-down things,” where what is “public,” she warns, “can’t be protected.” Not surprising, then, are her several elisions between “idyll” and “Idly,” as though America’s relative peace and prosperity were also the surest sign of its doing the devil’s work. “Among the lower orders,” she muses, admonishing the administration, “a W is sibilant.” Trying to negotiate “a careful avalanche of we and they,” while “The world is clanking: noun, noun, noun,” Willis crosses over to the side of the verb, capriciously but with total conviction, transiting and transforming all self-centeredness by speaking from Whitman’s Texas-sized mouth, by trying to discover “how dirt thinks,” by “joy[ing],” as she promises, “to dream / a more fortunate planet.”
Introduction: SÉbastien Smirou / Jena Osman / Olena Kalytiak Davis
Verse Festival / Friday, March 30 / Georgia Museum of Art, Athens, GA
When a direct object is suddenly asked to become the subject of a following sentence, but is forbidden from relinquishing its role at the end of the earlier, transitive phrase, something confusing and probably uncomfortable happens to our sense of agency and orientation. The story, such as it is, starts to unravel quickly. When an adjective is unwittingly separated from its noun, an adverb from its verb, a pronoun from its antecedent, and when the candidates for any one of these referents are plural, it is literally unclear who’s who, what’s what. When a quatrain tries to become a painting, by converting its words as if into image, its margins into full-justified frames, and when a series of these aspiring tableaux, hung meticulously side by side, shows a book trying to morph into a museum, the onlooker is obviously at a loss for how to proceed through this would-be Uffizi. And when a wealthy Italian statesman, art patron, soldier, and lover tries to live inside the French language, he finds that his currency, as it were, is no longer current. I don’t know, of course, whether this was Lorenzo de Medici’s experience of the Renaissance world, but it is certainly the experience any reader has when facing Sébastien Smirou’s appropriately titled Mon Laurent. In his book, the whole universe may hang in the balance of the tiniest of words. “ayant appris une future rémission des étoiles,” begins the fourth stanza of the eighth and final section, “les médecins / regardent . . .” Laurent is dying of gout, so the court astrologers consult the stars for advice. On first take, the sentence—if one can speak of sentences where there are no capital letters, no punctuation other than parentheses—seems to say: “having learned of a future remission from the stars, the doctors look around,” as though the medical entourage had divined, from the stars, a lessening of Laurent’s malady. This would be a relief, not least for the sick man himself. But there is a second order to the ‘same’ phrase, and it offers information that bodes as ill as the previous version’s promise: “having learned of the stars’ future remission, the doctors look around,” where what is at stake is a pending remission of the stars—their fading or disappearance. Grammatically treacherous, Smirou’s line locates the fate of Laurent, and hence of Medici Italy as such, within the single, seemingly insipid conjunction, des. Nor is the welfare of only one man, one country, or Europe suspended. Just as children of the Copernican revolution were learning that the universe had never revolved around them, despite their illusions, so too does Smirou’s des encapsulate a celestial dilemma: either human proficiency can continue to interpret the heavens, to discover therein its salvation, or else the stars themselves are growing dim, receding to where we will no longer have any access, leaving us to our own, insufficient devices. This is the classical abruptly declassified—but not declassed. Mon Laurent is an elegant, funny, often sad meditation, as concerned with physical arrangement and fractal symmetry as it is with perplexing semantic eccentricity and ruminations on matters philosophical, political, and sentimental. Constructed according to a 4 x 16 x 8 pattern—of lines per stanza, stanzas per section, sections per book—with the gaps separating individual words rendered as regular as possible, Mon Laurent is a mélange of traditional format with an un-constricted modern idiom. Smirou’s emergence began a decade ago with his appearance in the Revue de Littérature Générale, a massive magazine-anthology that detonated on the contemporary French poetry scene, throwing the collective gaze toward new aesthetics and revised ambitions. As founding editor of the micro-editions rup&rud, Smirou once published Peter Gizzi, and he has since been earning an increasingly serious reputation among several innovative American poets, including Cole Swensen, Stacy Doris, and Susan Howe.
The demanding, multifarious work of Jena Osman is an ongoing exercise in displacement. The first thing to be stretched and snap is any conception of the poem as a self-contained, lineated verbal artifact, complete with beginning, middle, and end, and written by a single consciousness. Indeed, many of Osman’s projects are not ‘written’ at all, but are rather curated, coordinated, given space in which to circulate as an interactive collage, in which text, context, and numerous para-texts all border one another. Among the many elements that work together in Osman’s arenas, be it harmoniously or, just as often, through cacophony, are citations, sometimes attributed but often not; handwritten manuscripts, notably Dickinson’s; Supreme Court rulings and other juridical and political memos, including sound-bytes culled from press conferences; images, whether static and pictorial, stolen from a book of gestures, say, or else projected, such as those we’re about to see on screen; phrases whose typeface bolds, enlarges, until suggesting billboard copy, before slimming down to 9-point font, as footnotes, endnotes, asides placed literally at the side of the page, so that suddenly what appeared to be peripheral comes into view as the central concern, pushing the ostensible subject to the margins. Hermeneutically suspicious, adamantly pitched against anything smacking of uniformity or received wisdom, none of Osman’s operations is identical to its neighbors; instead, each ports a logic and a logistics tailored to her present preoccupation. Her writing provides the perfect example of texts “conditioned,” as Andrew Joron has said about someone else’s poem, parts of which were published in Osman’s journal Chain, “but not controlled, by the application of rules,” in which “formal constraint serves as a propaedeutic for the poetic imagination.” The formal constraint of Osman’s “Memory Error Theater,” to take an example from her recent book An Essay in Asterisks, involves a legend, or key, containing a 3 x 7 grid. With each cubicle corresponding to a planet, a copyeditor’s mark, and an abstract idea such as “relativism” and “the question,” the sequence proceeds to open each of those Pandora’s boxes like a computer file, in order to address the slippages of personal and historical record, particularly the way in which memory is invented, edited, revised, changing over time as the remembering agent changes. Ostensibly similar in its consciously hypertextual layout is her 16-page “The Periodic Table as Assembled by Dr. Zhivago, Oculist,” from her first book, The Character: different elements from the table communicate logarithmically with small poems. But as Osman’s note to the text makes clear—although text is obviously a word not wide enough to accommodate what we’re talking about—the activity of reading “The Periodic Table,” as published between two paper covers, is only to experience one of the who-knows-how-many permutations and combinations made available by her parametric experiment. Osman’s ambition is to refuse deciding for the reader what and how to read, and in printing the poem she brings us up against the limits of ‘the book,’ with all the potentially sinister connotations of that phrase. The result of Osman’s ‘poems’ is not to interpret the aesthetic, social, and political spheres in which we inevitably live, although her work makes overtures that direction, employing ‘multi-media’ strategies precisely to critique the perniciousness of news and how it’s fed us. She is too mistrustful of the readymade version, too skeptical of anything that would claim to be “beyond a reasonable doubt,” to want to impose an orthodoxy on us. Instead, suspending anything remotely resembling a full-proof interpretation, what Osman wants to illuminate is the act of interpreting itself, from its procedures through its consequences. For all the formal virtuosity and singular deformations in Osman’s repertoire, it’s that last that strikes me as imperative to her work and why we need it: consequence.
“Hence sordid bullshit, leave me the fuck alone.” Like everyone who’s read Olena Kalytiak Davis’ latest book, shattered sonnets love cards and other off and back handed importunities, I feel the basic human urge to say that line aloud, preferably in front of a roomful of students. Explicitly ironic and explicitly explicit, the invocation mimics the rhetoric of a seventeenth-century sonnet while making no bones, obviously, about its gen-X expletives. And that, according to Davis, may be the very rub that gets irritating: the methods for negotiating the sentimental life that we inherited from poets and lovers of the past are no longer operational, and instead of fixing them we get pissed off, or hurt, when they break down. Davis seems to wear her emotions, her baggage, her dirty laundry, and even her wariness on her sleeve, if not “hanging // down / my deepest cut / shirt,” but that is likely just subterfuge. Her self-reference is a front for a more deeply ingrained self-irreverence, and it leads her to solicit the protection, or at least the presence, of someone else: the Reader, the Lord, you. For it may be, via litany or profanity, that one of these folks can forgive her. But absolution is hard to come by when the confession itself is a lie. “i have never told anybody / about the time i i i / slept with three guys at once,” she admits in “keep some stuff for yourself,” “cause it never happened.” Brandishing a sexuality more volcanic than veiled, Davis is a teller of tall tales and of tales below the belt. To wit, she is less interested in old wives’ tales than in young—perhaps premature—wives’ tales and also ex-wives’ tales. “i have decided that we do not want other people’s . . . husbands,” she writes to a friend, “as we do not want our own.” The question of fidelity has always been on the loose in her work. Her first book, And Her Soul Out of Nothing, contained a diptych of dueling poems, “In Defense of Marriage” and “Against Devotion,” a dilemma to which her more recent book contributes a lyric called “to love” and another called “poem convincing you to leave your wife.” She even fears—or feigns to fear—that her own reader will leave her, for an Italian mistress. The site of all this anguish, of course, is the heart, and Davis is desperate to understand how and why it gives itself, or is taken by force; how it cracks, withdraws out of shyness or spite, betrays or is betrayed; how heavy it is, and how light; how necessary and unwieldy. No amount of bookish consolation will offer any solace, as when she invokes the famous dictum about the heart’s reasons, only to tell Pascal to “shut up!” The speaker of Davis’ poems is indentured to first-hand experience, often leading to disastrous results, as we might expect when a “freakèd heart” is married to a “prosthetic soul,” both of them housed in a body that loses first its virginity, then its vanity—before deciding to sport them both once again. Davis is the Ukrainian-rooted, raised-in-Detroit lovechild of Emily Dickinson and Gerard Manley Hopkins, a strange offspring when you think of it, he a Jesuit and “time’s eunuch,” she refusing to leave her father’s house. But as parents they imparted a good deal to their daughter: a diction that manages to be both stringent and baroque; a tempo turning ever back on itself; an obsession with salvation and the general oh-shit of the self; a fraught rapport with nuns; a predilection for spring; a valedictory outlook, often self-lacerating, even kinky; and the incredible incapacity to make up her mind. “So far,” Davis writes, “Anti- / Thesis and then, maybe, a little thesis.” But there is also this contrarianism, and a frequently unrepressed anger, and a confusion of love with lust, which makes me think that the father was actually John Donne. “Reader Deaf and Reader // Dear,” beware: something dastardly, something bastardly, is among us, and she introduces herself as “sir olena kalytiak davis.”