Saturday, January 10, 2009

NEW! Review of Oni Buchanan

Spring by Oni Buchanan. University of Illinois Press, $17.95.

Reviewed by Eric Crapo

Oni Buchanan’s second poetry collection, Spring, is an exercise in language as vessel for spiritual experience and reverence for nature. As a musician and a poet, she puts more emphasis on sound than on syntax, and her poems are driven more by harmony and assonance than by grammar. Just as music hides melodies inside harmonies and accompaniments, Buchanan hides poetry within poetry, and she seeks out the physical representation of these layers throughout the collection. The culmination of this technique can be seen in “The Mandrake Vehicles,” the final section of the collection (which is also presented as a flash animation on an accompanying CD), but she introduces her reader to hidden poetry as early as the collection’s supernumerary prologue poem.

Five poems--“The Smallest Plant,” “Amaryllis,” “Vespers,” “(A)Version,” and “Still-Life with Interior”--make use of a poetic axis. The bulk of these are shuffled among the first section of Spring, while the first acts as the collection’s gateway. Each of these poems is arranged on the page so that a handful of letters in each line are stacked atop one another to show a second poem, an epigram, beneath the first; she sets off these secondary poems by graying out the necessary text, as in "Amaryllis." The amaryllis is a flower that grows in barren, rocky terrain, which Buchanan describes as “… stones: room / for water, room for air…” The stems of the plant are naked, having no leaves, and the species itself is the only one of its genus. Already drawing a parallel between the plant and the human condition, she stresses the loneliness of the plant by highlighting the text that lies at the poem’s physical core. The poem and epigram combinations throughout the first section read as calls and responses. But Buchanan is careful not to over-use the epigrams; the bulk of the poems in the first section do not use them, and she does not use them in later sections of the collection.

Even without the hidden epigrams, Buchanan's voice remains consistent throughout the book. Consider the following lines from “The Word,” from the second movement of the collection:
And to burst would give voice
in bit, the cacophonous pieces
breaching the surface, a tangle,
a flooded exhumation of limbs.

The language iis airy and fluid. Sound takes precedence over meaning, though the meaning is not lost. Buchanan uses more Latinate words in “The Word” than in “Amaryllis”--cacophonous and exhumation versus wayward and leeches--but the words she chooses still carry the meaning of their respective poems. When read aloud, cacophonous becomes an example of itself, while the root exhume has an upward motion as a body must feel being taken out of the ground. Likewise, the core vowels of leeches draw the word out, as the awe of the amaryllis does light. Buchanan is conscious of sounds--of the percussion of consonants and the airy or brassy qualities of vowels--in every poem in Spring.

Each section of the book has its own, unique device. The second section makes use of origami in its final poem, “Or Portals to another world,” which incorporates photographs of objects--a crane, a frog, and a box--constructed of folded paper filled with lettering, fragmented in a way similar to the epigrams from section one. One drawback to origami poetry is that it is hard to read: a single line reads across a fold, and a high spatial intelligence is needed to mentally reconstruct the object. Each page of this poem is a new form, and that fluidity serves to alter the reader’s perception as often as possible. Buchanan keeps the poem in flux, introducing her readers to a concept that will dominate the end of the collection.

Though untitled, the book’s third section is a series of poems addressed to the “lonely animal,” a zoomorphic reflection of humanity. Six out of the seven poems in this section bear the title “Dear Lonely Animal,” and talks directly to the “animal” as if to a love or a child. The opening poem, “The Lonely Animal,” is more detached from the subject, treating it in the third person rather than the second, and acting as a prologue that allows the reader to meet the animal before reading the poet’s more personal communications with it. The lonely animal is as much a reflection of the narrator’s self as it is an object of devotion.

The fourth section contains two less mundane poems, “Text Message” and “Maroon Canoe,” but they are made weaker by their device-based composition. Consider the opening lines of “Text Message”:
oni, u rancorous scam, u r no rare ace.
no common sense. no sure win.
no amour. no sex. no career.
no suave swimwear, size six.
no Amazonian eminence.
no renaissance in consciousness.
mere ire is over asinine nuance.
u r so mesozoic era.

Buchanan continues to use her sound-based composition, as shown in “Amaryllis” and “The Word,” but here she uses text-messaging grammar to draw particular attention to the sounds u and r. The assonance and alliteration of these words throughout the stanza are already plain without truncating you are this way--by doing so, she draws a neon arrow to the simple poetic devices in the poem. In fact, other than the lack of capital letter and the use of + for “and,” Buchanan’s txt-speech is incomplete. She knows that if she presents a poem entirely in truncations, even the common reader would have difficulty. She could have gone so far as to title the poem “Txt Msg,” but she does not.

The title-poem of the collection appears at the end of the fourth section, reflecting the last line of the collection’s prologue. At the beginning, spring was a question, and here it becomes a statement: “I guess it’s Spring.” Still, the statement is uncertain, despite the passing of the “Solstice”--the title of a poem in section two. This frames the main movement of the collection, letting what follows be a coda, or an encore. The main movement of Spring is a collection of poetry in four sections, complete without “The Mandrake Vehicles,” the only titled division of the work. By framing the first four divisions the way she does and titling the last, Buchanan clearly indicates that “The Mandrake Vehicles” makes up an entirely independent work--with its own introduction and a CD accompaniment. In “The Mandrake Vehicles,” Buchanan has attempted to create something new. Her attempts to explain what she has done are complicated by a use of cross-words--explaining poetry in terms of music. While the conceit of these “vehicles” is challenging, and the process of reading them difficult, the layering of a poem inside two others, like nesting dolls, is immediately apparent. The best way to experience these poems for the first time is through the flash animation.

Buchanan calls each set of three poems a “vehicle,” from which letters either float away or slide off the page in order to reveal other poems. The letters which appear in the words of all three poems always appear in the same order, except when “shadows” of those letters are used to create additional words that do not otherwise appear in the poems. The poems are even further linked since the first poem of each vehicle can be read, in succession, as stanzas of a longer poem. This long poem is a symphony, and through the process of each vehicle, Buchanan shows us the part played by each instrument. In fact, she identifies this series as being “scored for paper, letters, and imagination…”

To excerpt from one of the Mandrake Vehicles is to quote three poems simultaneously:
not knowing eoungh to shriek when (k=not knowing when) they
were pulled, a root hair, when the tendrils are broken, the network
of unfurling towards, and the long lines connecting them
underground (oh at first they had only grown vertically from
the dirt, a mere)…

Towing no ghost, no wing, the
well-dart air-enters bent new or
flings a lone scent
under. Gnats hover, till
the dire…

further becomes
Winnowing heart
(stolen tundra
sorting empathies),

In this last section, she pulls letters from lower lines up, and the third line above is constructed from three additional lines not quoted in the first excerpt. With the letters she removes from the text each time, Buchanan arranges them into a collection of other words which she drops at the bottom of a page. These letters do not form words in the order in which they are removed, but they are rearranged as scrabble tiles.

Oni Buchanan’s experience with both music and poetry gives her a unique perspective on composition. Early in Spring this benefits her work. The more complex her conceit becomes, the more difficult her poetry becomes to read. Buchanan does not maintain a single poetic form, and she has arranged the variety in a way that allows her form not to become stale. Spring is a performance, the arrangements of consonants and vowels into sounds, and sounds into words. The collection is a complete symphony and an encore which steadily progresses from concrete to surrealist lyric--though “melody” may be a more appropriate word for Buchanan’s poetic mode.

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