Reviewed by Lindsay Kathleen Turner
Despite its handsome black-and-white cover, Stephen Rodefer’s new selected poems, Call It Thought reminds me of a beat-up old suitcase my boyfriend used to carry, which I hated: it was sloppy, fraying at the edges, overstuffed, unreliable, exotically stickered and tagged, ostentatiously unlike anything else, yet still suspiciously bland. Call It Thought is, luckily, not a suitcase and is thus relieved of such functional obligations: it is supposed to stand out and be provocative. Whether such provocation is appealing is a matter of taste; but whether or not one finds the poems sturdy enough to carry their content of inventions and jibes, Rodefer works thoroughly, intelligently, and—sometimes—intelligibly at a snarl of artistic and aesthetic queries.
Call It Thought begins with excerpts from Rodefer’s Four Lectures (1982), which according to Rod Mengham’s introduction “so exceeds conventional lineation and bibliographical form that only a few extracts could be included in this book.” This textual difficulty raises a first problem posed generally by Call It Thought: one wonders what, and where, the rest of the lectures might be. Given the sprawl of Rodefer’s work, its shifts in style and register, in the case of Four Lectures, and similarly for the book as a whole, the act of selecting does nothing to delineate the boundaries of Rodefer’s corpus or to sketch for us a general outline of his work—what’s included simply raises questions about what’s left out.
In any case, starting with Four Lectures—for the book does not follow the chronological order of Rodefer’s work—prepares us for the lexical inundation occasioned by the collection. Rodefer is well-schooled in the history of literature and poetry, as inclusive of the esoteric fact as he is of the poetic cliché, and everything in between: “As should a book be as deep as a museum and as wide as the world,” he concludes his preface to the lectures.
Indeed, the collections assembled in Call It Thought seem to represent not the continuity or arc of a poetic career but a gamut of voices, a virtuosic act of ventriloquism. Rodefer is, of course, often associated with Language poetry, but the intimacy and imagery of the Black Mountain poets is strongly present in some of the earlier work, such as One or Two Poems from the White World (1976). The voiced observation and introspection of the New York School marks later poems, especially those from Emergency Measures (1987), whose title points us immediately toward O’Hara, a frequent Rodefer evocation, and those from Left Under a Cloud (2000), which includes a literal translation of “The Day Lady Died” in French. In and among all this, Rodefer also calls to mind Lucretius, Sappho, Dante, Villon, the English Romantics, the Italian Futurists, and the entire tradition of the French poète maudit (Rodefer’s collaborations with Benjamin Friedlander and Chip Sullivan recall Apollinaire’s Calliagrams; Fleurs de Val translates, after a fashion, Baudelaire). Given this list—by no means exhaustive—it is hardly surprising, that, along with Charles Olson, who appears in a non-blurb on the back jacket of Call It Thought betting “anybody a lobster” that the poet could answer his question about Milton, we are left asking where, among the voices and evocations, is Rodefer, anyway?
As prolific and as innovative as he is provocative, Rodefer is more or less unknown in most American poetry circles. Indeed, most commentary seems directly focused on the problem of Rodefer’s ambiguous location; in the introduction to the 2008 issue of the Chicago Review dedicated to the poet, editors Joshua Kotin and Michael Kindellan note that “Rodefer’s affiliations are as much a sign of his poetic identity as of his perpetual homelessness.” Critical approaches to his work are, more often than not, the projects of British scholars, and it is in this context, paradoxically, that we find Rodefer referred to most decisively as an American poet; Mengham states that “of all the most intensely American of poets, Stephen Rodefer turns out to be the most European,” while Rodefer’s website bears a quotation from Simon Jarvis calling him “quite simply the most important living American poet.”
Stephen Rodefer lives in Paris. Even if he grew up as a person and poet in a solidly American milieu, and even if he alludes to New York and California as often as he does to the poets who populate these places, his work seems to describe a slow unmooring, a drift from the partisanships of American poetry schools into a world far more cosmopolitan, and also more amorphous: the last poems in the volume, from the unpublished collection How to Fall Off the Pony in New York, are as sprawling and varied in language as they are in form, peppered with names and phrases from, truly, all over the globe. (Take, for example, “Drinking Amongst the Wafering Drinkers”—yes, “wafering”—which bears the subtitles “after Mozart and before Nietzsche” and “On y va à le repaire du Bacchus / cher Ramses Tutankhamen,” and then begins, “Detroit too long des trop.”)
And yet Rodefer’s poems are often occasional, bearing the stamps of places and dates, dedicated to real people: it is ultimately clear that Rodefer does have a “here,” a genuine locus from around which his voices, concerns, and general overflow of words assemble. The poet Fanny Howe describes him as having the “aura of a pariah,” and his exclusion from American scholarship seems more or less standard—yet this general homelessness, finally, is the result of neither biographical nor textual confusion. Rather, it seems deliberately produced by the poems themselves; Rodefer rejects the confines of academia and of “home,” preferring instead, it seems, the freedom and energy he claims within this space of rejection.
Asking, “where is Rodefer,” then, may not be the most productive way of approaching Call It Thought. His is a poetics of rejection, a sort of authorly uncertainty principle by which, somewhat baffled and provoked, the inquiring reader finds only the continual assertion of where the poet is not. A favorite trope of Rodefer’s is the bastardization of a well-known line: “tenured is the night,” for example, or “[a]bout suffering we are always wrong.” These allusions are not particularly funny; they do not build on the poems from which they come nor even recall Keats or Yeats in a particularly interesting fashion. But even if the language discomfits, these garbled lines exemplify what, for Rodefer, is at the heart of his art: the act of creation is here constituted by the deliberate garbling of the standard signals of traditional form, voice, and allusion. It is fundamentally an act of resistance, of defiance of the norms of academia and the expectations created for readers of poetry by poetry itself; in Four Lectures, Rodefer writes:
But bent out of shape is also bent into shape. New replacements are expected, and they always come. We start to be fed things forcibly. We can throw up, not eat, or fold the spoon in half.
The metaphors are slippery, but the tone of obstinacy, at least, is unmistakable: Rodefer’s project is to bend tradition and form to his will, and his will is none other than the rejection, or at least the bending, of tradition and form.
Given this deliberate perversity, it seems obvious that reading Rodefer’s work is not a reliably pleasant experience. One has the impression, in the lines cited above and elsewhere, that the rejection of tradition entails a sort of deadening of the words, a weakening, a reversion; once evoked, Keats’ nightingale cannot but be missed. Perhaps this sense of loss motivates the concurrence of Rodefer criticism around the adjective “dreamy”; Friedlander characterizes Rodefer’s tone as one of “consistent dreamy innuendo,” while in her Rodefer: A Study, also from Chicago Review, Fanny Howe writes that Rodefer’s words “seek a new language that floats far above the borders of nation or sex or speech. His poetry is, in a word, dreamy.”
To me, “dreamy” seems at odds with Rodefer’s stream of puns and claims and exclamations, which range in tone from sly to trenchant to careless to absolutely overshrill. (“All talkative writers will prattle,” Rodefer writes in an interview with the editors of Chicago Review. Rodefer is a very talkative writer.) Regardless of whether one finds his logorrhea dreamy and evocative or grating and (to cite Friedlander again) manneristic, Call It Thought—in spite of Rodefer’s muddled reception, and his further attempts to muddle things in general—is a work with a definite, pointed, and meta-poetic bent. Reading Rodefer is an experience of provocation and of destabilization; again and again, the poems cue us toward history, toward elsewhere, only to jerk us rudely back:
Is the surface, but there is nothing else. Improvisation is a tool
of refinement. The sentence is up for parole. I’m from there
but now I’m here. It happens to everyone. We are born two and we part one.
Your plane is here. Happy crowd. Some things are too loud to hear.