Saturday, July 10, 2004

NEW! Review of Lohren Green's Poetical Dictionary [Thomas Fink]

Poetical Dictionary: Abridged by Lohren Green. Atelos, $12.95.

Reviewed by Thomas Fink

In the "Preface" to Poetical Dictionary, his first book, Lohren Green declares that, while a "traditional dictionary" can lose "its sense of words" and become "a tome of variable tedium" that "immobilizes" language, he wishes to facilitate appreciation for words' heterogeneity. Rather than "definition," Green is interested in "informed portraiture, a conceptual calligraphy, a combination of lexicography and poetry ... that knows the style of information, the viscosity of concepts, the atmospherics of these sonic cum tropic logics that we call words." Although there are several fairly predictable, pedestrian entries (such as "heft," "impart," "pixel," and "torpid"), in most cases, the poet's elegant "self-blurb" is an accurate characterization of the poems. As Green claims, the forty words chosen for poetic exploration betray "no one overriding principle of selection," but the concept of change or transition, if not "viscosity," is important to numerous words.

The four-definition entry for "concurrence" is concluded by four diagrams that illustrate differences among "incidentally adjacent" movements, "elements" that "coincide in the abstract," "elements" that contribute to one another's motion, and ones that "converge." The second entry cogently dramatizes the rich diversity of intersections or confluences:

... the multiform schemata of a time:
coded twists of DNA that split and writhe
by the billions beneath a cut of clothes,
the winter jet stream pulling on the peaks
of a demand curve, trade zone contours,
the logic of the queue, a whole
statistical scurry of human circulation
catching in cross-section patterns of day
beneath concentric broadcasts
that pulse open like invisibly
mottled data flowers
among the bar-graph buildings.

The first image displays the vast disparity between the riotous growth and decay of human genetic processes and the relative simplicity of the appearance of clothing on an individual. Also, the connection and distinction between the "split" of one and "cut" of the other is striking. In this evocative catalog, the swirl of scientific and mathematical abstraction against less rarified concepts and concrete discourse, as well as intense focus on one:many perspectives is oddly reminisicent of A.R. Ammons' poetry, as are some other poems about dynamic processes. However, Green, emphasizing poetic condensation, avoids Ammons' chattiness, and his mention of "demand curve" and "trade zone" has a more political edge than Ammons' musings.

The poem for "doodle," which features an "allover (the page) composition" of brief, short-lined strophes, breaking up of some words into smaller components, and even a sentence fragment that undulates like a doodling wave, is far from Ammons in its affinity with the page-play of Susan Howe and other Language poets. "Doodle," Green reminds us, is related to "dawdle." The poem is full of agile alliteration involving the letter "d" and intricate assonance:

      Dew  a   spr  ink ling
    dawn's  days  with  dots'  still
  so   point  les  sly  many
     un  wed  ways    .

This poem enacts what it is "about": freedom, pleasure, and an expressive medium's material presence. In "sprinkling," there is the doodler's "ink" and an "inkling" of a "dewy" figuration within abstraction. In "pointlessly," there is somehow a "point," perhaps on the "sly."

"Miro" celebrates an aesthetic exemplar of freedom and pleasure. With effectively balanced line-indentations and evocative imagery, Green offers a fine ekphrastic approximation of "dabbling" "feats / of balanced motion" in European Modernist painting. Green's zest for imaginative phrasing is true to Miro's biomorphic shapes and offbeat landscapes: the poet speaks of "petri dish playgrounds" and "dumbbell / stars," and he coins the compound terms, "beak-line" and "cross-wisped."

Whereas "Miro" hails pulsing energies, in "pale" the poet aptly reduces affective intensity in the way he leaves spaces between words in sentences yet still allows for a residue of verbal "luster." The stark monosyllables of "Definition 1" suggest how "pale" connotes movement from presence to absence, from proximity to diffusion:

alba ,  a quiet miss ,  bone  faint  and  out/ spread, or apart

Here, "miss" is achingly close to "mist." The third definition offers a subtle surprise to tweak what would otherwise be a visual cliche:

      vague ,  and

  dimming  outwardly  (photos  bleaching  into  light ) ;

 not  vital the difference  wan  losing  itself ,  less

The pun on "light" (noun or adjective?) and its relationship to the preposition "into" force us to ask whether "bleaching" paradoxically causes "photos" to evince a new illumination, however "pale," or whether this process leads to photos' being less dark. Interestingly, the second, more obvious meaning involves the more unusual grammatical form. Also, the juxtaposition of "wan" and "losing itself" concisely underlines how "paleness" can signal diminishment of material or psychological features of an entity's "self."

"That" fascinatingly calls attention to the complexity, strangeness, and arbitrary patterns of linguistic functioning: "that" can be a "pron., adj., adv., and conj.," and it is "a most general specification that / is always particular..." Through deft and surprising enjambments, Green achieves an excellent modulation of short, medium, and long lines that imitates the uncanny variety of "that":

A. that,
I mean that right back there, B. that which is not this, or C.
that further away in space or time which
is not this,
or D. a subject or object that
serves in a relative clause, or E. the convergence
of rapier and wit, take that-

The poem goes to K., but A. through E. furnish a strong sense of Green's analytic extension of the attention to the seemingly "humblest" words that found in the poetry and criticism of Zukofsky, Williams, and other Objectivists.

The dictionary format provides an enabling structure for emphases on process and diversity in Green's book. The book, however, provides meta-commentary on epistemological and sociological aspects of dictionaries less than it embodies an effective collection of poems that foregrounds a multiplicity of linguistic and contextual possibilities.

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