Monday, October 25, 2004

NEW! Review of Elizabeth Treadwell

Chantry by Elizabeth Treadwell. Chax. $16.

Reviewed by Thomas Fink

In Chantry, Elizabeth Treadwell has devised an unusual structure. Interspersing poems (often without stanza breaks), prose poems, and hybrids of the two, Chantry begins with a three-page prose poetry sequence, moves on to eight texts of a page or less, then fills the 50-page middle section (of about 90 pages) with four long texts in a row, including a self-styled “novelette” (“codes of the very femininity”). The remaining pieces are short, except for a six-page “hybrid” near the book’s end. If the center of gravity is in the center, the entire collection, undivided by sections, possesses great density; this involves a piling of relentlessly disparate, often vertiginously surreal images, consistently strained or fractured grammar, and challenging allusions. And do not look to T.S. Eliot-style footnotes or explanatory passages like Susan Howe’s for assistance.

“Torn/town,” just shy of 20 pages, is the book’s longest poem. As in “Europe” and other poems collected in The Tennis Court Oath (1962) about a decade before first-generation Language Poets learned from this phase of John Ashbery’s work, violently interrupted sentences evince the pathos of a pulverized (“torn”) speaking subject: “And during the past week I’d.” “The heart is commonly.” Disruption of grammar and syntax marks the poem’s first sentence, which features not only stammering repetition of subjects and the removal of crucial punctuation but independent clauses set ambiguously beside fragments: “I I have been constant any future tragedies he he died for the sea rose-water redhead.” The initial declaration of constancy is ironically undercut by the impossibility of confidence about syntactical relations.

A sprinkling of proper names with historical and mythological allusiveness (“Troy,” “Adam,” “Adonis,” “Cherokee,” “Cassandra,” “Isis,” “Myrmidon”) and dates (1209, 1542, 1907) seems to suggest that historical data could be unearthed. However, the “serpentine” progression of bits of language “torn” from a “town’s” context, from causal chains, gives “inches of cities,” if that much: “Clementine serpentine but this is not a history!” At times, the co-presence of histories and geographies is asserted: “Spiral Japan: postcard ice cream both single and Mesopotamian. Where is.”

Various passages signifying violence are moments of linguistic energy: “Electronvolt frontier confection. Everyday whip, reestablish, thrall. In semidetached contusion mangle. Quit tirade tire--underpaid massacre.” “Confection” retains the signification of movement and heat in the expected “convection,” and it conveys the notion, implied elsewhere in the poem and book, that sweetness serves as a rationale or front for (male) dominance. The play of “contusion”/confusion in relation to “mangle” has a similar effect of “semi-”attachment and “semidetachment.” Alongside the idea that to stop shouting is to admit fatigue and find that energy needed to act violently is not cost-effective, part of “tirade” is “lost” in “tire” and then is “found” again in the last syllable of “underpaid.” These instances of linguistic play in “Torn/ town” and other long texts in Chantry are “readable” in ways that many other passages are not: “mental transitive 1907: no child stars / six petitions correspond.” Unless one happens to know what “petitions” were made in 1907 (and where and why), this line will have little interest, even if one senses that the concept of the “child star” emerged after that year.

A salient example of Treadwell’s shorter pieces is the unindented, single-paragraph, roughly half-page prose poem, “composition.” Here is roughly the first third:

waitress of mercy glance in the hollow tube underwear glen. dear calamity profile, hunky bearer of wand and limbs. Newton’s alchemical harpooned state dreams like argyle roughage. she was a literalist in the tradition of wander mer. time being nonsense water, vapid arcane hands translate the ice floes though had jumped bikini wooden.

Because “glance” has no “s” at the end, we can surmise that the first unit of the prose poem is a fragment, not a sentence, and “waitress of mercy,” like the three words prior to the final “glen,” is an adjectival phrase modifying the main noun. (Long adjectival phrases are common in this and other texts in Chantry.) But “glance” might be a verb of command without a comma preceding it. This first sentence might be described as surrealism run amok. The literal absurdity of “underwear” in the form of a “hollow tube” plays against the plausible, figurative sense of penis as “tube,” but is an “underwear glen” a dresser, a closet, or just an environment where the “waitress” encounters men? Does her “glance” embody the “mercy” with which she has been tagged, or does it have a different impact--perhaps anxiety, as indicated by the appositive beginning the second “sentence” that suggests that looking at the “hunk” with “wand” (“tube”?) involves the likelihood (“profile”) of “calamity”?

The word “wand” in the second sentence reaches over to “alchemical” in the third (and “wander” in the fourth), but why is “Newton’s . . . state” aligned with alchemy rather than hard science? The poet’s verbal “dream” magic may be denying the separation of science and magic, just as “argyle roughage” declines to separate food and clothing: a “waitress” “serves” “underwear.” It follows the “literalist . . . tradition” of a “wandering” sea/mother (French: “mer”/”mere”) in the sense that Gertrude Stein, as interpreted by Lyn Hejinian and others, privileged metonymy--a continual displacement that honors surface interactions and questions large symbolic unities--over metaphor. The body of water/maternal “origin” of this linguistic movement through “time” does not yield primordial sense, but the priority of language as material, hence “nonsense.” To settle intentionally for an “arcane” simplification, “vapor” “translates” “ice” into “water.” According to the logic of this “nonsense” and its grammatical ambiguity, either a layer of meaning (“bikini”) can be “jumped” (over), but “woodenly,” or the “bikini” itself should be regarded as “wooden,” an impediment either to translation or a more immediate reading that questions translation as limitation.

In its concentration on extremity of disjunction between words, phrases, and larger units, complication of imagery, and grammatical/syntactical deregulation, as well as on development of prose/poetic structures, Chantry induces considerable readerly anxiety, some skepticism, and (for me) pleasure in the struggle to stretch past habits of reception and perception. These features mark Chantry as a promising elaboration of the important concerns and innovations of Elizabeth Treadwell’s Language forebears.

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