Tuesday, November 29, 2005

NEW! Review of Brian Kim Stefans

The Window Ordered To Be Made by Brian Kim Stefans. A Rest Press.

Reviewed by Mark Mendoza

With a new book (What Does It Matter) appearing on Barque Press and a job at the joystick of UbuWeb, “The Kim Stefans sneak attack is [indeed] now in progress”. The Window Ordered To Be Made marks his most consistent and 'accessible' book to date. Though visually less varied than previous outings, there is a remarkable range of poetic modes covered in its beautiful binding, from the surprising masculine personism corrupted in 'Oliphant And Castle' to the communistic sentence-strokes of 'Attitudes And Non-Attitudes In May' à la Jeff Derksen. With hardworking titles such as 'Prelude To The End Of This Book', a well-tuned use of slashes and parentheses, and a wry lisp of lingo vispo invention and ambient ante-vellum throughout, the reader is made to feel the arbitrary restraints and loopy dupes surrounding a bit-stream that eschews the self-help service industry of main street poetics. For those who like their poetry on the wrong side of the fast conceptual art track, Stefans scores the poetic for its potential (anti)literariness, achieving a startling unidirectional détournment to added features in the absence of a known target. The result is refreshingly rhetorical at times (e.g., not afraid to superimpose hypotactic prolixity over an otherwise paratactic pick-n-mix), especially as arguments made in his other publications come to fresh forms and intractably matter.

While poets like Michael Palmer and J.H. Prynne might move us with calculated deferrals of semantic trade routes, Stefans--in this aspect rather like Tom Raworth--impresses us with the wisdom of a potluck presentation and the witty speeds he can wield when responding to an overcoded senseless sensory world. To mix metaphors, reading The Window becomes an act of making fun of hypercognitive pretensions. A veritable connect-for wizard, Stefans' poems shove their way past the plague of 'quiet, understated' high street poems, “where lightness is fitness”, by asserting their status as undecodable inscription, the surprise “surprise” wrenched from a clockwork deconstruction. In a comparable manner to Charles Bernstein, his greatest momentum follows the wandering of a well-aimed pun, where the time of laughter and carnival permits neither slipstick nor peel-back to reveal fancy. With a style that is both ironic and funny ha-ha, the madcap types, gifting us with a wealth of superb one-liners and thorny phrases: “We make high ceilings in central post offices in an effort to supplant old religions”, “Here is the colon: / and here, it's Happy Meal”, “the Gabriela Sabatini Intelligence Project. . .”, and “The Amish getting squeamish”.

Using the pharmaka-dart of satire to undermine the Hypocritical Oath, the poet revels in revealing the assonance of the grotesque. When this strategy trips up on its own premises, the result is little more than an anticipation of 'nothing happening' or observational comedy that curbs the reader's enthusiasm. For example, “Everyone thought you were beautiful / Now, to deliver the urban landscapes / Seems only normal: upsets, lapses, hosannas, bananas. . .” seems less inventive than other instances where the stakes seem greater. Similarly, “To be free / and ice skating!” might be more effective the closer you live to Central Park but otherwise risks sounding a cheap shot. And yet, in contrast to many other younger U.S. poets, at least the labour of the line-break here is recognised (though better so in “You consider Nicaragua / the imagination”), so as to liberate disaffection with the end of the poem. Given the risks each poem takes, the tender steaks they refuse, it is no wonder there is further to fall. Stefans 'goes there' equipped with the reconstituted grit and “twin flagpoles” ('I Had that Idea') that every good PomoRomo deserves.

In order to confine the 'impure' element or glitch and neutralise it after the event by non-dialectic com-position, lines separate into discrete events promising further trouble in the production of tickler pro-files. Sparing us the production of “remarks of unintended kindness out of undernourished witticism” permits the poems to sublate the uncounted “cavities of the Future” with decisive autopoesis (the window ordered to be made rather than the “Stained- / glass windows” or Microsoft icons that “keep the descendents / unhappy, but productive in masses”).
The word's out: cut your mouth. Bargain in the park.
I should just rip up those poems and create prose narratives
out of them, like I'm doing
now. It's now coming back,
with conversation about social leperdom
in 1952. Lucked / Bird / Perspective.

The cut of such lines produce randomised stop-gaps and strategic delays in conventional discourse, coaxing the striking from the open universe between full-stop and capital. Much of the poetry here relies on an interplay of the breakdown and recovery of the forms of direct statement or a presentation of the rhetorical blank at the heart of said discourse (e.g., “Putting a square patch on your shoulder to kill an instinct”). The beginning of 'General Statements Concerning The Rubberyard' is a good indication of verse that is less reliant on collage than accidental or nude mechanical arrangements of personal and public file contents:
General blankets descend on the rubberyard.

This pistol holistic
piles in the whinny
of the rubberyard. The dorsal trope
adjusts the rubberyard, until
stentorian, “profound.”
Germinal sweetness in the rubberyard.

Such repetitions seem to mimic the circuitous route of the academic approach to concept-forming and the spidery anaphora the poet favours in his works so far--represented here by the prose-block and paean to soft labour 'We Make'--likewise pleases by deprivation (like the instructive uselessness of Kevin Davies' memorable 'Anselm's fisting Cheetos' in Comp). There is a tactics of Duchampian counters and faked resets in The Windows, where “Of an 'ooh' and an 'ohh' we know nothing / but numbers.” Another look through these zeroes and one can see a serious criticism being made of logicians like Rudolf Carnap who have presumed that thought can be reduced to language, leaving feelings to lag behind as blind discharges of self-expressive demonstrations. This may also explain why Stefans enjoys using contrariness as a basis for reflections that do not regress into reflex navel-hazing:
These are like
Dropping off the guys off somewhere
(Bakunin's temp hair is limp)
The anonymity of the “I” on the web page
Remembers graduation

A careful economy is at work here, with the end-position of “like” and the suggestion of failed revolt (Bakunin's strategy of “the free association of all productive associations”) leading logically to a condensed statement regarding the current maturation of the ego in the electronic job market. The plural tone creates a congruence as opposed to coherence, sampling the loony tunes of everyday defeats, “with this kind of information / available to panic”: “the Chinese years symbolized by animals/ Worthy of reading / If only for the erotica category” (a sly nod to Said Orientalism and the new meanings my generation attaches to Asian-fetish). Appropriately, in the facing poem entitled 'Midas Ears' we have a snotty “punk” utterance, “divided between the rout of Pollocks / and What's Said to the Poet Concerning Flowers.” Rather than accept the blumen-speech of abstract modernism, Stefans uses his Smart Word Paint to spray these flowers through a variety of tools until they resemble Saying, e.g., the “spilled cosmos made patterns / of roses in the pool.” ('Howlings in Favor of Tulsa') “[S]hut off all / auto-correct features” ('I Had That Idea'); in a poetics that allows the 'programme' to demonstrate its monstrosities, don't expect these indeterminable acts to come up rosy: the capitalism of the history-machine is not the history of the capitalist machine. . . “Given any time, and the web of incestuous comeuppance / generates its angular rose. / Vocal / Caverns.” Sources emerge as pointers and flash-backs of alienable experience that dislike their coding in snap images or the lyrical tag hung around the emotional tie-rack. The dialectic of singular negative production and the labouring of burrowing meet in a cautious reframing of expression allowing cross-pollination from urgent masks.

The Windows proffers the shock of reprogramming when two provisionally isolated and hollow grams are juxtaposed and misled to an embrace worth its weight in icing sugar. For instance, many of the finest passages rupture the involving orders of ordinary syntax with deictic prescience (“No symbols are involved. . .”), performing the arbitrary or pro-grammatic organization of alphabetic lists ('Gatt's Freedom') and regimental linguistic fatigues:
Move to Brazil. Something like Pink Floyd
atmospherics; something decades-past
achieves new relevance. Peek-a-boo eyes
like steady-cams in the toilet swilling darkness: lost.

At the end of the game they alphabetize the names.

Count yours in it.

Too / Tall / Harry.

One / With / Sun / Stick.

Instrumental break will not convert them;
she races through the galleries, gender-crippled.
Hostile arrangements:
it's called editing.

Read slowly, these lines show something of the alienating aspects of the culture-jamming and “editing” the poet must undergo in order to achieve a form sufficiently open for incisive political put-downs and a decentred wellness. Another fine example, “Self-hatred: keeping your arms spread out”, appears in a short poem entitled 'Corso', after the 'Beat poet' who famously predicted the sad course of a socialist writer's 'post-spectacle' stance when he wrote “Standing on the street corner waiting for no one is power.” There are no more books of pleasure; even “Raoul Vaneigem // ended up on one of those Iraqi playing cards.”

The model of the contemporary poet downloaded by Stefans antagonises the distinction of s(t)imulation, using his relibidinized mouse and customised Explorer to delineate the deprivations of the reality principle in poetic pleasures. However, the principle behind such pleasures is free to speculate on further speech-acts in order to maximize satisfaction, sparing the reader the trauma of actually living out the content of their drives and offering instead an embedded interface, in-yer-face. Even the ungoogleable cannot keep their heads above the deluge of junk information, rehashable trivia, and the snooze that stays news. “Another conveyed his position on recent developments / in Van Halen: he was an 'anti-Samite.' / I want to be immune again” ('The Journalist'--the last line of the stanza quoted here rhyming crudely to my ears with the hero's lament at the end of Jim Carroll's Basketball Diaries). That is, we are all users, “tiny zeroes in the astro-turf. . .” ('Provincial Hack'), “we make codas out of what we were once highly anticipated, fresh beginnings.”

From the misgivings the poet has found expressed in the “politics out of unsorted data” comes a persuasive disarticulation of reconfiguration before it can become orthodox reconnaissance. The complex lets its context slip, exposing the shadowlife of line feeds; where forced digits are as unreal as Pop's satellite dishes. Thank the Stefans module, for a book that is--in the (r)ear of advertising idioms--critical of its own 'flashy' uses and avoids baiting readers into passionless beholding. Rather, readers are asked to consider themselves as subject-positions that do not belong to the web, but are a limit of the web, entangled in a composite of hyperlinks.

Monday, November 07, 2005

Gerald Bruns' The Material of Poetry

: Sketches for a Philosophical Poetics (Georgia, $24.95)

includes cd with poems by Steve McCaffery, Christian Bok (doing Kurt Schwitters' 20-minute "Der Ursonate"), John Cage, Jackson Mac Low & Anne Tardos, Henri Chopin, Francois Dufrene

based on a lecture series delivered at Georgia Southern University


1. Poetry as an Event of Language: The Conceptual Achievement of Contemporary Poetics
2. The Transcendence of Words: A Short Defense of (Sound) Poetry
3. Poetic Materialism: The Poet's Redemption of Everyday Things
Conclusion: On Poems of the Third Kind (a Thought Experiment)

two excerpts from chapter 1:

"My idea is that what is philosophically interesting is a poem that is not self-evidently a poem but something that requires an argument, theory, or conceptual context as a condition of being experienced as a poem (or of being experienced at all), as if poetry were, as I think it is, a species of conceptual art, where the relation between theory and practice is a two-way street. In reading a poem, one might experience a theory of what poetry is. The point is that what requires no thought, what can be accepted without question--the chesnut, the museum piece--cannot be of much philosophical interest. A kind of oblivion hovers over 'the canon.'"

"Academic quarrels about critical methods notwithstanding, the university study of poetry, such as it is, is not governed by concepts and examples much different from the criteria and models that underwrite such respectable institutions as The Harvard Anthology of Contemporary American Poetry, Poetry: A Magazine of Verse, The New York Review of Books, the poet laureateship of the United States, the Academy of American Poets, National Poetry Month, the Pulitzer Prize, and Garrison Keillor's Writer's Alamanac. Ours is, being Western, an Aristotelian culture, where unity and coherence of form, clarity of meaning, and rhetorical accessibility are indispensable conditions of efficient coexistence."

Steve McCaffery is a major presence in the book. Bruns quotes his "Poetics: A Statement": "I have no steady poetics, no position or school that I defend, no fixist stance on art or anything else. I have a constant stream of feelings and ideas that constantly change, modify and carry into action as techniques for living. What I try to do is understand this flux and develop for myself a thoroughly nomadic consciousness; a mind in constant movement through stoppings and starts, with the corollary of a language art in permanent revolution, contradiction, paradox and transform."

Clark Coolidge appears, too: "there are no rules. What I think is that you start with materials. You start with matter, not rules." Bruns continues: "And the matter is language or, more exactly, words or, more exactly still, the material of words--the sounds of the voice and the letters of the alphabet, where the letters are experienced not only phonetically but also, as in visual poetry, as patterns of print or ink."

Bruns also writes about Lyn Hejinian's and Charles Bernstein's poetry and prose: "Bernstein's poetry is difficult not because it is obscure in the way poetry often is (sheer density of language) but because it is rooted in parody, quotation, mimicry, and pastiche--and also in what performance artists call 'breaking the frame.'" Further on: "Bernstein's poetry theatricalizes the languages of everyday life, including the contexts in which these languages are used. ... Theatricality is the enemy of naturalization, normalization, standardization, routinization, and obliviousness."

As is probably clear by now, much of the book is a defense of "difficult" contemporary poetry--finding ways to read it "as something other than nonsense." While some readers will wonder about the need for such a book now that this poetry has infiltrated/broadened the mainstream (and thus MFA programs and literary magazines and even the awards superstructure), it's worth recalling that the book began as a lecture series and that the organizations mentioned in the second excerpt above do their best to ignore this kind of writing. (Bernstein's "official verse culture" doesn't mean exactly what it did when he first advanced the phrase, but it's still relevant.)

To that end, one of Bruns' more common approaches in the book is as follows: "the problem [of Coolidge's book-length poem The Maintains] is arguably not one of nonsense but of too much sense, augmented or invigorated by alliteration, assonance, and echoes of all sorts. ... The poem forces us to expand our boundaries of what we think of as meaningful." The Maintains "teaches us something about the limits of exegesis or about the shortfall in the way we are taught to read in school, where the rules of information theory are almost exclusively in force."

Oddly enough, Bruns echoes Vendler's comment re: John Ashbery (in a review in The New Republic): "We make sense of a poem not by the application of critical methods but by living with it until we are part of its world."

Is Bruns a kind of Vendler, but a Vendler with a greater capacity for / interest in experimental writing? If Vendler's attempts to offer "synopses" of Ashbery poems seem misguided or old-fashioned, then how do we take Bruns' attempts to "make sense" of McCaffery and Coolidge (and Bernstein and Hejinian and Retallack) poems? If both Vendler and Bruns want to make sense of difficult poems--i.e., to render the effects of the poems in normative prose--then are they as different as their topics / associations / tastes would lead us to believe? Or do venue / rhetoric / assumptions trump method in how we view / align critics of contemporary poetry?

Does one need to be an experimental critic to write about experimental poetry in an appropriate way, or just an open-minded reader? Do university-based critics still need to follow the rules of academic prose when championing work outside the center?

Bernstein clearly has demonstrated a way (or, really, many ways) around the normative in his criticism, but most prose about "difficult" poetry is as straightforward as the poetry it denigrates. A prominent example is Ron Silliman's writing on his blog (ronsilliman.blogspot.com), which contains some of the clearest, most cogent writing about poetry today; yet Silliman does not work in a university and thus seems freer than Bruns or Vendler to pursue non-normative critical prose. But the techniques of his own poetry (as well as those of the poetry he champions) and of the writing on his blog seem quite different, if not at odds.

Bruns has a sharp mind and wide-ranging tastes (he also writes approvingly of Marvin Bell in the book), but The Material of Poetry cannot be considered experimental itself. This could be due to the book's origin in a lecture series, though when one considers the possibilities for innovation in that necessarily performative format (in which Bruns played sound poems for his audience), that doesn't seem like a valid reason. Consider a book on the same topic and with the same impetus if David Antin, or Bernstein, wrote it.

Verse would welcome responses to the questions above as well as responses to The Material of Poetry itself. You can use the comment field or send 'letters to the editor' to Brian Henry at bhenr [at] yahoo [dot] com.

Wednesday, November 02, 2005

new issue of Verse

The new issue of Verse is out. It includes an interview with Mary Jo Bang

& poems by

Charles Simic
Tomaz Salamun
René Char
Charles Wright
Cate Marvin
Arielle Greenberg
Oni Buchanan
Andrew Joron
Richard Roundy
Jennifer L. Knox
Ted Mathys
Joy Katz
Christopher Edgar
Debbie Urbanski
Geoffrey Cruickshank-Hagenbuckle
Michael Farrell
Wayne Koestenbaum
Michael Savitz
L.S. Klatt
Juliet Patterson
Herbert Scott
Kerri Webster
Philippe Jaccottet
Peter Jay Shippy
Julia Story
Chuck Stebelton
Vona Groarke
Aaron McCollough
Craig Coyle
Sharon Kubasak
Nathan Hoks
Lisa Fishman
Alissa Valles
Elena Karina Byrne
Megan Johnson
Steve Langan
Jennifer Militello
Kevin Craft
Karla Kelsey
Christof Scheele
Philip Gross
Beverley Bie Brahic
Joshua Kryah
Isabelle Garron
Thomas Heise
Julianne Buchsbaum
Carl Tillona
Nick Twemlow
Daniel Coudriet
Meta Kusar
Charles Wuest
Richard Meier
Jamie Thomas
Kostas Anagnopoulos
Karen Leona Anderson
Abby Millager
Garrett Doherty

152 pages in all.

Copies are available at a discount for $6, postage included, until December 1 (after that, they're $8 each). Order by sending a check to Verse, English Department, University of Richmond, Richmond VA 23173.