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Confusion As An Operating Principle: Cort Day, Geoffrey Nutter, and the Contemporary “Sonnet-esque” Sequence

As Reviewed By: John Erhardt

The Chime by Cort Day
Alice James Books ($11.95)

A Summer Evening by Geoffrey Nutter
Colorado/Center For Literary Publishing ($14.95)

At some point, poets stopped writing about what they knew and began writing about what they didn’t know (I can’t think of a single good reason to try and pinpoint an exact time period for this; it was a rather gradual change, and the ensuing debate if I got it wrong would be neither productive nor trustworthy). As we got further and further from formal knowledge and the heroic voice, poets began focusing on epistemology rather than epiphany. The act of “figuring things out” has consequently become inseparable from the poem; the poem might even be centered on figuring itself out. Poets who don’t at least acknowledge this project are viewed as dinosaurs, holdovers from a more stubborn and heavy-handed era.

[private]In the beginning, there was no real difference between a successful epistemological poem and a random clutter of disparate fragments (see early 1970′s pre-L=A=N=G=U=A=G=E poetry–we hadn’t been taught how to read it yet, nor were we taught why we should want to). We’re also seeing quite a bit more descriptivecriticism rather than prescriptive, as there are no formal rules to subscribe to other than staying true to one’s own consciousness. Poetry has consequently adopted an “Oh yeah? Watch me defend this poem!” mentality.

Often, a book overly concerned with epistemology comes across sounding too studied, with very little poetic attraction at all. (Christine Hume’s Musca Domesticaimmediately comes to mind, with its forced-sounding repetitive housefly imagery throughout, making one wonder if the title and theme of the book actually preceded its composition). In this sense, the peripheral project completely takes over and leaves the author with very little room to explore; they’ve already decided they have an agenda, and must therefore conform to it. The poems sound forced and unnatural and, in many ways, they are.

While I’m sure I’m making the “maturation” of this kind of poetry seem more ominous than it actually was, two recent rather complex books have been published that don’t require extensive comment and footnoting, à la the Norton Anthology. Both have identifiable agendas that are flexible enough to avoid being important and accessible only to the poets themselves or, worse, to a panel of postmodern theorists concerned with juggling as many opaque “-isms” as possible.

Both The Chime and A Summer Evening consist exclusively of ten-line poems, contemporary “sonnet-esque” sequences both. What a wonderful coincidence it would be if Day and Nutter produced these books totally independent from each other. However, they are friends and they thank one another in their acknowledgements, so it becomes impossible to see these volumes as having completely separate childhoods. Day actually thanks Nutter “for allowing me to farm in his field.”

Cort Day’s book opens with a quote from Benjamin Jowett’s translation of Plato’s dialogue Phaedo: “Instead of saying that oddness is the cause of odd numbers, you will say that monad is the cause of them,” which introduces the monad as a motivating force in the book. While I’m no scholar of Plato or of the Greek language, I do know that the word monas translates to “alone” or “solitary,” thus making the Jowett translation seem a bit curious. An alternate translation of the same passage (G. M. A. Grube, for example) wouldn’t have allowed Day to get the same mileage out of the line: “Nor, if asked the presence of what in a number makes it odd, I will not say oddness but oneness, and so with other things.”

While the introductory quote (and the usage of monad) is attributed to Plato, the term monad is more popularly associated with the seventeenth century German rationalist Gottfried Wilhelm Leibniz. Leibniz proposed a non-physical atom by which the world resulted through a series of perceptual “unfoldings.” This non-physical atom was called a monad and was the basic unit of existence (because it had no parts; an object that had parts would depend on those parts for its existence, and therefore wouldn’t be the most basic).

I mention all this not because The Chime requires an early footnote (I have already said that it does not), but because the word monad carries a lot of philosophical baggage with it, and terms that make the leap across disciplines do not always survive in their new environment. Day’s centerpiece poem, titled “Monad, a Deluxe Pastoral, Deepens and Unwinds,” formally unfolds in a way more aligned with Leibniz’s usage than Plato’s though, admittedly, it doesn’t take a working understanding of the monad to realize this. Each of the five sections retains the concluding line from the previous one, mimicking the act of slowly unfolding:

1.

When monad’s volatile, I’m a firefly,
and you’re a lake in white organza.
As monad renders, you pixelate,
and I’m a blood stain on a field of ice,
monitor me. Nights, monad’s a lobe
of tiny fires we arrange to sleep inside:
the forest is programmed to self-sow. The rain
has left its feelings in our glade
. We lay the wealth
on the ground at night. It deepened.
When your body left my body, a chime.

2.

When your body left my body, a chime.
The sun, vibrating imperceptibly,
causes monad to invest in chains
of waterfalls, green vitreous strands
I resonate inside. Investigate me…

And so forth, each section hinging into the next.

The significance of the monad is twofold: for one, the book is very much concerned with what being is when removed from things, or when we set aside our preconceptions and assumptions, forcing ourselves to examine something purely based on the data at hand, knowing full well that some of the conclusions we will draw will be wrong. Second, the book “figures itself out” as it “unfolds.” One gets the sense that Day lets his poems happen; he does not have a final, summarizing goal that he stretches towards, no ideological boat to tow.

Unfortunately, Day falls into a trap that many poets fall into: he’s very seductive with sound (note the book’s title and the usage of “chime” in the above passage–sound as a consequence of a physical act). He tends to be motivated by it at the expense of content, though, and is so successful and hypnotic with the sound of his words that it’s very easy to lose sight of the fact that he’s not really writing about anything. Occasionally he lands in the real world, offering language that is somewhat linear (language is, whether we like it or not, a set of linear constructs), somewhat logical, and somewhat grounded in the meaning that our mind is capable of processing. These appearances are more of a teaser, and his poems begin to appear as if they were written by someone with Attention Deficit Disorder, moving in and out of lucidity.

Day’s voice shifts are praiseworthy, however, at least in those poems that have an identifiable voice. He shifts from charming, to meditative, to reflective, to naive, to analytical, to confused. It is difficult to say with any certainty whether or not Day himself ever makes an appearance. Even in the more narrative poems, with a recognizable perspective, it is unclear if it’s Day behind the wheel:

It’s summer. Dad’s polishing the chrome again.
He’s just been fired from the razor factory.
Mom’s out shopping for nougat at the mall.
There’s been a small change in the pattern of the dog.
Not as frisky. Moves like a long narration.
Or separate pieces of a high, white sky.
There are surprising numbers of cats in the trees.
Dad doesn’t notice. Mom thinks it’s funny.
Years later she says, “We were never happy in that town.”
She remembers not-I as “fireflies in the yard.”

Of course, ultimately it doesn’t matter. The focus of the poem is not on the pseudo-confessional/narrative stance, but on the fragmented memory and how it develops (and mis-develops), the heartbreaking relationships between each of the family members, the strange and deadpan activities they are engaged in, and the curious title (“Lung”). Day is very interested in making us scratch our heads, but he knows that consistently writing about hazy memories will only take you so far.

The line “she remembers not-I as ‘fireflies in the yard’” is more representative of the tone and structure of the whole book than the rest of this poem is, and for that reason this poem is poorly chosen here as an ambassador for the book. Day is not linear, nor is he narrative, nor is he as logical as he is here in “Lung.” He makes use of many unordinary and surprising grammatical constructs throughout (“There’s nobody here to metabolize / the gift, no bright-eyed queen to whistle / Mozart to the jay,” and ” She, Marsha, / grows wild in the desert highlands and indicates / forsuccubus and cup of gold.”)

Contemporary poetics would praise Day for his efforts. He employs confusion, he offers us a risky new language, he is quizzically “difficult”; in short, he writes a poetry that’s unexpected and bad for you. But this is nevertheless a highly dubious project, one that doesn’t require an entire book to propose. Any overall beauty of his project is actually clouded by his insistence on inventing his own grammar. One could read the whole book through twice, or simply read the first five poems ten times and you would have the same experience. You could also read Billy Collins backwards, or read every other line in an Ashbery poem. The sheer randomness that this book tries to contain is the very thing that indicts it in the end.
Geoffrey Nutter’s A Summer Evening is similar in many respects to The Chime, yet is ultimately more readable as a whole since the sections are all meant to speak with one another, rather than remain separate poems. The book is divided into two longer poems, the first titled “A Summer Evening,” and the second titled “Ming.” The subject of the opening poem is less the summer evening itself, and more the surrounding environment during the evening hours. Much like Gilbert Ryle’s “Category Mistake,” the evening is a conglomerate of other events, all contributing their share, with no one thing being referred to as “the summer evening.” Here, then, is the opening poem:

Everyone stood under an awning with a number.
Clouds rushed by.
Above the building there was an understanding of the building.
The building understood.
Clouds rushed by.
Wind settled in the flags.
The buildings were numbered.
The clouds were numbered.
Each disappeared into the other number, crying.
Each face a number ascribed a light ray rippling over it.

Nutter is obviously concerned with brevity, as he makes concise statements and observations, taking things one step at a time on his way to an acceptable overall theme. The book teaches you how to read it early on; more cryptic lines get analyzed and explained in later poems. Strangenesses do not exist for shock value, and they rarely occur only once; each initial instance of a particular strangeness acts as a sort of vaccine that prepares the reader for later versions of it. Here, for example, are four related lines in four successive poems (“6:40,” “11:15,” “10:35,” “11:15″):

“In the evening the sun is a scientist.”

“Sun scientific in a yellow haze.”

“‘God is testing the biome.’”

“The biome vibrates scientifically.”

Nutter makes a rather unusual statement initially, claiming that the sun is a scientist, and withholds any evidence for that. He employs subsequent poems for this job, and thus opens up a conversation within the book itself. Using this method does require our patience, and our willingness to suspend our confusion for a few pages, possibly more, as we wait for Nutter to explain himself. In the above lines, for example, the biome/science thread continues for many more pages, never reaching the point where is explicitly says “biome = sky, scientist = God” or some such thing, but always approaching knowledge, never quite reaching it. The poems, in the end, explore two relationships: text to world, and text to text.

With that in mind, repetition is the most easily recognizable and helpful device in this book. Even in the opening poem above, we have a limited number of nouns, and the action of the poem is also repeated action; each object takes turns performing the same tasks. However, nothing really happens in that poem. People are organized in a line on the street, and the natural surroundings are acting perfectly natural. Nothing is really out of the ordinary, nothing is particularly eventful. One gets the impression that Nutter himself is waiting in this line, and his wandering mind is looking up at his surroundings, noticing everything, trying to pass the time before his number gets called and he may enter whatever building he’s waiting outside of.

Another feature of the repetition involves the constant interjection by an outside voice, usually making some sort of comment about God or religion. Above, “God is testing the biome” is one of these interruptions. Others include “And God was feeling his enclosure,” “God, in August, dismantling the atlas,” and “And God will be my picador.” All of this serves to enhance two relationships: the mental/spiritual, and the physical/spiritual. God’s presence in “A Summer Evening” is manifest in both the physical world and in consciousness. God is present in all things, or is all things.

Nutter allowed us into his world in his commentary from The Best American Poetry 1997, in which he says

All of the poems are titled with the times of their completion. The form of each piece is prescribed, but as with the titles I wanted there to be an element of randomness in their composition. I was trying to get at something more interesting than what my own will and desire could yield. I called the poem A Summer Evening because a summer evening is like a beautiful enclosure, identical in form to its counterparts, yet containing different things.

Nutter’s poems have almost identical titles like “11:45,” “1:29,” and “12:20.” One consequence of this is that you can finish Cort Day’s book and say to yourself ‘I really enjoyed those poems “Tiny Fable” and “Oceanid”‘. After Nutter’s book, it is impossible to say ‘I really enjoyed “12:09″ and “8:46″‘; they blend into one another and function more as a single sustained poem/moment. As a whole, though, this makes perfect sense. After a particularly relaxing day off in the summer, you might say to yourself “I enjoyed my relaxing day off,” not “I enjoyed my relaxing day off, especially at 12:30, 1:45 and 3:18,” however true that might be.

The second half of the book is engaged in much the same project as the first, though this time the object under scrutiny is a mysterious being named Ming. Just as the summer evening defies explanation, Ming is also a rather evasive character. Complicating the narrator’s understanding of Ming even further is the recurring intrusion of observation gathered in “A Summer Evening.” The narrator never truly strings together enough related thoughts to be useful, as other thoughts get in the way. Apparently the meditations on the evening were too much for our narrator, as he just can’t put it out of his mind.

While there are a reduced number of interjections by the voice who spoke of God in the first poem, the voice returns to speak of other things in “Ming.” God himself is allowed to speak, and even Ming has a few lines of speech. Each line of speech in “Ming” is similar to a koan, and the poem overall has a Buddhist/Eastern thought theme: “You have been with Ming forever,” or “‘We must personify evil,’ Ming says.” Many of the lines owe a great deal to the Zen masters, who insisted on providing students with bits of quotable wisdom, yet also paradoxically insisted that they not analyze or memorize the lines. Ming himself seems to embody the slippery modes of philosophical thought that someone like Emerson or Kierkegaard represented; just as you are about to figure it out, Nutter admits something else that disrupts your theory, just as you cannot easily or logically trace Emersonian principles.

Comparatively, Day and Nutter represent different ends of the ten-line form spectrum. Nutter’s poems “unfold” while remaining focused on an identifiable subject. Day, on the other hand, presents us with a series of unfoldings where every possible bit of subject matter is at stake, and explored equally. Formally, Day is more cautious, and less elastic; all of his poems look identical on the page. Nutter tends to use the ten-line form as more of a suggestion than a rule. His poems tend to have lengthy lines that must be indented, resuming themselves underneath their origin, yet still holding on to their origin:

Everything is pretty dry, and usually springtime is green for a month.
And you can ride past the farms and beer factory, before a body
washes ashore with the glowing sunrise.
This was a dream of two cooling towers in the rice fields, burning
in the middle.
And then the sun on your breasts like the underside of a new leaf.

Nutter handles the ten-line form in much the same way that C.K. Williams handled his self-imposed eight-line form (in 1987′s Flesh And Blood). He allows his lines to be rangy, to snake around and resist the very form that he has imposed on them. Day’s poems tend to sit still and have a more mechanical feel to them. Day’s effort is analagous to, say, Mark Van Doren; Van Doren wrote solid poems that were not particularly memorable when viewed in relation to other poets, as there were others who did the things he did significantly better.

The form/content relationship in these two poets is at least communicable, and not merely in a “the scattered lines all over the page represent unrelated scattered thoughts” kind of way. Form that depicts randomness that way appears regularly with little variation, showcasing subjectivity in a way that makes content sit in the backseat. Subjectivity somehow makes poets unafraid to speak of consciousness or confusion, but too often the result is a mechanically generated poem with no return on the reader’s investment. Nutter realizes that “sheer randomness and subjectivity” is not enough to make a poem survive. Nutter uses confusion as his operating principle, while Day simply succumbs to it.[/private]

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John Erhardt lives in Western Massachusetts where he teaches technical and creative writing at UMASS, as well as courses in the Novel and in Baseball Literature. He has published criticism in Slope and Rain Taxi, and is a former regional coordinator for Poetry In Motion. He has published non-poetry essays on a variety of topics, such as advertising, the history of the toothbrush, and the literature of baseball. As a member of the Society For American Baseball Research, he reviews books for their quarterly newsletter, and is working on the project to compile an index of baseball-related poems.

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