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Tallying the Hemispheres 

Crucible by Daniel Bosch. Winner of the Boston Review’s First Annual Poetry Contest. Handsel Books, 2002.

Discography by Sean Singer. Yale Series of Younger Poets. Yale University Press, 2002.

As Reviewed By: Ravi Shankar

Daniel Bosch, who won the Boston Review’s annual poetry contest for his first book Crucible, is a “poet’s poet”, a distinction that is not quite encomium, not quite damnation, but surely somewhere in between, depending on the context of the comment and the nature of the work under discussion. For example, Elizabeth Bishop, after winning both the Pulitzer and the National Book Award, was thus characterized, being still considered a marginal figure, a poet much admired by fellow poets, but barely thought of by most critics or by the common reader. The incandescent Hart Crane was also considered a “poet’s poet” because of how difficult his faceted, hermetic work could be. In both cases, what began as asterisk affixed to the poems eventually turned to a mark of distinction, an intangible that helped secure their respective reputations in the long run. Certainly in our hour, Bishop and Crane are more read than when they were alive.

To apply the analogy to the sporting world, a footballer’s footballer is someone who does the little things that help his team win, such as making the extra run that no one notices but that manages to get a defender out of position, or knowing when not to pass the ball back to the goalkeeper but instead to turn upfield. Though on the pitch, he gets none of the glory of the goal-scorers, his teammates and football purists alike know how invaluable he is to the team’s collective success. In the jargon of stereotype, this lad likes to “get down and dirty,” he brings “his lunch-pail to work,” he does things that “don’t show up on the stat sheet.” Bosch, whom I’ve already labeled accordingly, is nothing like either Hart Crane or the footballer, but his first collection makes it clear that he is a poet’s poet nonetheless.

This strikes the reader from the first poem, the eponymous “Crucible,” which from all appearances is a cento, verse form favored by post-modernists and sack artists alike. From the Latin for patchwork, a cento is composed entirely of lines or phrases from the work of other authors, and indeed, Bosch’s poem is fabricated from the titles of authors (one supposes) he admires. This is not Aristophanes lifting lines from Aeschylus and Homer but rather a loosely woven quilt of homage, consisting of titles from authors as disparate as Derrida and Milton, Cortazar and Sontag, Freud and Angelou. While on occasion, Bosch hits upon a fortuitous juxtaposition (the oddly disconcerting, “Tender is the night of grammatology,” for example, or “Far from the maddening crowd, the possessed/Bang the drum slowly against interpretation”), taken as a whole, the poem has a largely palliative effect. It is clever, yes, indicative of the brighter stars under which Bosch’s poems constellate, certainly, but for these very reasons, it is evasive in being utterly dependent on prior acts of imagination.

The poems that follow “Crucible,” while not as ancillary to the actual text of other poems as the title piece, are regardless nearly as overt in displaying their influences. Fourteen of the next fifteen poems apostrophize, or are influenced by, or written to, or reflective of, or dependent upon other poets and other poems. “Pride’s Round” is fashioned on George Herbert’s “Sin’s Round.” “Fire and Ice,” “Homage to Christopher Smart,” “In Memory of Derek Walcott,” “Invitation to Ms. Jorie Graham,” and “Robert Bly Quelling Riots in Miami,” all wear their lineage with the brassy bluster of burnished epaulets. There is yet another cento in the collection, “Contents of A Jar,” composed entirely of lines from Stevens, and there is a quartet of poems written after Mandelstam. All of this creates a poetic situation nearly the reverse of Harold Bloom’s theory about the “anxiety of influence.” Bosch’s collection proves the “anxiety of not being influenced.”

Bosch’s entire oeuvre depends on other poets and that’s what I mean when I deem him “a poet’s poet”. Though there are plenty of well-wrought, formal poems in the collection, it’s not in the deployment of subtle prolepsis or a skillfully couched anapest that Bosch demonstrates his abilities as a poet and a technician; instead, when he makes use of meter, he lets us know: “My eggshell trochees towards the cab aren’t planned / And yet they scan” (“In Memory of Derek Walcott”). Throughout the collection Bosch declares that he is a Reader, of Poetry, that his work has Worth because it references other great works and great poets. While contact between the wire of a modern sensibility and the bulb of poetic predecessors illuminates to pose some intriguing questions about our particular moment as readers, it is still a dangerous tack, to be sure, especially because the speaker of these lyrics still lurks beneath these many masks, not bold enough to make an appearance, yet not radical enough to argue for the permanent abolition of subjectivity. These are poems that are highly self-referential acts of making, all lucid reference and excessive allusion, without the leap of duende or the volt of anguish to enliven its lines. Still, I admire Bosch for being unafraid to take on the daunting specter of the past. How are we to deal with the cult of genius that surrounds canonical works? Read as much of them as you can, Bosch seems to say, without ever forgetting for a moment that you come later, that their concerns cannot be your concerns, that your contemporaneity precludes you from ever being able to express the world the way they did. This call to readership, played on an ironic bugle, is no less serious for being so sardonically up-to-the-minute.

Indeed, what Bosch does take on with great success is contemporary life in all of its synthetic, convoluted, speeded up, technologically advanced and alienating permutations; in fact, one of the main tensions operating in Crucible is the rubbing up of “high art” against the manifestations of consumer culture. So we have Dr. Johnson communicating to Bishop Berkley about the wonders of spandex, a poem that includes one of the self-consciously worst rhyming passages I have ever come across:

Siliconic rhinoplasty? Tummy tuck?
And what of history? Should we not fuck
With the past? Why not become a virgin?
The ten deft digits of a surgeon
Can stop the dyke as sure as rhymin’
Knits a well-made stanza’s hymen.

That rakish apostrophe, anathema to any avid reader or writer of poetry, gives the passage away as a bad joke, as a nod and a wink to the occasionally tasteless Dr. Johnson, and it’s my fervent hope that Bosch groaned as loudly when he wrote this as a reader does reading it.

In the poem “Dear Mom,” the speaker, for an instant, drops the trick of allusiveness and confronts aesthetic ideals nakedly:

Lately poets have begun to think
Of language as a “subject,” not as a means
Used to achieve a goal they had in mind,
But the most important thing to write about,
Ur-topic and subtext, wizard behind
The pentametric curtain. It’s enough,

Now to promise poetry, enough
To cause a reader to think that they think
They’ve left the old life behind–
And the poems that went with it. No one means
Readers to care about what a poem’s “about”–
Rather they should be moved by how the mind

Shifts, symphonically, from word to word the mind
Will grasp as “tones.” Mom, music is enough.
No self-respecting poet is about
To write a narrative poem they think
Is only narrative: “Story” means
Resolution, and resolution is behind

The times. Mom, our revolution is behind
Intelligent ambiguity.

This sestina serves as Bosch’s ars poetica, though, because he’s spent so much time buttressing his work with the work of poets he admires, it’s difficult in this case to gauge in what proportion irony and seriousness partake in this explicated stance. The fact that this entire argument is addressed to “Mom,” combined with its adherence to the sestina form, plus the allegiance to meter and to legibility Bosch demonstrates throughout the collection (like the string of iambs here, “from word to word the mind will grasp as “tones” “) seems to indicate that the speaker is being facetious when he waxes rhapsodically about the symphonic properties of language, but later when the speaker allies himself with Ashbery (“think / How all poems refer to themselves, about / Abstract diction, about what Ashbery means / When he claims not to know what to think) and then ends the poem with an envoy of three pithy, end-stopped lines (“A poem means things never put behind it. / This poem is about a changing mind. / I know what you’re thinking and it’s not enough.”), it’s seems that the speaker is not being insincere at all but is in fact advocating a poetics diametrically opposed to the hermeneutically-sealed, metrically-prefabricated modalities of a prior generation. Perhaps that shifting perspective is what Bosch intended to be “intelligent ambiguity,” but I must confess that after reading “Dear Mom,” I haven’t a clue whether or not the speaker is on the side of the comb when Ashbery asserts that, “in school all the thought got combed out: what was left was like a field.”

The poem “Invitation to Mrs. Jorie Graham” is similarly slippery; the allusion, of course, is to Elizabeth Bishop’s “Invitation to Miss Marianne Moore” to come flying, but Bosch turns the tone of whimsy on its head by offering us thinly-veiled barbs: “With Microsoft 6.0 at your feet, / with what you call thinking, draped in gypsy beads, / live out your sentences.” This speaker has evidently been to one of Graham’s famous workshops, has had poems marked up by pink highlighter with the supercilious awk. blooming along the margins, and revenge is a sarcastic homage, a poem where the vitriol throughout is undercut by a dry wit. While this poem contains one of the truly great lines of the collection, “where writer is only one letter away from waiter,” it ends, ominously, by dropping the plurality of the repeated last line, tasting, finally, of prophecy and bile: “Wait out the sea’s return to Iowa: / It is night and at this distance / your wavering spark is mistaken for Polaris / so please, in Iowa, in a cell of brittle stalks and leaves, / live out your sentence.”

This nearly obsessive need to allude aside, Bosch’s next strength as a poet is his variety. He offers form alongside openness, sestinas next to centos, antiquated diction giving way to twenty-first century vernacular. This is abundantly clear in the poem, “BAM!” which begins:

‘N I went BAM! Wit my fist
In her gut ‘n I said “Fuck
You, nigga, dat’s for fuck’n

Wit my shit,” ‘n me ‘n my
Girls, we done just bought some herb
‘N shit, ‘n that nigga she

Gets up while I’m like fuck’n
BAM! Wit my fist, BAM!

Frost, Mandelstam, Stevens and….two angry sistahs? Nothing in the collection thus far has prepared us for this poem, which the note at the end of the collection claims was “overheard” on an outbound MBTA Orange Line train. Here the tools of criticism break their blade on a slab. Yet, even accounting for the condescension built into mimicking dialect, this is speech, shaped in our moment, familiar to us however uncomfortable its identification might be. In fact, it seems that the author’s intent might be to raise the very question of proportional discomfort such a verbal construction emanates. Who can speak those words? Who can record them? Is it the reader or the poem that conspires to provide the monologist here such a deprived inner life? Or are we wrong even to suggest that these words bespeak such a lack of complexity?

The final poems in the collection compose a section called “Passion Fruit” and indeed they’re based on various fruit, from the “Orange” to “Watermelon” to two odes to “Banana” and to “Lemon.” These succinct lyrics are some of the strongest poems in the collection, because they drip with sensuality, calling forth all versions of fleshy fruits while seducing the ear with rhyme. We have from “Blueberries”:

Staring from the bowl–
Blind pupils,
Hard nipples
In cream cold
As dew.

From “Watermelon”:

No matter how it begins, it ends like this:
Black lacquer lozenges spit in concentric rings,
Pale rinds in small pyres, like toenail clippings,
Tap water on my mouth and chin, a piss.

And from my personal favorite “Lemons (2)”

Tongue number,
Mouthful of ice, bite
From a box of pins,
My knife makes you smile,
Your smile makes me wince.

These are as brazen as Bosch’s other efforts, but somehow, perhaps because the connection between ripe fruit and sexuality is so obvious, I don’t mind being bludgeoned with the conceit as much I did elsewhere. Perhaps it’s also the turn away from printed page to nervy life that I applaud; indeed having been giving the key to a world where “apostrophes of steam mark cold contractions,” “the canyon’s grand scansion is so irregular the river must not know the future of free verse,” and “the Trade-Centered Karnak sparkles and shimmers like a wet, half-full cup of words,” it’s refreshing to leave allusion and self-referentiality behind, if only briefly, for a world where fluids are simply fluids and not glyphs. Also Bosch’s formalism is worn easier here, less like an uniform and more like a pair of caches, so that the fact that the section Passion Fruit is composed of fourteen poems, making it a kind of meta-sonnet, is rather charming.

Bosch’s project is equal parts fawning homage and irreverent reconstitution, and while a part of me admires the chutzpah it takes to write lines like, “When is a hottie not a hottie?”, “The Internet sped up all this shit,” “the sorry-ass pilgrimage of pale, bony shadows,” and “cojones…the skull has balls,” the crudeness seems an apology for the dryness, a kind of disclaimer for being a “poet’s poet.” Though witty and erudite, Crucible feels more like the disposable, synthetic products it critiques and less like the many poems it references and hinges upon. Still, the collection offers a viable formulation for a certain kind of modern poetics that incorporates enduring literariness as part of its process. Bosch demonstrates in poem after poem how we might cast a critical look backwards while simultaneously keeping the curve of the present moment firmly in view.

The allusions that form Sean Singer’s Discography, most recent winner of the Yale Series of Younger Poets, are different from Bosch’s Crucible in a few overt ways: first the references are mainly to musicians and visual artists, and second, when they’re made, it’s through the skewed reflection of a funhouse mirror. The title of the collection reveals much of the impetus and trajectory of the poems that follow–discography, a collection of records; or alternately, disco-graphy, the musical need to write. Indeed, Walter Pater’s oft-quoted epigram, “All art constantly aspires towards the condition of music,” could find no better embodiment than in Singer’s work, which is about music, inspired by music, and is music itself. More specifically, the idiom is jazz, the flaring out of horns, the meandering of scat, the improvisational leap from stanza to stanza, from phrase to phrase, and in some cases, from word to paratactic word.

The very first poem in the collection, “The Old Record,” bespeaks Singer’s allegiance, both to musicality and to craft; one thinks of vinyl, scratchiness and all, as somehow closer to the lifeblood of the musicians it preserves than in future incarnations of eight tracks, cassette tapes, CDs and digital files. There’s a visceral element in lifting a record out of its sleeve and gingerly placing it upon a turntable that feels nearly ritualistic, and “The Old Record” evokes the mechanical process enacted to make that record:


Of course the first aspect one notices is the lineation; as W.S. Merwin puts it in his introduction to the book, the poem contains “jerky, arbitrary typographical breaks” and that it embodies a “fragmentary, arrhythmic and prosaic direction of attention to the making of the record merely as an object.” I don’t agree that the turn of mind here is prosaic, nor that the numinous nature of recorded music is somehow debunked as mere object when details about its production are revealed. That vibrations of sound were ever embedded into a two-dimensional surface seems to me the sort of Promethean endeavor the magic from which no amount of explanation could ever dispel. “The Old Record,” if anything, perpetuates the alchemical properties of the record. Also, the page is a (even older) record, and the metaphor of making music mechanically yet artfully is clearly applicable to Singer’s own poetics. As William Carlos Williams writes, “a poem is a small (or large) machine made of words…prose may carry a load of ill-defined matter like a ship. But poetry is the machine which drives it, pruned to a perfect economy. As in all machines, its movement is intrinsic, undulant, a physical than a literary character.”

Undulant, physical movement seems the perfect way to describe Singer’s work. The rest of the aforementioned poem continues to leap around the page, eventually mimicking–or so it seems–the revolution of a record:


In a record-player, the bell crank is used to convert the direction of reciprocating movement, so that by varying the angle of the crank, a range of motion can be created; in this case, “The Old Record” moves from “jerky, arbitrary typographical breaks,” to something more regular, like a descending staircase or a record needle moving in ever smaller concentric circles, the chaotic constellation of phrases briefly given order. And certainly we can’t ignore the esoteric avian vocabulary here: nidifugous, an adjective used of a bird who leaves the nest a short time after hatching; throstle, a song thrush but perhaps more importantly, according to Webster’s, “a machine for spinning wool, cotton, etc. from the rove, consisting of a set of drawing rollers with bobbins and flyers, and differing from the mule in having the twisting apparatus stationary and the processes continuous; so called because it makes a singing noise.” After reading that definition, I am still not sure what exactly a throstle is, though it seems to me an apt marriage of song and machine. After all, Singer makes sewing machines.

The poem ends by articulating part of a song that ostensibly has been pressed into the record. “Baby she got a phonograph, / and it won’t say a lonesome word. / Baby she got a phonograph, / and it won’t say a lonesome word. / What evil have I done / what evil has the poor girl heard?” Those are lyrics from a song recorded by Robert Johnson, the early American bluesman, in 1936, and the evoked blues ostensibly stem from the predicament of having the means for music but not the music itself. Singer, throughout his eclectic first collection, makes certain that we don’t have to suffer from those same blues.

Further in the collection, the poem “Musical Shape is the Memory of Movement” extends the relationship between an instrument and the peculiar music that is endemic to it. The subject of the poem, if you can call it that (and you can’t; Singer’s poems no more have “subjects” than a vibraphone an argument), is the late, great Charlie “Bird” Parker, though it’s not clear to the reader who lacks the ability to parse and to synthesize obscure references until the latter part of the fourth stanza. Singer’s technique is filmic, jump cutting from phrase to image to obscure Germanic song titles with a rapidity and insouciance that’s difficult to follow:

He could peel the marks off his arms.
Blowzéd russet drippingly down.
The shack habitués saw the stand-bys.
His nod-offs.
He was out with Moose the Mooche trying to score.

He took his shoes off and put his feet on top of them.
Brown suede. Goof-snuff. Yen pox. Varese and Wolpe.
Klacktoveedsedstene. Klaunstance.
He blew an echoic mad-bad flight.
A girl screamed. A waiter spilled a scotch on someone’s lap.

Moa. Teraphim. Altostratus. Fever therapy. Hoopoe needling a tree.
High foot-lambert luminescence.
Hypozeuxis shotgun house porch preaching. Shofar.
And the name stuck. Alchemy.

Chan’s almond eyes turned into a pretty melody.
The bandstand lifted up from the floor.
The thing that consumes the Bird was mostly Bird.
Don’t try to lie about it.
Did Buddy Rich smile when Bird drank iodine?
Bipunctuate. Vertigo. Geechee. Piccaninny.
They called it “Jass-jizz. Bray of the sackbut. Be-bop.”
He called it “Modern Music.”

Modern music indeed. Here is Bird compressed, refracted, projected into a hall of mirrors, and embodied in a dervish of sound that aspires to elate the way one of Bird’s alto sax-solos might– harrowing the sweaty walls of a dark club where, briefly, he exorcised his demons to produce sounds of startling originality. And certainly Singer’s revel in language is original, even startling in places, though there is this middling detail of medium: an incipient writer is often given advice not to underestimate the reader, not to spell things out explicitly, but klacktoveedsedstene? Teraphim? Geechee? Hypozeuxis shotgun houseporch preaching? Singer does well to refocus the verse back onto brown suede shoes and spilled scotch when his loci of reference are so abstruse and so gonzo. Klacktoveedsedstene, I later found out, is the name of a piece recorded by the Charlie Parker quintet; Teraphim are household gods, derived from the practice of ancient Semitics given over to idol worship and nomadic wandering; Geechee are descendents from Islamic African slaves taken from modern day Senegal, Sierre Leone and Liberia; Hypozeuxis, I happened to know from my days teaching figurative language and rhetorical devices to undergraduates, is the opposite of zeguma, or a parallel construction where each clause has its own verb, most famously perhaps in Julius Ceasar’s alliterative and laconic pronouncement to the Senate, “Veni, Vidi, Vici.” Well and good, especially because I like having to work at a poem with the assiduousness of a gem-cutter, but feel, rather selfishly, that the effort put in should be commensurate to the reward taken. In some of Singer’s poems, I’m not quite sure if the payoff and labor achieve equilibrium, whether I’d not be better off reading Ross Russell’s biography, The High Life and Hard Times of Charlie (Yardbird) Parker, or even better still, going to the stereo to listen to Bird blow at Massey Hall.

Randall Jarrell, in a review, asserted that by reading Robert Frost, we knew remarkably well how the world appeared to one man. That cannot be said about Singer, who is more roving word-collector and epileptic music lover than unifying sensibility; there are more voices and forms in Discography than could possibly be limned or categorized. As Carol Frost writes in her blurb at the back of the book, “Many poets would sell their souls for one true poem. Sean Singer has a different relationship with Mephistopheles. He gives his soul away–and it’s given back–and so his poems are freely his; and they are true.” That’s accurate to a degree; Singer has no allegiances to the contrivances of confession or the trappings of narrative, so there is a heady, intoxicating freedom about his figurations. He ranges from polysyllable to internal rhyme to erstwhile sonnet to leaping pastures of text with bold impunity. Still, I find his lyrics most compelling when, without sacrificing musicality or originality, they well up from feeling like a night-blooming cereus, beautiful yet slightly vulnerable on the page. One such example is the poem, “The Gift”:

Listen, there is a place under my chest
That turns. You know it. I saw
Your skin, sugar moth, flawless
Hymn, unfair nectar & the wish
That you would walk towards me
Would alone make me wait there
Under the breaking elms, for two hundred years.
You opened as tender powder, in a dress
Cut from the blackness of black, motionless,
& spoke: what brilliance in your mind
Made me the man looking up
At the colossus horse. That such beauty
Saying yes would enter my kingdom
& that it was forbidden, kind & boundless,
Was pain, the black valve inside was pain.

From the intensity of the initial imperative, “Listen,” to the understated, ambiguous power of the imagery (when elms break, what tender powder is still not granular and raw?), the lyric is lovely and sad, and ever more lovely for being ever so unwaveringly sad. I thought of other similarly titled poems, such as Milosz’ “Gift” where the speaker admits that “to think that once I was the same man did not embarrass me” or Frost’s “The Gift Outright” where “possessing what we still were unpossessed by, / Possessed by what we now no more possessed.” It seems to me Singer’s “The Gift” is another in this tradition–though not as resolutely joyful as Milosz or as broad in history as Frost–where the sublime is defined by the inevitability of loss, where beauty is pain, where you can never possess the one who possess you.

In the poem, “Singer Finds His Own Name Among the Dead,” the title is eponymous, self-referential, helped by the fact that the poet has been so fortuitously named. The singer is Singer who finds his name Singer on the Terezín Memorial in Prague, leading to an unflinching yet enchanted elegy that I excerpt from here:

A mole sees Singer’s big bones curling
in the box like a curved ocarina.
Perhaps he was picked on the ramp
by a solid Totenkopf for experiments.
Singer’s shoulder had the mark where
he was grabbed and turned into
a lamp. Shade and clamp are
neatly stitched. His pure part escaped
into the air, the other part turned
to black liquid. It’s all over for him.

The horror of a concentration camp is evoked here with an economy of description (“shade and clamp are / neatly stitched”) without sapping the victim of his spiritual dignity (“His pure part escaped / into the air.”) and from this moment on in the collection, Singer becomes a periodic character, making elliptical appearances like Paul Auster in City of Glass. Nonetheless, this postmodernist mirror trick, while warranted on some level (think how often songwriters sing themselves into their songs), is not nearly as captivating as some of the poems written to historical figures.

One of the real highlights of the collection is the poem in five parts “A History of Oto Benga.” Ota Benga was the Congolese pygmy captured and exported from his native country to be put on display at the 1904 St. Louis World’s Fair. The history of Benga is an especially tragic chapter in the insidious tome of European colonialism; Benga, returning home from a triumphant elephant hunt, arrived at the village to see his fellow citizens, including his wife and children, massacred, their mutilated bodies on display. Benga himself would soon be captured and brought to America to be exhibited in the World’s Fair. After the fair, Benga was returned to Africa, where, since his clan had been exterminated, he was never able to reintegrate himself. Tainted by his contact with America, he was taunted and feared by any community he tried to join, and though he remarried, his second wife died of snakebite. Soon after, his initial captor, Samuel Vermer, returned to Africa to export Ota Benga once again to America, this time to be displayed in the Bronx Zoo, in the Monkey House, where he was billed as explicit proof of Darwinism. He was put in a cage with an orangutan to the hilarity of hooting crowds. Eventually, he was liberated by a black minister and sent to live out his days as a laborer in a tobacco factory in Lynchburg, Virginia, where he was baptized, learned to read, and finally shot and killed himself with a revolver. A bust of his head, to this day, is on display in St. Louis.

In his poem, Singer takes on different parts of Benga’s life and brings them to life with a lucidity that had heretofore been subsumed by unruly and inventive wordplay, describing the massacre, “his wife skewered, tied-down / and muffled by cholers and slavers…[he could not] recognize the rare meat on the hut as his woman,” the spectacle he was made into, “He was brought / to a cage and placed on view / with an orangutan,” and his looming, unendurable exile, “He had been, in his other life, / beautiful. Now he dreamed there / of slipping out of his skin–out of his life– / into a black zero.” The clarity of the poem conveys Benga’s plight with lyricism and intensity.

Another historical poem, “Goat Moving Through a Boa Constrictor,” imagines a conversation between Giordano Bruno, the 16th century Italian poet and philosopher (famously rhapsodized in Heather McHugh’s poem “What He Thought”), and George Jackson, the African-American activist turned Marxist who was incarcerated for life for stealing seventy-one dollars from a gas station and eventually killed in San Quentin by prison guards. These two figures, separated by centuries, by race, by nationality, were both martyred for perceived heresies and their commingling in this poem is quite brilliant, reflective of the way the larger world–not just poetry–figures in Singer’s work.

Finally, there’s “Poem with Groucho Marx Refrains.” If Singer was releasing a single, this would be it; certainly it has spun in heavy rotation since I first picked up Discography. One reason is that each stanza ends with Marx’s maxims–“These are my principles. If you don’t like them I have others” or “I’ve had a perfectly wonderful evening. But this wasn’t it”–which are as effervescent now as they ever were. What deepens these Marxims are Singer’s surreal juxtapositions,

If you have been transformed by the fire,
you have been like many; yet there are more traps.
There are women in linen skirts, filled with blossoms
or parts of blossoms, in enlarging gardens.
A man is only as young as the woman he feels.

An owl, yellow as a ladder, is hinged to the night.
Where is the place he carried from Paris
like artificial fruit? Seeing through maple dark
he dives into a fieldmouse, just poised in sweet opera.
Anyone who says he can see through women is missing a lot.

I have to admit that, as in many places in Discography, I don’t know exactly where I am and where I’m going, but somehow, somehow, the vertigo tastes of sorbet, is plush as velvet, and so I don’t mind, I give up my irritable reaching after fact and reason, I’m able to revel when nothing is revealed, and sure enough, on the point of reeling, of falling through enlarging gardens and maple dark, I’m lured back in by something I can stab a finger at:

O you tender wood platform, with a microphone
strange as the figurehead on a ship.
Or some chairs unfolded and enjoying people’s legs.
Although empty now these chairs have observed much.

Ah, the familiar lectern, the place where the musical machines we have worked so long at in the dark find their engines and fly from breath like the keening of a sax, into a field of ears where something just might take hold and spark, like Singer sometimes does when he sings. Of course if this were an album, it could not be easily marketed–a klezmer track follows a cut of bee-bop follows a rock ballad follows a sea chanty. There is no cohesion in Discography; rather there’s a kaleidoscope of voices, of obsessions, connected only by inventiveness and a love of language, which, when all is read and groused upon, reveals little of Singer the man, apart from the forces that propel him into polychromatic song.