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Three Invitations to a Far Reading

Posted By Joan Houlihan On July 8, 2006 @ 11:50 am In Featured,Reviews | No Comments

As Reviewed By: Joan Houlihan

The To Sound by Eric Baus (Verse Press, 2004)
Hat on the Bed by Christine Scanlon (Barrow Street Press, 2005)
Figment by Rebecca Wolff (Norton, 2004)

The lag time between the appearance of an original, culturally significant art form and the culture’s ability to apprehend it has a long, well-documented history. It was during such time that we laughed when Pollock spattered his canvas, covered our ears upon hearing Bob Dylan’s croaky tunes, or tossed our first Ashbery onto the floor in frustration. Then we caught up to, marveled at, enjoyed these expansions of our aesthetic pleasures. A history of the creative arts, along with the development of our own taste and ability to enjoy them, teaches us that we are less likely to appreciate something new than we are to reject it, often to our subsequent embarrassment.  We learn that prudence should prevail in the face of the new. After all, no one among us wants to be seen as the historical ass, one who, like Edmund Wilson, complains about the “impenetrability” of Henry James only to be shown decades later that the only impenetrability was that of Wilson’s brain.  We may even learn to welcome the new as a freshening process. Failing that, we can tell ourselves that “history will take care of it” in the same way a wronged believer is comforted by the idea that “God will judge” when there seems to be no earthly justice.  There’s no understanding now, but surely, someone, somewhere, at some future time will understand-and that’s enough. Isn’t it?

[private]Not really. Not when it comes to three decades, and counting, of Language, post-structuralism-influenced, neo-surrealist, post-avant poems. Such poems are not simply mutating from one type of impenetrability to another; they are multiplying fiercely. In fact, the 2004 Best American Poetry was positively swarming with them. It’s time to create a swarm-free space where we can evaluate them, hold them to account, appreciate or discard them. But how does an interested reader do that, except by trying to read them?  That’s where the trouble starts.

However open-minded and eager to appreciate the newest in our field of interest we are, reading fails to work in the case of the three books discussed here. It is not simply an aura of impenetrability or pre-dawn of recognition that prevails, but anunreadability-a sense that the very act of reading itself is no longer relevant and perhaps even passé, a nineteenth century pastime. It’s not so much that the poems are obscure-(isn’t a large percentage of great poetry obscure, mysterious, demanding of our attention?)-but that they are obscure in a way that cannot be rendered unobscure (to use Jim Holt’s phrase from his “Theories of Bullshit”).

But what if some poems aren’t meant to be read at all?  What if they are meant to be viewed? What if, like TV, they are meant to be surfed?

I ask in my indoor voice what it means to extract your own teeth
during sleep.

CLICK!

He thinks about the three minutes he stopped breathing in saltwater.
Closing his lids at fish. Wondering why his shirt felt like skin.

CLICK!

I try to explain why gravity always wins. How lightning is
rhetorical. The way “weight takes over a wing” comes to my lips
when I pass a downed powerline.

CLICK!

He speaks softly with empty sleeves. Says a bird losing altitude is a
new kind of rain. Roughly equivalent to the fluid in my ears.

CLICK!

“While the somnambulist explains the proper way to carve the eyes from a pigeon”

This poem is representative of Eric Baus’ The To Sound in its ability to frustrate the act of reading. (Even the title of the book has this quality. How does one read “The To Sound”?)  Like flipping through channels, the lines briefly intrigue, even send one on a reverie-abbreviated and changed by the next thumb-press. Who needs a story line? In fact, who needs any sense of connectedness at all? Pass the potato chips.

Like the concept of a clockwork universe or God’s divine plan for us, the author-defined connection may already belong to another time, one where the author was an authority figure, creator of his own text, master planner, directing the reader by how he wrote and organized it, line by line, word by word.  Now the text is up for grabs-if you want the Baus poem to be about depression in the city, or a bad dental experience, be Baus’ guest.  If you want it to be about the time you had a vertigo attack, go for it. Want to start in the middle, work backwards then forwards? Want to insert some hyperlinks, throw it up on the screen and jump into a new layer, one you created all by yourself?  How about turning it into a video game-”Pigeon Shoot”? Baus won’t care, he just put some words there.  He’s not trying to make things all hierarchical. Jump in-you can be a poet too! Meanwhile, we linear folk come limping along behind, using the handrail, feeling gingerly ahead.

It has been argued (Hugh Kenner, et. al.) that a poem is read in terms of its ending, an ending that is sensed and glimpsed before we reach it. Certainly, in narratives-of which poetry is a type, though not necessarily a story-type-there is a sense of progression, of one thing preceding, perhaps even causing, another. Perception of and need for such a sense is quite primitive: a six-month old infant, when shown an object going behind a screen, will look for it to emerge from the other side at the exact moment when it should-and will become agitated when it does not. Similarly, the drive to connect disparate images, as in a film, by assigning chronology or some other pattern that links them, is evidently hard-wired in us, our brains being difficult to ignore, no matter how hard we try. So we sift and weigh, make a hypothesis, discard it, all the way through a collection of apparently disparate lines, even enjoying the trip. It’s sometimes fun to be lost-especially when the scenery is so interesting, and when you believe you’ll get where you’re going in the end. It’s only when we get to the end and see that there’s a flat tire or a washed-out bridge that the primal annoyance resurfaces. What happened to what went before? Where is it now?  How do we get to where we’re going? Where are we going, anyway?

There is an underlying sense that this poem (“While the somnambulist explains the proper way to carve the eyes from a pigeon”) and many others in Baus’ collection, is composed of objects that disappear behind a screen but never come out the other side. For example, the object moves behind the screen here:

He speaks softly with empty sleeves.

And emerges here:

Says a bird losing altitude is a new kind of rain.

There is throughout the poem a sense of fits and starts-when does it actually begin? Given the title (“While the somnambulist explains the proper way to carve the eyes from a pigeon”), it could start here:

Says a bird losing altitude is a

new kind of rain. Roughly equivalent to the fluid in my ears.

But why not start here?

The way “weight takes over a wing” comes to my lips

when I pass a downed powerline.

Or here?

I try to explain why gravity always wins.

Where it starts depends on what will come after. And, in fact, these are all good ending lines too. All that’s missing is the middle. In this catalogue of images in declarative voice and simple sentence syntax, without apparent connection, and having no obvious progression in emotional, chronological, logical or narrative terms, the poem has no necessary or inevitable flow between or among the lines, and, therefore, no order or pacing to ruin by rearrangement. Why not rearrange the lines thus:

“While the somnambulist explains the proper way to carve the eyes from a pigeon”

He speaks softly with empty sleeves. Wondering why his shirt felt like skin.
Says a bird losing altitude is a new kind of rain.

I try to explain why gravity always wins. How lightning is
rhetorical. Roughly equivalent to the fluid in my ears.

He thinks about the three minutes he stopped breathing in saltwater.
Closing his lids at fish.

The way “weight takes over a wing” comes to my lips
when I pass a downed powerline.

I ask in my indoor voice what it means to extract your own teeth
during sleep.

The only connection here is between the breathing in saltwater and the fish, so those lines should stay together (though truthfully, they don’t need to). But all others may be exchanged, interchanged, re-arranged-ad infinitum, ad nauseum.

Most startling of all is that not only is it possible to re-arrange the lines at will within a typical Baus poem, there’s no problem doing it among the poems. For example, adding lines from the poem above to the poem immediately preceding it (“Dearest Sister, Thanks for Leaving Me Space to Sign My Full Name in Your Absence”), produces this (added lines in italics):

I looked so hard I thought my neck was permanently stretched, that
all the children on my block would always have elongated glances. I
sent you postcards from every skylit exit. Did you get the one when
I thought the word sun in my mouth could keep us both warm?
The way “weight takes over a wing” comes to my lips when I pass
a downed powerline
. We both know glare is not enough border:
bending light is a form of precision. I’ve got my “dealing
from the bottom of the deck” goggles on. I ask in my indoor voice
what it means to extract your own teeth during sleep.

Today I drew chalk outlines around my eyes.
I can treat all this traffic like a single evening voice.

I was recently amazed to discover from one of my students (who claimed I did not share his aesthetics) that he much preferred my edited versions of his apparently random lines. Why? Because they coalesced by means of re-ordering. The coalescing was still elliptical, certainly not a story in any traditional sense, but clearly there were connections between and among the lines. It seemed that this student’s “aesthetics” consisted of simple ignorance about how to create a seemingly whole poem from a series of disparate lines, even though it was his own poem. Not knowing how to do so provoked in him the idea that it was a matter of aesthetics rather than craft.

In another classroom situation, I cut up several poems by established poets into their separate, single lines (with end-punctuation removed) and put the pieces of each into a separate envelope. Students worked in teams to determine the best way to order the lines into a whole poem. Interestingly, none of the poems except the most obviously narrative (a poem by Tate, an enjambed anecdote, really), were put together in the same way that the poet had. And yet-the students managed to make coherence and order, however tenuous, out of the disparate lines, and in several instances even improved on the original. It’s hard to stop people from finding patterns, from making something that connects and progresses from randomness. It’s what satisfies us, and as an aesthetic experience can hardly be replaced by a sense of frustration.

In A Hat on the Bed, we find a different kind of unreadability. Rather than intriguing images and bold statements of improbable import, Christine Scanlon works more quietly-she uses a parsable syntax, apparently recognizable situations and sentiments-to present not so much a machine made of words, as a brick wall made of words:

The Dale of Three Curses

Mirror hastens to attack. Lost annals are lewd
and he sees me in a hundred taunting perspectives
kewpie-doll confined, penny secret. As vivid
as vagrants imagine soberly missed ospreys

or one virulent sin. Embark cross-ventilated
in the turn to your mass. Torrid he always arrives
persistent-me, pince-nez contemplative.
Your son has been a wino mister and windows vanish

as fortune advertised. For prosperity no argument.
For a horror it’s my say-so. It’s my present.
You hunker low, see what’s said if my outfit has no tassels.
Ante up to the loss of mantras. Sell the future

to see me a gazelle, delicate and minty
a mass of daffodils, musty fragile and mist encased.

This mixed cocktail of Ashbery-Tate with a twist of Bernstein is highly crafted, stuffed to the gills with surrealities and “surprises” and wholly without concern for the reader. An artifact more than a text, such a poem can be admired for its originality, but not actually read in the sense of understood.  It is another apparently intentional frustration of the very act of reading-which depends on the progression of one thing to the next-and it successfully resists the intellect, to update Stevens’ remark.

For example, a typical reader would see the opening:

Mirror hastens to attack. Lost annals are lewd
and he sees me in a hundred taunting perspectives
kewpie-doll confined, penny secret. As vivid
as vagrants imagine soberly missed ospreys

and immediately try to find some way to connect the lines-and not only the lines, but the words-to one another. Roughly, the reader might proceed as follows:

Mirror hastens to attack. Lost annals are lewd

Here is a surreal landscape where the objects are animated, and in an aggressive way, the mirror suggesting self-regard or narcissistic concerns, the word “lewd” leading toward sexual content.

and he sees me in a hundred taunting perspectives
kewpie-doll confined, penny secret.

Now we move to the female as object (“Kewpie-doll confined” and the famous male gaze: “he sees me in a hundred taunting perspectives” The last image, “penny secret” is arresting, perhaps indicative of what’s to come, not particularly resonant with context built so far). Perhaps this is building toward some heavy-duty gender “issues.” Next:

As vivid / as vagrants imagine soberly missed ospreys

Now he is imagining her as vivid as Soberly missed ospreys. Let’s move to the next line for more on this disturbing situation:

or one virulent sin.

Now he is imagining her as vivid as “one virulent sin.” At least we have gotten free of the “soberly missed ospreys” and back into some sexual menace (“virulent sin”). And onto the next line-the suspense is building:

Embark cross-ventilated / in the turn to your mass.

And the suspense is over. Because we have stopped reading this poem. There’s nothing about it in the first lines or the second or the third to gain our confidence that the organizing intelligence behind it is either organized or intelligent.

Let’s try a new kind of reading, one that has evolved to meet the challenge of this new poetry. Let’s call it “far reading” to distinguish it from the “close reading” of yore. In far reading, we keep a safe distance from the text, we do not try to engage with it in any way. Instead we surf it, make hyperlinks from it, perhaps map it to the territory we imagine it points toward, treat it as a navigation tool that will take us to other worlds by our design. Make your own connections [mine are in brackets] using the poet’s text as a jumping-off place, a launching pad for your imagination:

The Dale [Close up on chipmunk] of Three Curses

Mirror hastens to attack. [link to wikipedia definition of "attack"] Lost annals are lewd [link to porn site?]
and he sees me in a hundred taunting perspectives [graphic of funhouse mirrors-put another link on each one that goes to a site on dieting]
kewpie-doll confined, penny secret. [download audio file of demented clown laughter] As vivid
as vagrants imagine soberly missed ospreys [must have link to this creature! Perhaps cross-link to a drunken hobo]

or one virulent sin. Embark cross-ventilated [lots of scary medical apparatus-no patient showing, please.]
in the turn to your mass. [Back to dieting site-cross-link to Catholic church] Torrid he always arrives
persistent-me, pince-nez contemplative. [link to "The Thinker" with monocle spraypainted on-use Photoshop]
Your son has been a wino mister [Close-up of anguished parent-type] and windows vanish

as fortune advertised. [link to tarot card, one with a skeleton, then zoom to one bone, an excavation]   For prosperity no argument.
For a horror it’s my say-so. It’s my present. 
You hunker low, see what’s said if my outfit has no tassels. [some "t and a" here]
Ante up to the loss of mantras. Sell the future [Hare Krishna's head]

to see me a gazelle, delicate and minty
a mass of daffodils, musty fragile and mist encased. [Sample Wordsworth here]

Far reading acknowledges the role of the poet (not important), the meaning of the poem (non-existent) and the connections between and among the lines (missing). It allows the reader to have the role of creator (why not?) and the text to become a series of moveable signs instead of all those pesky signifiers that require so much thought.

Verse Press and Barrow Street Press, relatively young presses, have put forward a “new” kind of poetry (the editors of said presses apparently not realizing they are re-packaging Tate, Ashbery and the hard-to-discourage Language writers). However, when a book like Figment is published by a press like W.W. Norton, can we assume the publishing mainstream has some far readers evolving in their midst?

W. W. Norton isn’t in it for the love of poetry, so someone there believes this book has an audience beyond the community of post-avant blogs of Silliman & Co. and enough readers who will pay for it, even in hardcover. Certainly, the press release for this book of wonders (or wondering) indicates that at least one person at the press (the publicity person-or whoever wrote the release) has a highly-evolved reading apparatus. For this reader of poetry, however, lining up the publisher’s description of the book’s contents and the contents themselves induces a severe case of disorientation.

The publisher remarks: “Rebecca Wolff, founding editor of Fence and winner of the 2003 Barnard Women Poets Prize, gives readers a series of mysterious yet sharply intelligent poems that linger bravely in the space between representation and meaning.” (Italics mine.)

And then the poem:

Neurological

Horrifying emotional
insignificant chin
with irrepressible disdain
regard said construct
said “wobbly chicken neck”
and the unforgivable ways I’ve felt
in my life

No one pays me for it
Trains today roll
collating the above
I’m not feasting on affect
Immemorial.
Now I’ll never find out what happened
to that corpse in the
crennelated
never-entered

Mysterious? No, just confusing. Sharply intelligent? No comment. But: linger bravely in the space between representation and meaning is where the rubber meets the chicken neck.  This is the space that apparently takes bravery to enter, but even more bravery to linger in, the space that only a new reader can hang out in, get down with, meet the poet in.  It is a space that has been delineated by the post-structuralists, is perhaps the very “nothing” that Derrida famously claimed is “outside the text.”  Here is a possibility: the new, “far,” reading has as its goal an un-reading, an erasure, an entry into that place beyond language, beyond text-into the yawning abyss. Is that why there is so much yawning throughout this book-is it the same old abyss we confront at the end of every poem here?

Don’t look in the basket

but to wind up
loving its permanence, waking up to contents
I get glimpses, typically.

The things you tell your unborn children: “You’ll be many
different masters, but all the same
slave.”
A phalanx of puppetry,
p’s in ascension: preeminent,
prime minister. Excuse me:
Why do you sit forward like that?
Oh that’s easy (direct confrontation), because
I have this cumbersome weight on my back. God
is in the desperation
in fallopian tube
in porn
in coffee can
in arsenal
there must be something extraordinary going on in my face.
A long and rambling conversation.

I don’t know about the narrator’s face, but there is most certainly “something extraordinary” about this poem, about this book-and that is its publication by a major publisher.  As with Baus, Wolff’s lines of poetry are literally “moveable text” that can be shuffled about without harming sense, context, aesthetic purpose, organizing principle(s), progression (logical, emotional or narrative),  or pacing.  For example, how about making this one a drama:

Don’t look in the basket

Why do you sit forward like that?

Oh that’s easy (direct confrontation), because
I have this cumbersome weight on my back. God

I get glimpses, typically.
in porn
in coffee can
in arsenal
in fallopian tube

A long and rambling conversation.
is in the desperation

but to wind up
loving its permanence, waking up to contents
A phalanx of puppetry,
p’s in ascension: preeminent,
prime minister.

The things you tell your unborn children: “You’ll be many
different masters, but all the same slave.”

there must be something extraordinary going on in my face.

Even though I haven’t changed a word, or a line, only the order, it actually seems a tad more interesting this way, at least a thread of something is beginning to emerge-or am I just more engaged because I participated in it, however after-the-fact?  Is it just because my projection into the Rorschach of this poem seems to me better because it’s mine?

Perhaps I’ve hit on the new reading by chance-perhaps this is what we used to call revising. It’s what we used to expect the poet to do. Perhaps poets like Wolff are engaging the reader through active participation, inviting the reader, with their “drafts” and strewn fragments, to come on in-be with the creator, pick up a pen, see what you can do! It’s a collaborative effort, this making of a poem and perhaps the inevitable outcome of Reader-Response theory, where the poet isn’t the “authority” and the reader is expected to “fill in” with whatever interpretations they choose.  Don’t make the poet do all the work, then stand back and criticize!  In fact, I can envision a “book” that is actually a collection of magnetized words and phrases that the reader can stick to a surface, move around at whim-oh wait. We already have that. It’s called magnet poetry.

In all three books discussed here, the typographical cleverness (one-word lines, word endings fraught with a too-obvious double/triple meaning), the jolting imagery and the self-conscious jokiness fail to compensate for the lack of an authentic attempt to reach for, and connect to, an emotional center, a universal and human matter, and that-emotional revelation in all its complexity-is what’s so dreadfully absent in all these collections. This absence is why the reader is not only prevented by lack of craft from proceeding from one line to the next, from one poem to the next, but also why there is no incentive to do so. These poets write as a sky writer does-in startling loop-de-loops of language that disappear before the reader’s eyes, leaving only blank sky.  Having taken no risk to reach their own depths of feeling, having taken no time to revise and improve their work such that there is a sense of inevitable order, these poets have chosen to disrespect the reader. The reader should return the lack of respect and refuse them his or her precious time and attention. Maybe if we ignore them, they will go away.[/private]


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