Monday, June 16, 2008
Karen Volkman's "Spar"
Post-modernism seems to be predicated on an attitude that straightforward representations of emotion need to be eschewed. We register the fractured, jagged, broken quality of the world, and our reaction is to laugh ironically, or to dissemble, or to deconstruct. This is in marked contrast to the tenor and terrain staked out by the "High Mods," a fractured landscape that registers the fractured, jagged, discordant world but also dares to feel. Didn't Pound say emotion is all, or something to that effect? I think many of us are taking an honest look at America circa 2008 and having a hard time avoiding feeling. We are surrounded, indisputably, by recessional sadness, despair, and a kind of implosive claustrophobia, and we would have to be rather insensitive indeed not to register some kind of affect.
Karen Volkman's Spar came out in 2002; and can, possibly, serve as a "gateway text" into a world in which the High-Mod ethos becomes contemporaneous and relevant (Neo) again. Broadly speaking, it is a book of lyrical love poems, that straddles several genres and sub-genres: prose poems, sonnets, projective verse, poems in couplets are all assayed. What feels important to me about Volkman's book is that there is a heightened quality to the language, a fineness, that is exquisitely wrought and that is sustained for the duration of the book. It creates tension and dynamism in an arena (love poetry) where laziness and calculated redundancy are the rules. Here we see Volkman emerge with a bit of Gertrude Stein-like poesy:
What, I said, noise, I said, is you, are you, all? Yes scream yes shriek yes creel yes bawl. Yes hum, clink, boom, chink, slap, scrape, wail. But is, I said, noise, I said, something to nothing, is noise flight to fall? Is blue noise to black, or scorch to sow? Atom to vacuum, or Please to No? Riotous wave to staid shoreline? Cardinal to crow?
Or horizon to axis. Or exile to in. Barbarous tongue to true language. Me to him.
Melopoeia here is used instrumentally to serve an affective aim: to create a sense of the possible distance, possibly unbridgeable, between two people. In post-modern poetry, this language would be rendered in such a way as to suggest a sort of self-sufficient quality; it would be presented as a linguistic thing-in-itself. I like the multi-dimensionality that Volkman creates with language that can be taken on two levels: as a thing-in-itself (a la, also, Tender Buttons), or as something metaphoric, illustrative of a broken-down affective bond. It is this multi-dimensionality that could, possibly, be a hallmark of Neo-Mod, just as it is a hallmark of the original Mods: Stein, Eliot, Pound, Williams, Stevens and the rest of the High-Mod crew (though it has been presented to me that Williams is not "really" a High-Mod, an anti-designation I am still wary about).
Part of the charm of Volkman's construct involves a formalist impulse. I would think that Neo-Mod would involve a certain degree of formalism, as all movements do; a "movement" in art, after all, is nothing more and nothing less than the projected and actual creation of new forms. Volkman uses an older form, the sonnet, but bends its contours to her own specifications. This is called Winter Abstract:
Call me no one, candle abandoned.
From black lots, black columns, dimensions,
scattering wind. It's been a long time here,
the reflected essences of backyards,
photos freezing in your past. And less. And less.
Wouldn't promise but I swore,
kept the best of our fractured animus,
when you close the door on your nurture--
cure on ice-- the most protected picture
once radical, now quest. Dear heathen,
your magnet is nomad, do not ask
for more malignant fires, benigner poles.
A case could be made that the lapidary quality of this prosody is regressive, but I disagree. The metric irregularities and both implicit and explicit fractured quality on offer here remind me of H.D., Zukofsky, Niedecker, and other second-wave Mods, who all doted on metric irregularities as a way of adding "edge" and attractive "splinter" to their constructs. "Heathen" is indicative of something highly unusual (in our milieu) about Spar as a whole: the conflation of secular love with religious (albeit sometimes pagan-religious) impulses. This is the kind of territory that H.D. doted on, but that post-modern poetry will not touch. Yet, Volkman's slant is contemporary, while also aiming for, and often achieving, the exquisite.