Friday, January 09, 2009

My Favorite Things Pt.2

I do not remember how first I discovered the work of UK poet Andrew Duncan; eventually, circumstances converged and I was able to correspond, exchange books with, and publish him. I have found Andrew's work remarkable for its emotional depth. As Centrists have decried the lack of emotion in post-avant poetry, I thought it would be worthwhile to present a Duncan poem with substantial affective weight. Mark Young's poems showed us rejection of closure; Duncan's poems reject closure, while maintaining an engagement with sense and the sensual world that can be traced back to first-Gen Romantics Wordsworth and Coleridge. I have taken Centrists to task for universalizing; Wordsworth also universalizes (The world is too much with us..), yet the extreme formal rigor of his language, combined with a piercing awareness of suffering, would seem to raise Wordsworth up above American Centrists. But back to Duncan. I have chosen a long poem from Anxiety Before Entering a Room: Selected Poems 1977-99, which was released by Salt in 2001. The poem is called The Metallic Autumn, and see if you can spot how Duncan does three things at once: rejects closure, registers the sensuous world as an (intermittently menacing) objective correlative, and relates it to a personal world:

Rain silvers the slate roofs, smoke blows through the rain.
The hawthorn hedges are a red haze.
The hills above the town are blurred by mist.
Beauty is stripped away.
Light is pierced with nostalgia, slow and lax.
Decadent season.
Water forms a haze between light and rain.
Flowers and leaves decaying in the streams
Mix earth and water in slow dispersal.
Blur steals over visible forms,
Smoke and moulder stir in the ash of light.
The pools are sorrowful, the sips of flowers spilt.
I find a single apple whole after all these weeks,
Skin whole and pulp firm as sapwood.

In a slush of softness and excrescence,
Late berries languish on the tendrils,
Lush to dissolution, spoilt with juice,
Blacker than nature with a white tinge like regret.
In the shadow of the sunny fronds,
Where the dew never dries, they drink and rot.
Rain on the leaf, dew on the bine. Mites
Finger the abacus of their flesh.
Rain silvers the roof-slates, smoke blows through the rain.

Season of memory and regret.
Barrels coop up the giddy heats for recollection.
The animals grow lazier and furrier:
Search out shelter and apathy!
The heady noon is gone, the soft inner of the blossoms
And their offer. The rarer veins are frozen in their course.
We waited for the glance of the sun.
The osier of bare birch twigs seems like smoke
Against the red glow of the Apple going down.

Rain silvers the roof-slates, smoke blows through the rain.
A swirl of leaves like heavy fire
Pours through the tamping of a world on the wane.
The darkened sky withholds the weary forms.
Crepuscule, dissolution of concepts;
Seasons of case-hardening ash,
Season of ferment and thorough steeping.
Fruits infringe their brinks and streams their brims
Overlapping the thick pulp of fallen things.

The principle of ice shall come to judgment
On the lusts of Nature, searching out the flaw.
Bare branches detach pure metre from an obese rhetoric.
Blue glare shall shake out the torpid mist,
Pure axile-crystals shall affirm the morass.

Between the imagery of this poem and its sonic gorgeousness (extensive use of assonance and parallel structure), what sets this poem apart, and allows me to affix the appellation "post-avant" to it, beyond its macabre, Imagistic sense of natural decay, is the total restraint with which Duncan resists the impulse to put himself into the poem. Yet, I take all the sensual things that Duncan is seeing and registering as Eliotic objective correlatives of an interior state (of ripeness moving into decay) being described. The one universalist moment (We waited for the glance of the sun) suffices to place us in a personal world, but it is world that Duncan merely opens. This poem has a clear spiritual predecessor in Keats' To Autumnone of the most exquisite of his odes.

P.S. A reading I'm doing at the new Highwire in February.


In terms of a spirit or Geist around British avant-gardism, which might fit under the post-avant aegis, a poem has now been posted on PFS Post by Chris McCabe, which not only parallels Andrew Duncan's sense of abstraction (inherited from century XX but projected/projecting into XXI), shares a macabre sense of the dense inscrutability of nature, and Wordsworths the protagonist (to use Wordsworth as a verb) into communion with eternal forces of darkness and light. As of today (1-22-17, Byron's 229th birthday), the poem is untitled, and here it is:

I seek the fine grain with the course mind, 
The cloth my brain is wrapped in, rough
To the touch of the world's green edges.
My body sometimes knows what's to be

Done, when in name I speak a wild field
That has not been cleared of impediments:
The culture's stones, commerce's salt
That rot the Earth and shut off the sun.

I long to yield beauty, in its own allotment; 
Uncurbed and yet refined; freely available
But not cheapened by bargained price.
Let the spring, the bird-song, the trees,

Come into their aloneness like a coronation
That allows the new king to attain greatness
Amidst the very loss that brought him there. 
All that is most clear and true is visible

Like the color that breathes itself on rain
To make the surface dazzle with life, to show
That what is beautiful carries between floors
And can be on the ground, or greenly upstairs. 

An issue for post-avant to deal with, pertinent both to Duncan and McCabe- is there a way to configure poetic abstraction itself as macabre? As in, are British avant-gardists like Duncan and McCabe using abstraction as a kind of metaphoric tool, to pierce into dark mysteries (around language, around philosophy) that would otherwise remain impenetrable?

Sunday, January 04, 2009

Karen Volkman's "nomina"

It would seem natural for me to review Karen Volkman's nomina, for a number of reasons: I am a Volkman fan (especially of Spar, which I reviewed here a few months back), I am interested in the sonnet form (as evidenced by my own book of sonnets, which came out in September), and Volkman's book is as good an indication as any of where the sonnet-as-form might be headed next. The sonnets in nomina are drained of any direct narrative action: instead, they avoid stasis by intimations, subtle shadings, suggestions, delicate imagery, wordplay, Volkman's wonted exquisite semantic precision, and a resolute rejection of closure which has become standardized in experimental American poetry after Language Poetry. These are sonnets that do, in fact, in large measure conform to my definition of post-avant: closely related to Lang-Po, but infused with a streak of confessional vulnerability and erotic longing. Extreme formal rigor is balanced by an impulse towards candor, which is then transmuted into a mosaic-like stillness. As constructs, these sonnets do not "sing" the way that early Petrarchan sonnets did: rather, they give off blended tones in a chime-like fashion, always a little elusive, a little far-in-the-distance. As such, a reading of nomina must take into account this formidable sense of distance, of a reach that, in this case, is a necessary part of reader response. The sonnets in the book are untitled and un-numbered; this is the fourth one in:

Spring's portion, a sweet sifting.
Aggregate spirit, portent or part
a limbic texture, textured heart
effacing the product of its lifting

white conduction in the bolus of a drifting,
as if. As of, apprised, apart,
it really was. It really hurt.
A game ago, a seismic shifting,

a few blocks back, blacked out. Broke in.
Backed off. Spoke more, in wish, said less.
Said this, sad such. Or some dumb grin

encrypted in the crude protection.
Abed a blue bent, dead bless,
the brutal of the person we'd have been.

The "we" in the final line clues us in to the suggestion of a relationship which seems to be the crux of the poem. The poem is rich, and simultaneously elusive, so that it is hard to know where to start a hermeneutic analysis. I find the phrase "the brutal of the person" intriguing, partly because I have never heard "brutal" used as a noun before, partly because it carries with it a connotative ambiguity: since it is the "brutal of the person we'd have been," and since we are dealing with an "aggregate spirit," are we to assume that Volkman is hinting at a situation that is co-dependent, or mutually destructive, or outwardly destructive, or a little bit of each? Volkman's weird Steinian caesuras ("As of, apprised, apart") could have the effect of trivializing the scenario, or could just as easily signify the too-easy rapture of a casual affair, or a drunken night ("It really hurt," "blacked out"), or something both initiated and ended rapidly. "Crude protection," of course, could refer to emotional armor, conversational gambits, or contraceptives. Yet I take the last line to mean that either the entire thing did not happen, or it was begun and ended in a flash. It is also important to note that Volkman's use of a Petrarchan rhyme-scheme is skillful enough so that the form becomes invisible. As one who has been writing sonnets for quite some time, I find this notable, especially in America in 2008, where genuine formal rigor is hard to come by. Were this poem straightforwardly narrative and not elliptical, it would be easy to call Volkman a formalist; as it stands, the moves she makes (expressed in semantic games and bizarre curlicues) make her uncategorizable, unless you fit her into my post-avant rubric (which I do not mean to privilege, perhaps there are other rubrics under which she fits as well.) I want to take a look at a second sonnet in nomina, that stands out in the book as atypical (being more compressed, more rhythmic, and more directly Steinian):

Dull wheel
shall stall

still peal
whole wall
or rill
a call

a keel
will hull

a rule
a cruel

This is a forceful, economical poem. The essential metaphor I see in it (relationships likened to being "at sea," or "sailing," people as "wheels" or "keels") is not new, but is expressed with force and compelling brevity. The brevity of this poem does, in fact, stand out in nomina, and expresses a primitivism which is appropriate for the gut-level feelings and situations being evoked. "Annul," of course, has marriage associations; "cruel" suggests that it is not the protagonist who is ending things. The form is not strictly Petrarchan, or Shakespearean; it seems to be a unique composite. Line eleven, "until," seems to serve as a mini-volta, drawing us to the "annul," the turn of events that ends things. There is also the intimation that is a "rule" that somehow ends things; the associations are rather endless, and lead down a bunch of different hermeneutic paths. It is enough to say that this is a deceptively simple poem (formally and content-wise), and that it repays close reading and attention to detail, in its miniaturized complexity. It is something of an anomoly in nomina, but, to my eyes and ears, stands as good a chance as any other poem in the book of having an elongated life-span. "Life-span" is, in fact, often an issue for me, where Volkman is concerned. Her themes are not novel; her ability to create new forms around and involving old themes is, in fact, extraordinary. As such, nomina stands as a worthy addition to her oeuvre, and should be required reading for anyone who thinks that old forms are dead, and that the possibilities of formal poetry have been exhausted.

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