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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