Sunday, June 21, 2009

Jordan Stempleman: Softer Edges

I am by no means convinced that Jordan Stempleman's work fits into a post-avant frame-work. As with Andrew Lundwall's Neo-Surrealism and some of Chris McCabe's work, there are edges, and what Stempleman is doing is (more often than not) substantially new, but edges are usually overtaken by an impulse towards grace, delicacy, charm, and sophisticated perspectives. These are the thematic issues Stempleman raises which this discourse needs to deal with: non-edgy affect (love), straightforward sentiment, caring, affection, and the domestic. With Stempleman, as with Steve Halle, what you get, as has been shown in PFS Post,  is frequently an air of the domestic sublime; poems which address private concerns in resolutely subjective language. All these things seem incompatible with the brutality, rawness, razor-sharp edges, and modes of affect that I see as pivotal to post-avant.

This poem is called Love, and it is from the Otoliths book Facings. It can be considered an archetypal Stempleman poem:

I told them, you can take half the conversation
away from a stranger without them ever knowing

it, take the real side away, and then turn it
into that place, that day that never happened

to you, some intended thought, now yours. There,
you will have it for years, or because of the excitement

that will no doubt accompany this treasure, the night
will come when, not alone to repeat it only to yourself,

perhaps, lying down in a close but uncomfortable
position, faced with a person equally as exciting (in

their own way) as what you've heard, you will tell
them this side of things, so they can stare at you

as you tell it. And afterwards, before falling asleep
near them, they will tell you, I know, I was there.

There are no edges, as I have defined them, here. The poem takes its energy from an intimacy that is graceful, relaxed, and even (slightly) epiphanic. Beyond an obvious glow of genuine human warmth, the poem is charged by a subtle kind of pronoun game: who is "them" in line one? Why does the third person plural not appear again? The conceit of having more than one "I" in the poem creates an effect of boundaries being blurred, which is very similar to what we experience in close physical proximity to a lover or mate. Yet the poem's peculiar grace lies in the combination of familiar and unfamiliar elements: it is never obvious, and, while it does not exactly attack, it is certainly multi-leveled. This impression is heightened by a kind of twist ending, in the sense that the poem deliberately leaves unanswered questions. This is done without ever losing sight of an immaculate internal smoothness, the opposite of edginess. How could the second "I" have been there to witness the fabled conversation? Was it a miraculous occurrence?

Here is another Stempleman poem, from his Blazevox book String Parade. It is called Unlike Weight:

There are more faucets
in this house than hands.

My daughter thinks of telling
me, the time is now

to go out and get myself
a gun. She silently looks

at me, eyeing my gumption,
determining how much firepower

my wrists will take.
She looks at me differently

in these times, with a doubtful
pattern of the eyes, quite unlike

when we swim in large bodies
of water. There she is light

enough to carry. There she trusts
my arms will never snap.

There is a sweetness and a vulnerability to this which suggests edginess without being edgy. Edge here is an undercurrent, a darkling hint. I cannot think how this can be done in post-avant, unless it is made threatening and/or surreal, which is of course what Brooklyn Copeland does in Borrowed House. The dynamic between Copeland and Stempleman is interesting: both are low-key, subtle, nuanced, detailed, and (seemingly) rural. The difference seems to be that Copeland focuses on an edgy sense of her own sexuality, rather than on the settled domesticity that Stempleman highlights (as Nick Moudry plays the middle between them.) Stempleman comes ever so close to overdoing sentiment; but there is an imaginative edge, amidst all the grace, which redeems him most of the time. Here, it is displayed in the issue of fire-arms, in a very unlikely context. Domesticity is a theme or trope which will need to be addressed over a length of time. It is too broad and too complicated a conundrum in serious poetry to solve instantly, even in a discourse which aims to be as inclusive as possible.

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