Sunday, May 2, 2010

Providence, again (this time with Clark Coolidge)

The Act of Providence
Clark Coolidge
[front cover photo by Celia Coolidge]
(Cumberland, RI: Combo Books, 2010)

Who knew – I sure didn’t – that Providence, Rhode Island would turn up so directly and so often in my poetry reading during the first part of 2010?

I mean, before this year Providence to me was the home of H.P. Lovecraft, the Waldrops and their Burning Deck, Brown University, and an important day-job professional contact. I’ve never been to the city, and since it’s 3,100 miles away I won’t be driving over to check it out anytime soon. More generally, I hadn’t given Providence a whole lot of thought.

And then earlier this year I came across and fell hard for State House Calendar, by Mairéad Byrne, a set of poems sprung from daily observations of the Rhode Island capitol building (and the sky around it) in Providence. And then more recently there was Byrne’s The Best of (What’s Left of) Heaven. One of that book’s thirteen sections is named “Providence” because those poems take place in or arise from some particular geographic setting or other event in that city.

And now there’s Clark Coolidge’s The Act of Providence (Cumberland, RI: Combo Books, 2010). As somewhat implied by the title, and explicitly seen in a number of its poems, there’s much about Providence therein, at least as experienced by Coolidge (he was born and raised there), although all that there is about the city comes across in typical, to coin a word, Coolidgic manner.

But I’m getting ahead of myself. A few basics first: The Act of Providence is a 237 page book of 76 numbered poems, plus about a dozen black-and-white photographs (including the gorgeous cover shots) by Celia Coolidge. All but a dozen of the poems, and all the photos, are untitled. The shortest poem is six lines, the longest a bit more than 24 pages (another goes for 18 pages), although these long ones are broken into multiple sections. Most poems are couple pages long. The vast majority are lineated verse, but about a dozen are in prose, and four take the form of a dialogue.

That Coolidge’s poem/book concerns Providence, the place, is hammered home right at the start. The city name is repeated 17 times (!) on the first two pages. Other locations – street names, for example, such as Westminister, Hazard, and Loxley – are mentioned there too which, when googled, turn out to be in the city. Providence (the place name) and what I presume are references to local places and things turn up regularly throughout the book.

But again, that which there is about Providence is Coolidgic. If you’ve read more than a few of his approximately 50 books of poems, I think you know what I mean. If not, here’s a short sample, totally at random yet more or less typical, a stanza – one of twelve – lifted from about the middle of poem # 7:
Providence is missing
pieces of itself at the rim
the warm hone in festive minor
trouble bullet plonking
hill turned lump
Doyle Avenue coatless
Marvel Gym with no shave
glance touch of it all I have
not to come out of it homely born
bloomed and scratching
These lines can’t be explicated in positivist narrative fashion, at least not by me. And the same would be true even if I provided additional context by setting out the surrounding stanzas. In fact, the more lines I gave, the more difficult it would be to take it apart and tell.

Poetry sometimes can be categorized by the degree of meaning available at the surface. To be cheap about it, at one end of this spectrum are poems that you read and get right away. At the opposite end are those in which there is no meaning at all (sound poems, for example).

In between these poles are, among much else, poems in which meaning, as with the tales told by Marlow in Joseph Conrad’s Heart of Darkness, exists not inside the words “but outside [and brought out] only as a glow brings out a haze, in the likeness of one of those misty halos that sometimes are made visible by the spectral illumination of moonshine.”

Meaning in The Act of Providence is mostly of the spectral moonshine misty halo glow kind. However, it’s nowhere near as opaque or hard surface as the poetry in, for example, Coolidge’s Polaroid or The Maintains, where the signifying functions of language are largely (to quote Ron Silliman) “effaced.”

In contrast, meaning in Coolidge’s new book does emanate out – I came away with much about Providence and the poet’s growing up in it, and will know even more when I’m done with a second reading – but much (much) is hermetic, sometimes to the nth degree, unless you happen to be Coolidge. Only he, for example, really knows the specifically named, and there are many, including (from just one stanza of poem # 26) Ellen Terry, Beverly, Abel Channing, Mary Parish, and Elton James (there are dozens of proper names, of people and places, in the book). And yet I bet there’s much that’s unknown to Coolidge as well. The book/poem is an imaginative undertaking, an exploration, a making of something new.

This lack of full-bloom, buttoned-down, or easily discerned signification may make The Act of Providence a non-starter for some. I, however, like these kinds of things, and like them as much as Romeo liked Juliet.

More specifically, big doses of “what the heck” or “this is impossible” are to me an antidote to the rationalist pin-it-down world of the day-job, which while important surely isn’t all there is. Plus, as I’ve said repeatedly, I Love A Mystery (capitalized and italicized to refer to the old-time radio serial, about a group of detectives whose motto was “no adventure too baffling”). Further, a poetic approach that does not completely foreground meaning signals that the poet creates a word-made world, as well as describing and intensifying it. And so when I come across a group of Coolidge lines such as (from the first stanza of # 40 in The Act of Providence):
I lived in a neighborhood where the birds were on the stove
Intro League
for the chases under the drains of icicle limes
we had stupid stripéd student futures
clowns that salt their own minds to get out of spending
ready, Rolly?
it takes less than thirty seconds to read but can be thought about for a long, long while.


There seems much that is memoir, or memory-work (Coolidge remembering his youth), at work and play in The Act of Providence, as indicated by the many place names and proper names of the kind mentioned or seen above. Yet there’s also a bit of the more modern too (“Goretex” and “Cowabunga, for example), plus scattered oddities including for example multiple references to over-the-counter digestive aids (“Mylanta” and “Ex Lax”).

Coolidge also weaves in much that reads as fantasy or myth-making. This comes most obviously in the figure of “Professor Providence,” who shows up repeatedly, including as one of two participants in the four dialogic sections (the Professor converses with Providence itself). There is a line, the first in the final stanza of poem # 60, wherein Coolidge states:
I don’t go there but I dream there
that perhaps points at the wilder side of the book’s energy flow. I think based on some of this Tom Clark, an experienced reader to be sure, has already suggested that Coolidge’s book “aims for being a sort of Doctor Sax of Providence,” a reference to Kerouac’s memory / fantasy novel of childhood Lowell.

Better yet is poet Tom Raworth’s celebratory description in late March, just after the book’s publication:
Clark Coolidge’s The Act of Providence is the first book since Ashbery’s Flowchart to remind me of the particular pleasure reading once was. It is as if Dylan Thomas and Jack Kerouac danced together in the cemetery of Spoon River in the light of a projected image of Joe Brainard flickering on fleeting clouds, while teaching the intricate steps to the ghost of Maximus.
Now that constellation by Raworth of a half-dozen references is a capsule review that is itself a poem! And while I can’t say exactly what he all means, it strikes me as being precisely correct about Coolidge’s book!


A particular pleasure of reading Coolidge comes when the eye saccades, brain waves, and inner ear synch to the rhythms and sounds of his words and lines. Such grooves are almost always a sure bet when reading Coolidge: he often writes in almost danceable musical measures, which surely relate to his interests and sensitivities to beats and percussion (including his actual experience drumming be-bop and sunshine psyche-raga rock). He puts together words well . . . well puts words together . . . together puts well words . . . words puts together well.

A poem towards the book’s end – # 67, titled “An Ode to Maurice Dixon” – may be the deepest sound/rhythm groove in The Act of Providence. I don’t know the “Maurice Dixon” of the title (and Google doesn’t seem to point anywhere particularly relevant), but the poem’s 13 lines seem to suggest he was a musician, one that Coolidge heard or maybe even played with at some point. In any event, dig the beats here, especially the bop, quick pulses of sound, in the opening line:
Cool junk bag tweeds on a budge
in sift pokey ointment-dodge of pre-bop
thread through old passage with socket
practice on a town where the donuts are handed
horn picked and blushed in novice shame
daubed with pad hat you may be a stickler
bumpy grange hall in outer Petesfield we gig along by
not enough bulb to answer What Is This Thing
called shape-shutterer in grace of youngster Lester dip
exampleboy of the truly out cat of the weird and hip
glide in hour soft bag bled to the groove
Maurice, stop me if you’ve heard
your own gone choruses come back
Now this whole thing is great, but did you especially enjoy that first line? Let’s hear that one again:
Cool junk bag tweeds on a budge
Wow! There might as well be stereo speakers on the page, a top-drawer pair at that, given how that measure of words plays so clear in the mind. Among other sounds, there are two sets of long vowels (“oo” and “ee”), an internal rhyme of two phonetic “uh” vowels (“junk” and “budge”), and mix of hard and soft consonants (about a dozen separate sounds, with one at the start and end of all but two words), and it all comes quick, staccato like almost, in seven single-syllable words.

Similar fun, whether rhythmic, sonic, lexical, or via references, can be found amidst all the difficulties and puzzles in every poem, page, and/or stanza. Open the book, for example, to poem # 23, “The Map” and find on page 90
mushroom of Nobodaddy Playroom
pass me a dexie, Arch
lend me that Archie, Dex
a set of lines that sends the reader to William Blake, speed, and comic books at the very least. And then on the facing page (91) you will find, among other things, the phrase “doohickeys of eagledust” which to me at least is something new, and fascinating.

And you know what? That’s what I’m going to say about The Act of Providence as a whole: it’s something new and fascinating by Clark Coolidge, himself a master-poet of the new and fascinating.


The Act of Providence
Clark Coolidge
[rear cover photo by Celia Coolidge]



Ed Baker said...

very neatly done and beautiful essay/read her.

to me his work is well a Magic

like Yeats (once) said:

"don't be a magician

well together words put


as (it may have been) Nanao Sakaki said

or (it may have been) me:


I think I'll buy a (new) book



Rabbi Braude the Reb who "buried" both of my parents is from Providence his dad William Braude a serious Talmudist

rodney k said...

Like all your reviews; this one especially swings to the pith.

John Olson said...

Coolidge rocks. This is truly Providential.

eddiewat said...

A great reading of a great read. Thanks for this.

I actually think of it as a book-length poem in sections, though; and many of the "untitled" sections actually have titles in the table of contents, a detail I found somewhat interesting. I meant to refer to these titles as I read, but usually got too caught up in my reading to do it.

I also found interesting that he provided no dates of composition, as he often does. Does anyone know if it was written over some years, or was it written in one recent epic rush?

Steven Fama said...

Thanks Ed Baker, Rodney K., John O., and Eddie W. for the comments.

And special thanks to Eddie for pointing out that the Table of Contents has titles to some that are not in the poems. I'm away from my copy but when I get back home I will take a look at that. That'd be an unusual variation for sure.

Curtis Faville said...

I've had this weird sense for a number of years that Coolidge's work had a clear demarcation for the first 10 years or so--up to, let's say, Quartz Hearts (which I still think is his Appassionata)--then he just settled into a familiar style (starting with The Crystal Text and The Book of During) which he's been sifting and turning ever since. A style which handles syntactic variation and the floating signifier at a fairly easy pace--not "difficult" like Polaroid. Nouns become vague dreamy neon signs seen in semi-consciousness, verbs are playing hooky, the national sport is slang with a capital K. Etc.

Echoes and tones slightly off-key. "Sproing!"

I find his new work dense and layered, like geologic deposition. Chips off the zinger.

eddie watkins said...

His work seems more easy-going these days, with maybe a bit less swagger and more goofy humor, content to simply explore texture and music, but still highly energized; though I've never read Coolidge systematically with an ear/eye tuned to development.

This book is like an instant (living) artifact. It seems almost futile to speculate too much on the intellectual intention, as I'm not sure even CC could tell you much (or want to), and so the reader explores it as a many-layered thing on its own terms. I read it as an independent word-mass, rather than as thought or intellection put into words. All of which plays into Yeats via Ed "be magic not magician" and Curtis' geologic deposition.

Steven Fama said...

Curtis and Eddie W. -- thanks to each of you for the two comments. "geologic deposition" and "many layered" are very close to how I experience The Act of Providence.

And Eddie, I forget to get back to you on the Table of Contents, which as you pointed out gives titles to most (really all) the sections. Just must have seen that when I opened the book, but reading through I (similar to you) never went back and looked as the sections came forth (most of which are untitled in the text itself).

It seems as if most of the titles in the Table of Contents give a substantive or other focus to the particular sections. And so Eddie, I'm with you in finding it interesting that only some of the titles were included in the text itself.