Sunday, July 4, 2010

When in the course of human events . . .

The Fourth of July – a day that commemorates a collective approval of words arrayed on paper declaring freedom from imposed authority and allegiance to individual liberty – seems a mighty fine time to celebrate a certain kind of poetry. Wild. Rebellious. Free.

Ladies and gentleman, on this Fourth let us parade fireworks around about Joan Retallack’s Procedural Elegies / Western Civ Cont’d / (New York: Roof Books, 2010). Here’s a book o’ poems to wave the freak flag wide and high: a poetry full of an independent and revolutionary spirit.

Procedural Elegies / Western Civ Cont’d / presents a selection of 17 previously published texts, with half-dozen of these previously uncollected (meaning you need this one even if you have all of Retallack’s books). The focus of this selection, as the first word of the title states, is on the procedural. The procedure that predominates is the method based on borrowing: all but a few of the poems bring in language taken from and/or found in some other written source, although usually goodly amounts of Retallack’s language comes into those same poems too.

In the two-page text “N Plus Zero”at the back of the book, Retallack explains why she – and why we all should – use procedures. It’s a lively, tight, provocative, and persuasive ten paragraphs. It makes the case for de-self-centered work, explaining among other things how dialogic alterity, the elegaic, humor, and the poetic (“an extreme noticing of how language works in the illuminated space-time brackets of a composition”) come into such writing. Plus, even if such work “can’t fix [our] culture-wide entanglement with short-sighted narcissism” it “may present significantly alternative sites for making meaning.”

I discuss below a bit about two of the poems in Procedural Elegies / Western Civ Cont’d /.


“Earth     Heaven     and     Hell” (the spacing there follows Retallack’s) is a poem from Circumstantial Evidence (1985), Retallack’s first book. As the title suggests, it’s a romp through the cosmos, real and imagined, the actual and the mental. No straight line meaning comes through, at least to me, but the human condition, both as “flattened by gravity” and “Environed with the Tongues of Fire” seems central here.

The poem’s a collage or assemblage, alternating stanzas of three lines of words of Retallack’s with a single line, italicized, that begins with the interjection or noun “O” and then has the titles of three magazines. An endnote explains that Retallack found and took the magazine names “from a subscription form attached to ‘College Rule’ spiral bound notebooks in the early 1980s.”

I imagine Retallack at the time used the notebooks to write in and – there you go – and she decided to use what was there (the subscription form) to make a poem. The effect of throwing the ‘zine names into the mix is jarring, sometimes funny and often a fecund source for memory and associations, including with the “original” (non-found) Retallack text. Here are three pairs of three line and single line stanzas, taken from a bit after the middle of the poem:
where are the crisp sounds of everyday life
if the world ends next week
we will no longer be prophetic

O Family Handyman      Antique Monthly      Field & Stream

on razor thin nights a black brim
widens the sky a welcome relief
pastimes of pleasure and pain

O Saturday Review      New West      Money

knees knocking like Hamlet’s of course
scrabbling on the floor with Lear
flying into the eye with Amelia Earhart

O Black Enterprise      The Runner      Sea
Associations explode in these lines, for me. At the top of the excerpt, the phrase “everyday life” suggests the English title of Raoul Vaneigem’s classic situationist text. Against that allusion, and the potential shut down of the vatic that follows, the first line of ‘zine titles, which evoke skilled crafting, the bygone, and the non-human world seem – well, what? Here’s where discursive explication must stop. As Clark Ashton Smith once wrote, “explanations are neither necessary, desirable, or possible.” Or Tristan Tzara: “What we need is works that are strong straight precise and forever beyond understanding.” With Retallack, it’s the disjunction, the points (and there are many) that disconnect the rational, where one’s own creative dialogue, even if unspeakable, must be heard.

I will say that I’ve fallen hard for the final lines of the excerpt above, with the two Shakespeare allusions, each paired with a striking image of fear or struggle (“knees knocking” and “scrabbling on the floor.” respectively), followed by the surreal “flying into the eye with Amelia Earhart,” a line that seems to suggest that vision or insight is a trip on which we’ll all vanish, something that seems terrifying and exactly right at the same time. Particularly against this final image, the ‘zine names that follow, the connotations of the words and phrases that make up those titles, seem especially associative, and of course the final “Sea” in that way pairs perfectly with Earhart.


Another doozy of a poem in Procedural Elegies / Western Civ Cont’d / is “Steinzas in Mediation” (it first appeared in Retallack’s 1998 collection How To Do Things With Words) The title and much of its guts riffs on “Stanzas in Meditation,” the 150 page poem written in 1932 by Gertrude Stein (it was first published in its entirety by Yale in 1956 [see image above]). The stanzas in Stein’s poem, to quote John Ashbery’s essay on the work from approximately a half-century ago:
are made up almost entirely of colorless connecting words such as “where,” “which,” “these,” “of,” “not,” “have,” “about,” and so on, though now and then Miss Stein throws in an orange, a lilac, or an Albert to remind us that it really is the world, our world, that she has been talking about.
Retallack’s poem has 15 sections and a concluding coda. Each of the 15 section has two distinct parts: a steinza (yes, I’ll continue the pun, and why not, it’s a good one) of between five to nine lines made almost entirely of Retallack’s own words, followed by a steinza made up of the first words of Stein’s lines in a particular numbered section of “Stanzas in Meditation.”

As such, this poem just as the one discussed above has a mix of “original” and appropriated text, with a generative tension created, and an adventure launched that would otherwise not be taken, by the disjunction between the poet’s more personally composed text and that authored via the pre-determined procedure. Of course, the procedure here – the taking of words directly from “Stanzas” – also serves as a full-on tribute by Retallack to Stein’s work..

Here’s the first section of Retallack’s poem. It begins with seven lines of her own words which are then followed by a roman numeral (indicating the section of “Stanzas in Meditation”) and then six lines made solely from the first (and thus capitalized) words of the each line in the first section of Stein’s poem:
There are are there instances of this in every era
A new dispersal of the subject
Or that there shall be a complete fragment
Or that the fragment shall be
As if the is reflects is the
While is the place they were
Between sometimes or what would begin in there here

I And But That In
That But Whatever It And
They But That In Not
In All But Or Not
Made Made Lengthened But But
All Kindly
Retallack’s own composed text (the seven lines) has an obvious and strong Steinian flair, with its repetition (“are are” kicks that off) and heavy mix of pronouns, conjunctions, and prepositions (a similar mix is found in Retallack’s collage of words from “Stanzas in Meditation”). I think it was John Olson who called such lexical units the “cogs and gears” of language, and the first thing about this poem is how interesting and fun it is to read these lines slowly, to watch and listen as this particular machine made of words as it moves across and down the page.

I’m not going to offer an over-arching reading of “Steinzas in Mediation,” or even suggest much substantively about the section set out above, for much the same reasons I didn’t with the previously discussed poem. But who can deny the fascinating mirroring in the first section, in its first four words (“There are are there”) and then a few lines further on “the is reflects is the” (with that one being funny to me in that Retallack tells us what it is we see as we read). And who might resist the lines concerning “the fragment,” particularly the potential of (paradox alert) “a complete fragment”? Retallack’s poem – and it runs for a bit more than eight pages, with each section as rich and weird as the one set out above – presents unsolvable mysteries that both compel repeated readings and almost guarantee fresh delight.


Among the other procedure-poems in Procedural Elegies / Western Civ Cont’d / are those that take language from The Annotated Mother Goose, an essay by atomic physicist Neils Bohr, a poem by Barbara Guest, books Retallack once culled from her personal library, a work by Jackson Mac Low, a treatise on Archimedes, and a book presenting a timetable of historical events. It’s heady, egg-heady stuff, and Retallack’s own composed words aren’t cotton candy either. She follows her own way, always has. This is an independent poetry, wild and free, and today, the Fourth of July, I celebrate and commemorate it, big-time, here in the glade.



The magnificent fireworks image repeatedly adapted above
is a photo by the East Bay-based Scott Rivera:
read about his technique and see more of his work
here, in the new not-for-profit The Bay Citizen.


For another sort of
Declarative Poetic Fourth
please click here
for the glade-post of a year ago:
Rosmarie Waldrop’s fabulous
“Shorter American Memory
of the Declaration of Independence”



sciolist said...

what an excellent review! thanks for introducing this and at the same time letting the excerpts speak for themselves.i am hooked. and going to get my hands on this.

Conrad DiDiodato said...

I agree with sciolist: an excellent review (yours always are, Mr. Fama!) but I will certainly never purchase of copy of this. Not if the passages here are typical.

Nearly unintelligible, with the most awkward poetic lines I've seen yet: Retallack's poetry is (if that's possible) a parody of Language school itself. Syntax unsteady, diction predictable (trite) and, movement (what I most look for in contemporary poetry) stuck in its own tracks.

"knees knocking like Hamlet’s of course
scrabbling on the floor with Lear
flying into the eye with Amelia Earhart"

Good grief!

Ed Baker said...

the signal word "like"
is my signal to "bale"

enough gimmickery/ trickerery/ an' clubbinessery

in poesy these days to
make a grown poet WEEP!

yes, nice essay


"we" are past due for some NASTY-NESSES GET THE JUICES FLOWING !

Curtis Faville said...

I always think of Whittier and Whitman and Sandburg and Vachel Lindsay during the 4th.

And poems about wars--the Civil War, the First World War, the Second World War. Randall Jarrell. Louis Simpson.

Somehow I don't think of Stein in terms of patriotism, though she did publish a book celebrating the liberation of France--but that was in the style of her self-aggrandizing autobiographical works.