Stride Magazine - www.stridemagazine.co.uk

  UN‘CIRCUMSTRAINT’ AND GRAVID AMERICUN


WITH STRINGS
by Charles Bernstein, 132pp, £8 / $12, The University of Chicago Press, 1427 East 60th Street, Chicago, Illinois 60637-2954 USA
NOTES IN A MANOR: OF SPEAKING by Tilla Brading, 21pp, £2.50, Leafe Press, 1 Leafe Close, Chilwell, Nottingham NG9 6NR
TREADWINDS: POEMS & INTERMEDIA TEXTS by Walter K. Lew, 115pp, $12.95, Wesleyan University Press, 110 Mt. Vernon Street, Middletown, CT 06459 USA
THE TEMPERATURE OF RECALL by Rupert M Loydell & Sheila E Murphy, 21pp, Trombone Press, 11 Sylvan Road, Exeter, Devon EX4 6EW UK
THE MAKESHIFT by
Ethan Paquin, 82pp, £6.95,Stride, 11 Sylvan Road, Exeter EX4 6EW
GIFTS IN STORE by Gordon Read (Illustrated by Robert Joyce), broadsheet, £1.50, The Woodward Press, Woodward, Streatham Rise, Exeter EX4 4PE

One of Charles Bernstein’s poems here is called ‘Circumstraint’, exactly how I feel Mr. Bernstein, Sir. Reviewing a batch of books is a novelty for me. I usually keep my comments of poetry volumes isolated from arbitrary comparisons, choosing instead the kind of comparative areas that illustrate something particular I wish to say when putting the book discussed into a context. The variety of styles available in modern poetry is as huge as the span of merit and when we put philosophical orientation into this mix, and the way it feeds into a poetics which in turn feeds into the material itself, we are confronted by a complex soup in which any individual book of poems can appear as no more than an abstracted formula. Nothing reads the same next to something else and circumstraint is a good word for it. In fact it’s a way of saying, ‘abstract formula my arse’.

True, the six books passing before my considering eye in this instance gain and lose when read beside their neighbours, in short, Bernstein’s With Strings and Tilla Brading’s Notes… rocket up the scales, followed at least half way into the sky by Lew’s Treadwinds, leaving the others fizzling out on the damp ground. In fact the order follows ‘to the letter’ the alphabetical, as listed above. I mean, look at this, from Bernstein’s ‘Circumstraint’:

          Slipping slaphappy into coves of woven
          warbles; flapping slantwise at filiated
          cliffs, chlorine clemencies. Drilled
          12 feet over protuberant inclination,
          nailed to the aerosol layer on layer on
          luting, latched to the filter, lulled
          in the fructification of trimmed air,
          thumping and redubbing (doubling) the
          tiniest of torn tatters…

I don’t care what any anti-language polemicist or young-blood says, I would trade at least one of my good looks to have written that. With Strings is almost choking on its own excellence and perhaps that’s its problem, but I would trade all of my good looks for that. Of course the book does have other problems, but they are mostly, yet again, comparative, not with the rest of this batch but with Bernstein’s own back catalogue (try his marvellous selected, Republics Of Reality: 1975-1995, Sun & Moon). Yet With Strings is not a bad place to start for any newcomer to Bernstein, if anything both the lighter, humorously playful side of his writing and the satirical are more to the fore here:

          When I heard the learned poet
          Talking of incunabulas and brioche
          I drifted aimlessly, falling through the mirror
          Into the damp New York night
          Lurking with imperfect confusion in the
          Meandering sing-song of the street
                   [‘the smell of cheap cigars’]

One of the finest examples of this newly accessible Professor Bernstein is the great little piece ‘your ad here’, which goes on about counting a set up to seven then counting again to still get seven until, ‘… You’re / going to get / seven until you’re / blue in the face / & while you’re / worrying / you’re likely to / lose your grip / on even those / seven…’. It would be possible, by continuing to pick out and quote such pieces, to give the completely wrong impression of the man to some unsuspecting English mainstream reader – shucks, too late now.

At times, especially with the shorter poems, an almost Oulipoian effect is achieved, which for me is quite appropriate as achieving ‘effects’ has always been what East-coast L=anguage has been about. That Bernstein is now doing this with an approximation of nursery rhymes isn’t just up my street, it arrives at my door, invites itself in and sits down for a cuppa – just check out the poem ‘breastworks’.

Finally, just to convince any cynical so-in-so out there who doesn’t believe that so-called avant poetry has anything to do with our more conventional expectations of either ‘deep’ literature or the tricks of trade employed upon the surface of the simplest verse, the poem ‘anaffirmation’ carries layers of ‘meaning’, and ‘effect’, to a degree entirely consistent with said ‘literature’ and ‘surface’:

          I am not I
          when called to account –
          plaster over, dumbly benched
          the corrosive ardency
          of blinkered identification.
          To affirm nothing, a veil
          of asymptotic bent,
          prattling over
          tunes in the striated
          ecstasy of an turned
          around spade. Sprain parkway
          gulls its titular
          horizon, & my growling
          Zebra knows me just
          enough to tip
          her hat.

Papers in by Friday please.

Tilla Bradings Notes in a Manor: Of Speaking is the best thing she has done so far. I was rather critical of her, what I considered premature and overlarge, first collection, and her AUTUMnal Jour (Maquette ’98) suffered from a certain telescoped artiness, it was essentially her MA exercise. Notes… on the other hand concentrates her strengths and has both methodical focus and a beautiful tangential content; she has learned how to creatively work these two contradictions. She knows how to surf across language one moment before disappearing into internal innovation the next before popping up again like a cormorant, not too far from where we saw her dive but far enough away to surprise, then spread her expanse of wings and shake. I’ve witnessed her perform this poem it is true, and that helps for she is a brilliant reader whose sense of timing and use of silence, tone and emphasis is musically precise. The task of conveying those silences and tones into the poem on the page is not an enviable one but I think a careful reading of the poem will pick them up well enough, and of course many of the lexical intricacies and subtle shifts of the poem can only be picked up from the close page itself:

          What of the apex
          a pin prick to touch
          tentatively with an outstretched finger
          or a wider knife-edge summit –
          Pen y Fan or Corn Du

          Throw up
          all responsibility
          and create
          dozens more pockets of non-meaning
          meaning something.

          Pursue something like an ant
          carry off a flaked leaf,
          A honeyed greenfly running
          in the coil
          of your own snail shell
          and when it is eaten
          back off…

Tilla Brading’s poetry is, in fact, very close to Objectivist concerns, both formally and subject-wise. For example another reason why I like this poem so much is because of what she is actually engaging with, language as power and the politics of utterance, the way all speech and writing, including ‘art’ language’, is used as a constant game of power relations, and ironically she does this in a much more direct manner then the Language Poets (e.g. our friend above) ever did themselves despite what they said in their manifestoes: ‘Wordpower. / a word to / empower the powerless – / (Name them … the Underclass) / never lifts off the page. / Social Security / is a closed book. / My word against their power. // An a-l-y-t-I-c-a-l phonic / a word ana an a tick tickle / word pow! her’

Her extensive reading of post-feminist linguistically innovative female poets is evident, but Tilla’s take on all of that is original and quirky. A lot more needs to be said on this, particularly the way in which a post-urban technological American poetics has been utilised by a very Celtic writer (on the edge, romantic, rural) with such positive results. Which brings me to this…      
           
In addition to Welsh rooted Tilla Brading, with her Atlantic influences, three of these books are by Americans (one of them Korean-American), another is a collaboration between an Irish American and an Englishman heavily into American poetry, leaving just one who has nothing to do with the empire of the great and good. Gordon Read is an Englishman, I presume, at least his Gifts In Store is a very English poem about a very English wedding and written in rhyming quatrains in something not too far stylistically from his name-drop in the first line: ‘You’d need to be a Tony Harrison / to characterise this Wedding Day in Leeds’.

Why is this locally published curiosity included in the batch? Could it be because on approaching its conclusion three verses are suddenly formed into one while being italicised and indented, to be followed by the comment, ‘But that’s enough of post modern poetry. This is a solemn and proud occasion / calling for Spenser-like idolatry / with touches of witness adulation.’ From Spenser to Harrison then, with a barbed aside at something perceived to be apart from that tradition, as if PM were a matter of a little formal adjustment and innovation, as witnessed by the playacting of the broadsheet itself with its greaseproof drawing and map-like folding conundrum – a bit sad really. But the poem itself is fun and plays on the tongue, and the drawings are even better. Or is it in the batch because it is not just not American but is so not American? Is this then supposed to be directing me towards a dialogue of American-Un-American purport? Who is American and who is not in this American world? A theme arises: hoo bloody ray…

Rupert Loydell: not American though here he writes with one (at times he even writes like one) and another of the American’s books here (Paquin’s) is published by him. Charles Bernstein: loyal to the land of America or the land of Language? Which is Kingdom and which is Empire? Walter K. Lew: very Korean because he is Korean and very American because he is Korean. Which is the kingdom of our birth and the empire of our death? Ethan Paquin: post-language, does that mean a return to the land of America and a rejection of the Empire of Bernstein, and why does he publish his first book in the UK; or in this trans-global web world what difference does it make? – when I first encountered his excellent webzine, Slope, I had no idea it was American; for some obscure reason I thought it came from the Channel Islands. And what about our Sheila with her American-Irish word witchery, her cold flower poet’s prose from hot Phoenix, someone I identified before as one of the earliest post-language writers? All of this points to the need of a handy literary gravimeter that could measure the strength of American influence on the American, the localised thick and thin, as much as it does the long distance attractions. As the consciousness of the world is now pulled towards the States by a cultural, political, military and economic power the likes of which the planet has never seen before (and the fact that more and more of us don’t like what we see when our gaze is dragged that way) the nature of that land’s inter and outer literary relationships achieve an uncharacteristic ‘gravitas’. These scattered writings suddenly fly into a contextual frame and focus in front of us with terrifying speed and what seemed strange or vagrant is suddenly manifest and glaring.

The most direct engagement with this American-Non-American issue is of course Walter K. Lew’s Treadwinds. The collection is infused with a sadness that far transcends the particular stories of the author’s life that lay behind the poems. I began the book overly influenced by an expectation of aesthetic gloss (lots of epigraphs, sections, dedications, Korean script, film stills and art-photos), that superficial result of America’s rich academic-culture-world nexus. But I was wrong, for once the back-jacket blurbs were not hyperbole and the superb opening lines had me hooked: ‘Early on we learned / That when we couldn’t see the face / It was still there / Later, we covered that / Wound up with speech. But words also / Disappeared, could not / Repeat forever / And more and more / Things would not return to us / When we said them…’

For a book that covers so much material from some thirty years of writing it is very organised. It opens with poems of his childhood in Korea, and these are already testaments of painful negation and transition. It then moves to poems concerning sensual and existential experiences in city-America before moving to poems about American art (specifically jazz musicians and paintings) then returning to visit Korea, of which the title piece, ‘Treadwinds’, with its perfect accompanying collages by Lewis Klahr, is a rich and moving conclusion: ‘The pool is crazy once more! / Even large animals drink there // I eat timesalt / Snails nod in the lagoon of my intestines / Drift on treadwinds…’

The middle American sections are, predictably, the least surprising and this is very evident in the jazz and art and pieces – they are strong but far from original, and slightly irritating - I am not into drooling poems ‘about’ iconic cultural subjects. The opening and closing sections of Treadwinds worked the best for me, but then, I am a huge fan of most oriental poetry: Lew seems to be at his best when he is being most Asian in his use of image-twist; the poems are full of little corners that slap against the flow of your reading. When making notes for this review I began to jot them down but in the end there were so many of them I had to stop. The poem, ‘Isan Kajok Spora’, about his father and grandfather, actually ends with one of these corners: ‘I am putting my hand on his shoulder, Father / And I am dragging him back, / I am dragging every strand and wisp of his / Unmarked, unworshiped soul back… //… He is asking me to do this.’ The delicate cunning of that is typical of Lew and it is what makes his heavy engagements with modernity and Americana so startling.

But what about an example of the newest linguistically adventurous poetry coming out of the Empire’s home-ground. It’s time for a long sigh and the kneading of the forehead because
Ethan Paquin’s The Makeshift cannot compete, either with Bernstein’s sardonic dazzle, Brading’s quiet trickery or Lew’s slapping corners, though you would never guess that by reading the adulatory comments and introduction. And that is my biggest problem with it (an opinion shared by my comrade Steve Spence on the Terrible Work site review of same). When Forrest Gander says, “Paquin’s poems astonish me. The poetic structures are so exhilaratingly alive. The lexicon quivers…” etc, you have to wonder what the hell is going on. Paquin’s magazine, Slope, is stylish, but at least its style is supported by real substance and quality (that’s me trying to stay in the good books) while most of the poems in The Makeshift appear to be pure style backed up by little more than crossed fingers behind the back. Worse, the style is infused with a conscious preciousness that seems to be making some kind of spiritual statement, implying, but not demonstrating, that its author is a knowing and sensitive postmodern witness (that’s me crawling back into the bad books – where did I get this self-destructive streak from?). It’s a shame, because hiding behind this ‘front’ there are some promising moves, but these moves rarely come together at once. They manage to do that about five times here, in ‘Bolus’ for example and in the tight but dense and obscure title poem, ‘The Makeshift’: ‘Allow it to breathe this loveletter, celestial dobbin / smote with the effort of soals, spirate and spitting, / this final gift that would sear the auric tinge off night. // Look through the window: / I am a keen scientist. / Texturalis lemon, vague chapterhouse in the eyes / that burns each moment I paint, casting out its lodgers.’

I think the most off-putting aspect of The Makeshift is the sense it gives of being an example of the latest form of ‘avant garde’ poetry coming out of America. Matthew Rohrer, on the jacket, says, “Paquin is the logical and naturally-occurring child of Postmodernism…” Now this is a complex subject and having trawled through hundreds of stateside avant poetry webzines over the past two years I can concur that Paquin’s style and approach is not unique. However, as far as I can tell, Paquin’s poetry is a rather extreme representative of a streak. The problem though is that the purveyors of this particular streak (let’s call them spiritually conscious robots) write in a way that impresses and convinces people who in general have a history of dissing the poetry that Paquin’s is supposed to be the child of. I know this is iffy territory but to my mind the material in The Makeshift is a step backwards from the huge poetic gains made by Bernstein & Co. Come on America, don’t let your literature decline into pompous stupidity along with so much else in your current political and philosophic state. Or is such a thing as inevitable as it is symptomatic?

So what of the mid-Atlantic meeting, my hosts collaboration with Sheila E. Murphy, the little Trombone reveille of The Temperature Of Recall? I confess that I am not an enthusiast of
Rupert Loydell’s collaborations though I remember a very early one, with Martin Hibbert I think, that I liked a lot, and there might have been another. You’ll have to excuse this vagueness, I am over 33 you know. I love Sheila Murphy’s solo work and have been unstinting in my praise for certain things Rupert Loydell has produced but I found the results of this project flat, and derivative too. The most vexing thing about the texts is that the flatness and ultimate failure can only be realised after going to the trouble of ploughing through quite ‘difficult to read’ material. The blocks of writing lack both writers’ finest points while failing to produce a hybrid of any charm or relevance. If something interesting is happening here then it is largely occluded, little clues and hooks appear only to immediately disappear again into the word-mesh.

On the TV there were people interviewed
about their fear of flight. It relaxes
to the point there is no language.
Not unlike the visual domain that poises,
so I find the place creation kindles
and rekindles years unlived inside a child’s
skin and begin that playful textuaria, implausible

as grief was then, though real as
lightning, driveway, baseball, hearts that meant nothing
by it, all those words… (etc.)

So this particular encounter of six innocent looking publications with an opinionated sod who has read far too much poetry over the past ten years comes to an end. What’s more, this jaded individual is what some commentators are currently calling ‘anti-american’. Yet like
Rupert Loydell here, and plenty of other poets and editors from the non- mainstream scenes, my most recent influences are American and my biggest poetry enthusiasms continue to be American. Daily, I am guilty of un-English activities. What a strange American-Un-American world it is.


          © Tim Allen 2003