Monday, February 17, 2003

As the snow comes tumbling down, unfashionably late as usual, I stumble across this review of Katy Lederer's Winter Sex at the Electronic Poetry Review by Paul Stephens. It's remarkably lucid about recent trends in poetry and the "New Iowanism" which seems to meet with Stephens' guarded approval. As does Lederer's book, which sounds quite exciting to me, in spite or perhaps being summed up as "On the Romantic side perhaps, almost Duncan-esque." (I would love to have a discussion with someone about how the Spicer/Duncan nexus qualifies as "alternative" poetry even though its basic principles are opposed to what is arguably the more dominant alternative, that is, Language-based poetry. Come to think of it, a discussion much along these lines is happening right now at Silliman's Blog.

The "Iowa book" has been a recognizable genre for a while now, and I do find for better or worse that, while such books often merit the skeptical response Stephens hilariously describes in his first paragraph, a number of my favorite recent books could be classed as such. One favorite book by a certified Iowa graduate, and with an epigraph from Wittgenstein no less, is Tessa Rumsey's Assembling the Shepherd. It features many of the standard, Jorie-esque Iowa moves (though it is not in the three or four sections that Stephens complains is such a cliché with first books): poems with the same title, page-as-field poems next to artful couplets, poems that require you to turn the book on its side to read them. The thing is, they're gorgeous, restless, and engaged with a much larger world than books which don't go much beyond what a recent book title I saw at the Bookery (the only new independent bookstore in Ithaca, threatened now by Barnes & Noble and Borders, which opened within weeks of each other last fall): The Little Field of Self.* Here's one of my favorite poems in the book, which certainly doesn't resist the Duncanesque (wonderful word, that, and a great title) even as it materializes the signifier in unsettling ways:

Poem for the Old Year

January. The archer aims at himself.
His target is the eye of a fish. River
is frozen. Field rises in mists of lost
desire and steams the sealed sky open.
Fish be ruby-weeping. Fish be nailed
through scale onto door of silver birch.
Over the mountain beaten boy searches
for his teeth inside a clump of brambles.
The sound of thorns through his skin
is mercy. The sound of a beautiful fish
being nailed to a door is mercy, mercy.
Nobody knows the origin of music,
or who wind pitches for between rock
and rock like a bronco heart kicking
in its cage. Breeze seduces bow. Bow
abandons arrow. Boy finds shelter
in thicket and hears music of his breath
through ugly, twisted thistles. Come
home. It's time to begin again. A boy
is nailed to the door and a fish is aimed
at an archer, mountain is weeping rubies
onto frozen river while wind grinds
two new teeth. Who are you
inside the music of another's suffering?
When I was a nail I loved only
the hammer. When I was a breeze I died
on a door. When I was a fish
I swam without knowing not yet, or last
breath, or shore.

This poem does what I demand of poems these days—it neither confidently asserts its language as world-founding (as if mere representation were enough—this is all I want to say, or suggest, right now about the Joy Harjo I'm reading for Jonathan Monroe's class), nor pretends that there is nothing outside the text. Language in this poem can change an arrow into a fish or a poet into a nail—it's Protean, it's a vehicle for stepping outside of the self and inhabiting the space (the world that is everything that is the case that is limited by what we can say about it) that puts us in tremulous contact with the Other within and without. "Who are you / inside the music of another's suffering?" I think this question is posed to and by all lyric poetry. I guess I'm showing my Modernist slip here, as someone who still believes in depth, or at any rate in verticality—there's something below or above the endless spreading plane of rhizomatic interstices, even if we can't contact it, even if the psychoanalytic language we use to talk about it with is no more or less advanced than reading tea leaves. I want to say YES to something, like Molly Bloom. The corrosive postmodern NO is not enough to nourish me, however crucial and (literally) critical it might be in times like these.**

I'll close today's entry with another one of my Barney Ross sonnets that could use an airing:


he brought home in a scorched flag of the sun,
and an officer’s khaki cap. The one
ruined treasure his whitening skin, the scar
a mottled map on his thigh, and the scored
plan of veins on his arms and near the groin.
He staggers at his shadow, his light ruined.
In the peeling mirror his body’s a lump of war.

But in the ringing mind. . . In his cold-water flat
his feet circle on threadbare carpet, red
silk flapping his hip, a dragon on his back.
He lifts the ragged fringe—a middle-aged cat
dancer—till white bloat carries him to bed.
Rusting in his sheath, author of satin lack.

* This is a book by Doreen Gilroy and it might actually be good; the title is probably ironic. As a description of most poems, however, it is all too apt.
** At its best postmodernism offers a complex dearticulation of imperial forms which at its most vital is a negatively posed version of this quote from Frederick Douglass that Mike Magee posted on the Buffalo List on Saturday: "At a time like this, scorching irony, not convincing argument, is needed...a fiery stream of biting ridicule, blasting reproach, withering sarcasm, and stern rebuke."

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