Wednesday, April 05, 2006

The Post-Modernist Baroque

So I've been mulling over the above phrase since encountering it in James Bertolino's introduction to Anselm Partalore's new chapbook from Hot Whiskey Press, The Squalicum Harbor Suite. Bertolino met Parlatore in 1971 when they were both graduate students at Cornell, and although only Bertolino was in the MFA program here (Parlatore was an Anthropology PhD student), apparently both fell under the influence of Archie Ammons. Bertolino puts Partalore into an interesting lineage, citing Charles Olson's concept of "the kinetics of the thing," and claiming:
While Parlatore's poems are typically written in stanzas, and thus appear conventional, the actual dynamic is closse to Olson's ideal—enclosed within the lyric envelope. The sentences accrue item after item, reference upon reference, and all are related through the fact of being present there, in and as language. The richness of these texts recalls for me such dazzling books as Paul Metcalf's Apalachee, Evan S. Connell's Points for a Compass Rose, and A.R. Ammons' Sphere: The Form of a Motion. Every thing is connected to all things.
When I hear the word baroque I generally think of elaborate enfolded structures, often informed by the mathematical—Bertolino cites the Concise Columbia Encylopedia (1983), which claims for the baroque style that the "essential characteristic is an emphasis on unity, a balance among diverse parts" and which refers to Christopher Wren's churches as having "compelled order upon overwhelming multiple forms." The baroque also implies a certain degree of abstraction or liberation from instrumental reference—in a modernist context one thinks of Louis Zukofsky's fascination with Bach's St. Matthew's Passion. Surely this atheist New York Jew was less attracted to the religious content of this work than its "overwhelming multiple forms," most obviously situated in requiring two full-sized chorales for its performance. But what can such a thing mean for poetry with the awkward moniker "Post-Modernist" attached to it? Bertolino seems to superimpose this term on Olson (who arguably introduced it to American poetry) and his claim that "one perception must immediately and directly lead to a further perception." I take this to mean that the postmodern demands successive perceptions without end, without totality; the baroque then would refer to an ordering principle congenial to that refusal of totality, the (precarious?) balance of multiple forms. It's an implicitly expansive aesthetic, perhaps contrary to the spirit of an avant-garde (or at any rate the avant-garde pastoral I've lately been concerned with) that makes do with largely "found" linguistic materials—I'm thinking of this negative Village Voice review of Matthew Barney's latest film, Drawing Restraint 9, which concludes with this admonition from the reviewer, Ed Halter: "What Barney does not grasp is that the greatest avant-garde filmmakers astound us by conjuring powerful visions with limited means. Attempting to approximate this kind of poetic cinema with blockbuster production values becomes as absurd an endeavor as writing a haiku with ten thousand syllables." I haven't seen the new film, but certainly the Cremaster cycle strikes me as an excellent representative of Bertolino's "Post-Modernist Baroque," sparing no expense to weave its ambiguous yet soaring architecture.

I don't know what a ten-thousand syllable haiku might look like, but here's one of Parlatore's poems from the new chapbook:
Squalicum Nocturne

Pavilia of the moon's aperture tonight
the veined lineaments of desire to the Bering Strait
beyond. This is jealousy's perfection, the aftermath
of the pack-ice. I only mention it because

reticulated into the stratified, the beatific.
& there are raptors along the high ridges
nomadic Clovis hunters of the Cascade Crest
ostensibly a promenade of phalanxes

for the skulls of ungulates, the bare white plinths
scratches, indentations, scrolls
of predation's delirium, a validation,
the frescoed trellising obviously its grim stain.

& so it goes here in these rainshadow archipelagos.
The humped backs & hooked snouts of the dark ones,
invalids of the parapets, the fish ladders...
of the holding ponds. The climax conifers soothe

somewhat, as does the vale & warp of the moon.
But the gaudiness of the death-rattle remains.
Here are some things I notice about this: 1) The "lyric envelope" of the four-line stanza Bertolino refers to: a flexible yet solid container for lines crammed with words alternately polysyllabic, elegant, and crabbed (sometimes Parlatore uses a three-line stanza which seems even more finely balanced between stability and instability); 2) one five-dollar word being used to modify another—"veined lineaments," "frescoed trellising," "rainshadow archipelagos"—the effect being to obscure imagery in favor of complexly interweaving sounds; 3) a melancholy affect intensified to the point of exuberance, to the point of blurring the distinction between melancholy and exuberance, that we might characterize as an affect of the sublime. In Parlatore that sublime is achieved in part through the contemplation of the harshly beautiful manifold forms of nature "reticulated into the stratified, the beatific." But it's also the orderly profuseness of language that generates this feeling. Trying to uncover a more than analogical connection between these two sublimes is a bit of an obsession with me. But that's not necessarily the preoccupation of the Post-Modernist Baroque (how different to write it out in all caps like Bertolino does—it summons us to a kind of dignity, or perhaps pretension—I'm reminded of Jorie Graham's pursuit of the sublime, a fearless that can sometimes render her ridiculous, or at least radically out of step with both the social-theory oriented discourse we inherit from the Language poets and the wooly-minded anti-intellectualism often found in mainstream poets' prose.) I'm strongly attracted to this mode, and I see it in the practice of a number of my favorite contemporaries. One of my teachers, Mary Jo Bang, writes this way, and I think recognized me as a companion in baroqueness. (Here's a sampler of her work from Jacket 12.) A more restrained baroque is practiced by Geoffrey Nutter, who's done two books now in which a crammed Latinate beauty presses up against the bounds of generally short poems. (John Yau has a blurb for his latest, Water's Leaves and Other Poems, that kind of sums up the stylistic preoccupations of the Post-Modernist Baroque: " “Could it be that Wallace Stevens and Gertrude Stein met in Elysium and had a son named Geoffrey Nutter?”) Then there's a book that sat long on the Bookery's shelves, tempting me, until I finally snatched it up: Carl R. Martin's Genii Over Salzburg. This book irritated and fascinated me in equal measure as I paged through it during slow times, precisely because it seemed to stand so far apart from what is generally put forward now as the most energetic or at any rate persistent strain in American poetry, namely poppy post-New York School pastiche. What to make of the first poem in the book?
The Vision

The shrill, miltaristic scream
Of a bird
Over the Baltic sea
Is as dented, gray
As a warboat's hull, its white wind

Captain's compass, in the pilot-
Cabin console reflecting clouds.
A witch's memory
Of Walpurgisnacht, conjured up.
Needle and ice.

Watchfires at sea are an illusion,
A desert's swill mirage
Spilling into the sailor's eye.
Homeward to port the sickness leans
Off balance like a drunk.

The ropes are fouled
That anchor cloud to sea, gull to ocean
Like wings of Bismarckian gold.
Rain seeds the waters with red.
A corpse like a scarecrow rises into the sky.
Maybe this has more to do with a hungover German Romanticism than it does the with the Post-Modernist Baroque. Certainly some of the characteristics I isolated in Parlatore seem to be missing: Martin's diction is nowhere near as elaborate and images are often foregrounded, though we still have a regular stanza-form as building block. Yet Martin perhaps demonstrates that the Post-Modernist Baroque can also be achieved not only through the manifold forms of the dictionary, but by drawing upon other equally manifold contexts: "wings of Bismarckian gold" is as confounding an image—really an anti-image, how to visualize it?—as Parlatore's "promenade of phalanxes." You can usher an image out from this language, but it takes repeated reading: the first hit is the strange and estranging language that conjures an atmosphere of mystery, of surging abstract forms. And some of Martin's lines are as richly choked as Parlatore's: "Inviolate cadre of dominating feathers," "Epaulets of gloomy lipstick-red," or another poem that conjures a tragic European landscape as vividly yet obscurely as Partalore conjures Squalicum Harbor:
To Die Regularly

Too many ancillary confections
Are at the table.
The tweezered insect, the ant,
Sublime breeding of the hive,
Is chocolated with thoughts:

Murder, primarily, succeeding
To the throne.
What delights though are ensconced
In the railings of the semi-rich,
Given over so easily to violence!

The fine leg of the daughter
On the stair. The carved head
On the stairpost.
Royal insignia, pewter arms
Of the Prince-Bishop of Fulda.

My darker body's trapped
In the flashed glass of a Wiener Bronzen
Lamp, like a woodland landscape.
Black tree of bronze supporting our blood,
A hungry spaniel beneath.
This poem seems almost ekphrastic, evocative of some work of art that we can't quite bring to full presence, like much of the imagery in Post-Modernist Baroque poems. (Though the third stanza in particular reminds me of Balthus.) There are meanings and contexts to be found for these works, like anchors tied by a slender chain to elaborately ensailed ships, but it takes some plumbing to find them out. First the sublime forms, then the content; first the mystery, then the meaning. It's an imitation, if not an enactment, of visionary contact with the divine—or the hellish.

It will take some more reflection on my part before I can figure out what, if anything, my attraction to this mode has to do with my interest in lyric generally, and with my opposed or apposite interest in what I've called "social formalism": I don't think I invented this term in the context of contemporary poetry, but by it I mean to broadly define both poems and extra-poetic acts of positioning intended to foreground our awareness of the social production of meaning. Language poetry certainly, but also to a degree New York School work (I'm thinking of the many poems by O'Hara, Berrigan, and there many and various followers that assert through proper names and biographical details their emergence from a particular sociopoetic context) as well as those provocations designed to raise our consciousness of the politics of the poetry world. It's difficult for me to imagine a poetry that would reconcile social formalism (with its implicitly purgative function) with the reticulated post-Stevensian aesthetic I've desribed here, but perhaps it exists. Or maybe the two modes are a crossroads that I and some others stand at, and which will propagate something as yet unforseeable.

1 comment:

Gabriella said...

Some definitions of "baroque." (I think they owe something to Asor Rosa.)

"Baroque" comes from "barrueco," the Portuguese name of an irregularly shaped freshwater pearl —> things irregular, rough, asymmetrical, can be beautiful too. (cp the neoclassical ideal)

The Baroque Age roughly coincides with Copernicus, the discovery of America, the Protestant Reformation. All of these involving a decentering of the world, an imbalance. Hence baroque's love of twists and doublings (in plots, and, most obviously, in columns).

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