Monday, May 22, 2006

Excellent SOON reading on Saturday night. Aaron Kunin gave an electric performance reading from his collection of "small poems about shame," Folding Ruler Star. That phrase doesn't touch on the book's ambition, though; this description does: "a value-neutral Paradise Lost. In other words, someone who is not god tells you to avoid a certain tree, and you disobey the instruction; the result is shame. Two characters agree that one of them is supposed to worship and obey the other without actually believing that the other possesses any special qualities that would enforce obedience; the first one disobeys the second one and has to be punished." So it's a book about the arbitrary sexuality of the master-slave relationship, which also inevitably points back at the human-God relationship as a sadomasochistic one. This is combined with a topography of the human body inspired by the work of Sylvan Tompkins, who located the affect of shame in the face; as Aaron put it, "Shame is simply casting the eyes down—the basic reading posture." (Surely this notion of the face as the neurological location/processor of shame has interesting implications for the thought of Emmanuel Levinas? But a cursory Google shift does not produce these names in congruity with each other.) The poems themselves consist of poem-pairs, each with the same title, perhaps meant to produce binary struggle between them: which poem-half is the master, which the slave? Aaron reads with intensity, his eyes squinted almost shut, while the poems have a chopped, reticulated syntax that reminds me of Creeley at his most baroque. He concluded the reading with "Five Security Zones," a re-engineering of the blazon (the Petrarchan mode of dismembering the beloved in a poem, i.e., "Your forehead is like alabaster, your eyes are sapphires," etc.) that transforms the erogenous zones of the beloved into five "zones" whose alarms are set off by the poet/lover's attention. (Suggests a subdivision of the area delineated by J.G. Ballard's seuxalized automobile crashes: the erotics of the car alarm.) I caught a quotation from the great seventies paranoia thriller Three Days of the Condor in that poem: "I'm not a spy, I just read books!" A simultaneously anguished and playful statement of the poet-lover's condition, and as good a summary for what Aaron is up to in his first book as any.

John Coletti read second: his low-key, slightly self-deprecating humor made for a nice contrast to Aaron's livewire. He kicked off with other poets' poems: first a couple from a chapbook by Steve Carey with what he says is the best title for a poetry book ever, Generous Subsidy, and then a poem by Simon Pettet. Like these poets, John's poems are short but crammed with surreal, paratactic observations that have an almost synesthetic intensity: "cherry tobacco," "my mouth circling triangles," "I'm a soft flower / with tough roots," and my favorite line from the poem "Hippies" that Aaron did up as a broadside: "Pagans woke up in my skinyard." There's a certain echo of religion as shaping and deforming force in the work, as with Aaron Kunin; John was a Mormon until the age of fourteen. He has responded to that experience mainly with a dry, slightly singed humanism, and the touching faith in the validity of his own experience that the lyric poet requires.

After a reading like this, it's hard not to conclude that there's still a lot of life left in the lyric, and that the poem of the subjective field can still produce a sizable synaptic whallop. I would hazard that this kind of formally torqued lyric still relies, almost classically, on the self as the force-field that hold the poem together. I think of what the critic Brian Reed has to say about "attenuated hypotaxis," quoted here by Marjorie Perloff in a passage on the early, avant-garde T.S. Eliot in her book 21st Century Modernism:
The syntax of "Prufrock" is characterized bywhat Brian Reed, writing about Hart Crane's syntax, aptly calls "attenuated hypotaxis," that is a sequence of "tenuously interconnected" clauses and phrases "possessing some relation of subordination to another element," but with the connections blurred, "inhibit[ing] the formation of clear, neat, larger units" (Reed 2000: 387). Such faux-hypotaxis, Reed argues, was to become, in its more extreme forms, the characteristic mode of John Ashbery and Robert Creeley, Tom Raworth and Lyn Hejinian—none of whom, we might add, has claimed Eliot as a precursor. (25)
Hypotaxis and paraxtaxis, of course, are syntactical modes, but we have long been accustomed to stretching the notion of "syntax" beyond the sentence, so that it might refer in general to the arrangement of elements within a text. One could assemble a quick-and-dirty syntactical theory of verse by arguing that one can distinguish the genres of poems by their choice or rejection of the element that stands firmly or hazily at the head of their syntax. That is, a lyric poem presumes some version of the self more or less corresponding with the poet's own subjectivity as its "master clause"; the subordinate clauses then either flow from that master clause in a more or less coherent narrative (hypotaxis); or are disjunctive to a great degree, perhaps constantly appearing to veer on new tacks while never quite leaving the self behind—there's still a recognizable, coherent "I" even if it undergoes sizable transformations, as in an Ashbery poem (attenuated hypotaxis); or else perhaps imitate the master clause through a series of repetitions that do not build on each other in any linear way but which constantly refer back to the center, bearing the same relation to the center and to each other as the spokes of a wheel bear to their hub (parataxis). In all cases, however, some notion of the "I" holds the poem together to produce the lyric effect (though a plural subjectivity is also possible, as in Juliana Spahr's This Connection of Everyone with Lungs, which uses the attenuation of its hypotaxis to dramatize the fragility of its "we," its "connection"). What we don't see too much of: poems that are epic or georgic in their orientation—that is, constructive of history or else didactic and instructive. And there are probably other non-lyric possibilities for poetry that I'm not thinking of. But syntax in this sense has a certain limited usefulness for describing what poems do and even how they think of themselves in relation to other poems: does an affinity for parataxis have the political implications that Silliman and others claim for it, or is it just another literary tool as capable of replicating bourgeois subjectivity as it is of disrupting it? And if Reed and Perloff are correct in suggesting that attenuated hypotaxis the dominant mode of lyric postmodernity, what does that suggest in terms of formal options for non-lyric modes, or for what I sometimes think of as the provisional lyric: the poem which proposes an accomodating, inclusive "I," something like the Whitmanian multitude of which no clause will be master?

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