I’m totally jealous. Kevin Davies wrote “Lateral Argument” and I didn’t.
“Lateral Argument” is an as
yet unpublished poem that is circulating via PDF file, 20 pages of shiveringly brilliant writing. My first thought as I read
through this poem, composed over last summer, was: well, what if John Ashbery’s Flow
Chart – my favorite work of his – did have a beginning, middle & end –
is this what it would look like? Then I thought: well,
what if Flow Chart had a social
imagination, a politics? Or at least one that was coherent?
These thoughts reminded me
of a comment Davies himself made in a footnote, one of four, to a letter this
blog ran on November
1. In the body of the letter, Davies argued that, contra Louis Cabri – a poet with whose writing Davies shares more than
a passing affinity – “The first two generations of the New York School . . . have had significant and widespread effects on vanguard Canadian
poetry of the past forty years.” In the footnote, he throws this argument into
a more personal context:
In my own case, Berrigan was crucial to my education. The
first thing of his I read, in the year after high school (while working
desultorily at the local mill), was "Tambourine Life," in an
anthology at the local community-college library. This event was, I think,
similar to what Ron
describes when he first encountered The
Desert Music: the sense that
there was a writing practice that could account for the vagaries and
particulars of the life I was living, one that was not tied to the prosody of
either the Romantics I adored or the academics I abhorred.
In “Lateral Argument,”
Davies puts up, giving substance to the vision sketched out above:
Not all the fruit trees hate you –
Freud once attempted to purchase Mexico.
meteors and their possible connection to lichen.
Mathew Arnold hated ducks, just hated
cooked and ate an entire cabin boy.
Jack Spicer invented the clap-on clap-off
Fatty Arbuckle faked his own death and ended
up running a go-cart track in Alabama.
a practical joke gone very, very wrong.
Backing slowly away from the bear, not
its eyes. Pretending to be asleep.
Ignoring the tornado.
Refusing to acknowledge
legitimacy of the mudslide.
Not flinching – holding steady – when the
into the bath. Glancing back, turning to salt, and not
Driving blindfolded on acid in the 70s.
Arguing for a lower
grade. Pulling the thigh
of the opposing power forward.
The title of “Lateral
Argument,” it seems to me, is very literal (lateral). The poem is very much
built around the stanza as its primary unit, often changing shape as the text
moves from one to the next. At the same time, the stanzas themselves are
destabilized by a process of “carry over,” the last line/thought of the
previous one bleeding into the stanza following. The device starts at the
beginning, with an ambiguous refusal to demarcate between epigraph and the body
of the poem itself:
practical ways of speaking about
They awoke in a bookless world studded with
performance artists interacting with electricity.
This must be the place.
Evicted from elsewhere, here at last
rest but an apprenticeship in container
A kind of music that, though apparently stopping,
stopping, more specifically never ends, thus
as virtue its greatest flaw. Successfully,
Who here has access to liquor?
Several of these carry-over lines
break in ways that seem unpredictable & delicious: “The image problem of vipers//is their
If there is a standard or
baseline stanzaic form here, it’s one that doesn’t really show up until the
fourth page & doesn’t fully take over until the 14th,
where (as in the last part of the first quote above) almost every second line
is indented. Overall, this gives the poem a sense of homing
in, starting out with the broadest range of possible futures, gradually
arriving at a mode as though it were the dénouement.
Davies has been an active
participant in the New
scene for so long that it takes some effort for me to think of him as Canadian,
although he has always maintained an active relationship with the poetry of his
homeland. “Lateral Argument” would be a wonderful poem wherever it was written.
Labels: Kevin Davies, New York Poetry