Monday, February 16, 2004

 

The most radical change between the 1986 first edition of my anthology In the American Tree & the 2002 edition, both published by the National Poetry Foundation, is not necessarily the spiffy new typesetting, my new afterword, the new cover art – an excerpt from Robert Grenier’s scrawl works – nor even the updated bio notes, a couple of which threaten to turn into autobiographies. It’s the reprinting of two Kit Robinson poems, “Verdigris” and “Trial de Novo,” as separate & distinct poems. In the original edition of the Tree, the poems appear as they first did in This 11 in the Spring of 1981, with one page of “Verdigris” running on the left hand page for every page of “Trial de Novo” that appeared on the right, almost as if they were translations one from the other.  But in 2002 edition of the Tree, the pair are published as they first were in Robinson’s great book, Windows, brought out by Whale Cloth in 1984, withVerdigris” first, followed by “Trial.”

 

Thus disappeared an interesting experiment in the uses of pagination to problematize & interpenetrate texts. What makes me think of this is a poem, “otherwise (an eke name),” one of three major sequences by Pattie McCarthy that will soon appear in Verso, forthcoming from Apogee Press. “otherwise” starts on a left-hand page with a prose paragraph, then follows it with a section in verse on the right. This pattern, prose on the left, verse on the right, repeats a total of eight times. It’s not self-evident to me that either section can or should be interpreted as a commentary on the other. Or, to be more precise, each page seems to stand perfectly well on its own. But the impulse to try & find interrelationships &, for me at least, to figure out how to read them with one page as the “master” text, the other as its “slave” or commentary, is strong.

 

There is, I suspect, a bit of the con in this, not unlike the teasing connections John Ashbery sometimes salts his own texts with, elements that appear to offer hooks or handles, not because they do so much as because we want them to – and McCarthy knows it. Thus individual sentences often invoke language in unexpected ways: “the name by which I know her has a different vowel-to-consonant ratio than the one with which she was born.” The sentences themselves don’t connect, per se, so much as hover around certain general thematic frames – naming & mapping being two key ones. For me, what gets accentuated most is precisely that sense of desire, the pull between left page & right. Thus “this peculiar landscape” on page 9 of the manuscript may (or may not) point back to “Flanders was a country before it was a battle” in the prose across the binding to its left. But there’s no way really to ascertain this.

 

McCarthy may be yanking the reader’s cognitive chain – the whole idea of an “eke name” could suggest as much. As indeed would the idea of starting the title with “otherwise,” as if we could know other than what? When McCarthy first published the second section of this volume as a Duration Press ebook, the website characterized it as “from the work-in-progress Unco Lair & History. Verso presumably is an evolution of that project. The apparently rejected title focuses more on naming & on the role of the word in time, it is worth noting, whereas Verso focuses attention on the form of the book itself, or at least the form of its first work.

 

Like Robinson’s matched pair, I find myself wanting to imagine all the other possible ways to format these unnumbered sets. Sequentially they move prose, verse, prose, verse, etc. so to put a pair upon a single page would invoke a more ordinary linked verse framework. And I wonder what will happen, 40 years hence, when the Collected Early Pattie McCarthy appears, running the poem in the manner of so many collected editions – think of Williams & what happens to Spring & All in his Collected – as a single continuous chain.

 

Each one of these formats yields different reading strategies, new implications. While McCarthy has clearly chosen for one way through the poem here, it’s not clear to me – largely I think because the poems work just fine as standalone objects as well as in combination – that this is the “right” way so much as it is her way. As with much good poetry – say Blake isolated away from his illuminated manuscripts in various textbook editions – the writing itself here seems “platform independent.” It’s going to work regardless.





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