Friday, October 07, 2005
I have several books by Jay Millar, or as he capitalizes it, Jay MillAr (perhaps so that non-Red Sox fans will understand how to pronounce his surname), but until False Maps For Other Creatures, had never actually read one cover to cover. False Maps is the first title of the resurrected blewointmentpress, bill bisset’s legendary press, that was sold after a 20-year run in 1983 to David Lee & Maureen Cochrane, who renamed it Nightwood Editions. Now after a further run of another 20-plus years, Nightwood has decided to bring blewointmentpress back as an imprint, the idea being as I understand it to use the brand to showcase books “in the spirit of” bisset’s experimentalist/New American tradition. Tho MillAr was too young to have appeared in the press’ original run of books, he makes sense as an inaugural author for the new series. He’s an energetic virtuoso in exactly this same vein. My one question or hesitation is that I’m not at all certain that it means the same thing in 2005.
False Maps is MillAr’s fifth collection, at the very least. The first that I’m aware of it The Ghosts of Jay MillAr, published by Coach House in 1998, when MillAr was just 27. It’s a thick book, or more accurately it’s an anthology of five sizeable chapbooks, each penned by a different persona a la Pessoa. This is followed four years later by a booklength suite entitled Mycological Studies, also from Coach House. MillAr’s own press, BookThug, released the small blue in 2003, printed in a format I’ve never quite seen elsewhere for poetry, with a zigzag cover (the cover stock is at least 20 inches wide) folded so as to create two “back-to-back” spines going in opposite directions, one of which houses all the odd numbered poems in the sequence, the other all the even numbered. There are 79 poems in all, an interesting prime number for such a project. There are just 52 copies of this project. BookThug has also released another volume, esp: accumulation sonnets, but I’ve not seen that. The Coach House website also refers to “many privately published editions.”
If this seems like a lot of production for a poet who is only now 34, it should be noted that everything I’ve seen of MillAr’s, most definitely including False Maps, reveals him to be a meticulous, sometimes awesome craftsman. None of this has the air of juvenilia. Thus this last section from a poem entitled “Author Photos” reads:
of moths or
the leg of a
the ear of a
edge of a tree
are before they
we look through
to think we
This is really faultless craft. Contrast, for example, the careful deployment of syllables per line – there are never more than four – with the writing, say, of a master of that element in the poem, Ted Enslin. Note how the final four lines all contain three syllables each & how the enjambed next-to-last line all operate to set up a sonic tone of closure.
This, as I said, is faultless craft. That, however, is its fault. For all of MillAr’s technical brilliance & his almost up-to-date referencing of models such as Christopher Dewdney or Steve McCaffery, one has the sense that he has the ability to write a late version of the northern variant of the New American poem rather endlessly, always effortlessly, sometimes with breath-taking beauty. It gave me pause to see it here, and made me stop to think of the role of generations in tradition. For example, immediately after the New Americans made their mark, writing verse that was often deeply flawed but that changed the English-language poetry scene permanently in the 1950s, the very next generation of poets found themselves really struggling with all sorts of questions of identity. Even among the New Americans themselves, one could read the rejection of the New American model that showed up in Edward Dorn with the arrival of Gunslinger or with Amiri Baraka’s shedding the cocoon of LeRoi Jones as a struggle to identify themselves on their own terms, not merely through what they saw in the Maximus Poems. Poets even younger than they, and at a somewhat more distant remove, had an even harder time. For example, one can read the collected poems of Lee Harwood as an ongoing response over the course of several decades (tho it’s not the only, nor even the most fruitful way to read his work). A poem such as Harwood’s “The Journey,” if you look at it this way, is as much a reaction to Dorn’s ‘Slinger as it is an imitation, a mechanism for letting this very different side of the broader tradition impact Harwood’s own writing, which up to that moment (circa 1967) seemed mostly conditioned by a reading of first generation New York School poets.
When the Projectivists in particular showed up in Vancouver in the early ‘60s (even before a certain fragment of the SF Renaissance actually moved there), it had a large impact on Canadian writing, and a substantial portion of what was then written by Canadian poets later in that decade and well into the 1980s had the look of a second gen New American aesthetic, not at all disjunct from the source, but generally more well written, the sharp, awkward edges mostly polished smooth. In a sense, such writing – I’m deliberately not naming names here – provided a broad foundation against which the likes of such wilder poets as bisset, b.p. Nichol, Steve McCaffery, Nicole Brossard & Christopher Dewdney stood out. It’s an interesting question as to whether these more groundbreaking poets could have existed at all without, so to speak, that ground.
MillAr, or at least the MillAr of False Maps, carries this polishing process to a new level, one unimaginable even 15 years ago. The poems are all very good, but the sharp edges & imperfections that were the signature of the New Americans themselves have all disappeared. As brilliant as it is, there is inevitably an ersatz quality to it, like the imitation Dylan concert tickets from the 1960s tucked into glassine envelopes in the big new scrapbook that accompanies, if that is the right word, the merchandise onslaught associated with Martin Scorsese’s No Direction Home. It’s not unlike the Marsalis family version of jazz – it ain’t classical, but it ain’t bebop either.
I like False Maps a lot. I can read this work almost endlessly, and with some pleasure. Yet in the end what I like most about it is its familiarity, the comfort I feel with a project I know so well even before I’ve begun to read a single word. And that is not a sensation I would ever associate with the New American Poetry.