Wednesday, September 13, 2006

 

Stephanie Young has been having one helluva time lately. Not only is Bay Poetics almost certainly the best anthology of new poetry we have had in 20 years, but her own Telling the Future Off, published last year by the San Diego press Tougher Disguises, is itself a classic “break-through” book of poetry. This puts Young in a position with regards to verse right now not unlike the one Scarlett Johansson has toward film or Ryan Howard has toward baseball. That’s the good news. The bad news is that, from this point forward, Young is going to have be much tougher on herself, since she can no longer count on others to be reliable editors or critics. Since she is going to be able to publish anything that has her name attached to it, only Young can see to it that it’s the best possible work. The other good news is that, based on both of these books, she looks quite up to the task.

Trying to describe the poetry of Stephanie Young is not easy. If anything, Telling the Future Off reminded me of Larry Fagin’s desire to read without expectation since just because you’ve read one poem by Young, you can’t presume that you know what’s going to happen next. It’s not just that she exhibits range from poem to poem, but that she shows a lot of range within any given piece. Here for example is “Things I Learned Among the Waters of Oblivion”:

Among the forms of recognition
I chose the depressive’s headache
or heavy food & adolescence, loving you
as a doctor in the opera, i.e.
bring the energy back now
into your third parent.


The taste in the scene was coming from my mouth.
It was previously. Nothing ever went ‘all the way’ inside.
If I went there for one thing (apples)
I’d come away with another (pages)
or a buttonhole of what appeared:
all that youngsome fleshiness
subsumed within the higher education,
one snake devouring another snake
with a logo on their back of the tower
at 57th & International.

Hours later, think to yourself how it all appears
in the WRITERS NOTEBOOK,
& tearing your hair, with a great gnashing of teeth
why must we say slip and
among the forms of recognition?
Unless we are actually giving him the slip.

The man lodged in my middle section
always describes the girl out loud.
It the part I remember most bitterly:
hair up in a clip
here it comes
very pretty.

The ocean doesn’t care if it is August
then it is August. How we decided on
the tower’s make & then the radio
went up in strips of orange colored cloth
moving around in the air.
What about this DOESN’T strike you as a hobby?
The woman in the landscape
bares her chest as well. Or straps
fluorescent bulbs to her arms
and goes out fighting. All production
a magic production.
A line
through the forms of protest,
the civic duty of having great tits
and splendidly hard as rocks.
Poles for legs to demonstrate
what’s been done to the forest.

When only scale changes: roses around the mailbox,
my hand rendered with the same imprecision
attaching itself to the mail, a soft focus
to save us from being drawn
again and again into the tail of an event
we have seen depicted but cannot ourselves depict.

Young represents a kind of poetry not really possible when I was in my 20s, drawing as it does from language poetry & the New York School both, using multiple tones or something very close to discursive coloring in a way that is, at once, both painterly & politically conscious. There’s not a single source for what is going on here – you can trace a great little sequence of allusions to Jack Spicer, for example in this passage –

very pretty.

The ocean doesn’t care if it is August
then it is August. How we decided on
the tower’s make & then the radio

The first line echoes Spicer’s own quotation of the Peter, Paul & Mary hit, Lemon Tree, the first line of the next stanza from Spicer’s own,

This ocean, humiliating in its disguises
Tougher than anything.

No one listens to poetry.

From which Tougher Disguises takes its own name. The last line comes from Spicer’s theory of dictation & the idea that a poet is a little more than a radio, albeit a counterpunching one. Writing like this requires a fair amount of knowledge on the reader’s part to be intelligible, as does the segue in the next two lines to Christo & Jeanne-Claude’s The Gates project in Central Park. But do you need to know all, or any, of this? I think not. It is as easy to read, for example, “the tower / at 57th and International” as a generic reference to the uptown galleries in Manhattan as it is as the address of the Alameda County Computer Resource Center. Or, as Young writes in “The Age of the Mercenary,” the one longer (or serial) poem in the book, “

The usefulness of W.D. Snodgrass to this very poem
I anti-deny it

which, frankly, I seriously doubt. References like these function by invoking a level of specificity, but it’s the level, not the specific, that is the point.

If there is an ur-spirit behind this writing, it might be Ted Berrigan, a member of the New York School 2.0 who also taught a number of the language poets, at both Yale & Iowa City. While certainly Pound, Williams & Zukofsky all demonstrated how to incorporate multiple voices into their poetry (much as Apollinaire did in France), Berrigan’s stance toward the possible plasticity of tonal color is uniquely his contribution. In the introduction to his Collected Poems, Alice Notley writes

Ted’s poetry is remarkable for its range of tones of voice. He actively studied both “tone of voice” and “stance,” the range of attitudinal play in human discourse and the projection of character. Here Ted’s professed model was Frank O’Hara, but I often find Ted more mysterious and more intense in both tone and stance. Not having O’Hara’s education or “class,” Ted therefore couldn’t be as traditional. He couldn’t call on a tone of voice from another decade or century as if he owned it, even though he knew exactly what Whitmanesque or Johnsonian was. He had to reinvent it for himself, from his working-class background and University of Tulsa education and ceaseless self-education.

Like Louis Cabri, whose poetry I’ve written about before as an extension of Berriganian techniques into politically engaged poetics, Young both gets this & moves further down the line. She is not as overtly or conventionally “of the left” as is Cabri, but I wouldn’t call what I read here any less politically conscious than Louis’ work, even if more politically suspicious.

Young’s titles often sound like the captions in a kid’s book, or as a chapter title in a particularly episodic novel or film. “Today I Pull the Curtain on My Unseen Audience,” is the title of the piece the directly follows “Waters of Oblivion,” and before you’ve gotten into the body of the text, already an echo, this time of a transformed Wizard of Oz, is at play:

back you go
through the low nineties of radio

lower than miscellaneous
for quick review

low girls
in a low car

bouncing the horizon
or spanning time

you can smell
with your forehead

in the room of perpetual action
and I bright blue

I as blue as blue looks
but never was.

Blue as a piano truck
of anecdotal evidence.


Evidenced in parts. Tired,
hateful saying of things

you should be too, of looking.
”if he was going to marry anyone”

in a falsified appearance
of the word niggling

where there was none
Sally in my arms

moved
and talked of mom

to leaving the window open
with moms in evening view

reminder: moms: consumption
a fine rot across the upper arms

so the mom can come in and out

This is a radically different poem, even type of poem (one senses the possibility of flarf here, tho flarf, as ever, is difficult to prove) from the other. It’s a poem that appears to start in the middle & end there also (albeit the latter suggests a joke, comparing mom with a cat) and where individual passages have almost the integrity (and malleability) of clouds in a spring sky – the low passage, the blue one, the v sounds that appear to invoke mom, the truncated sentence about parts. Young is no less agile in her moves here than in the previous piece, but the end result is of a whole other order.

Is Telling the Future Off a master-work? Not yet, tho it’s temptingly close. As I’ve written here before more than once, I respond positively to ambition, especially intellectual or aesthetic ambition & Young makes me think of a great juggler who is already handling butcher knives & flaming torches & has decided to add tigers to the mix she is going to keep in the air all at once. It’s thrilling to watch her try, and it makes me hungry to read what she does next.

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