Monday, April 16, 2007

 

It was, I believe, Walter Benjamin who, writing of photography, first distinguished between titles and captions. Titles, in Benjamin’s model, name the whole of a work. Applied to poetry, The Cantos is a title that arches over everything in Mr. Pound’s “great acorn of light.” Captions, on the other hand, focus on something specific within the work and call it forward, the way a newspaper caption of a photograph identifies something – perhaps the name of a person – within the picture. The title of David Ignatow’s best known collection, Rescue the Dead, is that also of a single poem therein, which reads:

Finally, to forgo love is to kiss a leaf,
is to let rain fall nakedly upon your head,
is to respect fire,
is to study man's eyes and his gestures
as he talks,
is to set bread upon the table
and a knife discreetly by,
is to pass through crowds
like a crowd of oneself.
Not to love is to live.

To love is to be led away
into a forest where the secret grave
is dug, singing, praising darkness
under the trees.
To live is to sign your name,
is to ignore the dead,
is to carry a wallet
and shake hands.

To love is to be a fish.
My boat wallows in the sea.
You who are free,
rescue the dead.

Ignatow’s last line is narratively – even thematically – ambiguous, but emotionally clear & powerful. The result was one of the great poems of the last century – indeed, the poem that Ignatow was trying to write his entire life – there are dozens of poems of his that can be read as attempts to do this one thing, and this was the time when he nailed it & completely got it right. By using a name that functions as a caption to both poem & book, Ignatow takes the reader right into this one key – I almost want to say sacred – moment.

What brings this distinction between titles & captions to mind is another, very different but equally brilliant book, Since I Moved In, by Tim Peterson, just out from Chax Press of Tucson & the winner of the first annual Gil Ott Award. Made possible by a generous donation by Julia Blumenreich, herself a wonderful poet, Peterson’s manuscript was chosen the editors of the Gil Ott Award series: Charles Alexander (the Chax of Chax Press), Eli Goldblatt, Myung Mi Kim & Nathaniel Mackey. Peterson’s book is, as I feel certain Gil would have agreed, the perfect way to initiate such a series.

Peterson’s book is 90 pages long and both begins & ends with lengthy sequences that one might have expected Peterson to choose if he were to pick an individual poem as a name for this volume. The first, opening the book, is “Trans Figures,” a series of 15 very distinct poems in which the narrator is divided somewhat schizophrenically between the person “I” and a third person referred to variously as “it” or “the voice.” All of the poems, in one way or another, focus on the question / risk / process of being in drag, sometimes in tones that are hushed, descriptive, exact:

In heels and a skirt, an elegant gesture of the arm
like this, a certain sweep of the neck
into necklace, the voice is trying to manifest
itself. It leaves its apartment after dark,
wondering if its neighbors will see it passing,
crossing the lawn, the tap of its heels
the only sound in the parking lot.

Sometimes quite the opposite:

Ankle ogle black stocking struck
Match much must

Catch sash ash pretending to wilt
Silt into urn torn

In remnants film or fine pilgrim
Grim nest behave

Have any knee given a film spot
Not down, or strut

But in underneath sundry watch
Mesh haunts

Delirious finger funded injury
Naughty naughty

Much of the actual subject of “Trans Figures” is risk, emotional risk, risk of embarrassment, risk of rejection. Consider, for example the role of negative capability in the following:

Don’t put on nail polish when you have to drive 120 miles.

Don’t wear anything that looks too slutty.

Don’t use too many abstractions.

 

Don’t walk anywhere alone late at night.

Don’t tell anyone what you’re really doing this afternoon.

Don’t slouch; walk briskly.

 

Always buy lipstick that’s the right color for your complexion.

 

Don’t get too prosy when you could say it concisely.

Don’t let your knees spread open when you’re sitting down.

Don’t wear anything that makes your shoulders look bigger than your waist.

 

Don’t be redundant.

Don’t tell anyone what you’re really doing this afternoon.

 

Always ask the other person about him or her self first.

 

Don’t make gestures that look too ‘draggy.’

Don’t aspire to be a ‘real boy’ or a ‘real girl.’

Don’t use anaphora; it’s annoying.

Don’t believe him when he says ‘I’m laughing with you.’

Don’t be intimidated by men with bigger muscles.

Don’t begin lines with a preposition.

Don’t ‘swish around’ or ‘camp’ if you want to be convincing.

 

Don’t censor yourself.

Don’t be ashamed of your body.

Don’t present your body in a way that makes you ashamed.

Don’t wear tank tops if you have a thick neck.

“Trans Figures” is an extraordinary work because it takes so many chances, is so knowledgeable not just about itself (and the poet about himself) but about poetry as well. This ultimately is the high formalism of the post-avant and a deeply personal (and personable) poem all at the same time.

No less effective is the volume’s closing sequence, “Spontaneous Generation” – my first thought on reading this title was that it would make a terrific name for a book as well, which is, in fact, what brought me to thinking about this more deeply. “Spontaneous Generation” consists of 28 prose sections, one or two paragraphs each, over a space of 12 pages. In addition to the paragraphs & sections, divided by asterisks, the page also is a unit of the poem here. This isn’t the standard run-to-the-bottom-&-turn-the-page sort of prose. Rather, each is organized as a unit all its own.

The same drama of the physical body that partly inscribes “Trans Figures” is the focus for this final piece, which seems constantly amazed at the idea that these different body parts can cohere & function as tho whole:

The creek breeds life out of death; predilection, orange peels, the remains of housecalls, holding out lungs to breathe with, fiber-optic eyes to see. It feels ashamed of you & not your reflection.

Poor philosopher, poking in the dead stream with a twig. You have been projected behind yourself on a screen. Your reflection stymies all efforts at recognition. They see this part of your, machine. Not flesh, not what you tried to do.

*
The other side of that is bright. Body of light, of solidity and change.

These parts of me I cannot deny: the space I sit in, the left arm muscle moving into the neck causing headache, colophon of sorrow from another time. Made manifest, a bulb opens in the street.

*

I heart the big office with pants on and a rolling stream of people moving through it. Confined to me by my papers, rent and its functions of living seem normal. Firm black line on a sheet of acetate. I heart my bee balm in the window, my bourgeois rings.

Nothing pilfered, nothing gained. Stagnant, almost. Though I move through space with shopping bags, the strain animates them. Makeup cracking as it fails to fit the mouth beneath it.

Yet Since I Moved In is named for neither of these two sequences, but rather a single-page, single-stanza poem that appears immediately after “Trans Figures,” its lines space slightly further apart than is the case with some of the other poems here:

starting to feel like a real room

or would you say that’s traditional

almost typed “toom” then corrected it, Enlightenment

saner and saner, alligator, bars on windows, nut

Orpheus turned around and saw

bungled that too. Orpheus was plugged in

than you. But it seemed that girls were messing things

than your mouth. I wanted

“social change” to attach meanings, although fleeting

ate Popsicles in winter at the pharmacy

were phrases “second pair of eyes,” “proactive,”

“on top of things,” “move forward with”

“on op of lop top, pings,” “funny to be saunas”

you did? I’m finding it harder to continue this conversation since

feet! Why even bother, with all that snow

like technology? Screws up where you get to move

twist and the other up-to-the-minute dances. Gee,

gluttons for techno-enhancement, bud

apotheosis. I’m writing in my pajamas

the interface that has kept me from reaching you.

At one level, many of the lines here have that found or overheard quality, as if each line came lifted directly from some other source, a contemporary descendant of Apollinaire’s “Lundi Rue Christine.” At a second, the poem is talking to itself as it goes along, Frank O’Hara style, Peterson plays with typos. At a third, he’s directly addressing the reader &/or a loved-but-absent other. At a fourth, there’s a narrative just slightly occluded here, one that lines up the tale of Orpheus & Eurydice with lovers moving in together. It’s a poem that feels almost thrown together & yet has so many planes intersecting one with another – what, for example, is one to do with all these allusions to technology, especially since the word in the poem that has to carry the greatest weight is interface?

Like “Rescue the Dead” three or four generations back, “Since I Moved In” is a poem that comes together with a slam bang finish. As a name for the book as a whole, it’s certainly more caption than title. Yet unlike Ignatow’s poem, it’s not the apotheosis of Peterson’s craft, not even necessarily typical of the book’s shorter poems, which offer considerable range. One thing it does is to take some pressure, if that’s the right word, off of the two longer sequences here, one doesn’t read the book as extending outward from an initial masterwork that defines the collection, nor as leading up to the symphonic crescendo of the last long poem. The tone of the title suggests something personal, even intimate & provides just enough context to carry a narrative flavor. That in a way seems very much the kind of risk that Peterson is taking, and wants to be taking, in all of the poems here. This is a post-avant text deeply committed to emotion & to personal honesty: try to imagine a Clark Coolidge text that begins

Ankle ogle black stocking struck
Match much must

and I think you can without too much difficulty. Try to imagine a Coolidge lyric that ends on Naughty naughty and think it’s impossible. Peterson shows repeatedly here how such poetry can exist in the very same text. It’s both a daring and a remarkably subtle performance, especially coming from a poet who is still in his twenties. This book is both a thrill and a delight.

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