Tuesday, April 24, 2007

 

“Language is eyes,” Zukofsky’s Shakespeare reminds us repeatedly throughout Bottom, which is perhaps why it seems so odd that Zukofsky & so many of those who have followed his lead in American letters over the past half century get slammed from time to time for being “non-referential.” Referentiality is inherent in language and while it can be played with, even (as Clark Coolidge demonstrates conclusively in The Maintains and Polaroid) stymied, it never goes away for very long. Cole Swensen’s The Glass Age is a masterwork that takes the question of reference seriously, making it the subject of her book, a trio of interlinked series that focus on windows, glass, motion pictures, post-impressionist painting, phenomenology, ontology & life as it currently is being lived.

A remarkably adept, even facile craftsperson – I know of no poet who makes the most stunning verbal effects on the page look more effortless – Swensen is in some ways the epitome of a third way poet in today’s cultural landscape. Her critical assumptions, literary strategies and approach to the text clearly places her among the finest post-avant poets we now have. And, as this volume amply demonstrates, Swensen addresses a topic long associated with post-avant poetics in ways that are primarily narrative and figurative, strategies long associated with the School of Quietude. It’s not an accident that Swensen is on the faculty of the Iowa Writers Workshop, nor that this book comes blessed with a blurb from John Ashbery, the quintessential poet with one foot in each world. It is, I think, the most challenging tight-wire proposition in contemporary poetry, but Swensen makes it look “natural,” even “easy,” terms whose multiple, conflicting connotative shadings she would be able to de- (and re-) construct without breaking stride. Consider this page, or passage (or section – it is in some sense all three) towards the end of “The Open Window,” the first of the three serial poems that make up The Glass Age. It begins with a consideration of the paintings of Pierre Bonnard, a painter whose life stretched from shortly after the American Civil War until just after World War 2. Bonnard’s many paintings of rooms dominated by an open window is the governing figure of this first suite. However, the two previous sections each focused on issues of early cinema:

There’s something cinematic about Bonnard’s compositions, each scene accentuating action, yet also decentralizing it, diffusing the focus into a plane that hums, a homogeneous intensity extending anarchically

which is echoed in its details – the pattern of the curtain coming in at the same scale as that of the variegated crops in the background and the tablecloth in the fore. It’s an equivalent world, one in which each element serves as a clinamen to trip the homogeneity into precipitating specifics so numerous that they can construct a roiling chaos quite able to hurtle through darkness without a hitch.

Which can also be said of glass, with its random atomic arrangement, like that of a liquid, say, a river stopped mid-gesture, the blink that fixes the picture, suspending it on the surface, a permanent floating leaf.

The form of this passage mimes the content. The discussion starts off at a high level of generalization, goes through some exceptionally complex flourishes before coming to a perfect rest only with the final image. The flourishes are exactly what Swensen suggests, “a homogenous intensity extending anarchically” – it’s worth thinking awhile as to what that might mean – and (my favorite) “a clinamen to trip the homogeneity into precipitating specifics.” What’s so remarkable here is how clearly Swensen plays the clatter of p & t sounds to signal a high degree of organization right as she is about raise the figure of a “roiling chaos,” albeit one “quite able to hurtle through darkness without a hitch.” All of this takes place in an independent clause, one that is balanced by the primary architecture of this same sentence: It’s an equivalent world. Indeed.

With justified prose blocks that contain a sentence that ends one paragraph only to also begin the next, the text plays with concreteness & abstraction, not unlike “a river stopped mid-gesture.” Because there are 23 pages prior to this one, all of them invoking facets of these same figures in a variety of juxtapositions, this somewhat closer reading barely touches of the surface of the connotative fields virtually every noun here sets into motion. These kinds of breath-taking displays occur page after page in The Glass Age, making the reader, this one anyway, almost giddy at the connectedness.

One question for me reading this book is whether, in fact, it is one work or three. I think ultimately it is one, albeit one in the same way that John Ashbery’s Three Poems is a single poem. The inter-relationships active in each of the three texts – Bonnard is on the first page, Bonnard is on the last – are so dense that breaking them down into three sequences seems ultimately the harder-to-justify act, the integrity of these movements seems infinitely more tenuous than that of the whole.

Though I’ve already invoked him twice here, the poet whom I really think it is most interesting to pose as a context for The Glass Age isn’t John Ashbery, but Michael Palmer. For one thing, many of the values in Palmer’s work – precision, beauty, the philosophical dimension of language – are active in Swensen’s poems as well, more so than in Ashbery’s, which is more open to humor &, perhaps as a result, takes on more of a hopalong gait. Ashbery can seem quite goofy, something neither Palmer or Swensen ever do. But if Palmer is more of a language poet than Swensen, it is precisely because his own aesthetic, one part Robert Duncan, the other part de Chirico, feels much closer to the New American poetry & its quarrel with modernism, as such. Swensen, who has written of this very issue with regards to contemporary poetics, seems largely free of the problem. Even as Swensen writes of Bonnard, or of Vilhelm Hammershøi, another painter of windows born in the 1860s, her poetry doesn’t feel backwards-looking in the slightest. If there is any part of Ashbery that is at all close to what she’s doing, it’s his work in Rivers and Mountains, especially “The Skaters” and “Into the Dusk-Charged Air,” writing that imagines what would happen if surrealism & Oulipo were entirely American phenomena. Swensen carries this sense of possibility much further, while being a lot smoother than Ashbery was more or less at the same age. The question for her here is something more like what if philosophy were geometry were art history, the sum total being a poem. From my perspective, it’s almost impossible to describe. You will just have to read The Glass Age to find out.

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