Tuesday, September 25, 2007

 

My general reading style is to be in the middle of ten to twelve books at one time, switching back & forth as the whim strikes me. It can take me literally years to finish a major work – The Cantos, for example, or more recently Rachel Blau DuPlessis’ Drafts in its various volumes – and usually I think I get more out of a work from the prolonged engagement. Don’t ask me how long it’s going to take to finish Ted Berrigan’s Collected Poems – at the rate I’m going, I’ll be lucky to get it done before my 70th birthday. I intend to enjoy every second.

But occasionally a book pulls me in to the exclusion of all others, demanding that I read it straight through. The sensation almost feels like a drug. I find myself looking forward to my next possible moment with the book and experience intense pangs of sadness once I’ve completed it, as though a friend has passed. I put everything else aside and go with the experience. If I come across one book like this per year, I’m extremely fortunate.

Jean Day’s Enthusiasm:Odes & Otium is just such a volume. Reading it is one of those knock-down take-the-top-of-your-head-off experiences, exactly as Tom Mandel promised when he started raving about the volume to the Grand Piano collective:

It's one of the best books of poetry I've read in a decade;I'm blown away by it.

Tom is exactly right. Enthusiasm contains 13 poems organized into an introductory piece, plus two major sequences, the first, “Odes,” consisting of nine poems, the second & longer, “Otium,” consisting of three works. It’s an index of just how unsettling this book can be that two of the first descriptions of the book I came across put such a different emphasis on the balance of its composition:

The work is divided into two parts, the first descriptively titled “Odes” and the second “Otium,” a Latin word meaning peace, ease, repose, which occurs as a leitmotif in one of Horace’s most famous odes.

That’s Lyn Hejinian on the rear cover of the book itself. The publisher’s website casts it differently:

A book of nine "newfangled" American odes together with three extended poems written in the tragi-comic intersection between leisure and work.

Neither depiction strikes me as being entirely correct. “Odes” consists of nine poems, eight of them in the four pages or under category. The ninth ode, however, “Hat Schism,” consists of eight chunky paragraphs printed one to a page, their distinctness underscored by a two-line drop cap to start off each paragraph, but then later undercut by the fact that all paragraphs but the last conclude with an em dash —

Here is the first stanza from one of the earlier odes, the second one, “Prose of the World Order”:

This blue
is nothing but elastic
sound everlasting a relapse
improbably neither vegetable
nor animal
not even personal but
sonorous as lexical hash
hypothetically
a novella by a fellow guest here
left finally dead
as matter might
stick to a wall
virgin in shape or exquisitely
scrawled
the gist of which is
We exist in places
otherwise strange and probably
impassible.
Yet here
yours is not the first face
to appear
surrounded upright
on two feet awake
stunned from the sleep of a Nobody

This stanza is the instant I knew that this book had hooked me. The variation in these free verse lines is as exact and muscular as any I’ve read in ages – just hear the contrast between virgin in shape or exquisitely and scrawled. There is also a palpable balance here between intelligence & humor – these are generally sunny works, much more so than my memory of Day’s earlier books. My immediate reaction, reading the above, was that I wanted stanzas like this to go on forever. And in general, tho Day plays with line length & works that let go of the left margin, they generally do, at least for the first eight odes. Here’s the first stanza of the title poem, “Enthusiasm”:

Ideas presuppose us
not the head
hand or facture
What is facture
the wander of two
shooting the blue
breeze figured in friends
Lull and Hum
Clam and Grass
ear to foot and finger
to ground the word
world
haunting the sky red
and blinking
comes disclaimed the size
our bodies are
plus one
hysterically numbered
now standing in
a short row
whose tune lasts
til newts disband
or originality proves
our idea
in the first place

The organizing term in this passage is world, already italicized, positioned so that you can’t miss the echo of word immediately prior any more than you could miss it in the title five odes earlier (there it was the schema of prose that carried the implication). That other italicized term, facture, of course means execution, especially in the sense of performance, the execution of an art object, of which this work is again setting out a brilliant demonstration. Whether this passage & ode is, as I read it, about the creation of families, the idea of family, politically charged concept in these perilous times but when was it ever not thus, or something else altogether really is not the point here nearly so much as the heightened awareness that occurs throughout this structure of language at play.

“Hat Schism,” the ninth ode, feels at least partially like a bridge to the three longer pieces gathered under “Otium” that make up the greater two-thirds of this manuscript. Here is just the first paragraph or page, sans the drop cap which I've been unable to reproduce here:

For I would not be a slave if I could help it under a hat the lack of whose shade would leave me smart naked in the rain. For what I want are dry pants and an early start tomorrow. I hate the unreaped fields, its over-reasoned surplus now doffing to a dream of opposability. For it is an indolent sinking sun falling on the fox I admire alone in hiding. Do I sing too loud? I am a child who’s forgotten all about it, but having heard the forbidden anthem begin to long for home again myself. For any god’s quantity of fiddlers you may make up a feather bed I’d be glad to lie in. For I am composed of calculation and little holes. For this land is my limb. Such are the unravished prisoners the larks these states—

You can hear almost instantly the change in tone, even more the shift in focus, created by these hard stops of periods. Where the verse stanzas of the poems before do not posit a persona per se, these paragraphs sure do, with a wry satirical hand.

The three poems of “Otium” – the title is Latin & Hejinian on the book jacket describes it as meaning “peace, ease, repose,” where Merriam-Webster Online defines it as “leisure with dignity” (are these the inverse of poetry?) – play with this same range between abstraction & comedic immanence, each one quite different in its approach. Here is the third (of 44) sections of “Romantic Fragments,” each printed as with “Hat Schism” one to a page:

on the way to ear. The crude cosmopolitan is


like me, finite on the way to infinity, is why
the boomerang wind (there, I said it again), is how
revolution hates eruptions
of the past, commuter train
in its own mouth. My [illegible]
ukulele’s broke on a North
we neither know nor lament
since suffering the cruelty of rust, the zip
fastener acts out its increments, ever smaller
coded instructions spooling inside her

Each fragment has a title like the above, a line in italics in which one sentence ends & another begins, tho to say that it actually continues in the ten-line stanza that follows often requires, as here, something of a leap of faith. The idea that this first line is a title is itself a presumption, one that I revised about halfway through these dense (albeit compact) structures, seeing it finally as the link between the prior fragment and the one that follows. That’s all but impossible in this one, in that the second fragment actually ends with a question mark, one of only two to actually end with what appears to be the conclusion of a sentence. The first phrase in the title of the next piece – the world presupposes. – neither verifies nor negates a connection. A difficult balance.

What’s really happening here are these serpentine sentences whose logic often gives way right at the line break. It’s like reading a Faulkner for the 22nd century. Cumulatively, “Romantic Fragments” is every bit as sensuous a reading experience as “Odes,” tho in a very different way. But if the first eight odes tend toward a stylistic center, the three works of “Otium” are each very different. The poem “Otium” itself replicates some of the typographic features of the final ode – paragraphs that begin with drop caps, but here without any punctuation whatsoever save for words in the Text that appear in capital letters and Boldfaced, maybe a dozen per paragraph. The effect is lush, witty and often dazzling, but run together rather than giving each paragraph it’s own page, the piece feels shorter in comparison to the others than it really is. In comparison, the final sequence, “Sixteen Lucky Dreams (Epical Pictures),” offers one stanza works, each with its own spelled out number and title (always in parentheses), presenting in what appears to be lyric form the same line/stanza relationships that governed the book’s first pages. While the 16 vary in length, they hew close to the 14-line benchmark of the sonnet, and often entail some pointed use of quotation marks. Possibly because it was the line/stanza work of the first poems that sucked me through the looking glass of this book, I find myself tremendously heartened by the return to this relationship here in the volume’s final pages. It gives the work a sense both of closure & of optimism.

Optimism, indeed Enthusiasm, are not words I would normally associate with Day’s past writing, which has always struck me as having a dark thread. The experience of this book is not unlike, say, that of first reading Opening of the Field in the early 1960s when Robert Duncan, already a well-known poet, kicked it up a notch to produce three great books in a row. I have no idea just how far Jean Day can take her new work, but I do feel that she’s operating now on a whole new level. It’s thrilling to read.

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