Tuesday, June 03, 2008


Brian Henry’s The Stripping Point is a book containing two longish poetic sequences. Yet I could imagine, say, David Markson or Carole Maso writing something not so terribly far from this and calling it a novel, or perhaps two novella – whatever the plural of that might be. It’s a fascinating, difficult, daring project and Henry, whose poetry I didn’t know before this turned up in the Poetry Society of America’s cartons of William Carlos Williams contestants (I’ve been aware of his work as critic & editor for some time), Henry basically pulls it off.

In an interview on Counterpath Press’ website, Henry describes the longer of the two sequences – “ More Dangerous than Dying” – as having its origins in a narrative sequence, or at least a sequence that he had written some ten years earlier, in which the poems were connected by their protagonists. When he picked up the sequence again in 2005, he revised the work, as I understand it, to meld characters, making the poem less of a narrative but actually more cohesive in that the perspective now is much more that of an interior subject, old friend “I”. I wonder if this isn’t also when he decided to balance each (or nearly each, the sole exception is the first poem¹) with an epigram placed on the facing page.

The epigrams are an interesting feature, and serve the work as a whole in more than a few ways. They comment on, or even against, the text of the poems themselves. And tho they’re not identified in the main body of the text (there is a four-page “sources” note at the poem’s end), they serve also to place the action of this scrambled narrative – it’s about a paper mill apparently, tho it could as easily be an auto plant or any sizeable manufacturing operation – within a larger community of voices. Henry’s choices are as interesting & reflect as much thought (and a lot of close reading) as every other part of this work: Louis Zukofsky & James Schuyler, both used three times, J.H. Prynne, Tom Clark, Donald Revell, Peter Gizzi, John Yau, Andrea Brady, Jean Donnelly, C.D. Wright (twice cited), but also James Merrill & Henri Cole. One might argue that this is almost a “third way” pantheon, that attempt to meld the history of post-avant poetics & that other of the most traditional poets in the language. What virtually all of these writers hold in common is a tendency – one sees this in Henry’s own writing – toward fine distinction, exact detail, a sense of the lushness of sound, tho the details presented often are as gritty as any Ben Shahn painting:

A top-down directive
requires a shuffling of cubicles

Farewell faithful smokestack!
Farewell tower of the freshly cut!
Air redolent of pulp and death!
Farewell farewell farewell!

Eleven rows of cars my new vista
their gleam and window glare
their histories laid bare to me
my Daily Journal of Heretofore Unknown Events

No one to ignore me
when I’m through

Across the page to the left, we read two lines from Zukofsky’s “A”-8: The company is constantly / experimenting on its own people. All of Henry’s quotations are in italics, albeit unidentified until the end note, so that they never quite seem on a par with the ongoing text. It makes the poem twice the length it might otherwise have been, but also works to make it feel almost airy & light. There is a lot of white space here, and it is all content.

The title poem works very differently. It lets you know this almost instantly, the first line being Decide on deciduous or remain ever green. Five lines later we find Vanishment in ravishment will produce a. At which point the stanza & page come to their conclusion. If there’s an antecedent for such verse, it’s in the work of Robert Duncan’s prior to The Opening of the Field, when Duncan was willing to incorporate not just sound, but sound as pure sensation, the most deliberate of debaucheries possible with the poem. Henry is willing to dive just as deep:

A blanket of blankets swarms the bed
Ten degrees and cropping    six sheets to the wind
The door frame chipped and tawdry
Who succumbs to coming    twice in an evening
Tram or bus     tram or bus     tram or bus     tram
Or bus     tram or bus    tram or bus     tram

Which version of the verb to come here is the pun, since both are in play? The terms tram and cropping hint at the fact that Henry was living in Australia when first he wrote this text. Unpeopled – or more accurately, absent any narrative characterization – The Stripping Point is perhaps closest thing to classically defined langpo as I’ve seen in awhile – I can see this piece right alongside Clark Coolidge, Zukofsky’s “80 Flowers” or the work of Stephen Ratcliffe, all writers & works very much governed by the ear & written without fear.

The sum of all these inclinations won’t shock anyone, I suspect, who reads Verse, or who has read Henry’s earlier books. People like to point out that there is no such thing as “third way” poetics, that mythic midpoint betwixt the School of Quietude and post-avant writing, that the writers – with certain exceptions – aren’t really in touch with one another, that they don’t hang out as a gang, let alone have the constant communal contact that people around St. Marks Place have, or that my colleagues on The Grand Piano project maintain by email. But the reality is that there is a poetry here that does mix & match, almost at will, and that some of it – such as this work by Henry or poetry by C.D. Wright, Ann Lauterbach, Cole Swensen or Forrest Gander – is breath-takingly good. The idea that a book like The Stripping Point could have come out of anywhere other than San Francisco or New York would have been unthinkable even twenty years ago, let alone 50. So it’s a real marker of how poetry in America is changing, not just formally, but geographically even. And it’s very good news indeed.


¹ Tho the poem as a whole has an epigram, which may almost serve the same purpose, or at least points to that possibility.


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