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