Tuesday, January 28, 2003

Nico Vassilakis writes a very clean line:

The posture of an event is directly
Related to the posture of its participants

For instance, we are slaves to our lawns
Photosynthesis laughs at us

If you adjust the rabbit ears just right
You can receive your next door neighbor better

Meanness is allowed to fester
And it will ruin the spine

The pilgrimage is made
To reassert the definition’s truth

Glorious water, but even it
Falls victim to gravity

Winding its way down to the feet
The head ponders the fascinations of light

The birdsong of ancient typewriters
Chattering in the background

Vassilakis’ language is quite direct, needing only two commas in these sixteen lines, taken from “Talk is Parting of a Problem: first aspect,” in Bird Dog 2. The line itself is accentuated by the capital at the left margin, but only lightly so. Look at how gently that first line is enjambed, remarkable in that it occurs right in the middle of a verb phrase interrupted by an adverb. The mid-stanza linebreak occurs on, or even in the middle of, the verb phrase four times & two other times at clear moment of syntactic gear shifts.*

Part of the secret here is the relationship of the line itself to the couplet ** – of the eight stanzas here, at least six can be read as complete in themselves, although the syntactic hinge between gravity & Winding is deliberately ambiguous (that first line could as easily be read as attaching to the stanza above as to the line below). But it would be a mistake, I think, to view these lines as halved couplets – too many of them get their effect precisely through the way one sets up the next: the bivalent Winding is only the most pronounced example.

A clean line in poetry is a rare thing. Only a few poets seem ever able to master it consistently – Michael Palmer, Alan Davies, Chris McCreary – it’s a short list.*** One hardly ever finds it, for example, in Ginsberg, Creeley or Ashbery. It’s not of great interest to Pound or Williams. H.D. could do it, although I think it tends to be hidden by the very shortness of her lines. Zukofsky & Duncan could both write clean lines, although often enough they choose not to. Ditto, more recently, George Stanley.

There are, of course, as many reasons to not want a clean line as there might be to desire one. Like rhyme or the tub-thumping metrics of iambic pentameter, the form insinuates a vision of unmediated & harmonious existence that is patently a lie. Vassilakis does a superb job in the section quoted above of using just such possibilities against themselves. Sort of an anti-Moxley, Vassilakis’ irony meter has arrived at a throbbing red maximum. “Meanness is allowed to fester / And it will ruin the spine” is an absolutely fabulous moment in this regard. It is difficult to imagine how an individual could ever hope to write much better than that.

* At the end of the dependent clause in the third stanza & right before the conjunction in the fourth.

** Only the opening line in this poem – or at least in this “aspect” of the poem (the title suggesting that there might well be more) – is not part of a couplet.

*** Another poet who has done so at times appears in this issue of Bird Dog – Spencer Selby – although his work here is not particularly an example of that side of his writing