Monday, February 10, 2003

I’m totally jealous. Kevin Davies wrote “Lateral Argument” and I didn’t.

“Lateral Argument” is an as yet unpublished poem that is circulating via PDF file, 20 pages of shiveringly brilliant writing. My first thought as I read through this poem, composed over last summer, was: well, what if John Ashbery’s Flow Chart – my favorite work of his – did have a beginning, middle & end – is this what it would look like? Then I thought: well, what if Flow Chart had a social imagination, a politics? Or at least one that was coherent? 

These thoughts reminded me of a comment Davies himself made in a footnote, one of four, to a letter this blog ran on November 1. In the body of the letter, Davies argued that, contra Louis Cabri – a poet with whose writing Davies shares more than a passing affinity – “The first two generations of the New York School . . . have had significant and widespread effects on vanguard Canadian poetry of the past forty years.” In the footnote, he throws this argument into a more personal context:

In my own case, Berrigan was crucial to my education. The first thing of his I read, in the year after high school (while working desultorily at the local mill), was "Tambourine Life," in an anthology at the local community-college library. This event was, I think, similar to what Ron describes when he first encountered The Desert Music: the sense that there was a writing practice that could account for the vagaries and particulars of the life I was living, one that was not tied to the prosody of either the Romantics I adored or the academics I abhorred.

In “Lateral Argument,” Davies puts up, giving substance to the vision sketched out above:

Not all the fruit trees hate you –

just this one.
Freud once attempted to purchase Mexico.
Darwin feared meteors and their possible connection to lichen.
Mathew Arnold hated ducks, just hated ’em.
Martin Frobisher cooked and ate an entire cabin boy.
Jack Spicer invented the clap-on clap-off lamp.
Fatty Arbuckle faked his own death and ended up running a go-cart track in Alabama.
Goya lost his nose

in a practical joke gone very, very wrong.
Backing slowly away from the bear, not looking
in its eyes. Pretending to be asleep.
Ignoring the tornado. Refusing to acknowledge
the legitimacy of the mudslide.
Not flinching – holding steady – when the toaster
falls into the bath. Glancing back, turning to salt, and not
caring. Driving blindfolded on acid in the 70s.
Arguing for a lower grade. Pulling the thigh
hairs of the opposing power forward.

The title of “Lateral Argument,” it seems to me, is very literal (lateral). The poem is very much built around the stanza as its primary unit, often changing shape as the text moves from one to the next. At the same time, the stanzas themselves are destabilized by a process of “carry over,” the last line/thought of the previous one bleeding into the stanza following. The device starts at the beginning, with an ambiguous refusal to demarcate between epigraph and the body of the poem itself:

“Persons exist
as practical ways of speaking about

– Paul Williams.
They awoke in a bookless world studded with lean-
to performance artists interacting with electricity.
This must be the place. Evicted from elsewhere, here at last
not rest but an apprenticeship in container
technology. A kind of music that, though apparently stopping,
starting, stopping, more specifically never ends, thus
displaying as virtue its greatest flaw. Successfully,
irritatingly. Who here has access to liquor?

Several of these carry-over lines break in ways that seem unpredictable & delicious: “The image problem of vipers//is their greatest asset.”

If there is a standard or baseline stanzaic form here, it’s one that doesn’t really show up until the fourth page & doesn’t fully take over until the 14th, where (as in the last part of the first quote above) almost every second line is indented. Overall, this gives the poem a sense of homing in, starting out with the broadest range of possible futures, gradually arriving at a mode as though it were the dénouement.

Davies has been an active participant in the New York poetry scene for so long that it takes some effort for me to think of him as Canadian, although he has always maintained an active relationship with the poetry of his homeland. “Lateral Argument” would be a wonderful poem wherever it was written.

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