Monday, February 03, 2003

One poet who appears to be doing something completely different from virtually anything I’ve written about on this blog is Marianne Shaneen – that at least is my first impression on reading “from THE PEEKABOO THEORY: object permanence” in Snare 3, the first issue of I’ve actually seen of Drew Gardner’s little magazine.  You can miss Shaneen’s work – it leads off an issue filled with writers whose poetry I already know I like: Bill Luoma, Mitch Highfill, Elizabeth Willis, Gardner himself, Rod Smith, Tod Barron, Rodrigo Toscano, Bob Harrison, Edwin Torres, Kim Lyons & Allison Cobb. Indeed, the only other poet in the entire issue whose work I’m not already familiar with is Jen Robinson, not to be confused with Kit or Elizabeth. Marianne Shaneen is positioned first amidst all these relatively well-known poets &, at ten pages, her contribution represents nearly 20 percent of the entire issue. As an editor, Gardner is definitely making a statement.

Visually, it takes a nanosecond to see that Shaneen is doing something different. Her text fills the page as though it were prose & the long lines tend more toward the logic of the paragraph than that of verse, even within the broad range of post-avant varieties.  Here are the first two passages – I started to type “stanzas” then stopped myself; they don’t come across with the feel of a stanza:

1825: U.S. postal service creates a dead letter office
1825: Persistence of vision shown with the pre-cinematic Thaumatrope, a disk with an image on each side:
bird, wings up on one side and down on the other. eye, lid open on one side and closed on the other.
when rotated rapidly, the observer perceives

an eye opening and closing or, a bird in flight

I saw my breath today:
your absence has weathered its first change of the season
buzzer range I rushed down the stairs it must be you but only mailman. drops of sweat on my forehead betrayed my hopes while simultaneously becoming sign of hope’s betrayal: skin weeping or, I was wept.

By my count, that is eight lines of type: four, then one after a single-line break, then, after a noticeably longer break, three others in the second stanza-thingy. That I’m having to calculate this out & ponder the issue – I could be wrong in this, I realize – tells you a lot about how Shaneen attacks questions of form. The next line of the next passage includes both italics & boldface. When I said that her lines tend toward the logic of prose, it was not merely the length or prosody I had in mind, the relative absence of signs of compression that are so characteristically the graphemic signals of verse (but note the missing article in front of mailman), but that when lines “run over” the relative space of the page, they come back flush against the left-hand margin. No verselike hanging indents here.

What I don’t get, either in the snippet above or elsewhere in the ten-page excerpt in Snare, is a sense of Shaneen’s ear. She simply appears to have no interest in that dimension of the text. This seems important, if only because it will help to contextualize this piece for me, away from, for example, the information-junky aspect of Olson’s Projectivism, toward something that falls somewhere between the fiction of ideas & an enlightened notebook – philosophy in the literal sense of that word, rather than in the normative or even traditional senses of it. Rather, this work seems to seed concepts – the mail, cameras, blindness, shadow, writing, the game of peek-a-boo – into a field of action (I is present, you is missing in action, though also the addressee), permitting a maximum of consequences.

A writing of this type demands a high tolerance for ambiguity. An eventual volume of this text is, like a book length prose poem such as Lyn Hejinian’s My Life, certain to befuddle the beleaguered bookstore employee who has to figure out not only where to stock the item, but also where prospective customers are going to seek it out.* As a verse novel, it has less in common with Hejinian’s Oxota than with, perhaps, James Merrill’s The (Diblos) Notebook. The questions it asks of a reader are ultimately no less complex – for example, how to judge the question of figuration, or of character, terms seldom invoked these days with regard to the poem.

Another section of “THE PEEKABOOK THEORY” can be found in Beehive. Like what I find in Spare, it’s complex, often brilliant, but utterly unconcerned with the ear. It may ultimately turn out that the work of this Brooklyn-based performer, photographer, novelist & poet gets characterized as poetry, but I suspect that will be because this is what we have come to call things we don’t quite know what to call.

* Just watching how poorly bookstores handle a genre like the graphic novel should give some sense of how hard this is for them, especially in an age when many bookstores don’t pay well enough to attract serious readers for employees.