Friday, September 12, 2003

Coromandel is an Indian term referring originally to the coastal region of Southeastern India along the Bay of Bengal – essentially the coast facing out towards Sri Lanka – the term derived apparently from Cholomandalam, the land of the Chola, the Indian dynasty that ruled, between the 9th and 12th centuries, what is now Tamil Nadu. The word Coromandel was generalized by the British into something akin to coastal, which meaning then spread to other parts of the empire, notably New Zealand. Somewhere in the process the word also became a popular name for hotels, though so far as I can make out, it’s neither a corporate chain in the sense, say, of Westin, nor a term with the concept linguistically implicit, the way Patel, a Gujurati term for innkeeper, has become a surname for so many in the Indian diaspora.

Coromandel also is the name for Thomas Meyer’s newest book, a 64-page poem issued as a fat chapbook from La Révolution Opossum in skanky Austin, TX. This is the poem I referenced in passing in a discussion of the format of Kenneth Warren’s House Organ, which had printed an excerpt from “Book Two.” My footnote read “Suggesting of course the presence of ‘Book One’ & the possibility of others. Is there a new Tom Meyer long poem in the works?” As it turns out, I was half right – there was such a poem in the works, but, interestingly enough, no Book One. Therein lies a tale.

Meyer could rightly be characterized as a 3rd generation projectivist poet, having studied with Robert Kelly at Bard & having lived at least part of the year within driving distance of Black Mountain College itself for 30 years whilst living with one of its best known grads, the peripatetic logodaedalist himself, Jonathon Williams. As is the case with the third generation anything, the hard won victories of the forefathers (&, save for Levertov, fathers is exactly what they were) become as self-evident & fully absorbed as the sun, enabling the writer to do whatever it was he intended all along. Thus if the beloved moment of projectivism occurs at the end of the line, that point at which meanings & rhythms turn & twist, Meyer has virtually never written a line anywhere in his work that was unconscious or poorly executed. But at the same, he also has never written a line where the break itself was the point.

Literary history being the history not of poems & prose, but of change, third generation writers often go underappreciated even as they produce some of the very best & most satisfying works of their respective periods. At least the NY School’s third class had some geographic sense of cohesion – though look at the history of Actualism to see what might happen in its absence – but after the transformation of Caterpillar into not a butterfly, but Sulfur, projectivism went for over a decade really without a journal or press seriously devoted to its development & evolution, before it began to show up again as one of several focuses for Ed Foster’s Talisman, & then with sharper focus in House Organ’s rough-&-ready format & finally the superb volumes being put forward by Devin Johnston’s Flood Editions. It’s an integral part of the Skanky Possum program as well.

Structurally, Coromandel has five sections, each shorter than the one that preceded it. The first, the aforementioned “Book II” (19 pages in this chapbook), is composed of unrhymed couplets. The second section, “This is the House” (17 pages), is a long single stanza, individual lines generally running anywhere from one to nine words. The third, “Quincunx” (14 pages), is composed of five line stanzas. The fourth, “Part 4” (6 pages in this format, although it would telescope down considerably with a wider page that didn’t require so many hanging indents), treats each long line as an individual stanza. The last, “Trikona” (2 pages), has eight three-line stanzas. Thus all but one section alludes in its title to some aspect of number. But the “II” in ”Book II,” if it has any referential or formal meaning seems to point not to the position in the sequence but counterintuitively to lines per stanza. Ditto “Quincunx” and “Trikona.” Yet “Part 4” is, in fact the fourth part. And that section reflects no correlation between number & internal form.

Walter Benjamin’s distinctions between titles – terms or phrases that “name the entire work” – and captions – terms or phrases that point into a work & thus organize our reception – is worth considering here, because at some level Meyer’s work is doing something different altogether. Just as the “II” is not a way to characterize the formal structure of the first section of the poem, neither does “Quincunx” really function to identify the 102 five-line stanzas that fall under it. “Trikona,” Sanskrit for triangle, has its origin as a term in yoga, the theory of charkas and Indian abstract design. Fiveness & threeness are as much a part of these words’ connotative undercoating as they are of their denotative functionality. Each title stands rather as if at an angle with regards to the work it envelopes or at least touches.

Meyer is a poet who values precision, perhaps above any other aspect of his writing. & Coromandel is the project of his that comes closest to a classic configuration of the New Sentence. Just as the New Sentence functions not only by what it may say but even more by what gets configured in the blank territory between sentences, Meyer here creates a work that comes alive through the constant deferral, reflection & refraction of meaning. “Not place, but position,” as he says at the end of this passage in “This is the house”:

A train passes. Stars
Apparently us.
Of all this.
Nothing but
above trees.
Horus sucks his
They gather the dark in baskets
the livelong day.
Maple leaf. Angel’s wing.
This book’s leaves
fall from trees.
Not place, but position.

Periplum was the term Pound borrowed from Greek sailors, negotiating a territory of constant reconfiguration. Language likewise operates through a continual process of differentiation. The space between words is, in fact, a distancing effect. Meyer throughout this book is identifying exactnesses.

As the passage above suggests, Meyer prefers his effects to be subtle, the shifts gradual rather than angular. The gap between sentences in “Measure. / Of all this.” is hardly a canyon. It’s not that Meyer can’t or won’t move toward an extreme – “Giordano Bruno’s charred body rises in my sleep” – but the reader does not get the cognitive whiplash that is sometimes a feature of langpo. The result is closer to the music of a Satie than, say, a Wagner. Or Johnny Rotten. Or perhaps I should say simply that Meyer seems to have located the space in the projectivist tradition that comes closest to the poetry of a writer like Forrest Gander or Ann Lauterbach. In this sense, Coromandel feels very much to me like a poetry for grown ups. Which, for example, Rimbaud is not.

If I have a hesitation or aesthetic difference with this book, it’s only in its sequence of successively shorter segments, a movement that grates against my own bias for a form that spirals from the innermost part of the mollusk toward its outer rim. Meyer’s process in this sense feels anti-narrative in a way that I’m not certain he intends. I could, I suspect, make an argument for the logic of it, not unlike the way the titles deploy number. Or like Zeno’s footsteps growing successively shorter on their way to the door. Yet no amount of intellectual justification will ever fully mute that tiny scratching on the blackboard of my soul. Underneath this complex & quite gorgeous tour de force, I hear it still.