Thursday, September 04, 2003

You, I, us, them, we – pronouns are at once both the most anonymous of all names and positions within a field of relations. As Sam Beckett has shown, one might spin a world from such elements. Michael Gottlieb does something along this order in “Issue of Error,” the first of three works that make up his next book, Lost and Found, but then again he does something completely different:


How many more of you

did you say

there are

back at home?


Such a question can never be innocent. But context is everything – one could articulate this in a way that might sound flattering just as readily as one could emphasize the implicit substitutability of you hidden there. The context that Gottlieb provides is filled with such statements of verbal jockeying, but it also is enveloped in the discourse of business, suggesting as well that at home in this sentence could just as easily be a job title, a cube number, a pay grade. The poem in a way reminds me a little of Kit Robinson’s work, whose counterlyrics of the workplace set a standard for documenting this realm of our lives. But “Issue of Error” is quite a bit longer than the typical Robinson piece and, overall, far darker in tone. Not only does it convey the sense that you & me (but especially you) are infinitely replaceable, but also that in a very real sense no one gets out of here alive. It’s a remarkable performance, sort of Frank O’Hara in the corporate gulag, sardonic but doomed, aware but all the more pained because of it. 


Gottlieb achieves this in part by insisting on the word What:


·         What we have here is a bona fide secondary market

·         What we deign to disdain

·         What we can rely on is / this agreeable corruption, / this cheerful hatred.

·         What we did to ourselves

·         What we can always put down / as a custodial death.

·         What one once bowed to.

·         What appears to us,

Not one of these, it is worth noting, is a question. Who, when, where, how & why have nothing like this level of representation in Lost and Found – What defines its speaker (assuredly not Gottlieb) as the “bringer of meanings,” something marcom execs have been coaching CEOs on for decades, the rhetoric (to their minds) of leadership. Gottlieb is showing us that its underbelly is at once both dark & soft. For the same reasons, What will prove to be just as prominent in the book’s final poem, “Careering Obloquy.


Which sets this word up to have its most profound impact on the work that is bracketed by these two, ”The Dust,” a poem in which What does not appear once, but is everywhere. “The Dust” is one of the half dozen most important poems written by anyone associated with language poetry. It’s a read-this-&-change-your-life experience.


At one level, “The Dust” is that oldest of all literary forms, the list poem, but here Gottlieb gives it to us with a vocabulary so unadorned that it literally is rattling to try & read aloud. Here are the first two stanzas:


UHF Tower Mast A

VHF Main Antenna Bracing, Southeast

Left Rear Wheel Assembly, Retractor

Radome Array

First Class Galley Convection Oven Number One

First Class Galley Convection Oven Number Two


Knoll workstation fabric panel, 3'6" by 2', with crepe

Knoll workstation fabric panel, 3'6" by 2'6", with crepe

Knoll workstation fabric panel, 3'6" by 3'6", with crepe

BPI workstation 1/2 plexiglass panel, 5'6" by 2'6"

Hon workstation 1/2 plexiglass panel, 5'6" by 3'

Interior Concepts workstation T-base for non-raceway panels

Anderson Hickey workstation connector post, 6'

Global workstation full plexiglass panel, 5' by 2'6"


After the erudition of “Issue of Error,” “The Dust” feels like a bucket of ice water dumped on the reader’s senses. The vocabulary, or so it at first appears, reeks of commercial product catalogs – it’s no accident that the second stanza focuses on office cubicle components. But “The Dust” is not only an index of words but also (and even more so) a rhetoric. This is no ideas but in things carried out with a vengeance heretofore not imagined, the physical world chronicled obsessively but without characterization, each stanza offering a new nexus of descriptive language, leading at last to an ultimate list –


Joseph P. Kellett

Joseph J. Keller

Peter Kellerman

Frederick H. Kelley

Joseph A. Kelly

Maurice Patrick Kelly 

Timothy C. Kelly

Thomas Kelly

Thomas Michael Kelly

Thomas W. Kelly

Richard John Kelly, Jr.


all of whom – though Gottlieb never points this out – died in New York on September 11, 2001. The drama of this poem – and it’s one of the most powerful I’ve ever read – comes with the realization of the absent What – what exactly Gottlieb is talking about: he seeds the text with just enough clues, the presence of the Port Authority PD, the detail of fire helmets. The dust is the horrific gray ash that covered all of lower Manhattan. This is indeed a poem of absolute description. An act more in the spirit of Objectivism – think of Reznikoff’s Testimony – than language poetry or dada, Gottlieb has produced as understated an elegy as has ever been composed.


Section two of “The Dust” takes these same elements of names & objects – again the names are of World Trade Center fatalities – and shuffles them, so that what we hear finally is precisely that rhetoric of identification:


Rollerblade, ABEC X10 Extenblade

Kiran Reddy Gopu

John Patrick Salamone

Hartmann 44" Overnight Lite Garment Bag

Ching Ping Tung

Sushil Solanki

Lyudmila Ksido

Coffee, regular, sesame bagel, toasted with cream cheese


This is, in fact, the very same mix we heard in “Issue of Error,” only now the absence of stylization – one of the hardest of all styles to achieve – moves the work from the social satire at the heart of the first poem to what is, bizarrely so given its roster of wallboard, snacks & names far more opaque than any pronoun, a graceful, even elegant resolution.


In an earlier version of this book, Gottlieb put “The Dust” first, a placement that rendered the other poems extensions of this overwhelming performance.* Positioned now at the center, “The Dust” functions as the lynchpin in a more complex, more political & ultimately angrier argument. “Careering Obloquy” is the remarkably literal title of the third & final poem, one that returns us to the same mix of pronoun, putdown & office chatter we found at the start of the book. The implicit argument – that nothing has changed in the relations of exploitation & “just barely coping” – permeates the text, as in “Your Pull Date,” the eighth (of 17) sections:


The tidy and the particulates.


How much smaller may we dice you?


It's the coating, a theraputic misadventure in fine,

a static of palliatives laid, course upon course,


so many tell-tale adjournments

and hasty replantings,


a fakebook

writ large -


and scrawled across its stratocumulous,

this much we do not know.


It is more than we usually have in hand, at the end,

as it empties into the resigned estuary:


a blistering consolidation,

a topical reagent,

a gainsaying treatment,

a subdural reply,

an asymetric lump.


Unit histories, the asides of scullions and lint folders,

shy, reticulous, squamous,


interposed countersignatures, pilled suites.


The retired colors.


Michael Gottlieb hasn’t been one of the language poets heretofore most closely identified with political action or analysis, possibly because he’s done less critical writing than some of his peers. But everything gets put on the line in Lost and Found & one major test of Gottlieb’s achievement is the degree to which he succeeds without turning away from what his many fans will recognize as the project of his own writing. On one level what we read & hear are the familiar forms of normative discourse, phrases adapted from a variety of jargons, a little less jokey than the New York School perhaps, but not so far removed. On another level altogether, however, “Obloquy” is a poem of & about overwhelming loss & grief – not about its expression, but about seeing it everywhere. & thus about emotion as an immersion experience. This is a book that careless readers won’t get at all, but which will leave attentive ones drained by the power of its vision. I doubt that there will be much, if any, middle ground.


I’ve written before that the finest book I’d read relating to the September 11th attacks was James Sherry’s 1991 dystopic prophesy, Our Nuclear Heritage, all too much of which turns out to have been accurate. It seems profoundly fitting that it should be Sherry’s own press, Roof Books, operating from an address just two miles from Ground Zero, should be bringing out the first great poetic work written about this inflection point in American history.





* As, indeed, putting “The Dust” last would also yield a completely different book.