Wednesday, May 19, 2004


I mentioned John Tipton’s Surfaces in passing yesterday, but the volume warrants a deeper look. Tipton’s a Chicagoan, at least as an adult – GI Bill education at the U of C & after – and many of his publications heretofore reflect those roots: New American Writing, Chicago Review, etc. Hopefully, Surfaces – published by what is surely one of the very best small presses we have in this country, Flood Editions – will spread the word much farther. Tipton has, as the musicians put it, serious chops as a poet & this is a terrific book.


Surfaces is a deceptively quiet project. The title on the cover is not capitalized* and capitals in general are used sparingly inside. Tipton’s sense of the line furthers the muting effect – it’s predicated on a sense of balance that one can trace back, through, say, John Taggart’s poetry, to one side of Louis Zukofsky’s oeuvre: “A”-19, for example. Thus, “without reference” concludes with the following stanza:


paper pages ant     fold thorns rain

ant paper folds     thorn rains page

page ant thorns     fold rains paper


With six-line stanzas appearing at the very top & very bottom of the three previous pages, I wonder just how many readers will even recognize this as a sestina? It’s very characteristic of the book as a whole – elegant, subtle, absolutely present in its attention to craft.


Like Taggart, Tipton is concerned with the philosophic implications of the smallest details of linguistic practice:


metonymy, he says, is a syntactic gesture
involving the lovely modulation of the type

though she insists on evaluating every letter
their sounds change from word to word

if numerals really were what they represented
if letters were more than a grid

alphabets are only an approximation of reading
it’s a process of writing called concatenation


And, again like Taggart, Tipton’s text often invokes jazz:


on the radio just past Exit 12

Sonny Rollins in goatee & dark glasses


squawking his way through Night in Tunisia

picking out the notes he finds salient


Yet “squawking” is not the word you would think of to describe this poetry. If he was a drummer, Tipton would be one who only employed brushes. If he were Miles Davis, he would only be the Davis of Sketches of Spain. For many – and there are moments when I might be among them – that of course is the finest of Davis’ myriad personae. Yet it is a curious aspect of a work as ambitious & accomplished as this that its own aesthetic preferences seem so hushed.


I like this book, from beginning to end, but it reminds me very much of what Olson, I think it was, responded when asked the question as to what all the poets at Black Mountain College had in common – “Bird!”  Which is to say the music of Charlie Parker – even tho this is patently not true when one thinks of Robert Duncan. But I do often think of Olson, still, as the closest literary equivalent to the music of hard bop:


The lordly and isolate Satyrs – look at them come in

on the left side of the beach

like a motorcycle club! And the handsomest of them,

the one who has a woman, driving that snazzy


                    Wow, did you ever see even in a museum

such a collection of boddisatvahs, the way

they come up to their stop, each of them

as though it was a rudder

the way they have to sit above it

and come to a stop on it, the monumental solidarity

of themselves, the Easter Island

they make of the beach, the Red-headed Men


The line here speeds up, slows down, turns, stops, catches its breath – there is a rightness to the absolute weight of syllables that swell up in monumental solidarity at the end of that third-to-last line. Olson’s text, with its exclamation point, Wow & variant spelling of bodhisattva,is about anything about balance – if anything, it’s about motion & how motion in & of itself destabilizes the line.


As much as I like Tipton’s work – and it’s a lot – this finally for me is the true drama of this book. Because in going for balance, he goes against the grain of some of the deepest impulses in his writing. And I’d love him to confront it more directly – the way, say, Hart Crane’s poetry is a contest with its own formal demons. Because my sense is that Tipton’s real poetry, the work that is still inside him, is precisely the one that will go right through the beautiful bull’s-eye of Surfaces.






* Tho it is printed all caps on the book’s slender spine.

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