Wednesday, June 30, 2004

Sitta europaea


nut hack

jobber cracker




mud dabber






When I introduced Stephen T. Vessels’ work yesterday, I characterized it as one of several Slack Buddha books whose form could be described as quirky. The above piece by Geraldine Monk represents another such case. The poem is absolutely typical of She Kept Birds, and is in fact nothing other than a list of bird names. Monk goes so far as to credit her source: All the Birds of the Air: The Names, Lore & Literature of British Birds, by Francesca Greenoak. Sitta europaea is the formal designation of the European nuthatch &, while one of the book’s pleasures for an amateur birder like yours truly* is the recognition that the vocabulary of bird names in Europe is as rich as it is here, it is also quite Other. While I know that jobbin is another term for a nut hatch, mud dabber is a term in the states normally reserved for a category of wasp, not bird. So I wonder about the relationship of these latinate titles to the lists that flow beneath them. Fulica atra, for example, is a coot, which a whistling duck, one of the items on its list, is not. The distinction is worth noting, because one interpretation suggests a tightly connected formal structure, while the other a more casual mode of wordplay.


Poems that are centered on the page may have become more fashionable in the age of computing, simply because the tedious counting out of letters and backspacing on a typewriter that an older centric-text (as distinct from text-centric) poet like Michael McClure had to go through as late as the 1970s. If you define the margin not as the edge of the text, but rather its vertical line of orientation, then the margin here is, if not invisible, at least somewhat hidden. Not so in Michael Basinski’s work, which likewise exploits what computing makes easy, shifting most of his margins to the far right:


Closed Circulation of Cephalopods



rez Iv noir boloom

lamellaei bon bonfires

elloglasticla years

oov cockles and bells

vertebrake encirculation

a pyramid shaped block of rubber like protein

wen the hurt pumps

a spider sat down besider

bivalve hinge protein abduction


The language here is both wilder & less systematic than that employed by Monk, but also less opaque – and far less systematic – than that deployed by Alan Halsey quoted here on Monday’s blog. Basinksi characterizes the sequence as a limmermaid & the coinage rings right. One hears echoes here – a spider sat down besider – against which the opacity of the material text bobs & weaves. The effect is rather the opposite of Monk’s – reading Basinski, the arrival of an “ordinary” phrase or line rings out as a moment of transparency amidst the billows from a carefully orchestrated fog machine. For Monk, even the simplest & most familiar word comes across as opaque, its physicality & material otherness absolutely present, resistent to our impulse to “read into.” In this sense, reading Basinski aloud is not unlike doing the same with Joyce’s Finnegan – one hears more than one sees. Reading Monk is somewhat closer to reading Robert Grenier – the word is a crtain, not a window.


Against which texts, Daniel Bouchard’s Sound Swarms & Other Poems stands foregrounded, not just because he’s the writer here to whom I feel closest in terms of my own aesthetic impulses – tho that is absolutely the case – but because this chapbook is, in spite of its title, the closest thing in the Slack Buddha catalog to a “regular” book of poetry. Here, for example, is its title poem:


Tired enough to sleep in

       someone else’s bedroom

against the double-groove

       of mattress, behind a curtained,

glass-panel door. People

        chatter and laugh in the next room.

The sounds swarm

        in small canals.


It’s not a conundrum after all.

        Blake, after all,

believed the world flat.

        No pall nor clouds hang

over those who will not live long.


The wind chill is like

        needles in the face.

We live among men who won’t mind

        incinerating half the earth

for the idea they were right. Among

        the gone half

anyone who ever said it won’t matter

        when you’re gone

will finally be right.


Traveling is the pleasure of rising

        mornings to watch other folks

go to work. To have met them

        for an hour, when handling

their books, think of them, small

        images to care and carry

as long as you retain them.


William Blake appeared to me in a vision.

He spoke to me. He said,

        “get your damn feet off the sofa.”


Confusing ears disable. Double.

        Variable. Warble. One book

made him a believer and

        another talked him out of it.


While Bouchard’s attitude – & knowledge of philosophy – are contemporary, this poem might otherwise fit quite neatly into a book such as Robert Duncan’s Roots and Branches. There is a narrative frame, lines that are masterfully balanced & the sense of the relation of line to stanza is as effortless-yet-crafted as a French cathedral. The logic of sound in the second stanza, for example, set up as it as by canals at the end of the first, builds around the all sounds in lines one, two & four, against which  the reversal of flat in three is what leads the ear to hear the progression of the a into the fourth line’s hang, which is what sets up the vowel in the next line’s long. Then note how the hard c in that stanza sets up all the softer ones in the next. This kind of tonal inbuilding can’t be taught, one has to hear it & work from there. Bouchard not only has the gift, but understands that the work can’t stand on that alone. It is no accident that the poem’s most important stanza, thematically, is the only one in which two lines occur one after the other with the same indentation, and that it sounds as comically off as a whoopie cushion tucked into Bartok.


Bouchard offers a level of engagement with the world that goes beyond the delights of the signifier that sometimes seems the root cause of much of the other poetry published thus far in the Slack Buddha series – reading Sound Swarms makes me realize that this is just a movement or section from what must be a terrific booklength manuscript, and it makes me hungry (hungrier than ever) to read it.


Slack Buddha / La Perruque Editions Chapbooks are available in sets of six for $20.00 US, and in sets of ten for $32 US. UK & Institutional subscriptions are also available. Make checks in US funds payable to L.A. Phillips for William R. Howe & send them to:


La Perrugque Editions

Slack Buddha Press

50 Garrison Avenue

Somerville, MA 02144





* I have partaken in the Christmas birdcounts & could discern the spiraling song of Swainson’s thrush instantly, even though I’ve lived thousands of miles east of its range for the past nine years.