Monday, June 07, 2004

There is a heft to Lisa Lubasch’s To Tell the Lampnot the 120 pages of the book so much as its shape, which is square, 8½ inches in all directions – that reminds me of how a lot of poetry books seemed to be made in the early 1970s by presses like Station Hill or Pym-Randall where attention was given first of all to the spatial requirements of the text – a long line demanded a wider page. It’s an amazingly comforting feeling to hold a project like this book, just out from Avec Books, in which it is the poem that dictates the form, not vice versa.


Not that long lines per se cannot be done in a standard width – hanging indents work just fine much of the time. But this is manifestly not the case when the long lines have wide gaps in them, the page being very much treated as tho it were a field of composition in the classic Duncan-Olson sense, as much a canvas as it is a page. There is really just one poem in To Tell the Lamp that fits this description, “Ordering Things,” the sixth & final section of the book. But the commitment involved in building the book to accommodate its most difficult poem, physically speaking, just speaks volumes about the integrity of the publisher. Conversely, holding this in my hands made me aware also of how seldom this is the case today, of how often we justify compromise in how we go to press. Praise be to someone who still designs books the old-fashioned way.


Over the years Lubasch has evolved into something of a formalist, in the sense that one might characterize Louis Zukofsky, Robert Duncan & Robert Kelly as formalists. One senses that she hears the poem – at the very least hears its pacing – before, above & even after all else, as tho it were some form of transcendental pulse.


One consequence of this is that Lubasch writes more in the first person plural than do most contemporary poets:


Letting words go

On, or

Tearing them from the path


Some point us toward

Water, lead us directly into


The past, like an act of consciousness

Will often split


Away from us.

Everywhere we go,


We see it, parting.


This is, in its entirety, the first poem of the book’s second section, “Much Beyond Us Gets Inside.” It’s a poem, like a fair number here, that I think readers will divide over – either you will like it a lot (which is where I fit into this scheme) or you will find it completely off-putting. A device as small as the choice for caps at the left margin gives the poem a sense of order, even of self importance, that can be sustained only if you make the connection between the way a boat or swimmer moves through water & the way we experience language. The first line of the second stanza is one of those hinge moments, as it can be read as completing the statement of the first stanza &/or as initiating a new statement that continues. It strikes me as self-evident that and is the better interpretation, rather than or, that all enjambment in the first two stanzas (and none in the last three) is intended precisely to set up that experience of, as Lubasch characterizes it, parting.


A work this tightly governed can read as a set piece, almost too well wrought. Yet the very next poem in that section – as indeed the longer work in the first – shows Lubasch as a poet perfectly willing (& able) to take considerable changes. This piece, “The Sum of Things” (a fabulously Pongean title) is built up out of short passages that read in places a little like the work of Rae Armantrout –


A belated gesture

Keeps composing us,


Drawing this

Motion, within ourselves


– although the sum, to call it that, is broader & more indeterminate than Armantrout’s hard edges would find comfortable.


Lubasch is manifestly her own poet – these comparisons are clumsy at best, although hopefully they give some sense of where she has found what already exists to be useful. What seems most evident to me is that she’s spun them into something quite different from anything any other younger poet is doing today without in any way becoming simply an echo of her elders. Lubaschism is post-avant in tone, neo-classical in spirit. It wouldn’t shock me, ten years out, to discover that a lot of younger poets have found their way there.