Tuesday, August 03, 2004

At one level, Tenney Nathanson's One Block Over appears to represent an intersection between the more playful elements in Projectivism (the Creeley of Pieces, say, or aspects of Jonathan Williams’ work) and the New York School, but placed into a cultural context that is thoroughly southwestern & also thoroughly informed by 20th century philosophy, aesthetics & history. If there is a NY School figure this reminds me of, it wouldn’t be Koch necessarily or Padgett so much as it is the poetry of David Shapiro, another writer who is both thoroughly capable of being playful and serious in the same moment, and who is also given to longer, linked forms.

One Block Over will appear again in a forthcoming volume from Chax, entitled Erased Art, that makes this even more clear as it brings in an influence not especially visible in the earlier book – I want to characterize it as “Whitman” because formally that does appear to be the point of origin, but rather than being an act or art of nostalgia that one might anticipate, Nathanson seems to have understood that

  • Whitman was the original New York poet

  • Whitman, a journalist by profession, was thoroughly involved in the culture and issues of his time

So this is a Whitman viewed through a crucible that includes the likes, say, of Kafka or the Adorno of Minima Moralia. And a Whitman who’s read John Ashbery, Wallace Stevens, Charles Bernstein. And one who definitely has read Joseph Kosuth and the Language Art conceptualists.

Erased Art is a big, broad collection & reads almost like a selected poems. The Rauschenberg/De Kooning allusion in its title is much more than incidental – Nathanson is perpetually making use of intertextual materials, sometimes cited at the moment of appropriation, but often not. The effect is not unlike the way the best hip hop (think of Public Enemy’s Fear of a Black Planet) or the way one those familiar faces in the murals of Diego Rivera redeploy the culture as they find it. If there is a poetic antecedent, it’s possibly the Allen Ginsberg of “Wichita Vortex Sutra,” which not coincidently happens to be Ginsberg’s best poem.

Within Erased Art, “One Block Over” comes across as a very different poem than when presented free of context in the confines of its own book. Here it feels more like one of three or four poles between which Nathanson’s poetry moves, in the way (for example) that the Williams of Paterson is not precisely the Williams of Spring & All. And there are poems here that my descriptions above don’t come anywhere near even touching, such as an intense piece, ”The Wish to Steal a Baby in a Fifteen Year Old Girl,” that one might read as “post-confessional” were it not for its march through the pronouns – the first person critical to the first section, the third person more so in the second, the second person in its final movement.

Erased Art makes me wonder just how much the tip of an iceberg this book actually is. There is no telling with the individual metabolism of poetic composition. It’s almost a question of the biology of the poet – some folks, like Robert Kelly and Larry Eigner, produce thousands of pages in a lifetime. Someone like David Melnick or Alan Bernheimer seem unlikely to reach 300 pages. If one considers the long silences in the careers of George Oppen & Carl Rakosi, it gets even more complicated. Erased Art is a volume that leaves one hungry to see the entire terrain.