Thursday, November 17, 2005

The very first page is so strong it nearly took my head off:

If the judgment’s cruel
that’s a wake-up call: increase
energy, attention. These little pumpkins ornament
themselves with swells, die
pushing live volume packed spring-
form hard as a knock: Decease
and resist. Content
surges exactly as memory
closes its rear-guarding
— the world rushes in not by! just be
steady, receptors, measure is fuel:
whatever moves move with the
drift which moving never lies.

Yes, that is a sonnet. Yes, it really does depend on rhyme: eyes/lies, increase/decease, cruel/fuel, probably in that order of importance. Yes, the poem is really about itself, as densely packed with information & sound as anything one might find in Zukofsky, even Shakespeare. Yes, this poem really is equal parts humor & passion & earnestness, immediately playful & utterly serious. Yes, that just might be an echo of Jack Spicer you hear in the slightly sarcastic humor of the first two lines & yes that is absolutely an echo of Robert Duncan audible in the three instances of the verb to move in the final two. Yes, if you are really paying attention, the end rhymes of Shakespeare’s own first sonnet terminate almost precisely with just these same end-words, albeit in other order – the two “exceptions” being the for thee & guarding for niggarding. And yes, the one change deals with the political problem of Shakespeare’s own 16th century presumptions embodied as discourse, while the change to the empowers that fabulous enjambment of the next to last line, as sensuous a pause as one might, moving, imagine. Decease / and resist – how did he come up with that?

Do you know that experience where you sit down with a new CD & understand within its first few bars that your whole idea of music needs to change? Or where you go to the cinema and realize that your idea of what film can be is about to be transformed completely even after just the first few frames of whatever great movie? That was how I felt reading this first poem, entitled “I” – the numeral, not the letter – the first of 80-some sonnets gathered together in Aaron Shurin’s brand new Involuntary Lyrics, just out from Rusty Morrison’s Omnidawn Press. This is not the first time that a book by Shurin has filled me with awe, even envy.

Just to convey a whiff of the range here, which is much greater than the employment of a single source code (the end words in Shakespeare’s sonnets) might imply, is “XXXII”:

love men
all day
in thought
pull cover
from age
make survey
inventory brought
to lover
body’s equipage
suck time
panoply prove
inside pen
mutual love
rhyme rhyme

There are poems here with even shorter lines, some that use multiple columns, one long one that combines four consecutive sonnets, even “CXLVII”:

One wants love and assuaged desire, one wants the hair-breadth spin of foxtails, the sprouty droop of rattlesnake grass, shuffling whire of the blue jay’s thick flight, metallic hoot of the koukouvaya owl predawn Crete still heat no other sound except

small lap of the Libyan Sea. . . . One gets these and murder in the first degree for killing an administrator, shit pile for shoeshine, spare change for square foot, grainy lust of the 2 a.m. bar impenetrable hide bound, the dead letters in their special nowhere office, the dead air quiet, still. . . .

One wants a first person tighter than betrayal, or a plural shiftier than signage, one needs spectator heels for walking now to balance the hump of should or finds pennies on the sidewalk to play over eyes, take care! . . . .

One sees as if through tinted lenses elegant continuance and perforating dis-ease,

hallucinogenic pine trees and swallows in loopy unrest. . . .

One calls out the names of the days and the years, Febu-ember, Haveyouever, Jewels and Mai-Lai, Year of the Fox Kittens, Year of the Stuffed Gorge, Year of the Cream Patina, Sloughed Skin Year, Lapping Dog Year, Year of Bitterns and Mice — ill-

met again by moonlight but happy to case a shadow. . . . By the plum tree rounding out in purple leaves, with a light wind reminiscent of secret-hero-of-the-poem, plangent as magnolia but quicker to recede, one questions which are

the letters that make sense and which ones are dispensable, which is the thud of the one true monosyllable, please,

which one gives vent to a solitary moan and which expressed

the will of the people — and which people? words are frangible, pliable, pitiable dust but oh what traces they leave! One longs for specificity in abstraction, presence in absence, love-

in-idleness, the magic of translucence and the skeletal superiority of fact. . . . The spasms of bright

light show what’s there then not there, there then not there, the perch of his just-fallen hair over brow, sharp wag of Puggy’s tail, Mary’s first pinafore, Rusty’s erection, Steve’s freckled nose, a Texan trout rumored to be gigantic but never rising kept

hidden by the tangle of submerged branches, June bugs, swamp mist on Lake Cherokee 1958, stars drawling constellations over a hay-ride one tries to remember but memory won’t be tried. . . . One hears in the close night

rumors of cars, rumors of people, rumors of gunshots, champagne corks, tra-la-la-ing, obsessive argumentation, squeak of the ol’ mattress spring, gurgle of Gallo hastily slurped, slam of the front door solid oak, siren far off then near then far off, one listens carefully, dutifully, calibrating as if to repudiate or approve. . . .

All ellipses – and that reiterated phrase in the 12th line – in the original. Shurin seems to have no limit as to what he can do with a form more closed – in the constructivist sense – than anything a so-called New Formalist might e’er imagine. The sweep is startling & if there is any limit to this relatively slim volume it is only that he has not include translations (or whatever you might call them) for every single Shakespearean sonnet. In fact, in a note at book’s end, Shurin states what should be obvious: “I didn’t read the Sonnets for Involuntary Lyrics – their semantic weight being much too powerful.”

Rather, this is a project far more in the spirit of Oulipo & it’s primary impulse – the lead to this “Foot Note” of Shurin’s – can be stated quite clearly:

The line is dead; long live the line!

Returning to verse form after 15 years of prose poetry, Shurin has given us a book as dense as & more faceted than, say, Zukofsky’s 80 Flowers. It is not merely a masterwork, but the evolution of a confident & still growing, ever questing imagination never content to settle for whatever he’s done before. I am so friggin’ jealous that it’s obscene!