Wednesday, July 15, 2009

Last week, when I was having my way with the hubris in Kenny Goldsmith’s introduction to Poetry’s flarf-conceptual feature, I mentioned in passing that Tony Lopez

Darwin, just out from Acts of Language, just might be the most beautiful book of poems ever written

Let me say a little why I made that bald assertion.

Darwin consists of ten untitled prose poems, using for the most part found language. The poems range in length from as few as four paragraphs to as many as seven and, in the spare, almost retro, design of the publisher, eight of the poems take up four pages, while two take up three. Not coincidentally, those two appear at the center, giving this book – just thick enough not to be a chapbook – a soft symmetrical structure. I stress the “softness” of the structure – a hard one might be ten prose poems of identical length (many of Baudelaire’s first prose poems are 14 sentences long, structural analogs of the sonnet) – because I think it’s an important part of what makes this book work. By varying the length of poems & paragraphs, the works convey a “natural” feel that is an important aspect of Lopez’ overall argument.

Argument may be too strong a word, in that I don’t think Lopez has a specific point to make other than to investigate the dynamics of descriptive language. Many, maybe even most, of the language with which Lopez paints these paragraphs derive from genres in which descriptive accuracy is at a premium:

Let us continue our walk by entering into the manufactory of black tea. In forests of the Western United States, about half the fires are caused by lightning. As Fries has remarked, little groups of species are generally clustered like satellites around other species. Police said the man was wearing a dark jacket, beige or golden coloured trousers and dark shoes. America is bankrolling Afghanistan.My work is now nearly finished, but as it will take me many more years to complete it, and as my health is far from strong, I have been urged to publish this abstract. These factors should be taken into account in any appraisal of the consequences of action that claims to be rational and thorough. The highest purpose is to have no purpose.

Two of the nine sentences here are simple assertions. Perhaps not surprisingly, these are also the two shortest sentences, none of which appear to have come from the same source. It’s easy enough to envision a reasonable social context for each of these sentences, although I don’t think Lopez’ work here will do much to reward some Hugh Kenner of the future who discovers that the phrase “As Fries has remarked” is listed by Google as having appeared only once on the internet, but not in the sentence as given above; instead, it turns up, in The Quarterly Journal of Microscopical Science, in the following:

This species, as Fries has remarked, is closely allied to Trichia varia — indeed, the elaters of the two are (generally speaking) not distinguishable.

That this is a sentence that might also have appeared in Darwin – save perhaps for the Latinate Trichia varia – is worth noting. Lopez is giving us collaged portraits of sentence types, and this comes within the range of what interests him most in Darwin.

Far from being simple strings of syntax, sentences – all sentences – reach out in at least three separate directions simultaneously: (1) to an implied world of referenced objects; (2) to the understanding of listeners or readers (studied variously as reception theory in literature or as pragmatics in linguistics); and (3) to the speaker or writer.¹ Historically, descriptive language tends to accentuate the first of these relationships while muting the others. Thus the one personal sentence here is carefully couched, almost hesitant, and might itself be characterized as a description of why these words now. The two assertions, however – America is bankrolling Afghanistan and The highest purpose is to have no purpose – offer no supporting or contextualizing data and do admit their close proximity to the presence of their speaker, whose presence is nonetheless felt. That presence is not only syntactic and contextual, but rhythmic – the reason these are the shortest sentences here is not just because they could be read as topic sentences, but because, literally, there is nothing here to back them up. This paragraph – indeed, all the paragraphs in Darwin – is a study of prosody every bit as much as it is of authorial presence (the ghost(s) of the speaker) and glimpsed shards of a “real” world.

Thus it is that many of the sentences in this book are fairly long. A quick check of the first sentence of each of this book’s 56 paragraphs reveals that they average over 17.6 words each. That’s almost Faulknerian, though these generally avoid the Gothic syntactic architecture (no doubt too much a signature of the presence of a speaker) that make any sentence in Faulkner an adventure. Just ten of these sentences in my test group have fewer than ten words and just one – Paradise is a garden – fewer than five. (I should note that I recognized the source for that particular bald assertion. Lopez has appropriated it from the Paradise section of The Alphabet – the only lift from my own work that I noticed here.)

I found myself rereading each paragraph over many times before I went on to the next, a method of consumption that enabled me to make this book – with just 38 pages of text – last for nearly two months. When individual sources yield sentences that appear over the course of multiple paragraphs or poems – a treatise on the “abuse” of bats, for example – it takes on the quality of a theme, so that one is reading not just what is in front of one’s eyes, but building up the larger argument of the source text in one’s imagination (like hearing a particular chord repeated at key intervals during a piece of music).

Darwin himself is such a theme, but not as you might expect. While Charles Darwin might be the classic example – at least in the post-Gallileo world – of description as scientific method, and of the concomitant aspiration toward an “objective language,” the Darwin of this book’s title is perhaps a distant relative, but principally here the subject of language that could easily have been taken from police reports. That is the sort of indirect humor that characterizes this project, and highlights what I think is a fundamental of any work composed entirely (or almost entirely) of appropriated materials – all effects are indirect. Beyond, that is, prosody and the materiality of the language itself.

My own sense is that this is the most exquisitely constructed prose I’ve ever read – more lush than Proust. But my admittedly self-indulgent process of reading & rereading every paragraph over many times before heading on to the next one does point up to what I think of as this book’s only serious limitation: it’s far too short. I would have loved Darwin to have been 200 pages. In fact, I would have loved it to have been as long, maybe even longer, than In Search of Lost Time. One senses, having arrived here, that one has reached a text of infinite richness, endless verbal & social wealth. Why would one ever want to leave?


¹ In political speech, and in some other discursive fields as well, the writer and the speaker are often two different human beings.