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Theory of Tables. By Emmanuel Hocquard. Translated by Michael Palmer. Afterword translated by Norma Cole. Providence, RI: O-blek Editions, 1994.
Reviewed by Edgar Allen Poe
Theory is no longer to be laughed at by poets. It is no longer laughed at by poets of common understanding. It has assumed the majesty of an art; and, as an art, ranks among the most important which can engage the attention of thinking beings--this too, whether we consider it merely as an object of speculative inquiry, or as involving consequences of the highest practical magnitude. As poetic study it is very extensively accredited in Cambridge, in Vancouver, in Buffalo, and in San Francisco. Some of its earliest and most violent opposers have been converted to its use. We may instance Leslie Scalapino who wrote How Phenomena Appear to Unfold. Nearly all of the New York School has been brought over to belief--in spite of the Poetry Project Newsletter and its ill-sustained opinions. Yet these latter were considered of so great weight that Bob Perelman was induced to move to the East Coast for the purpose of refuting them. There, with O'Hara's Collected in one hand, and a copy of Barthes' Mythologies in the other, he delivered a lecture before a number of assemblies, among whom was the author of the most virulent attack which perhaps the art has ever received. At this single lecture in Kentucky he is said to have gained five hundred converts to Theory, and the Eastern States are now the strong hold of the faith.
In regard to the uses of Theory--its most direct, and, perhaps, most salutary, is that of self- examination and self-knowledge. It is contended that, with proper caution, and well-directed inquiry, individuals may obtain, through the art, a perfectly accurate estimate of their own intellectual capabilities--and, thus instructed, will be the better fitted for decision in regard to a choice of subjects and projects in writing. But there are other and scarcely less important uses too numerous to mention--at least here.
The beautiful little work now before us was originally printed in France, in a manner unknown, by P.O.L., a well known publisher of avant garde poetry. The present edition, brought out by a newcomer in the field, is in any event exceedingly neat and convenient--we presume that it means to be nothing more.
The sequence consists of 51 poems, each constructed from a random pattern of one-, two- and three-line stanzas, and with no poem extending beyond a single page. Proper names abound, usually first names and place names, and there are many references to envelopes, to glass, to pebbles, and to photography. Vacation and friendship are the superficial motifs of this autobiographical work, whose precise length conforms to the author's age at the time of composition.
The 51 poems are each printed on the recto of a page whose verso remains white, creating the effect of an en face translation--with this difference, that the English reflects a blank original, an empty page. Given Mr. Hocquard's intentions, the presentation is an apt one. His afterword, "Grammatical Unrest," describes Theory of Tables as a "continuation" of the author's translation of Michael Palmer's Baudelaire Series into French. Since the English version of the present poem has been rendered by this self-same Mr. Palmer, we might also infer that Palmer's Theory of Tables is also a continuance of Baudelaire Series--his own continuation. However that may be, the relationship between translation and original, between original and its source of inspiration, is very much at issue. Accuracy is not the point; that is, the book itself, giving one text only, in one language, does not invite the reader to gauge discrepancy, to make comparison. Comparison, discrepancy, accuracy--what I would call tabular reading--are themes of the sequence, but not its point. To read in a tabular fashion would mean entering the work, while Mr. Hocquard's goal--and perhaps Mr. Palmer's also--is to keep the reader at an admiring distance, with attention focused on the surface. (The model is painting--looking at paintings in a museum.) We could say much more on this matter, but space does not permit. This, in any case, is Mr. Hocquard's Theory.
At page 7 is a brief flurry of negative statements beginning "Poem, you're not a square of lines," well conceived and well adapted to their purpose which is-- to convey by a casual or superficial denial of events, an idea of what propensities, sentiments, or faculties, most distinguish the work as a whole. It is after remarked, (at page 8,) that "The grooves run in all directions / they stop at one edge," and "This edge does not belong." The second page is a continuation of the first, and both constitute a single translation of Mr. Hocquard's chief conceit, that the lines of a graph and the grooves of a hard surface equally form tables which are and are not models for the poem. Indeed, the very "line" that denies forming a square, the very "edge" that excludes itself from consideration, helps form the outline, and helps contribute to the character, of a surface of language that as a whole constructs a theoretical, if not actual, Table.
Some passages in Mr. Hocquard's little book have a peculiar interest. At page 9 we find what follows.
"In Blue Monastery Square coming toward me I saw the Clerk of Origins hemiplegic Professor of the Level Where is the center and where is the center of what I see in the mirror? While Charles Bernstein was discussing Charles Reznikoff This mirror exploded in the distance"
At page 21, in a section beginning "You say someone has written poems," and ending "Organize your reading around these details," we meet with the very sensible and necessary observation that we must not consider the denial of particular and instinctive propensities of language, as acquitting us of the responsibility of understanding. On the contrary it is the perversity of the author's statements which causes the greatest difficulty we endure, and for which (having the free exercise of reason) we remain accountable to the poem.
The following is quoted from page 24. "I offer you the originals maybe there you'll see what you don't see" The words annexed occur at page 27. "This book remains open on a table who will finish writing it? Dear Keith, thanks for bringing that book and the double of that book my hands are full of glass One sees something but doesn't see what it is" And at page 31. "You say you don't see me _you see less and less_"
And again at page 32 (with a shift in emphasis that speaks volumes about Hocquard's Theory):
"You say I don't see you I see less and less"
To this may be added the statement of Derrida, with regard to his Theory of dissimulation, expressed in his essay "How to Avoid Speaking: Denials." "To avoid speaking, to delay the moment when one will have to say something and perhaps acknowledge, surrender, impart a secret, one amplifies the digressions." The charm of Mr. Hocquard's poem lies precisely in its amplification of digression. Whether his avoidance is worth waiting out is another matter altogether.