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Charles Bernstein
Maintaing Space: Clark Coolidge's Early Work
. . . is one spoken by a mind that has penetrated into the inmost heart of a thing; detected the inmost mystery of it, namely, the melody that lies hidden in it; the inward harmony of coherence which is its soul, whereby it exists, and has a right to be, here in the world.

It will be as much like granite as it can be.

These words are inside things, and become, landscapes of their internal relations.

The Chinese in Pound: everything as a process-in-the-world. So no nouns or adjectives alone, but ideograms of subject-verb-object, thing and action not formally separated.

Language, then, not mere naming, and, specifically, not naming things. In these poems, objects nor actions described as objects are not the primary substance. Or perhaps: everything is objective.

So events, in the world, this, themselves.

Coolidge's "Oflengths": The preposition as significant as verb or noun, presenting a world of relation--of it, on it, in it, between or among--here landscapes of particular situations, precisely centered on how we are situated.

Denise Levertov's idea of organic form, as opposed to free verse, is a way to begin an aesthetics of modernist poetry. By free verse is meant a recording each line as thought or unit or entity. By organic form: the poem as a whole entity, a cross-section of time and place, a constellation that captures a particular experience, a particular-in-time. In Coolidge, the experience captured is the one set down, internal to the individual poem, to its compositional integrity, its limits. Internal to the poem is the experience it is about: the "inscape" of it. So not the recording of a reality outside the poem but the reality of the experience in it--or perhaps--during it. What this process reveals is that which is intended--chosen, arranged, judged, decided--aesthetical or ethical or moral or political--in other words, that which is human and which is particular of each human.

Which says nothing of the reference of any phrase or image or element. But the individual reference is surrendered to the overall composition.

At first, reading the poems in Space, a particular phrase sounds right, seems well placed, and I attend to a variety of elements--internal balance, word-to-word parataxis, pun & rhyme & allusion, assonance, dissonance, alliteration. But a nagging emerges: Is this all there is to it? A glistening surface? A dazzling facade? Are these only automatons, patterns, manipulations? Just intellectual designs? --I feel I need a meaning to accompany this surface of words, to reassure me that they are about something, mean something. I want a way of reading these words, a way of interpreting them, that yields a fact, story, statement to accompany this surface. --Here the meaning seems to lie in the surface. The (outer) surface has collapsed onto--become--the (inner) meaning: so that the meaning does not accompany the surface of words but is simultaneous with it.

Take a line. What is it about? What is it referring to? What picture can I think of to replace it?

"is so
from"                    [Space]

What is so? Of what is it? From whom?

It resists my pinning it down. Won't allow itself to be corralled or summed up in a sentence.

But why resist? Why insist on distance? On being enigmatic? Obscure? Alien? Unknowable?

It is as if it doesn't care about me but just stares. (He, She, ---.) (Trees, Rocks, Planets, Stars.) Still, I am inside it as much as under or across. I stare back at myself.

In Coolidge, a poetry of elimination: stripping away any thing that distances, a reducing to bare form, aesthetic, way of seeing, pure judgment (within the limits of time and place alone).

Because of the multiplicity of ways any of the poems can be interpreted, a critical reading gets bogged down into diversions and limitations. It is possible to point to directions or ways of meaning, as well as certain textual qualities, but the poems themselves seem to show these up as incompetent.

For instance, here are some textual remarks on "Calypso"--"is et clastic": existential assertion of the type of thing it (the poem, the experience in the poem, the experience of the poem) is, "clastic", its density plastic (words as shape) and classic (poetically classical in its use of assonance, alliteration, etc.). "bill & wide": its dimensions, as also "two wide" and "mixed matted". "Trad stone dumb": descriptive of what it is, as traditionally stone dumb, i.e., brute silent presence, dumbly speaking this thing, stoneness. "links": what it does. Single words filling a line I read as verbs, assertions about it--that which is, becomes, here, the subject--i.e., it links, it keel, it dimes, it ponds--files, reels, says--it ultimately language, which does all these things, it says and shows what saying is, a link, mixed, matted, keeling--making tropes that gab.

Throughout his work, Coolidge uses phrases--word clusters--that have a gooeyness and gumminess, a thickness of texture, hard, ungiving and indigestible--"clump--bends trill a jam" "mid punt egg zero" "copra stewage" "globule"--making the poems dense and heavy, filling their space with a high specific gravity that weighs them down to earth, keeps them resistant to easy assimilation, lets them hold their particular space through time.

These verbal clusters allow for the most extravagant and wonderful fantasy--words building entities wilder (and more hilarious) than our dreams. My favorites from "Calypso"--"hum over glow trout" and "cog world sigh blimp". One is, after all, left to one's own resources: one can only imagine what these things are.

Here, words are not used primarily to denote (to detonate!): the poems more shapely than ideational or descriptive. "That words hum" "in figurative sap" [The Maintains].

A poetry of hieroglyphics: an iconography peculiar to this writer, this poem, not symbolizing something outside the poem (as in Lawrence, Freud, etc.) but remaining an impenetrable embodiment, untranslatable into any single statement. Symbol as embodiment of its particularity-in-time, the material embodiment of form, an incarnation, hence the miracle of art, that it means. (The human form divine.)

Coolidge uses and reuses a group of words that make up a significant part of the texture of his work. Typical of the words he mines in The Maintains--time coal mine cog mink facer diurnal hum bop breather clap cup slim putter alp ace at a an of part word in granite looped dogbrick slate it fin pound pond nul grouper trope patter nutlet pull pug noun pit bivalent as globose bulbous slag part borax blimp dine dime borage actinic limestone: such a such, the very so--mingles means & maybes.

These words take on the texture, the complexion, the materiality, the physicality of it--of language: the embodiment of the spiritual in the material that is language. (Time's massed at material bottoms.) Coolidge's poetry is part art part limestone and the cave that recurs in his work, particularly in The Maintains, is the "word mine" of language--an excavation of word/language as granite, limestone, dogbrick, asbestos, slate, monozite, coal. The hall we came to, one large asbestos like word . . . as stone as words: "it a it". The Maintains a cave of language to be mined, resisting all attempts to possess it yet demanding possession. So that I come to feel it is mine--a mine--of me--as much a rocks, stars, and ranges.

Grammar a granite: As in Stein's investigation of grammar and syntax in "Arthur A. Grammar" (How to Write), Coolidge's work is an investigation into the different forms, the varying patterns, poems can take. So each work (as each poem in Space) has a new structure, new conditions, in which patterns are generated by different programs. But throughout his work the words, the word mine, like the language itself, is relatively constant. So that language itself (and in particular that subset of words that Coolidge uses again and again) is used as a prior text for cut-ups, arrangements, constellations, repeatings. All the same played the parts of the so in program. So--it--the so--the such--this--happening-- being repeated. Repeating particular words of a word mine like counting off the cities and towns of a landscape, a wordscape.

The most serious critique of this approach to poetry grants all the assumptions I have asserted, all the possibilities of language to mean concretely, and says, still, that in the grammatical sentence all that is happening alongside, if you know how to read it: All that is being done in this genre of poetry is the dramatization of the possibility of language to mean as sound, as texture, as physical presence, avoiding the double edge that lets words mean in the world (i.e., in a sentence) and beside it.

Poetry need not win a philosophical argument; it shows, in its purity, what it wants and what it cares about. We can ask of a person or a work of art, if we feel the authority, nothing more than a wholeness of intention in the willing of one thing--"the very so".


[The Maintains (San Francisco: This, 1975). "Oflengths", Tottel's No. 11 (San Francisco: 1973). Space (New York: Harper & Row, 1970). Italicized passages are from an untitled prose work by Coolidge published in This No. 6 (San Francisco: 1975). An earlier version of this essay appeared in Stations No. 5 (1978), "A Symposium on Clark Coolidge" edited by Ron Silliman. It has been reprinted in Content's Dream: Essays 1975-1984, 2nd edition (Evanston, IL: Northwestern University Press, 2001) and appears here by permission of the author.]


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