Pierre Joris. "Revelry To Revery: A Review Of Karen Mac Cormack, Marine Snow (Ecw Press, Toronto 1995)." Sulfur 40 (Spring 1997). 178-81. Marine Snow, Karen Mac Cormack's latest volume of poems, is her most accomplished collection to date. Concerns as well as techniques that have been evident in her previous books, resurface and find an even finer & a more varied or modulated, expression here. This does not make them "clearer" in any obvious sense: though leavened with humor, wit & tenderness, her poems remain tough crystalline structures--the title "Marine Snow" foreshadows these crystals--difficult work for an impatient reader looking for some instantly consumable "meaning." In fact, one of the characteristic movements of the poems is exactly the constant care to defer such instant gratification, or to displace it from some Poundian level of "logopoeia" (or thought that can he "grasped" in one fell swoop, as the "logos" is & will always be, by its nature, unitarian) to one of "seme-poeia"a making of "semes," pre- & post-semantic signs & cyphers & seeds, cross-pollinating in a movement that makes meaning unstable, changing, nomadic. "As normal goes nomad," she writes in the poem "Export Notwithstanding," pointing to, among other things, what happens to meaning when words are set in motion, made to cross the boundaries of their familiar contexts, in both our world (the usual shared associations assuming words as pure signifiers of an absent signified) and theirs (the words in their own contexts, i.e. language and its structures, syntactic and grammatical.) Which does not exclude EP's other terms, "melopoeia" or "phanopoeia": it merely moves these too to other levels so that, for instance, the music of the poem can no longer be based on "melos," those familiar melodic structures, that have in Western culture always associated poetry with songlike mimesis, based on repetition & minor variations within sameness. And "phanos," image, can no longer be an aesthetic resting place, a "resolution" where the imagination metaphors the disquiet differences that gave rise to the act of writing into a unified concretion sublating all prior tensions. That classical & thus classifying impulse to simplify & hierarchize is continually & consciously fought & resisted--even, & maybe most powerfully there where the poem tends toward aphoristic statement. A resistance worked by displacement into heterogenous assemblages of deterritorialized images, (re)turning the "phanos" on/to itself by, so to say, backlighting the verbal materia that otherwise so easily gets lost in the shuffle of image-making. Via these concerns, Mac Cormack inscribes herself clearly within the line of contemporary experimental work such as that of the Language poets (among others), though her moves, the delicacy of her placings & humor are sui generis; as Marjorie Perloff notes in her back-cover tribute, Mac Cormack's "exquisite poise, the integrity of her poetic line, her command of verbal nuance, pun, and paragram" are matchless. The 45 poems that make up the book show a return to more mixed forms than the two previous books (Quill Driver and Quirks & Quillets) which used prose-poem formats exclusively. In Marine Snow, here is a careful orchestration of three basic forms, interleaved throughout the book: First, her now familiar prose-poem forms, with the stanzaic paragraph as formal unit (i.e. often there is no punctuation except for the white space between/around these stanzas, or a final period.) Then there are centered poems, a typographical device which to me has always seemed a difficult one to carry off, pace McClure, but which Mac Cormack here uses deftly: most of the centered poems are built up from one-line end-stopped phrases, usually separated by double or triple spacings, and ranging from single words to complete sentences that often bring to mind Stein's moves in Tender Buttons. The third form is the more traditional looking left-justified poem (with one right-justified, ragged-left poem thrown in), working with & against enjambement & the more traditional line techniques of the lyric, as in the following excerpt from "Untitled," also a good example of the poet including hints at her poetic process in the work itself: north motions south days off nights on call heady hands-on-words everything smells of eternity if not escape winning without a title keeps the count down grafting not in the sense of safety net to take herself (so) seriously in case others don't ignore levity "I" was not the gift another language spoken could make sound of The mix of forms is judicious & points to a careful composition of the volume qua book rather than as a mere gathering of single instances. Though the different forms make for different rhythms & reading pleasures in their orchestration, they share similar concerns. Mac Cormack works at investigating (& disrupting) language at all levels. At that of the sentence she can move from small local syntactical subversions ("The adamant if loadstone falling of fill" for example) to the stanza-length paratactical orchestration of phrases that make the act of reading participatory at exactly the syntax-making level. Here is one such stanza from the poem "Conveyance:" This is where I leap prior to tip of speak slowly and the depth will be less so as eyes widen it's all follow between the teeth remove thorns but if everything reinforced nothing's changed may be transferable after secretion panels succeed where walls don't surface taking in what we don't most of all solutions according to steps taken back place. Another level of pleasure in disrupting the text is that of grammar. She often collapses traditional word classifications, as, to take a simple example, in the line cited above, "north motions south days," where the plural nouns "motions" and "days" easily turn into verbs. But, it seems to me, her special focus & delight is in investigating individual words themselves--"Here are the stronger shards, impassive verbs and pronouns become trophies for no such thing as bearings." This is often accomplished by means of puns ("All calamities find the name Jane for what nonfictional Alice wore to the ball." "Radar or not hear it comes." "If the ring fits answer the phone") and ostranenie- esque juxtapositions and riffs ("Revelry to revery." "Remembered as strings the words too many times mean this frantic deferral ablaze." "All acknowledgment undertow expels the word dainty.") The book's epigraph is taken from Michel de Certeau and reads: "There will thus be facts that are no longer truths" and comes from his The Practice of Everyday Life. Which is also exactly where Karen Mac Cormack's art is rooted & finds its strength: a practiced, i.e sharply focused, attention brought to bear on the details of everyday life, both "the outside real & the insidereal," to quote Ed Dorn, & on the relations (or lack thereof) between those details and language, the only tool we have to make (new) sense of how we act & think, of how (much) we live in a universe in which facts are indeed not necessarily truths any longer--something due, in great part, to the careless use or willed abuse of language, an abuse it is the poet's job if not to right, then at least to address & show. A demanding art requiring (of poet & reader alike) an attentive listening both to the world around us & to the particulars of language, down to the very constituent parts of words--"If letters train a pattern too, the valleys cease in mountains"--to ride not only "the size of words," but to travel for awhile in the company of that nomadic caravan she calls "the warm slow alphabet." [Back to Karen's Hom