Thursday, October 10, 2002

A first book of 175 pages is simply remarkable. It can also be tough going at times. When I noted at the outset of the blog that I am a slow reader, Tan Lin’s Lotion Bullwhip Giraffe (LBG) (Sun & Moon, 1996) was one of the books I had in mind. I began it sometime in 1999 and just finished it this morning.

I’m not certain as to whether or not LBG is organized chronologically. I imagine that it might be, at least because I found myself quite resistant to the earliest sections of the book, but largely persuaded by the work later on. Either Lin improved as a poet, or else he simply convinced me over time.

Because Lin, at least in LBG, is very much an abstract poet (with a healthy Spicerian influence poking its head out from time to time), my experience reading the volume at moments reminded me of first reading the poetry of Bruce Andrews. Of all the language poets, Andrews was virtually the only one who apparently never went through a phase as a young poet writing in some variant of a New American poetry genre. It was, to borrow a trope from music that I’ve heard Andrews himself make, as though a young pianist had been exposed to the work of Cecil Taylor at the very beginning and just never saw the need to plod through the texts of Beethoven & Brahms before getting on with “the real work.” The result was that many readers took awhile to trust Andrews because his early books seemed so largely devoid of links backward to a knowable literary tradition.

Lin of course comes a generation later & does have some visible roots, including both Spicer & Andrews, Clark Coolidge, and what feels to me like pretty predictable elements of surrealism, dada & conceptual art. It’s an interesting enough gumbo, but it wasn’t until the final 50 pages that it felt as though the work here was really Lin’s own. As with all writing that tends toward the abstract, so much depends upon the ear of the poet. While there are a few authors with a genuinely great ear, such as Coolidge, Ken Irby or, most recently, Rod Smith, most writers have one that is only average. When that is the case, the poet needs to have something more going on in the poem, the way, for example, Andrews’ texts are resplendent with social satire & comment. That next dimension doesn’t quite ever show up in LBG, but the evolution of Lin’s book – or at least in my response to Lin’s book – makes me realize that I want to read more to find out what’s come next.