Tuesday, November 12, 2002

Thinking more about the problem of how one reads truly new poetry, writing by people whose work one doesn’t know. Let’s try another example.

Underneath the stack of Mirage #4 / Period(ical)s – that’s a tough one to pluralize – from which I picked yesterday’s example, has been sitting the first-ever issue of Kiosk, published by three people I’ve never heard of before who would appear to be students at SUNY Buffalo. It’s a gorgeously done publication – visually the best first issue of anything hard copy that I’ve seen since The Germ. The table of contents lists many writers whose I work I follow: Alice Notley, Kristen Gallagher, Fiona Templeton, Leslie Scalapino, Patrick Durgin, Catherine Wagner, Michael Magee, Martin Corless-Smith, Jerome Rothenberg, Gregg Biglieri, Steve McCaffery, Lyn Hejinian, Raymond Federman, Nick Piombino, Marjorie Perloff & Charles Bernstein.

One name that is new to me is Thom Donovan, about whom I have as little information as I did for Richard Deming yesterday. Maybe he’s a student at Buffalo, but maybe not.* His text is entitled “towards 24 Stills,” carrying forward the mixed typographic elements I found in Deming’s title also. It’s possible that this is a trend, something I should start keeping my eyes open for, but it’s also possible that it really means that the text below is excerpted from a larger, possibly book-length sequence or series entitled 24 Stills. Thumbing through the rest of the issue reveals no consistency, contributor by contributor, in typographic styles for titles. So this ambiguity will just have to linger.

To the look at the first page, with three one-paragraph prose sections separated by a simple left-margin dash, my immediate instinct tells me that this will be a series of interrelated short prose poems. The first one strikes me as intense & problematic:

For marking museums. Birds, mid-flight, portrayed in glass. A stuffing that was wasted. A way to enter and exit. Roll film the way you found it. In a dark dark canister – traveling through the dead throat. To an aorta: blurt. Then the other side: neutral children. Neutral, but built.

The first four sentences are truncated – all resonate with verbs (marking, portrayed, was wasted, to enter & exit) shifted away from the normal predicate function, which in turn is left vacant. These sentences carry the sound of captions or of definitions taken from a curious dictionary. The sense is deliberately static, the lone visual image self-consciously kitsch. Movement as such starts with the command of the fifth sentence, creating an almost tectonic shift in the language. Initially, the sixth sentence can be interpreted as “following” the fifth: film rolls are kept in such canisters. The very possibility of meaning spreading outward beyond the punctuated wall between sentences here is palpably felt in the reading. But the latter half of the sentence, following the dash, seems spliced from another linguistic source, although it also can be interpreted as leading the next sentence.** In the process, we shift image schemes away from film rolls & toward the esophagus. This ends almost comically after the colon with the lone syllable declaration: blurt. As such, a single word utterance, blurt could be a command, but, even more prominently, it stands for the unique sonic bubble it is, bounded on either end by a hard consonant, next to which lies a liquid surrounding that lone central vowel. It’s really a beautiful word & how often do we get to look & listen to it like this? 

The poem moves again after that hard stop, the next word Then literally marking sequence. Like so much else in this short piece, “the other side” proposes a referent for which it offers no evidence. This is the third sentence in a row to have some kind of hinge marked by punctuation, in this instance leading to “neutral children.” This sentence harks back to the first & third as one that could have easily occurred in Stein’s Tender Buttons. Given that three sentences represents one-third of the total paragraph, this can’t be accidental & it raises the parallel between Stein’s portraits of objects and the title of Donovan’s work, “towards 24 Stills.” The mysterious “neutral children” lead in turn to the first word of the last sentence, also Neutral. This leads one last time to a mid-sentence hinge, albeit one marked with the most modest mode of punctuation, a lowly comma. The post-hinge segment but built echoes the previous hard stop of Blurt. This short prose piece literally ends on a variant of rhyme.

Reading through this 49-word paragraph, all these thoughts flicker rapidly through my head during the 25 seconds or so it takes me to read it – it takes far longer to jot them down here. It wasn’t, in fact, until that eighth sentence that the shadow of Stein popped up for me – “neutral children” just sounds like her. To another reader, her presence might have been evident from the very first.

At this point in the reading, two somewhat contradictory ideas are floating about in my head. One is to recognize how carefully crafted this is. Donovan clearly is in total control of his materials. The second, however, is a lingering suspicion toward the larger project. I don’t yet have a good enough concept of what he might be doing. Texts that lean too heavily on other writers are something I don’t care for in avant or post-avant work. Regardless of the source, it’s putting profound limits around the text. It’s why, for example, John Cage strikes me as at best a literary tourist, whereas he is/was a real & compelling composer.

It is, however, a perfectly good strategy for any young poet trying to take on whatever might be going on in the work of the source writer. Robert Duncan certainly had his Stein imitations, for example, although they were not works he sought to save as part of his mature oeuvre.

The next two sections of “towards 24 Stills” proceed much as did the first one, but when the reader turns the page, something akin to a new world appears: six sections come into view, not one of which is in prose. Unless the towards aspect of the title is, in fact, an indication of excerpting & such excerpting was done with the specific idea of setting up the drama of the turned page here, it’s simply a happy accident.*** But each of the six sections on these pages & the four others on the next two greatly expand the work’s sense of range, tone & play.

There are images – conceptual schemas, really – that continue throughout these pieces: around film as projection of imagery, as something driven on a track, as a mode of marking. Theater, television & video are all introduced. It’s not that the text moves from non-referential toward something akin to figuration, but rather that there are veins throughout the work that rein in the range of possible meanings, rather like a collage that takes all of its imagery from a related set of journals.

Some of the sections work very well:

Drives a stake, drives a wedge
A wedge, a stake
What it means to produce
                                 A train that will show
The spectators themselves
                                                   And able to critique

But others seem narrow, suggesting that their justification as writing depends on their place within the total project, rather than directly on what is at hand:

With infancy in his robes
<![if !supportLineBreakNewLine]>
Patches                                  tense garment

Disrobes                    Hello

My ghost                     My ghost

Overall, I come away from this text feeling unsettled. For one thing, even at the end I’m uncertain if I’ve read the entire work or just 14 sections of something larger+ (and, if it is the latter, where there really only 10 other sections &, if so, why weren’t they included here?). The theme, to call it that, seems to me a structural device &, as such, isn’t compelling. But a lot of the writing here is excellent.

Deming had some advantages – the presentation of multiple works, for instance – that Donovan does not have here. But I might have been more persuaded if I had read 14 works that seemed thoroughly independent – which is to say dependent on themselves – rather than 14 that “sorta” go together. In that sense, the film schema in Donovan’s text actually seems to me to weaken the work overall rather than strengthen it.

The next time I see work by Donovan, I’m certain to start reading it. But where I know that I’ll read Richard Deming’s poems when I see them next to their conclusion, Donovan’s will still have to convince me.

* Donovan, it seems, is the author of one 1999 chapbook from Potes & Poets entitled Sudden Miles. He recently collaborated with Barbara Cole on a Rust Talks event in Buffalo on the subjects of video, video games, porn, virtual reality & related issues – suggesting that there is more to this film schema than shows up in this text. He may be the same Thom Donovan who graduated from Oberlin in 1999, but does not appear to be any of several professional musicians who show up under that name in a search on Google, nor the one-time associate pastor of St. Marks Church. I did that search after I wrote all of the above, largely because this is how I proceed with a poem I find in a mag.

** With the reiterated dark in the previous sentence, it’s plausible that Donovan intends for us hear the echo of William Stafford’s poem “Traveling Through the Dark,” in “traveling through the dead throat,” but, if so, there’s no other evidence for it. It remains as an echo, possibly unintended.

*** But how happy is it? One of the things that makes this text unsettling for me is the set of expectations set up on the first page that are then undercut, but not decisively redefined, by the next four. I wonder if it might not have been a better strategy to see the prose amid the verse sections rather than to run them all at the front, only to follow with the verse – something that always bothers me about the Japanese haibun form, for example. See, for instance, Michael McClintock’s “The Face on the Floor,” the first piece in his Anthology of Days (Backwoods Broadsides Chaplet Series, No. 70) where a riveting piece of prose is followed with three very unriveting lines of poetry that feel “tacked on,” sort of a limp bow on an otherwise bright package.

+ This is by no means a problem restricted to Donovan’s text, nor necessarily a sign of any problem in the writing. When I taught a graduate course in writing at San Francisco State in 1981, I had students “read a poem” aloud from Robert Grenier’s Oakland (Tuumba Press, 1980) only to discover that the members of this seminar – which included Jerry Estrin, Cole Swenson, Susan Gevirtz & Margaret Johnson – were almost uniformly unable to tell when individual pieces began & ended, even though many of them had titles. The same assignment with Bruce Andrews’ Sonnets (Memento Mori) (This Press, 1980) produced a similar result, again in spite of titles &, in this instance, a table of contents. The question of a poem’s boundaries obviously is worth exploring further.