Thursday, January 23, 2003

Back in November, I used Richard Deming as one example of reading a poet “cold” – that is, about whose work & life you know nothing – and very much liked what I found. Deming has since been gracious enough to send an issue of A•Bacus devoted to his writing from May, 2001. Unlike Mirage #4 / Period(ical), it has a contributor’s note. He’s apparently a student at Buffalo who has previously published work in a variety of places, including Sulfur.

A•Bacus has been publishing in the same format since 1984, a few pages photocopied and stapled in a single corner given to the work of one individual. In its 146 numbered (and three special) issues to date, the publication – started by Peter Ganick & edited more recently by Dan Featherston as part of the evolving Potes & Poetics collective – has published an enormous range of writing. Out of those 149 items, only four people – Ganick, Laura Moriarty, Stacy Doris & Charles Bernstein – have been the focus of three issues apiece. Another two dozen poets have been the focus of two issues apiece, ranging from household names (at least in poetry households) such as Jackson Mac Low, to up-&-comers such as Susan Roberts or Pete Spence. & 89 poets have been the focus of one A•Bacus each. When you look at it, the idea of a project as simply produced as this publication managing to focus such attention on 117 different writers is simply breath-taking.

But, as so often is the case, a publication’s strength is also its weakness. Publishing so many different poets over the years has given A•Bacus a well-deserved reputation for diversity, but inevitably has muted any sense of an identifiable aesthetic, beyond, say, under-representation of  poets associated with (or visibly influenced by) the New York School. Finding Deming’s work in this context is intriguing precisely because his work in Mirage #4 / Period(ical) called to my mind the work of John Ashbery. This is not the case in the A•Bacus selection, entitled Somewhere Hereabouts.

The ten poems that make up Somewhere Hereabouts take some 23 pages – in a different format, these would more than make up a chapbook, particularly given the long lines towards which each gradually moves. When I first read them, my sense was that this project was much closer to Projectivism than the work in Mirage, primarily because of the variable lines. Reading them through a second time, though, I changed my mind – this is much more clearly a modernist, even neo-modernist, literary project. With its unabashed use of narrative tropes, recurring figures – most notably Buñuel’s Exterminating Angel* – multiple voices & languages more out of Eliot than of Pound, & a structure that openly refers to the forms of classical music, Somewhere Hereabouts would be easy to characterize as a moment in nostalgic modernism. But I think it would be wrong – or, at least, that this would be missing the point.

What most clearly defines these poems is not at all far from the very different works in Mirage: the great specificity of Deming’s language.

                   It is, for instance, (an instant)
          Autumn. Leaves spill
                             and cover
          condom wrappers and cast-off shoes.
Kindergartners drag their feet and leaves make it
sound like rain. Or, sound like sound. Or, soun.
What to use to cover things up.

Helicopters circle the neigh-
          borhood all night. Search
lights move through
          the hallways of my apartment. The blades’ whir washes
out the music from
          the CD player

Collectively, these poems aren’t as successful as the ones in Mirage, mostly because the mode they’re exploring is an exhausted one. Yet whatever these poems might missing in their attempt to make modernism new they make up for in their absolute ambition.

I’ve noted before how often current poets, especially around language writing, when asked about their work’s relationship to postmodernism, characterize their own sense of their project instead as somehow kin to modernism, perhaps to Habermas’ concept of the need to rethink what modernism could be at a later stage in the history of capitalism & without the devastation of totalitarianism. I read a lot of what Deming is trying out here in very much the same vein. These aren’t at all simple questions & poets ultimately tend to be judged not so much by how they achieved these goals as by what they accomplished in the process of failing. If anything, Deming’s project recalls the hubris of Louis Zukofsky’s “Poem beginning ‘The’,” written when LZ was all of 19.

It’s not at all evident to me whether the poems in Mirage or A•Bacus were written first & I don’t want to invent a narrative of progress to impose over the 14 pieces I’ve read. But Somewhere Hereabouts recalls “after Hart Crane” in the Mirage poems & altogether the A•Bacus group shifts my sense of just who Deming might be – or be becoming – as a poet. Regardless of how he proceeds, that gift for the specific that you can see almost instantly in his writing is something that both he and the reader will be able to trust.

* Though this angel has more of the look & feel of Bruno Ganz in Wings of Desire