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After Olson and Celan: the breath and twist of the referent.

Individual words refer, and poets like Pound and Williams come down eavily on individual words. Sentences refer too, and a poet like Wallace Stevens sets up his sentences in the form, often, of seeming philosophical propositions, which brings us to seek his reference both pointedly within the sentence ("Poetry is the cry of its occasion") and mysteriously through the run of a whole poem, "An Ordinary Evening in New Haven."

The sentence can offer both breadth and twist, as does of course still more, ideally, the whole poem. If we ask, for example, what Charles Olson's referent is, we find plenty of breadth, and also plenty of twist, initially and perhaps ultimately along the lines of his own "proprioceptive" formulation in the "Bibliography on America for Ed Dorn," where a quadri-partite diagram is run through "E. Dorn," who serves as Olson's Aristotelian Socrates. The diagram goes from" History" retermed "Millennia" at upper left to "Environment or Society" retermed "Quantity" at lower right, on vectors of "field" and "time," that line itself crossing the X with "Individual," retermed "Person" at upper right, going through "Process" and "Soul" or "spiritual Life" at lower left on vectors of "act" and "result," with inversions in the pairs of corners on the axes of reference. All of this is complicated enough, involving hosts of nesting propositions. Aristotle is, as it were, dumped by being overused, the Stoics dizzied. But the diagram both corresponds and does not wholly correspond to The Maximus Poems. The divergence is what Mallarme would already have called a mystere, and we may do so as well.

Likewise there is a mystery between the intense spiritual evocations of Paul Celan and the often exact and precisely dated circumstances of his poems, as Derrida and others have shown. Celan's occasion can sometimes be as political as Brecht's or Enzensberger's, but it throws a more powerful shadow. Its ultimate referent throws a long and deep shadow.(1)

The question can be somewhat focused by asking how the referent works in some challenging poetry written since the deaths of Olson and Celan over twenty-five years ago in early 1970. Liveness to such questions can be seen in the work of many recent poets. Clark Coolidge, for example, writes like a kind of Stevens who has ingested a large dose of Gertrude Stein.(2) In Coolidge's uninsistent but omnipresent obliquity, The Crystal Text is set up to be both about a crystal (with crystal the referent of the text) and about itself (with the text the referent of the "adjective" crystal). All the limpid, somewhat staccato ongoing ratiocinations move through the non-identification of the horns of this difference as it plays back and forth from "crystal" as substantive subject, the text about a crystal on a desk as in "crystal analysis," and text as characterized by the adjective crystal, as "crystal vase." The turn operates the same rhetorical twist that Richard Wilbur uses in the title of his first book, The Beautiful Changes, where by shifting from noun to adjective in "beautiful" and from verb to noun in "changes" the title is made to illustrate its own principle:

I can finally write the word "belief" here. I believe that the crystal is where I left it, the exact point at which I last saw it. In that sense it can be said to depend on me. My knowledge of it, however slight so far, has become its life.

Outside it rains, what had been frozen. On another field the smoke writes in itself. And in the air the crystal's pronunciation is not known. I have no freedom from my own.

A little separate loop in the grey unction and if it eventually goes it will not wend. Laced down by a high chemical stripe it does, not breathing, not breaking the plane though washed in by walls, impossible to stand to...

The crystal very shallow today no light much past midnight no part in the shadow I make half standing half shorting the words (not there)

But saying how water looks is like a light piece of ice. Talking as if you knew it, the crystal waiting. How can it be so silly as if to think I want it lurking, reacting in human tones. It lies, it stands (for what?) not much better (or lesser) than either (which?). I am calling on my confusion now to handle me. Focusing all my ... on a single... It's later and still the light has not gone out. I'm very quiet and I'm not remembering. I'm not waiting either, just listing slightly. But the crystal is not a mast. It's very. It's completely. And the chief holds out a piece of cold.

The gem weighs bucks.

(The Crystal Text, Great Barrington, MA: The Figures, 1986, 126-128.)

The Steinian element is more apparent, actually, in Coolidge's more flamboyant work, but here there remains the trace of hardness in his obliquity, as characterized by Charles Bernstein, "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 ... an excavation of word/language as granite, limestone."(3)

Bearing on the practices of Coolidge, as of Michael Palmer, are advances on the ratiocinations of Stevens, the obliquities of Stein, the meta-physicalized play of John Ashbery. Further, for Coolidge, in so far as he focuses on quick writing aimed at an immediate experience like the crystal on his desk or life in Rome or touring Egypt or having sexual intercourse or listening to saxophone tapes, there is a willed transmutation of, and relation to, three practices, themselves converging, of the writing immediately before his: 1) the principle of "first thought, best thought" (Ginsberg) 2) a focus on what a person's own phenomenological field at the moment is, without "further" reflection (Bernadette Mayer, James Schuyler, Richard Duerden, many San Francisco poets of the sixties) and 3) the personal quotidian narrative, the "I do this, I do that" poems of Frank O'Hara.

In the breadth and twist of her referent, Marjorie Welish comes to terms with an emotional and philosophical content that dwells on more than its own self-definition as language:


The hotel is preoccupied with our dangling, fragilely physical gaze. Once thought to have been destroyed

even the possibility we are lost is utilized. As if animated by footpedals, exits open and close and bring anonymous philanthropy to the page

appreciating here.

Once thought to have been destroyed,

even the possibility we are lost seems coiled flesh and blood: blood of blue light

carrying through to their objects and lying in the round, coherent space "now laid solitary in his sleep."

(The Windows Flew Open, Providence: Burning Deck, 1991, 50.)

Here the carefully modulated rhythms enforce our attention to the weights of the individual words as they come up. The theme of object and vision and language has been made to angle, or dangle beyond the fragilely physical into portents of the dire (note the title of the poem) and along with that the reassurances that it will be managed, perhaps by word or sight. These reassurances are built into the two-line repetition that occupies nearly four of the twelve lines in these formally austere tercets - nor is the assertion about the potential footpedals without a mild satiric turn, as though Saul Steinberg had been given the floor at a conclave of theologians. The words here turn their planes in many directions, triggered into multi-dimensional space by the neutralized postmodern use of the device of quotation in the last line as it sets up its array of visual and verbal definitions without the layering particularity of quotations in Eliot or Pound, Williams or Olson.

I have invoked satire; and satire comes in many forms. Both Stein and Coolidge have a satiric admixture, sometimes faint, sometimes not so faint. In one sense any achieved poetry has a satiric overcast in so far as it strains between the vested language, the langue, into which it must inescapably be coded, and the metalinguistic self-questioning the poem mounts, or ought to mount. If the poem collapses back to simple received opinion, in any essential way, even if it remains satiric on its surface, it is unachieved, as in the more automatically attitudinized poems of Ginsberg or Snyder or Sylvia Plath.

Tom Clark rests in a sort of post-Olson satire as a lingua franca:


is the color of our times. The light of our times is the light in the 14th St. subway at 2 a.m. The air of our times is the air of the Greyhound depot, Market & Sixth. It is prime time. A passed out sailor sits pitched forward like a sack of laundry in a plastic bucket seat his forehead resting on the movie of the week. The Long Goodbye.

(When Things Get Tough on Easy Street, Black Sparrow, 1978, 148.)

The poem of Tom Clark before us is immediately and simply satiric, and its immediate referent is a small particular - not only a bit of sticky trash underfoot, stepped on gum, but even more particularly just one attribute of the gum, its color. This color is never mentioned or characterized in the poem, and it is therefore highlighted through its familiarity, a color, I suppose, that is a sort of dirty blue-grey or brown-grey. This color is declared in the flat and all-inclusive opening to signal a congruity, a homology, or what have you between this small particular and the whole space-time complex we inhabit. "The color of stepped on gum/is the color of our times." Color cannot be perceived without light, and the next predication characterizes the light as that at a particular time in a particular place in New York. Linked to the first statement, this light by implication contaminates or suffuses lovelier lights, like those along the shore of Northern California or in the higher reaches of the Berkeley Hills. The adduction of these places is germane, because the very next predication spans the coast and locates the air of our times at a particular place in San Francisco, though now the time is only indirectly indicated, in a sentence so far delayed. This place, like the subway, is a place of transit, of plebeian or proletarian transit. Moreover, this particular Greyhound depot is by way of being a poetic icon, figuring in the poems of Ginsberg.

The poem slides to its rapid end by then identifying the particular time. "It is prime time," the poem says, in its most packed satiric statement, because unlike all the other locutions in the poem "It is prime time" can mean two things, first that the time is essential. In that sense it falls into comfortable sequence with "the color of our times," "the light of our times," and "the air of our times." This fourth predication can be taken, looking backwards, to summarize the other three. "It is prime time" includes color, air, and light. Looking ahead, though, it means something more particular, more trivial, and more ominous. "It is prime time," as everybody unfortunately knows - our language is also the color of stepped on gum - refers to that particular band of hours when the largest potential audience is available for TV. The seats in bus depots have coin TV sets in front of them, and the sailor has paid from his small resources to kill time by watching. He is doing so because he is caught in some sort of long transport that enforces lost hours as part of his enmeshing in the military-industrial complex, and at the sort of class level where he is subject to being "shipped" - like an inanimate object. At the same time he has to catch his sleep where he can; his body is subjected to the same stresses that the space we inhabit may be, so that we may find stepped on gum underfoot. Consequently, he is sleeping, and not sleeping comfortably. He is passed out and "pitched/forward like a sack of laundry," in a seat stamped out of synthetic material, a "plastic bucket seat." Consequently he cannot even watch the "movie of the week" for which he has paid.

In another sense, of course, the particular but wholly unparticularized sailor is presented to us as part of a more encompassing, more real "movie of the week." In that movie, one week is like another - belying the implication of extraordinariness in that framing term, which can only fraudulantly so highlight its ordinariness. The movie plays to his sleeping head, to closed eyes; in any case, with his head leaning on the set, he could not see. The last words of the poem, the title of the movie, are summary in a classical way, but through exemplary quotation. The whole existence being satitized here is "The Long Goodbye," and the somewhat romanticized title is implicitly given a grim satiric twist, in keeping with a staple semi-colloquial expression, formulable as "The superlative X," where a superlative adjective modifies a noun thereby deplored, as one might call bankruptcy "The sixty-four-dollar cashout" or Death "The Big D," as well as "The Long Goodbye." Not any goodbye but "The Long Goodbye" summarizes the poem at the formal remove of quotation, with the sinister implications of that film title. Robert Altman's The Long Goodbye is a "classicizing" film noir derived from the same popular culture the sailor is plugged into but already distanced from, even if he were awake to watch it. The sailor is already, so to speak, doubly distanced because Altman's 1973 film is at once a summary and a critique of the genre original, the Raymond Chandler murder mystery. All this meaning, and the trap of watered-down meaning in the film, both faces the sailor and escapes him, since he is asleep.

Clark gains a play of mind through the flat, paratactic sequences of this poem, a play not inferior to that in the more spectacularly associative poems of his earlier, semi-surrealistic style. The play runs from the interaction between the particulars and the breadth of its reference. The force of this breadth begins to come clear if we ask how the poem would be different if the Greyhound depot were not the one in San Francisco but the one in New York at 42nd Street and Eighth Avenue. One small difference is that the New York terminal happens to be at streets both of which are numbered instead of just one. The non-numbered San Francisco one happens to carry a name that characterizes the whole "Market" economy being deplored. Moreover, the San Francisco terminal is smaller, a jog out of the way, carrying on its business in a slightly less public and central way than the New York terminal. More important, however, is the coast-spanning that is taken for granted in the poem. It does not paint a single scene, where in a different conception of the poem, the poet could have set the gum on a sidewalk outside the 42nd Street terminal, from which we could rise synecdochically to the poem's implied generality. Rather, the poem is a composite, selective in its language and therefore in its implication of, and critique of, shared experience. The speaker does not mention either New York or San Francisco. Everybody, as it were, knows. Or if everybody doesn't, it doesn't matter. In a situation where streets in big cities tend to have just numbers, one city is like another, East or West.

If we may take Foucault, the way many do, as a post-Marxian definer of oppositional elements in society, even this plain satirical poem of Clark would escape his two nets, the epistemic code-of-codes net that he applies to three or four stages from Renaissance to modern in Les Mots et les Choses and the power net of Surveiller et Punir. The psyche registering the poem of Clark is free, and undifferentiated by class or sex warfare. Moreover, in the straight Marxian vein there is nothing exclusively capitalist about the megacosmos being satirized, any more than in Ashbery - in whose social constituents, as here, there operates a transcendental dialectic beyond the Marxian side of Foucault. Clark also operates beyond the simple additiveness of the Raymond Roussel analyzed in Foucault's first book - the Raymond Roussel who was incidentally to be the subject of Ashbery's unfinished doctoral thesis. Note once again that the early Clark looks a little like Roussel; poems in his later style, like the one before us, are set to get beyond that Rousselian dazzle, and they do, in a sacrifice of verbal display that is worth the candle.

This poem retains a flatness among the complexity of its particulars which makes it, I want to say, more Olson-like than Williams-like. For Williams tends to be either more directly satirical, in poems like "The Yachts," or more directly inclusive, as in "For Elsie" or Paterson. Or else he stays with particulars, "things," that are never so powerfully synecdochic as Clark's metaphoric stepped-on gum and literal sailor. Williams's "things" are instances, like plums or the road to the hospital or urine in a flask. This is true even of the Elsie of "The pure products of America/go crazy," where the persons are caught with "no one to drive the car," all of them subject to the deformations of an ethnographic consciousness that will not control Clark's poem here.(4) Olson's things have string-lines to a perceptive system, and they are presented with Williams-like neutrality, except that Olson's neutrality moves on the high plane of the apocalyptic. It can be conceived of as having empowered Clark here, who easily builds textuality into his colloquiality by his access in line seven to the Poundian ampersand, placed in further artful reminder at the point of enjambment - just as his movie title triggers a formal climax as it encapsulates the poem, says goodbye to it, and fills out the longest, by syllable count, of these twelve lines.

In poems more heavily satiric, Bob Perelman offers constant linkages, as of Milk Duds and the GNP or Cary Grant and Derrida, juxtapositions so outlandish that they merrily force an inspection of their plausibilities. These poems expand in their satiric energy. On the other hand the inverse movement, a contraction or concentration through satiric energy, appears in the aphoristic later work of Ed Dorn ("Recreation/wrecks the nation") and Anselm Hollo ("in high gravity worlds, structures are short & squat./ low gravity worlds are permitted more delicate forms").(5)

Of course the historical dialectic mounted by Olson amounts to more than satire. A careful attention to the data of American Indians' tribal life, and their interaction with colonial invaders, undergoes in his work a trans-satirical modulation of intercultural definitions. Olson's vision is in the line of poems on Indians since the eighteenth century, a line instanced in Philip Freneau's "The Indian Burying Ground" and Joel Barlow's "The Hasty Pudding." But Olson transmutes this vein, providing a base for such original works as Rosmarie Waldrop's A Key into the Language of America,(6) a work which takes lexical glosses of the Narragansett language and brief quotations from Roger Williams's text of that title, and sets them into a montage of sub-surrealistic personal reminiscence. This differs from Olson but becomes possible after his acts of transmuting conjunction. So, too, Tokinish, by James Thomas Stevens, which sets sharply perceived sensual and psychological deductions up against other lexical glosses from the same Roger Williams text.(7)

Tom Clark's poem shares a goal of inclusiveness and a tonal set, as well as other features, with the much more bravura-driven poems of John Clarke and Stephen Rodefer, such as the following Clarke poem:


It is thus necessary to play a game of at least equal complexity.

(Jean Baudrillard)

For a score of kingdoms you should wrangle, And I would call it fair play.

(Miranda, The Tempest, V. i)

Money allows you to mix in the club of decision-makers.

(Adnan Khashoggi)

Phoenix entombed in blazing pyre sings: "Living or dying All is bright fire."

(Philip Whalen, "Something Childish but Completely Classical")

No one's in charge, there's only the charge but woe onto those who take advantage of the situation, deregulation, piling on after the whistle has blown, they may not have stress analysis tests for the Furies yet but that doesn't mean we can't detect different rhythmic organizations, people don't realize that extrapolation from boundaries is registered throughout the system, happily Ivan Boesky wasn't bad enough to let the Frost Ogres in, but eventually someone will be insouciant enough unless Romanticism returns to school in time to avert world cram or the new bonzai miniaturization equals the reason of fairplay.

(John Clarke, In the Analogy, Book 1, Buffalo, NY: Shuffaloff Books, 1991, 25.)

Here we have the "new Moebius Universe" Clarke refers to in another sonnet, "The Post-Pound Era." That sonnet, in harmony with the group, does the number of rapid allusion and intense ratiocination on Olson's own poem "The Mobius Strip." (Clarke, a close friend and younger colleague of Olson's, had deeply absorbed Olson's system and practice, which he then transmutes.)

Just in their rhythms these sonnets take the adaptive, simple patterns of jazz and repattern them in runs of phrases where relaxedness radiates intensity. (Clarke was a jazz musician of professional calibre.) The referent they twist is unremittingly metalinguistic and speculative, the opposite of flat, but deriving, I feel, from the same post-Olsonian sense of societal intrication. John Clarke's poems carry off an integration of a whole gamut of moods, rather than the single mood of Tom Clark. They reach out to startling conclusions and skein out to a future from a deep past, in a web of many dimensions. Their quadripartite initial quotations, ranging over the nonce integrations from the deep reading that informed his thinking, are found poems in themselves. He sets these quotations up to set an intellectual pace that he then matches and steps up. The match is a sign of their uniqueness, a grid for which he provides a corresponding, more mobile grid, in an originality that takes him as far beyond Olson as Olson was beyond Melville. The voice and the mind sweep through them together in a strength and suppleness of improvisation, a relaxedness, that at the same time attains an intensity of integration and reintegration.

As Kenneth Warren says of them:(8)

"The mechanism of analogy," says Clarke, "gives a chaos-maker an index of his capacity to put up or shut up." On another track, Clarke demonstrates that analogy also functions along classical lines traceable as far back as Aristotle [and even further]. The big difference is that Clarke has expanded the capacity of analogy to include not just four terms in special relation but four quotations placed atop each sonnet. "An Evening Coming In," for example, contains quotations from W.B. Yeats, Jean Baudrillard, Paul Virilio and Charles Olson. If the reader discerns that the relation between the second quotation (Baudrillard on writing) and the first quotation (Yeats on the body) is similar to that between the fourth quotation (Olson on the animal) and the third quotation (Virillo on death), then the analogy could be said to extend along Aristotle's lines.

Similarly resumptive and transumptive in his allusions is Stephen Rodefer:


Gnostic Valency

JV Cunningham hung his meat on other hooks than Each of us imagines to be our locket, Albeit bite size indulgences punctuate identical famines, Neither complacent nor courageous actually, not simply Snoring either, though certain sleep containment, fortitude and rule won' T theoretically mean the end of what can forecast total snow shipment. Eiderdown, let's face it, still compresses warmest body weight, V N van lines, their various charges notwithstanding what was meant. Eerie elements laced in tandem with hard allowance and hoarse voice from fire, from will, from edibility....

Twill Pant

Svelte plane of birds' flattened world in flight Talks jocose man into loner reflexive home below instead of Elevated tracks of what they sang and then could sing coming, Vertical green canticle that doorpersons open to Entrust to marry or to sue, such that heart satisfy perforce J T and other daybreak appendages and their redoubtable faces. Eidolon rebuttal consuming onslaught of tasteful nature Animating authors, perfecting sea and anchoring air in form and fracture Never conceived before. Not lectured really or meant I mean, nor ever wished exactly without thought...

(Emergency Measures, Great Barrington, MA: The Figures, 1987, 35.)

I quote the first two of three closely grouped poems. These poems rapidly shift and twist their referents, satirically taking their cue, as well as their departure, from a satirist of an earlier generation, J.V. Cunningham, whose steady single-mindedness of classical accomplishment is not so much abjured as implicitly taken for too narrow in focus. Rodefer - like Tom Clark, John Clarke, and Bob Perelman - wants to get in more and to make it reverberate more dimensionally than would have been possible for the sharp verbal field glasses of J.V. Cunningham.(9) "The aftermath of what?" we might ask of the title to these poems, and the answer would be as comprehensive as the answer to the same question for the other three poets. Rodefer elects to churn up his answer by asymmetries, first between the bracketing title "Aftermath" and the three poems (or three parts of one poem), next by the asymmetry among "Gnostic Valency," "Twill Pant," and "Fill Form" (the third part). "Gnostic Valency" is comprehensive, implying centrality, power, and a hierachy of access to some supreme One. "Twill Pant" is a particular, and a potentially detached particular, since it has not clearly been given the emblematic role of the stepped on gum - and it is even potentially empty, since we are not given a leg for the pant to be on or out of - nor has the pant even attained the normal plural, "pants." It is arrested at what could be called the haberdasher's singular. "Fill Form" is a cryptic command equally asymmetrical. The asymmetry appears, too, as the reversing acrostics change in the third poem (or section) to last names, RODEFERDA, the last letter of the second last name, "Y," being left off to produce the Russian "Yes" instead of the uttered name. But asymmetry is pointed up from the beginning since Rodefer moves, in the second of the first two poems, directly into a Steinian disjunction between the definiens of the poem and the definiendum of the specific title. He also steps up his syntax into the newspaper headlines already praised by Pound - at the same time instantly amplifying the first two lines of "Twill Pant" beyond headline condensations. The struggling and mastering voice in these two poems mounts a rapid series of significational asymmetries that can, again, be conceived of as crowding up the Olsonian breath unit while sketching in something like an ad hoc Olsonian cosmic diagram. That would be one of their differences from Stein. They advertise the satire they expand and transcend.

And there is a whole further dimension to the obliquities of these poems, since they are acrostic, enantiodromic or chiastic, the first running "Jean Steve," the second "Steve Jean." The personal, the secret, and probably the erotic, enter into interplay with the public, the literary, and the bureaucratic ("Fill Form"). The Gnostic Valency charges up to desire and the Twill Pant slides into a reference to anecdote, irrecoverable but nonetheless suggestive. The overall title "Aftermath" also suggests a more urgent erotic sequence, but the evidence is not given to fold it into narrative relation.

Combinatory and oblique in the breadth and twist of their referent, are the sequenced travel sonnets of Lyn Hejinian:

The standing things along the Neva fell by light I had a strong feeling, as if film were there, of black and white The Neva groaned where the water flowed A yellow tug crackled and icicles hung from the metal tendrils of all that was most A silence keeping to itself encrusted trucks A film of battleships - or no, a room That was the thing What is a thing By thing I mean object, subject, event, scene, situation, or even milieu, like the numbers 202 or 17, as when we say, the thing is January will be cold, or, it's a good thing I have a map There's nowhere to get lost - or no, there's nowhere to be found But Zina wanted me to know a place She meant, for example, my bed for the best A place to hear between A place to unframe

(Oxota: A Short Russian Novel, Great Barrington, MA: The Figures, 1991, chap. 202, 220.)

This is a sonnet-chapter of a journey poem in many sections, a poem that constantly frames its own disjunctions, even though here Hejinian has abjured the quasi-Oulipo counts of sentence and section that she sets up in My Life. Indeed, her very freedom through the fourteen lines of each sonnet puts her at some distance formally from the poem that in its eight-book organization is an oblique model, Pushkin's "novel-in-verses," Eugene Onegin. While Pushkin's poemis in eight parts, Hejinian's count of stanzas departs from his widely, both in the eight separate parts and in the whole. (She has 270 14-line segments to his approximately 409.) But just as her sequence in this "short Russian novel" is random, an aleatory trail after what happens day after day, while Pushkin's plot is very formally intricated, so her conversational rhythms abjure the tight if mobile pattern of rhyme and meter of which Pushkin was such a master.(10) In this sonnet the disjunction stops point-blank on first the short-line repeated naming of particulars, the "things." Then it moves to the definition of "things," a slippery definition so long in its alternations that it gets well beyond the Whitmanian poetic line, trailing off in the colloquialism, "As when we say the thing is January will be cold" - and the ambiguously self-referential, "It's a good thing I have a map." This might be a map of the Leningrad she is moving around, and if so it is not the sonnet's first meta-reference, since "the number 202" is the number of this very sonnet. And this very long line, which taken by itself is abrupt, random, and trailing on, is in context quite formal: it begins the sestet of the sonnet, as the repetition of "thing" ends the octave.

She ranges over many things, rather than focusing on one, much as Marianne Moore does in her poem "An Octopus of Ice," and in other poems. Yet of both Moore and Hejinian, I believe, the terms are still applicable, mutatis mutandis, of what I said some time ago of the focused individual things, orange or sponge or what have you, in the book of Francis Ponge, The Stand Taken by Things, Le parti pris des choses:

Their stand is that the particularizing language can be conceived as moving around things infinitely ... Between the dark progress of the verbalizing consciousness and the thing it turns this way and that, rests not a chosisme or Sachlichkeit, but a poetic wholeness that insists on remaining free by pausing deliberately. This generality precisely refuses to imitate things in the stance-taking specificity which it chronicles... The words are then least like signs when most they seem to point.(11)

Hejinian's satiric riff on "thing" downplays Williams's "No ideas but in things" and overplays it at the same time. As Hejinian says, "In the course of being detected, things - that is, objects, events, and ideas - which seem arbitrary and indiscriminate are rendered logical and relevant."(12) That ambivalence in both downplaying and overplaying the breadth and twist of the referent in "thing" makes it only partially assimilable to the language-as-use theories of Wittgenstein. It invents its possibilities beyond what such theories can explain in the act of self-reference and expressed delight that its riff carries off. Similarly, in works taking off from Wittgenstein, Rosmarie Waldrop in The Reproduction of Profiles and Lawn of Excluded Middle, while doing homage to him, at once enlists him and subverts the confinements of his descriptive inferences by the post-surrealist slippages of her sentences.

By bringing a split in perception to bear on the very act of moving into speech in the archi-ecriture of his differance, Derrida forces the hand of all other dualistic oppositions than this one and opens up the possibility of a power in the arbitrariness of linguistic utterance not at all confined to Saussure's account - whether or not his own account of Saussure is either accurate or strategically necessary. The referent is indeed radically deferred; but it is also not deferred, and this or any line of attack that asserts the primacy of the signifier in whatever relation to the signified over the referent will at once hold, and must yield before the plain deictic fact of ordinary language use. Arguments on both sides of this question are coherent and complete; the dominance of the signifier stands in a Kantian antinomy to the soundness of the deictic act. If I say "This is a table," my statement cannot be made not to hold, but it can also not escape the prison house of language.

It is the glory of the livest poetry to be able to work both sides of this street, including its own consciousness of doing so, as notably in Michael Palmer.


(for A.S.)

Well the hearts are - is - where you find 'em The coffee spilled all over the table a calculus of variations

in itself bears no requirement as to number, form This error we insist on as we insist on

torn pockets, one to each hip causing us to walk somewhat differently than before


(for C.G.)

I do not know where I will be in July Sam said or said Sam

The sound so measured has no boundary, is not triangle or square

We pass through it in false flight, relieved to be there, to be hearing

once again at least the tick of the cup at the Clarion

Clouds are not spheres we know now, and mountains not cones

(from Michael Palmer, First Figure, San Francisco: North Point Press, 1984, pages 60, 61.)

Taken simply, this poem "Multiples" is a "First Figure," beginning to describe hearts in terms of a chaos-theoretical randomness as connected to a coffee spill on a table, whose blob-shape can be plotted according to the dimension-strategy of Mandelbrot's Fractal Geometry of Nature, which provides the jacket illustration for Palmer's book. The coffee spill would have, say, a dimension of about 1.2 and an outline with "no requirement as to number, form." Any measurement of the spill, in its random spread, would have to be only approximate according to Mandelbrot's principles, and hence would be an "error we insist on" - as would also the measurement of the outline and shape of pockets. The pockets, if torn, would lend themselves graphically, it may be said, to fractal measurement. And if one is conscious of the process, that would be "causing us to walk/somewhat differently/than before."

This reading, however, de-emphasizes the sub-surrealist randomness of word juxtaposed to word, and is thus only one fractal take on its syntax. Such takes are those, too, described and embodied in "Fractal Song," of which the last two lines are a simple paraphrase or quotation of Mandelbrot.

Fractals, as I understand them, are distinct from other mathematical algorithms, which begin with terms and propositions, whereas fractals "begin" with a physical entity, a coastline or an elevation out in the world, to which they then apply algorithms. In terms of language, where ordinary mathematics rigorously eschews deixis, the fractal begins with deixis. But then it becomes abstract. Now language itself, to be significant at all, must begin with deixis, word by word. It cannot help calling up the signified of a "horse" for the signifier of those letters, and it cannot further help triggering all the internesting epistemological dynamics of reference that will connect the signified to the real beast with hooves and mane sweating in the field. Abstract nouns, verbs, prepositions, and whole propositions, go through a comparable deixis. They cannot avoid pointing. But how mediate between the fact of pointing and the epistemological dynamics? Such a mediation could not simply go about pointing; it would have to show the epistemological structure, which could happen by skewing the pointing. Such a skewing might be in poetry described as surrealism, and in that sense the poems of Palmer are post-surrealistic. But a fractal poetry is also counter-surrealistic. It would stay flat to the words; the poem would become either a "first figure" or an "echo lake" and not fall into the various spirit plays of surrealism, the effusions of Eluard, say, or the gnomic philosophizing of Char, or the perception-play of Ashbery. These poems of Palmer's are doubly fractal in evading the fractal dimensions of syntax. For synctax, as G.K. Zipf long ago pointed out statistically, follows the mathematical rules of a harmonic series, as the distribution of syllables in words does. First, by randomizing his words in post-surrealist fashion, if not really fully in "language-school" willed opacity, Palmer evades the measurable canons of syntax, and so evades that fractal distribution of assertions. But then that very evasion, in a kind of counter-demonstration of chaos theory, deploys the words and their patterns in an openness that lays them, the more nakedly so to speak, to a fractal distribution. The cover of First Figure, a fractal drawing, hints at this possibility - except that the drawing is an automatic figuring of nested formulae, and the poetry is anything but automatic - certainly not the automatic writing of the surrealist free association or the depersonalized automatism of the corps exquis.

In other works of Palmer, and notably in Sun, the intensely focused images are set down in a glowing multi-dimensionality that deepens their rich particularity. He dazzlingly produces giant Cornell boxes of orienting juxtapositions.

A comparable process, with affinities to the condensations of Celan and the foci of Coolidge as well as with the word-by-word slippages of Palmer, is mounted by Aaron Rosen in his condensed transmutations of ekphrasis, as in this poem from Traces:

Embarrassed Flowers to quote From all sides invite Forgetfulness.

They are terraces of error Like rain inscribed beside Raindrops or spent petals written Into a primal setting.

Losing ground we propose Journals thick with the room's Inconsequence. What other news Stays on as if for nothing?

(Traces, Riverdale-on-Hudson: The Sheep Meadow Press, 1991, 29.)

This is twenty-seventh in a sequence of sixty "Traces" prevailingly given over to fruits and flowers but all to still-lives. These poems are as proportionate, as structured, as solidly present, and as abstractly sensed as the Cezannes they do not describe either individually or collectively but "imitate" in a way that raises and also answers questions about the nature of perception, the nature of poetic language, the relation of poetic language to art and to depth psychology, and the upshot of the very integrations they are brilliantly effectuating by ringing these changes on conventionally beautiful perceptual objects conventionally enlisted by painters. As the title of the sequence, and the book, implies, it has ingested and replayed the "postmodern" conception of sequentially vanishing language offered by Derrida, but it has also returned that conception robustly to an act of attention which owes something to Ponge while handling his method at once more normatively and more flexibly.

In a more expansive vein, through the conception of her "Aeolotropic Series," Leslie Scalapino effectually connects language to the body by making the body a (metaphoric) referent for the act of poetry. The "series" is a series of poems, but also a series of described bodily reactions. For "aeolotropy" defines the capabilities of a kind of body," Change of electrical, optical or other physical qualities consequent upon change of position," according to the NED, "as when the refractive property of a transparent body is not the same in all directions." The NED goes on to specify that the term is "opposed to isotropy, anisotropic." "Anisotropic," however, is slightly different, if one goes back to the Greek roots, where "aniso" means simply "unequal," whereas "aiolos" is a more colorful word, "shifting," "variegated." That shifting is made to occur in the build-up of Scalapino's lines, where refrain generates a transcendence of itself, at once liberating and numbing, and the casual leisure experiences of the beach, cut off from time, resuture the psyche and the body and by implication anything else to time and depth. Serene and superficial, these poems are not so much turbulent as engines for managing turbulence. Without going too far into them at this point, we may note two of their more remarkable features, their anaphoric use of refrain, which amounts to some equivalent for the redundancy in information theory that their constant repetitions also instantiate. And, second, their persistent twist of normal syntax, which hints at but does not embrace the noise of information theory.

The twist of syntax here twists the reference, as in the opening sentence, "Playing ball - so it's like paradise," where the somewhat strange syntax of "so" is in refrain with the syntax of the first sentence of the second strophic series, "a microcosm, but it's of girls." "Ball" will get repeated, and so enter into refrain many times, as will whole phrases, and so will "so" and "but" and "girls"; "girl" has appeared twice already. "Microcosm" repeats, and "so it's like paradise" gets picked up and repeated in the fourth section. Paradise, we may say, is also approached by ambiguously related words like "creamed," "beautiful," and "beach," all suspended in their folding recursive series, the twist of a dance and the breadth of a wide but visible frame. At the same time the remarkable rhythmic achievement of this poetry is to set up syntactic elisions so that the whole long poem seems to be one enormous sentence, thereby subordinating all its refrain-recursions globally in an overall narrative assertion.

We might take some measure of all this from a fairly recent statement by Derrida:

Even if they do so unequally and differently, poetry and literature have as a common feature that they suspend the "thetic" naivety of the transcendent reading. This also accounts for the philosophical force of these experiences, a force of provocation to think phenomenality, meaning, object, even being as such, a force which is at least potential, a philosophical dynamis - which can, however, be developed only in response, in the experience of reading, because it is not hidden in the text like a substance. Before having a philosophical content, before being or bearing such and such a "thesis," literary experience, writing, or reading, is a "philosophical" experience which is neutralized or neutralizing insofar as it allows one to think of the thesis; it is a nonthetic experience of the thesis, of belief, of position, of naivety . . . [perhaps] Husserl's . . ."transcendental reduction."(13)

All this is a good beginning. But it could apply not only to these intensely conceived texts but also to many far emptier ones. It is the richness of application, however, as always, to which we should give our ultimate attention. The poem brings us to that, with special appositeness in the vivid, versatile recent poems I have been discussing here.


1. Derrida remarks generally on Celan's poetry that the very dates attached to it or cited in it are both exact and suspended into a virtual exemplariness. The dates are in his terms both empirical and essential, contemplating and offering to the auditor a sort of shibboleth (Jacques Derrida, Schibboleth, Paris: Galilee, 1986). Derrida finds in fact substantially the same question (where it is not so obvious) in Joyce: "A text by Joyce is simultaneously the condensation of a scarcely delimitable history. But this condensation of history, of language, of the encyclopedia, remains here indissociable from an absolutely singular signature, and therefore also of a date, of a language, of an autobiographical inscription . . . iterable, as such, it both does and does not form part of the marked set." (43). Jacques Derrida, "Interview" in Derek Attridge, Acts of Literature, New York: Routledge, 1992, 45-46.

2. Some critics have come at these questions through the most publicly identified formulators of them, the more programmatic poets of the "Language school." For all the insistence on primary and essential questions of Charles Bernstein, however, the poetry covered by that rubric is of varied quality (though some of it so identified is very fine). And the theory has a tendency to breed confusions. So, as Peter Baker has tellingly argued, "Of the claims that language-writing is (1) already interpretively encoded, (2) non-mimetic, and (3) reader oriented, I believe that the first proposition is in conflict with at least one of the other claims, and may also be demonstrably untrue." ("Languages of Contemporary Poetry," The Centennial Review, XXXVI, 2, Spring, 1992, 231-241 [232]).

3. Charles Bernstein, "Maintaining Space: Clark Coolidge's Early Work," Content's Dream, Carbondale: Southern Illinois University Press, 1986, 259-265.

4. On Williams's poem, see the fine discussion in James Clifford, The Predicament of Culture, Cambridge: Harvard University Press, 1988, 1-21 and passim.

5. Ed Dorn, Yellow Lola, Santa Barbara: Cadmus Editions, 1980, 40; Anselm Hollo, Sojourner Microcosms, Berkeley: Blue Wind, 1977, 184.

6. Rosmarie Waldrop, A Key into the Language of America, New York: New Directions, 1994.

7. James Thomas Stevens, Tokinish, Staten Island: First Intensity Press, 1994.

8. A discussion with Kenneth Warren, House Organ, Fall, 1993 (n.p.).

9. The distinction is sharper because the phrase "hung his meat on other hooks" happens to derive from a phrase in an examination given by Charles Olson in May, 1964 for a course Rodefer attended. "Dreams - and history - are hooks at least to hang the meat on" [Stephen Rodefer, personal communication].

10. For discussion of these see Albert Cook, "Pushkin: the Balance of Irony," Thresholds: Studies in the Romantic Experience, Madison: University of Wisconsin Press, 1985, 125-138; 274-281.

11. Albert Cook, "Generality," Approaches to the Study of Modern Literature, Michigan State University, 1963, 90-91, reprinted in Prisms, Bloomington: University of Indiana Press, 1968, 34-36.

12. Of course in these statements Hejinian is talking about Stein, but perhaps generally also, and in any case, about herself as well. Lyn Hejinian, "Language in Realism," "Two Stein Talks," Temblor Three, 129.

13. Derrida, "Interview," 43.
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Title Annotation:poetic imagery
Author:Cook, Albert
Publication:The American Poetry Review
Date:Jul 1, 1995
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