Wednesday, February 25, 2009

Titus, Allison. Instructions from the Narwhal. MA: Bateau Press, 2007.

“Dear Greenland won’t you take off your gloves and sit here by the belly of the stove.” As Greenland melts by the fire, “a folktale gesture” courses through the speaker’s house as an “elaborate gathering,” an “alphabet of sealskin,” scatters and fragments: “Subtract the heel prints from the glacier, the glacier from its drift.” And so commences Allison Titus’ chapbook, Instructions from the Narwhal. In many respects, the first section of the collection’s opening sequence (“How to Harvest Ice”) can be read as an ars poetica for the remainder of the text: a series of surreal folktales set adrift on an oceanic, Coleridgian dreamscape where Ukrainian giants, icebergs, a mummified John Wilkes Booth imposter, discarded souvenirs, and Siamese twins “traipse the bottom of the sea.” But unlike the traditional narrative arc provided by Coleridge’s ancient mariner, Titus’ narrative is more supple, offering “several endings to choose from.”

But Instructions provides the reader with more than an escapist fantasy-world into which surrealism often devolves; the chapbook, additionally, investigates the epistolary form and its many possible manifestations. Take, for instance, the collection’s second poem, “How to Address the Ukrainian Giant.” While the salutation of a letter generally precedes the letter in earnest, Titus defers the greeting until the penultimate line: “Dear giant if such grand scale was easy.” The following poem, “How to Navigate the Arctic Sea, Part 1,” follows a similar pattern, but alternatively addresses the speaker’s landlord. To wit, the question becomes: how does a re-structuring of the epistolary form affect the reader? Or, at least, how does such a re-structuring complicate our received notions of the form?

Of course, the deferrals contained within these selections can also be read another way. In the poem “Letter,” Titus writes:
Sometimes I sat for hours with the word Dear
on the page, forgetting what should have
come next, thinking only of the whitetail

in the woods, body frozen & body darting

in the same instant.
If hours are spent pondering what comes after “the word Dear/ on the page,” the solution to “forgetting” words would appear to be a reversal: write what comes before the word “Dear”: a readjustment of perception: a rethinking of communicative address. As such, dream-memories of a “whitetail,” or any number of animals, objects, and characters found throughout the chapbook’s poems, support, re-imagine, and modify the “unwritten letter.”

Re-imagining the epistle, then, is also the re-imagining of forgetfulness and creative-stagnation, a turn from negation to affirmation. Instead of lamenting the would-be-stifling process of composition, “forgetting” transforms into “thinking,” and “thinking” becomes “the machine that makes the world and the machine that unmakes the world” where we can “take a faithful inventory” of the stories which Titus and Greenland create as a writers, and the “several endings” through which we as readers navigate.

Wilkinson, Joshua Marie. The Book of Truants & Projectorlight. Lincoln, NE: Octopus Books, 2006.

In “what you wish to return to will not leave you unmarked,” the opening prose poem of Joshua Marie Wilkinson’s chapbook The Book of Truants & Projectorlight, the reader is told: “What you forget is up to you…What you lose cannot be recovered if the light is wrong.” Within these statements we hear the echo of Breton, when he writes that the waking-state is “a phenomenon of interference” where the mind displays “a strange tendency to lose its bearings.” Wilkinson’s poems, to a great extent, exemplify the strange world between waking and dreaming, where one’s bearings become lost in a world where reality and fantasy coexist in a perpetual field of interaction. Take, for instance, “the diamond cutter speaks.” Within this poem we find the speaker’s material body, a tangible reality; but the body transforms in some curious ways, such as: “I have to ask him for something but my teeth turn to dust. Clocks of five cities crashed in my chest with their ticking.” The first section of the book, bearing the same name as that of the collection, proceeds in a similar fashion throughout the course of five prose poems, culminating with the line: “I know the sounds you make sleeping & arriving alike.” The sounds of sleeping and the sounds of arriving, or waking, permeate these poems, constructing a surreal world of and from language that is littered with strange characters, animals, and a variety of lights: the “garage light,” “dusk light,” and “copper light.” The question, then, becomes: of these lights, what is the correct light in which one can recover what was lost in a dream?

Section two, or The Book of Whispering in the Projection Booth, approaches the search for the forgotten in slightly different manner. Instead of the prose poem, fragments scatter themselves about in a seemingly random manner. If readers intend to develop a narrative (which is by no means a requirement), they must partake in free association between the disparate elements of each fragment. What is the relationship between “Translucent wings in the grey soup” and a “Rowboat of/white//flour & beetles”? No doubt, a multiplicity of connections can be made between these fragmentary-images, but it would appear that the one strand connecting them all is that they need be ethereal, upending reality; or, as Wilkinson writes: “you can unlearn the earth’s/ spinning//if you//lie down on your back/in the goatfield.” It would appear, then, that to “unlearn” the material-empirical world is of utmost importance.

But, as mentioned earlier, this is not simple negation of the aforementioned material-empirical world, but an admixture of reality and dream. Highlighting such an admixture is the collection’s rhythm. Yeats once wrote that the “purpose of rhythm…is to prolong the moment of contemplation, the moment when we are both asleep and awake, which is the one moment of creation, by hushing us with an alluring monotony, while it holds us waking by variety, to keep us in that state of perhaps real trance, in which the mind liberated from the pressure of the will is unfolded.” The “variety” of section two acts as a counterpoint to the “alluring monotony” of section one’s prose rhythms. Take, for instance, the following lines:
Shaker chairs. The
morning pulling, un-
packing itself onto
snowy porches &
a spun ice.
The enjambment found within these stanzas, with lines breaking on articles, prefixes, and prepositions, disrupts the rhythmic flow of each syntactical unit, fostering a vocalization that causes the reader to abruptly stammer. Yet, just as soon as the fragments awake us, a return to the prose fluidity of section three lulls us back into a dream.

In the final section’s poem, “still life with shark tooth, sleeping boy, moon [missing], & treefrog,” there is a series of rhetorical questions that conclude the piece: “Where are your parents, little one? Where is the lodger who promised you things? Where is that treefrog in the shop window that blinked at you? Where are you headed on this boat? Which way is the engine room? What age will you be when you return?” The dizzying array of questions, most of which provide no specific referent with regard to the content therein, need to be re-constructed by the reader. This, of course, is no easy task; in fact, in the chapbook’s closing poem we are told: “You will find out what trouble means when you build your own road.” The “trouble,” it would seem, stems from our tendency to subsume surreal worlds into the logic of reason; to wit, Breton wrote: “logical methods are applicable only to solving problems of secondary interest.” When working through Wilkinson’s writing, “logical ends…escape us.” Instead of a logical-analytical-empirical paradigm, perhaps then, it is best to for us to follow the dream-examples found within the book, such as the man who:
this bridge you are forced
without words
               to cross.

Boyer, Anne. Art is War. Lawrence, KS: Mitzvah Chaps, 2008.

The center-piece of Anne Boyer’s chapbook Art is War is the manifesto “Difficult Ways to Publish Poetry,” which was originally presented at the 2007 AWP conference in Atlanta. Within the text, Boyer lists twenty ways in which to publish one poem a year in a “difficult, but not impossible” manner; of course, one quickly discovers that her projects go “well beyond the parameters of the possible.” For example, take the seventh difficult way to publish poetry:
Become skilled at computers. Hack into the main traffic control system for a community that needs some poetry—say, Sacramento. Cause traffic lights to blink out poems for Sacramento in Morse Code.
At first blush, such an endeavor appears preposterous and the list, in its entirety, could be easily written-off as nothing more than an absurdist diatribe by an avant-poet. But further consideration of the work provides the reader with not just a deeper understanding of the list, but of poetry in general. In his elegy to W.B. Yeats, Auden famously wrote: “For poetry makes nothing happen”; but due to the truncation of the poem through quotation, what follows more often than not is forgotten, or missed entirely: “it survives/ in the valley of its making where executives/ Would never wanted to tamper.” The latter half of Auden’s quote, it seems, alters the rhetoric of his verse a great deal: poetry makes “nothing happen” in a cultural world driven by revenue streams and products engineered as intentionally disposable so as to intensify consumption. Poems, or “projects of no interest to anyone in general,” function outside the sphere of consumer-culture and thus escape what Adorno described as a monopoly wherein everything “is identical” and there is “nothing but business…used as an ideology to legitimize the trash they intentionally produce.”

But this, of course, is a far too reductive reading of Boyer’s manifesto. For, indeed, the title of the piece is “Difficult Ways to Publish Poetry” (my italics), and thus engages the question of how an art form created outside of the mainstream production-cycle attempts to enter directly into it. This becomes no clearer than in difficult way number fourteen, “Haters & Fakers”:
Invite the fakers to a “creative writing” conference that promises to lead to tenure track positions and glossy perfect bound books. Invite the haters to an anti-conference with keynote speaker [xxxx xxxxxxx] and panels on hating chapbooks, hating perfect bound books, hating flarf, hating anti-flarfs, community, anti-communities, capitalism, anti-capitalism, the internet, the material world, poets, nonpoets, people of color, people without any color, women, men, the lyric, the anti-lyric, etc. Make these the same conference in the same Hilton ballroom. Have gang of thugs lock the door and strong arm haters and fakers into reciting poems before a video camera.
A not-too-covert-reference to the AWP conference, Boyer questions the validity of writers who seek to monetize their art form, ostensibly transforming themselves from artists into unit-movers, or more damningly, from never-weres to unit-movers. The heart of the problem resides in one’s desire not to create poetry, but to secure a bourgeois existence through “tenure track positions” and “perfect bound books.” But considering that the poet herself published a “glossy perfect bound book” with Coffee House Press and, indeed, first presented “Difficult Ways” at AWP, how are we to reconcile such a paradox? Do we need to? Perhaps, perhaps not. What does need to be noted, though, is that Boyer’s manifesto refuses to promote a negative critique of the “professional” writer because to do so would necessarily align one with “the haters.” A “hater” is no better than a “faker,” made apparent by the fact that both groups are lock into a Hilton ballroom with a “gang of thugs.”

What, then, is the most appropriate way to for a poet to proceed in a world where it appears so easy to be caught in a double-bind if one desires to create poetry that operates within a community greater than the self? For Boyer, it seems, one need look no further than the material object that is Art is War. Printed on plain white paper, bound by hand with string, fly-leafed with a newspaper advertisement, and publish in a limited run of 100 by her friend, poet Robert J. Baumann, the chapbook is a labor of love[1] that circulates through a small, self-generated community of writers for a fee that likely is no more than production costs ($6 US). As Noah Eli Gordon states in his essay “Considering Chapbooks: A Brief History of the Little Book,” the chapbook “allows the poet to enter into a shared life of the imagination while swerving around the dominant paradigms of economic and social space”; in many ways, Art is War does just that. Of course, and this should come as no surprise, such a reading is far too reductive of Boyer’s manifesto. The importance of Art is War is the fact that Boyer’s chapbook thoughtfully calls into question both the purpose and utility of poetry in a modern world overrun by consumer-culture. Far from being an absurdist rant, “Difficult Ways” (and the entirety of Art is War) can provide the writer and communities of writers with new ways of envisioning their art form and its distribution.

[1] Not coincidentally, the "heart" character-symbol appears several times throughout the chapbook.