Thursday, January 26, 2012

Boston Review: All Together Now (Siobhan Phillips on Four New Books)

This is an interesting bit from one of our most interesting journals, one that thankfully still takes poetry seriously:

All Together Now
How Description Fosters Connection
Siobhan Phillips

It’s a review of four books of poetry, but one of the things that interests me, is where it gets general.  Here’s how it opens:


What kinds of connection can poetry make?  It’s an unexpected question, perhaps, because verse has often been thought of as the genre of isolation or wholeness: a well-wrought urn stood in timeless completion, an overheard speaker murmuring of himself to himself.

But much of today’s most arresting poetry spurns the dream of self-sufficiency for the drama of relation. Scan even the titles of the works under consideration here—The Network, The Bigger World, Sarah—Of Fragments and Lines, Shoulder Season—which speak of webs, expansions, pieces, and interstices.  These books live in transition, they manifest its links and gaps.  Their art seeks on-leading ends rather than in-looking bounds, shunning causality and sublimity alike as they instead associate among words, thoughts, people, political agents.  Managing connection, for these writers, is at once a formal task and a thematic statement.


Indeed, the first question is a version of the “what is poetry for” question that comes up now and then.  Has poetry been thought of as the genre of “isolation or wholeness”?  I’m unsure what Phillips is specifically referring to here, but I agree that, though either /or divides are reductive, there are many people out there who fall roughly into the camps of “a well-wrought urn stood in timeless completion” vs “an overheard speaker murmuring of” him/herself to him/herself.  Isolation or wholeness.  It’s an interesting parlor game.  Where do you fit? 

And then, in a turn to four books that mess with this economy, Phillips gives examples of the “drama of relation,” where “[m]anaging connection, for these writers, is at once a formal task and a thematic statement.”  Such assertions can be easily backed up by cherry-picking examples (there are thousands of books of poetry published every year), but still, the question intrigues me.  Might there be a wave of books, a zeitgeist, that is less interested in either the urn or the cry of the isolato, and more interested in something more interactive? 

Well, interactive texts have a lineage as well, which “show how contingency unravels even the best plans or explanations.”  It’s not a brand new movement, but it might be a new focus, and any new focus can bring about a new alignment.  If this were to become The New New Thing, for instance, we might start talking about projects like WCW’s Paterson again, or Jorie Graham’s Materialism, or Anne Carson’s Glass, Irony, and God, in perhaps new, helpful ways.

I’m a good audience for this idea, as I like when people highlight relations, which is one of the things I’ve always looked for (listened for) in poetry, and the examples in this review sound intriguing.  Here are a few of the ways Phillips describes these books: “lively anxiety” “stricken care” “unexpected connection can complicate our most intimate roles” “connections begin and end with language” “description can foster the very associations it would report” “the metaphoric echoes in what we say can emphasize the ethical affiliations in what we do” “The depth of a word might be the breadth of a world.”

A lot of poetry could be described in these ways, true, but these are ways of being in the world that are well worth attending to.  So are other things, but that doesn’t make these less important.

The full text of Ange Mlinko’s poem “Squill” is linked to, so I’ll post it here in full, to give an example of what Phillips is highlighting, in various ways:


Half asleep, I heard a pin drop.
The quality of light was strong,
it was changing weekly, but on top
of every new change was a lung-
like cloud with a violet
or oysterish froth burnished to pearl
by an untucked ray. Sleep debt
would only let me half-unfurl
from what I could not be prised from.
At the far end of the hall, behind a door,
I heard a pin drop. In another room
on the unpolyurethaned wooden floor
where gaps were growing between slats—
I could distinguish the sound from
that of a screw. I knew it from a thumbtack.
What was that dream,
that brain candy cottoned to, the flight
from a battalion, a mane slipping my grip
—as my ear divined a button’s bakelite
from a Lego—leaving page-worn fingertips,
the vita nuova every night rejuvenated
and dashed to bits by a baby’s complaint,
my aural monitoring of his lonely play syncopated
with forays back into the dreamscape?
From its no-backstory,
to my daylit past in waking, to recordless
and unknown history,
back again to what I knew: the sound of a dangerous
small object falling from his pincer grip
to the floor. I knew a crayon from a ballpoint pen.
A ballpoint pen from a felt-tip.
I knew the sound of his noggin
hitting the floor from the rattle
of a coffee mug. Jewelbox, toolbox,
my ears’ spindles chimed and tattled
out of dreamland, the dice in their cups
little movie screens on each side
playing different scenarios. A joke,
the child too quiet. What it belied
was that he might choke,
but I could hear what his digits dallied
and knew he was still gambling.
This is what it means to rally
for the future, as my father lambing
on all fours with him madly
termed “answering the call of life”
never knowing whence I came
or what dirt was made flesh on my behalf.
I grew the ears of a cat, tuft-flames.
I could have heard a seed growing.
A seed growing in their mirroring labyrinths.
Twin vegetal wombs in Eustachian tubes sown
with squill, which when the moss is absinthe-
green in the brownscape, is alone
the smallest simplest flower in the cold.
First flower of the year, Easterish
and yet it could be a bold
spy device, an earpiece.
Its cells assembled from history
outside my own window, as the light
stepped up—threw down—in mystery.
And though you say it is right
that no one descended from Uralic
language speakers
has Uralic
language structures
pre-determining the cast of thought until
badly retrofitted in English,
I could not see this Siberian squill,
this earpiece, Easterish,
and not think of the cells of a language
in my sleep, growing out of the frost,
assembled from history, a burned bridge,
as the first division, from which I was lost.


At 1/27/2012 8:15 AM, Blogger Lucky Jim said...

That's a fantastic poem.

- Spencer


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