(This was written for a course, but it seemed to be a waste to have it tucked away in a file, when there is all this lovely poetry to talk about. I believe all copyrights still belong to me and GMU. It's also rather long, so grab some more coffee).
21st Century American Poetry and the Poetics of Re-Enactment
Literature often attempts to re-enact history, just as the art of painting hopes to re-create or approximate the “real.” However, while these may be controversial statements, the truth is that the poetics of each of the three twenty-first century poets reviewed here is revisiting these very “controversies.” Chris Vitiello’s Irresponsibility is an ambitious and possibly “experimental” re-enactment of language, a language that paces itself so that the reader is constantly catching up. It presents and posits language as an inadequate yet necessary medium for articulating experience, if not meaning (which, it may be argued, poets such as Gertrude Stein and others have successfully achieved before). In his second book of poems, Want, Rick Barot explores similar themes, but the subject this time is not language but poetry itself. The limitations of poetry as one mode of viewing, and the complications of reconstituting and re-enacting the world through the poem are acknowledged and grappled with. Barot ends by making peace with the problematic nature of poetry, by assuring himself and the reader that regardless of where the poet’s passions may lie—narrative, image, lyricism, line, or all of the above—every act of representation becomes “true” by virtue of its own integrity, its own “reality.”
Finally, Sean Hill, in his first book of poems titled Blood Ties and Brown Liquor, executes a different kind of re-enactment. His is the re-enactment of history through poetry, the re-enactment of the written history of the African American community through an approximation of a transcribed oral work. Each voice in his book, part of the six generations of the family of Silas Wright, a fictional Black man, unvoice and revoice history, through what could be called dramatic monologues or straightforward stories. Yet, as mentioned earlier, these are important voices and important renderings of history. They are indicative of the empowering nature of poetry, of its ability to create what was previously held sacred—language, histories, and even its own notions of self.
So it seems that these books are perhaps part of the larger poetic discourse of this century which may involve asking the same questions as before but also simultaneously re-enacting these questions that have always been asked by poets before our time. The poetics of this century may quite simply be called the poetics of re-enactment, which may not be novel, but is atleast highly aware of its own potency as a way of preserving a new enactment of older concerns—language, history, and itself.
Irresponsibility by Chris Vitiello; Ahsahta Press; pp 101
Chris Vitiello begins his investigation and active-re-enactment of language and semantic possibility using motifs that he wields successfully throughout his collection—"beachcombing" and an exploration of "experience" using "seeing" versus "saying" as axes. His investigation of the act of poetry, and the problems language poses in order to thwart a process as dynamic and proactive as poetry, begins with idea that both seeing meaning as well as saying it—the acts of reading as well as hearing—are both almost reductionist approaches to poetry. In order for the poetic act to be represented on more than a simply two-dimensional graph, or even a "lyric [that] forgets a category of thought out of reading," one needs to see that "there are many degrees of being open."
Such is the scope of Vitiello's investigation that it constructs or perhaps consciously develops a lexicon—a mathematical, scientific, geographical and even meta-poetic set of symbols, approximations and progressions. And these are precisely his subjects. The space of a poem— the "geographies," –the idea of symmetry and blank space on the page acting as enclosures as much as the text or lines do, and even the idea of left-indenting poems on a page are circled and re-circled in every poem. Titles of poems are places, and they are repetitive, suggesting that the same place is never conducive to the same experience— the same set of material possibilities. Characters reinvent themselves; numbers appear and re-appear, but the investigation of language, through itself as well as symbols and visual re-arrangements, continues.
Vitiello's poems are a syntactic maze; they embody the very possibilities they present and also offer the alternatives that were rejected in constructing the lines the way they are constructed—"Forget how to read this// Forget how to read// Parsimony// Quit." Vitiello concedes that lines are not sacred; "every line simultaneous" is a device, an "enclosure [which] permits the system." This recurrent idea of being and not being—a line including, acknowledging and enclosing what it could be, or the presence of words and combinations that were forsaken in order for the line to exist in its present state, are in keeping with what Vitiello proposes the poem to be—"an oscillating shell."
Equally important to the consideration of the nature of the poem is the consideration of surface. Vitiello posits that "Making an argument is a surface/ Making a mistake is an argument" and thus possibly pre-empts any excessive critical consideration of his attempt to contort syntax and semantics. In addition to using the // symbol to present the reader with a set of possibilities for the same ideas, Vitiello also renegotiates the importance of meaning derived from syntactic configurations. He does that by leaving the "is" out of "every line simultaneous" and by interposing a number series poem in the midst of other poems.
Thus, one could argue that Vitiello is interrogating language in a Steinesque manner by theorizing that "A noun is a process/Nouns is a decision making process." There is definite onus on the collectivizing nature of language; plurality, after all, is the basis for making generalizations, just as the lines above demonstrate. If, then, Vitiello is indeed subverting that process of pluralizing, then he also simultaneously questions if “is” is the same as “is equal to”—"Differentiate is from =." What is the value of a single noun or object or process when it is equated with a collective subject on the other end? In other words, how can "nouns" be a process? Similarly, when Vitiello tells us that "One thing is not any thing," is he presenting a counterargument for "One thing is not anything" where the pluralizing quality of "anything" is challenged?
The theme of accretion and repetition is another a central concern in this work. "Durations are a name," Vitiello says, reinforcing his theory of white-space as well as repetition. The idea of repetition is important for this book, but even more so in poetry, and it pivots on mathematical theories concerning series and the space between the elements of a series. Is that why Vitiello lists the first 1000 prime numbers for us? Is this a distinct attempt to demonstrate that " a series is a defense not a concealment" and that there is "no sequence without duration?" Isn't white space, by these standards, a device that acts as duration in a sequence--a characteristic that repeats itself in order to establish a pattern? Vitiello definitely stresses the need for the act of poetry to be aware of what he calls its "characteristic," which, in this book's case is that of lack of end-punctuation.
Even more delightful that Vitiello's meta-poetic statements about repetition are the measured and delightful execution of these theories that he proposes. On multiplicity of meaning and temporality itself, he says "The gerunds are still a buffer àGerunds are buffersà Gerunds bufferà/I'm seeing instead of elapsing," after already positing that "the site of the poem elapses," distributing the active responsibility of "understanding" the poem between both the reader or "I" and the "site" of the poem or the surface and location of the poem itself. Vitiello also enacts the erasure of stacking of surface over surface by providing us with multiple reading cues—superscripts, substitutions (words written below words to suggest the use of alternatives), popular music, motifs such as hawks and the beach, and his own daughter and friends. Vitiello thus creates for us a surface that is plainly aware of its own multiplicities, as well as its own materiality:
“Sunset” is a lie// Snakes do
By naming the suspension of judgment you
miss the point
There were no single grackles// The understood it
Grackles is singular
It may be very rare for a book as ambitiously theory-reaching as this to meticulously follow the standards it has set for itself; still, Vitiello's book does just that. It consistently shies away from presenting a meta-poetic fact as a "singular" and sacred entity; even such assertions are reasserted and reshaped and torqued to produce moments of surprise. There is a very ambitious expectation of the act of reading, interacting and understanding poetry itself—that "[a]ll you have to do is pay attention and it's not that simple." A book as aware as this of its attention to its own structure—that "each level posits an idiosyncratic attention”—is seldom an "easy" reading experience for the reader, but it is, at the very least, one that challenges and renegotiates our own passivity in receiving poetry. The visceral nature of reading and the physicality of a poem have never been spoken of in as diverse, and yet, in as versatile a manner as this.
Blood Ties and Brown Liquor by Sean Hill; University of Georgia Press; pp 82
The lyric as re-enactment of location and history is one of Sean Hill’s primary accomplishments in this volume, where he attempts to document the history of the family of Silas Wright, a fictional black man who lived through both segregation and integration in the United States. For a book that is fraught with history, this composite-voiced set of lyrics (or even dramatic monologues) manages to capture the individually-voiced moment, and not just the “collective” voice or history of a community (which may imply a certain universalization, or dramatization, even, of the events sought to be documented). Every voice in the book, as the book’s jacket claims, is a “response” to a “call” that has issued forth from the mouth of another speaker. One wonders how the poems have the kind of lyric timbre that they possess—richness of imagery and texture, juxtaposition of luxurious sound and musicality with the vernacular—while also sustaining a distinct sense of speakerhood. The formal variations (line breaks and stanza forms) may cue us towards identifying every monologue as being “differently voiced,” but the repetition of sensuous images and color—“rust” and “clay”— that speak to the history of the African American community in Midgeville, Georgia of the late 1800s, sustain the reader’s attention simultaneously; the speakers are different, but perhaps, their voice is essentially the same, and it speaks of the same history at concurrent and varying points of time.
As a reader aware of the political immediacy of the poet’s voice and project, one cannot help but ignore the imagery that is associated with the oppressive past that African Americans, and Silas Wright’s family in particular, seem to have reconciled themselves to in wholly different and unique ways. Silas’ brother Willie is perhaps one of the most intricately sketched characters in the book. In a song-like lyric entitled “Willie’s Say 1954,” one sees a resigned but matter-of-fact voice making admissions about the speaker’s failure to please his parents. “What am I supposed to do when money and honey/ part with me,” Willie says in an almost movie dialogue-like manner. But there is little room for real disapproval on the reader’s part, since he does admit that he “would beg or borrow but not rob or kill/ for liquor or dope.” These almost-earnest lines disarm us in a way that the poem “Learning to Walk” does not; instead, the act of walking is brutalized here—the lines read sharply down vertically and then proceed to the next column, almost as if to approximate the “chain gang” practice in prisons that African Americans were subject to. This poem is a statement on the brutalizing and corrosive nature of “civilizing” techniques—the act of causing someone to forget how to walk by chaining them to others and depriving them of their sanity and their sanctity of space. Amidst all of the various physical hardships borne by the community—burning on roofs, dying of scarlet fever, dying in wars or of childbirth—the most animalistic seems this “undoing” which Hill devotes simply one column poem to. The poem, however, begins with a sequence of images of the speaker “swinging,” while watermelon juice drips on his feet which are in braces (a so-called natural trauma), and then leads us into the more brutal and “unnatural” way of losing one’s mobility—trauma in captivity. But nothing except the form of the poem itself – “short quick” – belabors that point.
In this book, the lyric mode is in capable hands for the most part, reaching some high points in poems such as “Words Like Rivers” and “Lineaments Through the Line of Seasons” which are incisive and yet nostalgic about the act of preserving history through the spoken word. Since almost every speaker relies on what someone else in the family had told her/him, these poems bring forth a culmination of all these individual conditions in a few lines, moving from “I say blood ties is/ like liquor and water,” “[ which]stream words like rivers/ and families riven over centuries” to “lines reveal themselves, remind the face/ what it has done.” Apart from the play on the possible meanings for the word “lines” – lines of the poem, family “lines” or even a reference to the power of the oral narrative tradition that is central to the speakers’ way of life—these poems seem to present the historical lyric as that which takes account of both the immediacy of presenting the “present” moment as well as a seamed series of images that precede this “moment.”
The scope of the lyric, too, as Hill demonstrates, is truly limitless and yet limiting in an undertaking such as this, which is suggested in “Lineaments…”: “Each day Silas revises/ the text underscoring the repetition.” Is this a meta-poetic revelation? Is the moment central to the lyric in a way that the collective experience cannot be? Is the moment when Sam is plucking out “flaming shingles from the steep pitch,” and is the single moment a more immediate historical-lyric representation than the repeated image of the “mocking bird/ [that] greets the morning with many tongues” ? Is the iteration of experience and sensation channeled through another voice in time a “faithful” execution of the lyric in a way that a frozen moment is not? Or, are the frozen moments and images the focal point of the culmination of lyric sensibility in a book such as this? Whatever our answer may be, Sean Hill answers this question by presenting us with a range of possibilities from which to consider the question of time, location, identity, and “enclosure.”
The last poem in the book is a reiteration of its previous version which begins the last section, and chooses to approach the question of the speaker’s birth by solidifying the image of the house he was born in—“a house built by men, all dead now.” Silas Wright proceeds to mention that:
The house was built straight but over the years
it settled crooked. I was born in that house.
Generations all together in that house, still standing.
While it could be argued that this could be a belabored gesture on the part of the speaker to speak about his “roots,” there is a sort of macabre humor to the idea of people “still standing” – the idea of location, physicality and existence (even after death) as a set of voices that the speaker is comfortable accessing in order to define himself. And suddenly, we are able to find a cohesive thread that links each of the speakers in the book; Silas speaking for them or even on their behalf at some points is not merely an artifice. In fact, the lyric renditions of others’ stories that Silas attempts in his self-voiced poems are merely an extension of poems where the others in his family are speaking themselves. Why should “I used to work clay too” and “I sure do miss it—being with them men/ and the clay—making a living” be any different from the repeated image of “Benny’s skin red-brown like rust on a hoe” or even the poem where Silas’ wife laments that “he has to unload/ them kilns there sometimes it be so hot/ it singe his eyebrows and lashes?” While one is certainly aware of either the distance between such a speaker and Silas, or even poems that have no identifiable speaker, it seems to be the author’s very project to bring into relief the “space” that exists between each speaker and Silas, which Silas identifies in the voice of his Uncle Phineas as having a “hollow- not like the dark well…but a hollow like a hug-space enough to climb in and be held.” And it is precisely this sensation of being enclosed, of the family voices “growing” inside him like “watermelon seeds,” that Silas seems to allude to every point. That being the case, as a reader, one feels delight and a sharp sense of surprise at every point that we hear the symphony of voices in this book, each selecting and encasing one hollow, a space where there is a solo tune being played for sometime, before fading into another voice. If the lyric has been said to often represent history as what was ignored, or left unvoiced, it confirms as well as undoes those allegations brilliantly in this book, giving the oral historical tradition adequate space and expanse in these written, or rather, “voiced” lyric outpourings.
Want by Rick Barot; Sarabande Books; pp 67
Rick Barot’s second collection of poems, titled Want, is in conversation with his previous book, The Darker Fall, in the sense that it too, like its precursor, announces a certain presence, a here-ness, which the poet describes thus: “What is it to be here but to want.” These poems communicate a desire, and not just ordinary desire, but an ambitious desire to “want” and to expose “want;” they are full of sensory and sensuous brilliance—“the body on a canvas/ the incremental layers/ of red. In the end, the blossoming flesh.” Yet, this collection does not limit itself to interactions with beauty, art, literature and nature; it presents an ethical and disarmingly skeptical evaluation of poetic selfhood, as Barot himself says in the poem “Pescadero”—“I turn from/ what I know is there, that true, concluding figure.”
This book is largely free of divisions, sections or compartments, and it is this quality that seems to suggest some connection or even commonality of intent between the speakers in all the poems. The speaker is very often an observer, of art, of life, of life in art—“the horses, even/ in their speed, as though not breathing”—or the observer-self who is becoming painfully aware of the act of exposing the self even as the self sees. In one of the longer poems called “Captivity Narrative,” the observer-speaker’s awareness reaches its zenith at precisely this point—the point when the self is both seen and discovered, and the point when the self and its intentions are betrayed to others:
not knowing you’re walking, just someone
turning in sleep, someone turning
a corner and appearing unannounced
on a storefront’s dozen TVs.
Barot’s speakers are thus at most points very aware and/or severely skeptical of the self. Yet, this skepticism is accompanied or even followed by a sense of reinvention, of rejuvenation, or even epiphany. Take, for instance, the poem “Say Goodbye, Catullus, to the Shores of Asia Minor,” which may be loosely called an ekphrasis, where the speaker assembles the self using his own acute self awareness—“all day I walk around as though/ a bowl were balanced on my head, the fish inside kissing,” incidents from the life of his grandmother, and a commentary on the physical process of the painter himself. At every point, we see the speaker grappling with the realities he sees—the images that play out in front of his eyes. He goes on to admit:
story cold, I tell myself. Tell it dark: the berry eyes of deer
among trees. Tell it without need of an answer…
What could be more ironic than this poet- speaker who transparently projects his own expectations from the poem and his art and simultaneously critiques his own motivations and expectations? And yet, what could be more sincere and self-gauging than this? Barot’s poems are full of desire and sensuousness, indeed, but they are even more imbued with the need to thwart this desire, to remove the self from its involvements with the words on the page. The speaker, therefore, in this poem, consistently reminds himself in imperatives that begin with “tell [it],” thus dividing his self along the edges of his own craft—the need to inform or describe or simply interact, and the need to comment, to talk of how the “clearing’s downed birches are melting into rot, chip.”
This brings us to the question of what a self-aware ethical poetry could really be. There are speakers who are so intent on fulfilling this desire for removal and distancing from the poem that the poem becomes devoid of a certain luxuriousness—of image or lyricism—or even, simply put, the beauty of the line. Yet, Barot maneuvers lineation and stanzas in a measured and taut fashion—whether they are the tercets of “Say Goodbye…” or the lines of the sonnet “Litany” where time and possibilities are reinterpreted and refashioned by using “when” at the start of every sentence, a “when” that without much ado declares that “[w]hen the snow/ is pink, something has been left motherless” and then proceeds to exhorting that “[w]hen singing, think of articulating silences.” Hence, if the pause is what makes music beautiful, and the silence is what seals the edges of a beautiful melody, Barot does exactly that. He moves from spare and perhaps even definitive statements to the more questioning poems, where the self is constantly reconstituted, and where this re-sculpting causes pain, which the speaker acknowledges plainly and directly.
This happens even in poems like “K,” which Barot draws from Franz Kafka’s diary entry proposing that he will be a nude model for Ascher’s rendering of Saint Sebastian. The violence of the act of painting is exposed here; Barot follows and considers the artist’s choices carefully— “how the “rouge of some emotion/ gets slowly placed on the cheek of nothing” and how the “martyr’s accepted/ brokenness” culminates in death due to an arrow in the face, even as a deer nearby is “eating even the bark/ even thorns.” The sheer excess of death—that something should die, and yet be violently targeted again, simply to ensure it has died—and simultaneously, the pollution of beauty that emerges from the deer’s simple act of eating, articulate the dilemma the speaker faces in almost of all of his poems in this book. While there is “want” and near-decadent desire, there is also the decay of self which accompanies this “want” and here is where the poet places himself—at the point where awareness of both beauty and the pain of beauty become acutely obvious.
Yet again, using these considerations of beauty, Barot brings us back to the question of the poetic self and what its “ethical” expression consists of. Do Barot and his poems’ speakers identify with the “old poet” of “Say Goodbye..” who is “so silent with grieving/ that he has to be given the word of his farewell,” or does Barot place himself as the young poet from “Psalm with a Phrase from Beckett” who is grappling between “narratives of desire” and presumably, the “Captivity Narrative” itself? Barot probably wants to reach out or atleast reshape the young poet, by suggesting new possibilities—“Let the offered living hand/ be an oar…/Because that is your singing too.” It thus seems as though Barot has reached a stage between his “old” and “new” poetic selves—a point where he acknowledges that it is acceptable to “drink the blue sludge/ of airplanes” as well as consider the more oblique “words exploding just under/ the ground.” In other words, he may be ready to exercise his poetic will simply for the sake of beauty, for the sake of drawing a picture, for rendering as if on canvas.
Barot also seems to find comfort in the “dark,” a word that he constantly repeats like a mantra and a space that he dwells in. The dark, especially in “Psalm…” is the space where the poet is considering where his ethics lie, and Barot masterfully provides the answer to this question in the title of his last poem—“Like a Fire That Consumes All Before It.” Even as a poem about history—about the beauty of rain and the sheer destructive energy it possesses during a flood—this last sequence of eighteen ten-line sections carries a certain reassurance, an affirmation that the poet is both witness and witnessed, a documenter of history, as well as the documented. Barot reaches this conclusion exactly halfway through the poem, in the ninth section, where he admits:
…There is never
an answer here. Only that you have to need
the justice of looking, even after everything else
One could possibly say that Barot’s poetics here acknowledges that the poet must, painful as it may be, see and color the world using the self, and must always be at odds with this “requirement.” After all, if the storyteller doubts himself, how does the listener know where the “truth” truly lies? Yet, that is the implicit level of trust that history places upon poets, and it is this trust that Barot wants to complicate. If this collection of poetry indeed is an answer to the question posed by Antonio Porchia in its epigraph—“I know what I have given you. I do not know what you have received,” the answer is startlingly clear and complicating at the same time—that the poet must continue to invent, reinvent and engage with the world, even if the act of rendering the world is complicated, and possibly even limiting. Poetry, after all, as Barot’s collection would say, may be “bleak with story,” but is one legitimate re-enactment of history by that poet, nonetheless.