Sunday, April 18, 2010


Trance Archives: New And Selected Poems
Andrew Joron
City Lights, 2010

There is a tantalizing contradiction in the title of this book. A trance is an altered state of consciousness that is temporary. As the word itself indicates, it is transitory. An archive is its opposite: it is a repository of information, a place where documents are organized and stored. Joron clasps the two terms together to create communicating vessels, not in the literal scientific application if this device but in the sense André Breton intended it: a conduit between dream and reality, the marvelous and the everyday.

Joron is a poet of correspondences. Reading his work is like entering a hall of mirrors. Reflections modify our perceptions at every glance. Rhymes and half-rhymes, homonyms and homophones, polysemes and synonyms create a universe of simulacrums, a hyperreality in which images are intentionally clashed and distorted, mirrored and echoed, so that accepted notions of reality might be questioned or overturned. Joron, far more so than any other of his contemporaries, is a magician, an alchemist of words; his work is modern, has a contemporary freshness to it, yet also has an undertone of antiquity, of ivy-clad towers and ancient residues. He is a proponent of science, but evinces also a strong romantic temperament that subverts a too literal, too empirical reading of our world.

It would be more apposite to say that Joron is a proponent of zero, the cry of zero, the viscera of zero. The semiotics of zero. Zero, as a meta-linguistic sign that refers to nothing, subverts our notion of a world composed of a pre-existing field of referents. Such a world does not exist. Zero is a sign produced within, and by, arithmetical notation. It is a sign that is understood structurally, only in relation to other signs. The opposition between things and the signs of things is unmasked as a highly volatile and shifting field of infinite variability. Joron uses linguistic apparitions to negotiate this realm. A realm of signs among signs mediated by paradoxical formulations. “Thus, the idea of a horn that has been emptied of music./ An emptiness of many chambers.”

Trance Archive contains collections culled from five previous books, Force Fields, Science Fiction, The Removes, Fathom, and The Sound Mirror. These older collections are sandwiched between a small gathering of new poems.

“Untiled,” a short poem of 19 lines included among the new poems, begins (as does the title) with a pun: “Or, outside the mosaic law.” Mosaic can refer either to Moses and the Ten Commandments, or the application of a design in ceramic tile. The next line, “In leaf, relief,” is an equation voiced in rhyme, the image of a leaf as it might appear in a bas-relief. Here is the poem in its entirety:

    Or, outside the mosaic law.

    In leaf, relief
    That that pattern never repeats.
                Saturn, turn as
    Alpha laugh, omega game.

    The biggest signal
    Begins against

    For foreign rain --
                a man, amen.

    Jazz is the edge of every day, the
    Lair of all alarm.

    Static, the
                O there, other

                a sentence given to the forgiven.

As can be seen, this little poem abounds in correspondences, puns and homonyms. We see the word ‘gain’ played off the word ‘against,’ ‘signal’ half-rhymed in ‘begins,’ ‘rain’ in ‘foreign,’ ‘a man’ in ‘amen,’ and so on. It is tempting to say “and sew on,” so infectious are Joron’s word-plays. The words, once linked by sound and echo, invite semantic comparison. ‘Static,’ ‘state,’ and ‘states,’ are all related, all cognates of one another. A state is one of two entities, a geographical area as in the United States, or a condition or mode of being with regard to a set of circumstances. In this instance, it is ‘static.’ ‘States,’ as a verb, extends the play to ‘O there’ and ‘other,’ ‘given’ and ‘forgiven.’ One quickly acquires a sense of interrelation. In music, this might be referred to as a form of counterpoint, whose term comes from Latin, contra punctum, meaning “dot against dot” or “note against note.” The interplay of words bounced off of one another. The repetition of an idea in a different guise is the essence of contrapuntal thinking. Themes are turned upside down. New meanings are shaken out.

If one returns to a reading of the poem above, one sees more clearly how the words are not just played off of one another, but rubbed, chafed, scraped against one another. There is tension, visually and aurally, between ‘gain’ and ‘against,’ and ‘rain.’

I was greatly intrigued by a phrase in the first sentence of the poem “Commentary,” from Fathom. “If, in reading, we ‘invite the shadow,’ we press a word to reveal its lost priority -- ”

What the dickens does he mean by “invite the shadow,” I wondered. I was largely intrigued because it had to do with reading, and I have been greatly fascinated by some of the comments Walter J. Ong made with regard to reading as inherently hallucinatory, since reading a written text turns the individual inward on themselves. We enter a shadow world. We are referred to presences, in the form of words, that have no presences. Words are ghosts. They have no real substance. No meat, no bones. They are mere notations, sticks with tones. The images they make we make in our minds. Reading a written text is a private communion. Hence, it is an invitation of shadows.

Might a word be pressed? In some sense yes, we press it with our eyes, our vision. The attention we press to the page.

We find this trope repeated in “Trance Archive,” the title piece. “Only the fingertips of the eyes/ Can touch this distance./ It is a kind of cold fire.”

In “The Invention Of Zero,” which is from the collection Science Fiction, is the dazzling image of “the mind”: “The mind, a freezing reptile/ Sits exposed upon a ledge/ space falls away/ in all directions.” That a poet of such keen intellect as Joron might compare the mind to a freezing reptile overlooking an abyss is intriguing in the extreme. Here we have the primordial and the abyssal blended into one potent illustration of the divide between the sign and its referent. The last two lines of the poem, “flattened/ by the weight of the invisible,” hit home with uncanny precision. If, taken in its original meaning, a trance is a passage, a portal to another realm, the archives in this City Lights collections are an ardor where the mind goes dressed in a glamour of “clouds, letters, broken shapes of breath.”


Steven Fama said...

I really enjoy Andrew Joron's poetry and this book is necessary even if you have every other one of his books. Which is to say the new poems, though relatively few in number here, are great. The first poem is a kind of abecedarian work(though more the sound of each letter) and highly entertaining. And John O. you've really shown here (your discussion of "Untitled") the many facets of another of the new poems.

I dig how in "Untitled" the line,

"That that pattern never repeats"

has within it a repetition. That "that that" in that context really made me wake up! There's usually always something cookin' in Joron's words/lines, as you suggest when you write about words playing and rubbing against each other, a sort of tension.

Maybe this is related or not, I don't know, but I sometimes think there's more than a little of what I'll call stoned thinking in Joron's poems. Not the cloudy high anxiety kind of stoned thinking, but the charged free flowing reflecting/mirror kind of deep mind movement, the (borrowing from someone here)the indirect move of the knight on a chessboard type of thinking. Also in this regard, the pursuit and documentation of all the homonyms, and near-homonyms has an almost Monty Python giddiness. I find 'em all, the totality of them all, outrageously magnificent.

John Olson said...

I like that, "stoned thinking," "charged free flowing reflecting/mirror thinking," which would be the trance aspect, certainly. I keep referring, in my mind, to that poem as "Untitled," so subtle is the pun, but it is "Untiled," which is funny, because he is referring to a mosaic of tiles. Joron's deep attention to each syllable of a word, its inner gristle, its hidden cartilage, is exquisite. So overlaying the overall mood of reverie and associative thinking Joron's poetry invites, is the keen eye of the analyst, Newton examining each hue and band of light in his spectrometer.