Collected Poems, by Gustaf Sobin
edited by Esther Sobin, Andrew Joron, Andrew Zawacki, and Edward Foster
Talisman House, 2010
Proust compares the writing of poetry to a form of procreation. We bring the essence of ourselves, our fullest, most exquisite perceptions from the depths of our being to the surface of a sheet of paper, or embody them in words with the sound of our voice, distillations offered to whoever might be willing to absorb them, and create, in the margin between writer and reader, a world of ineffable beauty. These essences are fleeting perceptions of the sublime, moments of intense awareness, in which a mysterious energy emanates as light from incandescent matter, or heat from a volcanic vent in the depths of the ocean. In the effort to reproduce such fleeting and volatile moments in words, there is a careful effort made not to break the trance. “And when, behind closed doors, he has begun to get to work on it, with his invention every minute tossing him a new set of words to breathe life into, a new balloon to blow up, what a hallowed and dizzy labour it is! For how he has exchanged his soul for the soul of the universe.”
I find this description particularly apt in the case of Gustaf Sobin. Imbued throughout his work is not only a sense of mysticism, sublimity and transcendence, but a strong fascination with the emulsions that make an image visible, the inner force that gives life and muscle to a word. Its tissue and blood. Its ghostly penetration when it leaves the mouth.
The word ‘breath’ crops up frequently in Sobin’s work. “Breath-calyx,” “breath’s gold,” “breath- / invested intervals,” “the tissue of each breath in its entity,” “scribbles lost / in the breath-prints of the tracking,” “a breath-nail / being beaten into air,” “and this breath of ours, ground backwards,” “frail breath-combs,” “our breath / heaps,” “boned to / an emp-// ty density / by our / breath,” “breath // dragging- / body,” “the / breath / breaks / into petal,” “the / wedged // breath issues,” “the breath we’d drawn, still threaded, out of our buried mirrors,” “eyes gazing into what the breath would eviscerate,” “breath-holes draw / me,” “our breath: reflected past us,” “breath / reach rooted // into / the radiance it breathes,” “our breath’s // slipped bells,” “held / only // here, in / these / sudden // ver- / tebrae / of // breath.”
It is clear that the poem is driven by a life force that is both invisible and vital. Breath is apparent only as current, a stirring that agitates mist, passes over our skin as a wraith of warmth, or coolness. We take air in, and we blow it back out. It connects us to the world. We live in a medium, an ocean of air, just as fish live in a medium of water. We are at the bottom of a sea that is roughly 62 miles deep. A word, without a medium such as air in which to propagate its vibrations, would be silent. Dead.
Sobin adds to this a paradox that is central to the phenomenon we call language. In part III of an extended theme called “Shadow Rattles,” is the line “the poem moves // through the death of its making … is death, / its crushed vapors, that keeps it // alive.”
This echoes a remark Maurice Blanchot made with regard to Mallarmé: “the word has meaning only if it rids us of the object it names; it must spare us its presence our ‘concrete reminder.’ In authentic language, speech has a function that is not only representative but also destructive. It causes to vanish, it renders the object absent, it annihilates it.”
This is why one is able to find such powerful interrelations between the imaginary and the empirical in Sobin’s poetry, lines like “the scrolled // wet volutes of metaphor,” or “the / bone of a / breath / over the / wind-/ pitted ridges.” The word both conjures, and expels. We feel the volutes of a column that isn’t there, isn’t actual to our senses, but is somehow keenly felt by our intellect. It is outside of reality, empirical reality, yet experienced, quite keenly, quite fully, as an imaginative construction.
Words need to be visible. Need to be apprehended as substance. Not just agency, not the breath that conveys them, not the ink or pixels that gives them a modicum of visibility, but actuality, muscle, sinew, blood. They are like ghosts craving to live again. Ectoplasm craving protoplasm. Rhyme, assonance, alliteration, cadence. Everything that makes a word stand out from mere representation, mediation, and become hardware.
“Words,” observes Mallarmé, “of themselves, are uplifted into myriad facets, each acclaimed as the rarest or of value to the mind, a center of oscillating suspension, which sees them external to the ordinary sequence, projected, onto the cavern walls, for as long as their motion or principle lasts, and that is the element in saying which is not said: all of them ready, before extinction comes, to take part in the reciprocal acknowledgment of light by light, at a distance, or sidelong, as a picture of contingency.”
I remember years ago in a poetry class Michael Palmer taught at San José State Michael’s reference to Zukofsky as a “poet’s poet.” It was the first time I’d heard that phrase. I liked the sound of it, it made Zukofsky seem like some primary source of poetry, but I puzzled over it. Did it mean its essence eluded the ordinary gaze of the public? Did it mean that in order to fully appreciate its essence one had to come to terms with the essence of poetry itself? All these things were pertinent to Michael’s statement. I also took it to mean that Zukofsky’s books were not selling very briskly, and would most likely not become a best seller. I also understood this to mean that the sales of a book had nothing to do with its essential value. And that there was not a little defiance in seeking such a high level of artistic merit. It went against the spirit of commerce, against vulgarity and easy appeal, and offered an antidote to banality, a species of spiritual endeavor outside religion and its more institutionalized forms. Consequently, if I refer to Sobin as a poet’s poet, I do so with some reluctance, as I do not want to suggest to anyone new to poetry, “don’t bother with this book, it’s going to be way over your head, you better read, I don’t know, Billy Collins or Mary Oliver first.” Rather, what I want to suggest, is this: herein lies resonance, at last, “wrapt in the / taut knot of its own teased re- / leases.”
For Sobin is, indeed, a “poet’s poet.” His writing tends toward the abstract more than most other poets. He seeks what Mallarmé termed a “central purity,” a volatile dispersion that is its own magic, set free from the dust of reality. Sobin quotes Mallarmé in the epigraph at the beginning of The Earth as Air: An Ars Poetica: “This is the whole mystery: how to establish the secret identities existing in a ’two by two’ that eats away at things, and wears them down in the name of a central purity.” This is why, in Mallarmé, the world of images is a constant vanishing, a negation rather than an affirmation of images. He creates sensations, not photographs.
It is much the same with Sobin. It is why his poetry is at once so ethereal and so precise, and his images seem more like ideas than palpable objects, and his words more like palpable objects than ideas. The poems are fragmentary. They never begin with a full sentence, a predication. They begin, as it were, in medias res, as if he had been meditating on something for a while and had, midway into a thought or perception, decided to write it down. Which is not to say there are in anyway offhand or sporadic. Quite the opposite. His lines are generally very short, quite often a single word, which gives the impression of intense concentration, as if he were examining the word on a microscopic slide. One senses a poem that is ongoing, uninterrupted, segmented only by periods of silent rumination.
Here, for example, is the beginning of “A Flora Beginning With Vineyards”:
rolled vineyards, lilacs
morning’s swell, that
images strung, like
wire, and running singed
into hair, heat,
This is marvelous stuff. Fragile lilacs pinching light, the ineffable, the impalpable. Exquisite handling of alliteration in rolled, lilacs, light, hold, swell, skull, and hair, heat, white. The “rolled vineyards” is arguably the strongest image in the poem (Sobin, originally from Boston, spent most of his adult life living in Provence, France). The fullest sense of the poem is in its play of intangible qualities, quale, such as “morning’s swell” or the white rooms “the skull keeps,” an intriguing metaphor for thought, albeit thought of a special kind. White is associated with cold, the clinical and detached. With, who knows, Eric Clapton and Cream. But “white rooms” evokes in me a feeling, too, of the infinite, of the infinitely pure, or a place where purity might be housed in contrast to the messy, chimerical world of shifting lights and shadows, mercurial appearances and disappearances.
The Collected Poems is a big book. It contains the bulk of Sobin’s published books of poetry, beginning with Wind Chrysalid’s Rattle, and ending with a collection of new poems. There is also an introduction by Andrew Joron and Andrew Zawacki, who refer to Sobin as a “somewhat minor, mandarin poet, claiming a venerated group of admirers and apologists but lacking the wider public that many writers, uneasy descendants of Kafka’s hunger artist, often welcome even as they abjure its intrusion.”
Kafka’s hunger artist is an apt allusion; to take the world stage in the guise of a poet is almost automatically a renunciation, a via negativa. Unless, of course, one seeks the embrace of academia, still a risky career move, but by no means an abnegation of worldly concerns. And please, let’s leave slams and rap out of the picture; it ain’t poetry. It’s Lady Gaga.
Andrews and Zawacki go on to describe the world of contemporary poetry in the United States with blunt candor, situating Sobin within a milieu that has become sadly corroded by careerism and the drive for prestige. The paragraph merits reproduction here as a concluding statement:
Sobin’s writing, unusually attentive to the natural world, language’s spoors and spirals, and the mysteries that ligature one to the other, is a subtle form of communication that has refused to beg for attention, demanding instead the patient, voluntary hospitality of the reader. This is an exigency not easily heard, let alone answered, by participants in an increasingly careerist American literary milieu, where prizes and pedigrees, university prestige, and divisive politico-aesthetic loyalties have come to dominate the would-be poetic discourse. On the contrary, as Theodore Enslin once lauded, Sobin was an amateur, in the highest sense of the word: a lover of the thing itself. Sobin’s was a lifelong investigation of, investment in, and vigilance toward the tiniest, most peripheral of objects and abstractions; he sought to glorify them like Hopkins, whom he claimed as his favorite poet, and offered antiphons to “the psalm, burnt / to a glass / whisper,” that Traherne had penned with a similarly quiet profile. “My entire work,” Sobin once confided, “might be seen as a transcript of sorts, celebrating margins.”