Smelling Mary, poetry by James Heller Levinson. Howling Dog Press, 2008. 205 pages. $19.95.
Beginning most notably with Mallarmé at the close of the 19th century, there has been a fierce emphasis on the materiality of language in western poetry. The subject matter melts into the medium itself, the language. The true subject of the poem is the propeller that drives it: its torque, cough, rumble and grease. Its amplitude is in its interplay, its syntax and words. The words are everything. Multiplicities of sound and sense, microorganisms, mad particles, a whole galaxy of sonorous energies creating and abolishing their order in a semiotic field of hectic transformation. The mind of the reader is, of course, central to this. Language is nothing without participation.
Heller Levinson’s Smelling Mary offers itself as an extreme example of linguistic concretion. Each concrete assemblage is a multiplicity, a pattern, a becoming, an actuality. The parts are essential. And it is the smallest parts, prepositions in particular, that bear the heaviest loads.
Everything pivots on the preposition ‘with.’ ‘With’ is a hinge. It is the device upon which everything is laid out, swings, depends, vacillates.
What we are talking about is something like the Contiguity Disorder Roman Jacobson describes as a form of agrammatism, or “word heap,” in which “word order becomes chaotic; the ties of grammatical coordination and subordination, whether concord or government, are dissolved.” The hierarchy of linguistic units is abolished and reduced to a single level. Words are stripped of contextual encrustations. Metonymic bursts explode totalizing structures into sumptuous volatility. Energies unbind. Particles collide. This leads to what Jacobson terms a “telegraphic style” in which words constellate higgledy-piggledy in a feverous blast of semiotic elation. But this analogy is only partly true in relation to Smelling Mary. The word ‘disorder’ suggests a malfunctioning, a pathology, and that is clearly not the case here. There is evident a lusty and radical proposal. There is integrity. There is intent. While rapture and delirium are certainly not foreign to Heller Levinson’s poetry, there is an underlying objective that has been scrupulously worked out and advanced within the pages of this book.
Heller Levinson describes his strategy in what he refers to as a “Hinge Theory,” and includes an essay titled “Hinge Theory Diagnostic: Whereby Operations of Hinge Are Inspected In ‘With Insinuation.’” “With,” he emphasizes, “is the pivot (in this case the prepositional pivot) whose function is to spring (to unleash, to unmoor) the particle (in this case, ‘insinuation’) into a climate of free fall and unpredictability.” “While journeying through the Hinge Apparatus,” he continues, “we begin dropping the baggage of conventional definition and connotation, continually being re-oriented with linguistic process, while orienteering through the processional relationships. Thus, ensuing is a series of new understandings, objectives, subjectives and complexities for the word(s) and the relationships they engender.”
The end result of Heller Levinson’s philosophy of word assemblage, is a sense of rawness not unlike the paintings and sculptures of Jean Dubuffet. Dubuffet’s primary thrust was to present images that gloried in their eccentricity, their distortions and craziness, their flagrant derangement, their wonderful hilarity. “There is no art without intoxication,” declared Dubuffet, “but I mean a mad intoxication! Let reason teeter! Delirium! The highest degree of delirium! Plunged in burning dementia! Art is the most enrapturing orgy within man's reach. Art must make you laugh a little and make you a little afraid. Anything as long as it doesn't bore.”
Heller Levinson’s poetry evinces this same hectic quality, this urgency to make things catastrophically raw, stripped of mediation. Remove any and all inhibiting forces. Pertinent as breath, tart in its own logic.
Here, for example, is “with,” on page 19:
flesh layering rich strips of interval
dispatch those ceremonies that surrender us
boast fugitives parking without meter
discovery = savour
caravels crabbed with complacency luff ambrosial broths
amphitheaters empty of monarchy
light analyzed as supine
I find the last line particularly fascinating. The image of light lying supine is quantum, huge in evocation. We see light as a physical body, a tangible entity, lying with physical force in what could be dust and stone (the previous line implies a Greek or Roman ruin). ‘Supine’ suggests both horizontality and vertebrae. A spine. The verb ‘analyzed’ takes us further into evocations of spectral display, colors and waves mirrored in scrupulous pools of luminous information.
Equally fascinating is the telegraphic style alluded to earlier, the bareness of the overall structure, the compact aggregate of the line “caravels crabbed with complacency luff ambrosial broths,” with its jumbled imagery of ornate ships and humor encumbered with conflicting descriptors, (‘crabbed,‘ ‘ambrosial,‘ ‘complacency‘), and the strange conjectural pairing of “testudinal dismissals“ with its reference to turtles (what is it to be dismissed by a turtle?). “Luff,” a nautical term meaning to sail closer into the wind. This, it would appear, is what the poet is doing: sailing closer into the forces of language, the vagaries of words.
With the equational line “discover = savour” Heller Levinson reveals another quality pertinent to his writing which is its sensuality. The coupling of intellectual knowledge, the act of discovery tantamount to a delight in tasting something, to ‘savour’ (it’s interesting that Heller Levinson preserves the French spelling), clearly suggests an engagement with the world that is as libidinal as it is spry, primal as a “philological claw.”
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