Wax World, poetry by Robert Mittenthal
Language is a transcendent act. It allows egress. It allows ingress. It allows progress. It dilates the mind and provides Shakespeare’s Prospero with his power. When meaning closes in on itself, we find ourselves in hell. It is by an opposition to the prescribed order that consciousness is advanced. Doctrine and code are embedded in language because it is through language that we find our most essential link to community. The power that is in poetry is its infinite capacity to disrupt assumption and reinvigorate mind and perception. It seeks to establish what is alien and ultramondane in language, to actualize a counterimpulse to the taming influences of the institution, and to reflect the inherent madness of the institution itself. One must always strike a balance between the ideations of the public and the immanent truths of our own perception. There is a pathology in each. “What is realized is what has always been,” writes Creeley, “that our words are literally our world, that their permission, what they lead us to, is all we have.”
The most powerful poetry transcends the antagonisms of existence while simultaneously giving them voice and form. This is why I find such compelling absorption and joy in Mittenthal’s work. His language is wildly and wonderfully mercurial. The words possess a marvelous opacity. They are regarded, and treated, as facts. Facts that may be contorted and welded, like steel, like those crazy contraptions Tanguely constructed, assemblages that embody a reality unique to their construction, and which may begin going crazy at any minute, so look out. It’s a risky business, but Mittenthal employs wit and humor to prevent the work from slipping into solipsistic gibberish. His poetry reflects the idiosyncrasies and idioms of the business world with a language that is phantasmagoric and hallucinatory, and relishes the plasticity and suppleness that are such pressing attributes of the verbal environment. Hence, the significance of wax.
Wax is, of course, a malleable substance. We associate it with candles and statues, seals and lipstick, mascara and shoe polish. Chiefly domestic items. But what is most marvelous about this substance, what makes it so fascinating and fantastical, is its translucence and pliability. In this respect, is makes a marvelous analogue to language, particularly the language of poetry, in which words lose their transparency and acquire the numinous translucence of wax. Wax has the limpidity of water and amalgam of mass. It melts in an instant, but congeals even quicker. A world of such material would be a various and wonderful world.
Wax World is divided into six sections in the language of software updates: 1.1, 1.2, 1.3, 2.1, 2.2, 2.3. This is significant, and a rather wry allusion by the author, since modern technology is a major concern throughout this work. “Value Unmapped,” a long, nine-page poem in the last section of the book, answers a question from Verizon: “How do you feel now?”
This has become the question. There’s a need to constantly check the power of connection. It’s a visceral gratification of limitless reach. I don’t so much hear you as I feel a connection or I don’t. After Reagan this is all that matters in politics, at least most of the time. In a sort of reverse short hand, the culture reads only gestures -- the emoticons, the semaphores of videoclips, soundbytes that sidle into perception with an immediate sheen. If there’s a lesson to be learned, it’s that I really do need to sound more like Lorne Greene. Power is transmitted one word at a time and diction is more efficacious than to content. Already, you’re either with me or against me -- eyes diverting to another page.
The sense of irony here is palpable. The word ‘emoticon,’ for instance, humorously conflates the robotic automatism of technology with what is most volatile and unstable in human experience, the technology of the public sphere with what is most intimate and private in life. This is contrasted with the droll allusion to Lorne Greene, the quintessential western patriarch of the TV show Bonanza. The phrase “you’re either with me or against me” alludes to the infantile formula of George W. Bush, a childish Manichaeanism that has defined the woefully brutish and unsophisticated tenor of American diplomacy this last decade. It also registers that weird American longing for the simplicity and seeming innocence of the West, a world captured and celebrated in the very electronic media that has so removed it from our experience.
“The Assembly Line of C” evinces an agonistic pathos, a poignant and at times mordant critique of the modern, technological world. It is imbued with conflict. The language is pugilistic, the syntax disjunctive. Images and lines thrust forward like fists of semiotic meat. The first line, “Whose machine abstracts,” alludes to the abstract machine assemblages of Gilles Deleuze and Félix Guattari in their book A Thousand Plateaus: Capitalism and Schizophrenia, in which a philosophy of language is elaborated in terms of content and expression. Content is exterior and corporeal and expression is an intervening, incorporeal phenomenon that acts to slow bodies down or speed them up, separate or combine them, delimit then in a different way. Expression puts bodies in a state of continuous transformation. It is a dynamic, a speech act that inserts itself within the content - the body - and animates it. Gives it motion, acceleration, deceleration, drive, impulse, symbiosis.
Three lines down, “As alive as a sugar cube / in a horse’s mouth,” startles with its vividness and sensuality, its exhilarating immediacy.
The sixth stanza down convenes, humorously, with businesslike acumen: “Give me bullet points please.” “Strapped in or tightly coveted / A sort of terrific joy,” discombobulates with conflicting signals. The last line “Partially yours as if contingent or bound to a nest of ifs,” finishes off with lunatic finesse. A “nest of ifs” incubates a wistful if rudimentary image of comfort. How does one picture a word? Little birds chirping. Little verbs burping. Eggs hatching eidolons of linguistic down.
‘If’ is a conjunction indicating uncertainty, ambiguity, or supposition. To suggest it might have material form is to reify the very condition of uncertainty. Which is fundamentally an imagined circumstance. So that to ask which came first, the chicken or the if, is to whirl the word into diploblastic coalescence. And yes, if came first. The chicken does not actually exist.
Mittenthal presents the world to us much as it is: volatile, contradictory, bizarre. His frequent allusions to office-like business settings and modern computer technology serve to enhance this rather hallucinatory realm of phantasmagoric tongue mud and exploding modules. “Since the poet is as vulnerable to the spell of accepted reality as anyone else,” writes Nick Piombino,
she or he must somehow find a way to concentrate the attentional beam on areas of experience that were hirtheto… not apprehendable… the poet must find some way of directing the gaze of consciousness onto literally inconceivably complex and entangled linkages between various modes of experience… Although indeterminacy is one way to describe the oscillation (or discontinuity) that underlies the perceptual process, this blur is actually one state in the focusing of the attentional beam… These oscillations may form an exchange of energy so great as to cause a shift in magnitude of attentional focus… the poetic state of consciousness… makes possible an expansion of the absorbability of experiential data by the attentional mind. Intense wakefulness is stimulated by an oscillation of types of mental attention-reverie, obsessive attention to detail, symbolic transpositions… Such a conception of poetics would be a call for actuality over reality, actuality consisting not only of the area of experience now available to the attentional focus, but all actualities which can be felt and sensed in the total experiential process.
There are three poems titled “Diseconomy of Scale,” the first of which is a long poem whose paratactic structure permits multiple realities to act upon one another simultaneously. The lines are funny, sharply satirical, dense, slippery, convulsive, and inventive. “A minor in money.” “Majorette cartoon with those fuck you eyes.” “The flicker of game show fixtures -- now he’s a vowel I’d like to buy.” “Yes, the body is overrated. Next question?” “Like any successful new technology, each poem must justify its own existence.” “An exile from the land of pillow talk.” “One pulls oneself off to the shoulder for some poetic advice.”
Mittenthal is a trickster poet. There are also five poems all titled “Wax World.” Will the real “Wax World” please stand up? The first begins energetically, “It is my signature block = i.d. comma / whack whack carriage return / lookuptype M underscore,” full of sound and fury, signifying signifying signifying. The last line of the last “Wax World” reads “a kind of inedible pun in the truth-seeking missile.” In between are lines of elliptical telekinesis, my favorite being “He is the Yul Brunner of bent spoons.”
“Page Up,” a play on “word up,” Mittenthal, for my money, being a quintessential “page poet,” meaning he brings a great deal of intelligence and meticulous attention to the page and a charming demeanor to the stage, begins “The meaning is an other -- what words are made of.” This sums up Mittenthal’s poetic philosophy nicely. The one-to-one correspondence between signifier and signified does not exist. We can never arrive at a fully satisfied state of clarity. In the space between signifier and signified, is a world. Is a universe. Is the wax of communion.