Either Way I'm Celebrating, Poetry & Comics by Sommer
Birds, LLC, 2011
The Source, Prose Poetry by Noah Eli Gordon
Futurepoem Books, 2011
Novel Pictorial Noise, Poetry and Prose Poetry by Noah Eli
Harper Perennial, 2007
Last March Sommer Browning and Noah Eli Gordon visited Seattle to do a reading at Pilot Books on Capitol Hill. Pilot Books has, alas, since closed its doors, and so ends what had been a charming little space for poetry readings. I congratulate Pilot Book’s proprietor, Summer Robinson, for providing a relaxed, mercantile space for experimental writing in a world of growing illiteracy and harsh, capitalistic aggression, and wish her luck on her future endeavors.
After the reading, I purchased three books from Sommer (Sommer Sommer, not Summer Summer)and Noah at a generously discounted price. Sommer’s Either Way I’m Celebrating, and Noah’s The Source and Novel Pictorial Noise.
Browning is a cartoonist, and brings a cartoonist’s quirky sense of humor to her poetry. The work is frisky, spirited, and charmingly eccentric. It is also highly perceptive, smart, and imaginative. While humor is one of the more prominent elements of her work, it doesn’t lessen the impact of the words, which mingle drollery with trenchant perceptions of contemporary life. Much of the work reads like aperçus of present-day absurdities, concise packages of colorful provocation, flippant and poking, but never mean-spirited or crotchety. There is a strong current of verbal play moving through them, a keen sense of affable subversion, an evident awareness of the inherent instability of words and a willing sensibility alert and ready to exploit this feature to the hilt. Here, for example, is an untitled piece from the section titled “To The Housesitter,”
It’s the hour’s soundtrack.
Little train wheels
strain against their rails.
The preservation department
forgot to fall back.
The archivist subtracts a rebellious hour.
She wraps tissue paper around a man’s
ephemera. A habit keeps the chairs on the floor.
The archivist catalogs a blueberry for the library of beds:
½ inch diameter, blue, soft, sweet –
There was a séance inside, and now her belly
is a ghost.
In the section titled “Vale Tudo,” which Browning reveals is a Portuguese phrase meaning “anything goes,” and is a Brazilian mixed-martial arts combat fighting style, Browning presents a diaristic series of small, informal pieces describing the idiosyncrasies of the motel/hotel milieu, a road trip of poetic fragmentation and semantic Jiu-Jitsu. A simple breakfast, the kind one eats when one is not quite awake and the disorientating effects of the road have mildly compromised one’s comfort zone, putting one’s perceptions a bit off-balance, is described in odd, metaphysical twists: “A plate of eggs, zigzags of bacon, and slices of toast. A Modern wrote about this in his noblest tractatus: breakfast must be analyzed on the basis of reason, not faith. Hush, the sugar’s shaking. Hush, her wrist clicks as she pours. Hush, that your heart was open as this cup.”
Gordon’s The Source has an immediate feeling of solemnity. The cover is a dark puce with the textured, imitation leather graininess of a bible. The work is divided into six parts and is a prose poem whose genesis is driven by (you guessed it) “The Source.” It reads fluently, very smoothly, in a manner very similar to John Ashbery’s Three Poems, or Rosmarie Waldrop’s The Reproduction Of Profiles, with a tone that is quite solemn on the surface, assuming, as it does, the language of philosophic inquiry, but with a very acute subversive current running underneath, so that the words, while referring constantly to the source they attempt to define, create a sensation of infinite flux, a feeling of words being liberated from the exigencies of semantic pertinence and set free to self-perpetuate a discursive, verbal adventure. The more “the source” is defined, the more it eludes definition.
A source is, of course, in its most literal sense, a spring. Gordon exploits this metaphor in a rich unraveling of chimerical digression. The words come bubbling from a propositional font or wellspring in the geology of the imagination, engorge from tributaries of philosophic immersion, percolate among a tangle of rhizomatic roots, and emerge, ceaselessly and serially, in emerald streams of evanescent inquiry. Inquiries of their origin and nature; inquiries of their character and essence.
The Source of The Source is defined as being a “touch sadomasochistic because it suffers a sense of its own belatedness, hates fussing with nature, and would like the world to be all weeds,” “a Roman shirt stitched from the scraps of various sources, keeping us warm,” “a representation of representations,” “If it can be seen as imperative and prescriptive, this deification of the Source knows but a single law -- itself!,” “In these circumstances, the Source confines itself to a string of paradoxes and takes refuge behind a barrage of high-sounding words,” “If anyone asks you what the Source is, send them to their own senses, because anything written can seem like straw,” “The Source’s stories or episodes are not simply added to each other, or juxtaposed with each other, but constitute a cumulative and organic development, one where customs and social arrangements, like a dog barking in the backyard, account for the phenomenon of consciousness.”
Aha! Consciousness! The Source, like consciousness, “makes a concept consisting of nothing but its distinguishing characteristics, and unceasingly dislocates itself in a chain of differing and deferring substitutions.” How do we know the world? We explain ourselves, and our situation in the world, by means of propositions. But propositions are doomed to communicate a new sense, however they may, with old words. Familiar, everyday words, words people exchange at the bus stop and drugstore counter, workspace and intimacy of home, but whose representations must be tweaked and twisted to articulate some phenomenon outside their usual representations. Tweaked by crazy people who delve into the mysteries of things, scribble their thoughts on paper, and call themselves poets. Sacred Technicians, Dharma Bums, Pscychodynamic Hockey Pucks and Cladogenetic Calliope Chimes.
Gordon reveals in the note at the back of The Source his process for putting the work together. He avers that between January of 2008 to September of 2009, he culled from page 26 of “nearly ten thousand books at the Denver Public Library,” bits of language which he fused together, occasionally altering some nouns to read “the Source,” and stitching together a verbal flux, a kind of perpetual motion machine, since works such as this never achieve their goal, nor ever pretend to an achieved, totalizing conclusion. There is never a Sum, but dim sum, the history of the world told and retold in verbal dumplings, mixtures of syllable and dough that are baked in the mind, and served on a sheet of paper. Or sent spiralling into the air of an auditorium or coffeehouse or lodging house "inhabited by bohemian writers and artists -- a royal antidote against all kinds of infection save creating some sort of shock of moral awareness." [The Source, page 76].
Gordon also reveals that he chose the number 26 because it corresponds to the number of letters in the English alphabet and represents the numerical value of the Tetragrammaton, the four Hebrew letters that form the name of God.
“In relation to language, we are both makers and made,” observed Heraclitus. The source of our words is boundless because the driving force of our lives is boundless. Assertion alone cannot give sense to its thought because every proposition must already have a sense. What assertion asserts is the sense itself. It is circular. And because it is circular, the relation of structures is unending. Language is driven by a relation between properties that inhere in the words presenting them. Contradictions expand our perceptual and cognitive boundaries. Higher faculties of recognition than those based on logic are awakened.
Gordon’s Novel Pictorial Noise is a “composition of noise” based solidly on the quintessential palpability of signs, and the proposition that “the world’s not weirder than we think, but weirder than we can think.” Structurally, it is interesting, in that it juxtaposes a single line, or short set of lines, on the left page, and a short prose poem on the right. The words to the left are bare fragments of minimalist audacity lacking enough syntactic cohesion to hang a meaning on. In brief, a kind of noise.
The prose poems on the right are rich displays of verbal acrobatics. Here the noise conveys an imagery abundant in cartilaginous elegance. Tissues hold. Sinews clench. The poetic membrane percolates an osmosis of thermal reverie.
“It is a terrific problem that faces the poet today,” observed Hart Crane, “a world that is so in transition from a decayed culture toward a reorganization of human evaluations that there are few common terms, general denominators of speech that are solid enough or that ring with any vibration or spiritual conviction.” These words were written 86 years ago, and yet their pertinence to today’s world in the 21st century of toxic narcissism, sociopathic politicos, corporate greed, unchecked capitalist predation, Sarah Palin, WalMart, Wall Street, Walleyed Media Moguls, and polarized religions and cultures seem to have even greater resonance. Gordon’s prose poems are epistemological in flavor, but it is an epistemology in embryo, a polysemous blastocyst on the outskirts of meaning.
The idea of the picture, an image one might entertain in one’s mind, mind’s eye, as they say, is a large part of this project. The prose poem on page 35 chooses the photograph as its point of departure:
A photograph. A photograph admits. A photograph admits space. A photograph admits space around its subject. A photograph admits space around its subject’s a way to feel contained. I admit contentment with the Ajax bottle above the sink Alice Neel made from oils. I admit a train whistle, a dab of wisteria, a strip of duct tape’s upturned corner. Coincidental nonchalance or comic fortitude? I admit both, admitting this sort of disposition harbors dangerous potential. Cue the music and evening’s wash of unaccomplishment meant to make amends with whatever the day left undone does it. Now, I’m admitting a hue of a bluish green, adding color to the scene.
In the above piece, Gordon uses repetition to mimic the development of a photographic image in a tray of film emulsion, further elaborating the image with each repetition. The word ‘admit’ plays a key role, referring first to the admittance of light through a camera lens, then building on its associative meanings as a phenomenon of allowance and opening. An opening to the world. An allowance of whatever might be found in the world. This latter position is more difficult than it may seem. Delusion and denial are huge human addictions. Anyone who has experimented with hallucinogenic drugs knows that the world we normally experience through our five senses is subject to change. Senses may be dilated and discombobulated. Will the real reality please stand up?
As Wittgenstein pointed out, our sense of reality is heavily dependent on language. Propagandists all know how easy it is to manipulate people’s view of reality. Gordon’s achievement in Novel Pictorial Noise is to employ enough noise to rupture the static of mediated experience and playfully prod us to admit something new.