Scared Text, poetry by Eric Baus
The Center For Literary Publishing, Colorado State University, 2011
When Saussure developed his theory of the diacritical structure of language, that is to say the arbitrary relationship between signifier and signified, he might have imagined a linguistic universe such as that developed by Eric Baus in this collection of poetry. The word ‘fabulous’ comes to mind, not just as the enthusiastic adjective of praise and endorsement, but in its deeper sense as a sign of the inconceivable, the phenomenal, the marvelous, the mythic. A world of thought in which the face of the universe is a provocation of choice and exception, an immunity to the stultifying claims of the drably empirical.
Yet, what we have is not a sacred text, but a scared text. Which might also read ‘scarred.’
Scared, scarred, scoriated.
Nothing depends on a wheelbarrow.
The wheelbarrow is a sign, glazed with semanticism, beside the white chimeras.
In “Votive Scores,” for example, we have a vigorous play on dialectical offertories:
If eels lie vertically inside the statue or old bees coat its surface, a needle will point to the center of my hide. Owls murmured up a piece of green cloth. Hard ash topped me. The birds it entailed people the treetops, stripped me of my coos. Un-tuned doves flew elsewhere, worried their drones would shrink inside my ears. A second split occurred when its eyes bloomed red. Votive scores pushed open the view. Here, the street was both omen and throat. The swarming sky sparrowed until day withered, until the statue punched out of its skin. He was wearing his own arms. His house showed. Ants formed and he scorched their trails. Sing rendered. he trilled, Sing posed.
The central trope here, of course, is music. A score is music written down in such a way that the parts for different performers appear vertically above one another, i.e. “eels lie vertically inside the statue or old bees coat its surface” is a score embedded in the wax of the imagination. A votive offering is one or more objects deposited in a sacred place in order to gain favor with supernatural forces.
The sentence “Here, the street was both omen and throat” mingles the ideal with the real, the theoretical with the empirical. An omen is a phenomenon of the mind. A throat is a biological reality. A street leads to places. A throat, like a street, channels the air from our lungs to the larynx where it is vibrated into sound then led to the mouth where it is shaped into syllables.
Music is a perfect trope for this work because music is non-representative. It is what it is. It refers to nothing. The sound is all. The pattern is all. Harmony, rhythm, melody, and pitch. Conflict and resolution. Music is a sacred analogue of scared life.
The number of animals in this piece is interesting. Eels, bees, owls, birds, ants. Small animals. Two species, bees and ants, noted for their swarms. Owls for their nocturnal habits, wisdom, and omen of death. Eels are weird. Slippery. Though good eating. And sometimes charged with electricity. Taken as signs, these creatures recommend tonal analogues for sensory experience.
Sounds are much easier to produce, combine, perceive, and identify. This is why music appeals with such immediacy to our feelings and rock stars fill stadiums and even the most mediocre musicians are guaranteed an audience larger than that of our greatest poets. Words make us think. They might be signs with no actual connection to their referents, but they do engage the intellect, and most people would, quite naturally, not have to do with their intellect. Intellection is work.
Poets like Baus bring us to the frontier of language, that place where words as signs of arbitrary connection to the real are at their slipperiest. In “Owl Wool,” a short prose poem of three sentences, we find a density of assonance and alliteration burning in a conglomerate study of the relationship between words and music:
The sky fermented a cotton tarp. The baffled voiceover spread. Iris’s dove scored itself with scales while owl wool coated the cliffs.
I especially like the assonantal and semantic play on ‘scored’ and ‘scales.’ Scales can be appreciated both as musical signs for the melodic material of music and the thin, plate-like lamina on lizards and snakes. Also, the play on ‘owl’ and ‘wool’ followed by the alliteration of ‘coated’ and ‘cliffs.’
Baus likes brevity. There are few pieces of length in this collection. “A Delphi,” which begins “Minus tried to write his own bible It began, So what, saliva. So what, milk,” is one of the longer pieces, at six pages, and has a narrative tinge. It evokes, rather than tells, a story, switching back and forth from the third person to first person point of view. “I like lies,” it is tellingly stated, and “I like hills. They feel like hands.” The central character is Minus. One thinks of the Minos of Greek fable, and the numerical sign ‘minus,’ in which things are subtracted, taken away. There is an interesting parallel here, since Minos, the King of Crete who every year made King Aegeus pick seven men and seven women to enter Daedalus’s labyrinth to be eaten by the Minotaur, became a judge of the dead in Hades, and ‘minus’ as a numerical sign means to subtract, take away. Consequently, we have a Minus who begins a bible by mocking the very language used to write the bible, i.e. mocks the semantic gravity of saliva and milk.
The Delphi also bears significance within the above context since it was the most important oracle in the classical Greek world and a site for the worship of Apollo who took residence there after slaying the Python, the deity that previously inhabited that spot and protected the navel of the Earth.
I find it encouraging that this is a collection of prose poetry and won the Colorado prize for poetry. This strongly suggests the acceptance of the prose poem as a legitimate poetic form. Poetry, it would appear, is evolving into organisms with multiple limbs. It is allowed more breadth, it is less constricted by dusty Victorian ideas of metric structure. It is given the expansive breath of Olson’s projective verse and Whitman’s gymnastic reach. It is more profoundly physical. Its practitioners and architects have been eager to demonstrate the microcosmic possibilities of Joseph Cornell’s boxes. A place, like a house, in which strange furniture and the bricolage of experience pose fascinating problems to the agile mind.