Monday, December 2, 2013

Eidolons and Elves

The Not Forever, poetry by Keith Waldrop. Omnidawn Publishing, 2013.  

Call it serendipity. Call it synchronicity. Call it Woodpile Geometry or Compound Probability. Call it a Happy Bright Penny of Epistemic Relativism or Sudden Pullulation of Loop Quantum Gravity in a One-Bedroom Möbius Syzygy, but at the same time I found myself immersed in The Ontology of Physical Objects by Mark Heller, and discovering that when we get down to a small enough level where a given particle has no real matter but is a mathematical tendency with a flavor that is up or down or strange or charmed, Keith Waldrop’s new collection of poetry from Omnidawn, The Not Forever, found its way into my hands.  

The Not Forever begins with a quote by Niels Bohr: “The word reality is also a word…” Consequently, I knew what I was in for. A brief flip of the pages revealed a poetry of mostly short lines surrounded by a lot of space, which is often a sign of elliptical fragmentation, polymeric iridescences piquant as a pink mosquito, the layout so visibly evident as a component of space that the reader knows instantly the words are not entirely trustworthy as units of semantic value and significance, but take their heft and hue from the dynamic of interrelation. Poetic structure is always a fusion of ideas with the material, a magnetic field in which the solidity of symbol and sensory qualities are rattled by abstraction. But when the lines are this condensed and there is evident an intense focus on the atomistic qualities of language, each word is freshly initial, creative, generative. Structure is laid bare. Space is a-temporal, a-logical, abstract. It is never oral; hence it is pure, authentic, autonomous. Space gives the poetic line its éclat. Signs have meaning in relation to other signs. Things get mathematical. And slippery.  

It was characteristic of Niels Bohr to respond to ontological questions by professing a lack of interest in reality and shifting the emphasis to language. The full passage from which Keith has taken this quote (from “The Philosophy of Neils Bohr” by Aage Petersen) reads as the following:  

We depend on our words… Our task is to communicate experience and ideas to others. We must strive continually to extend the scope of our description, but in such a way that we cannot say what is up and what is down. The word “reality” is also a word, a word which we must learn to use correctly. 

The Not Forever is divided by Roman numeral into eleven sections. Section IV, titled “Space-Time Descriptions,” is a series of nine poems which include the lines “summer // and barbarous // sun feels / cold,” “palace, a different smell,” “imaginary lines, imaginal / rules // sea,” “door / out of another world, not // rows of teeth but // separate systems, placed / in the center of my / mouth, three // thick walled cities,” and “world // as if // opposite // as // if world.” The vigorous blend of sensation and abstract thought in these lines, coupled with the dissonant amalgam of imagery, generate an exquisite confusion, a domain of the imagination in which the apprehension of homelessness, of a decentered subjectivity flooded with ecstatic Being, finds expression in a language that is set in continual motion. The lines are brief, taut, tactile. They are set in space like stones in a creek to help with a crossing. The immediate impression is one of simplicity, but that is a deception. They’re not quiet epiphanies of eastern poetry, à la Cid Corman, but the evocative propositions of a physicist working equations out with words rather than mathematical symbols. The sense of motion comes from the interplay of contrasts; it is a function of space and time free to turn in various directions.  

There is an analogue in music: by dividing the world of sound into definite areas and shifting movement from major to minor, composers mirror the interplay of forces pervading and procreating the universe.  

The world itself is revealed to us in fragments. Reality is multi-dimensional, keyed to our five senses. Beliefs have a hard time stabilizing. Experience, which itself is composed of thousands of simultaneous events, is most honestly related in fragmentation.  

The many allusions to science, to quantum mechanics, evident in Keith Waldrop’s work calls to mind those wonderful remarks Louis Zukofsky made in his essay on poetry in the collection Prepositions. In particular, his comparison of poetry to the rigors of science: 

To think clearly then about poetry it is necessary to point out that its aims and those of science are not opposed or mutually exclusive; and that only the more complicated, if not finer, tolerances of number, measure and weight that define poetry make it seem imprecise as compared to science, to quick readers of instruments. It should be said rather that the most complicated standards of science  -  including definitions, laws of nature and theoretic constructions  -  are poetic, like the motion of Lorentz’ single electron and the field produced by it that cannot 'make itself felt in our experiments, in which we are always concerned with immense numbers of particles, only the resultant effects produced by them are perceptible to our senses.’  

On page 65 of The Not Forever, the single line “A relativity of the taut string,” fascinates me. The picture of a string is clean and easy. The qualifier ‘taut’ identifies it as either a guitar or piano string. Though it occurs to me it might also be the string of a lute, violin, cello, Finnish jouhikko or Chinese huluhu. It might not even be attached to a musical instrument. It is my mind that attached it to a musical instrument. Or, rather, it is the qualifier ‘taut’ that nudged my mind to create a picture of a string on a musical instrument. It could also be the string of a pendulum swaying back and forth as the earth turns, or possibly a fish, striped marlin, wahoo or skipjack tuna. The word ‘relativity,’ which also happens to be the subject of the sentence, is what makes the string vibrate, gives it resonance, resilience, a palpable presence.  

Relativity implies movement. Implies indeterminacy, quasars, pulsars, immense distances in space. Distances so immense that time and space expand into semantic shampoo, viscous translucencies oscillating and rippling with cosmic forces. The line and its seeming simplicity carry a charge that is fantastically complex, bundles of energy traveling in transverse waves.  

The line appears as the last of four poems in section V, with the mysterious title “also a fountain [re-buildings].” The first poem, whose lines are longer than most of the poems in the collection and approximate the more neutral rhythms of prose, are an interweaving of texts, one of which is from a very short story in Icelandic Folktales and Legends edited by Jacqueline Simpson called “The Origin of Elves,” and concerns a lost traveler who is granted the rather ballsy request to sleep with one of the daughters of a “mature woman” but discovers that she has no body. She tells him that she is a spirit, and as such “I cannot give you pleasure.” The otherworldly character of these lines is accented by a series of other fragmentary lines that appear to be from a Greek translation of the New Testament, the scene in which Jesus breaks bread, gives portions to his disciples, and tells them that the bread is his body, “which is given for you. Do this in remembrance of me.”  

The irony here is that since the authorship of these lines is somewhat dubious, and may in part be Keith Waldrop, or not at all the product of Keith Waldrop, but rather fragments gleaned from reading, Keith Waldrop’s “body” is not here either. It is a world of signs. It is a domain of symbols and otherworldly shadows, eidolons and elves.  

The otherworldly character of this section, with its clear implication of non-existent bodies and transcendent realities, reminds me of Mallarmé’s chimerical bouquet of flowers in his prose poem essay “Crisis of Verse,” in which he writes: 

What good is the marvel of transposing a fact of nature into its vibratory near-disappearance according to the play of language, however: if it is not, in the absence of the cumbersomeness of a near or concrete reminder, the pure notion. 

I say: a flower! And, out of the oblivion where my voice casts every contour, insofar as it is something other than the known bloom, there arises, musically, the very idea in its mellowness; in other words, what is absent from every bouquet. 

As opposed to a denominative and representative function, as the crowd first treats it, speech, which is primarily dream and song, recovers, in the Poet’s hands, of necessity in an art devoted to fictions, its virtuality.

Words, when it becomes apparent that they do not have any real connection with the things to which they refer, go further than fulfill the dreary functions of communication; they negate the physical reality to which they refer and assume a different kind of presence on the page of a book, sheet of paper, or vibrations of a voice in the air.  

The Not Forever is a crepuscular world in which allusions to quantum mechanics intermingle with citations from fairy tales and quotations from the Bible. Dream and particle create shadows of correspondence with (as Keith phrases it) the “dense tangle cluttering” the “junkyard of matter” that constitutes what we call reality.  

Or “Oort’s garden, gently raked…” 

I’m not entirely sure who Oort is, but it might be Jan van Oort, creator of a comic strip and children’s book character called Paulus the Woodnome. Paulus is the keeper of a wood and is helped by an owl named Oehoeboeroe (pronounced Oohoobooroo), a raven named Salomo, and a badger named Gregorius. There are also visitors to the wood, including the fish-horse named Joris, giants and acorn men. 

It may also be a reference to the Oort Cloud, a hypothesized spherical cloud of icy protoplanetary green dust grains named after Dutch astronomer Jan Oort predicted to lie roughly a light-year from the sun (and which, coincidentally, was reported in the news today in connection with the Comet ISON, "a shining green candle in the solar wind," passing near the sun in the region of the Oort Cloud; there was hope that at least a remnant of the comet might survive; it did not.).

I'm guessing that Oort's Garden, whatever it may be, is a pretty terrific sort of garden whose flowers might be called into existence by wand, syllable, or vibrations in the air.


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