Poetry by Lewis Warsh
Ugly Duckling Presse, 2015
Is poetry a UFO? Are poets extraterrestrials? Yes and no. Which is to mean mainly yes and a little bit no. Which is to mean I simply don’t know.
Poetry, if it is done well, leads to an acute sense of defamiliarization, which is a kind of alien abduction, to be sure. “It is perfectly clear that language is influenced by socioeconomic conditions,” observed Victor Schklovsky in his preface to The Theory of Prose. “The word is a thing. It changes in accordance with the linguistic laws that govern the physiology of speech and so on.”
Alter language, you alter reality. To immerse yourself in a poem is to take a ride in a vehicle of defamaliarization. It is to subject ourselves to a dynamic act of perception brought into play by the poet’s technique. This is not abduction, since it is a willed condition, but the sense of alienation transmitted by the poet via the poem to the listener or reader is none the less real. The abduction may be mutual, but the world is not the same. The estrangement we feel is as penetrating and actual as any experience we’re apt to have in the realm of the imagination.
Lewis Warsh has been a prominent figure in contemporary American poetry for at least four decades. This new collection offers a variety of technique for the transport of our intellect to distant planets whose distance is relative to the scope of our interior life, far away as Mars and contingent as a dinner plate.
“Alien Abduction,” the poem on page from which this collection derives its title, begins with a line of dispassionate instability: “The line of least defense has melted away.” The tone is neutral, the lack of resistance feels resigned, calm, almost good, as if a tranquilizing drug were beginning to take effect. The following lines are a disjunctive pastiche of statements drawn from highly dissimilar aspects of life, some commonplace, some dramatic, some imagistic and mysterious, such as the sentence “An animal in a carrier left on a subway platform overnight.” The image is an abduction of alien import; one pictures the animal in a state of agitation, or look of woeful anxiety, not knowing what the animal actually is. One might assume it’s a cat, or a dog, but it might be an iguana, an anaconda, or a raccoon. The image sits there on the page, speculative, compact, and unresolved.
The following stanzas, of which there are nine in all, continue the pattern. Stanza four includes a sub-stanza rendered in italics, which begins with an odd, Piranesian image of urban squalor and then makes declarations concerning the pitfalls of love:
Brackish water cascades from faucet to
cupped hands and then disappears into
drainage system of old-fashioned tenement
apartment. Don’t complain.
You can love someone without lying.
You can love someone with equal
intensity. You can sink into the
sickness of infinitude and never
Reading Warsh is always a joy. Words bubble out of the page fresh and sparkling like water from a spring. It is a remarkable thing that poets such as John Ashbery, Alice Notley, and Lewis Warsh grow stronger and brighter as they age. Of these three, Warsh is less prone toward the oneiric and introspective and more inclined toward imagery of a quotidian, urban, experiential nature. It is the way he juxtaposes sentences in delightfully incongruous, paratactic structures that give them their energy.
Victor Shklovsky once again in Theory of Prose: “A literary work is pure form; it is neither a thing nor material but a relationship of materials.” In Alien Abduction, dissonances splash like cymbals in jazz, vibrate in the mind creating ripples, echoes, foment, words in bright mosaic, cartoons of our lives in bubbles of conversation, drifting, meandering, exploring.
Warsh’s universe is eminently social and diverting: spoons, socks, dinners, dates, a long train ride along the Hudson. This makes the title of this collection all the more ironic. One doesn’t encounter the eeriness of a Roslyn, New Mexico or anal probe aboard an alien starship so much as a gentle twist of perception. The extraterrestrials in this collection wear ivy shirttails.
In “New Travelogue,” a poem of nine short stanzas rendered in short, declarative sentences, everything pivots on the pronoun “I.” A series of events is listed, some spectacular, some mundane. The poem builds in comedic energy. The “I” of the poem appears manic. “I stumbled out of the bushes / to see a deer drink from a pool,” “I bothered friends with my troubles,” “I floated on my back in the ocean / at Maui… Took LSD in Paris and sat / on a bench in the Luxembourg Gardens,” “I missed my flight from Madrid to Lisbon,” “I wheeled a stroller down an icy New / England street… Called the suicide hotline / but no one answered,” “I sang karaoke in a bar in Tibet,” and so on, building - through geography and situation - an identity of hectic ramification.
Warsh is also a writer of fiction (Spuyten Duyvil recently published One Foot Out the Door, The Collected Stories of Lewis Warsh), and many of the pieces in Alien Abduction have the feel of fiction, short narrations whose capricious designs offer aperçus and advice concerning daily matters such as socks and underwear, or ice skating and homicide. In “Difference” (“There’s a difference between being with someone and being alone, but I can’t tell you what it is”), the narrator is not quite sure whether to be grateful to be alive or what, exactly, to do in life. Some cities to visit, perhaps: “Prague, Berlin, Vilnus, Odessa.” The overall feeling is one of blithe acceptance of life’s inherent uncertainties, the kind of negative capability that keeps life interesting and leads to adventures that - for the narrator - are whimsical velleities, like walking “the Malecón in La Paz, one last time,” or swiveling one’s “hips in time to the music, an old disco record hidden away in someone’s attic.”
“Dark Study,” for Bill Berkson, is a series of sentences remarking on a variety of events and ideas, none of which are related. A sampling of several lines - “Maybe abstraction sounds the death knell to the colloquial stammer, a tightening of the windpipe as the muffler explodes,” “You better turn on the defroster if you want to see through the windshield” - reveals the kind of incongruity that embodies the space between them, broadening the expanse of the similar in the dissimilar. “Some writers,” observed Rosmarie Waldrop in Dissonance (If You Are Interested), “are more concerned with finding ‘the right word,’ the perfect metaphor; others are more concerned with ‘what happens between’ the words, with composition, exploring the sentence and its boundaries, slidings, the gaps between fragments, the shadow zone of silence, of margins.” “Dark Study” takes this tendency to an extreme. It takes our brain into the outer space of a cosmos of sentences so constellated that each beams in independence of one another.
Again, Rosmarie Waldrop: “any use of language is a passport to the fourth dimension.”
I’ve never been abducted by aliens or had my anus probed by curious extraterrestrials, but I can tell you that life often feels like an abduction in and of itself, and that the overall feeling is often disorienting. Poetry helps with that. If, as Warsh states at the beginning of “Dark Study,” “There’s something we don’t know about that’s happening elsewhere,” it only makes sense to keep probing for it, feeling the walls for a light switch as we stumble about in the dark.