Sunday, June 19, 2011

Two From Burning Deck

Four Cut-ups, or The Case of the Restored Volume, poetry by David Lespiau, translation by Keith Waldrop
Burning Deck, 2010

engulf - enkindle, poetry by Anja Utler, translation by Kurt Beals
Burning Deck, 2010

Four Cut-ups, or The Case of the Restored Volume, may be the only book of poetry to indicate the method of its production in the title. This suggests a kind of baldness, an open declaration of strategy, and poetic philosophy. It is like entering a building before it is fully constructed, so that the beams, anchor bolts, and butt joints are exposed. There is the smell of freshly sawn wood and plaster. Voices echo. Buckets and stepladders punctuate the space.

Four Cut-ups has four sections. The poems are untitled. Vocabulary and imagery suggest shared source material for each section, which are titled “Alan, Benjy, Billy…,” “The reproduction of the seascape is unsigned,” “Iris & Bang-Utot,” and “Sucre in French is not sugar in English.”

“The cut-up method brings to writers the collage, which has been used by painters for fifty years,” observes William Burroughs in The Third Mind, “And used by the moving and still camera.”

In fact all street shots from movie or still cameras are by the unpredictable factors of passerby and juxtaposition cut-ups. And photographers will tell you that often their best shots are accidents… writers will tell you the same. The best writing seems to be done almost by accident but writers until the cut-up method was made explicit -- all writing is in fact cut-ups; I will return to this point -- had no way to produce the accident of spontaneity. You cannot will spontaneity. But you can introduce the unpredictable spontaneous factor with a pair of scissors.

The method is simple. Here is one way to do it. Take a page. Like this page. Now cut down the middle and across the middle. You have four sections: 1 2 3 4… one two three four. Now rearrange the sections placing section four with section one and section two with section three. And you have a new page.

“thought sugars” begins the poem on page 18 of the first section.

thought sugars
the storm / not
water, cognitive
discomfiture of
the bait in place
and position of
fact, after all o-
range is orage save
for n letters in a fine
rain of blue silk
- the gentle rain
its contour

orage, in French, means storm. The poem’s disjunctive structure is an analogue for the chaos of a storm. There is an acute feeling of velocity and turbulence tearing at the poem’s structure, as if the force within were almost too great for the poem’s containment. Disjunction both arouses and defies coherence. The poem’s subject is identical to its structure. Syntax rattles like a can of nuts and bolts. The action of the poem is under high compression. It could explode at any minute.

The poem on page 25, in the second section, presents a calmer climate. The subject is the seashore.

twice at the surface
of the sea and its waves
the representation
of water’s color
is bad. Shot of calm
sea. Slices. Fish
The other noises, voices
across the room
start up again. Lemon, housefly
glass egg raring
to reproduce

This is a meta-poem whose subject is the nature of representation itself, summed up nicely in the last pretty word, verisimilitude. It’s modesty of size and minimalist bareness belie a richness of information. “Twice at the surface” alludes to Heraclitus and his famous axiom about never being able to step into the same river twice. “Water’s color” refers both to the actual color of the water, but also the rather tame watercolors we often find adorning the walls of motel rooms. “Slices” refers both to slices of fish and the poem’s method of production. Two simple words, lemon and housefly, generate an entire milieu: a room in which someone is squeezing, or just squeezed, a lemon, which has drawn a housefly. We see the room clearly, like a painting by Jean Baptiste Chardin, or Fairfield Porter. It’s a calm scene, which is duplicated in a glass egg, a piece of egg-shaped glasswork, perhaps, reflecting the objects in the room, and so producing a verisimilitude, a world doubled by reflection.

I was startled the first time I opened Utler’s engulf -- enkindle. The work is so elemental. Utler’s poems are highly similar to Lespiau’s, they are small, fragmented, disjunctive, with no apparent subjectivity, though she makes no open declaration of her method of construction. She is a trifle less minimalistic, giving us a bit more description, a few more adjectives, and there is a peculiarly romantic flavor. Romantic in the sense Schiller intended it: underlying beauty is the sublime, which is a force of terrific power, too great for our mortal senses, and contends against reason while leading us to a higher, moral sense of the universe. Here, I am in danger of reading too much into Utler’s poetry, or misinterpreting it altogether, but this I do know: it is full of turbulence. The lines halt and burst and fracture because of the tremendous energy underlying its production.

In the margin to the immediate left of the poem on page 16, are two words: encounter: escape. These serve, like a chapter heading, to suggest the circumstance of the poem.

but feel only: stagger, well, murmur -- a murmuring
stream, so it’s called - not to know, just
to: plunge down towards finally
to: trickle to drip start to spill over
pinechoked till: deep in the lowland
- the gullet, it’s called - as if: sluiced
from the: spit- to the streambed - run-
off - exuded, poured out into
pitching flowing, meandering veins
fray - towards: waterstop - jugal dam,
gurgle and sticks stutters catches: on snares of
hornwort, toothed, flooding the: clearcut mouth

One can feel the poet in a state of considerable excitement struggling to put this scene in words that have the same immediacy and rawness with which the senses apprehend it. The sublime is apparent in shreds, stumbling, in images coming so fast the poet cannot get them down on paper fast enough. One feels the water on one’s skin, the sparkle of it, the turbulence, the ferocity of water cascading down a mountainside.

German would seem to be the perfect language for this rough, woodland ecstasy. I wish I knew German. I have heard enough German to be familiar with its sounds, and German sounds like earth and water in play and contention with one another. Elemental.

“sibyl - poem in eight syllables,” (Utler prefers lower case letters in all instances), has a vatic intensity. It is both violent and sensual. It begins with an epigraph, on the opposing page, by Marina Tsvetaeva: “Sibyl in cinders, Sibyl: a trunk. / The birds incinerate, but God has come.”

The word ‘sibyl’ comes (via Latin) from the Greek word ‘sibylla,’ meaning prophetess.

Syllable, in German, is Silbe, which sounds more like ‘sibyl.’

The poem is divided into eight small stanzas. Here is the seventh, penultimate stanza:

sibyl here: head swims, she: breaks in the swirling heat: whispers,
she whirs: sump, slough slick thighs the: reed belt she wets she en-
girds herself tongues gurgles - adder - she slips off and: sisses

The sibilants here, which I am guessing are in the original German, suggests both the hiss of a fire burning through moist wood, and the sound and movement of a snake. In this instance, an adder, which is deadly. One is reminded that beauty in nature is never without a threat of some sort, at least to our mortality. There is no sense of evil, but of forces too great for human consciousness. This is the sense that Kant and Schiller wrestled with. Human reason, on the one hand, and the higher, transcendental sublime of the external world.

This is a marvelous language, and one that I have not seen before. Gerard Manly Hopkins comes to mind. Sound and sense are so fused, so incorporate, as to produce a language that convulses with elemental intensity.

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