“Life only seemed worth living where the threshold between waking and sleeping was worn away in everyone as by the steps of multitudinous flooding back and forth.” – Walter Benjamin, “Surrealism”
Reading poetry has become an act of flooding, a flood of words, a bleeding between of meanings. The very act stimulates a panic in the reader, an almost political paranoia of language. Can we even trust poetry? What can it offer us now?
On one hand, there are those who place infinite faith in the hope of poetry’s renewal, those who theorize and attempt to write works that are conceived as the great new innovation of the art (Conceptual writing, or the new trend in “theme” centered collections of lyric). On the other hand, there are those who wholly disparage poetry (beware the New Classicism! and the alienated non-reader!) for its allegedly growing obscurity and inaccessibility, and therefore its alleged uselessness as a social fact.
Larry Sawyer’s Unable to Fully Californiais wholly aware of these questions. Yet, in lieu of quelling the reader’s anxiety about poetry’s place, his poems rather expand upon the aforementioned questions; he does not seek to answer, but to complicate. The poems themselves are frenzied and varied, vocalizing both a multitude and a solitude.
The opening poem, “Crawlspace Tango,” presents a kind of heteroglossia of entropic clashing of voice and breath. The use of the capitalized first letter of each line (“On a bench my newspapered nerves flutter./Bloom of a dark, wide silence, the human/Tether keeps pulling.”) gives a charge of individuality to each line, to keep each breath different, separate yet always engaged in a dialogic presence with each other, which calls to mind Ashbery’s disruptive vocal flow that blows apart the binary distinction between the intimate and the publicized. Thus, Sawyer presents a poetics of a split world, one of drifting and one of torpedoing.
Sawyer’s sense of politics takes the form of surrealist juxtaposition and disruption. For example, in “Circle the Wagons,” he writes: “nothing like a good Afghanistan/to clear the sinuses.” The infringement of the political landscape into the nasal cavity forms a central theme in Sawyer’s poems, that of the ever-pressing potential of an aesthetic and revolutionary consciousness. The surrealist techniques Sawyer employs—from the long tradition of Koch, Ashbery, Wakoski, etc.—inverts the overstuffed imagery of media and literature on its axis, blurring the lines of image and noise.
The social function of poetry is also a baffling question. He writes in “For Guillaume Apollinaire”:
sad music of presidents regard the women beautiful
you are an orange or else the moon
a house, a table, the lips of a rose
you resemble a song, familiar as yourself
brilliant son of lost waters.
The place of the poet in such a context becomes a place of hesitation. The aforementioned passage gives us a list of options, a minor litany of poetic choices that poets can concern themselves with. The poetic voice is thus an appropriately Melvillian “brilliant son of lost waters,” an Ishmael-esque body without a center and a voice without a set timbre. Left with no absolute essence of subject, the poem/poet then chooses that all of these choices are up for grabs, no choice of content being incorrect.
The poet now becomes an elasticityof social function, both the legislator and the schizoid ranter. Thus, in such confusion, Sawyer’s poetry compels us to main an emotionalresponse to these stimuli, the ultimate necessity of lyricismas poetic act:
Without dolor the character
muses, dialogue moons,
edges me into time
(“Like You Know”)
The character of lyric is maintained through dreaming. This stanza, echoing Lorca, engages the voice with non-existent elements that become existent through wordplay and sound textures. The lines employ traditional figures (“dolor,” “moons,” and “me,” especially) to reconfigure lyrical logic into a recognizable yet shadowy imagination.
Sawyer’s book engages not only information but also the act of poetry itself. When language becomes so fraught with media blending and abstraction, the poem becomes both the stretched mediator and the conscientious objector. But the poem must always strive to actwithin a context of passivity and unconscious flow. Therein lies the relevance of Sawyer’s work: the struggle to write poems that are, as they should be, an act. An act upon meaning, on language itself. As he demonstrates in “From 27 Voices,” (“Salmon hands, Pacific hands, Pisces-born, there are flies in my sleep”), the formulation of a poetics is necessarily a state of indeterminacy, of uncertainty. Neither the poet nor the reader can sit satisfied with clear definitions of “the dream” or “the real.” The act of the poem, for Sawyer, is the entropic expansion of these spaces of meaning and feeling. This expansion becomes the key to relevance, to the survival and recreation of the poem.
Bio:Larry Sawyer, who lives in Chicago, is the current editor of milk. He also curates the Myopic Books Reading Series in Wicker Park. The author of several chapbooks, his first book, Unable to Fully California, is now available from Otoliths Press.