October 24th, 2010 14:57 EST
A Poet Shows US How Vital and Transformative Our Language Really Is
Deborah Poe`s Elements
(Elements, Deborah Poe, poems, Stockport Flats 2010, square format, 71pp, $18)
This is the very book to remind us that we are made of stars. The poems are named for the chemical elements, the ones we often think of such as silicon and carbon, and the ones of which we rarely think such as boron and fluorine.
Having said that, we immediately confront a chasm over which Poe has raised this breathtakingly elegant bridge, because the poems prompt us to ask who we are and of what we are made. They argue that nothing is what it seems, everything is more and something else.
Ultimately this is a bridge to medieval Al Andalus where modern Western poetry may fairly be said to have begun, transmitted from Arabs, Jews and Berbers by the troubadours. The Andalusians were famous builders of precipitous bridges, a proclivity that stands as a metaphor for their fascination with the synthesis and synergy of things.
Their poets were often mathematicians and scientists, and they would have understood and applauded Elements. They would have seen it for what I think it is, a wedding feast of chemistry, architecture, form, speculation, inquiry, prosody and metaphysics. That poetry could be all these things it would not have occurred to them to dispute.
Their love of calligraphy, the placement of letters and words, would have inclined them to think Poe an heir, perhaps even an adept of the use of calligraphy in the employ of inquiry. They understood placement in a way few modern poets do. They understood the relationship of letters and words to the page, to the whiteness of silence. They understood that silence is the matrix of all language, whereas many writers tend to regard white paper and now cyberspace as conveniences or conveyances, and still other writers engage silence as the enemy.
Poe`s project required an editor, a designer and a press synergistically in sync with exactly what she has executed. Elements is not a container of poems, a set of end papers, a vehicle. It is an ongoing alchemical experiment of a very high intellectual and aesthetic order. Its press is to be commended almost as much as the writer for grasping the daring of the idea.
I have written about Poe`s first book of poems, Our Parenthetical Ontology (2008), so her depth of field and poetic aspiration comes as no surprise. But Elements will always surprise because just as we think we know what it is about and where it is going we are forced upon rereading to challenge our own conclusions. And this, too, is the intrigue of alchemy. We think the alchemists, starting with the Greeks and moving on to the Arabs and Persians, are trying to transmute base metals, such as lead, into gold. And then we find that is their cover story, what they tell the authorities so as not to be harassed, because their real venture is far more dangerous and ambitious: they are ennobling our base materials and conning the authorities. Alchemists are divine subversives; politics is counterintelligence.
In this light, Poe is subversive. In a still broader light, all adventurous poets are subversive. Elements is an ennoblement of the human material. She shares this adventure with the Elizabethan occultists, the magi John Dee and Giordano Bruno and the poets George Chapman (The Shadow of Night) and Sir Phillip Sydney. It is, given our categorical mindset, a dangerous endeavor in the same way the Zohar was considered dangerous by Christian Spain, although fortunately for posterity not by Arab Spain.
Some readers may be tempted to regard Elements as a noble exemplar of language poetry. It is, but that is far, very far from all it is. Language poetry, in some ways, is like tool making: just as we think we have seen the perfect wrench or the perfect scalpel a better one emerges. Just as we think steel is the ultimate surgical material lasers appear. Just as lasers become commonplace nanobots come into use. The language poets are tool makers. They live on frontiers. Their lives are hard, because we prefer anecdotal poetry that often hardly deserves the name. The language poets must launch their own anthologies, because they are usually exiled from the more conventional anthologies to which we are accustomed. But they are the Eric the Red and Verrazano of the language.
Some of them are determinedly avant-garde, others tend to draw from more popular veins of prosody and synthesize. e e cummings once seemed unreservedly outrÃ© to us, but today we fathom his impulse to eschew punctuation as excess baggage "indeed we witness his impulse extrapolating on the web "and we even trace the roots of this eschewal to earlier poets, such as Gerard Manley Hopkins.
Poe sometimes abandons punctuation and capitalization. Sometimes, in poems like Uranium (U) " on page 53 she reminds us of C.P. Cavafy`s broken lines:
zigzagged lights low
ca t carry
You can venture the rapids inside such a poem. Its white streams rush inside the borders of its country. But the poem is more concerned with symmetry and architecture than Cavafy was. Its entire length is cylindrical, suggesting a container, an architectural form, and the concept of containment, a concept of vital concern to alchemists. There is something almost savagely erotic in the form of this poem. One itches to scratch its privacy. The form is feminine, but the reader is cast into a male role. To be sure, there are many other ways to look at it. For one, it looks as if acid has bitten into the cylinder, leaving only the most resilient words. As with most of Poe`s poems, the spirit of inquiry is excited, and so the reader`s being cast into a male role inevitably posits contrapuntal speculation about art`s relationship to androgyny and the possibility of androgyny being our destiny.
Barium (ba) is more traditional, almost a sonnet.
Tell us what you see on wall woven shadow.
An arm, a torso, a dream. It`s an old story. It takes
the force of an arm to break an arm. A fire
to really make us burn. Arms to rescue us.
Poe lets the elements speak to her and to us. Once the coast of Oman was jeweled with alchemical laboratories, with alchemists speaking to the elements, saying, What can you do for me today? If I introduce you to such-and-such, what will happen? If I pour you into this, will you make me rich? Some of them were chemists and really wanted to ennoble lead. It would have made the caliphs and sultans and emirs happy. But some of them didn`t give a damn about the poobahs and wanted to ennoble mankind "and they needed a grand metaphor. And so the waters off Oman are littered with their cucurbits and alembics, artifacts of their avowed aim, while their secret continued to threaten the state, and still does.
All fundamentalism of every stripe in every culture is about killing these alchemists and thwarting their noble project. Fundamentalism is about the suppression of inquiry. It is disastrously fatalistic.
It is impossible, especially in cyberspace, to illustrate the inventiveness of Elements, its panoply of light typefaces, italics, boldfaces, and its brilliant phalanxes on the page, in one case a poem turned over on its left side and run from the left page over to the right page. This startling placement inhibits me here from discussing some of the most brilliant poems, but I can say that in every instance the words and lines are arranged like a naval engagement. The only accidents may be said to be felicities seized.
More than any poet I know Poe invites readers to inhabit the poems, not to feather them with one`s fingers but to move in. One does not come out the other end. There is no other end, because the poems play for keeps. They aim to transform you.
My cobalt blue chuchoteur.
This is how.
Or how I see you
from the inside out.
Consider how carefully this quasi-quatrain must be read, how the italics must be fathomed. Ah, but now consider how carefully you want to read it, because this is its genius. The poem is called Cobalt (co), Or Cobalt-Blue Chuchoteur. " But there is no repetitive hyphen in the first line because Poe has gone on to say something else. You want to read her carefully because she is not messing with you, and at the end of this 23-line lyrical poem you see that you have been rewarded for entering this forbidden and therefore ineluctable realm:
This is how I loved you
from the let go inside out.
Unlike a great deal of contemporary poetry, Elements doesn`t wash off. It has its own persistent pheromones and they defy our settled notions, our received ideas. Poe is comfortable with the question of whether we think with words. Do words, if sprung properly, to borrow an idea from Hopkins, catapult us to other words or to some place beyond words? Are words endless stepping stones or is there another world whose architecture is suggested here? We like to find reasons for our supposed superiority to other species "the opposable thumb, language, abstract thought. But there are no letters without something to set them down upon and there are no words or sounds without silence. Poe`s earlier work, and Elements particularly, exhibit an immense respect for these matrices without which we cannot excel. I think she considers a single letter or word a daring, if not daunting, act of engagement.
Her placement poses for me a conundrum. I see her work as quintessentially modern and wholly compatible with our voyaging in cyberspace. For example, I can foresee her letters and words and phrases flashing on a screen, modulating according to her intrinsic instructions, changing colors, perambulating. But at the same time I know that this work required a press as sensitive to it as Stockport Flats in Ithaca, New York, and I know that the state of our digital technology would in all likelihood make a proper mess of this work. So, while I see it as restless and electric, I also see that it needed the right typographer to convey it. I am sure cyber technology will overtake this quandary and that perhaps Poe will live to see her work take on even greater dimensionalities in cyberspace. Meanwhile, Elements is a study in the possibilities of language.
Djelloul (jeh-lool) Marbrook was born in 1934 in Algiers to a Bedouin father and an American painter. He grew up in Brooklyn, West Islip and Manhattan, New York, where he attended Dwight Preparatory School and Columbia. He then served in the U.S. Navy.
His book of poems, Far From Algiers, won the Stan and Tom Wick Poetry Prize from Kent State University in 2007 and was published in 2008. His story, Artists Hill, adapted from the second novel of an unpublished trilogy, won the Literal LattÃ© first prize in fiction in 2008. His poems have been published in The American Poetry Review, Barrow Street, poemeleon, The Same, and other journals. The pioneering e-book publisher, Online Originals (UK), published his novella, Alice MIller`s Room, in 1999.
He worked as a reporter for The Providence Journal and as an editor for The Elmira (NY) Star-Gazette, The Baltimore Sun, The Winston-Salem Journal & Sentinel and The Washington Star. Later he worked as executive editor of four small dailies in northeast Ohio and two medium-size dailies in northern New Jersey.
Del`s book, Far From Algiers: http://upress.kent.edu/books/Marbrook_D.htm
New review of Far from Algiers: http://www.rattle.com/blog/2009/05/far-from-algiers-by-djelloul-marbrook/
Artists Hill, Literal LattÃ©`s fiction first prize: http://www.literal-latte.com/author/djelloulmarbrook/
His blog: http://www.djelloulmarbrook.com
His mother`s art: http://www.juanitaguccione.com
His aunt`s art: http://www.irenericepereira.com