Saturday, June 27, 2009

On the (im)possibility of meditative poetry: Jordan Scott's BLERT and Norman Fischer's CHARLOTTE'S WAY

Meditative poetry and stuttering. I begin from a nostalgia for meditative poetry, or better put, a love of meditative poetry that has been placed under some stress for me in recent years. But today my reading takes me from meditation to stuttering, two categories that interrupt each other than join together. Meditation has meant flow, that vaunted state of sentencing that my students inform me they lack, even before I begin critiques of their often jumpy prose (or poetry). Stuttering is distraction, is the children running into my room as I read, or the in-laws about to come over now as I begin my meditation on stuttering. Stuttering is disturbance. If, as Susan Howe writes in "Incloser," "There is a direct relation between sound and meaning" (BM 49), she often seems more intrigued by silences: "The fractured syntax, the gapes, the silences are equal to the sounds in Maximus," she tells Edward Foster (BM 180). I am reminded of Howe on stuttering by Yunte Huang, in his fine book, Transpacific Imaginings; I am reminded that during a walk with Susan Howe in a Buffalo park she told me that a prominent expert on stuttering is also named Howe. Google gurgles that S.W. Howe co-wrote "Speech shadowing characteristics of stutterers under diotic and dichotic conditions" and published it in 1988, at about the time the other Howe was writing her essays in The Birth-Mark. At the time I was trying to spread word of my book, Dementia Blog, I discovered that an authority on dementia shared my last name; he is Richard Schulz, who graciously answered my email to him. Howe and Howe, Schultz and Schulz are the opposite of stutters. They sound too right, as if the sonic idea rhymes rhymed with each other. To stutter (let alone to suffer dementia) takes away the fluency of that commutative equation between name and theme.

Meditative poetry has always seemed to me to render disjunctions (a kind of stutter) as fluidities. Temporal breaks, like loss of self or other or God, are seamed together ("let be be finale of seem") in the poet's quick conjunction of thoughts. Meditation suggests space, suggests time, suggests lag. Thinkers like Maryann Wolf, who wrote Proust & the Squid about dyslexia, worry that meditation is on its way out. Wolf:

I worry, like Socrates long before me, that our children are becoming more "decoders of information" than true comprehenders. I worry that they are deluded by the seeming permanence and volume of their information, into thinking they "know it all"--when they have barely begun to fashion the kind of brain that has learned how to probe, infer, reflect, create, and move to whole new places on its own. ("Reading Worrier," on-line)

Meditation is about comprehension, and comprehension about inclusion, understanding, totality. Or at least one suspects there are inclusions to be made, totalities to be grasped, even if or because they are tantalizingly beyond reach. "No man is an island" might well be a false statement, but John Donne implied a geography of the self in which continents held more value than atolls or islands. Even when systems are breaking down, as they are at the opening of John Ashbery's Three Poems, their shadows promise a velvety landing, or at least comfort in the search. (This may be one of Ashbery's least comfortable books, but the writing is among his most seductive, like a romance novel about the mind.) Stevens, like Shelley, found his map in the sky, which is wide. And the poems I'm reading today by John Koethe, whose Selected Poems I found used at BookEnds in Kailua, make a constant arc between meaning and loss, unwinding in long and looping sentences whose only hesitations are the line-breaks that punctuate the poet's thinking.

As I said earlier, meditative poetry is more problematic to me than it once was, no matter how much I will always adore early Ashbery and his imagined mentor, Thomas Traherne. As much as I instinctively reject the notion that Ashbery is merely the last flank of a great white army (if not whale) that presses down on islands from the eastern continent, his poetry does thrive on a luxuriousness that many people do not have, and a fluency that could be said to go along with it. Not that I'm against privilege, only the notion that privilege is in-clusive. But meditative poetry is not so much "inclusive" of world as it testifies to only a small province in it. New Haven (but only in the evening), New York (but only from the window), Rome (as the philosopher ascends to heaven): these are places where meditation goes on. Waipahu, Gary, not so much perhaps, at least in not so many words. To meditate in the age of consumption is not easy; I'm reminded of Wordsworth on his London bridge, calling a rural scene to mind, even where he cannot see it. And that was 19th century. Harder yet in a Walmart, though Ryan Oishi does his damndest. There is little fluidity in the goods, despite the tsunami in the aisles.

But it is not only left to the poet to ponder; the reader has a role to play, as well. My students wear their ear buds, text on their phones, talk on their phones, diddle with their laptops. They are in a constant state of distraction, as am I, knowing my next Facebook message might be coming at any instant. Even students who can concentrate don't. But what about the readers Maryann Wolf writes about who are dyslexic, can simply not read fluently? My son is one of them. The other day his friend pulled out a Star Wars mad libs book and wanted Sangha to help with it. Sangha announced that HE was not going to follow the rules; he was going to make up his own. I realized that his move into an imaginative space was due not to his overpowering imagination, but to the fact that he could not read the mad libs to begin with. As Wolf argues, people are not naturally readers; there is no center in the brain for reading. Whatever links there are that make us readers are not there for all of us. To read phonetically works for most young readers, but not for my son, who will get the sound of the first letter right, but then guess what comes next. His guessing often threatens (is that the word?) to become another story, as if the attempt to read were a launching pad, not an arrival gate. That's great, except in school.

My son does not stutter when he speaks; he stutters when he reads. Canadian poet Jordan Scott is a stutterer, one for whom the act of speaking is a minefield. He has written a book, blert, that at first glance resembles a Christian Bok production, but which is less "conceptual" than "realist." His is not the concept of the "stutter in the text," or a metaphor for gaps and silences; instead, he writes the material language of the stutterer:

The stutter here appears on its own terms, rejecting the metaphoric, thematic, graphic . . . or representational aspects of this language disturbance. The text is written as if my own gibbering mouth chomped upon the language system, then regurgitated the cud of difference. My symptoms are the agents of composition. (65)

Scott's meditations on his poems are composed in prose. Many poets use prose when they are meditating on their ideas, rather than rather than enacting them. They include Howe, who stutters in her poems but flows (mainly) in her prose, and Kaia Sand, whose forthcoming Tinfish Press volume, Remember to Wave, includes essays on the stories she writes more fragmentary poems about. Explications take the stutter out of the poem. Perhaps Ashbery's Three Poems in prose can be read as a prolegomenon to his poems, although the poems tend to render as flow instances that are discrete; in that confusion we find what is most Ashberian.

For Scott, the act of speaking is physical, not metaphysical, literal, not figurative. Open Lisa Linn Kanae's book, Sista Tongue, and you find quotations on the act of speaking. From Wendell Johnson, "a speech disorder occurs when all of the basic functions of speech are affected to some degree and, in certain cases, one function may be more seriously disturbed than another." Or from Hanson, "The most important structure of articulation is the tongue, which is responsible for effecting the changes in the mouth basic to the production of all but a few sounds. The tongue is so essential to human speech, languages are often referred to as 'tongues.'" For Kanae, "improper" speech is often a label put on non-standard English speakers for reasons that have nothing to do with the tongue. For Scott, the tongue and the hyoid bone make the speaker, and hence the language--even before sociology takes its turn. He writes in the language of "articulation":

Not articulated to any other bone, the hyoid bone lounges in the human neck. Suspended from the tips of styloid ligaments, only two plump bursas interrupt this hammocked marrow. In early life, the lateral borders are connected to the voice box by pretend membrane; after middle life, usually by bony union . . . Some muscles of the root of the tongue are attached to it, as well as some laryngeal muscles. It is not attached to any other bone, which it makes it something of a curiosity among bones. (42)

If stuttering is not metaphorical to Scott, then the mouth surely is. What are articulated are not words but bones. What is style is not writing but "styloid ligaments." Borders do not belong to words and phrases but to the voice box. Hammocks are not to be slept in but support the marrow. And so on. Our very mouths are metaphors, but their output is unmistakeably literal. We can meditate on the mouth, but words are tools used against their speaker. There is no meditation on language, because language resists thought, at least as it is spoken. Metaphorically speaking, then, Scott's speech is usually poetry, and his writing is generally speaking prose explication of that poetry. At times the two converge uneasily, but for the most part there are two Scotts as there were two Lears (stylistically, not thematically!)

Kanae's brother was a "late talker." He said "Itah, itah" for sister and "wuh-yol" for world and "too-too, too-too" for Popeye da Sailor Man. His sister translates for him, as she "translates" the story of Pidgin in Hawai`i to her readers. She begins from the material fact of language and gets into its less material (if hardly immaterial) station in local culture. Scott navigates a similar divide, albeit without ethnic and class ramifications. His poems present language as problem:

camel clutch
grapple thalamus flux
box tonsils fresh black box
tongue scatter suckle polygon
syllable collar pop
mullet split end
leg lock glottal
lip off:

fresh nugs
mouse milking

wrist flex
snorkel mosh
dental furrow
Jell-O shot
ease Pantene. (36)

Not much separates this section or many others from other poems by avant-garde contemporaries. What separates it is the particular meditation on it, which is built into the poetry. While many poets are conceptualizing qualities of language or facts of politics in their work, Scott is creating a literal concept. He is not a conceptual poet, but a poet of the brute obstacle. He uses a shovel to speak: "I open, shovel bug on tongue. Swing teeth into lip. Cicada for Chiclet. Trident itch. Pluck mucus in harpsichord" (17). It is as if the mouth were conceptualizing the mind, obliging it to think about something it started off trying to avoid. Where the Pidgin speaker knows what he or she is saying, but is found inarticulate by the larger culture, the stutterer cannot know what he or she is about to say. There may be a thought that precedes speech, but it is not the same thought that postdates the (f)act of speaking.

Charles Bernstein once said that he is a poet because he's dyslexic, because language is difficult for him. That Bernstein's "Defence of Poetry" is difficult is testament not merely to the poet's obstreperousness, but also to his actual material difficulty with written words. But Bernstein instantly metaphorizes his difficulty. Difficulty will save us from ourselves. For Scott, difficulty is of another level of difficulty. It does not liberate us from itself, but immerses us in discomfort. We emerge less enlightened about the politics of language than about its resistances to us. We are its politics, not the other way around.

What, in the end, does any of this have to do with meditative poetry? This is a blog entry, so I'm not sure yet; my thoughts are tentative. I won't say they stutter, but they certainly are not in NASCAR territory, burning rubber around the track. In my own writing, the meditative poem fell away (in the late 1990s, to be nearly exact). I could no longer justify to myself all the connections my syntax was making for me, connections that owed as much to previous meditative poems as to my existence, its stops and starts and recognitions. I took away line breaks and replaced them with prose sentences. No two sentences could touch ideas. They were ever discrete. Much as I want to return to meditation, I cannot seem to get there. Perhaps it's as biological an issue as that of tongue and enunciation. But in my thinking about it, I realize that I could not return now to meditation as any imitation of seamless thinking. It requires its breaks; it break dances (RIP MJ); it hits brick walls. Then again, when I look back to Stevens I hear more stuttering than I did before. In my "as if" stage of writing (in college, in other words), Alfred Corn referred me to "Bantams in Pine-Woods" for a cure. The first two lines enact their last word, obliging the reader to yell and spit and nearly stutter:

Chieftain Iffucan of Azcan in caftan
Of tan with henna hackles, halt!

Now it's not "Tongue and canine boing-boing until CH CH knockout chipmunk achoo" (Scott, 16), but it's closer than one might imagine.

A more "standard" (in the sense of standard English) meditative poem is Norman Fischer's Charlotte's Way, Tinfish's only accordion chapbook:

Fischer's lines are long and sometimes prosaic, but move fluidly through time and Fischer's meditations in and of it. A zen priest, Fischer is at home with wavering, with finding home as the place that is always moving (Jennifer Kwon Dobbs's notion of the adoptive imagination operates here, too). So his poems tend to be long, capacious, inclusive of ordinary and extraordinary detail. In the following passage from the chapbook he moves easily between the meta- and the physical:

In the shadow of forgetting
Which occurs so quickly and in such detail
Even the tips of the cypress trees subtly quivering in the salt wind
Know of it and reflect it in their patterns now yielding
To another now
Under equally changeable skies
As I write this line a leaf blows by

What the design of this chapbook accomplishes is to show at once the fracturing of those meditations--both in the exaggerated separations between sections of the poem, and in the folds created in the middle of som sections. In the section after the one I just quoted, the page break comes between the word "feeling" and the phrase "That is a person":

Which I'd've forgotten if not for
Writing which makes a new now frozen
And not frozen in a reader's fluid awareness
A face, or faces, a face is always plural like a sea or a sky
For clouds or waves just as surely roll across it
And light does too
Thought there's nothing to be fixed or retained
The face expresses a person, a feeling
That is a person each face a history
Of a reckoning and a history
And a request consented to
With courage making a singular life story
Journey on the seas back to an island
Bright in the sunlight

"[A] feeling / That is a person" is a double stutter in the text (line break followed by page fold) that is crucial to the larger meditation Fischer embarks upon. While the page breaks are accidents of the design, they add to the poem by distracting from its flow. They are accidents like the blowing leaf. They are collaborations after the fact between the poet (who has written the poem) and the designer (Terri Wada, who is reading and placing the poem on the page). Kanae's book was designed and transformed by Kristin Gonzales Lipman, without Kanae's input. This book, while it had more input from the poet, still incorporates the material felicities of its design into the content. The physical folds are like Scott's tongue, his hyoid bone; they break our reading up. But the accordion is incapable of ending except where it begins, almost. The accordion is circular, not linear, or merely accumulative, like most books, which convert pages into little piles and then stun them inside covers like butterflies for display. The riddle of time and its passage, then, is enacted by the book itself, a book that flows and stutters in nearly equal measure.

Fischer's lines move from plural to singular (faces to face, selves to self or at least to that self's story), from an unspoken continent to a marked island. Islands are where languages collide most quickly, shift, change, move from oral to written and back again. No man may be an island, but his voice can be. Words as islands are stutters in the text, but how right that sounds here on Oahu, where the stutter is the meditation and meditations only rarely pacific.

No comments: