Dennis Phillips, Gil Ott, and A.L. Nielsen
The Whole Note
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Edge Books/Upper Limit #9
62 pgs, $10.00
Sun and Moon
90 pgs, $10.95
Avant garde poets these days usually frown on the
concept of "craft" in poetry. The term has too
many negative connotations. It implies a succumbing to
tradition, an emphasis on repeating accepted values,
however classily, in a way hostile to innovative form and
thought. It smacks too much of the MFA workshop
environment, where "craft" too often means
smoothing out all idiosyncrasies in the name of tired
formulas. It seems hostile, in general, to risk taking,
eccentric genius, and the relentless questioning and
rewriting of poetic structures that has been central to
avant garde work.
But if the idea of craft seems a mistake to many in
the avant garde, the notion of care--for one's materials
and the world--still seems crucial. When the great
American objectivist Louis Zukovksy spoke of the
importance of "sincerity" in a poem, he did not
mean the kind of treacly emotional "honesty"
one associates with old Alan Alda movies. Rather, he
meant an intense responsiveness to the material details
of the poem and the world.
[ Click to Order Phillips' Credence (soft $) ] As I was reading several recent new books of poetry,
the notion of care repeatedly suggested itself to me.
There are no flying by the seat of your pants avant garde
shocks in recent books by Gil Ott, A.L. Nielsen, and
Dennis Phillips, no new Rimbauds howling on the edge of
the void. What there is instead is great care for the
materials of language, a precise concern with finding the
proper structure and sound for that which must be said.
All three books are deeply serious, formally challenging,
and unwilling to settle for easy answers.
Gil Ott's The Whole Note is in some ways a
quiet meditation, full of carefully picked shifts of
language that describe what I might call a
"landscape of experience." Neither pastoral nor
conventionally autobiographical, the book nonetheless
seems to trace the twists and turns of particular
experiences, perhaps the writer's own, in very particular
landscapes. But experience here is not so much a sequence
of events and feelings about them (there's nothing like
"when I was a boy, I hated going to school") as
it is a material surface of language that reflects, and
reflects on, experiences perhaps too elusive to be
and express my will his habits contemn my
knowledge of his failing
exposed. In his ease those listening as well, a
board stick jammed where bone had been,
the crown of a tooth
spat blood, or rum, collapsing, then standing
again. The steps, once lost, are never ex-
hausted. The youthful look a drug deserts
wants in, that is, out with me, from here.
Lines like these seem haunted by experiences they
never quite grasp, replacing descriptive details with
thoughts about experience that are as incomplete as
understanding always is. One could attempt to construct
personal narrative here, and come to the conclusion that
the writer is wrestling with a relation to an alcoholic,
perhaps a father. But the lines don't say that, and can't
be made to--experience remains at a remove, except for
the experience of the language itself. And despite what
seems in general the calm precision of the book's
language, lines like these are filled with darkness and
pain. This is not the work of a complacent craftsman, but
of a powerfully human voice testing the bounds of what
language can help him come to terms with. Or not, as the
case may be.
The Whole Note is divided into four sections,
titled "1/4," "2/4," "3/4,"
and "4/4" respectively; obviously, the four
sections comprise "the whole note" of Ott's
poetic landscape. There is no clear progression or
development along the four sections; this is not a book
about reaching conclusions, but rather about
responsiveness to the twists and turns of experience. It
does seem, especially towards the end, to be a kind of
love poem, motivated equally by loss:
Full of myself on successive nights
dense and alone sings
you back. Need keeps the book of dying
open, the language common after all.
However, while the book's dedication "This book
is for Julia" certainly solidifies such an
impression, it must be pointed out that nothing in the
lines above is certainly directed towards a single
person--the "you" in question could equally be
a group of others existing in a "language common
The Whole Note presents a poetic voice whose
scars are real: "I have made a mistake, a
meandering/stasis, down a notch and starting over."
By the end, no self-containment is reached. The voice
remains, as before, jolted by uncertainty:
I will build a body of
utterance, that fooled me. The odor will stay,
will walk away.
Still, a kind of understanding has been found, if only
in the recognition that understanding always has it
limits but people must nevertheless continue to live.
A.L. Nielsen is more well known as a scholar than as a
poet. In books like Reading Race and later works
he has proved, along with Nathaniel Mackey and very few
others, one of the most important critics of his day on
the relation between race and poetic innovation. But
Nielsen has also been a poet all along. His first
collection, Stepping Razor, is both deeply
ironic yet finally also deeply moving.
Nielsen is acutely aware of the limitations in all
aggrandizing postures about the role of the artist, as he
shows in the opening of "Brancusi's Duty"
Who should pay it
Metal shape brought up from the breast
Whether metal so improved to commerce should be
Taxed in expectation of further improvements
We are, that is, resolutely locked into a world where
fine arts are no more free of commodification than
anything else, existing "On the outskirts of some
restless checkpoint/An average ago."
Indeed, as a poem like "Puppet Theory" makes
clear, these days everyone's strings are being pulled by
puppet masters of dubious intentions:
The banal puppet deploys abstracted signs
The body might consist of nothing
The speech might be presented
The words may not belong to the puppet
While Nielsen may be criticizing those who think the
world is like this, nonetheless this poem shows how much
control such feelings of powerlessness have. If the
reasons for feeling powerless are not always good ones,
they are nonetheless dangerously present, and determined
to stay that way.
The highlight of Stepping Razor is the long
poem "Translations from the Rubric," a
reflection on the condition of knowledge, poetry, and the
writer's own life in relation to them. Nielsen's
suggestions are far from comforting: "We shall all
end/Servicing one another/Each fool being/An exaggerated
case of the normal." While it is not theoretically
necessary to approach the world from the condition
of loss, nonetheless the condition of loss must be
struggled against: "All these things together/ And
how can I compose myself of them/ How I pull myself
forward by pushing loss." As the poem progresses, it
seems clear that these problems are not going to be
overcome: "Everywhere error holds sway/ Works of art
are shipped like coal." Still, there may be
something to be gleaned from this experience ("Or
have we already learned something unwittingly"), if
only that these problems must never be accepted, but
constantly struggled against .
I was struck by the fact that the other long poem of
crucial significance to the book, the closing poem
"Yellow," seemed essentially a love poem,
although certainly a complex one. In it, while the poet's
love for another person seems mainly to have failed, the
committment to that love has created a condition in which
"Condensed out of salt air and desire/I stand and
shine a sign at night/For those at sea." Stepping
Razor may offer no solution to its ubiquitous and
relentlessly ironic tragedies, but it does end with an
image of how, through love, some kind of real and
generative human contact might be continued.
Reading Credence by Dennis Phillips, one
finds oneself stepping into a truly pleasant maze of
reference and counter-reference. However dark much of the
substance of the text, its lively and innovative
structure kept me hopping joyously from frame to frame. Credence
features a single long poem, divided into various
sections, each section of which has a endnote that leads
one to another poem which itself has a endnote that leads
to another poem. Credence can be read at least
two ways; by taking it as three long poems (the initial
long poem, the poem comprised by the endnotes, and the
poem comprised by the endnotes to the endnotes), or by
leaping from section to section to follow the endnotes as
they appear. These differing possibilities make Credence,
like a computer hypertext, a poem for which there is no
single authoritative order. Readers are given the right
to create their own path through the text, while at the
same time they are shown that their path can never be
considered more than one of many options.
The world that this formal maze creates is by
definition unstable: "There is no way to measure a
commodious vicus nor speak here, when they command."
Much of this world escapes paraphrase, even
interpretation; an attempt to reduce the book to a
description of a world would fail to notice how often the
language slips away from any singular interpretation. Yet
this world has certain recurring features, perhaps most
prominently that of an empowered social class which
intends to fix instability into a set of activities and
meanings which serve its desires:
Thus reductive, the squire, the contessa, the
baron, the captain. Their potency guaranteed, if not by
salt and tobacco then we'll find something else.
They do not march but lead processions, i.e.
corporal memories, maximizing the piccolo parts, what
they mean by change and then a prolapse, bottom gone.
The fact of the "bottom gone" may indicate
that these empowered groups do not control things as much
as they think, since even the meanings they want to be
stable are not. But nonetheless these groups have great
power to manipulate experience and the physical world,
their "potency" guaranteed by "salt and
tobacco" or any other natural resource turned into a
Yet despite this power, their pretense to stability is
still no more than a pretense. Their interests pose a
very real danger to others, but they are still part of an
unstable landscape, and not really its masters:
Carefully kept as records, a commandment.
They knew him there but not here.
Across the room, somehow in Italian.
Further and further from what was expected.
Thus the commandment fails because it cannot
anticipate difference and change.
Still, resistance to such commands is equally not in
charge, because it too is subject both to those commands
and to slippage in its own resistance:
Assuming reluctance as a position, that is, an
ideal but others have their insistences and programs. Yet
this is also a form of violence. Do not think of
duration, that's what they say.
The slippage here in the pronoun "this"
makes it unclear whether a "form of violence"
applies to "insistences and programs" or to
"reluctance as a position." Rather than
offering any certainty that reluctance can participate on
its own terms, the reluctant individual becomes simply
one more player on the field of power and its slippages.
Finally, then, Credence presents,
paradoxically, structure unified with theme in the name
of the impossibility of unity, whether it's that of
control or resistance to control. Having visited this
funhouse (and it is indeed fun), one walks away with the
realization that walking away is impossible. But if
accurate grounding in the world around us no longer seems
an option, playing in the funhouse allows us to endlessly
create and recreate the terms by which we encounter the
world. And it is this chance for play, to remake the
world again and again even as it slips away from us, that
makes the funhouse of Credence both frustrating and
enjoyable, because it lets us experience our distortions
as distortions, and laugh.
Guest Reviewer: Mark Wallace
This review previously appeared in The Washington Review.