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Dennis Phillips, Gil Ott, and A.L. Nielsen

Gil Ott
The Whole Note
Zasterle Press
44 pgs., no price listed

A.L. Nielsen
Stepping Razor
Edge Books/Upper Limit #9
62 pgs, $10.00

Dennis Phillips
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.

Credence[ 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 directly described:

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 after all."

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,
and I
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
                    Of romance
Whose duty
       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 commodity.

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.

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