Thursday, November 3, 2011

Anne Simpson's Is

The back cover of Anne Simpson's 2011 Is informs us that the author "illuminates what it means to be alive". Heady stuff. The book is also "[r]ich with muscular craft". If jacket photos weren't de rigueur, one could almost imagine a poets' union of middle linebackers or hod carriers. It's past time this hoary adjective was deprived of its steroidal cachet. There. Now on to the poems.

"before blue before blue deepening and unwinding inside blue before bluegrey before the envelope of morning before opening the crisp envelope of morning ..." (p.2)

Shouldn't this note-stretching proceed in reverse chronology? I'm probably missing the significance of the syntax, but if amazement is the feeling of the recorder (and the wish for the receiver), it seems a peek through a microscope would do the trick more effectively. I can't get a deep view of all this "blue deepening".

"sounds not yet sounds darkens before darkness and light before light beginning and ending ending and beginning." (p. 3)

I guess this is the illumination of "what it means to be alive". Or maybe it's just abstraction multiplying like Nut's fart in a chromosphere.

"You are day divided from night, night from day, minute from minute, hour from hour. Time begins, sliced into now" (p. 5)

Goddammit, can we get on with infanthood, already? The first chapter of Genesis and the beginning of The Iliad are boring, too, but at least they recorded basic elements and specific people, respectively.

"You are dark inside dark, and within this dark, intricate contraptions of darker darkness" (p.6)

Any smartypants outdark that?

"Before tinkering. Before the ululation of a siren. Before scarlet. Before latches. Before eyes. Before ... " (p. 7)

Ah! The world. The little fucker is finally with us.

"You are spaciousness." (p. 8)


"You are depth and more depth, earthing and earthed." (p. 9)

And never forget you are a child of the universe which is unfolding as it should. (Apologies to the lyricists of that gawdawful song.)

"a woman untucking a cotton shirt a man undoing a belt" (p. 13)

Wait a sec. What happened to Deep Blue? Are we having flashbacks, or is this number two already? Pp 14 and 15 shrinks the same poem (15 set tinier than 14), with two and four columns respectively. I don't think we're supposed to read this, and in any event if I wanted to read it again, the original p. 13 is the right option: I don't have a magnifying glass at hand.

"Break into break up break down break out break off break ... " (p. 16)

At least Quartermain's cliched variations had some wit.

"Aftershocks of noise -- a gas main, propane tank." (p. 17)

I'm lost. Is that the point? Is there one? Perhaps I've been in this mitotic funk and fug too long.

"syllables of spun light" (p. 18)

Here we go. The linguistic nature tropes. Soon we'll encounter "glottals of mud bubbles". And if our little lump of protoplasm was real, wouldn't the latter image be more accurate that the former preciosity? Or have we moved from the placental stew to the gas main to yet another universe?

(p. 19) : the paratactic list. Hurrah! A "poetic" rendering of a Titanic-like drama. In 13 ragged lines. My blood pressure: unchanged. E. J. Pratt is spinning in his grave like the Tasmanian devil.

"You imagine all that lies below: dank palaces under the ground." (p. 25)

She might imagine it, but I can't. But being "poetic" means taking it on good faith. Things are mysterious on page 25, and no lie. But it's a mystery, alas, not worth wondering about. As for imagining: imagine what Gwendolyn MacEwen could have done with this passage. Or Patrick Anderson. You could've seen the flux and dazzle of partially obscured, vivid shapes under the surface. That murk wouldn't have been announced with stock vagaries. Instead, strange word combos colliding. Awe or danger invading the mind that reads it.

"Crocuses, murmuring secrets to earth." (p 28)

If vegetables and flowers are going to be anthropomorphic studs and soothsayers, I suppose this is better than Lorna Crozier's carrots fucking the earth.

(p. 30): Bees are back. I sense a dramatic arc. "Broken necklace of bees in curled, damp grass." Not bad. And the rhythm of the pentameter makes sense.

"Is" (p. 33) is anaphoric five-and-dime rhetoric gone mad. I can't imagine this read aloud. Hushed? Excited? Solemn? The "is" of "Is" in Is is repeated as line and phrase starter 26 times. None of them are illuminating. Grandeur is not realized, not broached, not in the same solar system with these words just because we're supposed to be lulled into cheap awe by the "gathering force" of the repetitions.

(p. 37): Possible explosions on ship. Sentences cut like fingernails. In fact, "Cut-glass water. The ting of a fingernail against it." (p. 37). Terror as Morse Code. Easier to handle. Not important, anyway. Set up for poetic image. The world is dangerous. But there is always beauty.

(p 41): The plot, of a kind, thickens. Courtroom drama. The bad guys act cool under questioning. Serviceable journal reporting, albeit in court reporter shorthand, a la Heather Spears' Required Reading. Wonderful possibility for psychological complexity, inductive rage, physical detail. But we're left with that frequent three-quarters blank page. Of course, poetry is distillation. Distillation is so successful the distillery is bottling nothing but air.

The fisherman is "settling into his dreams. Into all he's given, dazzled with sea gleam." (p. 42)

(p. 43): a list of marine birds. Simpson wants us to know she's studied the library's pelagic thrust. Undoubtedly carved some walks on sand and pier.

(p. 46): "Sun shot through leaves, leaves, leaves."

I know of no other phrase as precious as "shot through" unless it's "shot through with light". The triple exit makes for a nice unintended irony, though. Oops! Two lines later: "Sun shot through trees." The sun is dangerous enough. Do we have to duck it from its assault behind natural hiding places?

(p. 48): "Someone's hand, a sweeping gesture in a window."

Suspense. Suggestion as importance. Letting the reader fill in ... what?

"The woman doesn't think herself old until the girl moves through her."

The paranormal is apparently one of the hottest selling sub-genres, lately. Robert J. Wiersema would be envious. It takes him over 300 pages to have the sympathetic dead enter the sympathetic living.

The poem "Life Magazine" (p 50) is, so far, the book's most pukeworthy effort. "Two monks doused Thich Quang Duc with gasoline, set him on fire." Why doesn't she just insert the news headline? Wrapped up seven clipped sentences later. Pain as idea. As opportunity for ... "Afterwards, his heart. Untouched plum." It takes a peculiar talent to not only suffocate a poem with a final line, but to take a dull meat-cleaver to it.

(p. 52): "Stink of gas and burning flesh." I believe "stink" is slightly redundant, and takes the immediacy and shock out of "burning flesh". But maybe that's just me. I just finished a YA novel written at a level of effectively-transmitted sophistication far above the faith Simpson shows for her reader. This, and the next five poems, takes another six disposable snapshots for that fifteen-years running overcrowded album: the poetry photo album. Sensitive (yet Olympian-cool, Olympian-frosty, even) poet scans war/family/art photo (sometimes painting), puts herself in place of tortured/sad subject, and concentrates on the traded chiaroscuro. The dead get a quick sigh (never a shudder), are put away, and we're left with horror-as-aesthetic, just another game to play between (in this case) cellular gobbledegook and placemats for the Titanic. Ralph Gustafson's "The Newspaper" (from the poem sequence "Phases of the Present") has a narrator looking at a war photo, too. The genius of the poem -- in artistic fashioning too detailed to describe here -- is that it implicates the narrator, transparently the author, and that the "face/Down" is both historically accurate and a blistering denunciation of Western complacency. In one of the six "photo" poems, Simpson includes the picture taker, but it's thrown into the remove unconvincingly, a tacked-on idea that isn't integrated with anything else in the wandering study in how-to-look-at-a-photo. John Berger's novel G has a similar style, in places, but you feel you've been there, or at least could be there, even if he hasn't.

I could go on -- there's another 36 pages, and I've read them -- but this has become unwieldy.

It would be funny if it weren't tragic how the forces of "write only what you know" have scared off much serious speculative work in poetry -- political, historical, religious, sexual -- yet it's A OK to give an authoritative inside-out biography of a cell. I suppose the takeaway here is "regression rules".

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