Word/ For Word # 2

Noah E. Gordon


Without Handles: working notes

"A man may sing a song with and without expression. Then why not leave out the song--could you have the expression then?" -Wittgenstein, Lectures on Aesthetics

With regard to one's poetic practices, I would posit Wittgenstein's use of "the song" here as a sort of ego-centered empiricism, the employment of language as a mechanism to recreate or comment on experience. I'd say that my work begins with a sort of songlessness, a lack of center and referential experience to work with; instead, I tend to proceed from language itself, a more gestural foundation, beginning with a half-thought or the thread of a phrase, something I can build with. At times it is merely a list of words which brings a poem into existence, as in "a tense of poetry," which uses the 25 terms for consideration Zukofsky presented in the final section of A Test of Poetry. Often, I'm struck with an alliterative rhythm which functions as a sort of spring board. For me a poem is architectural, constructed by combining the myriad phrases, sounds & concepts I've collected until I'm able to assemble them in such a way that they create the appearance of duration, of linear progression, what I'd call a ghosting: the creation of a sort of pseudo-referential sphere, the old tip-on-the-iceberg technique--the kicker being not only is there nothing under the rest of the water, but there never was an iceberg to begin with, merely an expression without a song.

Not that it's about pulling a fast one, nor is there a lack of meaning, subject matter or ideology present within my work; rather, these are always the result of endless tinkering, a falling into the what, when and why of the poem in such a way that the falling itself, the poem's process, is never altogether complete, a sort of later Cézanne-like leaving in of the white space, letting the canvas itself become a part of the final painting. I'm trying to attain a realism derived not from the breakdown of the beautiful-what I understand Lorca's idea of the duende to encompass--but from the gaps between the placement of the multiple phrases I've allowed to accrue, what I consider a reverse fragmentation. There's a similarity here, in my mind at least, with the way we've assigned clusters of stars corresponding constellations. None of them really resemble their mythological counter parts--with the exception of the dippers; however, they do feel connected, a kind of tangential linking--the sort of sketch of a sign I'd like my poems to play out in regard to experience. And it's important for me to finally have the poem settle on some phantom subject, to play out its ghosting song.

At times, this comes to be a bit of a meditation on the method employed for the creation of the specific poem. I began "(notes toward the spectacle)" by flipping through a book on Futurism and pulling out about five or six quotes. The only one of which I remember with any accuracy being by, I believe, Marinetti, "The century of the airplane deserves its music." After assembling those quotes along with various fragments of language I was working on at the time, I discovered a sort of theme for the poem: the Rashomon effect, a phenomenon based on Kurosawa's film, Rashomon, but popularized in much social science literature; it basically revolves around the idea that multiple perspectives of a given event lead to multiple interpretations of that same event. Marinetti's sentence, tweaked and run through that construct, became, "If a film based on the real were a play or the century like a coin that previously fit the slot no longer deserving its music, then one event collapses into another's unsaid." The poem can also be seen as coming out of my gloss of both Debord's Society of the Spectacle and Benjamin's "The Work of Art in the Age of Mechanical Reproduction."

Although I harbor a real attraction toward philosophical, critical and theory based texts, I have a tendency to purposely under-read them, to lose the thread and allow myself to become infinitely lost; this is helpful toward my poetic approach as I feel it's somehow closer to Keats' negative capability. Additionally, it's a way for me to translate the discourse of the one into the other. I see poetry and philosophy as existing together in a metaphoric funnel. Poetry being the smaller opening, based more on linguistic concision, and philosophy the wider, expansive end, employing a method of linguistic precision. Rather than have the funnel upright, I envision it to be revolving around an axis located in it's horizontal center, directly before either opening can claim a dominant position. For me this represents their similar goals, although I'd be hard-pressed to actually name them. And depending on one's poetic approach, the axis might shift to slightly favor one end over the other.

"a falling in autumn" found its way into the world beginning with my reading of Peter Gizzi's Artificial Heart. His mutations of other's work, what he refers to as an "echo", "unraveling", "transformation" and "erasure", were enormously compelling to me. Along with a poet friend of mine, we read the pieces side by side and decided to continue the lineage such a project engenders. With the exception of the poem's fist couplet, the piece was constructed out of an English-to-English translation--a mirroring of syntax, grammar and sense--and a negation or unwriting of Gizzi's "Will Call." There is something akin here with the idea of claiming a tradition for one's self. In his essay, "Cante Moro," Nathaniel Mackey discusses the work of Spicer, Duncan, Baraka and Kaufman as it relates to that of Lorca; he explains:

Those, then, are four instances of American poets making use of the work of Lorca. They relate to the question of how one's writing can draw upon that of predecessors, the sense of tradition, a lineage on creates for oneself, that one seeks out in the work of others. Influence without anxiety call it. As a writer one has to find one's tradition, create one's tradition, and in doing that you're creating lines of affinity and kinship which can cut across national boundaries, ethnic boundaries and so forth.

It's easy enough to invoke a constellation of other writers, to quote, name-drop, imitate, etc. What I see as the real difficulty, and find myself constantly grappling with, is how one goes about enacting such affinities. Mackey is an exemplary model of such enactment. His serial poem, "Song of the Andoumboulou," tying him at once to Duncan's own, "Structure Of Rime" series, also links him with a cornucopia of mythological, mystic and cultural figures & ideas. In his refusal to cater to the oh-here's-Odysseus-again-how-lovely crowd he has expanded the poetic tradition by reaching further back, a kind of webbing together of the sometimes highbrow San Franciso Renaissance and those mythologies, which, unfortunately, are often underrepresented in American poetry. Mackey has essentially drawn the map that one can find him on, asserting the timelessness of his own enacted tradition.

This sense of the poetic tradition's constant flux, the ability it offers one to circumvent the idea of time as a rigid, linear progression, is interesting to me in how it relates to the Rabbinical tradition of commenting on texts; I feel there's an analogous relationship between the idea of the poetic tradition and what I know of my own Judaism. Unfortunately, such knowledge is more intuitive then actual or intellectual, as I abandoned Hebrew school and disassociated myself with all practicing of the religion at an early age. The poem "hymn" comes out of my attempt to come to terms with my own sense of the way in which the holocaust shadowed all of my encounters with the religion. Regardless of all inclinations toward a poetics based on architectonics, the poem just happened. I think I wrote it in under ten minutes and only returned to make slight changes; however, it does function as a preface for a much longer work, "the right of return" (forthcoming in Hambone #17), which continues such a meditation.

There is a conscious attempt on my part here to claim Edmond Jabès as a central figure in my own poetic constellation. As I understand it, his identity as a Jew wasn't solidified until his expulsion from Egypt--his native country--in 1956. This othering by his homeland forced him to inhabit the role of the wandering Jew, and yet even then his Jewishness was one of inheritance rather than practice, leaving him with a double otherness, a void of both ethno-religions status and nationality. He found solace in the page-in the act of writing, in its ability to create some semblance of community, but his writing consistently displayed its purpose, called attention to its need to be written--to his need to know his place. Early on in The Book of Questions--, if it weren't for Rosmarie Waldrop's translation, I'd never have been able to read--he writes:

          You who are not Jewish ( which I have been so poorly, but which I am), I will introduce you to my land. You who are no writer ( which I have been so poorly, but which I am), I will give you my books. You who are Jewish and, perhaps, a writer:
          You will reproach me with losing the prey for the shadow. And, in order to punish me, you will deny the validity of these pages.
          Have you seen how a word lives?
          Have you seen how two words live?
          Then listen.

          I give you the word of my books.

Initially, this passage gives the feeling of a writing based largely on the surface, a seeming total clarity; however, one can become endlessly absorbed in phrases like, "losing the prey for the shadow." Does the shadow belong to the prey? to the author? And what exactly is the prey? The beauty of The Book of Questions is that there are no answers. Jabès' use of aphorisms, faux Rabbinical commentary and the ghost of a narrative revolving around two lovers, created something entirely new and endlessly engrossing. I see The Book of Questions as a sort of model for what I'd like to attain, a solid foundation allowing for one's continued work.

I like to have an overall structure to tinker with, a kind of safety net. Recently I was walking home and was struck with the idea for a book centered around the FM radio. I thought it might be interesting to have a poem for every station as an organizing principle. I began the project, called "The Frequencies," sometime in February and have written over 80 of them as of late July. The strange thing being that they seem to come to me pretty much finished, a receiving of the poem along the lines of Spicer's sense of dictation, although I purposely allow myself to get in the way. Regardless, there is still the sense of the ghosting revolving around the project. About a week ago I bought a used copy of Gilbert Sorrentino's Splendide-Hotel. Folded inside, I found a clipped review of Zukofsky's work written by Sorrentino for the village Voice in 1976. He titled the piece, "The Handles Are Missing." This just might be the name of my next poem.



[contributors' notes]