Wednesday, August 23, 2006



After the Sinews by Patrick James Dunagan
(Auguste Press, San Francisco, 2005)

Talk is vaporous. It rises. But like all things on our earth, it hasn't a prayer of escape. Gravity and smog keep talk anchored here, "spilling about piling up and/shutting us out against which/we rise to sing celebrate such/life we witness trapped by birth" ("Never More Than Extension"). Have a seat, son. No exit.

The judgments so levied in Patrick James Dunagan's After the Sinews (Auguste Press, 2005) are the witness of that choked up between-space of wires only so high above the concretes of California. The poems repeat what they hear, but it's not always clear that, by the time the words get to them, they've heard correctly.

These poems are a fog of news whose details are often obscured by the time they reach our witnesses. There are landmarks to guide us, sticking up through the fog, electric poles and relative pronouns, but we are mainly able only to see vague outlines of what's in front of us.

This strategy can be frustrating. The map is laid out in the opening poem, "Lost Angles":

‘Never want to be one’ those who say so
have turned that corner too far gone
from themselves to recognize the world
they’re creating distanced from the one
they follow led on by doubt mystery the
uncertainty which compels the imaginative
splendour that is the concern here as
the avenues empty struck with unimaginable
loss a blank space needing to be filled
granted such grace which goes unobserved
among the tangle of wires telephone cable
buses and streetcars guide to the tangible
realm we busy ourselves with conveyor of
fiction into fact that we may look out

in which "those who. . . have turned that corner" are never quite clearly recognizable, nor is their residence/destination: "the world/they're creating." This alienation from the concrete is palpable in the poem's maddening vagueness. Here we have city streets populated by wires and streetcars, but they seem mainly to be operating in "a blank space" of "unimaginable loss." Where the hell are we?

The map is a vague one and it's not clear that it will be of use as we venture further into The Sinews. It frustrates, as though it's referencing a conversation or poem that came before, yet it's the first of the series. There is no before, as such. This strategy may succeed in that it knocks us off balance from the get go, prepares us for disorientation to come, but I'm not sure that it works in the creation of a strong opening. It's a risk, at any rate, to so frustrate the reader from the outset, talking about vagueness vaguely.

Which isn't to say that these poems don't work. Ultimately it seems that Dunagan is relying on the gestural conventions of speech with their concomitant weirdnesses, circularities, abstractions, to operate as the ground, the concrete in these poems. While I don't think everything that proceeds from this premise succeeds, the successes are magnificent.

"The Choice," for instance, is just as maddening in its vagueness of reference, yet works beautifully, language eating its own tail:

Uprooted what love had I who
no sooner promised than soon
erupted in lie to bear full
brunt the promise which in
verse lies which says best is
the one so chosen who chooses
the life broken beat and
squandered straight out of
all they who must be that
one who lifts the sounds up-
ward spiral of danger the
harmful embrace of the life
so chosen to be lived prey
to those above as well as below

Words mutate -- lie becomes lies becomes life becomes lift becomes life becomes lived -- giving us something concrete (though at the same time abstract) to hang onto as we move from the very poetic syntax of the opening line "Uprooted what love had I who" to the somewhat mysterious closing in which the virtue of those who have chosen the life of being "lived prey to those above as well as below". The "nothing" of language becomes, suddenly, something here.

In the end, Dunagan means to kill his forefathers. He's thrown out the mandate of "no ideas but in things," so important to so many of his poet heroes, to posit that "being specific will not carry us further/past the Pacific than already others/before us have gone dimmed and dull." Words, speech, language – these no-things are it, the rope we must blindly hang on to as we move through the shit and smog of contemporary life. As in the poems in the Sinews, this reality can leave us hanging, but it can also, somehow, be extremely satisfying.


Melissa Weinstein lives in New Mexico.


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