CAN ARBOREAL KNOTWORK HELP BLACKBURN OUT OF FREGE'S ABYSS? by BOYD SPAHRBRANDON DOWNING Reviews
CAN ARBOREAL KNOTWORK HELP BLACKBURN OUT OF FREGE'S ABYSS? by Boyd Spahr
(Dusi/e chap, 2006; Available gratis at http://dusie.org/)
Prose Poetry is suffering a bit these days. Is it the perceived ease of its composition? The formal latitude that it allows its practitioners is notoriously intoxicating. And not merely by its spacial availabilities, or the multitude of ways that incongruent participles and fragmentary structures can be stitched together into that almost preverbal construct--the prose block--to create "new" meanings, "transgressive" narrative structures, or "post gender" arcs of telling...
And I too, am one of them. I was seduced by prose poems, back in the day. It hurts so bad to say it. But writing prose poetry set off all these thunderstorms of insight. I could collapse narrative space! I could wreak havoc as dialogue and idea and process and story structure all fought it out on the same flat, muddy field. No more grammatical heirarchy! It pissed of my MFA workshop teachers alot, and made the pantoumists fume.
But it really just seems too easy sometimes, this prose poetry, doesn't it? These shifts of tone, the start-stop rhythm of sight and summary, the harrowing-ness of it all. Prose poetry often suffers because it is perceived as 'undeserved'. Many poets I know don't like reading it, either. It can be a physically constricting form: the smoothing-over qualities that prose forms produce don't always sit well with us. We want our full-stops and deep breaths to be earned, to be intrinsically within the lines, and not dictated to us by those fools from the University of Chicago.
Sometimes, flipping through the journals--and their frequently copious helpings of 'paragraphic' work--I get a sick and smarmy thought running through me. That most, if not all, the prose poetry that I read is not written, but generated. That an engine exists, downloadable perhaps, that can take a few pertinent details--dramatic weather, inner turmoil, shock dialogue, some operatic ellipses--and, with a smear of personality, any personality, can spit out 60 lines in the manner of William S. Burroughs' "The Western Lands", fragmentary, radical, full of mock gravity, and eerily punctuated.
Well, I'm late to the party obviously, because the form is changing. Prose forms, and I was kidding when I slammed them a minute ago, remain ripe for foraging, pillaging, and all spectra of experimentation. New book artists are ripping apart old standards of printing, presentation, and assumption; traditional letter-systems lie lifelessly along the map of a new, graphic poetics. And even 'traditional' prose poetry has been the beneficiary of some recent experimental examples, which, for my taste, are almost more remarkable when they fail (if only because the template for a 'successful' prose poetry remains so easily within the grasp).
One of these strong failures that has recently come to my attention is the (pseudonymous) Boyd Spahr's recent Dusie chapbook, CAN ARBOREAL KNOTWORK HELP BLACKBURN OUT OF FREGE'S ABYSS? Don't even ask me about that title, by the way–but I think that this is a direction in prose poetry that I can truly handle. The Spahr persona (full disclosure: I am not Boyd Spahr) has previously been involved more as impresario than author (he/she produced the politically flavored ORDER & DECORUM site that so willfully impaled the US House of Representatives with verse commissions last year) but, it seems, has all along been formulating some ideas about how all this is supposed to come together:
A combination backbone, crew soul, all waterlogged,
and it screws up your view, reason you put your foot down;
play ball or play whatever, and she was sort of into
about his being my place in heaven for systems.
They had clean thoughts, as a serpent and as harm,
enough to fondle changes, a car was running away,
and all kinds of aspirin. Make a great many cute offers.
Okay, so it carries many prose poetry tics: voice shifts, pronoun shifts, gratuitous cut-ups. But the poem's images are clipped before they can be fully struck, or are so stranded from their linking participles as to be floating. Yet much of the sentence structure's still pretty compelling, especially at the heart of the piece ("and she was sort of into about his being my place for systems"). And, far from using the dislocation of shifting pronouns to make me plainly not care, the 'she to me to his to they' seems more calculated here, more scientific, more of a digested tree of relationships. Symmetrically fractal? Oh, perhaps. The unbalance seems positive, though, and while some of the volition can seem pat ("They had clean thoughts, as a serpent and as harm") and the struggles for voice are overdetermined at times (why 'all kinds' of aspirin?) the tone- and tense-shifts act to expand, rather than dull, the forward movement.
Here's another one:
Hypnotizing Buck to take out of bankruptcy. And the
carrying a torch, and yo! we hauled down rugs and
sported with delight. And he takes the lid off the
capability in those days, to that sick white man,
gimmick on a camera or a treatment to such and such.
Now, the soft-focus failings of its last line notwithstanding, this is a work with some velocity, and a narrative foreground that leans more towards tantalizing and away from obfuscating. And while a little less all-over-ness might benefit the poetry here, I think it could also be detrimental to its science. And I think it might be the science of this work that attracts me to it:
Their children being you, Sparks. But too man
fuck this jealousy. She was to him? Or how can he be
anybody if he were so? I figure out some way to
have the crew take him about what he's done.
And they made a Siberian know in Arabic, they call it
it was different, APPLE to move out of the hotel.
Most of it was inspirin' Jew. Right away she, she––
that is no very astute about that. No drugs, nothin'.
And didn't have any prob. But almost every device
and did have, and having go all efficient stenograph.
This gets me curious about the compositional methods, while reinforcing this concept of a 'scientific' approach. Yes, with the thicker occurrences of dialogism, this work also has an 'antenna' modality--akin to faulty transcriptions of taped/received conversations--that reminds me of previous attempts at prose poetry as transmission, one successful model being Noah Eli Gordon's THE FREQUENCIES. But I think this work also succeeds because it may be less molded than it seems (the first poem in this collection ends with "...in the sun make acres of me which is studded with antenna elements"). Musicians, and I'm a terrible one, often talk about the relevance of shifting 'time signatures' within modes as diverse as bebop and ambient post-rock: CAN ARBOREAL KNOTWORK HELP BLACKBURN OUT OF FREGE'S ABYSS? feels, in the character of its 'time signatures', like a succesful EP of "math rock", a style whose radical shifts in tempo and pitch are less motivated by theme/harmony/volume than by a more arbitrary notion of 'switching it up before it gets good'. As poetry, it can be frustratingly, thrillingly atonal.
This atonality often appears in these poems like too many tiny bones in a tasty fish, and, as a whole, I did not, and you probably will not, leave off your reading of this work a changed person. But the charged spaces hit within feel frequently new. There is more of an urge toward spoken dialogue in its full theatricality, but divorced from setting; an earnest 'fuck it' air to the experimental combinations ("...only partially through the Mormon webs / and the theory of its Kelly style", "a respect sociologist", "he for the alkaline batter", "Juan sees apples and golden horses", "& man can he laugh cute, / infrared man". &etc.) and reverence for the the disarray of results. Let's just say that I like the fuck-ups, too.
I'm becoming re-convinced, in short, that the prose poem--that tiresome and unwieldy, dang thing--is on its way forward again. While these poems haven't reached the destination yet--alot of the themes wielded, names dropped, hesitancies noted, and actions undergone will need to circle back and be incorporated into each other with much greater weapons before a real SYSTEM can be attained--I think, written pseudonymously, and available as a free download no less, that these works might be part of what's pointing the way out of the mud.
Brandon Downing is a filmmaker, visual artist, and writer, originally from the San Francisco Bay Area. Since 2000, he has lived in New York City. His books of poetry include LAZIO (Blue Books, 2000), THE SHIRT WEAPON (Germ, 2002), and DARK BRANDON (Faux, 2005). Some of his photographic work can be seen at www.brandondowning.org. A new DVD Collection, DARK BRANDON // THE FILMI, is forthcoming in late 2006. He is currently finishing a monograph of his literary collages under the title LAKE ANTIQUITY.