Thursday, August 24, 2006



Slip by Christopher Stackhouse
(Corollary Press, Philadelphia, PA, 2005)

In Slip, Christopher Stackhouse offers poems that, together, also offer a poetics: an aesthetics of slippage:

as a mark is made it becomes an image
as you make a mark you become the image
of an image making a mark
—from “Mark”

As the excerpt from “Mark” shows, Slip implies that how-to-write-well standard: don’t tell; show. What’s deft in this collection is how Stackhouse tells by showing the slipperiness of words. Or as the poem “Arthur Danto at the Guggenheim Lecture Notes, November 11, 2003”, quotes art critic Arthur Danto:

I think things that look alike almost never mean the same thing in art

A slip can occur paradoxically because you look closely at something. You peer. Eyes narrow. But (at least) two alternate paths result: you get more closely at the truth of targeted vision, or you miss the universe for the leaf.

Still, all visions require the attempt, and the matter may be one of allowing and dealing with that paradoxical demand of seeing clearly: uncertainty. One needs clear light to see clearly, but as the poem “Intensive” articulates, " brightness shifts". For me, the “shift” relates partly to subjectivity. What is learned depends on subjective factors. Thus, the poem is dubious that knowing "bests forgetting"—not because knowing does not best forgetting but because knowing is not the same as correctly assessing.

The charm of this collection is how it doesn’t slip into a feeling of helplessness over the constant need to consider/reconsider. There is redemption from constant questioning and reconsideration of answers. The redemption is form:

Understand form and make due with form

What better form to manifest Slip’s search than note-taking, including quoting others? Slip’s persona is not resting on a (artificially) sure footing, so why rely only on offering words written by its author? Here, to quote is to allow for not (yet) having answers—thus, the search.

That the fragments, jagged lines and breaks that crop up in note-taking is simply form manifesting content may be seen, too, in these lines:

the references in the painting hinting and by virtue extolling the elegance in the rough
—Extractions: From Poet to Draftsman

That’s right: “rough”-ness as form. This certainly can be (mis-)judged as sloppy writing. Stackhouse winks at such narrow readings with this two-stanza section from “Extractions…” where the second stanza can be seen as what would be more conventionally (through line-breaks) be considered a poem. That is, in addition to a reading of this section as the second stanza offering an emphasis on the first stanza’s points, the second stanza also offers how the poet need not be “rough” as in prosey.

I have been thinking increasingly about what you were saying with regard
to Richter, intimacy and the public address/space/exchange that paintings foster,

public address
the exchange paintings foster

The attention to form is also visible through the use of quotes missing the ending quotation marks--before one reads/interprets the phrase, one already is reminded that the phrase itself may be incomplete, thus, open-ended:

“throwing darts
“the freeze
“preeminent thinker here’s a dart
“let’s toss off a few
“unlike me you are not restless
“how context apologizes for where aestheics fail
“living your life is killing yourself slowly

“the central freeze
“the cultural freeze
-- from “Arthur Danto at the Guggenheim Lecture Notes, November 11, 2003”

It occurred to me only in my fifth or so read of these lines that perhaps the lack of the ending quotation marks may not be due to the rationale I inferred. The lines, for example, may be from the same ongoing quote, thus perhaps obviating, in Stackhouse’s view, the need to put ending quote marks at the end of the lines. Then I second-guessed myself -- reconsidered -- for, why then, would the last line in the above excerpt still be lacking the closing quotation mark:

“the cultural freeze

So I’ll stick with my original read. And this attention to form heightens resonance through depicting the unknown (perhaps unknowable). It heightens impact because, after all, can the unknown be articulated, let alone be quoted?

But the form is not just narrated but also visually presented. There seems something a tad unnerving -- it makes one pause in the reading, anyway -- about expecting but not seeing that ending quotation mark. Such a small gesture, but with such a meaningful impact.

The form of consideration…and reconsideration. And the inevitable slip(s).

It's even okay that there's a weak poem in the collection. The matter is one of the slip from the standpoint of the overall collection -- there should be a flaw. I refer to the poem “Untitled for John Cage.” But I consider this a weak poem because it leaves me with a sense of déjà vu that makes me think the poem a bit banal. But banality is subjective -- if a certain reader had never read Cage's words, this poem could impress and linger more than it does for me whose shelves contain many Cage books. This, too, attests to the slipperiness of words -- how they obviously can signify and mean different things to different folks.

Thus, in “Extractions, the words:

the reading will be metaphorical or descriptive (this makes one look, this looks
like), but not so easily defining or denotative (this is).

“Extraction…,” like other poems in Slip, makes the reader move in (makes the reader converse back at/with the poem), as with a viewer moving closer to a painting to peruse a detail. This is exemplified with this excerpt that begins with an all-capitalized line, effective for suggesting a pause, deep breath, and then re-starting a (new) reading even when one is already in the middle of an existing reading -- as if the all-capitalized line is also a title of a different poem while still serving to continue an existing poem:


what the surface connotes
causing consternation from the tension of the painter’s withholding
provost, the drama of withholding, controller, liberal
discipline and ascetic practice

the references in the painting binding and by virtue extolling the
elegance in the rough.
Extra Dry or slippery bodily emissions
emboldened, gesture filled and minutia magnified and made grand
by apposition juxtapositions. Holy, wholly hole. whole.

grade, scale, perception, flatness
the deeply felt versus the platitudinal
approach to art: he goes in through the door of his pedestrian day and finds valor in the bright valleys of his
awareness, his presence among the lint, the dust, the dirt, the air, the spinning axis of earth, the buzz, gravity

what can/will one extract from the painting
what moral value is considered, can painting alone impart moral values
can it change perceptions of ….. opposites, making them like --

at the brink of rendering someone else’s version of sameness turn
then find one of the many questions, ode to savoring the unction

directional, contrapuntal, siphoning from the cacophony
the harmonious tension a deux, surface, hand--

how daring is clinical faithlessness?

Lastly, that form enables content is obvious in the physicality of the chapbook through which Slip is published:

--at 5” X 6”, the scale depicts intimacy (as may occur in prolonged viewing/reading/consideration)

--covers in silver, a color that shimmers and the beauty of a shimmer is how it manifests the illusion

--blue lines: 2 thin parallel lines slanted beneath, and subverts, a thicker, straight blue line

The above three elements also manifest a slip. As when you peer at a distant horizon, how that same horizon moves, how it temporarily disappears depending on how the sunrays glimmer and play with your eye…

…and I.

Make that : “I

An open-ended “’I” since our views are subject to change as much as our identities.


Eileen Tabios HEARTS her dogs who often lie under a poker game here. Her latest poetry collection is THE SECRET LIVES OF PUNCTUATIONS, VOL. I whose 2006 sales proceeds will be donated to SAVE DARFUR.


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