Monday, August 27, 2007

Poem. Poesis. To make. The poet is the maker. A poem is made. Turned in the heart and the hands. On the wheel of melody, the drum of rhythm, windchime of the unexpected. Sound. Sculpted into song. Into making. Poem.

From Glyph by Judith Miller, p. 16 (Pasdeloup Press, 1999)

Nick Lea tells me I should call it a stanzagraph, to recognize its hybrid nature, halfway between a stanza and a paragraph. That's apparently Daphne Marlatt's term. Perfect: stanzagraph. Anyway, I got to thinking about it when Mark lent me Glyph by University of Waterloo professor Judith Miller. Composed of roughly a hundred word histories like the one above, Glyph is part book-length catalogue poem, part intuitive dictionary, part lesson in the history of English. It's a mesmerizing little book, illustrated as it is by Nicholas Rees' artwork, which further hammers home the books resemblance to archaeological field notes. Here is a picture of a boat. Here is a picture of a hay knife.

Stanzagraph. I wanted to turn immediately to Lisa Robertson, but I ended up going through Poetry Bus poet Travis Nichols.

The sleuths and this one kid, My Bones Are Wheat and My Blood Is Vinegar, ran track for a year but got initiated. The loved him. By the shorts, his wide ruddy face almost broke his neck in the urinal. His little mouth quit. I didn't want to be his wild orange ring of hair and his mustache then, but I remember really they loved his side-whiskers and his starched shirts wanting to be like by people. Whenever his baggy pants and his sensible white shoes met them, which wasn't what they loved, his red hands and silver rings flew. Very often I remember being kind of loved. How he alone loved me terribly and shocked me. How he spoke of love when speaking of laws. And they were horrified when he said it was impossible to forbid a man to run genetically closer to the antelope and make a big wax doll to kiss it. Then white runners, which I don't think of. But if this man with the doll is true... But I'm so bat at science who knows... But if her were to sit in front of a man in love and and begin to caress his doll the way their Mom was a white tube of light, the man would caress his beloved, inside of which there must have been the man in love. You would find it unpleasant, something the kids would sigh and pull their brown bright and blank but no one clothes around them about and say, “We know.”

From Iowa, by Travis Nichols, p.17-18 (braincase press, 2006)


I realize now that the tearing was the worst thought in a very awkward installment of the regular and that to swim is nice, especially for my elbow but I feel like later I will understand some properly until and object near a person is no longer suggesting intervention.

From The Apothecary by Lisa Robertson (Bookthug, 2007, first published by Tsunami Editions, 1991)

Some people think that prose poems are the very extreme of freeverse, but of course they're not. In an important way, the poet has added a formal constraint: the poet decides one tool in her kit is off-limits, in this case linebreaks. It's the very definition of a poetic constraint and like most constraints, it's both binding and freeing.

Miller's piece, quoted above, is heavily punctuated. Most of the periods do not demarcate the end of full sentences, as would be expected in prose. Especially with a line like “Sound. Sculpted into song. Into making.” Do you read the period after "sound" as a period? Or as a line break, differently marked? Once you start breaking down those barriers between prose and poetry, we're forced to reconsider the signposts we're accustomed to. Is this punctuation intended strictly rhythmically, or does it carry semantic (uh, syntactic) weight? Of course it's a false dichotomy, since pauses and rhythms also carry meaning, don't they?

In Nichols' Iowa, most of the sentences are strictly speaking grammatically correct. But they're very peculiar sounding, and I think that's because Nichols uses the full range of sentence constructions available to him, which a prose write would almost never do. Short sentences, long sentences, compound sentences, various dependent clauses, often without the the punctuation marks we're used to seeing.

Take the sentence, “By the shorts, his wide ruddy face almost broke his neck in the urinal.” He's describing a lockerroom hazing incident. Rather than saying, simply, “They guys held him by his ankles over a urinal,” he uses the strange “by the shorts” to modify “his... face”. The boy's face becomes the subject rather than the object of the sentence and it, not the other kids, “almost broke his neck.” His face almost broke his neck. The line is visceral, unbalancing. It takes the reader out of herself.

Don't get me started. I could spend a lot of time on, “I didn't want to be his wild orange ring of hair and his mustache then, but I remember really they loved his side-whiskers and his starched shirts wanting to be like by people.”

And that's where, I think, Robertson and Nichols have something in common. Each dust-up of a sentence in The Apothecary appears to be playing with the limits of grammar. Mostly constructed within the bounds of what is technically “correct”, the The Apothecary takes us to places we've almost forgotten, almost totally abandoned in our pre-fab subject-verb-object everyday habits. I think it's' one of the pleasures – or can be, at any rate – of prose poems.

Have you ever been writing and thought, oh fuck, that's the tenth time I've used the same sentence structure in a row? Or, why do I keep using the same grammatical trick to start my poem? In helping break those habitual ways of thinking, Miller, Nichols and Robertson have given us some important food for thought. Given all the arguments that grammar fundamentally effects how people think, reading poems that takes us out of our grammatical comfort zone is more than just a game for word nerds, it's, er, a mind-altering experience.