Monday, December 18, 2006

Fresh Cuts

How weirdly and unsettling quiet (gasp!) the poems in Katie Degentesh's The Anger Scale are. Rather than emphasizing the fissures and seams between phrases and the various places and discourses they come from, the poems throw everything into making their material, and their speaking subjects, as coherent and as unified as possible: line breaks fall on grammatical grooves, the vocabulary-field of each poem is fairly small as compared to other Flarflist productions, punctuation is normative rather than disruptive, lines per stanza (check). I imagine her (and of course this is my made-up narrative about the writing of the book) as less attracted to the shiniest or weirdest types of vernacular that comes up in her searches than to the ways that bits of everyday or ordinary language can fit together; in this, the poems tell us a great deal about the kind of work that certain discourses, and certain syntactical and rhetorical structures, do in and of themselves, apart from content, apart from who's speaking. Of course, the poems are often hilarious, and by comparison with other books of poetry, filled with all sorts of discomfiting chance meetings of skunk cabbage and "twitch products" in a Holiday Inn. But there are fewer proper nouns and super-specific idioms here than in recent examples of the genre. And this seems important, this pursuit of an impossible coherence in a set of poems about, in my reading, the way that psychiatric questions (not to mention internet search strings) impact the kind of things we can or do say before we even begin say them. There is (as I have been thinking lately) an affective intensity that comes from speed and from noise and excess. A great deal of the poetry I most value is of this sort. But then there is also an intensity that comes from a stilling, from refusing to shout. The intensity, perhaps, of Warhol's _Screen Tests_, where a blink of an eye or a muscular twitch in the cheek can have all the impact of an alarm. Dissonance by other means.

Yesterday, while I was still squinting into the strange light of the comment that "globalization is so passé" I encountered, in the comments cave of Ron's blog, an escapee from The Valve, who thought that all poems made from cut-up bits of other language have the same meaning: ie, that we here readers are very confused and sad solipsistic citationeers and pasters. There are numerous problems with this argument, not least of which is assuming that poetry is about the construction of meaning and the transmission of authorial inten-yawn!-tions. It's also true that if the anonym (well, he practices what he preaches, huh?) whose redaction of the scholarship of Walter Benn Michaels is right there's only about five things we can say to each other (one of them clearly the following evasive action taken by students who are afraid of literature: but, then, can't you just say anything about it? What did Sophocles really mean?) The answer is no: there are an infinity of numbers between 0 and 1, but 4 isn't one of them. But, more importantly, what my remarks on Degentesh's book show is how collage is not simply, not only, a negative process: "cut-up" in this sense is misleading, for if cutting only were what a Dada poem, or a Berrigan poem, were about, it would not be a poem, but the instructions: cut up this thing (in which case there is still "meaning" in the "this thing". Even "cut up everything" has meaning, as long as everything does). Poetry of this sort is also constructive, as much a "cut-up" as a "put-together." And the forms of putting-together are nearly infinite. If the sign-o-phobic want to call this "intention," that's fine by me; if they choose to think of it as the indication of a wider field of expression and experience, even better. In any case, Degentesh says it better than I can:

As a Youngster I Was Suspended from School One or More Times for Cutting Up

Everyone knows about Dallas
and its acts of terrifying gorgeousness

a chef in a tall hat piping meringue
discussing the "brain drain"

dropped a slab of concrete on his left foot
before being lured to the guitar

doesn't recall details of cutting up friend
to create fake masterpiece

when Dorrington came home unexpectedly and found
flight atendants ready to undergo radical surgery

I've been cutting up Vipers more and longer than anyone I know
the severed sea bream head washed down the river on a chopping board

The class batted it around in a bloodless little battle of the sexes
and I just started branching out to dogs and cats.

The boar is cut up and the hounds are fleshed.
So far we've concentrated on the whole hog
a popular euphemism for saying that someone doesn't like
our size and age differences

Like cutting up and depositing the body of a camel
in the drawing of a dinosaur head
and sewing it to other stuff like duck or squab
or radioactively contaminated tools and equipment

I sat on the back of our sofa listening eagerly
constantly at my dad's side fishing
going to the local coin shop with my dad
in small-bore slow-fire events

paths only modern-day Cowboys or Indians would travel

Slice off both sides close to the seed to create two halves of
The Moon, which rises while the men are cutting up the whale carcass.

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