This Time We Are Both by Clark Coolidge
(Ugly Duckling Presse, Brooklyn, 2010)
Clark Coolidge’s This Time We Are Both is “a result” of his first visit to the Soviet Union. The poem, Coolidge writes in an opening note, “follows the itinerary of the Rova Saxophone Quartet tour of November 1989: Leningrad, Vilnius, Riga, Tallinn, Tartu, and Moscow.” While the poem was written in the substantial period of The Crystal Text and At Egypt, it went unpublished for nearly twenty years. This will seem surprising to a number of its readers, as it is certainly as good as the other work of that time. It isn’t very clear as to why Coolidge kept the poem unpublished for so long, but I am thankful that it has finally been published.
The poem is divided into sixteen sections, each more or less the same length, with exception to one or two rather short ones. The poem is typical of Coolidge, as it exploits collage technique to subvert, undermine, elide, collate, and transform the various meanings of phrases and sentence units. The coherency of any syntactical unit is usually limited to a line, creating a ‘falling’ effect for the reader as she moves through the poem:
a shattered sugar
blades in the dark near time
tastes more than dark but lines
then not to rest
Both “Blades” and “tastes” can function as either a noun or a verb, and in that syntactical nexus, the potential range of readings available to a reader seem endless to me. This has always been one of the strongest aspects of Coolidge’s work—and I think he does it better than many of his contemporaries. Are there shattered sugar blades in the dark? Or does shattered sugar blade in the dark? Does time taste more than the dark? Or are tastes more than the dark? In any case, the poem is ‘open’ to the practices and biases of any given reader that inevitably “score for echo to agglomerate” into their understanding of the text. Coolidge here, as in his other work, rejects his own authority in order to make a text that isn’t intended to be ‘solved’ but rather operates as a site for potential meaning(s) not contingent on a pre-determined set of authorial possibilities. This ‘openness’ is a hallmark of Language writing. Interestingly, this hallmark—the absence of authority, of criteria by which an interpretation can be judged—becomes enormously problematic in the poem.
The political-historical context of the poem is important to keep in mind. This Time We Are Both is an artifact of the last days of the Soviet Union, written by an American poet traveling with musicians in a country that has been more or less closed (or ‘dark’) to them since the end of the Second World War. While the thaw in relations between the United States and the Soviet Union was more or less complete, and several other Language writers had already participated in a cultural exchange program in the 1980s, the extent to which the intricacies of Soviet culture was unknown and new to Coolidge must have been tremendous. I think this goes some way to explaining the poem’s preoccupation with light imagery, especially the play of shadows, and what light reveals or further obscures. The poem begins with light entering into a place, displacing a busy dark. Here is the opening stanza:
Dark hands pass
dark with no silence
lights in the smoke
hands that start, that light
pass the particles, link penetrations
to an amphitheater smell, that each corner well
treat the carriers, they small, they dark in the wind
the mind rose, the cable hands, a drench
of light smalls, close, a building of hair entire
how it dips in the time to see, we hear
they go forwards past
darkening corners to form
The litany of sense perceptions of what emerges from—or remains in—the dark must be somewhat close to the experience of entering the daily life of a culture more or less unknown—or, rather, heavily distorted—until quite recently. This also resembles my own bewilderment when I started to read the poem: confusion by the content, uncertain of the form, nevertheless certain of its ‘likeness’ to what I’d read before.
In an isolated geography, Coolidge seems to locate and break off a vocabulary of competing senses of sameness and otherness. In section ten he writes:
where the name of a peace is the same as the world
they have signed to each other and not sent cables
the word has bubbles contains others
Later in that same section Coolidge writes about a ‘coded’ cultural milieu that resists understanding on the part of an outsider—or, for that matter, a reader:
The secrets are
be tides, masts in twist and noisy tents
decided things, all furled across the rest we have to go
an oath, and then more sun, then sure
if you are reading thinking this a code, it is
but only to be read up into further codes
is said, there is an ultimate outer
precariousmost position . . .
The second person address seems to constitute a double image of both the reader and the cultural other. In this sense, This Time We Are Both acts as both a visitor’s account of the Soviet Union and as the Soviet Union itself. The difficulty of ‘understanding’ a direct or indirect meaning in the poem recapitulates the difficulty one must have felt in encountering the collapsing U.S.S.R. Even the title implies that the social binary of the familiar and the other isn’t static, that while “this time” we are familiar, next time we might not. In recounting his first trip, Coolidge said in an interview in Jacket:
That year was right on the edge of the Soviet Union disintegrating — it was really quite a time to be there. I remember there was a jazz festival in Leningrad, and I'll never forget seeing a band of maybe 13-year-old kids playing like the Basie band! You know, from Georgia, or somewhere to the south, in Russia. And they were wonderful! They had this incredible guy who was their teacher who was just leaping up and down leading them, it just brought tears to your eyes. The way that music has spread really around the world . . . and good players, drummers with good time and everything, which wasn't always true back in the fifties.
Seeing a jazz festival in the Soviet Union, which had previously banned the music, must have fully-embodied a competing sense of familiarity and strangeness that forms the basis of Coolidge’s poetics.
The form of the poem creates a kind of scientific framework in which words play a quasi-metonymical game, simulating a whole as much as representing it. The relationship between the part and the whole, especially the underlying patterning that occurs, is one of the central preoccupations of the poem. Early on, Coolidge writes, “where we have been, some, particle in the side room to launch / is spoken in jungles as particular physics.” These “jungles” of particulars seems to me a perfect image of the poem itself: words form loose constellations in order to ‘represent’ an experience of the unknown, to describe the whole (Russia) to which they belong. In turn, lineation provides a framework in which these jungles are organized, creating an enormous amount of tension as to where a reader can locate the ‘experience’ of Russia: “Do we in fact have nowhere? it is us in the lines.” And for Coolidge, these linguistic physics are uniquely potent in Russia:
through to the Russian Territories where bodies
could mold themselves in an atmosphere of their own words
sigh and mold themselves to
my mouthpiece speaking
It is almost as though Russia wrote the poem for him.
For Coolidge these self-writing particulars shaped into lines create a kind of science or “strange math” perhaps analogous to fractals. The poem, in this formulation, works as a chain of self-similar parts that, divided from the whole, nevertheless remain representative of that whole. Toward the end of the poem, Coolidge writes, “Fractal field by fractal estuary, a totally / unfolded geometry,” calling our attention to a landscape’s endless divisions that cannot make anything but that landscape, however small (or seemingly separate) the new part may be. But to my mind, the central tension of this poem—and one that Coolidge constantly exploits—is that this kind of math doesn’t provide an algorithm for the realities of experience, that, rather, parts do differ from the whole in nations, that difference sets in despite the best efforts, political or not, to erase it. What Coolidge’s poem describes, and ultimately problematizes, is the degree to which an unknown might seem monolithic to an uneducated eye, even if that unknown has been reduced to its parts. This for me is the most interesting aspect of the poem. Here is one moment when the outsider’s position seems especially problematic—and tense:
Salts assumptions of our looniness to the grain
Moscow will have windows and a border of dust
included in the code of thoughts, will it predate dreams?
what lurks included in the code of balsa, low intensity loaves?
thought in dull whine then under dark bulb bus aisle
recalling each syllable in Lush Life as the juice peters out
through the road its socket
why where we in love with those lamps? as if in such a turning
all our words went landed and duly matched, a hard habit to be
to be single, to bring home the notches from trees
The assumptions one makes about its place and its realities alternate throughout the passage: assumptions, Moscow’s architectural realities; questions of codes, a dull whine of a bus. The problem of codes, which occurs throughout the poem, and what to make of them (“will it predate dreams?”) is particularly poignant in a poem so concerned with its writer’s experience of a place. Did Russia really write the poem, or did, as Coolidge seems to suspect, the words land and match their objects in a convenient projection? At stake is the integrity of the poem as a document of travel. Was the placed ‘decoded,’ or was an entirely new, private code written over it? Coolidge doesn’t seem to have much of an answer, but it seems that the poem settles somewhat comfortably in a Keatsian doubt, confident of itself as a poem, if not as an objective account:
Start again? I don’t remember where we were
A dust the nicer makes
Or is it more nuclear to make a mistake?
Mark it down by law
trace it to the point it pales
They want things to be
people to be
Have all kinds of
my life, drift pencil
Coolidge is not content to believe in his experience of Russia as ‘authentic’ in the sense that it resembles that of a Russian. The degree to which one’s position as an outsider limits one’s knowing a new or foreign place is more or less unknowable in This Time We Are Both. In any case, Coolidge seems to enter an uneasy peace by the end of the poem, maintaining that, while his experience of Russia might not have been Russian, it was certainly his.
Andrew Durbin's work has appeared or is forthcoming in Otoliths, Washington Square, Antennae, and NAP. He lives in New York and can be reached at firstname.lastname@example.org.