THE SOURCE by Noah Eli Gordon
(Futurepoem, New York, 2011)
THUS & by Derek Henderson
(if p then q, Manchester, U.K., 2011)
Dog Ear by Erica Baum
(Ugly Duckling Presse, Brooklyn, 2011)
I enjoy learning about the processes or techniques that go into creating a poem(s). Said process employed by Noah Eli Gordon in his latest book, THE SOURCE, is among the most intriguing I’ve recently considered—if only because the author’s “A NOTE ON PROCESS” presents the relevance of “the name of God”—perhaps my reading is limited, but I don’t see God invoked often in process notes to poems.
As part of his process, Gordon also went to the Denver Public Library over a period of nine months to read Page 26 in nearly ten thousand books. From his readings, he compiled “bits of language” that he then “fused” into what became text in THE SOURCE. The rationale for Page 26? The poet explains
The choice of page 26, while obviously corresponding to the amount of letters present in the English alphabet, is also important in Kabbalist terms; it represents the numerical value of the Tetragrammaton, the four Hebrew letters that form the name of God. Additionally, according to the Talmud, the Torah would have been revealed during the 26th generation of the history of the world; thus, it is Moses who, 26 generations after Adam, receives the Torah transmitted by God. Interestingly, by using a correspondence table, where each letter is given in ascending order a numerical value (A=1, B=2, C=3, etc.), the name of God in English has a total value (G=7, O=15,D=4) of 26.
It’s worth noting—and praising—how well Gordon’s concept is supported by Mickel Design’s book cover as well as choice of font. The cover is burgundy faux leather seemingly stamped by the gold-colored emblazonment of title and author. The font is set in Sabon, designed by Jan Tschichold in 1967 and used for the 1979 Book of Common Prayer. Not only are the design choices attractive but they exemplify how well-considered were the concepts that created this book. The reference to the Book of Common Prayer, for instance, is not a coincidence when Gordon is acknowledging a concern over whether "constraint-based, conceptual writing might have a spiritual dimension" [italics mine]): if you will, Form = Content. The cover effect also comes off as legal or biblical, both of which fit the notion of some Source.
Anyway, it’s old news that poets read other texts and lift from them to create their own; my immediate response to THE SOURCE was actually to recall a book I'd recently published through Meritage Press, Flux, Clot & Froth by John Bloomberg-Rissman; here, the poet went through about 4,000 books on his bookshelf for bits of language that he wove together into a book-length poem. (Bloomberg-Rissman continues this approach for his ongoing IN THE HOUSE OF HANGMAN series available at his Zeitgeist Spam blog.) This technique of collaging from other texts, in some cases with slight changes to the text, also has been popularized by the internet’s research capabilities. However, Gordon’s “surfing” of a non-virtual library—versus, say, a Google search—is refreshing in its return to a more bodily involvement with source material. Okay, rafting a river is still not the same as reading about the rafting of a river. But to lift one’s butt off of a computer chair and travel to another location where (unlike in one's writing studio) things happen outside of the author's instigation or control, and then leaf through these things called books that are supposed to be going out of existence—well, it can be a deeper or more committed or more deliberate involvement than typing on a keyboard in addressing or involving the world viz a poem.
Books contain different worlds from the reader’s. But what’s the significance of the poet leaving his domestic domain to go to a public library? Gordon, as with many other poets who've annotated others' texts to write their own, brought in many externals (viz the worlds in the books) into their poems. Gordon, however, extended this particular path by going to a public library—so the books he utilized aren't of his own choosing and the subject(ed) books are intended for a reading public of many versus the subjective choice of one. On this level, Gordon fully developed the concept he attempted to explore with THE SOURCE and validates his conclusion in his “A NOTE ON PROCESS” that “rigid and systemic modes of writing can embody an emotionally charged engagement with the world.”
This leads us to THE SOURCE itself. Many projects have interesting techniques and processes but the actual manifestations don’t quite shine. Here, Gordon’s sense of musicality that’s been displayed in his other works (e.g. The Area of Sound Called The Subtone and The Frequencies) is more than up to snuff. It needed to be more than up to snuff. Some mastery is required for deftly weaving together nearly 10,000 sources into a creature with some sense of cohesiveness. Let me open the book now at random (no, I’m not deliberately turning to Page 26) and offer an excerpt:
There is swift masterful decision, and yet an almost ethereal wistfulness and delicacy in all it has done to draw the eye of the viewer into the swirling totality of the actions it so powerfully portrays. For example, brightly colored crinolined ladies and top-hatted gentlemen cram onto a jetty where a steam ferry disgorges its passengers and prepares to depart again. Upon seeing this, one forgets that to possess the feeling of shame is to be near its energy. The same holds true of any other scale. It is enough to hear music that is, though simple, still music.
The borders of abstraction, the poise, the sheer depth of feeling, these one may well indeed copy from the Source, but, like ruminants, who in order to digest have to pass food through more than one stomach, it will not allow you to build a composition without a laughing infant accompanied by his haloed guardian in a boat smoothly issuing out of a cave into the rosy morning light.
There are the pleasing surprises in the deft joining of abstractions and specifics. More significantly for the creation of prolonged or book-length coherence is what underlies the joyous suppleness of language: a rhythm proffered by phrase-lengths and sentence-lengths that facilitates reading. Rhythm through the judicious use of commas and periods. Thus, music. They look block-ey, being prose poem paragraphs, but read them out loud and you’ll feel the word-dance.
The sources for THE SOURCE being what they are (i.e. random), there’s plenty of potential for creating the always pleasing turns of phrase. I’ll open the book again at random and, oh joy, here’s one:
It is difficult to concentrate on a ballet during the great debate between determinism and free will.
I don’t know about you but I thought that hilarious. I’m not a big ballet-goer but have attended a few in my time, and can easily imagine the above difficulty.
There’s plenty more in THE SOURCE to please. There’s dry wit:
A book written by a doctor ordinarily includes some talk for a cure.
There are those moments that lead you to nodding in agreement though you don’t know what you’re agreeing with, like
The first flash of candles tells all, or if not, enough and more.
There are several that offer the layer of being ars poetica statements, such as
“I was applauded, but no further interest was taken in me.”
I could go on. And, mentally, I did go on for much more than what I did for this review, plucking from the book one section after another and appreciating it. Which leads me to the book’s paradox. I do believe THE SOURCE is a cohesive whole. But it is also most appreciated by being read, not from beginning to end but, by being opened at random for some bits and pieces. I suppose such, too, can be considered a sign of the concept’s effectiveness—one, after all, doesn’t usually read through a ten-thousand-book library by starting on the beginning of one shelf and reading in order through to the end of the farthest shelf.
Obviously, I admire THE SOURCE as a conceptual project and as a book-length poem. But one possible caveat I have is whether the near-10,000 books referenced could have been presented in some way. I wonder about its possibilities as a list (list poem? And, hey, I once wrote a poem based on scanning titles at a bookstore and sensing the music that would arise when the titles joined—a la Cixous’ “attune[ment” to music that Gordon cites as one of the book’s epigraphs). Well, perhaps not; THE SOURCE does remind, “…a pianist conscious of his fingers during a furious set should immediately stop playing.”
Still, the occasional gothic tones, among others, within the book makes me wonder what exactly Denver is putting in its libraries—or the specific library visited by Gordon—and whether its collection needs expansion. We could assess the question if the list of books was available. Did we ignore possibilities of cultural critique here? But, never mind, these are just asides—one shouldn’t make the mistake of conceding to a project’s underlying concept and then “analyzing” it based on another concept, right? Just consider these last two paragraphs another indication of how THE SOURCE drew in this reader such that I, oh yes!, began to imagine a different reality for it. Which is to say, THE SOURCE successfully enticed.
Having said all that above, I reiterate my appreciation of Gordon leaving his writing studio to go to the public library and do his searching there. I believe I make a big deal out of this because it seems to me that so many poets have written and continue to write from the reading through, remixing from, collaging from, and otherwise sampling of other people's texts (a practice enhanced by the availability of internet searching) ... and I picture them all seated at a desk or lying on the floor or couch as they peruse publications as raw material. At least Gordon is helping to address the U.S.' obesity problem (I know i'm overreaching here as he may have driven to the library instead of ... uh, jogged there) in addition to ... reading through of other people's texts! Of course, this process with all its variations is a legitimate approach (I do it moiself); I just wish I'd see more ways for poets to exercise their imagination (self-implication conceded). Anyway...
Here are two more recent books that depend on others' texts for their existence: Derek Henderson's THUS & and Erica Baum's Dog Ear.
Henderson's approach -- and here I quote from the press release of its (fabulous for exploring innovative approaches) publisher, if p then q -- is summarized as:
Ted Berrigan's seminal The Sonnets is renowned for its famous use of cut up technique and reconfiguration throughout the sequence. Derek Henderson's erasue THUS & eliminates all words and typographical duplications. In addition to the strikingly beautiful, often minimalist, sonnets created by Henderson, THUS & reveals (conceals) not only the clusters of phrases/lines that were cloned by Berrigan but also words which he repeated; many obviously subconsciously. What is left in THUS & is part skeleton, and underbelly, of maitre-sonneteer Berrigan's The Sonnets and part alien remix by techno-magician Derek Henderson.
A tetchy aside on the above, by the by: wouldn't it be logical that the results would be "minimalist" given its process? I won't edit this aside out because it shows my mood as I write the review. And I do wish I read Henderson's book in a different mood from being text-shuffle-irritated; indeed, in addition to writing this review, I've been reformatting other GR reviews including of Karla Kelsey's Iteration Nets whose process also partly nods to Ted Berrigan's sonnets and begins by incorporating excerpts from outside texts (Kelsey's process is more than its beginning, of course, and you can read about it in the GR review HERE); elsewhere in the issue are reviews of another three, possibly more, books reliant on sampling from others' texts (after formatting this issue, I was ready for some witness poetry!). So, anyway, I wish I was not in a mood for an alternative process when I read THUS & because many of its poems are actually lovely, like XXIII with its particularly fabulous ending:
Blood ran muddy inspiration Walks anyway
or to the pleasingly on-point
Inevitably, there are some misses given the arbitrary constraints. But the point may be -- and I'm rather surprised at this -- that there are less misses than I would have expected given its process' constraints. Thus, THUS & befits its existence as a poetry collection: it's a worthwhile read.
Erica Baum's Dog Ear relies on other people's texts by presenting images of (from the press release) "dog-eared pages of mass-market paperbacks [that] are photographed to isolate the small diagonally bisected squares or rectangles of text." Here's one example where the line-fold has a pleasingly flash-of-gold effect across the darker background; I'm reminded of the notion of mining for the precious mineral, where a mark may bespeak the existence of the desired element -- a process that can be a metaphor for the idea of going through others' texts to create a new golden element that can be labeled as poem and/or art:
Kenneth Goldsmith, who wrote an Introduction, aptly notes that "the act of reading is up for grabs." He gives an example of two alternate readings of the image, which I paraphrase here for its usefulness. If Plate XXII was read by beginning at the upper left-hand corner and working its way around the outside, while ignoring the fold as a barrier to the textual flow, XXII can be transcribed as
and water. The lace was my laceless shoe? Caught
broken when I tore the door to my inner
so I threw it away. In there. Encounter-
top of the shoe, is mine must have
an old trick I office filled
cleaning out littered
my enemi-bought I
me, too me like
The same Plate XXII, if read as two separate portions of text with the fold as the dividing line, it may be transcribed as
and water. The lace was
broken when I tore the
so I threw it away.
top of the shoe,
an old trick I
my laceless shoe? Caught
the door to my inner
in there. Encounter-
mine must have
Fun and intriguing. And all part of Baum's interrogations of how one may read/perceive the word/world. (But, again, I imagine another poet sitting on one's duff dog-earing pages to photograph. The method is a bit too hermetic for Moi, or at least in the mood I'm in while doing this review). But what elevates Dog Ear for me is its visual dimension. Between Goldsmith's essay and its opposite bookend, an essay by Beatrice Gross, Baum's works are photographs of the dog-eared pages. And color here is definitely a narrative. Much of the images are in various tones of sepia, befitting the age of the paperback books that were dog-eared for this project. The brown, yellow, and tan hues somehow evoke an emotional response. Nostalgia is one as the colors of fading and/or aging refer to some past. Compassion over human mortality is another when confronted by a browning color that bespeaks brittleness.
I don't think one needs to cite Josef Albers (as the press release does, even if "cursorily") just because the works are square-ish. There's really a visual integrity here that doesn't need such name-dropping. in Plate XVI, for instance, there's a luminosity in the spaces between words that fits (if you will) the implied searching surfacing from the words:
I would not do that
Here's the above poem as visual art:
Harmony exists between color and text, e.g. the way a seemingly sunlit space illumines the perpetual searching of the questions and a definitive answer ("I would not do that / differently" that nonetheless provides no revelation as to what the answer "that" is.
Examples abound of such pleasing effects and, unlike with many remixed or recontextualized texts, I actually anticipate returning often to Baum's Dog Ear for its many pleasurable moments.
Eileen Tabios does not let her books be reviewed by Galatea Resurrects as she's its editor, but she is pleased to point you elsewhere to reviews of her books. Her newest book SILK EGG: Collected Novels is reviewed or generated responses by Joey Madia in The New Mystics HERE; Allen Bramhall over HERE; by Amazon top-notch reviewer Grady Harp over HERE; by Leny Strobel over HERE; and by Jean Vengua over HERE and HERE. Her THE SECRET LIVES OF PUNCTUATIONS, VOL. I is reviewed by Edric Mesmer in Yellow Field and reprinted HERE. Her THE THORN ROSARY: SELECTED PROSE POEMS 1998-2010 is reviewed by Arpine Konyalian Grenier over HERE. Allen Bramhall also reviews the "Hay(na)ku for Haiti" series over HERE. If the latter two get you curious, please note that participating in this fundraiser for Haiti is supported by Marsh Hawk Press, publisher of THE THORN ROSARY: if you order at least $15 worth of booklets, you will receive a copy of THE THORN ROSARY which is priced retail at $19.95; this is one of the best bargains in the poetry world, even as it helps out with a Haiti fundraiser.