Monday, April 16, 2007
PAUL HOOVER—EDGE AND FOLD
The title of Paul Hoover’s Edge and Fold suggests that the lines of poetry that run through the book approach the limit of the page (the edge) or are cut off in mid-utterance by a fold in the page. In either case, the contemplative fragments are assembled in small piles and often feel like cut-ups. However, the fragments themselves are often lent an aphoristic quality as well. Yet the term aphorism doesn’t seem quite apt either. The assembled fragments that beg for contemplation are more incomplete, more like koans. Yes, in Edge and Fold we have an admixture of cut-ups and koans.
This characterization is somewhat disingenuous, for it is quite reductive. The piles of lines that are assembled in the first section of the book (entitled “Edge and Fold” and which is comprised of 49 short contemplative pieces) do not just stand alone as lines that either do or do not enjamb with the following line. The short pieces are often whole unto themselves with a movement that carries the reader safely down the page despite some daring leaping from rock to rock.
The contemplative space carved out by these short poems is not just a space of objects and abstractions. Often literary or other cultural figures make their presence felt within the almost prayerful space created. During the first ten sections alone references to Fassbinder, Miles Davis and Zeno’s arrow are made. These references make the poems seem like prayers made to or for the benefit of others, other cultural figures whom Hoover has deemed worthy of letting them camp out in his head. The question remains what kind of god might listen to such utterances.
Certainly it must be a god somewhat interested in puzzles.
edge and fold
the raiment of the field
the harrow breaks it down
harrow of sight
with its articulations
nothing is in passion
when all is in belief
the world keeps turning
to face the burning sun
The voice that is speaking here (if one would even venture to call it that) seems to be devoid of passion. Nothing seems urgent about its articulation. All desire seems to have been vacuumed out of the world. Desire and its compulsion for a speaker to interact with the world have been displaced by belief, a mental operation. Yet mysteriously the world keeps turning in this state to face the sun, the source of all life, the source of all desire in the universe. The poem seems to be some sort of hazy commentary on the mortal combat between desire and belief.
The theme of the difficulty in trying to connect to the substance of life also occurs in segment XI.
he loved the mechanisms
of wire and device
gadgets of craft
and this of all things
the most uncertain
an effortless pursuit
of everything he knows
along the coast of meaning
where structure is momentum
and life tries to keep him
in the tuning of a sequence
This almost seems to be a character description of a netizen. The copious amount of engagement with the transcendent puts the real substantial life at a disadvantage. It can’t compete (even though life has as its own ambitions to keep people in tune with it). From this little prayer-like sample, it is clear that God must be Google, where more and more people take respite and seek wisdom every day.
This fragment is where Hoover introduces his epistemological frame. In this series of poems he is concerned about knowing, in particular how the mind inscribes the nothing and in the end inhabits intelligible thought, intellection.
the more abstract it is
a cloud of unknowing
crosses all my minds
what reason for knocking
at an empty house
what reason for staying
The series is greatly concerned with affairs of the mind. Already for some poets this may be a reason to look for an offramp. Many poets whose main criterion for reading poems is to recognize desire and feeling in the world may become uneasy at the prospect of meandering through Hoover’s thinking selves and spaces. If this were to be the case, this would be unfortunate. Desire in the world without its counterpart of thought directing said desire is almost as entertaining to watch as dogs striving to rip meat out of each others mouths (I freely admit I don’t get the appeal of ultimate fighting).
For many readers a poem that is not explicit about what its intentions are, a poem that is not up front about its desire, is a poem that is not worth reading. In this, Hoover echoes their sentiments by asking what purpose there is in knocking at an empty house, furthermore, what purpose is there in staying at such a house. But just as one would discover many things about the desire that once may have nicked walls, damaged countertops, scratched window frames, stained cutting boards by entering into an empty house, one can also come to peruse the artifacts of the house of Paul Hoover.
So what kind of house is this that Hoover has built with “Edge and Fold”?
It is a house that is, too, quite barren. That is for sure. It is a house where one’s perceptions slowly begin to inhabit it. How one comes to know these occupying items is through cognition, that nearly inscrutable table game where everyone’s tokens scramble after the next play. It is the tale of the meaning machine, the human mind that has let everyone come to know it a little bit better through its addiction to language.
In the series Hoover is intimating what happens when the human mind is weaned of its obsession with language. Bit by bit Hoover unveils the somewhat dissembled magic that happens within the cortical folds.
However, as a reader, I am struck by how many times when I make Hoover’s lines the object of my focused attention, I am able to weave back together the strands that he has splayed before me as reader. I become a reader of the frayed. Such a method suggests that Hoover’s maxim for this series might be: all is perception.
Certainly Hoover seems to suggest that perception is the source, off of which he intends to hang the heavy machinery of intellect and cognition. But two sections later in XVII, he states, “the world’s as real as thinking” in italics (so he either really means it or he’s cribbing it from elsewhere). Here the heavy machinery isn’t just working to build some extraneous commodity. It’s building the world right where we stand.
And we are standing. Stillness pervades nearly every poem in the series. There are no actors, just reports on physical events: the dampness rolling in, a parrot wipes its beak, the crumble of a star. We are told in XXIII “at the edge of nature / a fold creates something.” These “somethings” accumulate through the series and provide little outposts for the attention to focus on. They are part of the “radical weather”that transpires. Then we are reminded as readers that language is connected to this world, sometimes in tenuous and unsatisfactory ways. The language, in turn, manifests itself as a kind of world that runs parallel to the physical world. Hoover comments on this in XXVI when he says “no word / or world / is empty.”Language is as full of potential for wonder as is the physical world.
In XXVIII Friedrich Hölderlin is invoked, and it is clear that Hoover is pointing to Hölderlin as an example of a man who took the world of the insubstantial more seriously than he did the physical world. Hölderlin’s main concern was with the gods in the aether. He communed with them, late in his life when he wrote his fragments, more than he did his physical surroundings, and for this he was declared insane. His enigmatic fragments parallel Hoover’s fragments in Edge and Fold. His language attempts to inscribe his experience just as Hoover’s does, but both ultimately fall short of accomplishing this completely, preferring in their own right to luxuriate in their own being—Hölderlin holding vigil with the gods, Hoover with his “wonder.”
In the blog entry by Hoover linked to above, Hoover seems to be locating postmodernism’s key aspects of dispersion, digression and openness with Hölderlin in the early 19th century. The grounding of postmodernism to Hölderlin underscores postmodernism’s legacy as much longer-lived than many might acknowledge, even if it’s longer life comes packaged with the mad Hölderlin.
In XXX Hoover makes reference to Empedocles (whom Hölderlin wrote of in his play Death of Empedocles). Empedocles is another tale of self-delusion, even willed self-delusion. Legend has it that he threw himself into an active volcano so that people would believe that he had vanished and turned into an immortal god. Hoover’s treatment of Empedocles is somewhat different. He has Empedocles “at the brink / tenderly walking back / to the house where he was born / laurel leaves scratching / the softest of walls.” The laurel leaves conferring his godly status appear to be more grounded or at least this is one reading of those soft walls (not the presumably hard walls of the volcano). Another reading of the soft walls might be the skull. Indeed in XXX1, Hoover takes the reader back into proximity with the body, with lines reading: “the body is a field,” “the eye can’t imagine,” and “thickness of a hand.”
One of Hoover’s obsessions in “Edge and Fold” is the way in which language interacts with the physical world:
in the sparest of ruins
language is act
where one can imagine
the unbuttoned present
with its ripe interjections
and swerving cars
the way green mold
covers a lemon
& stone asks a question
the moon must answer
This section has a very Hölderlin-like movement. The zigzagging from one line to the next in the couplet is reminiscent of the way Hölderlin zips from one detail to the next but is not altogether concerned about tying things up. The physical world presents itself one item at a time, and Hölderlin’s mind travels distractedly among them. The gist of what Hoover is talking about with language being the act where one unbuttons the present is exemplified in the fourth couplet. As a reader, one identifies “The way green mold / covers a lemon” as a perceived phenomenon, a detail that fills up the nothingness of experience with wonder. It unbuttons the present.
In the very enigmatic XL Hoover invokes Pascal, in particular it seems his famous wager that it is better to bet on a God and have him not exist than to bet against a god and have it turn out that he did exist. Hoover’s resolution?—“god goes nowhere / breathes all air / infinity is memory / when a god plays life.”Then a god too is subject to being create out of nothing to reside in the infinite memory of the living.
Wislawa Szymborska provides the epigraph for XLI. It reads: “where is a written deer / running through a written forest.” This section deals with the written word. The written is pitted against the unwritten, the two being mutually opposable forces, but by the end of XLI one sees that the written is dependent on the unwritten, the still, the empty. The last line reads: “everything that is / written by what is not.”
Perhaps my favorite segment is XLVI.
a lovely winter wedding
for every mother’s son
in a world of afternoons
mean almost nothing
Taylor loves John
a mirror loves the sun
each time I dream
it happens more slowly
until a fondness comes
My initial response is to ask a fondness for what? Maybe “fondness” is just a cheap stand-in for desire here. Or perhaps it is pre-desire, the moment of inclination before desire roots inclination in the world. The slow-in-coming dream that is the trigger for such a moment is a notion that is truly sublime. It makes me want drag the apparatus out of my closet that lets me measure the velocity of a dream.
Equally intoxicating in XLVII are the lines: “the semblance and the tangle / are models of desire / little sleep machine / on its way to language /flickering out of time.” The semblance is the moment of wonder where one renders a perception in language, the moment when “something like euphoria relaxes into genius.” The tangle is the result of prolonged engagement of perceiving, the hard looking again and again that ultimately brings a perceiver to his attachment to the world. Both the prolonged version and the immediate version of desire must make their appeal to language to be brought into the fold of existence.
By the end of the poem one has traveled over a lot of terrain, both psychic and experienced. Though the poem may last an hour or so in one reading, the lived time by the maker is much longer. The poem is concise and scrutinized, yet it has enough breadth to remain an interesting exposé of a mind pushing into the world, not one circling its own navel. There are many centers of attraction within this system that Hoover has built: language, experience, desire, nothingness, perception, cognition, nature, mind, zero, one, infinity. The connections between these themes is what eventually keeps the poem from being totally frayed. Many of these themes turn and angle in on the others, and while this system is a looser assemblage than what I might be used to and aim at for myself, the openness that it achieves makes this system one that is set to expand at its outermost edge even as one is tempted to fold it in on itself in order to make a nice, neat bundle that one can carry around in the back pocket, to carry it around like a handbook for ideation.
In “The Reading” the other long poem in Edge and Fold, absence is again a major player. It covers much of the same ground that “Edge and Fold” does with its theme of “creation needing its rift, busy with silence.” The main difference is that the first person singular makes a few brief appearances. Perhaps it signals that there is less distance from the author in “The Reading” than the detached voice in “Edge and Fold.” “The Reading” also seems a bit more playful as well: “I am not well / between heaven and hell / and guilty of a crisis,”also its reference to “inaction painting . . . silence between the lines, color between words.
The inaction painting is presumably the text itself. It is the place where one as a reader remains immobilized in order to ingest it while the words swirl around in their patterns that are perceived due to the exertion of a reader’s concentration. Ironically, it is out of the mix of the physical world that language with the help of desire fixes experience during a moment of creative insight. Then a reader in a moment of stillness permits the language that has fixed experience to become active in the mind. The transmission is complete. This is what “The Reading” seems most to be about.
About the fragment it is Donald Revell who writes:
The interruption of the incessant this is the distinguishing characteristic of fragmentary writing: Interruptions having somehow the same meaning as that which does not cease. Only what cannot begin cannot end. Once begun, an activity possesses trajectory, and, anticipating a form, trajectory anticipates an end.
Only what cannot begin remains innocent of anticipation, retaining the necessity and thus the privilege of incompleteness. In trying to understand the fragment as a genre rather than as an abolition of poetic activity, I want to find some of the accents of such innocence and some of the attributes of its necessity.
The innocence that Hoover has commenced in “Edge and Fold”is a sequence that defies succession or at the very least makes of it a grand parade of wrong turns down rarely traveled alleys. The assemblage that he has put together touches one fragment to another at the loci of a few abstractions like nothingness, mind, perception, desire, even fewer figures, to arrive at an ars poetica of the sublime moment of creation, of inspiration by the gods in the way Hölderlin might understand it. Yet the incompleteness that is its privilege, as Revell describes it above, always glistens with possibility. If one had a special set of enzymes where one could recombine these fragments, the resultant mongrel of a species could be taken along on a trip up the side of the Alps to see the gods in the aether.