Wednesday, April 25, 2007


Ben Lerner’s Angle of Yaw takes its title from the aeronautical term that describes the shifting of an airplane where its nose moves left and right while the plane continues on its line of travel. It is a motion that can best be appreciated when the viewer is positioned above or below the aircraft. The emphasis in this definition should be placed on the unusual perspective one must attain in order to make oneself aware of the plane’s motion.

In Angle of Yaw Lerner applies a similar perspective to the items and subjects he takes into consideration in the book. Mostly his concerns focus on the hyper-mediated American life out in the open, and mostly his jaunty meditations are brimming with absurdity and varying in tones from contempt to disgust to mild amusement.

He employs short, right-and-left-justified prose blocks throughout the majority of the book that frequently use the technique of assertion, negation and drift. One gets the feeling that one is witnessing a mind in argumentation mode even while that mind has moved on to other things. The argument is no longer the thing that matters. They strike this reader as prenatal thesis statements before they grow up to be video game addicts or abusers of public space.

The plethora of short prose poems are supported by three longer poems: “Begetting Stadia,” “Didactic Elegy,” and “Twenty-One Gun Salute For Ronald Reagan.”

These three poems all seem similarly poised on the edge of argument. “Begetting Stadia” seems more or less situated in a colossal sports stadium with the speaker making general references to sports writing and sport as spectacle. However, there are also allusions to advertising-speak in a way that reflects its overblown silliness:

“Sorcery cuts grease and glass like lightning”

General Disney gets clothes clean (with sorcery).
General Disney’s Chicken (with sorcery sauce).

It is not surprising though at the end of this poem the catastrophic has happened. The ersatz culture Lerner is critiquing through parody and not-so-thinly-veiled assault is caving in on itself. Occurring simultaneously is a kind of fleeing into nature, “We fled into the trees,” indicative of a reverse evolution, a return to a pre-primate position. Our heads cave in almost out of sympathy to the destroyed stadium.

But if we are only an extension of our stadium culture as Lerner is pointing this out, then in “Didactic Elegy” Lerner seems to be looking at the limited institutions of art and criticism itself. The somewhat tortured circumambulating logic of this dense, theory-speak-laden poem proceeds along the lines of Lerner’s patented assertion and negation:

It is no argument that the critic knows the artist personally.
Even if the artist is a known quantity, interpretation is an open struggle.
An artwork aware of this struggle is charged with negativity.
And yet naming negativity destroys it.
Can this process be made the subject of a poem?

but it can be made the object of a poem.

Several times Lerner uses the negation of a rhetorical question as a grounding point to push his discourse further from the core. These instances serve as structural elements within the piece.

Can this process be the subject of a poem?
No, but a poem may prefigure its own irrelevance.
. . . . .
Can an image be heroic?
No, but an image may proclaim its distance from the event it ostensibly depicts;

While there are many moments where the logic of this piece seems incredibly sound and one can follow the statement of assertion after assertion for a while, eventually the reader is led astray to such an extent that the author begins to undermine his claims. It is this distance from intention that Lerner locates in the first few lines:

I posit the critic to distance myself from intention, a despicable affect.
Yet intention is necessary if the field is to be understood as an economy.

What we have in “Didactic Elegy” is an economy of words, one where the repeated exchange of one phrase for another diminishes the value in terms of significance. The whole affair has lost its meaning while it goes through its semi-serious motions.

Later in the poem, though apparently eminently logical, it is the logic of the critic that seems most under assault:

For example, a syllogism subjected to a system of substitutions
allows us to apprehend the experience of logic
at logic’s expense.

One can hardly go very far in this poem without feeling the system of substitutions. The system of substitutions is the activity of the signifiers engaging in trade. The result is an economy that seems to be going nowhere, an economy that has become unhinged from its raison d’etre.

One seems to experience the effect of logic the same way one experiences the effect of an economy. Dizzying patterns of intention and exchange leave one wondering what it is all about, how one begins to plug in, how one begins to resolve the unresolvable.

Yet, the technique employed is only the subtext for the piece. In many of its more lucid moments, the poem wants to take on the image of the collapsing towers of 9/11. The speaker wants to articulate the deconstruction of this image. No longer are they objects of pity, horror and hero worship. The speaker wants to give this image a good vacuuming.

I think that we should draw a bold, black line across an otherwise white field
and keep discussion of its meaning to a minimum.
If we can close the event to further interpretation
we can keep the collapse from becoming a masterpiece.

One can only assume that the attempt to close the event to further interpretation is a kind of kidding. However, the serious nature of the rest of the piece almost has you going that it means what it says (even while it skirts the issue of intention).

In the final four lines Lerner asserts:

The meaninglessness of the drawing is therefore meaningful
and the failure to seek out value is heroic.
Is this all that remains of poetry?

Ignorance that sees itself is elegy.

The speaker takes shelter in the notion of meaninglessness and anti-heroic poses for poetry. The speaker then asks if this meaningless valueless void is all there is for poetry to inhabit. In a way this rhetorical question mirrors those that have come before, but instead of providing a “No” as negation, the speaker elegantly states that ignorance that sees itself is elegy.

If we are to take these words at face value, then the speaker is imploring the reader to acknowledge his/her own shortcomings in what he/she doesn’t know. This will be the most remarkable memorial that he/she could construct.

I’m not sure what this means for what remains of poetry, but it is likely that Lerner is saying that poetry that endeavors to eradicate its own ignorance is a form of marking the important events of the past. The way in which the voice in this piece is always pushing out to expand its boundaries reliably lives up to this call for action. The movement in the poem is that of a curious learner [hence the author’s surname?] incorporating more and more events and items into the mix, even at the expense of consistency and perfect order.

In “Twenty One Gun Salute to Ronald Reagan” Lerner creates 21 stanzas that follow the pattern of seven left-justified lines followed by two indented lines. The last two lines seem like rejoinders to the previous seven, but this is misleading as each single line often stands independent from the others. At the most two work in concert. The result is a pastiche of items that indicate the ghost of the 80s has come a-haunting. Many of these items date from the time Reagan was in office in the 80’s and suggest that the current attack-on-public-space originates from the Reagan era. Such nuggets include references to “Mr. Gorbachev,” the refusal to defend Poland from the east, the radio control tower telling a flight attendant in crisis to take deep breaths, proceeds from arms sales to the Contras, “Tear down this wall.”

Other favorites in the litany of items document “the contamination of the present” from the Reagan era:

An epistemology borrowed from game shows

Private-sector affluence, public-sector squalor

All I ask is that we stop executing the mentally handicapped.
But what if the mentally handicapped want to be executed?

Many of the other lines are taken from the running files of Lerner’s critique of America: American History and American Culture.

Why don’t we blame the sinking on Spain?

This is an obvious reference to the “sinking” of the Maine, which kicked off the Spanish-American War. Most respected scholars agree that the Maine was not attacked; therefore, there need not have been any escalation of violence on the part of the US. This line seems to hint at our current involvement in Iraq, but I think a missed opportunity to make it resonate with the Reagan era would have been to allude to the affair in Grenada. Why did the military go in there again? Was this a similarly manufactured crisis?

The general infatuation with “the show” and “the image” is what really riles Lerner in this poem. There are many references to emotions tried on for the purpose of effect. This is something that Reagan was expert at, and his prowess at such things has ushered in a new age of artificiality which some might call “the age of bullshit.” Lerner bristles at Reagan’s adeptness at sculpting a public and private persona. One suspects that Lerner does not feel it necessary to be similarly equipped. The public and the private persona merge into a singular “being in the world.”

But Lerner is not about to let himself off the hook either. The last line of the poem, “ Is this thing on?” could be the credo of every politician who has emerged in the age of mass media, but Lerner also seems to be suggesting that throughout the course of the poem he may have just been positioning himself to blab in front of the mic . . . and at the end he is poised to regret.

The bulk of Angle of Yaw is comprised of short prose poems that appear as short meditations on the confusion and absurdity of American life. These poems are the ones that are the liveliest in the book. Perhaps this is because they feel less like exploration of language and more like exploration of experience. If a Turing machine could have reproduced “Didactic Elegy” by employing some elaborate algorithm on a philosophically-rich text, then the short prose pieces would escape this fate mainly because there is a sense that the voice in those pieces could not have been written without attachment to a body. The body is felt largely in the skewed perspectives that crop up again and again within these pieces. The odd camera angles that Lerner holds makes the reader assume that this is not a disembodied voice.

Many of these short prose poems have been published in some of the most interesting literary periodicals around:

      Jacket 25
      Boston Review
      Common Knowledge [pdf]
      Beloit Poetry Journal
      Colorado Review [pdf]

I offer another here, my particular favorite.

If it hangs from the wall, it’s a painting. If it rests on the floor, it’s a sculpture. If it’s very big or very small, it’s conceptual. If it forms part of the wall, if it forms part of the floor, it’s architecture. If you have to buy a ticket, it’s modern. If you are already inside it and you have to pay to get out of it, it’s more modern. If you can be inside it without paying, it’s a trap. If it moves, it’s outmoded. If you have to look up, it’s religious. If you have to look down, it’s realistic. If it’s been sold, it’s site-specific. If, in order to see it, you have to pass through a metal detector, it’s public.

This piece seems to epitomize Lerner’s self-described project of examining the assault on public space and public speech. Here that examination of public space leads the reader to regard public space as pathetic. Upon first reading of this poem, this reader issued forth a painful guffaw.

This speaks to one of the extraordinary strengths of Lerner’s efforts with these short poems. They are observant, witty, critically very sharp and yet they amuse and entertain. Not an easy thing to do in an age where the can quickly become shrill.

It is more than a little bit of a relief to find that a book that has been so highly praised and has had such a high volume of attention paid to it to be deserving of such. I have not always been so generous to other high profile books in the last few years. Ben Lerner has set down a marker for twenty-something poets to aim their bocce balls at.

Stylistically, though, as I reflect on many of these pieces, I can’t help but notice the similarity to Rosmarie Waldrop’s poems in Reproduction of Profiles and Lawn of Excluded Middle. The continual degradation of the taut, formal statement is driven by the impulse to attach ever-more-disparate material to the machinery of a paragraph. One gets the feeling of being sent into a funhouse labyrinth of mirrors with an instrument that allows one to pick the high-hanging fruit.

My lone detracting comment is that I was not always able to follow the thread from the longer pieces through to the shorter pieces. For sure, there is the “theme” of the degradation of public space and public speech, but this isn’t always on the main stage in “Didactic Elegy” or “Twenty-One Gun Salute for Ronald Reagan.” Perhaps one doesn’t need such overarching order for a book. I kept going back and forth on that idea. In the end I wasn’t satisfied that the lack of order or inherent structure, the openness, if you will, was informed by the subject matter and technique of the poems themselves. Their critique seemed too canny, their style more controlled than one might expect them to be given the somewhat laissez-faire construction of the book. However, I should let Lerner have the last word on this in his interview with Kent Johnson in Jacket

The air war, the flight simulator, the crop circle, space travel, the marching band forming a flag at halftime for the omniscient Goodyear blimp — such ideologically rich phenomena recur throughout the book. Maybe their recurrence imposes an order on the poems ironically homologous to the cosmetic order such forms aspire to impose on us?

All is recurrence. Life is that non-linear system which is drained to basins of attraction through the system’s reiterated paths through phase space.

Another way to say this is that Lerner’s prose/verse systems repeatedly drain into chaos and despair and utter helplessness in the face of an American culture becoming unhinged from its public space and its language. And we’ll all go down laughing into its maw.

I concede that this may be the book’s intent as well, especially if one reads Yaw as a variant spelling of the Levantine god of chaos [I also concede that this may be my deep reading-into].

Let’s hope that Lerner finds more joy in his next offerings, even in the stupidity and absurdity that is often at the heart of American life. It’s a long dark road from your late twenties to the end.

For all its fine moments, there is no hint of a considered project for how to move through the ersatz culture we inhabit . . . unless one considers the project to be as suspicious as hell about all the signs and markers that are employed in it, to employ a sneer in order to maintain one’s health. To be fair, though, perhaps this should not be the agenda of a book as much as it is the agenda of a life.

Friday, April 20, 2007


...from a speech delivered to the Cleveland City Club on April 5, 1968 one day after Martin Luther King was assassinated...

Mr Chairmen, Ladies And Gentlemen

This is a time of shame and sorrow. It is not a day for politics. I have saved this one opportunity, my only event of today, to speak briefly to you about the mindless menace of violence in America which again stains our land and every one of our lives.

It is not the concern of any one race. The victims of the violence are black and white, rich and poor, young and old, famous and unknown. They are, most important of all, human beings whom other human beings loved and needed. No one - no matter where he lives or what he does - can be certain who will suffer from some senseless act of bloodshed. And yet it goes on and on and on in this country of ours.

Why? What has violence ever accomplished? What has it ever created? No martyr's cause has ever been stilled by an assassin's bullet.

No wrongs have ever been righted by riots and civil disorders. A sniper is only a coward, not a hero; and an uncontrolled, uncontrollable mob is only the voice of madness, not the voice of reason.

Whenever any American's life is taken by another American unnecessarily - whether it is done in the name of the law or in the defiance of the law, by one man or a gang, in cold blood or in passion, in an attack of violence or in response to violence - whenever we tear at the fabric of the life which another man has painfully and clumsily woven for himself and his children, the whole nation is degraded.

"Among free men," said Abraham Lincoln, "there can be no successful appeal from the ballot to the bullet; and those who take such appeal are sure to lost their cause and pay the costs."

Yet we seemingly tolerate a rising level of violence that ignores our common humanity and our claims to civilization alike. We calmly accept newspaper reports of civilian slaughter in far-off lands. We glorify killing on movie and television screens and call it entertainment. We make it easy for men of all shades of sanity to acquire whatever weapons and ammunition they desire.

Too often we honor swagger and bluster and wielders of force; too often we excuse those who are willing to build their own lives on the shattered dreams of others. Some Americans who preach non-violence abroad fail to practice it here at home. Some who accuse others of inciting riots have by their own conduct invited them.

Some look for scapegoats, others look for conspiracies, but this much is clear: violence breeds violence, repression brings retaliation, and only a cleansing of our whole society can remove this sickness from our soul.

For there is another kind of violence, slower but just as deadly destructive as the shot or the bomb in the night. This is the violence of institutions; indifference and inaction and slow decay. This is the violence that afflicts the poor, that poisons relations between men because their skin has different colors. This is the slow destruction of a child by hunger, and schools without books and homes without heat in the winter.

This is the breaking of a man's spirit by denying him the chance to stand as a father and as a man among other men. And this too afflicts us all.

I have not come here to propose a set of specific remedies nor is there a single set. For a broad and adequate outline we know what must be done. When you teach a man to hate and fear his brother, when you teach that he is a lesser man because of his color or his beliefs or the policies he pursues, when you teach that those who differ from you threaten your freedom or your job or your family, then you also learn to confront others not as fellow citizens but as enemies, to be met not with cooperation but with conquest; to be subjugated and mastered.

We learn, at the last, to look at our brothers as aliens, men with whom we share a city, but not a community; men bound to us in common dwelling, but not in common effort. We learn to share only a common fear, only a common desire to retreat from each other, only a common impulse to meet disagreement with force. For all this, there are no final answers.

Yet we know what we must do. It is to achieve true justice among our fellow citizens. The question is not what programs we should seek to enact. The question is whether we can find in our own midst and in our own hearts that leadership of humane purpose that will recognize the terrible truths of our existence.

We must admit the vanity of our false distinctions among men and learn to find our own advancement in the search for the advancement of others. We must admit in ourselves that our own children's future cannot be built on the misfortunes of others. We must recognize that this short life can neither be ennobled or enriched by hatred or revenge.

Our lives on this planet are too short and the work to be done too great to let this spirit flourish any longer in our land. Of course we cannot vanquish it with a program, nor with a resolution.

But we can perhaps remember, if only for a time, that those who live with us are our brothers, that they share with us the same short moment of life; that they seek, as do we, nothing but the chance to live out their lives in purpose and in happiness, winning what satisfaction and fulfillment they can.

Surely, this bond of common faith, this bond of common goal, can begin to teach us something. Surely, we can learn, at least, to look at those around us as fellow men, and surely we can begin to work a little harder to bind up the wounds among us and to become in our own hearts brothers and countrymen once again.

Monday, April 16, 2007


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

tipsy monuments
          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
          social observations

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.

Sunday, April 8, 2007


I have yet to encounter a religious holiday that doesn’t capture my imagination. Today, it’s Easter, the climax of the Roman Catholic liturgical year—a celebration of the resurrection, of renewal, of the sun rising again tomorrow. Always in need of a fresh start myself, I wanted to participate in some small way. Fortunately, the doors to The Cathedral of the Blessed Sacrament are open to everyone, even religious mutts like me.

The Cathedral was built in 1889 and is one of Sacramento’s true architectural treasures. The exterior is Italian Baroque, the interior Victorian. It was exquisitely restored in 2005. I first looked inside the week after the reopening. From that first, tentative visit, I’ve always felt welcome. By that I mean “left alone.” Left alone to listen to the cantor sing, to study the paintings in the dome’s rondels, to experience the thousand-year-old ritual of Mass. No one asks if I’m registered at this parish, or even if I’m a Catholic.

Knowing the Cathedral was going to be crowded on Easter Sunday, I headed downtown early to make sure I’d get my favorite inconspicuous seat. I brought a favorite book along to share the wait. Czeslaw Milosz’s Facing the River (The Ecco Press, 1995, translated with Robert Hass). When I took my seat I opened the book randomly, at “Report.”

As I read the poem, I felt like Milosz was sitting right next to me. That I, too, was a “companion to the expedition” of poetry he describes. That I, too, would once again “renounce the doubts of night and greet the new/day of a most precious delusion.”


O Most High, you willed to create me a poet and now it is time
for me to present a report.

My heart is full of gratitude though I got acquainted with the
miseries of that profession.

By practicing it, we learn too much about the bizarre nature of

Who, every hour, every day and every year is possessed by self-

A self-delusion when building sandcastles, collecting postage
stamps, admiring oneself in a mirror.

Assigning oneself first place in sport, power, love, and the getting
of money.

All the while on the very border, on the fragile border beyond
which there is a province of mumblings and wails.

For in every one of us a mad rabbit thrashes and a wolf pack
howls, so that we are afraid it will be heard by others.

Out of self-delusion comes poetry and poetry confesses to its flaws.

Though only by remembering poems once written is their author
able to see the whole shame of it.

And yet he cannot bear another poet nearby, if he suspects him of
being better than himself and envies him every scrap of praise.

Ready not only to kill him but smash him and obliterate him
from the surface of the earth.

So that he remains alone, magnanimous and kind toward his
subjects, who chase after their small self-delusions.

How does it happen then that such low beginnings lead to the
splendor of the word?

I gathered books of poets from various countries, now I sit
reading them and am astonished.

It is sweet to think that I was a companion in an expedition that
never ceases, though centuries pass away.

An expedition not in search of the golden fleece of a perfect form
but as necessary as love.

Under the compulsion of the desire for the essence of the oak, of
the mountain peak, of the wasp and of the flower of nasturtium.

So that they last, and confirm our hymnic song against death.

And our tender thought about all who lived, strived, and never
succeeded in naming.

For to exist on the earth is beyond any power to name.

Fraternally, we help each other, forgetting our grievances,
translating each other into other tongues, members, indeed, of a
wandering crew.

How then could I not be grateful, if early I was called and the
incomprehensible contradiction has not diminished my wonder?

At every sunrise I renounce the doubts of night and greet the new
day of a most precious delusion.