Wednesday, February 20, 2008


So why has American surrealism taken a tumble in the eyes of American readers (particularly within academia) recently? This tradition championed by the likes of many notable French writers, Lorca and Alberti primarily among the Spaniards, Sachs and Trakl in German (to name just a few on the short list) has spread its tentacles throughout the world, boasting of adherents in many eras and nations.

I suppose the kind of juxtaposition of disjunctive-yet-strangely-associative imagery has found its own orthodoxy, right down to its sensibility seeping into the everyday pop song and band name. This kind of strangely associative (dare I say resonant) imagery was reminiscent of a kind of subconscious treatment of the world. Many of its adherents would look either fondly or negatively upon another’s work for the full commitment a poet might have to this subconscious ideal. A poet whose work seemed to be fully subsumed by dream might be afforded authenticity among surrealists. Ones whose work might embrace just some of its absurdist accents might be relegated as one of its more marginal constituents.

For the surrealists, the essential tension was between that of the world as it was experienced, mostly seen, the visualized world, and that of another world which was not seen but was somehow ever more present, present at a level which could be apprehended subconsciously. Perhaps more essentially, surrealism pitted the experienced world versus the subliminally perceived world.

This essential tension has been supplanted more recently by what seems to be the two immovable objects which some may claim have hardened into poetry “schools” today in American poetry. These two immovable objects are one’s direct experience of the world (primarily through the senses) and one’s experience of the world as it is brought to an individual through various different mediated forms. In short, direct experience vs. mediatized experience.

The category of mediatized experience is much broader in its critique of a fully observable and interactive physical world than the critique of the physical world that the surrealists advanced.

Those who understand the world primarily through its mediatized forms (ostensibly through reading — or, in effect, language — through moving image, through information dumps and news sources, to name just a few) inhabit a post-modernist world, and those poets who try to deal with the realities of this world tend to make their poems more and more like these sources, and in so doing, comment on what life is like in the highly mediatized 21st century. One essential question these poets tend to ask is what human life has become when it has become various kinds of sucking at these mediatized sources. They do this at the expense of asking what someone’s experience is who might be miliking a cow or scraping the remnants of food off of another person’s plate.

Another way of thinking of this dichotomy is through the categories of Ron Silliman, who tends to break the world of poetry down into two main groups: post-avants vs. the school of quietude. I will refrain from rehearsing these ideas again except to point out how the post-avants in their often hyper-disjunctive and perambulatory episodes seem to mimic the behavior of a person with a remote control and a Red Bull. In other words, all experience seems to be delivered from elsewhere and the poet is parsing his environment. On the other hand, the school of quietude seems to refer to those who have actually experienced the world in some tangible and physical way and the moment of quietude, the moment of reflection, if you will, is what the poem swirls around. That moment is the illusion (the post-avants might say) of an utterly comprehensible moment in one’s life that delivers a milligram of truth and insight about human experience in the physical world (something that seems to me to be not only relevant but also at times enjoyable).

While the dichotomy I refer to above is an arbitrary one, for one could easily enough break the poetry world down into other categories, there is a certain utility to these terms which Simon DeDeo over at Rhubarb is Susan has discussed in his “Opinions I hold About Poetry”

"post avant" and "school of quietude" are irritatingly useful terms, we all know what they mean, and given a room full of poetry books any three poets chosen at random could easily sort them into the two piles with little disagreement.

Or Eliot Weinberger in an interview in BOMB

Getting back to poetry, what’s surprising to me is that, with all these things in the world, American poets are mainly preoccupied with autobiographical anecdotes, or pomo ironic skating on the “surface” of language. Every man is an island in the sea of information.

I don’t dispute Simon’s and Eliot’s claims. I just can’t resist conflating their categories no matter how time tested they seem.

This brings me to Noah Eli Gordon, who if he isn’t a surrealist, he most assuredly is a post-surrealist, whatever that means. In his prize-winning book Novel Pictorial Noise Gordon navigates between the immediately experienced world and the mediatized one, asking:

Would you choose the event or the box from which it’s broadcast? A shadow mars the screen. Light blinds the owl

And we are off chasing down the margins of the natural world and the hungry mediatized one, presumably reflecting an image of the natural world that can be experienced.

Novel Pictorial Noise persists in setting up a tension between a fluid block of prose that moves in interesting thought patterns (almost always with a clever end rhyme at the end of the block) and a disarticulated erasure on the opposing page. While one is reading it, one gets the feeling that one is receiving the detritus of a post-apocalyptic English on the left hand side and on the right hand side a monologue of one of its frantic denizens poised at the tipping point before it slides into the abyss.

These monologues are the meeting place of (as the book title suggests) of the sheer novelty and invention of language, the image and sound. The delightful playspace that Gordon carves out as these three things converge make for an interesting read. The erasures I was not as taken with. I kept waiting and hoping for them to engage in some sort of cross-talk with their opposing pages, but any connection I made seemed forced and arbitrary. The erasures page is not commentary. It stands alone and challenges you to name what is missing. Or perhaps these are fragments of dilapidated language machine. In any case, as items to ponder they held my brief curiosity but were mostly just that, curiosities.

The monologues are where the “real” meat of the book lies. Whether you like the portrait of a mind moving a million miles an hour as it twists through the air like a bullet, one must find that the sheer energy that is felt rising out of these text assemblages is impressive. Many readers might find that this reckless speed is showy and unnecessarily risky. I found myself reliving moments of the car chase in The French Connection, my scrawny hide mounted right up there on the dashboard next to the rolling camera.

But sometimes the meditation is more involuted:

When the actual is transformed into its representation, representation becomes actualized, as though a net were cast not to catch whatever punctures its vicinity, but to make transparent the lapse of possession one proffers through the introduction, disappearance, and reappearance of an image whose architecture is such that in setting forth one is simultaneously building a synonym for backtracking, a barrier torn down, erected again in a slightly more ominous manner, the knowledge of instability orbiting, uncertain where to land, until one realizes that every action contains a kind of flag waving, a constituency worthy of saving.

[Note: the block nature of this prose poem has been sacrificed as well as the drop cap letter that starts the poem]. The old surrealist ploy of subverting the authority of the speaker is at work again here. The block prose and the drop cap lettering suggest that this could be some sort of encyclopedia entry from a turn-of-the-century tome.

The authority might be highly suspect except for the fact that if one stays with it long enough (lets face it: there’s an outside chance of this happening), one can derive some sort of commentary on what it is like to hold an image in one’s head and then recapture it. Certainly the piece is metatextual, setting up its own barriers that force the reader to backtrack. This kind of perversion of setting up text as object lesson seems like a noble gesture to the reader, not as coyness as some readers might submit. Or if you need the author’s intention to be stated a little more directly:

It is “the knowledge of instability orbiting, uncertain where to land.”

I can also imagine a reader who might see this kind of writing as a male fantasy of word play and thought play which is being substituted for other playthings no longer publicly allowed during the course of adult malehood.

I, however, as a male, resent this implication, for playing with words is its own distinct pleasure.

The other technique that comes to mind when reading the monologues is that of the cut-up. The shifting diction that Gordon employs suggests this technique, yet Gordon maintains a tautness and control that other practitioners of the cut-up might not opt for. Disjunction is often the theme that these writers underscore. To his credit, with Gordon I get more of the feel of insane lecture than I do of sampled text. I can get text samples from Google searches [enter: flarf].

I like how both Gordon and Ben Lerner use the prose poem as a container for very elaborate and labyrinthine thinking which might not be approved by the American Philosophical Association. This is magical thinking the way God intended it. Gordon writes, “I hold that thinking is an image of art.” Does he really mean here that the artifact is dead? Or does he mean that the thought process that goes into creating an art object is itself the object? Both possibilities are intriguing, but one might assume that his thought is the spectacle he is creating.

It is wild. It circles back. It leaps. It rolls over itself. It turns back and attacks. It sends a Hail Mary into the end zone. It habituates to the tall grass. It bites off and refuses to swallow. It darts and drifts, darts and drifts. It denotes and expects to forget the denotation. It’s hyperactive and it sighs. It creates surpluses and then mails them off to relatives for free. It slices. It dices. It even makes Julienne fries.

There should be no doubting it is part of the lineage that John Ashbery has spawned, and the argument you might be having with yourself while you are reading it is the same argument you had with yourself twenty years ago when you were reading Three Poems. Artifice and surface are clearly foregrounded. The act of reading [note: a mediatized experience] is of great concern as well. However, to return to my main point at the outset about the dichotomy between the mediatized and the actual experience, I get the sense in Gordon that among the surfaces he is creating and while he does his semiotic squirming, he is pointing to actual experience.

. . . A shadow mars the screen now that the night sky has dislodged a light snow. I think of the hunt I’ve no dog in, invert the thought to return to an heirloom of excess conjecture to the auctioneer’s kennel. The owl is asleep. The sunflower is asleep. Dogs are sleeping. Snow falls over my perpetual excuse, turning the narrative loose.

Here the object lesson is definitely “turning the narrative loose.” But there is a perfect pictorial logic in this series of images. Gordon is not referring to another world. He is referring to the physical world. Yet while he makes this reference, he is also talking about the technique of how the surface of the text has been assembled. We arrive at commentary on the mediatized life as well as the immediately experienced.

Crafting a line like “To annul a model of the universe one need only assemble it in reverse.” signals a spatial awareness which suggests intimate knowledge, perhaps such intimate knowledge that Gordon can point to its absurdities.

The question arises then: why does he point to its absurdities so often and not to its plainness, its comprehensible beauty? I think that this is a valid question that should be put to all surrealists. My own surrealist homunculus responds by saying that absurdities are the little knots of thought where if we pull on a loose end hard enough, something will miraculously break free. I still care about that something that breaks free. That is vital experience, wondrous. The rest sometimes feels like an exchange of commodities.

As Gordon surges forward in the book, he explores many more object lessons: generating the imperceptible fable, wearing the face of the inadvertent anti-sage, an assertion of descriptive speech where “one need only to climb a real tree to see the artifice rooted in the external world,” “the attribution of captions to an otherwise blank page,” sustained advance to capture interest, the uprooting of ornamentation, self-erasure. All of these strategies are played out for a while within the monologue blocks. They are contained within them. It’s like he is playing hopscotch on every page, but in each case employing slight permutations of the rules.

Towards the latter half of the book Gordon turns his attention to not so much the reading of text but the creation of music, another form of mediation, but quite different from the textual concerns he addresses earlier on in the book.

And yet, perhaps it is among the wavering bits of music, the clang of percussion cutting through any discernible melody, that rays of light bend the whole of landscape in some nameless seed growing over the course of several millennia into the hardened stuff of history, as one must, after all, master microscope as well as telescope, note as well as chord, the dynamics of solvency and subtle exchanges of the plant kingdom, in order to see not only the square mesh in front of one’s face but also the slant of the hills just beyond the screen door, the exterior’s decor.

Here sound and light wreak havoc on the natural world so that it becomes a mere copy of itself, artificial even in its reality. Gordon seems to imply that even the natural world has artifice embedded in it.

Cherry Creek Road is, of course, composed of concrete, another neorealist line on the abstract canvas of the earth.

The conflation of the real and the unreal until they are indiscernible entities exploits the postmodernist fetish for the surface as the breeding ground for what is most important. Plant language in one of these surfaces and watch it grow.

However, I am not interested in Noah Eli Gordon as a postmodernist. There are enough of those kind around for the word to grow a little bit flabby. I referred to him earlier as a post-surrealist.

Now here is what the post in post-surrealism means. Surrealism is no longer about the subconscious floating around in an image bath. The new surrealism is more structural in its approach. No longer does the subconscious mind do battle with the perceived world and rehash it as imagery. It also does battle with all the forms of information and “packaged” elements within its browsing window. All of those appropriated forms.

Gordon not only successfully navigates them, exploiting their diction along the way, he comments on how his language imitates them, parodies them. His object lessons buried in the blocks of prose are the key for how a reader is supposed to read them. They are the machine code that, once gleaned, tells the reader how that information should be processed. And the subconscious is riffing on all of this and barely allowing the hint of the machine code to bleed through to conscious awareness.

It’s an insidious thing he does.

This insidiousness might not be something that hits a good number of readers at gut level, but Gordon’s percolating self-consciousness and daredevil movements have a visceral impact on me. They evoke a sensibility that is hard to articulate. I might even hazard that such a sensibility is close to being an emotional state that I can almost come to terms with. Gordon isn’t just telling his readers what to feel the way an American film does, he allows the nebulous to creep in. Others who are surer about the emotions that they want to have via poetry may feel a bit cheated.

Gordon may insist (though maybe insist is too strong of a word) he is “veering toward rhetorical extremes by assigning each a human face.” Each human face he assigns is a reminder that there are emotional markers attached to all the data flow. All the data really does make us feel an intoxicating nausea, and that’s the closest way, that I can imagine, of describing the human reaction to the physical world as Breton envisioned it.

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