The Genial Disconnects
Reviewed by Ted Byrne
"Being Lost, As Usual" is the first poem in Sharon Thesen’s new book of selected poems, News & Smoke. Such a deliberate beginning. Omitting the first few poems of that terrific book Artemis Hates Romance, this remix reaches after a larger book, a book of the whole. What is lost here, at the outset? Is it the map? "Listen, I’ve never been lost / in the geography, / only in the map." The map is not the territory (Spicer, Korzybski). The individual poems in this collection, taken as one-night stands, operate geographically, unlost in the quotidian of home, television, street, gathering, airports, rare sojourns in the country, in other cities, but lost, always after something missing—not just the map, the shape of the book, but the gap.
So what are the boundaries of this book? Although in the introduction she remembers being "heavily weighted with Jack Spicer influences," the book is not generally her unit of composition. But are all her books collections then, her "latest collection" being A Pair of Scissors: Poems? Not exactly. At the very least, there are books— serial poems—within these collections: "Radio New France Radio," although its integrity doesn’t survive the recompilation; "Long Distance: An Octave"; "Gala Roses"; "A Pair of Scissors." If News & Smoke, her second book of selected poems, attempts to recompose the whole as a book, then the book becomes the unit of recomposition.
This book "feels like memory and prophecy," she says in the introduction. We should take this seriously, because it reflects the shape of the whole enterprise, her "city of poetry." News and smoke, memory and prophecy, the "awful" and the "hopeful." News, memory, is the awful, the managed world, development, traffic, "the various Stalinisms that pass for ’thinking’ and ’caring.’" Prophecy, hope, is found in the "odd graces of beauty, in whatever form, that makes things real again, [that] are enacted in the language of the poems." This is the kind of framing that allows the poems to be misunderstood, as palliative, even curative, as poetry ("Poetry: I couldn’t care less"). This governing misperception can only be escaped in the larger form of the book, as unit of recomposition, and in the separate-ness of the smaller units—in other words in seriality, a pulsion toward an impossible structure, made out of the unknown, the procedure, the "enactment," the event. That’s why this writing is difficult, remains difficult. If it were not hard to grasp, if you really could say, "Yes, that’s it, that’s how it is, that’s what I feel too," then the whole thing would fail, would fall completely back into ideology, "official verse culture."
These poems should not make anyone happy. Her city of poetry is a "really stupid city." You don’t want to live there, in a present, without history, only nostalgia and memory (news), without reason, only prophecy (smoke).
News & Smoke ends with "Gala Roses," a virtuoso piece that also concluded Aurora. "Gala Roses" is a display, a summa: a book. All the modes are here, condensed and heightened. There are delicate rhymes and clumsy puns. There are rapid oscillations between the static perfections of the moment, delivered by lying appearance and perception, and the intrusions of helplessness, confrontations with the real. And there is always the terror of missing something, always the gap ("a gap thinking fills overflows"), of joy beyond belief, beyond the ordinary, and of horror—not the minor frisson of recognition, identification of the clever, the apt, the durable thought, but something here that reads us into the ineffable of making or finding, of dictation, which is an event, shared, immanent.
The long poem "A Pair of Scissors" is a different kind of experiment altogether. Here narration becomes an element of prosody, inside, structuring and yet as unobtrusive, or underdetermined, as the formal elements of "Gala Roses"—the near-lyric becoming near-narrative, or perhaps near-pastoral. The "story" goes something like this: the day was spent in desultory, not very vigorous preparations for the party; the before and after of the party, the minor encounters, the walk, the intrusive but welcome memories— all occasion various moments of intuition about one’s condition and that of one’s culture (history). It’s the plot of Mrs. Dalloway, except that here the time of the narrative is disturbed, distorted. The party takes place at the end of the novel and is not quite completed, never actually occurs at all, just its anticipation and its memory (smoke and news). The plot doesn’t map onto the poem, but the poem keeps reminding you of it, remarking on it. There are echoes of Sally Seton, but no Mr. Dalloway. And the distance between Mrs. Dalloway and Mr. Walsh (the old boyfriend) is diminished. We’re in the country, at Bourton, not in the city. Mrs. Dalloway has a kind of independence that she doesn’t have in the novel. Mr. Walsh’s penknife, although present metaphorically (as the past, as eroticism), is transformed into a pair of scissors that he uses to cut her hair. But there is no story, only the struggle to find one. And there is no conscious critique working against the surface of the piece. The "real" Mrs. Dalloway draws attention to ideology because her near-recognition of it is her malaise—or she is a cipher that we read through. Thesen, however, inhabits the uninterro-gated voice of Mrs. Dalloway, whose ethic is announced unambiguously at the outset.
To be bold in my own way,
to pour myself into something I can stand & would stand all day
as long as the uniform were some
Yohji Yamamoto thing that didn’t cost too much
and the city gave me something back.
I don’t think this is ironic. Because who wouldn’t want this, precisely? Then she jump cuts to "gypsies" ("Latcho Drom"), slides momentarily into disorientation ("What am I doing here"), creating a transit that then weaves us back and forth through little pleasures, little pains, dreams, gods and shadows, timelessness ("too early for red wine too late for coffee"), and the ghosts of high-born or high-minded ladies (Jackie Kennedy, Frances Boldereff), to our final destination, "Everyone had a wonderful time." But as in Wonderland, this place has frightening holes.
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Books reviewed: Trombes by Pierre Ouellet and Les Verbes Majeurs by Pierre Nepveu
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Books reviewed: narrativ enigma / rumours uv hurricane by bill bissett, northern wild roses / deth interrupts th dansing by bill bissett, and radiant danse uv being: a poetic portrait of bill bissett by Jeff Pew and Stephen Roxborough
MLA: Byrne, Ted. The Genial Disconnects. canlit.ca. Canadian Literature, 8 Dec. 2011. Web. 11 Dec. 2013.
This review originally appeared in Canadian Literature #176 (Spring 2003), Anne Carson. (pg. 191 - 192)
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