From Person to Song

Reviewed by Michael Roberson

The newest books by Don Kerr, Tammy Armstrong, Jon Paul Fiorentino, and Gary Barwin demonstrate a range of lyric modalities. Somewhere between singing the person and singing the song, these poets engage with the textural and material nature of language to differing degrees. For Kerr, the textures of language hardly mediate the compulsion to deliver an effortless portrayal of lived experience. For Armstrong, the textures of language unabashedly overwhelm any compulsion to deliver an unmediated portrayal of the nuanced world. For Fiorentino, the materiality of language invariably problematizes the compulsion to think of poetry as a haven for sincerity. For Barwin, the materiality of language subtly augments the compulsion to treat poetry as a purveyor of profound and parabolic truth.

Don Kerr offers a series of comfortable and unassuming poems—the equivalent of what he calls going the speed limit plus / five. In the five sections of the book, each named for a particular poem, Kerr delivers the kind of love poems for both humanity and nature that hinge elegy and celebration. In lines that break with the syntax, and some that even rhyme, Kerr relies on plain language, unburdened by any need to innovate. Upon first impression, Kerr provides characteristic examples of the dead tired poem—a telling line from one of the poems in the collection. Still, while he banks too much on the brown cows and green trees and finds inspiration too often in the sun, Kerr delivers supremely palatable lyrics. These poems show a confident and mature response that recognizes the poetry in a boy who sinks his teeth into the / varnished pew to leave his mark or that captures the poetry in the following lines:

[T]he first red finger of tulip
in the smelly mulch reborning
in the wrinkled leaves.

Tammy Armstrong offers a series of lexically-rich and crafted poems that exemplify the discovery in the following rhetorical question: Who knew ice held hymn / in cradled waters. In the five untitled sections of the book, Armstrong delivers the kind of wordsmithing that creates a music by cradling and releasing words at the phonemic level. She combines an adherence to absolute detail with an attention to elaborate sonority. In lines that each stand on their own as gem-streaked units, Armstrong invokes an enchanted language that reaches back to the kennings and alliteration of Anglo-Saxon verse. Take, for example, the following passage:

I’d scab-shimmied a culvert as a child
for a bet, the use of a bike or bat
hunch-walked through the algae-slick
while the boys jogged the road above.

Despite the admirable musicality of these lines, it tends to almost overwhelm the image or the memory in a way that makes me desire the sparseness of Don Kerr’s delivery. Armstrong’s poems are strongest when they minimize their turn to the personal and when they remain at an observational or researchable distance. Armstrong’s tone in those personal moments often resonates with condescension, symptomatic no doubt of her erudition. Her commentary about package tourists and mall crowds leave me a little wary of the personality behind poems like While We Sleep, It Snows. Still, when Armstrong stays attuned to the subtleties of phenomena, her poems are exquisite and inimitable.

Jon Paul Fiorentino offers a diverse smattering of styles that demonstrate an edgy playfulness, attendant to the pun and to sound, to form and to formula, all of which capitalize on what he calls: [A]n injury to language. In the three sections of the book, Fiorentino consistently utilizes a disrigorous play and ploy that optimizes humour and irony, as apparent in titles like Hysterical Narrative and Grift Economy. In the most explicitly metapoetic piece, Polyclinique, Fiorentino suggests that his method consists of [s]tich[ing] up a coterie of kindreds where connections are severed but reconnected lazily, forcefully. In the title section of the book, dedicated to the memory of the poet Robert Allen, Fiorentino alternates between a series of Language-influenced poems, each titled Hymn, and a series apparently based on excised passages from Charles Sanders Peirce, each titled CSP. From Peirce, Fiorentino takes the notion of the index—a type of sign that points to something else, like a thermostat or a clock. As indexes, or indices, these elegies are a tribute to language—since many of these poems emphasize language’s materiality rather than language’s meaning. This attention to materiality is one aspect of what constitutes the post-prairie—a term that serves as a subtitle of the last section titled Transprairie. Transprairie as a sequence and as an idea suggests Fiorentino’s exploration of the threshold between traditional prairie writing—with an adherence to voice and experience—and academic experimental writing—with an adherence to disjunction and unconventionality. This book, however, shows Fiorentino inhabiting both spheres confidently and comfortably in a way that suggests that he’s not interested in transcending his prairie roots, but traversing them in new ways.

Gary Barwin delivers surreal, parabolic, even mythic poems, the denseness of which opens up to sparkle with an alluring beauty, as in the image conjured by the book’s title. In the book’s three sections, Barwin uses both Kurzweil Cybernetic Poet software (RKCP) and old-school English language technology. The RKCP, named for Ray Kurzweil, creates a language model from a selection of writing that the software then uses to generate derivative but original poetry. While using such software might betray a belief in the oracular, the rhapsodic, or the geomantic, Barwin’s attitude is ambivalent. As he writes in a short poem, titled Frost:

[T]wo roads diverged in a yellow wood
I took one
it doesn’t matter which

I’m not giving it back[.]

Playfully, Barwin refrains from indicating explicitly which method he uses to generate any of the poems, because in some sense it doesn’t matter which. For Barwin, if luck filters pretty things then a poem is successful. Even if you use cybernetic software, maybe you’ll slip up and tell a truth anyway. Of course, by truth Barwin does not mean a universal or transcendent truth, but a discovery, like a glimpse of the planet or earth’s contingent language. In other words, Barwin purveys a kind of poetry that delivers unusual knowledge—knowledge that is like a blackbird braided by shadow / shredding the holy books to nest. The poems in Porcupinity are the result of an unencumbered imagination, tinted by humour, intelligence, and pathos.

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