Poetry After Poetry

Reviewed by Clint Burnham

I’m calling this review poetry after poetry because in some ways all three of these books can most profitably be considered in light of the changes in poetry, and poetics, that have followed postmodernism—changes that make it more difficult to account for what poetry is, or what it does. bill bissett’s work has manifestly been part of that change, the changes that postmodernism wrought on aesthetic standards (from orthography to subject matter, from taste to canonicity). Kate Eichhorn’s body of work, while more recent, has come to deal especially with a poetics of the archive, with research as production (as my colleague Jeff Derksen has put it), with poetry not as matter but as process. And Marguerite Pigeon’s book flirts, via the phenomenological, with current conceptual strategies, demonstrating perhaps in its failure how even those tropes have their own past-ness (or post-ness).

bissett’s recent book sublingual certainly continues the formal innovations that have, since the 1960s, marked his poetry as instantly recognizable; his voice manifested on the page as the marking of the phonetic. But surely what is most important about bissett’s style is the variety within—thus the poem evreething begins:

that goez in my

hed i put ther

what abt fakts

i sd 2 stuffus

If we can see the logic of bissett’s phonetic spelling behind evreething, goez, hed, and ther, the rationale for fakts is a bit more difficult (is a k more obviously a hard sound than a c?), and stuffus is downright enigmatic. Indeed, it’s when the words get more complicated and difficult to make out that bissett’s work is not only slowing down the reading (already commendable), but turning back on its own method, making phonetic spelling its own mystery. Thus, later in the book, we have stasyund (stationed?), prswaysyuns (persuasions?), temprashurs, impetago, tagoez, olfaktoree, and slitelee. Some of those words I could not even figure out; but if bissett’s method is to promote the sliding of the signifier, it also remains tied to an arbitrariness of same: stasyund not stayshund, prswaysuns not prswayshuns. As Len Early wrote more than thirty years ago, the radicality of bissett’s work maintains its edge at that microscopic, granular level.

Like Kate Eichhorn, I am fond of archives, and I am fond of the fact that we use the French word fonds to designate a collection within an archive. Like her more recent novelistic poem Fieldnotes: A Forensic (also from BookThug), Fond is concerned with archive as process, as matter that makes out of words and texts (and textiles and textures) not, perhaps, meanings, but propositions about how meaning works. The book reads as a collection of notes taken in an archive (No caffeinated beverages . . . No ink . . . Isolate the body. Wear gloves) that rapidly become a visual poem of the fonds’ disintegration. Scribbles become drawings that bring to mind Toronto underground poet Peggy Lefler. Words are interlaced with others in a way that mimics on-screen editing and makes the virtual into a material culture. Fond probes our memory as an artifact, and the facticity of our writing.

Fond is structured in the following way (this may be an erroneous, retrospective ordering of the manuscript, only apparent on my third reading): a manuscript or series of manuscripts, Case Studies, is presented at the beginning of the book via archival documentation:




[Case Studies]


Anon; found manuscript.


1 box

7 files

8 notebooks

This description continues for three pages, and then we have what presumably is the manuscript, with the formal devices outlined above. Part way through Fond is a memorandum for Processing Staff (Place in acrylic-coated storage chambers, etc.); concluding the book is another note, complete with deleted phrases:

I was intrigued by the arrival of [Case Studies]. But this found manuscriptfonds, (which one of the archivists discovered in a recycling bin outside her rental unitapartment but couldn’t bear to leave for Public Works and managed to slip into a stack of manuscripts to be processed with surprisingly little difficulty and no elaborate explanation,) was mostultimately – disappointing.

Fonds leaves us only aware of how provisional any text—and knowledge of same—is; beauty, then, is to be found in those scattered marks on the page, the marks of underscoring, strike-throughs, the marks of a lost intent.

Marguerite Pigeon’s Inventory holds out the hope of a poetry of objects and their place—or placelessness—in the world, and while it offers some tantalizing connections and correspondences, its effect ultimately is less of a poetics than a description, a flat lyricism not nearly lurid enough. We have here a series of poems—sometimes prose-ish, sometimes not (and why this mild distinction is never clear): a banana, and then, in a poem about bicycles, a banana seat. A toothless newspaper and an autoerotic cunt. But we want more than objects: we want words, and Pigeon does not seem to be interested in those.

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