Questioning Poetry

Reviewed by Scott Inniss

Two of the five books of poetry comprising Talonbooks’ fall 2021 catalogue, Nicole Raziya Fong’s OЯACULE and Dale Martin Smith’s Flying Red Horse, have much in common, at least in their conceptual orientation. In both texts, poetry is not simply a vehicle of lyric self-expression but a mode of philosophical, intersubjective, and affective exploration. Both Fong and Smith construe poetics as a mode of questioning, with the interrogative as a prominent trope. In OЯACULE, the questions are experiential but also theoretical and classical. Topoi include the relation of appearance to that which appears, aesthetics as a site or mode of knowing, and the relation of time and desire to memory, among others. In Flying Red Horse, the questions are similarly ambitious in scope. Although the language and tone are an intermixture of the meditative and the everyday, the concerns of the poems are widely phenomenological, existential, ecocritical, and anti-capitalist. Fong’s and Smith’s books also differ along various lines: in their comfort with divergent types of (un)knowing, in their concerns around gender and sexuality, and in their positioning of the relation of mediation to truth, to name only a few. Perhaps the most consequential difference, moreover, lies in the relative adequacy of their formal strategics to the poetic questioning that their writing at once explores and enacts.


OЯACULE is a highly dialogical and performative text. It takes the structure of a play or opera, with dramatis personae, stage directions, prologues, and six subdivisions or “acts” with titles such as “The Meaningless Divinity within the Flesh Theatre” and “She Dreams upon Fifteen Stages.” Each of these subdivisions houses a number of theatrical-poetic texts with titles of their own and whose forms alternate between dialogue and choric or antiphonal passages. The section “She Dreams a Grievous Omission” interrupts this structural patterning with couplets, and “Luminous” concludes with more broadly strophic composition. The writing is formally compelling, aesthetically rich, and highly inventive throughout, recalling at different times and in different ways the work of Lisa Robertson, Anne Carson, and Erín Moure, as well as that of younger contemporaries such as Canisia Lubrin and Liz Howard. With its hybrid poetic-theatrical architecture, OЯACULE also invites historical comparison to the symbolist plays of writers such as Auguste Villiers de l’Isle-Adam, Oscar Wilde, and Maurice Maeterlinck.


Throughout the book, Fong’s language is lyric and personal but also highly abstract. Although their syntax is normative and sentential, the poems possess a considerable degree of narrative opacity, in part due to a relative lack of immediately apparent empirical referent. In a back-jacket blurb, the artist and writer Tiziana La Melia notes that “OЯACULE slows you down,” and this is very much the case. Much of its diction is explicitly philosophical, with key areas of inquiry ranging from ontology and epistemology to aesthetics, subjectivity, and identity. Despite this philosophic inclination, however, Fong’s poetics take the form not of a logos, but rather that of a queer mise en scène.


OЯACULE opens with a feminist restaging of the Platonic dialogue Theaetetus, where this time the student gets the better of the teacher. The title also hints at the book’s peculiar relation to the phallic logics of Western philosophy. Classically, the oracle operates under the sign of the creaturely female body. Yet agency and the aegis lie elsewhere, in the Olympic prerogative of the deity. With its diminutive suffix and Cyrillic Я, Fong’s title suggests that the text’s oracular voice is multiple, choric, extra-subjective, molecular. “Heroine isn’t what you think,” Fong writes in introducing the book’s nominal protagonist: “It isn’t you. It isn’t your mother. It isn’t even me” (10). The titular oracule—a Romanian word for oracles—is a similar (perhaps overarching) vector of non-identity.


The book’s queer feminist concerns are most apparent in its all-female and gender-non-specific cast. In the opening scene, Socrates and Theaetetus are played by Heroine and Luminous, respectively (and presumably wearing masks). This scene configures the Heroine-Luminous dyad as the main author and actor of the dramaturgy to follow. Frequently enough, these characters employ a symbolic vocabulary of pathfinding, journeying, discovering (or having lost) the trail. However, for a quest narrative of sorts, Fong’s text registers at times as strangely static, atemporal, invariant, and lacking in material base. Although it is a work of multiple voices, its uniformity of style, tone, and lexical range makes it difficult to individuate its dramatic personages, at least beyond their archetypal stage designations (e.g., Maternal Love, Child). To a degree, this undifferentiation makes sense thematically. Yet it also risks producing the poetic action as effectively ideal, metaphysical, absolute.


Despite appearing as a totality, however, OЯACULE also thwarts any totalizing interpretation. Tracking the relation between its two central figures, it is possible to engage the text as a (tortuous, non-linear, non-synthetic) movement through which Heroine endeavours to exchange the mask of appearance for the face of the other. The contours of this movement defy summary and reward careful rereading. Suffice it here to suggest that this movement begins with Heroine’s complaint, “Why won’t you print me in your discourse?” (8), and ends with Luminous’ declaration, “I wrote myself into a thesis of change” (128). Yet it is not the place of Luminous—or, more generally, luminosity—to conclude the long poem either. The onto-epistemological quandaries and impasses continue, a type of eternal return—but with (as always) a difference. In the final analysis, OЯACULE is highly worthy of recommendation and evidence of Fong’s ongoing development as a major poetic talent.


Flying Red Horse is Dale Martin Smith’s fifth book of poetry. Originally from Texas, Smith is a literary scholar as well as a poet, with a particular interest in the work of Robert Duncan and Charles Olson. His new book is Olsonian in its attention to geographical locale, public mythologies, and the relation of place to home. In its stylistic and formal dimensions, however, it perhaps more closely resembles the later work of William Carlos Williams and George Oppen, with its prioritization of ordinary-language poetics, vernacular culture, and the material intentionality of the world and its objects.


Flying Red Horse is divided into four sections. It begins with a short lyric essay after which follow three long poems. An introduction of sorts, the titular essay offers auto-theoretical recollections and flashbacks as well as preliminary explorations of the book’s key thematic concerns: aesthetic experience, capitalist spectacle, analogue and digital modernity, surveillance culture, social alienation, climate change, mass mediation and communication, race and class, reification and the body, song and the voice, patrimony and family romance, nature for itself but also as climate crisis and (Heideggerian) standing reserve.


The figure of the flying red horse ties these diverse yet intersecting thematics together. Drawing on the iconic Mobil Oil “Pegasus” sign perched atop the Magnolia Building in Dallas since the early 1930s, Smith deploys this figure as a symbol of triumphalist global extractive capitalism and its anthropocenic logics. “I drove by the flying red horse with my father on our way to see Charley Pride in 1977 at the Dallas Convention Center,” Smith informs the reader (10). This moment of the essay introduces Smith’s remarkable musings on Pride’s importance, as a Black country musician, to the burgeoning affective-cultural imaginary of Smith’s childhood and youth. It also adumbrates Smith’s attendant worry about the extent to which “the flying red horse” of fossil-fuel capitalism is the inevitable sign under, for, and through which all of life’s most intimate and meaningful encounters now take place.


For Smith, the encroachments of an increasingly totalizing capitalist realism are economic and social, but also profoundly ontological. In a quasi-Heideggerian manner, Smith tends to regard the communicative media particular to digital modernity as a dangerous extra-phenomenological enframing of something essential to human being. Indeed, Flying Red Horse is shot through with images, declarations, and interrogations that outline a twenty-first-century recalculation of Heidegger’s “The Question Concerning Technology”: “Screens fracture my days . . . Surveillance corporations wash out residues of the past” (8); “Eyes cannot be averted from spectacle . . . a total immersion and dispersal of communal bonds” (16); “How I am to myself, to my sons? To others in othered bandwidth image streams? . . . Or it’s just the flying red horse again. Illusion and distraction” (21).


As with Heidegger, Smith is careful enough to recognize that questions concerning technology are equally questions for language and poetics. For both the philosopher and the poet, the promise of poesis lies in its capacity as a type of saving power from the technological clearing. In the face of “screens active with images and fragments, gross stupidities and lucid animations,” “the conserving urgency of poetry finds vitality in temporal unrestraint” (21-22). Yet Smith’s assessment of the strength of poetry and lyric association remains tentative relative to the communicative ecstasy of platform capitalism. “What is lyric’s relation to history, to a public today?” Smith asks. “How does song appeal to a sense of groundedness in our ungrounded now, in contrast or collusion with images?” (8). Smith’s pessimism is such that he twice dismisses his own questioning as rhetorical at best and radically “inadequate to the situation” (16). Yet poetry and the question continue to guide his writing and thinking:


When national narratives fail, where personal stories collapse into the socially mediate, I wonder if song might conjure earth back into flesh? Writing provides an opening, but few answers, or none that I am capable of discerning. Instead I wonder how poetry works in range of so much that is incommunicable, mute, a driving public force of fragmentation and ruin? (20-21)


Summary and description do little justice to the artfulness with which Smith’s introductory essay weaves together personal recollection, socio-political detail, noetic conjecture, and cultural reference (to Faulkner, Pride, Gorgias, and others). As an affirmative enactment of writing as productive questioning and opening, “Flying Red Horse” perfectly places the reader in anticipation of what is to follow. Unfortunately, however, none of the subsequent long poems is quite able to meet the expectations (and challenges) that the introductory essay establishes. Why is this? What goes awry?


Often, although far from exclusively, the chief issue seems to come down to insufficient formal determinations. “April * Ontario” features the speaker and his son walking along the shore of Lake Ontario, with the young boy’s anxiety over ecological calamity serving as a springboard for the father’s meditations on similar themes, including patrimonial, socio-cultural, and environmental inheritance. The poem takes the form of short stanzas, typically of five to eight lines in length, with each line generally comprising two to five words at most. Each short stanza ends in a question mark and is syntactically a sentence in disguise. As spatial markers, decorative tildes separate each stanza. The purpose (or effect) of such forms is typically to slow down reading and to amplify attention to what’s going on on the page—to map and mimic the ideational force of image (Pound), the play of signification (Ashbery), or the movement of breath and cognition (Olson). In Smith, however, these forms chiefly have the effect of thwarting the disjunctive connections that his essayistic style so successfully enables—but also of exposing the poem’s various contents to a pressure and scrutiny that they are unable to sustain or withstand.


This feature of Flying Red Horse becomes especially stark in the concluding poem, “Sons,” in which Smith’s commitment to a poetics of the everyday butts up against its limits:


A kiss



A kiss

These days

In a book

Far away

. . . . . . .

We look

For home

And go

On pretending

It’s a place

On a map (92-93)


Reading the poems quickly, against the grain of formal cues and direction, allows them at times to gesture to what Smith reverences as “the sound and smell of earth. Song as mediating potential” (20). Yet instances of infelicitous diction, rhyme, enjambment, and cadence also conspire against the poetry’s investment in folk signifiers and phonologies, while also jarring its not infrequent epiphanic moments (whose singularity lies in the largely unrelenting—yet far from unrealistic—darkness, despair, or negativity of their content). Echoing Olson in a 1953 letter to Duncan, Smith notes how “[o]nly that belief in form and love makes possible the force of relations here in the making of poetry” (123). Like Fong in OЯACULE, Smith’s poetic questioning is important—crucial even. At least in Flying Red Horse, however, Smith falls a bit short of this constituent Olsonian configuration.

This review “Questioning Poetry” originally appeared in Canadian Literature, 17 Oct. 2022. Web.

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