Follow Harriet on Twitter
Jordan Davis Reviews Bill Luoma’s Some Math for Constant Critic
A new review up at Constant Critic is newsworthy: Jordan Davis takes on Bill Luoma’s new book Some Math, just published this fall by Kenning Editions (beautiful book, we might add!). Davis places us quickly in mid-nineties New York, noting that “in the mid-nineties D.C. was part of New York.” He says: “[O]f all the stoned geniuses circulating in the time before the hanging chads and falling bodies, Bill Luoma gave off this glow most consistently.” Davis continues, reminding us along the way that we need not particularly care for status:
[Luoma's] chapbook My Trip to New York City (collected in Works and Days) recounted a series of buddy movie misadventures pitched somewhere between Kerouac and South Park (this was before South Park) that like Ted Berrigan’s masterpiece “Tambourine Life” changes suddenly from picaresque to elegy. It beaned me. A few other chapbooks of roughly the same vintage struck me as similarly serious—Katy Lederer’s Music No Staves, Anselm Berrigan’s They Beat Me Over the Head with a Sack, Lisa Jarnot’s Sea Lyrics. Thinking back on them now (without actually getting hold of my copies of them) I imagine what they had in common was a Jules et Jim light-heartedness, with hard-earned awareness of the effects of gravity.
What most of those poets also had in common, at that point anyway, was a devout commitment to incantation, to a more or less regular, hypnotic cadence. Jarnot went for anaphora (or was it epistrophe?), Berrigan seemed to match up the prose rhythms of sentences, and Luoma headed straight into doggerel:
leafy muncher big time lurk
green belt cincher revlon quirk
darkie matter massive dwarf
blasted bright star mr worf
(from “Swoon Rocket”)
If you’re not hearing these words aloud, are only processing the meanings, you’ve probably already decided to spend your time on something else. I happen to find it enjoyable to follow this exposition of latent racism in Star Trek makeup, but probably only because I start feeling like chanting along to these seven-syllable lines as I read.
Poetry has been mistaken so long for an all-or-nothing proposition that it sometimes feels like more of a hierarchy than the A.P. College poll. If a poet isn’t ranked in the top twenty-five, the feeling goes, why read him or her. Maybe I’m imagining it, this consensus-seeking chasing after the current number one with a bullet; maybe it’s real but also only a reflection of the larger culture. Most of the time I remember to forget it. When I do get that itch to compare compare compare, Bill Luoma’s second full-length collection Some Math reminds me not to care:
A waffle doesn’t mind
when the apparatus is moved
from one location to another.
Hulse 2-3 tonight on a pair of singles.
If I arrange my local effects
in shells of equal energy
like a saddle mounted by a rider
whose boots were made for Tony Danza
in the tap dance extravaganza
then I’ll be humming all day
stuck inside the large hardon collider
with one higgs boson whose primary concern
is facetime on the linoleum.
(from “The Concept of Mass”)
Davis does a close, interesting read of Luoma’s mechanics; which is to say, the math involved in the making:
But since most of “Swoon Rocket” is in sevens, I think what I’m reacting to…is simple variation from a regular pattern. The term for it from both the visual arts and music is caprice.
The variations come more frequently in “Gobi,” which comes close to Amazing Grace’s 8-6-8-6 a few times, then veers off toward measures I’m relatively unused to, for example, 8-8-7-7:
trawl en horta mey first snapple
raleigh winkle voza baffle
wofat shingle drugga skoun
baler frickle mosie mink
This isn’t subverting the expectation of a pattern, it’s just changing the pattern, revealing how the pattern changes when the unstressed syllable at the end of the line is omitted. The effect turns out to be consistent with that produced by Shakespeare’s witches: double trouble.
I hear a lot of names of poets and sport figures flying by (“clark,” “nada,” “blanche… ricky,” “shula”), and the jujube-like quality of the desert name in the title nudges me toward a reading of the poem as latter-day Ram Dass: GO BE indeed. But I keep coming back to the feeling that this poem demands not a reading, but a hearing.
Despite the title’s hint, he doesn’t lead with trochees every time:
big yeska anna billet
clare voler gringa
lunch docket oui blinker ato
cran nowheres un off
It’s easy to hear why this 7-5-8-5 might be a one-off (un off). Luoma leads lines in other stanzas with one-syllable words, but usually to make a trochee, and not, as here, a spondee (e.g. BIG YESka, CLARE VOler). The spondees bring the rhythm a little closer to the traditional four-feet three-feet of ballad meter, but you have to work to hear it (and parse that second line in three languages, maybe), and then when you do work, you have to work again in line three to get any kind of rhythm back—maybe that’s an anapest after LUNCH DOCK?
If you’re still reading, thanks. And if not, well, that’s the risk involved in stretching a phrase out to notate the simplest vector in a poem’s sound, the pulse. Imagine a review that discusses vowel color and length, consonant places of articulation. Go ahead, imagine it. What did you see? A page of logic symbols, a plage on the Riviera, maybe. Luckily, the rest of the poem goes back to more familiar patterns (8-7-8-7, 7-6-7-6, 7-7-7-7) that prepare the ear for their variations.
Read the entire review here. Photo by Alan Bernheimer.