Seeing is believing
This rose is a rose and its mirror image—eight petalled. Above and below the two heads glow, larger, translucent. Together, they form a hexoctahedron—that is, if you were to cut out the two ‘roses’ and fold them in triangular facets you would make a 48 faceted solid of eight irregular ‘planes’ composed of six facets.
Gertrude Stein? Something from one of Christian Bök’s poetic machines?
Nope: it’s the Canadian poet, P.K. Page describing a drawing, quoted in D.H. Tracy’s review of her volume of selected non-fiction, The Filled Pen. Tracy remarks: “If this really means something, it is a triumph.” But he also quotes her saying that “Without magic the world is not to be borne,” and concludes that she is a writer “whose affinity with the folkloric and surreal does not interfere with or displace reason. Certain effects are available only to artists of this kind; they are alive to the wit that results when one domain intrudes on another.”
Tracy takes a more ambivalent view of Donald Revell’s The Art of Attention: A Poet's Eye:
“A poetry criticism based on the idea of seeing might seem strange given the art’s celebrated hospitableness to the blind, but The Art of Attention is such criticism, insisting on sensuous immediacy and the primacy of the visual. Revell promotes what he calls the Aenean, or pious, artist and deprecates the Odyssean or Orphean one, whose art is clever, wields a secular power, and makes enemies. The types may be distinguished by their attitude to attention, which, if not subordinated to intention, allows a writer to work in a state of proper deference to the physical world. Things as they appear, in this poetry of ‘pious materialism,’ are things as they are, and what you see is what you get. It would be an uncontroversial starting point to say that attention is the sine qua non of a poem, analogous to a sharpened tool or a tuned instrument. For Revell that preparation is an end in itself, and the art of poetry is not furthered by the cultivation of techniques for synthesizing experiences or representing them after the fact.”
Looks like Tracy has a bone to pick: “Revell occasionally realizes that he is out on a limb, but it is in the nature of his position to insist that every device that does not recognize the sovereignty of the seen is prideful and inherently predicated on aggression. The book thus disposes of narrative, allegory, devotion, meditation, drama, philosophy, compositional patterning, and any effect deriving from, say, the modulation of rhetoric or tone.”
In turning to the work of Robert Bringhurst, a poet, typographer, and expert on native North American literature who’s got that “affinity with the folkloric,” Tracy finds a writer for whom
“the glue [used] to hold together disparate ideas and traditions is ecological, in a hyper-holistic sense: tribes are habitats for stories; stories make and are made of language, as a tree makes and is made of wood. Landscapes are habitats, and so whatever lives there constitutes a story, implying a language; the studies of biology, linguistics, and literature converge in their anatomizing kinds of ‘creature’ (organism, sentence, story) in kinds of ‘surroundings’ (environment, language, myth). Orality is ‘the natural or wild state of literature,’ so written works necessarily entail domestication, and societies that adopt writing undergo a ‘ritual mutilation of the intellect.’”
There’s more than meets the eye here; Tracy discerns in Bringhurst’s book, The Tree of Meaning, a “fear of paraphrase, motivated in part by the checkered history of commentary on oral literatures.” Bringhurst’s collection of short lectures serves as a “document of formalized irritation, even anguish” about the fate of oral composition at the hands of a Europeanized, text-driven culture. For Tracy, it’s a frustrating eulogy, but when he turns next to Tom Sleigh’s Interview with a Ghost, no eulogy is necessary or even possible; the title’s a dead giveaway:
“Sleigh’s dominant theme is subjectivity, and his splitting himself in two and sending one half to the other side is meant to get us thinking about what authority the ‘I’ can claim and how much fluidity we can tolerate in this character before it loses integrity and plausibility.”
Tracy treasures “the elasticity Sleigh advocates,” but demurs: “There remain, after all, occasions when the mind is not abjectly divided against itself or is able one way or another to pull itself together, and pushing the limits of subjectivity may be simply beside the point at that moment, as it may not be later.”
Don Share became the editor of Poetry in 2013. His books of poetry are Wishbone (2012), Squandermania (2007), and Union (2013, 2002). He is the co-editor of The Open Door: 100 Poems, 100 Years of Poetry Magazine (2012), and editor of Bunting's Persia (2012) and a critical edition of Basil Bunting's poems (2016). He...