Spent some time in a clinic today, the waiting turning into an interesting duration (every time I encounter the word duration I think of Kenneth Koch staring off into space during an interview saying, “everything lasts a certain period of time….that’s very odd”) within which to read more of Virginia Woolf’s Between The Acts. But once the play started and I was sitting & waiting for my name to be called and there were little snippets of character response between the snippets of dialog I started to feel as if I was phasing out of continuity and worried the book would slip through my hands. Too much in betweeness, which some times I don’t mind, and even strive for, but not when I’m wondering if it wouldn’t be better to let my right eye roll out and bounce over to you. Of course my name was called when I was in the restroom taking a waking nap and that led to some confusion then eventually to a little examination room in which I sat and thought about the poet and essayist and teacher David Levi-Strauss’s essay on the lack of artwork on the walls of recovery rooms for patients. A thing he pondered while paying an extended visit to such a room after an operation some years back. One may indeed like to see the walls of the room in which one is to heal contain some portals, some unfixed apparition of consciousness, or at least the possibility of such beginning to form.

At any rate on the way home it occurred to me that the slow demise of the newspaper industry (my old journalism teacher in college, Lee Smith, a by-then-retired former newspaperman used to tell us that tv news really began the work of reducing the citizenry’s reliance on things like multiple editions of papers per day) could kill off the New York Post and I’d have to find another source for terms such as “cheese eating surrender monkeys” to put into poems. I mean, the internet version of the paper is nice and free and all, or mostly free, but I’m less likely to read it as opposed to scanning it as if it were a photograph containing certain points of significance to get loopy with. I learned at an early age to read the newspaper backwards – this, incidentally, led me to instinctively “get” the value of studying any language-based composition from back to front unit by unit (sentence by sentence, clause by clause, word by word, etc) as imparted in instruction manuals for teaching remedial English and comp. – but that pleasure is somewhat negated on-line, though I suppose it’s possible to replicate through some mildly masochistic plodding of course.

Speaking of portals, I have this terrific issue of Callaloo from 1999 (vol. 22 no. 2) that has repeatedly been useful to me through its features on Lorenzo Thomas and Will Alexander along with some very fine essay and interview work by Harryette Mullen. The interview Mullen conducts with Alexander is really great: fluid, funny, searching, and idiosyncratic the way a long conversation between friendly minds might be (Mullen: We all tend to be separated into our various boxes / Alexander: I just want to throw the box away). It's also especially important to me to have access to an in-person conversation between two poets whose work is radically different from one another and who both openly admire each other's work. While her essay focuses mainly on Alexander’s book Asia & Haiti, I have recently found Mullen’s descriptive terms vis-à-vis Alexander’s use of hypotaxis (syntactic subordination of one clause or construction to another) to be useful in discussing the title poem from Exobiology as Goddess, a book published five years after the feature in Callaloo.

Mullen muses on WA’s hypotaxis to the point of recasting it as “hyperhypotaxis” and figuring it’s attractive at least in part because it can “accommodate lavishly expansive sentence construction” as well as the many fields of knowledge to which Alexander has access. I started teaching Alexander’s work this year, and while it’s a challenge for me to do so – I tend to feel like his poems know far more than I can convey, for starters, though that should probably be the case for any material one might teach ­– I have found the undergrad writing students I’m working with to be quite open to Alexander’s incantatory ranging from pre-history to post-existence. In fact, we read the poem Exobiology As Goddess, which is fifty pages long, in one sitting a few weeks ago, person-by-person, page-by-page. The poem fuses language from exobiology, geography, Egyptian mythology and paleontology, among other subjects, into a clause-driven swirl that actually has a lot of space in it (double-spaced lines as well as a feeling of an aerial view stretching across the work) and reads fairly quickly once you let yourself go. It does at times feel like one long continuous and insistently rhythmic sentence-as-vehicle.

I’m hesitant to quote from the poem because I’m inclined to believe that you need to take the whole trip and I’m not interested in choosing lines at the moment and when I did begin to I wound up typing up the first five pages of the poem and that’s just not going to work. But there are his poems on this site, as you can find through an author search, and there are recordings of his readings over at Penn Sound (http://writing.upenn.edu/pennsound/x/Alexander-Will.php) and that’s plenty. Actually, screw it, have a few lines from the middle:

If I say two poles of wheat

or a series of Minoan grain invictas

none of this projects her mirage

exchanged through fertility by scansion

by evanescent radii

by thought as magnetic migration

say I ignited the earth as a failing covenant of thoughts

Solea would erupt

closing her form

within neutron delay

within vibrational microbe as essence

& because we vibrate

we are odd rotational deltas

as gathered oblivious ice

sparked by summoned meta-concentration

There’s this other bit of his writing in Callaloo that I’m currently fixated on, though: a short personal essay entitled “My Interior Vita” that I’m finding to be valuable and kind (even though I need some of that garish quotidian the way an elm needs to get high). This is the third of seven paragraphs in the piece, and I'll leave things here:

“For me, language by its very operation is alchemical, mesmeric, totalic in the way that it condenses and at the same time proves capable of leaping the boundaries of genre. Be it the drama, the poem, the essay, the novel, language operates at a level of concentration modulated by the necessity of the character or the circumstance which is speaking. My feeling is that language is capable of creating shifts in the human neural field, capable of transmuting behaviours and judgments. Humans conduct themselves through language, and, when the latter transmutes, the human transmutes. The advertisers know this linkage, but to a superficial degree, so when language is mined at a more seminal depth of poetic strata, chance can take on a more lasting significance. And I do not mean in a didactic manner, but in the way that osmosis transpires, allowing one to see areas of reality that here-to-fore had remained elided or obscured. I’m speaking here of an organic imaginal level which rises far beyond the narrow perspective of up and down, or left side and right side, which is the mind working in the service of mechanical reaction. Rather, I am thinking of magnetic savor, allowing the mind to live at a pitch far beyond the garish modes of the quotidian. One’s life then begins to expand into the quality of nuance naturally superseding a bleak statistical diorama.”

Originally Published: November 20th, 2009

Author of eight books of poetry and numerous chapbooks, Anselm Berrigan earned a BA from SUNY Buffalo and an MFA from Brooklyn College. His collections of poetry include Integrity & Dramatic Life (1999), Zero Star Hotel (2002), Some Notes on My Programming (2006), Free Cell (2009), Something for Everybody (2018)and the book-length poems Notes from Irrelevance...

  1. November 21, 2009
     Steven Fama

    Yes and yes to the marvels of Will Alexander’s poetry! How grand that you’re teaching it. I'd love to hear more about what Alexander's poetry inspires in those reading or hearing it for the first time.\r

    I highly recommend Alexander’s just published The Sri Lankan Loxodrome (New Directions). It’s a singularly fantastic jolt of his poetry, particularly the title poem. \r

    If I may, permit me here to mention that in late September I wrote a bit about The Sri Lankan Loxodrome, including quoting from Haryette Mullen’s Callaloo comment about Alexander’s “hyperhypotactic” approach (the Mullen quotation is also used as a blurb on the back cover of the new book). For those who may be interested, my post on Alexander’s wondrous book/poem is herehttp://stevenfama.blogspot.com/2009/09/blog-post.html.

  2. November 21, 2009
     Steven Fama

    I must apologize: in my comment just above, I screwed up the link to the post on Will Alexander's The Sri Lankan Loxodrome. I wish I could delete and correct it there, but lacking that ability, here's one that works:\r

    on Will Alexander's wondrous The Sri Lankan Loxodrome