Follow Harriet on Twitter
Hello, Dolly: Paul Legault’s The Other Poems
A review of Paul Legault’s The Other Poems (Fence 2011) is just out over at THE CRITICAL FLAME. Nora Delaney gives us the basics: “The pieces in The Other Poems are rather constructed like dialogue, with characters speaking and responding to each other. Perhaps Legault’s pieces — poems — are really hybrids of poetry and drama: not dramatic monologues, but, rather, dramatic dialogues.” Delaney later remarks that the work is “markedly apolitical,” but we suppose that depends on how you conceive of politics in poetry (here’s a good start). But she goes on:
More important to these poems are our cultural shifts: how the seamless omnipresence of the internet has united everything that was once diffuse, and how human consciousness is shaped by the internet.
This collection seems to be responding to the question of how you write poetry in the age of the internet. Paul Legualt makes it one of the characters in his dialogues. He gives the internet a voice — as much as this is possible. Incorporating the language of email and websites — language not normally considered poetic with a capital P — into his writing, Legault presents it as just another valid linguistic register. The piece called “The Music from Inside,” for instance, includes these lines:
ringtone to your cell
thanks to firstname.lastname@example.org
email@example.com, and firstname.lastname@example.org
These lines are jarring for a couple of reasons. We don’t expect the inclusion of email addresses in a poem, and although the line “ringtone to your cell” is the sort of market-speak that postmodern poets have been incorporating for years, it is used with less pun or incongruity than most. Legault takes the phrase as it is used in the market and uses it in his poem in the same context. These postmodern registers also raise problems in reading. If this is poetry, and if it is meant to be read aloud, to be heard (as imagined with my caberet-theater suggestion), how the hell do you pronounce those email addresses? Fat-underscore-boy-four-one-eight-at-yahoo-dot-com is not as much of a problem, but pinky-ar-el-forty-one-at-yahoo-dot-com takes a few seconds to comprehend. (I looked up that first address out of curiosity, and, as of the time of my search, it was not a true functioning address associated with someone in the real world.) While this poem simply uses the language of the internet and email, others give the internet direct speaking roles. For instance, “God Remembers the Nineties” includes Wikipedia as one of its interlocutors:
WIKIPEDIA: Some people are listening to “The Dolphin’s Cry.”
Why Wikipedia is saying this is uncertain. If you search for “The Dolphin’s Cry” on the site, you are rewarded with the information that it is “a song by the alternative rock band Live. It was released as the first single from their fourth studio album The Distance to Here in 1999. The song was co-produced by Jerry Harrison of Talking Heads.” (accessed February 16, 2012). Legault, by referencing Wikipedia, nudges us outside the poem and into the world (or at least onto our computers, which, for many of us, constitutes a great deal of our world).
The presence of Wikipedia seems deliberately anachronistic: the poem’s title is “God Remembers the Nineties,” and the site was launched in 2001. Perhaps the internet is as God here, a repository of all information from all eras — the beginning and the end. If you want to get more absurd, however, turn to “Shiny Things Inside of Other Shiny Things,” where Robert Frost and the internet have a conversation:
ROBERT FROST: Where should I put my hat?
THE INTERNET: I am behind you.
As absurd and apparently nonsensical as this dialogue and others in the book are, they make a kind of sense at times or at least pick at the margin-edges of ideas.
Sense! Why, we never. Delaney goes on to consider how these poems by Legault “[raise] questions about how we conceptualize the world, how we break it down and categorize it. Seems about right, and we’d probably add something about the “Apollinairey future,” as the reconstruction of a line of Augusto de Campos’s Concrete Poetry Manifesto goes. Legault is also the co-editor of Telephone, the author of The Madeleine Poems (Omnidawn 2011), and the forthcoming English-to-English translation of the complete works of Emily Dickinson.