Poetry News

Abramson's November Contemporary Poetry Reviews

By Harriet Staff

Here's Seth Abramson's November Contemporary Poetry Reviews for HuffPo.

Here he discusses Donald Dunbar's psychedelic Eyelid Lick:

Roman Jakobson-influenced scholars and poet-critics will tell you that all written and oral language resides at some point or another on a spectrum with "immanence" at one end and "transcendence" at the other. In its former incarnation, language has what academics term "materiality"; the attention of the reader or listener is focused on the word-qua-word, or on the word as formal element, or on the word as device--a single cog in the machine-made-of-words that is (in this view) a poem. At the other end of this presumptive spectrum, language is entirely gestural and transparent; this is the realm of meanings, then, in which the value of a written mark is the extent to which it permits its audience to envision, in its various mind's eyes, the signified object or subject. Transcendent language, to hear the avant-gardistes tell it, is cheap because it subordinates language beneath an avalanche of representational noise. Your imagined tomato is not my imagined tomato, the thinking goes, though the word-qua-word "tomato" is itself co-equal (or equivalently inert) for both of us. In any case, Jakobson's is a rather nice theory, and it undoubtedly explains much, offering many a starting point for subtle and instructive debates on the niceties, violences, and pratfalls of language.

Lately, though, some have wondered whether the spectrum upon which we map language might not be far longer than Jakobson has imagined it. In Eyelid Lick, Donald Dunbar extends the capacities of language beyond their understood and accepted constraints to illustrate not merely the paucity of our present sociolinguistic theories but also the folly of those self-imposed limitations that foreshorten our most vital discourses about art and cognition.

The publisher's copy for Eyelid Lick makes no bones about the fact that this book was written under the influence of (or at least as some sort of quasi-paean to) psychedelic drugs. The collection is "borne out of individual psychedelic experience," readers are told in the strictest of confidence. This begs the question, however: Of what relevance is this (real or fictive) insight to the compositional technique and/or sociocultural worldview of the book's author? It says here that Dunbar's fidelity to the expansion of human consciousness--whether by Dr. Timothy Leary's means or some less performative and more quietly introspective soul-diving--is the chief accomplishment of Eyelid Lick, and it's an accomplishment not to be sniffed at. What if, the book appears to ask, an author wants more than to have readers "see the word" (as by immanence/materiality) or "see the picture the word describes" (as by transcendence/transparency), but hopes instead to actually collapse sign, signifier, and signified into a single point within the reader-subject? That is, what if this poet wishes his reader to experience the concrete and abstract phenomena of a poem in real time, as though these phenomena were actually happening to the reader? Such an authorial ethos would eschew any focus on Jakobsonian semiotics with the aim of, instead, transforming language into lived experience. But how to accomplish this without the benefit of mind-altering psychedelics, which, in keeping with various state and federal criminal statutes, are not provided gratis with each copy of Dunbar's stellar literary debut?

The answer to this query lies, of course, in the pages of Eyelid Lick, where one finds poems that directly and even indiscreetly appeal to the peculiar deviations of mind produced by psychedelics. The frosty mind--that is, the impaired consciousness of the drug-user--seeks out and celebrates particular iterations of language: repetition (even to the point of numbness and dumbness); familiar patterns, joyously recast as quirk; associative meanderings that remain tantalizingly elusive as to their connecting threads; simple (down to puerile) humor, often of the physical variety; visual puns; two-dimensionality re-rendered in three dimensions; and exaggerated gestures which may seem, in the mind of the altered, almost cosmically elevated in both expression and import.

Dunbar's, for better or ill, is a psychedelic poetics likely to be most appreciated by those with appetites that likewise lie in the direction of the pharmacological. For instance, the poet's "[A man walks into a bar]" might well be intolerable to those unwilling or unable to properly receive the astonishingly deft transformations Dunbar executes upon this well-worn and even hackneyed joke-starter. Dunbar's love letter to the poet John Beer's The Wasteland and Other Poems, "[He was whom, whom, whom]," sticks its landing precisely because its obsessive-compulsive borrowings and anaphora are infectiously delightful--especially to those in a state of mind to receive such a pleasingly allusive, inertia-driven poetics. This is not to say, of course, that only blazed patrons of the arts can or will appreciate Eyelid Lick, merely that Dunbar is inviting readers to step inside the English language in a way it might be difficult for the all-too-sober poet-scholar to register or accept. Dunbar's conversational-yet-herky jerky poems, which leap and meander and wink and cuddle, are--as "Letter to Assam" insists--"not f***ing around" (expletive elided), which is to say they're doing precisely that but hope you'll participate in the exercise rather than observe from afar.

Few books of poetry cavort as gleefully as Eyelid Lick--imagine a stanza of only numbers; a page with nothing but an "X" and an "O" on it; faux appendices; letters to fictional characters and arguably-fictional deities; visual poetry (e.g., a page of arranged asterisks); clever paeans to contemporaries in literature; reflexive artifices (mock Tables of Contents, bracketed stage directions, et cetera)--and it's for this reason that few books of poetry, or indeed few objects of literary art, are as immediately enjoyable. It helps to be in a friendly state of mind, certainly, but it's by no means required: Dunbar's artistry is of that young sort that still sees (dare we say it) the fun in language, and its opportunities for self-transformation-on-a-dime, and that capacity for expansiveness of mind that pushes past both sign and signifier and signified toward a place in which the language we are living in is ever, only, and entirely us.

Bravo to Dunbar for a ripping good book that's nearly impossible to put down or forget.

Make the jump to read all of the reviews and sample poems.

Originally Published: December 3rd, 2012