JOHN BLOOMBERG-RISSMAN Reviews
“Ranges” in part: short life housing by cris cheek
(The Gig, Toronto , 2009)
Reaching past countries
Never out of range.
Practice between trees
Enough light threads
A tremendous upsurge
Of passionate violence
Directed at Derelict
Conditions in which
Expectation is requisite
As a fashionable
Way of speaking
Expressing of bringing
Out casting vote casts
Doubt talking by
Turns – birds
One of the unfortunate side effects of choosing to read 50 poems in 50 days or so is that I’m constrained to short poems, which tend to the lyric. Lyric in the widest sense, perhaps; in any case I must forego long poems, epics, etc etc. There’s simply no time to read or write about them.
In the case of many poets I’ve read this is not a particular problem, though it has been for some. It’s particularly a problem with cris cheek, who tends to go on and on and on and on… just kidding. Who tends to work in longer forms. Who probably hits his best stride in longer forms.
Given that, this poem still gives me plenty to chew on. And then some. I think it is exemplary of the kind of work that is intended to produce Readerly Anxiety, as well as to do whatever else it does. If I haven’t made it clear by now, I will: I consider Readerly Anxiety a good thing. I consider poems that produce it to be “The Kind of Poetry I Want” – to quote Hugh MacDiarmid. Maybe all poems generate a little RA. But some poems foreground it. This is one.
“Ranges”. I don’t know if this is a noun (as in mountain ranges, or “The area of variation between upper and lower limits on a particular scale”) or a verb (as in “before the west was fenced in, cattle ranged over a wide area” or “Vary or extend between specified limits: ‘patients whose ages ranged from 13 to 25’”). I tend to read it as a noun, but I can’t justify that at this point (from the get-go, RA kicks in!)
“Reaching past countries / Never out of range.” What reaches past countries? Whatever it is, the kind of reaching it engages in, while past countries, never puts those countries out of range.” Yes, that’s a paraphrase, it’s not an “explanation”. I cannot produce an explanation.
“Practice between trees”. Practice what? Reaching? The lack of punctuation alerts me that it may well be premature to attempt to answer this question. But I am perhaps sited a little in a physical, not just a linguistic world. We seem—something seems—to be between trees. I scan the rest of the poem in search of the next full stop to see where this phrase might end. I find none til the last word. Is this the beginning of the rest of the poem? If so, I will then have to go back and tie what follows with the first two, fullstopped, lines.
“Enough light threads / A tremendous upsurge / Of passionate violence”. I read these, I attempt to read these as a unit, because the constitute a stanza. At this point I am experiencing full blown RA. I can read the words, but can I understand them? Can I understand what connects them? First thing to note: there seems to be some sort of grammatical disjunction between “Practice between trees” and “Enough light threads”. Is there a semantic disjunction as well? Impossible to tell, really. Is “threads” a noun or a verb? If a noun, then perhaps light threads are what we see sometimes as the sunlight seems to fragment into beams that pass between the branches of trees? If so, then what is the relationship between the threads and “A tremendous upsurge / Of passionate violence”?
I quickly read the rest of the poem to see if, on a semantic/narrative level, things clear up. They do but they mostly don’t. So I decide that this poems calls for a historical reading to supplement a strictly semantic/narrative one. Sometimes one “understands” via context. For me at least, I think this one of those kind of poem-experiences. I will read with and without a Keatsian “irritable grasping” and just proceed through the poem.
So what do I experience? A sense of “passionate violence” generated in the poet / narrator who is able to rush past countries but never escape them. His violence is “Directed at Derelict / Conditions in which / Expectation is requisite”—which I take to be a broken down present (under the sign of Thatcher, because the epigraph to the section of the book in which it occurs is her “It is not enough to delve deeply into the surface of things”—which is one of the great quotes, worthy of Donald Rumsfeld. Genius fascist doublespeak (“fascist” here is a pure descriptor, not an insult; after all, Mussolini’s definition of fascism is “The Corporate State”, and who better than Thatcher/Reagan to exemplify the birth of fascism in the western democracies?)) anyway, a broken-down “no future” (an expression which may have originated with Dr Who but which quickly became a punk motto) in which one is still required to hope. Ernst Bloch could turn this into a positive, but for most of us: A Bateson double-bind, anyone?
And what happens in a double bind? At the very least, language cracks into “A discombobulated”, the true horror of which is papered over by making said discombobulation “a fashionable / Way of speaking”.
The discombobulation and fascist double-speak continues with “Expressing or bringing / Out casting vote casts”. I note the doubled meaning of casts and find it important in understanding how fascism replicates itself. Outcasts casting votes …
“Doubt talking by / Turns”.
Much of my understanding that this is how fascism replicates does not come from this poem, it comes from the 30 years or since it was written.
The poem ends with
What to make of this? Birds wheeling conjure up dystopian vultures circling … The “hands shaping horizons” make me think how it is humans who are responsible for doing this Thatcherizing/Reaganizing/fascistizing, it is not some “invisible hand” or “fate” or “will of God”.
The horizons at the end take me back to the “Reaching past countries / Never out of range.” And to the definition of range as the “upper and lower limits on a particular scale.” The fullstop here becomes ominous.
I think of The Clash’s “London Calling”, which was written just a few years before this poem:
London calling, see we ain't got no swing
'Cept for the ring of that truncheon thing
The ice age is coming, the sun's zooming in
Meltdown expected, the wheat is growing thin
Engines stop running, but I have no fear
'Cause London is drowning, and I live by the river
Even read impressionistically via a historical contextualizing, this poem is still powerful. Especially because we ALL live by the river now.
Does this kind of reading assuage my RA? No. I would never claim that this is THE way to read this poem? I abjure all authority. But it’s one way. And that’s all I can do.
[Editor’s Note: This is one of 50 reviews written, mas o menos, in 50 days. While each engagement can be read on a stand-alone basis, there’s a layer of watching the critic’s subjectivity arise in a fulsome manner if the reviews are read one after another. So if you have insomnia and/or are curious about this layer, I suggest you read the 50 reviews right after each other and, to facilitate this type of reading, I will put at the bottom of each review a “NEXT” button that will take you to the next review. To wit: NEXT. And an Afterword on John's reading process is also available HERE!]
John Bloomberg-Rissman is somewhere towards middle of In the House of the Hangman, the third section of his maybe life project called Zeitgeist Spam (picture Hannah Hoch painting over the Sistine Chapel) The first two volumes have been published: No Sounds of My Own Making, and Flux, Clot & Froth. In addition to his Zeitgeist Spam project, he has edited or co-edited two anthologies, 1000 Views of 'Girl Singing' and The Chained Hay(na)ku Project, and is at work on a third, which he is editing with Jerome Rothenberg. He is also deep into two important collaborations, one with Richard Lopez, one with Anne Gorrick. By important he means "important to him". Anyone else want to collaborate? He blogs at Zeitgeist Spam.