JOHN BLOOMBERG-RISSMAN Reviews
“XXX” in Sard by Philip Byron Oakes
(Otoliths, Rockhampton, Australia, 2010)
Love potions written for the glockenspiel of a subplot, garnering astrophysical forces, incalculable in breadth at the moment of splashdown. Quagmires of the carbonated, interrupting the footloose with bubbly moments, highlighting a rain dance imploring poisons to weep from the eyes of a salty god. A valedictory dunce cap keeping the cheap seats warm for afterthoughts. Lullabies intrinsic to the bassoon, chiming in on ensembles of the still startling, but time lapsed revelations on which museums gorge in the violet haze of evening twinkling. The charm bracelets of an enigma, in accompaniment to the madness lilting but lost in traffic. In seeing the endless through to the beginning of time.
XXX consists of a series of sentence fragments, all of which except for the last are shaped like dictionary definitions. If I’m understanding the fragment shapes correctly, of what are they definitions? The title is not accidentally “XXX”.
I am finding myself reading this poem, then, as if I were reading a dictionary entry. Whatever XXX is, then, it’s a love potion, a quagmire, a valedictory dunce cap, lullabies, charm bracelets …
If this is a riddle poem, I am not getting it. Though obvious answers pop up (life, poetry … they disappear just as quickly) XXX is as unknown to me at the end as at the beginning. It is a mystery. I believe it is supposed to stay mysterious.
Unless it is music. Aspects of music appear throughout the poem … It could be music …
But I don’t want to solve this riddle. I find myself resisting a solution. Let XXX = XXX. I find myself happily moving through this poem via its production of affect. I am content to feel this poem. Sometimes, as Bob Marley put it, “who feels it knows it.” [Ha! You thought I was going to turn every reading into a search for narrative, didn’t you? Ha! And ha! again] Why am I content to feel this poem? In part, because I don’t trust that it is in fact a dictionary definition. After all, there is that last fragment.
Plus, there is so much juice in the language. I don’t want to “flatten”, or “force” it. Rather than XXX = music, the poem itself is a music.
But none of this means it’s without meaning. I refuse to consider the pleasures of its music meaningless. More importantly, I refuse to consider affect meaningless. To quote a bit of an essay by Jon Lindblom, “Notes from Reading Group on Neurophilosophy (Metzinger, Eliminativism, etc.)”, at http://intensivethinking.blogspot.com/2012/03/notes-from-reading-group-on.html Intensive Thinking, 13 Mar 012,
Here I am particularly thinking of that branch of cultural theory focusing on what has become known as “cognitive capitalism”, “attention economy”, “affective labor”, etc., and which is exemplified in the work of thinkers such as Brian Massumi, Erin Manning, and Jonathan Beller. This position largely focuses on an affective critique of capitalism, organized around a study of the exploitation of our attention, perception, sensation, and so on, …
Frankly, Massumi, etc and other affect studies practitioners (Lauren Berlant, the late Teresa Brennan, Sianne Ngai, etc etc) do much more than that. Affect is, additionally (to slightly misquote the same essay), “incredibly valuable in terms of unpacking the general notion of ‘self’”, interpersonal relations, and so much else.
To the poem, then.
“Love potions written for the glockenspiel of a subplot, garnering astrophysical forces, incalculable in breadth at the moment of splashdown. “ Part of what I feel when I read this is a kind of insane joy at the twists and turns of the fragment, each of which pulls any sense that I am on “firm ground” out from under me, but none of which send me crashing à la Wile-E-Coyote to a smashup thousands of feet below. I am suspended in the air of this music, waiting for the next unexpected chord. I could parse this, sort of. I think that the fact that it probably can be parsed is part of what keeps me suspended in the air, rather than totally lost.
Here’s a bit of a “parse”: the love potions are in a slightly different tune than other love potions might be, since they are written for the subplot, which has a somewhat different feel than the plot itself (which is one reason we know it’s a subplot – think how the part of Transformers 1 in which Sam Witwicky deals with his parents feels different than the part where he’s doing battle with Megatron). In this particular case, the subplot becomes overwhelmingly important, and overtakes the main plot as it comes to its close (think of the father-son relationship in The Day After Tomorrow, which becomes more important than the planetary disaster as the father gets closer and close to the New York Public Library in which his son is trapped).
But is it necessary to parse this, or is it sufficient to feel it?
I thought I knew how I was going to answer that question when I wrote it, but in the 30 seconds that have since passed, I changed my mind. I now think that the fragment is affective because some kind of reading subsystem is parsing as we go along, maybe not consciously, or fully consciously, but … by the time we have the chops to read a poem like this, our reading is a very complex multi-level process, and though we may not be aware of all that’s going on, all of it enters into the affectivity.
I’m not going to parse the rest of the poem because you, in reading it, already have, and because it’s not necessary, at least in my reading, to bring everything to consciousness. Two things help us not bring everything to consciousness. One is the poem’s music, and one is its constant musical references. Each fragment is full of them. Let’s look for a second at the penultimate: “The charm bracelets of an enigma, in accompaniment to the madness lilting but lost in traffic.” And let’s note accompaniment, lilting …
One of the poem’s most interesting moves comes at the end, in the way the penultimate and ultimate fragment tie together. They do it by means of the tiniest of words, “in”:
“The charm bracelets of an enigma, in accompaniment to the madness lilting but lost in traffic. In seeing the endless through to the beginning of time.”
That last fragment is in no sense definition-like, the way the other fragments are. It has the effect of closing up the series of definition-like fragments by putting its snake-tail in its mouth, ouroboros-like. This is even true of its music. It divides into two seven-syllable bits, in which the final thump of the second is heavier than the final thump of the first. I think this is because the “through” that ends the first bit is immediately followed by a rhyming “to”. There is no rhyme for the word “time” unless you go all the way back to “violet”. Which gives the long “i” in “time” a kind of “at last! feeling. So this final fragment isn’t only semantically ourobos-like, it’s ouroboros-like musically, too.
[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.