T.C. MARSHALL Reviews
Glowball by Steven Farmer
(theenk, Palmyra, New York, 2010)
Some Math by Bill Luoma
(Kenning Editions, 2011)
Both of these books had me thinking of the wit and wisdom of my 4-yr-old grandson Brendan. That’s a compliment from Grampa Tom, a high one with happy laughter sprinkled all over it. B-Boy likes to shift contexts by adding words to word strings and sometimes non-words too. He says, “Cookie batter” for instance. I say “Cookie batter Orestes ‘Minnie’ Minoso,” and he says “Cookie batter Minnie Mouse Minoso flopgully”; so I add “in today’s trading,” and we collapse together in laughter because even he has heard that phrase from the TV. It’s a way of getting to know each other and sharing a little joke on the world.
Steve Farmer and Bill Luoma have known each other since at least those days at UCSD when Ron Silliman came to town and shifted quite a few perspectives. Steve Farmer was the first poet I ever heard to claim “post language” status. Luoma was off and running already in that direction. These two most recent books of theirs show many directions post-Language concerns can take or make to share a little serious joking.
Substitution of nouns is one old move they use, but here it has a new focus of social critique in a metaphoric humor: e.g. on page 18 of Some Math, “the panel snake is working its way through the insulation of the enterprise.” That book has, in poems like “The Concept of Mass,” another level of substitutions or switching out. The languages/dictions/vocabularies of science, baseball, sports-talk, politics, parenting, and sex are flipped into and out of one another. This is not merely for amusement, though it is funny; they actually reveal something about each other and the personhood we think of as “voice.” Its relation to frames of reference as realities conferring a reality upon that personhood become both the joke of this switcheroo and its point. Mixing and crossing frameworks is the calculated move here. On page 36, is a poem of Time with both a scientific and a baseball meaning. In the next bit on pages 37-38, there’s a baseball scene to be imaged from an announcer’s voice asking us to see an impossibility that is almost science fiction: a player passes through the fence, but knowing as we do that fences in today’s multipurpose stadiums are often flimsy walls artificially placed inside the harder ones we know it could happen. Shifts of person in announcer play-by-play are common, and Luoma uses that too to play with and investigate person and voice.
The poem “Alystyre Julian Certified Orient Minimal Clothing” has another kind of fun. Words get made up, and words get a new make-up from having to create their own context with our help. My favorite bits are the words that pop up among what seems just made up and so they seem made up, but then you see they’re real—real words, I mean. Part of the trick here too is about voice because to really read this poem you have to let go and just see the letters. Atop page 47, we have “and standing to probe domain walls of shiny dog he spoke forth / thereby increasing the glittering coercivity of mortal free layer / / ram horn upsidedown cat meaty shorthair cherry barb / avis blimpie hepcat come and eat moe tiny size” and make sense of it by supplying references word by word and by grammar. Chomsky’s other side told us about that back in the 70s. One context for the string is that it is in this poem, another that it “come from” the world of objects and coerced commodifications around us. Both work here.
Bill’s got a knack for that, always has had. These poems trump non-referentiality with the pluri-referentiality of everything. As Freud proved in Der Witz, jokes help as a way of staying fun and funny while letting something serious poke through the veil of all the ways being serious as we get it. There’s a little problem with that, though. What Kerouac called “goofing” leaves a great portion of the audience who might not be focused on the same questions just laughing. Just as jokes don’t always liberate the listener but may bind her to a desire to repeat, these poems could become monster replicant DNA in the movie called the poetry scene. “How fuck with that?,” asks our philosophy.
Well, I’d say “Seuss it.” The poem “nogo” takes the makey-up aspect on into a 1, 2, 3, 4, / 5, 6, 7 kid’s-rhyme rhythm and into rhyme. “Swoon Rocket” continues this with the seven syllables across one line:
intense x-ray youvie earth
sword obliquely micro birth
fisko solene cesium dew
big dog chester fly out too
The tones of all those dictions listed above are in that stanza still. And the sexy bits fit the poem’s title in making a love tone too.
There are many poets of the love poem, but Luoma has the corner on the “of” poem; it’s called “When the Pathogenic Wind Comes” when it appears twice in this book. Steinian in its diction, perhaps, its quintessential bit appears on page 60 with an opening line of “Pouring itself of Of” that is concluded with
of the contiguous one for one half
of of and the splice
of the yin of Of
of the three navel of of
of of of of of great pouring.
That’s pretty whacky but it does sound great. The serious side of this effort peeks through on page 54 with “They of evils of head of diseases of eye of the traditional ones of the side and the midline / of of indications of of.” Zukofsky said it was all about prepositions, and taking one in turns as the noun for itself shows another kind of laugh mastery here.
The title poem deserves some particular attention not only because it’s the title poem but because it folds in some “foreign language” as a chatter domain. The game of chatter domain slippage is that one I learned from my grandson; I strongly suspect Bill has received such teachings too. They are full of silly truths. Here “Some Math” demonstrates the conscious and unconscious manipulations party to this game. The energy of syntax creates a sense of composition while surprise words and wanna-be words are thrown in: “the meep of that of that the used one of bent ramificarsi” says it all except what the next line adds in “outside of elasticity comes the question” (92).
That is the outside angle we are involved with here. It shows off the elastic qualities of paying attention to language while following the urge to pay attention through language. As much as we wanna get it, we are gonna get it. And like little Brendan, we share a joke along the way. A poem may be threaded around references that hang together like the one on page 99, where “Fourier” and “UN” and “Torrance” and “retarded argument of the delay” and “unilateral withdrawal from stolen land” all say something about political history; however, the urge to think stops in the face of
Começ of fa socket
of that of the case of Only fa
hand of one of address of memory its fa estaçion
fa is the data of Someone’s fa port
“Fa” is “do” in Italian; “fa” is also the fourth of “do” in the harmonic scale. “Fa” is what we make of it, among other things. The other things here are words or the things Brendan might make up as words, the way we all did historically in making these “fa”-king languages. You can’t help but notice and maybe even feel all that in Some Math.
A little further out along those lines and pushing the outside further out is Glowball’s piece called “PARTS/DIN.” There we have fragments of words that come through either with the enough hint of the word’s whole look or as sound patterns of a choked diction:
ga tewa ay
l st th
We make sense of them with our eye’s leaps and our parsimonious principles of reading (see Silliman’s The New Sentence 115). These are words that were
on c tion
And then a poem like “Saturate” seems over-saturated with sense as we “come back” to sentence units like “These elements unaware of their relationship to the module, governed by a diction they can’t know” (59) make more sense than ever. The dictions here include a hardboiled one we recognize as an import from maybe Chandler: “I said the chronicle of a fall from grace with limited wardrobe options will suit me fine” (68). As we put that together with lines like “flowering kale / bank cabbage, cinderblocks of a dentist’s life” (68) portraying the substrate of suburban homes and gardens, we get the haunting quality of “the properties file in the source code tree contains the correct connect string” (69) and its place in a mystery with a smoothed over surface on which everything is programmed properly. The sad ending of “I fell asleep in a slow wind that held suspicion and misplaced need, telling myself the automated generation of reports feature made things seem more palatable” (72) mockingly echoes Marlowe working in a “dentist’s” world.
“Metacity” closes Glowball in a fiercer mix of dictions. It doesn’t take long for two domains to intersect sharply here: “bases of operation” is probably the first phrase, at line 6 in the poem, to reflect both the spheres of war and business. This mix has been in the air since the cover showing “US bombing, Iraq Invasion, 2003” led us on toward the epigraph from Secretary Rumsfeld saying “Test ideas in the marketplace” (7). When we get to the third portion of “Metacity,”
how vested possible to
know in an
a Radisson cell)
portal to trade
the image of that hotel business world is clearly embodied with words like “cell” layering in multiple domains at once It means something in terms of body, imprisonment, communication, monasticism, and more. On the next page, one phrase presents the image from the cover: “firing into a cloud, & down to havoc upon a city” right along with the ostensible innocence of lines like “the desktop must be ubiquitous as if it had always existed” (78).
In a few more sparse pages, we get “if not that, then virgins etc sitting at the right hand of no sacrifice too great” along with “businessman, straight in the eye and can be done in a deal” (81). There are other such references in the lines of this poem parsed out widespread on its slowly building pages, but the interweaving of business calculation and war meet in a sense of danger hovering like that in Philip Marlowe’s L.A. As the elements here move forward, they cross and mix and get mixed up: “Its pop surge bypassed his district how science did, a once vessel powerful in the globe suburban vehicle” (82). That reads like a bad Google translator translation or a kid trying to say what he can’t get his words around. The poems pushes the diction domains closer together to get patches like “highway target / storm hanging methane vents, Delilah” (89). There we are in the midst of war, oil extraction, the Bible, and pop culture—perhaps even hearing the great Tom Jones sing.
Then “Metacity” seems to actually use bad Google translation in a penultimate stretch where stanzas are given in English and then poor Latin. The churchy sound and look of this confirms the sense thast the poem is working with belief and the unbelievable results of what we give our credence to and what it gives back.
thought of as
joey even no such
Joey quod Joey
atque nullem eadem
est post bellum
You could say “Cano bellum perenne” with Pound off Vergil. A line like “accessories really matter” (93) now can’t help but present to us our own guilt as accessories to war or at least the sense that all our accessories helping us to access the life we let ourselves believe in are not just a fashion but an apparatus. The translation reads “apparatus est moneti” or “the apparatus is of the moment”—a bad translation that reveals the greater truth.
The apparatuses of this poem, of this book, are of our moment. They deliver, without preaching, a clear revelation of complicities. That is the metastasis,\ in the metacity where everything has gone Glo(w)bal(l). Thank theenk for this book.
T.C. Marshall is busy occupying his life, seriously supporting movement actions on the Cabrillo College campus where he teaches and in the S.F. and Monterey Bay areas where he lives. He has been writing and publishing poetry since first grade, literary criticism since his college days in the U.S. and Canada, and nature writing here and there. His latest publications include online essays and reviews as well as poems online and on paper in magazines. His next project is a set of poems incorporating photos to be published on a blog, all of which were originally posted on FaceBook. They are called Post Language.