December 2003

Dale Smith

marsupial inquirer

In Cahoots

All things have a language of their own. At least, that's what Walter Benjamin said in 1916. He dismissed bourgeois linguistic theory as well as a mystical understanding of language. Language, he suggested, cannot be reduced to "mere signs," nor can they be the substantive representations of things themselves. Instead, a complex exchange is involved, a linguistic science and a creative field. The name, for Benjamin, was the point of revelation, a portal for relations in the world. It was a dynamic force at tension in the poet's mind. Integral to the process of art, language seems to function in an almost quantum process. It discloses and it deceives. It relates but it also pulls the wool over our eyes. There's a trickster element in this, and it's what certain poets find most compelling--this unknowable, constantly shifting force.

I mention this particularly so that the depth of John Latta's Breeze registers properly in my own limited relation here of it. Certainly, he has possessed himself of an understanding of the diverse body of linguistic theory. But his poems aren't stiff, theoretically driven labors. They are fully formed in the realized fold of his material experience. His thoughtful inquiries into language practice are related with concrete images of the natural world.

We lope single file down the Beach Road
Counting the different ways of spelling
Omelette at the earlybird breakfast joints.

And every day the brown pelicans go by, singly
Skimming the wave-troughs south or
North in squads of five or

Six arrowing over the dunes. (43)

The pace is perfect here, and the subtle self-consciousness displayed in the "ways of spelling / Omelette," reveal a concern for language that isn't over-burdened by analysis or a need to say something about it. Like the brown pelicans, duly noted going by, the mystery of poetic language is activated here in the quiet notation and active verbal sources of these few lines. Later in the poem, however, comes a more direct inquiry.

... I read Fenollosa
Who says there is no grammar in nature, no noun.

He is trying to posit Chinese as a language
Where being is never simply being: it is always doing,
All process and motion unstilled by mere sign. (43)

Ernest Fenollosa was the Portuguese Sinologist who's work inspired Ezra Pound's profound study of Chinese language and literature. This direct comment, compressed into a few brief lines, brings forward a concern for active language that corresponds with Benjamin. This "process and motion" is central to Latta's concern, for he again and again draws our attention to the process of his physical landscapes. Language and nature intimately share an animating force.

Formally, Latta's poems appear on the page with unassuming traditional stanzas. Often writing tercets, this triadic structure gives a contemplative motion to his stanzas. He examines every day life with a heightened sensitivity to the diverse processes not only of language, but nature, personal ecology and his own imaginative lens. It's a complex environment he creates in a language that moves spatially from interior to exterior and back.

I used to ... And the pencil point breaks,
An odd technological failure right here in my fist-
Colored fist. Why honestly lament so if language is just

Like a feather-duster stowed in a back closet,
The one the servants used
To use back in the days ... And here we go

Snippig the dead blossoms again. (58)

With deceptively simple strokes, he pushes the poem forward. His words are casual, but extraordinary too, making a complex and unique force of circumstantial pleasure, curiosity and chance "technological" failure.

And I wrote it all down, a pencil
In beach togs and zoris,
A big hand manhandling the moment's symmetries,

In cahoots with the blessèd partiality of
That moment. (58)

This adherence to a complex process of perception is admirable. It relates an exquisite curiosity that is part psychological, part philosophical. But mostly it's unified in an imaginative push through the challenging metamorphoses of language. Subtly perceptive and demanding, Latta keeps an upbeat tone by using quick verbal strokes and a traditional poetic form to help compress and deepen the measure of his lines. His poems fly by, and you're left with this magnificent intensification of feeling in yourself. He relates the names of specific flora and fauna, accountable to the earth as to language. "Caught in the boundary, singing," he writes,

To make the bumblebee be, the salsify be, the dragonfly
And the vireo be, the red kerchief

Lazily settling into the meadow's sweet grasses
Like a tiny parachute
Be, the mud puppy, the lady's slipper, the chanterelle be. (64)

Like attendant spirits, these plants, insects, birds and inanimate objects bring life into the poem, measuring outward the inner depth he pursues, or would challenge us to find among the lovely surfaces he accepts openhearted.

There are several "notebook" poems here too. One to the poet Jack Spicer and another inspired by Robert Duncan are extraordinary dives into the correspondence of the imagination in the world through language. In "A Jack Spicer Notebook," he writes:

I am talking about the hard polarity of the summons,
The call,
How it musters up against the real,

Goes belly to belly with that blockhead of an ump
And cannot shout him down.
A thing is here or it is not here.
Our vocabulary is yes. Our vocabulary is no.

Coleridge: "The apprehension of polarity
Is itself the basic act of the imagination."(72)

This "apprehension of polarity"--to be charged and accountable to extremes--reveals Latta's modus. This is a poetry of rigorous self-discipline, active intelligence and mutable conjury. He gives words their spin in the world with observance and seemingly casual strides. Note the completely artful attention throughout, the great care to diverse phenomena and the registration of the world according to imaginative polarities. Breeze is a generous and profoundly thoughtful collection of poems. There's as much to learn from it as there is to enjoy.

Some Values of Landscape and Weather, by Peter Gizzi, also foregrounds language as a key concern for the relations of his experience. Unlike Latta, however, Gizzi's inquiry is suggested by the formal arrangements of the poems themselves, with less self-conscious attention to creative process. The world he often shares with us comes through vivid details, but there is a feeling of disassociation too, an alienated quality to his landscapes. His lyrics register isolation within phenomenally spectacular spaces. Or rather, he charges mundane landscapes with lyric energy to transform them, registering them against their limits at the outer boundaries of meaning and personal significance.

there are beetles and boojum
specimen jars decorated

with walkingsticks, water striders
and luna moths

a treatise on rotating spheres (4)

Formally variant, Gizzi's language resists casual rhetorical structures. His ear moves by phrase, reducing the energy of his ear to movements of verb and noun. His world feels haunted, as if in subjective absence things are restored to a primal simplicity, spirit-like themselves, to insist on encounters with an intelligence equal to their own obdurate inertia. By taking language close to the bone, say, Gizzi forces attention to operate closely according to the dictation (I almost wrote "diction") of images. Images, not things, are his attendant angels.

closer than power lines
casting shadows on brush

breath, heart ticking
the prepared delay

as twilight settles
in waves and crests

a water fowl, hooded owl. (5)

This opening section, "A History of the Lyric," intones a suggestive lyric opulence while exploring diverse landscapes. The tension he exposes lies in his experience and the difficult task of relating it, a tension picked up earlier by Wordsworth and Coleridge in Lyric Ballads (1798). For the Romantics, the polarity of the imagination dominated their approach to the poem. The struggle to achieve a language that related inner vision in correspondence to the physical world dominated much of the thinking and practice of the poem at that time. Gizzi returns to this struggle, not unlike Latta, but with renewed emphasis on language's double function: as unifying substance and also an irrevocable wedge. The pacing moves more slowly, with less open or casual regard. But it correlates an energy of the field, say, presenting an environment without representing it; showing a world without speaking of it.

If the dark speaks what does it say
in a dark time. As words choose me

are they mine, and the counterpointing wind. (9)

It's as if his words move forward by the retention of a questioning tone within each progressive statement. There's a measure of countering durations, each phrase withholds a question to be answered by the formal apparatus of the poem.

Jets report a mass of shaped sound
off beyond the tree line.

I wanted to go to it: if leaf beauty,
if cloud beauty, if ideas of relation. (9)

The stanzaic momentum and the verbal interplay of sound to image embody the "ideas of relation". The occasion of a force of attention drawn to language and environment instructs the lyric will here. Song is an extract of an encounter at the limit of the poet's lyric resources. A lyric becomes not a pretty sounding thing, but a measure of stretched attention. We have no definitions, nothing really to hang on but the placement of the lines, a pure energy of form.

"Hawthorne" is a delicate prose meditation, tracing the plant's physical details ("genus Crataegus") through to the 19th century novelist and beyond. Gizzi doesn't self-intrude, pushing his way through this poem or any other, though we should know the Hawthorne is particularly dear to poets. (At least that's according to poet/mythologist Robert Graves). Gizzi instead allows the poem to open of its own revelating pace. It stands simply, unadorned, the only attention it draws being by virtue of its compressed and informative relation.

"In Defense of Nothing" is a haunted, perceptive note of spiritual accuracy:

I guess these trailers lined up in the lot off the highway will do.
I guess that crooked eucalyptus tree also.
I guess this highway will have to do and the cars
and the people in them on their way.
The present is always coming up to us, surrounding us.
It's hard to imagine atoms, hard to imagine
hydrogen & oxygen binding, it'll have to do.
This sky with its macular clouds also
and that electric tower to the left, one line broken free. (53)

This acknowledgment of clunky modernity and its hobbled, weary hopefulness tugs for some reason at my heart. Gizzi here captures the machine truth of our American culture with the phrase: "it'll have to do." And the broken power line is a forlorn image that for a moment in disconnection seems more free and animated than any other hunk of matter in the poem. With no political airs and no attempt to meliorate or castigate, he swiftly gives us a taste of an environment more dominant than not, more lasting, perhaps, too.

A final poem, "Beginning with a Phrase from Simone Weil," places itself within a metaphorical wilderness. "There is no better time than the present when we have lost everything" is the opening statement. Gizzi turns it through his mind, driving it toward conclusions that in turn open out.

The present everything is lost in time, according to laws
of physics things shift
when we lose sight of a present,
when there is no more everything. No more presence in
everything loved.

In the expanding model things slowly drift and every-
thing better than the present is lost in no time.
A day mulches according to gravity
and the sow bug marches. (95)

Ultimately, this is a poem of hope. But it has to clear the ground before it can move forward, making certain of a final destruction. Our secular science and reasoning, the deep inquiry and curiosity of artists and poets have moved attention back to an almost spiritual comprehension of the present. Gripped within physical laws that are invisible to the eye and clamped within systems of economy, the world appears sadly empty. But what Gizzi here attempts to restore is a way of seeing. He makes a perceptive claim for the present. And through his intonation and verse ligatures, he performs the poets role--an archaic thing--to channel his language through the world and to make his imagination responsible to the images of landscape. The disconnection of "mere signs" is a historical blip. Gizzi invokes the active intelligence of language. The sense of failure and loss gives him personal freedom to begin again.

There is no better everything than loss when we have
time. No lack in the present better than everything.
In this expanding model rain falls
according to laws of physics, things drift. And every-
thing better than the present is gone
in no time. A certain declension, a variable speed.
Is there no better presence than loss?
A grace opening to air.
No better time than the present. (96)

Breeze
University of Notre Dame Press
0268021716
115 pp.

Some Values of Landscape and Weather
Wesleyan University Press
0819566640
100 pp.