February 2004

Dale Smith

marsupial inquirer

Weighing Words

"Cow and horse and pigeon rat and / cow and pigeon, horse and rat / rat and cow and pigeon horse and / rattled cow and pigeon rat."

Thus opens Lisa Jarnot's "Cow Horse Pigeon Rat Poem" in the new book Black Dog Songs by independent, Chicago-based publisher, Flood Editions. Jarnot's musical stampede of images-turned-signifier-turned-inside-out makes high fun of high art with deceptive ease. Her poems are instantly recognizable. Word repetition, rhyme and rhythm form the simple surface of her work in Black Dog Songs. There aren't many writers who use Stein's psycho-intensive syntax without falling into a derived bog of word chaos. By psycho-intensive, I mean that language is used in ways that echoes the mind's own patterns or habits of thought and speech. Language is used for its material value, composing according to process and immediacy of perception rather than by memory or expectation.

I don't want to reduce Jarnot's work by over-comparing it to Stein, though the great Modernist certainly has to be recognized off the bat here. By contrast, Jarnot's compression, limited word palettes and socio-political concerns give her work a compelling energy built from a force of its own. Looking at the lineage of poets she has absorbed and internalized, Stein is only one of many. New York School poetry certainly influences her art, and she's one of the few writers of her generation to really make use of Kenward Elmslie's perfection of ear and energy. Indeed, It's a kind of ear-energy at work here, engaging a complete sensation of the mind and body. These are poems you could almost dance to. Certainly you could spin around, if you wanted. Even deeper, she's grounded in Black Mountain Poetics, picking up its lore and promise from mentors like Jack Clarke, Harvey Brown and others. With impeccable attention to the past (she's at work on a biography of the poet Robert Duncan), Jarnot has achieved here and in other books a mastery of form unique to her. She embodies the New American Poetry of the 1950s and '60s, but updates it, making it something new and strange.

"My Terrorist Notebook" is one of the most immediately political works in the book, though it remains close to the spirit of play found throughout. She doesn't push answers for current problems, nor does she recount with bummer-hour precision the ways in which we're all being fucked. "This is the beginning of my terrorist notebook," she writes, "-- all terrorism all the time. I would have had to blow up the World Trade Center to get anyone's attention when I was a kid. I'm tired of being nice. Nice is out. I want to live in a cave. I want to poke people's eyes out with their cell phone antennas." Here, in a few brief lines, she sinks that hopeless American fog of innocence. In a bio-political era it only seems appropriate for poets to push for clearer understandings of current economics and politics. "My Terrorist Notebook" is one of the best examples of this. Dispensing with the list of atrocities perpetuated by the United States, it lunges for the jugular and deals with a massive misidentification. Like the French theorist Jean Baudrillard, Jarnot sees terrorism as a function of liberty within oppressive environments. If security promises to close down American democracy (already a dead horse), danger is an exit out of the prison yard.

Other poems in this section are dedicated to Donald Rumsfeld and George W. Bush. "Dumb Duke Death," written for Dick Cheney approaches the mean-spirited pig-out he's orchestrated with the current administration without grinding axes and pushing our noses, dear reader, in the facts.

down dire
death day
dim dale
ding dong
dip down
dame chase
cheap date
dance dodge

Alliteration, rhyme and attention to the fitting of vowels and consonants with simple words create poems of great range and depth. Complexity rules under seemingly trite or simplistic surfaces. A section called "They," inspired by a quote from Elmslie ("Who are these creatures? / They. They are known as they.), leads her to sublime illuminations. In "On the Sublime," for instance, she says simply: "They loved these things. Giraffe, / they loved giraffe. They loved the / concept of the tapir. They loved him, wholly unnamed." These unnamed "they" register here as haunted entities. They love a world that has been denied to us. The animals here and throughout her poems humanize the distance between people and the world for they receive our warmth and nostalgic love of physical contact. And because a human world is so cold, following the logic of Cheney and others, these animals become totems of the mind.

The natural imagery of "Black Dog Song" reaches a momentum of repetition that secures attention without giving it unsatisfied release. I look through her lines, inspired by the returning phenomena and, perhaps, I grasp what's happening. But then I'm returned to a barnyard where dogs that are words are busy trying to convince me of their dogness. And it's here that the relation between language and the world becomes blurred. To give life to words on a page and the world in the mind is an art of high magic. Anyone expecting divine deliverance here will be disappointed. You don't know what Jarnot thinks or feels about anything really. Her poems instead relate something other in the social ground of her relations.

the hawks start to
know me, like
I know the road kill,
the flies know the
road kill, and so
do the crows

the dogs in the morning
they crow like the reindeer,
like chickens on griddles
beneath all the sun....

These poems somehow unwind to show a process of becoming. They are stasis resistant. By slight inversions of meaning and syntactic leaps, metamorphoses take place. The animals in her bestiary are significant because they relate the intervening progression of language and image, noun and verb, in the demanding deliverance of the world through her song.


Another impeccably designed Flood Editions book published last year is Graham Foust's As In Every Deafness. These are short poems but they radiate. It's hard to pull off this kind of compression, using few words to register vast space. Foust's aim is to release divers material with a limited use of words. Unlike Jarnot's musical flights, Faust's art is hushed, calling less formal attention to itself. His poems are less playful too, more purposefully structured to reveal a kind of emptiness of modern life. I almost referred to them as existential, but quickly realized I have no idea what that means anymore. Clearly, though, a kind of despair aerates these poems, though they never completely sink under that gravity. An example, "Forcing House:"

Here's the quick
wish behind

each kicked door--

manage to hang
from my panic

my love.

and leave everything

Often he sketches quick, physical scenes, as in "Motel:"

gray fire

in a room
dim at noon.

In a lot, some
trucks just

hold each other

Other times, the poem penetrates with care and clarity to retrieve a vision from its environment. In a "Small Withdrawal," he writes,

to a future

from every laughter,

mouth to the ground
to pronounce.

Build it
all down:

mouth to pronounce
to the ground.

The stripped-down pacing works with the minimalist environments these poems share. The content is spare, graven, with only the play of words in small spaces to ease the burden of situations unrelieved by transcendent possibilities. Certainly, they are often a pleasure to read and dwell in. The small size leaves a lot of room on the page to wander and wonder. They remind me somewhat of the Bay Area poet Kit Robinson's work. Both Robinson and Foust are careful with language, sensitive to subtle shifts of syntax in repetition. The word's weight receives unequal distribution as it's deployed in a field of signification. This micropoetics dwells on common objects, in common sites easily recognized from the wreck of modernity and the selves abandoned in it. To find space in a poem, to link divers things in a limited environment is to amplify words and stage minute dramas through each pause and syllable. The distance itself takes on a quality of density and is present too. If Jarnot transforms words through song and repetition, expanding a word's meaning according to each new context, Foust finds aperture in the silence between words. They are as if embedded in a telepathic exchange between contemplation and action. The small poem "Alphabet" comes closest to showing that:

of shadow

we beat against
a dream --

the empty

into which
we are gradually


Black Dog Songs by Lisa Jarnot
Flood Editions
55 pp.

Buy this book >>>

As In Every Deafness by Graham Foust
Flood Editions
66 pp.