April 2005

Stephanie Anderson


The Area of Sound Called the Subtone by Noah Eli Gordon

Wikipedia tells me that the “subtonic” is the lowered seventh degree of the scale, but I don’t remember my music theory well enough to explain how this all fits into the creation of a minor chord. For several musicians, the idea of the subtone seems to invoke jazz. What the title of Noah Eli Gordon’s second book -- the winner of the 2004 Sawtooth Poetry Prize -- also conjures up is harmonics, the way in which the third tone of a chord can reverberate in your inner ear if two musicians play two notes of that chord perfectly in tune: “Every note, wanting an engine, an organ to cauterize the chord.”

Gordon divides the book into three long sections, “What Ever Belongs in the Circle,” “Jaywalking the Is,” and the title section. The middle section spans most of the book and is comprised of prose poems alternating with eight “dream” poems, seven of which are lineated. While this structure provides the reader with some breathing room, the length and density of this middle section tend to plod a bit too much. But then again, how does the mind move if not in obsessive circles?

When Gordon begins the book with the line, “hello the poem says make me a motor,” he signals his ars poetica, which is very much a method of construction and machinery. In the Summer 2002 issue of the online journal word/for word, he published a brief essay called “Without Handles.” In it, he explains, “For me a poem is architectural, constructed by combining the myriad phrases, sounds & concepts I've collected until I'm able to assemble them in such a way that they create the appearance of duration, of linear progression, what I'd call a ghosting: the creation of a sort of pseudo-referential sphere, the old tip-on-the-iceberg technique -- the kicker being not only is there nothing under the rest of the water, but there never was an iceberg to begin with, merely an expression without a song.”

This is not a project that will appeal to every reader; in fact, the idea of writing with “the appearance of duration” as “an expression without a song” may infuriate some. These poems cycle in on themselves and sometimes contradict themselves. One perceives the narrator as occasionally glimpsed through the heavy mottled glass of a bathroom window -- and when glimpsed, it’s only for a few seconds in uncertain twilight.

What these poems do offer, however, are the indistinct sounds of a mind’s workings; of ghosts and chimes. Gordon masterfully employs near-rhyme and repetition to make this process more tangible. He examines motion, the body, and the structure of language -- and not without humor. “I’m never as aphoristic as I seem & all the shiny magazines make it all the more manageable,” he writes. In another prose-poem: “There’s a metaphor about nature, art & menus I meant to plug in here, but I’d rather leave the carnival of stargazer lilies with its own distinct smell.” And yet another: “To say the body makes its own background music would be rambling.”

The aforementioned trudging quality of the middle section serves to highlight the narrator’s obsessions and fears. Harmonics are pleasing qualities of music when everything is in tune and euphonic. But as Gordon is well-aware, the idea of the “subtone” can also drive one to a kind of insanity, the one in which you’re not sure if perceived high-pitched sound is the hum of the florescent lights when you’re alone in the grocery store on Saturday night or if your ears have ceased to work correctly and your mind will be plagued by this sound for the foreseeable eternity. This book addresses tones that may or may not be there and how media and the world contribute to and create them. Can harmony be destructive?

The Area of Sound Called the Subtone is not concerned with whether these fears are rational -- contemplation arrives after examination, and the concern is with examination. Images of futility, disaster, destruction, fires, sharp edges, ambulances, and catalysts make regular appearances. “If terror cake seems too cute, why not try extending the idea; everything orbits its own frequency, turns back at some point,” Gordon writes. Elsewhere: “The deer is slightly musical, but so is the sound of internal combustion.” These sounds trail us, press up against us and leave us questioning the made world. “There’s that bus terminal a black from my apartment & there’s bound to be a better way to arrive at some depth, to clear the frequencies, defuse the knowledge that follows a range finder.” Sometimes he looks to popular culture, specifically the idea of the movie, and concludes, “There’s nothing sharp about a knife in a movie.”

There’s jazz-like ease in the variations employed here, and the mind creating the poems’ motor is one worth exploring. But then, you can judge for yourself:

If there’s a heart to every mammal, something about gestation inside, a lineage that’s intrinsically wired, un-worked at, more rhythmic, ambulatory, an exposed metronome, the minutiae of time it takes for the mallet, having landed on the string, to register a sound, not a sound but the expectation of it, how it lingers, how we brace for the terrific accidents, the beautifully undone anatomy book, its cover worn through in spots, slight lines of white, subtle abrasions, the weight of a lock of hair & the weight of its intention, a question slowing the essence of movement, turning the wheel to the right, bringing the blood back to its roadhouse, a decoy mediation beyond ulterior motives, a dead civilian in the dirt, a photograph of his shirt.

The Area of Sound Called the Subtone by Noah Eli Gordon
ashanta press
ISBN: 0916272818
110 pages