March 2007

Jason B. Jones


A Map by a Dim Lamp by Ron Starr

Ravenna Press is marketing Ron Starr's book, A Map by a Dim Lamp, as "Oulipo-inspired." Fair play to them: The book does use Oulipian procedures (helpfully explained in the notes), and Starr's slightly defensive introduction affirms both his fascination with the group and his frustration with the tendency to treat its procedures as "mere" games. On the other hand, stressing Starr's debt to the Oulipo threatens either to frighten off those unfamiliar with the group or to alienate those who associate it with sterile or mechanical linguistic trickery. 

The Oulipo (Ouvroir de la literature potentielle or Workshop for Potential Literature) group was established by Raymond Queneau and François Le Lionnais, and has been associated with Georges Perec (A Void), Italo Calvino, and Harry Matthews. (Drunken Boat has recently hosted a massive, and very useful, online feature on Oulipo and Oulipo-inspired work.) As Starr explains, it aims at "developing new forms," because "forms are heuristic, exploratory, each revealing new areas and new limits." Frequently these forms are computational or algorithmic (the "n+7" rule, for instance, requires that you substitute for every noun a word seven entries further in the dictionary); other times they're more clearly playful ("slenderize" a passage by removing all the instances of a single letter). And sometimes it's like a mashup: Starr will affix words from a Luther sermon into haiku by Basho. To a certain extent, then, your response to A Map by a Dim Lamp is going to depend on whether you think a homophonic translation of Luther's explanation of the Ten Commandments is likely to be meaningful, or just so much masturbation.

A Map by a Dim Lamp is a fine book of poems, and if the Oulipo brand warns off readers, it is frankly their loss. These poems can hardly be accused of sterility. Consider "State of Myself," a "computer-assisted merging" Whitman's "Song of Myself" and one of Bush's State of the Union addresses: "I celebrate mothers and sing terrorism, and what I assume you shall assume..." Those first six words are as neat an encapsulation of post-9/11 Republican electioneering as one is likely to find. And the two poems that meditate on divorce -- "Verdict Ho or, Ditch Eve" and "from divortere... to turn aside, go in different ways" -- can hardly be accused of frivolity. Although one might not expect it of a collection so relentlessly devoted to formal maneuvers, the poems hang together surprisingly well. "from divortere... to turn aside" is followed by "Turn, Turn, Turn," a poem with "my anxious love" and "lost delights," and which exhorts us to "hand on to the wild / carnival curve," and the collection opens with opposites: "I Am a Dark Roof. You Are a Light Floor." 

Starr's poems can be quite funny. In addition to "State of Myself," a collection of "Creation Myths of the Latter-Day Urbanites" is highly entertaining. "The Genesis of Lawns" rewrites the opening lines of Genesis as recounting the onslaught of the suburbs:

In the beginning green grass created happiness and envy. The expressways were without Fords and Volvos... And the grass said, "Let there be lawns," and there were lawns. And the grass saw that the lawns were good, and the grass separated the lawns from the domiciles. The grass called the lawns "decorative," and the domiciles it called "nouveau riche."

Likewise, the idea of a constitution that sets out in its preamble both to "establish jouissance" and to "insure dappled tranquility" at first seems oxymoronic -- how can you establish a jouissance consistent with "tranquility"? But a moment's reflection on a government that conspires to torture will reveal the sting behind the joke. 

What's striking about Oulipo-style writing is that its rebarbative surface -- the way it self-consciously violates ordinary expectations about syntax and style -- nonetheless relies on relatively straightforward expectations about poetic meanings.  When Oulipo texts work, it is because the formal machinations of the text startle, move, intrigue, or delight -- that is, when they act like poems. If such machinations seem more convoluted than, say, a sonnet, their effect is nonetheless real. By this measure, A Map by a Dim Lamp deserves a wide readership. Starr's choice of source texts -- mostly religious (Luther, Matthew, and Genesis) and religious-like (the haiku, Whitman, Melville, even Bush) -- is ingenious. Already laden with meaning and connotation, when combined in new ways they are almost readymade as poems. And poems, no matter the method of their creation, are always welcome. 

A Map by a Dim Lamp by Ron Starr
Ravenna Press
ISBN: 0977616266
59 pages