Novel Pictorial Noise by Noah Eli Gordon
To a certain extent, the most salient facts about Novel Pictorial Noise are these:
- John Ashbery selected it as a winner of the National Poetry Series Open Competition
- Its compositional process is to juxtapose prose poems with fragments of other poems in the sequence. The fragments are collated in inverse order, such that the fragment that follows the first prose poem is an erasure of the final one, and vice versa. (Gordon discusses the composition of the book in this fine interview with Thomas Fink.)
From these two facts, you might infer, even without reference to Gordon's other works, such as A Fiddle Pulled from the Throat of a Sparrow or The Area of Sound Called the Subtone, the following: That Novel Pictorial Noise will manifest a kind of surreal musicality; that it will reflect on its own materiality with striking loveliness; that those reflections will be juxtaposed with syntax that is "unreadable" in a more or less accepted way. Novel Pictorial Noise meets these expectations.
Opening in this way isn't supposed to be particularly cynical or deprecatory. There's so much to admire in Novel Pictorial Noise -- the little rhyme that ends each paragraph, the rigor with which Gordon explores the writing process, the manipulation of grammar's smallest units -- it's an oddly likable book.
The rhyming is particularly startling, since it's the last thing one expects in a prose poem. (That they're frequently half-rhymes doesn't diminish the surprise.) Here's an example: "Two conditions meet, molding the aim of the coming age, which I'd spell out if I weren't inadvertently anti-sage." When you read the book straight through, or if you read parts aloud, what emerges in the first instance isn't a contrast between prose poems and fragments; rather, it's between the obliquity of the fragments' patterns and the more direct echoes of the rhymes. Consider, for example, the fragment on the facing page from the quoted rhyme: "is to / to the / on which / does not / for the / / is this a picture." (Or, if you like, the fragment which follows: "real speech Out in which as an act were house to definition.") The rhymes and the fragments ruin one another: Especially once you're listening for it, you can't miss the rhyme in the fragment; meanwhile, the lexical machinations of the fragment mock the rhyme's tendency to aphorism.
The prose poems take up, from a variety of different angles, sometimes building on the preceding ones, the problem of representation and creation across a variety of genres -- there are references to writing, music, and painting. Throughout, there seem to be a variety of cues for how to read the poems. So, for example, a line like "It's the primacy of motion drafts sound," where the grammatical relation of the final three words is not clear, in part because of the sonic effects of moving through language will get re-translated in the next poem: "The question arises: is this a picture of the distance between yellow and blue, or is it merely a means to ground the figures." Each poem and fragment presses energetically in the directions of meaning and abstraction, forcing us to work through the relationship between these axes. One poem even appears simply to state directly the method of the book: "This is not a metaphor. Each paragraph requires the participants to reposition themselves." But then, "Some of these statements are false, including the present example." While a certain amount of posturing about representation is de rigueur in these post-theoretical days, Gordon's method lets him come at these problems in fresh ways.
Exegesis of Novel Pictorial Noise might be slightly beside the point, or, to make the same point in a slightly different way, frighteningly inexhaustible. For what Noah Eli Gordon has done is nothing less than to make simultaneously visible and audible the spark within all metaphor: The pages literally confront you with material that does not belong together, forcing you to find new connections, and even to discern possible alternate fragments that could be explored. There's a crazed bidirectional temporality at work: Words and phrases from paragraphs you've not yet read coruscate through the one you're currently reading, yielding an impossible exploding of language that seems to come -- simultaneously in anticipation and in retrospect -- from the future. That such linguistic promiscuity also seems to be a little overdetermined or predictable may well be part of Gordon's game, since he finds along the way "a working formula for working a formula," and freely concedes that "Already the metaphors seem stale."
Novel Pictorial Noise by Noah Eli Gordon