O Books

Catenary Odes, Ted Pearson

Whatís manifested clearly in Ted Pearsonís enigmatic, compact poetry is perhaps the most obviousóyet most frequently overlookedóquality of language: the absence of dimensionality. Dichotomous descriptors like ìphysicalî and ìabstract,î ìimagisticî and ìconceptualî fail to apply since the poems occupy one unobstacled, ungraphable tier, implying a near-perfect equality among their components as well as the presence of a network that permits unlimited connections. The poet Gustaf Sobin projects a similar organicism, his long, thin poems advancing like vines in the wilderness, enacting every phase of forward progressówhether minute stretch or inspired spurtóin plain sight of the reader. But Pearson poses for himself a different challenge, choosing to reveal this connectedness through an unpredictable surfacing of fragments, and the reader, as if witnessing the half-hidden coils of a serpentine impossibility through the Loch Ness fog, performs a series of double-takes, certain that an immensity lurks just below whatís visible.
To the eye, Catenary Odes encompasses a series of thirty-eight uncoupled quatrains, each occupying a page, punctuated by six stand-alone couplets. In the former, the distance between halves is considerableóthey appear at the top and bottom of the pageóas if the blank distance described a magnetic field of negative polarity. Sometimes they may be united/attracted by syntax, in other instances not. Hereís a representative specimen:

zoned in a prospect lit with names,
dutyís discourse is winged dust

morningís device, a surety of light,
radiant (amidst the miserable atoms)
In four lines, Pearson draws the difference between the artificially ordered, self-circumscribed world and the condition of its transcendence, while at the same time noting the mechanistic (no less ordered or metaphorical) nature of transcendence itself. Either that, or these four lines have inspired a potentially infinite conversation on anything that may be said about them. They impress with a faceted clarity and finish, an authority akin to that of ancient fragmentsóso nearly self-sufficient and beautiful in themselves, yet so evidentiary of a larger whole from which theyíre derivedówhat a radical physicist might call ìthe implicate orderîóa whole that must forever remain mysterious.
A revised version of Catenary Odes was included in Pearsonís Evidence 1975-1989 (Gaz, 1989), minus the independent couplets and all punctuation, and affording less blank space between the halves. Perhaps the declarative, epigrammatic nature of the couplets (ìonly that which we ourselves construct/can we foreseeî) was deemed too obvious, but in the original edition they provide resting places or durations in which to contemplate and revise what has preceded them before forging on, ìscaling the beds of ancient lakes,/crustal forces, badlands.î
With Catenary Odes Pearson re-invigorates the function of the poem as means to unspecified, unchartable ends (which are of course themselves unending). His inimitable sense of precision turns poems into prisms that catch the trajectories of our desires, and refracts them into mysteries we did not realize we were capable of projecting.
óFred Muratori
Memory Play, Carla Harryman
In the Treatise on Equivocation (1590), Catholics, in order to avoid persecution, learned how to tell the truth in such a way that they could ìlieî without offending God. Their sentences were divided into two partsóthat which was said out loud and that which was not:
When asked under oath whether a subject saw a certain someone, he can truthfully answer ìnoî reserving a continuation ìno, I didnít see him in Venice, although I did see him here. [A True and Perfect Relation of the Proceedings at the Several Arraignments of the Late Most Barbarous Traitors, London, 1606]
In this way, equivocation resonates with a familiar testimonial strategy: ìI donít remember.î [See Ronald Reagan in A True and Perfect Relation of the Proceedings of the Criminal Trial of the Most Barbarous Oliver North.] However, whereas in the moment of Catholic equivocation, the speaker (not the listener) knows that his speech has two meanings, in the contemporary form of potential lying on the stand, it is the listener who believes in the duality of phrases. Memory, in Carla Harrymanís Memory Play, performs the politics inherent to the duality of sentencesóboth for the speaker and the listener.

Child: You donít know or you donít remember? Pelican: Whatís the difference? What you will remember of this conversation will be nothing like what went into its construction.
What makes theater different from ìreal conversationî? When something is designated a memory (i.e. testimony), is that something more ìrealî or is it more ìtheaterî? These are some of the questions that the character Reptile poses at the beginning of the play. After a number of provocative conversations with the likes of Pelican, Fish, Instruction, and the Miltonic Humiliator, it becomes clear that the line which we assume divides the two levels of the sentence (the real and the theatrical, the truth and the lie) has dissolved: memory encompasses both simultaneously. Once a memory enters into language, it becomes theatricalized, a construction for the purposes of presentation, that both the listener and the speaker believe to be real. Memory Play provides a lively platform from which to examine the moral and political implications of such poetic processes.
óJena Osman
Mob, Abigail Child
The trajectory of Abigail Childís book Mob is as vast and populated as the Weegee photo on the cover, ìConey Island, 28th of July, 1940, 4 íclock in the afternoon,î filled with bathers staring into the sun/camera/East expectantly. Sexy, violent, driving, Mob exists persistently in an exploding landscape. Not afraid to saying so, Child insists upon offering a social and political critique in which she even shows glimpses of herself being duped. In the powerful pivotal piece, ìCivilian Liberties,î composed in prose blocks sandwiched between brief sign posts, ways in and out, coded trailers and postscripts, Child aphoristic, loud, and crashing asserts: ìTo think/in the ëland of the freeí insures displacementî [67]. Throughout Mobís long serial pieces, Child is forging innovative structures and sites for registering the vast dimensions and shifts of her explorations of diverse objects of research, from soft, damp places to gasping crossroads. With a nagging shadow of an absent linchpin, pressing outward, there is an urgency, an immediacy to these observations by Child, the keen, erotic theoretician who relentlessly poses questions: ìHOW TO TRANSLATE WHAT CANNOT CLOSEî [77]. Both rhetorically and structurally Child is exploring in a highly taught thread-work the reaches of fiction and poetry, a constant pushing and playing with the so-called givens and expectations of genre. And there is more. An active feminist project is woven deeply into the movements and grounded into the articulations of Mob, most overtly in the simmering piece entitled ìBeyond Surplusî where Child is enacting and creating innovative metaphors and idioms for female sexuality, outlining a framework for a feminine aesthetic. ìBETWEEN MY THIGHS/YOUR MOUTH IMPROVISINGî [76] Child, through the various compositions and range of materials in Mob, demonstrates how the site of writing offers the possibility for social and cultural transformation and subversive thought.

óJocelyn Saidenberg