Sheila E. Murphy is not only one of the most prolific contemporary poets; she’s also one of the most generous collaborators with other poets. Sometimes, collaborating poets engage in a clearly-delineated dialogue and indicate who wrote what, as in Leslie Scalapino and Lyn Hejinian’s Sight. But Murphy’s collaborations with poets such as Douglas Barbour, Charles Alexander, mIEKAL aND, and Peter Ganick tend more or less seamlessly to synthesize their respective contributions so that the textual offspring, so to speak, blends genetic material from both.
This is the case with Beyond the Bother of Sunlight, Murphy’s most recent collaborative effort, in which she pairs up with Lewis LaCook, who publishes much of his work on his blog, Xanax Pop. Beyond the Bother of Sunlight consists of fifty-two untitled poems, suggesting perhaps one poem for every week of a year, as well as a series exploring related themes. Though their collaborative process is not described, knowing LaCook’s proclivity for digital manipulation of text, it’s possible that this played a part in the compositional method. But whether or not this is the case, there is ample evidence of a very human, joyous, and intelligent shaping of the material. And the result is, to my mind, a smooth blending of their poetics and a serendipitous duet. To borrow their own words, the poetry creates “accidents of startled symmetry,” “birthing fluid children.”
It’s not surprising that both Murphy and LaCook have musical backgrounds, because reading the poetry is like listening to music whose complexity becomes more apparent as the piece progresses: gradually the listener becomes aware of themes and motifs, and during the course of the composition part of the pleasure is in the recognition of patterns and the recontextualization and development of those melodic fragments.
The word that comes to mind to describe this intensely musical poetry is relational: Murphy and LaCook bring words from particular realms of signification in relation to one another so that their meaning shifts as, for example, when a words from the semantic fields of spirituality and sexuality are juxtaposed. A bit later, a word with sexual connotations might be set next to a mathematical term. Thus words such as “wafer” and “bless,” “tryst” and “moan,” and “fraction” and “equation” surface in varying contexts throughout the book, suggesting a kind of musical grammar in which words recur within different syntactical and semantic frameworks. Very early into the poems I began to perceive and enjoy the deft interweaving of themes that give the poetry an inner coherence but that also allows it generous room to breathe semantically due to the contextual shifts.
In the following four passages, taken from different sections of the book, note the recurrent themes of consciousness, sexuality, spirituality, mathematics, language, time, and light/colour:
1) What if sleep were as translucent as desire?
Desire breaks out of its equation
As mathematics clarify, language amples
The frozen integers lacking this much space
Become a world thus far undocumented
The more I simmer, the more you pave
The more you reverence, the more I stave off
Glyphs tearing into torpor
Only a certain paradise knows
How to pause a shape of color in your sleep
These and other themes are subtly intertwined throughout the book, giving the poetry (to use an analogy other than music) the texture of an intricate fabric woven with colourful threads that create recognizable but shifting patterns. There are sonic patterns, too, as in the assonance created by “lacing gaps” and, later in the same poem, its anagrammatic echo, “lapse of grace.”
The semantic field of Beyond the Bother of Sunlight is constrained by the vocabulary derived from particular realms of experience and knowledge yet also expansive due to a kind of lexical synesthesia that blends terms from these realms and enriches their experience. The result is poetry in which “language amples” into “a world thus far undocumented.”
This is a book to which I’ll return to savour its mysteries. To appreciate more fully the beauty of Murphy and LaCook’s collaboration, you should read more than just a couple of poems to experience the sympathetic vibrations of the motifs that surface throughout the book. Nonetheless I’d like to offer two in their entirety, which I hope will entice you to to read more:
Pacing bequeaths to water
What water and the sky do best:
Smile extinguishes all traces of significance.
We motor our way home, inventing machines to carry or to carry us.
Punctuation creeps into our codes, lacing gaps
Into our bodies, bracing pauses
Through which topographies of lingo
Merge, filling the map
That way I’ve got everything flattened
And before me, ready to be folded
Along all the wrong spines,
Awaiting translation in the temporal plain.
But there’s nothing so-so about you.
Only every once in a while in the crackling
That swept over my brain text like viral winds
Swallowing scorched information affords
Fabulous blossoms, So beautiful, so suspiciously pure, you
Doubt your touch of it.
Purity eventually is traced
To touch. Suspicion twines around
Topographies that embrace
The merging of sweet spines.
A singular fulfillment rescinds the stencil
That reduces bliss to genuflection. Are we there yet?
A physicality endears itself to lapse of grace
Whose map occurs to us. In time,
A blossom purrs with listening. We hear in our flesh the tension of it,
The awful urging pulsing breaks.
It was eventually found that the paint
Would pane around the letters in ghost
Plains, and this complicated into
A false sense of depth.
When walking on
The surface her feet sometimes
It was all she could do to keep herself
Inattention was her fated goal.
It had been a long time since he looked you in the eye.
We’re a conquered people, servants
In our own land. Tranquillizers, accidents
It is forbidden for anyone to open that book
Until physicality becomes religious combustion
I see it as hopeless to try to reason with you
Just in case the flowers didn’t work
He burrowed into the fields of narrativity
Slipping through the confluence of probable branches
Until he walked on translucent panes, interlocking,
Layered. Tranquilizers conquer you. Lovely tranquilizers,
Accidents. It is forbidden for anyone to open that book.
Tranquil is a word. Speech.
Ventilation coughs up
Translucence and transmission.
Changes lock open
The book of wheels, the book of patter, the book
Of a religion
Killing beams no episode at all.
All out of kilter then, the plot’s made simple
And advisement borrows shrapnel of nativity.
Bloom time once crescent shaped is domed
Its wheatened blue comes close to venture
Be sure to check out the YouTube link at the end of this review for a spell-binding performance by Kaie Kellough!
Winnipeg: Arbeiter Ring, 2010
Signifying the Tradition:
Kaie Kellough’s Maple Leaf Rag
by Camille Martin
Kaie Kellough’s Maple Leaf Rag is an exemplary Influency text—a model of intertextuality that weaves together history, genres, disciplines, and processes. Its historical themes include the history of the African Diaspora, the Middle Passage, slavery, the Jim Crow era of segregation and discrimination, and the lingering racism experienced by people of colour. It’s also in dialogue with musical and oral traditions: jazz, blues, reggae, bebop, and dub poetry. In its blending of the oral and written, it pays tribute to the strength of both. And it engages issues of social justice, infusing its rhymes, rhythms and wordplay with the caveat to remain vigilant about racial prejudice. Maple Leaf Rag pays homage to black culture and also engages in a lively dialogue with traditions. And this doubleness is important to the heritage in which the text swims. On the one hand, its identity is linked with the history and experiences in black culture. On the other hand, it also uses processes within that tradition to “play the dozens” with its own heritage, to riff, pun, encode, and ironize its text, so that the book is a continually shape-shifting, meaning-splitting exploration of moments leading to its own creation.
This tradition of intertextuality in black literary history is explored in a landmark book of criticism, Henry Louis Gates’s The Signifying Monkey: A Theory of African-American Literary Criticism. In African, Caribbean, and African-American mythology, the trickster figures of Esu and of the Signifying Monkey represent messenger types (like the Greek god Hermes) who convey and interpret messages between the gods and humans (5, 6, 8). Some of the qualities of Esu include “satire, parody, irony, magic, indeterminacy, open-endedness, ambiguity, sexuality, chance, uncertainty.”(6). Above all, this mythical figure represents “figurative language and its interpretation” (6).
Gates summarizes the ways in which these tricksters inform the entire lineage of black culture, from pre-slavery Africa to the present. First, he describes a double-voiced discourse, a tension between oral traditions and the written page that manifests as “finding a voice in writing” (21).
A second type of doubleness in the black vernacular tradition arising from the trickster figures of Esu and the Monkey “undercuts . . . the literal” and “privilege[s] the figurative and the ambiguous.” Think of this doubleness as the very figure of a metaphor, a dance between the literal and the figurative.
A third rhetorical strategy that arises from the trickster myths is the “indeterminacy of interpretation” (22). For Gates, this means that “[t]he text . . . is not fixed in any determinate sense; in one sense, it consists of the dynamic and indeterminate relationship between truth on the one hand and understanding on the other”(25). In “the highly structured rhetoric of the Signifying Monkey” in “Afro-American vernacular discourse,” “a chain of signifiers [is] open to (mis)understanding. The open-endedness of figurative language, rather than its single-minded closure, is inscribed in the myths of the Signifying Monkey” (42). Signifying “is a rhetorical practice that is not engaged in the game of information-giving”; instead, it “wreaks havoc upon the signifier” and thus “meaning is deferred” (52, 53). There is a “repeated stress on the sheer materiality, and the willful play, of the signifier itself” (59). Signifying doesn’t so much preach but instead sends its message indirectly, through verbal play and wit.
In short, the Signifying Monkey is “he who dwells at the margin of discourse, ever punning, ever troping, ever embodying the ambiguities of language” (52).
Gates also emphasizes an important rhetorical strategy in black literary tradition, related to the trickster trope of interpretation and revision: intertextuality or pastiche. He quotes Kimberly W. Benston’s definition of “genealogical revisionism”:
All Afro-American literature may be seen as one vast
genealogical poem that attempts to restore continuity
to the ruptures or discontinuities imposed
by the history of the black presence in America. (123)
As Gates puts it, “pastiche” is literary history naming itself. . . . Writers Signify upon each other’s texts by rewriting the received textual tradition”(124). Referring to the texts of others can serve the purpose of homage, with no criticism implied, or critical, implying some kind of revision or critique of the text: repetition and revision (79).
I’d like to explore Kellough’s Maple Leaf Rag through the lens of the signifying tradition in oral and written black culture. Kellough’s introduction, entitled “readeradar,” alerts us to the disrupting and deferring of meaning through puns and double-talk as well as through the sound or oral element of the poetry:
sound guides each poem, often to a place where words
are splintered, meanderings belaboured, & meanings
are blurred. sometimes sense is suspended, sent up,
upended while sound is riffed on, the way a jazz
singer swerves from word to scat. some of these poems
are kin to the blues while others are jazz offspring.
I have tried to make the words scat, sing, swing. to this
end i’ve spaced them out on the page in dense prose
blocks, loose spiralling helices, narrow
descending lyrics, hand-drawn diagrams, &
so forth. (13)
The vernacular tradition on which Kellough draws also embraces music, which like a scat singer splays and reorders syllables that come in and out of meaning, always repeating, giving the sense of continuity, and revising, giving a sense of transformation, of never staying in one place. To the element of sound he adds the musical scoring of words on the page, in an imitation of the syncopations of jazz.
In “readeradar,” Kellough also points to the project of intertextuality in his poems:
these poems contain numerous references to
black canadian, caribbean, and african american
culture: from hair styles to slave cemeteries,
athletics to immigration, musicians to
rainbow coalitions. (13)
Thus in Kellough’s introduction are strong clues that he is drawing on the traditions that Gates analyzes in The Signifying Monkey. In the first of the three main characteristics of the signifying tradition, Gates demonstrates in much written black literature the meeting of—and tension between—oral and written traditions. Likewise, Kellough’s poems in this collection explore the conjunction of sound and writing; of, on the one hand, dub poetry and musical practice, and on the other, their arrangement on the page as if in a musical score. Two obvious examples of this conjunction occur in the real score notated on pp. 73-74, as well as in “word sound system #2” (32), which explores various permutations of “word” and “sound,” and invites the reader to imagine how it might sound if performed. The mind’s ear is a powerful compulsion in many of these poems.
And in the strongly rhythmic “block rock” (53-55), the percussive repetitions and revisions of “BOOM BOOM BAP” alternate with lines that bring together the rhythmic bouncing of basketballs on asphalt, “life’s hard knock,” babies being rocked to sleep, “junkies,” the rhythms of life on the street, jazz, “funk talk,” and most ominously, the “morse code” of “gunshots.” In the onomatopoeic and ever-shifting “BOOM BOOM BAP” lines is a sense of the materiality of the words: they are nonsense words imitating the basketball’s bouncing. But these word-sounds also create a nether-space of pure rhythm overlain with meaning, as the words shift to “BOON,” “DOOM,” BOOM,” and “CLAP,” which parallel the shifting significations of the joyous as well as dangerous rhythms of life.
In a similar way, “échos / montréal nord, 11 août, 2008” (33) with its strong visual and aural components, reflects on violence begetting violence, which echoes and reveberates like the sound of a revolver shooting. The idea of echoing gunshots is achieved by the anaphoric repetition of “BLAMM” in large, bold font that diminishes like a receding echo with each line. The main subject of the poem is the Montreal police shooting, without provocation, of unarmed citizens. The date in the subtitle refers to a night of rioting in North Montreal to protest the allegedly unprovoked police shooting of Fredy Villanueva (the “unarmed brown boy,” an eighteen-year-old Latino man), which echoes in turn the police shooting of Anthony Griffin, a nineteen-year-old man who allegedly was also unjustly shot and killed by Montreal police. Marcellus Wallace, the fictional drug kingpin in the film Pulp Fiction is apparently mentioned as a symbol of violence begetting violence, this time in the world of organized crime and drug trafficking.
The violence that reverberates through the poem seems to be the result of the riot: “the eye socket ruptured by a rock,” the “molotov,” the storefront (“vitrine”) smashed by a bat, the “bricks . . . batter[ing]” an “ambulance.” It also echoes the “slug” of rum the police captain downs and the “shutter” of the “reporter’s camera” as well as his “deadline” for getting in the story. In the last line, “BLAMM” has become “BALMM.” The morning is personified as begging for an end to the violence, replacing it with the soothing balm of its soft light.
“quittin’ rhyme / blues-bop for Kim” (22) sets to paper the fast pace and short, crisp, rhyming lines of bebop music. The tight and intricately interwoven rhymes of the short and long “i” sounds and word repetitions create a bebop effect. The poem is also rich in assonance, rhymes, half-rhymes, and alliteration, accentuating its musicality.
The poem is in three sections, each introduced by the same tercet:
if you quit me
on the quick
split me in a lick
This tercet introduces patterns that are repeated and varied throughout: the “if” subordinate clause, which introduces a cause-and-future-effect pattern: “if you quit me . . . my heels’ll kick me.”
The fast-paced repetition of “you” and “me” give the poem a sense of urgency as well as humour. “Quick” means both suddenly and “alive”; the latter meaning contrasts with the various plays on death, such as the speaker’s heart stopping, digging a pit or ending up in a ditch, his kissing a chill glass lip, diving into die, wilting, and being blasted by ice.
The rhythm of the poem slows down in two places: the “tlick / tlock. tlick / tlock / ’ll seize / stop” of the speaker’s heart. The tripping meter of the opening tercet is slowed down to the spondaic rhythms of his beating heart.
It also slows down in the last line, whose rhythm is so different from the trippingly light rhythms of most of the poem, it arrests the reading and draws attention to the startling image of a “flower blasted by ice.”
The poem’s insistent short i’s suddenly become long i’s in the third section: “dive . . . die . . . jive . . . spite . . . like . . . vice,” then briefly return to a couple of short i’s (will . . . wilt) and then the final long i of “ice” delivers the sucker punch.
The poem’s theme is as old as poetry itself: the spurned lover. But in the poem, the lover’s misery becomes an festival of rhythms and rhymes that belies the bitter occasion of the poem’s creation. We should also be so fortunate with such sublimation of pain.
As a dub poet himself, Kellough dips into the dub tradition in “boyhood dub / self portrait” (25). The poem creates strong rhythms emphasized by the short lines. The poem’s musicality is brought out by rhymes, half-rhymes, and assonance playing and echoing off one another, as well as interwoven word plays, puns that expand the meaning and enlarge the semantic possibilities of the text.
“boyhood dub” (25, 26) is a paean to reggae music—especially the experience of becoming lost in its “riddims.” The speaker of the poem is in Montreal during the winter, listening to a record of Bob Marley accompanied by the I-Threes. He’s grooving to the music and creates a kind of fantasy of being in Jamaica listening to a live performance. His imaginary world is strong and detailed: he imagines the parts of the drum set (tom, steel, hi-hat) and the organ and the skank of the guitar (strumming on the off-beats). But Anansie, the Spider (a West African and Caribbean trickster figure) spins a thread and climbs down the wooden “trunk” of the electronic speaker, bringing the fantasy back to reality: the “sham isle” has feather dusters for flocks of tropical birds, a wooden woofer instead of a tree trunk, a light bulb and electric fan instead of a tropical sun and breeze.
However much the “cynic winter” murders his fantasy, memory once again draws him into the music, gives him a sense of connectedness to the history of the African diaspora and slavery (“toiling,” “coffled”).
The last words of the poem (“real me”) can be read in several ways: 1) as an imperative to make the world of reggae real, to bring it to life instead of “failing to wail” in a “vapid living room,” 2) “reel” as in to reel with dizzyiness or joy, 3) to “reel” in a fish, as the music is reeling him in (with Anansi’s silk line?), and 4) “reel” as in spin (the record, the fan). If the music isn’t the real thing (he’s listening to a record in cold Montreal, in a rather sterile environment, it nonetheless makes him feel more real, give him a sense of self, of identity, and connects him with the stream of Black heritage.
My last example of Kellough’s use of music forms and oral tradition on the printed page is the poem written in a traditional twelve-bar blues form, “simon the cyrene’s harlem dream” (37). Here’s the first stanza, each line constituting two of the twelve bars:
When I get to heaven
Ima ditty on in
When I get to heaven
Ima bop on in.
st. peter best
park my wings.
The blues form creates a strong auditory effect as the reader imagines hearing the words sung to the traditional blues harmony.
Of course, in all of these poems exemplifying Kellough’s written expression of oral and musical traditions, we can also see ways in which the strong element of sound, playing with word sounds and shifting their meanings, as in “blam” to “balm,” and “boom” to “boon” to “doom,” splays the meaning, splitting the words and re-splicing them in new contexts to create a slippery progression of meanings that reverberate, recalling Gates’ description of the repetition and revision of signifying texts.
I’d like to return briefly to “simon the cyrene’s harlem dream” as a poem that exemplifies the idea of intertextuality, which is integral to the signifying tradition. The historical Simon the Cyrene was from a Jewish community in present-day Libya; according to some Gospels, he was compelled by Romans to carry the cross for Jesus on his way to the crucifixion. Because he lived in northern Africa, Simon has become known as the first African saintly Christian. In passion plays, his character is often played by black actors (such as Paul Robeson and Sidney Poitier). “simon the cyrene’s harlem dream” imaginatively blends the identity of Simon the Cyrene and a Harlem blues singer invoking a heaven for himself after a life of suffering under racial discrimination. In this poem Simon fantasizes going to heaven as a passage into a music club, where St. Peter will park his wings and Paul as “maître-d” will give him the best seat next to the stage. “Jesus in an apron” will serve him “rum ’n rocks.” The angels will be “sepia-fine,” “brown as praise.” Famous entertainers from Harlem Renaissance days will perform for him: Josephine Baker, James P. Johnson, and Willie the Lion, and Fats Waller. In other words, in heaven, he will be given the best seat in the house, whereas in life because of his race he was denied entry into some Harlem clubs, such as the Cotton Club, despite the fact that most of the entertainers were black.
There’s another tradition that Kellough riffs on in this poem. Depicting biblical characters as black has a tradition dating back to the first converted slaves in the sixteenth century and reaching a zenith during the 1920s and 1930s, especially during the Harlem Renaissance (Pinder 223). Countee Cullen’s conflation of Christ with the lynched black man in his long poem “The Black Christ” (1929) is one of the most famous examples.
As Kellough dips into the long and rich history of black culture in Africa, the Caribbean, North America, and Europe, he recovers voices and details that might otherwise be forgotten. For example, “pardner hand savings plan” describes the experience of African and Caribbean blacks recruited to help rebuild British cities damaged by German blitz attacks during World War II. This immigration began with the arrival of about 500 Jamaicans on the Windrush in 1948, who sought greater economic opportunities and were attracted by the low boat fare. Pioneers in the racial diversification of Great Britain following World War II and dissolution of the British Empire, these immigrants were often given jobs of hard labour, and they faced racism and discrimination (Facing History). To cope with their adversity in their new home country, many of them formed benevolent societies to benefit, in turn, each member of the society, with a lump sum gathered from the tithing of all.
In the poem, the labour is described as de facto indentured servitude, a postcolonial extension of imperialist use and abuse of black labour. Uprooted and degraded in the country where they wished to improve their lot, these immigrants often felt themselves to be in a cultural limbo, wanted for their labour but shunned by racist attitudes. As if to emphasize their conflicted and transcultural identity, Kellogh, in a twist on Dickens’ A Christmas Carol, describes these labourers as the “ghosts / of empires past,” and in an ironic echo of the social strata of India, once part of the British Empire, as the “untouchable caste.”
Similarly, “the executioner” (63) recalls the story of Bernard Hopkins, African-American champion boxer. Written in the first person, the prose poem is a boasting, rollicking autobiographical rant that ends with a mythical ascension to the sun to become “the pure light beamed into your living room” as “you, dark doubter and cynic, flick on your television, receive my violent illumination.” The bright light of the television screen is likened to the “leather-melting ring-lights” and to the sun to which he ascends like an Icarus whose wings are immune to melting.
“jelly roll in canaan land” (19) recounts the story of the early New Orleans jazz musician’s stay in Vancouver, an interesting note in the history of jazz.
And lastly, “the didnt dues / for nobody” (44) also riffs on moments or aspects of African-American culture and history. Using the repetition of “I didnt,” the speaker ironically denies playing a part in or emulating any of them, from bebop to the rainbow coalition to the crip walk to jheri curls.
The last words, “national dearth” sounds like “national debt”; “debt” combined with the “dues” of the title turn the “didn’t’s” of the poem into an ironic statement of apathy, whereas vigilance against racism should foster a sense of indebtedness toward those who have contributed to Black culture or paid their dues in creating awareness about racism. The action of the 1968 athletes with fists raised in a Black Power salute becomes here a metaphor for thrusting the fists through the national dearth or debt, suggesting either a lack of awareness of racism or an indifference to the need for vigilance against its roots.
The poems in Maple Leaf Rag participate in the long and venerable tradition of genealogical revisionism; the words and meanings of its poems, disrupted by rhythmic splitting and splicing, multiplied by its polyphonies, both rupture and heal. These are poems of defiance and anger against racism, past and present. They are poems of vigilance, rattling the cage of complacency. They are poems of joy and playfulness reveling in expressions of black culture. And they are poems recovering pieces and voices of history in danger of being forgotten by a generation who sometimes feel themselves to be untouched by the historical baggage of discrimination and xenophobia, despite the official Canadian mantra of multiculturalism.
Cullen, Countee. The Black Christ and Other Poems. New York: Harper, 1929.
Gates, Henry Louis, Jr. The Signifying Monkey: A Theory of African-American Literary Criticism. New York: Oxford UP, 1988. Identity and Belonging in a Changing Great Britain. London: Facing History and Ourselves Foundation, 2009.
Pinder, Kymberly N. “‘Our Father, God; our Brother, Christ; or are We Bastard Kin?’: Images of Christ in African American Painting.” African American Review 31.2 (1997): 223-33.
Review of Every Day in the Morning (Slow) by Adam Seelig
Vancouver: New Star Books, 2010
Adam Seelig’s Every Day in the Morning (Slow) is a savvy cross-genre poetic narrative that gets inside the head of Sam, a composer facing a crisis of creativity. Sam’s meandering morning thoughts reveal his frustration about his blocked creativity and his diminishing prospects for fame and money in an economy that he views as encouraging style, sentimentality, and the shallow repetition of the comfortable and familiar. These thoughts intertwine with Sam’s conflicted emotions about his mother, who died giving birth to him; his wealthy father, who has little understanding for Sam’s musical endeavours; and his wife, whose supportive words only send Sam into a spiral of guilt because of his lack of income.
The book is a deceptively easy read: because of the liberal use of space on the page, it can be read in less than a couple of hours. But what makes it so extraordinary is Seelig’s seamless interweaving of the complex psychological, sexual, economic, and aesthetic themes within Sam’s reveries, the way that he guides the reader smoothly from one plane of thought to the next and demonstrates the interrelatedness of the themes flowing through Sam’s consciousness. For me the greatest pleasure is in re-reading the text, revisiting passages to experience at a slower pace the subtleties of their music. And there really is something musical—ironically enough, given Sam’s compositional block—in the thematic development and variations and in the rhythmic expressiveness aided by the use of space on the page, which reads something like a musical score: Sam’s elusive magnum opus, perhaps?
Seelig’s striking use of space on the page places the text in a liminal genre between prose narrative and poem. The lineation and zigzagging left margin might seem daunting at first—quite a bit of eye hockey required—but an expressive rhythm emerges that, like a song by Janacek, aligns with speech patterns and with the emotional hesitations and associative streams of thought characteristic of the internal monologue. Here’s an excerpt from a page in which Sam contemplates the possible compromises a composer might make in an economy that rewards the commercialization of art:
The arrangement of the words emphasizes Sam’s bemoaning the correspondences between art, power, and money: like a capitalist bottom line, “sell” keeps hitting the left margin as a reminder of the hard economic realities of being an artist. Also, the repetition of words echoes the use of repetitive motifs and rhythms by composers of minimalist music, whom Sam views as a prime example of selling out in contemporary music. And the cheesy rhyming of “sham” and “ham” foreshadows his rant on the following page that “the cheesier the style the more it sells.”
What might at first blush seem like an arbitrary scattering of words on the page is in reality a very smart use of space on the page—positions, margins, repetition—effectively scoring Sam’s thoughts. This use of space is a kind of stylistic signature of the book, but far from being what Sam sees as the vapid triumph of style, Seelig’s spacial manipulation meshes with and emphasizes the intricate interplay of ideas and emotions in Sam’s monologue. And the lineation produces a seamless quality, not only because of its cohesive effect on the whole, but also because the spatial patterns give the meandering thoughts the continuity that allows the reader to make connections among them, for example, between his troubled relationship with his wealthy father and his feelings of disgust toward the commercialization of art.
But what is perhaps easier to take for granted in Every Day is the intricate and sophisticated shifting of perspective—thus the “he-you-i” in the title of this review. Although long passages of Sam’s internal monologue are written in the first person, the point of view shifts almost without the reader being aware of the change. The opening of the narrative shows just how Seelig glides from a third person narrator’s prologue:
This is what happens in the morning of course many things happen to many people in the morning but this is what happens when Sam wakes up . . .
. . .
he puts on some shaving cream picks up his razor blade and starts shaving in the yellow light he’s flicked on a slightly yellow light that flickers at first above the mirror that reflects him
to the second person:
well what else can a mirror do but reflect and what else can you do in the mirror but face your face and reflect on how you used to believe you could write music to make a living simply make a living from writing your own God how naive you were to believe that back then . . .
. . .
while he does fine all the same because whatever Father wants Father gets with all the money he has for what for sitting for sitting on his rump all day as if his fat all shits bills all day long a trumpet call of bills from his ass as if from out of his fat ass pops one long trumpet that toots bills all day long just sitting since he sits on his ass all day
and finally to the “i” of Sam’s internal monologue:
like me i guess a little like me so what if i also sit when i work i really work i don’t just sit and get fat if anything i’m getting even thinner
The conversational “well” that opens the shift to the second person shows how subtly Seelig accomplishes the transition toward the internal monologue. Moreover, the “you,” which could be apprehended at first as an indefinite pronoun (a “you” out there, perhaps also the reader), presages Sam’s internal dialogue shaving before a mirror, addressing himself as “you” and responding as “i,” wondering whether he should latch onto a trademark, like the minimalists’ use of repetition, to become a famous composer. At the end of this passage, he agrees with his internal questioning voice, rejecting the prospect of becoming a “famous bore”:
maybe one note is all it takes why not like Cage one note to be like John Cage or Riley repetitive like Terry Riley why is Terry Riley so repetitive a bore like Reich take a bore like Steve Reich is Philip Glass as repetitive you wonder as you shave in the mirror is one note all it takes for me to be the next Glass or Reich or Riley or Cage sure if what you want is to be a bore a famous bore mind you but a bore all the same why are they all the same and why is one more repetitive than the next is it to bore me to death
These subtle shifts in perspective enhance the seamless quality of the narrative, which is written so skilfully that a reader might marvel at the effect without at first being aware of how it was accomplished.
Seelig’s shifting points of view remind me of Apollinaire’s “Zone,” a poem whose alternations among first, second, and third points of view have been associated with cubism. Some have interpreted these shifts as symptomatic of the modernist rupture of the self into expressions of self-alienation brought about by cultural forces of urbanization and technology. I’ve always felt that this argument is insufficient to explain the fracturing of the traditionally consistent point of view into modernist literature’s prismatic investigation of subjective experience. Call me an optimist, but I’m drawn more to Mary Ann Caws’ interpretation of the shifting points of view in “Zone”: “the pronominal zig-zags vibrate within the text, creating a warmth of contact between narrator and reader, drawn into the poem” (52).
And to me, this is the effect of Seelig’s shifting points of view in Every Day, as the “he-you-i” flow at the opening demonstrates, for the reader is implicated in Sam’s dialogic “you.” Thus the boundaries between points of view are permeable, as are the resulting boundaries between narrator, character, and reader.
In Every Day Seelig takes seamlessness, a quality associated with stream of consciousness writing, to another level through the musicality of the writing. And like hearing the music that Sam would probably like to compose, reading his thoughts is a hypnotic experience.
Caws, Mary Ann. “Strong-Line Poetry: Ashbery’s Dark Edging an the Lines of Self.” The Line in Postmodern Poetry. Eds. Robert Frank and Henry Sayre. Urbana: University of Illinois Press, 1988.
In a previous post on musicality in poetry, I discussed the translation of simultaneity in music into a comparable literary expression. By simultaneity in music I mean polyphony, the vertical dimension of notes on the staff: the notes in a chord sound simultaneously as do the voices in a fugue. In literature, polyphony can be suggested by the simultaneity of thoughts, dialogue, or action by characters, as in the eight voices of the fugue in Joyce’s Ulysses.
Scott Thurston’s Internal Rhyme beautifully translates the melodic and harmonic dimensions of music into poetry. The spatial division of each poem into quadrants allows both a horizontal (melodic) and a vertical (harmonic) reading of the lines. The vertical resonates with the horizontal, and the dialogue between melody and harmony opens up the semantic field. To use another musical analogy, what emerges from this dialogue is harmonic overtones, the acoustic phenomenon that enriches the experience of music.
Because the most startling aspect of this collection is its formal innovation, I’d like to focus on possible strategies for the reader. Here’s an example from Internal Rhyme:
what I give myself to haunted by surface
a polished shine or cloudy patina
it takes art to maintain a perpetual crisis
taking everything you have
I want to give my heart out
to your ideal world in its tension
I have to wait for the memory
for the poem to make it right
At first blush, the possibilities presented by the quadrants seemed to me a kind of combinatorics, a conceptual experiment that reminded me a little of Raymond Queneau’s Cent mille milliards de poèmes, a series of ten sonnets whose interchangeable lines offer to the reader an almost inexhaustible series of permutations—to be mathematically precise, one hundred trillion sonnets can be generated from the conceptual machine of the ten original sonnets. Queneau’s Oulipian experiment stretches the limits of the readability of the set of ten sonnets in all of their permutations—an impossibly large number sonnets for the mortal reader to consume.
In the case of Thurston’s quadrants, three obvious possibilities occurred to me: line-by-line (horizontally), left column-right column (vertically), and four vertical columns (left, right, left, right). But there was something disasatisfying about treating each of these readings equally, so I needed to find a more natural way to integrate the horizontal with the vertical. It occurred to me that treating the page as a musical score gave me a more rewarding entry into the intricacies suggested by the quadrants. In other words, I read the poem as horizontal (melodic) lines and allow my peripheral vision, so to speak, to note vertical (harmonic) configurations of three or four lines that enrich the reading, perhaps turning the poem on itself or opening up other semantic possibilities.
First, my conscious mind gravitates toward a traditional line-by-line reading—partly from habit and partly because the syntactical flow of the poems in Internal Rhyme is most apparent that way. For example, in the above poem, although there’s no punctuation, my mind readily creates syntactical clusters and sentences from a horizontal reading.
Note also the division into two equal parts that such a reading suggests: “what I give myself to” opens the first stanza, and “I want to give” opens the second. Metapoetically, the poem juxtaposes the poet’s experience and perception (what he gives himself to) with his translation of that experience into poetry (his desire to give himself over to the tension in the ideal world of the poem: the “perpetual crisis” that poetry sustains). The last two lines constitute the poem’s volta, in this case the condition upon which that translation into poetry is contingent: waiting for his memory of tension within his own experience.
But the spatial division of the poem into quadrants compels me to notice the vertical possibilities as well. In the above poem, for example, a horizontal reading yields
I have to wait / for the memory / for the poem / to make it right
whereas a vertical reading might yield
I have to wait / for the poem / for the memory / to make it right
Thus waiting for the memory of tension (in the previous reading) is aligned with waiting for the poem to emerge for the memory to “make it right.” The boundaries between experience, memory and poetic creation are thus nicely blurred into a riddle: is it unresolved memory that drives the poem into creation, or the poem’s creation that illuminates cognitive mysteries?
Such an overlay of readings expands the poem exponentially as the mind picks up, consciously or subconsciously, variations in the configurations of lines. Reading the poems in this way allows me to blend the melodic and the harmonic dimensions to create a kind of polyphonic experience. To return to a musical analogy, the intricate texture of this overlay is like the harmonic overtones that enrich the experience of music.
The analogies between music and poetry are ancient, and the innovative musicality of Internal Rhyme offers a richly legible and resonant kind of poetic polyphony.
* * *
From the Shearsman Books website:
Scott Thurston lectures at the University of Salford where he runs a Masters in Innovative and Experimental Creative Writing. He co-runs The Other Room reading series in Manchester, edits The Radiator, a little magazine of poetics, and co-edits The Journal of British and Irish Innovative Poetry with Robert Sheppard. He has published three collections with Shearsman.
The following is Guest’s poem “Musicality,” then a brief essay about it. This post is a follow-up to the previous one, “Musicality in Poetry.”
To dive right in:
The wave of building murmur
What is “building murmur”? A crescendo of indistinct, hushed voices in a wave gathering momentum? That interpretation would give the poem from the start a reflexive turn, an awareness of its own murmur of words building on themselves. And the juxtaposed sounds of the two words are pleasing: the multiple, concentrated consonants (“b-l-d-n-g”), including the two plosives (“b”and “d”), contrast with the repeated syllables in “murmur.” And a crescendo of a murmur is like a wave gaining momentum. The onomatopoeia of “murmur,” the soft nasal m’s and liquid r’s of which imitate the soft, low sounds that the word describes, suggests Guest’s concern with the connection between the sound of a word and its meaning. That’s a clue to what is to come.
The next line contrasts the increasing wave with a stagnant body of water:
fetid slough from outside
The alliteration of the fricatives “f” and “s” alternate with the plosives “t” and “d”—producing a rich interplay of sounds. Does the meaning of these words also come into play? A stagnant miasma of water might smell bad from an outside perspective, but what if one is on the inside? A fish whose home is a stinky swamp doesn’t think its home smells bad. A difficult poem might seem like a “fetid slough” but from the inside, it is possible to get past the murkiness of the water to appreciate the wealth of interweaving sounds and meanings.
Is the next line a non-sequitur?
a brown mouse a tree mouse.
I think it’s possible to appreciate the disjunctiveness of the leap from a stinky swamp to mice at the same time that we perceive some continuities and development of previous ideas. Here Guest continues her play of repetition (“mouse” and the repeated “ow” sound) as well as her theme of nature (wave, slough, mouse, tree). She also introduces the pair idea, things happening in twos, which the next line echoes:
two trees leaning forward
I like the tension in the image of the trees “leaning forward,” as if in hushed anticipation. Are they murmuring? Maybe that’s a hermeneutic stretch, but I like taking the cognitive leap. This line picks up an image from the previous line, “tree,” and recontextualizes it. That’s a kind of music – picking up a motif previously stated and presenting it as a variation.
And the next line develops the dichotomy between the wave (the poem) and the slough (the perceived impenetrability of the poem):
the thick new-made emptiness
“Thick” resonates with “slough”—I think of soupiness. And the idea of making something is echoed many times in “Musicality”: Guest is the poet, the maker (hearkening to the Greek root of “poet”) as well as the composer, creating—emptiness? Why emptiness, and why is it newly made? The next word helps, a sort of keystone on the page with a presence that sets it apart:
It’s capitalized, it’s centred on the page, and the other lines give it a wide berth—note the space that separates it from the lines above and below it. Its apartness gives it a monolithic quality, as though it were carved in stone: a rule, a prescription for language.
The literary movement of naturalism relied heavily on mimetic correspondences to produce a transparent texture of language that may be heavily descriptive but that aims to convey a precise image of reality, a window made of language from which to view not only colours and details but also the historical contingencies of human motivation, in its own way a valuable psychological contribution. Nonetheless, the characteristics of naturalism are generally antithetical to many of the concerns of high modernism and avant-gardism, which tends to de-center perception, knowledge, language, meaning, identity, and motivation.
So is naturalism the “thick new-made emptiness”? The lines and ideas in Guest’s poem are not isolated; they gain meaning in relation to other lines and words, so “naturalism’s” isolation is striking, daring us to associate the word itself with something else, to take naturalism not as the rule but as one idea among others, and as one entity in the poem that chameleon-like shifts its colours according to surrounding or juxtaposed ideas—and Guest does just this by bringing the category of naturalism into play with its surrounding words, allowing it to be changed. It is not simply naturalism changing language to its own tenets and beliefs about the function of language. Guest allows other words to colour naturalism itself.
Perhaps emptiness refers to the transparency of language in naturalism, the quality of sheerness that conveys us without much reflexivity from word to referent. But how can emptiness be thick? Guest implies that the lens of the medium of language is thick with its own inherent possibilities. This idea is consonant with Guest’s exploration of language as a kind of music.
In my previous post, I talked about the kind of music that Walter Pater might have been alluding to when he said that all art aspires to the condition of music: non-programmatic “absolute” or instrumental music that tends to create a self-referential world producing meaning from the “tonally moving forms” (Herzog 125) of its own medium. Musicality in poetry sidles away from a mimetic function of language towards a self-referential interplay of sounds and motifs, in a similar way that music does.
In the next three lines, we shift gears again—are do we?
Hanging apples half notes
in the rhythmic ceiling red flagged
“Hanging apples” is a good naturalistic image, but immediately Guest compares apples hanging on their stems with half notes, which also feature a round part with a stem:
This comparison brings together two major strands in the poem: nature (the natural) and music (the made). This shift again focuses our attention on the idea of language being not only a conduit to describe the world but also a path to its own world, its musicality. Thus the juxtaposition of apples and notes returns us to the idea of language (words, sounds, images) as music. In the second line, a ceiling is “rhythmic.” If we look up to see the hanging applies, we might see them against the ceiling of the sky, articulating that backdrop to produce rhythm, as if they were notes on a staff.
I want to give detailed attention to the phrases “red flagged” and “rag clef.” First, let’s consider the interplay of connotations and denotations of these words, in particular the semantic chiasmuses between the two phrases. Each phrase has musical significations. In musical notation, a flag is the little banner projecting from the stem of a note to indicate its duration: a single eighth note has one flag, and a sixteenth note has two. In the second phrase, a clef is a symbol that indicates the particular register of a staff: treble clef or bass clef, for instance. These are both symbols in musical notation. Also, “flag” resonates with “rag”: not only do the words rhyme, but also both indicate things made of fabric. And sonically, “red” echoes “rag.” Moreover, the related consonant sounds in “flagged” and “clef” are almost the exact reverse of each other:
f-l-g / c-l-f
In the simultaneity of all of these correspondences can be heard—for lack of a better analogy—a polyphonic interplay of motifs and sounds.
The medium of Guest’s musical language produces not a description of a place or person, not anything classifiable as strictly mimetic, not a building wave of description that prompts the readers to say (to quote Helen Vender) “Heavens, I recognize the place, I know it!” According to Vendler, the reader’s eureka moment resulting from the accumulation of descriptive language “is the effect every poet hopes for.” Oops, she forgot Barbara Guest, whose work instead displays a fascination with the possibilities of language itself. A composer might ask, what would happen if I have a flute echo this motif introduced by a violin? Guest asks, what would happen if I put these words and sounds in various contexts, producing motifs that repeat but that also express rich variation?
Here I’ll hit the pause button—I’ve gone on longer than I had intended for only nine lines. But this process for me is so rewarding. And it takes a slow, leisurely pace of reading and thinking to get to this level of detail. And I realize that my interpretation is very subjective—one person’s response to the poem. But for me these discoveries open up new dimensions of the poem, which is I go after in poetry. An acutely intelligent mind has placed these words on the page. The pleasures lie in wait, unrealized notes on a staff, for the reader-musician’s careful attention.
As I look over my analysis of “Musicality,” I can see that my close reading of the poem, with its complex overlapping of layers of experience, is much more detailed than I had anticipated. As soon as I start strolling instead of galloping through the woods, I start seeing and hearing so much more. And the deeper I probe into the microcosm of the poem, the more correspondences I start to find between the smaller scale and the larger scale.
This is starting to sound like structuralism—to use an analogy in music, the Schenkerian analysis that relies on the structural correspondences between the large-scale background harmonic movement (its skeletal tonal structure) and the small-scale foreground tonal movement. Inevitably, there emerged dogmatic Schenkerian music theorists who claimed that such analysis leads to the (one and only) inner truth of a musical composition.
As I analyzed “Musicality,” I realized that all I have done is to open one or two doors in a room that has many doors. Once you start believing in one musicality, you become something other than an interpreter; you become an arbiter of interpretations. As I tried to demonstrate in my previous post, musicality in poetry isn’t monolithic. And just as there’s more than one way to create a symphony of words, there’s more than one way to hear it.
I used to know a rather orthodox Shenkerian analyst. Sadly, the dogmatism of his belief in tonal structuralism precluded his appreciation of Western music written beyond a certain point in the nineteenth century when the increasing chromaticism turned its sound waves into a “fetid slough” in the ears of the theorist, who had been trained to hear only the exquisite harmonic and melodic structures he had built up from, say, a Mozart sonata. Wolf, Debussy and Webern were unintelligible to him because they were resistant to his surgeon’s tools.
It’s easy to say that some poetry is musical, and when we come across such poetry, we may quietly nod inside as though its musicality were a self-evident characteristic that need be acknowledged only on a barely conscious level. We say that a particular poet has a tin ear, whereas another has an ear to die for. We know when poetry sounds clunky and we know when we feel we’re hearing a string quartet in words. What gives poetry (or any other text, for that matter) the quality of musicality?
I suspect that what people mean most often is musicality on the close-range level of the poem: the timbre and rhythm. Timbre in music refers to the configuration of sound waves and overtone series that produces the difference between, say, a clarinet and a violin. One way to think of that trait in terms of poetry is on the microcosmic level of the phoneme: the particular combination of consonant and vowel sounds that create a range of sounds from the colourful to the monochromatic, or to stick with the musical model, from the richness of sounds in a Stravinsky orchestra to the relative sameness of, say, Philip Glass’s compositions for saxophone quartet. Alliteration, assonance, and rhyme, whether obvious or subtle, can add richness to the sound and layers to the meaning of poetry. Kenneth Burke’s “On Musicality in Verse” offers a detailed analysis of this microcosmic manifestation of musicality in poetry.
I think of metre or rhythm as occurring in the foreground of composition, like timbre and melody. It’s not only ritualistic or condensed poetic language that exhibits musical rhythm; ordinary conversation can be extraordinarily musical. For example, Frank O’Hara gives us the rhythm of drama, tempestuous or quiet, in his rants and chats.
We also call some poetry “musical” in the sense of “painterly”—words used as colours and texture painted onto a canvas, arranged in such a way to give aesthetic or intellectual pleasure. Narrative, descriptive and representational coherence take a backseat to the play of forms: juxtapositions, repeated motifs, and layers of signification whose meaning derives from the relatively abstract play of images and sounds.
Yet another sense of musicality is the one that we mean when we speak of James Joyce’s famous fugue in prose in the Sirens chapter of Ulysses. The voices of the fugue are translated into voices of characters, and the repetition of fugal melodies are represented by subject matter or rhetorical mode (description, for example). Similarly, once could make a case for the abrupt changes in perspective and style in Milan Kundera’s Book of Laughter and Forgetting corresponding with the abrupt rondo-like changes in some compositions by Janacek, who was the teacher of Kundera’s musicologist father. Raymond Queneau’s Exercices de style might be considered as a theme and variations.
Correspondences between the arts, of course, are not precise but suggestive. Polyphony, for example, can be suggested by the simultaneity of thoughts, dialogue, or action by the characters, as in the eight voices of the fugue in Ulysses (Zimmerman 108-13).
2. Pater’s condition of (instrumental) music
With all of these manifestations of musicality in poetry comes an emphasis on the material and materiality of language—its sounds, its formal play, and its patchwork play of motifs and connotations. This emphasis brings to mind Walter Pater’s statement almost fifty years earlier than the writing of Ulysses: “all art constantly aspires towards the condition of music.” Despite the absolutism of such a sweeping statement in its assertion of the aesthetic primacy of music and musicality as the ideal toward which all art aspires, it does suggest some possibilities for correspondences between music and literature in a way that moves away from mimetic concerns toward an appreciation for formal play. Patricia Herzog speculates that the ideal state of music that Pater champions as the Parnassus of the arts is not vocal music or a gesamtkunstwerk such as opera but rather instrumental or chamber music:
Absolute music would be ideally suited to exemplify
Pater’s thesis since it contains nothing extraneous to
the medium of music itself, a medium consisting
solely of tonally moving forms arranged melodically,
harmonically and rhythmically. The form and the
content of absolute music would thus appear to be
identical. (Herzog 125)
Herzog states that Pater’s musical ideas consisted of “”the obliteration of the distinction between matter and form” and the embracing of “imaginative reason” over the “senses and the intellect operat[ing] in isolation” (126). In other words, art’s goal is “pure perception,” and to achieve that ideal state, it must abdicate “its responsibilities to its subject or material” (127). For Pater, matter and form should be “so welded together” that the intellect is not the only faculty stimulated by the content, and the senses not the only faculties stimulated by the form. Instead, the blending of form and matter should “present one single effect to the ‘imaginative reason,’ that complex faculty for which every thought and feeling is twin-born with its sensible analogue or symbol.”
Herzog stresses that the experience of such musicality in art is more aesthetic than logical, since “music’s ideal content is perceived entirely and only through its own, tonally moving forms.” Whereas the literary and visual arts (of Pater’s time) are dependent upon mimetic representation, music’s meaning is revealed through “aesthetic self-sufficiency” (130).
The distinction that Herzog makes between the aesthetic and the logical in musical content isn’t clear, since music’s “tonally moving forms” can possess their own kind of logical interplay. However, what I find most interesting about Herzog’s fleshing out of Pater’s aphoristic championing of music is the movement, in the concern with musicality in poetry, away from mimetic concerns to language’s drawing attention to itself as a medium: words as musical motifs or brushstrokes. The musical analogy, to my mind, offers more complex possibilities than painting (but this could be simply because music was my first discipline): just as a motif can be varied (inverted, embellished, rhythmically augmented, and so forth), so can a word be varied by context, connotations, and so forth.
And one of the poets who, it seems to me, best exemplifies this kind of musicality is Barbara Guest. If I can get my act together to continue this thread, I’d like to take a close look at one of Guest’s poems as if it were a musical composition (despite the limitations inherent in that kind of analogy).
Burke, Kenneth. “On Musicality in Verse.” Poetry 57 (1940): 31-40.
Herzog, Patricia. “The Condition to Which All Art Aspires: Reflections on Pater on Music.” The British Journal of Aesthetics 36.2 (1996): 122-134.
Zimmerman, Nadya. “Musical Form as Narrator: The Fugue of the Sirens in James Joyce’s Ulysses.” Journal of Modern Literature 26.1 (2002): 108-118.