Tonight’s the Night
With the figure of the fugue at its heart, Catherine Meng’s addicting, reiterative Tonight’s the Night explores art’s ability to arrest time and subsume both precedence and subsequence into its revisitable, expansive present tense. It’s a mighty debut and a neat bit of prestidigitation, too. The forty-odd lyrics which pursue and embody this theme through recombinating motifs are themselves folded inside a postmodern frame of references and allusions, including a discography and bibliography, a set of notes which precede rather than follow the poems, and even a Nabakovian narrative frame in which these poems and their annotation turn out to be themselves annotations of “a portion of the liquidated library of the Professor, who, in the later stages of Alzheimer’s became consumed with underlining & re-underlining the numerous books in his collection to the point of destruction.”
This writing of note-upon-note suggests an obsessive macrostructure, and the pun between scholarly and musical note evokes a similar overinscription. The annotations, drawn from diverse sources but oscillating for the most part between Bach and Neil Young (whose reiterative album gives the book and the poems their titles) themselves iterate the kinship (if not twinship) between the mathematical paradoxes of the fugue (“simultaneously one in three and three and one”) and those of the creative process (“‘Everything decisive arises as the result of opposition.’—Frederick Nietzsche”) Moreover, by seeming to annotate the poems which follow, the opening notes create a disorienting achronology for the book, in which what follows seems to somehow have preceded what has come before.
These themes and sources piled atop one another, we are ready for our fugue. With each of the forty poems titled “Tonight’s the Night,” the structural multiplicity of the sequence challenges the doubly-inscribed singularity of the titular claim. And yet if the poems interact on a macro-level with the frontmatter’s overinscriptions, in and of themselves they have a meditative rather than fugal quality. If anything, the intensity of the opening notes denatures the lyrics which follow, calling attention to the potentially decoupled status of one sentence or one line from the next. So, in an early poem,
The eye dallies beyond asphalt
where juniper churns in the wash
of the weirdest wind known
to this open window. Drift to the right
to feel time:
the paint is mined with reflectors
& the light reflected back
keeps time in the eye. Creosote
& wandering notes.
In this passage, the movement of the “eye” precedes that of the mind; punning on ‘I’, it may mime a peceptual or cognitive action, or that of a camera which can only record. It is rewritten as “this open window,” which does not only frame but also “know[s]” wind. The eye meets another double in a reflective, painted surface; looking on its “mined” (mind) twin is how it “keeps time.” The eye is the ‘dallier’; “Wandering” it “notes.” The musical sense of “wandering notes” is synesthetically produced by the wandering eye. The trace of ampersands also mime musical notes, visual but only lightly semantic ,and hurried over by the reading eye. These ampersands produce a visual trace of a metronome hitting one endpoint and ‘reflecting back’ the other way. The rhyme of “creosote” and “note” also suggests the repetition of the metronome, or at least the musical element replacing the vision of the ‘eye.’
Reflection is a motif of these poems; by means of pun, the term makes material and measurable the immaterial actions of cognition and revision inherent in creation. Literal reflections within the poems are also a device for implicitly doubling images, the doubling itself enacting the surplus of artistic production. So “geese glide toward a shore/confused with a shore reflected,” the unreal shore of art being the one toward which these geese intuitively verge. In one poem, the motifs of birds, hands, reflections, notes, glass and misleading surfaces come together quite magically:
the pane now, throwing back some shook reflection
of a room lit with pale hands or pale birds
alighting on ebony, from which strange notes lift
awkward & fall back sprained from the glass.
Is it real, or is it Memorex? Or is it memory? Or is it melody? Meng’s prodigious ability allows her to make one thing become the next in a chain of analogies, then shift the ‘pane’ and reveal the contrary or constituent inside each element. Under her writing hand, “pale hands” evoke “pale birds” as they “alight on ebony” piano keys; both are converted and rise up as “strange notes,” implicitly black in musical notation, then crumple with that mimetic ampersand and “fall back sprained from the glass,” birds again, but also, given the “sprained,” human hands.
Such wonderturning suggests the recombinant energy of the fugue, certainly, but it is also the special province and perhaps the product of the lyric. Meng’s have a passing lightness, the surface pulled together by the most ambivalent of structural tensions. Most of her figures are in fact quite traditional, her geese recalling the icon of the bird in ever so many poems, from the raven and dove in Genesis to the Nightingale to the Wild Swans at Coole. In Western lyric, birds always figure inspiration (at least) and the poet’s special coronation as artist, but in Meng’s poems they are also humorous and ungainly and passionate and can’t help but remake the world’s tabula as a sort of goofy, accidental art. “The lawnmower makes the geese shudder up at an angle/then settle. This false entry leaves the sky stripped” and “Shitting troops of geese/bellow toward an ugliness which wobbles weird,/the bald tire they make of the sky.” In reflective moments they “arrange their feathers.” Frequently, as in the passage above, they are transmogrified into artist’s hands: “Where/the two hands sever into bass & treble, they flew, they do, sprang back from flight. ” At the end of this poem, we see both startled geese and applauding hands when “the grass grow[ing] so loud the hand/must leave it & meet the other stunned & gasping.” That grass is another motif of the book, standing for mortality, it seems, and, Whitmanishly, for cannier life than that of humans. Grass twins the expanse of the sky and also serves as yet another page or canvas across which music, poetry, and art may be made.
So great are the lyric (lyric!) pleasures of these poems, with their inventions and reinventions, their pursual of motif and theme, that the postmodern apparatus of the book seems hardly necessary. Meng is perhaps the one contemporary writer who doesn’t benefit from Beckett’s help, or Heidegger’s or Nietzsche’s, or, implictly, Kinbote’s. Yet there is something entirely satisfying about the nesting of these lyrics, the many hands of which grapple with the big themes of Art and Creation, Failure and Inspiration, within those of the battered archangelic Neil Young. His reiterated lyric announces the moment of Art’s arrival again and again and again.