I’ve always thought Adventures in Poetry put out good books, and I’ve always thought it was a great name for a press. The new collaboration from Jack Collom and Lyn Hejinian (a collaboration that spans over fifteen years) makes it literal: Situations, Sings really is an adventure in poetry. Like last year’s Flowers of Bad by David Cameron, it’s arranged as a sort of anthology of formal procedures, with a brief “key” to each section at the back. For example, the gloss on “Blanks”:
“Blanks” utilizes something of a Mad-Libs structure. As usual, we took turns adding to the work, in this case by reaching into each other’s entries: each addition included three blanks in its text; the respondent had to fill in the blanks and then provide additional text. The piece acquired its own haphazard logic.
That it did. Here’s a brief excerpt:
Sleepily, like some ancient oilfather watching a fern frond unwind,
the scribe sketches nerve bifurcations. But in what context
Is this picture a picture, and on what map is it a name for a mountainous
terrain? “The” becomes accusatory
When a prosecutor presents evidence of any precision or a doctor holds up
a baby. But in Louis Zukofsky’s “Poem Beginning ‘The,'” “The” is
not a magazine at all.
Can you picture God reading Newsweek?
A lot of the enjoyment of pieces like lies in trying to guess what the details of the process were like: where were the blanks, which poet wrote what part? And too, it induces a generative eagerness, a desire to try one’s own hand at the form–or better yet, to come up with something of one’s own in the same vein. Thus the same inspirational charge that passed between the two authors is transmitted to the reader.
Sometimes there’s a ludic orneriness to the work, as in “Wicker,” a two-columned piece where the form requires that the left column contain “quotations from famous, unknown, or purely imaginary, people”; and, of the actual people, some of the quotes are correctly attributed and others not. In many cases it’s clear which are real and which are phony. For example, I’m pretty sure Emily Dickinson didn’t write “Sunlight / contains a buzz / Softness is as softness / does.” But did Stan Brakhage say “Imagine a baby / in a field of grass…”? He might have. I hope he did. The not knowing, at any rate, inspires a slight feeling of guardedness in the reader, as though these two colluders might be trying to make a fool of him or her. But it’s pleasing after all, like being teased by big brother and sister.
There are acrostics, plays, prose pieces, freeform improvisations, fractured pantoums. It’s a veritable carnival of procedural follies, but one never feels that it’s an exercise in gimmickry, or an indulgence in de rigeur avant-garde aleatorics; the mutual hum of engagement between Collom and Hejinian is always in the foreground, keeping a high-voltage emotional current running through each page, even when things are played for laughs. The laughs, in turn, always feel like spontaneous bursts of delirium rather than planned pratfalls, as they are interspersed with passages of beauty, obscurity, difficulty, reflection, polemic. Delirium, that is, is indistinguishable here from ecstatic vision. In “Paddle,” the compositional principle is the accumulation of non-sequitur sentences:
A very pretty maiden stood up and said, “Me look-look plenty quick goddamn big pirate Mistah Peter Burling me plenty baby!”; the Governor coughed discretely. Tumblers the watch lets: their love of unstable equilibrium is demonstrated in their riding. Lapsed banshee of sail several through though tough a oops into unto and two.
Readily car, hurriedly dog, of butter of what of bump to our doom. But once again. “Milton produced Paradise Lost as a silkworm produces silk, as the activation of his own nature.”
What we read in passages like these is less the referential content of the phrases (when referential content is even discernible) than the play of connection and disconnection between two poetic sensibilities. Collom and Hejinian have, at times, very different styles, and they don’t make the mistake of trying constantly to adapt their instincts to each other’s. Just as often as there is harmony and tonal unison, there is a sense of gleeful undermining, almost as though one poet were deliberately trying to throw the other off, or bend the other to his or her aesthetic will in ways that could obviously never succeed. Rather than disrupting some ideal unity of the work, this tension keeps it alive, infused with comically angular moments of unassimilability.
The dominant mode of Situations, Sings, is comic, but comic in a sense that encompasses a much broader range of effects–and affect–than a great deal of other writing out there that appears under that heading, or for that matter, under other headings. It is comic in its positing of limitless possibilities for form, expression, communication. To imagine a field that various and wide is always to court absurdity, especially when one shuttles from space to space within the field so rapidly and restlessly. From “Questionably,” the first piece in the collection:
Say a woman calls a man “Fuck Face”–aren’t there scenarios in which this comes off as neither angry nor enticing but as calming–neutralizing?
So why not be horrified all the time?
Anode odna o agfuoantoa hv noqa roebn?
I see somebody in your eye. Who is it?
In between the isolated speculations and goofings around and strings of scrambled code, moments of confusion become indistinguishable from moments of clarity. One no longer recognizes oneself in another’s eye, and in that instant, one is borne aloft, beyond mere selfhood, into the current of a collaborative en-musement. We write each other, as they say, and the others that we write into being write us into being in return.