There were a few years in the mid-nineties when it looked like the poets gathering in New York might fuse a thousand disparate styles and beliefs and wishes into a single beam of classical beauty, rude comedy and what can only be called zen clarity (New York School, Beat, and Black Mountain)—the Newer (American) Poetry. If you have a copy of New Mannerist Tricycle lying around the house, I don’t need to persuade you that this is a true statement, and yes I know one third of that chapbook was and is D.C. based—in the mid-nineties D.C. was part of New York.
I was a baby poet and therefore an unreliable witness, but it seemed to me that of all the stoned geniuses circulating in the time before the hanging chads and falling bodies, Bill Luoma gave off this glow most consistently. His chapbook My Trip to New York City (collected in Works and Days) recounted a series of buddy movie misadventures pitched somewhere between Kerouac and South Park (this was before South Park) that like Ted Berrigan’s masterpiece “Tambourine Life” changes suddenly from picaresque to elegy. It beaned me. A few other chapbooks of roughly the same vintage struck me as similarly serious—Katy Lederer’s Music No Staves, Anselm Berrigan’s They Beat Me Over the Head with a Sack, Lisa Jarnot’s Sea Lyrics. Thinking back on them now (without actually getting hold of my copies of them) I imagine what they had in common was a Jules et Jim light-heartedness, with hard-earned awareness of the effects of gravity.
What most of those poets also had in common, at that point anyway, was a devout commitment to incantation, to a more or less regular, hypnotic cadence. Jarnot went for anaphora (or was it epistrophe?), Berrigan seemed to match up the prose rhythms of sentences, and Luoma headed straight into doggerel:
leafy muncher big time lurk
green belt cincher revlon quirk
darkie matter massive dwarf
blasted bright star mr worf
(from “Swoon Rocket”)
If you’re not hearing these words aloud, are only processing the meanings, you’ve probably already decided to spend your time on something else. I happen to find it enjoyable to follow this exposition of latent racism in Star Trek makeup, but probably only because I start feeling like chanting along to these seven-syllable lines as I read.
Poetry has been mistaken so long for an all-or-nothing proposition that it sometimes feels like more of a hierarchy than the A.P. College poll. If a poet isn’t ranked in the top twenty-five, the feeling goes, why read him or her. Maybe I’m imagining it, this consensus-seeking chasing after the current number one with a bullet; maybe it’s real but also only a reflection of the larger culture. Most of the time I remember to forget it. When I do get that itch to compare compare compare, Bill Luoma’s second full-length collection Some Math reminds me not to care:
A waffle doesn’t mind
when the apparatus is moved
from one location to another.
Hulse 2-3 tonight on a pair of singles.
If I arrange my local effects
in shells of equal energy
like a saddle mounted by a rider
whose boots were made for Tony Danza
in the tap dance extravaganza
then I’ll be humming all day
stuck inside the large hardon collider
with one higgs boson whose primary concern
is facetime on the linoleum.
(from “The Concept of Mass”)
There are readers for whom this mix of broadcast-announced baseball, particle physics and popular culture will read like uncompiled code. I also know from experience that it’s possible to pretend to a “negative capability” poetic license for readers, with which it doesn’t much matter what the poet is saying—or even really how the poet is saying it—as much as whether there are plenty of sudden unforeseeable pleasures hidden in the slurry. As the passage quoted above suggests, “The Concept of Mass” may be about that patient, interested seeking; testing for an unaccountable blip that, if found, will verify the Standard Model, whatever that is. Luoma is unlike most poets who wander into the science terminology shop (myself included) in that he doesn’t much strain to convert learning to a design for moral improvement. He seems to just throw it together, then if something happens, he goes with the results. Something usually happens.
Sometimes what happens is nearly untainted by lexical semantics (that incomplete Standard Model again). “Gobi” and “Swoon Rocket” are collections of quatrains, the lines of which vary in length from nine syllables to five. I’ve read them a few dozen times since they first appeared in 1996, and while I hear the undercurrent of sex and inebriation in the phrases (the title “Swoon Rocket,” for example, sounds to me like a riff on the name of the grimy Providence suburb Woonsocket—a romantic, sexual, aeronautic riff), I’m prepared to accept that the point here is to notice the different physical effects on the reader of these variations in line length. Take this passage from “Swoon Rocket”:
tonset factor enter sten
burns in coma cluster bend
ripon jessup swansea rum
smoothie wafer produce nox
event radox bap sinclair
two point seven degrees kevin
tunnel quantum lamb shift hertz
masker furbo visby ort
gas clouds fronton bilda fort
bright blue knotsa lemming furs
faint arm spoker smedvik kurs
I jump at the one line not like the others, which features the signature Luoma trope of the misheard science term, Kevin for Kelvin here, and the profane version of the Large Hadron Collider in the excerpt from “The Concept of Mass” above. (The line with a difference also mentions what I believe to be the temperature closest to absolute zero recorded under laboratory conditions on earth—writing degree zero, you say.) I notice now that the line comes in the middle of one of the few stanzas in the poem not to deploy end rhymes, and that with nox/radox, the internal rhyme seven/kevin also moves me sideways. But since most of “Swoon Rocket” is in sevens, I think what I’m reacting to here is simple variation from a regular pattern. The term for it from both the visual arts and music is caprice.
The variations come more frequently in “Gobi,” which comes close to Amazing Grace’s 8-6-8-6 a few times, then veers off toward measures I’m relatively unused to, for example, 8-8-7-7:
trawl en horta mey first snapple
raleigh winkle voza baffle
wofat shingle drugga skoun
baler frickle mosie mink
This isn’t subverting the expectation of a pattern, it’s just changing the pattern, revealing how the pattern changes when the unstressed syllable at the end of the line is omitted. The effect turns out to be consistent with that produced by Shakespeare’s witches: double trouble.
I hear a lot of names of poets and sport figures flying by (“clark,” “nada,” “blanche… ricky,” “shula”), and the jujube-like quality of the desert name in the title nudges me toward a reading of the poem as latter-day Ram Dass: GO BE indeed. But I keep coming back to the feeling that this poem demands not a reading, but a hearing.
Despite the title’s hint, he doesn’t lead with trochees every time:
big yeska anna billet
clare voler gringa
lunch docket oui blinker ato
cran nowheres un off
It’s easy to hear why this 7-5-8-5 might be a one-off (un off). Luoma leads lines in other stanzas with one-syllable words, but usually to make a trochee, and not, as here, a spondee (e.g. BIG YESka, CLARE VOler). The spondees bring the rhythm a little closer to the traditional four-feet three-feet of ballad meter, but you have to work to hear it (and parse that second line in three languages, maybe), and then when you do work, you have to work again in line three to get any kind of rhythm back—maybe that’s an anapest after LUNCH DOCK?
If you’re still reading, thanks. And if not, well, that’s the risk involved in stretching a phrase out to notate the simplest vector in a poem’s sound, the pulse. Imagine a review that discusses vowel color and length, consonant places of articulation. Go ahead, imagine it. What did you see? A page of logic symbols, a plage on the Riviera, maybe. Luckily, the rest of the poem goes back to more familiar patterns (8-7-8-7, 7-6-7-6, 7-7-7-7) that prepare the ear for their variations.
I have a weakness for three lines the same length, one line a beat (or two) shorter or longer:
hootie pylon flimsey nylon
border patches volvo ken
klute digiorno salvo falg
lost overno opal calm
There are a couple other prosodically engineered works here, 4-3-4-3 “Nogo,” which doesn’t diverge from the pattern, and “Alystyre Julian Certified Orient Minimal Clothing,” which is entertaining but doesn’t upend the truism that alexandrines are better left to the French. I like them, but as I say it may be nostalgia doing the liking.
I haven’t spent as much time with the other pieces in the book: “Dear Filesystem Panic,” “When the Pathogenic Wind Comes,” and “Some Math.” I recognize “Dear Filesystem Panic” as a new instance of the form peculiar to New York in the 90s in which rapidly shifting identifications and profane connections bombard the reader with semi-familiar sounds:
to the closed out kiln of the north bay
to the last invasions of the new cult
to the nat of dayquill calling out the hordes of bar bar
to the pitted bas-relief of jenna and the optional au-jus of barb
to the mighty singing system doing the tuffa twist
in the blue sea of opoyaz
to the yahtzee of
I saw wings.
It’s a fun instance, in which the horrible routines and jargon of work, their repetition itself provides the means of escape, which leads right back to the horror:
I’m calling the destructor on an iroq layer of inodes
by inserting into the sidebodies of the multiplex of molly
a handsfree ipod wired to the hooded electrodes
/* your wires and my electrodes */
About the other long sequences (about a third of the book) I admit I’m less sanguine. When confronted by several lines beginning “the un the un” I start to wonder if I’ve wandered into the wrong book, despite the familiar variables:
the un the un the disposition of Linus
the un the un of that of it given she of infinite UN of branch
of outside of employee of in the house of pain
the un the un explaining a bursty traforo
(from “Some Math”)
As I recall, this was pretty much the reaction I had to “Gobi” and “Swoon Rocket” fifteen years ago. Given how much I hear in those poems now, I’m prepared to believe I’ll find out fifteen years from now exactly what Luoma is doing in these poems. As for what he means in them, maybe it’ll matter and maybe it won’t. We’ll see.