Monday, April 05, 2010

Beverly Dahlen, A Reading 11-17 (potes and poets, 1989)

Having just written tomorrow’s post on kari edwards, I’m really beginning to feel a sense of futility with regard to these little reviews. I can’t, for instance, hope to adequately convey here what it’s like to read Beverly Dahlen’s work. With that in mind, I’ll try to keep it short.

I can’t think of anything that A Reading resembles. It’s a lifelong project that views writing, reading and thinking as continuous with each other, overlapping and often just facets of the same activity—and “reading” overlaps with living, since there’s as much reading of the world here as there is reading of texts. This description could, I guess, be applied to Lyn Hejinian’s work since Happily, but the two approaches to poetry don’t read in the same way at all. Each, though, conveys a thrilling sense of unfetteredness, of real freedom in composition, that is very rare.

This comes through in one way with regard to form. Dahlen moves with regular ease between prose paragraphs and verse lines whose lengths vary as the work and thought require; there’s little concern with “poetry” in terms of measure, polysemic linebreaks and so forth, at least not in any usual ways. There are plenty of poetic “markers”: the absence of initial capitals, the occasional recurrence of a Stein-like syntax, repetitions, puns. It’s just that “poetry” doesn’t seem to be the central concern. I find this intensely valuable.

The sections have different degrees and areas of focus—Dahlen often seems to deal with a collection of topics in a given section. Number 11 deals with memory, moving quickly from the personal to the archaeological (“finding a relic, this fingernail survived but the source is gone”), and then to reflections on the human transition from prehistory and myth into history (“the great leap forward, the idea of progress, that we might enter history at last”).

A little later, this leads to a beautiful page:

our course through the mountains, under a glaze.
the sun had come full circle. we might step out
of these clothes but we were moved towards a future.

there what we held in common against the end.

there is a common world which does not yet exist.
all our lives from the caves forward is a labor towards it.
I held her in some moment towards it.
there are those whom I have held towards it. in moments, that
time towards it. that moment in history in which we break and
fall away towards it.

wherever we come to claim it
it is a falling away, out of this bristling.
standing away towards it, this is not mine
I have not made it. there is that in which we are joined
and not one among us may claim it. there is that in which
we are joined towards it, it calls back to us from some future
“the substance of things hoped for”
calling backwards towards us.

our own,
Freud’s prayer to Eros
now come you among the powers
in whom the way, however obscurely
might lead, come some path and pathmaker
come in which we might fall away from ourselves
towards that common day
come as such a one
as ever
in this life
not my own
but ours from the beginning.


These concerns branch out over the remaining seventeen pages of the section, which work with “we,” origins (births), the structure and function of stories, the unconscious, and the relation between parts and wholes, each always anchored in something highly specific (lots of jokes, flowers, seaside observations, accounts of conversation).

Other sections have quite different relations to their material: #12 is undeclarative, #13 frequently quotes idiomatic speech, the vast #16 spends a good deal of time on the Bronte family, #17 begins with a collection of words that are then deployed throughout the body of the poem, almost like a theme and variations movement. The last metaphor seems appropriate; reading Dahlen’s book reminds me of listening to Beethoven’s piano sonatas in order. Both artists have a highly developed sense of what “material” can mean: the tonal or grammatical system, larger formal structures (like the sonata), the historical aspect of such material, the texts of predecessors, the activity of composition itself. A given work selects meanings for that term, approaches them from particular distances, brings them to reflect on each other in ways specific to that work, and explores the results with virtuosic skill and freedom.

I won’t presume to do an “imitation” of a life-work like A Reading. Instead, here’s a rough draft of a new section of a piece I’ve been working on. Its goal is more or less to organize notes on non-poetic readings, to bring them into thematic conjunctions with each other and with everyday materials. Once this April binge is over, an in-depth reading of Dahlen’s work, which I’ve read in bits and pieces for a long time, is in order, and will, I’m sure, influence the progress of this project. Since a lot of my thinking is done via editing, the thoughts here are still pretty messy:

Opening silences opening silences. Pure possibility, the noise of it,
the richness, the bounty. It challenges the mouth, suspended above peaks
the deductive-nomological fanatic economist loves. So close today to the
uselessness of poetry, nothing is more striking than these strata, their
sinuosities so like the calcinated scree an ocean away—the same strange
ramifications we find in cake. The eye assures us affliction. The ethical sockets anonymously tremble. And the same can be said of the blue mirror. Turning
a corner, the picture framed in a doorway takes an attitude, not a position,
toward the world. We express our politic, our melos, in legato, in being bound to life together, as in boundaries, the leaps in bounds, as abounds. Hearing
is touch. There are languages lacking. Contingency is what is happening
to the birch leaves: unique and incandescent, entirely normal and repeatable. Rhyme pretends. Credit it to theft, tempo rubato, time stolen from the objective for a lonely thought, to hear many voices at once and remember them. Debit it in Muzak form, banking on a chain of analog copies, desire bound to false image—-take the gamble and drill in Ecuador, 1970, too late, the hundred-year-solution covers it, flatbeds execute boiling systems Keynes saw whose limbs we fetishize. Yet our grace in time: everything comes in return, not in exchange. We’ve already been out, but “out” was nowhere. One has the feeling that it began earlier, before the silence, as if one stepped onto a train to find it already moving fast. It’s always one, thinking, and thought is always all. Seeing well can’t cause a clear shape of the crucial wound read off and back. Stippled, the memory stalls, plays around the edges bind drive to particular. Oslo off-tempo. To become history is to change keys.


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