Friday, April 02, 2010

George Albon, Empire Life (Littoral Books, 1998) Two long works: EMPIRE LIFE is composed of 88 sections, each a set of four couplets of short lines. There's a lot of "space" or "silence" in them--though the language isn't fragmentary, the syntax is nearly always a clause or two short of the complete sentence. Enough is said (often with small words, in precise observation or thought--sort of Zukofskian or Oppenoid) to give a vivid impression, but never enough to form a whole. The un-jarring incompleteness allows strands of language to merge into each other, recombining to give, by accretion, a concrete sense of a world that we only ever see in glimpses, or that is always coming into being as parts of it negotiate with each other. The work is composed motivically. The motifs include image-figures (a window, knot, penis, weather, sleep) and--more strikingly--instances of punctuation, degrees of incompleteness, functions of the linebreak--Albon is a masterful orchestrator of these. Compare the function and weight of the dash in these two sections:

The ego no

blocks action.

would be
there in the

dark too, a fluency--

I can't hear
thru the rain.

So, let it
be curtain--

tho there is
a voice, electric-

ally echoing out-
side, in situation.

--or the ampersands and parentheses here, structured perfectly by caesurae:

A body leaves
in two weeks

& image &
memory (memory)

will start a
breath into

the maintain-
ing calendars.

--or, just to give examples of contrasting syntax, these two:

The opening of
the chro-

matic world,
step taking

each un-
foreknown, the

turn, color,
direction, sign.

Visible origin
of the stimu-

at long tables.

Hung that
story-part on

their wall, the
many walls.

"Home" is a big motif, the place of sleep and also the feeling of words and poems as homes, and then homelessness in various forms, mostly quite literal. The space that emerges is definitely structured by property and its lack. "One is me, the/one [...]"--here "(any)one" becomes a singularity, and that first-person, throughout the poem, is not dissolving, but being opened up to the world in which it lives--its property/selfhood turning out to be entwined with the world it shares with others. Strange tenuous sense of social space. COSMOPHAGY is in a kind of prose, a series of paragraph-like units of unbroken phrasal continuities (run-ons), like:

a kind of pre-planned operative music swelling in the tracks where the feet land an arrhythmic hand outside the screen patting-hitting the TV dots coagulated-encamped on the lower-left-hand-side

I may not have been as attuned to the great variety and--again--motivic building between paragraphs, had I not previously experienced them in the sparer context of "Empire Life," but they're certainly here. The degree to which a paragraph seems more like a series of unpunctuated sentences or more like a set of overlapping syntaxes or something more tangled or (occasionally) one straightforward sentence varies widely. Punctuation ends up playing an interesting role here as well; the first instance of it is the question mark (interesting that it's more difficult to imply question marks than to imply periods). After that, any instance of that mark is felt as an active transformation of a piece of language into a question. "Cosmophagy" also builds a space by accretion. This space seems like a foreign country, probably Middle-Eastern, probably under military occupation--though the coherence of that environment is unstable--during a number of paragraph sequences there seem to be operations with tanks, while in another the trial and exile of a pig seems to lead somehow to members of a tribe being devoured by a strange monster from beneath the ground--but the emphasis should be on SEEMS. Again, everything is indicated with just enough concreteness to indicate it, and motifs are recombined to form a fluid world. "Seeming" might be a main object of investigation here--it often seems like we're getting images and stories, rather than direct (if filtered) observations. There are passages in the past tense that, strangely, seem more present to me (as if they constitute a report on what just happened). Fairly late in the poem, after some motivic use of quotation marks, there's a thrillingly blunt couple of pages based on the recurrence of the same (punctuated!) syntactic form with the same structural bump or glitch in it--for instance:

The path described as "treacherous" was in fact merely futuristic. It had all the regularly appointed features but also different ones, whose function it was their rod and staff, a painted curtain finally opening onto a backdrop of deep blue sky, to discern.

This is followed by another "run-on" paragraph, and then:

The goal described as "impossible" was merely ill-chosen. It had all the predictably accumulating earmarks but also different ones, whose relevance it was their crown and duty, a red carpet finally leading into a chamber of tall wooden chairs, to establish.

The incursion of this structure into the ongoing development of the main formal drift of the poem utterly transforms the form of the whole, in a way that appeals to my own sense of composition--it's musical, in the sense of the structures of later European art music. The piece also appeals to me in that--in a way I'd like to achieve--it seems quite concretely a political poem, but rarely seems so at any given moment (in other words, it never seems like a sociopolitical issue is just being cited, by--say--putting the phrase "the war" into the poem). Its address to political circumstances does have to do with its content, but the content only comes to life in the context of the whole work of formal movements from one state to another. My "imitations" for the day follow.

slate heart, of
wind house

former chatter
seduces and se


pun thorn
squares of light


-plendent tithe
the effort of rehearsal

effects of A
the weather, chin

turned a horn
that interrupts

the social


buds, not

what you’re thinking
what I’m saying

measure of excellence

burdock outpost in bank
reform’s evanescence


wind trying to organize
parking effect—a void

in a mind
-full of hot mouths,

connected and concerned
cornered and

—at fixed rates—
selling the farm by now


what are they trying to pull the clothes lie down by me separated from the norm only by a thin scratch the pane means “keep out” to the air a romantic tinge to double barrels in semi-automatic weather pull quotes pushed around to make the numbers swell

shadow bit in two by brick a long weight unacceptable as currency the present staves it’s simple jobs the rent guy takes longest to complete we’re well past this double-charmed second now the lilac and now the other emerge


grows (saw) just past
iterate, hasn’t invent

-ed a double dance
and a spider eddy

long as sustains permit:
whisper, release remains

states and crumples (are)
its own form (frame)

That last one was written while listening to Anton Webern’s “Four Pieces for Violin and Piano, op.7.” Webern shows up as “a favorite” in Albon’s book, and he’s one of mine as well.


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