Three from The Gig: New Work By/About Maggie O'Sullivan, Allan Fisher, and Tom Raworth
Three from The Gig: New Work By/About Maggie O'Sullivan, Allan Fisher, and Tom Raworth
Three recent poetry publications by Nate Dorward’s press The Gig are reviewed by Greg Betts; these are not poems so much as environments outside of, perhaps astride, the contingencies of systems.
Three books by The Gig, Toronto’s secretive avant press, exhibit an ongoing fascination with the antidiluvian boundaries of language writing (not necessarily Language Writing, but that broader field of metapoetical production). The press has released a trio of books by or about three stalwarts of the fold: Maggie O’Sullivan, Allan Fisher, and Tom Raworth; respectively, one new, one selected, and one about. While contemporary writers struggle to branch out from this generative codicil, these books undermine the imperative by their sheer vitality and exquisite, gelastic opacity. Indeed, as language writers established their aesthetic before and beneath the subjective conscious, their poetics of indeterminacy opens itself to all possible manifestations of semiotic code.
These are not poems so much as environments outside of, perhaps astride, the contingencies of system. As Raworth intones, playing with categorical statements obviously offered with a mischievous grin: “the object of art is no longer to be outside and to be thought about - but to stick the electric wires into the dead dog of language and get a twitch” (“Notebook” 99). In less graphic terms, he also offers that “It is now known […] that our knowledge is as the memories of the blind” (89) and that “art is consciously using up pieces of dream” (94). The guiding poetics of, in O’Sullivan’s terms, “Uncertain, Uncurtained Tonguescape” (65), may have limitations, but the sonorous celebration of the materiality of language conspires to resurrect the mythological chaos from which all things emerged and to which all things will ultimately descend. These books overwrite intention with intuition (or various synonymous conceits) and hesitate to codify the outcome of the experiments: instead, they offer forth the raw data they uncover. But as Derrida once confessed, “we know from experience that the speculative always requires a hetero-tautological position” (“Tout Autre Est Tout Autre” 83), and equally present in these works is the ongoing struggle against the pull of agency, the self-orientation of speculation, and the marketplace lure of self-edifying narratives.
Maggie O’Sullivan’s Palace of Reptiles approximates the rift between human knowledge and the abyss of unsung air. The poems chant the liturgy of “THE CLIMB FROM BARK TO BRAIN” (67), which is to commit to neither the one nor the other. They surrender language to the environmental ground from which knowledge presumes mastery - relinquishing that mastery for a cart-wheeling “landless wandering” (49) while the writing itself becomes a “spurged scavenged / inking.” O’Sullivan outlines a poetics of indeterminacy in her verse-essay “Riverrunning (Realisations,” where she admits the centrality of natural imagery in her gesture to the unknowable. Though the title of the whole is anthropomorphic, the nature referenced in these poems is less human than a pre-cognizant signified lost to the human imagination. Each of the seven titled poems, including the long poem “Doubtless,” undermine the self or the grammar of self, the voice, by inserting disjunctive natural imagery. In “Birth Palette,” the genesis moment of the collection, it “ ‘twas all moon down in the brainstem” (12). The mythopoetic resonances deepen in “Orphée” as “pencils of water” (13) overturn and metaphorically spill into being the poem itself. The act of writing and nature as uncharitable signifier become intertwined conceits, drawing writing back to its less discursive predecessors fable and myth while nature becomes aligned with its own hubris, Death:
One glass of water spells a fabled syncopation of keylit
The zone haunts all thickness, all privilege.
Each night, poetry beats its fish.
Each night, Death watches over. (14-15)
This personification of poetry with an evolutionary and ontological anxiety resurrects the surrealist obsession with the unconscious and with unfettered forms. Her method as outlined in “Riverrunning” - described as “Sickness: Contradiction: Improvising Upon: INTENT” (68) - also evokes Breton’s experiments with automatic writing and will-less creation, though also infused with the openly mystical cosmology of Robert Duncan’s invitation to misuse “the whole spiritualized universe” (64).
The task is to surrender the writing to chance; to dance with words without saying, letting that speculative construct ‘nature’ provide the rhythm (hares dance with “A LITTLER RODENT, / I” in “Doubtless” ). The result is the invocation of a literary pantheism in which the human mind and its untrustworthy weapons of language and consciousness attempt to release, perhaps touch, its primordial other - and be transformed perhaps recovered by the encounter. Thus, the concluding image of “Ellen’s Lament” is of “My Own Shadow” drinking from “the Stream” (26): the subconscious seeking communion with landscape and finding it despite the self-possessing author. The appeal to communion through subterfuge is effectively evoked in linguistic gaming, as in “Now To The Ears” where she writes, “flicker.fleur.de.feather.fly.VOICINGS” (27). Nature and self are aligned in this speculative url.
Rather than to the sentence, the phoneme, or the line, most of these poems seem to be oriented toward the clause. Syntactic relationships emerge - “She too starts / to sift mobile & rapidly” (“Doubtless” ) - but slip with the disjunctive enjambment of new (perhaps found) threads - the passage above continues “Part-Song / all Yellows – / a powdered / yarrow, the stars.” The clausal relationships, the hint of grammar, the ritual of meaning, are the errant gestures of cognition that dissolve into the pools of O’Sullivan’s aleatory, naturalist swirl.
Allen Fisher’s Entanglement is a selected survey of work previously published in books, chapbooks, and magazines. With over 130 books and chapbooks from which to select, this edition both attests to the diversity of Fisher’s production over the past four decades, and also, inevitably, to the editorial difficulties of selection. There is no easy justification for the works not included, but Fisher’s Introduction does attempt to provide some explanation for how these works relate to each other (and why he preferred a selected over, for instance, a collected edition). It is a worthy note:
Distribution of entangled states between distant locations is essential for quantum communication over large distances. Owing to unavoidable decoherence, the quality of entangled states generally decreases exponentially with length. Entanglement purification - a way to extract a subset of states of high entanglement from a large set of less entangled states - is thus needed to overcome decoherence. (10)
Rather than merely highlight a diverse career, the poems, then, are offered as demonstrations of coherent examples of particular tangles the author has produced (appropriately, he also dismisses the rhetoric of “critique of the individuated self”  as an unproductive theorisation of the author-function). The idea of a “quantum communication” is also a useful description of the thematic content of the poems, where enjambment operates not between lines but between syntactic structures: disparate images are gracefully drawn together. The book begins:
A radio phone in
The mouth of a snow
A message from a 532 emerald
At the speed of ancient light. (13)
Nature, consumption, communication, and looming disaster linked by the confirmation of their, strangely, impending inevitability. The apocalyptic intensity, though postulated in fatalistic terms, remains subject to discursive agency: “Someone” scares off the cat, the planet does not arrive, and the phone is lost. That the ice is stained “red” after the cat has run off suggests the vitality and the mortality of this negotiation of communication. In a much later poem, “Slooing,” Fisher clarifies the visceral (and essential) orientation of his writing, “Fused disparate power unreconciled knowing senses” (211). It is an homage to the paradox with each element modifying its forbears and releasing a combinatorial field of action, of play, contesting any investment in stasis or fixed economies of language.
As evidenced by Removed for Further Study: The Poetry of Tom Raworth (Edited [and Typeset] by Nate Dorward), Tom Raworth has been publishing, collaborating, and editing books, chapbooks, magazines, and ephemera since at least 1961 (earlier juvenilia receives no mention in the collection and is apparently off the record). In that year, Raworth collaborated with Anselm Hollo and Gregory Corso on The Minicab War (Matrix Press), edited the magazine Outburst, published four poems in Mica, and reviewed new work by William Burroughs and Brion Gysin. It was without doubt an inauspicious launch to his prolific and highly acclaimed literary career. Since that time, Raworth has been involved in no less than ninety-two book and chapbook projects in one (or more) of his various guises. According to Removed for Further Study’s bibliographical endnote, which does not include the articles in the collection, Raworth has been the subject of criticism eighty-eight times since 1969 by such authors and critics as Ted Berrigan, Terry Eagleton, Maggie O’Sullivan, Brian Kim Stefans, Marjorie Perloff, and Jed Rasula, among many others. The twenty-three critics in Removed for Further Study divide Raworth’s immense wealth of material into various specialized topics by which to apprehend a career’s worth of contributions to transcontinental language writing. What is immediately apparent is that critics have warmly responded to Raworth’s work by incorporating its study into the familiar vocabulary that has accrued around his particular field of Anglo-American experimental writing. And indeed, the opening essay, Peter Middleton’s “Silent Critique: Tom Raworth’s Early Books of Poetry,” argues that it is the context of this transcultural initiative that guarantees the significance of Raworth’s work: “Let’s face it,” he writes, “the poem would never cultivate a reading history out on [a] desert atoll, it thrives in a busy street, well-formed downland, talking with others” (8). (The editor’s “Afterword” continues this thread by reminding readers that individual poems emerge “from a welter” of activity , and that criticism even further demonstrates the “palimtextual nature” of literary production that requires recognition of the discursive “larger process” of creation). Thus, from the outset, Removed for Further Study demands that we question the “modernist ideology that conforms to an individualist economics” (8) and that isolates individual authors for close scrutiny. This ironic apologia for an essay and a book that portends to do exactly that suggests the awkward desire of language writers and critics to escape the hagiography that has come to define and undermine their modernist forbears even despite their own desire to celebrate the achievements of (in the literal sense) post-modernist experimentation. Also ironic, then, or at least further attesting to the awkwardness of this critical position in a text devoted to one author, is that following this defiant stance, Middleton praises and critiques Raworth’s “masterpieces” (18), his “manifesto,” Middleton’s own “personal favourite,” and, in a surprisingly swift return to humanist vocabulary, the “constantly astonishing” fact of “Raworth’s ability” (23).
The tension between author as agent and author as subject to diverse environmental praxis resurfaces throughout the collection of essays. This tension appears in Simon Perril’s study of Raworth’s “ironical distrust of authority” (113), and in Marjorie Perloff’s sense that Raworth inserts a “threat” of “a coherent, identifiable self” (134) into many of his poems, even despite the numerous biographical insertions. Such a tension might boil down to an paradoxical anxiety between not wanting to embrace the ‘inspired soul’ school of Romantic and conventional poetry and yet wanting to acknowledge Raworth as, in Anselm Hollo’s words, “an important figure” (73) with, in Peter Robinson’s, an “assertive lyric presence” (51).
Even the critics exhibit this same anxiety of their own authority: J.C.C. Mays begins his piece by, with tongue-in-cheek, admitting, “I am certainly the most boring person on the list of contributors. The others have first names: I still have initials” (31) and Ken Edwards does not want “to claim that I have ever turned out anything ‘very good’ ” (39). But if they really wanted to undermine or overthrow authorial authority, why produce an article focussed entirely on the achievements of one writer? Why edit such a book? Why even use a by-line in publishing if both conjunctive parts, the “by” and the “line,” lack credibility? These are rhetorical questions, and there is no easy answer. As a gesture toward a response, Raworth himself once wrote: “Why did I say we? I am not allowed to sing. Or rather, requested not to” (“A Serial Biography” 109). Recognizing the awkward theorization of Raworth’s writing, John Wilkinson takes the opposite position: “it seems to me that the account of Raworth’s writing which I have often heard - as radically decentred and ahumanistic - must be fundamentally mistaken […] The human centre to Raworth’s poems seems obvious enough” (153). Raworth, for his part, and as is often noted throughout the collection, has stayed notably silent on the subject of his presence/non-presence and agency/non-agency in his writing. As Middleton reports, Raworth once declined an interview by saying, “Thanks, but I see no point in an interview. I have no theories of, nor statements about, writing. I just put down what fits and doesn’t bore me to read” (8). The author, it turns out, is the one who writes.
Derrida, Jacques. “Tout Autre Est Tout Autre.” The Gift of Death. Trans. David Wills. Chicago: University of Chicago Press, 1995.
Fisher, Allan. Entanglement. Toronto: The Gig, 2004.
O’Sullivan, Maggie. Palace of Reptiles. Toronto: The Gig, 2003.
Raworth, Tom. Removed for Further Study: The Poetry of Tom Raworth. Ed. Nate Dorward. The Gig. 13/14 (May 2003).