Review & Commentary
Summer 2000


Richard Deming 

FINDING THE WAY: 3 from Scissors by Graham Foust (Meow Press, 1998); Surge by Matthew Cooperman (Kent State University Press, 1999)


I must confess-I've never quite understood what William Carlos Williams meant when he said, "no ideas but in things." Clearly it's both an insistence on the concrete, and a plea for the poet to let the world say itself. But the poem is, as Williams also says, "a small (or large) machine made of words." That seems to me entirely a modernist claim that
also feels a bit limiting. Can we make our way to a poetry that sees self, culture, and language as being in motion? In other words, can we think of the poem as the act of the mind in finding itself? There's reason enough to think that's possible.

Robert Duncan in writing about his poem, "The Structure of Rime I," said that "It has seemed to me that I wrestle with the syntax of the world of my experience to bring forward into the Day the twisted syntax of my human language that will be changed in that contest even with what I dread there." He goes on to conclude that he has come to think of poetry as "a wrestling with Form to liberate Form." Duncan, of course, often considers his poetics through a lens of mythos: "Myth is the story told of what cannot be told," the poet writes. Clearly this resonates with Wittgenstein's idea that "Whereof one cannot speak, thereof one must be silent." Read in conjunction with Duncan's definition of myth Wittgenstein's is merely a statement of fact, and not a moral injunction.

In either case we see that poetry takes as its project to assay language's, and thus the world's, limits. Poetry, even more than philosophy, is an activity and not a doctrine in that it explores the unspeakable by "displaying" or negotiating the speakable as a complex system of relations linked by semantics and sound. In this way culture and ideology are always the implicit subjects of poetry.

But part of what we need poets for is for articulations, even enactments of what that feels like. That is to say, here in the
thick of postmodernity, what does it mean to be a subject?

Johnny Lydon (formerly the infamous Johnny Rotten) in a song by Public Image Ltd. bellows out that "Anger is an energy." Graham Foust's small collection, 3 from Scissors, is I think a collection that moves by a kind of anger. It's a quiet, complex anger that largely goes unspoken and yet not unnoticed. If Americans are, by and large, a violent lot, it may be because of this subtle and complicated tension that Foust foregrounds,
edging into the surface of things. In "The Teeth Lying on the Beach Apparently Belonged to No One," he writes "far-broken / and all but outsaid// hushed rust the meat /of tunes beyond moving // another word for water is lost / and lost," and we see there is evidence of an anger that's both persvasive and unresolved.

This isn't some manipulative confessional poetry about anger, but in its unsatisfied desire for resolution 3 from Scissors enacts a pervasive yet unformulated frustration. Here in Foust's poem sequence, signifier and signified slip further and further apart, making clear that what needs to be said is "all but outsaid," and entropy and mortality enter into that space where words become wounds, and wounds become the world. Our time to say anything grows shorter and shorter, while our need to express the inexpressible grows keener and keener. The violence of our silence turns inward and there are "no moments / when bruises hide."
3 from Scissors uncovers its meditation by studied degrees of revelation. The field of these poems is an intense, spare place, altogether defined by its activity. Foust sees that careful attention to languaging the world affords an opportunity to say something, anything. In that the world compels us to speak, the language which forces us to articulate is also simultaneously, because it is always inadequate, what makes it impossible for us to finally utter the world made flesh. Foust writes:

today's an egg
a project lost
the last of August
in an unopened window

sworn in
its glass sentence stays blown

extinct by default
the room enters us

Throughout Foust's book, we see that each subject can also become an object--every thing, every person encountering forces that they can neither control nor hide from--even the day is an egg, both fragile and fecund.

Even language, the means by which we could make sense of it all is, by turns, a delicate thing and that which imprisons us in "a glass sentence." While we are captured by language, it is also the means by which we see the bright obvious of the world, even if only at a remove.

Running like a thread throughout Foust's work is the belief that things, ideas, sounds, move associatively. But the associations are diverse and\ divergent and connections are arrived at not merely by sound, not merely by idea, but by a complex, rhizomatic interlacing. But in all that there are small provisions for the casual visitor. In Walden, Thoreau writes; "I fear chiefly lest my expression not be extra-vagant enough." If as Wittgenstein says, "We are everywhere in language," Foust seeks to expand the bounds and possibilities of that "everywhere" by increasing (or rather reminding us of), the means of language, by being inclusively extra-vagant. Freed from limiting conventions of discursivity, the reader becomes a poet by also becoming (in a compensatory and complementary way) extra-vagant. Language is a various relationship of relations-a dwelling. It may be ultimately contingent, but a community springs from that contingency. Foust's is a difficult music and the reader earns his or place in that community by its sympathies and attentions.

We are thrown together, for better or for worse, Foust's poems tell us, by our mortality and our articulate hesitancies. We have no consolation, no respite from the unlocatable pain and anger
at having arrived here in the moment of where we are, and Graham Foust's 3 from Scissors finally gives no real respite. In "Man Carrying Thing," Wallace Stevens tells us that "We must endure our thoughts all night, until / The bright obvious stands motionless in cold." In the arc of its motion, 3 from Scissors shows us how
one might endure even "when / pain's the face / trembled by / as absent" by a willingness to face that anger and rewrite it into a troubled and troubling beauty.

If Foust's locus is the unlocatable frustrations of closure and desire, in his book Surge Matthew Cooperman's locus is place itself. "The trail of waking's a complicated dream," he tells us in "Success." In his attempts to locate himself Cooperman's work strives to strike a balance between various poetics in order to go after "the big game." Usually we'd reach here for the metaphysical mumbo-jumbo of the "ineffable." But Cooperman's work isn't interested in the metaphysical. Instead he investigates the materials of the self, and how intention orders the chance collages of happenings. "Where is it you're from?" the poet asks in "Field Trip." Surge reveals the difficulties of addressing such a question. The principle encounter is one of determining subjective form itself. Where do we locate the "I"? Is it in language? Is it in the body; does consciousness disclose the "I"?
Don't get me wrong, Cooperman is writing within culture (well, we always are-but Cooperman is aware of it, and that's far more rare) but there is that space of resistance between the public and the private, that arena of negotiation, that for want of a better word we can call (after Foucault but differently) soul or-to use a term with somewhat less baggage-self. Anything and everything suggests how we come to know ourselves as
inhabitants of our historical and cultural moment.

Tiny Tim, a can of Tab, a poem by Keats, a sagging red chair, are not just objects: they are actions of memory that evoke "the idea of home." To find our way back to "the bright cathedral of childhood," these poems show us, is to discover where we are now in this, the dialogue of the present tense, and to do that we
must learn to read the signifiers of what we might call "elsewhere."

Surge's disclosure is the erotics of self fashioning. "Atoms, our rise, our ink: of that / which is blood, / substance of color, / where it begins and ends: of love / living, when it touches last its nature / not knowing its last," he writes in the title poem. The body, Cooperman seems to tell us, is the memory made sensuous. The poet finds the intimacies that place, in its exactitudes, affords-how "it seems possible," Cooperman tells us, "with the bathroom light flickering, and the howl of the winter wind passing over the newly fallen snow, that the world has intention." In his montage of images and the concrete particulars, Surge places things together to find their affinities, the way place is a text, a web, a tissuing together of particles and participles that make appearance
possible. In the ratio of then and here we find memory tells us to ourselves, "We are the lost light of what's said, you say, taking another drag." Surge unfolds in its eloquent insistences what it means to be here.

Nothing more than this? Nothing less. In "A-8," Zukofsky writes, "Come we to full points here; and are et ceteras nothing?" The et ceteras, as Cooperman and the serious, elegant lyrics of Surge tell us, are the place to begin.

These are books that help us disclose what Stevens refers to as the "A B C of being" and yet Surge and 3 from Scissors are small books from small presses and are apt to go laregrly unnoticed. They are, however, ambitious in their intensities and acute disclosures and require serious considered attention.

Outside of will and intention, these books make their way through the world as if it were possibility and not explanation. And that is no small thing. In fact that may be the very thing that poetry's for.


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