My subject is Mark Wallace’s Notes from the Center on Public Policy (Altered Scale 2014), but I begin with some reflections of Robert Duncan’s The H.D. Book (U. Cal., 2011). I must also note with sadness due to the ephemerality of the web, as Jeff Derkson noted on his blog. In any case, the fine works produced at Altered Scale, even those that took paperback form, are now extremely difficult to find.
For Duncan, to simplify, the work of H.D., E.P., as well as his own, is “making it new.” Make something old and missing again vital, restoring ourselves to ourselves. Poetry is understood as a process of old forms, old forces, and old faces surfacing through the palimpsests that are the multiple surfaces of new work. The perception of immanence, that, by contrast to Duncan, I sometimes seek to articulate, lies among multiple discrete parts, associated by contiguities and discontinuities that reveal rifts and aporias. These gaps may indeed be all or the only stuff of immanence, an articulation of negative space. Otherwise the work product may more nearly resemble Brownian movement in a perpetually transformative swirl, never patterned entelechies.
Duncan writes, “the time of a poem is felt as a recognition of a return in vowel tone and in consonant formations, of pattern in the sequence of syllables, in stress and in pitch of a melody, of images and meanings” (99). Beauty of language aside, the factor of a return is crucial for Duncan, not Wallace. Within the phrasing and semantic drift of Wallace’s unrelenting and convoluted paragraphs, there is little attention to the prosodic features that so delight Duncan and which many today, including myself, often build into poetry as baroque ornamentation, if not evidence of soulfulness. Wallace evokes the anti-humanistic ethos of our corporate and message-driven world of political and consumerist clichés, offering page after page of sculpted but cumulatively directionless paragraphs. For Wallace, it seems then, that there is now no poetry, at least of the identifiable sort dear to Duncan. The book intends primarily, however, to mock the accumulation of human capital that is central to the postmodernism of Pierre Bourdieu. Swirling contradictory and inconclusive utterances test received notions of the real at every turn (15). The role of communication supersedes the value of the subject of communication. “Each official communication existed primarily to cement its relations to the previous communication while doing nothing about what it discussed” (18). Such abstract “cement” is the only perceptible real in this text. “It was impossible not to react. Revenge, retaliation, blame, sadness, seeking, seeking, analysis, cautious tentative balances, organizing, protesting, trading information, looking below or on surfaces, moaning lyricism, personal confessions …”(31). The list is endless, the commas do lend the phrasing a noticeable rhythmic effect. The passage denigrates any lyric value that might be attached to the ego (an expected effect). The long sentence cited above ends “no one was listening.” Language has attained the despairing depths familiar to Duncan’s sometime friend Jack Spicer. The language is not rhapsodic, or seductive contra a Jean Baudrillard. It is the only production that we have, but it has little meaning apart from its function as “cement,” little substance; instead, claims become things (40). The philosophical aporia that bedevils claims to immanence becomes “the brink of a rift” (53), but “drift” supplies a rhyme a few lines down the page. Wallace’s phrasing is impeccable, even at its most tedious. Accidentally, or as a result of dumb association, to my mind, as I read the above passage, I heard the word ”riff,” understood as a take on a melody, ceaselessly and purposefully mundane. With such stuff, poetry may articulate its bare bones?