Thursday, March 15, 2007

"Opie as Emperor" (2)

Jared Hayes opened with a poem for his grandmother, always a scary prospect but one that set us up for a deadpan listing of souvenir spoons—spoon from Niagara Falls, spoon from Pearl Harbor Memorial, commemorative U.S. bicentennial spoon, etc.—that gradually built to a touching sidelong biography of his, well, grandmother. He followed with a witty “no ideas but in things” tribute to WCW that sucked everything but the nouns out of selected Williams poems; a piece dedicated to Harry Smith that worked what sounded like procedural variations on the home phrase “Ukranian chickens eating” in a way that put me in mind of some of the product lists in Deer Head Nation (“World’s Largest Robot Store,” for instance); and a poem called “The Gertrude Spicer Story, Act II” that dropped nouns from Spicer’s Language poems into Stein’s sentence structures from Tender Buttons.

Like the spoons and Williams pieces suggest, Hayes’s reading showed a preference for the ‘nouny’ side of language, as opposed to its gossamer adjectives and subjunctives. Slimmed of their verbs, I was surprised at how differently the lines from WCW's poems related to time. The words became more thing-like—objective—without their everyday syntactic connectors, forcing the listener to attend to the present instead of waiting for some larger grammatic structure to uncurl. Where Czerski’s work had me moving in a metaphysical direction, Hayes’s reading inclined me toward ‘thisness’, treating text as stuff to be stretched and borrowed and moved around and stuck against other texts in a way that managed to deflate the formalist preciousness that hangs over so much contemporary poetry while still paying tribute to the 'home' poets who’ve help to shape his approach to language (including his contemporaries—each section he read from “The Gertrude Spicer Story, Act II” was dedicated to a friend who’d influenced him in some way.)

I was impressed by the way Hayes uses his source texts (a pretty intimidating gaggle) without being overwhelmed by them, and without leaning too heavily on process to make the work sing. I never lost the sense that I was listening to poems, successful on their own terms and not necessarily in reference to their authors or the procedures used to tweak them. Maybe it was the Spicer that put me in mind of magic and alchemy, but it seemed like Hayes was combining his texts in hopes of revealing the occult structure that connects them, borrowing their language to conjure the books back to life.

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