Wednesday, April 25, 2007

Equilibrium's Form

Rob Schlegel and Susanne Dyckman read in Portland on Sunday to a rapt and decidedly under-30 crowd, beards and crushed velvet and lime topcoats and a newborn, the welcome equipage of Bohemia Northwest.

Rob Schlegel read from two long poems, “The Empire Builder” and “Iceblink.” The first takes its name from the Amtrak line that runs the Chicago-to-West Coast route. The poem offered a fairly straight-ahead succession of images you might see from the window on a train (birds, trees, rivers in thaw, the lights of faraway T.V.s) while the experience of observing the world in that way—in blurs and snatches, faced with what’s immediately in front of you at the instant just before it disappears—gradually deepened into an analogue for consciousness more generally, with the landscape and the subject perceiving it treated as two fluid sides of the same interpenetrating mind. (“Is deer real, daddy, or is daddy real, deer?”)

“Iceblink” continued the interest in matters natural and phenomenological with a close attention to what’s observed that produced images freighted with philosophical, even moral, suggestion: “everything else emerging in increments of porch light;” “turns a flower into witness;” “to detect in the orchard/the orchard’s decay.” Schlegel’s work drew me most where it treated Nature as a theater of taut ambiguities; one of the risks that goes with that territory is a kind of loose, Robert Haas-y secular piety that makes of the world an occasion for baffled wonder.

Susanne Dyckman read “short poems, but a lot of them”—a selection of pieces in response to Frida Kahlo’s paintings; sections from Counterweight, her Woodland Editions chapbook; and a portion of equilibrium’s form, a new full-length collection from Shearsman, which sounds like it incorporates work from Transiting Indigo, her 2005 Etherdome chap (which I just saw reviewed in Xantippe).

Counterweight collages texts from Kabir (via Tagore), Artaud, and Dyckman’s own notebooks to create a calibrated mysticism that balances Kabir’s pull toward ecstasy with Artaud’s ascetic pursuit of ‘fecality,’ where no thought occurs without a body and spirit’s a temporary pulsation in the flesh. There was a similar play of weight and counterweight in the Kahlo poems, where the visual has to stretch to reach the verbal, and the “cacophany of color” implicit in images like “the cockatiel’s bower” or Frida’s pet monkeys (“rapture pivots on your neck”) was pulled through the cooler medium of words: “ours the surface of your dream.”

Dyckman seemed to share with Schlegel an interest in the poet’s role as seer or spiritual seeker, most at home where everyday reality softens and gets a little crepuscular: “there’s no rising moon, no sun, just/the in-between.” Both also read work that conveyed a sense of great care being taken with language, not 'crafted' necessarily in the precious Poetry way, but weighed and scrupulously placed: “every word sought/is collected and distilled.” Listening to both poets, I had the impression—suggested in part by Dyckman’s titles—of a yen for the mystical squared and brought into equilibrium with a reverence for the world we find ourselves in here, with its particular blurs and shadows, and for the words that make it present.

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