I keep thinking of Jeanne Heuving and Chris Vitiello’s reading in Portland on Saturday in terms of Kasey’s recent post on poetry and stupidity. Kasey’s idea turns on the comparison between a poet and a stage magician, performing tricks only the “stupid” would want to keep watching once they figure out how the coin’s produced from behind the ear.
Vitiello and Heuving both worried stupidity of a different kind: the sleight of hand involved in language itself as it produces meaning in the fraught and fragile loop from writer to reader. Heuving opened with a poem called “Translation,” fashioned from two different English language versions of Artaud’s famous correspondence with Jacques Rivière, the editor who’d rejected the poet’s green work. Over the course of his letters, Artaud gives a fantastically detailed apologia for stupidity, insisting that his inability to write is interesting in itself as a mental, even metaphysical, phenomenon. For Artaud, the poetry is in the things that don’t work in the poem, those moments where the coin falls from the hand for the whole crowd to see. Stretching Kasey’s analogy a little, poetry in this sense might be like that old gag where the rube pats the magician and feathers float out of his jacket, the birds dead before you even saw the trick.
Heuving’s poem, which created a nifty stereo effect (and emphasized the stuttering, circular effect of Artaud’s argument) by repeating the same quotation from the letters in its competing translations, was part of a new manuscript called Abeyance. She explained her recent work as a return to the fascination with “negativity” that fueled her first book, Incapacity, while the recent Transducer, just out from Chax, stands between them as an assertion of the power of poetry to transfer energy from poet to reader. The poems she read from Transducer seemed to emphasize those materials whose forms are temporary stops between states: water as it moves from solid to liquid to gas; fragrance; seeds in their suggestion of future trees. Persephone put in an appearance in a section headed by an epigraph from H.D. about the Eleusinian mysteries, where the tug between winter and spring finds expression in the goddess’s suspended state between death and fertility. Fragments of the Gospels, with their assertion of Christ as a transducer of sorts between the human and divine, surfaced near the end, but the most engaging transfers for my money were the ear-driven ones that turned on near-mirror words like “drowse” and “douse,” with the poem spun out from the semantic distance between them. You have to be a little stupid in the good way, I think, to want to stop and stare at those teensy warps in words where meaning slips, then turn them into poems.
Chris Vitiello read the 15 poems in the “Blowing Rock, NC” section of his new book, Irresponsibility, from Ahsahta, a word I was too stupid to pronounce right until Saturday. The hypothesis of the book, he told us, is that poetry, by default, is a form of irresponsibility, a quality that’s kissing-cousins I guess to stupidity but touches too on the ways we use an apparently useless activity to evade the crappy pressures of the everyday (as in, “can’t get to it now, dear, I’m writing poetry.”) In everything Vitiello read, from Irresponsibility to a new manuscript called Obedience to a short play about “One” and “Other,” ran an insistent feeling for language as game, not Wittgenstein’s so much as one of those simple Milton-Bradley jobs that are easy to get out of the box and play, but a few moves in and you’re finding holes in the rules that send you crying to the folks to adjudicate.
Vitiello’s métier is the syntactically direct but semantically rich puzzler, somewhere between an SAT thought problem and a Steven Wright zinger, that accumulate into weirdly resonant conjunctions (“Ice is less dense than liquid water”; “pronouns are doppelgangers”; “fish can’t blink”) without ever quite letting on whether the right bubble to color was “True” or “False,” or maybe you overslept and got the wrong ScanTron altogether.
The different registers of language and observation (“read geologically,” a poem instructed at one point) included signage, pop science, childspeak, standardized fill-in-the-blankery, war news, conversational addresses to family and friends, and sharply descriptive passages of weather, nature and road conditions, all of which worked to connect the surface banality of daily existence with the surprising beauties and quiddities latent in the process of writing it down. I felt stupid for not knowing what “nicitating” was, but scored a win at One-Letter Hangman and earned a poem blacked out from a NY Times article (“Whiplash on Wall Street Ends a Roller Coaster Week in Which the Dow Fell 18%”). The words Vitiello extracted from the “responsible,” businessy-markety section of the paper was a welcome reminder that for now anyway, we still have our choice of stupidities.
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