Wednesday, May 02, 2007

Certain Slants

David Abel and Charles Alexander read together at Lindsay and Nita Hill’s home in NE Portland last Thursday. I miss all the house readings in the Bay Area and I hope they catch on here. The casual setting, complete with Nita and Lindsay’s cat jumping into laps, encouraged the readers to try out longer, more complex pieces that mikes and a less intimate audience might have quashed.

David Abel opened with poems from “Sweep,” which he described as an “ongoing, open-ended serial project,” numbered according to the days on which they were written—304, 376, etc. The diurnal ordering and apothegmatic quality of the verse (one poem in its entirety read: “psycho-geography/as trope/meaning/as trope”) suggested a writing especially responsive to the pace and imperatives of daily life. The poems seemed open to the “sweep” of the quotidian—the thoughts and phrases that might occur in the course of habitual reading or in the time stolen from more routine tasks—but also had me thinking of ‘sweeping’ in another sense: a clearing-out of incidental clutter, a desire pare down to essentials in the face of the messy, ever-present everyday: “I try to begin/my life/but it isn’t/possible.”

He followed with a long poem, “Times of Day,” which consisted of one-word (mostly monosyllabic) lines that managed to create different possibilities for connection without resorting to an explicit syntax, leaving the links between sound and semantics fluid, not so unlike the way the mind gleans meaning as it moves through ordinary time. Abel opened by saying that he’d thought of calling it “A Novel,” which points to the condensed micro-narratives the words seemed to form—“enemy/energy/January;” “excuse/success”—before shifting the listener’s attention to a new cluster of associations held together by music as much as meaning. The leaps invited by a sequence like “football/soccer/future,” for instance, suggest a story—maybe a European ‘football’ star, Beckham-like, coming to America for a lucrative future; maybe a prediction that the future belongs to soccer, not football, as the U.S. goes global—but it's also driven aurally by the twin alliterative ‘f’-words flanking “soccer,” which near-rhymes with “future” while sharing vowel sounds in its first syllable with “ball.” (Visually, “soccer” also links back to “football” with its double 'cc's.) The process of holding these different associations in the mind at the speed that the single-word lines required drew attention in an especially concentrated way to the activity involved in placing sound into the larger linguistic structures that make it mean. “Meaning/as trope” for that motion?

Charles Alexander read “Aviary Corridor” (performed in Seattle this weekend to music by Tim Risher) and some of the “Pushing Water” sections from his new Junction Press book, Certain Slants. He gave the rest of his time to a long piece (I missed the name) built from a series of riffs on clichés like “down the drain,” “under the gun,” “everything but the kitchen sink,” “full speed ahead,” “make hay while the sun shines,” “nothing new under the sun," "no time like the present," "down the rabbit hole," etc. By abbreviating, scrambling, and slyly punning on these commonplace phrases, the poem disrupted the mind's usual habit of fast-forwarding through the specifics of language to ‘get to the point’ while skipping over its conventional burps and tics. Here, the skips were the point, and the piece showed off poetry’s ability to energize even the most formulaic language by focusing on the gap between our trained syntactic (& social) expectations and the actual, real-time encounter with words as sound. Both Abel and Alexander asked us to be present to language in a way that our ordinary experience of words simultaneously thwarts and grounds. With just a certain slant of attention, their work seemed to promise the everyday could look completely new.

Plus I learned that it’s hard not to love a poet’s work when he’s petting a cat.

1 comment:

charles said...

Thanks, Rodney, and sorry it took me so long to read this. I had thought of the everyday phrases in Pushing Water 37 as turning points more than as "the matter," but your take allows for both, and I like that. It was marvelous to read in Portland at Lindsay & Nita's home, for such a good audience. And I liked the cat, too.