Wednesday, February 20, 2008

Clouds Taste Retallack

I’ve read The Poethical Wager, but until she came to Portland this month I’d never heard Joan Retallack in person. Blogs and PennSounds and Ubuwebs help—and, sure, books too—but it’s hard to find the fulcrum between a poet’s presence and their cadence until you meet them in the flesh.

The punning, improvisations, omnivorous reference and philosophical play of Retallack’s essays had prepared me for someone much faster, a sort of intellectual leaf-blower powering ideas up into a giant helix of perpetual wow. What came to the fore in her actual speech was the weight given to the spaces between words, so that moving through her syntax, whether prepared or spoken on the fly, was an adventure in possible meanings, as the clauses took new turnings in the pauses. More than any single thing she read, it was this manner of speaking, and its way of blurring distinctions between the read and spoken, the written and improvised, that stayed with me after the event.

What I see more clearly now in her puns and neologisms ("Other-Ness Monster," "poethical") are the traces of the word not chosen, but not quite relinquished either; a kind of thoughtful hesitancy that gives thinking a chance to register its own movements in language and offers that sound back into the syntactic flow as ‘feedback’: a clause extends, parentheses drop into the sentence, a portmanteau blooms.

A line from one of her poems addressed the sphere that is “the total curvature of all spheres,” and I wrote down something about “the prisms including their vertices” that must be close to something she actually said. It was something like that expanded, algorithmic sense of language that came through in her work, which calls attention in an especially intense way to the meanings or “vertices” that surround the language of any given sentence as possible inclusions. (Though, true, sometimes you just want your language to order lunch.)

Procedure, she read, lends “a tonic otherness” to words, and there was an implicit resistance to poetry as a display of mastery that made nearly everything she said, on the podium or off, sound like an incitement to explore.

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