Incomprehension is usually the result of obfuscation, the words refusing to slip into focus
– (Foreword Annie Dillard’s “The Abundance” by Geoff Dyer)
My recent enjoyable excursion into the world of Mary Ruefle via “My Private Property”, exposed me to the publisher Wave Books, and, as I frequently do, I purchased a couple of other books from Wave Book’s recent catalogue. September 2016 releases, “Calamities” by Renee Gladman and “Violet Energy Ingots” by Hoa Nguyen. First up let’s look at Renee Gladman’s latest release, “Calamities”.
The Poetry Foundation website describes Renee Gladman:
Born in Atlanta, poet, novelist, and publisher Renee Gladman earned a BA at Vassar College and an MA in poetics at the New College of California. Gladman, whose work has been associated with the New Narrative movement, composes prose and poetry that tests the potential of the sentence with mapmaking precision and curiosity.
Author of the poetry collection A Picture-Feeling (2005), Gladman has also published several works of prose, including Event Factory (2010), The Activist (2003), Juice (2000), and Arlem (1994), and a monograph of drawings, Prose Architectures (2017). She has edited Leon Works, an experimental prose chapbook series, as well as the Leroy chapbook series. Gladman lives in Massachusetts and teaches at Brown University.
A collection that is an attempt at defining the problem of “where you are in a defined space and what your purpose is for being there”, the work at times feel liberating (as you find the space) and claustrophobic at other times (as the definitions pin you in). The book opens with forty-four short essays, narratives all opening with the phrase “I began the day…”, it closes with “The Eleven Calamities” which number fourteen in total?!!?
I closed the inner essay to look at the outer. I wanted to find a word or sentence that would prove there was an even larger essay that was further outside of this one. I closed the quotes of lying in the bed with my eyes closed, and opened my eyes, looking literally into the face of the question of narrative, which was the emptiness of my apartment and the long stretch of the day that lay ahead.
A collection that muses on the fringes of human existence, the spaces you never read (or write) about, there are a few difficult passages as there is an assumption that we all understand the idiosyncrasies of specific United States geographies.
I began the day reading the third section of Eileen Myles’ Inferno. I was in “Heaven,” and had been awake only a short time, still in bed, lying on my side. I hadn’t yet had coffee, so after a line or so of the book my eyes would close. I’d be sleeping, except also reading. The book would go on in my mind as I slept (how much time passes in this state?), until suddenly I’d be awake and would find the book fallen to the floor (it wasn’t a high bed) or sitting at an impossible angle in my hand. I’d right the book and try to find my place. The lines I’d been reading would not be there. Where had I gotten them? They continued the story perfectly, but not, it turned out, in the direction Eileen had wanted it to go. But, why? My additions were not terrible, and they seemed bodily connected to her text, and what’s further, they stayed with me as I went on reading, mingling with the lines that actually were there. I woke up again. I was thinking this and not reading the page I was reading and I didn’t quite know what I was thinking though it made sense with what had been on my mind before I’d fallen asleep. I’d been reflecting on how your mind writes what you read and lays it out only one or two steps ahead of you, so that there’s always a risk of taking a step that isn’t there yet.
An exploration of location, exploring structures in fiction, these are luminous creations, that explain the art of writing poetry (“Poetry comes out of nothing…read the nothing”), and novel writing (“asked it to step out of its hiding place, its refusal place, and come to me.”). These are multi layered essays, layers of an onion, “each one thicker as you moved outward, away from the core, though onions have no true core, or rather, no core that survives our trying to reach it.”
A revelatory, hallucinatory read as you work your way through space, there are large passages I simply did not understand, however this became part of the reading challenge as I moved through the day to day mundane minutiae of Renee Gladman’s life “for much of the day nothing happens, nothing ever happens”, luminous sections, confusing sections, sometimes the works “refusing to slip into focus”.
Hoa Nguyen’s poetry collection, also from Wave Poetry, “Violet Energy Ingots” is even more confusing, opening with the dedication “For Aphrodite, deathless and of the spangled mind”, the luminous nuggets scattered throughout the poems are like searching for flecks of gold, only once you have enough can you create an “ingot”.
In “Mekong I” (pg 6) A poet’s birth is like a delta spreading into strands “become/mangroves stranded/and braid your oiled hair” the poems containing vivid imagery of silt, sand, stone, a “River as sift/ and sorter”, the poem containing the lifeblood of floating markets, but still an area to be traversed.
Political, these works become even more focused in these uncertain times…
Who was Andrew Jackson?
He was the seventh president of the United States
He was responsible for the Indian Removal Act
He was poor but ended up rich
He was an enslaver of men, women, and children
He was given the nickname “Indian killer”
He was put on the twenty-dollar bill
Like Renee Gladman’s “Calamities”, where each of the opening essays opens with “I began the day…”, we have the poem “Week of Words” where a few insignificant snippets of a week’s activities are presented, the news, a number of seemingly unconnected events all broken with spacing, where the reader is unaware of the activities, the spaces where the action resides, it is not (cannot be?) put into words, “snow all day/snow all day”
A collection that blends the solstice, the seasons, star signs, the mystical, blended with the sceptical. The collection of sixty-one poems are, at times, incomprehensible another work where the result is “obfuscation, the words refusing to slip into focus”. You know these are important statements, the fragments moving into your consciousness, but residing elsewhere.
I’ve covered this collection here, and purposely chosen one of the more formal, recognisable poems, as I would like to highlight some of the poetry collections I do read, where I am simply out of my depth. An enjoyable book, however one I cannot explain.
Excerpts of both books are available at the publisher’s webpage here.