Yellow House, Storm
P Dictionary SonnetI just wrote that in a few minutes with words and definitions spray’d across two pages of my dictionary, pteryla (“one of the definite areas of the skin of a bird on which feathers grow”) to pulpit (“an elevated platform or high reading desk”) Grabbing whatever my eyes lit up, rejecting some (false cogitanda), mostly punctuating (or hardly) after completing the fourteen lines. All because I received Laynie Browne’s Daily Sonnets in the mail, and read, in the “Notes”:
Puddling or converting pig iron
Dragging or tugging
To pull one’s leg
Book using rough-
Surfaced paper made of wood
Pugnacious belligerent nature, a slightly
Concave bridge and flattened nostrils
To draw a gun
To pull a crankshaft
To blow in short gusts
A very small pool of dirty
Worked into a compact
Covered with fine short hairs
All dictionary sonnets are based on the same chance procedure, which I call a dictionary divination. Open the dictionary at random. Write a poem using only the text that appears on the facing pages in front of you.Fun, though rather un-edifying in the final go. To me. What I think about nearly all such pressure-cooker devices. Preferring the slow cook of blurring my optics out and seeing the miniature Poetryland splay’d out in front of me, the tiny god tapping my shoulder to point out the gist of it all, the particulars, the white shine of the birches, the sere yellow leaves, the peaty bogs. Likely I’d tamper with it—putty knife scrape-down, get my rewrite hombres (they, decidedly, not gods) in with ticklish manoeuvres, final fine-tunings, all whilst keeping a large percentage of the skeletal diction, if nothing else. That’s one way to do the hokey-poke.
Here’s Laynie Browne’s “P Dictionary Sonnet”:
He (or she) painted (it) formerly—
Any evergreen, conebearing pistolwhip
A game played by two, three, or four
Pirates conveying baseless fancy
Used for trimming edges and seams
Of light sailing vessels
One of those who first enter or settle a
Long series of pipes, having leaflets
Arranged on each side of a common
Piscatorial whirling about on one
Pious foot or an archaic ant used
In singing for a teammate in the brain
Of all vertebrates which revolves when
Blown upon a pin
I like Daily Sonnets (Counterpath Press, 2007) immensely. It’s got heft, and variety, and no dishonesty. As such, it is probably the friendliest book of these wearing-down ’thousands. It also sports (the word is wrong, it is tuck’d discretely into the back, just before the notes) one of the finest statements of—not “theory”—the work is too audaciously pragmatic for that—“practice” ever: “The Permeable ‘I,’ A Practice.” Some excerpts:
This is a collaborative experiment in time. Consider ways to rearrange your time and space tendencies as a method (write yourself out of whatever existing parameters you fall into) and see what happens.And later, Browne, mother to two small boys, calls the stance “a plea against the invisibility of the guardian”—only to immediately revise that to make it more all-encompassing:
. . .
And finally after many years of controlled circumstances, the allowing in of all voices , all time. Deep and scattered fragments of time. Loud and physical time.
. . .
I have collaborated with the daily news, with other poets, with the bumpiness of days passing in real time and with children’s voices, books, and sense of time. . . . When time is unhinged anyone or thing can speak: the dead, the imagined, the dictionary, he found. There is an openness I attempt to enter as an experiment, as a salute to, or recognition of time passing.
A plea against invisibility or blindness to whatever circumstance you find yourself within. The circumstance may also become, inform, or suggest the poem and the practice.Coalescing here is O’Hara’s “you go on your nerve,” Williams’s typewriter attached to the desk, swung up at a moment’s lull or notice, Apollinaire and “Lucky” Pierre Albert-Birot’s insistence on immediacy and coterie, Dada’s disclosing enclosures of silliness and goof. And, with that “breath” and the hand-sized page, Olson’s bodily poetics, Duncan’s open field. All that ladled over the oldest and commonest of forms of the European tradition. Formidable!
All mental states, traps, games, and assemblages are welcome here. My sonnets are an approachable unruly gathering. What the poems have in common is that they practice permeability.
I think of the modern sonnet as an increment of time within a frame. Something that often physically fits into a little rectangle (but not in thought). Something you can utter in one long convulsive breath or hold in your palm. When my hand covers the page, it disappears. It’s a controlled measure of sound and space within which one can do anything.
Besides the dictionary works, there are innumerable smaller series within Browne’s 151 sonnets (roughly a Shakespeare’s worth, with a double and a triple tuck’d in probably a perfect Shakespeare): “protector” sonnets—“guarding one from all manner of current cultural malaise”; homophonic translations (of Rilke, of the Chris Daniels-translated Josely Vianna Baptista); sonnets of Baron Marc Selys Longchamps (1875-1963), “the last scientist, before [Browne’s husband], to study the evolution of the ascidian [Tunicata subphylum, a marine chordate, the “sea tulips” and “sea squirts”] heart; sonnets beginning with a line borrow’d (off Ted Berrigan, Anselm Berrigan, Elizabeth Robinson, Jordan Davis); and several lovely—seemingly early-morning composed—“love sonnets to light.” Here’s one:
My love for you is not circumstantialA kind of solid calm tone play’d on by syntactical probes, so that some phrases (as if lit) read differently, shine with ambiguity. There’s ample humor (“We’re in the thick of early sentences”, la vita domestica (“Late-night pick-up of small plastic objects”), the abject polis (“Remember, you’re a bad guy / I want my head on / My hood / Even in death, “daring man”)—and some sonnets get cut short, lovable duds (or child’s play) like “Vinegar Sauce and Cauliflower (or 6/14 Sonnet)” that goes:
As an after-breakfast sonnet may
Summon the day but rather
Influential as the weather
I adorn myself with your greetings
Your circumstantial skin contains not
Your being but a form of your
With which you pierce all encounters
Anyone will permit
Themselves to be hidden within
You alliterate, you borrow time
From leaves, you calm me with
Your voluminous absence
efggfAnd some’re nigh inexplicably perfect, or as perfect as anybody’d want—nobody wants a thing without a burr or two. I’d put forth number 108 as one amongst many:
So as not to wake you I undress on the stairsStunning, the range and trajectory of intelligently-limned feeling between that “undress” and “undo.”
Bulb extinguished as I write like a bee
upon the controversial table
My absence is something
I cannot explain by white space
and yet your look misunderstands
what the children resemble as they sleep
Remembering the charm of responsibility
is as inexplicable as human form
Further than habits gathered or dropped
There is no permanence in
devotion of that kind which does
not require a guardian even in rest
Your may undo or walk away from anything else
Jordan Davis ask’d me—referring to my Barbara Guest back cover evidence (see March 16)—what to make of Burning Deck’s, that is, the Waldrops’s “shift from ecumenicals to doctrinaires, albeit international-minded ones . . .” Which got me thinking an ungodly number of things. Do presses become doctrinaire because people do? Meaning that the model (usual) trajectory (shape) of a life is a kind of winnowing, a narrowing of focus, a distilling out? I think about the catholicism, the eclectic bagginess of Ithaca House. Publishing Ron Silliman, Tom Mandel, Maxine Chernoff, Christopher Buckley, William Hathaway, Deborah Tall, Ray DiPalma, Bob Perelman, Albert Goldbarth, amongst (many) others. Had the press continued beyond the mid-’eighties, would it, too, ’ve sliced and diced itself into an identifiable niche? (I recall distinctly, and angrily, being confront’d by somebody I now keep brain-pickled as singularity and jerk, and maybe wrongly: James Sherry at a New York Small Press Fair circa 1982. He paw’d a little at the recentest Ithaca House wares with no little disdain, condescension beginning to cover him like a rash. Proceeded to announce how we’d “started off right” but’d lamentably fail’d to see it out, whatever “it” he pictured. Maybe it wasn’t James Sherry, it doesn’t matter—one of the jeunes cadres moyens of the Segue enterprise, deck’d out like a personnel manager. The remark stank of faltering off something like The Way, and fundamentalists and ideologues’ve always struck me as paltry. Safeguarding the very dribble. Ungenerous.)
A point arrived in the small press “world” when one start’d noticing an influx of something like “professionalization”—Toothpaste Press stopped doing letterpress, dump’d its name, coterie, and terrific logo, moved to Minneapolis and became the duller Coffee House, that kind of thing. Letterpress d.i.y. replaced by offset. The piecemeal fun for the fuck-of-it, get-the-hands-dirty model got replaced by something smoother, clean-cut, put away childish things. People decided maybe they could “make a living at it,” and the stakes got higher. One way is to ply oneself to market conditions. I recall a period when Coffee House seem’d a little stuck on ethnic identity fiction, riding that multicultural wave. (They weren’t the only ones.) In the early ’eighties a slick (think Fine Woodworking, maybe) trade magazine call’d Small Press even sprang up, featurettes and buzz, salve for the fact that the review media mostly ignored most of us.
Finding a niche and exploiting it. It occurs rather without plan, “natural happenstance” in some cases. One publishes something that gets a little attention and similar writers come around with similar “wares.” A press gets a reputation and no longer attracts X kind of writer, it’s busy with the Ys and any X doing the homework of reading the wares’d avoid it. I think the “doctrinaire” comes along then—not just for Burning Deck, if it does for Burning Deck, I paid less attention over the years—but in a wider way. Clearly, if one’s got limited resources, it’s easier—cheaper—to pour them into a hole wherein amasses a consolidated audience. It’s cheaper and very likely more “effective” to place a series of ads in, say, The Poetry Project Newsletter than one there and one in TriQuarterly and one in The New Criterion, &c.
Too, the high-intent goofiness and self-amusements that defined some scenes (the “because it’s a gas” schools) got not-so-pleasantly scold’d for lacking theory-clot (or something) by the Language boys, all business and serious dub. Along with trickle down theory talk out the university it no longer appear’d “natural”—the way one “natural” replaces another in succession—to stick oneself out in the random outskirts as a half-crazed isolato mmmpfing in one’s linen. I don’t believe for a minute that outstanding periods of literary “progress” come about by doctrinal coup. Without the soak and fuss and intermingling of a terrible batch of styles, without the sight to see through the gaggles of the like-minded, and pull down the oddballs out of the lumpen-vanitous, benign inertia results.
Truth is, there are too many writers, too many publishing too much, too quickly. And in the mêlée, even a minuscule throng’ll stand a better chance of outing the scuffle than a solitary porker in a porkpie hat, or a confused troop of such porkers (in fez, in Stetson, in Homburg, in watchcap, in pillbox, &c.) Individual porker knows it; Troop of Porkers Press knows it. So the narrowing.
(Which is all rather inchoate and miasmic, writ in too many sittings, stew’d up during too many walks. For what it’s worth.)