Friday, June 13, 2008

Lisa Jarnot’s Night Scenes

Detroit, Late Afternoon

Night Scenes, by Lisa Jarnot (Flood Editions, 2008)

A lovely epigraph out of Robert Duncan:
O, to release the first music somewhere again,
        for a moment
to touch the design of the first melody!
It’s the tensile (tenuous) pause of “for a moment” that administers the ache there (as a nurse does a shot). And it’s a searingly potent longing: that one to return to the purity of impulse that made one first attempt to arrange words into something sayably new. One did it in a kind of idiot-rapture whilst big black and furry bees made loud in the agora (the glade) and blot’d out the sun. A buzzing in the brainbox, possibly the result of inadvertently chawing one’s own tongue in the thrill of invent and focus. I admire Jarnot’s donning so determinedly the morning cloak of innocence (and wonder); only rarely does it feel forced. Like here:

First train first day first donut first coffee first cab first avenue first one sock and then the other first fifty-first a dozen fifty-five first frog first stop first winter tree of leaves that fall first revolution of the sun first step toward science first fish up out of the sea, first eaten, first eater, first laughed at, first killed, first receiving radio signals, first to do this, first to do that, first beyond the first star in the moonlight with the fish gods in the moon, first at everything, first thing written in cement upon the sidewalk, first thing set in stone.

Where the disarmingly simple becomes a little suspect (and tedious) (and throwaway). (Anybody there is who writes like Gertrude Stein in a fit of simplicity is a trouble so that anybody is liable to think mayhaps simpleminded, simpleminded is not simplicity, simpleminded is simpleminded, simpleminded is rarely first.) (If I were ask’d for a pile of other sorts in the “seemingly forced” box: “Right Poem,” “What I Want to Do,” “Words,” “Birthday Poem” and “Bee Ode”—all to varying degrees.)

It’s a series of rhyming pieces that spall off the verbal hoard of (mostly) early Englishes (with, likely, some pure neologismic gaseous invents for sound, for play—“felbred feefs”?) in Night Scenes that please most. The mode’s a rich one—think of Pound’s floody archaisms; of the slippage in and out of pure materiality lines out of something like Gavin Douglas’s The Eneados offer (“The grond stud barrant, widderit, dosk or gray, / Herbis, flowris and geris wallowyt away. / Woddis, forrestis, with nakyt bewis blowt, / Stude stripyt of thar weid in every howt.”); think of, more recently, Martin Corless-Smith’s rhapsodic splurges to put worn lingo back into use, or Cormac McCarthy’s raiding of the grittier Shakespearean lexicon. I mug about in like clothes through (many of) the pieces in a manuscript I keep calling Some Alphabets (call it a “whole swirling promiscuous commixtion / Against th’enfeeble’d modern style,” call it “a wandrynge beastely lyfe / Goone in a dramms myster / unto playne madnes and follye.”) In a sense, I see in the bodacious skirling out of the archaic a reacting against the mendacious beggarliness of the endlessly dominant “plain style.” Too, I see the “commixtion” of other languages (patois, pidgin, invent’d, new—think of something like Cathy Park Hong’s Dance Dance Revolution or Rodrigo Toscano’s rangy dictions, from geek-speak to the vocables of the “blazing hipocratostacy”.) Literature longing for a con-temporaneity, an evidently flaw’d eliding of all periods (and all lingual markers), a layering that admits its layering, immiscible. Here’s Jarnot:

O sinning skel misclape thy lock
from frenzied felbred feefs
and longitudes of long tongued fuels
unpebble-dashed deceased.

Unpebble-dashed, unpebble-dashed,
Unpebble-dashed unrose,
up from the theme that random flaps
in news flash rancid hose.

A morning dress of morning field
redrenched upon the sun,
that reads the wobble of the
air, the weary cautious rung.

The red-black innards laid up bare
For all to see and spy,
tradition for the form of those
belingered, cheerful, nigh.
Is it only because yesterday—thinking to ram home a point about the bankruptcy of conceptualism, I search’d for images of Iraqi war dead and uncover’d gut-churning pictures of “red-black innards”—is that why I want to read the political (anti-war, the endlessly “cheerful” way the crooks-of-the-“era” make they murderous point) into “Sinning Skel Misclape”? Even with mention of those “long tongued fuels” and “news flash rancid” I cannot put it together. Night Scenes is hardly political in the way of Jarnot’s earlier Black Dog Songs with its fine vicious “Dumb Duke Death” chant against Dick Cheney. In lieu of anger and sass, one finds a kind of pastoral contentment (“o calm sheep in the field asleep / be quiet while my husband sleeps” or “I’d like to live unfurled / inside a yurt on clovered cliffs / with three cats, one man, and a squirrel”). Night Scenes is a mostly domestic book—of friends, dedicatees, animals, and quotidiana bemusedly spoke (“have a wheely-cart for my luggage”).

One final poem (largely because, in typing it up, I began to question my response to it):

Normal shit
like a normal person
yo normal person
under the sun
carcass haven of
cats and dogs
crossword puzzles
have coworkers
I can operate
a Xerox machine
have a
nervous spot
used to be eighteen,
was once born
a fan
in the
kitchen window
go out and
live in the woods,
build a small fire
have a hatchet
and a rabbit lair
away from
police men, garbage trucks,
and under the
temporary moon,
and under the
temporary moon.
I list’d “What I Want to Do” amongst the “seemingly forced” wondrous innocence pieces—and yet. I like the emergence at the end with the repeated “under the temporary moon” of an Edward Lear echo (“They danced by the light of the moon, / The moon, / The moon! / They danced by the light of the moon.”) Which is one final tonal jump in a poem full of tonal jumps—into an owl and pussy-cat runcible spoon world at severest distance from “police men, garbage trucks.” And yet: how place that tone against the jittery procession of tones that preceded it? Is “Normal shit / like a normal person” direct, un-ironic, (is it possible to say “normal person”?); surely the info that one has “a / nervous spot” and “used to be eighteen” is funny, making a mockery—of what?—the “normal”? However, to “go out and / live in the woods, / build a small fire” sounds nearly sincere (sincerity interrupt’d by “rabbit lair”). What to make of the “yo” punctuating it all? I probably trouble the whole thing (to excess) out of a sense that figuring out “what to do” is central to one’s writing. All arrangements temporary, all possibly “abnormal.”

Off again next week, Pittsburgh and points east: “To the land where the Bong-tree grows.”

Lisa Jarnot