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as a flowing, as a succession in time

Thus music and narration are alike, in that they can only present themselves as a flowing, as a succession in time, as one thing after another; and both differ from the plastic arts, which are complete in the present, and unrelated to time save as all bodies are, whereas narration—like music—even if it should try to be completely present at any given moment, would need time to do it in. So much is clear.

—Thomas Mann, The Magic Mountain

Last week, for the first time in a long time, I swapped poems with a fellow poet. We each asked the other Is it ready to send out? and Where should I send it?

Her poem—amazing, arresting. She’s moving huge spans of time in such a short space. You will read this poem one day and feel the same way, I know. But I got hung up on the stanza shape: her poem’s disposed in six-line stanzas, but I felt there was another shape—a ghost stanza—beneath these sextets. Every fourth line seemed especially strong, every fourth line-break. There was so much extra torque there. Had the poem been written in quatrains?

This was one of those questions that was interesting to me because I’ve been obsessing over stanza shapes, line breaks, and the like, different ways to manage time. I’ve been playing with using a four-line stanza (first and third lines are four or five beats, second line has one fewer beat, fourth line two fewer beats or variable) in my drafts and then breaking that four-line stanza over, for example, a tercet shape or asking a sestet shape to override it. I’m thinking of this in terms of time signature, so my poem is in 3/4 time or 6/4 time.

In my tangle of mind, I want to see some underlying unit, but I also want to see it syncopated against some new pattern, which is the time of the moment, of the reading, if not the rule.

So, earlier this week, when I stumbled upon Shane McCrae’s “Whose Story of Us We Is Told Is Us” at poets.org, I was digging the syncopation — “Brother is we is each of us we ghosts / Brother of white folks we / don’t never known us brother we” — and at once attracted, distracted, and repelled to, by, and from the textflow/poemflow presentation going on in the window below the text.

Poemflow, textflow: it’s interesting in that it gives motion, through a succession of frames, like a film, to something that may look inert, like a text. In the case of McCrae’s poem, the poemflow creates new patterns. The line of McCrae’s poem is gone. Phrases fade in and fade over each other. For the first minute or so, I find this a little annoying because the poemflow suggests a particular reading. It’s diving the line into phrases, so the first few lines go “Brother / is we is / each of us / we ghosts // brother / of / white folks / we // don’t never known us / brother / we.” This serves to emphasize some of the elements, especially the “brother,” but it also removes a great deal of the ambiguity or ambivalence (multivalence) of the lines in which one grammatical iteration floats over, ghosts, another one, creating a kind of syncopation of the poem against itself. After about a minute, though, I get into this, and the flowbreaks start emphasizing new things, sometimes just by laying one line over the previous one: “is water / in a fist” or “we not the water / we the thirst.” The flowstanzas are pointing up elements by isolating them from the rest of the text. This is good to me, as it puts other units, other breaks inside the poem’s breaks. But, at the same time, I miss the field of the text that helps me see where I am in the stretch or span.

Back to my own stanza obsession, I’m thinking now, I’m working at a patch in which time is not just flow. It is also space. Time moves, but, whether a piece of music or a poem, it is also a moment, a span—and for me, I’m thinking, the syncopation comes, at least in part, from some tension between an idea or apparition of the whole that is then partitioned and repartitioned, sometimes in many ways at once.

 

This is a plate from Tom Phillips’s masterwork A Humument, a “treated” version of the Victorian novel A Human Document, which Phillips drew over, creating a new book out of and on top of the old one. Phillips treatments develop new patterns by connecting the white space between words or letters, and so treat the text as a physical object, and as well finding new patterns within the text, creating new texts inside the inherited text. The source text is rarely totally obscured, and, to Phillips’ credit, when we can read it, much less interesting than what he’s done upon it.

There are a number of great erasures, notably Ronald Johnson’s radi os, which is an erasure of Paradise Lost: the steganographic erasure never fully banishes Milton’s sound, which is part of the point.

But the work my syncopation itch reaches for most often in this regard is Joshua Poteat’s Illustrating the Machine That Makes the World, because its erasures are made out of Poteat’s own poems, so what you get in the book’s appendix of erasures are musics made out of and on top of music the book has taught us.

I’m looking, more and more, for these ghost texts. I’ll close, this week, with a ghost poem I made from the first two paragraphs of David Lynn’s “Editor’s Notes” on page 1 of the Summer 2011 Kenyon Review:

 

Notes

 

upon us,

a halcyon

 

time

pocket of

 

 

time to catch

 

evening,                     generally shy

 

 

We’ve spent many hours

reluctantly                 turned away.