Wednesday, November 23, 2016

Gale Nelson, This Is What Happens When Talk Ends (2011)

This post, slightly revised, has now been published in Intercapillary Space]






I wrote a piece about Gale Nelson's poetry before:

"Mac Low's diastic process (in Gale Nelson's stare decisis)" 


but when I wrote that I didn't know that he had just published a new book (Burning Deck, 2011). It turned out to be a spectacular one.  Here's one of its 64 poems. 



THEIR VOCAL SOUL DIN


Lights up in wheel's wrong spool of thread's lost
shine, velvet send-off slips past fuse's ill-wind
crease. Stylize raided atoll in red
grammar; dial aging, trial paid as
soil's dandy venom speeds past cries swelled best for trust
slated and sent upon crab-lamp's oil. Frosted,
the glass is dark. This is not doubt's tremor but doom's best
glint of horse's depth. Throw fading shares over
losing stir, or open trout's first stave about
sand's moist star. Trim land's valid
test, vestige and better path of urged betterment --
not attack's shifting grass. Sing of these
unflagging boards faded, bent and soiled --
yet they still stand. Lights up, set our long parenting mask
as if alone in bigamy's avid gall. 


(p. 23)


The basic thing to know about these poems is that their vowel-letters (A,E,I,O,U) follow a predetermined sequence. The sequences are taken from eight famous Shakespeare passages. This poem follows the vowel-letter sequence of Orsino's speech beginning "If music be the food of love, play on...". (The title "Their Vocal Soul Din" follows the vowel-letter sequence of Twelfth Night, Or What You Will.) 

Nelson explains all this in an engaging afterword. He also explains how the groups of poems (eight for each of the eight Shakespeare passages), instead of being presented one after another, are intermixed by following an ancient "knight's circuit" around the 64 squares of the chessboard. (Thus the sample poem I've quoted, though it appears as the twelfth poem in the book, is in fact the third poem in the eighth group. 


al-Adli ar-Rumi's knight's circuit, used to order the poems

But once we start to read the poems, we realize that this afterword is very far from explaining everything that's going on. 

To use the terms of diastic verse, Nelson tells us everything about his seed-text, but he says nothing about the source-text...

The reasonable assumption, then, is that there is no source-text (in diastic verse, a source-text is a reservoir from which all the poem's vocabulary is taken). 

OK, so there's no source-text as such. But the more we examine these poems, the more we realize that their verbal contents are, nevertheless, full of mysteries. The protocol described by Nelson is not so stringent as diastic verse, which virtually precludes personal expression. Following a predetermined vowel-letter sequence is no doubt quite taxing, but it would permit some meaningful expression. Nevertheless, it's apparent that what's going on here, though it often makes a kind of sense, is certainly not the poet just "talking". (This is what happens when talk ends.)

I've slipped down the screen, so here's that sample poem again:


THEIR VOCAL SOUL DIN


Lights up in wheel's wrong spool of thread's lost
shine, velvet send-off slips past fuse's ill-wind
crease. Stylize raided atoll in red
grammar; dial aging, trial paid as
soil's dandy venom speeds past cries swelled best for trust
slated and sent upon crab-lamp's oil. Frosted,
the glass is dark. This is not doubt's tremor but doom's best
glint of horse's depth. Throw fading shares over
losing stir, or open trout's first stave about
sand's moist star. Trim land's valid
test, vestige and better path of urged betterment --
not attack's shifting grass. Sing of these
unflagging boards faded, bent and soiled --
yet they still stand. Lights up, set our long parenting mask
as if alone in bigamy's avid gall. 


This particular poem is obsessed with three-word phrases of a particular form: "thread's lost shine" "doom's best glint", "trout's first stave", "sand's moist star".  (Generally, the -st suffix plays a very large part in these poems.)  

Readers of the book will recognize some other characteristic features, too. The word "venom", for example: this is one of the words - there are quite a few of them, once you start to look -  that show up just a little bit too often for it to be accidental. ("Best" and "better" are others.) 

Then there's the recurrent emphasis, both in structure and content, on vocal but not necessarily verbal sound: "vocal", "din", "cries", "sing"... 

Then there's the coastal, marshy, grassy landscape and the fishing, here and in almost every poem ("spool", "crab-lamp", "trout"). I like to imagine that the poems breathe a damp and breezy Rhode Island, where Nelson lives (he teaches at Brown University). That's probably a naive idea. These poems are not descriptions of nature. 

But they do, for all that, have a texture that persistently recalls nature. As we can't help noticing in the season of leaf-fall, nature too is habitually patterned, and the patterns are formed, like fallen leaves on a path, by multiplication of chance events. The Oulipian and aleatory procedures deployed by writers like Nelson generate these patterns, too. The closer we examine them, the more we'll see.   









Labels:

0 Comments:

Post a Comment

<< Home

Powered by Blogger

Nature Blog Network