An old wooden sign points both left and right – on it written ‘THIS WAY.’ The cover of Lise Downe’s most recent book is cleverly a sign, both literally [a signpost] and figuratively [semiotics], a symbol for language poetry, that is, a poetry that resists any definitive meaning. Working as both clue and caution, THIS WAY’s cover image suggests that the reading will be no lazy tour-cruise, the poet no captain-guide. Interacting with such work feels like the author places the wheel in your hands then jumps ship. Readers of language poetry [a.k.a. L=A=N=G=A=G=E poetry] are required to be active in the very process of meaning-making – hence the cover’s implied warning: if you do not take pleasure in this sort of reading, then you’ll find it more pleasurable to use the book as a weapon to inflict paper cuts on all other practicing language poets who are hissing ‘chick–en’ at you and making clucking sounds as they flap their elbows.
THIS WAY is an alternative take on the genre of detective fiction in that the reader is given clues and left with the task of deciphering them. Or not. A clue: a signifier with multiple significations – think of Sherlock Holmes gathering the possible implications for the word/clue ‘band:’ a band of gypsies, a handkerchief, or a snake? Unlike detective fiction, this is not a who-done-it, this is more like a choose your own adventure, or ‘choose your own signification’ – choose ‘a band of gypsies,’ say, and the text takes you one way, choose ‘snake,’ and it takes you another. “Nothing,” the introductory poem reminds you, “is concealed or conveyed,” in the sense that the clues are presented to you, but none of them shout an implicit meaning. While this can be exciting, I found that the text was so rigid that I could not work with it, which made me re-read multiple times not due to rapture, but due to a wandering mind. I found my way through, however, once I let go of meaning-making and enjoyed the lettuce-crisp, cliché-free, language in and of itself.
Back to the idea of detective work, though. The first section is named “Small Mysteries” – small mysteries, that is, like post-industrial ecological devastation is ‘small,’ since these are major mysteries that will, no doubt, baffle most. Each ‘elevator’ as Phil Hall calls them [a poem with a single opening line, two middle stanzas of three lines each, and a single closing line] carries you to a different floor, opens you to a strange room and, as in a dream, you encounter seemingly familiar forms that, upon closer inspection, obscure as much as they reveal. An example of facing pages [12-13]:
|A towel folded on the handrail.
in things of the spirit
and things of the world.
Thus in one figure
to every black there is a white.
Coincidence, you will say
small purses, small shrines.
|Alternatively, the stems
in fast-forward motion
on the silent screen.
The scantily clad Josephine
forced to wave languidly
under covers of darkness.
One’s thoughts then turn to the canopy
bending inexorably toward nightfall.
Here we encounter a common object, a towel folded on a handrail – not innocuous however, as it plants suspicion both in ‘things of the spirit and things of the world.’ She looks at the towel – it is folded differently, or it wasn’t there before, or it is wet, or some pertinent person gave it to her, etc. Or perhaps the implication is that ‘things’ whether material or immaterial, are suspicious by default. Regardless, things of the spirit and things of the world conspire persistently throughout this book – the tangible is always reaching beyond itself. Small purses, small shrines – you take what you can get – if a hand towel is enough to evoke phenomenological musings, then a hand towel it is, leave Merleau-Ponty at the library. Here the hand-towel, but as in all her poems, the signs are absent of the speaker’s intention, they are not carriers used for the transport of coherent messages, they are hints, invitations to infer. Often the act of inference does not feel far from a Rorschach test, and that’s okay – it reveals more about you than it does the poet, part of the terror of reading impassively.
In the facing poem, Downe begins colloquially, ‘Alternatively..’ suggesting the discontinuity between the facing poems are in perfect agreement, as though she were simply suggesting the fish option on a menu. This is the sort of false lead that will seriously irk certain readers and thrill the detectives. Rather than developing what was established in the previous piece, the poem-elevator has in fact delivered us into a new strange room, where Josephine [Baker, I am guessing] seduces on the silent screen. Yet once again our attention is drawn from the immediate image toward “the canopy/bending inexorably toward nightfall,” where through a gesture we intuit a larger presence beyond the scene.
The form of the tree gesturing toward an openness beyond itself: this image is emblematic of how the ‘elevators’ in “Small Mysteries,” fuse a strict form with radical openness, an ideal combination Lyn Hejinian calls “a flowering focus on a distinct infinity.” These poems are most notably accomplished in the way Downe works “the primary chaos [i.e. raw material, unorganized impulse and information, uncertainty, incompleteness, vastness] and makes it articulate without depriving it of it’s capacious vitality, it’s generative power,” which is, as Hejinian writes, the function of form and art: form is not a fixture but an activity. An activity for the writer and for the reader, ideally.
The second section, “The Range,” also performs what the titles suggests: a series of longer, sweeping, poems, where superhuman leaps connect wildly disparate temporal spaces, while still refining the central idea of vastness, a vastness which words and objects both embody and gesture toward: “Great big sounds of great big times straining to overcome/the inconvenience of a low ceiling.” Everywhere in this book the Deleuzian actual [here, the low ceiling] both obstructs access to and insinuates the virtual [great big sounds, great big times].
The first poem, ‘Conundrum,’ begins playfully,
Nobody, she said, but nobody
could have foreseen the day
of irreducible, irretrievable
then in a few lines shifts tone completely, into a pseudo lament:
…but now the tiles and pots have vanished.
Clues intensified by perpetual states of erosion
utterly absorbed, meticulous, even
undergo the vagaries of time
and time’s turn of the handle
where whole scenes change
each whim reflecting a passing hour.
THIS WAY’s refrain riffs on the sense of disorientation via the vagaries of time and the abrupt scene changes therein, which results in a decidedly oneiric effect. The objects/signifiers in these poems strive but fail to pin a place static, the striving works only to erode under time’s turn of the handle.
A second chorus suggests that “time’s turn of the handle” always be kept in mind, since the text itself defies the temptation to force meaning upon empty, mutable, signifiers such as in the poem “Perish the Thought,” where Downe warns of “the temptation/to think of what we speak/to reconfigure the haphazard assembly into self-standing objects.” To reconfigure the assembly of what we speak into ‘self-standing objects’ is to create an imbalance between form and freedom, relying too heavily on form. Besides, realism does not equal truthfulness – as she writes in “Curio,” “never mind what was or where it happened/the list might extend indefinitely.” So, opposed to the lyric poem that often pins us to a specific directive “this-ness” [grandpa’s roof, the prairie stars], Downe maintains the interrogative, asking “what roof/and which stars.” She seems to want us to remain comfortably in a state of flux, of insecurity, and thus creative possibility. Each poem in THIS WAY carries a dream logic, fluid and confusing, where you “enter erudite/and leave hopelessly lost,” armed, at least, with an absurdist humor “presumably driven by the matter of hats/which still deserves further mention.”
If there’s a payoff to the demands the book places on its reader, it’s in the last section, “Then.” By this point you’ve struggled upstream, navigated through these poems that give no certain direction, you’ve acclimatized yourself to the poet’s Cheshire Cat enigmatic non/presence, to arrive here, wherein you have permission to float with the current and enjoy Downe’s mercurial landscapes. “Then” is a suite of three liners, full of wry humour and grammar-play reminiscent of Lydia Davis:
Like an obituary that ultimately ends in grief,
Some would say “often,” while others, in other
words, consider the tangible, “not often enough.”
The odd play of. The sad
tone of. The sincerity
Of. A nagging sense of.
In hot haste, pointing frantically to a spot on the wall,
The once clear alternative involuntarily makes a rhyme.
What was he thinking?
Consistently, the language draws attention to its own mechanisms, its own space for the reader to participate in a meaningful way. This Way is a writerly text in that “a writerly text resists habitual reading wherein the reader is no longer a consumer, but a producer of the text” as Steve McCaffery maintains, as opposed to the conventional readerly text where the reader, as Barthes writes in his reading of Balzac’s Sarassine, is “plunged into a kind of idleness…instead of gaining access to the magic of the signifier, to the pleasure of writing, he is left with no more than the poor freedom either to accept or reject the text.” The magic of the signifier is that is can point in many directions at once, it has no sure meaning, it invites you to work with it actively.
The poems in This Way are for readers who prefer to have options. While I enjoy this sort of reading, the payoff in This Way wasn’t enough of a payoff. Personally, I prefer texts which offer both readerly and writerly components, sort of like good improv music wherein the musicians have a vague outline of where they plan to go, but welcome diversion – an extremely present and creatively active state. In contrast to language poets Lisa Robertson or Rae Armentrout, where reading them is more of a dynamic improvisation between reader and author, reading Downe was like being asked to give an impromptu performance with a new instrument, with no accompaniment. Simply, it withheld too much, making the reading experience more dogged than it was revelatory. However, as mentioned before, even if you are not a fan of language poetry, or of strictly “writerly” texts, THIS WAY is worth a read for the eidetic imagery, and the remarkably fresh language.