Victor Coleman, ivH: An Alphamath Serial, BookThug 2012
I can explain my meaning best by mathematics.– Ezra Pound
Since the late 1960s, Victor Coleman has been committed to innovative poetic practices—from the serial poem to performance poetry (e.g., in 1978, under the name Vic d’Or, he released the album 33/3); from projective verse to acrostics and telestichs (e.g., 1972’s AMERICA); from aleatory procedures to free-jazz sonneteering. Coleman’s fostered collaborations with fellow poets and, especially, visual artists a la The New York School: for example, he’s published books of poetry with artworks by Ken Coupland, Rick/Simon, David Bolduc, and Mike Hansen. Moreover, he has given every genre and mode a spin on the ol’ Victrola Poetry Machine.
To begin, there is the early Victor Coleman of one/eye/love and Light Verse, love poet of the metaphysical and erotic variety:
If I repeat your name
or any expression of it
over and over again in my head
it becomes a device . The names
we append to the facts of or affections
Don’t write . Nothing
is quite as opaque
as the love we share
You take it . I do
and it makes me sick . Love dies
like an old hand on a sure trick
(“For Erik Satie, Charles Aznavour, and John Wieners,” Light Verse)
Then, there’s Coleman, the brilliant satirist. His diagnosis of Canada in the age of late capitalism is unremittingly bleak: “Endgame” and “The Sock Exchange,” in particular, from the mid-1980s, are two poems comprised entirely of epigrams like “Full employment / is war / on the culture” or “Deregulation / of air travel / means cheaper flights— // if you have wings.” But there’s also Victor Coleman, Punster, Esq., who provides balance and relief to the satire: for example, “shining in the night / a lamp, moon / gone to tune” (sorry, my dear Archibald!) and “Because it rhymes— / Orange peel / A juicy bell” (Waiting for Alice). And Coleman’s famous poem, “The Day They Stole the Couch House Press,” written in memory of bpNichol, establishes him as a sensitive elegist:
The day they stole the Couch House Press
I cried— a friend had died— a saintly individual
had passed from the moment, like one of his cartoons
defying the frame— he’d come & gone in one voice,
breaking with youth. He’d never know the end
of what he had begun. The inventor
of the Coach House Press was gone. He’d wandered
into areas we’d not be quick to catch, his heart
had given out— too much . . .
Finally, over the years, Coleman has happily participated in that time-honored tradition of composing “occasional” poems, such as his Zukofsky-esque “Epithalamion: for Emily & Fred”— a personal touchstone. That I could be so lucky to have such a poem written for, and recited on, the day of my wedding.
That said, by the late 1990s, Hippocrene had dried up like the Los Angeles River. “Forget it, Vic. It’s Poetrytown.” But Coleman was determined to retrofit his poetics. So, he turned to Oulipo as a sort of hermippus redivivus. Oulipo (short for Ouvroir de littérature potentielle) refers to a group of French writers and mathematicians who, in the early 1960s, began to imagine literature as a field of scientific research, developing and applying arbitrary formal constraints so as to provoke language (i.e. the test subject) to behave in unexpected ways. In other words, drop the signifier in a maze and clock its time as it searches for the way out. The most famous examples of Oulipian texts are Georges Perec’s La Disparition, a novel that does not include use of the letter ‘e’, and Raymond Queneau’s Cent Mille Milliards de Poèmes, ten sonnets that employ a single rhyme sound, thus allowing each line from each sonnet the flexibility to substitute for another (i.e., 1014).
Coleman, it turns out, is particularly fond of the “letter drop” method, also known as “an alphabet of lipograms.” He composes a series of twenty-six poems, one poem per letter of the alphabet. In the ‘A’ poem, the letter ‘A’ is omitted; in the ‘B’ poem, the letter ‘B’ is omitted, and so on and so forth. Coleman’s “letter drop” poems are materially determined by source texts that delimit an archive of potential vocabulary. His source texts include everything from Proust’s Remembrance of Things Past and Lawrence’s Lady Chatterley’s Lover to historical works such as Sir Morell MacKenzie’s Hygiene of the Vocal Organs and The 1921 Victor Records Catalogue. Coleman’s abecedarian high-wire act is documented in a trilogy that includes Letter Drop (Coach House, 1999— available online), Mi Sing: Letter Drop II (BookThug, 2004) and Mal Arme: Letter Drop III (BookThug, 2008):
Lustre must first swim through oblivion
An absolute expanse disguised as Asia
Where little prevails upon the indolent outlines
Of blissful sunshine yoke-like falling quaint
Upon the hazel identity of summer. (‘C’, Mi Sing)
Coleman’s as lush, indulgent, and eccentric as Wallace Stevens. I literally gasp— both with delight and in admiration that, I admit, leans into jealousy— every time Coleman’s syntax rushes me into the figurative ingenuity of “disguised as Asia” or “hazel identity of summer.”
In 2010, Coleman altered his Oulipian protocols. The Occasional Troubadour (BookThug) is “a series of 52 portraits of friends, acquaintances, and culture heroes generated by applying the mesostic form (a vertical succession of letter that, in a series of lines or verses, forms a word, name, or phrase in the centre of the text) to a late nineteenth century English text.” The Occasional Troubadour demonstrates how the arbitrary, over-determined strictures (i.e., alphabetical and spatial) of a form like John Cage’s mesostic do not betray acts of representation or diminish expressivity or emotion. Rather, in an act of poetic faith, Coleman believes the form and the form believes Coleman will chance upon the “essence” of his sitting subject— an “essence” that exceeds mimesis:
Love was a passion in his eye that had long seemed a childish affair,
Which maintained imposing courts and entertained magnificence,
And made rich presents to deserving poets.
For Love had the dignity of the old school, and the essence of it.
(“30” / Robert Creeley)
By exclaiming: What an extraordinary destiny! We must end as we began
An almost prophetic glimpse of the future course of science.
The troubadour would always ask for something,
His eyes open to the golden age of poetry.
And indeed relations were sometimes rather strained between them.
(“7” / Mike Boughn)
Coleman uses the portraits to assert and celebrate the social aspect of producing and consuming art: “Into the company of love / it all returns,” to quote Creeley. Indeed, Coleman has always emphasized “company,” through his editorial work at Couch House, curatorial efforts, administrative positions, and teaching.
With ivH: An Alphamath Serial (BookThug, 2012), Coleman’s back at it, tweaking his compositional rules once more. In the new collection of poems, Coleman subjects his signature acerbic wit, surreal imagery, and prosodic sensibility to multiple numerological controls, foreign source materials, and translation software. The results: ivH is the apotheosis of what Adorno calls “Late Style”— “devoid of sweetness, bitter and spiny, [it does] not surrender [itself] to mere delectation.” And it is Coleman’s crowning achievement after a decade plus logging hours in the Oulipian laboratory of literature, and it is an occasion to recall Coleman’s contribution to the Canadian avant-garde after 1965.
While walking in Paris with his wife, Coleman chanced upon Raymond Queneau’s Un Rude Hiver (1939). As Coleman explains, Queneau’s novel’s title seemed to rime— in the sense proposed by Robert Duncan, that is, rime as correspondence— with the (mythic) Canadian condition. This prompted Coleman to want to write a “faux transtranslation” of Un Rude Hiver, rendering the long-dead Queneau his unknown collaborator. Or, if you will, his faux foe. First, Coleman processes Un Rude Hiver through translation software in order to produce an English version of the text. He welcomes the unavoidable semantic and syntactic confusions and impasses the process involves: “Errors often / make the future / truth.” Coleman’s translation delimits a pathological archive of vocabulary that is shared with yet distinct from Queneau’s. Second, Coleman adopts a paragrammatic relation to Queneau’s title by rearranging the first three letters of “Hiver”— Hiv equals ivH— and, in an instance of diplopia, sees “iv” and “H” as numerical signs signifying “4” and “8,” respectively. (“H” is the eighth letter of the alphabet.)
The numbers 4 and 8 provide Coleman with his arbitrary formal constraints. Each line in ivH: An Alphamath Serial has four syllables, and each stanza has eight lines. Each section of the serial poem includes eight stanzas. In addition, each page of ivH doubles as a concrete poem in the shape of the letter ‘H’. An homage to Coleman’s dear friend, bpNichol, whose favourite letter was ‘H’. Finally, as my comments would thus far indicate, Coleman has a taste for figures of doubling: rhyme, puns, correspondence, translation, and diplopia. Appropriately, then, 4 x 2 equals 8.
The best way to approach ivH: An Alphamath Serial is as if listening in on Victor Coleman, in Canada circa 2012, listening in on Raymond Queneau, in France circa 1939.
Listen to the
with these rumbles
obfuscation. (“ivH 47”)
Coleman’s imperative, “Listen to the / image,” introduces resonance into representation. In doing so, the classical rules of perspective (lines, grids, graphs) and narrative (plot, character, setting) give way to “enchanted curves”— that is, sound waves or a Calypso’s voluptuous wiles: the “rumbles / of intended / obfuscation.” As with John Ashbery’s collage-poems “Europe” and “Idaho,” the former assembled using William Le Queux’s 1917 novel Beryl of the Bi-Plane and the latter using A. Hamilton Gibbs’s 1925 novel Soundings, Victor Coleman’s ivH provides only “rumbles” of Queneau’s fiction. (By the by, the letter ‘H’, in French, pronounced “Ash”-bery.)
There are only traces of Queneau’s novel in Coleman’s poem: war and espionage; marriage plots and romance abounds; political and sexual intrigues; the hustlebustle of the café and cinema on the boulevard; characters such as Annette, Miss Weed, and Captain Anzac; domestic bliss juxtaposed with WWI trenches; disenchanting bureaucrats and sentimental soldiers, tho’ never the twain shall meet; dialogue and correspondence between— well, I’m not sure exactly…. I am sure, though, that Coleman uses Oulipo to light a match to the poetry-wick hidden in the novel’s darkest alcoves, resulting in
A bouquet of
the scattered sea
seized by sudden
outbursts of blunt
tragic echoes. (“ivH 23”)
By turns, Coleman proves he still possesses great wit. He ridicules, for example, the cogs of modernity: from Civil Servants, who exist as proof that “charming / idiots may not need truth” (“ivH 2”) to Journalists, who “transmit / ignorance” (“ivH 3”), and military men, like the “lieutenant [who] / supported the / funny silence / only” (“ivH 56”). Coleman derides the idea of middle-class leisure, the necessary precondition of political obedience and complicity in a time of crisis:
One cannot speak
engaged to drink
in this life of
of appearance. (“ivH 25”)
He sat in an
armchair, glass in
hand, smiling with
contempt. Then each
to watch many
be tenderized. (“ivH 50”)
Through “faux transtranslation,” Coleman also generates a series of aphorisms. They advance and recede— like waves— within the push-pull logic of each stanza: “Cruelty has / certain courage” (“ivH 54”); “Things cannot think” (“ivH 34”); “To embrace the / weather— very / cold— is to come / home”; “ivH 48”); “Like pearls after / the storm, human / mistresses / show themselves” (“ivH 29”); “Known as prophets / of misfortune, / most workmen are / victorious” (“ivH 13”); “At the bottom / the word France is / synonymous / with Germany” (ivH 31”); and, my favourite,
If you refuse
to look at the
truth in the face,
your day will be—
let’s not think— un-
to astonish. (“ivH 15”)
At its best, Coleman’s moral disposition recalls the urbane pomp of Ezra Pound circa Lustra (pre-WWI London) and the furious anger of Ed Dorn circa Abhorrences (Reagan-era America). He speaks with authority. And his invective— however unsettling it may be— is on-point, which is precisely why it is so unsettling.
Coleman possesses the seemingly infinite capacity to surprise the reader’s eye and ear. For example, in “ivH 28,” he writes,
its regret, love
does not have some
Hamlet tell a
Here, I think, is a brutal yet compelling proposition: the purchase of love is something to protect against— because to buy love (high) is to sell the future (low), so why even bother. Take stock of what he says! Coleman’s use of “some” and “seriously” provide idiomatic nonchalance in counterpoint to the dependent clause’s severe abstraction; the image of a French Hamlet employed as a mopey store clerk is something rotten to be sure; in the context of ivH, the “silent” female figure suggests an ingénue of early cinema, to which Coleman repeatedly alludes; and the final “adventure”— a curious choice of diction— places a somewhat vulgar period on it all. The phrase “seek adventure” seems to crib from the jingle-shtick of advertising.
Every line has two stresses, variably distributed: syllables 1 and 4 (line 1); syllables 3 and 4 (line 2); syllables 2 and 3 (line 3); syllables 1 and 3 (line 4), et cetera. Line 2’s caesura adds to the weight placed on “love.” In addition, the word count per line adds further rhythmic variance, especially in terms of speed: for example, line 3 has four words (successive single-syllable words slow down the line) and line 7 has one word (a single, four syllable word moves quickly yet visually holds up the eye before the promise of “adventure”). Sonically, the internal rhymes are delicately rendered from the start: “obstinate” + “in” + “silent”; “obstinate” + “regret” + “Hamlet”; “love” + “have”; “tell” + “female”; “seriously” + “seek”; “customer” + “seriously”; “customer” + “adventure.” There is the repeated ‘s’ at the start of lines 5, 7, and 8— the first syllable of each line stressed as well, for added effect. Also, line 4 includes a palindromic sound pattern: “let” + “tell.”
In short, Coleman’s clearly learned in the Herrick-Zukofsky-Creeley tradition. His math is pure music. Zuks knew this, too: remember, “lower limit speech / upper limit music,” it ain’t no Poundian do or don’t— it’s an algebraic equation. (Brooklyn Tech, represent.)
Coleman’s prosody grants the force of persuasion to his dissipative, disjunctive and, often, disturbing imagery. His imagery is free “from the appearance of its subjective mastery,” to quote Adorno, on late style, once more. “Brothels” are “crawling / with nausea” (“ivH 29”). There are “drowned poisonings” and “empty head[s]” in the city streets (“ivH 32,” “ivH 28”). And, in the following lovesick metaphor, “fever / knock[s] its heated / shoes against the / announced marriage” (“ivH 59”). Part wizard, part pitcher, all poet, Coleman wants to throw “enchanted curves” into the real (i.e., straight) talk of everyday life: because “The lyric is better than the real,” as he puts it. For example, consider how a non sequitur— that’s Latin for “curve ball,” I believe— complemented by a tossed-off colloquialism brings this passage to its scatological point or, rather, its wet spot: “He wants to leave / you in your juice, / like they say” (“ivH 43”). Lastly, illness, dismemberments, hospitals, mass death, cemeteries, system failures, and administrative indifference—these “tragic echoes” of HIV resonate throughout ivH’s images:
The women and
children were always
healthier times. (“ivH 54”)
No sooner do
I break the legs
of one child, does
come to me with
a tapeworm that
will not finish. (“ivH 43”)
With their legs the
were one with the
fields: because one
dead thought arrives
to leave the men
in despair that
it would improve. (“ivH 58”)
The serial slash surreal appearance of such images reveals how Queneau’s source material may be made to speak to and for our present-day cultural conditions and concerns, whatever they may be. By virtue of Coleman’s alphamath controls, Queneau’s WWI rimes with HIV.
ivH: An Alphamath Serial is a natural extension of Coleman’s “letter drop” period, and it indicates that Coleman— the elder statesman of the Canadian avant-garde— is trying once more to “make it new” through mathematics. At the same time, the wit and lyrical grace that Coleman polished to perfection during the 1970s and early 1980s (from, say, Speech Sucks to From the Dark Wood) persist. More than that, they are thriving. ivH is also an excellent addition to the Canadian tradition of experimental translation that includes Clint Burnham’s The Benjamin Sonnets, Mark Goldstein’s After Rilke, Steve McCaffery’s The Basho Variations, derek beaulieau’s Flatland, Erin Moure and Oana Avasilichioae’s Expeditions of a Chimera, and Gary Barwin, Craig Conley, and Hugh Thomas’s Franzlations.
That said, I’d like to argue for the big-picture significance of Coleman’s “faux transtranslation,” too. In the age of BabelFish, Word Lingo, Google Translate, and Language Weaver, remember that translation is inextricable from intelligence gathering and national security. Translation is as much about surveillance as it is the exchange of ideas and ideals across cultures. The software is a weapon in a soft war. Consequently, “Faux transtranslation” matters in so far as its “intended / obfuscation” actively resists the political and instrumental uses of literal translation, which place a premium on measurable outcomes, i.e., information please. More, more, more. Literal translation renders the poet-translator nothing more than a complicit Civil Servant and reduces poetry to a cog.
Put another way, then, Coleman demonstrates how poetry must be neither a form nor a genre but a counter-method (math + pun) of keeping something of ourselves for ourselves alive—a light, a love, a life in “the dark wood.”
ALEX PORCO is an Assistant Professor of English at the University of North Carolina, Wilmington. He specializes in twentieth-century poetry and poetics. He received his Ph.D. from the State University of New York at Buffalo.