Friday, May 18, 2007

The Cry at Zero
Andrew Joron, Counterpath Press, 2007

Every once in a while a book comes along that is a threshold or a milestone. Charles Olson’s Call Me Ishmael was one (& continues to be) whenever one gets to it. (I first read it in the 70s probably 30 years after it was first published in 1947.) Susan Howe’s My Emily Dickinson was, in some ways, that for me when it came out in 1985. I was fascinated by it as much for its form and engagement with Dickinson as for its actual content. My Emily Dickinson is more poetics than it scholarship. The book is (almost) poetry in essay form. It is this category of discursive writing by a poet that I am coming to here. There are certainly many other examples (Nadja, In the American Grain, etc.) and I would be interested in others’ sense of what these books are for them. Right now, however, I want to say that I have found a new one of these important, enabling, intriguing and dazzling books in Andrew Joron’s The Cry At Zero.

In this collection of essays, prose pieces and poems (the title calls them selected prose), Joron presents his sense of the poetics of our time -- or at least one very persuasive version. Andrew (who I am happy to say is a member of this blog) is earnest and mystical and yet specific and even scientific in his discussion of the writing of various poets, of current events and of writing itself. As with the above examples of Olson and Howe (and necessarily in this category) he does what he writes about doing. He becomes what he beholds -- displaying a virtuosic array of chops as impressive as the often very impressive writing he discusses.

“What good is poetry at a time like this?” he begins in his essay “The Emergency” in which he thinks though writers’ claims to politics in the post 9/11 world. Another piece, “Language as Ghost Condensate,” begins “Does the way a poem is made have any relation to the way the world makes itself?” As you can guess, it does, and Andrew’s knowledgeable sense of complexity theory and emergence and how it relates to the action of writing (both as you write it and as it writes you (if I might paraphrase outrageously)) is intriguing and for me completely persuasive. In fact, I have long held something like this view, but dared not breathe a work of it to any but close friends for fear of being thought one of those chaos theory nuts -- but this is not like that. You might or might not go for it, but Andrew is wonderfully articulate in the way he presents his thinking about the emergence of language, and of poetry. You might not think you are “nerving the entangled ontologies of body and sky” with your work. But then you have to ask yourself -- what you are doing?

Clark Coolidge, Will Alexander, Nate Mackey and Mary Margaret Sloan are among the contemporaries discussed. Robert Duncan appears. Bataille, Breton and other surrealists are there, along with George Sterling (inveterate early San Francisco Tonalist) and, in fact, Charles Olson, among many others. Philip Lamantia and Barbara Guest are invoked as “my elders of mystery & imagination.” There is a lack of sarcasm and cynicism here that might make some readers uncomfortable, but this is made up for by Joron’s logical, deadpan approach, along with his mellifluous diction. Again, you may not agree that “Language allows the animal to literally jump out of its skin – and to land inside a new and starkly paradoxical body” but you have to admit it’s a cool idea.

Joron goes on, in the final eponymous essay, to assert a zero sum poetics that is a very compelling version of not only his own practice (and that of his close cohorts) but an interesting comment on the practice of anyone who engages in some form of (experimental, vexed but, yes) lyric poetry. It is a category of writing that has often appeared on this blog with a great sense of questioning. Is what Andrew describes what many of us are doing? I want to say yes, unequivocally, but my A Tonalist doubt undermines my inclination completely to acquiesce.

My slight resistance (or is it more like a frisson?) brings me to the question of whether A Tonalist is the same as Surrealism. This is a topic for another time perhaps (and surely many in these pages are not surreal) but I did find myself asking that very question when I recently read the new issue of Ur Vox. There is a commonality -- though the doubt and sense of ambiguity that are key to A Tonalist might make the celebration of the marvelous that is so important to surrealism difficult -- but I digress.

Suffice it to say that The Cry at Zero, beautifully put out by the new Counterpath Press, is an essential text by a great writer at the height of his powers.


Blogger Brian Strang said...

Yes! Everyone should read this book! Watch the Denver Quarterly for my review of it. It is funny that the LACK of sarcasm might make people uncomfortable, so accustomed are we to the disempowering gestures of bitter irony. Andrew's poetics are full of affirmation and implicitly ask the question: what poetics connect and what create further isolation?


9:00 AM  
Blogger Aaron McCollough said...

Just got my copy! First essay is great. Powerful stuff. Thanks, Standard, for the tip.

12:24 PM  
Blogger lm said...

An intersting aspect of A Tonalist is that it is not always apparent who is writing. The piece about Andrew Joron's new book is by me. Thanks for you interest in it!

Laura Moriarty

9:30 AM  
Blogger Aaron McCollough said...

Ha. Talk about cries at zero! That makes absolute sense, of couse. As I continue to read, I continue to find the book excellent. Thanks, Laura, for the tip.

11:49 AM  

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