Wednesday, January 11, 2012

John Goodby, Illennium

John Goodby’s Illennium (Shearsman Books, 2010) utilizes the cut-up as its primary poetic device, reconfiguring original (and some borrowed) lines throughout the course of this 84-page collection. Its secondary poetic device is the sonnet form; although Goodby eschews rhyme, metre, and the “turn,” each of these Roman-numerated sections consist of fourteen lines. Its primary theme is shame, more often than not sexual (e.g. “dork inability”). Its setting is Wales, often more particularly a pub (the “No Sign Bar”). Various personages, the speaker included, move in and out of the poems, reconstituting themselves in continually changing contexts. The speaker seems to be a poetic persona of Goodby himself, a version, as references to some of his earlier books appear, including his landmark study of Irish poetry, Irish Poetry Since 1950: from stillness into history (2000), which was one of the first critical volumes to treat seriously previously marginal or “experimental” Irish poets. This interest in radical poetics is reflected here in the cut-up form, which recalls not only Tristan Tzara, Brion Gysin, and William Burroughs, but perhaps also the contemporary Irish poet Trevor Joyce. It’s always been (for me) an arresting technique, and Goodby deploys it to great effect.

So, beyond the exploration of the theme, and the nods and references to certain great poets (Jules Laforgue, Arthur Rimbaud, Thomas MacGreevy, Eugene Watters [Eoghan Ó Tuairisc], John Weiners, and others), what I especially like about this collection is, as may be obvious from the foregoing, the language that proceeds out of Goodby’s cut-up process, the lines that unfold over the course of the book. It seems unlikely, however, that Goodby’s process is completely random. There is not so much a disruption in syntax as there is more usually an unexpected object, or subject-verbs that normally don’t combine. Occasionally, the effect recalls the sound of Joyce’s Finnegans Wake. Often, jargon phrases combine with dream-sense to create poetry maybe not unlike the manner in which “a carp accomplishes the size of its pool” (the latter being one of the phrases recurring throughout the sequence). The primary material is limited, like the size of the tub containing the poor Xmas carp. Yet, despite these limitations and the seeming obscurity of much of the results, units of meaning accrue, as in this example:
LV

Raising Spring from Winter Polly tereus the maypole
-dusted tors                   The Westbourne
Concealed in rotten smoaks                               certain
what being a sham meant
that is so anguish there as to brush that hair
In Frenzy                 The ka of a black Panther
opens wide                         a urinal gargles
& Oystermouth’s glittery necklace of bay, & furbelow
transgressive-yet-dependent. He loved you
that’s less soft, but one apiece (4)
simonised by tears             foreskins and mad Beryls
bodily fluids under bridges. My dream: a revolver
to shoot the nightmare
Call it aimance                     & she steps inside.
I can’t say I “get” all of this, but a number of motifs emerge, primarily sexual. We have spring reemerging from winter, with the maypoles on tors (hills) likely serving as phallic symbols. Contrasting with this life-giving spring energy, there is the Westbourne (a hotel, a pub?) concealed in “rotten” smoke, wherein (?) is someone, a man, who knows what it means to be “a sham” (possibly due to the aforementioned “dork inability”?), which results in anguish and frenzy. Disturbing visions ensue — “The ka of a black Panther/ opens wide,” “a urinal gargles” — and further sexual images torment — some quick research reveals that Oystermouth in south Wales is situated nearby a pair of breast-shaped hills that define the local shore-scape (thus the light glinting off the bay is like a “glittery necklace” near a woman’s breasts), while “furbelow” just might allude to pubic hair. The protagonist is reduced to masturbation under bridges, wishing for death to end “the nightmare.” The final line renders the piece more ambiguous than ever, though. “Aimance” must be a reference to Derrida’s concept of the relationality implicit in a friendship, and then suddenly “she steps inside.” Does this “she” suggest some kind of salvation, or merely further torture?

I accept the fact that we can’t really know — perhaps both, is the answer. As Burroughs wrote, “Cut the word lines and you will hear their voices. Cut ups often come through as code messages with special meaning for the cutter.... Cutting and rearranging a page of written words introduces a new dimension into writing enabling the writer to turn images in cinematic variation. Images shift sense under the scissors smell images to sound sight to sound sound to kinesthetic.” Similarly, Goodby’s Illennium allows for, indeed embraces, differing interpretations. There is much, much more one could go into here, both in terms of theme and technique. But what I really want to say is that I think these poems are surprising and revealing, crazy and captivating, all of which is what good poetry should be, no?

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