Tuesday, June 10, 2014

Review of Michael Flatt, Absent Receiver

Michael Flatt’s Absent Receiver (Springgun Press, 2013) is an intriguing long poem series, coming to 70 pages or so (including the couple pages of notes, which read almost like poem snippets themselves).  Alternating between crisp moments of imaged insight and surrealistic word-play, Flatt’s work limns contemporary life deeply felt.  Rather than attempt to directly describe, he anatomizes the method of perception through language.  For example, on page 8 (there are no individual titles for pieces within the collection), he writes,


until it has a name
it cannot be your reference point.
until a fractal grace leaves its trace
as water slips over a rock
smoke will inlay its message. . . .

I suppose at this point it is no longer revelatory to note that language is a medium and that we approach the world through its distorted lens, etc.  But I like the particular ways in which Flatt renders this notion, as in the quoted passage with its natural metaphors of water, rock, and smoke, and that “smoke” encodes a “message.”

At times, Flatt’s unexpected ways of presenting the ordinary can simply amaze: “grass,” he writes on p. 25, “is the earth on / green fire,” then reiterates/elaborates, “if you get down to it, it is. // with your hands down in it, it is.”  Other times, his exuberance is evident in the joie de vivre he clearly has for words, or therefore I suppose I should call it a joie des mots (incidentally, Flatt himself occasionally lapses into French and more than once references Apollinaire).  On p. 33 he creates a kind of acrostic out of the word “motherfucker” and gives us a palindrome on p. 43.  This is a poet who really seems to feel both his life and his medium, and wants us to too.  What more can we say to that than thanks for your work?

Formally, there are a number of things going on in this book.  I see something of Zukofsky here from time to time, in the aspects I’ve described above but also in small details like Flatt’s depiction of a neon sign — here “BOWLING / BOWLING / BOWLING” (with the alternating bold text simulating the sign’s flashing), which recalls the concretist version of the railroad-crossing sign in Zukofsky’s “4 Other Countries.”  The use of biographical material transmuted into avant-garde form reminds me a little of Bernadette Mayer.  On the page, the sort of center spine that runs through Absent Receiver like an axis, dividing parts of poems left and right, recalls a not-infrequent practice of CA Conrad (and what is Conrad really about if not, like Flatt, exuberance?).  But Flatt’s work does not come across as derivative — it is exemplary of its own moment and context.

And, one thing I think is particularly unique about this work is that it looks to rock music as an organizing principle.  We have seen poets do something similar with jazz (e.g., Baraka, Sanchez, Madhabuti), but not many that I know of have done this with rock (or punk; Flatt’s bio tells us that he has been the singer of a neo-hardcore band).  (I admit here that I have likewise incorporated rock/punk form into my own writing at times, which perhaps partly accounts for my especial interest in this.)  The book in fact begins with a mic-check (“check // check // check // check”) and there are pauses throughout for “(reverb)” or “(delay),” the features of guitars played through amplifiers.  Indeed, Flatt I think sees poetry as a kind of “amplification” of language — “the page is an amplifier / shaking the lamp beside my bed” (p. 47) — and on p. 50 he transliterates a particular style of guitar sound: “quote: // chugga chugga       chugga chugga. . . .”  Further metaphors of the mechanics of rock occur.  Flatt wants to create poetry that has the visceral effect of loud, electrified music and very often achieves this.

“[W]e’re sick of singing / the same song,” Flatt asserts as he builds toward the end of this collection (p. 55), and although he has antecedents, he sings a new one here.  Who hears it, though?  That is the big question implied in the book’s title, and on p. 65 he laments, “if signals were sent, // they weren’t received.”  Obliquely, this refers to romantic relationships (there are hints of this) or communication in general between people, and the static that is often involved.  But I think it also has to do with poetry as a form of communication.  Do we really know what anyone means by lines like “this swan’s down gown of a curtain / parting and I’m right back / inside the cricket’s womb” (p. 49)?  Maybe, or if not literally, then on other levels — of feeling and instinct.

No comments: