Monday, October 12, 2009

11. "the ha ha part of the land"

A recent review in The Believer of David Lau's book of poetry Virgil and The Mountain Cat describes a book that is "unknowable" or equivalent to "Rorschach blots" or poetry without "rational explanation."*

This is nothing like the book I remembered.

The book I remembered reading  was crammed with the familiar stuff of too-late capitalism (Irving Co. strip malls, golf courses, Enron, visas,  pseudoephidrine) and composed with brilliantly schizoid diction.  It was a book full of dense lyrics weaving in and out of easy assertion "History is two blue jars traveling in opposite directions" and claustrophobic formal play "the anfractuous path / leading down here is for dowers"

Indeed, what was notable to me was not the work's mystery, but the ways the book's formal logic repelled mystery.  It was so heavy with all this euphony: 

 "spring, snaky splinter / signal to another season, oppositional"
"the last Levi's plant barred its doors with oars"
"Pullulation. Push-up. Push-up.  / Pestilentia"

that every word seemed obsessively bound to the next by sound. 

Indeed, I had an impulse to pickpocket Lau and deprive him of some alliteration.  Then I wanted him  to take a relaxing vacation before his next book of poetry, and on this vacation I wanted him to take a spool of thread and unwind it into a mess which he would then provide as a nest for a bird, seeing also, through this unspooling, that he could leave a little more space between things and still be of use.

I am unable to provide much for Lau's vacation other than a spool of thread and some crumbs to attract a bird, though, and I recommend this vacation only as an experiment, not as a corrective.

I get the feeling that even without the instructional unspooling vacation, he might shrug off some formal armor.  There is under this armor, also, a strong body of other sorts of material that gives the poems life under all that formal logic.  This body is, I think, animated with a documentary impulse, also with a longing that I think underlies so much of the poetry of our moment -- that longing (in the lyric, made almost erotic) for something like a just world. 

That's why, reader, I reread the book, to check if memory had failed me.  Memory had not failed me,  and Virgil and The Mountain Cat remained the same book--the one so formally sensical it was if it were composed via tetris shapes pimped  with spikes and super glue.

* A person is given a book to read, and this book is written in some language unknown to the person. The person attempts to read the book.   When asked to describe the book, then, she says something like "look at this book, it was made out of a strange language!  I have never encountered this strange language therefore I will remark mostly on how strange the language is.  How unknowable is this crazy nonsense, yet how it has a beauty, as if it almost communicates but what it communicates, no one can know!"   Alas,  that language unknown to the person, is, well, French, and lots of people know French, speak French, and find French makes perfect sense.  Tres fucked.


  1. What you say in the footnote is what I was thinking when I read that review. But that's ok, I'm glad he's trying. When I was, say, 22 (which wasn't that long ago), just starting to read poetry, I might've written the same kind of thing. Also I think he's the guy who put together the Poets Picking Poets section of that one McSweeney's issue, which was the first time McSweeney's ever published poetry, I think. So that was nice.

  2. Yes. I don't think it is done with any sort of bad intentions -- he can tell there is value and beauty, he is trying hard, just doesn't quite seem to have experience understanding language as material or poetic logic, etc. And there are some poems that are "nonsense," who rely for meaning on what he describes, just these aren't them.

  3. New punctuation mark to flag subjectivity -- the explanation blot.

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