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Assorted Notes on (or a Kind of Review of) Shya Scanlon’s In this alone impulse, (Noemi Press, 2009)

The fifth piece of this collection, “Go beside, and speak,” begins:

“I am from I have been thinking. I am from it feels like. I am from seeing through something.” 

We have anaphora here, yes, but this passage (as well as a great deal of the book’s beginning) is also a great display of anacoluthon.  Literally meaning “wanting sequence,” this rhetorical device is achieved by abruptly changing from one grammatical structure to another. 

According to the book’s acknowledgments, these poems were “born” in New York City, a city which (says Scanlon) “has a way of exploding the boundaries between self and other, like being under water and breathing in”; and according to Wikipedia, anacoluthon “is…in rhetoric a figure that shows excitement, confusion, or laziness.”

With this in mind, there seems no better trope to convey the frisson, the vertiginousness, and the ennui of New York.

*

What kind of book is this, this volume of “compressed seven-line text blocks”?  Looking at the shelving category on the back cover, one finds this humorous description: “Poetry, kind of.” 

One so often finds—especially among genre-bending works—shelving categories replete with virgules, that perform hybridity by way of accumulation.  Lyn Hejinian’s My Life (2002) is thus “Poetry/Autobiography/Woman’s Literature.”  Claudia Rankine’s Don’t Let Me Be Lonely (2004) is “Lyric Essay/Poetry.”  And to cite an extreme example: Guillermo GómezPeña’s The New World Border (1996) is “American Art/Border Issues/Cultural Studies/Cyber-Punk Literature/Experimental Linguistics/Interdisciplinary Thought/Naftaztec Culture/New Topography/Performance Art/Post-Chicano Studies/Reversed Anthropology/Spoken Word Poetry.”  In other words, it seems to be a convention to package innovative texts as multiply defined.  Not one thing but two, or three.  Or maybe twelve.

There is a certain conceptual elegance, then, to Scanlon’s “kind of,” to this self-questioning modifier, to this category that hedges its own identity.  I like to think of it as a bilingual pun (“genre,” in fact, comes from the French word meaning “kind”), not only indicating that all genres are impure but announcing the dynamic word play that fills this book.  “Be stiff as a bored,” Scanlon says in one poem; “We sea the breeze before we sail it into some wet future,” he says in another.

*

 “So, parallel with Walking and DancingProse and Poetry….”

—Paul Valéry, “Poetry and Abstract Thought”

In this alone impulse,: power walking? break dancing?

*

In “Fatness,” Scanlon says, “…I hoped you’d forget what I’d told you about tragedy being a seven layer burrito.  It’s for people who can’t make up their minds.” 

It’s probably not, but I like to think of this as a meta-poetic moment, that this “seven layer burrito” somehow correlates to these seven line machines made of words.

Nevertheless, one needn’t decide whether this book is prose or poetry in order to enjoy it just as one needn’t know the ingredients of a seven layer burrito to enjoy it.  Indeed, both feel good in the mouth.   

 

*

The idea of a seven-line prose structure is a real coup in that the “prose line” is radically contingent—dependent upon things like page format, font, and margin size.  (In fact, I was taught in my very first creative writing workshop that the difference between poetry and prose was that, in poetry, the author controls the length of the line while, in prose, this is left up to the publisher.)  Actually, in online venues like elimae, Guernica, and Word Riot, some of these poems appear in incarnations that range anywhere from five to eight lines.  Are they the same poem?  How does this compositional constraint affect the ontology of the text(s)?        

*

Are these really “compressed seven-line text blocks,” as the back cover copy claims?  Surely, the online poems seem “compressed,” but the versions in the book are widened by ample spacing (see below one of my favorites, “Six miles south,” and find some more samples at the Noemi Press website).  This is, I suspect, what contributes to the feeling that these poems are “beautifully replete with silence” (to quote a phrase from Brian Evenson’s blurb), and if you’ve seen some of these poems online, the book is worth getting not only to see more of them but to appreciate the elegant layout.  “Poetry or prose?” asks Terese Svoboda’s blurb.  I say concrete poetry and here’s why: first, the book’s presentation keeps the seven-line form consistent, and, second, the added spacing (to my eye) suggests a sort of visual iconicity.  I see here a seven-line musical stave along which “we [can] listen…to new sounds” (from “Spelled out”).  And if I look at it at a certain angle, I can imagine the strings of an Aeolian harp, which, when placed in front of the windows of your skull, will produce a strange and beautiful music if you let it.

Michael Leong is the author of four volumes of poetry, e.s.p., Cutting Time with a Knife, Who Unfolded My Origami Brain?, and Words on Edge, as well as a translation of the Chilean poet Estela Lamat, I, the Worst of All. His poems have appeared in jubilat, Lana Turner, New American Writing, Tin House, Verse Daily, The &Now Awards 2: The Best Innovative Writing, and elsewhere. Excerpts from a new manuscript in progress is forthcoming in Best American Experimental Writing 2018. He is Assistant Professor of English at the University at Albany, SUNY.

13 thoughts on “Assorted Notes on (or a Kind of Review of) Shya Scanlon’s In this alone impulse, (Noemi Press, 2009)

  1. Thanks Michael (and Shya). I like this ‘kind of review’-oblique, winnowing, multi-useful.

    Ten pounds to who can guess the quote (name inserted):

    “Who is this Shya Scanlon? Is he, has he, anything at all?”

    No googling…

      1. I was actually thinking of incorporating the beginning of _Tender Buttons_ in these notes: “A kind in glass and a cousin, a spectacle and nothing strange a single hurt color and an arrangement in a system to pointing. All this and not ordinary, not unordered in not resembling. The difference is spreading.” I wanted to riff off of this issue of “kind/kin/genre” and also some of the language here–“The difference is spreading”–resonated, for me, with “Six miles south” (“We sat together and watched it spread”).

        But actually the more I think of it, _ITAI_ seems less expatriate/European vanguard than post-New York School. Stein’s sensibility seems so tied to analytical cubism while your book seems more demotic. And Beckett seems invested in a logorrheic extremity in his attempt to turn the novel into pure monologue. I’ll have to think about it a bit longer but O’Hara seems more on the money… I think there’s an issue of lyric sincerity as well…

        “…It is even in
        prose, I am a real poet.”
        –Frank O’Hara, “Why I am Not a Painter”

        1. Yeah, ITAI is not a critical enterprise whatsoever, so in that way, demotic is right. It’s funny, though, because demontic meaning “common” is also the antithesis of the book’s project.

          1. By “demotic,” I was meaning something like “vernacular”–particularly in the sense that the word play is associated with the improvisatory rhythms of spoken speech (not in the way writers distort syntax in some kind of analytica process)– but I’m wondering, too, if it might be “demotic” (of the people) in the sense that you invoke an urban poetics of NYC…

        2. It seems influence is tremendously more mysterious than we think it is. For me, the most influential writers on my writing are those that I would never admit or let into my sacred circle of conscious influence, but the unconscious influence seems stronger, more real.

          These include: Paul Auster, Henry Miller.

          Who is on your unconscious list?

          1. I guess my list remains unconscious, Greg!

            But, now I think of it, two people mentioned Stevens regarding my first book, and I didn’t consciously have him in mind when I was writing it. But this I would admit to, no problem, even though I went through a significant phase of favoring a Poundian/WCW strand of modernism.

            Yeah, mysterious I suppose…as H. Bloom says (I think it’s him) influence is influenza.

          2. On second thought– I’m not sure if “influence” is really the issue…maybe it’s more like “family resemblance” on the level of style.

  2. Also, Michael, it’s interesting that you bring up the text block issue, and the intentionality of line breaks. Actually, in the manuscript (to which the book remains true), the margins are set to half an inch larger that the default, so the resulting 7 lines are not entirely determined by my word processor. However, when I began sending them out, editors didn’t catch this, and would run them within whatever template they were using. I fought this a couple times, but ended up letting it be. Elimae, for instance, couldn’t change its template to accomodate my form. I wonder how often poets agree to let thier form be changed by the conditions of a particular venue.

    1. Ah, interesting– I was going to ask about this. And interesting that this was something you had to “fight.” They do look great in the book presentation… hopefully, more often than not, poets agree to chance conditions that work out favorably. Does anyone know the textual history of _Leaves of Grass_ very well? I think I heard that the omission of the period at the end of the 1855 “Song of Myself” was a printer error though I’m not completely sure…but I know that Whitman added it in subsequent editions.

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