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 Gómez–Peña’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 Dancing…Prose 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 the poetry books e.s.p., Cutting Time with a Knife, Who Unfolded My Origami Brain?, and Words on Edge. His creative work has been anthologized in THE &NOW AWARDS 2: The Best Innovative Writing, Best American Experimental Writing 2018, and Bettering American Poetry, Volume 3. His co-translation, with Ignacio Infante, of Vicente Huidobro’s long poem Sky-Quake: Tremor of Heaven is forthcoming from co•im•press in late 2019. His critical monograph Contested Records: The Turn to Documents in Contemporary North American Poetry is forthcoming from the University of Iowa Press in May 2020. He has received grants from the Council of Literary Magazines and Presses and the National Endowment for the Arts. He teaches in the School of Critical Studies at CalArts.