Michael Leong’s Recent Reading at Brown University

Here’s the introduction I delivered before Michael Leong’s reading at Brown University’s Literary Arts Department’s Demitasse on  April 3, 2013:

In e.s.p., Michael Leong drafts a kind of architectonics of the page. By architectonics, I mean devices that reveal an overt consciousness of language’s status as language, words as building blocks, in which their form and shape and how they sit on the page and divide the surface plane are integral to their meaning. Though Leong’s poems often revel in the tactile aspects of words and letters, how sentences can visually suggest various structures, e.s.p. is no cold blueprint. Leong’s angular phrases, spiky forms, and playful compositions cavort within their spaces, prick consciousness as much as jar us from our sluggish thinking, and more importantly, rouse great feeling.

In Leong’s collection, sentences, clauses, and assorted fragments are used as scaffolds for a concatenation of ideas, every device, every structure or “machine” used in service of dialogue, of connection, of intimacy. Leong’s highly-constructed, heavily-machined poems—with their wordplay, puns, and self-deprecating asides; their appropriations, their colloquialisms, their interpolations of idiomatic expressions—all delight.

The book’s various textural elements stand out and demand that you slow down, figure out the codes at work here, but also revel in references to New York City’s Lower East Side, to Borges, Picasso, Estela Lamat, Rube Goldberg (a book of his machines was a favorite of mine when I was in elementary school), André Breton, outsider artist Henry Darger, Joseph Cornell (that eccentric man in a box), and David Lynch, our preeminent dreamweaver. Leong has a cosmopolitan reach, casting his thematic nets wide to include children’s mnemonic devices, dreams, dwarves, Æon Flux, Walter Pater, Yashitomo Nara, and Zener cards.

It’s a cliché to refer to words on a page, or to whatever, as “electric,” but this might be best descriptor for the blast and scatteration of Michael Leong’s e.s.p. These poems are charged with “tendrilled consequence” and “aureoled recurrence,” and power up ever-lengthening lines of thought. Leong’s poems “actualize starlit alphabets,” “transmit / susurrant syllables,” through “the valves / and shutters, / the vowelled shutters.” e.s.p. doesn’t so much read your mind as it offers another mind at work, scrambling in the dark, like the rest of us, searching for some kind of light.

In Midnight’s Marsupium, Leong once again investigates the outer face, the exterior boundaries of language, the outermost or uppermost layer or area of the page, demonstrating how language is matter, and how, as matter, it both materializes and dematerializes. Leong offers a series “refrigerator door” poems, that is, poems resembling poems composed from those kits of magnetic tiles, those kits offering, as the company proposes “300 carefully-chosen words and word fragments designed to take your imagination to all kinds of uncharted territories.” It’s the kit that, “since it came out in 1993, has launched a gajillion fridge door poems!” What it has launched for Leong is language as “an ersatz amalgam / a roiling sound system limpid as a scholar’s missive / an ebbing fusillade / to festoon time with curious form / to slather space”. These poems are buttressed against a series of haibun, a mixed form of prose and haiku invented by Matsuo Bashō. Each of these prose pieces are epistemological and ontological investigations, finding both the “I” and “eye” roaming, over geographies, taxonomies, over the body and mind, over language, even as it is fragmented, defaced, and/or erased. The collection’s epigraph from Bergson: “form is only a snapshot view of a transition,” brings to mind Barthes’ definition of plastic, that it is both something made and something that makes, that form is “less a thing than a trace of a movement,” that form forms even as it deforms and informs.

Michael Leong’s other books include Cutting Time with a Knife (Black Square Editions, 2012); a translation of the Chilean poet Estela Lamat, I, the Worst of All (BlazeVOX [books], 2009); a chapbook: The Philosophy of Decomposition/Re-Composition as Explanation (Delete Press, 2011); and his newest chapbook, Words on Edge, which was chosen by Rob Fitterman as the winner of Plan B Press’ 2012 Poetry Contest. He’s a lecturer at Rutgers University, where he completed a dissertation on the contemporary long poem and the archive.

Note: I’ve quoted, extensively, from my review of Michael Leong’s e.s.p. for this introduction.

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