Ring of Fire
Zoland Books, $13
In his idiosyncratic essay "Poetry and Abstract Thought," Paul Valery writes, "Each word is an instantaneous coupling of a sound and a sense which have no connection with each other." This notion has, of course, been refuted by much contemporary critical thought, as Bernsteinís delightful boundary-stretching verse essay, "Artifice of Absorption," demonstrates. Bernstein writes, "...sound can no more be divided from its meaning / than a body can be split off from its soul." And sound ( not to mention soul ) is precisely what Lisa Jarnotís latest book, Ring of Fire, is full of.
Her title, taken from the Johnny Cash song, functions like the tuning fork which Valery explains signifies a passage from the world of noises into that of music. Just as Cashís "Ring of Fire" eulogizes loveís incendiary power , Jarnotís exhaustive exploration into the world of sound ends with the reader engulfed by her auditory landscapes. By utilizing a repetition of phrasings within a varied syntax, a bridge is erected between sound and meaning, allowing the reader to cross over to either shore or remain, quite satisfyingly, in-between
Donít be fooled by the playful tone here; Jarnot is not afraid of entering political territory, which she does with the books shortest, untitled poem, "I am standing on the corner where Huey Newton got shot / but you thought that he was Huey Lewis." By allowing this sentence to act as a sort of headline for the blank page which follows, Jarnot forces the reader to meditate on the social implications of a culture which diminishes important political movements by steering them into the realm of rock-star iconography.
Although the cut-and-paste collages that dominated her first book, Some Other Kind of Mission, are gone, Ring of Fire demonstrates Jarnotís mastery of visual aesthetics within the framework of the tradition page. The poems range from the visually intimidating, "The Age of the Velocipede" whose text leaves the reader with little room to breath, to the rather quiet "Sea Lyrics" sequence of prose-like poems( Iím reluctant to actually term them prose poems as they lack a right margin justification, which appears in other work throughout the book).
Bernstein explains that the power of sound is, "as great as soundís ability to evoke / an image; those poetries that have tapped / into this power have, in refusing to let words/ become transparent, made them more potent." Ring of Fire is, indeed, a potent work, guaranteed to ignite any readerís preconceived idea of what poetry can do.
Alice James Books, $11.95
Theodore Roethke, in a letter to William Carlos Williams concerning his poem, "The Lost Son," wrote, "And if you don't think it's got the accent of native American speech, your name aint W. C. Williams, I say belligerently." Much has changed in the fifty plus years since; we've experienced Ė among other things Ė a tremendous technological revolution which has shifted the America idiom by incorporating a new tech-lexicon. Additionally, the sexual revolution, and its consequent appropriation by the mainstream media, has facilitated an openness in our everyday speech.
Both of these notions are central to Cort Day's use of language in his first book, The Chime. With a blunt, almost muscular, command of sexuality ("to ass-fuck / a woman in a field of fireflies") and by infusing the poetic landscape with technological jargon ( "A coherent, wave-like / syncopation will invest you, and you'll notice / a tiny application running inside everyone: / disposable, disposable, disposable, disposable."), Day creates a post-negative capability for the new millennium.
An architectural masterpiece, each of the book's 52 poems is ten lines long, with tonal and imagistic repetitions underpinning the work. Day begins the poem "Throwback" by stating "I only get ten minutes in this mask," demonstrating his awareness of the difficulty in rendering complete poetic worlds within a minimal space. Not only does he pull it off, but he does so with the absurd humor of Russell Edson, the micro-surrealism of Gregory Orr and the depth of Stevens:
Day has the astounding ability to jump from tender compassion ("the night that begs to dream of you") to outright crassness ("She fucks carp to earn his light, / she fellates pike"), while maintaining a consistency of style throughout. Although myth-heavy at times, the poems occasionally border on a non-referential tone whose hypnotic imagery and paratactic structure lulls one into the unquestioning acceptance of Day's wild declarative voice:
The Chime has a formal power which nudges one, after having read the final poem, to begin again immediately. The poem, "Monad, a Deluxe Pastoral, Deepens and Unwinds," a five-part cycle which explores notions of substance and reality, is, perhaps, the books most gripping work. As with Roethke's "The Lost Son" or Berrigan's The Sonnets, multiple readings allow these poems to taken on a greater level of interconnectedness and resonance, although the first time through is quite a kicker.
Noah E. Gordon was the recipient of the 2000 Randall Jarrell Poetry Prize. His poetry appears in Parnassus and Zygote, and is on display at the Springfield, Massachusetts, Public Library.