Editorial: Outside the Penumbra of Postmodernism by Robert Archambeau
If you are a well-known language poet and want to stand up in front of a large crowd to announce that you are “resigning from the penumbra of the postmodern,” you’ve missed your chance. Bob Perelman got there first, and picked the perfect venue, too: a convention called “The New Modernisms: The Inaugural Conference of the Modernist Studies Association,” held amid the dramatic mountains of central Pennsylvania. Explaining that he saw his work as continuing the project of modernism, Perelman shocked a few, pleased a few more, and gave voice to one of the recurrent themes of that long weekend at State College, PA: modernism wasn’t owned by Eliot, and didn’t die with him, either.
My guess is that taking one giant step out from the spotlight of postmodernism won’t land Perelman in the shadows. Having established a well-deserved reputation as one of America’s most interesting postmodern poets when postmodernism was the Next Great Thing, Perelman promises to remain interesting and to retain his audience. But what about a poet like John Peck, who has been writing through and beyond modernism for years, working the old rock-face and digging tunnels off in directions Pound never took? Here is another poet continuing the project of modernism, but a poet whose work, never seen within the penumbra of the Next Great Thing, has never basked in the light of fame.
Spending some of his most productive years studying at the Jung Institute in Zurich may not have helped Peck reach an audience, either. And his poems, as even a cursory examination reveals, are challenging in their obscurity. They aren’t even obscure in the way we’ve come to expect from language poetry’s syntactic disruptions: they take the old modernist techniques of collage, juxtaposition, and elliptical historical reference and, in the best modernist tradition, make those techniques new and strange. A cursory examination reveals this, and reveals that cursory examinations just won’t do.
“The joy of reading these books,” wrote Jere Odell, reviewing Peck’s Argura and Selva Morale, “is the gradual and unending ascent to understanding. After reading and rereading, new strands of music, new levels of complexity float to the surface.” This is certainly true: the pleasures of reading Peck are gradual and, in my experience, without end. But too often Peck’s critics have left off just there, with the recognition of Peck’s difficult beauty. Brooke Bergan’s essay on Peck in this issue of Samizdat does more to open a door into his work than any other critical commentary I’ve seen. We are proud to include it as a counterpart to two of Peck’s newest poems.
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A year ago, when the first issue of Samizdat appeared, I claimed that there were two reasons for publishing the magazine: to support poets whose work could be described as neither language poetry nor workshop poetry; and to publish poems from beyond the borders of the United States, along with reports on the contexts that give those poems meaning. The current issue continues to work toward both of these ends.
I think, also, that the current issue shows the modernist roots of the most interesting work being done outside of the language and workshop paradigms. Like Peck, the five other North American poets appearing in this issue — Americans Orlando Ricardo Menes, Catherine Kasper, Kymberly Taylor, Charles Cantalupo, and Canadian Stephen Collis — all write in idioms that branch off from the modernist tree. Menes’ rich heteroglossia; Kasper’s Joycean juxtaposition of the sacred and the profane; Taylor’s collage of the textual, the visual and the musical in the service of a new kind of narrative; Cantalupo’s dramatic monologue that can only be described as Conrad filtered through the prism of Gertrude Stein; and Collis’ self-referential poetic sequence — each project takes a modernist trope as a point of departure. If they aren’t modernists, these poets are, in their own ways, modernism’s heirs and children.
This issue also continues Samizdat’s commitment to poets from outside North America. Four British poets — Scotland’s David Kinloch and England’s David Kennedy, Peter Robinson, and Mark Robinson (not relations) — are included, and Ireland’s Billy Mills joins Masha Zavialova in bringing us the word from elsewhere.