The Mechanics of the Mirage: Postwar American Poetry, edited by Michel Delville and Christine Pagnoulle.
Université de Liège: 2000.
Generally, academic conferences are ghastly occurrences. Worst Case Scenario: hastily-written papers are read by and for toadies who are present only to try on new poses. Conferences are easy to make fun of, which is why American journalists ridicule them whenever possible. But the works collected in The Mechanics of the Mirage (which emerged out of a conference sponsored by the Université de Liège in Belgium), are evidence that good things can happen when smart people gather at academic conferences.
The Mechanics of the Mirage consists of three sections: essays addressing issues pertaining to American poetry; actual poetry by writers who attended the conference; and readings of a diverse range of poets, ranging from Robert Lowell and Bob Dylan (in the same essay) to Gary Snyder, Rosmarie Waldrop, Bruce Andrews, and Shirley Kaufman. Rather than pretending to offer a comprehensive account of the field, editors Delville and Pagnoulle, who teach at the Université de Liège, wisely attempt only to sample the fare offered by American poetry since the Second World War. To paraphrase Yeats, “The one thing is certain: / There is too much of it.” Even if one follows the editors and limits the scope of “American” poetry to poetry written in English by writers living in one of the 50 United States, there is too much for any one collection of essays and poems to treat comprehensively.
Before turning to the essays, I’d like to say a few words about the poems collected in this volume. These poems are not discussed in the essays, so one could wonder what they are doing here. It’s easy for me, as a recovering academic, to imagine English professors who think poetry is extraneous to the concerns of professors writing about poetry. The beauty of this book, however, lies in the fact that the poems are presented, bravely, as standing on their own. One could read them as exemplifying certain trends commented upon in the “Issues” section (which a few of them do), or one could see them as offering counterpoints to the practices examined in the “Readings” section (ditto).
There are poems written by Keith Waldrop, Rosmarie Waldrop, Paul Hoover, Maxine Chernoff, and Jennifer Moxley, along with the text of a performance by Kass Fleisher and Joe Amato. There are obvious limitations to this selection, comprising as it does the writings of four households in the United States (only Jennifer Moxley is not married to another writer represented in this section). Again, however, in a book of 303 pages, 30 of them devoted to poetry, the reader shouldn’t expect much more than a sample. If these poems do have a unifying theme, it is best expressed by Paul Hoover in his critical essay from the “Issues” section, where he writes, “other realisms . . .are possible.”
In Keith Waldrop’s “Standard Candles,” one finds a surrealism that has incorporated Wittgenstein along with surrealism’s usual suspects, Freud and Marx:
neon & the
brink of death and I
roll in the snow, depending
on the weather
Let us assume the saints had something besides gravity
In what sense does the speaker depend on the weather? In what sense did the saints possess (and use) levity? Were the saints violating the laws of gravity, or social convention? Keith Waldrop’s realism is based not on the supposed clarity of the route from language to the real, but on the ambiguity that can make the trip more interesting. Similarly, here is the closing of Rosmarie Waldrop’s “Delta Waves”:
Sentences enclosing and opening out. Perspective changing endlessly around the interloper. In a fragmentary passage, I held a pigeon in my hand till the trembling stopped, but not the faint, rapid heartbeat. After such intimacy, how personify the holy ghost?
Despite of the subject of this poem – a speaker interacting with the animal world and suspecting a religious significance – it’s hard to imagine Bill Moyers interviewing Waldrop for his next PBS mini-series on poetry.
Nor for that matter will any of the other poets be appearing with Moyers (though it is fun to imagine Moyers interviewing Kass Fleisher and Joe Amato, but more on them later). Paul Hoover, for example, writes unsentimentally of a ubiquitous American place, “In the Landing Zone”:
Where the proud & the vacant
don’t live up to their names
where the unconscious hammers
inside a clean cupboard,
where civic is ironic
and a salesman’s shadow burns,
where you lie in the shards
of the metaphors of the age,
citizen of a place
yet to be discerned
but soon to be replete. . .
This poem, which unfolds one continuous sentence over 30 couplets, can only be damaged by selective quotation. So I can only apologize as I quote the ending, which also captures a sense of living in millennial America.
where clean & well lit
are all you can remember
where truth is approximation
& time the best disguise
Besides being fun to read, this poem also suggests why, even though we are in the midst of a New Dark Age, no one seems to mind: we live, as the nearest shopping mall will demonstrate, in a clean, well-lighted Dark Age.
Maxine Chernoff’s “Todorov at Ellis Island” uses the image of a migrating theorist to speculate on the hazards of migrating theory:
He felt swallowed up
by the 200 stairs,
by a procedure based on
plot and genre likely
to become a public charge
Theory travels in other poems here, too: the use of French thought to comprehend the American scene is the topic of one of Jennifer Moxley’s works. “The Lock” is based on a poem by Jean Honore Fragonard. Here Moxley enacts a meditation on form as something which both restricts and permits exploration. The second stanza opens with an ambiguous statement:
Locked by the practiced sense, our intimate, stubborn,
memories are textured,. . . / . . .roughened by ignorance
but not yet gallant for the love of frank luxury...
Building on this passage, the next passage meditates on the erotics of form:
we are exactly aroused by arrangement,
as the unaccustomed eye in too much light
does redden, weep & shut. . .
If I were more of a Foucauldian than I am, I would here launch a meditation about the relationship between bondage in the S & M sense and the liberating illusions of pleasure unlimited. But I’m not, and besides, Moxley’s poem, entitled, “The Lock,” pursues these speculations quite well on its own: “what sort of a man / would leave us here, resistance out of reach?”
Before moving on to the essays, a few words about Kass Fleisher and Joe Amato’s performance piece on the erotics of collaboration, or more precisely, the erotics of conflict in the guise of collaboration. This work, called “An &/or Peace Performance,” is presented as two texts facing each other across the same page, and thus cannot be quoted in this format. It is, however, terrific to read aloud, especially with someone else taking the opposing role. For me, the highlights come with are Amato’s line, “let us not to the marriage of 2 minds admit collaboration,” and Fleisher’s declaration, earlier in the piece, “I am not a post-feminist, I’m a postal feminist” (as in “going postal,” which in American media-speak refers to behaving like an armed and dangerous “disgruntled postal employee,” whereas “post feminist” judging from the magazines and websites I’ve seen is the retro-bimboism of 20-something professional women whose mothers broke glass ceilings for them).
I’ve quoted extensively from these poems because I wanted to demonstrate that the poems are, for lack of a better word, “theoretically” insightful and engaged. Poetry is perhaps the oldest form of cultural engagement, and the poems in this volume, few though they are, illuminate contemporary culture more thoroughly than most of the critical interventions launched from the range of humanistic disciplines.
Turning to the essays (which I am not disparaging by virtue of that last comment nor the next): they are all well written and soundly edited without being bloodless. This is praise directed at each of the writers and both of the editors. If I had a choice, there would not be two essays devoted to Bob Dylan’s lyrics, though Christophe Den Tandt’s “Dylan Goes Electric: Inventing a Lyrical Idiom for the Postmodern Distraction Factory” is a good essay that does what it sets out to do. However, given that the strength of his essay is in relating Dylan’s work in the pop industry to postwar poetic practices, this essay may have been better placed in the “Issues” section than the “Readings” section. Similarly, Astrid Franke’s “Public Voices in American Poetry: Robert Lowell and Bob Dylan,” has some very intelligent things to say about poetry in a culture of celebrity, where the only way that a poet can be a significant public presence is, it seems, through becoming a part of the media circus. Lowell could be a ringmaster because of his Boston Brahmin roots, Dylan (and Ginsberg for that matter), had to risk being clowns.
The other essays in “Readings” cover a surprising range of poets. There are two essays devoted to giants of the New American Poetry from the early 60s: Frank O’Hara and Gary Snyder, (by Sarah Riggs and Nick Selby, respectively). Also, two essays treat writers to whom the label “Language Poet” is often applied: Bruce Andrews and Lyn Hejinian, discussed by Mark Leahy and Peter Nichols, and there is an essay on the publisher, translator, and fine poet, Rosmarie Waldrop, written by Kornelia Freitag. Finally, there are a pair of essays dedicated to writers of the more conventional post-confessional lyric, in this case Rita Dove (written by Valerie Bada) and Shirley Kaufman (written by Frank Kearful). Unlike the other essays, which call attention to a neglected aspects of a writer’s work, Kearful’s inquiry calls attention to a writer pretty much neglected by all circles. Unlike the other subjects of these essays, Kaufman has in fact lived abroad, in Jerusalem, for much of her adult life. Her poems are of the plain lyric variety (of the sort presumably favored by “Official Verse Culture”) but with a historical and rhetorical depth that I hadn’t realized until I read Kearful’s essay. In fact, it is Kearful who points out the connection between Kaufman’s work and the not-so-obvious formal innovations of one of her teachers, George Oppen. And as I’ve said before, I’m sure that any reader will find something to pursue in the work of at least one of these poets discussed. I only focus on Kearful’s essay on Shirley Kaufman because, for the most part, her work is new to me.
The next two essays are a bit more chronologically specific: in fact, Peter Middleton’s title is about as chronologically specific as one can get: “1973.” Steve Evans’ title covers a little more ground: “The American Avant-Garde After 1989: Notes Toward a New History.” The final three essays, by Antoine Caze, Michel Delville, and Maria Damon, deal with the important questions of margins, in terms of theory (Caze), practice (Delville) and society (Damon). The Mechanics of the Mirage is worth reading for the poems and for the essays in the “Readings” section. It is worth owning for these essays in “Issues.”
Archambeau’s essay explores the continuing legacy of modernism, arguing that “it probably isn’t going too far to say that all poetry being written in America now could usefully be discussed under rubrics that attach one prefix or another to the term ‘modernist’: anti-modernist, late-modernist, post-modernist, neo-modernist, maybe even pop-modernist.” For his case study, Archambeau takes some poets who were taught at Stanford by minor poet and cranky critic Yvor Winters (whose own relationship to modernism dramatically changed as he aged). Poets like Robert Pinsky, Robert Hass, John Peck, and John Matthias each related differently to their former mentor, and consequently each poet offers a different way of writing “out of” modernism (and Archambeau is aware of the ambiguous meaning of the phrase “writing out of” as “going beyond” and/or “being grounded in” modernist poetics). While not making excessive claims for the value of Winters’ poetry, Archambeau brings together poets not previously considered in the same essay, and shows how their disparate practices are related to the still-ongoing evolution of modernism.
Steve Evans’ essay is the most ambitious in the collection, one better suited for a book than an article. “The American Avant-Garde After 1989: Notes Toward a History” heroically attempts to trace the ongoing transformation of American poetry in the past decade-plus since the collapse of the Soviet Union. After Evans provides historical contexts, he makes a survey of six younger American poets. Most of these poets are writers known to Evans (and others) through a variety of recent journals and anthologies like The Exact Change Yearbook, Aerial, Crayon, Oblek, Poetics Journal, and the Impercipient Lecture Series that Evans co-edited with Jennifer Moxley (one of the poets he profiles, incidentally). Acknowledging that his “constellation” of poets is “neither entirely objective nor remotely exhaustive,” Evans does what he sets out to do, which is, simply, to define the criteria by which a “contemporary” avant-garde can consider itself to be contemporary. Evans’ essay, combined with Archambeau’s essay, offers about as close to a comprehensive map of American poetry as anyone could ask for in this age, an age which Evans aptly characterizes as “resistant to synopsis and paraphrase.”
The Mechanics of the Mirage is itself resistant to synopsis, which is, of course, what makes it a valuable collection of essays and poems. After reading the book, it becomes clear that the subtitle, “postwar American poetry” is not a closed-off period, but an ongoing process. The strength of this book is that it will not date as rapidly as most books published in the year 2000 concerning recent American poetry or poems.