Wednesday, August 31, 2011

Chat Review: Elaine Equi, Click And Clone (Coffee House Press 2011)

(r): Hallo, R.

R: Greets, (r)! Are you ready to click & clone?

(r): Ever. The title of Elaine Equi's new book does a lot of work, doesn't it?

R: Indeed it does. I'm trying to remember where she discusses the title--perhaps in the end notes? Ah yes, here we are. In the notes concluding the volume, Equi thanks the Genetic Science Learning Center at the University of Utah for the title, which she borrowed from their website. She writes, "To my mind, it captures our Zeitgeist in a way that is both witty & succinct" (108).

(r): I think that's a really important acknowledgment--& at least a partial statement of poetics! We can definitely tell from this collection that Equi values the succinct & the witty. One impulse I loved in this collection was its conviction that, perspectivally speaking, we do live in a multiverse. Figuring out how to acknowledge intersubjectivity, not merely subjectivity in the singular, is one of Equi’s recurring preoccupations."When you sleep together,/go all the way!" she writes, perhaps a bit too deliciously.

But what intrigues me most here is that this book--unlike many other books of contemporary poetry--has an argument. Perhaps even an Argument.

R: Yes, & an Argument that believes in a Zeitgeist. I was wondering about that, since I read this collection in sprints. I was baking pita bread one at a time, & my reading was syncopated with that very quick baking. I guess that, unlike Equi, I don't "know better/than to go punching holes/in the universe" (1). I mention this because I wasn't feeling particularly plugged in to contemporary culture at the moment of reading.

(r): Maybe that's the best way to read this book, in a sense.

 R: Yes. The reading practice itself is a kind of plugging in--to a zeitgeist, to an argument...

(r): Let's talk a bit about argument, perhaps? I'm not opposed to poetry with an argument in principle--there's a rather impressive English language tradition of argumentative verse, after all--sonneteers & Metaphysicals being, perhaps, its most powerful exponents. So, in a way, one of this collection's gutsiest moves is to revive the not-at-all-fashionable practice of taking a position & defending it at all costs. I can appreciate that without, I think, agreeing with or even very much liking the argument itself. That is, what I take the argument to be:

1) We live in an age of fallen language in which language & history are increasingly estranged & increasingly conformable & insipid: "Destroy. Dismantle. Delete. It remakes itself without/missing--no time anymore for the old farewells” (98).

2) This "click & clone" zeitgeist is always in danger of overwhelming & appropriating any response we might make to it, whether welcoming or hostile: "Go, clone--tell them I tried, but not enough," Equi writes in a poem called "Envoi," "that I was overly fond of lingering, unable to adapt." Here, the imagined interlocutor is, itself, a clone. The poem asks this interlocutor to "Confirm for me the rumor/that somewhere difference still exists" (99).

But is this a thing that can ever be successfully demanded of a clone? If so, what does it mean to be a clone in this collection? To read or write as a clone? Should we be embracing our clonehood or rejecting it utterly?

R: Yes, & building on (2), (3), that art itself is inherently cloning: "Art is not an object, but a way of looking at an object" (57).  In other words, art is both essentially secondary & essentially argumentative.

(r): Absolutely.

 R: Equi pushes this third point perhaps to its limit in "Transport," a piece of literary criticism (examining Murakami's affect) presented as a prose poem (85).
Along these lines, we can consider the second poem in the collection, a post-surrealist "Manifesto" that urges, "Work to abolish/the most abject poverty of all//that of knowing/only one world" (2). It's almost as if art has an active, a political, & thereby a critical stake in the world. Art is diagnostic.

(r): & at times even indexical!

R: & when art is culturally diagnostic, to some extent it has to take a zeitgeist as axiomatic. & whether or not we agree with the diagnosis--or even with the idea of the diagnosis--this is a pretty powerful statement of poetics. For something so new school, it's seriously old-school!

Yes, the oldest new school on the block! How would you feel about taking a look at the way these issues play out in the title poem?

R: Let's. My favorite moment in the title poem comes when Equi writes, "Love--//I have put on/this ape suit for you" (13). It seems so delightfully reminiscent of Jack Spicer's repeating refrain--that love shows through the ridiculous, & the absurdly constructed, particularly in the space of the poem.

(r): Those are my favorite lines too.

R: I love it when we're on the same (literal/figurative) page.

(r): But I think that you might just as easily read them as a mockery.
That is--there are kinds of love that require disguises, semblances, grotesquerie, "aping." Kinds of love that need these devices rather than existing in spite of them. It's interesting to think about how putting on an ape suit might be a kind of formal choice. For instance, the collagist ethic of many of Equi's poems seems to invite questions about performativity & play. I'm thinking in special of the "Reading . . . Over Someone's Shoulder on the Subway" poems.

R: Yes, I thought about those a lot--both for the ways in which they function as a sort of instant mash-up between criticism & poetry (though Equi refers to them as found poems in the book's notes) & for the ways in which they articulate a reading practice that seems to be cultivated/incubated over the course of the text. Which goes back to pita pockets--the extent to which this book invites or activates a sort of dipping in & out of a broader set of sustained themes/multifaceted arguments.

 (r): Yes! I wonder if, in a way, this is what a clonish reading practice really looks like?


Syncopations, excerpts, & elisions.

 R: I baked so many! I don't even know what to do with them all.

Repetitions, imitations, dedications.

 (r): Invite all your friends to break bread! Clone some if you don't have enough.
As "Reading Sandra Brown's Exclusive Over Someone's Shoulder on the Subway" tells us: "I don't buy this 'seclusion' nonsense for a moment." (47).

R: But then how can I embrace the life of a contemporary poet? "I teach somewhere./I'm lost" (23). That is what Equi is sending up in "( )[,]" is it not?

 (r): Seclusion or the sensus communis?

R: "My tattoo reads: Whatever you think I'm doing, I'm not doing it" (57).

(r): I'll see you that & raise you this: "Use your powers for good,/and one day they'll name a robot/in a theme park after you" (80).

R: I've had enough of your "ex-cardinals/ex-pigeons/ex-robins/ex-finches//ex-starlings/ex-sparrows//expatriate birds [...] ex-nightingales" (61). The poetic tropes are falling from the sky, dear (r), & you & I & Equi are left to pick up the pieces. To stake what claims we can. To make what arguments suffice. In poetry as (in) criticism.

(r): I should never plague you with such an aviary. Not without great provocation! Is it time for concluding remarks?

R: It is difficult to conclude in Equi's temporality, in which "Maybe birds never existed/or only in ancient times like Homer's" (60). In her poem for Barbara Guest, "the Collected," Equi writes: "I like the feeling of incompleteness,//the icy unresolve/(some would say lack of closure)/in your poems" (36). This collection's penultimate verse offers two such clever rejections: "Used to be every poet signed off as Orpheus" (104) & "How dare you answer me as if I were an email" (105). Perhaps it is this tension between the argumentative & the undecided that makes Equi's collection so compelling. It's a conundrum & a paradox & an exploration of form. &, after all, it's not about agreement.

(r): Yes, for all her fascination with rhetoric, there's a real attraction to pastiche, inconclusiveness, the strange alchemy of high culture & low, quotidian & extraordinary. You can see this in the brevity of her lines (when she lineates), the chatty expansiveness of her prose poems (when she does not), the playful mining of a vast swathe of intellectual territory that, nonetheless, can't help but point out its limits--all that it is not & cannot account for--the plight of the fool on the hill: "Nothing is his buried treasure/A goose egg is his perfect score./Zero is his favorite hour./Zero the revolving door" (11).

Do you feel like a clone, dear R.? Do I? What ought a clone to feel, anyway? Will you say?

R: Is "The Fool On The Hill" a lyrical ballad mashed with a Radiohead b-side? Is the collection's household god Nietzsche or Kim Kardashian?
Read it & bleep, dear (r). For all its punctuated pleasure & rhythmic mockery & high thought, the text--so critical in & of itself! so anti-critical of every thing!--resists review. & maybe that's its beauty/my recommendation. We cannot answer it as if it were an email.

(r): Hélas. But we can sign off as Orpheus if the fancy strikes us.