The following is the first substantial review of The Grand Piano since its completion with Part X in 2010. To begin with, I will cite it in sections; I will comment on specific issues raised in the review, once it has been seen more generally.
Published on The Nation (http://www.thenation.com)
Vanishing Points: Language Poetry Remembered
Barry Schwabsky | January 12, 2011
It must have been in 1979: I picture it happening at Books & Co. on Manhattan’s Upper East Side, though such is the unreliability of memory that it could have been in the Diamond District at the Gotham Book Mart. In one of those places I picked up a book that changed my life. I can still recall the first words, the first sentence, the first paragraph, which is easy enough, as all three are the same: “Revolving door.”
As for what follows, I can’t depend on memory, but I can go back to the book and refresh it. The next three paragraphs go like this:
Revolving door. A sequence of objects which to him appears to be a caravan of fellaheen, a circus, begins a slow migration to the right vanishing point on the horizon line.
Revolving door. Fountains of the financial district. Houseboats beached at the point of low tide, only to float again when the sunset is reflected in the water. A sequence of objects which to him appears to be a caravan of fellaheen, a circus, camels pulling wagons of bear cages, tamed ostriches in toy hats, begins a slow migration to the right vanishing point on the horizon line.
Revolving door. First flies of summer. Fountains of the financial district spout. She was a unit in a bum space, she was a damaged child. Dark brown houseboats beached at the point of low tide—men atop their cabin roofs, idle, play a Dobro, a jaw’s harp, a 12-string guitar—only to float again when the sunset is reflected in the water. I want the grey-blue grain of western summer. A cardboard box of wool sweaters on top of the bookcase to indicate Home. A sequence of objects, silhouettes, which to him appears to be a caravan of fellaheen, a circus, dromedaries pulling wagons bearing tiger cages, tamed ostriches in toy hats, begins a slow migration to the right vanishing point on the horizon line.
Here was writing that seemed totally new to me, yet at the same time answered some of my strongest implicit demands of poetry—which it clearly was, with its cumulative structure based on repetition. Yet it was prose too, though it hardly resembled anything I’d ever encountered as prose poetry, with the possible exception of certain passages in John Ashbery’s Three Poems.
I was taken with its reflexive structure, evident in the way the initial figure of the “revolving door” first signaled and then exemplified the pattern of recurrences to follow, while the “migration to the right” of the fellaheen seemed to allegorize the text’s repeated journey from the left margin of the page to the right. Yet in contrast to the formal reflexivity of Modernist works that spiral in on themselves, ever more distant and reductive, like the late writings of Samuel Beckett, here reflexivity was being used to generate a poetry that seemed, before my eyes, to grow ever more inclusive as it went along, always gathering more matter from the world. I was also taken by the concreteness of the writing, in which the words “cling close to things,” as Ezra Pound demanded—the words being as thingy as the things to which they refer. This was an accomplishment of sublime attentiveness to the world and the word at once. It changed my life because it changed my sense of what I would have to accomplish to be a poet. I knew I was never going to try to write like this, but I’d been put on notice that the way I had been writing would no longer do. Suddenly much that appealed to me in other poetry, and what I had been seeking in my own, seemed mere pretense.