The following two poems appeared first in L Issue #1, in 1972, a poetry magazine which I edited. They are interesting primarily because of the directions which Barrett Watten's work would take in the succeeding decades, long after he had been associated with the Iowa Writers' Workshop, where these poems were written. (Personally, I've always liked them, and think of them as among Barry's best work, though I doubt this is an opinion he shares.)
Wallace line indigo limelight
that crushed metallic
writing on black velvet
let me blow it
These two early poems, which succeed by about one year the Author's first self-published pamphlet Radio Day in Soma City [Iowa City, 1971] show a more focused vision, albeit in an apprentice setting, than his earlier attempts, for instance, at appropriating the pop styles of Ted Berrigan or Anselm Hollo.
On the most basic level, these poems can be read as attempts to objectify the sign, in the service of an investiture in a trumping irony, or as a contempt for aesthetic contexts from which cliche'd traditional literary models derive--as an exercise in critical dismantling. The speaker disengages from the jeopardy of an implied (narrative of) imitation, in order to distance himself from those sources--their limitation(s) of sentiment.
Whereas Pound always self-consciously used formal models to raise the ante of meaning, to borrow an occasion that could support his rhetoric--here, detached fragments of assertion are laid out like specimens under inspection. Rather than emulating classic signifiers, Watten's program appears here to consist of a debunking or parody of their permitted uses.
Indeed the authorial voice seems almost to detest its ostensible subject, as if it had been imposed as an external program, hence the neutral disembodied tone, the automatized sequence of terms, the lack of a sentiment traceable back to a motive-vector. The voice seems to be saying: "My dilemma is in engaging this rehearsal of archetypes, but I am not committed to it, it is just a means to an end, an end which I am not at liberty to define, or name, at this time" (which would certainly have been an apt position to take at that point--i.e., a resistant stance).
The primary nodes in the first poem--Tropicana, Wallace [Stevens], Nicaragua and Bodega Bay--provide classic nomenclature--two geographical loci, a decorative Modernist poet, and the proper name of a casino/hotel or an orange juice brand. The references are intentionally broad (vague), and undeveloped, though striking in their simplicity. Their use is completely gratuitous, inasmuch as there is no need or purpose in developing their significance or meaning in the poem. They function simply as assimilated stereotypical signs, whose associations are generic, though vivid enough, to evoke a generalized sense of familiarity without requiring greater definition, or more decisive commitment (i.e., nothing of the political or economic facts of Nicaragua need be considered, the name itself is sufficient to the case).
The first poem is not a description of an equatorial state of mind, or of a specific place; it isn't an intellectual exercise about a tropical aspect, the way a poem by Hart Crane or Stevens would be. It merely uses this frame to create an artificial linguistic setting for the launching of the exercise. It's discretely insulated from any describable experience. The speaker is not placed geographically (in "Nicaragua" or Northern California ("Bodega Bay"), is not on a stage ("limelight"), is not looking at a picture in a museum ("black velvet"); it is not nighttime ("the moon"). The poem exists in a kind of limbo--neither assertive, nor reactive.
It asks to be treated as a rehearsal of stereotypical platitudes ( stock images) without conviction, a renunciation of the prescriptive etymologies of performance and methodology (i.e., the work of Wallace Stevens) under which the author's official pursuit of a writerly identity, at that time, was being carried out. As previously discussed in my piece on this blog ["Lewis Turco & The Workshop System," November 11, 2008], the workshop system is a version of the institutionalized master-apprentice relationship, one in which an established canon of acceptable models of imitation and aspiration is presented as a panoply of fixed, unchallenged alternatives. The purpose of this system is the perpetuation of normative values of specimen texts, and the grooming of candidates for entry into the machinery of literary production. Potential responses to such an oppressive structure are burlesque or satire, in which codes and formulae are rejected, or mimicked as it were from the inside out, like graffiti on the bathroom wall. As forms of routine resistance or futile (political) demonstration, poems designed to martial corroboration (protest) end up being subsumed within the larger sphere of synthetic debate, leaving the self predictably thwarted.
This aggression--"pestering the offices of intelligence"--against authorized centres of meaning, involves not just the deconstruction of the cliches of canonical form, but a renunciation of all known profiles of (the author as) agency. To adopt any such available profiles, at that point in time, would have required a capitulation, not just to the system of judgment and coercion it represented, but an acquiescence to exhausted modes of expression. By holding the level of statement just short of assertion, limited to an objectivist nominative, it was possible to exist incognito within the sphere of textual decision, as a renegade in disguise.
The second poem adopts a quasi-scientific incremental measure, using the left-hand margin--the individual words aligned vertically along it--to count degrees of progression. Still life, as a formal cliche, is a collection of linguistic objects (or signs), which organize into distributed arrays or sets:
palm fronds -- "Nature" - a frame
Russian bottles -- manufactured objects
my daughter [my late daughter's/pettiness] -- the social milieu
winter window -- Nature through a frame
specie -- scientific testing and measurement -- enhanced precision
edge [spectacular/ornate/immaterial/dark edge] -- sublimation of the performance --dissolution
The sequence poses an imaginary progression, parallel, but not equivalent to, the time of the poem's unfolding. The sequence of ordered objects, otherwise gratuitous and accidental, involves an increasing narrowing of focus (the conjugation of the daughter's quality, the declension of the root specie--which prefigures the expansion from material specificity towards the spectacular ornate im-materiality), beginning from generality, gradually excising, arriving at a symbolic (w)edge, which is (an) atomized "im-/material//dark edge". Spectacularity (decor) versus the immaterial (abstraction). Like the other poem, this appropriates objects as totally discrete and arbitrary things, whose referential inter-relationship is crucially, and flagrantly arbitrated, and the whole argument--if it can be called that--devolves upon a crux of dissolution, like a hammer blow on an anvil. The (w)edge's immateriality, at the molecular level, means that any edge is an illusion, any assertion provisional.
This metaphorical detonation, from a Platonic materiality (ideal) to post-Modern (or post-Einsteinian) immateriality suggests the slow, inexorable explosion, popularly described as "the Big Bang." A Cartesian materiality (Watten once earnestly said to me "all thought is geometric!"), expressed through objects as ideal forms, disintegrates. The progressive advance of physics towards smaller and smaller degrees of definition of space and matter--thus triggers an objectivization, or criticism, of the signs of predestined forms, a deconstruction derived from the expansion, or the historical progression, of scientific thought. A poem which self-destructs, or de-constructs itself. Which is--to the degree of its transformation--thrown into relief by its energetic process.
Whereas the first poem spins in place as a gyroscope of futility, like a planet in orbit around a futile sun--the second confronts darkness, a dying sun, entropy.
If an effort in these poems has been made to deconstruct a system of given signs, as a reduction of the apprentice relationship, to nonsense, nothing is offered in opposition. Beside Pound's imperative to "stand beside one's word(s)"--a contrary concept of authorial agency is posed as de-personalized intelligence. Observer and observed become one, but identity is sacrificed through this process.
Language is like flypaper, seductive, sweet, sticky--but also illusive, illusory, ephemeral, flimsy, and deceptive. Try as we might to draw a line in the sand, to assign to a shifting surface a meaning with authority or permanence, it's all a terrific waste of time--or a futile (temporal) use. Along the valence of time, matter can't hold the evidence of our intentions.
Walking through great piles of the county dump, of respective materials, shifting and sifted, partially sorted, rotting, rolled, humped-up into clogged and tangled banks, mirages of matter, sprinkled with acids, ammonia, perfume, vinegar, oils. The overwhelming materiality of the quotidian masquerades as random thought, but animation may simply be a projection of a mindless consumption. Why do anything? Why churn the detritus of civilization? Why not?
The drug lord puts out a contract on a Richmond resident, so later that night shots are heard. Behind cyclone fences, cowering misfits fry rubbery steaks. Ashen exhaust residue tinges the cinder-block. Paint drips off the ceiling. Blood circulates through the arterial tree, percolating consciousness. Turtles crossing the road crushed beneath barreling treads. Foamy Niagara sleeps through the night, churning misty nostalgias. The Chinese plate cracks, revealing weak fissures in our thought.
What is the relation between present event and received wisdom, between freshly minted fear and scarred memory? An unmanned craft hovers overhead. Roaches are climbing the lampposts, looking for light. The oncoming glare of blinding brights is a sedative, numbing as the fatigue motel.