Fragile Replacements by William Allegrezza
In William Allegrezza’s Fragile Replacements, two long poems in sections sandwich about forty pages of brief lyrics. The relevance of the book’s title is clear in the note on the first long poem: “The sections of Go-between were written in correspondence with the sections of Dante’s Vita Nuova. Each section reacts to or includes part of Dante’s text” (113).
In the Vita Nuova, as I understand it from the Dante Gabriel Rosetti translation, the amorous speaker not only idealizes Beatrice but focuses repeatedly on the anguish due to his distance from the beloved before arriving at a realization about the positive possibilities of a “new life.” In each of the sections, a reiterated form provides a sense of stability or at least a frame within which the anguish is contained: there is a prose narrative, a sonnet or sequence of sonnets, and then a brief explanation of the poetry, and the fluid syntax and traditional Christian imagery and abstraction also provides coherence. It stands to reason that Allegrezza’s collaging and responses to Dante’s work in “Go-between” will prove “fragile” in the sense that his sections of verse, not bolstered by the prose features, have a small fraction of the number of words and sentences that Dante’s do, and there is a fair amount of syntactical and thematic disjunction. Take section VII:
patience faltering ideas
so clear in water eyes
“i have been here only once before”
waiting after the storm with
layers above light refracting
crystals coming around my
body limp filled
the key was fumbled “i was greatly
it is plain. (9)
The adverb “patiently” in Dante’s section VII becomes the noun “patience” in Allegrezza’s, but I fail to see any other repetition of actual language or imagery, and yet the tone of melancholy in the “original” is somehow preserved in various images and abstractions in the “replacement.” This tonal feature, along with hints of narrative in the “replacements,” mitigates the effect of the difference between the precursor’s stylistic fluidity and the twenty-first century ephebe’s disjunction. Allegrezza has spoken of the influence of Charles Olson on his work, and in “Go-between,” one can often imagine a twenty-first century distillation of Dante’s style and themes placed on the flexible spacing of “projective verse,” though not precisely Olson’s sprawling lines. (In sections XXVIII and XXIX, a destruction of boundaries among words and a destabilizing play with capitalization/lower case as well as spacing– “WOrDsJuMBLEASVoiCES/ COLlasPeFOrLacKOFPoWerTO/ APpRoacHTHETOpic” (30)—achieves an effect of fragmentation and temporary incomprehension far more intense than anything in Olson, not to mention Dante.)
In previous work by Allegrezza like the poems collected in In the Weaver’s Valley, as in many of the short poems in this book’s second section, we see the curious quoted sentences that pop up out of nowhere and seem to ask us to locate the substance of their relation to what comes before and after them. However, these forlorn traces of voice often complement whatever language surrounds them. If “the key was fumbled”—the key unlocking love or spiritual understanding—then it makes sense that the speaker “was disoriented (“greatly cast down”).
Although some aspects of Allegrezza’s long poem jibe with his sentence, “in parts i describe desolation” (23), a polyphony of tones enriches the text. Uncanny moments are especially noteworthy. In section XXVI, Dante speaks with delight and wonder about how she had gained the admiration of “all men” through her purity, humility, and grace and how, whenever she passes by, they crowd around to behold her. After the sonnet in this section, Dante states that its meaning is too simple to require the usual explication. However, Allegrezza’s XXVI is more challenging than the average section, and his speaker seems more neutral—and perhaps less than thrilled—about the attentions that throngs of men pay to his lady:
many men gathered round to look
and she not knowing where to turn
those having seen could
so fair all sound stops no
“miracle . . . can create such marvels”
i searched for my own goodness in you and
found other faces staring back (28)
The fact that the woman does not know “where to turn” indicates an important difference from Dante’s perspective; rather than utterly poised in bestowing her grace to the multitude, she may be bewildered by the sheer mass of objectification that confronts her. This attention is not necessarily the ultimate honor, one which gives pleasure to the speaker, but a problem with which she deals by using common sense. When she returns the men’s gaze, Allegrezza counters impressions of the idealization of her beauty, etc. in at least two ways. First, there is a compelling ambiguity in the quoted sentence: not only is it unclear whether the “no” is to be read as enjambed with the quote or to be considered a negation of the prior assertion, but the superlatives (“miracles,” “marvels”) could refer either to the subjective valuation of her loveliness or to the dubious spectacle that the “many men” create.
But the most interesting event in the section comes last. Resorting to apostrophe, the speaker admits that he wishes to use the woman as a mirror for the validation of his own moral standing, as though either his profession of love for her or his loving acceptance of her inaccessibility to him (if this is the case), or her acceptance of him as her beloved might attest to his virtue, or else he asserts that her spiritual powers bring redemption. Unfortunately for him, the mirror brings him a crowd of others, who, ironically, may have similar aims in admiring the lady. From Rimbaud to Lacan, the notion of the self as another has been a significant insight, but this multiplication of similar others, a displacement of the unitary conception of self, may be even more disorienting. How far this seems from the pleasure that Dante takes (or at least considers it advisable, from a pietistic perspective, to take) in the effect that his beloved has on men.
“Gathering Forces,” the long poem that occupies the last twenty-one pages of Fragile Replacements, takes the visual experimentation in a few sections of “Go-between” several steps further. The opening page of the latter poem straightforwardly establishes the speaker’s program; he has come “into the valley”—perhaps a reference to the “weaver’s valley” of his earlier book—“to protect [himself] against coming storms” and to search “for clear air/. . . and for a voice/ with which to claim existence. . . “ (91). This visionary rhetoric might be assigned contemporary context, the misery of the two Iraq wars and the poet’s disgust with his nation’s foreign policy, in the section’s concluding lines: “a bathed body/ returning/ from years tuned/ through desert storms.” The “body” has been like a radio “tuned” to and “through” bad news.
On the next page, as many subsequent ones, traditional visionary stances are complicated or displaced by visual effects. A massive, black “V” dominates the page’s center, and though it is attached to the second, two-word “strophe,” which reads, “Voice returning,” announcing a positive outcome to the search mentioned on the prior page, the “V” is also superimposed on the three-line first “strophe,” rendering parts of it unreadable [Editor's Note: Depending on your server, the visual element may not be aptly manifested viz Blogger]:
i have car letters for a valley full of
buildings an ining st ats head out into
the nothing ne ando ed. (92)
Admittedly, Susan Howe sometimes effaces a good deal more than this. My approximation leaves out part of a letter after “st,” bisected by the right diagonal of the “V,” because I am unable to tell whether it is a “u,” “r,” or something else. The big “V” may be attached to “Voice,” but it also recalls the sign for “Victory” familiar in our culture at least since the Second World War. And so, I ask: whose victory? Is it the one claimed by the U.S. government in Iraq in Spring 2003, a claim subject to overwhelming counterevidence afterward? And if it is the victory of “Voice,” a transcendence of whatever forces have fragmented “existence” and “battered” the speaker’s “body,” is this a pseudo-triumph, since the gigantic gesture blots out parts of the speaker’s actual utterance? For example, in the passage above, I assume that the “car” is part of “carried,” but there is a missing adjective between “carried” and “letters” that may have held major consequence for a reader’s understanding of the sentence and passage. Similarly, the “an” in the second line is probably followed by a “d,” yet the next three words are obscured in ways that defy strong conjecture: “buildings and _____ _____ _____ head out into. . . .” And the third line poses a similar problem. “Victory” and “Voice” constitute defeat and silencing/effacement.
Ironically, while the same sort of partial effacement, often less blatant, is produced on pages 100, 104 (note the use of thick white letters for this purpose), 106, and 110, educated guesses seem quite easy in many cases. On page 94, obvious repetition of the language of the small print makes the big black and grey interruptions a moot point. On 96, 98, 102, 104, 106, and 110, Allegrezza uses bulky grey letters in darker and lighter tones that either appear to be beneath the smaller print or to allow the latter to show through; these effects permit a simultaneous apprehension of what the small letters and big letters say.
But isn’t this doubleness a splitting of “Voice” and the reception of it? Doesn’t this subvert the unitary intention of claiming a voice and of validating it through its unified presentation to others? When a voice becomes “voices,” a dialogue of selves (even if stemming from a single individual) supplants a singular authority. Perhaps this stance supports a democratic spirit: “and know/ that they/ are/ gathering/ forces/ by keeping/ fragments/ alive” (102). (When he was running for President in the eighties, Rainbow Coalition candidate Jesse Jackson exclaimed: “Keep hope alive!”) On the other hand, the poem’s visual innovations could be construed as a failure of voice, portending political balkanization that allows conservative authority to maintain itself. I believe that Allegrezza’s uncanny stagings of language on the page locate the tropes and topoi of Vision/Voice as an ongoing conflict between these interpretations. It keeps us thinking.
Thomas Fink, Professor of English at CUNY-LaGuardia, is the author of A DIFFERENT SENSE OF POWER (Fairleigh Dickinson UP, 2001) and the co-editor of "BURNING INTERIORS": DAVID SHAPIRO'S POETRY AND POETICS (Fairleigh Dickinson, 2007.) Marsh Hawk Press will publish his fifth book of poems, CLARITY AND OTHER POEMS in Spring, 2008. His paintings hang in various collections.