ERIC HOFFMAN Reviews
N/O by Ron Silliman
(Roof Books, New York, 1994)
“I am attracted and repelled”
begins the review
And so begins my review, which adequately summarizes my reaction to this, Silliman's nineteenth collection of poems, another addition to his long poem, The Alphabet, itself part of a longer, life's work, called Ketjak. N/O, obviously, includes the letters “N” and “O” -- the book is comprised of two parts: non and oz.
Long poems are a bit out of fashion as of late, given the short attention span of many readers of poetry, themselves a minority these days. Readers of long poems, therefore, are a minority of a minority, and part of this is due to the modernist tradition of which Silliman's poetry is extension -- I'm thinking not only of Ezra Pound's notoriously difficult Cantos but also of Olson's Maximus Poems or even Silliman's contemporary Rachel Blau DuPlessis' Drafts or Ronald Johnson's Ark. Like DuPlessis, Silliman's work is a pastiche of various poetic forms and themes, integrated into a somewhat loose thematic structure; like Johnson, Silliman is a devotee of poet Louis Zukofsky, particularly the Zukofsky of “A”. It is, in fact, the Zukofsky of “A”-12 that Silliman here most resembles, albeit in style more than substance.
I'm unfamiliar with Silliman's Alphabet as a whole and so some of my ignorance will no doubt show itself here; I'm not entirely certain what it is that he is attempting in a larger sense, and so much of the context of this poem is regrettably missing. His description of the work is broad enough: a poem that “seeks to include as much of the world as possible, especially those aspects that are least likely to be seen, heard, or recognized", which certainly gives Silliman enough room to maneuver.
My approach to The Alphabet must therefore be based on this collection of poetry as a self-contained poetic text; indeed, given his intense knowledge of poetry exhibited on his now famous blog, Silliman's arrangement and distribution of various “letters” of this “alphabet” into specific, discrete volumes must be quite intentional. Taking into account the fact that any modernist long poem (modernist because certainly Pound's Cantos while it meant to echo Dante's Commedia certainly was not and could not be as highly structured as the Italian poet's, Pound himself acknowledged this and arguably this was part of his intent, a commentary on the disorderly democratic society as opposed to the orderly societies of medieval Europe) necessarily evolves along with its author, often ending far from where it first intended to be, Silliman must have known before embarking on this undertaking that any specific volume must represent a conclusion of sorts, or signal a new beginning, otherwise, what is the purpose of its publication?
And here is the problem, because N/O, to this reader, is a hodge-podge of thoughts and images, seemingly stream-of-consciousness in its unfolding, with no apparent connective theme or overarching structure to be found. It may be the poet's intention, but this reader found himself cast adrift without a net, so to speak, unable to find any firmament to base not only an enjoyable, but even an informed and intelligent reading. And therein lies the rub of the long poem. It certainly begs, or at least appears to beg, knowledge of the larger work. Yet, given this obvious drawback, and certainly the magnitude of Silliman's project (The Alphabet is now finished and runs 1,200 or so pages in length), the poem requires a serious commitment on the part of the reader. Had one read the poem over the seventeen years or so that it was written, certainly this would have been leisure time enough to read, and in fact savor, the work, because based on this single volume there is much here that can be savored, and to give the poem the attention it both demands and deserves. Regrettably, I have not had the time or the leisure in writing this review to approach the volumes that both precede and follow this work. Therefore, I must approach it much like a play whose first and last act I have missed; the work begins and ends in media res and whatever themes or characters or props Silliman has established, if in fact they were ever there, have no doubt gone unnoticed.
Of course, the argument can be made that one can enjoy Pound's Pisan Cantos or Zukofsky's “A”-12 without the benefit of the sections that preceded or followed them, but those were relatively thematic, self-contained works and what we are dealing with here in Silliman's work is a concerted effort to undermine any thematic pretensions as being unavoidably passé, for as most readers of poetry know, and most certainly any readers reading this review, Silliman was part of what came to be known as the “Language” school of poetry, a “post-modernist” style of poetry that challenged both the idea of the natural presence of a speaker in the poetic text, emphasizing the reader's role in creating the meaning of the poem, utilizing such methods as metonymy and parataxis, which support the active involvement of the reader. Silliman edited a newsletter Tottels which published early “language” poetry and edited one of the collections that came to identify it as a school, In the American Tree. Many of these poets, including Silliman, wrote essays that described the method of language poetry, curiously without pausing to consider the necessity, and their dependence, on the type of discursive writing their poetry critiqued in order to be understood.
And so ends my discursive explanation in order to be understood. In this poem, discursiveness is abundant. Indeed, at times it often reads (frustratingly) like a run-of-the mill confessionalist poem from mid-century. I'm thinking of some passages in this work such as: “earlier / your left hand gripped lightly / the base of my cock / so only the tip / passed your lips / / sperm mixed with saliva / spilled onto my belly / you stirred it with your finger / inside my navel”. No question what is going on here! At times the metaphors strain credulity: “I eat a banana / the way some men make war / to exercise my faculties / fully”. Yet this is a poem of moments, and there are numerous moments here which are as good as anything: “Here we fathom connection / each word an accident of letters / ink bleeding into the page / / the cage is open / but the canary's dead”. The poem works best when Silliman steps out beyond the incidental and navel-affixed perspective of his speaker, or the deliberately obscure and deals with the world at large, a world recognizably our own, that gives N/O its immediacy, its import: “the topography of this beach / is not the familiar / gradual incline / smoothed over by high tides / sand fleas thick / over the rotting kelp / cormorant's path / low over the water / but pocked / anemone clenches / to the finger's probe”. These are exact measurements of an obviously radiant mind, but regrettably are displayed all too little in this volume. Perhaps this is why they stand out all the more.
By the time I reached oz I was a bit weary of the volume. Aside from its flashes of brilliance, much of it is frustrating and at times tiresome. I'm perfectly aware that seen within the tradition of which Silliman is working much of this work has some self-conscious architectonic role to play in the modernist tradition, but I see little reason for it beyond a practice as such. N/O has its moments, yes. But at 107 pages perhaps what it needs most are not moments, but the judicial hand with which to sift for the best.
Eric Hoffman lives in Manchester, Connecticut. His poetry has appeared in numerous journals worldwide, most recently The Argotist Online. A recent essay, "A Poetry of Action: George Oppen and Communism", was published in American Communist History.