Obstructs/Constitutes by John Crouse
(Effing Press, Texas, 2007)
Judging from the titles of the two reciprocal halves of John Crouse’s Obstructs/Constitutes, there may at first appear to be a strong underlining “argument” to this new collection. The basic proposition could perhaps be surmised as follows: there is, on the one hand, a “substantive” side to language, that is, its nouns which note and denote. This is the element of language most closely involved in the active construction (or “constitution”) of our world. On the other side of the divide we find language’s syntactic element, which, with all its possible myriad disruptions, is more focused on the “obstruction” of the coherent “constitution” carried out by naming and nomenclature. Syntax, we may thus think, mainly builds barriers to the eternal process of “building”, which is carried out by nouns and other “heavy” signifiers. According to this schema, the “obstruction” of syntax would be equal to - 1, and the constitution performed by nouns would be equal to 1. Language would thus be seen as a tension between the two poles of this competing binary: a division between substance on the one hand, and syntactic disconnect on the other. Between constructive nominal “constitution”, and destructive syntactical “obstruction”.
But in this, John Crouse’s marvelous little book, things are not -- we are relieved to discover -- nearly so simple or reductive as they seem. For naming is not, of course, in any way a “coherent” or purely constitutive act, and it is certainly not more naturally or intuitively coherent than syntax. Similarly, syntax is itself a construction, and is moreover as much a site of linkage as it is of disconnect. Neither pole of this apparently false, if conceptually rich, binary, proves then to be any more “constitutive” or “obstructive” than the other. In order to emphasize and explore this complex dynamic however, one would have to set about analyzing both syntax and nomenclature in very specific ways.
Which is, thankfully, precisely the project which John Crouse here undertakes for us. For the binary of this collection establishes a division, but also, of course, a co-dependency. This simultaneous connect/disconnect is manifest in the book itself which, in Effing Press’ inspired and beautiful design, is divided into two halves, each upside-down to the other, which begin at the back and front cover respectively, and “meet in their middle. The two texts do not, importantly, overlap: but they are united by the same binding. Their dependency is clear, though the reader must literally “flip” his or her mindset in order to consider language through a different lens.
We may thus choose to read the book in either direction: neither is necessarily the preferred. Let us begin, though, with the Constitutes side of the equation, to see the extent to which this half gives the lie to its title, and undermines the very act of constitution it pretends to set forth.
First, let’s note that Constitutes’ focus on nouns and naming is evident, for the simple fact that Constitutes contains only nouns. Many of these nouns are ambiguous, for some seem, at first glance, to be in fact adjectives or verbs, or at least to contain the possibility of being adjectives of verbs. We thus encounter fragments such as “Versus smelt?” in which, so tempted are we to make of this two-word structure a coherent semantic block, we feel obliged to read the second term as an infinitive or third-person conjugate: “to smelt” or “to smell”. We soon see, however, that this reading, given the rest of the surrounding structure, is unlikely: “Nymph smithereens oarlock, fluent smile.” If entirely surrounded by nouns, mustn’t “smelt” also be a noun? We then discover, with recourse to a dictionary, that “smelt” is a noun, if a rare one: it is at once “a style of fishing with dip nets”, and is also linked with the process of “smelting”. Whether these are the intended nominal references of the word is hardly important: “smelt” sounds like a noun, and unsurprisingly, it is.
And in case we feel this type of uncertainty occurs in Constitutes only between nouns and verbs, here is one of many an adjectival case: “Puce teaspoon.” We must imagine, initially, a teaspoon in the colour of greyish pink. But then we read what follows: “Tory teleprompter, duke flaccidity, buddha budge brownstone diarist.” We realise the word “puce” can also be not descriptive, but purely substantive. This is a very complex idea, and this complex effect is achieved, in Crouse, with a wry and evident poetic intelligence.
But what does this all mean? Perhaps simply that, in reducing the world of reference to the act of naming, we are confronted with precisely the same feeling of arbitrariness as syntax can often produce. We thus stop seeing nouns as “heavy” -- or purely denotative -- parts of speech, and begin seeing them as rather capricious, changing constructions in their own right. The full irony of Constitutes as a title thus begins to become more evident.
This impression is only enhanced, moreover, during our subsequent reading of Obstructs. Though of an entirely different construction to its “twin”, Obstructs similarly confounds our expectations, albeit this time in a rambling, syntactically dense “prose”:
Set its pace, a working to ward. Wholeness. Death. Sure, duping to be workable, got you.
A working toward wholeness, one best apprehend. Pithy. A perception of occupying a flow toward, ever always getting to.
And so it continues, in ever more ornate and perplexing constructions. We thus feel, once more, that this half of the book is wholly representative of its title: it incarnates a pure “obstruction”, and thus represents syntax in its most extreme form.
Or does it? As have we learned our lesson, taught so ably in Constitutes? Are we now more skeptical of this apparently “pure” obstruction?
Yes! For what will become clear, as we have already seen for Constitutes, is the falsity of this initial impression. To see how this occurs, let’s ask: How do such passages achieve their syntactic obstruction? Let’s analyze them a little.
Firstly, we note the important absence of apostrophized genitives: “these of our days best adventures”, or “All its lutes trying to unregret majesty”. It is thus more difficult, or even impossible, to tell if words such as “days” and “lutes” are third-person conjugated verbs, or simply substantive plurals. Also, we see verbs which have no apparent object, or whose object is, at the very least, highly displaced:
“Character of it matters emerging from scratch at the root of inverted trees.”
Now, what “emerges” here? “Matters” may indeed be a plural substantive, or it may be a verb whose direct object is the line’s first word: “character”. There are other possibilities. The word “scratch” implicitly contains both its substantive and adjectival incarnations. Indeed, the poem seems to want us to be able to very coherently read both: the conjunction “from” makes us think “Noun!” (“from scratch”), while the rest of the sentence makes us think “Verb!” (“scratch at the root of inverted trees”). Interestingly, this specific type of substantive/adjectival ambiguity is quite unique to English verbs, because of the highly reduced number of simple verb conjugations (usually only two) available in our language.
What seems, then, a too radical “obstruction” of language’s “constitution”, thus begins to seem, strangely, much more readable. As an example, let’s take, still from Obstructs, this apparent question:
“Methods untoward striving unrest particulars in order that wresting composure might be maintained?”
Is it indeed possible to see this formulation as a coherent semantic unit? There are, as is the case in all poetry, or indeed in any language use, many possible units here operating simultaneously. And one of the intense interests of Crouse’s poetry for me lies in the implicit presence of such meanings below the syntactically scrambled -- or at least extremely syntactically “tense” -- surface.
Let’s attempt then to syntactically “unscramble” this formulation, to see if this interpretative procedure is indeed worthwhile. One possible, “clear” version of the same line, would thus read as follows:
“Are inappropriate methods, which disturb particular elements, necessary so that the disruption of composure can continue?”
That is, by all accounts, at once a coherent idea, and a possible interpretation of Crouse’s initial syntactic disruption. It is, moreover, and fascinatingly so, a statement largely applicable to Crouse’s own aesthetic. That is, we may use techniques deemed “unsuitable” in order to continually disrupt the specific elements of different types of “composures” (be they social, political, linguistic, or all three).
There is, then, a joyouse “abuse” in this poetic of traditional readerly/authorial divisions. This is evidenced by an abuse of the common codes, such as naming, syntax and punctuation, which often define and separate these two veritable institutions:
Can I share yr sweet minute, goatbleated & crammed down spiraled grey afternoons throat, read as hid me motherfuckings mundanity slithered a lull in the dynamics enough to make me think its over?
The poet’s “voice” here, if there is one, is not that of Virgil’s honeyed coaxing of Amaryllis, but rather a different personage in the pastoral universe: the apparently ugly “bleating” of the lyrically discontent. Crouse’s book has this “crammed in your throat” quality, and this is meant literally. That is, attempt to read Crouse’s lines out loud, and the voice is reduced from the metronome to the near-inarticulate mimics of the metropole: “Indulge all said in a breaths good for what pangs saturdays rollicking pellets providence as evidenced doled smiles be reams.” In spite of the liberal assonance and sonorous play -- which serve generally, as they do here, to establish connecting moments of melodies -- the reader must overcome a level of sonic dissonance located between and within words. There is rarely, then, a “lull in the dynamics”; but when there is the reader is surprised to discover that, far form being “over”, Crouse’s aesthetic machine clicks on, turning out its various and variegated connections and disruptions.
According to Horation parameters, the poet should choose his or her disruptions carefully. Not Crouse. “Indulge all said” as Crouse puts it later, and indeed indulgence is a key word here: “Foxy. Indulgences. Mannequins lewd pose.” In its embrace of -- indeed its wallowing in -- such simultaneous lexical and sonic largesse, Crouse’s poetry has something in common with the prose-poems of John Olson, or Eric Baus. The value of this aesthetic is in its extremes.
All of which may seem, on the part of the critic, a touch overwrought; but it does importantly imply that such poems, in spite of their initial “unreadability”, in fact present a powerful vision of the way language operates. That is, language operates according to an infinitely expanding range of errors, ambiguities and competing tensions. It is not simply “poetic language” which operates like this: poetry is simply an occasional heightening of such effects, (and in any case, Crouse’s language is far from being traditionally “poetic”).
It would be a mistake then to view John Crouse’s poetry as a formal exercise, or as in any way autotelic in its nature, though it may initially appear such. For Crouse plays ingeniously with readerly knowledge and assumptions. He explores the entire reading process, the whole computation of language by the eyes, ear and brain, and such exploration often requires a deft projection, on the part of the poet, of what such complex process might entail.
Nicholas Manning teaches comparative literature at the University of Strasbourg, France. In 2004 he took his MA in twentieth-century poetics from the Sorbonne (Paris IV), and from 2003-2006 held a scholarship at the Ecole normale supérieure of the rue d'Ulm. His poems, articles, translations and reviews have appeared in Verse, The Argotist, Fascicle, Free Verse, Cross Connect, BlazeVox, MiPoesias, Parcel, Fiera Lingue, Cordite, Dusie, Eratio, Otoliths, Aught, Shampoo, among others. In 2006 he was nominated for a Pushcart Prize. His first chapbook of poems– Novaless I-XXVI –is out now from Achiote Press. He is the editor of The Continental Review, and maintains the weblog The Newer Metaphysicals. Come say Bonjour.