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Some Other Kind of Mission
Burning Deck, 1996: poems and visual work, 112 pp. offset, smyth-sewn: ISBN 1-886224-12-9 paper, USD 11: ISBN 1-886224-13-7 signed paperback, USD 20
In a quick dozen years, Lisa Jarnot has established herself as one of the most compelling poets publishing today. Always on the hunt for the “new” in poetry (is there such a thing? not flarf, not conceptualism), I look to Jarnot, seizing on any new work of hers that appears. When I chose to review Some Other Kind of Mission (SOKM), though, I didn’t know it was a 2008 reprint (3rd printing) of Jarnot’s first full-length book from 1996. At first I was disappointed that this book was “old.”
Then as I read SOKM and re-read two of her recent books, Black Dog Songs (BDS) and Night Scenes (NS), I realized that SOKM serves as a rudimentary map of Jarnot’s current praxis. In writing this book, Jarnot began to tear out of the jungle of experimentation pinning her down to plant the seeds of her own poetics. In particular, she had to clear out the bad vispo: cut-up, cross-out, found collage, all techniques one could find stronger examples of in journals showcasing visual poetry at the time of this book’s publication, such as Generator, Score, Kaldron, Ligne (Australia), Lost and Found Times, Terraz Mowie (Germany), Doc(k)s (France), Dimensao (Brazil), O!!Zone, Das Froliche Wohnzimmer (Germany), Gestalten, Industrial Sabotage (Canada), and many others (the 1990s was a productive decade for visual poetry worldwide). Looking back through BDS and NS, the field of her poetics now cleared of choking undergrowth, one sees in SOKM the roots, the shoots of trees competing for resources, of her mature work.
Like all of Jarnot’s work, SOKM is ambitious. In an interview with Ray Bianchi, she reveals either her naiveté or her stunning sense of purpose. Speaking about SOKM, which she said was influenced by Robert Duncan and Jack Spicer (with a hefty dose of Gertrude Stein stirred in), she said she was “collecting scraps of paper that I found on the street — trying to document the physical world,” the minute detritus of our culture in a new context now writ large. But she goes further: “I remember wanting to capture somehow the complexity of the universe.” Oh the gall. As if one book could do such a thing. Yet the goal! That one book can grab hold of the intricacies of the immense incomprehensible universe. An improbable, impossible goal yet in the effort to accomplish it there is no telling what one book can do, so why not try? Clearly the known limitations of literature — fewer people read fewer books now, and even fewer read poetry — do not daunt Jarnot.
She could not have written two of the finest collections of poetry had she not mucked around in SOKM. The repetition of the reportage in the first prose poem — “Blood in my eyes followed by truck in motel. followed by police activity. followed by truck in. followed by followed by. followed by truck in motel” (SOKM, p.18), repetition that seems to collapse upon itself, eliminating space, eclipsing the certitude of specificity, becomes the repetition in “On the Sublime” from BDS — “They loved these things. Giraffe, they loved giraffe. They loved the concept of the tapir. They loved him, wholly unnamed. They loved competence and they loved the dark metallic stapler” (BDS, p.25), the vowels constructing space, carving out a place in the ear, a smooth arch from “tapir” to “stapler,” resonating in the body of the poem now the body of the reader. Jarnot’s abstractions become concrete, grow legs, arms, hearts, and take a rounded breath. Then in NS, she goes forward and backward in style, relativity bending inside the poem, abstraction intensified and assonance galore, but now she also has the backbone to use oft-despised rhyme:
And in the inside there is sleeping sleep
and in the outside there is reddening red
and in the morning there is meeting meat
and in the evening there is feeling fed
(“Stein Meat Work,” p.6)
In SOKM, her sentences reek of randomness, barely able to sustain themselves in any interesting way, not even appearing to be interested in themselves. In the later two books, it is as if she has deliberately chosen the hollowest expressions, the most vacuous sentences, so that she can bring them sonorously to life (Oh Dr. Frankenstein, who also had his gigantic ambitions), proving that these nouns, phrases, and lines were not so hollow and empty after all, as Stein so often proved–or they are hollow and empty only because we as readers allow them to be so. In SOKM, the languid looping progression of phrases–“Past noon. i look about meridians. i think up for meridians of noon. about meridians of pushing junk” (49), in BDS becomes tighter, yet also more supple:
the song of all the bushes green
the first class bushes with a theme
the theme of all the escalope
the red-winged bushes, posted home
(“Manx Kippers,” p.41)
and in NS becomes even tighter, snappier, each word worth more than its weight:
O willful lemur,
o ancient lemur,
(“Oppen’s Lemur,” p.8)
As she comments on her current practice in the Bianchi interview, the murmuring, mumbling sounds of SOKM begin to cohere into “compositions made of interlocking sounds,” constellations wheeling off each other, with each other, for each other. From “Early and Uncollected Poems” in BDS:
occurs a curve of
sound or sign
occurs a curve
of sound design waiting
a curve of sound design
(“Triptych,” p. 3)
In NS, many poems traipse down the page, a confident stride of shifting vowels keeping the poem in motion, a coordination made possible by the poet’s refining practice over time and space:
spoke of a lariat
and Ezekiel saw
way up in the
middle of the sky
live in Brooklyn
and have visited
an ostrich farm.
(“Ostrich Farm,” p.23)
I came upon Jarnot’s trajectory as an artist in the middle, hearing effusive praise about BDS, but that book initially underwhelmed me. Then NS kicked my ass. Re-reading BDS — and listening to her perform these poems on CD accompanied by quiet, insistent musical compositions over and over and over and over at home and in commute — I finally fell into her work. The hype became hope, life blown back into poetry. This was a poet to watch, to listen closely to.
I imagine Jarnot has 20–30 years of productivity ahead of her in her attempt to seize the universe’s complexity. As she her ability to read — to write — deep space evolves, she will continue to bring us the sound of the universe inside and outside our heads, her work a sonar of body and within and beyond us. How far will she go? Perhaps we need to look to her most recent works for the roots and saplings of the tall trees she will have us swinging from in twenty years.
Crag Hill currently is the editor and publisher of Many Penny Press. He edited Score, a magazine devoted entirely to concrete/visual poetry for twenty years. In the last three decades his work has appeared in over 100 journals and anthologies, including several available on-line. His creative and critical works in progress can be found at http://scorecard.typepad.com/