Staff Book Reviewer Spencer Dew is the author of the forthcoming novel Here Is How It Happens (Ampersand Books, 2013). A regular reviewer for Rain Taxi Review of Books, Dew is the author of Songs of Insurgency (Vagabond Press, 2008), Mont-Saint-Michel and Chartres (Another New Calligraphy, 2010), and the critical study Learning for Revolution: The Work of Kathy Acker (San Diego State University Press, 2011). His Web site is spencerdew.com.
To send your new book to decomP for possible review, see our guidelines. To find out what’s currently under consideration, visit our review queue.
In the Vedas, sung poems of ritual, the gods are compared favorably to poets. Agni has the sharp-sight, the perceptive quality, that the poet—composing a poem about Agni, after all—shares. So, too, the nature of sound, of spoken syllables, the poem as said, becomes the way the world is maintained, another level of reality. Poetry, the Vedic texts say, isn’t merely a record of seeing sharply, but also a means of making things real. In the beginning, before anything like “the Word,” we hear that “Desire came,” that “the first seed” emerged, in the mind, and out of the heat and emptiness at the unimaginable start of all existence, there is suddenly an interjection of “Poets” into the narrative, into the speculation about the origin and nature of it all. Thus, priest-poets singing of the mystery of creation and laying out some strands of a conception of the world as it is invoke the idea of “Poets” who, “seeking in their heart with wisdom found the bond of existence in non-existence,” who do some vital task, not primarily of differentiating things by signs (night from day, for instance) but of united, with a “cord,” a “bond.” The poets sees, the poet makes, and the poet connects. The poet—so the poets sing—has some unique connection to the really real; their task is one of dealing with truth.
Skip Fox, twenty years of whose poems are selected from here, out of nine books, is seer and maker and connector, familiar with “the cold, wide night air / of the actual” while able to birth such unshakable phrases as “the first spoors of light” and deftly finger the shuttle until an image like “The cumulus rises through declensions of summer’s / heat toward a meaning subtle as the thirteenth / fingerbone of the violinist” gets woven. The Vedic authors would, once given time to acclimatize, approve. The blood and sperm of America is here, splayed horizons and mythic frontier. So, too, acute observations, tweezers inlaying the smallest mosaic shards of something like “...wasp slapping / pheromones on cypress post, hieroglyph / of deepening code, / mechanics of spring brought to summer’s / vast engine.” And then there is the matter of Fox’s insistence, like those ancient priest-poets, that the meaning comes before the making, that all the squirming bags of signs yearn to point to something undeniably, even frighteningly, real. Fox chooses to open this collection with a quote from Robert Duncan, on how “We do not make things meaningful, but in our making we work towards an awareness of meaning; poetry reveals itself to us as we obey the orders that appear in our work.” That is a declaration laced not with the young magician’s arrogant assumptions about individual power, but the old wizard’s knowledge that the strongest are always servants of something else.
Likewise, “Even the least story begins nowhere,” as part of one of Fox’s titles claims, a poem wrestling with some concept of “Before beyond,” and that which precedes the most primitive glyph or the most sophisticated radio. Out of a reshuffling of lines—incantory, organic the way the play of open flames against a temple wall can feel organic, alive—Fox conjures up “a word that rises / from the root. The bodiless serpent climbs into the most desolate / regions of the sky. Flashes above the raw flesh eater on / his floe. It casts an eerie correspondence on the notion of what is—where / resemblance disappears into identity, spirit into new fallen snow.” Resemblance and identity, the world and the word, snow and the words for it and on it and above it, as, in another poem, egrets, three, wade out, “weaving / tiers of this world,” or, reversing that arrow of correspondence, in another piece, “proto-linguistic signs [are] punching away / at your liver.” The word is as real as the world, in these poems, corresponding and interwoven, substitutes and open portals to each other.
Crossed spears over space (where was light sown), the abyss be-
tween syllables, narratives, luminous field stretching out, the polluted body
of history, scattered, leaking, the set in the skull, a primal lust bounding
the perimeters (madness is indefinable), hunting all day, a mess of ragged
stars at night
Fox offers recognitions, taking away from the things in the world that which pre-exists them, like some glimpse of that matrix out of which all emerges: a kingfisher and a cactus, a phase of light as so many murdered moments dashed against the canyon’s rim. A poet with a deep lexicon, capable of calling out and crafting historical voices, Fox can also pull off a vernacular swagger:
like the shimmering sense I left the flame-
thrower on at home in fact I am a bit flushed & feeling packed
up & untrussed all over like loosening wet howls in my jacket
(sorry) my dick’s on backwards again or badly hanging out on
purpose into the stew of polite clauses
He folds layers of history in overlap, stitching them together via shared via politics, such that we have Myles
...Standish out of Massod, al-
Qaeda, a wannabe gansta’ with the public will (a
determined somnambulism) “strongly” behind him,
Ashcroft sweeping across vast stretches in furious blind
pursuit of his own inadequacies, dark loathing, dread
beneath the lines.
And, of course, we see a cosmos in relation to a single organism:
A turbo beneath empires of leaf, dark whirlings, abeyance of oblivion welling thru mind
of green, existence oozing to skin, galaxies torn asunder, thrown from roof, with sudden
emergence of a single word (it’s always and only sudden) while this morning upon every
surface entire syllabaries are born, then dance in pearly florescence and into the sweet
ayre of springe. All my life past telling. Treefrog.
To me, Fox’s concern with illuminating this dynamic of relation between world and word, poetry as a pre-existent, metaphysical fact, a part of the “matrix” from which all berry stains and cigarette lights spring—“Province of a spring night. Or of / the world, its provenance. The whole articulating / matrix, between transitions and absence. Yet prior to gods / or man.”—is simply less interesting that the music he is capable of—“Or deliquium, / into darkness’s green edge, as at evening camp, searching the narrative beneath / shadows.” At his best, whether on memory or some horrible act of violence, musing on angels or swollen with the honey-scent of sex, Fox simply has a gift for working words in new and enthralling ways. A bull moose, “beard dripping / wet marsh grass, a flowing of waters that seemed to defy / the fading light, luminescent, colorful, a god!” is a stuttered gasp of a statement, a set of lines that palpitates the heart. Likewise, “the onslaught of bronzed grackles begins / with a few scouts in the cypress, / then the cypress flush with its cacophonies” or even such simple arrangements as “Gorky’s last / work, white chalk on painting crate” or the revelatory pairing in “Shower of contingencies” have a raw verve and crispness that makes other pieces—especially those slogging again and again into this territory of word-before-meaning—seem dulled.
But for Fox—from what these pages contain, at least—the ultimate concern is language as subject. In another echo of Vedic inclinations, he muses on the tongue:
...Like ambient poetry. See what I mean? It is the mind’s thumb, can grasp, as a tool,
or that other instrument, also bridled, brings torque to world, twist of diphthong to
declaration, annihilation of entire populations, harangues, blubbering confessions, and
almost unspeakable lusts. The opposable tongue....
The grinding seasons, tiny Pip afloat in the void, even the touching of skin to skin—all of these become occasions for reflection on language, its ontology. Even in the midst of the “pure ripe pleasure of pressure” in vagina—or, perhaps, I should say “vagina,” for the word stands as word as well as thing, and constricts and grips accordingly—Fox finds a way to link the “Tight unbinding swirl of climax” to “Words / smacking of words. Words sodomizing other words. The / excavation of witness. Another ontological fix. Words / with little penises pissing in your ear, the one you listen / with, the one you’ve forgotten, slipping a stiffy to your / memory gland, barking up your fat closet again.” Yes, “The Rodeo of Sex” is merely a ride in that carnival that is musing on the matrix of language in relation to reality, its wetness a reference to “total slippage of reference.” In another thrust at the bodily, Fox refers to Kathy Acker, who, in his telling “drove a spike through her clit or shoved a vibrator up her cunt to write”—to write, which is, in the context of this poem explicitly “to know anything” and “to be alive,” or as close as we can get to either. The vibrating dildo, like the tongue or the typewriter, or, ultimately, the cactus or the gallows or the cicadas or the moose, is a tool for engaging in the relation of language to our very being—our biological existence best experienced and known through words.
The poems of the Vedas, of course, are part of a larger ritual apparatus—they are texts read as part of and manual for the process of sacrifice, pieces of the broader liturgical work, work with real (or supposed) effects, from maintaining order in the universe to helping a soul move on from its roasting body. For Fox, the poems are already a kind of trace of the ritual that is their own creation, both in terms of moving through the world of vibrators and birds and blank pages searching for the “orders” of which Robert Duncan wrote, and of the actual act of sitting down and submitting to those orders, the self-sacrifice of the poet poetizing, becoming a vessel for that beyond the self, “as form rises into the formlessness of / dawn, then over the edge into the future, its / echo as well as its shadow reflected, / god metal planet plant, in every word.”
Vedic translations from Wendy Doniger O’Flaherty, Textual Sources for the Study of Hinduism. University of Chicago Press, 1988.
Official UNO Press Web Site