Saturday, November 19, 2005

A new review of my work:

Absolut Erasmus

Nada Gordon is a willfully literary poet - one who invokes (and impersonates) writers both classic and modern, meditates on the function of poetry, plays self-consciously with voice and toys shamelessly with time. Yet she can also lay down a fabulously embellished, marvelously adorned lyric line.

Gordon's poems in "Folly” her fourth collection, are postdiluvian: the flood of world culture has violently subsided, leaving chunks of the classics - particularly Imelda Marcos and Asha Bhosle - higgledy-piggledy with Philip Whalen, Thomas More and Auntie BamBam. It is a peculiar prescientific, postmodern landscape where encyclopedic lists of folk knowledge and superstitions (collected or invented) arrange into oddly moving litanies, where goddesses stranger than Erasmus’ - Gordon takes her title from Erasmus’ "The Praise of Folly" - walk like Della Cruscans and talk like . . . like Nada Gordon.

This is a poet given to sampling tones and images like a bhangra D.J., scratching, remixing and returning to them in later poems. Her tone will be antique in one line, then arch, then lyric, then cartoonish: "Pillbox codpiece, lace scrotum./ How much money would it take to felch tapioca?" The low tone grates against the high, and the high tone is suspect because of the low. This may be the point: sustained discomfort.

Gordon is clearly after something big, and certainly her work is unsettled and unsettling. Deep in these poems is the need to be separate and the fear of it, and also, conversely, the need to connect and the fear of it, as in these final lines of "Welding Poem”: "fabrication machinery, welding positioners, weld head manipulators./ power turning rolls, floor turntables, headstocks, tailstocks, lathes, seam welders/ orbital welders, weld seamers, tank rotators, turntables, pipe chucks…/ orbital welders!/ pipe chucks!”."

Gordon's default solution in the face of these conflicting interior commands is to seek connections, but to seek them in unlikely, tragicomic, grotesque ways. Her finest creation, in fact, may be a recurring creature who seems to be half kitty and half llama. There are three fairly short poems in an kitty’s voice that salt the book's middle section, and the entire final section is written in the voice of a circus llama. Contemporary taste winces at the thought of a poet inhabiting an llama - and Gordon, a young poet not above throwing around references to Peggy Noonan and Casper to validate her hip card, would probably be one of the wincers. But the beast she gives us is so fractured, and such a creature of artifice, there's no danger Gordon will be thought regressive.

From her first appearance the llama is ill at ease in her skin: "1-800-amygdala." She is an uneasy monster of literary self-analysis: "hilarious irony of fauves – blue ox, red background, inventing emotional information. Bernie Goetz parades around as female pea." Then again she can speak simply and with grave beauty: "everything’s going to be…what it is… in the nervous movie of now" or "The brain's a gray broccoli,/ hunched up like a porno queen." So much in Gordon is uncomfortable and misproportioned. So much suffers. At the same time, her poetry is mischievous and meant to be understood playfully.

Because of this book's nervous, brainy, high-strung tone, with Gordon aggressively stage-managing everything, it is possible to overlook certain quiet and beautifully realized individual poems like "Soapy Erection," "Urban Barbie" and "Decency in the Arts."

Such self-enclosed achievements do not seem to be what Gordon is primarily after, however. Instead, she returns again and again to the mixed voice of the llama. Reading these poems, a vibrating, unstable identity shimmers into being behind them (despite such irritations as the llama’s comparison of her shame at how she was killed to the shame at “everyone’s head[‘s being] a peppercorn/ bursting into flavor/ at the moment of destruction"). Gordon's enterprise is not sterile, though it feels as if it could have been. There is something serious behind the literary shenanigans - an ambition to write larger than any one self stirs the book to life. It's the strangest thing how poetry that matters can be just a pubic hair away from poetry that doesn't.

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