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The Tranquilized Tongue (City Lights Books, 2014), Eric Baus’s fourth book, is his best yet. It consists of more than sixty compact prose poems, some of which are only one sentence long, and with none as long as the first one, “The Illuminated Egg,” a single block of ten sentences. Each poem title begins with “The,” followed by a two-word collage, collision, cosmos or conundrum that often animates dead matter. “The Statue’s Saliva” is one example. “The Feral Film” is another.
Baus follows through on the title’s declarations–its unlikely magnetic bonding–by beginning each sentence in each prose poem with “The.” This grammatical application emphasizes that the noun immediately following “The” is particular (and therefore actual) rather than general. This is the one- sentence long prose poem, “The Posthumous Glass:”
The window appeared between the ambulance and the ant’s shadow.
This isn’t a description so much as a proposal. The Tranquilized Tongue is a collection in which impossible particulars are stated as incontrovertible facts.
This is “The Illuminated Egg,” the first prose poem in The Tranquilized Tongue, in its entirety:
The word moon assembles its intestines inside the king’s saliva. The
letters cried. The birth of each letter contained one hundred films.
The merged nerves dropped to the ground. The arrows were injured
by what the speech spread. The microphone was looking for an echo
to explain. The picture of the burst tongue offended the crowd. The
birth cloud reddened between rains. The city’s moans drowned
underneath the first growls. The voice atomized the line between the
children’s clinging hands.
The poem’s title alludes to illuminated manuscripts, and to works that meld words and images, which the poet defines as a site of birth.
With each proposal (sentence), Baus incrementally defines and redefines the perimeters in which his particulars will unfold. First, the word moon is regarded as a living and material body with an outside and inside (“intestines”) that is an inherent part of the king’s bodily fluids (“saliva”). It is in this place (the mouth) where the word “assembles its intestines,” its guts. In the second line (“The letters cried.”), Baus underscores that words are made of both graphic symbol (letters) and sounds (“cried”). The individual sounds (“birth of each letter”) spawn “one hundred films” (multiple images). Sounds, the poet goes on to write, bounce back (“echo”), while leading to similar sounds.
Baus defines the poem as a chamber (“illuminated egg” and mouth) whose boundaries have not yet been reached, as well as a bricolage constructed from different categories of things (saliva, films, and nerves, among them). Made as much of matter as of sound, it is an acoustical chamber where words, sounds, letters and images are constantly emerging, intermingling, echoing, and changing into other words, sounds, letters and images. And just as the mouth can be the illuminated egg or chamber where these possibilities are born, it can also dissolve (”atomized”) the line or string of syllables. This is a world of unpredictable and miraculous change, a world that is simultaneously philosophical and alchemical, an inseparable mixture of factual propositions and flights of fancy.
In his insistent use of the declarative “The,” Baus presents the reader with propositions, which is likely to bring to mind Ludwig Wittgenstein’s book, Tractatus Logico-Philosophicus (1922). In that book of numbered propositions, the reader encounters the following three declarations:
The world is everything that is the case.
The logical picture of the facts is the thought.
The thought is the signiﬁcant proposition.
Baus has melded this language of propositions with the labyrinthine thinking of the 17th-century polymath and founder of Egyptology, Athanasius Kircher, who has been characterized as Jorge Luis Borges before Borges because of his interest in the trivial and the miraculous.
Baus, a poet of Synesthesia, situates his work on porous borders between sound and image, echo and repetition. In his swiftly transforming world, one word is apt to molt into another. In “The Illuminated Egg,” “The word moon” becomes “the city’s moans.” Out of the accretion of declarations Baus builds a multi-part, echo-filled room glittering with images that resist immediate apprehension. The one-sentence prose poem, “The Inverted Urn,” is a good example:
The parallel tenors trilled to atone for the séance’s ellipses.
Throughout the book, Baus calls attention to sound and the means by which it is transmitted: microphone, frequency, voiceover; hooted, pitched, intoned, creaked, hummed; decoded, translated, asked, murmured, deciphered. “Phoneme” is another word that recurs in The Tranquilized Tongue, the smallest distinct particle of sound that distinguishes one word from another (“The glass arms swam into the branches of a swan.”) Reading is slowed down, as all phenomenon becomes miraculous, shot through with humming wonder.
Sound and thought (or the signifier and the signified), according to Ferdinand de Saussure, whose theories helped give birth to the field of semiotics (the study of signs), are inseparable. Focused on “sound-image” or “sound-pattern,” Saussure believed that writing was a separate system that was secondary and dependent on the phonetic, on speech. He also believed the signified is a concept rather than the thing itself. While Baus surely knows a good deal about semiotics and is more than likely conversant with the latest developments and revisions of Saussurean principles, I sense that he has a fundamental disagreement with the founder of semiotics over the nature of words, which he makes clear in the very first line of “The Illuminated Egg:”
The word moon assembles its intestines inside the king’s saliva.
Whereas Saussure believed that linguistic signs were immaterial, Baus posits that words are living beings. Otherwise, how could the “word moon assemble its intestines inside the king’ saliva”? As I see it, Baus has aligned his work with Arthur Rimbaud and his sonnet “Voyelles” (Vowels). It is in this alchemical poem that Rimbaud, who would soon abandon writing altogether, equates the letter A with both a color (“black”) and an animated presence (the “black velvety jacket of brilliant flies…”). This is how Baus extends Rimbaud in his single-sentence prose poem, “The Demolished Flock:”
The word moth followed the burning fleet home.
Signifier and signified are equals. Baus is a charter member of a loose, unaffiliated group of acoustically attentive poets who focus on the different relationships that bind and unbind sound to thought: Clark Coolidge, Nathaniel Mackey, Andrew Joron, Harryette Mullen and Cathy Park Hong.
Baus’s domain–his illuminated egg, feral film, and marionette’s casket–is populated by moths, bees, giraffes, swans, deer, pupae, ants, doves, sturgeon, pigeons, quail, hawks and pumas. Is this the world Baus envisions after nature reclaims the cities (“The city’s sickness nested in the mouth of the fountain”) and animalistic powers overcome decorum (“The city’s moan drowned underneath the first growls”). The territory Baus evokes is bordered by the “divine technologies” of Christopher Dewdney and the dystopian modernity of J. G. Ballard, but it is wholly his own.
Is our world one where “[t]he lost signal beacon[s] back” or is it one where [t]he tranquilized tongue rename[s] its aphasia?” Baus is on a journey to find out.
Eric Baus, The Tranquilized Tongue (2014) is published by City Lights Books.