In The Archaeology of Knowledge, Michel Foucault usefully reminds us that “[t]he frontiers of a book are never clear-cut: beyond the title, the first lines, and the last full stop, beyond its internal configuration and its autonomous form, it is caught up in a system of references to other books, other texts, other sentences: it is a node within a network.” Noah Eli Gordon’s new long poem The Source is such a node — a radiant node — within a site-specific network of other books. From January 2008 to September 2009, intertextuality, for Gordon, was not merely a discursive condition but became a brilliant opportunity for procedural composition: during that interval, Gordon created The Source by appropriating material that he found only on page 26 from thousands of books at the Denver Public Library. Why 26? Besides correlating with the number of letters in the English alphabet, 26 — according to Gordon’s process notes — “represents the numerical value of the Tetragrammaton, the four Hebrew letters that form the name of God.” Additionally, the very title of the book (as it is represented on both the cover and title page) is pierced with a mystical symbol, the circumpunct, which cleverly takes the place of a conventional “O.” The circumpunct (a point within a circle) is, as Ronald Johnson says in Ark, “the symbol for Sun … just as mind itself seems to unfold some answering chrysanthemum”; in the alchemical tradition, the circumpunct symbolizes the “sun-like” element of gold. Indeed, The Source is a heliotropic flowering of mind, a dramatic act of linguistic alchemy. But within the Kabbalistic framework to which Gordon makes recourse, the circumpunct symbolizes “Kether,” the first of the ten Sephiroth, or “hypostatized attributes or emanations by means of which the Infinite enters into relation with the finite” (OED). According to Gareth Knight’s A Practical Guide to Qabalistic Symbolism, “Kether is the fount of Creation … the basic life-force at the root of all forms.” It is, in other words, the Source of all sources.
Not only is The Source a major literary statement for our post-secular age, but it is also a necessary intervention in the current poetics of conceptualism. “I undertook this project,” said Gordon, “in order to investigate whether or not constraint-based, conceptual writing might have a spiritual dimension. It is now my belief that rigid and systemic modes of writing can embody an emotionally charged engagement with the world.” An “emotionally-charged” conceptualism, indeed, seems like heterodoxy especially if we consider Craig Dworkin and Kenneth Goldsmith’s recent anthology Against Expression: An Anthology of Conceptual Writing (2010), whose very title foregrounds an anti-expressive and presumably anti-emotional poetics. In “The Fate of Echo,” one of the two introductory essays that preface Against Expression, Dworkin says, “Frequently, we had to admit that works we admired were not quite right for this collection because they were simply too creative–they had too much authorial intervention, however masterful or stylish that intervention might be.” Likewise, Vanessa Place and Robert Fitterman’s Notes on Conceptualism (2009) privileges a so-called “pure conceptualism,” which — because of the conceptual plenitude of the work’s idea — obviates the need for attending to the work’s textual intricacies. In short, if we can speak of a reigning orthodoxy of conceptual poetics, then it is a poetics of strict citation, of uncreative plagiarism, of radical mimesis. In contrast, The Source is a work of stylish intervention, a work of not just copying but skillful collage, a hybrid work that rewards both a conceptual “thinkership” as well as a readership that is steeped in a romantico-modernist tradition. A work like The Source is, in fact, an index of the vitality of current conceptual writing as we are now seeing conceptualism follow a variety of surprising trajectories. If I am making the more high-profile practitioners of conceptualism sound overly doctrinaire, I’d like to point out that Dworkin and Goldsmith’s intention was “to offer a snapshot of an instant in the midst of an energetic reformation, just before the mills of critical assessment and canonical formation have had a change to complete their first revolutions.” Conceptualism is, of course, in flux and The Source should be recognized as a key text within this “energetic reformation.”
From the nearly ten thousand page 26s that he “ambiently” encountered in the Denver Public Library, Gordon culled “bits of language, which … [he then] fused together, altering some nouns to read ‘the Source.’” Through these intricate processes of selection, fusion and substitution, Gordon was able to stitch together a logopoeic text impressed, quite remarkably, with his own particular brand of discursive lyricism, and I’d like now to explore The Source’s linguistic texture so that we might appreciate his craft alongside his concept. Here is a particularly striking sentence:
To cover the cost of attendance, to list one’s impressive lovers, to wear a little blue linen dress, these will not still its [the Source’s] mystery, replace the mirage of imagination with that of memory, the time a bullet takes to travel a dozen feet with its true vast and complex architecture — for the Source builds towers of smoke with the stuff of our lives, the anonymous, unwritten music that comes from beating, scraping, and shaking naturally sonorous materials.
The repetitions, the consonantal/assonantal music, the baroque syntax, the fluid and surprising appositions, the layering of metaphor, the oblique logic — all of this (and then some) amounts to a deliciously slippery and seductive rhetoric. And as can be expected from such a conceptual project, this passage is highly self-reflexive, acknowledging the “unwritten music” taken from now “anonymous” sources (Caroline Bergvall might call them, in the spirit of collaborative language, “&onymous”). To give just a small sense of the kinds of sources Gordon used (so far, I’ve tracked down citations from writers like Jacques Derrida, David Sedaris, Edgar Allan Poe, Jed Rasula, Albert Camus, Daniel Defoe, Thomas Dekker and Novalis via Susan Sontag) and to highlight his peculiar knack for defamiliarizing juxtaposition — the phrase “towers of smoke with the stuff of our lives” was taken from Octavio Paz’s An Erotic Beyond: Sade, and the ending phrase, “comes from beating, scraping and shaking naturally sonorous materials,” was plucked from Ottó Károlyi’s Traditional African and Oriental Music.
Another one of the particular pleasures of reading Gordon is the way he drops in a startling and luminous particular in the midst of abstraction: “Some special, subtle charm of chastity and sanctity draws us to the opposite quality of each; this leads to friction, aspects of our interconnectedness that a butterfly seems to have left a little of its colored dust upon as it alights and pauses … ” (the butterfly conceit is lifted from Arthur Symons’ description of Whistler). Or the way Gordon deploys a koan-like rhetorical question (this one is adapted from a statement from Thomas J.J. Altizer’s The Self-Embodiment of God) so we can dwell in theological paradox: “Can we respond to silence in the presence of speech by saying: the Source has no beginning?” Or the way Gordon incorporates cleverness and humor, such as when he, in breaking off a question, answers it in the process (rhetorically, this is an example of anapodoton): “Are the sentences whole or fractured, and if the latter, on purpose or … ” In this case, the source is Thomas C. Foster’s How to Read Novels like a Professor, which Professor Gordon parodically reads in turn.
While much of The Source consists of prose, there are some strategic lineations that reflect Gordon’s sensitivity to visual pacing and the mise-en-page:
A new house in the piney woods.
The lovely quiet of the dunes.
A neatly folded studding-sail.
Such images abound in the Source, but plain statement is better, as if a telephone call causes anger to abate, leaving only a brief description of the course itinerary, followed by a detailed one of precisely what you sought — some indication of what your own vocabulary might one day be:
a crowded afternoon of insect life
in ditches and swamps.
What I’ve been calling Gordon’s “deliciously slippery” rhetoric is apparent here too. The disavowal of imagery in favor of the so-called “plain statement” is, itself, disavowed as the sentence slyly unfurls into an “as if” clause and extends into greater syntactic complexity. This contradiction reminds me of that exhilarating moment when Stevens says, in “Notes Toward a Supreme Fiction,” “[t]he sun / Must bear no name, gold flourisher.” Indeed, The Source luxuriates in what Stevens memorably called “the intricate evasions of as.” Neo-Oulipian commonplace book, conceptual prose poem, a “portrait of the artist as collage-text” (to quote a chapter title from Marjorie Perloff’s study The Dance of the Intellect), elliptical lyric essay — whatever one calls The Source, it is filled with superb writing even if it is writing that is orchestrated rather than actually written.
The Source is triply dedicated to Sommer Browning, to Gordon’s family, and to “all the world’s librarians.” Such a dedication recalls Ezra Pound’s first “Thrones” Canto, which he fittingly calls “[a] memorial to archivists and librarians.” To include such archivists and librarians into the conversation, Futurepoem Books is posting reactions — there will be 26 in all — by poet-librarians to page 26 of The Source on the blog Futurepost. In the spirit of this collaborative project, I want to end my thoughts on Gordon’s book with a reaction of my own. I took language from page 26 of The Source and spliced it together with one paragraph from Borges’s classic short story “The Library of Babel” and one paragraph from Foucault’s “Fantasia of the Library,” a provocative text which proclaims, “The Library is on fire”:
The [Re]Source: An Exegetical Collage
Our solar system (which others call the Library) is composed of infinitesimal fragments, among which grows, interminably, an indefinite distribution of orbital time. In vast shafts formed by the blessings of experience, dormant monuments may sleep (and even dream) standing up. Here, among long galleries of shelves, which bear the black and white fruit of enclosure, one can see the upper floors from which a zealous mirror sinks abysmally into the void and, with closed eyes, soars upwards in incessant spirals of duplication. From this, men usually infer that a longer, more assiduous spiral is writing the universe.
The Library, it is true, is infinite — as a ceiling is only the transversally placed wakefulness of the sky. Thus, there is no book that is not faithfully polished by tradition or hushed by daily incongruities of thinking. In the remote distances, hexagonal voices are turning into a higher frequency of babble. One speaks many constant but respectful vows to part the spherical surfaces of desire and rest carefully in the summoned interstice. Between the creative urge and one’s fecal necessities, a new imaginative space can transmit columns of imaginary books grounded only by uncertain dreams of what is contrary. Perhaps the Source is performing its commentaries, identical to a repetition that only happened once. But no: it comes from the past to exact its accuracy. In the library of nature, we’ve counted the now and reduced it to an infinite feeling of attention. Phantasms no longer liberate the closets of impossible worlds. Henceforth, the visionary experience arises within the confines of a normal bookcase, amassing loved facts unknown to the sleep of reason. It signs its name on the invariable surface of all appearances; it treasures the actual clamor born between an illusory book and an illusory lamp; it is surrounded with infinite distance; it evolves when the singularly modern sun opens and passes through the scarcely closed interval of a nineteenth century night; it expresses the phenomenon in which matter duplicates spirit to form tight, image free documents, reproductions of reproductions aligned with the power of impossible compensation.
The heart of the Source takes shape in the domain of its untiring recensions. It evokes a flight of fantastic books expressed in a minute of reading. Its subject, no longer a property of reality, has shaped large railings of erudition, possibly responding to the narrow hallway that leads to a fantastic yet insufficient stairway in the air. Why this denial? The journey stands before us. The Source now resides in forgotten words deployed in vigilance, dusty words printed relatively in light.
Noah Eli Gordon’s The Source: an investigation in constrained bibliomancy and ambient research (Futurepoem Books, 2011) is available at futurepoem.com.
Lovely… I hope to see more poetry and literature addressed here, conceptual and otherwise- this is a fine review
You will have your wish. The four editors of Hyperallergic Weekend Edition intend to have reviews of poetry and literature published nearly every weekend. Reviews of John Asjbery’s translation of Arthur Rimbaud and Bern Porter’s Found Poems will appear soon.
John Ashbery…Sorry for the typ
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