Alistair Noon reviews
by John Bloomberg-Rissman
If someone out there has access to a complete database of 20th century poetry in English, plus a bit of spare time, could they confirm the following for me? The word “stone” turns up a lot in mid- to late Modernist poetry. Eliot’s “dry stones”, in an early Modernist poem ruminating on a crisis in Western thought, are soon reappropriated by the next generation for their associations of permanence. “Stone” becomes almost like a magic word uttered to hold back the collapse. For Romanticism and the evocation of beauty as something we can all sense, the counterpart – please run this through the appropriate database too – might be “flower”.
What, then, is the key word of Postmodernism? Ipso facto, I guess there shouldn’t be one single term, but John Bloomberg-Rissman may have hit on a candidate with the second half of this book’s title. From the printed catalogue sent five times to the same address, to the current statistic of 100 billion spam emails dispatched every day, word-waste is all around us, even if it also points to record levels of literacy and the dissemination of computer skills.
“Zeitgeist”, too, is a powerful word for its geographical expansiveness combined with temporal limitation, and Zeitgeist Spam is an astute title in both an ironic and a non-ironic way. T he ephemerality of text is flagged up, yet the sense that these poems give of long, stony attention – revision, or reading, or revisiting of earlier work – ironizes that ephemerality. The opening poem combines stone and spam:
"When we lived in Gondwana"
When we lived in Gondwana
By the shore of the Tethys Sea
My hands were never cold like this
Even in December
Remember all the fun
We had with stones
While waiting for the placodonts
To lift their walrus-snouts
Above the water?
Every day I’d write you poems
In ammonite ink
Every day we’d lie among the ferns
My claws would leave
Four little moons
On the backs of each of your shoulders
In this imagining of Mesozoic spam and its perpetrators, restraint lies down with warmth, and clarity with a bit of mystery. The vocabulary stays simple, the rhythm solid; the stanza breaks denote meaningful shifts and developments in this impossible leap of perspective. I’m reminded of the learned monkey who presents Kafka’s "Report to an Academy".
There is a great deal of variety in the forty-odd pages of Zeitgeist Spam. Early 21st-century work drudgery, Asian art, prehistory, poetics, epistemology and language games appear in the form of first person lyric, free verse song, found poems, multiple translations/versions of the same poem, the anecdote shaped and worked up to mean something bigger, jazz chant. The tone is demotic with high-flying excursions. We get pastiches of Imagism –
It’s high summer now
The shit-spattered nests are empty
("One pill the color of a flower")
and Romanticism –
O earth! O dreams!
O night! O no one!
("Comics Without Pictures")
as well as satire, irony and wit:
I find myself drawn to the meeting room’s two slit windows
Bad John! Bad employee!
(‘The Adventure of Wednesday’)
The self and its personal relationships are constructed through asides to and cameo appearances by partner, friends and family, e.g. father ("I ponder his investment advice"); a personal element which serves more to draw in than exclude. The recounting of the day’s experience in the present simple may overpopulate poetry magazine submissions, but here it’s turned into High Art.
An easy meta-poetic aspect is there in many poems, and why shouldn’t it be, if other scribes – anthropologists for example – incorporate methodological reflections into what they write. And Bloomberg-Rissman’s general approach refutes the two oft-implied and contradictory fallacies which Peter Robinson discussed in a recent interview in Agenda: firstly, that autobiographically based writing is necessarily egotistical; and secondly, that non-autobiographically based writing is necessarily inauthentic; both dogmas effectively placing restriction orders on creativity.
The observation of the urban reminds me at times of Charles Reznikoff: "the roof of the truck / That beeps as it pulls from the loading dock"; "phone lines / Just above the western horizon." There’s a beautiful elegy for and in the style of Cid Corman. Collage and montage are favoured techniques: "Choppers circle Fallujah // Ungaretti crouches / In a trench".
The poem that most explicitly reworks the idea of spam, with the fairly obvious title of "Inbox" and including the stuff all email recipients get every day, is the least successful for me – more spam than zeitgeist, and beset by the problem that makes found poems only infrequently rise above the three-star category. The found text may have intrinsic interest and the linguistic play be fun, but there is something to Pound’s bon mot that "only emotion endures", and it’s hard to get emotion into found poems. Well, maybe that’s the point here.
I’m also unsure whether the wit of the pseudo-translations that close the book isn’t so anarchic as to lose track. But in the lyric and narrative mode everything’s powered up. Bloomberg-Rissman swings forward to the future in "Someday I’ll be dead":
What did you think?
Some old dead guy
From a thousand years ago
Had something important to say?
How could he
With his unengineered heart?
And his tiny unmodified brain?
I counted at least nineteen poems here with not a dud line in them. It was self-published in an edition of fifty copies. Order your copy today.
Alistair Noon writes reviews for Eyewear on a semi-regular basis. He belongs to the English-speaking minority in central Brandenburg. He recently edited a symposium on Seán Rafferty at Intercapillary Space. Links to his poems, reviews, essays and translations online can be found at www.myspace.com/alistairnoon.
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