Sunday, May 31, 2009

Avery Slater on “Bullet Proof”

This poem began, as perhaps all poems do: as a problem. Rather, as several separate problems entangling themselves at saturation point. Sericulture was the first problem, a practice I’d long been fascinated and horrified by. I’d been haphazardly building a mental compendium of facts about sericulture for years, unsure whether it might produce a poem.

Immediately before writing this poem, two things collided. In my arbitrary attempts to understand various developments in the history of quantum physics. I encountered a description of vacuum energy, via the “Casimir effect,” named after its discoverer. Then, in a moment stemming from the sericulture interest—I discovered the first bulletproof vests were silk. One rather postmodern coherence sutured these two facts, in a coincidental confluence of unrelated readings: namely, that the first name of Revered Zeglen, the bulletproof vest’s inventor, was “Casimir.”

It is said one of the hardest English words to translate is “serendipity.” Apparently, only English expresses this notion in one word. This assertion of relative difficulty is patently unverifiable. Nonetheless, as an alleged fact it has stayed with me, as perhaps a more verifiable one mightn’t have. The idea’s indelibility could be rhetorical: ironic that “serendipity” is the word giving translators headaches. Yet “serendipity defies translation” might be more deeply tautological, a statement tantamount to “winter defies being summer.”

Writing this poem was a lesson for me in serendipity’s inscrutable nature—that which emerges from confluence, not correspondence. If translation makes sense of a thing by way of correspondence (worm = Wurm = verme), then serendipity is sense arising unexpectedly from convergence of the disparate. Thus, what I had in “Casimir” was not just a name, but a conspiracy theory—rather, a “happy conspiracy”: the synonym I will offer for the untranslatable “serendipity” (itself, serendipitously enough, a proper name, given long ago to Sri Lanka by Persian traders.)

Proper names are tacitly untranslatable words. Venezia,Venedig, Venice, yes, but only through error, or, more exactly, through inexactitude. Here I return to the so-called “problem” which is the ungainly clam shell of every poem’s hoped-for Aphrodite: how to make sense imprecisely. Not stupidly, not badly, not imperfectly, but . . . serendipitously? What the proto-poem presented me with was undoubtedly disparate. I first asked, how to treat facts not as facts, but as images?

Images are not identical to facts, nor yet are they supremely different. What difference? The conceptual divergence between particles of 20th century physics versus Democritus’s hypothetically indivisible atoms might demonstrate this difference. Images operate more as particles of modern physics in that they are not inert, exhibiting instead a kind of Brownian motion (seemingly patternless movement). To assert, metaphorically, a Brownian motion for the poetic image, I suggest something psychoanalysts and child-storytellers already know: the image is profoundly unsettled, anxious, hyperactive, mercurial, and never says “exactly” what it means. Better to let it scattershot about, it might lead somewhere—but whether to a poem, or to an island in the Indian Ocean is for the convergence of trade winds to decide.


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  2. I read "Bullet Proof" as soon as the current issue of BPJ arrived –attracted by the promise of a weave of clarity/complexity/beauty which had somehow come to me even as I glanced at the unread lines. I was a happy reader who knew she'd have to reread. I did reread, but felt I hadn't yet given the poem enough to receive what was there for me. I hoped the forum would feature you, Avery. Happily, here you are.

    I'm glad to have hints about the process, the privilege of seeing backward into the research (I've now followed parts of of your trail, courtesy of Google), your thoughts on the poet's way: the role of image, serendipity. I like the "ungainly clamshell" idea and your statement of the poet's goal – "how to make sense imprecisely. Not stupidly, not badly, not imperfectly..." I like your characterization of the image as "profoundly unsettled, anxious, hyperactive, mercurial..."

    Days after reading the blog, returning, I saw that no one had yet responded to your entry. Poor Avery, I thought, hoping you didn't feel neglected. I considered writing, but stayed silent. I hope you've remembered: out in the silence, the vacuum, the void, plenty happens.

    Now I've absorbed – partly – the mix of poem, blog, and research. Still, what is it I want to say, or ask? I think of standing in front of a complex and intriguing (large) collage in some well-lit gallery –a shine of light – silence – and I look and look and all I know is that it's good, and something happens in me, and I'm glad I came here and I'm glad I can come back another time.

    I'm pleased to know a bit more science, a bit more history – I'm a generalized dunce in both areas and can only receive through the gift of good writing, so the poem is a treat for me on that level.

    On the level of language, so much is here. A few of my favorite moments: "turgor for the stem of existence," "at the sight / of the redshift's peony swell." "toss their heads, / bull-like, in frenzied figure eights" "the worm whisked up its own damp sleeve."

    And then there is: "Death has no mouth." This is strong for me and has to be pondered in conjunction with Wallace Stevens: "Death is the mother of beauty."

    When I came this afternoon to "even when all one is able / to remove is removed // there is energy left" I felt a gut-socking correspondence to a theme in a poem-in- progress of my own.

    This poem will work its way with me over time - has done so, already. I'm writing to say thanks.

  3. Thanks so much for your comments, Shirley, I appreciate them. Regarding your association of the impression the poem made on you with the effect of a large collage, I was happy to hear this, since collage art is one of the only two visual arts I ever attempt, the other being film--and, in fact, I really feel these arts are essentially, or at least structurally, the same. As for the notion of serendipity, I tend to construct my collages not around an image I'm hoping to achieve, but rather a concatenation that arrives without warning, when certain lines and angles from one image combine with another's to create an insubstantial third. I suppose the attraction of the form for me is collage as collision. I feel this way about film, too--the story only emerges for me after the process of shooting is finished. It's the cognitively diaphanous nature of film that fascinates me, and it's something that I find useful in trying to understand poetic process, too (NB: my bias will always maintain that poetry is the most mysterious of arts, although I realize that is not strictly, logically tenable...nevermind that!) So I suppose that if its the collison in collage, then it's the flimsiness in film (or, the see-through-itiveness) that I find relevant to the practices I'm trying to learn. I've been interested for the last few years in the potential for the "cinematic" in poetry, and by this I mean to conjure the idea that, already, a historical shift has occurred in cultural mindset, a shift towards something that is profoundly visual and, at the same time, profoundly adept at simultaneity (large amounts of disparate data flying towards the subject, asking to be navigated, etc). This shift accompanying the cinematic, digital, ad-saturated age seems to be commonly agreed upon, but I am still wondering what kind of discussion might be had as to its effect on poetry. What might be the as-yet-untapped possibilities of cinema for the poetic practice? Personally, I'd like to come up with a manifesto for poetry that would be just as viable for a filmmaker. So far, this means attempting to write a Ph.D. dissertation linking poetic strategies of "automation" and collage (e.g. James Merrill) to the work of various filmmakers. (We'll see how *that* goes...I'm only in my first year!) But overall my interest is in a return to an understanding of poetic Authorship as being more the work of transcriber than orator, more indebted to the materials to hand than to the idealized forms or rhetorics of the moment. In the spirit of collage, I think this would translate to a poetry that "consists and persists" rather than "insists"-- a poetry that does not "talk", or, if it must talk, then it talks over itself. Plainsong, not aria?

  4. "... a shift towards something that is profoundly visual and, at the same time, profoundly adept at simultaneity (large amounts of disparate data flying towards the subject, asking to be navigated, etc)." Well, Avery, I'd say that you've begun to travel this path already with "Bullet Proof." Throughout my reading I found myself constantly slowing down, wanting to take in (and research in the case of unknown concepts) the abundant data, yet also being impelled to read faster and bite off more than I knew I could chew, caught up in the poem's excitement. Its message seems to me one of insistent vitality, yelling its energy and thrill at the prospect of realizing sweeping insights even while it whispers for us to discover the minuteness of subatomic properties. There is life in both the macro- and microprocesses of the world, webs of connections that we can scarcely imagine but which are begging to be explored by those with eyes to see. Even if "The task will be, as it always has been, / living amongst our enemies- / actual, invented," then the poem shows us that there might not be such a hard line between the two types; perhaps we are meant to see that so many things that appear actual - such as nothingness between mirrors - are actually just invented. Indeed, if we see the data flying at us as distinctly bullet-like, it begins to seem that we ourselves can be bullet proof; not incapacited by, but rather eager to experience and navigate, the joyfully infinite complexity of the universe.

  5. As I make my way through the poem, I try to be mindful of its many themes and its poetic tension.
    I can’t help but think that the last section of the poem - “Instar” - which blends in a symphonic crescendo many of the themes introduced in the preceding lines might have been a ‘stand-alone’ poem originally.

    A poem intimately and poignantly orchestrated that outgrew its own poetic centre of gravity and extended tendrils of meaning into what became the poem’s beginning and a foray into a possible explanation of reality through the rotating lenses of the various laws of physics.

    A reality from which of course we are happily divorced thanks to the author’s sustained poetic effort.

    Here are some of my favourite undercurrents in the poem (in no particular order):

    “Entry somewhere – exit elsewhere.”

    “Some bullets kill outside the clothes: how strange,
    at rest in flesh, at rest in death, the body, whole.”

    “We live submerged at the bottom of an ocean of air.”