By Jason Guriel
Take, for example, the poem “E.g.”:
The first principium tends to bore us.
Which it does. The stuffy “principium” usually having the connotation of a first or essential principle, a “first principium” adds to our sense that the line is meant to be a mouthful. But by breaking the ice in such a self-conscious way – it is the first line of the poem – it works as intended. This is a poem that announces itself as being aware of matters having to do with order and form. That it is also a sonnet, that most readily identifiable and familiar of all poetic forms, also helps. Sonnets, as I had occasion to remark in a review of the Jailbreaks anthology, make the perfect vehicle for meta-poetic musings. You can never not be aware that what you’re reading has been built to a set of established specifications which, in turn, become part of the poem’s subject matter. And so this is the first principium: the general form of the sonnet that precedes the existence of this particular instance.
As form alone, however, it bores us (with the “tends” adding a nice touch of the blasé). In several other poems in Pure Product Guriel closely associates the idea of form – or more properly its absence – with boredom. “When Walking Next to Chain Link Fences” is a jaunty formalist manifesto: the strictly ordered wires and posts of “these braided harps” are the source of the poet’s music, clattered out with a broken branch. Absent form/fence, there is only the boredom of Frost’s tennis court stripped of its net:
But when these fences give
way to boundless lawns
my hand becomes the sieve
that can’t contain my yawns.
More akin to the first principium is the “Shopping Cart, Abandoned on Front Lawn.” The cart here is abandoned form, a structure “out of its element” and unable to perform any worthwhile function. Even the local kids grow “bored” with it as a plaything, abandoning it to rust. And yet even so it has a kind of poetic value to it, as form alone. It “stupidly sifts” the sunlight, creating a shadowy grid of subdivision beneath it. And
Still, it’s sturdy enough. Sound.
If only some Duchamp would rope it off
and declare a readymade Found.
The final rhyme insists on the value of the shopping cart’s embodiment of order, of Sound. Form cannot be abandoned. It is a first principle.
If we squint, force1 flies like an arrow . . .
Of course we have to do some work when reading poetry. But the form is always there. As noted, with a sonnet it is pretty obvious. Sonnets can be diagrammed through their rhyme scheme, in the case of “E.g.” a standard Elizabethan: ababcdcdefefgg. This is one way of representing, schematically, formal elements, just like the “force1” and “fig.1” in “E.g.”. The arrow is also a nod to time’s arrow, at least as understood in terms of cause-and-effect. And time’s arrow is a metaphor for temporal asymmetry, the fact that time (like language) only goes one way. This is traditionally understood as a function of the Second Law of Thermodynamics, which tells us that the universe is not only expanding but losing cohesion. Increasing in entropy. Losing form.
. . . and dots in fig.1 flame into Taurus.
The reason form cannot be abandoned is that it is inherent to thought. The mind is not just a blank slate recording a chaos of sensation, but is preloaded with the Kantian categories of time and space that is uses to order and give form to experience. But while the form is there, it takes the imagination to generate something from it. Time and space exist, like the fence and the shopping cart, but we have to strike a music from them (“Taurus” boldly rings in the poem’s first rhyme). We have to make form fly and flame. Otherwise time is only entropy and space a scattering of stars.
Still, we crave the fleshed-out example.
“Still” being used here not to introduce a qualification (“But still . . . “), but rather, I think, with the meaning of “as always.” A sonnet need only be ababcdcdefefgg – after all, it rhymes – but this is only a schematic skeleton, an abstraction. It needs to be fleshed out with “thinginess.” Pure form is without thinginess – the boring shopping cart abandoned on the lawn, the fence without the stick to play on it. Thinginess is measure, “the width / times length / times height,” pure product, something made. And in the poem “E.g.” the generation is explicitly sexual, a craving for the flesh. Taurus is, after all, a bull. And when the poem flows on with
gross of apples less twelve for Tom;
we get the first of two boy-girl pairings, their shopping carts filled with concupiscent fruit: the gross of apples with its connotations of vulgarity and Original Sin, and the fuzzy, vulvic peach of juicy chins, uneaten by Eliot’s repressed Prufrock (a figure directly invoked in the next poem, which is a companion piece). After all, what are Dick and Jane doing taking
departing Duluth at noon, and in each
dining car, each storybook plate, plain Jane
and her Dick, longdividing the one peach.
The fleshed-out example of romantic assignation isn’t just imagery, it’s narrative. Which is another kind of engine driving language forward, the trains departing Duluth being an industrial version of time’s arrow. This is a train heavy with thinginess. Only compare the feline that follows:
But only a cat pads through our primers,
neutered by cold clip of that article.
The primer takes us back to the first principium, a Platonic form of cat that is to the flaming bull of Taurus what Leonardo’s Man (“like Man in vintage medical posters / in wait rooms”) is to Dick, separating his peach in a railway dining car. Indeed, we don’t even know if it (the cat) is a Tom. Where is his thinginess? Where is his thing?
What Guriel is getting at here is something that a lot of recent formalist poetry tries to deal with. What is the relationship between form and thing? What is the status of the image? In a review I wrote a few years ago of The New Canon, an anthology of new Canadian poetry edited by Carmine Starnino, I ended by questioning Starnino’s notion that poetry be “first and foremost a form” insofar as it had the effect of pushing other concerns too far into the background. A fixation on form becomes self-regarding, a way of turning inward and away the world. Now I want to emphasize this isn’t the case with all formalist poetry, especially historically – and I won’t even try to nail down the label – but I think it is an occupational hazard today. The subject of such poetry increasingly becomes poetry itself. In Pure Product this is obvious in the many self-referential asides as well as the lightly concealed essays on poetics (some of which I’ve already mentioned). “Less,” to take another example, is an exquisitely crafted poem that threads together a chain of images illustrating what appear to be nothing more than platitudes: that less is more, that mountains can be made out of molehills, that a little goes a long way. Read literally, the poem seems to be saying nothing at all. And so we are invited to interpret it as another poem about poetry – taking “less is more” as a minimalist aesthetic. The images are mere figures, illustrations, of no importance in themselves.
Guriel can be quite self-conscious about this. In one poem, “Empty Nests in Leafless Trees” he even turns on his own wonderful imagery
especially at sunset
when leafless trees become
and empty nests
tend to stand out
like mashed clots
in a fine nest of capillaries
or ink blots
in failed calligraphy –
denying in the final part of the poem that the empty nests are either similes or metaphors “or, for that matter, / even matter.” They are only black holes, a sort of anti-image image that denies nature and the world entirely. Leaving us with the poem finally pointing to nothing outside itself. It is similar to what happens at the end of “E.g.”, with the neutered Man
proof of the universal,
genitals a generalization,
airbrushed, buffed to the point of abstraction.
A disappearing act that brings the poem full circle, back to the dull first principle. Universal Man is a vanishing “point”: a mere location or set of coordinates on a diagram. With the airbrushing and buffing of Cat and Man, the poem dissolves like the shrinking dot on an old-style television set. But then, how “real” were Dick and Jane?
Pure Product is an excellent book. In particular Guriel demonstrates a real mastery of the short line. As a statement of poetic principle, however, it doesn’t quite resolve what it wants to do with things. More generally the question might be asked: What, from the formalist perspective, is the world for? Less than essential, but more than mere decoration, does its invocation signify anything more than an endearing human weakness for things of the flesh?
Review first published online September 28, 2009.