Monday, July 28, 2003

Those Amazon readers were split, but for the most part (at least when I first looked) they were pronouncing Nick Flynn's latest book a disappointment: it was "too stylized," "too complicated," "unreadable," and "fiddles around with the language too much"--in contrast to his first book, Some Ether, which "took the unfashionable risk of expressing honest personal emotion." Insert eye-roll here. I figured this would mean that I would hate that first book.

But I didn't. I even managed to get past the pious blurbs about "the ghost of trauma," "solitary voice," and Mark Doty's "buoyant motion toward love." The movement of the poems, their surfaces and structures of thought, seemed to be much the same, even if the content was more explicitly autobiographical. In fact, Some Ether seemed like a kind of autobiographical or confessional poetry I could live with. That Stevens bit about resisting the intelligence almost successfully? That's what the surfaces of Flynn's poems seem to do--there's just enough typographical and syntactic clutter and interference that you have to work at getting the precise sense, but there's also enough of a psychological gut-punch obviously going on to make the labor seem worth it.

Take the use of the "&" instead of "and" through most of the poems. Sometimes this annoys me because it seems it's become kind of an avant-garde tic, a habit you see in people like Olson and Creeley--but I guess Berryman does it too, doesn't he?--and that's now used by anybody from Flynn to Lucie Brock-Broido as a signifier of edginess or archaism. I suppose it's a typewriter aesthetic, which makes it both modern and archaic.

I notice, though, that Flynn almost always uses it at the beginning of a line, where it functions like what they used to call a "carriage return," a forcible revisiting and often revision of what's gone immediately before. What follows the & is usually a restatement or qualification, a backtracking:

In my memory it is always raining,
& when it rains

the water rises in the crawlspace
& threatens the furnace

In Blind Huber that kind of stop-start movement gave thought a mechanical or even prosthetic feeling, as if it were taking a while for an impulse to travel the length of the body, or thought were separated from action. That effect is even more striking when applied to the alleged immediacy of personal history and memory.

For years I had a happy childhood,
if anyone asked I'd say,
it was happy.

That's not the beginning of a poem--you can imagine where that might lead--but its end, one that leaves us stuck in the limits of language and memory rather than imagining we can transcend them.

Perhaps because of that awareness--diction is destiny--Flynn's metaphors tend toward a weird blend of the abstract and the visceral:

If it had been a heart attack, the newspaper
might have used the word
as if a mountain range had opened
inside her, but instead

it used the word
suddenly, a light coming on

in an empty room... was

how overnight we could be orphaned
& the world become a bell we'd crawl inside
& the ringing all we'd eat.

What might seem like a distancing--obsessing over the phrasing of a mother's obituary--is in fact all that can get the poem to the real body, to eating; and yet what's being eaten is a sound. The body may be figural, but that doesn't make it less immediate and even grotesque:

She tells a story of how I swallowed a wasp,
I don't remember

but I always felt a nest building
inside me, like I was made

of paper & spit. I make small cuts in my
forearm, as if to let

something out, as if to look

It's the apparent modesty of this image that makes it shocking--the act of cutting the body doesn't get an elaborate psychological superstructure built around it, but is appallingly, childishly sensible.

Cynic Tim can find plenty wrong here--there's a series called "Cartoon Physics" that just kind of mechanically uses the rules of that genre to stand in for personal traumas, which I guess doesn't work because the figure is jokey to begin with--and is slightly embarrassed by the whole thing, preferring the more rigorous formal and figural explorations of Blind Huber. The rest of me's feeling sucker-punched by

My fingers
tange your hair, trace
your skull, your face so radiant

I can barely look into it

and has nothing else to say.

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