The Knives Forks and Spoons Press, 2012 £5.00
Reviewed by Nikolai Duffy, D A Prince and Clare Best
Jesse Glass’s Two consists, perhaps unsurprisingly, of two long poetic sequences. The first purportedly deconstructs the “post-modern fable of the Beat ‘Freeway’ Reading at the Old Longshoreman’s Hall, San Francisco, 1964,” and the second reframes the Gilgamesh narrative “told in the light of America’s Iraq interventions and the current world economic fizzle”. Throughout, there are echoes and traces of various Beat writers, but it’s probably Ginsberg’s and Burroughs’ examples which cast the greatest shadow across these 33 pages, not least in Ginsberg’s spiritually mediated profanations blended with Burroughs’ cut-up method.
But Two is also far more radically disjointed than either of those culturally prominent examples. Language, typography, and punctuation take on a structural role that appears to hold precedence over the semantic. The following, from the beginning of the second part, ‘The Hero I Evoke’, is representative:
(A=NU, the high=est, hearz moth=erz drahummbabheat),
(vain threats of d****), (bride=groom sound=beyetzuh:
<help! kyah! missing kyah! bride!>)
According to the description on the back of the pamphlet, Glass is described as a poet working in the tradition of L=A=N=G=U=A=G=E poetry, and it’s this tradition more than those vocal Beat derivations which may be most helpful in trying to locate what’s at stake for Glass here. L=A=N=G=U=A=G=E poetry, at its peak in the 1970s and early ‘80s, was and is experimental, difficult, intellectual, theoretical, political (Marxist), and concerned with a sense of poetry as primarily textual or writerly. For these poets, language is not a transparent reflection of experience but plastic, a material in itself. As Charles Bernstein and Bruce Andrews (the founding editors of the influential L=A=N=G=U=A=G=E magazine and subsequent anthology) put it, “It is our sense that the project of poetry does not involve turning language into a commodity for consumption; instead, it involves repossessing the sign through close attention to, and active participation in, its production.”
Bruce Andrews, in his essay ‘Poetry as Explanation, Poetry as Praxis,’ goes further, stating how “this displacement or social unbalancing has more than nuisance value. It’s more than an invitation to an ego trip for righteous poets. Instead, it offers a guide by which matters outside do not hang together—an unsuturable condition: where norms are contradicted & where you can recognize that therefore they can be contradicted, the space for reading blossoms.”
Perhaps it’s these ideas which Glass is recycling and reworking in Two. As with much L=A=N=G=U=A=G=E poetry though, while I may find the ideas interesting, may even feel personally close to some of these ideas in the way I scuffle my way through the days, much of the work I can take or leave. In all honesty, more often than not, I tend to prefer the essays. I wouldn’t mind reading an essay by Glass, I think it would probably be quite interesting, but I’m not the most intuitive reader and without some kind of statement of intent I’m just not quite sure where to get my bearings.
D A Prince:
This pamphlet (two long poems—‘Poetic Fictions’ and ‘The Hero I Evoke’) is deeper in left-field territory than I would usually venture. It is not for the beginner or those unfamiliar with Jesse Glass, a significant figure in American experimental poetry who is currently teaching American Literature at Meikai University in Chiba (Japan). He has been extending the languages of poetry since around 1972, and although listening to him read via on-line sites helped me absorb his rhythm and tonal patterns—and enjoy his dense imagery and ability to blend wide ranging cultural reference—it was not enough to facilitate a satisfying reading of these poems.
The publisher’s description did not help or encourage. The description of the pamphlet as “a two part L=A=N=G=U=A=G=E excavation of the rhetoric of history” fails to clarify the poet’s intentions, and so does “Glass dissects the Beat Myth with an obsidian microlith washed up on the shore of Lake Titicaca.”
But let’s look at the poems rather than the poet’s Wikipedia entry and the publisher’s blurb. The following quotation is from ‘The Hero I Evoke’ in which Glass reworks the story of Gilgamesh in the light of America’s interventions in Iraq:
(A=NU, the high+est, hearz moth=erz,drahummbabheat),
(vain threats of d****), (bride+groom sound=beyetzuh:
<help! kyah! missing kyah! bride!>)
(See? Demgodz <r>not<deaf>Dei us!!!!!)
(& 2 Aruru of the wedge-shaped hair
& cootie fingerz, sez):
(This bull-man), (this <well-hung>f**k:
GNOMEN KANT’S BEE/ZEN!)
OK, I’ve chosen an extreme example of linguistic innovation, but it will help you decide if this is a book for you. If it is, try to find a clip of Glass reading it; I haven’t tracked one down, yet, but I suspect this might be a sound poem rather than a page poem, and that pamphlet publication is not the most appropriate format.
(A YouTube interview with Jesse Glass, from 2011—though not reading the poems in this pamphlet—can be found here. Ed.)
Try not to be put off by the gratuitously silly blather on the back cover. I was, initially, but when I finally sat down to read, I found the work far more engaging than the blurb would have you believe.
Glass is a distinguished writer, folklorist and student of the imagination, and his involvement with experimental poetry goes back to the early 1970s. I think his work deserves to be more widely read. I would like to make a plea to ‘left-field’ poets and their publishers to frame work in a more user-friendly way—if, that is, they want to invite readers. I don’t know whether they do.
I’m not sure how to write about the experience of reading this collection. I would quite like to do this:
SIT above c,h,a,i,r
OK – not the W>H>I>Z>Z, I (mean) when
you (and: I) read read uneyed uneared, sloth timid tock-tick tactic
Seriously, this seems one way of responding. But is it helpful? Trying to write anything at all about the sensation of reading this pamphlet has given me a lot of head-ouch.
Nevertheless, I was swept along and away by parts of it. Pages 21-24, for example, where I caught the tail/tale, I revelled in the pace, the getting lost, the sheer bravado. Here the dynamism was welcome after the (for me) more impenetrable first section, like a helter-skelter ride after wandering in a hall of mirrors:
And I have bitten my arm to better feel their pain
& have plotted the advance of the red spiral
Provided free of charge at grocery & convenience stores
Where the blank faces look out at me from the magazine racks
So proud that I can see bits of the spiral
In their hands
Now that seemed to me the kind of writing I could feel taken by. And there are other passages where the excitement of language bursts out:
I learned to whistle
A high thin wire of sound
Passing like a cheese-cutter
Through the brains
Of Pundits who prattle
Their henchmen & their stooges;
Of Reverends who babble,
Their champions & handlers
Of politicians, technocrats,
Lawyers & plutocrats
Zelots & harlots, the Tight-fisted,
Let me confess: I was left wondering why there could not be more of these bits and fewer of the other, more or less unreadable, bits. But that’s me.