Ramez Qureshi: Musical Objects

The title of a recent conference at Barnard College in New York City, "Where Lyric Tradition Meets Language Poetry: Innovation in Contemporary American Poetry by Women," underscores an important controversy surrounding recent American avant-garde poetry, gender aside. Many in the poetry world have felt Language poetry cold, over-theoretical, abstract -- divorced from the lyrical resources of musicality available to poets.

Such has never been the case with New York Language Poet Nick Piombino, whose work, as is evident in his spectacular latest book from Green Integer Press, Theoretical Objects (including pieces written over the last thirty years), consistently overflows with lyricism, and, indeed, shows how just how hypostasized the term "Language Poetry" may have become. In theory and in practice Piombino's poetry begins and ends with music.

Piombino consistently ariticulates a vision of just of intertwined poetry and music can be. His very first "Object" is entitled "Introduction and Allegro," indicating a musical genre, and indeed moves like an allegro. Other titles suggest musical genres as well, such as "Quartet Concrete," "Etude," and "Adagio." The eighth of the nine exhilarating "Manifestos" which open the book, on reading, declares, "reading is gathering around us like a mist, hands, like arms, like music, seducing us towards the chair, the couch, the bed." "Reader and writer dance" it continues," or there is nothing. The body is suddenly drawn to its feet, turning and twisting. The words and music lead it on, through and around, around and around." The passage imitates its own dynamism, "words and music" swinging the corporeal in a "dance" "around, around and around." Theory of the body, itself subject of much recent academizing, meets lyricism in practice, the "opportunity to think aloud, to think aloud and create music out of this thinking," as Piombino puts it in "Naming Never Knew".

And indeed, lyricism is much in practice in this book, not simply articulated in theory. For starters, the book is organized by theme, musical theme, so that early pieces, the dense Steinian Manifestos give way to increasingly fast-pace pieces, giving way to more formal experimentation. But the lyricism is always there. "Language's bid for power quietly encircled the heart, blending expression with the unraveled and the unintended in an involuntary inquisition," writes Piombino in his seventh "Manifesto", addressing the meta-linguistic concerns of Language Poetry with the traditional trope of the "heart." Of "Silence" he writes:

It slowly drifts among the hills by day, or empty homes, only entering the city stealthily by night, as shy as any being of the sirens and the screams... The custom of silence is to be still, to fill the clanging present through the tiny crack it makes in eternity's unforgiving door.

These lines are almost Keatsean in their sensuality. In "Between the Voices of Things," Piombino sounds out the music of pure things with a concern that reminds us of Rilke:

Things speak for themselves by means of combining with adjacent voices, hardly a low chorus, as if from the background, if we could only listen. It's only that we tire of listening over the din, the din of clashing thoughts, the day's screaming voices splashing against the windowpane like rain.

The traditional device of metaphor is not wasted in these lines. In "Solitaire," Piombino writes, "Dissolve into the orphaned particular, the vast remains. Keeping on is one way to swim, the other lies beyond a fence on the sea. Tonight it seems endless, seems to want to fold into the smoky gray mist." It is "the silence before and after the poem," that interests Piombino in "The Silence," emphasizing his interest in the sound, not just textuality, that lies in between. And we find these beautiful lines at the books conclusion: "'the singing's not in the voice but in the deep breaths arising from the song.'" It reminds us of Whitman.

But Piombino is consistently a "Language Poet." His work consists of endless self-theoretization, apart from articulating a poetics of the musical. This is evident right off in his "Introduction and Allegro," in which he speaks of his, "Broken syntax, broken expectations, broken speech," defining parts of his poetic practice. "To go forward, despite the anxieties and doubts, step by step, unflinchingly," he states as his mission in his first "Manifesto." This innocuous statement becomes self-parodic in a cataloging that includes "I must be funny... I must be aware... I must use images... I must mention the police," and, seriously, "I must reflect form." The theorizing continues straight ahead in the second "Manifesto: "Reinvention of the monologue, of the basics, of the essentials. Construction of a world from the beginning, but each subtle defining eliminating a multitude of other possible universes." Selection of the poetic world carefully narrows its alternatives. In "Silence" Piombino addresses a classic topos of discussion of poetry, silence, and writes, lyrically enough:

Emptying itself continually into stillness, silence erases the forces of intention with consummate skill. It is classic, and its impulse is romantic. Silence implodes meaning, creating equivalence where moments before diversity reigned, invoking eternity into a bleeding battleground of erupted feelings, memories, a grand and ubiquitous melting of personality, of time, of historical and biographical significance.

In such a lyric moment Piombino skillfully deploys theoretical insight into the nature of silence in poetry, his analysis even including the traditional dichotomy between Classicism and Romanticism. And of course there is language, always language, such as in "Rapid Transit," a meditation at whose close, "language disengages itself and forms an opposing and supporting structure," right down to when "two humans communicate... attempt to share their pleasure." These poems are "theoretical objects," objects in the sense that art-works can be objects, theoretical in the sense that they are as theory-laden as they are lyrical.

These "objects" take on different forms, which, as noted, evolve according to a musical style. But what of the form of these "objects?" What can be said of them? Piombino answers himself in two of the objects, "Hybrid Forms" and "Style." "Hybrid Forms" begins, "Things pull us apart and then we need other tings to pulls us together. We are hybrid forms but recognition makes us uncomfortable because of the implications of conflicting forces within ourselves. To focus on this brings anomie and doubt." It continues, "Here we are still utilizing the past forms as a familiar structure but incorporating the new form as a vital link to the present." Piombino is inventing the "new form," almost automatized in its anxiety at being new as a way of capturing the present, and capturing the present is always what the avant-garde has sought to do. Indeed the forms these objects take are hybrids, from the strange "Manifestos," which draw from modernist classics but are completely new, to "10 Forms of Distortion," a list of philosophical speculations, to "Reading," which looks like a left-margin justified poem in some respects, to "Unidentified Theoretical Object," a dialog of voices, to "Aperitifs," containing such nuggets of wisdom as "Everything takes time - and time takes everything." Each "object" comes with its own form. And yet, almost every "object" is written as a prose poem. For an explanation of this we must look to "Style," in which Piombino writes, "It appears to me that if 'postmodern' means anything it is a drastic and urgent breakaway from the demands of style - one of the most destructive demands of modernism." Piombino's antipathy towards "style," shared by many of his Language Poet compeers explains the prose format his objects tend to take, their anti-stylistic drift.

This tendency to write in prose leads into one of the more curious aspects to Piombino's thought, his relation of poetry, to therapy, to talk. "Psychoanalysis and literature are more interrelated than is apparent," Piombino tells us in his fifth "Manifesto," and why so will become more and more apparent as the book progresses. In "Naming Never Knew," in which Piombino asks, "What is Poetry and what is it for," he writes, "the similarity with psychoanalysis is that the point is to talk and keep on talking. Thus writing, like psychoanalysis, is a talking cure." In the same piece he will mention Alcoholics Anonymous. In "Transformation of Objects," Piombino mentions, "Psychoanalysis, the pleasure principle," connecting poetry to Freud's pleasure principle, as traditional literary critics do. In the lyrical "Missing," Piombino is almost endorses surrealism: "A dream is as ordinary as a shell on a beach... The poet's muse gave permission there for more poems made out of teeth." Clearly, a concern with psychoanalysis further distinguishes Piombino as a Language Poet.

As a Language Poet, Piombino has always been involved with the avant-garde, and this book offers interesting insights into those who have been trying to "make it new." In his first "Manifesto" he writes,

"The irony of the situation of contemporary poetry consists of its self-conscious, yet unconscious, imitations of the aesthetics of permanence. But things are changing too fast to allow for notions of permanence. Planned obsolescence has ushered in the age of automatic obsolescence - which finally means simply -- we imitate in all our works that death is final."

From a "what's a poet to do?" situation Piombino mines an aesthetic vision. In "An Apology for Exhaustion" Piombino issues an apology for poetry - "The empty and unfulfilling quality of much contemporary poetry is its essential grandeur -" while stating, with the playfulness of a Tzara, "Contemporary life is official confusion - contemporary poetry is semi-official confusion;" however playful, this is a serious political attempt to map a space for art in contemporary life.

In running Green Integer, his second publishing venture (after the ongoing Sun and Moon), Douglas Messerli has promised works which promise "to bring society into a slight tremolo of confusion and fright at least." This may all be somewhat hyperbolic when it comes to Theoretical Objects, but the general spirit of ludicity holds true. Theoretical Objects is like no other book out there. It showcases a uniquely lyrical Language Poet at the height of his powers, in a collection of works rich and strange, as diverse as the most myriad of museums.