February 17, 2012

Douglas Messerli"s Dinner on the Lawn and Some Distance | review by Peter Inman

Review of Douglas Messerli’s Dinner on the Lawn and Some Distance by Peter Inman

By reviewing two books in one fell swoop I hope I’m not undifferentiating them in the process. Hopefully, I’m underlining their different tactics, for Messerli seems to me one of those poets (Charles Bernstein and Steven Benson are two others) who use a wide variety of poetic modes. His approach is postmodernist: eclectic and analytic, unconcerned with the establishing of a poetic voice, a style.

Rather than ignore traditional poetic conventions Messerli uses them to highlight the distance between, say, a Messerli ode and “the ode.” In Some Distance (New York, Segue Books, 1982) especially, Messerli uses a range of anachronistic poetic effects: alliteration, rhyme (end and internal), assonance, meter. But these generic conventions aren’t used as building blocks in the construction of some larger, overall thematic structure. Instead such devices as reminders that we are reading a poem, whose effects and stratagems are historically located. Some Distance can be seen as a meditation on the poem’s generic location among other genres, other species of discourse. The fact that many of the conventions Messerli uses are outmoded emphasizes that there is no eternal prosody, Grecian urns notwithstanding. The art of writing is a social practice, not a matter of genius communing with its muse.

Dinner on the Lawn
(College Park, Maryland: Sun & Moon Press, 1982): Its standard line is short, almost always two to three words long. It seems less concerned with poetic convention than Some Distance; its tone is more conversational, less rhetorical. The poems look like Creeley’s early ones, but don’t read like them at all. Instead of representing the poet’s hesitancy and anxiety, the lines’ shortness serves to indicate their own directions.

Two quotes. (1) “….in it (literature the ordinary signifier/signified relationship is complicated by yet another kind of signification which bears on the nature of the code itself. Thus each literary work, above and beyond its own determinate content, also signifies literature in general. Like the Latin sentence, above and beyond what it actually does mean, it also says: I am Literature, and in so doing, identifies itself for us as a literary product, and involves us in that particular and historical social activity which is the consumption of literature.” (Fredric Jameson, The Prison House of Language). (2) “We thus encounter once again the unavoidable necessity of participating in the very activity that is being denounced precisely in order to denounce it.” (Craig Owens, “The Allegorical Impulse, Toward a Theory of Postmodernism”).

In “Chairs for Everyone” (Some Distance) Messerli uses discrete phrases as mini-paragraphs. They are emotionally charged (in Stein’s sense, i.e. they promise some final summation, some level of meaning larger than themselves) but, in fact, they don’t add up to a whole greater than the sum of their parts. The work remains on the molecular level, in fine:

The steps begin to be

irregular, the breath with black pines

building a comfortable lodge in honor of strangers

who sit too close, a darkness grows into an active

retirement, waking one to say

it saw ibex in the sheep.

The feel of these lines is that they are part of a larger argument, they are “going somewhere.” The first phrase makes perfect sense, steps can be irregular. The personification of black pines building a lodge is a leap Robert Bly would approve of. (Presumably, the lodge would either be in Minnesota or on a fjord in Norway.) Strangers do, indeed, on occasion sit too closely together. But the last line quoted (also the poem’s last line) doesn’t tie things together after all. There is no resolution into an overall theme, no unifying or central image. The lines in “Amelia Earhart” (Dinner on the Lawn) also adhere to one another, stretching out into one long sentence whose meaning will become clear upon conclusion. But the final twist on the cliché “wear my heart on my sleeve” (“where / I wear my shoulder / my heart”) belies such an expectation. The suspension doesn’t solidify. There’s no precipitate.

Messerli’s work, jarring as it sometimes is, anachronistic and balky by turn, jolts us from a complacent acceptance of everyday language. It reminds us that language is not some transparent carrier through which the poem’s (or press release’s) message shows through. Messerli’s poems are insistently disjunctive. The rhymes, assonances and sudden twists of associative thread are not matters of idiosyncratic whim; they act as brakes which slow us down and force us to pay attention to the detail of language as such; to its material presence and nuance. His point of attack is similar to that of the Formalists. For them the literary text distanced its readers from the numbing effects of everyday language. Via a process of dislocation of syntax and imagery it dehabituated how the reader read and saw things. Literature, optimally, could be used as an epistemological tonic, undeadening the senses and transforming the reader’s perception of the world around her/him. Messerli’s poems exist within such a practice, address such concerns. They’re well worth reading.

Reprinted from Washington Review (February-March 1983).

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