Figures for a Darkroom Voice
by Noah Eli Gordon & Joshua Marie Wilkinson
Tarpaulin Sky Press 2007
Reviewed by Mike McDonough
Here Come the White Coats
Figures for A Darkroom Voice is the result of a collaboration between Noah Eli Gordon and Joshua Marie Wilkinson. Noah Eli Gordon supplied helpful notes about their collaborative process in Lungfull! 15. They started by trading successive sentences in a notebook on an airplane flight, and filling up the notebook mostly in a coffee shop in Denver, then electronically trading off editing the manuscript afterwards.
Gordon relates that their method didn’t really gel until they started trading off in mid-sentence. The back pages of the book reproduce two notebook pages from the mid-sentence phase that were submitted to Lungfull! (which publishes rough drafts facing the final, printed versions). Gordon likened the trading off process as being like constantly changing from motorcycle to sidecar at 50 MPH during a cross country trip.
I find the metaphor apt. Gordon also wrote that for him the collaborative process “allows one the comfort to take massive risks, turning one’s editing machine to idle, and implicitly constructing along with whatever actual work of art, a widening of allowance as far as how one might proceed in the future, whether alone or not.” This statement helps me point to what I find richest and weirdest in the book: the multiplicity of the ways it finds to proceed, while somehow retaining the sense that we are on the same journey, and that it’s not just a random amble. What is clear from Figures as well as Gordon’s process notes is that the voices of both poets harmonize well, to the point where each takes up previous themes of the other, seemingly creating a gentle eddy in the forward rush of their “crazy sentences.”
Figures in a Darkroom Voice reads as searching, musical whole. Gordon and Wilkinson produce a voice that turns over new territory without sounding boring, mechanical or self-indulgent. There is somehow a gentle good sense to nearly every strange line they write. You feel like if you read this book carefully enough, you would see that it is actually an instruction manual for living a good life, one that only works if you fall asleep while reading it. You feel like you could invite both of them to dinner, and they wouldn’t embarrass you or your family, except that they would have to wear nametags so you could tell them apart. What could be bad about that?
Here comes the awkward part: I will tell you how much I admire this work, that the book succeeds in what it sets out to do, that I find it sincere, musically fortifying and all that; yet I feel oddly compelled to explain my objections to it with metaphors so awkwardly extended that they will only convince you that I am insane. Maybe Gordkinson is so good at creating a perpetual motion machine that I have all the more urge to reach out my hand and stop it. My favorite lines in this book are invariably the single or two or three-line sections. They read more like snapshots, while the longer ones with more traditional sentences tend to remind me of that battery-powered aquarium you put on your desk to amaze people or pass the time, you don’t remember which. I really can’t defend this preference on objective grounds.
I’ll try to explain it this way: you have a collaboration so seamless that poet A finishes poet B’s sentences in such a complimentary, yet novel way that any poem over two or three lines is propelled forward into new territory. This is exactly what you want when pedaling a bike (or powering a motorcycle). This reciprocating engine is mechanically efficient, and it produces the desired result of moving forward in an exhilarating fashion. Perhaps the problem is that the bike has no brakes. Maybe I need a bathroom break. Maybe it seems what I’m arguing is that efficient bike riding is somehow bad, that you should strive for inefficiency, like bicycling sidesaddle, or deliberately wobbling down the street. That is not my point.
Let me try another tack: you want dry towels. You have an efficient, reliable dryer. You put a heavy, wet, nasty lump of towels in the dryer, and turn it on. The dryer heats and spins. When it is finished, you remove warm, fluffy towels. This is a minor miracle, and is not to be eschewed. I prefer warm, fluffy towels to nasty wet ones. Who wants a dryer that doesn’t work? Maybe I miss something like the following: You want dry towels. You have an efficient, reliable dryer. You put the lump of wet towels in the dryer, but forget to turn it on. Say the phone rings. You start talking on the phone. Then it slowly dawns on you that you hear an unholy clatter, and it’s only getting worse. The sound is so alarming that you drop the phone. You discover that your six year-old has managed to remove your towels, slap them on the utility room floor, then put 16 pairs of Keds in the dryer and turned it on just to see what happens. He is delighted. How do you react?
OK, I admit that might not be a very exciting poem. How about this one: you have a magic toaster. It’s one of those streamlined chrome jobs from the 50’s, but with two wide slots, like you could put a half a bagel in there, easy. You put a slice of bread in slot A, and another slice of in slot B. You push the lever down. Both slices disappear. When the toast pops up, there’s only one slice. It’s not appreciably thicker than the original slices. It’s something like the disappearing card trick, except the second slice doesn’t magically reappear from your sleeve. Maybe it’s in the drawer somewhere. Nobody can tell what happened or where the slice went. You suspect that the toast is now a completely different slice of bread. It’s perfectly good toast, but maybe now it tastes more like pumpernickel than the rye you put in. General applause, oohs and aahs. This is kind of what happens when a poem is translated into another language by a second poet, especially if the original version is not on the facing page. You have never refused a good piece of toast, but it seems to you that if you had a magic toaster you would make it do a different trick, unless you actually needed to translate a poem from a language you don’t know and didn’t have the space to include the original. To make the best of it, you convince yourself you hadn’t planned to eat the other slice anyway.
Or maybe I miss the following: you have a magic toaster. You put a slice in each slot, and push the lever down. When the toast pops up, each slice now has perfectly melted cheese on it, like the two halves of a grilled cheese sandwich. It’s like the toaster also fried the bread. You can put the two halves together or eat them separately as you wish. Or even better, you don’t know which of these two tricks the toaster will perform! You peek inside to see if you can figure out the mechanism. But it’s a magic toaster, of course you can’t.
Say you are watching two magicians. They are juggling dandelion puffs. They are good at it. They never drop one or let it fly away. You have no idea how they can juggle something that has no heft. You could never do that yourself. It’s mesmerizing and magical. By the time they stop, they might have all the dandelion puffs in the world in the air at the same time. You know there will be one huge white cloud drifting away, something new and nice. Say there’s no issue with allergies. The whole world might be pollinated. The desert might bloom dandelions. That would be wonderful. But then you think, why not the flowers? How do you make dandelion wine? How about dandelion soup? Puffballs wouldn’t work with that, right? What if they juggled puffballs and flaming chainsaws? And what about the starving Italians in World War 2 surviving on dandelion greens? Why juggle dandelions instead of just reaching down and yanking them? Aren’t they weeds? What if I dried, rolled and smoked them? What if I got sick and tired of dandelions, just really mad one day, and decided to viciously herbicide the whole lot? They do seem to be taking over the lawn.