by Aaron McCollough
Ahsahta Press 2006
Reviewed by Jason Schneiderman
I was trained to read poetry as an oral medium, but also to consider the page the primary mode of transmission—which is to say that the page constructs the voice that the reader hears in her head. This may cause some problems—as when the words “prove” and “love” have ceased to rhyme for the reader—but it also provides for continuity and innovation. If “prove” and “love” don’t rhyme, but I still like the couplet, might I not try to write other couplets that don’t quite rhyme? It also means that even if I know that Yeats read his poems in the kind of chanting sing-song that I associate with a slightly embarrassing and shabbily dressed old man taking the stage towards the end of a regrettable open mic night in Philadelphia (regrettable in the sense that I wish I hadn’t gone, but really, I’m glad that Mr. ShabbyClothes has a place to go on Tuesday nights), I don’t have to stick to it. I can hear Yeats in my own head, at my own speed, in my own voice. And yes, it means that I have a theoretical underpinning for my angry glower at Mr. ShabbyClothes’ unpleasant young friend declaiming Dylan Thomas in a poor Irish accent that keeps wavering into a poor Scottish accent. No, no, no, unpleasant young man—the book you’re reading from is designed to get the poem into your voice. That’s a score you hold in your hand—you’re the instrument that plays it.
There’s a curious locution that has come to accompany the reading and writing practice that I’ve outlined in the last paragraph, and it’s “writing for the page.” The less attractive younger sibling is “page poet.” Of course, poets who consider the written page their primary mode of transmission actually write “on the page” and “for their reader” and Aaron McCullough is engaged in a compelling exploration of just what that page makes possible—and without quoting Derrida (though it would only be fair—McCullough quotes Foucault, and many of his ideas about surveillance and confinement seem to come directly from Foucault), McCullough challenges that connection between written language and voice. For me, as a reader who’s reading practice is intimately bound up in the connections of voice and print, reading McCullough is often a dazzling experience, ranging from the simple integration of new symbols (his frequent use of “@” seems a pleasant analog to the frequent Pound & Creeley shorthand of “yr”) to the introduction of the unpronounceable “[::]” (It’s not part of an analogy, so don’t try “as”). In some places it feels like a surrealist experiment, where my internal voice modulates itself without being able to explain why—and in other places it feels like a challenge. Try this stanza:
fruit of the tree |
fruit of the floor | the seeds
shuddering on the floor |
Do those lines form a column barrier, instructing you to read the left column, and then the right? Does one read straight across—and if so, what to do with those lines? Virgules and brackets sprinkle the text throughout the volume, suggesting pauses, whispers, or resistance. One poem uses only the letters from the previous lines—but starting in the center (so line 11 can only use letters in the order they appeared in line 10, line 12 can only use letters from line 9, etc). Here are lines 9-12:
our birds are bathing
o draw a bath my dear
o dra b y ear
o r d ar ing
What could be gimmicky in the hands of another poet is playful here, although all of these quirks are used sparingly—they remain pleasant surprises, rather than boorish exercises.
The major achievement of the book seems to me its stunning pacing. The book is a study in density—it manages to move between incredibly concentrated prose poems and incredibly airy free verse, with its “sonnets manqués” treading a kind of middle ground. The book is in six sections, and they alternate between dazzling speed and careful meditation.
The book is supremely erudite, although it neither shows off nor explains. In one of my favorite poems, “Adam Naming the Diseases,” McCullough scatters quotations from Milton (slightly remixed):
From the mountain between Jerusalem
I see them kreutsfeldt jacob lou gehrig
before [my] eyes sad noysom dark in which
the bandage “reeks” the landscape has no term*
I think that the reader need not recognize Milton to recognize another, archaic voice being woven into the texture of the poem, nor is it hard, in our google-accessible world, to work backwards to the quotation. Jan Vandermeer speaks in a number of the poems, the first ending with the delightfully unexpected “I got flo I got flo.” When words appear in the text crossed out, as in this case
come in come in
come inincoming know
this hall is always open
it can certainly be read as a reference to Heidegger or Derrida, but I think it’s also easily accessible as a simple revision. It strikes me as playful and inviting—the revised voice left visible on the page—rather than as an affront to the less sophisticated reader. My favorite little reference is not to a theorist or artist, but rather to the structure of a High School Algebra problem:
and you know x the neighbor cat got hit
one cat-long wound x turned upon itself
in the right lane (take away x what’s left)
The variable is mapped onto the cat, and then the loss is mapped onto the equation. I found the effect both moving and charming. McCollough’s masterful use of the space also paces the voice perfectly into a colloquial, suburban story. There are no notes at the back of the book, but I’m glad not to have the quotations cited or the characters explained or the references glossed. The poems are always inviting, even as they suggest that McCullough might have more in mind than can be gleaned alone from the text he proffers.
This volume is primarily playful, and refreshingly so. My only complaint is that at times, McCullough lapses into a disjointed poetics that seems primarily concerned with stringing pretty, unconnected phrases and clauses, but these moments are the exception rather than the rule. 7 stars.