by Noah Eli Gordon
New Issues 2007
Reviewed by Melinda Wilson
Bird’s-eye-view of Cricket’s Foot
We can safely assume Noah Eli Gordon is obsessed with sound and ideas relative to sound. Here’s the bulk of his back-catalogue: The Frequencies, The Area of Sound Called the Subtone, Novel Pictorial Noise, Figures for a Darkroom Voice.
So it’s no surprise that there’s a lot of noise in his latest book, A Fiddle Pulled from the Throat of a Sparrow, winner of the 2006 Green Rose Prize. But it’s not your daily, ordinary noise; in fact, the first reference to sound we get has more to do with its absence: “little piece of silence / astray in the circumstantial music of a crowd.” These two lines open the book’s first section, “A Dictionary of Music,” which begins with the titular poem. The contrast between the title and the first line is stellar; it immediately teaches us or warns us to have few ordinary expectations, and the silence becomes louder in our heads than does the music.
My expectations were turned upside-down throughout Fiddle. I anticipated the end of several lines during my first read, and several times I was fooled. I welcomed these surprises, as they often amplified the emotive qualities of each poem. One of the finest examples comes from “The book of journeys.” I predicted the word “vessel” and instead I got “voyage”; an intriguing relationship between the two words provides further depth for the poem. Here are the first lines:
The body became a voyage,
became the thought of god
as the beginning of a circle…
This recalls Dickinson—“The brain is wider than the sky”—in the idea that the body and mind contain all, are all; but in addition, this offers the inverse of traditional thought. The body isn’t a container for transport; it is, fundamentally, the journey itself. Gordon goes on to propose that the “desert” is found in “thirst,” suggesting again that it is imaginative power, brainpower, which provides the world we inhabit.
In addition to these colorful turns, Gordon often relies on sound to yield imagery and thankfully he manipulates sound effectively throughout the book’s entirety. For instance, the poem “By the sound of rose leaves clapped against the palms” begins with the lines “A ring of clarinets could draw out / the wolves, mimic a boat / growing smaller.” The “ring of clarinets” echoes in the reader’s ears, but also translates visually as a huddle of clarinet players being encircled by a pack of wolves—at least in my mind’s eye. In this poem, sound is essentially working the same way as it would in a movie. A boat fades in the distance and the music simultaneously fades. Dramatic? Maybe, but skillful nonetheless.
Yet Gordon does more than translate sound into image. His verse manages, at times, to completely petrify its reader as in the poem “An exact comprehension of the composer’s intent.” As writers and readers of literature, we were often taught that one can never fully understand the author’s intentions and that no matter how close we may get, our experience reading the poem will differ from the experience that moved the writer to compose the poem in the first place. (Of course, there is the interesting duality here of whether or not Gordon is actually referring to a composer of words or music, but this is irrelevant as the result would be the same.) Gordon seems to dissolve this notion through the poem.
Here’s the logic: one cannot fully comprehend the composer’s intent. But if the composer’s intent is to display that one cannot fully comprehend the composer’s intent and the poem is incomprehensible, then this intent has been comprehended. Paradoxical, yes, and I’m still not sure I “get it,” but what the hell. After reading the poem, I wondered if Gordon had really achieved what I felt like he had. If so, “An exact comprehension of the composer’s intent” just might be the most innovative poem I’ve seen this year.
What’s great about Gordon’s work is that as musical/philosophical as it may get, it doesn’t shy away from the wacky. The poem “They said the smallest wooden horse was dead in your costume” is a testament to that. In a sense it is an imaginative list of “a storm, cicadas, ribbons…” but the last lines really get to it: “& the hour fails to be episodic / in the most expensive suit I’ve ever worn.” Just about anything done in the most expensive suit you’ve ever worn is worthwhile.
Gordon is rarely ineffective, but one example of a poem that perhaps doesn’t quite cut it comes early on in the collection. “A falling in autumn” is a tired initiative for a title or poem and deals with a somewhat overdone subject: translation, the way ideas can get “lost” or blurred in the conversion. He uses the example “leave for leaf.” And when Gordon invokes Dickinson—great—but Stein—not so great. “Figuration in conflict with an afternoon” ineffectively torches syntax with lines like “Whose you is a whisper all verb / whose you a child’s hair in flames.” Lastly, here’s a triple bogey from “Untragic Hero of Epic Theatre: “& ignore what’s behind the curtain.” Never want to hear that in a poem. I’ve had enough of the Wizard…give me some more Toto.
But let’s get down to it. The section Four Allusive Fields offers the best stuff in Fiddle. Each of the four short poems in this section begin with the line “Cy listens absently to absent Homer” and move on to interesting tidbits from there. Obedience becomes a repeated idea and fascinating topic. First it is “an awful word I think to get lost in” and in the second poem we find that “The sun is a system free from authority.” I wonder if this means it is thus free from the very idea of obedience. Perhaps not, as one is forever obedient to one’s self. Each of these poems presents a different vantage point on many of the same subjects and it is this relativity that becomes one of the larger themes. “A cricket’s ankle is not fragile to the cricket.” I’m not sure this assertion can be made with much confidence, but I’m willing to believe it until I stumble across evidence that suggests otherwise.
Magic curtains aside, Gordon is good at reinventing cliches a la body-as-voyage; he is also one of our most prolific and important young poets. In the end, Fiddle leaves me with the idea that if a tree falls in the forest and no one hears it, we can be sure the tree did indeed fall, if not because we come across the rotting bodies at some point, then simply because our bodies too shall fall at the end of the voyage.