by Chris Vitiello
Ahsahta Press 2008
Reviewed by John Harkey
Serious Minimalist Mischief
Chris Vitiello, the author of and central filtering consciousness, say “speaker,” in Irresponsibility is basically Stephen Dedalus with a better sense of humor, a healthier social life, and a much hipper playlist (Miles Davis! Bartok! John Fahey! Velvet Underground! Wesley Willis! Devendra Banhart!). “Ineluctable modality of the visible: at least that if no more, thought through my eyes,” thinks Stephen, kicking off his protean beach-stroll ruminations in Ulysses. Compare the first “poem” in Irresponsibility:
This rock has four letterforms
The diametric opposite of any experience
is not the absence of that experience
Rocks are graphs
Seeing is a perpetual axis // An understood axis
Brent, I have to break out of this
and not just to do something new
I scare-quoted the word poem above, because if anything this book is out to dismantle notions of the poem as a self-contained, discrete artifact. Nowhere on the book’s cover or in the prefatory title pages does it say “poems” or “poems by” or “a book of poems.” This is appropriate for a book like Irresponsibility, which, truth be told, is not a book “of poems” so much as it is “a poetry” or maybe just “a book.” Through ten sequences, two “Interruptions,” and one “Appendix” of sentences-free-for-use, Vitiello presents writing itself as the worthy instrument and document of an earnest, mischievous, furiously attentive beachcomber-quest into the meshes of language and experience.
OK, sure, you say—“serial poetry”—and yes it is, but with a difference, a real distinction, from the absolutist, “open” version of the practice. Though he evinces great skepticism about how language operates, especially referentially, and about the stupendous speciousness of appearances; and though he proceeds moment by moment according to compulsively disjunctive leaps, Vitiello ultimately shows himself to be a loving believer in language and in the realities to which it gestures, though perhaps only gestures. Which is to say that Irresponsibility is not as Nominalistic, or say not as truly deconstructing, as it may seem to be. Take this example, also from the first sequence, section 9:
One surface and many not-surfaces
Things contain themselves
Characteristics contain their opposites
Description and explanation undermine each other
Writing exists before it exists
I am suspicious // The I is suspicious
A poem could always be latent // The poem is always
latent // Poems are latent
What are we to derive from such flat, dialectical declarations but a vague sense of the individual estranged from stable means of interpreting the world? But citing only an excerpt like this betrays how Vitiello’s writing works over time, that is, from page to page as well as upon re-readings. He counters the drier, bleaker tones of his philosophizing primarily by swerving again and again back to facts and names. For instance, the ellipses in the piece above elided the line “Insert Ponge’s Notebook of the Pine Woods here” (this “Insert ______” game, often involving a more feasible, material element like “the scrap of a map where you live” or “your hair clipping,” runs throughout the book) and the lines that conclude the section are these:
Penguins use the bird-flying motion to swim
I will write the last lines tomorrow
When the doctor touched my infected skin
it did not look like a part of me
Ponge is just one of dozens of names in the book, many of them belonging to other writers and philosophers. The most important names, though, and the most recurrent, are those of Vitiello’s friends and family, tellingly accorded the proper intimacy of their first names: Vicki, Iris, Brent, Tony, Ken, even someone called “Goobs” (!). In fact, Irresponsibility’s dedication reads, “for the names, / especially Vicki and Iris.” As the sustained serial investigations unfold, Vitiello leaves no doubt that these names adhere to real people with whom he shares real relations. Likewise, the objects and the animals in the book (lots of birds, in particular) are presented ingenuously as real, material things; Vitiello no doubt actually encountered penguins in some way, and we assume that he did indeed have an existential moment involving an infection, banal as these facts may be. Even the relentless use of loosely moored pronouns, particularly deictic ones—this, that, these—serves more to affirm the complex demonstrative powers of words than to ironize or bemoan their elusiveness.
We believe Vitiello’s words because, even when abstruse or when teasing a syntactical unit out into disparate variations—“Tom’s aorta tore // Tom had a torn aorta // There was / a tear in Tom’s aorta // Tom’s aorta was torn”—he sticks to plain, direct clauses and to consistent frames of reference. Like Ponge, Vitiello reaches out into the world he encounters, and he recognizes that language, though deceptive and limited, is a vital way to, in Ponge’s famous phrase, “take the side of things.”
The last line of Irresponsibility’s page four reads, “Establish the minimum and then have just more than it.” If Vitiello’s mode of persistent, pragmatic inquiry into words and experience works, it is because he enacts such an uncompromising minimalism. It is not a minimalism of distillation or subtractive chiseling; words aren’t called on after the fact to recollect and commemorate the thing or moment; they aren’t pressed into regular stanzaic planks or nuggets. Instead, Vitiello practices a radically candid and constructivist minimalism: occurences, observations, memories, citations, propositions, and even self-conscious notes to self—“I have lost my sense of where to break lines / and will try my way back into it”(33)—are posited and arranged into economical scaffolds. The accumulation of these elements may seem haphazard but that would be an ill and lazy judgment—the page is used functionally as a means, paradoxically, for Vitiello to make his way onward by continuing to “Keep going back and back and back” (6) to the strange ideas and familiar people that demand and reward his attention.
To properly assay the particular values of this minimalism, and lest sharply divergent poetries deemed “experimental” be erroneously placed too close to each other on the shelf, I want to make a brief comparison. Here’s a little twisted-off morsel from a recently published book of poems: “What is this witness, the watching ages, / yield of hours, blurred nights, the blue commerce / limned limpidities the skies rehearse.” These are the first three lines from one of Karen Volkman’s sonnets in Nomina, a book that takes up—in a big way—the musty gauntlet challenging “experimental” poetry to contain itself formally. Volkman does an impressive job performing this task, but it is indeed a sort of performance, the language super-charged and sumptuous—excuse the glibness, but she bedazzles said old gauntlet and gestures extravagantly with it.
Chris Vitiello’s Irresponsibility is experimental poetry of a fundamentally different sort, though he too tests language and form. It is primarily an ascetic endeavor that rigorously denies itself many of the sure-fire, familiar pleasures of poetic language: figurative devices, adjectival embellishment, stylish rhetoric, and crystallization. To quote Milosz, he doesn’t want “to enchant anybody.” His ambition is bolder and simpler: to explore the values of writing itself as a response to the world, to write only what is precise and necessary. More arcane, pedantic questions of language’s unreliability are superseded in the very buoyancy of his riffs and shifts of attention. Vitiello is haunted by the menacing phantoms of meaninglessness, and he cites them and enacts many of the things philosophers only theorize, but he also sends them up; in that he is not attempting to compete in a systematic, discursive arena—through argumentation and proof—his philosophizing has a light, even wry sound to it. He is writing an intellectual form of poetry, but in practice it looks more like divining, the words he puts down serving as the guts or tea or wrinkles. It is about, in Vitiello’s words, “noticing noticing,” taking stock not only of the elements in his fields of perception but also scrupulously and playfully attending to how his mind accounts for that experience in language.
Some readers will surely be a little galled or exasperated by Irresponsibility. A friend of mine, who happened upon the prime-number filled pages in the book’s center, emitted a low, involuntary groan. Fair enough—a dense grid of numbers is certainly not poetry by any ordinary use of the term (try reading them!). But Vitiello announces the numbers as an “interruption” in his text. Moreover, and more to the point, these are not stray, random figures intimating a hermetic code or, conversely, an inhuman void—they are items in a list, a collection of “The first 1000 prime numbers.” Intrusions like this are easy to criticize, as are the bare, flat voice and the often esoteric citations and references, but I found myself willing to play along with the book’s mischievous streaks and bits. (I even, believe it or not, pasted in the scrap of a map where I live and taped a clipping of hair to the pertinent page!) Irresponsibility is something between a textbook and a notebook—think Oppen’s Daybooks—a dossier brimming with facts and diagrams and lively instigations to further thought. I played along with the book because it felt like a real game—there was, there is, I think, something at stake here.
Poetry can offer any number of pleasures, instructions, and provocations, but here’s the rare virtue discovered in Irresponsibility: through countless disjunctions, intrusions, addresses, commands, citations, indulgences, jokes, and fugitive philosophical arguments, Vitiello somehow stays direct and trustworthy as a user of language—he allows, moreso invites us, to take him at his word, and that is a bold, generous way to write poetry today. Let’s hope both the naysayers and the extollers of work like this give it more of the patient, serious consideration it warrants. Let’s hope more poetry dares, as Irresponsibility does, to sandwich itself between a clean, stark, sober, pitch-perfect modernist iconicity—the book’s front cover—and a surprising, child-like, quotidian, benevolent iconicity—the book’s back cover, which is almost entirely taken up by a photograph of a young girl, presumably the author’s daughter, standing in front of a bakery case and, with a pleasant, honest smile, presenting a cookie.