Blast and Scatteration
By Michael Leong
Silenced Press, 2009
Hastily Sketched Blueprint for the Last and
we’ll go below the radar,
under the whether
we’ll find the banyans that border the bell
the infinitesimal point
into the database—
and in the morning’s shimmering
we’ll use more than one mirror
to see the backs of our heads….
|In e.s.p., his latest collection of poetry, Michael Leong drafts a kind of architectonics of the page. By architectonics, I mean devices that reveal an overt consciousness of language’s status as language, words as building blocks, in which their form and shape and how they sit on the page and divide the surface plane are integral to their meaning. In the poem above, the phrases rock back and forth, mimicking birds in flight, while also suggesting a bristly nest. Though Leong’s poems often revel in the tactile aspects of words and letters, how sentences can visually suggest various structures, e.s.p. is no cold blueprint; Leong’s angular phrases, spiky forms, and playful compositions cavort within their spaces, prick consciousness as much as jar us from our sluggish thinking, and more importantly, rouse great feeling.|
Sentences, clauses, and assorted fragments here are used as scaffolds for a concatenation of ideas, the explorative range of which sets the mind aswirl. And while you must be careful not to judge a book by its cover, e.s.p.’s cover image—what looks like a blown-up etching from an old engineering handbook—is well-chosen. Its interplay of old communication technology with the personal intimacy of an outstretched hand simultaneously suggests incunabula and nostalgia while asserting authenticity and authority. It’s an appropriate image as the poems themselves often play with how technology and engineering intersect with intimacy.
Leong’s poems bring to mind Kenneth Rexroth’s seminal essay “The Function of Poetry and the Place of the Poet in Society” in which Rexroth discusses whether art, particularly poetry, is communication or construction. He asserts that most criticism up to that point (1936) regarded poetry as “largely construction, and that it is the architectonics of the construction which provide the criteria of judgment.” Rexroth goes on to say that, like architecture and music, poetry cannot be understood solely as pure construction, that poetry as “purposive construction…is a species of communication, just as any kind of communication must be structured.” Rexroth then explores Gertrude Stein’s poetics, noting how, with her insistent “permutations and combinations,” her work passed “over into abstract, architectonic poetry.” He accurately observes how her work, as it was derived from “the most trivial speech, broken up and used ‘architecturally’ to the point that ordinary meaning disappears, not from the sentences, but from the very words themselves,” achieved “a new, rather low-grade but also rather uncanny kind of meaning…” While Rexroth considers Stein’s work “interesting reading,” he dismisses it as “by and large, a failure, because it lacks enough significant contrast to engage the attention for long.” What I think is useful here aren’t Rexroth’s erroneous conclusions about Stein but his discussion of how language may be broken up “architecturally,” how it can become “abstract” and “architectonic,” and how all of this may be used to understand Michael Leong’s work.
Leong’s collection is a perfect blend of construction and communication where every device, every structure or “machine” is used in service of dialogue, of connection, of intimacy. How often have you read a highly-constructed, heavily-machined poem and literally laughed out loud? Leong’s poems, with their wordplay, puns, and self-deprecating asides; their appropriations, their colloquialisms, their interpolations of idiomatic expressions; they all delight. Leong’s sense of humor comes out most strongly in his variations of the famous pangram “A quick brown fox jumps over the lazy dog,” which, by the time it has gone through his blender, becomes:
As my spinning dreidel lands on ש, I write in my notebook
notebook—beneath quotes by Søren Kierkegaard and
Czesław Miłosz, beneath a roughly drawn Pietà and
the phrase sunt lacrimae rērum—the following
sentence: “With considerable élan and without a
soupçon of hesitation, a quick brown fox, as fleet as
Æon Flux, jumps over the lazy dog to eat the pâté and
Mildred’s Bœuf en Daube then disappears with Slavoj
Žižek’s llama behind the façade of Þe Olde English
Pub to sing a noël in preparation for El Niño.”
The collection opens with [“Suppose I wrote it in chalk”], a series of whispers asking the reader to imagine what would happen if the speaker chose different ways to say “it,” the “it” being what is ineffable, implied, the subtext, what Leong in another poem calls “Ludic Inarticulacy.” This poem’s power comes from its accretion of suggestive, evocative imagery, and its playful incomprehensibility is contained in many of the poems that follow. For instance, the cyclical work “The line lengthens,” is a poem that self-reflexively eats itself. Though the line “leads nowhere,” it still
broods in an abyss of its own
abeyance—it twists against the tug of its teleology—
it luxuriates in the cul-de-sacs of its very lassitude
(thereby belying the logic of its own linearity)—
The book’s various textural elements stand out and demand that you slow down, figure out the codes at work here, but also revel in references to New York City’s Lower East Side, to Borges, Picasso, Estela Lamat, Rube Goldberg (a book of his machines was a favorite of mine when I was in elementary school), André Breton, outsider artist Henry Darger, Joseph Cornell (that eccentric man in a box), and David Lynch, our preeminent dreamweaver. Leong has a cosmopolitan reach, casting his thematic nets wide to include children’s mnemonic devices, dreams, dwarves, Æon Flux, Walter Pater, Yashitomo Nara, and Zener cards.
Typographic experimentation is prevalent throughout the book as are wonderful recursions like “She daintily sips from my cup clinking ice-cubes / made of ink.” You find phrase after assonantal phrase: “bevels every / eleventh letter,” and wonderful alliterative flights like “let’s frolic / to the first fox trot of February / and mosey to the millionth moonwalk of March,” as well as this energetic passage:
herds of hoarseness
in the heart of hearing—
together the gaggles of garble
from our gullets
And there are seemingly innumerable places where all three devices seamlessly appear:
I’ll cling desperately
to your breath’s clefted brevity,
cleave to your tectonic touch.
Leong loves anagrams. In “magnetic poetry” he manages to conjure up a refrigerator covered up with the remnants of the alphabet. Using only the letters a, c, g i, m, n, o, p, r, y and two e’s and t’s for each line, Leong creates a rich topography of longing, of entropy and anomie. In “for the writers house / where the roof is rust,” a poem written for the dedication of The Writers House at Rutgers University, each line is an anagram of “for the writers house.” From this incubator hatches
writers here shout of
we rush to fit her eros
The anagrammatic poem [lower east side] is another one of Leong’s delightful image-texts. While it captures this increasingly gentrified area of Manhattan’s crumbling buildings and its bristling energy, its insistent use of first person plural reveals his empathy for and solidarity with this vanishing community, and seems to call out to the reader to become involved in some way, if only to linger and listen. It’s a feeling that suffuses many of the poems here and reveals Leong’s desire to collaborate, to re-create. For instance, “Poem,” paradoxically, draws readers closer to itself even as it asks them to “rise out and go out into the streets,” “[w]indow shop,” “[g]et an enema,” “think of everything else you could be doing,” to do something else, anything else before reading the poem.
It has become a cliché to call words on a page electric, but this is the word that comes closest to describing the blast and scatteration of Michael Leong’s e.s.p. These poems are charged with “tendrilled consequence” and “aureoled recurrence,” and power up ever-lengthening lines of thought. Leong’s poems “actualize starlit alphabets,” “transmit / susurrant syllables,” through “the valves / and shutters, / the vowelled shutters.” e.s.p. doesn’t so much read your mind as it offers another mind at work, scrambling in the dark, like the rest of us, searching for some kind of light.
John Madera is a writer living in New York City. He’s a member of the National Book Critics Circle. His work has appeared in elimae, ArtVoice, Underground Voices, Little White Poetry Journal #7, and forthcoming at Opium Magazine and Publishing Genius Press. He reviews for Bookslut, The Diagram, The Quarterly Conversation, 3:AM Magazine, New Pages, Open Letters Monthly, The Rumpus, and Word Riot. You may also find him at hitherandthithering waters, Big Other and editing The Chapbook Review. He sings and plays guitar for Mother Flux.