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The Songs of Sing

By (June 1, 2008) No Comment

A Sing Economy

ed. Adam Golaski & Matthew Klane
Flim Forum Press, 2008


Before A Sing Economy came into my hands, there was a minor maelstrom grumbling around its nomenclature. On his wide-ranging poetry blog, Ron Silliman took a bit of umbrage at the editor’s decision to call this collection an “anthology.” I am pleased to say here, at the outset of this review, that I’ve consulted the OED and the issue is now all cleared up: according to the eminent authority on almost all words English, an anthology is “a collection of the flowers of verse” (and the etymology bears this out: in Greek it’s “a bundle of flowers”). Accepting this, I can’t but dissent from Silliman’s objection—what we have in A Sing Economy is nothing less than an anthology in the original sense of the word—a bundle of various bouquets, offered up by the open hands of editors Matthew Klane and Adam Golaski.

Perhaps a better way to comprehend the idea of “anthology” as Klane and Golaski propose it, is to consider their choice of title: A Sing Economy. The title arrests and confounds us from the moment we read it: its agrammaticality insists we reconsider the relation of economy to poetry. It reminds us that an economy is foremost an activity of exchange, and not merely a system. That the economy of this book is one of sing (and not of song) accentuates this sense of activity, where there are no objects (i.e., “songs”) up for exchange, where a full and lively singing is the medium of transaction and interaction. A Sing Economy is an economy of pure expenditure, of expansive expense, of generous waste, a joyous noise raised unto the Lord with no expectation of recompense. The poets in this book sing, each in their own register, and their singing produces in the reader an invaluable joy.

As a physical thing, the book that comes to hand is a lovely one—nearly square, a spare white, with three thin strips of Scott Puccio’s film art adorning the spine and front and back covers. Not to judge a book by its cover, but the assembly inside this book largely bears out the aesthetic of the cover—the twenty poets gathered within, to various degrees, observe how words activate in the open space of the page. Flipping through the book, one is struck by the variety of the words movement across the page—if your eye comes across a poem aligned along the left margin, it won’t rest there for long before, a few pages later, words come bursting across the page. And it is fitting the words should burst in such a way, since this bursting provides a visual map for the way singing bursts from these poets.

The loveliest thing about so many throats open and singing so strongly and so variously is how resistant they are to being contained. The loveliest—and lovingest—quality of Klane and Golaski’s efforts is that they understand this condition, and set up their choir and then quietly and quickly get out of the way. It is reminiscent of Jerome Rothernberg’s great anthological technique in America: A Prophecy of placing a group as diverse as Marcel Duchamp, the Shakers, Joseph Smith and Ted Berrigan in such proximity as to bring the reader out into a fuller appreciation of the ways freedom finds its own expression.

In place of Duchamp’s aesthetic of discovery, Klane and Golaski supply us with Kevin Thurston’s hilarious and harrowing section from SPECIAL MANAGE MEET; in place of the Shakers’ sound poetry, we have Hanna Rodabaugh’s “The sunset is a ‘Flowing identity rutabaga’ etc.;” in place of Joseph Smith’s radical revision of Christianity, we have the lyric excisions of Amanda Ackerman and Harold Abramowitz in their section from Sin is to Celebration; in place of Berrigan’s sprawling, multi-vocal lyrics, we have Tawrin Baker’s contemporary ear, tuned to the voices of the television. As in Rothernberg’s anthologies, these poets arrive without an editor’s introduction, and are allowed to chat freely among themselves and their readers. It is to Klane and Golaski’s enduring credit that they understand how an assembly creates its own conversation without the need for moderators.

Such a tumult of voices however, does present an audience with the difficulty of extracting a thematic melody from the mix: when everything sings in a different key there is no tonic to rely upon for reference (see, for example, John Cage’s Roaratorio, the exhilarating collection of sounds that is his homage to Finnegans Wake). In such a circumstance, it may be most useful to consider ethics as curative to thematics: when the voices in the choir each behave according to their nature—that is, ethically, as Confucius would have it—there is no longer need for an authoritative theme to bind them all together. For elaboration on how and why ethics might overcome thematics, we readers can find such instruction as we need from Kate Schapira’s elegant and open observation early in A Sing Economy: “You don’t grow an environment, it grows you.” In other words, the themes we intend or expect to find are of little use to the environment of the voices around us; our response to the ways that environment develops us is of more central importance.

And this environment does, indeed, grow us. Schapira’s selection of poems from How We Saved the City is an apt beginning to this anthology, traversing narrative into the breakdown of narrative and from thence into the breakdown of language altogether, finally restoring us, in the last poem of her section (“Interdependence Day”) to a narrative cleansed of the artificial certitudes of narrative. Here, in the open space of a narration that refuses to close down in resolution, Schapira tells us “Nothing is unmarred, nothing is the way we already imagined it. Because of this, we have to imagine what has never been, can speak about it with hope instead of certainty.” Because “nothing is the way we already imagined it,” because everything is the way it is, the poet’s work is delivered from the constraints of certainty, and her world fills with perpetual hope—a hope that is more surely human than that of certitude.

Incertitude takes the tune of science and mathematics as performed through the harp of the Mayan weather god Huracan in Stephanie Strickland’s contribution. Strickland is perhaps most famous for her position on the vanguard of electronic poetry, where her innovative collaborative and solo works make use of hypertext, flash animation and other computer-based media to enrich our experience of her words. Here—in print—she activates her fascination with hypermedia and its proliferative potential. I say this not simply because she includes a hyperlink in one of the poems in this collection (though I did find myself tempted to push on the page where the hyperlink was), but because of the ways in which the poems cause our attentions to move from poem to poem, from line to line, from word to word, from image to referent to listserv. In the flip of a page or the flick of an eye, we encounter ancient Maya, pre- and post-colonial India, the Sloan Space Survey, the mathematician (“that wizard”) René Thom, and the “faint / hiss of tumblers as the safe cracks.” These selections of Strickland’s poetry—as with her online poetics—might be termed, by her own neologism, “metaphorms.” They are both “beyond form” and “forms of metaphor” that move beyond traditional metaphor: as she notes, “Elsewhere, / the real renders. Here it has already given up.”

In aaaaaaaaaaalice, Jennifer Karmin renders up a real that has given up to the unutterably banal, and then brings it back to an utterly vivid life. There are two sorts of poems in this selection, the first of which is a poem that reminds one of notes to one’s self:

your shoes are

that store sells
donuts and chinese food

self serve
church of christ
meets here

Within each short stanza, the movement from one line to the next is banal in the extreme: “your shoes are / weird” is among the least profound things my teenaged daughter might tell me during the course of a day. These poems begin to transcend the banal by their movement from stanza to stanza, where the final line of each stanza serves as an transformative entry to the next: “weird[,] // that store sells / donuts and chinese food[?]”. This transformation is hardly radical, and raises the banality of these observations by a factor of approximately one. Yet at the same time the accretion of these small transformations throughout each poem begins to make the astonishing argument that perception, and not subject matter, is of central importance to the work of art. These poems propose that we give ourselves over to the mechanical movement of the eye, and allow our language to obediently follow the eye from storefront to storefront. In doing so, the linkages and connections of quotidian and commonplace perception arranges themselves into a fugue-like development. According to these poems, and to Karmin’s faithful record of observation, we are Bach so long as our eyes are open.

What moves these poems, finally, into even greater significance is the way their titles, quite literally, embody their poems: Karmin has made the lovely discovery that a title doesn’t have to be just at the beginning of the poem, but like a person’s name, permeates and surrounds the object it names. Karmin’s titles begin at the beginning, but instead of just sitting at the top of the poem they wind their way down through the right margin and end up at the ending. Thus, at the beginning of the poem excerpted here we find “even if my head would go through” in bold and above the poem, just as we’d expect; but the title proper doesn’t find its completion until we move through four more lines in bold—“it would be / of very little use / without / my shoulders.”

Also the blossoming poems—the one, especially, rooted in “we” and how that grounds the poem, the author, the reader—all of them—in a process of flowering. The poem’s “flowering” is in the top portion of the poem, and we read down to the root, where we discover each other together in its origins, in its proliferation.

The title of Amanda Ackerman and Harold Abramowitz’ selection, Sin is to Celebration is another instance of titling as a form of embodiment: the title is one half of an analogy question from standardized tests (core : earth :: heart : ?). That Ackerman and Abramowitz leave the second half of their analogical equation open is a proposal that the completion of any comparison requires a collaboration between author and reader: the reader provides—or becomes—the vehicle that brings about the meaningful completion of the analogy.

Collaboration, in Sin is to Celebration, is therefore occurring in at least two directions—between Ackerman and Abramowitz, and between these authors and the reader. It is a ripe instance of the impulse to labor together, but one in which “labor” feels happily removed. There are four sequences of three poems each in this selection, wherein an “original” poem is put through a series of permutations. The first poem in each series is accompanied by sets of brackets that suggest a poem occurring in the whitespace within. From “Love Song from a Slightly Sour Lyre”:

On first encounter, the brackets suggest in the reader an impulse to fill them out, to place the remainder of the poem in these brackets. This appears to be the collaborative method of Ackerman and Abramowitz, where the second writer (being at first a reader him- or herself) fills in the bracketed space with text. At the same time, this first reader/responder modifies the existing text. Consider the series “The Kites of Fall”:

        The kites of fall
bob & weave
dancing through leave flights
and the V of birds

This becomes, in its next incarnation:

kites of fall
    & weave
dancing through
and the V of birds
headed south for the winter
In the streets
washed by rain
following with silver strings
the sharp clear
of the kite

And in its final transformation:

        fall & weave
through leave flights
and the birds
the winter in the streets
        rain following with strings
clear of the kite

The poem progresses, from instance to instance, as though there were no common point of origin. Instead, in each instance they find occasion to rectify, as Robert Duncan might say, the original impulse through permutation. None of these poems supplants the previous, and none suggests that a previous version is somehow wrong. Indeed, the additions and cuttings allow nothing but openness—an openness testified by the use of brackets that enclose only white space—wherein each reader is welcomed to contribute, to labor gently with Ackerman and Abramowitz, to help increase the experience of creation.

The experience of creation is equally central to the work in Jaye Bartell’s Sketches. The tremendous energy of this selection is derived precisely from an understanding of the title: these are sure sketches reminding one of the human and still life sketches of Egon Schiele or Picasso; of the landscape sketches of Poussin or Lorrain. Bartell’s sketches, like those of great painters, are done to preserve the internal activity of the subject, to gather the energies of the “still” instant (which is never, ever still) and remind the artist (or the viewer) of that moment of initial contact between subject and viewer. Bartell’s observation that “If the river ceased moving / it would freeze, or would have” is a tremendous example of the activity of sketching, here intimated in words. The river is seen in its agency, and the poet (the artist) is given occasion to see that his subject is, in fact, a subject—a thing capable of its own activity—and that the artist’s duty is simply to faithfully observe such activity. Bartell’s gift is to see that it is not the artist’s duty to preserve his subject, but rather to remind us of his encounter with his subject’s activity.

Jessica Smith’s Cortland is an indication of how widely the voices in this collection range, and is a better indication of how attuned the editors’ ears are to the wide variety of voices there are to be heard. That this particular selection—the most radical instance of visual poetry in the collection—is included, suggests that Klane and Golaski have the great synaesthetic gift of hearing simultaneously with their ears and their eyes. Smith’s piece is composed in cursive on thin lined paper reminiscent of the grayish-brown paper we used as early schoolchildren. The paper allows Smith the gift of palimpsest—the poems that come after their predecessors ghost through them—there are trace ghosts of what comes nexton the first two pieces. To quote:

This is the first text on the first page, and it reads “a conversation / intense as the sun.” The ghosted text below it emerges from the next page, and it reads “everything / in sight.” Everything in this selection is, emphatically, materially, “in sight” and in “a conversation” with everything else, “as intense as the sun.” While Smith writes perpendicular to the lines of her page, the lines that succeed each individual poem serve as sunny levels which converse with the poems that come before.

Fiction writer George Saunders seems to be a presiding spirit over the work of Kevin Thurston and Matthew Timmons as it appears in this collection. Saunder’s skewering of contemporary “corporate speak” inspires both of these poets, though in Thurston’s selection from SPECIAL MANAGE MEET, that skewering takes on a fresher and more frightening skew. To all appearances, Thurston’s poems are cut-ups of actual memos from middle managers, replete with the misspellings one might expect, albeit recontextualized to make their slip ups more Freudian than grammatical (i.e., “Disappeering”). The spacing that Thurston uses both distances and humanizes the impersonal speech he is stealing from:

     manage team & run
productive        maintaining
        , moral & output.

In this selection, the breaks and spaces provide a robotic pause between the imperatives, the adjectives and the final nouns, and invoke the

faceless spirit of the bottom line so prevalent in any office. But consider the following:

is tough        .    Means, constantly (balancing)

sometimes chaotic atmosphere.

Here the spaces suggest the mutation of the RNA of officespeak, and in the lacunae is the promise of a new organism in the language, one that offers a hope outside the fluorescent lights and cubicle warrens.

Among the most distinctive voices singing in this economy is that of Hannah Rodabaugh. The sunset is a “Flowing Identity Rutabaga” etc. has affinities with the sound-based poetics of Christian Bök or Steve McCafferey, but takes the breakdown of language to be less a suggestion of the futility of language rather than its lovely helplessness in the presence of direct communication. While we can agree with Rodabaugh that “The purpose of mind is to clot thought,” and while it’s true that “Rubflinf purkle blugit prrp blue and blister butter redug pin king,” it remains the case that such statements are at best indicators of the truer human endeavor

To unstow
It to know less
Than what you are
Fidgeting to

And the poems in Rodabaugh’s section are “Fidgeting to / Express,” and the tracing of that fidgeting is lovely to behold. The final section brings the entire anthology full circle (or perhaps “full ellipsis”) enacting, as it does, the same purification of narrative from its habit to certitude as we encountered in Shcapira’s section at the beginning. We have moved from Schapira’s interrogation of narration to The A Down, where Tawrin Baker provides us with narrative as cleansed of certitude as possible. Instead of “arcs” and “plot” and triangles designed by Frietag, we have snippets of speech, discursive and recursive language, lines of lyric beauty, and passages of diaristic observation. Baker’s odd noticings provide us with a panorama of daily life, the sort of noticings we all encounter and from which we all construct ephemeral narratives.

These narratives we construct are momentary and directionless, but comprise the grand narrative we think of as our life. Baker’s technique is to provide us with the ephemera, and it is her achievement that she so deftly and subtly allows her choices a modicum of coherence in order to let us in on a segment of her grander life narrative. An extended selection from The A Down may provide an occasion of what I’m suggesting (the titles of new sections are indicated in bold):

…wham! out goes a kick from my now charged body, a stray jerk recoiling from
my hips, my shin hits hard on the coffee table—and it’s not triumphant, or absurd, it didn’t even happen. The action’s been absorbed, explained away,


and the bruised fucking shin’s no memory. “I forgot how good he looks.”

in                        becoming sensitive again. “Tell me your name again, I forget so quickly” don’t—                        stop and remember where was put “thank you for” for—

“to modulate the heart’s mouth”

“for what? To make and make over is”

The bruised shin from the first section is remembered in the next, and forgetting and remembering are “becoming sensitive” to the presence of the bruised shin (which is, in fact, not a memory). The sexual act from the earlier section is remembered in “forgetting how good he [the lover?] looks” and in his “forget[ting] so quickly” the name of the one-night-beloved. The writing here is the activity of the infinitive “to modulate the heart’s mouth,” and it is all in the service of putting another infinitive into action: “To make and make over is.” This strikes me as the method of our own internal narratives—“to make and make over is,” where “is” is a perpetually shifting instance of the present.

And isn’t this, finally what singing is always about, this perpetual shift and modulation of voice in the present moment? It seems that editors Klane and Golaski have meditated on this axiom, as their title so aptly shows. More, they’ve comprehended this axiom, in collecting such a bundle of flowers whose florescence is as fitting a metaphor for singing as one could hope to find. Such singing and such flowering should abide in the practice of our every exchange.

Derek Henderson is currently approaching the last leg of his PhD at the University of Utah. He loves his wife, his kids and the mountains. He is enamored of the following line from Hart Crane’s Voyages: “O brilliant kids, frisk with your dog.”