Friday, March 13, 2009


In a recent review of George Albon's Momentary Songs Michael Cross writes, "When I’m really listening to Oppen [not Albon], I find it difficult to read anything without demanding that each word, each lone phrase... call into question the ground it has just established." The same set of demands Cross places on each word, begging each to self-reflexively investigate the conditions — the consequences — of its own call to being no matter the poet, are demands we can responsibly place on his own work. At even a quick glance, In Felt Treeling announces itself as a careful project that unfolds with a keen awareness of the material force of language and the need to develop a language that might adequately respond to the present cultural moment.

On the level of form, the work is a libretto — a form that immediately calls attention to the intersection of text and sound, poetry and music. Libretto. Libro. A relation to the book — a text-based semantic construction that, in Cross' appeal to the form, rigorously thinks its complicated relation to sound through sound. Presenting In Felt Treeling as a Libretto reminds us also that the composition of such work typically resides not with a composer but with a poet, one working in collaboration with a composer or with a prearranged composition. And it is precisely the character of this working with embedded in the libretto form that calls our attention to certain signal words and phrases that recur throughout the work, particularly the words "yield" and "cede":

a smith / wrought burlesque
handsome and to yield / and yield alike
forthright / cede
thy static / chatter there
a useless slag / of villainy

Vengeance. Process of inquiry. Accountability. This is the figure of Eumenides speaking. In Felt Treeling: a libretto — text containing both stage direction and dialogue. Here there are three characters: Eumenides, Lavinia and Forest. Eumenides = Furies. Lavinia of the Aeneid, Titus Andronicus — of another source or perhaps a conflation of these instantiations of the figure. A language of the pastoral ("petals to the ground," "beneath the sycamore / drew crystal to the wood," etc) courses through the work suggesting Shakespeare's Lavinia — and it is this Lavinia, raped and silenced in order to preserve an order of force operating both through and beyond legitimate forms of power, that allows us to think the multiple forms of "yielding" and "ceding" the poem grapples with.

The question the poem relentlessly thinks over and over again is one of gender and its relation to force. But there's the role of language in figuring gender: "useless slag," "wrought burlesque," "debutante," "pasties." On the terrain of gender class difference lends itself to shoring up a zero sum game. But what is it to "yield" and what is it to "cede"? To yield to power is perhaps not to give up power but to accept its terms, allowing it to legislate and effectively determine relations (viz Lavinia's attackers — and later her father — ape the contours of power, yielding to it but not ceding it). And what is it for Lavinia to yield and what does she have to cede beyond the character of a living always already subordinate to the force of those that unknowingly yield to the demands of power? What would it mean for those that yield to power to cede force? Even Eumenides — the Furies — operates by way of an ethics of vengeance registered in an economy of force.

Force. The Forest. A character without dialogue. And a forest is not a ground. An undisclosed narrator discloses the character of this Forest to us. And the character of this persona too is imbricated in a discourse of force and is perhaps force itself or the spaces of relation through which force moves. The narrator tells us:

(desiccate too tied yield
a tint in berths
the upper wealth enlaced
a sanction
vines the more still
virus in the grass

For this Forest, the space within which Eumenides and Lavinia move, the question of yielding is also central. Desiccate. To be desiccate. Lacking in spirit. This too tied yield — possibly an ability to yield, to defer, to renounce the demands of force. Forest itself, the space through which we move, is itself complicit. A form of contagion resides in the grass (recall Burroughs' remark: language operates like a virus).

Like Zukofsky's 80 Flowers or Hopkins' "Harry Ploughman" the poem involves a relentless play of torsion and tension at the level of sound. The insistence on non-normative syntactic formations calls one's attention to sound first — to signal words and phrases and their ability to generate latent but unremarked meanings through a commitment to turning, twisting, reconfiguring. Through the poem familiar words unfold again and again into strange formations and specific narrative contexts such that we've no choice but to reconsider these familiar words and attend to them more carefully, considering the consequences and potentialities embedded in their material force.

As ever, I may be grossly misreading the work. But the book is unsettling. The questions it pursues. The work is difficult — the narrative architecture of the work disclosing just enough to make demands on the reader that work which completely jettison's narrative structure typically does not.