When Ron Silliman began the Alphabet with the truncated half sentence “If the function of writing is to 'express the world,' ” the implication was that poetry could, and, in so doing, be politically affirmative. Through exposing the ideological implications of a previously considered neutral poetic discourse, Language Poetry sought to create a newly utopian realm of creative articulation. Console and Lerner’s innovation is to dwell on the “If” of this sentence, and ultimately to conclude that the purpose of writing is not to “express” but rather to dwell on the time-lag between words written and the meaning they strive to embody. Their project cannot be said to be so baldly political, yet the critical edge of their  language tends towards a similar political redemption.

 

The central episode of Ben Lerner’s debut novel, Leaving the Atocha Station, is an instant messenger interaction between the protagonist, Adam Gordon, and his friend, the poet Cyrus Console. Gordon, as ever, enters the conversation adrift on waves of lassitude, deploying neutral dead-pan one-liners, but slowly becomes enraptured by Console’s story of terror and woe. Cyrus is writing from Mexico, where he has been on an extended holiday with his girlfriend Jane in search of an “authentic” experience, outside of the corporate culture of the US. Having taken a camping trip into the rambling, run-down Mexican countryside, he and Jane come to a violently rushing river. Two men, seemingly impervious to the rolling torrents, are swimming. On the other side of the bank stands a young girl (one of the two men’s girlfriend) reluctant to jump in, a reluctance that Cyrus shares. Jane, however, is soon in the water, and the men encourage Cyrus to jump in, which he does, in spite of his reservations, soon followed by the girl. But the current is too strong for her, and the water too deep, and she is swiftly borne downstream and pulled beneath the water. Cyrus, after clambering out and running down the bank, eventually catches up with her, but it is too late, and his half-remembered CPR has no effect.

 

The importance of this episode to the novel is formal.  Full of hesitations, awkward half-sentences, flat enunciations, and the implied delays of distracted minds, this instant messenger conversation is, perhaps, the moment of the novel where we are granted a privileged viewing of directly transcribed and unmediated communication. Within this strange transcript we see the time of narrative as it unfolds, the patterns of written language as thought—the building blocks of words slowly and rhythmically accumulate. Lerner seems to articulate here, in an otherwise highly refracted novel, an ideal form for le mot juste, revealing the process of Adam Gordon’s thinking and getting to the heart of his search for a language that adequately fulfils the burden of narrative representation. Indeed, insofar as there is a plot to Atocha, which follows Gordon’s on a Fulbright scholarship in Spain, it is a quixotic one, striving for a language not complicit with forms of mediation, be they capital, medicinal, or other, in order to create a poetic idiom that rises both from and above the insufficiency of the medium.

 

That such an episode should occur in conversation with Cyrus Console (Lerner’s friend—both hailing from Topeka, Kansas) is hardly coincidental. Console’s own recent book of poetry, The Odicy, attempts to discover a poetic language that can possess an originary signifying function, whilst embodying great varieties of intertextual form. Composed of five lengthy poems, including traditional forms of poetry, and figurations of artificial sweeteners, and loosely united by a central character named Tony, it is a thought-provoking meditation of the potential uses of language. In this essay I will compare Atocha and The Odicy to show how they react differently to a similar problem of linguistic representation. In so doing, both offer utopian forms for a poetic discourse that strives to redeem the world—one that operates in the world it strives to escape, dwelling in the shadows cast by some more fully realised narrative terrain.

 

Early on in The Odicy, Console offers a paradigm for expression which hangs over the rest of the work, telling us that:   

 

          To serve a universe so meagerly

          Illumined I proposed a global form

          Encircled by straight lines, whose center held

          All places at all times, whose silence grew

          Apparent, as if to impugn my grasp

          Of a complicated situation

 

This “global form” creates a mode by which language can precede and overarch the past and the world it participates in. There is no widening gyre to destroy the epistemic coherence of the center, no apocalyptic realization about a globe on a fast-path towards self-inflicted destruction. This is, perhaps, for later. Instead Console posits a medium that can adequately bear the imprints of time passing, and create a structure through which it can be provisionally expressed. Though there is no modernist sense of the poem (and the word) as an ark for the unfolding of a cogent historical imagination, there is nonetheless a way in which language can be used as a tool for channelling its multiplicities—a language tending towards negation or absence, “whose silence grew / Apparent.”  Freed from the burden of expression, this language becomes more impersonal and expressive. This passage represents, then, the central problem of the collection: if a poetic utterance, in being expressed, can only recapitulate a language incapable of expression, can a negative language, one that purges itself of forms of mediation—how do you get at that?

 

To begin to answer this question, we can ask what is the language that, for Console, fails to overarch all places and all times? “Failure” in this sense is not used to signify poetic insufficiency per se, so much as complicity with other modes, explicitly capitalist, of material production. Language in The Odicy is less an abstraction than a force that has acted as a form of control for the dominant economic system, and which is historically enmeshed with the transformations of capital. This linguistic product, whether it takes the form of branding, advertising, or the newspeak of industrial resource management, exists, not above time and space, but rather through them. This form of language has meant that it is no longer possible to create the modes of mythological coherence that he, winking to be sure, suggests are somewhat desirable. His poems, and the language they employ, percolate and flow into everything, not only contemporary expression, but, like a virus, take over classical, Biblical, and Miltonic forms. Console outlines how    

 

          Satan’s blandishments

          Sweetly shower the ostensible

          And sanctimonious, corrupting them

          As fructose corrupts their beverages

          And the empires of beverages

 

Meaning that:

 

          We found ourselves unable to leave

          Comments in the Forest of Arden

          But wanted now only to hear the name

          Of that pale blue syrup one more time

          That such labelling could have forewarned

          Anyone was totally amazing

 

These passages are simultaneously descriptions of a written language that is necessarily shaped by a notionally debased corporate idiom, as well as enactments of it.  Readers are left in an uneasy middle zone, pitched halfway between a Jeremiad on a pernicious capitalist culture and a potentially transformative poetic appropriation of the same culture. The dominant figurations of sweetness and sugar are combined with dead-pan postmodern colloquialisms (“totally amazing”, “leave / Comments”) to create a language that is a comment on its own necessary construction. Yet in drawing attention to these competitive and bellicose tendencies of fetish and commodity discourse, Console begins to push the poem into a self-awareness of its own status as a theatrical utterance, suggesting poetic escape strategies—the poem being no simple commodity among many others.    

 

The commodity and the specific conditions of its historical production are characterised by their capacity to erase the historical conditions of said production; capitalism is characterized, that is, by the “everlasting” revolutionary transformation of the means of production. By drawing attention to the historical passageways that language has taken, Console suggests that there is a way to restore or redeem historical temporality in poetic expression. Like a martyr,

 

          Remarketing is what the language suffered

          Agonies and died for, that we might

          Inspirit dying products with the word

          No barrier between food and drug

          Blood and brain, flavors, colors, lines

          Of sight, fire, product might withstand

          What Godard said. It isn’t blood. It’s red

 

In the universe of The Odicy, to say “Inspirit dying products with the word” is tantamount to stating “Inspirit dying words with the Word”. As the homophonic pun of the title suggests (it is both a “theodicy” and is an “Odyssey” of sorts) Console’s aims are ambitious and take place within an epic scale in a universe where epic scales can barely exist. In other words, Console can only succeed in his aims if his work is a transcript of their failure, of their own necessary unravelling. Yet, in this unravelling, in this sad multiplication of shelled meaning, something strange, direct, and beautiful does emerge, like the rediscovery of a ruin long thought lost. If he, as a poet, is a victim of structural forces that impede his ability to connote, then the only way his language can survive is if it bears the imprint of its own shortcomings. Far from this being a bad thing, in fact, it frees his language from the burden of representing, the burden of connotation, of embodying anything other than itself. Reflecting on a potentially Edenic space in nature, he tells us how:

 

          In glorious decline the canopy

 

          Made a figure for all entropy

          Wherein “autumn” spoke not of an age

          But for all time, the very composition

          Of data into sequence being record

          And instrument of its undoing.

 

The Odicy, as a utopian collection of disquiet, offers a sad and angry consolation, and occasionally fixes its view on tantalising threads of poetic possibility. It is through a sense of loss, certain poems suggests, that we might start to rebuild and re-intuit once more:

 

         So long

          As we might talk about the other world

          What matter our despair of moving there.

 

Adam Gordon, in Leaving the Atocha Station, has moved to another world, albeit only Spain, notionally to complete a project on the representation of the Spanish Civil War in poetry, the provenance of which seems questionable at best. Instead he spends his days in art galleries, looking for a Profound Experience of Art—tranquilizers down, stoned on hash—and forming ambiguous relationships with women he, quite literally, only half-understands. But for all of his carefully studied neutrality, he nonetheless yearns for a different reality, where world, word, and experience accord and correlate. Just as Console wonders if there can be a structural form that re-legitimises poetic expression, Gordon thinks about the possibilities of there ever having been a moment when to think was tantamount to representing:

 

     "I wondered if the incommensurability of language and experience was new…if there were happy ages when the starry sky was the map of all possible paths, or if this division of experience into  what could not be named and what could not be lived just was experience, for all people for all time."

 

This negative space of originary linguistic potentiality is present throughout the text, a sort of elegiac echo chamber, melancholically undercutting the narrative pronouncements. Yet where we might expect further articulation of this trend, some experiment in “authentic” living, Lerner is content to dwell in the realm of its possibility, partly because postmodernism is unwilling to either grant language any transcendent function, or to accept the possibility that linguistic meaning might be retroactively re-discovered.

 

His act of linguistic recovery takes as a starting point an acceptance that mediacy is a necessary condition of lived experience, that whatever we think, say, or feel, is covered with a pre-emptive ironic veil that causes a time lag between the world and humans as agents within it. This movement is at its most directly stated when Gordon is struggling to understand the Spanish of one of his acquaintances, with his attention coming to focus on a reduplicating narrative multiverse that arises from non-comprehension:

 

     "I heard the names of streets and months; a list of things I thought were books or songs; hard times or hard weather, epoch, uncle, change, an analogy involving summer, something about buying and/or crashing a red car. I formed several possible stories out of her speech, formed them at once, so it was less like I failed to understand than I understood in chords, understood in a plurality of worlds…The ability to dwell among possible referents, to let them interfere and separate like waves, to abandon the law of excluded middle while listening to Spanish – this was a breakthrough in my project, a change of phase."

 

Words are unyoked from their most obvious descriptive context and charged with meanings that operate in different directions and on different discursive levels simultaneously. This amounts to a new form of language where numbers of potential narrative referents abound, without the need for any stated, structural, or cogent order. Lerner’s Gordon seems to refer to a similar problem (a debased language) as Console. Using a similar process of linguistic un-doing, he creates a liminal textual universe where meaning, where, in fact, these very acts of reiteration constitute meaning in the first place. 

 

In effect, this amounts to a challenge to anyone who wishes to foreclose narrative meaning, or retain the thread that links mind and world, object and definition. An obvious problem, however, arises: every word, so long as we accept that it has some form of descriptive purpose, will inevitably express not only a set of relations in space (what the world that is narrated looks like) but also a set of relations in time (emplotment, history). If Gordon and Lerner are to succeed on their seemingly mutually shared projects, then, there needs to be a space beyond the text itself, an unstated yet generative narrative fulcrum. Just as with the negative spaces of Charles Olson’s Maximus Poems or the erasures of Jen Bervin’s Nets, it is difficult to attach palpable critical terms to such a space, and directly assign value to its narrative function.

 

One way that we might begin to identify this operation is to concentrate on the difference between time-as-narrated by the notional subject voice of the text (whether Gordon or Lerner) and the time-as-read of the text (located in the individual reader). By describing Gordon’s own reactions to literature, and the act of reading, Lerner produces a sort of meta-narrative of interpretation, pushing the reader into a meditative state where they encounter their own process of decipherment. As Gordon reads Tolstoy on a long night-train journey, we are told:          

 

     "I put the book down and began to think: this strange experience of reading, the sense of harmony between the rhythms of a reproduction and the real, their structural identity, so that the subject of the sentence was precisely the time of its being furthered"

 

In such passages Atocha operates as a mirror where language and its reader merge in a fluid temporal interzone. With the self-conscious and far from coincidental lift from John Ashbery’s “Clepsydra,” language in this water clock structure is only important insofar as it comments on its own efforts to connote. Language is, then, both hollowed out, as it only refers to an abstract, second-order interpretation, and re-imbued with meaning, as this experience of mediacy can finally be thought of as one of directness.

 

In this radical terrain of narrative possibility, words, images, phrases, resonate and vibrate on many different frequencies and discursive levels simultaneously. If a word is no longer necessarily linked to an object, but instead to the conditions that allow an object to signify, to exist, there are potentially infinite pathways that allow for the constitution of meaning, new links that can be forged between seemingly separate modes. A neutralized language of mediacy, which precedes any utterance in our late capitalist present, has the effect of renewing expression. We must in the words of Adam Gordon

 

     "Attempt to move from one language into another without rotation or angular rotation and to fail in that attempt…To embrace the tragic interchangeability of nouns and smile inscrutably or to find a way of touching down, albeit momentarily, and be made visible by swirling condensation and debris and to know that one pole of experience is always caught up in the other"

 

When Ron Silliman began the Alphabet with the truncated half sentence “If the function of writing is to 'express the world,' ” the implication was that poetry could, and, in so doing, be politically affirmative. Through exposing the ideological implications of a previously considered neutral poetic discourse, Language Poetry sought to create a newly utopian realm of creative articulation. Console and Lerner’s innovation is to dwell on the “If” of this sentence, and ultimately to conclude that the purpose of writing is not to “express” but rather to dwell on the time-lag between words written and the meaning they strive to embody. Their project cannot be said to be so baldly political, yet the critical edge of their  language tends towards a similar political redemption. Relying on decontextualization, fragmentation, and negation, their mutual idiom is almost able to leave the marketplace behind, even as it is constituted by it. In failing in its efforts to connote, it stops being utilizable, exchangeable. Much like a useless and devalued currency, their language enters the world only to transmogrify and ironize the systems that produced it. The paradox is that, in language’s insufficiency, they discover a poetics that can be potentially transformative, and which radiates outwards a negative field of poetic actuality, lying just beyond the horizon of the poem.

 

 

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