Against the Shapeless Present: Review by Scott Thurston.
Three Bell Zero by Miles Champion, 68pp, $10.95, Roof Books, Segue Foundation, 303 East 8th Street, New York, NY 10009.Miles Champion's Three Bell Zero (2000) is his fourth collection of poems after Facture (1999), Compositional Bonbons Placate (1996), and Sore Models (1995). Like these other books, the poems in Three Bell Zero use collage as their predominant means of composition and draw on the work of poets associated with the early phase of North American and Canadian Language Poetry. Whilst these poems wear their influences unabashedly on their sleeves, closer inspection reveals that their very substance is often a collage of phrases taken directly from those influences. Therefore, whilst the poetics of Steve McCaffery inform some of the most disruptive works contained herein, and indeed McCaffery is name-checked in the volume (see below), less obviously the lines 'The rhythm as onion wishwonder / Fucking dandy tree soil' in 'A crab is bolted…' are taken directly from McCaffery's rewrite of Shakespeare's sonnet 104. It would be counterproductive to track and log all of Champion's borrowings in this way, but the list does include writers who are not related to Language Poetry such as Norman Mailer, Richard Rorty, Michel Leiris and Gerard Manley Hopkins alongside Language Poets Tom Mandel, Steve Benson, Michael Gottlieb, Bruce Andrews and Ted Greenwald. Champion's writing therefore does not merely respond to influences but directly incorporates those influences into the work.
There is a range of ways in which this collage practice is realised throughout the volume under consideration. 'Remainders/Dew' alternates lines of condensed image-idea phrases: 'Olive green dustpan', 'The sympathy house is for your feet and the effort is cleaner', 'light kimbrous we can swim' with lines of paired cardinal numbers in the relationship 'of the': 'third of the second', 'twenty-fifth of the thirteenth', 'thirty first of the first'. The lines with numbers suggest a procedure which has been used to obtain the disparate image-idea texts that they alternate with: as if 'third of the second' was an instruction to draw a phrase from the third page of the second book on a particular shelf. The bi-partite title suggests that these 'instructions' might be the remainders, left in after composition has been completed, juxtaposed with the 'dew' or 'due' of the selected phrases, including an extract from Gerard Manley Hopkins' Journals: 'To hypnotize a duck with chalk lines drawn from her beak sometimes / level and sometimes forward on a black table'. 'A crab is bolted…' however, offers no clues as to its compositional origins (apart from a few recognised phrases); freely distributing its lines in multiple margins across the page, forming a wobbling, damaged helix:
Like 'Remainders/Dew', the relentless discontinuity of this poem leads to an unexpected effect of a kind of steady-state of juxtaposition – one responds less to the diverse elements of the poem than to an overall effect of sameness. The opacity of the individual lines, at best both funny and opening up new semantic spaces, nevertheless has to fight against the homogenising reader who eventually simply hears 'unit-unit-unit'.
Other more disruptive takes on collage include poems such as 'Buffer', 'Hang-Up', 'Yellow Sugar' and 'Fluid Cover' where the rough edges and joins are very much part of the work: 'debunking – libidinal / peach, a cheer / out?”' ('Buffer'). These pieces are particularly suggestive of a poetics informed by Steve McCaffery's use of Georges Bataille's notion of the general and restricted economy as an incitement in writing, whereby the privileged general economy in language 'makes apparent that excesses of energy are produced, and that by definition, these excesses cannot be utilized' (Bataille, quoted in McCaffery, North of Intention, 1986, p. 201).
It is, however, in these apparently most disruptive works that new coherencies begin to appear between the lines. The collage technology here seems to have developed to a point that the diversely juxtaposed elements begin to connect up and to suggest the, albeit damaged, outlines of arguments and propositions. This is used to great effect in 'Today's Bath' in which a discourse apparently derived from today's paper is chopped and tailed with hilarious consequences:
his rheumy eyes can see,Similarly the poem 'Clovis' makes use of a 'tec novel as a source for its marvellously fractured narrative ride:
Two gulpsThese variously playful takes on the collage form belie the seriousness however with which perhaps the most convincing poems in this volume explore the connective possibilities emerging out of this technique.
The poems 'Sky' and The Two Hole Experiment' evidence a degree of connectivity between lines/phrases at the opposite end of the scale to poems such as 'Remainders/Dew' and 'A crab…'. In these poems the discontinuities become a more inward feature of the discourse underway, as a function of its argument rather than of its technique:
IThere is an elegant compression in these lines (the conclusion of 'Sky') which, whilst preserving the freshness of a cunningly constructed discourse, has an absorbing continuity tensed against this. These effects are also found in the accretive structure of 'The Two Hole Experiment', a meditation on poetics that celebrates its 'Dispersals / and recombinative pleasures' whilst 'looking down upon / mimetic borders'. The question of 'how many / enough to form the work / the unrhyming' suggests a reflection on the work's constituents – materials which may function for the writer as a 'foreground / against the shapeless present'.
Champion's extensive collaging of the works of other writers might be said to radically question the status of the poem as the utterance of a unique individual, in a way compatible with the poetics of early Language Poetry. At this point in history, however, it may be said that such a strategy is less straightforwardly aligned with the progressive elements of literary culture. The legacy of Language Poetry has undergone great development in recent North American, Canadian and British poetry, which makes a poetics rooted in early Language appear almost dated. Champion's collaging of often extremely rare works of such a recent vintage does not function in the same way as allusion, and veers dangerously close to plagiarism, en route to a form of uncritical, if humorous, pastiche. The point in the book which seems most able to operate a critique of the early Language models of poetics production is the piece 'Very Strong and Very Weak', which reads like a set of aphorisms on poetics in the style of Alan Davies (with whom Champion has recently collaborated on the poetics text 'Don't Know Alan' (2002)). The mixture of portentous statements ('Clarity is / immobile / Visual / indifference a / growth'), one liners ('Each conviction lengthens the sentence'), steals from 'real-world' signage ('THIS PEN HAS A / LIMITED CAPACITY / OF EITHER 400 WORDS / OR 10 METRES'), various experiments:
THand a few, rather tongue-in cheek, attributed quotations from Picasso ('“I do not brood, nor do I / experiment”'), Steve McCaffery ('“These are the sentences / you have to paint”') and Alfred Jarry ('“As literature, / it's fine”') all serve to parody the various aphoristic poetics texts produced by Davies, Tom Raworth and others. At the other extreme is the poem 'Clear…', which reads like an incredibly close pastiche of the 'new sentences' of Bob Perelman's 'China' in lines such as: 'It's fine. / The environment seems watery. / …The coloured lines do not break'. However, it is pieces such as 'Sky' and 'The Two Hole Experiment' which appear less obviously dependent on their models, and which, despite the fact that their materials may well also be collaged from other works, create an engaging tension between the jumps and starts of collage and poetry's potential for recombinative argument and proposition. It is the fact that this tension ultimately forces a balance between resistance and alienation, between radicalism and complicity and between critique and symptom, that animates this book.
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