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‘I like your voice / Look where it’s come from’:
Call it Thought by Stephen Rodefer

- Luke Roberts

 

Call it Thought by Stephen Rodefer (Carcanet 2008)


The first thing to note is the span: Rodefer’s work is four decades long, two continents wide. He was the only poet to be included in both Conductors of Chaos and In the American Tree, and this long overdue Selected Poems allows the reader to trace the different impulses and directions that should make Rodefer one of the major touchstones in any serious survey of Post-War poetry in English. That Rodefer has been somewhat overlooked is well-known, and though the latest Chicago Review devotes half its pages to his work, the excellent critical essays by Keston Sutherland and David Georgi are limited to Four Lectures and Villon, the two books that are (with reason) considered his masterpieces. While these might be been seen as the essential Rodefer, the selection gathered in Call it Thought, including unpublished and out-of-print work along with a generous representation of his greatly productive period in the 80s and early 90s, makes clear just how much more of Rodefer’s work is essential, how much more it deserves our attention.

The book begins with the Preface, Pretext and Codex from Four Lectures, giving us the appetisers and desserts, but leaving out the main course. In his astute introduction, Rod Mengham notes that this text ‘so exceeds conventional lineation and bibliographical form that only a few extracts could be included.’ We wait with baited breath for the rumoured Barque Press reissue. Until then try and put your hands below the radar and get hold of the PDF to tide you over. In any case you get a flavour for it (and here the culinary metaphors stop I promise):

My father is a sphinx and my mother’s a nut. I reject the glass.
But I’ve been shown the sheets of sentences and what he was
Really like remains more of a riddle than in the case of most humans.
So again, I say, rejoice. The man we’re looking for
Is gone.

(Pretext 6)

So at sunset the clouds went nuts. They thought they were a text.
The language of the general o’erflows the measure, but my brother and I liked it a lot.
I think I’ll pause long enough here to call God a bitter name.

(Codex 7)

The massive range of ‘Plane Debris’ or ‘Words in Works in Russian’ is pointed to in the adjuncts and the satiric ploys, and the incredible ear Rodefer has for language is obvious: “So at sunset the clouds went nuts” is the real thing. The importance of this work is yet to be properly addressed: one starting point might be the centrality of painting and visual art to the project of FL, the poet’s drive to create “painted poetry”, “to be musical and graphic at once, more than literary”. 1 It would be valuable, also, to have Rodefer’s method further examined in its relationship with Language poetry: J.H. Prynne’s remarks in his letter to Steve McCaffrey particularly highlights Rodefer’s use of irony as unique amongst the contributors to In the American Tree, “not the nervous dissociation of some warden of the Good Life but from inside the cosy comforts of the Penal Settlement itself.” 2

What’s interesting is how Rodefer gets to this mode, coming, as it does, five books and fifteen years into his work. His first book, The Knife (Island Press 1965), of which there are no selections here, is heavily indebted to Creeley, full of ‘yr’ and ‘sd’. Creeley was the subject of Rodefer’s abandoned doctoral thesis, and he explicitly distances himself from this early influence in ‘Lies of the Artists’ (chronologically the first work in Call it Thought). Rodefer affectionately lampoons Creeley in a fake interview, detailing his possible move to ‘Ukiah’, because of course “that particular town literally is haiku spelled backwards, and that’s a modesty I feel particularly compelled by”. There’s a strong argument that modesty is precisely what Rodefer shakes off between this and Four Lectures, and further, that he undertakes a sustained move away from the ‘domestic’ subject of Creeley’s poetry that Ed Dorn always objected to. ‘Lies of the Artists’ notably contains the first trace of Rodefer’s interest in Villon, treated to a brief biographical sketch along with Hart Crane and Picasso. The best of the bunch is perhaps the short ‘Not An Easy Appointment’ (“I am getting used to the idea/of John Wieners as the man/to whom we might ultimately/have to speak.”) but the savaging of Gary Snyder in ‘for Shocks’ deserves a mention. Rodefer seems to be taking a swipe at the Bay Area scene of the early 70s and its apparent attendant phoniness:

I dreamt I went to a Gary Snyder reading in my Earth shoes and in the first poem when he said “deer,” we were all thrilled to be part of the incredible magic of primo-poetry. In the next poem the fourth word was fir, and everyone felt a shudder in the solar plexus.

I dreamt I looked down and my Earth shoes were gone and I looked around at the audience and everyone looked so hairy and ecological that I felt like a Marine and was ashamed.

(20)

Here, Rodefer is mocking the climate and attitudes that would a couple of years later get embroiled with Chögyam Trungpa and the subsequent controversies covered by Tom Clark in his book on The Naropa Poetry Wars. Throughout his career, Rodefer has shown a distrust of poetic factions, or at least with self-satisfaction and mutual back-slapping. This early deflation of Beat idealism has its counterparts in the address to Cambridge academics, ‘Answer to Doctor Agathon’ and the charges levelled against Language poets in the essay ‘The Age in Its Cage’. It’s tempting to view Rodefer as the lone wolf who, in John Wilkinson’s words, ‘may be affiliated temporarily with a particular school, but can never be of a school.’ 3 I would also suggest that Rodefer thrives in that position and its conflicts.

One or Two Love Poems from the White World (1976) precisely lacks that sense of embattlement, where Rodefer alternates between a Bukowski-esque machismo (“I want what is said/to smell like a finger stuck/in an asscrack”) and O’Hara-esque nonchalance as in ‘In the Nursing School Auditorium’ which begins:

Oh Larry where are we going,
what are we doing calling up people long
distance who we don’t even know and saying hey
why don’t we come over a little later for a song?

(35)

In Four Lectures Rodefer re-invents and rejuvenates some aspects of O’Hara’s style, and fills it with a fresh humour and a renewed grappling with irony, but the poems in One or Two Love Poems often fall short of the mark, rarely escaping a less interesting imitation. But then we get to the extraordinary set of books that starts with Villon, and goes on with The Bell Clerk’s Tears Keep Flowing, Four Lectures, Passing Duration and Mon Canard. If there’s a better run of such diverse consistence in post-War American poetry, I’d like to see it. Only Ed Dorn and John Wieners come close. 4

David Georgi’s essay in Chicago Review situates Villon as the culmination of Modernist attempts at translating the ‘few brilliant threads of verse’ (62) left by the 15h Century hellraiser. The book’s continuing importance to recent work in the UK such as Sean Bonney’s Baudelaire in English and Tim Atkins’ various projects should also be stressed. Appearing on the In the American Tree radio show in February 1979, Rodefer declares “There’s no reason, I don’t think, why any artist should be, in his or her own best work, more mild than the times”. His serious engagement with Villon, writing obliquely through a persona, seems to have allowed Rodefer a perspective from which to inject extreme turbulence into the reckoning with subjectivity and rhetoric that characterises his best work. This is apparent in ‘Ode to the End’ from The Bell Clerk’s Tears Keep Flowing, which is reminiscent of O’Hara’s ‘In Memory of My Feelings’:

If one is to give in to the temptation of French cigarettes
will it feel better to buy filters? If it’s downhill
it’s down here, it’s said, looking up and ahead
and nodding to the incorporate gesture of the prevailing wind.
I’m not going to apologize but you’re not being asked
to be Daphne either. But don’t hesitate for fear
of “becoming” lost. You can’t hang glide from the Matterhorn
but you can swim in Lake Constance, inhaling the skyline beyond.
No albatross there, only the stealth of living superficies.

(77)

This language is more impacted by the thoughts behind it than the earlier work, and more sceptical of its own agency and capability. In fact, perhaps more accurately, the thought takes place in the language, not behind it, as Rodefer balances precision against ambiguity, trust against distrust. One thinks of Benjamin’s comments in the essay on Karl Kraus:

If style is the power to move freely in the length and breadth of linguistic thinking without falling into banality, it is attained chiefly by the cardiac strength of great thoughts, which drives the blood of language through the capillaries of syntax into the remotest limbs. 5

This is the mode that Rodefer extends and re-assesses in Four Lectures and Mon Canard which for this reader at least, set the remote limbs twitching from the start. It’s deceptive, though, and unhelpful, to try and suggest that Rodefer makes a singular progression towards some kind of peak in his work, or a kind of ultimate achievement. The consistent pleasure of Call it Thought partly lies in the way this narrative is disrupted. So alongside ‘Ode to the End’ there are two love poems in The Bell Clerk’s Tears quite unlike anything else, and quite unlike what the reader familiar with the later work may expect from Rodefer. ‘D(ear) J(esse)’ addressed to the poet’s son, beginning “We love you. We do not misspell/your name” and ‘Poem: Sometimes I forget that you don’t love me anymore’ preserve a kind of grace, or innocence, in their immense feeling. They are startling poems, partly because of how intensely and authentically felt they are in spite of their straightforwardness. In these poems Rodefer preserves a coherent subjectivity that inhabits important emotion and feeling with no cheap tricks, no gimmicks. It’s a rare thing.

After Four Lectures Rodefer really gets going, and the selection from Passing Measures shows the poet reining in and condensing: 6

Granite eternity. The wind that rides birth.
Auto that knows the route.

(‘Collateral Damage’ 90)

day despises plan, dogbones
hung above, laundry stops,
actors split the nation –

the letters ignored which will the place restore

(‘Oppening’ 100)

The tautness of this work is certainly worthy of Oppen and has a like attentiveness in the work of the late Andrew Crozier, to whom the book is dedicated. It’s carried over into the poems ‘Arabesque at Bar’, ‘Stewed and Fraught with Birds’ and ‘Beating Erasers’, which place this condensing into the fabric of more expansive, longer forms. These poems, on the page, with their three-step lines, resemble Mayakovsky’s, and the words get really suffused with sickness:

Call the veil
                       call the responsibilities
                                              animal bodies
made to influence
                       the second sense
                                              repulsive to the whispers.

THRILL on
                       dash of lines.
                                              Still come
obedient refusing mix.

(‘Arabesque at Bar’ 207)

‘Thrill on/dash of lines’ is the right idea - the breaks are serious, and the prosodic effect is quite different to anything Rodefer had attempted up to this point. It allows him to stretch out into what Simon Jarvis identifies as ‘broadest range of intellectual interests’ punctuated with ‘the most startling directness of expressive statement’. Mon Canard, in which these poems are grouped together, was the first book of Rodefer’s I read, straight through one afternoon a little over a year ago. That night I watched Rodefer read almost all of Four Lectures, willed on by the maverick Tony Paraskeva, who filmed the whole affair, all four and a half hours of it. My deep admiration for Mon Canard might be biased slightly by its location in my memory, but I think there’s much more to it than that. These poems seem utterly vital, the voicing endlessly variant and thrilling as the constant threat of exhaust swells and recedes. I admit that the title poem, in its ‘euphuism gone spastic’ 7 ultimately tires me out, but I think that Jarvis’s assessment of these poems - ‘masterpieces of late twentieth-century American poetry’ - is no overstatement.

I’d like to also give that accolade to Passing Duration. Based on Dante, the prose of PD recruits the manoeuvres of both FL and Villon, meshing those two modes into something new. The translation isn’t foregrounded so much, though the recurrence of ‘forks’ lets you know where it’s coming from. Dante stalks around like a ghost in the machine, rather than being rejuvenated and refigured as in Villon. FL is there in the sentences, less disjunctive this time round:

Help me to brainstorm this real idea and we’ll both survive. If you’ve ever written a plan, give me the chance to break down the court and it’ll all pass off. Don’t give me any load about the past. I experience the present well enough, and don’t need another deal beyond a few hands. I choose you for my toast and salve the entrance.

(‘Inscription’ 133)

Parts are reminiscent of Beckett’s tone in Nohow On, and it’s clear that Beckett is an important influence on Rodefer, and this, too, seems an apt area for further consideration. The selection in Call it Thought includes ‘Endscape’ which is one of Rodefer’s best moments, a brief evoking of beauty too painful to sustain. In the most recent work included here, How to Fall off the Pony in New York, Rodefer is still dealing in anguish, deferred in puns and in a scattering of attention that refuses to allow the reader the comfort of easy identification. We’re put under an inordinate amount of stress, punctuated by urgently capitalised words in lines that close down a logical apprehension of the whole. These point towards another stage in Rodefer’s work, one which is still unfolding. The unfolding of Rodefer’s earlier work should now get taken up by its readers. This selection serves to emphasise how Rodefer’s great, various brilliance isn’t just isolated in two key works. Not just where it’s come from, but where, now, does it go.


Notes:

1 Sam Ladkin’s recent doctoral work, ‘Clark Coolidge: Language, Phenomenology, Art’ might provide a useful counterpoint.

2 J.H. Prynne, ‘A Letter to Steve McCaffrey’ The Gig 7 (November 2000)

3 John Wilkinson, ‘A Single Striking Soviet: The Poems of Barry MacSweeney’ in The Lyric Touch (Salt 2007) p.83

5 Benjamin, ‘Karl Kraus’ in One-Way Street (Verso 1979) trans. Edmund Jephcott and Kingsley Shorter pp. 258-290 (269)

6 Condensare is important to bear in mind – though Rodefer excels at excess, he was, after all, Bunting’s assistant during the Northumbrian’s time at Buffalo.

7 Sutherland, ‘Life in Rodefer’ in Chicago Review 54:3 (Winter 2009)  pp.29-37 (36)



Luke Roberts

 

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