Sunday, June 1, 2014



Joie de Vivre: Selected Poems 1992-2012 by Lisa Jarnot
(City Lights, San Francisco, 2013)

DAILY VIVISECTION: On Lisa Jarnot’s Joie de Vivre

            “All this had to be said in words…”

The latest, ninth volume in the City Lights Spotlight Series, Joie de Vivre: Selected Poems, 1992-2012, by Lisa Jarnot, does what a “selected” should; it drives the reader out to seek those books from which the selection was made. And this, in part, is the expressed intent of the series, as attested in the back of each volume: “to draw attention to those small presses publishing…the wealth of innovative [US]American poetry being written today.” Truly the best, i.e. most interesting and most engaging, contemporary poetry is published, with but few notable exceptions, by small and even smaller, “micro” presses, not large houses or universities. And this generally has been the case for a hundred years, at least, and probably much longer than that, but if it be not news, it still is true and ought not be forgotten. What also oughtn’t be forgot is that the pronounced contest-ification of the small press publication process, while a sound and proven business model resulting in a glut of books not seen since the NEA stopped throwing money at poet/publishers in the 1980s, is no great boon to Poetry, writ large. The collection of $20 and higher entrance fees, followed by a screening process of interns, grad students, etc., followed by another screening by an “editorial board” and, ultimately, a selection – being required to be made – by some more-or-less established and hence “qualified” Judge, who is pointedly not the publisher, hardly instill much faith in this writer that Great Work is like to come to the fore, unless by sheer accident. (Though, I suppose, accidents do often enough occur.) Call me old fashioned, but I think publishers ought to make their own decisions about what to publish.

A book’s provenance matters, and this is why I’m writing all this: not because I mean to bash any other house in particular, but because I’d like to laud the publisher of this book, Joie de Vivre, and the editor of the series within which it’s set; because this is meant to be a book review, not a consideration of some poems as poems, per se, or “pure” and “simple,” but as poems selected from books, collected into a book, which exists and can be held and beheld, as, again, the books from which they were selected can be, too. I make this point in part because the selection is necessarily small, scarcely more than 100 pages culled from perhaps six times that many of previously published poems – to say nothing of the version of the Iliad, XXII or the meticulous biography of Robert Duncan, just recently out from UC Press – and the workings of much of it extend beyond the bounds of the selection, begging to be found out in their native setting. Certainly, it is to the credit of the editor that one does feel compelled to find them there, as also to his credit is the near seamlessness of the transitions from one prior book’s segment to the next, despite the distinctness of each book as published previously. Well represented here are Jarnot’s four major collections: Some Other Kind of Mission (1996); Ring of Fire (2001, rev. 2003); Black Dog Songs (2003); and Night Scenes (2008); along with a quartet of poems from a recent chapbook, also titled Joie de Vivre, all capped by a long poem, “Amedellin Cooperative Nosegay,” which is, to this reader, perhaps the star of the selection.

Her first book, Some Other Kind of Mission, selections from which comprise the first twenty or so pages of Joie de Vivre, is a Language-impacted, neo-Steinien sequence of (mainly) prose poems and visually complex but text-heavy cut-up/blacked-out/over-written collage works, which together form a sort of self-referential and repetitive feedback system, an echoing edifice whose architectural logic has naught to do with the physical, narrative, or metaphysical contemplation, but nonetheless does evince a powerful logic, or logics, peculiar to poetry, and to dream. Indeed, “dream” and “nightmare” are everywhere present in the atmosphere, as well as by actual naming in these poems, but they are by no means illogical, the poems, nor immaterial, nor invisible, but, as Jarnot writes, “extracted from the visible,” extrapolated from the available language and its logic by an insistent exploitation of syntactical trapdoors, shifting clausal reiterations, and other structural in(ter)ventions:

Hit the pitch coordinate throwing junk. in the back of a tree. we built backwards in the living room or cell. in the pitch of what i dreamt of. in the firs and terns and coming back in morning. hit the pitch coordinate of did the bird or not explode. watching all the field soil in extraction. did or not explode the bird in in the field soil. first it was the motorcade the house of prayer. having gone to. mediocrity. … in chaos, still retracted, at the plan of having dreamt. all around in having dreamt in series differentiate retraction only polar. having giving. to the bus. fir and clover beach tern in retracted. first it was the motorcade, the bird terned in retraction of the tide and having clover. did or not the bird. in meticules in dreamt of field soil at the tern.

It seems the seam where dream- and language-logic might meet, and so be sewn together, is the poem – that is, if we take dream to be some extension of the subconscious and language to be simultaneously an axe of the conscious and an expression of the collective un-conscious. This juncture sets Jarnot’s work early in some trajectory of the Surreal, alongside several other Spotlight authors. Will Alexander, Andrew Joron, and series editor Garrett Caples, himself, are the most avowedly Surrealist, but Cedar Sigo and Micah Ballard – and arguably others, too – while perhaps less expressly Surrealist, do share an expressive character which is redolent of the original Frenchmen who constituted that movement, and of their progenitors, too.

Joron’s Neo-Surrealism or the Sun at Night: Transformations of Surrealism in American Poetry, 1966-1999, originally published in 2000, expanded in 2004, then published again in 2010 with a substantial afterward (dated January of that year) in which the author assembles a good sized supplementary “roster” of arguably neo-surrealist writers, makes no mention of Jarnot, but much of what is written in this invaluable “résumé” of USAmerican neo-surrealism could well be applied to Jarnot’s work. Joron highlights, in specific regard to the work of Alexander, a certain “prioritization of the ‘word’ rather than the ‘image’…, a linguistic turn within neo-surrealist practice…convergent with the emergence…of the Language school[, which] regarded the sixties’ poetics of expressive imagination as a failed utopia. Rather than a poetics of enthusiasm, a poetics of skepticism was advocated: the Romanticism of the metaphoric image was rejected in favor of the ‘realism’ of the metonymic cut-up.” But Joron goes on to cite Charles Brokhuis, who argues that “’both Surrealism and ‘Language’ poetry are attempts to decenter the idea of the self-as-creator’; in both forms, ‘the text is read as an accumulation of poetic evidence’ rather than as the testament of ‘a particular ego.’…Borkuis envisioned a form of ‘Parasurrealist/Textual’ practice, where ‘thought is not outside, observing this process [of writing], but part of it; it finds itself in-situation.’” This is clearly the ground in which Jarnot’s first book is seeded and from which her oeuvre grows.

From the more ambivalent, yet still Whitmanic (and Will Alexanderine, for that matter) songs of the self and not-self which comprise much of Ring of Fire:

I am a partially submerged boat on the waterfront of
 Jack London Square on a Sunday morning buying jam.
 I am flesh-colored and pale, in an indian head dress
cracking chestnuts and eating roots, in the fissure
between the bus lines, …
… I am krill and various large birds, the color
grey of the sidewalk, a small opossum, in the breaking
glass in isolation in the sun, I am waiting for the
swamps and smoke of eucalyptus in the breeze, I am
stuck in traffic near the mudflats on the bay, I am
aimless and have several new tattoos.
(from Sea Lyrics)

to the singly Lear-ic (and, yes, Blakean) character of many of the poems in Black Dog Songs, and Night Scenes, too, with their blatant, tone-lead whimsy tempered with a subtle, subcutaneous melancholy:

To the sparrows high on tree tops
fly on sparrows through the hedge stops
bristle up and fly away
black crest heads point this way gay

What to do for you is write you
into this a word for word zoo
I and you inside the thread
of the vowels sad and red.
(“Harpersfield Song”)

Jarnot’s cheeky mock archaisms, poetic inversions and employ of pseudo-traditional forms and rhythms belie a tense and cutting contemporary ennui, a quagmire of presumptively, and perhaps preemptively, failed attempts at self-definition via identification with place – both geographical and temporal, or in other words, historical – and with the accoutrements of daily living. Now, these accoutrement include the objects of domestic (“the dark metallic stapler”) and public (“the L train”) use (and uselessness) which the Surrealists made such revolutionary use of, in their ready-mades, for instance, highlighting our own estrangement from the very things we use most often and hold most dear, as well as the objects of the natural world, the flora and fauna with which we are most familiar – and these poems are rife with all manner of creatures. But, as Jarnot writes, “the tree and the root and the worm and the corn are all words.” Asked to attend to them as such, do they become more familiar to us? Do we have greater claim to them, as part of the human world, having assigned human sounds to them? (“Because the words are all friends with the worm and the friend of the tree.”) Or is it rather the opposite? (“Because some words they grew up. Because some words they grew up smarter. Because some words they grew up smarter and smarter.”) Do the words outgrow us, overreach the lattice-work of our language, as consciously constructed and used, and turn feral? Jarnot’s work is indeed a “word zoo” replete not only with lemurs, opossums, pigeons and yaks, but also the “concept of the tapir” and the “trajectory of the armadillo.” There are the words, and there are the progeny of the words; and at the risk now of overextending the trope, it might be said that, more than zoos, some of these poems are open-doored menageries on some isle of Dr. Moreau, their vivisected beasts, split-tongued, set free.

As Aaron Shurin’s blurb on the back cover says, “Lisa Jarnot’s book of joy raises joy in return.” This joy, however, is not come to lightly and is no lightheaded euphoria. Jarnot’s poetry works itself out from some early intellectual-linguistic morass (albeit one of a particularly uncanny beauty) through to a mature progressive domesticity, in which the very house of language is accepted as the living thing it is, not “the fantasy of renovated words,” as Jarnot puts it in the title poem of this selection, but an actual multiphastic possibility, as Duncan would say. Duncan’s words are offered as epigraph to Night Scenes, too: “to release the first music somewhere again, for a moment / to touch the design of the first melody,” unabashedly foregrounding the song which is at root of all poetry, all language, “The Song Between,” as a poem from Ring of Fire dedicated to the great Philip Lamantia (whose own collected poems came out from UC Press last fall) is titled:

Break your bird on your beak, bird, with a title known as bird,
with a bird sound called a bird, with a bird, being birdlike,
being all bird, in the shallow water, being all water, in the
shallow bird, being the shallow sound of the bird spray in the
wing, being wing of sound, bird, being where you are,
being all, and the water is the shallow of the sound inside
the bird, a shadow in the window of the man,

the human, who is only human, most human, in response, in call, welcoming the chaos of intercourse, embracing the negative capability inherent in language itself, sounding itself out in echoes, in quotes, both straight and slant, repetitions, second takes, revisions, like a jazz musician hammering at a phrase until it glints just right and shows a way forward, often only later to recur. When one listens to the likes of an Eric Dolphy solo, so called, one hears no solo, but rather a conversation, which is not to say argument or compromise, as some have, with his horn. One hears an actual coming to terms, musically, mutually engendered but belonging neither to Dolphy nor to his horn, belonging only to the air. And, as Dolphy has most famously said, “When you hear music, after it’s over, it’s gone, in the air. You can never capture it again.” You can only make more, move on, sing again, anew, even if the same song. It will always be. See that somehow holy Irish wake of a poem “Amedellin Cooperative Nosegay” at the end, remembering in lament and celebration, singing from, and of, and for the common, the cooperative. The community matters:

            and where is he? and where is she?

                      Michael , Rynn, kari,
                      Akilah, Brad, and someday Harry.

            hydrangeas and helicopters
grief its proper mode

                                           “D” in “Death”
                                           under the space between
                                           “will” and “remember”

            that it smells like the painting of a flower

                                    a red flower
                                    a pink kid
                                    a blue dude
                                    and pythons
                                    eating strawberries.


Nicholas James Whittington was born and raised in the City of San Francisco and currently resides in Oakland. He has also lived for significant stretches in Santa Cruz, San Diego and Siena, Italy. Recent poems have appeared in Big Bell, Dusie, The Emerald Tablet, Greetings, Ping Pong, and also AMERARCANA: A Bird & Beckett Review, of which he is the editor. The author of the chapbooks Slough (2010) and Scoria (2012), he works with his father and brother at the family store, Bird & Beckett Books and Records, in San Francisco.

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