per se

per se

P. Inman
Burning Deck, 2012
ISBN: 978-1-936194-09-4

Review of per se

Joan Retallack

There’s nothing more exciting in today’s poetry world than a new book by P. Inman. Grand assertion, I know. Let me explain.

Poetry is making things out of the material elements of language: composing marks, letters, phonemes, syllables, words into patterns which can, singly or in assemblages, stir a complex spectrum of resonances upon sensory contact with human eyes/ears/ brains.  The energy exchange derives from the fact that the materials of language are those of our most intrinsically human form of life. They carry the power to stimulate responses from primal emotions to high-wire intellectual ideas. Our species—for better and for worse—gathered the fruits of enough mutations over evolutionary time to arrive during earth’s most recent  history (100,000 years) fully accessorized for wielding marks and phonemes as (perhaps) more imaginatively engaging semaphores than switching tails, waving arms, swiping claws. We’ve done it for so long, we do it so non-stop, it’s easy to forget how remarkable this performance is, how astonishing the materials of language actually are—charged with every experience we’ve ever had.  A vocabulary list, any vocabulary list, is no less dazzling in its cosmological genesis than Orion’s celestial belt. P. Inman’s poetry is more than a reminder of these things, it’s the experience per se.

The philosopher of language Ludwig Wittgenstein nearly said it all when he wrote “to imagine a language is to imagine a form of life.” Or remarked that the problems with language occur when it is not doing its work, is like an engine idling. But what is language’s work and, more to the present point, what is the work of poetry? What forms of life is it imagining these days? For the moment, I’ll designate these broad questions rhetorical, though never irrelevant, while looking at some examples from per se that I think are connected to them. The thrill of per se, like Inman’s earlier work, is in the experience of language realized (musical sense) in its gravitas and humor as palpable dimension of what it means to be lucky enough to be part of the kingdom, phylum, class, order, family, genus, species linguistic critter.

Although reading P. Inman should never be an attempt to read his mind, here is what “mind” sets in motion on the first page of per se.  The poem is titled  to : edges : 

        mind : to : perspire : whitens :

                 leak  : neam : leap’st :  

to : edges :  consists of four 8-word linguistically precise compositions saturated with many senses of what experiencing/making sense can be. Each word-cluster awaits activation by a reader’s poesis on an otherwise pristine page. (The ratio of white page to ink in per se reverses the probable matter / anti-matter asymmetry of the universe, though the energy release produced by this ratio—as with minimalist aesthetics in general—is indisputable.)

Take, for example—       leak  :  neam  :  leap’st  :         —three  words that take one to the edges marked by the bi-directional semantic potential of the colon. By design,  to : edges :   is actually a series of concrete constructions in which there is an enacting of the subtle geometry of language on the verge of disclosure. Disclosure, not by explanation but by vivid implication, e.g., with the sonic object “neam”.

In addition to numerical play there are pattern reversals and permutative possibilities arising from communications not just of, but among, words—what words offer one another from their shared phonic and graphical ecologies, from the cultural intimacy of their alphabetical DNA:  the musical echoes in  leak  :  neam  :  leap’st  :   coupled with the desire of the reader to read “neam” as a word not just a phoneme, activates a lettristic transaction—mobilizing/borrowing the “p” in “leap’st” creating  “neap least”. This produces a permutative semantic dispersal  in an already novel grammar, one in which “leak” can be humorously (fluidly) connected to a neap tide (tide just after the first or third quarters of the moon when there is the least difference between high and low water):    leak  :  neap  :  least  : with an “m” to spare. This permutation is much less satisfying than Inman’s original but is an important reminder of the innumerable words lurking within words—the fundamentally palimpsestic structures of natural languages.

The reading poesis just demonstrated is not about plumbing Inman’s meaning. It doesn’t matter whether Inman had any of this somehow somewhere in mind. What does matter is that his extraordinary art of structural suggestiveness—the intuitive moves playing off beautifully rational patterns—brings musical, etymological, permutative properties of the elements of language into a dynamic foreground. As dynamic as the fugue or the jazz improvisation. The sensual intelligence of Inman’s work reveals itself in its implicit exploratory potential. The improvisation is not stopped by imprinting it on the page. This would not be so powerfully engaging without the constant synergy of gravitas and humor. If you haven’t already enjoyed the humor in   leak  :  neam  :  leap’st  :    look again, speak it.

What one can surmise from Inman’s titles and his bio note is that music and politics are on his mind; the graphic presence in all his compositions bespeak sophisticated attention to visual art.  The intersection of these preoccupations (and more) creates a version of Duchamp’s sculpture sonore on the page—a gossamer density of sonic, visual, semantic force arriving from a multiplicity of directions. It makes the kind of sense it makes because words are musical, are visual, are socio-politically volatile. What agency we have in our use of language is contingent upon just this. 

Any and all of what I’ve just said, even assuming any of it is true, tends to fade from awareness (and thus active presence) in the absence of the poet’s reincarnation (reinvention?) of the word. It’s an obvious though neglected ontological (not just epistemological) truth that the incarnation of the word in Genesis was the work of a poet.

per se  reveals one text after another going to playful, strange, beautiful, dark edges of various kinds: edges of the sensibilities of composers Luigi Nono, Morton Feldman (his Crippled Symmetry), Helmut Lachenmann; to edges of the lyrical in the piece for Art Lange:

          Another lang(e)

     all the song form dusk coast broken up.
     ink neck texture business end.
     aleatorist upon nylon.
     this often since where weight leaves off.
     . . .

The title “now / time” is a translation of Walter Benjamin’s concept  of  jetztzeit  in Theses on the Philosophy of History where the present, historical time, historical consciousness, questions of redemption are investigated in a relatively short essay in the form of notes. Here is a page from Inman’s “now/time”:

      time. occupied. of. its. language.
      in. chord. betweens.

Emanations. By definition, abstract but perceptible things issuing from sources known and unknown. Poem occupying its time in its language, sounding in those chords that are betweens. There are no others. What is there other than betweens? The poet’s I-persona is in on it, in on the level (lower case first person pronoun) of every other word that makes “i am” what it is.  Emanations of Benjamin’s emanations of History’s present pasts occur poetically in a now / time carrying its words toward its future.  That future is in the reader, in the active reading poesis.  Inman’s poetics, as it resonates with the question of time in Benjamin’s essay, is enacting its difference from that essay by means of transitive powers that can only retain their vitality by touching both poet and reader in continuous semantic transformation.

Joan Retallack

Joan Retallack's most recent poetry volume Procedural Elegies  / Western Civ Cont’d /  was an ARTFORUM best book of 2010. She is John D. and Catherine T. MacArthur Professor of Humanities at Bard College and lives in the Hudson Valley north of NYC.