ISBN# 0-9720662-3-3, 2003
Spuyten Duyvil, $10
The word Brian Strang has taken as title for his first poetry collection, “Incretion,” is a nominalization derived, according to my American Heritage, from no verb of its own, but rather from the prefix “in” plus the verb “secrete.” Since the term names both the process of such internal secretion, and the product secreted, it is both unseen agency and agent. As title to Strang’s collection, the term suggests not only the elusive actors operating within and upon the individual and the social/political body, but also the unseen forces incrementally moving the tectonic plates of our seemingly stable relations to meaning, that landscape of surface subjectivity always ready to shift upon its fault lines.
“What you think is thinking is really an intersection of slow-moving natural forces and the human toll of misery…. And now the campaign of documents has begun, merciless even on the skin. This has nothing to do with silence. Deep bending movements of gaunt figures, outlines on the sand are pulling along a great wheel, making way for the leaders.” (16-17)
Despite Strang’s avoidance of antic diction or unusual syntactic constructions, despite his use of what seems an easily apprehended, sensory suggestive mimesis—we sense in these poems a change in the state of representation that is as pervasive, disruptive, as disturbingly familiar in its organic strangeness, as are the effects of hormone secretions within the body of a pre-adolescent.
“Each moment is intact and towering. The lake, the bay, the ocean. On your forelegs, sip from a pool. The same existential view from any angle. Once every several years you are complete. Always the same with reverberations. Full of noise and presences. What is it called? The tension made you sit completely still. Made you alive by moving.” (20)
Some of the poetic practices that we can discern in Strang’s poems include the many aporias of paradox, which suggest an affinity with surrealism’s use of opposites to kaleidoscopically expand any seemingly direct line of reality. Also, there is the mixing of conceptual categories of type and class that create what Michel Foucault calls “heterotopias,” and offers Jorge Luis Borges as an example of an author skilled in their creation. Borges’ use of them cause a disturbing unease in his readers, who are forced to assess the fragility of their most basic frames of language—frames that are essential to sustaining a sense of coherence of perception (The Order of Things xviii).
In Strang’s poems, the conceptual structures exposed as both limiting and unsteady include our social/political systems, our psychological autonomy, and, at every turn, our relationship to the authorial voice and its accepted position of authority.
“Press you palms into the dust. This is an immovable silence. You collect some papers and stack them neatly in the field, trying for a semblance of order, falling asleep with a finger to your lips, thinking that this is a science of models.” (16)
Strang offers a “finger to your lips,” a secret already hidden within the gesture, which is the gesture succinctly expressing its occlusive presence—a “capsule” where we might “bask” in the “warm humanity of everything” but which is as impossible to locate as “the streets of a forgotten city, dust clogging its arteries.” Such incretions in language, of language, offer no palliative beyond the intense frisson of apprehending the irresistible, ever renewing energy behind this desire to know,
“to look for ways to ask the question, wondering and looking for where…The questions is not-yet-formed. It hovers at the racetracks, stadiums, theaters, and all public places, dripping beneath the stars.” (43)
As is true of many of our most interesting poets writing today, Strang’s straightforward diction and guileless crafting of syntax belies a shifting serial complexity that allows language to expose a reader to the sentence’s meaning as one of expanding ideational capacity. It is a capacity that is both reflective of, and subversive to, the common accrual of context.
“Candlelight casts an exact circle the length of consciousness. There are cracks in this paradox. You are a helpless passenger floating over the boiling mud. Ancestral tribes. The portals.”
Sonically, we readers are indeed “passengers floating over” Strang’s cadences.
“Before bed, remove the stones you carry in your shoes as you walk along the concrete shoreline.” (27)
Here, “the stones” recall the most romantic of poetic tropes, carried both in concept and in the tread of the poet’s tone. But Strang’s directive “before bed” couches the potential seriousness of poetic directive in the humorous brusqueness with which an advertisement might suggest that one take an alka-seltzer to quell some interior trouble. In Strang’s use, even the word “concrete” causes a kind of vertiginous dissolution of the image: while suggesting the barren efficiency of urban blight, Strang’s placement of the modifier more subtly calls the shoreline’s “concrete” actuality in the poem into question, even as “the shoreline” is being satirized as a typical poetic trope of solace.
Because of the apocalyptic darkness of so many of Strang’s images, so many of them briefly glimpsed frames dissolving in a stream of constant parataxis—
“A figure is on the horizon, the nearby hill soaked in red, hanging by the feet in individual freedom, leaving the people stretched, the graveyard of the nameless” (29)—
“Empty river banks, approaching a fact of the day infringing on the outlines of the visible. Wavering ghosts unmake themselves. In the reeds, a movement assuring you of impermanence.” (21)
I can’t help but conjure a vision of Mad Max, as poet, down-shifting fast as he drives his cursor across the barren expanse of a collapsing screen of possibility. But there is no “Mad Max” here . Rather we find only that energetic non-signifying driving force, which is nameless within the language itself. Whether we call it “incretion,” or think of Julia Kristeva’s “chora,” this scenery necessitates no exterior reference, but instead exposes the reader to the text itself as burning, blighted, and yet endlessly renewing realm of emergence. Here, the variously advantaged pronouns, apocalyptic actors in meaning’s mayhem, appear only to wreck the expected conceptual structure, even as they eye an elsewhere that is here, that is us:
“gazing into the avarice, coming to a boil, turning on themselves. These developments are the same they have always been. The wolves are inside the city gates.” (21)
Not surprisingly, Strang demonstrates respect for the lineage of Romantic poets who would find in language the resources to awaken us to the sublime interrelations that imagination might construe. But Strang’s appreciation is offered as eulogy—“[n]ostalgic, [for] the tones and sounds. But there was something possible and grand.” (11)
Interspersed in Strang’s cornucopia of dissolving dimensions are directives that one cannot help but feel are either addressing the reader or offered as the internalized talk of some anonymous speaker:
“Drive in your car to the outside of town, to a place were reading is done through the eyes of someone you know.” (39)
An endless loop of un-resolvability keeps such anxiety-increasing admonishments alive in a reader’s consciousness. As Strang’s text expresses it, in its typically occlusive exposures, “There is something of action and circumstance in these gestures.” (44)
It is a meaning that is constantly reassessing our failures to fix it in language, or as Strang puts it,
“The body’s own wisdom of matter questions the space you move through. And now you glide into an extension of the inconceivable, a vivid release of suffering./ There will be some big words afterwards—corruption, regeneration, geometry. But you are in the natural retreat of the season, flooded in innocence and forgetfulness, and you make your way back to your capsule, basking in the warm humanity of everything. (26)”
Perhaps we find here the “incretion” of an awareness that Fredric Jameson calls the “forgetfulness of being,” which “must always be forgotten.” (The Seed of Time 85) Or as Strang offers,
“In the streets of a forgotten city, dust clogging its arteries, overlaying its plan with time and covered in this city are a people who speak to us about what we have become and say that we are the same and yet we have ruined everything. The impact of this is heightened in the translation and we listen and yet we do not change and the row of elm has come down splintered…. You had heard the town was beautiful and it was and there is only lament when you see it.” (18)
Here is both the horror and the humor of this “ennui” as Jameson calls it, “the organic feeling of our inner vegetal time [which] wishes to be repressed, denied ignored, concealed, and finally rationalized out of existence.” This nature of being, which is apprehended in the event of the poem is, to use the oldest of clichés, an image within a mirror within a mirror. Even as the language surfaces of each incidence are filled with seemingly substantive appearances, they offer us an angle upon the real that exposes, as Jameson explains, each as being a further “dimension of concealment.”
In all of these ways, Strang constructs apocalypse in the tensely fragile, inherently corruptible collapsing architecture we know as the page. “So: a poem with the consequences of an ‘event,’” offers Ann Lauterbach, citing “Guest, Scalapino, Retallack,” as a short list of the range of its practitioners, to which I would like to add Strang. Of course, I can’t raise such practices without paying appropriate homage to Robert Duncan’s directive that “we do not say something by means of the poem but the poem is itself the immediacy of saying—it has its own meaning.”