September 16, 2016
Back in August, I posted some thoughts on automatism as a writing technique, and promised to elucidate the inner-workings of that method by recording an automatic reading process. To this end, I’ve decided to examine “Workday Breathing Exercises” by Trina Burke. To read the poem in full, follow this link to the Typo Magazine website. (check out their archives too; they publish strange and complex work.) If you missed last month’s post and want more context for what’s to come, you can read it here.
Burke’s poem, of course, may not have been composed by means of automatism; happily, we can’t know for certain how any poem gets written. Messy, excessive, and broadly interpretable, it nonetheless exhibits certain markers of automatism, enough I’d say to justify an automatic reading. The very first line presents an obstacle: “We meet fruit flies in an office kill resin-trap amber page.” End-stopped yet grammatically ambiguous, it stymies all forward progress. I’m forced to reread, find a way through by my wits alone. So, I make my own sense, I free-associate. With what context the title offers, the word “office” seems to, in my mind, place the poem in a white-collar desk job, though the grammar, tricky to pigeonhole is anathema to the rationale of bureaucracy, if not the reality of it. The word “page” implies both paperwork and poetry. “Kill resin-trap” is likewise ambiguous, referring either to the way paperwork traps the word and kills it, holding it in stasis—or how a poem can kill a word while also preserving it, as if in amber, in an aesthetic contortion. The second and third lines drive the reading into even stranger territory: “Spend” could refer to time or money, “type” to typeface or office workers stripped of personal characteristics. This tension between bureaucratic and poetic language runs throughout, never reconciled, with lines like “transpose considered dyslex” in all but hand-to-hand combat with the likes of “…Crows and strawberries // square away whiff of orange blossom or my head, warm in the nose.”
But even before I register a single word, the form has announced itself visually: The one-liner stanzas demand to be read as self-contained (like poems in their own right, as in the first line), even as heavy enjambment ropes them together across negative space.1 This alone generates a tension between, as it were, the poem’s centripetal and centrifugal forces. A delicate unity disposes over the whole, even as it threatens to wrench apart into its individual lines. That the negative space comprises no less than half the poem means a lot of breathing room, room for the vision and meditation “Breathing Exercises” connotes. This form can be said to mimic a distracted, unguarded consciousness—a state of mind the Surrealists strove to record, hoping to capture repressed unconscious material. The form seems not to have been imposed upon the content, but rather, derived organically from content, and integrated with it. Burke’s is a poem in which content and form mediate one another.
Because I cannot remain complacent, the poem generates more meaning than it could by sacrificing on the altar of clarity.
The musicality of language—more often than imagery, which, even at its most surreal, props up the hegemony of eyesight—can depose semantic content. To paraphrase the line “Amortization if into a pod pick my child a little golden rosy boy named Hans and a strong sense of justice,” would do it irreparable damage. Where its syntax detaches from communicative function, the interplay of vowels, a rhythmic alternation between long O and quickfire I sounds, takes over as a law of form. One hears the ongoing tension between jargon polysyllables and poetic diction as a clash of sounds. This dissonant construction of the line blocks me, the reader, from gliding down a groove of familiar syntax. Because I cannot remain complacent, the poem generates more meaning than it could by sacrificing on the altar of clarity. “Musicality,” then, represents one formal approach to the organization of language as material—raw sound, utterance. Where it derives from within, as it does here, and is not overlaid as a set of conventions from without, the poem comes into its own.
As I zoom-out, the form elaborates a vast space, a geography stretched between “Miss Paris France” and “Vomit but tummy yummy page kimchee,” between “River bother // midges and Vilna…” and “Text the state of Minnesota”. Whether these moments gesture at vacations taken in the speaker’s imagination, or a workspace proliferated by globalism, remains unclear. Thanks to a built-in ambiguity, the poem effectively encompasses all interpretations that arise from its material. To impose one unitary narrative would constitute a violent reduction of the poem. Such vastness, pressurized inside the limited frame of a poem, triggers—for me—what Adorno calls in his Aesthetic Theory the shudder, a sense of self-extinguishment in the face of the artwork. The poem as concretized expression, as a thing in itself, overwhelms every attempt to pin it down. To speak of a “speaker” hardly makes sense. What must go unreconciled gives rise to a linguistic autonomy: words as “fruit flies,” or dancers whose “skirts spin inverse tornadoes clackety back shoes full of gifts.” The poem, by tapping into the collective unconscious, emerges to a life of its own, it grows and proliferates itself through every rereading. Because it transcends authorial intention, it ruptures the confines of authority, of readership, and makes itself huge, monstrous, dare I say sublime.
- In general, I prefer “negative space” to “white space”, as it connotes a gap to be crossed or filled in by the reader, a space for imagination, not simply a blank.