Learn a trade
to sit at desk
–“Poet’s Work,” Lorine Niedecker
Karena Youtz: Upon first entering Bravura Cool, at the title “The Better Condensed,” I encounter a poetry familiar, and am called to poetry as “trade.” “Two” at the start suggests dichotomy or pair, but it will not be this simple. A sonic series of ors/oars follows. These include: “languor-scored,” “journey,” “Newark” [new ark], “Airforce,” “or,” “cellular,” “Monitory,” then a transition to “perfidious” “her,” on the way to a “hunted certain idea,” and this is where one wishes to discover how to find the idea. In the next poem, “Outering,” music is offered up as a potential form of discovery (“Hear its phasing—”) resonant with phrasing:
“What I hear is murmur” in “The Freight.” What is carried by sound, language and music?
“The Freight”‘s own question: “what are you driving at/driven to?”
In “Errata”: “does it say”?
Of the many measuring devices and scientific implements, in “Oscillate/Oscitance” the body also becomes a conductor at: “coherer [heart]
From my reading of this poem, writing is more of a voice than a human voice is, because of the human voice’s physiologically limited frequencies. A sense develops of poetry as an instrument able to, in “Never Saw So Much Field,” “see sound” (what does sound carry?).
We have already been asked in “The Freight” to “look at this new ground of mine” with its:
to particle, parallel waste,”
to which as a reader I
add lines, waves
Returning to “Never Saw So Much Field,” with its recall of Robert Duncan’s “Often I am Permitted to Return to a Meadow,” I feel it is alright to accept the ground here as poetic. The dioptra, and any other type of scope or measurement device used for scientific observation (measurements and explorations by implement), can be equated to your book’s poetry. Measure becomes a form of observation that does not need to be separated from scientific observation, but simply counted as another instrument among the many one could pick up and observe with, in whatever manner the implement was constructed to observe.
What do you think of science and poetry in relationship over the centuries? I am thinking of times when the universe had been measured out as more orderly, and sonnets could be written with great honesty, partially because there was more of a sense of ratio or rationale instead of string theory (somehow held together), chaos theory, quantum fields, etc., where observation effects what is observed, which tempers knowability and ontology.
Jane Lewty: Many of the poems in Bravura Cool in some way allude to that relationship, whether it be the speaking self in deliberation with the various permutations and problems created by technology; the failure of the instruments we make to bridge the gap between tangible and intangible (and how they often serve to illuminate what is not there—that our efforts, theoretical or practical, are a pale imitation of mind-to-mind transference, the ultimate communication); how our attempts to connect with another often seem like a supreme effort to maintain orderliness in a world that becomes incoherent in all its possibility.
I hope that the book does attempt to recognize futility in the act of naming. Observation and instinct are all we have. The dioptra is obsolete, a tool used by Greek astronomers to chart point-to-point in the firmament, knowing stars are a state of matter, that there is a fall-off curve even for the straight line between each point, between each noted value—which is what also happens in the volume trajectory of sound. And in an attempt to answer your question, “what does sound carry?” In this poem it is perhaps the hope for an end to itself, the “limit” in the third line, whereupon an understanding of a message contained within sound can be achieved. Human utterance, as you say, is not enough. It dissembles. It concludes abruptly. The poem could be the “new ground of mine,” as evoked in “The Freight” not a “murmur[ing] ha” of lost language that dispatches itself to waste.
I love that you notice the “or/oar” sounds in the opening poem which do, as you imply, gesture towards a journey that has binaries, opposites and possibilities, but can only be undertaken by a sole, often lonely, self. In talking of alternatives, I tried to say that the “either” in certain situations is no better. For example, the “frontage road” in “It’s That Place of Blanched Variety, First of Dream” that becomes “very real, most real” is terrible in actuality, rather than simply a feature of an internally constructed landscape. And “In Case of No Case for Madness: Bilocation” implies that transgressing from that lonely self can result in irrevocable mental fragmentation. In one way, I hoped to invoke the beginning of an ordeal or a quest—I guess even a homage to Pound’s “Canto 1,” with the “swart ship” that “Bore sheep aboard her.” It was at a later stage in the composition of Bravura Cool that I realized it was a composite whole, an orchestrated journey that involves so many misapprehensions of action, sound and, as you say, “scope and measurement.” I also recognize there are a lot of questions throughout: Will I hear you? Do I believe you? And many other phrases envisaged but never uttered, many truncated sentences. There’s also a “mistake,” or a “poor accident,” a “hallucination” that hovers behind many of the poems. This mistake can be interpreted as human error, but it also reflects upon any (including scientific) experiment that never reaches its potential. Here I could add to what you say about chaos theory, or quantum physics which, I think, enacts its own perfidy or treachery (by promising so much by its ideation), but nevertheless alienates us by impenetrability. You need a code or a kind of priest-like fervor to be initiated, or the patience to loop back to its simplicity, the original idea.
In terms of code, I encounter The Transfer Tree as a living world that unfolds gradually. By that I don’t simply mean the natural environment, but a pantheon or ecosystem, a collective force without the restricting ideology of individualism. A book that rises to life in its connection to what Don Mee Choi wonderfully calls “an aching fairy tale world.” But isolation also occurs in that world. Is that why the paralegal and the researcher are named so—as paracletes to guide the “felt self” towards understanding? In the final poem, a new map is unrolled. One of my favorite lines is “I forget earth it remembers itself” (“Ursa Major and Ursa Minor”). But throughout, the two guides seek to illuminate the hidden. They also engender discomfort in the process of understanding. In the poem “Peek out of the Black Hood into Abject Darkness, Feel Further (The Split Branch’s Fist-Size Bole),” you write, “He talks me through: Want fear / to be of something? Want reasons / it would not be interesting to reduce?” What are these lines referring to?
KY: These were dream and vision figures that would combine at times, then split into their different functions as guides, comforters and hubs of information. They appeared in these roles. Once I started to get past some of the personal connotations and narratives I imposed on the dreams, I started to understand this figure more and more. It remains hugely difficult for me to have betrayed him into the evidence of text, but I hope he remains unfixed. For each person, if needed, certain figures are going to appear in their particular forms in dreams and other places, and they can help (in abandoning the subject/object split). The paralegal researcher is specific to my experience, and yet when the roles and words of the name come up, there are collective elements. People can feel these other realities, if not measure them rationally or hold onto them in a fixed way. When these guides show up within feeling and other senses, the “felt self” or experiential, an inwardly observable version of reality becomes available (in my case slowly). For me, in these moments of inward sensing, reality is primary.
I also like the name because it sounds sort of official, like a title, like he earned it, which he did. He can go back and forth effortlessly because he doesn’t experience the divisions. I want people to be able to observe and experience the realities they need. The speaker needs him.
You write “isolation also occurs in that world,” the world of the book. Isolation occurs as a form of exile. The fact of the existence of reality pushes fantasy away, pushes the “known self” into discomfort and worse. In my book, the speaker at first encounters the paralegal researcher as a vital source of love. In the first moments of their togetherness she receives the information that he will never harm her. No harm can happen in the places where he appears. No matter what takes place and how bad it feels, she understands he will never hurt her. Trust develops. She has to stop fighting the discomfort and loss. When the new map is unrolled at the end, he gives her the foundational information—the “key” “into the center of every direction.” You wrote that the book “unfolds gradually,” as do the speaker’s awareness and perceptions.
To “illuminate the hidden,” as you write, there has to be a sense of the known, of the many functioning structures of observable reality, some of which are concealed based on our conditioning and definitions. The paralegal researcher arrives in a liquid sense, rather than from the factions/fractions of dogma and exoterism. There is nothing to experience in an explanatory narrative. The speaker drops her “story,” and I hope other people who read the book also see “a living world that unfolds gradually” as you do, because that is what I hope for when the speaker (anyone) surrenders to reality and accepts what is happening. Personally, I fought (and still fight) hard to make a life I think I should try for, that is so different than life is. Somehow, by some grace, I have been able to slowly begin to see a living world, not the deadness and fixation of the rational-material. I wish I were more near whatever the light is (lights are) that shines to illuminate. Does it have a source or sources? I want to be near, inside, connected—not push away with rational explanation or definition.
Conversely, in “Never Saw So Much Field” in Bravura Cool, the poem asks:
What is the new instrument.
What am I missing.
Due to the punctuation, the question itself (“What”) is the new instrument. And “I” could either be missing the instrument/question, or the I itself could be missing. When “I” or perception is called up as an implement, I am wondering whether you retain any sense of the “I” or self as a special problem of poetry. If it is another implement with its limits, (missing things, sometimes not being present), is that problematic any more than any other limited method of observation and measurement? As in: A telescope and a microscope cannot be used for the same types of observations. Certain selves will have certain limits. Does it matter that the “I” has these limits in the context of poetry as a type of observation? This brings me back to Niedecker and the word “trade.” Starting the book with all the “ors.” Aren’t we always making choices about what we pay attention to, and how, even if unconscious choices? Do you think that the provisional nature of the data the “I” gathers disqualifies it as valid data?
Also, as poet, why condense? And how?
JL: I’m glad you refer to that line. It’s certainly debatable as a signal to something larger. “What am I missing” is not used interrogatively but elliptically. It alludes to the identity of something that can’t be defined any other way, like the “whats and hows” of a process. Within this poem, “what” (and the search for it) is allowed to proliferate. But as you ask, does “the provisional nature of the data the ‘I’ gathers [disqualify] it as valid data?” It’s not that I see the “I” as a problem to or within poetry. But in Bravura Cool I wanted to investigate the “confusion in the threads”—I’m quoting here from the poem “Ib/Ba,” which takes much of its impetus from the Egyptian Book of the Dead, a text that has no single author but exists as a collection of hearsaying (funerary texts written on papyri that were specific to the individual deceased person and, as a result, they’re detached from the reader/interpreter). In that poem I also talk about “amentia,” the slow dissolution of the mind, where sometimes all you retain is a symbol that replaces a memory.
Elsewhere in the book there’s “agraphia,” “aphonia,” “aphasia,” all of which are impediments to gathering data that allows us to function as a sentient being. Referring to those conditions might be rather inelegant and literal of me, but I use them to point out that the “certain selves” in Bravura Cool are faulty mechanisms. Personae who have no hope of decoding their environment with any kind of veracity, and therefore condense it the best they can. They are not me, but I wanted to try to write from the vantage point of delusion, extreme loneliness, starvation or a convulsive moment of violence (to oneself or another), whereupon attentiveness is askew and one’s unconscious dictates. As the person who constructs the speaking selves, it’s hard to resist storytelling. That’s why I included the piece “Find Poem,” which is basically a field manual of lines/items that condense other poems. The speaker says: “I think surveillance is ‘magnetic observing.'” Content-wise and structurally, the line is truly meant to be evasive, disconnected to the others, like notes jotted down. But in terms of how I think of the “I,” perhaps to insert an “I” in any poem denotes a certain control, a monitoring of the kind of poem that operates via its speaker—or rather an intense attraction, a decision to create that speaker, the only voice who can transmit the idea. Many of the poems in Bravura Cool are contingent on those erratic, most definitely limited, broken-down and malleable “I”s.
KY: I’m wondering how you feel about the apparent divide between the disciplines, while reaching over into the language and accouterments of the “hard” sciences. Has this been an intuitive poetic act for you?
JL: Very much so. I really do feel a symbiosis between the disciplines. Radio was a catalyst for many of the poems. When writing Bravura Cool, I was occupied with early 20th-century applications of electricity, manuals that sought to name the smallest of devices (like a “fault searcher” in cable repair), and coined terms like “rheotome” that are still used. Such language denotes an action more specific to the way I use it in a poem. Those words imply a singular way of thinking. But when I’m trying to encapsulate one of my own theories, I find a kind of creative refuge in scientific vocabulary. It’s not clinical or merely quantitative in my mind. For example, I emphasize the two actions of “lag” and “lull” throughout Bravura Cool, as psychological impulses. But their mechanical system seemed so apt: induction, intervals, angles, entropy. “Lithium ion” (“Aporia Poem”) is a battery component, but I imagine its degradation to have a color (“silvering”). That, to me, vividly resonates as “posturing more” (a person struggling to activate themselves despite a mental weakening).
In terms of the malleable nature of words, I have an ongoing fascination with “trans” and its relation to “trance” [from its Middle English “traunce,” from Old French “transe” (passage, fear, vision), from “transir” (to die, be numb with fear), from Latin “transre,” (to go over or across)]. Derrida talks about the “role of the inspired trance we habitually call writing,” also the bringing-to-light, in the act of translating, that which has been obscured. In the bringing-across or to-light, there will always be a “between,” an indefinable space that divides. Your premise is “transfer,” which is more active: to move, copy, convey, metamorphize: “the cloth of story has been pulled away.” But I also see the elision and osmosis that occurs in a literal trance-state, and the trance-state of writing (“it will not be yourself that looks out through you,” “You yourself become the automatic / of me,” with both lines spoken by the paralegal, an office which, by definition, is a kind of medium between one entity and another). There are many instances of quasi-possession, the repeated affinity with the snake and others: “My friend wears the diadem of stars I wear his voice.”
There are also moments of stasis. In the poem, “Cannot Be Transported or Preserved,” the natural world remains immobile. A rock is “to be / broken up” and not yet malleable. In “Felt Sense Reconvenes” the question is asked: “Isn’t it impractical? I ask / to live as one dead.” My question is inspired by the opening lines of the poem “By Accident Tracking Him Where He Went”:
Following the paralegal’s vanish I stop / transplace / without manifest quiet and wide Full of / images flash to life / a continuum does not dream / or decide.
Do you feel as though “transplace” is where these poems take place, in that “between”-state? That there is no specific definition of “trans–” in the book?
KY: The paraclete intervenes in non-transfer. The poems happen, yes, without manifesting in a rational sense, and this area of activity is what wound up as “transplace,” beyond or between place, yet also located in text and context. There is always doubleness (or more), and that is how the paralegal researcher manages to effortlessly shift around from paraclete (comforter, intercessor and yes, an esoteric version of the New Testament meaning), to paralegal (I like “para” here as “parameter” and also in the Sanskrit “beyond”), to researcher (seeing back), and the combinations of all possible persons within the name.
As far as a between place: I feel like it’s all between. The state of one to the other is a problem the speaker has. She wants to get across or over to him, and he’s already around or beyond or in. It’s this almost impossible action, for her, of getting into the infinite gap or space of reality.
I find Bravura Cool to be an intricate book of many textures and states that yields up its poems to effort and observation. The writing is incredibly skilled and deliberate. I went with close reading, micro, in order to get to the poems. Is there a way you would lead me to a larger sense of the book as a whole, on a macro level? How would you like the book to be observed? Which tools might help a reader most?
JL: Thank you so much for enquiring, for appreciating the book in this way. I do agree that some of the poems are tightly sealed, revolving in their own argument even though the outcome is an [inter]connected narrative. The issue here is that I tend to think associatively, superstitiously. In life, generally, I’m alert to clues and cues. Or else I create them. I wrote Bravura Cool in such a manner. The title is sort of a misnomer. I had in my mind the slow burn of ice. Extremes of temperature proliferate in the book, meteorology, the meeting of extreme weather fronts, “convex heat binding with cold” (“Squall Line”) and how glass is made—molten fluid that hardens into cool alloy and back again in glass-transition, amorphous to brittle and so forth. One final image is the “fernseed after fire, that’s what I feel,” with fernseed being the minute spores by which ferns reproduce themselves and, mythologically speaking, thought to confer invisibility upon whoever holds them. As in James Frazer’s The Golden Bough, perhaps:
fern-seed . . . would seem to be an emanation of the sun’s fire at the two turning-points of its course, the summer and winter solstices.
Here I wanted to mimic emotional and interpersonal experience; how “bravura,” a bright performance of great confidence and versatility, can easily change. I think the state of disappointment is just that: the benumbing of what you hoped was vibrant, blazing and alive. And then “what are you driven to?” when your own apparent virtuosity (intellectual, scientific, practical, physical) cannot save you and you feel the “sheer unbearable of not having” whatever you wanted. Then madness. The need for religion. Irrevocable stasis. The state of indecision due to fear, a “whiteblaze kind of settle.” Or even worse, to realize the poem cannot help, it is “a working-jaw kind of silence,” which I sometimes felt as the writer of Bravura Cool. Many of its poems enact those anti-solutions, in a variety of ways. For example, I repeat the letters “lim,” not only to denote mathematical sense (when a function, metric or topological, reaches its capacity), but also as the first syllable of the word “limerence,” otherwise known as obsessive love. In “Find Poem,” the “hunted certain idea” of the opening poem “The Better Condensed” is repeated. The potential discovery that you mention is not the “you,” the “me,” “God [or] the weather” or “a love song or a myth,” all of which occur in Bravura Cool. The discovery is always subject to codifying, a word I use in the last poem, “Give.” It is re-told and re-visioned and re-ruined time and again. That is why the poems inhabit and message each other. They are “storied-into,” diagrammic, telegrammic . . .
Stylistically, I often use forward slashes (//) to in some way denote breakage, and I observed they are also present in The Transfer Tree. In “By Accident Tracking Him Where He Went” the lines are punctuated by those incisions, which occur elsewhere in the book. But they seemed so prominent here, in a poem that relates “Points of attention [that] / vanish into attention / canceling perception.” Most crucially, “Every connection he gaps / as meaning” (the noun utilized as a verb gives a fleeting optical illusion of “gape”). Is the (/) essential to not only “the spectral alphabet / impossible on his page of the absences / whose signs are never transitive” in this particular poem, but to other poems and perhaps the book itself? Is this condensery?
KY: In “By Accident Tracking Him Where He Went” the forward slashes function almost as dynamic parentheticals, staked in, rapid, unremovable. They have to do with a basis. To me, they appear connective and directional. In the book the action is further and further in. When two are together around a word, there’s a way to embed. When a forward slash separates words in other poems, the words are two sides of a coin. Forward slashes feel so fast, like a synapse jump. There are places in the book with two slashes in a row. Now I write poems with up to five in a row ///// It’s like: Let’s go . . .
I guess it’s a lucky person who loves punctuation.
Jane Lewty is the author of Bravura Cool. She currently lives in Amsterdam.
Karena Youtz lives and works in Boise, Idaho. Her book The Transfer Tree is available from 1913 Press.