a cut map
to dance in
dancing, you feel like
so many winds blowing
forest the mind
on the open
then the earth
A swerve away from what? Where was I before I swerved?
For the reader, the first word of the poem constitutes the first swerve – away from a less attentive to a more intensified state of awareness.
We may also want to ask: a swerve toward what? Perhaps the only fit answer lies in our reading of the poem, a moving with (and being moved by) its words.
Each turn is a re-turn, and turning itself is at the heart of verse and of poetry. Motion, movement, the grace of turning, a turn of phrase, a mind in motion. The symbolic journeying of the tandem travelers: human being (consciousness) and language, that complex symbiotic dance and relationship of mind and language, a dance perhaps best played out in the most adventurous poems.
Larry Eigner’s poetry presents us with a perpetual swerving, often a swerving from word to word, from line to line. The page becomes a highly malleable (seemingly infinitely so) locale for an instance of grace of mind, a swerving that is highly particular, idiosyncratic (and a perhaps simultaneously universal?) movement of consciousness in a complex relationship with language.
At nearly every moment of Eigner’s #507 we have the possibility, and often the actuality, of a change in direction. Perhaps our own engaged questioning allows us to move with the movement of his poem. “[P]aper” – is it this paper, that is, the one where the poem is being written? Or perhaps the paper that is, as the next line suggests, “a cut map,” and is a poem, this poem, then a kind of “cut map”? cut out or from what? And the poem calls it “beautiful” – is the beauty what we are seeing emerge as the poem delineates itself, or is it something else that is more generally beautiful? What follows is a discrete series of things, a brief descending catalog – “land/ beds/ tree/ the air” – are they, each, what is
Suddenly he swerved to avoid a deer.
beautiful, or perhaps they are beautiful, as the next line suggests, “to dance in?” But how does one dance in (or with) a series of descending general nouns? Perhaps the poem is the moment of our dancing, a poem that swerves, that delights in its own possibilities of movement, “to dance in/ time”, the dance, then, being a moving in space and time. The dance takes place at least two times: in the time of the poem’s composition, and in the time of our reading of it (as we dance with and in its movement, its swerves).
Our being, then, takes place here, in space and time, in a place of “land” and “beds” and “tree” and “the air,” and we dance and we are upon “what ground” – the place that “stretches out,” and which calls to us to consider “dancing, you feel like/dancing”. That ground – as in Heidegger’s thinking – is defined by our relationship to being and time. The ground, then, is a mixture of something we think through and about, at once familiar, present, and profoundly strange and enigmatic. A known place, but equally an ignored and unknowable thing, inextricably part of our own enigmatic nature. A ground that we may glimpse or sense in some poems.
These lines then are perhaps a kind of consecutive descent – a cascade, a waterfall – of an ongoing line of thinking, an initial direction of movement that does not swerve or sway too far from its initial impulse and its initial direction. But then there is that last line of this section: “so many winds blowing”. What winds? That general “western wind” of an ongoing poetic tradition? A wind that might be upon and across “land” and “beds” and in a “tree” and essential and resident of “the air”? Or perhaps the “so many winds blowing” in any instant of consciousness, especially one manifesting itself on “paper/ a cut map”?
After a considerable open space – the largest of the poem, this “cut map” cut from an instance of awareness in space and time – we encounter the most remarkable swerve of the poem: “forest the mind”. It is an apposition, which, in retrospect – the shift in direction allows us to look back – has been mildly implicit earlier in the poem, so that we now might consider another understanding of “what ground”: a support or space or entity that allows us to hold in awareness “land” “beds” “tree” and “the air”, and to dance with these seen and named locales. That forest/mind, wherein we find “so many winds blowing” – and this goes to the heart of much of Eigner’s poetry which can be read as an ongoing
In driving, one swerves to avoid something sudden and unexpected.
In poetry, you swerve to find the unexpected.
phenomenology, a mapping or engaging of the rapidity of perception and the complexity and grace of seeing’s dance with language and naming. It is an exhilarating sense of mind, which moves us upward perceptually, to “flight” and “the sun”, a dancing “on the open”, which, ultimately, comes back down to “then the earth/ wall”.
Perhaps it is the lack of connectives from word to word and even more so from line to line, perhaps it is the lack of a typical authorial pronoun that makes the poem on the page feel like a mobile, like a suspension of words and phrases of varying weight, in charged and multiple relationships to one another. Thus from almost every line to the next, we are either swerving or taking a leap, learning as we read the poem – and tutored precisely by the painstaking arrangement of the words on the page – how to travel a similar perceptual path.
In “Of Modern Poetry,” Wallace Stevens begins by seeking “The poem of the mind in the act of finding/ What will suffice” (The Collected Poems, p. 239). For Stevens, and probably for most poets writing today, even the poem that is seen as an act of mind is still conceived of as a primarily referential writing (in a contemporary rhetoric and style) that is pointing toward or evoking an idea or a generalization or a theme. The poem remains a pointer. In Eigner’s work, the poem is the thing itself: a phenomenology of perception itself (and its inextricable link to consciousness and language as a medium of consciousness) – its inherent motion, unpredictability, swerves!, infinite wonder (and variety) – IS what suffices.
If we return to the beginning of the poem, we have a renewed and renewing sense of the poem – of poems – as “paper/ a cut map”; in Eigner’s case, a mapping of the movement of perception, which indeed is “beautiful” as it is a graceful dance of mind, a way “to dance in/ time,” though truly, as placed and seen on the page, also a dance in space. As Ben Friedlander suggests, “The wall of the left margin has been cut away, revealing the interior spaces of a poetry that, like modern architecture, is a ‘participation in space’” (DLB). What we see, read, and experience in many of Eigner’s poems (including #507) is a way of perceiving where the self has been almost entirely set aside: “Fragmentation rather than coherence of the will, the care and commotion of a self held ‘off on a side,’ expresses itself in Eigner’s work as an openness to what is outside the self – the breadth of the world, vision’s wealth” (DLB).
Eigner’s work is often referred to – perhaps principally due to its appearance on the page – as an instance of Olson’s field composition. If we return to Olson’s essay “Projective Verse” (no doubt known and read thoroughly by Eigner), we can begin to understand the radical beauty and excitement of Eigner’s poetry. As Olson understood so well, once one engages in open form, the crux of the matter becomes something like energy transfer: “A poem is energy transferred from where the poet got it … by way of the poem itself to, all the way over to, the reader. … Then the poem itself must, at all points, be a high energy-construct and, at all points, an energy-discharge” (16). Olson’s advice is to “keep it moving as fast as you can, citizen” (17). Eigner’s discovery – and it is a crucial one for the resources of poetry, and it is at the heart of his idiosyncratic, particularized swerving – is that the primary location for that energy (and its possible transfer) is the word itself and its location on the page. Unlike Olson’s work – where arrangement on the page is linked to breath and thus to vocalization of the word on the page – Eigner’s poetry becomes an instance in time and space of a subvocal or avocal manifestation of the movements of perception and consciousness-in-language. Therein lies the immense excitement in reading Eigner’s work. Indeed, a lengthy reading experience of Eigner’s poetry is remarkably like a prolonged reading of (and thinking about) Dickinson’s poetry. But that’s a generalization for another essay…
I began by suggesting that the first swerve in reading Eigner’s poem occurs in the mind of the reader; by virtue of our focused engagement with the poem’s first word, we swerve away from a more common consciousness to the beginnings of an intensified awareness and engagement. And yet a crucial secondary swerve is also important to consider. It is a swerve away from a decontextualized sense of composition (and our unthinking presumption of a healthy, normative able body as the composing body). If we think, visualize, and feel the precise circumstances of Eigner’s compositional (physical) location, we will be swerving away from an unthinking normative abstraction of how “all” poetry is composed (and read). As Robert Grenier describes it,
Interesting to imagine Larry Eigner there – in the glassed-in front porch of the lower duplex/house at 23 Bates Road, Swampscott, which had been his home now for so many years – going about his business (of noticing with exceptional ‘urgency’ (if he could only ‘direct his attention outside himself’, he could quiet the palsy, with its jerking insistencies/demands from his organism) what was ‘going on’ around him) – seeing through his windows squirrels, birds, men, clouds, etc. (Grenier’s intro to Vol. III)
Quite amazing, inspiring, and pertinent, then, to consider that Eigner, in spite of his severe case (from birth) of cerebral palsy, composed over 3,000 poems, “producing his typescripts on his 1940 Royal manual typewriter using only his right index finger and thumb to create shifting constellations of words in space whose musical and visual designs are realized in a language at once immediate and highly abstract” (editors’ jacket note, Vol. III).
As we take this second swerve – an exploration and recognition of the poet’s physical state, and a swerve toward an embodied sense of the poem’s composition – perhaps our reading of the poem changes somewhat. In light of Eigner’s cerebral palsy and the difficult process of typing his poems, do we read lines like “dancing, you feel like/ dancing” differently? Do we read differently knowing he could not dance, or does the poem itself become that dancing (which, perhaps, is how we would read the poem all along without the swerve, or knowledge, of the poet’s physical circumstance)? Do we return early in the poem to the cascade of general nouns and see now that “beds” is quite different than “land”, “tree”, and “the air”, and may indicate the obliquely the poet’s physical location?
I think that knowing Eigner’s physical situation introduces many of the same benefits, complexities, and hazards associated with most forms of identity-based (or identity-inflected) reading. Do we read all poems by an African American poet as (primarily) reflecting and expressing that identity? Same question for a gay poet, a woman, a mixed race poet, a Jewish poet, a poet who committed suicide, etc. I remember years ago when I would teach Sylvia Plath’s poetry in introductory American Literature courses, once the students learned the biographical fact of her suicide, they would begin to read all of her poems as reflecting a suicidal impulse or as a foreshadowing of her suicide. A danger, then, of a salient biographical fact – including knowledge of Eigner’s cerebral palsy – is the temptation to engage in a reductive reading that overemphasizes that one fact. In Eigner’s case, I think that we might want to have it (at least) both ways: neither to ignore the physical circumstance of composition and perception, nor to read the poems as an ongoing referencing of (only or primarily) that fact. Eigner himself in his poems rarely (if ever) makes direct reference to his situation and his physical condition. Yet it is helpful to us as readers to understand the labor and precision of the placement of the words on the page, and the importance and integrity of that deed for Eigner.
If we return, then, to the last line of the poem’s first section and to the poem’s concluding section, we begin now to have a better understanding of the possibilities associated with “so many winds blowing.” Whether we choose a somewhat traditional, romantic poetic language and speak about the winds of inspiration, or a more scientific vocabulary (akin to the energy fields of Olson’s “Projective Verse”) and speak about so many vectors of thinking and perceiving once the poem begins its motion, we nonetheless embark on “the mind/ flight”. Like the sun, the poem (particularly in open field composition) enters into a vast openness – of possibilities, of swerves that are (towards the) unexpected. Or, the poem marks an entry into a radical openness of perception (which sets the self aside). Though this poems ends, and perhaps all finite human experience does?, with that narrative cue “then”, and immediately we arrive at “the earth/ wall” and end (always?) in limitation. The poem itself is a marked (and remarkable) duration of perception that must end – until we swerve again, re-entering this poem, or another.
The Collected Poems of Larry Eigner, Volume 3, Edited by Curtis Faville and Robert Grenier, Stanford University Press, 2010.
Ben Friedlander. “Larry Eigner,” Dictionary of Literary Biography, Volume 193: American Poets Since World War II, Sixth Series, The Gale Group, 1998, pp. 114-126. (Cited as DLB)
Charles Olson. Selected Writings, Edited by Robert Creeley, “Projective Verse,” New York: New Directions, 1966; pp. 15-26.
Hank Lazer has published seventeen books of poetry, including Portions (Lavender Ink, 2009), The New Spirit (Singing Horse, 2005), Elegies & Vacations (Salt, 2004), and Days (Lavender Ink, 2002). Lazer’s seventeenth book of poetry N18 (complete), a handwritten book, is available from Singing Horse Press: http://singinghorsepress.com/titles/n18/ . Pages from the notebooks have been performed with soprano saxophonist Andrew Raffo Dewar. In 2008, Lyric & Spirit: Selected Essays, 1996-2008 was published by Omnidawn. Audio and video recordings of Lazer’s poetry and an interview for Art International Radio can be found at Lazer’s PennSound website: http://writing.upenn.edu/pennsound/x/Lazer.html.
507, from The Collected Poems of Larry Eigner, Volume 3, edited by Curtis Faville and Robert Grenier. Copyright © 2010 The Estate of Larry Eigner. With the permission of Stanford University Press, www.sup.org.