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Friday, 9 September 2011

Stephen Burt on Vincenz Serrano's 'Static'

from New Poetries V © Vincenz Serrano

*Click on the image above to enlarge it, or click here to read Vincenz's poem on another site.

Two apparently, or at least initially, unrelated texts, lineated in two columns to make up one poem, one text more conventionally introspective, the other more plotted, and grisly: the device isn't entirely new (see W. D. Snodgrass's 'After Experience Taught Me') but it's still unusual, and it comes with questions of its own. What does each column or queue of text say and do, separately? how and why do they come together? what do the juxtaposed dual texts do that an obviously unitary poem (or essay) could not do or mean?

In this case, they are new takes on an old verse form, the dialogue (as in Yeats and Marvell, for example) between the body and the soul, whose overtones of information theory and quantum paradox ('I' as wave, "soul" as pattern, as information; body as medium) dovetail with the dualities of the poem's form.  The narrow text speaks both for and about the self, the 'I', the soul, comparing it to the disorganized waves we call static, distinct in kind from what they pass through. 'No tempo no/ tone no melody/ no lyrics'  inhere in it, yet it is part of 'hearing', is background noise: the ear can register it as 'silences', since it is something we learn to ignore, and while we can associate it with death, the end of the ego ('cliffs/ crumbling') we can associate it with the ego as well. As static occurs in the background of almost all sound, so my selfhood, my presuppositions and predispositions, inflect everything that happens to me; who I am is part of my experience, it pervades my experience, and yet it belongs to no isolable part. I move through my world as a wave moves through water, as a light wave moves through space—so this column implies—an immaterial unity, easy to notice (once sought), but impossible to capture all on its own.

So this column says, comparing my self, the self that speaks for me in my poem, to a wave, in 'the trough and/ crest of my/ voice'; so it joins its mildly scientific language to the centuries-old queue of poems in which the poet identifies himself, or herself, with a battery of incompatible things: poems of 'I am... I am', from Taliesin to Berryman. I can be all those things, and yet none, and still be unitary, if I am a spirit, a wave, a phenomenon, whether meaningful (music) or without clear meaning (like static), able to pass through them all, and remain the same.

The wider, more eventful, more disturbing text makes a lot more sense if you read it second (no wonder the narrower, 'When songs' text starts first); that wider text speaks, as it were, for bodies, for matter, suggesting that bodies and souls might be things of the same kind. If the narrow text meditates on a unity, the wider one is all about multiple thing, discrete actors, and objects changed or destroyed when acted upon. It's 'dramatic' in that sense (though not in others) rather than lyric or meditative, and it's disgusting, when it concerns flies or The Fly. When it concerns teleportation (whose failed invention permits the plot for The Fly) it lets us go back to the questions the first column raises, and it lets us start to connect the two.

The novice inventor can teleport inanimate objects, but not living things, not 'flesh', or not without making them dead; there's something in them—call it spirit, or soul, or self—that can't be described by descriptions of mere matter. (That something, that spirit, may just be the wave, the pattern, the narrow column described.)  The people in this wider column later discover that they can rearrange the still-mysterious relation between soul (or spirit or self) and body (or matter or flesh). One can put a soul into an amulet; another can take his soul with him when he teleports, but combines it with that of a fly.

The amulet is the dream of the lyric poet, the encapsulation (without reduction, without killing anything) of a soul in a human-made thing. The Fly is the reverse of that dream, soul modified by inventions designed to protect it until body breaks soul down. Do these stories (amulet and teleporter) belong to the same plot, describe the life of the same character? Or are they different stories Serrano found and juxtaposed? Whichever way we read them, both plots (wartime superhero and horror-film insect) imply a kind of pre-philosophical dualism, a willingness to believe that body and soul are discrete things, able to alter each other, contain each other, destroy each other, but not to merge. Serrano's poem, with its paired, skewed wraparound columns, represents that view with its printed page; the wider column's fractured stories, with their emotional range (curiosity, disgust, admiration, pity, perhaps even terror), look like a panorama of responses to such dualist outlooks on life.

But the poem's double columns explore that outlook without finally endorsing it. The biggest change in either part of Serrano's poem comes when the pronouns in the wider column shift from 'he' to 'we' (the narrow column has used only 'I'). At this point we may decide that we are reading a love poem, a disorienting one to be sure: 'we move towards each other and corrode into closeness.' Would you want to take part in such a process? You might, if the alternative involved spending eternity alone: Marvell's 'soul' and 'body' yearn for divorce, but 'we' may well be better off together, however grotesque the pairing feels.

A poem about the relationship between souls and bodies (Is soul like a wave in a body, or like a thing lodged in it? Can the soul be dislodged?) here morphs into a poem about how souls move from one body to the next; how lovers can share them, and how poets can too. We might (despite 'static', despite difficulties in communications) represent this process as an exchange of information. Really selves move, are communicated, make their connections, not through amulets, nor through teleportation (which only moves matters, or pieces of matter, about), but through the exchange of words, of information (the opposite of 'static'), of words like the words in this poem, whose discomfort with physical embodiment, whose unease about an intuitively plausible solipsism, Serrano communicates over to you.

Serrano therefore stops at one of the few sites where you can read two texts as if they were one and discover that they make grammatical and intellectual sense: 'The future is the present passing away the ocean through cracks in the wall. On the other side, let me merge with who I am, of my speech[,] and come out undisguised.' It is an impossible aspiration—no soul can be undisguised, un-simplified, un-distorted, and still be represented, made present for others. In the same way, no wave can be without a medium. And yet light passes through space without any need for a physical, tangible medium (as Michelson and Morley proved); like a light ray, like a teleporter's signal, the soul of one writer can be made present to others, not in the present but in the future, as long as poets can find the right words for poems.

To end that way makes 'Static' sound more hopeful than it feels: it is a grotesque poem, in the uneven hybridity of its visual form and in the fate that Serrano allots his characters (dissipated, deformed, eroded, taken away). We, too, face grotesque fates—we die young or get very old; we may find that due to our own infirmities, or due to cultural change, our own words become as unintelligible as static, as surf, as dust, as the hissings of flies. You had better try to figure out what you want to say, what you want to create, what 'we' and what body might fit your soul, while you have time.

Stephen Burt's latest books are Close Calls With Nonsense: Reading New Poetry (Graywolf Press) and, with David Mikics, The Art of the Sonnet (Harvard University Press).

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