Wednesday, July 9, 2008

Antechamber & Other Poems

by Michael McClure

These poems move.

The one long poem and several shorter pieces that make up Michael McClure’s 1978 collection, “Antechamber & Other Poems,” leap, run and jump while always maintaining a focused center of gravity: the dimension of the page. The page exists as the unifying entity, providing an anchored hub as words whirl about and “…move/ in an expanding/ helix/ through the waves/ and fields/ and forces…” of these poems. Mind you, this movement is structured, in the same manner that “…THE EYE MAKES STRUCTURES/ WITH INHERANT/ PATTERNS…” Words are not jumbled across the page in order to generate a sense of dislocation or chaos. No, McClure’s placements of words reveal a broad, unified form – that of a helix, the elemental shape of matter in its smallest increment.

Greater diversity, and greater scope as seen in the long poem “ANTECHAMBER,” only proves to increase similarities between seeming disparities. The movement of the eye across the page creates a series of interlocking helixes, but that shape resurfaces elsewhere, since “…we’re crumpled creatures/ that move in helixes/ and hurl out/ strong/ and hungry/ loves.” Everything is connected. Everything returns. The reader need only reach out far enough to discover such persistent reoccurrences, “…the pulse/ is all/ around…” one only has to only out their net in order to catch these vibrations. This vibration is ecstatic movement!

With a few exceptions, there are two types of movement within these poems. That on display in the short poems, and that used in the long poem, though they are both basically variations on one larger aesthetic. Most of the shorter pieces are composed of lines of as little as one word each, justified down the center. This creates a rapid downward movement, one that gains momentum as the poem progresses towards the bottom of the page. McClure’s syntax is fairly straightforward through, and is mostly composed of familiar and forceful words, as well as repeating phrases and “power words.” This dynamic measure is coupled with a musical attention to the syllable reminiscent of Robert Duncan as well as Beat contemporaries of McClure like Gary Snyder. Take the very first poem in the collection, “THE RAINS OF FEBRUARY;” (months also reoccur throughout the book) “…filled with buttercups/ and blue-eyed grass/ and golden tracks of spring/ upon the hill/ and air that’s filled/ with scent of rose/ and dill.” The above quote makes up a little over a third of the poem itself. You can see how the introduction of the “-ill” sound sets up a wonderful sonic movement towards the poem’s conclusion. Ending the poem on that same sound, with “dill,” a perfectly organic word, allows a sense of completeness. There’s no mistaking that McClure is a poet of exactly such a completeness in a resounding Emersonian tradition.

The pieces in “Antechamber & Other Poems” read fast, and sometimes such speed needs to be counterbalanced. In order to introduce stops and snags in such sparse and quick-moving poems, McClure uses a number of methods. For instance, some words and phrases appear in all capitals. These capitalized statements often signal the start of either a poem or a segment of a poem, and they also draw attention to certain key statements, such as “…THERE IS BUT ONE/ POLITICS AND THAT/ IS BIOLOGY. / BIOLOGY IS POLITICS.” These phrases set up the remainder of the surrounding text, and provide a pivot-point for the poem.

Long, unbroken lines are also used to break individual poems into smaller sections. These unbroken lines resemble a horizon, being both a termination point and an imagined location - a boundless place. Look at the title page of the original New Directions edition of the volume. On it, the broad fin of a whale breaks the horizon line. See, the line acts as both a dividing line and a line that must ultimately be crossed by the reader’s gaze. How is the reader to connect the larger body of something like “POLITICAL POEM,” composed of lines like “ANARCHY LEADS/ to perfect discipline,” and “Let/ us/ laugh and scream/ our way/ to fine-edged embarrassment,” and reconcile it with the four concluding lines following the dividing line: “The eyes of deer. / Black holes in space. / The look upon/ a lover’s face?” Now, are the final four lines visceral examples of the poem’s earlier declarative statements? Is this final segment a widening of the scope into a world embracing both the physical (the actual “eyes” of a deer), the expansive (“black holes”), and the purely emotional or spiritual (“the look” that’s on a lover’s face)? There are many possibilities, in addition to the purely mechanical asset of these dividers, to slow down the pace, and provide a bridge between poems.

A few paragraphs back, I mentioned that there are two distinct types of movement at work within McClure’s collection. The first, which is on display in the shorter pieces, is mentioned above. The second type of movement occurs in the collection’s title poem, “ANTECHAMBER.” While the words of the shorter poems are justified down the center, the lines in this longer poem zigzag down the center, the right column and the left as well as including degrees of both left and right. The visual rhythm of these lines’ placement is in constant flux, never normalizing into a Mayakovsky step.

Sometimes phrases proceed in a central column akin to the shorter poems, such as “WE CAN/ STRETCH/ AND SING/ WALK LIKE/ FREE MAMMALS…” before the lines ricochet to the left and then the right for “…or an eagle,” and “The pulse/ is all/ around…” The dividing lines that appear in many of the shorter poems also reappear in “ANTECHAMBER,” separating each “movement” of the larger whole. Phrases and words reoccur in each divided segment, repeated like mantras. We read “…the gnats/ at sundown/ in the rosy/ lovely light/ are/ COUSIN/ ANGELS/ catching/ light/ upon their wings/ in the antechamber/ of the night,” a number of times throughout the poem. At each instance, the phrase accumulates momentum, either from the context of the words around it, or due to its shifting projective placement. The capitalized phrases, save “COUSIN ANGELS” which remains in caps throughout each and every incarnation, shift as well. Sometimes “THE GNATS/ AT SUNDOWN…” is capitalized, while at others it’s “…CATCHING/ LIGHT…” The shift in focus allows the phrase to retain its unity while accumulating additional nuances.

But don’t think that the repetition of phrases and ideas throughout McClure’s poems do not render them worn or frightfully and thoroughly “known,” instead they imbue words with an airy mystery. At one point in “ANTECHAMBER,” McClure declares “THIS BOOK IS FAIRY STUFF,” and yes, his poetry captures exactly such a sense of mystery. He writes “We built/ too well/ too definite regarding/ what we think/ we are,” and there is indeed a strong insistence here on mystery’s importance, of allowing things to remain on some level unknowable, despite our Emersonian connection to it all.

I started JK Huysmans’ “La Bas” a couple days ago, and I feel a quote from that novel perfectly captures McClure’s almost moral insistence that we acknowledge this transcendental incomprehensibility: “Right here on earth, how could any of us deny that we are hemmed in by mystery…” Michael McClure tells us that that’s perfectly fine, since mystery is, like everything else, also a part of us. It is integral, and it is beautiful.

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