Online Edition: Summer 1999

Polyverse

Polyverse

Lee Ann Brown

Sun & Moon ($11.95)

by Chris Fischbach

The release of Talisman House's An Anthology of New (American) Poets is rapidly being recognized as a watershed. Whether or not the book will prove to be as influential as Donald Allen's New American Poetry is yet to be seen. But there is a changing of the guard, and a new generation is jockeying for publishing slots and notoriety. Like the successors in any movement, the new royalty will live or die not by reputation, inclusion in anthologies or magazines, but by the weight of singular book-length collections. Lee Ann Brown's Polyverse might be one of the best by the new avant-garde so far.

The poems in Polyverse, in traditional New York School or LANGUAGE fashion, are linguistic events, to be experienced on the immediate levels of (in possible order): diction, syntax, line, sentence, poem, section, and book. One of the epigraphs, by Gertrude Stein, points in this direction: "Any letter is an alphabet. When you see this you will kiss me."

If the ordinary poetry collection is supposed to be cohesive, with an overarching theme and consistent style, this collection will appear messy, thrown together. The acknowledgements and endnotes indicate that the book is made up of chapbooks, broadsides, exercises from workshops, poems culled from publication in magazines, and pamphlets: all contained in their own sections, all with their own distinct styles, and all of which can still be read separately.

Since they are presented in book form, however, one is forced to scrutinize how such disparate sections work together. Each section is like an alphabet, stacked like building blocks on other sections. The early poems are tributes to Emily Dickinson and later, in the beginning of the section titled "Comfit," Brown utilizes Dickinson's jumpy syntax to form short, epigrammatic poems that often appear glib and tossed off, as if paring down an already minimal style. Here is "Brochure," in its entirety: "A reading / folded into sections / free tamper / logic jumps logic." These poems are loose in a world where short poems tend to be tight; their logic syntactic rather than narrative or imagistic.

From there, the collection explodes into a hodge-podge of blended styles. Add lyricism to disjointed syntax and you get "Love": "I agree // when you say, 'She's cute.' / O my favorite cultural event, if you / squeeze my breasts, I'll suck your cock and we / will smell like heavenly slow motion manifestos of love." The grand campiness and ambiguous eroticism in this last stanza is reminiscent of Frank O'Hara, and it is this eroticism that helps to set Brown's work apart from so many of the poems in the other traditions she employs. In "Thang," for example, it is impossible to tell who is a man or woman or who is with whom or even when the sex is tender or violent: "Being on top pressing down with your bone on his or her thigh or pelvic bone your fingers in her or on you if you are a man and or a woman." The range of emotions, or even the fact that there is emotion, is Brown's triumph in a world where experimental poetry favors linguistic experimentation over sentiment.

But at the height of her lyrical experiments, Brown pulls back into language games. The section "a museme," ventures into Oulipo territory, where the letters in the title of individual poems are the only ones used in the text, though upon closer inspection, you'll notice she cheats from time to time. Such language games are dangerous, and rarely an end unto themselves. But again, in the section following, "CoLabs," it's easy to see how her use of different styles build on each other, and how she uses Oulipian playfulness to create lines like "i like the use of -emes like the way i want to eme you / like all of those Moxie filled women named Appliance / and fucksemes like the functuous fluxuous you / of the moment."

The anxiety of influence is a disease that infects most of the poets coming out of the Talisman House anthology. The trick, in whatever experimental poetry will become, will be to have full command over your influences, rather than drift into worthless imitation. Polyverse is Lee Ann Brown's poetry, not anyone else's, and it rises above St. Mark's Place where it will scatter into thousands of pieces and wind up on everyone's bookshelf who wants to know what's next.

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Summer 1999 Table of Contents