Online Edition: Summer 2000

Tottering State by Tom Raworth

Tottering State

Tom Raworth

O Books ($15)

by John Olson

Several days ago I happened to tell a friend something I rarely tell anyone, because it's so hard to justify: if there is a work I really enjoy, I will frequently own more than one copy. I have, for instance, three separate publications of Gertrude Stein's Tender Buttons. Furthermore (and I swear this is true) each one reads differently. Each has a different feel. The paper, the print, the binding, the cover design, it all makes a significant difference to my reading experience. Likewise Tom Raworth: I now own two copies of Tottering State. The first was published in 1984 by Geoffrey Young's The Figures. The second, just published, is from Leslie Scalapino's O Books. Both editions present work dating from 1963 and retain 1984 as a cut-off date. Raworth notes that a third, British edition, issued in 1988 by Paladin Books, includes poems written after 1984.

This most recent O Books edition of Tottering State is slightly larger in size than The Figures edition and a few of the poems have been changed. So far as I can tell, the typography of the two books is identical. A few earlier poems have been added to the O Books edition ("The Others," "Morning," "Three," "The Dublin Zurich Express," "Orrery," "Lemures," "Dear Sir, Flying Saucers! Flying Saucers! Flying Saucers!," "Blue Pig," "Taxonomy" and "Piety") but the major change is the omission of Ace and Bolivia, Another End of Ace (which are being republished as a single volume by Rod Smith's Aerial/Edge concurrently with this book), and the inclusion of Writing, long out of print.

It took me a long time to read Writing, not just because of its length (40 pages) but because of the way it is structured. There are two columns of short phrases on each page. One is invited to read each column vertically, beginning with the first, then moving back up to the second, or read horizontally, from column to column. Reading vertically, the phrases cohere more or less logically in a way that builds sense, but only in periodic bundles, or phrases. For instance,

from screen to drawing                            balances a slice
no matter                                                  of clear sky cut
what                                                            by three black cables
is a sudden change                                   by the frame
for in this area                                         our object glimmers back
that cannot be                                           we imagine at
called a landscape                                    page one the title
as anything may happen
i turn to write
instead of read
waking this morning
with a sore head

Meaning squirms, squirts, slips and slides from phrase to phrase. But the real fun, the real fascination, is in reading across, from column to column. Doing so, one can yield a boundless field of association and unintentional meaning: "from screen to drawing balances a slice of clear sky cut no matter what is a sudden change by three black cables for in this area our object glimmers back." I'm taking liberties here; I'm scrambling the lines a little to arrive at something that can only be my own creation, or a collaboration with the author. But I believe that's what Raworth has intended: a process in which reading and writing are simultaneous activities.

Raworth avoids majuscules and this gives his lines a humbler, non-hierarchical, welcoming feel. There is also a simplicity, a quirky charm, to Raworth's lines, a blithe felicitous angle that inclines the mind toward unearthing splendid winds and quantum truffles from the most secret and imaginative domain of our being. Some would call it the unconscious. I call it a fabric, a volume of feeling woven in "clear water and ice." Words and lines are highly compressed: one perception immediately and directly slides to a further perception, and these perceptions accrue, multiply, ricochet and expand into a domain of accelerated cognition protean and variable as cumulonimbus, or gouache. Humor is a prominent element to the mobile architecture of Raworth's poetry, and adds to the cumulative combustion a piquancy of indeterminate pepper, giddy discontinuities and dissociative metonymies. It's a joy to find all this work together again, under a different cover, "hiding jokes in mud bricks" and "listening watching waiting."

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Summer 2000 Table of Contents