Online Edition: Fall 2001

Nova

Standard Schaefer

Sun & Moon Press ($10.95)

by Jeffrey Julich

A stem cell from the fertilized embryo of a clone has replicated and spawned and given birth to a book of poetry: Nova, by Standard Schaefer.

Aristotle and the pre-scientific world used to believe in "spontaneous generation," that mosquitoes literally sprang up out of swamps, etc. Schaefer has tilled a Petri dish where meanings and images and story lines spring up ex nihilo out of the swirling concatenations of words he rubs together for flint sparks.

The book intertwines several epic-scale themes; one of them is the science of sub-atomic particles. Quarks and mesons, infamous for their paradoxical, seemingly impossible movement (they pass through each other, can be in two places at once), are the active metaphor for what avant-garde, experimental language does. And there are eggs, and ovals, and circles, and--

The science has a Popular Science feel to it sometimes, but that at least is not a remedial "Physics for Poets" credulity, and it is far from cold or dispassionate. Where another remarkable first book like Eleni Sikelianos's First Worlds, which also uses science as a main theme, can wax mythic in imagining a magnificent, primal Big Bang, or romanticized tectonic plate shifts--consequently a sort of naïve acquiescence to the P.R. the science industry is sending off about its heroic discoveries--Schaefer's scrambling of scientific vocabulary flattens its aggressive proselytizations in a way that leaves its packaging vulnerable to a healthy skepticism.

I read one main Nova story-line, carried across poems of different stylistic method. The poetry is butch, chock-a-block with boys' stuff, guy talk ("the fist extending to darken the page," "the sting of silver nitrate then swallowed up in cowboy boots", "I sleep in my boots", "Nothing covers the scent of jism on your fingers like armed conflict or sympathy for the working man"). There is a father figure who is dimly glimpsed in the book's more ostensibly autobiographical opening series, "Fort" ("a shadow in a doorway like his father's back / but it was only a guess in his pajamas", "he reached for the roll of fifties and hundreds / kept in the glove box with the golf balls and pajamas", "sirens on the CB-- and the old man's habit of high beams"), and as the realism recedes, that father becomes gradually "sublimated" or transformed into further and further distillations of male power figures: el conquistador, bosses ("My former employer") . . . What's left behind is the vacuum of a shadowy paternal silhouette other things try to fill ("laments he's merely an outline of a blunt mass," "In the male of the species, the memories of the man who was alive chiefly in his memory"). There is something elegiac at first about "Daddy go bye-bye."

In the book's second series, "Ovalness," a God father figure gets mixed up with tough male booziness ("God was not built in a bottle") and is put through Finegans Wake-like punning transformations ("Render under Asunder what is Asudder's. Unto Grog what is Grog's"). These are often aimed at The Lord's Prayer ("Our lather who is in curved and thick space, hollow is the sequential advance echoing through your name"), an easy target that might seem puerile or pointlessly blasphemous as anti-religion polemic, but which assumes poignancy when read as struggle with Papa.

The fathers become more and more cartoon-like and comical ("another hilly-billy king whose / context has gone madly insufficient"). He can be as big as Daddy once appeared, a Gulliver from a Lilliputian's eye view ("The tub in the sky where the giants wash their testicles", "the giant has never been extensive, only promiscuous", "bees beat juicy shadows around the nose of the giant") or gnomish. Eventually, the father figure comic strips split and take on funny names, a Shem and Shaum-like, Vladimir and Estragon "general" and "groundskeeper" ("The groundskeeper was imposing, all shoulders and immaculate like a ceiling", "The general claimed to reach it, . . . the Grounds Keeper to whom the pear merely occurred"; they're caught playing their boys' games with balls: "says the General over the pings of the pinball machine", sometimes sparring in debate: "According to the crows, one crow could destroy all of heaven, and according to the General, heaven is immune . . . . The Grounds Keeper maintains both are correct") where winner/loser would only be the end of a game enjoyable mainly while it lasts.

In time, these G-men (groundskeeper/general/giant) emerge to be yang-and-yang like facets of male identity ("the impossibility of giants and generals in the same room, much less the same man"). And then they start saying things, things that interweave the book's other major themes of science or grammatological parts of speech: "'these black holes I call pronouns are but a blue thread . . . ,'--the Grounds Keeper"). The bigger they are, the harder they fall, and they must come to be undone by their man's work: "The grass eventually devastates the greenskeeper", as if the lawnmower and the thought of all that crabgrass finally did ‘im in.

After their defeat, episodic reappearances that developed sequentially, they are replaced: "the Faculty of Theology contradicts the greenskeeper . . . In place of the greenskeeper, a philosopher was sent". The speculative thinker male emerges out of the chromosomal male. But they were never really flesh-and-blood; they were parahuman ("A point made by the giant: stress on those days was placed on the parahuman aspect of the orgies").

This search for the disappearing/disappeared father, one of the Great Themes of literature--the Odyssey, after all, is the boy Telemachus's search for his father Ulysses--gets Hamlet-like in its spooky apparitions: "fleas so whereas He was once fire-clad now seems surrounded if gradually by ghosts". Indeed, the book opens with a palpable, lugubrious "There's something rotten in Denmark" sickliness: "malaria: bad air / brown wave after brown wave," a sort of Death in Venice sirocco. This is poetry written for a sick country.

There is much of the feel of Language Poetry here; indeed, it is Language Poetry, good Language Poetry. Except maybe not quite Language Poetry. Maybe Lingo Poetry. Or Jargon Poetry. Or Speech Therapy Poetry.

Whereas, for example, many Language Poets announced their intention to make a poetry of text and its printedness, a "grammatology" of language as opposed to the spoken, by casting up right to the surface of the poem a flotsam of linguistic terms that normally only refer to a text (the word "word", "letter", so on), Nova's occasional use of the same material ("Others fear the boards are as thick as a comma", "was it dash marks and vibrating diamonds / caught in the clock", "a dash mark carved through the skull", "the hyphen dividing the autotopsy" (sic), "a void between the letters and details of the window") treats these parts of speech and punctuation marks as surrealistically solid, and emotional. Jots and tittles turn into similar-shaped things: six-pointed asterisks into six-pointed snowflakes, "snow fell with no style / asterisks grew robust"; a typographic crescent shape into a quarter moon, "an aspirin in parenthesis / the aftermath of ellipsis / moon looming"; an etymology, "a tenth of an asteroid used for an asterisk"). The textual is on a plane side-by-side with things of the world.

The newness here is that this masculinity is not a phallic but perhaps rather a testicular maleness; not phallic, but "phatic" (another linguistic term, for the "uh-uh" and "yeah, yeah" fillers that keep a conversation going, here coupled with telling markers of maleness, such as measurements of size or shaft: "a million miles excrete a phatic inch", "shafts of a phatic if transitional species"). Almost lovingly, tenderly: "indentations in the grass / left by poised testicles".

The performance artist and sometimes film-maker Mathew Barney closes one of his Cremaster films with a strange shot: some weird, bumpy, infinity sign flesh protuberance fills the entire screen, squeezed through an opening. One realizes: balls. "The End" and closing credits will come down over or after a panoramic close-up of anonymous testicles. In his Cremaster opera film, a naked satyr has a Barbi's boyfriend Ken-smooth crotch but unmistakable, makeup-powdered scrotum, that tied to long ribbons at the ends of which are tied doves roosting on his shoulders. At his pantomime signal, the doves break into flight, pulling the ribbons in their wake.

Standard Schaefer is pioneering that same, disturbing, scrotal masculinity. In Nova, the ribbons the doves pull are the trails of meaning we're compelled to draw across the text. Nova's politicized manhood is to the male what feminism aimed to be to the female, a sort of liberatory explosion of imprisoning gender stereotypes.

There are some marvelous new slogans to put on our protest posters: "Taking off your clothes is not a revolution".

No wonder Nick Piombino was the judge who picked this book as the National Poetry Series winner: Piombino is a psychoanalyst by trade. It isn't often that Id writes a book. The book is strung together with a sort of fuzzy logic that's so fuzzy it's peach-fuzzy or stubbly like an unshaven chin.

I'm the boss here and this is an order. Buy Nova and read it . . . before it buys you.

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Fall 2001 Table of Contents