Online Edition: Spring 2004

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Involuntary Vision

After Akira Kurosawa's Dreams

edited by Michael Cross

Avenue B Books ($12)

by Mark Tursi

Akira Kurosawa's film Dreams is an enthralling exploration of humankind's relationship with the imagination and the unconscious, as well as with the natural world, so it's no surprise that eleven cutting-edge poets have paid homage to it in this new anthology, aptly titled Involuntary Vision. As editor Michael Cross notes in his introduction, Kurosawa uses a poetic logic that is rich in "image, sound, ethos and texture"; like Kurosawa's characters, these poets reveal that the tragic and monstrous in our world is always inextricably, instinctually, and inexorably human. Their evocation of Kurosawa involves a critical exploration of human experience through oneiric and often apocalyptic language.

Though each poet presents a themed sequence, the collection is extremely diverse, ranging from the quirky sonnets of Julia Bloch to the language-centered prose poems of Geoffrey Dyer to the fragmented verse of Cynthia Sailers. With some of the poets, the connection to Kurosawa is completely explicit, as in Tanya Brolaski's "We Disparate Hellenism," which explores each story from the film with penetrating insight while calling attention to the way in which language destabilizes and disrupts perception and understanding: "Japan is too small, and inna sick red light. So I glutted (ate) my heart out. It began to leak toward morning, instructing me to Taiwan. Your embrace was almost too vicious. The breaking of certain blood vessels that made the time travel stop."

However, with many of these poems, the link to Kurosawa is implicit, tenuous, or seemingly non-existent—though the anthology remains a welcome and wonderful collection of "post-language" writers whose voices consider this inheritance and tradition, and then diverge from it in exciting ways. The book is essentially an anthology of the "New Brutalists," which as Cross notes is a name that was appropriated from Ashbery, and points toward a group of writers from the San Francisco Bay Area who, though fascinated with the processes of thought and imagination and how these impact the relation between reality and the 'self' via language, are equally interested in distorting and amplifying our understanding of human experience. (It is this distortion, and their concern with the tragic aspects of the human condition, that makes them "brutalists.") Although some of the writers in the collection might resist the label—and, as many other critics and reviewers have noted, a label such as this often amounts to nothing more than a marketing strategy—I would argue that it actually does describe an exciting new trajectory in contemporary American poetics. Like the L=A=N=G=U=A=G=E poets before them, the New Brutalists exhibit an inherent suspicion in the way language filters our perception of reality and, therefore, a keen interest in the materiality of language. Yet, they depart significantly from the L=A=N=G=U=A=G=E project as they are interested in signifying various aspects of emotion, reality, and experience, and obsessed with representing our cultural milieu in a way that seems more impressionistic than abstract.

Thus Kurosawa is only the lynchpin for the volume; what binds these eleven poets together is a desire to dismantle standard perceptions of reality and blur the boundary between imagination and reality, conscious and unconscious, thought and perception. Elizabeth Willis, for instance, provides a complex and contradictory vision of reality in her "Dream Anthology":

The random village declares itself
an independent blossom
Utopia cannot be seen
but costs you twice
Behind the dream behind the snow
someone closed the greenest door
on artificial islands

Willis casts language as an object in and of itself, while also questioning how language evokes an object or image and the way it supposedly produces meaning. That is, she calls attention to and disrupts standard signification, but she does not abandon it entirely. This intense interest in the materiality of language, coupled with an elegant and imagistic lexis, is as provocative as it is complex.

Stephen Ratcliffe is similarly interested in challenging the way we attempt to represent objective reality via language. In a straightforward and flat tone, he painstakingly describes reality piece by piece: "pink edge of cloud above ridge in the window opposite unmade / yellow and blue bed, sound of birds chirping in foreground / below it, waves breaking in channel." Ratcliffe takes Olson's notion of proprioception to a different level by attempting to capture the moment of the 'real' as it occurs in the always fleeting present.

Julia Bloch's "Strange Yellow Flowers" provoke twists and turns in meaning by exploring the ambiguity of signification and the multifaceted possibilities that emerge when words are assembled, reassembled, and placed in unexpected situations. She writes:

There again I've angered
the atmosphere. But there's
still these hips in long
light. It was a flurry
of news, a digital you,
then the thing itself.
Sounds as though we're
coughing up snow.

Her poems are playful and surprising in regard to the texture and surface of the language, but also disturbing in their vision of our muddled perception of reality.

Eli Drabman's poetry reverberates with the language of Jack Spicer, particularly in regard to what Ron Silliman calls "a vision of absolute Other." As in Spicer, overdetermination, negation, and effacement are Drabman's tools:

        I can't even make
sentences correctly because
it seems never clear how
to stop and make some

thing cut through, that
lasts, without throwing up
a dazzle against the dazzle

. . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . .

every time the poem makes
an embarrassment of itself
beside what might be real.

Drabman challenges the way that signs have references, but this doesn't mean he abandons meaning for complete abstraction. In fact, he is often at his best, and funniest, when using words to point toward the 'real'. In a characteristically ironic tone, he asks, "Are the headaches I've been having / evidence of emerging genius or just / another clue that I've taken the wrong / path?"

These poems and others in Involuntary Vision introduce a new and exciting poetic sensibility that subverts stable notions of identity and challenges any certainty in the way we perceive reality or our own consciousness. As Cynthia Sailers writes in "The Myth of the Individual," "Like a colony of imaginary friends. We enjoy / These new lodgings. Symbols / For our private lungs, our illuminated rooms."

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Spring 2004 Table of Contents