Fathom | Neo-Surrealism; or, the Sun at Night

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Neo-Surrealism; or, the Sun at Night: Transformations of Surrealism in American Poetry 1966-1999
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Andrew Joron

by Noah Eli Gordon

Hovering somewhere in the ether, outside of any tangible definitions, the practice of Neo-Surrealism takes place, and Andrew Joron is both participant and elucidator. He uses the term for the title of his essay, Neo-Surrealism; or, The Sun at Night, which originally appeared in Talisman and was recently published in an expanded, 59-page edition. Subtitled "Transformations of Surrealism in American Poetry 1966-1999," the essay acts as a primer, introducing key figures whose work is exemplary of the disparate reach of Surrealism's influence on, and effluence through, postwar American poetry. From the aesthetic stasis of the Chicago Surrealist Group's orthodox interpretation to the maverick discursiveness of Will Alexander's ranging oeuvre, Joron documents the important texts of individual writers, sampling some of their work and tracing connections to ancillary disciplines. Additionally, seminal journals and presses connected to the various poets and varied practices of Neo-Surrealism are given ample coverage.

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Early in the essay, Joron explains, "surrealism does not levitate above History; the shape of surrealist subversion shifts according to the contours of the surrounding landscape." It is such a shift that informs Fathom, Joron's third collection of poetry. Wholly attuned to the original revolutionary impetus behind the often-invoked imperative with which Breton ends Nadja—"Beauty will be convulsive or it will not be at all"—Fathom embraces the move from classic surrealism (the creation of the inapprehensible image or object through radical juxtaposition) to the employment of negation, abstraction, and modulation to conjure and shape paradox. The necessity for this furthering of surrealist practice is touched on in the poem "Mazed Interior," which, like many within the book, is simultaneously an ethics and poetics: "Time to try the knot, the Not / Or to be caught / Forever in nerve-traceries of Beauty."

Although adherent to beauty, as darkly as it may manifest itself within the book, Fathom is concerned with more than pure aesthetics, preferring to push through and display the "victorious banner raised above the toppled state." In fact, he opens the book with an essay entitled "The Emergency," which begins with the question, "What good is poetry at a time like this?" Interestingly, and indicative of Joron's own poetic approach, the essay oscillates between exposition and a more enigmatic, cracked-open writing, allowing for the emergence of an "other" or aleatoric meaning, a space which essentially enacts the content of the essay's more easily parsed prose:

American poetry is a marginal genre whose existence is irrelevant to the course of Empire. Yet here, only here, at this very juncture between language and power, can the refused word come back to itself as the word of refusal, as the sign of that which cannot be assimilated to the system—

Word that opens a solar eye in the middle of the Night.

Opens, but fails to dispel the dark. Of necessity, perhaps, because it fails necessity itself. Opens, if only to make an O, an indwelling of zero, an Otherness.

This "otherness" constitutes the spirit with which Joron constellates different texts, concepts, thinkers and artists, covering an expanse from philosophic and phenomenological discourse, from Jakob Boehme's term for negation and relative nothingness, Ungrund, Newton's absolutes in Principia, the conundrum of Fatum and all of its multiple meanings, to Dada and saxophonist Eric Dolphy. Yet, as in the work of Olsen and Pound, or Howe and Mackey, these things inform but do not overshadow the book. One needn't be steeped in history or the philosophy of science, Joron's own education, to engage with it. There is, in fact, something congruous to conceptual art underlining the construction of the book. Following "The Emergency" there are four further subdivisions: the title poem, which fluctuates between the truncated lyricism of its couplets on the right hand page and the marginalia-like commentary on the left; "Constellations for Theremin," a series of prose poems, and an opening artist statement that testifies to the "marvelous confluence between Celan's early and Goll's late work," rather than "Celan's alleged plagiarism"; a collection of twelve lyrics; and "Fantastic Prayers," also utilizing the field of facing pages.

The poems progress with a compressed musicality. Tones are struck, turned and tuned (via "The purest coincidence of system & accident") into pseudo-aphorisms and nearly palpable abstractions and anti-logics, erecting "a misshapen statue of living minerals, neither natural nor artificial." Joron often employs a method of anagrammatic reconfiguration, of slight morpheme shifts and slipping syntax, where "That 'roof'/ Invited this 'proof'" and "That noon breaks into no one." Even individual letters are given an anthropomorphic significance in Joron's exploration of the connections and contradictions "brimming beneath the surface of stabilized meaning":

The pilot alone knows
That the plot is missing its

Why isn't this "ominous science"
itself afraid, a frayed

Pray, protagonist—
Prey to this series of staggered instants.

Such attention to the myriad nuances and circumstantial relationships that, as Joron notes, led to the emergence of language, makes for a reenactment of the conditions in which its course might be altered, an expanse of the possible through the unfettering of language—the unfathomable fathomed.

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Rain Taxi Online Edition, Summer 2004 | © Rain Taxi, Inc. 2004