The soft signature

96 pages,
ISBN: 1550223143

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Wading through Language
by Malca Litovitz

Lise Downe is a second-generation L=A=N=G=U=A=G=E poet. This means she writes in the heady atmosphere of Wittgenstein, Lacan, Derrida, Stein, and Joyce. She quotes a phrase from Finnegans Wake, "phoenix in our woodlessness", in her poem "Note the Four Times Seven". Somehow, we must look into absences, gaps, the outlines of meaning. On the cover of her book of poetry, one of her poems is printed white-on-white; we can still read it, with difficulty.
By removing conventions, this type of poetry gets us to question them, and not take them for granted. I suspect, however, that after we go through this process, we will want to reclaim most of the conventions, like the use of black lettering on white pages. We will want to reclaim grammar, lyricism, meaning, personality, voice, and image. This book experiments with removing all of these and more, so it is a very difficult book to read and grasp. I grudgingly read it about four times, often finding my mind going blank, and then made my way to the library to see if a little research would help me understand what was going on. Perhaps I had been out of graduate school too long and the world had been deconstructed in my absence. On the other hand, maybe the emperor had no clothes on, and this new clothing had to be questioned by someone, by me. I also remembered dropping out of an aesthetics course in university, tired of trying to define beauty and finding that epistemology was not my great passion. I could not spend nearly as long as Wittgenstein did in his garden wondering what makes a tree a tree. I want to sit in the garden, smell the roses, then perhaps write about them.
In total, I approached this text with an unsettling and constantly shifting combination of humility and skepticism. It was like standing on a landslide. I love lyrical, confessional poetry and do not like empty mind-games. I thought of a passage from The Seagull: "I'm becoming more and more convinced that it isn't a matter of old or new forms-one must write without thinking about forms, and just because it pours freely from one's soul." On the other hand, pure mush is unacceptable: poets need to have ideas, to make one think. One doesn't want to drown in lyrical pea-soup, or listen to someone gossip about their own life in the guise of poetry. Style is paramount: the way the poet expresses him or herself is crucial.
Reading this book left me uncertain about my own stance, which made it very difficult for me to review. But in the library I found an interesting book called Language Poetry: Writing as Rescue by Linda Reinfeld. This text proved a useful guide to this kind of poetry and helped me with my queasy feeling as I considered taking a completely negative position but hesitated before dropping the axe. Reinfeld writes, "Language poetry has not generally been well received (it is not designed to be `received') but it has attracted a good bit of critical attention."
Downe's book provides no biographical information about the poet: no blurb on her life or affiliations. This, I learn in the library, is characteristic of a L=A=N=G=U=A=G=E poet, who usually remains outside of institutions, unlabelled, purely herself, standing for nothing outside of herself.
This poetry reverses all of our usual expectations and destroys all conventions. Reinfeld compares this type of poetry to Magritte's famous painting of a pipe with its inscription "ceci n'est pas une pipe." Language poetry, she explains, questions its own status and forces us to question its question. There are shifts in the focus of attention, and no unifying schemes or rigid structure. It demonstrates how these structures can determine what we see and how we behave. It privileges the abnormal over the normal, the marginal over the mainstream, the artificial over the plain. The limits of structure and ideology come into view most clearly at the point where structure and ideology break down.
At first, as I read this book, I got almost no meaning from the words. I start again, and something emerges. The first poem, "entry", reminds me of e.e. cummings. It's rhyming, playful, and whimsical:

Between the when of all that matters
below the to and fro
'tis random and jest together,
disarmingly placed just so.

The use of the adverb "when" as a kind of pseudo-noun reminds me of cummings's "what if a much of a which of a wind".
Downe's second poem, "cakewalk", uses some images from nature and dabbles in shape poetry. Words are spaced on the page, for example, to show flooding. Again, the conclusion of the poem "reminding us of what we already knew/ in general but had forgotten in detail..." reminds me of cummings's "children guessed (but only a few) and down they forgot as up they grew".
The third poem performs more word play. "Density" and "destiny" are presented as a kind of crossword puzzle; the similarity between "a lexis" and "alex is" is revealed. Again, Reinfeld's book comes to mind. According to her, in this type of poetry, a word refuses to refer; it is itself a thing, a material object. It does not flex to serve the reader's purpose. This doesn't mean language is meaningless; it's just that its opposition to meaning needs to be reconceived.
In "fluency", one has the sense of looking into a photographic negative: "traces of the soft signature/ elegance in imaginary sound". Between the words, in the spaces, something is taking place. "this state of grace a notion an ocean". This is promising.
One of Downe's poems is called "Abundant and Prefer". Why did she break grammatical parallelism here, following an adjective with a verb? Is she emphasizing the action involved in preferring something? Is she reminding us that grammar is just another convention to which we may become mindlessly enslaved? I think that the title is awkward but that the poem itself is interesting. In the first two stanzas, I see a slightly aging person entering "a climax of oak under scattered crowns" and meditating on history, the passage of time. The ending of the poem is unclear for me, however. There is a reference to one of Aesop's fables, which involves a bee and some wax, but since I don't know this fable, I am unenlightened as to the poem's meaning.
The next poem, "sensation", deals with the difficulty of communicating one's own responses to what one sees and feels. A friend of mine recently bemoaned the fact that his poetry is always clearly about something, but I think that this is actually a good thing. I wish that Lise Downe's poems were about more.
In her poem, "He will interview her often", Downe deals with this very issue, offering her rebuttal to my dissatisfaction. She juxtaposes the world of objective reality, the world that can be clearly communicated to a reader or listener, and the inner realm that prompts poetic expression. I heaved a sigh of relief as I imagined myself finally catching the persona of these poems having an experience. The last stanza reveals the gulf between the speaker and her quizzical significant other:

"So you went out..."
there the cool breeze refreshed me
it was winter

the shower of stars

This is better. I see the speaker putting down her impressions, creating a lovely image to express what she saw: "the shower of stars". Her listener and interlocutor represents mere prose, stomping on her poetry with his conventional vision of the world. His mundane desire for the facts is aptly contrasted with the ineffable truth of her inner experience.
Still, I crave more of the frame, the context for this poet's recording of her impressions. And more of her feelings, too. Was she frustrated to be grilled about her night-time walk by the interviewer? Sad that it is difficult to commune with another, who is necessarily outside of one's own vision and imagining? Perhaps Lise Downe doesn't judge, doesn't have the feelings I impute to her above, but I don't like to be left wondering. I don't want everything spelled out in poetry-all mysteries solved-but Lise Downe's poetry leaves out too much for this reader.
In "Nocturnal Bistro", Downe gets off to a great start. In the first stanza, the speaker and her feelings are satisfactorily, concretely, and interestingly revealed:

instruction was wine freshly ploughed
from a bottle
bitterly poured in front of me
and the unforeseen depths of those fluids
drowned the lantern's promise...

I imagine two people sitting in a bar, talking, but something goes wrong:

that neither the frenzy of multiple answers
nor the old calculations
could determine the arithmetic
going on around them

The poem stops here, though, and again, the reader is left hanging in mid-air, not even a period to provide a desired sense of closure. Again, I want more information, more details about this situation which the poet is skirting about in clever enough language. Does this mean that I am indolent, not prepared to work hard enough, to hold up my end of the writer-reader relationship?
I puzzled over the title of another poem: "Her Trod Usky Dark Forget". Is it meant to suggest "dusky", the murkiness of memory? The poem traces the way the mind works, one experience reminding one of an earlier one. It begins in an appealing lyricism:

I am outside on blankets where wings unfold
perspiring through calm
or so it seems

This experience reminds the speaker of an early one. The door of memory swings open on an eight-year-old girl seeing a great snowy owl, and on an older woman, perhaps coming home to find herself robbed-"driving home to discover two unlocked doors"-or are these just metaphorical doors in the mind? The poem doesn't say; it simply ends in a beautiful image: "The tree cradles a bowl of liquid sapphire. Morning echoes dimly in the blue staccato air."
Another poem in the collection is entitled "Hazard (A Translation)". A translation of what, I wonder. The poem plays with the sensuous sounds of words, sexual innuendo:



It eventually leaves meaning behind. I am merely irritated when this happens, particularly by the line: "FAVA BIB IT", which I can do nothing with.
I waded through many more poems in the collection, to arrive at rare moments of clarity, beauty:

Remains of formal gardens
forced into hiding
breathe images of passion

I wonder why Downe doesn't allow more of her lyrical gifts to shine through. In the final poem, "arranged tributaries", she appears to answer my unspoken question, stating her belief that more experimentation must take place before lyricism regains its rightful place:
I am as they say in Milan
not an iris in sight
not unlike the proverbial poem that dares
"Where are you in all this?"
to go where no poem has gone
before the fertile lowlands receive
in more natural flowing lines

Downe has her right to her soft signature:

the inscription appears lavishly
small scenes on a grand scale employ
by pressing down a little
a spirit of delicate though deliberate

Like the Moody Blues, she "removes the colours from our sight" to make us question "which is real and which is an illusion". "shall I never return?" the speaker asks. Perhaps Downe is removing everything, only so that we can add it back for ourselves, and be refreshed:

over there where the train stops
full whistle
blowing a new day into the new season

By the end, I seemed to be getting better at reading this poetry, less frustrated with its half-sentences, broken grammar, and sound bytes. One has to stop, fill in the spaces for oneself. Maybe a "soft signature" is like paint-by-number; you have to connect the dots. Perhaps I got less irritated by this reading experience as I spent more time with it, more able to relax as the boat drifts off-shore, to parts unknown, with only rare promises of return to keep one afloat. Or maybe I was just relieved to have finished.

Malca Litovitz teaches at Seneca College and edits poetry for Parchment. Among the other magazines she has written in are Descant, Queen's Quarterly, The Windsor Review, and Prairie Fire.


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