The hard thing about these poems is that they make sense, fundamentally, but they’ve got a strange, skittering-away sense to them, a resistance to being pinned down.
I’ve gone back and forth on Bruce Covey’s Glass is Really a Liquid more times than I’d care to admit. I’ve spent more time trying to build structures with which to apprehend this book than should be absolutely necessary for a book of poetry (according to me). To say this book is hard is neither right nor wrong, it’s simply not precise. “Hard” poetry seems, to me, poetry which is thick or tough but which will eventually, it’s nut cracked, share its wealth. Covey’s stuff doesn’t seem at all interested in that sort of transaction: there seems nothing to crack or decode. Instead, the work seems to be begging to be experienced, fully mentally lifted by the reader, and lit. The hard thing about these poems is that they make sense, fundamentally, but they’ve got a strange, skittering-away sense to them, a resistance to being pinned down.
Let’s just put a sample poem here, so we’re all page-ground and together. Here’s “Redemption Token,” from the book’s third section (which sports the title “Action’s Rusty Anchor”):
The bird that whistles in your sugar maple
Is a fraud, its song the scratchy fragments
Of a public address announcement, asking
All of us to please move to the front, move
To the front, please. Fire’s got
The southernmost outcropping
& pleased as plastic, devours whatever
Sings. Take these seals, for instance.
One dove into the middle of a toy—
Does it have to be a phantom, sending current
Up the wires & toward home, a gothic
Place with rattling chains & demonic
Immigrants? If you have the time
Won’t everything eventually
Turn your way, the tie & all
Of the empty spaces: buttonholes
& boxes, stomachs and teeth, awaiting
Fulfillment from a good marketing plan?
In the rising tide, crackles stem
From everything you’ve dropped.
Touch it & burn but be saved.
(I should here say that I largely don’t get Ashbery—I’ve read him, have pushed my head hard against lots of his books, but I can’t do it—can’t follow, catch whatever musculature or flow I’m being asked to trace. I’m saying this so that it’s clear I may simply not be able to follow/dig the aesthetic Covey’s asking me to take part in [this is all coming up because there, on the back of this book, is a blurb form Ashbery which quotes from the same poem I just typed above]).
“Redemption Token” mostly works, for me—it worked when I read it originally, and now, seeing it again, it works still, maybe even better now, a second time through. The poem, by the end, has hung together with itself and has been made into something, it is functionally whole (this seems to me the real danger or more surrealist/experimental/challenging work—that the poems don’t ever function as wholes, but merely as bits, stray whorls and shocks of wow mixed among senselessness). The poem’s fundamentally working at notions of redemption (hello, title), and is challenging the relationship between redemption and what’s “natural” (bird, tree) and what’s not (the bird’s a fraud, there’s plastic). That’s a quick gloss on a thick poem, but “Redemption Token” essentially works—I can feel my way through it.
Let’s try another, this from the book’s second section (“The Greek Gods as Streaming Data”)
To tuck one’s corner into a short stack of graphs
Solace of an empty that radiates asteriks, &
This one peering into 21. An escalator’s resolve
To substitute one sculpture for its photocopy.
To color between staff & clef, undoing one
Button at a time, viola’s mathematical echo &
Cello’s truncated calf. To preponder bees
& cups of grenadine, a little pile of salt
Into which to press your index, dinner’s
Skin-taut woodwinds, a persimmon, a calendar.
To scroll again & again, folding cream
Into its crimson parallel, & every to enumerate,
To set fire of its harmonious opaque table
Of contents, titles inscribed across the spine
This resists me far more and harder than “Redemption Token” did—I can hit glad + enjoy certain bits (the escalator’s resolve), but I can’t make order of the thing, not wholly.
However there’s this: the poetry in this collection—and all of Covey’s poetry I’ve found online as well—resists “meaning” or cohesion in the ways a reader–this reader–might expect. Yes. True. But there’s a sort of playful sense at work, a correlative, accretive way in which meaning sometimes emerges through the poems. I think for the poems to work in this way asks quite a bit of the reader, and not in a hard, you-have-to-know-who-said-this-originally way, but in a you-have-to-imagine-like-so way, which I’d like to submit is an infinitely more difficult referent system to set up in poetry. What the hell’s all of that mean?
Here’s the first stanza of “Body & Isn’t,” from the book’s fifth section (“Urges”)(for the record: there are six sections, each has a title, and each section closes with a poem titled “Notes to Secion ____,” whichever section just finished):
I have a hard time making my mind take place.
Every input adjusts the chemistry—water, peppermint stick, analogue.
Kisses are circles. With eyes closed, every taste buds almost orange.
This stanza, though I can’t for the life of me origami it into making larger sense, works for me in the small scale. The first line registers as something of a ha ha/surprise—the reader can expect the poem to say something about someone making his mind up about something, but instead the poem gives us, simply, that the speaker has a hard time making his mind take place, which reads as a multivalent joke (take place meaning he wants to make his mind an event? meaning that he wants his thoughts to actually take up space?). The second line explains why the mind’s hard to be made to take place and, again, there’s the hint of a joke at line’s end: analogue means similar, and so the reader’s left unsure if the analogue’s of water and peppermint stick, or of the mind to begin with (which, let us not forget, is mostly water), or what? And then that third line: here are more inputs that adjust the chemistry, and here, again, we get linguistic fun and a bit of a joke at the line’s end.
I’m going to such lengths to draw this stuff out because there is, absolutely, an intelligence and structural intellect at work in Glass is Really a Liquid—the book is not, at all, senseless or, as the kids say, random. There’s a structure at work, some scaffolding. I just couldn’t find it, not most of the time. It’s one of the trickier books I’ve read in a long while, and I’m sure I’ll be returning to it regularly, and maybe that’s the best thing I can say: I’ll keep coming back, looking for more, looking to see what I’ve missed.