There are many extrinsic reasons why a book of poems may be difficult to review. Not enough time to mull over the material, for instance, the reviewer’s own schedule spread too thin. But as far as I can tell, there are only two intrinsic reasons a book of poems may be difficult to review. One stems from a perceived deficit in the style or substance of the collection at hand. In this case, the reviewer simply doesn’t have enough to work with, finds herself stretching and stalling, hemming and hawing. Then, there’s the opposite problem: a book so textured and multi-valent, so effusively substantial in aesthetics and ideology that the reviewer has more to say than can ever be said. The review-text taxes her powers of articulation.
Noah Eli Gordon’s The Year of the Rooster poses this sharp-witted and sophisticated second problem.
What is the book about? readers will want to know. That should be an easy question, shouldn’t it? Just find a salient passage to begin. But they’re all salient passages! the voice in my head protests. I give it my best shot:
The Year of the Rooster is about “Blah, blah, blah….the body, etcetera/ La-la-la…Lacan, etcetera.” By this I mean—and by this I take Gordon to mean—the book is about the body and about Lacan, from which we can infer the book is also about the mind, the body’s alter-ego, and about the way body and mind navigate together the challenging terrain of theory, the mountain-slope of big concepts and dense abstractions. When I think of Lacan, I think Freud, but harder. I think of the mirror stage and the pleasing, vexing, intractable maze of the unconscious. When I think of Gordon, I think poetry, but harder. I think of phrases from his poems like “Elsewhere the problem is ubiquitous fiction” and “Goodbye training wheels/gentle thinking jarred.” And when I think of Gordon, I also think of the pleasing, vexing, intractable maze of the unconscious, branching the way his poems do, in too many directions to name.
But the book is also about the “Blah, blah, blah.” The book is also about the “La-la-la.” The book is meta, as meta as they come. The Year of the Rooster harnesses the pure musicality of language—its basic repetitions, its most familiar rhymes—to large capsules of meaning like “the body,” “Lacan,” even “etcetera,” which may be the largest and most loaded capsule of them all. If you’re fond of mnemonics, you could say Gordon’s book, and indeed Gordon’s body of work to date, is full of Onomatopoeias and Big Ideas. He doesn’t write this himself, but I think he’d agree with my assessment. He does write, “Blah, blah, blah, the body/ compelling organized paint/ It’s uncapsizable.” The capsules are loaded, but still they float. The buoys are ellipses and caesuras, his masterful, symphonic use of space.
Consider, for instance, this two-line poem at the fulcrum of the book. The poem is untitled. What title could contain it? The poem is also uncapsizable, floating in white space, buoyed by internal rhyme:
Brilliant new day in its entropic decay!
I just want to press my middle parts into art
Maybe these two lines are what the book is really about. At the heart of existence is the problem of entropy. The energy within every system—including the body and mind, including the language by which we name and frame the body and mind, including the poetic systems of image and metaphor—inevitably proceeds toward chaos. The center never holds. The center was never meant to hold. Even here, in the center of the page at the center of the book, Gordon is playing with form and content, form as content. At the center of the center is entropy. He tells us. He shows us. Even the “[b]rilliant new day” devolves, destabilizes, comes apart. And yet the writer, knowing full well the limitations of both life and art, longs to “press [his] middle parts”—the very center of himself—into creation, which includes its opposite—destruction—and this paradox, too—the making of what does not last.
I read Gordon in implicit dialogue with Yeats here concerning the center. There are more explicit allusions to other poets with whom he converses. Early on, in a poem titled “ARE YOU ASHAMED OF THE INDIFFERENCE WITH WHICH YOU GREET THE NEWS OF THE DEATH OF PINOCHET,” Gordon asks, “What, exactly, is fearful symmetry?” Is the question for William Blake, for the reader, both, or neither? Is the question purely rhetorical? Might the question also imply the poet’s own incipient response? For instance, think of the ways we readily use another’s words to escape the burden of articulation. Poets do this, too, often under guise of homage. We defer to more famous poets, more famous poems. We may not fully understand the lines we recognize and repeat. We may have never paused for a necessary caesura of contemplation.
On the flip side, in a later poem, Gordon asks, “what original isn’t/a received idea”? In other words, if I’m not quoting Blake, odds are I’m quoting someone—even if I haven’t read him yet.
Still later, in a poem titled “ALL LEARNING IS A SORT OF LYING,” Gordon ends with a question that seems to address his earlier one: “Why hide in the thin bridge/ of a rhetorical question when one might walk suspended across such a sentence?” Gordon’s poems move the way the human body crosses a suspension bridge—with tentative precision, close attention to every step. To cross such a bridge, the mind must come to terms with gravity turned erratic, the stable path loosened in space and corded with gaps. In other words, entropy made visible, experiential, kinesthetic.
Many of Gordon’s poems sway horizontally like a suspension bridge connecting two sides of a perpetually incomplete story. They zig and zag. I would say the stanzas helter-skelter, because I like this rhyming verb-phrase, but it isn’t careless what Gordon does, nor is it arbitrary. These poems is controlled chaos of the most expert and intriguing kind: “Cracks in the oracular self I’m splitting open, splicing states of conscious-/ness onto what?” Good question. “I’ve got a drawer full of keys that bend by themselves./ Magic Realism, mute narration or just plain jack-in-the-box psychosis?” Good question.
Remember how I said Gordon often converses with other poets, engaging with them and their questions? Those acquainted with Carolyn Forché’s now-iconic poem, “The Colonel” (The Country Between Us, 1982) will recall the question the colonel poses to the poet-speaker as he empties a grocery sack full of human ears onto the floor: “Something for your poetry, no?” Forché’s speaker is silent in response to this question—stunned silent, we presume, as she contemplates the horror of the scene. Gordon’s speaker is not silent. He sees the colonel’s ears, and Forché’s depiction of the colonel’s ears, and ups the ante. In a poem titled “SOMETHING ELSE FOR YOUR POETRY, NO?”, Gordon responds to the colonel’s question with another question: “What image merits an afternoon in which the colonel’s idleness expands/ the idea of an audience only to be deflated by ill-timed applause?” Good question.
As a reader, I find that Noah Eli Gordon poses questions I am not prepared to answer. He weaves an intertextual web I cannot hope to disentangle. He confides, “Distraction: the best way of looking at anything,” yet his poems resist distraction and hold me rapt. Am I seeing more clearly or less clearly as a result of reading them? Are these poems a cleverly disguised distraction or an antidote to such distraction? It is hard to tell. Thankfully, near the end of this pleasing, vexing, intractable collection, Gordon provides some reassurance for the frazzled, entropic mind: “Understand, the world will always organize itself around your thinking,/ which doesn’t have to be monumental. A megalopolis begins with sand.” Blake is here again in the margins, whispering, consoling to see a world in a grain of sand…