t&u&/lash your nipples to a post/history is gorgeous by Jared Schickling
(BlazeVOX Books, Buffalo, N.Y., 2011)
The written language has never been straightforward, but as a writing instructor, I have always insisted on clarity in my students' writing. Clarity usually means simplicity, and that can be the preferred way of getting a message out to the audience. However, if you are a reader of experimental poetry, you rarely expect the language and the meanings that the poet is attempting to convey to be simple or straightforward. There is no paradigm where poetry as experimental as Jared Schickling's can be explained. Certainly, his book, t&u&, is hardly an easy read. I would compare it to looking at a cubist painting and trying to make sense out of that; it is difficult but intriguing. I was many times stuck and/or confused, trying to figure out what Schickling was doing with the poems. At times I was not able to discern where a poem began and ended. I suspect that Schickling is purposely unclear so that the reader has to pause to consider how the language, the line breaks, and the uncertainty of the language all work together to give the reader a view of the land, nature, or the natural development of the poems. He also moves from an impersonal to a personal voice. Certainly, it is not poetry as many people expect it, and it is not the accessible poetry that most people only read. I was grateful that he supplied what he referred to at the end of the book as, INDUSTRY THANK-YOUS. Whether he meant this ironically or tongue-in-cheek, it did help me understand some of his ideas. His ideas and the "codes" that he uses to explain these ideas are integral to each other.
In his poems, Schickling is incorporating scientific inquiry with a more personal and subjective voice. The first poem, "EPIPHYTIC," and the last poem, " NATIONAL WILDLIFE REFUGE," are both located within the concerns of the ecologist/environmentalist. Those concerns include (most importantly) the land and the land free from consumerism. In the poem, "EPIPHYTIC," Schickling explains how different the natural world would be (naturally) maintained if it were free from human consumerism: "If you got rid of the pressure to build to consume upon consuming/more/ways of//building then labor would not be obsolete this mosquito would be/natural..." "NATIONAL WILDLIFE REFUGE," gives the reader a sense of hopefulness when this short poems ends, "is migrating/geese/at dawn." He includes three words, pressure, petroleum, and pablum, in the right hand margin that can be interpreted within the text in different ways, since they contribute to the emotional sense of the poem.
Schickling continues to juxtapose the subjective and the objective within the poems. In "THE PRINCIPLE," he begins, "It is physically impossible to measure the position and momentum/of a particle all at once."/ He has removed his emotions and his person from the poem, however, in the next few lines, he introduces himself in the first person:
I would go with her
down to the canal
the east edge of town
the old, kept part
like a vale
but I don't think about that anymore. I'm on
to better things.
There is a sense of sentimentality in these lines, that the personal does matter and that both methods of analysis complement each other. He tells the reader that he is "on to better things," which implies a very subjective value. He continues to measure the worth of a principle (perhaps) throughout the poems as he weaves his coded language between the subjective and the objective perspectives. I can imagine that he is mimicking the voice of those who write quasi-scientific studies when he uses words like "correlating objectively," "raised by recent studies," and "an investigation into/the rapes of 200." He may be giving the subjective voice legitimacy, or exposing the use of objective language to scrutiny.
Schickling continues to puzzle, delight and sometimes irritate the reader through language and ideas that reference other language and ideas. This is really the literature of post-modernism that we have become more accustomed to because of the internet. In many of his poems, he makes puzzling allusions to other writers, without clearly referencing them. This could be a criticism of his work; however, I prefer to read the poems as being a part of the coding of language. I suspect that all language references something that preceded it. Although we view plagiarism harshly, language continues to be plagiarized in some form over and over again. Schickling reminds us that much of what is important is "idle chatter," in the poem, "SELF REPLICTING," while borrowing language from Dorothea Lasky, who shouts this at the dilettante poets: "Because I want this new century to be full of people who write/poems, not full of poets who conduct projects and do nothing/more." This seems to be what Schickling is also arguing for; despite our re-used language, we need to continue writing poetry in order to break through with new meaning and definitions of ourselves, our pasts, and our futures. We are truly a part of the non-linear narrative that Schickling and other poets have created through their poetry. The randomness of the language has meaning, even though we have not yet found that meaning. The way our brain interprets code still lacks the ability to create new meaning, and we are interpreting meaning through the 19th century novel, where the sentences and paragraphs are long and over explained with meaning.
Using the concept of code, Schicking explains the nature concept of language by using one of Lasky's quotes in the poem, "chthonic ON DOROTHEA LASKY'S POETRY IS NOT A PROJECT:" "I think poems are living things that grow from the earth into the brain..." Schickling's response is
Perhaps the language has more of an aural quality to it, and we would understand the meaning if it were said, yelled, chanted, or sung. In fact, as a college writing instructor, I sometimes have to remind students that writing the language is not the same as speaking the language. This is often very difficult for developmental writing students to understand. It is interesting that the tradition of rhetoric and writing has divorced itself from the spoken word, except when it is creative writing, and often that is also very formal in diction and style. In many of Schickling's poems, the language removes itself from formality and takes it wherever he or it decides to move it. There is a sense of wandering or meandering into different lexicons. The rhetoric is mixed, imprecise, and comes from different sources, according to the INDUSTRY THANK-YOUS. For example, in the poem, "DOMESTIC PROCEDURE...," , Schickling begins, "birth canal//reach into [shorts] skirts and make from/scratch hung in the air exactly the way bricks don't." The language is colloquial, and it does not have the elevated or elegant sound of written language. If the readers are to take Schickling seriously, perhaps they need to know that these lines have been taken from a work by Dennis Cooper and The Hitchhiker's Guide to the Galaxy. Further in the poem, the lines, "if we do not find anything very pleasant, at least we shall find/something/new...," is attributed to Plato in a non-rhetorical way, "in Plato somewhere." In Schickling's poem, "RECORDED FUTURE," it is "to be read allowed/with a furrow brow, and with misspellings that are not "allowed" in formal writing.
Despite and because of the incongruent use of the language, Schickling takes us into an open horizon, showing the reader possibilities. Part of the sub-title to this book is "History Is Gorgeous," and he shows the reader that history, the present, and the future are endless and can be interpreted in as many ways as language can explain what might be. He references other poets and writers throughout t&u&, including kari edwards and Nabokov, giving the writer a sense of the largeness of the written word (Word). He asks Grace Paley
have you seen anything happen while you were alive
have you gone through countless selves affirmation
have you heard how the sickles through the brown sweet hays
was silent in a poem (27)
There is beauty in those lines that take me to the top of a metaphorical hill. Perhaps silence is what we need to hear--and we need to also hear the chatter of what can be possible. Both provide the reader with the gaps necessary to find meaning in the code of language.
Are we to take seriously Schickling's poetic form that defies anything that makes sense to how we were educated, both formally and informally? Breaking the rules of grammar, spelling, and syntax makes most writing instructors "wordless" or "wordful" with frustration. I am thinking about all the papers that I have read with sentences that make no sense because of structure. Too often I don't even know how to untangle the syntax as I write my comments in the margins. This is, as I have previously mentioned, the way that people are taught to think and write. However, I do think that we should take Schickling's poetic form seriously. There have been the ground breaking writers--James Joyce comes to mind--who have re-configured thought through written language and written language through thought. Joyce and other writers have tried to close the gap between what we can and what we cannot do--or how we can put those words onto paper. I am suggesting that Schickling IS a poet who is re-configuring language and thought.
It is also important to remember that spoken language is often incoherent in written form, but people are usually able to understand each other when speaking to each other unless the dialect is too far removed from the listener's. If Schickling's poems are spoken, the meaning will probably become clearer. However, most average readers would become furious at being given the poetic text that Schickling presents to the reader, and most average readers won't even touch poetry, whether it is experimentally or traditionally written, which I realize are somewhat arbitrary and subjective claims. It is doubtful that everyday written language, such as a letter to the editor or a piece of technical writing will ever become syntactically set up in the manner of Schickling's poems. However, poems are very different from technical writing or most persuasive pieces. Despite the seemingly incoherence of this type of experimental poetry, it does have an important place in the canon--maybe not right now--but it might someday. The written language continues to change, and it seems to continue getting closer to the meta-language and meta-thoughts that seem to be a coded part of the brain. Maybe.
Mary Kasimor has had her reviews published in jacket and Big Bridge. She has also had her poetry published in online and print journals, including moria, GutCult, Otoliths, Ditch, Cannot Exist, Reconfigurations, among others. She has had several books of poetry published: silk string arias (BlazeVox Books) and & cruel red (Otoliths). Like many poets, she also teaches writing.