Sunday, November 30, 2008

Daniel Louis Singer, review: "Brief Under Water"

Daniel Louis Singer

Cyrus Console, Brief Under Water. Providence: Burning Deck Press, 2007. $14.00. ISBN: 978-1-886224-87-2.

Never has error in poetry been quite so right as it is in Cyrus Console’s first collection, Brief Under Water, a wry, ambitiously conflicted system of fifty-five narrative prose poems titled in binary code, out from Burning Deck Press in 2007. The book, a “study,” as the speaker(s) immediately identifies it, is that reasonably rare work whose topical subject is successfully mirrored in the experience of its consumption, by design. And Console’s subject is nothing less than the “study” of human failure in the assumption of progressing time and place as progress in life and literature.

In testament to the relative éclat of this volume, two statements must be made in earnest: First, that experience of Brief Under Water as anything other than a totality successfully invites, even encourages the experience of error in interpretation. As a result, the success of the book lies not only in its occasionally unsettling quietude, its frankness, but, ultimately, in the experiential ambition with which it is conceived and constructed as a system, offered up as a sort of metonym in “100”:

“For years I did not seem to get anywhere. To speak of moving in place, or, as I was then fond of speaking, monsters of the deep. This was a phrase I had picked up and which I carried with me for many years, ignorant of its meaning. I used it to get by. You could say that I had a problem.” (11)

Second, that while individual poems may, at times, descend to threadbare gimmick or a claudicantical cleverness, as when the speaker in “100000” sacerdotally quips: “The wine they again brought out, and I drank of the wine, and was drunken, and I lay, cheated, and stole” (39), these occasional distractions come mostly to be forgotten in the face of the overall potency of the sequence as a systemic whole.

Though there is no delineated segmentation, the book moves in episodic sections, tracing some element of a character figure and a relation to place through studied recollection from poem to poem. In the first quarter of the book, for example, “my brother” and “the house” or home-of-origination form the threads of progression. Following, the communicative and relational distancing of “Dad” and the traveled exodus of developing adulthood in the second quarter is sequenced into “the city” or “the island” and the spouse or romantic/sexual other in the third, and, at last, to outer space or “the sky” and “the balloon” or “the blimp” in the final grouping.

The great irony is that this progressive investigation is not presented as progress. The alternately first and third person speaker(s), though certainly not the work, is doomed from the start, considering the central error-locus at ground/air zero described in the opening poem, “O”:

“I suppose we were waiting for Black Monday. There were comets in the air. It was beautiful over Libya and beautiful over Chernobyl…We drew planes in profile and bullets in midflight. We were still convinced of a graphical solution. In fact there was no tomorrow.” (7)

There can be no future, only past and present as sequence, and the final outcome of a “study of this kind,” a phrase which self-identifies the whole of the book repeatedly throughout, is the rhetorical positioning of life-as-progress and literature-as-progress as fundamental wrongs. In the final poem of the sequence, “110110,” there is only the inevitable: “Huge, empty, he could not progress but with drifting; but in a way he had won. The air, trapped by its own weight, pushed the blimp higher into the sky.” (61) Lest this cyclical totalizing from sky in the beginning to sky in the end be misunderstood as story, it must be stated that, while certainly narrative in lyric approach, this book is no novel-in-verse, no Ann Carson Autobiography of Red. The sequence never resolves into an extended narrative to satisfy any novelistic sensibility and does not attempt to do so, but neither is it devoid of cohesion beyond collection. Definitively a project-book, the threading of episodes develops a trans-progressive phenomenology, out of which emerges a general pastiche—a more conceptual, more cyclic poetics of investigation.

As the proof is often in the pudding, something potent is played out in the pastiche. Console’s systemic referentializing is not your average affinity for allusion. To put it bluntly: this is something special, as it operates dualistically and ambitiously beyond the general employment, first in structural invocation and subordinately in semantic misdirection.

Regarding the former, the structural poetics of the book deftly invokes Susan Wheeler’s 2001 Source Codes, also a project-book constructed of a numbered sequence of poems, also following a single line or image progressively from one lyric into the next. The two books are not the same: Wheeler’s “computerese,” as one reviewer called it, is confined to an appendix of HTML, whereas Console’s sequential numbering is, to borrow from Kenneth Burke, “terministically screened” in binary code. Additionally, his trans-progression is quieter, more subtly topical and sectional than is Wheeler’s, but the mimetic invocation is deeply affective. By adapting Wheeler’s architecture as reference, he activates the hermeneutic of error that gives rise to Brief Under Water.

Further, Console’s treatment of the entire phenomenology as a sort of movement-in-place is systemically referential. His direct use of the phrase (“to speak of moving in place”), and the constant cyclical movement in the poems directly calls on Aristotle’s Metaphysics: “And there is no movement but movement in place, and of this only that which is circular is continuous.” This invocation, like that of Wheeler, informs the topical structure of the sequence, as it threads from home looking skyward, to the disparity of distance, and back into the inevitable sky.

His subordinate system of reference, on the other hand, at first appears less innovative. Appearing as a Thomas Pynchon Slow Learner-style, early-works imperative to “make it literary,” Console occasionally affects a general literariness, the thanatopsistic William Cullen Bryant, a Dostoyevskian morality of mistake. This simplicity of allusion is deceptive, however, as it acts in concert with the larger referential movement to foreground the book as a generative struggle, reconciling a more localized fallacy of literature-as-progress, which, in turn, picks up a strain of problematics traceable again to Aristotle but then reified in Shelley’s old claim that poetry is always a sort of mimesis. Thus, Brief Under Water successfully uses literary reference both to inform its topicality and to encourage the progression-as-progress act of error in the actual consumption of the text by inviting exactly this type of simple explication of content and prominent textual feature in much the same way the billiard-hall shark suggests a friendly game of pool.

This subordinate referentializing is used to considerable effect in the titling features. Burning Deck’s note claims that the binary numbering of the poems is “intended to express [the author’s] sense of movement-in-place,” which, out of context, rings mute. However, understood as the subordinate extension of Console’s structural Aristotelianism, this binary numbering is of considerable systemic importance as it furthers the metaphysical development of error in the text at the same time as it semantically misdirects the reader. The effect is shown in the January/February 2008 “Poet’s Sampler” of The Boston Review, which states: “the poems are mysteriously numbered, with large gaps in the sequence,” which is precisely the type of interpretive error Console deliberately enacts as experiential parallel to his subject matter. (Actually, the binary numbering is in perfect sequence and translates in Arabic numerals to titles “0” straight through “54”).

This totalizing system of reference is so bold as to even claim purpose for the title of the book as a whole. Brief Under Water draws its master appellate from Franz Kafka’s 1919 “Brief an den Vater,” meaning “Letter to the Father,” a title given to an actual 45-page, type-written Kafkan epistle. While the letter-written-to-father motif appears at multiple points throughout the sequence, as it does in “100111”: “Dear dad, I put down, dear Dad, the great television antenna swayed in the wind” (46), it remains tempting to treat the title of the book as a simple mistranslation of the German, rather than as a fundamental part and example of Console’s system of larger action. Thus, the experiential misdirection of his referencing effectively mirrors the whole of the problem of error under study in this work.

If Alexander Pope was right in claiming that “to err is human,” then Cyrus Console, in projecting that to be human is to be stuck in error, may be more so. That the experience of mistake, miscommunication, and failure is a temporal epistemology of the self in moving/unmoving elegy seems to be the inquirical finding of Brief Under Water. Ironic, then, that a book about doing it all wrong as a matter of course ultimately does it so well.


Daniel Louis Singer
has been the editor of The Wordsworth: for the Published Poet, Aspiring Author, and Writer for Wonder and Whimsy and of small literary journals. His poetry and prose have appeared in Centripetal and Plymouth Magazine, among other places. He is currently at work on: a Ph.D. in Rhetoric & Theory at the University of Denver; two poetry manuscripts (Yank, Man, Hand, and Other Imperative Identities, and A Sacred Geometry); and a post-pedagogy theory of composition.

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