Sunday, November 30, 2008

Thomas Cook, review: "Tonight’s the Night"

Thomas Cook

Catherine Meng, Tonight’s the Night. East Stroudsburg, TN: Apostrophe Books, 2007. $11.00. ISBN: 0-9793627-0-9.

Catherine Meng’s first book of poetry, Tonight’s the Night, represents one-third of the current catalogue at Apostrophe Books, a publisher of “poetry intersecting theory, philosophy, cultural studies, and pataphysics.” Like Johannes Goransson’s A New Quarantine Will Take My Place and the newest Apostrophe book, Refrains / Unworkings, by Paul Foster Johnson, Meng aims at the heart of this publisher’s mission. She creates an elaborate fugue through the use of the words
“geese,” “green,” “grass” “notes,” and “Bach” in a book-length meditation that borrows its title, and the title of each of its poems, from the Neil Young lyric. Meng both constructs and deconstructs a number of fugal elements, playing on the musical and psychological elements of fugue, via the other main inspiration for the writing, Glen Gould. In an Author’s Note, Meng writes, “the poems that follow began as an experiment in repetition after reading the biographies of both Neil Young and Glenn Gould,” but in the table of contents we see a more complex architecture. Here, rather than a typical contents, Meng constructs a sequence of 31 epigraphs, with the component parts of a page number, a line from the poem that appears on that pages in italics (normally these line are quotes or partial quotes from the individual also quoted in the contents) and a more substantial quote from the influence:


If green is the color of my true love’s hair

If there were a theory of colour harmony, perhaps it would begin by dividing the colours into different groups and forbidding certain mixtures or combinations and allowing others; and, as in harmony its rules would be given no justification.
—Ludwig Wittgenstein, Remarks on Colour

In the body of the book, these extended citations do not appear. A table of contents like this could place a heavy contextual burden on the poems, with philosophical figures (Nietzche, Heidegger, Poincare) and artistic figures (Walt Whitman, D.H. Lawrence, Max Ernst) looming large over the work, but by keeping these citations to the contents (which really functions more as an index) Meng is able to keep these dialogues available for the curious reader, but non-intrusive for the reader of just the poems.

And the language of the poems themselves is wonderful. The book opens:

In April it snows your favorite song. It wraps around your ankles
where Bach should be. Eyes confuse leafless trees with artificial trees.
Toward chord curve, toward trucks
barreling into their break where the lights of the city pick up
you follow the line. Shitting troops of geese
bellow toward an ugliness which wobbles weird,
the bald tire they make of the sky. Where this world folds
exposed to the sun you can learn
about face. The articulate patterns of each blade of grass. (5)

This first poem announces Meng’s direct, stark and stunning language as well as the fugal elements she will continue to sound throughout the book: Bach (returning again and again as kind of place-holder for other individuals or for identity, more generally), geese (which often sound or “bellow” as a whole, as is the case here), and grass (typically, like the geese, a great tension between the singular blade and the plural, innumerable blades). Meng repeats these same words (along with “green” and “notes”) keeping each word involved in a constant confusion of sense. To the benefit of countless leaps in her poetry, she first makes useful ambiguities out of parts of speech and then achieves a kind of synesthetic universe that keeps sound and color at play: “Cutting with hands/ carving & back bowed—/ the two are conducting/ & the color responds”; or “a mistake & mistaking it twice until it’s a choice/ ignoring the grass growing so loud the hand” (29 & 47). The synesthestia along with the repetition create both a wild divergence and a claustrophobic calm: “two hands sever into bass & treble,/ they flew. they do, sprang back from flight” (29). The words and images begin to seem both familiar and divergent.

The poems indulge the polyvocality normally considered in both psychological and musical fugues. The repetition of the words sometimes accentuates the amnesic aspect of the voice—the way that someone in a psychological fugue might relive the same events and the same ideas in new and dangerous contexts—whereas Meng’s placement and arrangement of the words reflect the appearance and reappearance of notes, as in a musical fugue. Fortunately, Meng doesn’t rely too much on either notion of fugue; she keeps both psychological and musical elements in play with one another:

& the backbone’s connected to the sight
so vertigo starts
when black flocks back to light
the land that seeds
what Bach is
trying to see
what green is
if green was never there. (14-15)

When I finish Meng’s book, I find myself turning back to the contents, which themselves seem to perform a fugue of certain broad and related topics, interpolating the thinkers Meng engages in surprising ways. I do this not for any lacking on the poems’ part, but because her architecture is so sound. Tonight’s the Night plays with that range of material, sounding all of the notes, sometimes sharply (as in the early echo from Wittgenstein) sometimes more abstractly (as in these moments of resonance with Bach):


Bach worries momentarily on the birdlessness / of the day

Music has the frustrating habit of proving in the end to have been about nothing in particular…
—Glenn Gould


Bach should be, blade beyond blade, wave
Everything decisive arises as the result of opposition.
—Friedrich Nietzche, The Creative Process, (Brewster Ghiselin, ed.)

This sense of abstraction—resonant absence— is the final tie between the two fugue states that Meng scores for the reader’s performance. The combination of notes that compose a musical fugue are powerful both for their presence in the piece, but also for when they disappear, fade out. In amnesia, it is not always that we forget who we are, but also that someone or something can come to stand in our place.


Thomas Cook's poems have recently been featured in Lamination Colony and are forthcoming in Quarterly West, Pank, and Action Yes. He is Assistant Editor of Luna: a journal of poetry and translation and Co-Editor of Tammy.

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