Nosce te ipsum: The Gospel of Noah Eli Gordon by Chris Glomski


My sense of Noah Eli Gordon’s work is that it is the product of a fine ear attached to a remarkably gifted, perhaps even a master, mimic.  Recently his work has been proliferating at a remarkable rate:  in 2007 he published two full-length collections of poetry (Novel Pictorial Noise and A Fiddle Pulled from the Throat of a Sparrow) as well as a collaborative work with Joshua Marie Wilkinson (Three Figures for a Darkroom Voice).  Here is the title poem of Gordon’s A Fiddle Pulled from the Throat of a Sparrow in its entirety:

little piece of silence

astray in the circumstantial music of a crowd

part myth, part massacre

have you put away your toy internment

turned to the first movement

where the house was empty

& the dead hair of the harpist spread on the lawn

its arrayed core drawing a grace note

from the muttering of those exhausted by wild dance

showing an oar for a lyre

a turtle shell a tear

cleaving a bird call on the kettle drum

to unsettle a dust of harmonics

expelling an itinerant elsewhere

an epistolary scratching-post

a winged thing for the gypsy’s chime

the timbrel’s return to nowhere

 

It’s striking how much the poem’s (and book’s) title resonates with those of other collections previously issued by Gordon’s publisher, New Issues:  Small Human Detail in Care of National Trust; Something Black in the Green Part of Your Eye; Monument in a Summer Hat. Yet among these, Gordon’s title stands out, tapping, as it does, into a more natural and vernacular surrealism than the others can manage. And Gordon’s title was enough to draw me into its ‘Dictionary of Music,’ which constitutes the collection’s first section, beginning with the afore-quoted title poem. Unsurprisingly, many of the pieces in this section have similarly prolix titles: By the sound of rose leaves clapped against the palms; A tuning fork turns all this noise into glass; An exact comprehension of the composer’s intent. Of all the poems in the first section, A tuning fork stands out, executing the title-promise through its

                                    …rough sketch

                                         of an abbreviated calm,

 

                                                     a further conjugation of focus

                                                or just something to fill the afternoon—

 

                                                                        all this work on balance,

                                                                 an anodyne for falling in

 

At his best, Gordon is able to provide strikingly tangible evidence backing up the New York School’s insistence that Breton spelled freedom rather than surreal introversion.  But unfortunately, A Fiddle gives us a good deal of the latter. As a result, at least half the time Gordon’s surreal gestures in this collection are conspicuously over-reaching, and sometimes feel grafted onto the page to justify his exercises in rhyme, which at their nadir are welded to lines that sound lazily cribbed from classic rock lyrics:

                                                A glass anchor,

                        molded in the shape of a ruined mouth:

 

                        These are stairways, starways—

                        ways of ascension, it might say

 

                        or try to say.  Its voice erased

                        by drought, by doubt.

 

The collection’s second section is called ‘The Right of Return.’ Each of its poems is similarly named:  The book of journeys, The book of forgetting, The book of definitions, The book of signs. Among these, the Postscript called “the book of Cain” stands out:

                        He took the train to an empty field which was not empty when an

                        older train arrived years ago.  The book explained:  to verbify a

                        word is to put it into action, to incinerate its core meaning, allowing

                        it to drift.  Once, he tried to swallow a stone:  “No bigger than a

                        fingernail,” he said, “no bigger.”  The book continued as did the

                        weeds.  The rails.    The cities.     The songs.     The

                        songs.    The singing.       ing.           .

And indeed, there’s a lot of fun stuff going on here. The first sentence makes good on the promised “right of return,” which is then extended by the second: Gordon’s various “books” seem to want to function as codices in which the poet is free to inscribe his right to his own nostalgia.  Perhaps as a case in point, “the book’s” italicized “explanation” reads like a half-remembered quote from Derrida’s Feu la cendre, and sentence three appears to return us to the scriptural tenor promised by “The book of Cain.” Yet the rest of the poem feels belabored in its garbled reverse-engineering of sentence two. Still, one can’t help but admire what Gordon almost pulls off, even when clunkily aping strains of Language music. It’s almost enough to forget the likelihood that the mimetic mark-of-Cain wandering away from the force of the poem’s Anglo-Saxon“-ing”’s will strike most readers as inclining toward the merely clever       .

 

Gordon has a weakness for rhyme: it is the principle device of his other collection from 2007, Novel Pictorial Noise. There it is used to drive home, fairly tediously, that book’s calling into question of the line between poetry, prose, and the plastic image. Wherever Gordon manages to be less fussy in A Fiddle Pulled from the Throat of a Sparrow while holding in check some of his other more marginal tendencies (imitative exercises, elbow-nudging concrete gestures, a faux-naïveté often accompanying the aforementioned “surreal introversion”), he is able to orchestrate a compelling, even Dionysian music:

                        Here is your ladder & the word dilatancy

                        notice how as you go up the rungs disappear

                        how curtains rose to an indiscretion, anxious looks

                        & the look of anxiety, though act two saw actors

                        enter through the audience & rain coiled the day

                        indoors, carried bundles, was backstage

                        Come in, I’m sure the earth’s still spinning

                        Hello helicopter!  Hello trees!

                        The chandelier is something

 

Gordon’s sonnets to Cy Twombly are worthy of honorable mention, as is much of the section called “The Book of Names,” which begins with a series of questions addressed to the poem’s dedicatees:

                        Why Bernadette? & why David?

                        Why Rebecca? Why Mark?

                        Why the book of names? Why say yes and no?

                        Why a syllable and its buoyancy?

It would seem that the disarming intimacy of such directness allows the poet to temporarily forget about showmanship and to collude with the romantic underpinnings of writers as diverse as Oppen and Guy DeBord:

                        Everything

                        Bernadette

 

                        is a spectacle

 

                        & soon the trees

                        outside

 

                        are still

                        the trees outside

 

I began this review by quoting the title poem from A Fiddle Pulled from the Throat of a Sparrow in its entirety, so it’s only proper that I return to it. The poem is a prime example of what leaves me feeling ambivalent about Gordon’s work and its proliferation. It seems so carelessly reproducible that I will leave it to the reader to determine which quotation matches the one on page six of Gordon’s book:

little teeth of parlance

little gray in the providential marching of a cloud

part minion, part minotaur

have you, have you abandoned the zero’s annulment

gnawed at its charmed amulet

found its cuirass empty

& the glassy eyes of your vanguard bleeding into the lawn

splayed holes sobbing with o-notes

& sputtering in the exhaustion of that wild dance

opened their ears to a lyre

their shells to a spear

leaving nothing beyond the rattle & hum

that befits their imminent dust

extolling an itinerant elsewhere

an apostle of the flea-host

or winged fang, the Romish rhyme

a lingual zip to nowhere

 

If nothing else, Noah Eli Gordon’s work seems worthy of attention precisely to the degree that it causes one to reflect on how all poets may be at the mercy of an assiduous, if not obsessed, mimicry. It would seem that the best poets (to the extent that they become capable of forging something unusually novel) are those whose attempts at mimicry inevitably falter—just enough—that they stumble upon something unmistakable, appropriate, and yet new. Therein lies the master-mimic’s problem: he gets it all too right only when he is most unlike himself.

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