Wednesday, March 01, 2006



The Area of Sound Called the Subtone by Noah Eli Gordon
(Ahsahta Press, Boise State University, Boise, Idaho, 2004)

[Review first printed in TRAFFIC: A Publication of Small Press Traffic, #1. Editor Elizabeth Treadwell, 2005-2006]

Giorgio Agamben proposes the value of writing that lets us see language-use as a “passage,” “an interval,” where we are located in “perceptual oscillation between a homeland and an exile—dwelling.” In Noah Eli Gordon’s second book, The Area of Sound Called the Subtone, which won the 2004 Sawtooth Poetry Prize selected by Claudia Rankine, we enter a rhetoric where not only habitual structure is destabilized, but also where ‘invention’ inventories its purposes, and even the desire to destabilize is met with deft, critical scrutiny.

Gordon’s lyricism makes music a sustained, sustaining dwelling place in this disruption of sense. In the shatter of each successive frame of reference, we hear amassing a sensually pitched cycle of resonances, which enlarge our receptivity to the physical, the phenomenal properties of language, and which engage in relational patterning beyond the confines of logic and the trajectories we expect meaning to follow. Such an “area of sound” tests the mind’s resources, but in so doing enlarges our own adaptive capacity to use language to press the parameters of reality in which we dwell.

Think-tank spillage alters the facts I’m after and I’d rather the
library weren’t so loaded as the shame in all those fuses you
couldn’t connect to anything worth calling apocalyptic. (26)

In many of the prose poems of this collection, one can read a critique of reigning intellectual regimes, as well as of progressive attempts that fail to disrupt or dismantle them. Gordon offers a tonal complexity that strikes the high chords of striving beyond the limits of our own apprehension, as well as the dark harmonics of blindness and confusion.

…The glue holds the gutters in. The rhetoric’s a
loose-leaf apprentice. Cracks in the oracular self I’m splitting
open, splicing states of consciousness onto what? Locomotive
sound wings? A burnt rabbit in the trap & a rabid set of num-
ber laws the numb part of me knuckles up to. (21)

But most immediate in Gordon’s phrasings--which can shift instantaneously between being a refuge for, and a refusal of, our perceptions of world--is the opportunity to experience the oscillation between the familiar and the alien that Agamben describes. The American Heritage Dictionary tells us that “oscillation” is derived from the Latin “oscillum,” which came to mean “swing.” But this meaning may be derived from “oscillum” a diminutive of “os,” meaning “small mouth”--following Virgil’s use, in the Georgics, of “oscillum” to describe a mask of Bacchus, which was hung on a tree branch so as to move in wind. I imagine Gordon’s collection as such a mask, which seems to animate, to move differently each time we breath into it, thus breeding in us a Dionysian appreciation, even wonder, at the physical materiality and mystery of words.

Gordon’s collection consists of three poem sequences, each distinct in form and self-contained. The first, “What Ever Belongs in the Circle,” begins as an expansive, part-serious, part-parodied investigation of the manifold movements of writing itself:

hello the poem says make me a motor

no matter & I’ll go all summer

humid just like the movies… (3)

And ends:

but I want to show you how they danced

in the neighborhoods make birds a shrine

they have bells on their feet and mongoose gardens

pulled me out with forceps ask & I’ll show the scar

a bleached thing is a dimmer light

O small o of disorder

move me along like we graze here (14)

This long poem’s slippage of pronoun referents--which includes a blurring of agency between poem and poet--alludes to the suspect positions of purpose and control in the writing process. It also exemplifies another of Agamben’s observations, that a writer can demonstrate how “usage” means both “to use” and “to be used to”--de-familiarizing one, the poet points to the other. Similarly, Gordon’s tropes suggest and de-familiarize various orders of transformation and birth. As readers, we are drawn along in a rush of doubling and disarranging interpretations. We might think of “the scar / a bleached thing” as this language, which itself becomes “a dimmer light.” As this bleaching of its meaning becomes inflected with a scar’s pale, almost translucent beauty, it marks the passage we make through the poem. And, we might think of Gordon’s ejaculatory and poetic “O” hidden in each “disorder” as a reference to one area of the emotive field where we might “graze” in the shifting grasses, where no vision of unified landscape will hold its meaning constant for long. For example, Gordon uses the word “like” instead of “as” in the last line of the excerpt above, which defies the grammatical rules of usage, but forces us to read the “like,” colloquially voiced, as meaning both “as” and “as if.”

The second series, “Jaywalking the Is,” offers prose poems that are more grammatically consistent than the first section, yet equally sense-deranging. Here too are some of Gordon’s most archly humorous aphorisms. These brief, fragmented narratives may shift tones suddenly from whimsical depiction, for instance, to elegiac sincerity: “a brown shirt in the wind makes a bad memory box & all this walking and unwalking is a haunting way to tell a ghost she can’t come home.”(93) Interspersed throughout this cycle are the poems “First Dream” through “Eighth Dream.” Each begins with the infinitive “To say” and proposes with acerbic naiveté the sweet complex of fallibility in any such attempt “to say a taut line’s sure turn…” or

…to find the tunnel leading from the sublime
to the stasis of countless layers of oil paint, to call in the crows,
the crying strangers, the dead & their dancing party, partly to pull
the lens a little left of the landscape, partly to latch onto the
larger motifs, Mount Fuji, my free hand, my finite sense of closure
already spinning in the waterwheels, wearing its brightest white
costume, sure to soak up all the blood you’d ever need. (88).

The third and last poem series, “The Area of Sound Called the Subtone,” is comprised of fourteen poems of fourteen lines, which might be called “experimental sonnets,” though that term has been used and challenged in discussions of writers as diverse as Kenneth Patchen, Bernadette Mayer, Ted Berrigan, to name only a few. In Gordon’s series, each poem ends with a rhyming or partially rhyming couplet, and the first word or phrase of one poem echoes in sense—or derives from a sound correspondence with—the last words of the previous poem. This technique--as well as the lyricism and startlingly juxtaposed image assemblages of these poems--calls to mind Aruelein Douguet’s surrealist writing, even as the syntactic arrests and devolutions place Gordon with other contemporary writers who use the lyric form to elasticize and extend what can be wrought in the relation between signifier and signified.

the way sub
tones wear their architecture like an old coat,
an unraveled rope—it’s thread, undone,
so put up the scythe: they’re splitting the atom. (98)

Many literary critics, notably Charles Borkius and Andrew Joron, have extolled the emergence of poets whose work, like Gordon’s, falls somewhere between the trajectories of late surrealist writing and a language-based critical lyric, where the insights of the visionary dream can incite self-reflexive examination of cognitive processes and social mores. Gordon offers us this charged space as an Area of Sound Called the Subtone, where seemingly dissonant historical, popular, and personal references press our aural capacity to detect new consonances beyond the threshold frequencies that had previously demarcated the limits of our listening.


Rusty Morrison's collection, Whethering, won the 2004 Colorado Prize for Poetry. Her poems &/or essays are published or forthcoming in Boston Review, Chicago Review, Conjunctions, Denver Quarterly, Fence, Five Fingers Review, New American Writing. She is co-publisher of Omnidawn, one of five editors of 26, and a contributing editor for Poetry Flash.


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