BILL SCALIA Reviews
Stained Glass Windows of California by Julien Poirier
(Ugly Duckling Presse, Brooklyn, 2013)
A good place to start when discussing Poirier’s book, I think, is with authorial intent. While I don’t aspire in this review to reverse the intentional fallacy, I do believe that while we can’t know what an author intends, we can be assured that the author intends to communicate something, and the effect of that something on the reader creates a relationship as much with human experience as with a body of aesthetic and historical /critical concerns. Books affect readers; this understanding lies at bottom of the poet’s ability to place the reader into authentic experience.
In Stained Glass Windows of California, Julien Poirier subverts form to create visceral experience, rather than utilize form to reveal it. Much of the writing is stream-of-consciousness, loose word association, and self-referentiality. Some of the better poems, those that demonstrate a sense of structure and evidence of the poet’s hand, are derailed by this. “Structured” is a necessary qualifier when discussing Stained Glass Windows in California, since most of the book moves forward without any overt internal force. But there is tension present, and I suspect the tension that keeps me reading the book is the search for meaning. If I can’t find meaning in the syntax (much of the writing has no real syntactical structure), or in rational association (or even casual, much less causal, association), or in purpose (one page is covered with an 1896 NY Times ad for “smokeless powder”; another piece is an editorial letter to a San Francisco newspaper reprinted verbatim), then I have to accept that either meaninglessness is the point of the book, or that meaning lies somewhere else.
I am more willing to accept the second proposition than the first, at least in part because of the idea that if Poirier wanted to propose a book of meaninglessness, to just load his cannon with nouns and verbs and fire it at the page, he could have done so in much less space and effort than is evident. The book does demonstrate thoughtfulness of design at least in this respect: I don’t know what Poirier intends to communicate, but I know he means to communicate something.
The book opens with a loosely structured poem (meaning that it is cast in stanzas and enjambed lines), and conveys a narrative tone (introduced by a wonderfully cryptic opening: “It’s not going to work out / but you won’t hear that from us / until it does”). From this point the book is mainly composed of loose word association and absurd combinations of images and historical figures, with the occasional irruption of narrative and/or dialogue, as in “Night Vision Training School,” and the pop-lyric pastiche of “Split Pea Nuclear Ham.” The effect, after several readings is of a mind slipping in and out of lucidity (a theme born out in the dialogue portions of the text), a mind obsessed with art, poetry, literary history, and apocalyptic despair. The book reads like a mind seeking order, ideas overflowing not only the boundaries of poetic form, but the boundaries of syntactical logic – that is, of language making communicative sense.
This is the internal engine that drives the book forward. As a whole, it is less a cycle of poems, or a collection of poems, than it is a stream of language from which occasionally narrative and dialogue emerge – as well as newspaper articles, bad puns, advertisements – the kind of cultural detritus (fairly common in contemporary poetry) that might have washed ashore on Eliot’s Waste Land. But to what purpose, and to what effect?
In a way, in this book the relation between expression in a meaning-made form and nonsense (or no-sense) is similar to the relation between Kerouac’s On the Road and Visions of Cody. Cody also gives the reader the sense of a mind overflowing the bounds of form, a mind stretching itself to express the essence of experience. But On the Road is a better book. Which is to say that, in Stained Glass Windows, I feel the lucidity that orients the speaker(s)’ – and reader’s – perspective does so only occasionally, framing the less lucid moments as ends to themselves (which ultimately leaves the reader out of the work), without the sense of telos that the book seems to require.
Bill Scalia holds a PhD in American Literature from Louisiana State University. His most recent essays include “Toward a Semiotics of Poetry and Film: Meaning-Making and Extra-Linguistic Signification” (in Literature / Film Quarterly) and “Bergman’s Trilogy of Faith and Persona: Faith and Visual Narrative” in the anthology Faith and Spirituality in Masters of World Cinema (Cambridge Scholars Press, 2008). Bill teaches writing and literature at St Mary’s Seminary and University in Baltimore, MD.