Sunday, December 7, 2014

WRITTEN 1976-2013 by P. INMAN (1)


Written 1976–2013 by P. Inman
(if p then q classics, Manchester, UK, 2014)

Here’s this giant mega-tome, 728 pages with which to start to get a grip on the extent of it, the span of written (also, one would say, salvaged) works across nearly four decades from poet P. Inman.

What is here: a division into some eleven books within the book, prior smaller books dating from Platin (Sun & Moon, 1979) thru per se (Burning Deck, 2012), augmented by two early and one late section of uncollected pieces that open and close the volume — beginning with “oc” in the uncollected section 1976–79 (“an ice think / prosed…” are this first poem’s first words) and concluding with “misterioso” from uncollected 2012–13 (“…acoustic muss” the last poem’s thus the book’s last words).

What one is impressed by is the consistency of the undertaking. From 1976 onward, Inman (gifted, one could say, with the look, sound, and semantic possibilities of his own name as a starter) takes the ‘face value’ of words to be as multiply loaded in values as they can be. If you stare into the word, do its letters start to revert ‘back’ to pictures, to ‘root’ or constitutive sonic ‘objects’? Or do they shift ‘forward’ to become these ‘new’ things slipped loose from what they’d been taken to be and to ‘stand for’?

Take these consecutive passages, near mid-book, from “kilter” (out of vel, 1995):

monk besides. from farmland. each rife. each barn. parting to. her rife. remains wedded. to swim. staff meeting. staff meeting. filled with. missing wail.
the Pacific. entirely of. nervous system. cloud stallow. small epsom. of papercut.

its. ri. ce. subtr. action. ch. in. len. ghts. exis. ted. out. ea. ch. rese. mble. tha. t’s. le. ft. curr. ency. fi. ts. the. ses. blac. ked. in. app. le. api. eces.

Giotto. from. the. bottom. rice.where. she. went. to. subtraction. my. name’s. effects. found. near. size. lake. message. posture. caved. posture. caved. on. a. wineglass.

ill. usts. peop. les. si. los. gri. sts. are. came. lled. sid. eds. Bl. ack. Hi. lls. dra. wer. pov. ert.

(Written, p. 364)

Say that one is inclined to read the poetry as distressed modes of verbal or lexical ‘music,’ sounds clipped together, plugged parts of words sculpted into stanzas (those Italian ‘rooms’). What such an auditor, intent on music, is met with immediately is the visual ‘look’ of the work, its line (and its ostensible linearity) perforated variously with percussive ‘stops.’ Parts of the accustomed words have dropped or blown out.

It’s as if the visual appearance of words and lines is set this way to hold the auditory ‘back’ briefly from its accustomed soundings. So the habit of reading needs to open up, learn to let the interruption be there, registered as seen even if it goes unsounded. So the lacunae come to count as speculative sounds (lost and postulated both), ‘units’ of a ‘missing’ sight-sound-sense complex that’s set conspicuously forward. Presently absent.

Music does get put into play both at the margins of the poems (by way of titles, fore- and after-notes, citations, nods, etc.) and sonically activated in the chipped / fractured / annealed(*) / soldered / portmanteau’d lexicon. Words have been treated.

Here too I’m thinking, on the sidelines, about the specific idiomatic practice of given practitioners, as (say) vibraphonist Walt Dickerson of Philadelphia, whose peculiar touch and tone, the velocity and ‘bounce’ he’d get hammering on the bars, he credited in part to his soaking the heads of his mallets in a special solution before approaching the instrument.
There are ways in which the lore surrounding the music isn’t actually on the ‘outside,’ since it’s crucial to the sounds. Then where does the ‘outside’ of the work begin? Where’s that horizon; how’s it located; what would it look like if you saw it?

As a kind of raw indexing of the ‘extra-musical’ or ‘extra-poetic’ affinities at hand here (granted the ‘extra-’ can’t clearly be isolated from the ‘interior’), those names pointing outward from the works would include, between three sometimes overlapping sets:

(1) dedications to poets, musicians, family and friends, et al. (the largest set): Platin “to Tina” [Darragh, poet and Inman’s longtime partner]; #17 (a 14-line sonnet) in Platin “for Ted Berrigan”; Ocker “a series for Robert Grenier”; uneven development “for Charles Bernstein”; think of one “for Tina again” and “decker” “another for Tina”; “dust bowl” “for Wally Reed / local 626”; “red shift” (poem within the eponymous book) “for Joan Retallack”; criss cross “for Tina & Jack”; “my drift” “for Bruce Andrews”; “science fiction” “for Ornette Coleman,” after his 1972 album; “vagabond (1)” “after Agnes Varda,” her film, 1985; “landscape” “for Rod Smith”; “sonny sharrock” (electric guitarist) “for Ben Friedlander”; “sunders” “for Susan Howe”; “wide face” “for Doug Lang”; “reception. theory.” “for Diane Ward”; “n.b.” (for nota bene, “note well” in Italian) “for Tom DeLio”; “lieu / instead.” “for Hannah Weiner”; “i.e.” “for Tina”; “lac[e]y.” (pointing to soprano saxophonist Steve Lacy) “for Tom Raworth”; “long. black. veil.” “for Heather Fuller”; “palestrina, in, english.” “for Tina”; “minus” “for Doug Lang”; “n.even, n.else” “for Jules Boykoff & Kaia Sand”; “14 panels for lynne dreyer”; “qua” “for Tom Orange”; per se “for Jack & his clan”; “another lang(e)” “for Art Lange”; “now/time (in memoriam,Walter Benjamin)” “for Tom DeLio”; “m’event” “for Tina”; “finitesimal (2)” “for Cathy Eisenhower”; “amagansett again” “in memoriam Leslie Scalapino”; “brooklyn” “for Phyllis Rosenzweig”; “summa” “for Ron Silliman”;

(2) borrowed or possibly borrowed titlings (a smaller set): criss cross (cf. Thelonious Monk’s 1951 tune, his 1963 Columbia LP, and/or Robert Siodmak’s 1949 film starring Burt Lancaster and Yvonne DeCarlo?); “felicidade” (after Brazilians Vinícius de Moraes and Antonio Carlos Jobim’s great song “A Felicidade” (happiness) from Marcel Camus’ 1959 film Orfeo Negro (Black Orpheus)?); “land’s end” (Jasper Johns’ 1963 painting, in the collection at SFMOMA?); “hackensack” (in New Jersey, and Monk’s early ’50s tune); “written. twice.” (after Monk’s tune “Played Twice”?); “tenth prose” (after Michael Palmer (?) echoing Osip Mandelstam’s “Fourth Prose”? — “It scarcely has a title. Nadezhda Yakovlevna, the poet’s widow, told me that Fourth Prose was simply a kind of household nickname.” (Mandelstam translator Clarence Brown);

(3) direct allusions or proper names taken as or alongside titles (a likewise smaller set): “foxrock, near dublin…” (Samuel Beckett’s birthplace); “annette” (cited “--cf. Carla & Paul Bley; Annette Peacock,” players and composers); “kahlo” (cf. Frida); “milton. babbitt. (50. words. each.)” for the electro-acoustic American composer; “melnick’s. / for David M.”; “roscoe mitchell (nonaah),” 1977 Mitchell album and composition, “for Doug Lang”; “nono / Luigi Nono (1924–1990)” post-war Italian composer; “prose lachenmann” (cf. Helmut Lachenmann, German new music composer and student of Nono); “six feldman amounts / (Morton Feldman)” American new music composer — in a note we’re told Inman structurally based this work loosely on the six subdivisions in one of the recorded performances of Feldman’s composition Crippled Symmetry; “counting badiou” (cf. French Communist philosopher Alain Badiou); “bec du hoc” after a painting of that name by Georges Seurat; “misterioso / (Monk),” his song.

Altogether these namings make up a populated field of index points, locating Inman’s work in relation to a selectively crowded room of peers and forebears. Though it needs to be acknowledged that, while it’s helpful in some ways to draw out and cite such locators, Inman’s work sets forth and is played out within its own conditions. It doesn’t (with one exception for his older peer, David Melnick of San Francisco) closely follow or resemble the work of Inman’s dedicatees. It would feel silly to designate it “language poetry” or “conceptual writing” as it doesn’t seem to care about categories or subdivisions of poetry or art per se. It’s enormously playful, with a ludic sensibility that isn’t driven, e.g., by exercises with constraints à la Oulipo (nothing about the poetry feels ‘French’ or influenced from that direction). It’s idiomatically insistent and eccentric in the extreme. It’s perversely unyielding, densely textured, affect-saturated writing.

About two weeks ago I watched and heard several rarely performed pieces by Robert Ashley at Mills College in Oakland, where the new music composer (who died in March this year, at 83) had been in residence from 1969–82, during the rise of his ‘operatic’ period, when he started to write and perform his most original and characteristic work. The program for the evening focused on earlier works, back as far as 1963, and included his “String Quartet Describing the Motions of Large Real Bodies,” his “Symphony In Memoriam Crazy Horse,” “Wolfman” for voice and electronics, and his solo vocal + chorus work “She Was A Visitor.”

This last of these closed the first half of the concert: the title phrase gets repeated by a speaker surrounded by a chorus segmented into smaller groups of six or seven singers; each group takes the spoken phrase (“She was a visitor”) broken into its component phonemes and, following their individual conductor, sustains any one of the base sounds for as long as each singer’s voice allows. When the speaker runs out of steam, the last sustained sung sounds fade out, and the piece is over. It’s a spare work, yet lavish due to the web of voices cushioning the speaking voice. It’s ‘minimalistic’ due to its sheer repetition, though there’s immense variation among some 50 human voices. Among the pleasures of the piece was seeing that it could be pulled off by a leading voice other than Ashley’s, which hardly seems the case with some of his operatic works, that feel hugely dependent on the lush peculiarity of his intonation and delivery. 

I started thinking of and reading P. Inman’s body of works in Written as ‘scores’ for voice or voices, as either performance works for live staged reading or for radiophonic delivery, like the German hörspiel or ‘earplay,’ an ongoing art practice in many places in the world. Characteristically in the US the radio play is mostly limited to different versions of storytelling (“This American Life,” et al.), dependent pretty much totally on paying out traditional narrative threads and tying them up with a satisfying resolution. The musical potential of the form barely gets tapped.

Maybe I’m just wanting this poetry to reveal itself as music? Though what I think keeps it from tipping over in that direction is exactly its elusive work with something like narrative. Only it’s the narrative that’s riding on the tip of a syllable as it leans against the ones preceding it while foreshadowing the syllables about to come. It’s a narrative of shadow and light, definition and haze, the invisible thread keeping “posture. caved. on. a. wineglass.” afloat and intact while it peels away from paraphrase. How “the Pacific. entirely of. nervous system.” sounds exactly oceanic without rendering ocean pictorially.

I’m thinking too about this work of P. Inman’s in regards to Catherine Malabou on brain plasticity. She
writes, in What Should We Do With Our Brain?, that “Humans make their own brains, and they do not know that they do so. Our brain is a work, and we do not know it. Our brain is plastic, and we do not know it. The reason for this is that most of the time flexibility superimposes itself on plasticity.” (12) Flexibility — “plasticity minus its genius” (12) — is at work in our tendency “to fold, to render oneself docile vis-à-vis one’s environment, in a word, to adapt to everything, to be ready for all adjustments.” (13) By contrast, “to talk about the plasticity of the brain means to see in it not only the creator and receiver of form but also an agency of disobedience to every constituted form, a refusal to submit to a model…. The capacity of each to receive and to create his or her own form does not depend on any pre-established form; the original model or standard is, in a way, progressively erased.” (6)

One thing the works in P. Inman’s Written 1976–2013 may be intent on is progressively erasing “the original model or standard” in favor not only of “disobedience to every constituted form” and “refusal to submit to a model.” Besides that work of generative refusal, one could see his poetry as offering, in lieu of models or standards, an “open form” embodied as the opening of wholly new forms contingent, ever and always, on the audience’s meeting with the substance of the work — which it seems was secretly always the only true justification underlying and fueling the idea of “open form.”

10 Nov 2014


(*) Annealing, viz glass- or metalwork: “a heat treatment that alters the microstructure of a material causing changes in properties such as strength, hardness, and ductility”;Annealing can induce ductility, soften material, relieve internal stresses, refine the structure by making it homogeneous, and improve cold working properties.” (Annealing (metallurgy), Wikipedia)

Catherine Malabou, What Should We Do With Our Brain?, foreword by Marc Jeannerod, translated by Sebastian Rand, Fordham University Press, 2008.


Steve Dickison: Four poems from my manuscript Wear You to the Ball received the 2014 BOMB Poetry Prize this September, selected by CAConrad; the fuller work was performed, twice, in collaboration with new music composer Bill Dietz. Recent writing, much of it from that work, is in print magazines Hambone, Aufgabe, Mandorla, Vanitas, Amerarcana, and Where Eagles Dare, and online at EOAGH, ONandOnScreen, Evening Will Come (The Volta) After some years in the East Bay, I have an apartment in San Francisco, work as Director of The Poetry Center at San Francisco State University, and am teaching there and at California College of the Arts.

1 comment:

  1. Another view is offered by Tom Beckett in this issue of GR #23 at