POETRY: WASTE TO WITTby Helena Fitzgerald
Procedural Elegies/Western Civ Cont’d
Procedures regularize, give to an experience a repeatable form. In Joan Retallack’s new collection of works written between 1980 and 2010, Procedural Elegies/Western Civ Cont’d, meaning is located in formal construction. The concern of the collection is procedure, or form, itself, as much as any of the myriad other themes examined and played with throughout these dizzyingly inventive pieces. Retallack references Eliot’s Wasteland in the second poem in the collection; by then I was already waiting for the reference. This collection performs a playful, challenging, and wildly vulnerable confrontation with the entire syllabus of Western Civilization (figured very particularly here as a syllabus) unavoidably similar to Eliot’s famous confrontation with the whole of literature, history, and loss. Retallack, at one point, defines poetics as “an extreme noticing of how language works,” and this kind of “extreme noticing” permeates her work, in pieces that turn in on, examine and unravel themselves, their own procedures and meanings.
The title links the concept of procedure to elegy. In one particularly stunning piece, “AID/I/SAPPEARANCE,” mourning is made procedural, the experience of loss captured absolutely in formal construction. The same seven lines are repeated, but with each repetition, particular letters disappear, until nothing recognizable or intelligible is left. The personal is crammed, heartbreakingly, into a formal container demonstrating the process of loss.
“(Procedure: instructions for how to go on: what Beckett didn’t give Didi and Gogo: what Wittgenstein gave himself in the Tractatus (numerical momentum), etc)”
In “N Plus Zero,” after numerous other definitions of “procedure” and “procedural,” Retallack offers this simplest one: instructions for how to go on. This definition links the procedural and the elegiac as form and content. We give procedures to tragedy in order to be able to go on from tragedy.
Procedures and formal invention are, however, as intensely playful here as they are elegiac. Extreme procedural approaches are also, of course, games. The more formal something is, the more playful it becomes; after all, it’s the rules that make a game a game. Playful spiralings into language and form abound, such as the brief, throwaway “palimpsestina,” in which the author takes the sestina form and halves it reflectively, using three ending words instead of six, so the second three lines repeat the first three backward, marrying the constraints of palimpsest and sestina.
Another example of this academic game playing is the imagined dialogue “Witt & Stein,” in which quotations from Wittgenstein and Gertrude Stein fall into one another, forced to speak in a dialectic that only further confuses itself, never resolving. Dialogue, intersection, and interaction recur throughout the collection. It’s a performance of intersections and intentional collisions. Disparate thinkers and approaches are impressed into dialogue with one another and personal, banal events crash into historical and intellectual discussions. The title piece, “Western Civ, Cont’d,” chronicles unexpectedly concurrent events throughout history, while at the same time veering into the intensely personal in interrupting sections titled “Breakdance Lecture.” The formal structures break down into the personal and the confessional, but even that breakdown has a procedure to it. In her collaborative piece with Forrest Gander, “Coimbra Poem of Poetry & Violence: Grief’s Rubies,” she and Gander “write through” a conference at the Universidade de Coimbra. This piece presents their combined marginalia from notes on lectures, ranging suddenly from the esoteric to the pedestrian and back again. Here, as in all of the work in this collection, the suddenly personal runs parallel and simultaneous to the academic, and each speaks to the other in a constantly shifting dialogue.
Retallack’s work invites and frustrates understanding. That frustration, the tease and refusal of easy access is, however, part of the high-stakes fun in its reading and subsequent rereading. To attempt inroads to it, to try to take apart and piece back together these performances, dissections, and elegies, is a heartbreakingly playful endeavor, much like the author’s writing itself.