(Alice James Books, 2012)
Stephen Motika’s Western Practice is a vast poetic anthropology, or archeology. It is a “kulture vulture,” trying to “tell us the culture” through its “description of collections” and “directories.” This is its ethos, and here it reveals its ethics. Motika’s poems shed the trappings of the solipsistically subjective, producing an efflorescence of wonder about the world at large.
The title is itself an ethical puzzle. “Practice” suggests many things: from an ongoing project and an attempt to improve, to the Buddhist ideal of spiritual effort. If in the teleology of modernity, “practice makes perfect,” in the Buddhist worldview, practice is as much the goal as anything else. Western Practice challenges us to think about life not as a vessel for self-aggrandizement, but as a contact zone where we can break the spell of our own self-interest. Anthropocentrism and egoism can’t be escaped, but they can be mitigated. Motika shuns personal pronouns; setting aside the two longest poems, I count only three instances of “I”: “Night, in the Oaks,” “Via Bixby” and “Tea Palinode (18th & Sanchez).”
Motika wanders away from the well-trodden habitual mode to re-orienter the perfect and progressive modes. For instance, the first part of the three-part poem “The Lakes” opens with, “remembered those / lakes.” Part one has 12 verb possibilities, and all but two are formed in the perfect or progressive; the only personal pronoun comes in the phrase, “in our time,” creating a syntax that can be treated as verbal or adjectival.
Instead of a subject-oriented narrative, the actor is obfuscated and the actions are either completed or ongoing. The scenes take on a descriptive luster, almost as though they were scenes in ancient friezes, under which we, the tourist-readers, stand gazing, trying to reconstruct their narratives.
The two longest poems, about L.A. and Harry Partch, the 20th-century experimental composer and instrument maker, show explicitly the book’s project of recovery. “Delusion’s Enclosure: On Harry Partch (1901-1974)” is both a poem and a condensed biography of his life and work. It covers everything, from the place-names of his childhood, the multifarious texts that provided early musical influences, to the lists of instruments Partch created—the Zymo-xyl, Gourd Tree Gong, Mazda Marimba, Spoils of War, and Cloud Chamber Bowls. “City Set: Los Angeles Years” works similarly as poem and history, as it recounts in brief the social and artistic development of the city in the mid 20th century.
All of the poems in Western Practice “attempt to reach / out of reach.” They all “crawl inside [the past] and lie down against the future.” They seek to create new meaning from the past and use this as sufficient pillow against the future’s uncertainty and inevitability. As the book’s penultimate poem reminds us, “again know the future will fall before you’ve / arrived to / face it.”
Matt Reeck's translation Class Warrior—Taoist Style from the French of Abdelkébir Khatibi is available this fall from Wesleyan UP. He lives in Brooklyn with his wife and daughter, and co-edits Staging Ground magazine.