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JULY/AUG 2023 Issue

Jeff Dolven’s * A New English Grammar

Jeff Dolven
* A New English Grammar: poems
(dispersed holdings , 2022)

If you squint through the wrong eye, you might mistake *A New English Grammar, a collection of poems by Jeff Dolven, for one of the dense grammar workbooks to which its title playfully refers. That’s because this book is split down the middle: hold it open before you, and on the left hand page you will find an itemized prose analysis of a grammatical rule. On the right hand page you will find nine lines of verse divided into three tercet stanzas. It’s a curiously rigid structure, yet one well suited to Dolven’s deceptively radical task.

What stitches the opposing pages together is an ungrammatical construction—*If it will rain tomorrow, for instance—of the kind used in grammar workbooks to call attention to a rule’s limits or exceptions. The asterisk marks a phrase as wrong, but instructive.

This incorrect phrase is set in contrast with similar but admissible phrases that demonstrate by contrast just how, and why, it is considered incorrect. For example:

1a. It will rain tomorrow.
1b. *It rains tomorrow.

2a. If it rains tomorrow, we will get wet.
2b. *If it will rain tomorrow, we will get wet.

Having used this final phrase to model the improper inclusion of “will” in a future subordinate clause, most grammarians would consider its utility spent. But Dolven takes this as his point of departure, lifting the phrase up and across the book’s gutter to serve as the opening line of the poem on the opposite page:

If it will rain tomorrow, then
today it will rain, without a doubt,
which does not prove the contrary
though we can always pray it will…

What if, rather than correcting these ungrammatical phrases, we treated them as unexplored possibilities? What if we saw the vast expanses of unconventional language as fertile ground for new forms of meaning, and even new forms of shared life? This is the guiding curiosity of *A New English Grammar: “The asterisk invites a step forward into that world. It is the first star of that new sky.”

Dolven’s asterisked phrases (which I use to denote each poem, as they are otherwise untitled) are borrowed for the most part from The Cambridge Grammar of the English Language. There’s a particular pleasure in seeing these imperial castoffs afforded the opportunity to stretch their legs and wander about. Pleasure, too, in the transmutation of language from the stiff strictures of a legal code or mathematical proof on the left to that spirited creature called a poem on the right. For a book with such rarefied ambitions as the starry skies of untraveled worlds, much of the magic in *A New English Grammar emerges from the book’s gutter. In the space between the left and right pages, new life emerges.

This cross-page maneuver is an exercise in radical imagination: what conditions must be true for the grammatically inadmissible phrase to be conceivable, or even necessary? Or in Dolven’s words: “What would have to change, about our beliefs, our customs, our politics, for the new sentence to be correct?”

It’s an important question, and a circular one. For what these poems reveal, by the way they hover at the border between nonsense and some strange *new sense, is how the limits of our grammar describe the horizon of our imagination. Dolven’s grammar begs for new worlds; new worlds beg for a new grammar.

That our reality is constructed through language is an idea with a long history. Dolven would know — he is a professor of poetry at Princeton University (where I took a class with him in my freshman year). But what Dolven demonstrates in these sallies beyond the boundaries of conventional grammar is how effectively “bad” English can give expression to beliefs that might otherwise go unexamined.

Consider: *The flag is being red. This phrase is incorrect, thanks to English’s distinction between states and occurrences. States exist (The flag is red), while occurrences happen (She married Tom). While we can talk about an occurrence that is in progress (He is playing tennis), we cannot do the same with a state. Thus, the asterisk.

But let’s sit with this for a moment. There is something willful about “being red.” In the progressive tense, the otherwise inanimate object assumes an active role. And if a flag can act… might it also speak?

Red with anger, there’s reason to fear
unless it’s only saying stop
and frisk with me in the meadows, friend.
Or blushing wrapped around itself
to hide somebody’s nakedness

Once again, new possibilities surface from the blank spaces. Enjambment peels back the two halves of the otherwise carceral “stop and frisk” and finds a playful invitation at their center. Perhaps if we allowed our objects language to speak for themselves, they might reveal different personalities: where once the flag was repressive, now it is coquettish. Where once we saw suspicion, now we see sheepishness.

It’s a heartwarming thought. But the agency produced by this *new grammar cuts both ways:

Look how it waves away our concerns
It’s only red like the poor are being
poor, not like the rich are rich.

Poverty, the progressive aspect suggests, is a condition enacted by the poor themselves. Whatever makes someone poor, they are doing it. Wealth, on the other hand, is an essential characteristic of the wealthy, one as inevitable, indisputable, and inviolable as the redness of the flag. Bridging the gap between the rich and the poor, the poem suggests, is not only politically inexpedient. It is ungrammatical, and therefore nearly unthinkable.

*A New English Grammar traverses a vast landscape — this is, after all, a world-building project. In its twenty-five poems (and as many grammar lessons) we meet game show contestants and dying men and paintings of haystacks and happy couples and loud explosions. What’s notable about Dolven’s work is how deftly he moves between magnitudes, from geopolitics to sleeping children. Consider, at one extreme:

They resemble closely: side
by side, who could tell them apart?
Eye for eye and tooth for tooth,
Identical, symmetrical;
left for right, and hemisphere
for hemisphere. It’s going to take
two rooms, just past security,
two separate, sound-proof rooms, where one
or the other is free to betray themselves.

Appearances have raised red flags (the angry ones, it seems) but the absent direct-object suggests that these travelers need not resemble each other or anyone else to be flagged by TSA. They need only resemble. Their likeness is not specific to any one person, but rather to an immaterial idea. The 21st-century security apparatus doesn’t bother with particulars.

Contrast this thumping commentary with *An asleep child, which has the affectionate cadence of a lullaby:

An asleep child: where is he going?

adrift in the anteroom, little one, sleep;
sleep while your minder holds you against
his chest, his only asymptote.

This tender scene could not be further from the interrogation rooms past the metal detectors.

Yet despite this thematic breadth, one detects throughout *A New English Grammar the presence of grammar not only as a mechanism and driving premise, but as the very subject of each poem. In *They resemble closely, we find an ordered (and occasionally punitive) system of rules and prohibitions — a notion of grammar familiar to anyone who was impelled to study the subject in grade school. In *An asleep child, we feel the infinite distance between sleeping and wakefulness, between a nodding head and a sturdy chest. This is another way of thinking about language and its structures: as a source of security and meaning, as a gesture that yearns toward consonance with reality yet never achieves it.

These disparate portraits agree on one count: no matter its power or intimacy, our conventions of language are limited. They can obfuscate and discriminate and come up short. Knowing this, how are we to take part in *A New English Grammar’s worldbuilding project without doing more harm than good?

For starters, we might adopt the spirit of generosity that pervades the book. In his bibliography, Dolven quips that “All mistakes are mine — and everybody else’s too, if we want them.”

That “we” sings. This work — the work of forming worlds through language — is a collective endeavor, whether we acknowledge it or not. Indeed, there are few projects that are more democratically or more incessantly enacted than this one. Grammar shapes our reality, but we who speak shape grammar every day.

We who write do so, too. The collection’s final poem, *I’m writing on behalf, wonders what, exactly, the written word is for:

I’m writing on behalf. My palm
is blue with ink. I’m trying to
keep up, writing as it befalls.

On the facing page, Dolven proposes that “We speak only on the language’s behalf.” But for what, or whom, do we write? I imagine the missing half of this first line slipping through the page, as if along an imaginary perpendicular axis, into a reality that we cannot yet articulate. We are writing on behalf of a world that is waiting for language to find it.

Yet there’s no guarantee of success. Oftentimes, fooling around with words ends up looking simply foolish:

I hold the spoon by the silver bowl,
The fork by the tines; the shovel handle
I push pointlessly into the ground

If you’re seeking ruthless efficiency, you might think twice about a career in poetry. This work is painstaking, and probably endless. And that’s precisely the point: new worlds are fragile things. Their slow construction is a project for which poetry is perfectly suited. Indeed, what keeps Dolven’s poems perched at the fine border between nonsense and a *new sense of possibility is the care and patience with which they have been composed.

There’s always the possibility of a pricked hand, or a broken shovel. That’s the gamble of *A New English Grammar, and one taken with a playful generosity that belies its power. By wielding grammar backwards, Dolven creates the conditions for the rest of us to wield it forwards, in previously unimaginable directions.

…I hold
the pen tight by the wetter end:
see, I hold the dry end toward you.

His hands are inky, but this poet isn’t fussed — a little mess is a small price to pay for such an invitation.


Peter Schmidt

Peter Schmidt is a contributor to the Brooklyn Rail.


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