Post-Post Dementia

How Contemporary American Poets Are Denaturing the Poem,
Part VII



Essay #1: "On The Prosing of Poetry"
Essay #2: "I=N=C=O=H=E=R=E=N=C=E" Essay #3: "The Argument for Silence" Essay #4: "The Best I Can Do This Year" Essay #5: "If Only We Couldn't Understand Them"
Essay #6: "The Sound of One Wing Flapping: The Art of the Poetry Blurb"

The following sources are cited in this article:

1. Rebecca Wolff, Fence, Spring '98
2. Rebecca Wolff, "The Story of Fence,"
Jacket, July 2000


Fence, an aptly named journal of "new writing" lives by its name and keeps things away—in this case, it keeps meaning away from the reader. It is also a journal with well-made, edgy covers (the current issue depicts someone suited up to remove bio-hazardous material or to combat a bio-terror threat), upscale art, good quality paper stock and sharp layout—it even offers “Cryptic T-shirts.” Its electronic sibling, Slope, advertising itself as the place “Where Movements Happen”, is an equally up-to-the-minute product with its distressed-style logo and high-techy, industrial-look covers. Slope serves up an international flavor, “publishing poetry from cultures around the world” and also runs extremely hip poetry contests like the current National American Sign Language Poetry Prize.

Both journals successfully meet all the requirements for a well-made product in the poetry market place. Paradoxically, considering their positioning as "experimental" journals, they are clearly defined and recognized (in the world of poetry journals) as provinces and showcases of the post-post poets, those new spawn of the post-modern and language poets (and some old spawn as well). In other words, they are the journals of the avant-garde establishment. Other venues for these poets include New American Writing, 3rd Bed, and Skanky Possum among others. These avant-garde-establishment journals contain a poetry and an implied or stated editorial aesthetic that posits itself as a rejection of the “mainstream” poetry ethic, that is, of the poetry that existed from last year all the way back to Beowulf, the kind of poetry that favors parsable syntax, drama and story, tension and resolution, epiphany and symbolism, connected imagery, strong, recognizable voice or narration, and some impact of either an intellectual or emotional nature.

Instead, the post-post poets write the real stuff, the basics, the poem without the baggage of meaning and connection, the liberated poem itself, stripped and streaking down the freeway, no claim on your time or attention longer than the time it takes to watch one run by. Was it human? Was it naked? Did it wave? Was it a prank? What college is it from? What were those word-things it sprayed at us?

The whole cast of them in hands passing
Jack's gapped amassed adventure version
reads like Minneapolis at least. And

my hands with a saying for 10 minutes, specific

as in parking lots in
worse for wear, where for being
sixteen, as age. With

rock salt
In route to

if dreamed shouldn't so
much tear away from itself

Jibade-Khalil Huffman, "The whole cast of them in hands passing . . ."
Fence, Spring/Summer 2003

These are the no-skin-off-my-nose poems, the take-it-or-leave-it poems that signal that you, Dear Reader, are on the wrong side of the fence. Is there a peep-hole here, a look into the construction site? What are they trying to build back there?

Too soon drunk from mixed species. In this parasol no one gets out dead.
Except for the passion. Wrung through and weepy. Shame on table
pretending an animal belly up waiting.

Gian Lombardo, “Partial Rhythm, Primate Laughing”
Fence, Spring/Summer 2003

These are the no-skin-off-my-nose poems, the take-it-or-leave-it poems that signal that you, Dear Reader, are on the wrong side of the fence.

As with the fabled blind men and the elephant, one finds only a partial view and is thus never able to tell how the parts add up to a whole. In fact, this parts-only view is intentional, an aesthetic, as the editor's note from Fence's inaugural issue makes clear:

Years ago at the Museum of Science in Chicago I saw a permanent exhibit, which is indeed on display permanently in my memory, in a way that not many poems or stories or otherwise crafted images have been. Some years before my visit a team of necrologists had sliced a woman's body vertically - you understand, lengthwise - into fifty very thin slabs of herself. The slices ranged in area as her body had ranged (round slices of hip and shoulder; the tallest slice, from head to toe; a long strip of arm) and were preserved in fluid between plates of glass, upright, scattered throughout the museum. So that you might encounter a vision, a version of this woman - who I think was called Lucy - consisting of a centimeter of her innermost parts between shoulder and foot, on the staircase between the second and third floors of the museum. You saw veins, cartilage, bone, organ, fatty layers, dermal layers, and even little hairs standing up on her outside layer. Every once in a while a section was identifiable by virtue of an outstanding feature, such as a nipple or eyelid. Fence is a literary magazine, not a scientific exhibit. But it is a similar demonstration of individuality in cross-section.. 1

In other words, it's not by accident, this disassembling of the whole into its parts, but by design. It is the willful supplanting of anything a reader might find pleasurably whole in a poem with a series of parts, and not even traceable to their whole as Lucy was, but rather a random cross-section of someone's mind. In other cases, not even something so redolent of wholeness as a slice but simply an ejection of words onto the page, the poet implicitly daring us to pick through, try to identify what they thought:

Simulacra, scrud, compendium
Nathaniel Hatchet, crud, Ferguson-
Skull contented satellites smear
two ponies. Smear.

Fitzgerald, Kaufman, Patchen
Cracker in the fire starter
nigger in the mud. Turn left.
Drawn impotent cartoons.

Someone left a drill in the yard.
The bit is rusty and the motor fails
who called again asking for an Aphorism.
The shoulder has none.

Go east. Drink yogi. Buddha flower.
The floral bouquet of her Chardonnay
costs twenty dollars to eat
every day if it's cheap, I'll have some

Scallion pancake Grasshopper.
Guinea ghost in the machine. Now.
Say Ghost Dog. Say Sitting Bullshit.
Say engine, make Whitman say ow! Say ho!

Christopher Stackhouse, “Signal 1”
Fence, Spring/Summer 2002

As with this example, some post-post poems seem youthfully defiant (I am avant-garde and you are not), while others seem beaten and sad, like the derelict mentally ill who stand in public byways delivering their bursts of broken syntax to the air around them, not even turned toward the pedestrians who might hear and possibly understand them. Their gestures are for something other than what's before them and are driven by an internal, hidden injury. Others seem to want to make contact and shuffle toward us but can only speak in half-meanings, word tatters, aborted sentences.

Ye Rosebuds for an old nickel it's made
of the original material of the earth
from radical deaggregation the soft wet tissues
from warblers for the whole genus of blackbirds
downy mullen trillium prickly ash and pine

C. Mikal Oness, “Posse”
Fence, Spring/Summer 2002

In fact, what drives these poems seems less a need to communicate than a need to afflict. Like the almost-dead in the film “28 Days Later” these poems are poised to bite any reader who ventures too close, hoping to infect them with the same virulent strain of avant-gardism inflicted on them by their maker who has doomed them to a life of aimless, disembodied wandering through people-less landscapes. Who has loosed these babbling and afflicted beings into our public byways, and why? Who are their makers? As the Fence editor states in her “manifesto”:

Within the context of each issue of Fence we reinforce the realm of possibility and contextualize our contributors within it. Fence intentionally blurs the distinction between 'difficulty' and 'accessibility,' preferring instead to address a continuum of utterance. 2

And so we may turn to the contributor's list in the back of Fence. Here, we find not biographical information per se (of course not), but rather a summary of what the contributor is reading these days. A typical entry reads:

Open and half-open books currently scattered around Adam Munsy Tobin's urban cottage include: (1) The Weather by Lisa Robertson, Meadow, by Tom Raworth, Species by Michael Friedman, Ants at Work by Deborah Gordon; (2) Classic Indian Cooking by Julie Sahni, The Oulipo Compendium, ed. Matthews & Brotchie, Secrets of a Jewish Baker by George Greenstein, No One May Ever Have the Same Knowledge Again, ed. Sarah Simons, what it means to be avant-garde by David Antin; (3) various issues of Fence, The Germ, The Nation, Foxy and Conjunctions; and (4) (which he is always re- and re-reading) Zukofsky's Complete Short, Feynman's Lectures, Cortazar's Cronopios & Famas, and anything, simply anything by Jenn Guitart. He also reads the newspaper.

Note the urban cottage and underplayed, ironic ending (“He also reads the newspaper”) as well as the fact that the books in his urban cottage are not so much read as “scattered.” Is this poet 'contextualized?' Perhaps. Here is his point on the "continuum of utterance":

from Hourlies 1-7

“smoke police” to enforce
the replacement of wood
children who are directly
kitchen. And in my own home

“I've worked nearly half my
way down under all that
turning in all the heavy
lids to plastic couches.”

open your eyes.”

sending them into space.

From "2. Homemakers like the out- doors."
Fence, Spring/Summer, 2003

But one must ask: why is this being said? What is the purpose of these words? Why are they printed in a journal someone paid to produce, for someone else to pay to read instead of being spoken by a stroke victim in a rest home? Who is the intended reader? If it is a slice of something, what is it a slice of?

In fact, what drives these poems seems less a need to communicate than a need to afflict.

Maybe a better question is: Is there an intended reader? Like the tree in the forest, can the poem exist if no one can read it? These and other types of Koan-ish thoughts are all we have of mental activity as we scan and re-scan the ever-unbudging Fence. Every sentence, if it is a sentence, in the poem, if it is a poem, is a Koan of some kind. In the face of such newness, such bold discarding of the linear ways of thinking, another pressing question emerges: how does the poet perfect his or her craft? The famous dictum, best words in the best order, seems not only inadequate but irrelevant:

Is an axle's excavation
an axiom's inversion
that muzzles
the ventriloquist breath

of a nipple. The revolving door
of its throat.

* by Christina Mengert, Slope, Issue 17

This is the entire poem. At its global level, the poem seems to posit the impersonal, non-human, mathematical, against/beside the human and personal. Going one level down, it presents itself as a question, albeit without the question mark, with an answer in the form of a sentence fragment. The sentence fragment may or may not answer the question: it is, however, in the form of an answer:

The revolving door of its throat.

What about the “best words”? Does it seem that the poet has chosen the best words for her poem?

Is an axle's excavation
an axiom's inversion

The slant rhymes are striking, the word play, fun. The meaning is puzzling, but we don't have to know anything…yet.

that muzzles

Here's where some trouble begins. The word “muzzles” is an odd, perhaps inventive choice that may hit us later as the perfect one. For now, however, there's the troubling “that.” What is the referent for “that” if not the “axiom's inversion” from the preceding line? But how does the inversion of an axiom “muzzle”? At least the word “muzzle” is enjoyable, connoting a forced silence, a softened violence. In fact, all of the words are somewhat enjoyable: axle, evacuation, inversion, muzzle. Perhaps the poet has a gift for finger-stabbing the best word in an open dictionary. Perhaps the reader should muzzle an unseemly clamoring for meaning and enjoy the poet's gift from her stabbing expedition:

the ventriloquist breath

Only the hardcore reader, he or she of great mental stamina, remains for the inversion of an axiom muzzling the ventriloquist breath of a nipple, and then the final tour-de-force:

The revolving door of its throat.

How could it be otherwise? Still, could these words be replaced with others and have the same effect? For example:

The sliding door of its throat.
The rotating door of its nose.
The closing door of its scalp.
The slamming door of its tooth.

Yes and no. Since we don't know what original effect was intended, and since the only one we can experience directly is bafflement, we don't know how the line, or the poem for that matter, could be improved. What does improvement mean here? Or damage for that matter? How could we make the poem better or worse? Possibly, knowing the referent for “its” (its throat) would help us to know the line's intended effect. The possibilities include:

its nipple (the revolving door of the nipple's throat)
its breath (the revolving door of the ventriloquist breath)
its inversion (of the axiom) (the revolving door of the axiom's inversion)

It seems that not only are these words not best (or worst), they are not even among a specifically selected few. All word choices seem equally good (or bad) for this poem because the poem does not want to add up to anything, does not want to become anything, it only wants to resist becoming, to remain a baby in the continuum of its utterance. Therefore:

Is an axiom's evacuation
an axle's inversion
that snubs
the ventriloquist bread

of a testicle. The spinning jenny
of its lashes.

Why not? How does this version differ from the original? Only in its words. And since the words don't count, since they don't have to be best, better, bad or in any way related to any potential meaning, my poem is as “good” as the original. In fact, I would argue my poem is the original. It is exactly the same poem, albeit with different words—but neither set of words makes any difference to the meaning.

Now to the next measure of a good poem, the order: has this particular poem found its best order? As previously noted, the referent for “its” in the line “The revolving door of its throat” is unclear. Perhaps an improved ordering of these lines, bringing the intended referent closer, will help:

The revolving door
of an axle's excavation's throat.

Now it's clearer. Or is it? Perhaps a more radical re-ordering, one that gets to the very heart of the poem, is necessary:

Is ventriloquist breath
an axle's excavation
that muzzles
an axiom's inversion

of its throat. The revolving door
of its nipple.

Here, I've kept the “best” words and re-ordered them. Have I improved the poem? Damaged it? Changed its meaning? No. The poem is unaffected by change of any kind and therefore impervious to evaluation of any kind. It is SuperPoem, with powers and abilities far beyond those of mortal poems. Such a poem defies revision because—revise towards what? or away from what?

Although the avant-garde establishment poem does something to the mind, if not the emotions, it is something we really don't want done because this is a journey one doesn't really enjoy taking, a journey whose destination will never appear, cannot appear, because we can never arrive—we are trapped in a continuum of utterance.

Such poems are as inevitable as old age and its unstoppable deterioration of language. The avant-avant-garde as displayed by much of the work in Fence and Slope is, in fact, indistinguishable from the early stages of dementia. And really, what could be more avant-garde, more against-the-grain, more anti-tradition, more post-post than dementia? Perhaps this is the dawning of the New Senility, the next new thing, so daringly close to death itself, this intentional discarding of connections—synapse to synapse, word to word, person to person—any word, any order, anytime.

                                                                              [copyright 2003, Joan Houlihan]

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