Alan Gilbert, Late in the Antenna Fields
The writing in Alan Gilbert’s volume of poetry, Late in the Antenna Fields (Futurepoem Books, 2011), feasts on sarcasm and dispirited bitterness, not to mention a certain snagging anomie. Putting it better or worse, the reader might think to assimilate it to some kind of art adhesion. One is led, or profited, to hear, and to sense and to pick at, a general vaguely petulant and vaguely disinterested and yet persistent patter of ambient petrified displeasure. There is thus less of a danger than a foregone captation in this approach, inherently. So far so good if it sticks; so far so good so long as it educates even, guides, charts and winnows. But when notes of whining and griping swirl in, as they sometimes do, the reader may well wish to give pause.
Because of these under-currencies, however, Gilbert’s book can provide another benefit, even as it provides pleasure often and then richly, by helping the reader to begin striking a balance between invigorating talk or drama, on the one hand, and sober truth-defeating, on the other.
Salvation comes not surprisingly in turns to language itself, as practice and theory. Certain promising moments, and there are more than a few, come to mind. No doubt the poems in Late in the Antenna Fields relate forcefully described experiences, particularly in light of how the vacuities of experience, mainly today, may be brightly analyzed. Thus despite the truthful malhomie in which Gilbert knows and fears we live, the pretexts of courage — even fulfillment, entertainment, stimulation — are not lost in the personality of the writing. In other contexts we might say the writer maintains a sense of humor, though for today’s late fields that may be going too far.
Some of the poems, with their timely language track, produce a shimmer, not a frisson but thankfully also not the relative wobble concurrent with our livelihoods. Thus the untitled sequence in the book’s third “signal callers” section delicately denotes signs of drifting metaphor and features a caught-up pardon-me slip-to-trip “pedicure” for “sinecure” exchange. In the next and last section the poem “The first line of this poem is” slaps on the surrealism, and is delightful even, and sharp and clear. Going back in the volume’s order one finds strong dashes of jaundiced wit in “Poem without a coda.” “I think it would be better if I didn’t sing” invites fascination, tells the reader it is time to entertain modes of rich connecting, as if these were still in operation. “Lease to own” and “Not or but and” similarly entertain with new devices, new exits, as if these were possible. Additionally, the book’s last poem, “The service economy’s economy,” sports a life and a rhetoric of sorts. It courts lyric achievement and sends Alan Gilbert’s efforts off with a bang.
To dwell on this finishing poem, really a finishing “excerpt” in the light that penetrates this poet’s world, we note first of all the original and ingenious stanza pattern, seven measures full, and almost in the color and stature of verse paragraphs. These stanzas cum verse paragraph afford a running commentary still deep in the floating ennui that drenches the poet’s writing. To bright effect, however, the first orchestrates a scene of happy ghosts munching on microwave scrap. Then there is an exit, in futility through “rotating doors”; then a darting through “bulletproof portholes,” however such a fearful chance might play. Taking up the impending aporia, the second stanza or verse paragraph comes in line to stretch disorganizing expectations about sense and word order. Language play is fired to best effect. Moments of special achievement gleam through, of the kind the reader of Late in the Antenna Fields, and the poet, may find joy in recovering:
The bank still won’t cash my check
from the street fair’s inflatable carousel
after we ate with our elbows and assisted
the blowtorches and spring planting.
Otherwise, it’s gymnastics
with knees firmly stuck to the petroleum floor
while pretending to elude the chalk-outline
Replacing “linoleum” with “petroleum” somehow tells you all you need to know. So too the phrase “chalk-outline / authorities” says a lot, and makes you wonder, more than once.
This is one of the things, then, a poet can do when writing the art trash, the rehearsable junk, of the present and evidently future worlds. Another is the combined enjambment and caesura technique, skilled to a purpose in “Nervous conditions,” annoying to a purpose in “The consolation for proper behavior is” (see the passage from this poem quoted later in this essay). Perhaps more fascinating, and uncertain, is the practice not of enjambing so much as running over, or stumbling or tumbling over, into the last line that is not a line of any of these oddly equipped verse paragraphs. For this form of drop-off into the unsatisfying, look for example at “Go Solar,” or at the well-named “Nervous conditions” (just mentioned) where after a hard stop the verse paragraph concludes (in the lines quoted below) with effective enjambments and one of a number of caesural or mid-line pause effects that stir this stanza cum verse paragraph and generally help drive the poem’s energetic tribute to wasted energies. From how the stanza falls into a last line that is not a line we might draw a murky or lurking or queerly jerking sense of ambiguity:
It’s hard enough to get taken seriously by
the protocolers shouting, “Stand up straight!”
as if there’s a vast conspiracy hatching to rob them
of their land.
It seems that we are in for endless possibilities of problematizing in our reading of Alan Gilbert’s poems. Where it is something else again and not like every other exercise in planned boredom, this experience would appear suitable to this our world of unsignifying debris and ambient laying out of troubles. But most odd of all of the unspecifying effects, while not perplexing, not quite at that level and so remaining rooted in the exqusite and gluey soil of boredom and anxiety, is the Gilbertian mellifluous. And what Derek Walcott indicates amid the phenomenological turnings that glides us through his epic Tiepolo’s Hound of how “the art of being bored // diminishes conceit” could better refer to some of Gilbert’s dilemmas in Late in the Antenna Fields. At the same time, where Walcott’s writing, smoothed-over sweetness and effervescence, frequents the pretty, the delightful and the luminous, Gilbert’s sketches are none of those.
Walcott and Gilbert together make about as strange a home as you will find. Yet just about any two texts will proffer some likenesses and differences. Take a long passage, long for a finite (though compound and with adverbial sub-clauses) clause following a semi-colon, in tercets from a section of Walcott’s 1973 sequence Another Life:
breaking a lime leaf,
cracking an acrid ginger root,
a smell of tribal medicine stained the mind,
stronger than ocean’s rags,
than the reek of the maingot forbidden pregnant women,
than the smell of the horizon’s rusting rim,
here was a life older than geography,
as the leaves of edible roots opened their pages
at the child’s last lesson, Africa, heart-shaped,
and the lost Arawak hieroglyphs and signs
were razed from slates by sponges of the rain,
their symbols mixed with lichen,
the archipelago like a broken root,
divided among tribes, while trees and men
laboured assiduously, silently to become
whatever their given sounds resembled,
ironwood, logwood-heart, golden apples, cedars,
and were nearly
ironwood, logwood-heart, golden apples, cedars,
men . . .
Note the bright prospects in the swirling, languid yet fulfilling and forward-promising rhythms. Note the music, gladsome though with sadness in the account, and touching upon exhilaration, in the flow of these lines. Now compare Gilbert’s music, similarly languishing and lovely, but unable to serve lovely sensation, as if unable to underscore its smooth-winging; as if to erase, with dubious and disseverating emphasis, such false availability of bright prospects. The passage quoted below is the first stanza out of three of “The consolation for proper behavior is” and one needs the context of the entire proceeding to understand the musical entrances and extensions. Suffice it here to consider the long and accumulating lines and the rolling multilinear periods for some idea of the effective rendering of cross-purposes between rhythm and unclarified expectation. Continuing from the title, “The consolation for proper behavior is,” the poem begins:
not manners, but one ventricle filled with spiders,
the other with M&M’s. Getting dressed
for the office is a contortionist’s act when the body
is skin’s coat rack for however long
you can endure it. Repeat daily while resting a plate
on your head, as epaulets collect dust
under the sofa of a distant home, with clouds specially
flown in for the occasion. After the blizzard,
the obsessives challenged the compulsives to a game
of snowflake removal. I’m still coming
undone, even though TV has taught me how to live again.
In “Every 20-gallon jar of pickles contains a free” the music swings sweetly with a more direct impulse to the statement, thus creating an effect resembling, again conflictingly, an exquisite sound like Walcott’s though not as closely. The following passage from that poem exemplifies the rolling multilinear form, enabled further by the two-line grouping. The tone partakes of grim, almost blasé, disinterested realism:
[line begins in mid-sentence]
for more. We only heard the trains late
at night while dreaming of hobos, our bellies
stuffed with Lean Cuisine. The side of corn
showed up in our stools at the top hat,
while wrinkles in the wallpaper turned out
to be missing Cheerios and roach traps
linked by thick trails of sugar. That was before
a bee got into my alphabet. Horses with shiny
hindquarters in transcontinental quarantine
watch polo players scatter from runways
when the cargo planes approach after having
emptied their payloads of cluster bombs,
Snickers bars, and flat-tire repair kits
on the women and children first. A drunk
[line ends mid-sentence]
Elsewhere Gilbert’s poem “Speed is feasting” marries line arrangement and syntax with remarkable felicity, proving he knows well how to tune the guitar and often chooses differently. There too, however, the dry life of listless reportage runs counter to the potencies of current and flow.
One is past and one is now, but just as Derek Walcott in the passage quoted earlier celebrates (so to speak) the demise of cultures, what can come from that in personal knowledge, so Alan Gilbert will be found celebrating, while mired in irony, the demise of culture, what you can call culture, again from personal knowledge, what you can call knowledge. Perhaps for the how-to of knowledge, so elusive in all contexts, mainly today, Gilbert’s poetry will prove a good place to be, and to be the entry, for better or for worse.
Copyright © 2011, by Robert Mueller. All Rights Reserved.
Robert Mueller has contributed often to this website, providing short essays, in addition to his own poetry, on such diverse figures as the singer, songwriter and poet Vanessa Boyd, the writing of Evgeny Zamyatin, the author of the famous Russian novel We, and the poets Barbara Guest and Jill Magi, whose collection of poetry Threads is an offering of Futurepoem Books. At other sites he has reviewed Magi’s Torchwood (from Shearsman), a Futurepoem title by Ronaldo V. Wilson and the poetry of Macgregor Card, Jeanne Marie Beaumon, Sharon Dolin and Susan Wheeler. He is a regular contributor to the Word Press blogsite October Babies.