Written 1976-2013, by P. Inman, if p then q, 2014, ISBN: 978-0-9571827-3-8, €26.30
which side of that/pronunciation are you on
The craft of poetry reviewing, like any other, has a set of tools and techniques on which it relies. The reviewer can discuss questions of style, form and structure, the deployment of literary devices and tropes, and the explication of themes, as a matter of course. They might also want to set a context for the reader by highlighting any influences and other bodies of work to which the book under review bears similarities. Finally, in a large ‘collected poems’ like Written, the poet’s development over time will generally form an important part of the review.
So, what does the reviewer do when confronted by a body of work that sets out to undermine poetry’s very dependence on any and all of these factors? The same thing differently, I suppose.
To begin with, this is a big book but not exactly a Collected, as Inman’s first two collections are not included. In addition, it appears that much of what is included has been rewritten completely since first book publication. We must take it that the book represents all of Inman’s poetry that he feels still stands presented in the form in which he now wants it to be read. There is also a very useful introductory essay by Craig Dworkin.
In an attempt to reproduce as much as possible of the look of the original books in which the work appeared, a mono-typeface has been used for any work that set like that originally, while Verdana has been used throughout to fill in for those works that were set using proportional typefaces. The result is an interesting and not unpleasing contrast, bringing some welcome variety to the look of such a big book. In particular, the mono-typeface sections allow for some exact geometric shaping on the page.
: tern : talk : ogham
What is written can be read, and the reading mind seeks to impose order on even the most cryptic markings. In the early work collected here, Inman worked at disrupting this sense-making instinct through the deployment of disjunctive syntax and a high proportion of invented words:
facilt. mimless , flacce
a kime could breen
perucc, thick (…tworviv)
The reader’s share in creating both the poetry and the meaning in this early work is great indeed, but the process is not an impossible one. However, Inman came to realise that use of such invented lexical items was something of a dead end, a way of creating what could easily become a set of technical tics as the nonce inventions became recurring lexical items, and from the mid-1980s the balance in his work swung towards a more conventional vocabulary (although the use of invented words never fully disappeared).
Another favoured device is the use of punctuation to slow down the process of reading. Sometimes this is word-by-word:
the. principal. objective. of. action.
far. against. what. i’d. meant.
backdrop. of. the. Shakers. in. dreams.
(‘n.b. for Tom DeLio’)
At other times the reader is slowed to letter pace:
n n o I r . e r I o c s. anabaptistlaughtrack p e r b o l i s m s. s t i l .
(‘minus, for Doug Lang’)
But mostly the reader is kept on their linguistic toes through the moment-by-moment confounding of paradigmatic and syntagmatic expectation:
night into inkwell speech,
weather gone brown another
to bone structure, “on-paper
porkpie” (how she paused
in stretch thick of cardboard
name of pink money bunch,
work poured through, the
facts she missed, broken by
capital (the paint straightens
to nothing, sea as mane golf.
(amagansett again in memoriam Leslie Scalapion)
As the focus on typefaces indicates, the look of the text on the page is an important organisational factor in Inmans’s work. It’s not so much that this is visual or concrete poetry as that it’s poetry with a strong sense of visual form. The late 80s poem ‘waver’ does exactly that, across several pages. A couple of years earlier, ‘nimr’ consists of seven iterations of a set of paired stanzas, two to a page, lettered, and separated by a line. In the first iteration each stanza consists of seven lines and there are seven pairs
A B C D E F G
N M L K J I H
In each subsequent iteration, each stanza reduces by one line and the sequence loses a pair, so that the seventh section is simply:
G: belong Crashaw’s hairline by half
H: one off its gray
the whole giving the impression of a great pair of wings folding.
Similar examples of formal experimentation feature across the entire span of this work. For example, the recent uncollected ‘summa for Ron Silliman’ has, for this reader at least, the same visual impact as a scroll down Silliman’s well-known blog.
As well as being a poet, Inman is a union activist at the Library of Congress, where he works, and a committed Socialist. Although his work is a very far remove from the kind of social realism one might associate with this political position, there is no question that his politics informs his writing. Indeed, there is hardly a poem or sequence in the book where some reference to labour politics is absent, but ‘dust bowl’, from the 1986 collection think of one is probably the most explicitly political poem in the book. It is dedicated to fellow union activist Wally Reed, a gardener at the U.S. Botanic Garden, and is an oblique exploration of Depression America in the context of world events, including the rise of European totalitarianism, and of contemporary US politics. The result is one of the most immediately satisfying works in this book.
Police riot at Flint: celled Paulist: orange paint marks
capital decline: applause side, minutes not quite right:
Floyd Burroughs, the depth thought put.
(As an aside, Burroughs was the subject of some of Walker Evans’ famous Dust Bowl photographs.)
the name of the thing the verb was
One of the most striking aspects of Inman’s work is the preponderance of proper names in writing that is, in many respects, non-representational. These act as landmarks in the defamiliarised verbal terrain of the poems, hooks for the order-making mind to gain a hold on that which is written.
There are multiple references to geographical features, with a preponderance of rivers. The Hudson, Charles, Shenandoah, Erie, Rhine, Thames, Shannon and Liffey all appear, with the Dublin river being named more often than any, interestingly. This river cluster is appropriate for a body of work that demands that readers immerse themselves and ‘go with the flow’.
Musicians and composers named or referred to include Monk, Ornette Coleman, Chet Baker, Luigi Nono and Morton Feldman. Many important figures from Socialist and labour history also appear, as do a number of painters, the most frequent being the Dutch American abstract expressionist Willem de Kooning.
However, the largest category, appropriately enough, is other writers. In addition to Inman’s contemporaries, many of whom have poems dedicated to them, the names and/or works of Stein, Gorky, Gide, Henry James, Hawthorn, Pinter, Beckett, Balzac and Coleridge, Zukofsky and William Carlos Williams are woven through the texture of the work.
Given the undoubted influence of the Objectivists, especially Zukofsky, on the L=A=N=G=U=A=G=E poets, it is interesting to ponder the roles that he and Williams play. Interestingly, Williams appears long before his younger colleague and strikes me as being actually the greater influence. This might seem odd, as William’s idiomatic style is very different to the opaque surface of Inman’s verse. It is Williams’ insistence on the materiality of language that seems to most matter here. Specifically, Inman draws on Spring and All, a work whose primary focus is the power of language to create rather than describe the world. Williams’ ‘The only realism in art is of the imagination. It is only thus that the work escapes plagiarism after nature and becomes a creation’ could serve as epigraph to this book.
Zukofsky is first explicitly referenced in the late 1990s. His second appearance, in ‘w, d, z.’ (2000), is as a meditation on the materiality of the poem itself:
what, did, Zukofsky.
mean, by, objects.
his, own, limpse.
rue, of, age, its.
many, cement, inches.
years, later, under.
illness, then, follows.
each others’s handwriting
Although Inman is closely associated with the L=A=N=G=U=A=G=E poets, that loose-knit group that emerged in the early 1970s and went on to dominate the American avant garde, he was something of a latecomer to the party and the early work not collected here would appear to have been somewhat closer to the New York school. Some of the early mono-typeface work recalls early Robert Grenier, and there are ‘exploded’ texts that look at first glance as if they fell from the pages of a Susan Howe book. However, Inman seems to have remained more faithful to the original assault on the sentence than many of his peers, and there is a consistency of approach across the full body of his ouvre.
Inman’s work as gathered here is among the most thorough workings-out of the original impetus behind L=A=N=G=U=A=G=E by a single poet currently available in print. It’s a big book, in every sense, with the inevitable unevenness that such a project implies, but at its best, it’s a stimulating body of writing, challenging to the reader, but with its own peculiar rewards, and if p then q are to be saluted for publishing it.