Wednesday, May 10, 2006

Noah Eli Gordon: The Frequencies: A Poem

Noah Eli Gordon's The Frequencies (Tougher Disguises, 2003) is a long sequence of prose poems, each them titled with a radio frequency – 106.3, 104.1, 98.7, and so forth. Familiar enough territory, especially if you've spent as much of your life on the road as I have, memorizing distances by when one station fades out and another starts coming in clearly, associating particular places with particular sets of numbers on the radio dial. (Tho a particularly contemporary experience – when I was a little kid, in the antedeluvian days before digital tuners became standard equipment in cars, you only knew approximately where the radio was tuned.) The root metaphor is I think Jack Spicer's notion of the poet as "radio receiver," passing on the signals he receives from the "Martians" or whomever.

The sources of the signals in Gordon's poem vary widely, tho surprisingly enough there's not as much as one might expect of overtly musical material in The Frequencies: Doc Watson & Waylon Jennings make appearances, as does "California Dreaming," but by the long, last virtuosic stretch of the book it had become clear to me (a slow learner at best) that what the radio primarily represents in the poem is the pressure of outside voices & idioms upon the poet: the pressure, that is, of intertextuality, of tradition. Spicer & Robert Duncan can be heard, fo course, but also those warhorses of "high" modernism, William Carlos Williams, T.S. Eliot, & Ezra Pound – which rather surprised me, popping up in a book published in 2003. I'd thought myself an anomaly for still – ten years older than Gordon – feeling the influence of the folks of 1914 as a heavy hand, both facilitating & hampering new directions. But apparently, unless I'm misreading The Frequencies, this splendid & varied book, I'm not at all alone.

"I'm hitting a brick wall here," the producer said, handing me the playlist. "ON the one hand, we've got to make it new," he went on, "on the other, we don't want to alienate our audience – they expect certain things from radio, you know." The way everything he said seemed to be an allegory was a bit unnerving, not to mention the fact that he continued to call me Kenneth no matter how often I corrected him. "A little autonomy would be nice," I said, forcing a half-smile. "Look, this isn't an art gallery," he answered. "It doesn't matter what you like; there's big money driving the music." I couldn't help thinking this is where the strings come in, where the plot starts to swell, but the only applause sign I'd respond to would be one that goes off at random, without rhythm – the blinking light burning up an expectation of an irreducible outcome, the American idiom like a new penny wrapper, meaningless & empty & somehow more than itself.

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