Tuesday, December 20, 2005

Zach Barocas: Among Other Things

Some time ago Kasey Mohammad posted a list of “clichés” about contemporary poetry, one of which went something like “Clark Coolidge, who is also a bebop drummer, writes remarkably percussive poetry.” I suppose it’s fair enough to mark the resemblance – Coolidge has often enough made the connection between his own work and jazz forms – tho one doesn’t often find physics writers talking about how Einstein’s papers have “violin-like” melodies to them, or literary critics talking about how Wayne Booth’s paragraphs have a “cello-like” sonority (or how Pound’s lines often sound like a slightly out-of-tune bassoon).

All this as prelude to noting that despite what his blurbists have to say – Norman Finkelstein calls the poems “off-beat, pitch perfect,” and Peter O’Leary speaks of a “percussive instinct” in “these lyrics whose rhythm is honesty” – I don’t really find the poems of Zach Barocas’s Among Other Things: Poems & Proposals to be particularly “drummish.” Maybe Zach himself is: he spent a good chunk of the 1990s as drummer of Jawbox, by all accounts one of the more melodically intelligent post-punk bands. These days he lives in Minneapolis, and runs the wonderfully spare poetry/visual art website Cultural Society. The aesthetic of Cultural Society – clean, sans-serif, updated only when there’s work its editor feels worth presenting – is evident as well in Among Other Things. The poems are mostly short; Barocas’s most common form is a two-line stanza (tho there are a number of exceptions); thruout there’s a sense of thoughtfulness & deliberation. I don’t feel the raging energy of punk (“old school” or “new”) or post-punk, but the clean and close deliberation of a kind of post-Eno minimalism.

The collection is punctuated with a series of numbered “proposals,” a form that O’Leary calls “a hybrid elegy/epigram,” which to my ears leans more towards epigram than elegy. But that title, “proposal,” suggests how these little poems are more than squared-off statement; they lean into the future, propose what ought to or might take form in the realm of thought and personal relations. One proposes to the person with whom one hopes to spend one’s life; one proposes a work to be pursued. Even the poems here not designated “proposals” have a sense of proposition, as “Things To Do Today” or “For the Rest of Our Lives”:
I propose pretty marriage:
orchids to wrists, garters to thighs,

to seatbacks.

Dark glasses to sunup,
the mesh & thrust of motor-

parts to the knock of piston

the tongue to
the eye.

On the other hand, the “proposals” themselves are sometimes devoted to a kind of phenomenology of poetry, a rumination on the physical and sensory bases of the poem, as in the 9th and 11th proposals:
What flashes silver
& quickens the eye?

Diamonds or minnows,
fiberglass slivers,

stainless steel (in its
own dull way), & ice.

Silver, then, is just
a kind of white light,

a glint of white &
the way we name it.
It is not merely
the incandescence,

the radiance, one
barely, if at all,

contains; it is the

witness, too, warmed &
facing the light’s source

alone, basking with-
out fear, that matters.

I don't want to give the impression – as these quotations might – that all of Among Other Things is in this quiet and ruminative mode. There're a fair number of love poems here, barroom pickup poems, morning after poems, and a really knockout set of "Notes on Music" (where, if anywhere, Barocas's percussive sensibility to comes to the fore). The book as a whole is a focused and lovely group of poems, & – as Barocas’s first – a remarkably self-assured collection, promising more pleasures to come.


Kevin Marzahl said...

Now there's a band name that I haven't heard mentioned in awhile. It might be worth noting that the opening track of For Your Own Special Sweetheart begins with nothing less than a sample from WCW reading "Seafarer."

Jehza said...

Yes yes. Jawbox. Had no idea that Peter was a poet. Good to know. They all went on to do something meaningful (to me), it's starting to seem.

Thanks for calling my attention to O'Leary's work. I need to listen to "Savory" immediately.

Anonymous said...

Peter O'Leary, though a fine poet, is not the drummer/author of the collection in question. Zach Barocas is.