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tearing the rag off the bush again
Bill Lavender, transfixion (Trembling Pillow/Garrett County Press) PDF E-mail
Mallarmé lies still and beaming in his grave.

   Bill Lavender’s transfixion might seem a linear development: a new book from an accomplished poet, critic, editor and book designer. It might seem the lineal descendant of such work as look the universe is dreaming. But I would argue that this important new work is a lateral expansion. In part, this is because Lavender’s books (from Chax, Trembling Pillow, Lavender Ink, Potes and Poets) have always had a way of enlarging our notion of poetry—widening the field where poiesis is played.

   This is particularly true of 2003’s look the universe is dreaming, where the method is an array of computer-driven sorting algorithms which slice existing (well known, as well as obscure) poems and yield unintended arrangements of images. As much as any contemporary work, this volume leaves the reader grasping and tantalized. The affective content is supplied, ad hoc and desperately, by the reader. Of course, the bits of semantic thread knit together that way, too:


         Easy to put an address on the million kinds of first sleep,
but the year’s placed singer, if on second I agree, Bill, is novelty...


The meaning is prismatic and dislocated; the images (“samples” of other images) ping off each other, stick to or repel each other, in a way that is not syntactic, linear, or even thematic. Mallarmé lies still and beaming in his grave.

   transfixion widens the field (the page? the heart?) in much the same way, according to Lavender—“the primary difference between the two [books] being that the sorting of the literary quotations is much less random.” Both meaning and feeling are lovingly hunted chimeras in this work:


         I infect with
meaning something exact
as reality’s dark dream

         when the
lanterns go out
the matching skullcap
& map of brain

his peat-brown head


Affect might seem arid here, in the style of Peter Gizzi’s tellingly titled Atificial Heart. And meaning too. (One of the best passages in the book is a long homophonic riff on Lorca’s “Oda a Walt Whitman,” dedicated to Peter Gizzi.) But in both works we mine the spaces between—we should say among—the unintelligible images. We sense that we are “miners for a heart of gold.”  Something convinces us that the sparkle is real.

   Are we transfixed in the middle of this new space? No, in the middle would have to mean that we know what is being said, and that our affect finds the bull’s eye. But we are indeed transfixed: we are motionless, like bugs that wait forever. And the pin through our thorax is our increasing certainty that Lavender knows what he is doing. His postface refers to the slicing and sampling in look the universe is dreaming; we know that both affect and meaning will be problematic in this new book—a waiting game. The search is on, not for a middle but for a listening kind of center, like the tonal center of any melody, even the most wildly improvised. If we can call this center a “knot,” then Khatibi phrases the questions for us: “Will we willingly accept the wandering of words over a knot that shifts and does not shift? A movement that is possible because writing confronts the general madness of signs.” The answer is yes; we were rewarded the last time we accepted this challenge in Lavender’s poetry.

   And there’s something else. Another way in which transfixion is an enlargement of Lavender’s work—rather than its lineal descendant—is its greater cohesion. His method “involves more subjective agency,” as he notes. Amid the disparity and abstruseness we have a greater sense of the author’s hand.  It is a welcome, energizing presence in this new book; it is the hand that impels you just when you think the transfixion might be fatal.

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