Best Thing I’ve Read This Week: Scape

7 Aug

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The opening stanzas of Louis Zukofsky’s “A-22” read:

Other letters a sum owed
ages account years each year
out of old field, permute
blow blue up against yellow
—scape welcome young birds—initial

transmutes itself, swim near and
read a weed’s reward—grain
an omen a good omen
the chill mists greet woods
ice, flowers—their soul’s return (508)

Written in counted verse (each stanza contains five lines, each line five words), Zukofsky winds his way through the natural world’s fields, birds, weeds, woods, and flowers in an alliterative, idiomatically dense, syntactically circuitous, but formally rigid structure. As line after line and stanza after stanza unfold, each word “carves a breath” (509) into form, shaping the poem into a linguistic landscape via its musical and grammatical elements. Certainly, “A-22” pushes toward the upper limit of Zukofsky’s poetics, an “integral” he defines as “Lower limit speech / Upper limit music” (138), in order to engage the natural world in a visceral manner that “speech” by itself cannot achieve.

It’s no wonder, then, that Joshua Harmon prefaces his book Scape (Black Ocean, 2009) with a fragment from the opening stanza of “A-22”: “—scape welcome young birds—.” Just as did Zukofsky, Harmon creates a landscape in a similar fashion, focusing on alliteration, complex syntax, and a lush idiom. Likewise, Harmon composes Scape’s first poem “Wither” in counted verse (each stanza contains two lines, each line four words). The first seven stanzas read:

—heelprint and halter, halfway
heard: before mean back

then, to know before
it breaks it lurches

so in the snowfield’s
stalk- and stem-broken

edges a rosehip bends,
reddens at its tip:

halfway across, near dusk,
to know snow before

this is nothing to
naming this unread surface

defect of drifting lines:
snow breaks back (3)

Phoneme after phoneme echo each other through alliteration and rhyme for another ten couplets, all within the framework of a single syntactical unit. The experience is not unlike walking through an expansive “snowfield” at “dusk” while “drift lines” dust over one’s path to shelter, the journey home made difficult by the unforgiving conditions. Yes, it’s easy to wander off and get lost within the landscape of the poem.

And this, I believe, is the joy of Harmon’s Scape: we can walk “step by step” through and “toward the form of a field” (7) within the poem, wherein “sound alone” (9) causes us to experience a particular type of “vertigo” (8). Indeed, our senses disorient as we travel through a poetic “landscape” that appears as “an open system, a naïve word’s wound, a trick made of…waiting breath” (13), while we journey to “the elided spaces / inside [our] head” (20).

To further highlight this point, I’ve excerpted the opening and closing lines of the poem “Escape”:

Torque of tongue
twiddle: starched
shortcomings
and-going:
when you run
the wind follows
you, falls blistered
and burnt: hand-
writing allows
such green timber
to ruin knife-knit
openings: (55)

beyond a briarneck, lapse
turns light: turl and sumac-twist
how this stretch bees

rooted redundancies
race to pattern it

These scabbed leaves loosely north,
landslipped: otherwhorled in vacancies
of bough-bladed stripling—

Lonesome intention, riven match:
boon of brazen dismantlings takes
amid later light: underwinged (56)

As with the previous excerpt, the “rooted redundancies” of alliteration build a sonic “pattern” and “torque” the “tongue” so as to cause the mouth to “sumac-twist” within Harmon’s landscapes. But, in addition to this sonic strategy, the poet creates linguistic “dismantlings” through creative slippages. To this end, “landscape” becomes “landslipped” (my italics) and “otherworld” becomes “otherwhorled.” These playful techniques allow us to whirl in Harmon’s whorled otherworld of words.

Yes, just as Zukofsky wrote “A-22” in a manner that “uncompassed” the directions “north south west [and] east” (513) in linguistic dislocation, so too does Harmon immerse us in a “landscape [that] can no longer / hold itself to together” (42), at least to the extent that its musical and syntactical structures unravel our senses and dizzy us into an ever expanding soundscape.

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