Tuesday, June 15, 2010

On Spec

Williams, Tyrone. On Spec. Richmond, CA: Omnidawn Publishing, 2008.

Tyrone Williams' On Spec explores the confluence of post-Language poetry and African-American poetic tradition; the entwining of diverse aesthetic and ideological lineages is no more apparent than midway through the collection in “Four Dialogues, Five Fish, One Bowl (Interrogation Procedures).” Within this serial piece, the author juxtaposes critical examination of prominent twentieth-century black artists with a rigorous study of Derrida's The Gift of Death. For instance, in “Preface 1,” Williams informs readers that the “unnamed narrator” from Ralph Ellison's Invisible Man “functions as an example of the absent indefinite article; he is just another black man poised at the edge of history, peering into the oblivion” (63). The poet couches his critique within language (i.e. the lack of an article in the book's title), but focuses on black identity in “American history: the individual as simultaneously a part of, and apart from, a community” (63). Immediately following the paragraph on Invisible Man, a second paragraph analyzes Derrida's theory of deconstruction and explains how the French philosopher argued that “foundational oppositions,” in fact, were not so much oppositions, but, when given “x and not-x, not-x is not only the polar opposite of x but, in fact, is contained within x” (63). To this extent, both paragraphs, while written in different idioms and whose contents are often thought to be at odds with one another (see Joyce-Gates-Baker debate), seek to understand and come to terms with a fundamental, philosophical paradox: in one case framed as a subject both “ a part of, and apart from” a collective, and in the other case “x and not-x” both outside of and “contained within x.” No doubt, Williams' investigation of the aforementioned subject-matter stems from his understanding as an experimental African-American poet that “The signature public/ the only avant-garde/ behind invention” (17) has often times dismissed the “Smoke to motion...rhythm of evading/ Low-down mast, new-hold plank, whip-/ Taut” music found in blues, jazz, and oral traditions (riffing, improvisation, and punning), as something other than the “advanced guard.” But, by shrewdly combining the two, such as when he writes “Auto-didact/-dialectics/ stage in rent-to-rent/ 'crowded houses,' asea to har-har-/ poon Terrible Tom's tom-tom/ stutter” (21), both poetic strains are “contained within” each other, via word-play. It is not so much that the poet resolves the tension between traditions, but that he allows them to exist concurrently within his aesthetic. Another aspect of On Spec that bears mention is the book's conflation of genres. With regard to the previously discussed “Four Dialogues..,” the poet encourages readers to question the relationship between theory and poetry: What are their similarities? What are their differences? And how are we, as readers and writers, affected by our placement within the transitional and often nebulous zone between them? Similar questions can be asked when approaching “Brer R(g).” The piece is a five-part play, initially performed for the Bay Area Poets Group in 2004. The text, whether dialogue or stage directions, contains language that is simultaneously spare and associative, fostering a distinctly Beckettian aura that necessitates the audience connect the elliptical moments, passages, movements, and vocalizations with their own words and experiences. Other boundary-defying techniques Williams employs are the use of check-boxes, errata and footnotes delimited both spatially and visually in non-traditional manners, mathematical equations, cross-outs, quotation, and liberal use of white space. An additional poetic technique the author uses rather frequently is the hard enjambment, regularly breaking on syllables mid-word; for example: “green-/ print/ for/ a/ shot-/ gun/ a-/ part-/ ment” (141). By slowing down the readers' cognition through accumulation of fragmented phonemes, both spatially and temporally, we find that “Enjambment disables” intellect in favor of “affective minimals” (114). Or stated differently, by radical use of “Enjambment” and the creation of phonetic “minimals,” the poems “disable” our immediate understanding of them, instead offering us confusion, play, mystery, anxiety and these psychological states' “affective” responses.

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