Clark Coolidge's A Book Beginning What and Ending Away

by Wendy Lotterman

Courtesy of Fence Books.

Fence Books, 2012

Twenty chapters of poetry compose Clark Coolidge’s Gesamtkunstwerk, the division between each a shoddy dam allowing themes to spill back and forth—geology, Zukofsky, Dalí. A bind that keeps its flow. Coolidge, a poet associated with movements from the New York School to Language poetry to the San Francisco Renaissance, began A Book in the ’70s, when he would perform the inchoate project during marathon readings in San Francisco. It is a mistake to be too dazzled by Coolidge’s trademark soundscapes—“rigid dirigible”—not to mine their stores. Sense might be slackened but it hasn’t disappeared; rather, it’s loosened its grip so we’re free to grip it. A discussion of all the pieces and parts that bring us along that threaten. The architecture tends to buckle when prodded or when a pattern is demanded of the scatter. This is the point. Shapes materialize from the lexical din, then disaggregate, then lend raw materials to the next shape.

In the nature of words to lead away from what they lead back to. There are passing moments of downright wisdom, magnets within the miscellany that call it all back home. Pith details necessary to a plenty of time. Sometimes Coolidge comes at one single point from plentiful angles; other times everything seems uncannily distilled inside a single crooked sentence. Let’s zoom in. Pith: both the potent concision of language and the spongy, generative center of plant limbs. An image pertinent to Coolidge’s writing and the caves and mines within it—vacant geologies where what’s missing meets the matter that surrounds it. Perimeter meeting, louder. Coolidge’s grammatical splicing and fidgety metrics enact this; the poetry is the screech made by meeting, mounting, and dismantling the fences that both conceive and constrict the writing. Noisy perimeters.

The smallest or largest pulls causing a light. An asterisk of speeds. The poetry plays with light. Absorbent, matte sections solicit the reader to account for dimness, the absence of definition thus ultimately delivering it. Where is the deft control, where is it in lacks. Up close, Coolidge’s language may look as confettied as a pointillist canvas at an inch’s distance; draw back and forms are unmistakable. It is difficult to tease out a narrative spine, but stories are being told, history and influences staking claim.

Ever-changing automatic segments of the old sand phrase. Like sand, the poetry is plural and amenable to new casts that pop out new molds. Language leaking forever-past objects. A Book begins with what, ends with away; respectively a question and a distant preposition suggesting the space we aren’t in. There is nothing of the / sum about it but in name. I’ve covered less ground than a pair of feet occupies, but it’s hard to stay still, or report back from wherever you wind up. This collection leaves the reader at the junction of meaning and disorientation, a threat to the safety of these opposites.

—Wendy Lotterman is a poet and translator based in New York City, soon to be returning from Southeast Asia.

Language poetry
Literary style
New York School
BOMB 123
Spring 2013
The cover of BOMB 123