Ugly Duckling Presse, 2005
Reviewed by J'Lyn Chapman
As the grammatical structure of the title That We Come to a Consensus suggests, this collaboration is one fashioned with indefinites, provisional language, and relativity. The subordinate clause of the title is multiplied toward the end of the poem when the speakers—and even this pronouncement is ambiguous—make twenty statements, each missing its antecedent. Yet, exacting language undercuts grammatical vagueness.
that we are not like fast machines
that we were crossing streets
that we exited through the kitchen
The effect of this is a wonderful, lilting imprecision that suggests that the written text performs the consensus of the “we,” and as the first line of the long poem states, the act of writing and of partnership is “to come to understanding.”
Yet, there is an implicit knowledge in the lines that follow that to come to understand is less about agreement than it is about empathy. On one hand, the voice of the poem maintains a level of innocuousness, never falling into distinguishing traits that would differentiate voice. The voice is often conversational and humorous; idiomatic lines are reminiscent of Ashbery’s. And the conversational slips into an alarming tenderness
…say we meet at the airport
as an appendix to an apology
you arriving in a sombrero
me wearing a white carnation
a kind of greeting
this part might be imagined
The voice of the poem has no qualms about its neutrality, and yet, it is simultaneously playful and emotive as in the lines, “I confess to about half of the worst mistakes / it was spring & I was sad.”
On the other hand, this speaker, who uses both pronouns “he” and “she” (note the strange line: “the boy was almost him or herself) and yet never identifies itself as either, is gracious and humble as it works out the seemingly incommensurate facets of the relationship. That there exists incommensurability is one thing, but what is particularly interesting is how the poem negotiates this.
There are two recurring themes throughout the poem: travel and writing. We might even identify writing as the overarching theme that includes travel, for writing in this way is characterized as both that which signifies and that which creates space for movement. For instance, signification allows the individual partners to pose themselves differently, to create the possibility of a new subjectivity
here’s me in the summertime
& you in late light
The speaker in these lines points to a possible world outside itself. In the following lines, the speaker posits an alternative way of being and its means call for an initial devastation
a better way to save face might be to forget entirely
give up the domestic plunder
& build your own mannequin
standard weather calls for more provocative side-trips
redemptive cloud redemptive lake redemptive avalanche
nothing as bright as the afternoon sun to stall a crash-landing
Further, there are trains, that semi-rapid transportation, that moving complacency, and hotels, those spaces of feigned domesticity, of temporary keeping. The fiction occurs both in the positing of the speaker and in the self-conscious realization that to write is to burgeon both possibility and containment
Say I have a hotel catastrophe
in a fiction the hotel collapses
boots & rags branded & back tomorrow
one way to assassinate the newly canonized
is written from memory
speaks only English in every other line
the boy recorded somewhere
the girl imagining pictures
these names for partner
It would seem that signification is how partners come to agreement. As the theory of semiotics instructs us – and what we seem to know so explicitly in this poem without any overt appeal to literary theory as such – “agreement” between sign and referent is not produced through exacting mimesis as the following line suggests: “in a fiction I wrote with my left hand.” Rather, slippage produces meaning, all of those possibilities that erupt from utterance: “look at the way I write / your name in this fiction / even I’ve been called a man from behind.”
The form of the poem exacerbates this eruption of meaning by creating a visual parataxis. There are no stanza breaks, no punctuation, and the lines are short so that half of the page is text and the other is space. The poem looks harnessed, but the voice is so persistent and exploratory that there exists a smooth trajectory forward.
This is the trajectory of language to signify, and it is the trajectory of collaboration that endures the distance between otherness to produce an understanding.
NOAH ELI GORDON'S books include The Area of Sound Called the Subtone (Ahsahta Press, 2004), The Frequencies (Tougher Disguises Press, 2003), That We Come To A Consensus (in collaboration with Sara Veglahn, Ugly Duckling Press), and the e-book notes toward the spectacle (Duration Press).
SARA VEGLAHN is the author of two chapbooks: Another Random Heart (Margin to Margin, 2002) and Falling Forward (Braincase Press, 2003), and is co-author of the chapbook That We Come to a Consensus (Ugly Duckling Press 2006), a collaboration with the poet Noah Eli Gordon. Her work has appeared in various journals, including Conjunctions, Fence, 26 Magazine, 580 Split, POM2, Fairy Tale Review, Word for/word, Castagraf, Free Verse and elsewhere. She is currently pursuing a PhD in creative writing at the University of Denver, where she also teaches English. She received her MFA in poetry from the University of Massachusetts at Amherst in 2005.
J'LYN CHAPMAN is a Literary Studies PhD student at the University of Denver. She is currently at work on a dissertation on photography and text in the works of W.G. Sebald and a book of poetry about wild bears. Her fancy drawings can be found in A Ghost as King of the Rabbits, a chapbook by Joshua Marie Wilkinson.