Monday, May 08, 2006

Home on the Range (The Night Sky with Stars in My Mouth) by Tenney Nathanson

O Books, 2005

Reviewed by Paul Klinger

In Tenney Nathanson’s Home on the Range (The Night Sky with Stars in my Mouth), you will quickly notice a preoccupation with eructions, sieves, and bags (not to mention the word crenellated). What you might not notice amid all the fireworks is how far Nathanson extends the simple gesture of the poem’s subtitle. The Night Sky with Stars in my Mouth takes a syntactical cue from various self-portraits by separating the self from the subject or center of a title. The articulation of the relationship inverts the importance of the self and its surroundings. The poem follows suit, as this first move sets the stage for all manner of reflexive activities.

Moving through these 108 cantos without the help of page numbers is no small job. A broad swath of intertexts, listed as end credits, pop up in every song, but by no means does this list prove exhaustive, as you can find Frank O’Hara mixing it up with Hart Crane or Ron Silliman in a small cameo on the bus. It is the vast machinery of Nathanson's poem that demands a special attention, which must be paid out through the ear. Musical changes signal a gear shift, as the poet flops between the transmission of memories and his own commentary about the poem. The poem immediately displays a fondness for directing its own traffic. Observe:

      Commentary on this two parts. In the first the mind that is moving
      is nearly arrested by the framing portion of stuccoed brick wall, lush
            plants within a natural reticule.
      commentary from the story and then in the second part directly and
            clearly the mind is moving the foolish argument gold when playing
            for iron

Commentary and instructions aren't the only help Nathanson offers. He
anticipates multiple readings of his work, as in Canto 15 when he preempts the
dismissive reader:

      thinking this guy is weird won't get you out of this one yet    sutured
            grass your adventure in pointillism but you merged like zoom

“Pointillism” is no clumsy description of the reader’s experience. The ruptures that occur in these two lines are common and become a pleasure, as Nathanson gracefully punctuates his long poem with this comic timing. These slippages allow for various forms of bumbling to develop, including a disintegrated view of confession:

      begin    short torqued ending phrase no longer
      satisfaction if it end. think so That we are a brute

Similar in effect to these lines is each occurrence of the word "verbatim" in
the poem, as it fronts the seizure of some phrase in an effort to keep the
reader from sinking too far below the surface he is paving over these texts.
That surface is the self-portrait, as Nathanson’s effort to transmit a self drives the poem's constant shifting through the sprawling range of the poem's title.

Nathanson haunts the subjects of appropriation and transmission. His approach to the intertexts often poses trepidation as a kind of wrapping. In other words, consistent reminders of how he feels about what he is doing serve as "angels," which often preside at the outset or closing of a particular song. The following occurs towards the beginning of Canto 48:

      if use be mention, saying seeing, sewing: sueing for misappropriation
            direct experience of, the ghostly shriveled finger should scare you
      whenever the source dignified quiet

The quietness of his sources, or intertexts, cannot be overstated. They have
been "transmitted and waxed," though not necessarily in that order. Throughout the poem, one gets the sense of overhearing the problems of the poem's process, particularly the problems posed by the poet's long-standing relationship with
his material:

      grammatical and continuous thread, the genius of translation is necessary
            the original connected with worries, disappointments, obedience,
            clingings of the divine no hankerings speak of these passing cha-
            racters. replace the present with utmost rapidity.

The "genius of translation" fleshes out Nathanson's presentation of his sources. The task he seemingly assigns himself as translator is to "change reverence into inapproachability of truth." What he chooses to translate about each source text seems less important than the large-scale leveling of these texts into a bonded aggregate, chips off the old block.

When a chip doesn't seem to fit, that is when it approaches something easy, Nathanson jumps on the opportunity: “Who let this into the house? To macadam the macaw.” What poses as non-sequitur is a koan that lays bare an overriding concern of the poem: the translation of mimicry into self-expression. In the final canto, Nathanson says, "You end by beginning on your own. Words in your mouth." As in the subtitle, the mouth becomes a locus of authority, though Nathanson is careful to reassert the wildness that resides in the process of mouthing words with a bevy of sound effects (dings and booms galore). Towards the close of the poem, Nathanson acknowledges the effect of this wildness while surveying his finished work:

      I thought it would be different, more reflective and melodramatic
            at once - could have picked some other restaurant, book, sky, cohort,
            place, and - uh uh

With a characteristic grunt, Nathanson shuts off before he presses too long after something inapproachable. This sensitivity to duration becomes one of the more revealing gestures of a portrait which ultimately unsettles the relation of selfhood to home.


TENNEY NATHANSON is Associate Professor of English at the University of Arizona, where from 1993-1996 he served as Director of the PhD program in Literature and Coordinator of Graduate Studies for the Department of English. His poems have appeared in such journals as Jacket, Kenning, Antennae, can we have our ball back?,The LA Review, Social Text, The Massachusetts Review, Ironwood, Sonora Review, Caterpillar, Tamarisk, RIF/T3 and RIF/T5. He has published two chapbooks, The Book of Death (Membrane Press, 1975) and One Block Over (Chax Press, 1998), and the full-length Erased Art, also from Chax Press.


PAUL KLINGER was born in Baytown, Texas. He is a member of Tucson's POG Collective. Some of his poems can be read at Dusie, hutt, and Snorkel. He is now at work on a website called White Buildings and an erasure of P.J. Bailey's "Festus." Check out his blog, Sea Quills, here.