Uselysses by Noel Black
(Ugly Duckling Presse, Brooklyn, NY, 2010)
Poets through their DNA, in their practice, by sheer sensitivity to the fragile state of craft in a world of frustratingly chaotic conditions can only conjure formal resistance to empirical or philosophical certainty—or at least they should. The actual preoccupation with enacting uncertainty, bewilderment, or ambivalence is not always enacted in the poem as much as implied by its design. Foregrounding what really translates into an anxiety over both meaning and perception is also a doubting of the value of poetry itself. To question poetry while practicing it opens one up to the charge of mucking about when some other more viable activity could be found. Worse, depending on doubt as the fuel to drive the poem, a dubious energy indeed, is cause for alarm/harm. But then again, as a Catholic priest once told me, probably quoting countless previous perplexed souls seeking solace for this spiritual instability, “You cannot have faith without doubt.”
No, you cannot have faith without doubt, and if you are to scourge and scour relentlessly to determine the viability of your art, you might as well do so with wild, sloppy, mischievous humor. Noel Black’s Uselysses churns desperately and delightfully in its spatial locations, never allowing its various antic narratives to sit still or shoot straight. They forever switchback from one scenario to the next, zig-zagging, whip-lashing, and moving so fast they leave little residue except for the mental grease falling from both the poems and the reader’s brain, pondering the imponderables. Often the state of the poem as written or imagined is snared in a sense of its inadequacy or the failure of its utopian designs to achieve themselves fully. As the very first poem contends in its opening lines:
Even the most mundane
of what already exists
seems more interesting to me
than anything we might
strive to create.
(“In the Manner of Gerard Manley Hopkins, Sort Of)
One can heartily agree and then likewise disagree with this poetic statement and then witness how Black giddily repudiates it altogether by striving to authenticate a world out of language and stray images to compete with the naturally existing ones. Perhaps Black simultaneously approves both assertions, perhaps he traffics in “neitherness,” a term pressed deeply into the 54th stanza of his startling long sequence, “Prophecies for the Past,” about the circumstances of his birth and later life told back and forth and side to side. Neitherness—neither fully coming to terms with either position so occupying some of the attitudes growing into each.
Inarticulateness, imaginative failure, and musings about the limitations on form haunt the poet’s creations over and over. Here are quotes selected from five different poems:
“I feel upset with this poem for everything it cannot be…”
“…it’s certainly disappointing that poems can’t
make people stop being assholes, or end greed and suffering…”
“One thing I hate about poetry is the stately voice
you imagine while writing…”
“I try to be honest in my thoughts, but line breaks
can feel so arbitrary…”
“I wished this poem were a different poem—
the poem I meant to write…”
Intentionality in all these examples is damned, damned to stare down the creation, curse the creator, and remove itself in a spiral of smoke. For a lesser, less gleeful and more resolutely repentant poet, you would wish to remove the pen from the fingers or the fingers from the computer, and hand a cat o’nine tails for self-flagellating fury (better yet, ignore their textual agonies). But Black is able to sustain conceptual cleverness that flies in the face of affection or neuroses, working poems like unsolvable equations which enjoy, in the end, the burn of their own contemplations and procedures for enacting their technical or thematic failure. As “Poem on My 36th Birthday” extols:
Maybe that is the mystery: one song and…
Is that what the universe is—
an incredibly mysterious and incomprehensibly beautiful song
like the verse of Walt Whitman
in which his particles almost certainly still alive live
and still sing from the letters strung out
into words and lines, etc., like secret codes
that smash into your brains and open up
Mystery trumps all. The poem by gesturing to it as its sine qua non affirms its own existence as both a mode of inquiryand also a manifestation of achieved thoroughness without achieved perfection. As “Uselysses” intones, “…pointlessness is beauty”; its title too alights on the affirming power of Black’s craft—poetry is useless, of worth and without value, and it highlights the ordinary’s apprehension of the epic or even miraculous, like Leopold Bloom in James Joyce’s Ulysses, radiating the common, the cosmic, and neither entirely (neitherness!)
The recurrence of God and Walt Whitman in these poems are testaments and talismans as well to the poet’s attitude of redemption through even the flimsiest and most failed of forms. There are many attitudes on display and the poems also play at various registers—celebration, skepticism, reverie, and remorse. The volume collects several separate books of poems and most generate a genuine power of perception and statement. Of these, only the poems in the “Moby K. Dick” sequence tend to implode lethargically, their titles more appealing than the texts, ingenious literary mash-ups (“Lord Jim Thompson,” “The Spy Who Came in from the Cold Blood”). They are solid enough poems, but having first encountered them in separate chapbook form with splendid illustration accompanying each individual poem, I think they just seem slighter without the text and image integration. However, the final book or sequence, the above mentioned “Prophecies of the Pas” is a stunning surprise. Given the comedic and parodic elements encoded in most of Uselysses, this nomadic flight into origins and implied futures is a disquieting bildungsroman, a fusion of Cortazar and Dennis Cooper. The burden of construing, never mind constructing, identity refuses humor altogether. Here, the stanzas are dense prose blocks, aggregates of biographical details, at times indeed graphic, unlike certain narrative flashpoints found elsewhere. They are riveting, revolving, and, like all of Noel Black’s work, wonderfully devastating.
Jon Curley's second collection, Angles of Incidents, was published this fall by Dos Madres Press. He teaches in the Humanities Department at New Jersey Institute of Technology.