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Issue 10: Out on a Limb

Issue 9: The Missing Body

Issue 8: The Lily

Issue 7: Passages

Issue 6: No More Tears

A quick list to poets featured in this issue:

Robin Behn

Richard Garcia

John Hennessy

Adrian Matejka

Ayukawa Nobuo

Eunice Odio

Kathryn Rantala

Anna Ross

Mathias Svalina

Larissa Szporluk

Kevin Tsai  

not nearly noVel enough

by Stephanie Strickland  
Penguin Books, 2002

by Vivek Narayanan

It’s a fun conceit: Stephanie Strickland’s “V” can be read from either direction. You choose your beginning, reach the center of the book, jump to the middle section on the web, (www.vniverse.com), then invert the book to finish it. Thus, “V” is either one meticulously assembled epic poem in three parts, or three long poems, or several small poems. The book as a whole is intended to be a meditation on cycles and cyclical rhythm. One section, Wave Sonnets (or Wave Son.nets, to be exact) addresses the links between mathematics, hermeneutics, the occult, and art in a series of 47 15-line “sonnets.” Another section, Losing L’Una, tends toward the more familiar terrain of psychoanalytic philosophy, but with a warm, passionate tone. Lastly, the hypertext section of “V,” which is available free of charge, contains the entire text of “Wave Son.nets” in a scrambled, “non-linear” format. Like the work of Strickland’s many experimental predecessors— Emily Dickinson, Gertrude Stein, Mina Loy, Laura Riding Jackson, Veronica Forrest-Thompson, Susan Howe—“V” patrols the delicate boundary between philosophy and poetry. It is a deliberately difficult work, though in practice it is not quite as difficult or startling as anything by those earlier, aforementioned pioneers. “V,” and, indeed, much of Strickland’s other work (which may be viewed at Stephanie Strickland), is haunted by the ghost of the eccentric French philosopher Simone Weil. Weil, a contemporary of de Beauvoir’s, apparently effected a unique fusion of sexual abstinence, anarchism, and workers’ rights in her personal and intellectual life. Most pertinent to Strickland’s project is, perhaps, Weil’s position that “the proper role of science is to remain integrated with the working life, lest it become merely a remote system of signs.” Did “V” become more than a remote system of signs for this reviewer? The answer is yes—in its best, most classical moments, and no—when it was most posturing or self-conscious.

“V,” then, wants to be a 21st-century incarnation of the avant-garde, if such a thing is still possible. Therefore it seems likely to arouse the disdain of some neo-conservative literary camps, and to secure the unqualified praise of those who unthinkingly fetishize innovation as if it were some kind of moral or political imperative. I would like to suggest a middle course: I still want to believe in the idea of “newness,” but self-conscious innovation is not at all a guarantee of good poetry. It has been argued for quite some time that formal experimentation is in itself a form of social empowerment. In reality, however, what the avant-garde often has in common with capitalism is its love of innovation for its own sake. A text such as “V,” part book, part virtual hypertext, is clearly aware of its existence not just as reading matter but as a new product on the market. This self-awareness is charming but is also deserving of healthy skepticism. Most irritatingly, hypertext literature, being still in a self-promotional phase, can often rave endlessly about the mere fact of its existence. It has been said of “V,” for instance, that it is the first book to exist simultaneously in print and on the web. Big deal. That’s not good enough. Novelty of design I can get from my fantastic Gilette razor blade if needs be; when I encounter art, I want emotion, sensuality, or a sense of the sublime. Emily Dickinson certainly had it, as did Laura Riding. Strickland has it too, some of the time, and it is at these moments that I find myself tuning in to her more closely.

The strengths and weaknesses of “V” lie in its surprisingly great variations of tone, tempo, and style. Sometimes it’s trying too hard to be “postmodern”:

at the Greenwi( )ch
(WaveSon.net 18)


a negative. “Yeah,
rule(s), par-t-[ur]i-tion.

(WaveSon.net 43)

This is the same kind of silly punctuational preciousness masquerading as Deep Thoughts on Language or Revolutionary Play that wore thin for me early on in my reading of the postmodern and post-colonial theorists; in poetry, it is especially unnecessary because it nervously elucidates what is embedded and should remain hidden. At other times—because Strickland does not really seem very original as a thinker—the book’s attempts at philosophy fall flat:

on the edge, try the blink method: first look away
from, then, directly at. What
appears, when you turn aside, disappears
when you look back

(From Sails to Satellites)

In lines such as these—and there are a handful—we find flatness of pitch, a plodding rhythm, and observations that are unremarkable. This sounds like prose to me; earnest prose, perhaps, and even mildly intriguing at times, but mostly it fills the space between more interesting lines. Andrei Tarkovsky once wrote, “Undue emphasis on ideas can only restrict the spectator's imagination, forming a kind of thought ceiling beyond which there yawns a vacuum." In “V,” and in a lot of other academic poetry, the thought ceiling is reached way too soon. To Strickland’s credit, there are also places when the pure, direct thought is interesting or well presented enough to justify its presence in a poem:

At the quantum, basis of all that is stable,

numeric and morphic play with each other.

(WaveSon.net 38)

Or, in the poem “Lovers” from Losing L’Una:

Lovers are never one.
is never two.

Better still are lines where the philosophy is underpinned by old-fashioned sonic or visual effects:

by component re-unitings no visual mix, but all fused
into one

vibration received by one membrane,
the eardrum…porous…heard herald world
of word shaped.

(WaveSon.net 5)


How to make nothing out of something.
Don’t take me amiss. I mean nothing
by it, I mean only lightness,

a zephyr, a lilt, evanescent
I mean electronic.
The ore is from Diophantus.

(WaveSon.net 34/35)

Just the right amount of obliquity in this last declaration. Here we don’t take Strickland amiss in her mild playfulness, and we certainly don’t mind. Nevertheless, these are not the best moments, which come when Strickland lets herself go a little more, as in lovely lists such as these:

R2, Artemis,
and Ursa guarding the Pole.
Welcome, then, Presence, Reflection, Shadow,
Refraction, She Who Stands,

Gnova, Gnomon, Goose, Ouzel, Orca, Longdark,
Hardware, Software, Wetware, a Dolphin
leaping, responding
to the bare boy on her back.

(WaveSon.net 14)

Or in the few places where Strickland really shows her chops as a basic modernist poet:

Fear in the nursery.
Uninvited guest.

A spindle gift.
A child sleeps for a hundred years
behind the briar hedge.
One prick of blood.

(WaveSon.net 42)

This is one of the few truly emotionally suggestive moments in “V,” as is:

The Lady and her family, being the spectacle
of the Spectator, are perhaps conscious,
as they simultaneously

make jam
and read cosmology

(Losing L’Una, “Lady and her Family”)

This is both a light moment and deep, where Strickland takes herself less seriously. In it, soundplay meets sense and the results are good old-fashioned poetry.

Now, if the whole book had been composed of lines like those above, if it had come packaged in a drab, photocopied cover in courier font and insisted on being a thoroughly linear text, I wouldn’t have minded at all. For, the most redundant part of “V” is its web incarnation (www.vniverse.com), which elucidates some of the sections of “Wave Sonnets” by isolating them in little parts. This is an interesting effect and, as you will see, the parts are well-written. All the same, I have to say that like virtually every other hypertext poem I have encountered, the specifically hypertext-dependent aspects of it fail to excite me. As Tim Parks recently argued in an essay in the New York Review of Books, linearity is not a shortcoming of traditional texts, but something fundamental to their value: we hold a book in our hand, and know how long it will last. To give the reader thousands of choices and to not tell them when they are finished reading is a form of torture, not of empowerment. This may change when we finally arrive at hypertexts that are as fun to play as a game of Tetris or Solitaire. For now, I find myself concluding, with more conviction than ever before, that reading is enjoyable because it is a process of playful, voluntary, ritualistic submission through which we are eventually empowered. It is the author’s duty to try and dominate us and we, for just a brief while, give her the permission to do so. There is no media more innocent than a written text, precisely because it depends entirely on the reader’s continued engagement to do its work. Innovation in art is fine, but I find that there are one or two ancient pleasures which do not need improvement.

Vivek Narayanan's poems have appeared in several places, including the anthology, Reasons For Belonging: Fourteen Contemporary Indian Poets (Penguin India, 2002); and his prose, in the ART News Magazine of India and Mamba. Apart from writing for Perihelion, he also reviews for the Poetry Review in London. This year, his poetry and fiction will appear in Fulcrum (Cambridge, Mass.) and the Post-Post Review (Bombay) respectively. He is currently based in Boston.


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