A FIDDLE PULLED FROM THE THROAT OF A SPARROW by NOAH ELI GORDONPATRICK JAMES DUNAGAN Reviews
A Fiddle Pulled from the Throat of a Sparrow by Noah Eli Gordon
(New Issues in Prose & Poetry Western Michigan University, 2007)
THE STRUGGLE TO LET THE POEM ‘BE’
Noah Eli Gordon states, “I’ve tried everything I can think of to bring a poem into the world.”* The list of examples he then provides is indeed fairly exhaustive in scope of possible exercises: “automatic writing; timed writing; making word lists; sketching out detailed charts of specific syntax and filling in the words later on; writing only in public; writing at specific times of the day.” He also confesses, “I write a lot.” The poems collected in A Fiddle Pulled from the Throat of a Sparrow demonstrate the merit along with the frailty of Gordon’s self-reflections upon his writing process. There is beauty beside absurdity. Technical skill demonstrated but not always sustained. A mixture of styles and an assortment of possible influences embedded throughout. Notes in the back notify the reader that the poems were “composed between 1999 & 2005” and were published “often in radically different versions and under different titles” in numerous journals and chapbooks. It is as if instead of a ‘selected early poems,’ (which would admittedly be an odd exhibit for a poet who is still relatively young and at the beginning of his career) Gordon took his earlier, uncollected work and re-drafted much of it with the intention to form a fresh, cohesive collection. Unfortunately, although there are shining moments, any intended cohesion doesn’t hold.
The title poem starts it off well enough. The lines are clean and delicate by way of sound and texture, a sweetly inviting embrace of lyrical imagery.
A fiddle pulled from the throat of a sparrow
little piece of silence
astray in the circumstantial music of a crowd
part myth, part massacre
have you put away your toy internment
turned to the first movement
where the house was empty
& the dead hair of the harpist spread on the lawn
its arrayed core drawing a grace note
from the muttering of those exhausted by wild dance
showing an oar for a lyre
a turtle shell a tear
cleaving a bird call on the kettle drum
to unsettle a dust of harmonics
expelling an itinerant elsewhere
an epistolary scratching-post
a winged thing for the gypsy’s chime
the timbrel’s return to nowhere
Lines such as “showing an oar for a lyre / a turtle shell a tear” serve up Gordon’s nimble delight in play with sound, mixing in classical references to music and poetry of ancient days with a quickness of line shared by many in the current moment. There’s deliberate care given to every word which the double spacing of the lines adds an elegance of attention to without overdoing it. After all, the title of this opening section is “A Dictionary of Music,” Gordon lays down a solid entrance into his work.
Following “A Dictionary of Music” is a section titled “The Right of Return.” Each of the eight poems contained within are a “book of.” For instance, there’s “The Book of Forgetting” along with “The Book of Rebuilding” and
The Book of Definitions
The vestigial mark was the wound
shadow in the preface
though they circled around the flame,
thought of this night
took the form first as bone,
first a cliff overlooking the sea
called “longing for arrival”
When the youngest asked
why this hand was different from others,
another drew in his fingers & said
“This hand is called a fist.”
Not to take note but to transcribe
Bells were rung & special knots devised
At a glance this poem is similar in looks and style to “A Fiddle” but the sensibility behind the lines is of a different nature. Where “A Fiddle” leans on its ambiguous meaning, and thereby gains a sympathetic ear from the reader, “The Book of Definitions” seeks clarity in elusive hinting towards a possible description of rites of violent passage. The poem is neither lesson nor celebration. It does not seek to critique the nature of the young teaching each other how and what it means to say, “This hand is called a fist.” Many of the lines have an overheard quality to them, what might be happening in the reader’s thoughts sitting outside a schoolyard and reflecting without judgment on what is heard. It’s something worth the thought.
The next section’s title, “How Human Nouns,” rivals the metaphoric imagery of the collection’s title (as far as clever titles go) with its witty play-off of traditional rules of grammar. Each of these opening sections is comprised of individually titled poems forming mini-chapbooks of a sort, and work rather nicely when taken individually. It would seem that terms are being set for the collection as a whole. Sometimes this bodes well for the reader and Gordon is headed in a good direction, at other times there’s only disappointment.
To map the wearing away of things
What endows an anecdote with so much tinder
a particular tree in how light fell
how human nouns what the nucleus of commerce won’t replicate
the world in a real enough window
money made of money a bare ankle
pacing from the vault to the podium
to fasten the world a believable cape
Gordon’s ease in falling back on slick trade-ups of common phrase to gain the poetic is not to the poem’s benefit. Not “to fashion” but rather “fasten.” It’s more than a bit trite. Triteness isn’t much better than the clichéd sense Gordon no doubt wishes to duck. The at-first-seeming inspired wit of the section’s title loses almost all of its unique sparkle when the line it is raised out from, “how human nouns what the nucleus of commerce won’t replicate,” is revealed.
Following these three opening sections is “Untragic Hero of Epic Theater,” “Four Allusive Fields,” and “A Book of Names.” These too are mini-chaps of a kind, differing from the opening three in that they’re composed of untitled poems and have a more serial-poem sensibility to them. “Four Allusive Fields” with its first line refrain beginning each poem, “Cy listens absently to absent Homer,” being the most successful. “Cy” is American painter Cy Twombly and Gordon’s poems evoke abstract wanderings serving as both response and commentary upon Twombly’s series of adventurous canvases engaging with the Iliad; in Gordon’s words, “a system of charged, yet ambiguous signifiers, but also wholly narrative.”
Cy listens absently to absent Homer
taking notes that amount to nothing, & nothing
erases as well as a name. Can one draw a careless world
out of its engorged abdomen? Ask that moth
eating through a painted magpie what grinding
against a shard of twilight gave it. Flowers
chalked over aluminum & the elegance
of taped-on wings. Ladders reaching the roof
behind rain clouds brushed on to cover a mistake
Who wouldn’t mistake the surface for vapid paint
a cloud for a sarcophagus a bed for a life your white shirt
for mine, blue for blue. Depending on the vantage point
proves you hang from it in pieces, & though we hadn’t
arrived on the same boat, we’re surely on the same boat now
There’s a pleasant bit of music to these lines, in contrast to “Untragic Hero of Epic Theater” which from its clunky opening line, “Did blanched afternoon unfastening its oiled feathers” on through, never gets around to amounting to anything much or maintaining the reader’s attention. At its best moments a mildly bored sensibility reminiscent of Ashbery is achieved:
What’s the difference hedges toward a structure
I don’t want the locution of some scuffed surface
just your lips moving like birds
where birds are not the story
second to its telling but the inky shape
of astonishment arresting our attention
Often it feels as if Gordon is offering up poetic exercises, attempts to “sound like” or utilize the technique of so and so, the result isn’t much of a thrill. At the end of “Book of Names” references to previous poems appear
Why George? Why Cy?
Why do nudes fall from newspapers?
Why a fire that consumes all before it?
Why yes? & why no?
Why the world’s most believable cape?
Gordon may be holding his own book to question.
Closing out the collection comes “A New Hymn to the Old Night” (if you’re thinking Novalis, so is Gordon, this longish poem intends at being a nod towards his Hymnen an die Nacht), along with “A Little Book of Prayers” which is a mini-mini-chap of three poems and provides an attempt at closure. It is with “A New Hymn to the Old Night” that the design of the book irrevocably intrudes and interrupts the readability of the text. On every page with text a solid line runs from the outside edge of the page about a space and a half above the first line of the poem for about fifteen spaces. The line on the opposing page is slightly lower, so that when the looking at text on opposing pages the text on the left begins ever so slightly higher up on the page than that opposing it on the right. It makes for a rather uneven symmetry and serves no visible purpose other than annoyance. With “A New Hymn to the Old Night” it is especially irksome as it interrupts the visual flow of sections that happen to run further than one page. The assumption is that Gordon intends the poem to be composed of stanzas without separation into individual poems or parts, but these lines lend a sense of rupture, both between as well as at times within, to the would-be stanzas. It’s clear that the lay out was decided upon without a reader-friendly understanding of the manuscript to be associated with it.
Gordon ends the collection with a poem that has a quote from Myung Mi Kim as an epigraph which challenges the thrust of this review.
Urge to call
Cohere who can say
- Myung Mi Kim
Begin with the phrase: it’s light outside
with a window, the reshaping of water
to map the shoreline between finger & figure
to say there is so much loss in the current
anchor-ripped coral or coral-ripped hull
adjacent, resolute, an idea preceding vocabulary
the inclination of a knee to bend or body to decay
one would question sleep as one would step
an image, angled—inverted in a spoon
the subject, suspect of syntax
one tests the wind with a finger as a ship settles
between shoreline & the lines on a map
the terms, twinned to coax out meaning
the leakage of water through slats of wood
one must begin with the current, the word cohere
a child who says: the window shows it’s time to get up
Gordon succeeds in searching for the needs of the poem, but when the needs are met the searching continues, Gordon is always casting in every line for a further lure. As the poem indicates, there comes a time when “it’s time to get up.” The poem is forever an indicator in Gordon’s hands, veering away from becoming, pointing towards a furtherance of the act of its own composition rather than existing as a thing itself to be confronted. Whether the book must cohere isn’t what’s at question so much as whether the poems work well on the page and achieve a state of becoming which travels beyond it.
Necessity alone dictates that readers should expect a poet always be on the go, trying on different hats as it were. As Gordon himself says, “being a poet is something that needs to be continually relearned.” This collection publicly bares the early lessons of Gordon teaching himself this rule. It may be that it’s too soon to be unveiling some of these sequences. The best being better suited to appear at a later date with the lesser attempts included here replaced by material yet to come. Perhaps Gordon doesn’t believe in just letting poems get lost and not pushing them into publication. He admits, “I worked for six years on A Fiddle Pulled from the Throat of a Sparrow; some of those poems went through hundreds of drafts.” Whatever the reasons, the volume has a rushed, or perhaps ‘pushed’ is the more proper term, bearing to it. Presented as they are, the poems have a leaned-on atmosphere, as though Gordon has sharpened them to the point where their utility is hampered, and at points, extinguished.
[* All quotations of Gordon’s comments are taken from his interview with Joshua Marie Wilkinson published on-line in the Spring ‘07 issue of Rain Taxi.]
Patrick James Dunagan lives in San Francisco and works in the library at USF. Poems and chapbooks have been published by Auguste Press, Blue Book, Chain, Pompom, and Red Ant Press among others.