Towards the Blanched Alphabets
Gustaf Sobin
Talisman House, $12.95 (paper)

Gustaf Sobin is both haunted and hefted by the erosions of lateness. In Towards the Blanched Alphabets, his sixth individual collection and the most recent since Breaths’ Burials(1995), he laments decaying or lost civilizations, their beautiful, efficient architectural structures and agro-scapes, their self-sufficient economies, even the language of presence by which they were settled, sustained, and eventually surrendered. At the same time, the commemorative project of his poems gathers a spiritual if not theological gravity that serves to buoy their "vaporous tabernacles" relentlessly but gracefully forward, in search of "passage, a passage, at / last, through the blanched im- // measurable." Sobin’s poetry is one of excavation and elevation, of moving "under,you’d insisted, but only for the sake of through,"until "one’s very breath–at last–as if ballasted in air." His work enacts vocal gestures that take their bearing from the breath itself, intuiting their way, as "air rushing through air," back to some originary grammar, long since fragmented almost past recognition. His inhalations, however, are accompanied by exhalations into unknown and potentially unknowable realms, where it may be possible to salvage ruins of a former alphabet in order to make of semantic shards a viable, redemptive language.

In seeking to "precede vestige, // reach, that is, far enough back that you might begin, finally, projecting forwards," Sobin re-invests the topologies of southern France, where he has lived for nearly forty years, with a poetic dignity he feels they deserve, while endowing his poems with the dust and debris of a geography he believes to be the basis of utterance itself. His archaeological poetics is most pronounced in "Late Bronze, Early Iron: A Journey Book," in which he is "plumbing sound, extracting fracture" from agricultural settlements abandoned for the first fortified western cities. He studies the potsherds, blackware, urn fields, fossils, salt routes and water-courses of sites where, before Gallo-Roman colonization, "earth and artifact" existed in "perfect symbiosis." Sobin traces how ancient roads have "broke[n], now, into gravel, rubble, dune," and the residues of protohistoric habitats become a figure for poetry itself, as he posits the geophysical and economic decline of early civilizations as an index of linguistic collapse. The landscape Sobin surveys had been "rendered derelict by an emergent, mercantile exchange system, undermining every form of autonomous economy," and he claims that the appearance of granaries were "evidence, already, of a surplus production and its automatic corollary: the stocking of exchangeable merchandise." The other, metaphorical corollary, was "concepts of deferral": Sobin finds in the advent of the market, with its negotiable goods, credit system and complexification of labor, the inception of a difference threatening socio-economics with both stratification and postponement, "just as the phrase, that most invested of goods, would come to gather, provisionally, against its own diffusion." Sobin also notes that subterranean storage jars have been linked chronologically to the "flourishing of ramparts" along battlements and citadels, and he conceives those rudimentary defense systems as precursors to linguistic attrition, whereby language is "inexorably locked within the fixed perimeters of the literal." He feels a kinship with these "communities that–already–had begun gathering against.// as you, in a science of your own, would trace, if you could, the envelopment of the verb–of language itself–in a similar set of constrictions." What Sobin wishes to eulogize is an âge d’or in which people existed "in the immensity of the immediate: in the very thereof ‘there,’" a civilization unconcerned with the inventorial, "without a politic … of speculation against the eventual: a people who’d existed, no doubt, in the very glow of their own voices."

The problematics of voice is one of Sobin’s primary engagements and, for the reader, a major source of pleasure. Despite the shattered, seemingly unadorned typography of his poems, Sobin is a Romantic poet of the highest order, given to extreme flights into what he calls "the sumptuous shelters of the exclusively / acoustic." His lyrical impulse, however, is tempered by a mistrust of any stable position from which to speak, as he articulated in a 1993 Talisman interview:

I write about the basic intimacies of life itself. Only, I’m locating those intimacies upon a field in which the signature of personal identity–of so much individual attitude and posturing–is held to a strict minimum, if not eliminated altogether. There’s little room in my poetry, I find, for myself. I’m there to structure the poem. To get it to fly…. I feel closer to the … mechanic who, tightening a syllable here, releasing a line there, manages to get language to lift. To defy–for an instant or two–the weights of the explicit…. It’s the poem that soars. The mechanic, whoever he be, remains very much here, on the ground, and, if he’s lucky, already at work on the rudder, the ailerons of yet some other flying machine.

Sobin strives to reconstitute language, yet the internalized specter of some "original infraction" compels him to assert a fidelity to the precarious, disjunctive nature of forms and phrasing. Again, the notion of exchange frames his interrogations of utterance, the "breath itself as if monetized." In "The Empty Alphabet," he speaks of "breath’s // transparent coinage," as the self is given up for the sake of what it would say: "you / who’d spend, if you could, even your- / self, / setting hands, heart, hair to those all / but ob- // solescent measures." As if reversing the biblical formula of sacrifice and salvation, he turns flesh back into word, the body into an "orifice of / air." Elsewhere, "exchanging / what you were for something you’d never / even imagined," he "gaze[s] now at that / countenance, caught in the interface of / its already dissolving reflections." Sobin manages to lyricize the death of the author, while never relinquishing his voice.

Yet Sobin resists any sense of entitlement to language, deferential to the "lost dicta" out of which modernity, through "successive effacements," has arisen. In "The Archaeologist: a Broken Dictation," Sobin constructs an elegy for the dissolution of language from "stratified / calcination" into "ever- // more / tenuous / frequencies," a language in which to mention "roses" would be to venture "into an / aftermath of // roses, only the utterance, now, as if / subsisted, and even / that, only in splinters." Similarly, in his essay "On the Longevity of Toponyms"–originally published in Sulfurand subsequently collected in Luminous Debris: Reflecting on Vestige in Provence and Languedoc–he explains that toponyms not only anticipated the geographies they circumscribed but have also, in their resilience, often outlived the material reality of topologies. Organic and susceptible to its formative forces, the toponym, like the voice itself, might be "surviving a world that no longer exists." Sobin is conscious throughout his book that all words are what paleolinguists call "loanwords." One of the collection’s three installments of an annual serial poem that Sobin began in 1983 in Voyaging Portraits (1988)–though it arguably originated with "Carnets: 1979" from The Earth as Air (1984)–"Transparent Itineraries: 1994" witnesses the poet "living already in the resonance of an absentee’s pronoun." The self is erased for the disclosure of voice, but Sobin notes how that voice, despite its pretensions to originality, is only an echo–and spoken through a body that has itself been previously embodied. In characterizing the flesh as "wrapt in the / taut knot of its own teased re- / leases," he addresses constrictions to the self’s transfiguration by means of a dense, sophisticated series of puns focused on the body’s bonds: the flesh, while rapt, is wrapped; it is not autonomous but taught; it is both present as well as a notor a naught; its release is also merely a renewed lease. The poems in this book are not so much "readerly" or "writerly" as reciterly: they give the sense of being both archetypal and avant-garde. Sobin’s poetry dances on a wire between largely traditional aims and an innovative style which, while emergent from Duncan, Olson, and Char and embraced by experimental writers, is as internally consistent and recognizable as Hopkins or Heraclitus.

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Sobin's echoic poems are at once an extension of breathing and, in returning, a diminishment and eventual dissipation of breath. They oscillate between fertility and desiccation as he effects an erotics of ebb and flow, a movement of sound conducted by those very same elemental objects–rock, tree, wall, water, his own or another’s body–which also hinder and obstruct. He demonstrates a metaphysical urge to be "teased … past the / bulk of your // very / viscera," while seeking at the same time to recover "the body’s / lost botany," a dialectic explored in terms of a more sensual, intimate I-and-thou in Articles of Light & Elation, a limited edition published by Cadmus Editions last year. His poems are vectored backwards and forwards, downwards and upwards, perforated by seductive, sauntering delays while rushing with exhilaration. His now truncated but cascading, now elastic but propulsive lines enact a capricious but measured dynamic of contraction and release: "lock" and "bursting vacuous," "resonance and / recoil," "knotted convulsive" and "scatter," "clot" and "chiseled free." He claims there’s "nothing you’d write / that you couldn’t breathe; that breathing, / gaze through," as he surveys a hollow but decorous landscape which, through the resuscitating gestures of a poetry premised on the natural order of animus and anima, "settles … within the / singular / respiration of its // disparate parts."

Sobin’s immense allure, however, is not the theoretics inherent in his poems or his implicit or explicit statements about history, anthropology, language, or the self’s struggle amid maelstroms of idea and action. His apparent minimalism, or the seemingly pared directives of a man of few words, turns out to be the delicate but expansive architecture of a "baroque day-labourer, scaffolding voids" by means of the "makeshift // conveyances" of rhetoric:

grey heat, grey
hunger, you’d elaborated on grey’s each
individual variant, here in the
hills where the least

puddles a grey so

The formal, alliterative grandeur of "The Guitarist: A Celebration in Grey" is balanced by an ease of expression, so that his music is strange yet intensely familiar, courting both errant mystique and urgent clarities. Likewise, the contours of oracular repetition, recurrent silences and penetrations of earth, water and air in "According to Seneca" achieve a new, renewed susurrus:

murmur the
wavering blue line of that
tenuous horizon: ‘wind,’ ‘waves,’ ‘whitecaps,’
what, in

themselves, meant nothing, whereas nothing, you
knew, without them (burst,
pulverized) could

Sobin edges his poems onward as "traces" of "lost vocables," taking the breath away "in an instant that’s endlessly / drawing itself under," in order to give it back.