The Character
Jena Osman
Beacon, $15 (paper)

Lee Ann Brown
Sun & Moon, $11.95 (paper)

Lately there is much talk about the burgeoning interface of "mainstream" with self-styled avant-garde poetries in the United States. The vaporous quality of this distinction belies its usefulness. What Marjorie Perloff has called the "aporia of literary journalism" is the tendency of poetry reviewers to minimize or ignore the differences of trade in books of poems published, on the one hand, by imprints of big New York or Boston houses or university presses, and, on the other, by small collectives or individuals. The failure to understand this distinction may be no grosser than mere ignorance, or lack of curiosity. Yet it tends to check or inhibit a perspective from which to evaluate the meeting of what is considered "established," institutionally funded literature with a literature that simultaneously aspires to, and resists, becoming established.

Jena Osman and Lee Ann Brown are far from "new" poets, in the sense that a "new" poet is customarily only beginning to publish her work. The poetry of both Osman and Brown has long circulated in chapbooks, limited editions, and broadsides issued by various collectives and basement presses in Buffalo, Providence, and New York (some, actually, with a limited institutional support of their own). The works under review are, however, these poets’ first "full length" volumes, which is to say they run to a minimum of 48 pages, with a registered ISBN and a sticker price above ten dollars—and also that they issue from respected "independent" publishers who stand in a coveted middle zone between the for-profit and adamantly not-for-profit press.

While from one perspective, this sort of thing may be viewed euphorically, as the hybridization of contemporary literature, it might with equal justice be seen as the commoditizing of dissent. It seems to me that the hyped renaissance of American poetry in the 1990s owes something to this conflict, which becomes more public and vigorous even as "po-biz" turns it to caricature. Rarely, however, does an actual poem resolve the two views, which in their abstraction are implicitly naive (the euphorics: poetry liberals) and implicitly cynical (the avant-purists: poetry radicals). A reviewer’s job is not to speak for anyone else; yet I, for one, am glad to have Osman’s first full-length volume arrive as the winner of the 1998 Barnard New Women Poets Prize, an award that hasn’t always honored the diversity of new poetry written by women. If the best context for Osman’s poetry is, as prize judge Lyn Hejinian’s introduction suggests, something called the "post-postmodern"—horrible as that formulation may be—then it would make sense to find it in (or find in it) a place containing not only the sage plurality of emergent perspectives, but also a limit on the banal plurality of "anything goes." The debate over "disjunctivitis" in American oppositional (or experimental, or avant-garde) poetries is, in other words, no longer vital. It is a sorry truism of contemporary poetics that writers isolated by creative writing programs must discover it anew each year.

Disjunctive lyric is currently something of a rage, yet not always equal to the challenge of what to do after the so-called Language poets, whose legacy includes a version of the challenges critical theory has made to organic notions of voice, personality, character, and lyric sentiment. Osman’s readers will immediately sense that The Character is no single, cohering persona; that this fails to surprise suggests that it makes no sense to speak of a poet’s "project" as though it could be fixed. For me, The Character’s intriguing texts converse most profitably with the work of poets of a preceding generation (Hejinian’s)—specifically, the Washington-area poets Joan Retallack and Tina Darragh. Essayistic, formalistic, and collagist, Osman’s texts request the poetic forms of an age characterized by the incessant recycling of information, and they bring to mind such work as Darragh’s on the corner to off the corner, and Retallack’s Errata 5uiteAFTERRIMAGES, and How To Do Things with Words. Here is a section of the series "Ellerby’s Observatory":

guideline: not known Jacques deux: posthumes
fête: par des chevaliers
le fils: das étoiles
danses: gothiques
pages: mystiques
Satie: seams up the back of the legs

Here one consults an imaginary reference work, locating not answers but answering’s forms, which have been emptied and refilled with "erroneous" matter. It is less a case of the miscegenation of texts (as though the poet had bodily trotted through a library ramming together volumes from Poetry and volumes from Linguistics) than of their cross-pollination in a database where such spatial delimitations are inherently solvent. In "Invention," the historiography of mechanic events is a ghost structure for the poem, running a spectral narrative through shop inventory and the vacated syntax of an encyclopedia or instructional manual:

A body turns into a wooden tray. Supported by the institution of wood and its properties to retain paint. The board is pushed against the body. A push when considered slowly, a blow when witnessed in actuality. Imagining the possibility of it is slow, an opportunity to rehearse, and then discovering that it is true only through observation. Of color, shape, sound. The bruise disintegrates the leery hum of possibility. This invisible line is not on the chart.

Such "theft texts" (Osman’s term) graft acknowledged and unacknowledged source material into alien data forms, reflecting a working context in which (Internet hype aside) texts or information are not so easily distinguishable from "experience" or "real life" than they may once—truly, or merely in fantasy—have been. This "middle-tech" paradox play sets the work apart, not because it is apodictically more attractive or momentous to aesthetic taste, but because it works in a specific sense to expand the work of poetry rather than play its variations. That specific sense aims itself at poetry’s inhering antilogy, which at its most vital point slips past tradition for tradition’s sake just as it eludes innovation for innovation’s sake. Many of these texts might well live exclusively in digital RAM, yet it is no accident that we find them "anachronistically" in print.

A fine example is the series "From The Periodic Table as Assembled by Dr. Zhivago, Oculist." Osman notes, "This is a fragmentary hard-text rendition of what is meant to be a hypertext poem … a rough hypertext version of which can be found at [SUNY-Buffalo’s] Electronic Poetry Center." And indeed this electronic work, for which the reader’s participation in textual regeneration seems crucial, stands out in a medium where what is technically possible ranges far ahead of what is interesting. Yet somehow it is the "reverse engineering" of print, this portage back to the less "appropriate" medium, that lends the book version inThe Character its more complex, peculiar, and productive tension. What does it mean when a work created in and for the electronic medium then evolves "backward" onto the page? Only—if it is an only—that there are more, and more unforeseen, paths for poems to follow than we have thought.

Lee Ann Brown’s Polyverse was chosen as winner of the 1996 New American Poetry Competition and published by Sun & Moon Press in mid-1999. Literally a personal anthology or album amicorum, Polyverse presents 187 pages of short lyrics and fragments that together enact a life lived in the process of autocommemoration. It’s fascinating reading in so far as one can’t quite shake the sense that the work’s animus is somehow as self-abnegating as it is narcissistic. Polyverse is a brilliant way of going at the problem of "the subject" without resorting either to modernist personae or postmodernist self-emptying. (Or, alternately, to some pretense that the problem is no more than the hallucination of theory-crazed academics.) An unusually high count of poems are either inscribed to Brown’s contemporaries, or present themselves as collaborations; the phantom of poetry-as-community actually materializes—against all odds—as the act of writing a poem for one’s friend sheds its cliquish tint and seems not mere po-biz, but real love. (A more solitary nature may yet feel the combined tugging of envy and critical doubt.)

Where so much of our self-styled avant-gardism has been style-repellent, Polyverse is style-amorous. Tributes to Dickinson, O’Hara, Ginsberg, and Stein are undisguised; more submerged, one suspects, are myriad song-echoes and ventriloquies that, through sheer voice abundance, achieve something of the same celebration effected by the No-saying-Yes recursions of poststructuralist theory. If there is a single, secret attribute fueling Polyverse, particularly in the work labeled neither as tribute nor as collaboration, it might be the antic tropism that marks a poem like "Those with the Pointed Hats Consult Secretly with My Mother in the Corner"—a radio-mix of surrealism, chant, platitude, and popular tune:

Home is the sweet pill I take every night
My mother turns it slowly over in her once
   soapy palm
Like a hard communion wife

Home is the fluorescent light drawer
Packed horribly with meaning
Dead peoples’ phone numbers
New clothes don’t skip it

Home is where I discover many small bruises 
In front of the mirror to How Sweet It Is to Be 
   Loved by You

Home is I don’t know where my stuff is
Home has more leaves in front than when I 
   lifted off

It’s like Jelly, baby
She so seldom sleeps
A cool chance
You should rest
But not that much

Unmanageable allergies
Stoned in love
Violet    Green    Blue

Brown reanimates what might be termed the mixed-genre poem, which moves in and out of prose. The forms on the page own a kind of lovely ungainliness, tumbling through what seems to be speech, but isn’t quite, to what seems to be epiphany, but isn’t quite. "Point Blue," for example, unlaces a long paragraph into lists and chorus rhymes that do the hit single in different voices:

A woman eating alone requires no explanation. My response to their ad was never answered. Teal highlighted with a bittersweet orange. All of my friends were embarrassed by the price. I push the button and all of the fire doors close. Silver ladles hang in front of a red canister, swinging slightly. I leave the building as the engines pull up in the rain. Tip preferred in cash. On the jukebox: Morning Has Broken by Cat Stevens, Cry for Love by Iggy Pop, Barracuda by Heart, Loosey’s Rap by Rick James, God Bless the Child by Billie, and Beep a Freak by I forget who. Pretty girl station. What’s your destination? Oh, any old thing. So get to work. Deva gives me the Chills. She says,
I need a bare neck.
Concentrate on what I’m saying.
Concentrate on what I’m saying.
Babies are crying. People are dying.
Concentrate on what I’m saying.
Crack an egg on your head and let the yolk drip down,
the yolk drip down, the yolk drip down.
Concentrate. Concentrate.
Stab a knife in your back and let the blood drip down,
the blood drip down, the blood drip down.
Criss Cross Applesauce.
Spiders are crawling up your back.
Spiders are crawling down your back.
Spiders are crawling all around.
Tight squeeze.
Cool breeze.
Now you’ve got the,
got the,
got the CHILLS.

Osman and Brown are poets with assured support bases in their own communities, and it does no good, in my view, to blow their horns for them where they are best known. I trust that these two volumes will be initial offerings for at least a few curious strangers. Those intrigued would do well to examine Chain, the annual that Osman co-edits with Juliana Spahr, and the publications of Brown’s Tender Buttons Press. Chain is one of the most exhilaratingly unreadable journals in print, pressing the paradox of its medium on a scale that’s without much to compare. Tender Buttons imprints a straightforwardly wordier, yet no less integral, poetics, with volumes by Bernadette Mayer, Harryette Mullen, Hannah Weiner, and Jennifer Moxley that, like the works under review, offer more evidence not for discarding the politics of poetry, but for reconstituting it in forms more descriptive of actual, evolving practice.