From its beginning, Oni Buchanan’s Spring inscribes itself within a long tradition of musical and verbal experimentation. The title evokes William Carlos Williams’s 1923 volume, Spring and All, while the first poem in the collection, “The Smallest Plant,” begins with an epigraph from John Cage’s “Experimental Music”: “And is there a greater hero than the least plant that grows?” The epigraph recalls, somewhat improbably, the resonant final lines of Wordsworth’s “Ode: Intimations of Immortality”: “To me the meanest flower that blows can give / Thoughts that do often lie too deep for tears.”
And Buchanan’s poems do indeed try to voice thoughts too deep for tears. Spring is a profoundly disorienting book, full of ruptures and discontinuities. I say “profoundly” because these breakages feel necessary, like an infrastructure giving way; they bear the authority of emotional truth. The eye, that hungriest of organs, gets lost here. A tear-like distortion slips down the vertical axes of “The Smallest Plant” and several other poems, making their black ink gray, so that at first glance there appears to be a printing error, though it soon becomes clear that aberration is part of the design. These faded seams, suggesting sun or water damage, are a technical innovation that effects the appearance of age, as though the poems, only just printed, are already disintegrating. And while some poems have a familiar appearance, written in regular stanzas with titles like “Song Cycle” or “The Word” or “The Return,” others have no titles, and the eye is not sure how to navigate them. In what order, for example, are we to read the following lines?
The violets unfold their stems to reach while
tenor crocuses jut with thicker stalks, the worms appearing
in curve specific to the sick, a grounded thingthe sickened head try reaching higher thanto cradle— For competence
at the brink of passageways, gnats in pizzicato clouds,…
There is more than one way to assemble the logic of these phrases. This puts the reader in the rather difficult position first, of self-consciously having to choose and construct (rather than passively consume) poetic order; and, second, of acknowledging that any order so constructed is incomplete. To put the matter somewhat differently, the poem, like a cubist painting, presents several angles of vision simultaneously. But unlike cubism, which often seems to extend the hypothetical promise of a more complete vision, a total object, Buchanan’s poems seem to insist that, try as we may, we cannot, in Ezra Pound’s phrase, “make it cohere.” We see in many different ways, but we can never see every way at once. Totality of vision is the dream from which these poems keep rousing us, sometimes violently.
Spring shares with Buchanan’s first book, What Animal, an intense preoccupation with the nonhuman music of the planet and the universe, music on scales both far vaster and far more minute than those habitually audible to our species. Spring, though, is at once more experimental in its forms and broader in its perspectival range. Little in my experience as a reader prepared me for what awaits nearly halfway through the book in a poem entitled “—for”—the poem’s first word, and as good a title as any. (Perhaps a spoiler alert is in order here, for part of the pleasure of encountering this poem is the sheer astonishment of its physical appearance on the page). Arrayed across a largely blank space, and looking like nothing so much as the night sky, it is a poem of what can only be called cosmic beauty, and one that distills much of Buchanan’s distinctive sensibility:
a tiny click, the wing-case
opens, a tiny rustle, a smoothing of
wings folding back beneath the casing—
This poem, which looks at first as though it were written from outer space, reveals itself as a work of almost impossibly intimate earthly knowledge. It is an insect elegy: beetles bury their dead beside the hole in which they lay their eggs:
For at the decomposing heart, a feast is
found for hatching mouths for
at the heart, a feast—
Tiny, unnumbered subterranean births and deaths converge, in the proximate numbers of human song, with the numberless constellations: the universe, if fragmentary, is at least cohesive in its fragmentation. Spring’s fifth and final movement, a cycle of “kinetic” poems called “The Mandrake Vehicles,” absorbs even our technologies into this tragicomic fractal. A Flash-animation CD charts the mutation (also documented in print by “stills”) of three text blocks about the mandrake root into “hidden poems,” each a residuum and revelation of its source. Both organisms and machines, Buchanan implies, ceaselessly reconfigure each other and themselves. The common denominator for us is in the acute ache we conceive in the holes between words and stars, between root networks and binary codes, holes left by “the decomposing heart.” We feast on this effacement together.
Almost as startling as “—for” are the poems that immediately follow in the third part of Spring. The lyric I, so far an intermittent presence that vanished earlier on, now returns in a series of poems entitled “Dear Lonely Animal,” all far more colloquial in their diction and naked in their self-exposure than anything Wordsworth ever wrote. The first “Dear Lonely Animal” begins,
Please share my Korean food with me.
All the complementary appetizers
in their little white bowls are so
And the next:
Last night I wanted nachos again,
a big plate of nachos covered in
cheese and black beans and
salsa, sour cream, guacamole—
did I mention cheese?
What is extraordinary about these poems is that we are actually willing to read them, so thoroughly has Buchanan taken us in by this point. Placed at the front of the volume, they would seem insipid and self-indulgent. But this poet has traversed such variable terrain and has registered, in acute music, such extraordinary distances—from star to beetle—that the neuroses of human hunger emerge as part of a pattern of need and separation in which physical and metaphysical cravings are one. Instead of dismissing the poet as unsophisticatedly confessional, we are forced to scrutinize ourselves and the prejudices with which we approach such “artless” disclosures of desire. That we register the voice here as too intimate, too routine, tells us quite a bit about ourselves, our sense of generic propriety, and the normative distances we assume.
Like Spring, Raymond McDaniel’s Saltwater Empire disrupts lyric’s decorum, though in a very different way. Instead of calling on the reader to reexamine how a poem is made, he asks us to consider what does or does not belong in a poem in the first place. Saltwater Empire is a meditation on fluency. Written in the idiom of water, it is aswirl with voices both immediate and ghostly, with artifacts dislodged into new eloquence. This is an empire luminous in loss. It is as though we begin to see and speak truly only when poised on the edge of oblivion, only when the elements expose the incredible fragility of the world we have made.
“Sing, stomp,” commands the book’s first poem, “Sea Level,” “Drink, so not to drown.” Everything in Saltwater Empire is on the verge of drowning, and McDaniel, in poem after poem, urges us to drink from the many mouths of the flood —that we might, as Robert Frost suggests, become whole again beyond confusion. The book is in part about the devastation caused by Hurricane Katrina, and the voices that swell up from and recede into these pages are the voices of New Orleans’s poorest, those hardest hit first by the storm itself and then by the relief effort’s cataclysmic failure.
In a series of poems titled “Convention Centers of the New World,” which draw on actual quotations, we hear the testimony of those subjected to the hell of that “relief”:
They wouldn’t let you leave.
You had to stay there.
Cause we smelled like—I’m serious—
because everybody was smelling the
smelling like sewer, like shit, piss.
That was the scariest time of my life.
By arraying such bald material in couplets, McDaniel raises a crucial question: What is this poetry for? To those who would levy the tired accusation that the poet is lyricizing the irredeemable, McDaniel’s work poses an implicit challenge: If we are not to hear the voices of the dispossessed here, then where are we to hear them? Where, if not in poetry, will we reflect on ugliness and injustice? There is far more at stake in these poems than the transformation of terrible events into aesthetically pleasing objects. Song, McDaniel tells us, is not superadded but essential to survival; we must sing, stomp, and drink to keep from drowning. Lyric is the sign and substance of resilience, the voice that speaks through death: “I’ve been there twice. / I died there, I died.”
In its concern with a particular historical event, Saltwater Empire marks a fairly radical departure from McDaniel’s first book, Murder (A Violet), which unfolds a surreal murder mystery by inference and innuendo. A choose-your-own-adventure tale for grown-ups, Murder invites the reader to order its fragments in whatever sequence she sees fit, a procedure that necessarily compromises the integrity of narrative per se, since Murder has no master key. It is McDaniel’s willingness to abide, as Keats put it, in uncertainties, mysteries, and doubts, that links his first and second books in both technique and sensibility. A prefatory note to Murder explains that the book is “constructed according to the principle of holographic memory, which dictates that every fragment of an image, no matter how small, contains all the information relevant to that image.” Saltwater Empire displays a cognate logic: every fragment intimates a whole, but a whole achieved only by improvisation. Just as Murder’s lack of pagination sets the mind adrift to salvage what it can, Saltwater Empire releases us into the terrible freedom to choose what sinking thing to cling to.
Katrina becomes the lens through which the tragedy of culture is refracted. The world that surfaces is as vulnerable as it is violent, as radiant as it is foul. In “Ezili’s Remedy for Rain,” a battered wife is “tended” in a ritual both terrible and tender:
We carry her to the bed of cypress roots,
to our blankets of mud and music.
She is almost sea in water lost from leaves.
She ruptures into soil where our fingers
Disappearance is the voodoo worked not only by faceless governments (“They had us in there to kill us,” says one inmate of the “Convention Centers of the New World”), but by the earth itself, by decay and natural disaster, by individuals and communities as they forget and recollect selectively. “I know the occurrence of objects // in this climate,” McDaniel writes. ”Even music, if left / to our weather, will warp within days.” And yet there is music, music no less potent for its proximity to mud (a lesson Buchanan teaches us as well), a variable music that snakes through and binds McDaniel’s broken delta. At times it is emphatically idiomatic, the spoken music of the city’s streets: “I ain’t owe nobody nothing after the storm, before the storm, / during the storm, I ain’t owe nobody Jack nothing.” At other times it evokes the asymmetrical, combustive rhythms of New Orleans jazz:
Ivory T-Bone my name is Fiddling Sonny Boy
Joe I know two thousand tunes
And at still other times, it is the music of sheer discovery, of the yet-unknown emerging into song:
Like peeling apart
a deck of cards. Signature—yours—
dropped into a room like bait.
We will set doors on the sea,
to make shade, a hole for the schools—
These different musics touch, crisscross, and fuse into a harmony unlike any we have heard before. Out of a landscape of shards comes something like an “Ode to Joy” for the New World, a song of praise against all odds: “We survive not by force, but bliss.”