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“Stuck in can’t-think static. Hitting a wall. Blank. Stuck.” Who hasn’t experienced that state of mind in one form or another? Call this a delusion of reference or a case of Nabokovian referential mania: before reading Blair Johnson’s quick-witted, often hilarious manuscript “Circa,” where I encountered the poem “To, or towards,” from which the lines above are taken, I was struggling with writing an essay. In an effort to approach the quandary I had created for myself from a more productive angle, I had gone to a website that randomly delivers Brian Eno’s Oblique Strategies to its visitors. I was given this dictum: “Honor thy error as hidden intention.” As this statement flickered on a black background, I puzzled over what error it could be referring to, and turned to Johnson’s poems.
“To, or towards” uncannily mirrored my thinking. It continues as follows:
Start moving. The car projects any narrative you want to move in — the movement unravels sounds from their folded knot: straightening threads, drawing them out from inside your folded-mind. Keep driving — this scene contains infinite directions — the end never quite vanishes — you’re about to detach from static . . .
Here too I found an oblique strategy, one that is at the core of Johnson’s poems, which track thought’s multiple paths not by taking wild associative leaps from one line to another, but by sticking to their premises, often lifted straight out of logic primers, until their assumptions fall apart and their multiplicity unfolds. They perform a reductio ad absurdum of the procedural, of a logic whose so-called linear progression is nothing but a Flaubertian received idea. Its circularity or propensity to spiral in on itself Johnson proves and relishes.
The dictionary reminds us that logic is the study of correct or valid reasoning. Logic-wise, the inferences in Johnson’s poems might be delightfully error-stricken (an aside: “error-stricken” is not a valid Scrabble word), but under what dictates do they lack validity? Lewis Carroll claimed that his Symbolic Logic would give readers “the power to detect fallacies, and to tear to pieces the flimsy illogical arguments, which you will so continually encounter in books, in newspapers, in speeches, and even in sermons.” Johnson subjects these and many other laudable assertions to their own truth-testing mechanisms, and upends them as if by refracting them through the looking glass. Exposing the flimsiness of so-called logical sense, Johnson supplies a welcome surplus of “materials for a most interesting mental recreation,” as Carroll would have it. But Johnson does it better, because the absurdity of our fixation with mapping reason’s circuitous paths shines in all its pathos and humor, and her utterly disarming poetry is arrived at obliquely.
—Mónica de la Torre
Symbolize the following sentences
Joe and July playing characters in Rhinoceros (an epigraph)
Logician: [to the Old Gentleman] Here is an example of a syllogism. The cat has four paws. Isidore and Fricot both have four paws. Therefore Isidore and Fricot are cats.
Old Gentleman: [to the Logician] My dog has got four paws.
Logician: [to the Old Gentleman] Then it’s a cat.
July: [to Joe] I’ve barely got the strength to go on living. Maybe I don’t even want to.
Old Gentleman: [to the Logician, after deep reflection] So then logically speaking, my dog must be a cat?
Logician: [to the Old Gentleman] Logically, yes. But the contrary is also true.
July: [to Joe] Solitude seems to oppress me. And so does the company of other people.
Joe: [to July] You contradict yourself. What oppresses you—solitude, or the company of others? You consider yourself a thinker, yet you’re devoid of logic.
Old Gentleman: [to the Logician] Logic is a very beautiful thing.
Logician: [to the Old Gentleman] As long as it is not abused.
July: [to Joe] Life is an abnormal business.
Joe: On the contrary. Nothing could be more natural, and the proof is that people go on living.
July: There are more dead people than living. And their numbers are increasing. The living are getting rarer.
Joe: The dead don’t exist, there’s no getting away from that! …Ah! Ah …! [He gives a huge laugh.] Yet you’re oppressed by them, too? How can you be oppressed by something that doesn’t exist?
Slant Syllogism (a prologue)
Before it began Joe and July lived in their habits.
Routines originate and enforce stability or stasis, masking
time’s various directions and movements through its inhabitants.
A disturbed state of consciousness can develop at any time.
Everyone loves a lover. Joe loves July. Everyone loves everyone.
This passage about Joe and July is best
constructed as a logically inconsistent set
Mónica de la Torre is the author of six books of poetry, including The Happy End/All Welcome (Ugly Duckling Press) and Feliz año nuevo, a volume of selected poetry published in Spain (Luces de Gálibo). Born and raised in Mexico City, she writes in, and translates into, Spanish and English. She teaches in the Literary Arts program at Brown University. Her translation of Omar Cáceres’s Defense of the Idol is now available from UDP.
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