by Tan Lin
Atelos, $12.95 (paper)
Many of us remember the trippy, innocent elation inspired by our earliest Google searches or our first encounters with an in-box full of e-mail on a Monday morning.
These waves of digital detritus seemed to offer a buzz-sawed cross-section of the world, from telescoped views of all the naughty parts of the body to the relatively lofty concerns of mortgage refinancing and subsidies to the royalty of insolvent African states. Harnessing this torrent of found language for postmodern effect has been the modus operandi of not a few poets over the last decade or so, the starting gun having popped long before the dot-com beast ever slouched toward Babel.
Tan Lin seems to have gotten there before most of us. His first book, Lotion Bullwhip Giraffe (1996), glided along on riffs and rhythms that seemed as if Gerard Manley Hopkins’s “dapple-dawn-drawn Falcon” had gotten stuck in John Yau’s English-as-a-Stammered-Language machine. Take this passage from “Talc Bull Dogface”:
Lu Hsun chews geisha cup. Giesha spits
cup. Clouds form on back like worms
in planetarium. How is tap-dancing
from cleaning rag? Sofa silkwork choo
choos to camera. Bamboo ready
to baby poo nudie shade. Lu-lu jade
dude pingpongs really
Rovely. The knees crumple like
newspapers. Can’t push on
courtyard gardens in hardness. The
purse snaps. God snap mouth.
The energy here isn’t ecstatic so much as scattershot. The poem makes a bid for total compression but ends up taking in as much as it severs; the aural effects are serial rather than counterpointed, the alliteration cloying in a way that Hopkins’s is not. But like Hopkins, Lin wants almost every syllable to pop in some way, and he pushes the line across the page quickly, impatiently, challenging the ear to assimilate its bounding prosody. In “Talc Bull Dogface,” the poet is treating his writerly output like a vast text dump, organizing his words according to some hidden, reptilian algorithm—in this case, an attention to lots of internal off-off-rhymes (“nightingale” / “distinguish”) and the “l”/”r” switches that mark the Chinaman in the clinamen—until they glow with radium-like intensity. You can make what you want of the “I” and whatever other fictions offer themselves up in the mélange of language; one poem starts, “to take heroin as a sleeping pill to follow a crack / hit with a snort of smack to bring one’s heartbeat back,” but this chemical moment probably has more to do with listening to Peter Laughner or reading French poetry than it does with any scouring of Lin’s own diary.
Since Lotion, Lin has professed a desire to shake off the trappings of the avant-garde—linguistic difficulty, the suspicion of beauty, all manners of formal estrangement—in order to create poems that are “relaxing.” Over the past few years readers of avant-garde journals such as Conjunctions and Tripwire, and even Boston Review, have come across excerpts from a project Lin called “Ambient Stylistics.” These run-on, never entirely uninteresting but hardly gripping paragraphs were the exact opposite of the neon-punk effects he previously sought out:
I continue to believe to this day that she was a terrible liar in person, although I am probably lying to myself, and of course this is the main reason I fell in love with her after we had ended things, and this is the main reason I still, years later, remember her voice when I am on the telephone and am lonely and am waiting for someone on the other end of the telephone to tell me they love me. One can wait for years to hear a beautiful lie like that.
Lies, the deception of surfaces, “boredom,” and the beauty of things entirely forgotten have since become recognizable Tan Lin topoi, but even more distinctive is his manner of courting these aesthetic properties without ever seeming to raise (or even lower) his textual voice. Here Lin inhabits a tone of disinterest while never failing to follow the course of his own mind, a trick he might have learned from John Ashbery, whose “And Ut Pictura Poesis Is Her Name” is a sort of anthem for this disposition: “Now one must / Find a few important words, and a lot of low-keyed, / Dull-sounding ones.”
BlipSoak01 begins with a prose introduction (“Beauty is over-appreciated; boredom is not”) in which Lin distinguishes his new work from “most literature and especially poetry,” which he characterizes as “fundamentally false forms of excitation and dread.” The introduction runs down the right-hand pages with an occasional phrase or word exiled to the otherwise blank left-hand page, followed by a series of quick rev-up pages made up of words in huge sans-serif type, recalling the Flash movies of Seoul-based Young-Hae Chang Heavy Industries. Then comes the poetry: approximately 300 pages of (mostly) couplets that start on the left-hand page like any normal poem, but rather than break and flow to the next line when they reach the right margin, they continue over to the right-hand page, which otherwise would be entirely blank, though they rarely are. The left-hand pages function as a factory for curious miniatures, hanging strays from the idiosyncratic, if not dysfunctional, formatting. Page 243, for example, has just the words “glue // effervescent noodles,” which could be an exile from Ashbery’s “Europe” in The Tennis Court Oath. Other bits of text not produced in this fashion (there is an interesting interaction between fragments produced by accident and those that Lin, one supposes, “made up”) and the seemingly random appearance of numbers that evoke either CD tracks or track lengths (“06” and “16:07,” for example) place the scene of this poem, in my mind at least, somewhere within the depths of a CD-R that has either been burned incorrectly or, in the spirit of the Japanese audio artist Yasunao Tone and “glitchworks,” wrapped in Scotch tape and put back into the player.
Li’s technique is not collage, in which the bleeding edges of the assembled fragments scream out as loudly as the content, but a sort of all-over mixture of numberless untraceable sources, a mixture that can run from the atomic (the letter, the dash, the diacritical mark) to the word and phrase with little of the poignant estrangement of the source text (or ironizing of its tone) that occurs in, say, T.S. Eliot’s The Waste Land or Ted Berrigan’s Sonnets. Lev Manovich’s description in The Language of New Media of how the digital “composite” took over from film’s reliance on the edit is useful here:
Rather than keying together images from two video sources, we can now composite an unlimited number of image layers. A shot may consist of dozens, hundreds, or thousands of image layers. These images may all have different origins—film shot on location (“live plates”), computer-generated sets or virtual actors, digital matte paintings, archival footage, and so on.
The edit—both connection of, and break between, two streams of images—is replaced by layering; an entire movie can be made without a single “cut” and yet be the product of several hundred shoots. If a poet opens herself to all varieties of personal writing, “found” writing, accidental or purposeful productions of computer algorithms (such as those programs that turn your Web page into the language of Snoop Dogg), and anything else that swims into the laptop’s ken, then one could potentially layer an infinite number of distinct texts into a poem, creating a sort of poor man’s Finnegans Wake, or indeed in an “ambient” and decidedly non-avant-garde (read “non-threatening”) version:
A window shot out with a bb gun
Every evacuation lays like a topography cantilevered
By heroes of rust
I fall in love and a diamond on her quit suggests
I fall in love, oh, day in the bleachers
JFK passes through Texas
I don’t dictate the slips
that must be inside
inside must be incarnate and left
_______________of not listening
Of given and glistening, the geishas remove the
I merge from this form, yellow warblers necks like
writing on a stone
Greeting cards left on the table inside the outlines of a
The sound of a radio tapered and slender as candlesticks
in the kitchen before he awoke at night
“The surface is beautiful because it can be forgotten one moment at a time,” Lin writes in the book’s introduction, and the lines quoted above progress “one moment at a time” and are, indeed, determinedly forgettable, at least in terms of moral edification, concise and vivid imagery, and all those other good, poetic things people like. The couplets are like a measure that is entirely variable, like the three steps in William Carlos Williams’s later poetry, but they also have a renga-like quality in that the first half of the couplet calls out for a response, but one that doesn’t offer closure so much as a continuation of the same effects, a sort of mirror life after the line break. The couplets provide a method for Lin to promote a practice of reading as a sort of parsing—one often scans the second half of a couplet strictly to record the differences (punctuation, vocabulary, and other formal aspects) from the fist half, reducing the act of reading to a light existential discipline like the bean-counting in Camus (or yoga in New York). This seamlessness is amazing, especially considering the cuts implicit in the bizarre juxtapositions within single lines (“yellow warblers necks like writing on stone” is practically textbook Surrealism) and the stray poemlets that the right-hand page collects as a sort of parallel thread (for example, “gentleman’s pants / ke writing on stone”). Indeed, this poem runs through many such jams in the flow, at one point breaking off into four columns of text, at another only letting in single letters and bits of words, forcing the reader to change reading strategies, to read up, down, and across, but never break with the basic formality of the couplet.
BlipSoak01 is a splendidly living and colorful surface that celebrates the quickness of modern life while also relishing the ability to change channels, to control and sample the thousand broadcasts—to accessorize one’s consciousness. Thirty years after Raymond Williams’s Television: Technology and Cultural Form, Lin has brought us the long poem that acknowledges television as central to cognition, to one’s self as a negotiator of flows. But Williams’s ideas were predicated on the idea of one central transmitting station; as we know, there are now millions, in the form of Web sites, cable stations, streaming audio and video, and spam. Add to this the presence of software, such as ProTools, Flash, and Final Cut, that allow us to remix these streams, and one’s own hard drive becomes a transmitter to oneself.
This information free fall, or “blip soak,” within the comfort of one’s home implicates any sort of experimental poetry predicated on a conflicted, hall-of-mirrors consciousness—think of Michael Palmer in Notes from Echo Lake or any of the recent “elliptical” poets—to the degree that the gravity that is suggested in more carefully paced, seemingly autobiographical work is revealed as a hoarding of language. The fragmentary lyric poet manipulates the market of comprehension by simply keeping things back, pointing to the store of words, sentences, and insights and intimating its wholeness, but letting out bits of information at a controlled drip. Lin, for whom the word “soul” is just a homophone for the capitol of Korea, simply opens the doors: no jambs, no voice, no narrative, as if his entire example of mastery were to whip the poem into form without breaking a sweat—yet another sign of the legacy of the New York School. BlipSoak01 is poetry designed for you to run your eye across while doing something else, such as listening to Brian Eno’s Thursday Afternoon while Andy Warhol’s Empire DVD plays, all the while scooting a mouse pointer across one of turux.org’s semi-automated abstractions. This is poetry as domestic accessory—what could be more soothing?