Saturday, July 19, 2008



This Poem/What Speaks?/A Day by Tom Beckett
(Otoliths, 2008)

An Appreciation

It is possible to read the triptych of poems contained in Tom Beckett’s new collection as a complex triangulation of several of the possibilities of poetics. Poem, poet, world. Discourse, locution, reference. “This Poem”, which wonders about its own ontology. “What Speaks?”, whose divided speakers interrogate their own being and speech, (their being in speech). “A Day”, where the world wakes and washes itself among the wild quotidiana of its repeated experience.

“This poem/ Is parenthetical”, announces the first axis of our hypothetical trigonometry. Parenthetical in that it is inside of itself. This poem makes itself—doubled, doubling poêsis—by making experimental statements about what it is. Of course, this is also in part the act we too perform, every moment of our lives, in the social—and spiritual? —formation of our selves. We stand, equally doubled, before our own minds as mirrors, affirming “I am Pascal” or “I do not believe in God” or “I live in the 17th century after Christ”. It is interrogation in the form of affirmation. It is the question: how much do we control what we are? It is a question, in short, which we ask ourselves, but which we are surprised to discover, in the presence of Tom Beckett, that poems do the same.

Poems too are unsure of themselves. Poems too desire a new type of autonomous definition and assertion. They too want to discover a way to live which allows them to live. There is a difference though: for “this” poem does not say “I”. It is seemingly not capable, or desirous, of this particular assumption of identity. It remains then, with regard to itself—and much like Tom Beckett’s own poetic—in a dialectical interplay between always adorable intimacy and analytic remoteness.

We are close to ourselves, and also very far. Distance is deceptive. “This Poem” does not say “I”, but also, it does not say “That”. “I, Poem” and “That Poem” seem the poles of identarian difference between which “This Poem” situates itself. Appropriately, its knowledge of its own workings thus seems, at different times, lucid and obscure. “This poem/ Is embedded/ Within ” And so ends our hypothesis. Within what? The poem does not know, any more than us. Yet how revealing is this horizontal event-horizon of its own experience!

The result of this is that, at the level of the self, apparent errors or contre-sens come to seem as revealing as evident “truths”. “This poem/ is blue” —a statement we cannot quite agree with—appears to be then just as much an element of subjective definition as the acuity of: “This poem/ Pretends not/ To know me.” In short, “This poem/ Stares into/ A mirror” But this is not dry reflexivity; for this poem, in mirroring its own questions of itself, is a body. It is a being. Its doubled existence is not a speculation. It is, as for us, a basic and daily question of identity. Of self. Of embodiment. “This Poem/ Is the body / In question.” How comforting it is then for us to read that poems themselves are equally preoccupied with the state of their divided being! They are not “mind” merely, or “emotion”, or “spirit”, as the centuries have often divergently told us, but also biological and material life—though, like us, they too reject such categories!

And they are right to do so. For as we read in the complex tour de force of this collection, “What Speaks?”: “Meat. Muttering/ Utterances, iterations./ Ejaculations. Shouting./ Interrogations.” Here, it is as though the mortal coil of “our” very fibre talks. It is as though, even in the space of the most intratextual utterance, our “meat” remains (Linh Dinh and Juliana Spahr spring to mind as other apt adherents of this realism). It is woven, for Beckett, among all our lived and verbal weavings: “Forethoughtskin”. Sex thus becomes “conceptual”. “Consexual.” Not a poetry “of” ideas, but a poetry containing ideas? If you must. But only in the sense that this is all important for us to know:
Words are mouthed
But the membrane
Between thought
And act
Is what’s
Called experience.

A refraction and a mirroring, of writing as of being. There are some experiences, and their interpretations, which return back to us, and others which dart away. Within “What Speaks?”, the characters of the Ventriloquist and Hypnotist emerge here as the competing interlocutors in a complex internal dialogue. Think of the exploratory interchanges of Donne or Marvell, where Self and Soul debate their relevant physical and metaphysical claims. The Ventriloquist and the Hypnotist is an updating of the paradigm, framed within a moving portrait of our modern visions of language and speech.

Ventriloquism and Hypnotism: the two dangers of our poetics? The two goals? Aspiration or jeopardy? It is the one who speaks through us and the one who silences us in sleep. “Trying/ To coincide/ With one’s selves.” We will keep trying. Speaking through and being silenced. Arguing endlessly with our smiling dummies, unil two fingers click, and we wake.

“I am a fiction.” The fiction is our person: what we call the face in the mirror in the morning. But as “fiction”, it is imbued with interrogation. Possibilities. Growth? Formation takes place here, then, alongside dissolution: “Figures./ Erasures.” There is, however, always, something initial to erase.

And it is here, in “A Day”, that the world itself more clearly emerges: not in an absolute sense—this is no Weltseele—but in the sense of its contiguous monotonies and discoveries, its base states of perceptive “sleeping”, and being “awake”:
accident, incident
            on a stationary

We stand still. We feel we repeat the same gestures. Each. Hour? Day. Every day resembles every . . . Yet they may be filled with value. “Minor” experience is still experience. Particulars are important, (like our particular bodies). Thus, the “Irritation of/ having to dress” is of the same importance as the experiences we remember, with which we make up the composite narrative of our selves:
           The work
         of existence
        resolves into
routines which
                  can be
           lived but
not spoken
           in readily

Experience is nothing, and finite. Everything and infinite? Of course. For we travel here across a triangulation. Its intersections overlap. Yet if this schema is functional, a question remains: where is the final element? Where is the reader? Upon reading these important poems, our response becomes evident: the reader is situated, precisely, across these surfaces. The reader is everywhere. “It” is an imagined interrogation. For Tom Beckett’s poems, one feels, are not precisely made for either poem, poet, or world.

No. These poems, Tom Beckett’s poems, they are for you.


Nicholas Manning teaches comparative poetics at the University of Strasbourg, where he is currently completing his PhD. His first full collection, entitled *Novaless*, will be released in August 2008 from Otoliths. A chapbook of new poems is also forthcoming from Ypolita Press. Editor of The Continental Review, his poetry and criticism may be found in such places as Jacket, Verse, Fascicle, The Argotist, Free Verse, among others. He maintains the weblog The Newer Metaphysicals.

1 comment:

EILEEN said...

Another view is offered by Steve Tills in GR #12 at