Tuesday, August 24, 2004

Anarchy by Mark Scroggins

"What does the London Punk Rock scene of the 1970s have to do with the bloody religious turmoil of seventeenth-century England?" asks Norman Finkelstein in the jacket copy of Mark Scroggins' new book, "Anarchy," now out from Spuyten Duyvil. If you, like me, admire anyone who will raise such a question, you'll probably like Scroggins' book, which kicks off with quotes from Milton and Greil Marcus. The juxtaposition is admirable -- you've got to like someone who gets away from the twin solipsisms of American poetry (confessional navel-gazing and reference-free language play) and searches for the connections between the recent and the remote. I see more and more of ths gesture in poetry lately -- I suppose it has something to do with the emergence of what Marjorie Perloff calls "the new Modernism." I suppose, too, that Scroggins' interest in this sort of thing has something to do with his having made a fan of Guy Davenport, our living link to the Hugh Kenner brand of modernism. It has certainly made a fan of me (and not just because I try to do something similar in my own "Major Thel," a kind of poetic lovechild of David Bowie and William Blake).

But what I really like about Scroggins' book are the ways it manages to be both linguistically sophisticated and emotionally expressive. In the poem "Springing," for example, he takes a kind of lyric moment, shows how it is a construct of discourse, and still retains it as legitimate. Check this out:

That it was a perfect day, fitted together fiercely
and hardly in its particulars, could scarcely
be denied; you took that sun to heart, moved
and chastened by the clarity of the branches between.

Okay, that's the first stanza, and so far we've got something that looks like a kind of neo-Romantic encounter with nature. Sure, its in the second person, and there's an ambiguity in the word "hardly" that is kind of interesting (does it mean "hardly" as in having a kind of tough cold clarity, or "hardly" as in "barely"?) but by and large this is pretty straightforward stuff. But Scroggins gets a whole other groove on as he develops the scene in the next two stanzas or so:

I rolled my troubles in an old kit bag, caught
at the last vacillations of the ancient moon, drew carefully
the lines beyond which we had no connaisance, and
felt -- "in my heart" -- a motion which again refused denial.

What more could they do? They stood in the gloom
before the screen, which slowly scrolled its credits over
their clothes and faces. The rustling of the early
frost transfused a breathy, whispered singing, echoed

through the lobby and the darkened restrooms.

I mean, hot damn! Scroggins begins with an old cliche (troubles in his kit bag), a kind of intertextual reference. This, combined with the quotation marks around "in my heart" show that the lyric emotion we saw in the first stanza is culturally conditioned, and draws on the stock of emotional responses made available and articulate through culturally specific forms. We get the point driven home when the scene becomes one in which the people have the credits of a movie projected onto them. Not only do we see the individual as inscribed by culture (the body with writing on it) but the credits are the part of the movie that bares the device, and gives a list of all the artifices of the movie, from gaffing to cinematography. So we really get a strong sense of the linguistically/culturally conditioned nature of the lyric moment. And then there are those wandering pronouns! Woo! You becomes I becomes they. There's all sorts of good stuff going on -- yet none of it takes the lyric moment away. The poem shows that what we feel doesn't become illegitimate just because it is the product of the inherited discourse speaking through us, or being projected on us. I like it. I wish there were more of this going on in poetry.

I ran into Scroggins in Maine at the Poetry of the 1940s conference this summer, and he tells me that things are looking good in alt-poetry land. He'd been to Buffalo and reported that the new students there are all into their own post-langpo things, as opposed to a few years back when he felt they all worshipped a bit too ardently at the shrines of Silliman, Bernstein and company. I can see why he'd like this development -- this book seems to me to be the best sort of post-langpo possibility, a book that understands language sceptically, but doesn't limit itself to that scepticism. The book is well worth the ten bucks they're asking for it at spuytenduyvil.net. Come on, buy the thing. Give a poet a break.