Poetry for Southern California
By G. Murray Thomas, Senior Editor
Book by Nelson Gary
Twin Volumes is a challenging book. Nelson Gary writes poetry of amazing depth. His knowledge of history, mythology, pop culture and language itself creates poetry which is fascinatingly rich and complex. But it is also frustratingly dense and obscure. I have no doubt this is a work of genius, yet, like Ulysses, Pound’s Cantos, or The Theory of Relativity, it is a work which will take months, if not years, to fully appreciate and understand.
Unluckily, I did not have that much time to produce this review. So what follows is more a series of impressions than the deep analysis I would prefer to give the book.
My primary problem was trying to decipher the meaning of the poems. As indicated, I was immediately impressed by the language of the poems and the depth of knowledge behind them. But when I stopped and tried to determine just what Gary was saying, I ran into difficulty. Even the most basic ideas were often buried beneath layers of erudition.
And this was just on a poem by poem level. When I was about halfway through Twin Volumes, Gary sent me a plot synopsis for the book. It concerns two lovers, Frank Lee, who creates parties as works of art and also works as a hitman, and Helen Aja Hammersmith-Bond, a British aristocrat, who appreciates his parties, but wants him to give up killing. Rather than helping, this synopsis only confused me further, as it seemed to bear little relationship to anything I had read so far.
As I read on, I found occasional references to elements of the plot, but nothing that seemed to follow its action. Throughout the book, Gary does far more dancing across the surface of his plot than explicating it. Names and scenes from the plot pop up, but very little action (beyond some sex).
I came to realize that the point of the poetry was not its meaning, but the language itself. First off, Gary’s language is quite lyrical. His strict control of rhythm and rhyme make it a pleasure to read simply for its musicality.
People, beware this shaft of light as sword or
whip beating down as both and more than that.
You have defaced an oracle devoid of pretense.
It’s relegation to rewards sank to the embryonic
revolutions these refined revelations in reverie hold sonic.
It was an asinine amalgamation of the pretty past
procured in the present to scorn the future
that the coterie could not keep quite quiet.
Blurry haze, defects so proud, the profiteers talk
smack and air lunch of next to inertia in the Cafe Stalk.
It’s nothing to do with the sweetness, pride of convention.
I just cannot unwind in my leisure time at a barstool,
dipping the bill & feeling cruel as the feet stomp, the fists
hammer. Yet I have another go, listening to them yammer
at this listless crater of a cauldron called the human skull.
However, this also creates poetry which is easy to get lost in. I found myself reading long passages swept up in the sound of it, without concern for what the words were saying. It doesn’t help that the lines are often elliptical and dense with vocabulary; the very richness of the language obscures its meaning.
Further, the depths of Gary’s knowledge, while fascinating and ultimately enlightening, can slow the poems to a crawl. In just the first page of the poem “Dish (Always Fresh)” he incorporates (in the poem itself and footnotes to the poem) Wilco, Hemingway, art history, and the geography of Long Island Sound. Although all of these pieces do fit together in the poem, it is left to the reader to make the connections.
This denseness is prevalent throughout the book, including, at points, extensive footnotes. While the information is fascinating in itself, it does not always help the reader to understand the poems (at least not immediately). I’m not saying there is anything wrong with this. It is as it should be, at least in theory; one of the pleasures of poetry is discovering meaning in its various, often seemingly unrelated, references and allusions. But the very degree and denseness of Gary’s allusions make this, as I said, a challenging piece of work. This reader would have appreciated some occasional clarity.
Even more interesting, and frustrating, is a section (roughly pages 147-185) in which the poetry is rendered in dialect, or so it seems at first reading. Closer examination reveals Gary is breaking language into its component parts, to reveal words within the words.
In serious urgestures for life nut bein’ itzelf, meaning
Me, too, being someone else, I, pretzel man,
Of repentance, on my end, ta be abominations. But
Eye am no one to judge, dough, breadwin, the whorld may
Hold a grudge ‘ginst me fur suddentlee nut endowing
Objects wit the talismanic in a roaring or mumbling.
Objectification, to the ends of sanctification,
Is an operation I half perfarmed from an armchair.
Armed with pen and paper, I aim for the prentour,
Perhaps soon to be an antiquated member of duh process.
(“One’s Psychosis/ Passion/ Play in Philadelphia”)
This is fascinating in itself, but very disruptive to reading. I often found myself struggling just to decipher the words before me, let alone assemble them into comprehensible sentences, let alone parse out meaning from those sentences. And frankly, forty pages of it became rather tiresome.
As regular readers of these reviews know, I am all in favor of poems with layers of meaning. But poetry also needs surface meanings to draw the reader in. If one has to decipher the meaning from the beginning, most readers will quickly give up. Too often I found that Gary rarely offered that entrance into his poetry.
In fact, at times he seemed completely unconcerned with the reader at all. Too often I felt Gary was talking only to himself, not to the reader at all. Poem after poem seemed to be literal stream of consciousness, Gary recording his thoughts as he wrote. This does give the reader insight into the thought process of a very complex mind, but I’m not at all sure it makes for meaningful poetry.
This is especially true in the latter third of the book, where many of the poems seem to be about writing poems. Here Gary has a tendency to comment on his poetic technique as he is writing. “In these verses/ Of changing scope, shape, and terse-/ ness of a lost princess, I do promise/ To persevere until I return to the premise.” (“Break”) I must credit Gary for structuring his thoughts into formal verse. Still, it may be perfectly formed verse, but it remains completely self-absorbed.
This self-absorption may account for the problems I had with the “plot.” Gary knows what his plot is, and I’m sure every reference he makes to it resonates with him. But, however clear it is to Gary, he never bothers to clue the reader in, to actually lay out the plot in character and action.
So I am left both impressed and frustrated by Twin Volumes. It is certainly not a book for the casual reader. It requires deep concentration, time and mental effort. For the reader willing to put this in, it can be a very rewarding book. One can take it in small doses (like one would read Finnegan’s Wake), appreciating the depth and richness of the language, but not striving to understand the whole, or on can accept the challenge of taking it all in.
— G. Murray Thomas
Note: See also Nelson Gary's essay about Twin Volumes in Poetix.
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