Tonal Saw by Amaranth Borsuk

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I.
tremble | fire | A | kind of | fire
like | running | cloud
It sprang up like a plant from the ground

Taken alone, this short lyric presented me with two levels of engagement: first, there’s the impetus in the choice of language, starting with the direct command of tremble which flows smoothly to the later fire, cloud, and plant, each evoked from that initial word; next was the formal note of the vertical slashes, each a sign I took to mean to slow down, to consider each word and sets of words both for their meaning and singularity. By starting off on this double-note of ideas, choice and consideration, this short lyric, the first of thirty that comprise the chapbook-length poem Tonal Saw, creates a sense of conceptual intrigue that is carried on through the entire piece.

This idea of conceptual intrigue carried me through my initial reading of Tonal Saw. As a champion of the short lyric, I was fascinated by each turn in the sequence, not only by the form but also the things the form lent itself to do. It ranges from wordplay, as in the following:

XV.
change | a period | for a shock.
substitute | Sun | for | day | incredible!
change | the day | to | a | bath
in | solemnity
actually | do | it | and | sea

to moments of rare aural consideration:

XVII.
men changed | on | command
to | old | ship | s
how the change | instead
can be | a single passage
from | glimpse | to | response

The play of | do | it | and | sea gives its respective part of the sequence a surprising end, while the isolated s in XVII. awakens the ear to the later ‘s’ sounds of glimpse and response. I read through the entire poem engaged in this kind of textual back and forth.

But what had I just read, I asked myself, not out of any feeling of critique for the poem, but rather, out of the general feeling of having read a poem. I look back to the feeling I had after my initial reading of TS and recognize much of what I love about poetry is running into those moments of reflection, of asking myself questions like the above and answering them through rereading.

In response to this question, which is charged with the conceptual intrigue of the poem, I looked up the poet, and found the following insight in regards to TS on her website:

This chapbook-length poem […] uses language from a religious tract that was left on my doorstep ten years ago. Vertical slashes score the source text, sawing through the language of religious fervor to write a religion of poetry that worships language itself.

This information on the project, however direct, only answered part of the question. Yes, the words came from a religious tract, but what about this later goal of writing a religion of poetry?

My subsequent readings of the TS, informed by the above explanation, were richer. More and more, I saw that the two ideas I noted in my initial reading, choice and consideration, held strong, but with the added level of knowing that what was before me was informed in a strict sense by the poet’s own choices and consideration of language.

I realize writing that last sentence that what I describe holds true for most poetry: even poems composed by methods of supposed chance, cutting up words from a magazine, for example, throwing them up in the air, and jotting them down in the order they land, have, despite the efforts to take choice out of the hand of the poet, the sense of a hand/mind at work. Why those words? Why that day? In the case of TS, why this sequence of words ten years later? Why not fifteen years? Five?

In poetry, it is almost always more fruitful to leave a question unanswered. By doing so, a question can be appreciated for the spectrum of possibility it represents rather than by any direct answer. It is in the light of this idea of a spectrum of possibility that TS is best read. I can’t convey properly the kind of language geek joy I felt upon my third reading of the poem and catching what was going on in the following lyric:

XVIII.
mandm | a | sweet | break
two lovers | or | tittle | s | filled
We | receive | heaven and earth | by | it
and | happy | die | one | more | joy | forever
mmandm | Append
keep fresh | some little | sin
for us | to | set | the world | on

Knowing of the direct drawing from religious language, suddenly mandm and the later mmandm became connected in my mind with variations on the word commandment. By themselves, mandm and mmandm play with the sounds of rumination: “hmmm” and “uhm” arise when these two phrases are spoken aloud. The realization of the tie-in with commandment take that word, a word so charged with power and meaning both in and out of a religious context, and reduce it to (or perhaps accentuate it with) an air of indecision and small talk.

Mind you, this is only one reader’s idiosyncratic response to the poem. But what else is there, I ask myself. It is this kind of metacognitive reflection that produces some of the more illuminating poems as well as reading of poems. When talking of poetry, the word engagement gets thrown around as if a given, as if meaning only one thing. Then there are the phrases which imply engagement or lack of: It spoke to me. I couldn’t get into it. And so on.

Amaranth Borsuk’s Tonal Saw unpacks not only as a meditation and handling of religious language, but as a meditation and handling of the meditation and handling on the part of the reader. In doing so, it accomplishes what it sets out to do: to write a religion of poetry that worships language itself. The end product puts the reader in touch with not a religion of the word, but rather, a religion after the word, after language and its splintering way with meaning.

I am reminded of Rimbaud’s famous phrase I is another, a metacognitive smart bomb in and of itself, as well as a sentiment about language with which the poem’s final lyric resonates:

XXX.
your own | little | immediately
And | these | dear, precious | things, you
Now may | continue
you | intriguing | page
to know | your | word

Download Tonal Saw for free at The Song Cave

Jose Angel Araguz has had poems recently in Barrow Street, Slipstream, Gulf Coast, and Right Hand Pointing. He is presently pursuing a PhD in Creative Writing at the University of Cincinnati. He runs the poetry blog, The Friday Influence.

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