(This is the second in a series of reviews focused on titles released by the Oakland-based small press/poetry cult Timeless, Infinite Light. TIL is currently on a West Coast tour.)
by Rachel McLeod Kaminer
Ivy Johnson’s As They Fall is a deck of cards, published by Timeless, Infinite Light (Oakland, 2013). It arrives in a stack, wrapped in a band of paper. This packaging is a wonderful seduction; once the deck is unbound it wants to stay that way.
the hand prints
Cards suggest iterations. Games of chance, tarot spreads, magic tricks, precarious architecture, memory games. Reader’s confession: on introduction to the deck, my delight in its rectangular thing-ness gives way to resistance as I read straight through. Are these handwritten phrases and words a gimmick, albeit an earnest one? Is this poetry as a conversation with epiphany? Poetry that makes meaning as inkblots make meanings?
we prepared the field
How do the notes for the work become the work? Poetry has traditionally become itself through received or invented form. Recent contemporary poetry often becomes through syntactic and/or conceptual moves. As They Fall makes a big move up front, and whether it is conceptual or formal, it does leave the cards in the reader’s hands. It’s this willingness to risk which leads me to re-read.
Perhaps here should be an As They Fall spoiler alert. A reminder that anyone may find ways of reading through curiosity and play, ways which reflect and challenge assumptions about what poetry does and how poetry does. As the querent is meant to thoroughly handle the tarot deck, re-reading is the tenet of poetry.
I spread out cards. Choosing shorter phrases, gestures of amputation, and fewer cards leads to an existential riddle-puddle. Longer chains of cards feel silly, with blunt rhymes and gerunds, a cartoon of poetry. I keep re-reading, I look to the title for guidance: ‘As They Fall’ is the only part of the work which maintains any hierarchy of meaning, but it suggests unwrapping the cards and throwing them into the air.
we enter into it
Friends and neighbors gather around the kitchen table. For them, poetry has been unwelcoming at worst, a riddle or an emotional lyric at best, but Johnson’s poem-deck is alluring. Aha! Here is a way to share poetry socially without the poet in the crowd becoming a gatekeeping expert. Some of the self-proclaimed non-poets pose questions and draw fortunes. Others make short arrangements of cards that strike their eye. This spontaneous reading aloud, this sharing, it could be addicting.
the echoes rearranged
I shuffle the cards. Taking a handful at a time, I deal myself a poem. As each card arrives, I keep it in “my” poem, or discard it. I want to know if it’s possible to write my own poem, as with refrigerator poetry. No, not exactly. It isn’t my own free-associating I’m doing – if anything, I’m re-writing iterating versions of Ivy Johnson’s ur-poem. I am in a shared stream of image-consciousness, and whether its revelatory and mystical associations are more mine or more Johnson’s, I cannot say. What an interesting way to articulate the participation of the reader in the poem – any poem.
i can’t remember
What if a reader loses a card? The experience might parallel that of the writer who just had it in mind a second ago but has lost the line or image and must find a different way forward. Another way in which As They Fall operates as an embodiment or visceral articulation of the poem-becoming process.
NOW I AM HUNGRY
The cards holding single word, a clichéd phrase, an all-caps line all represent other risks, ones which operate less successfully here. These are fragments of as-ifs, vocatives, imperatives; images; i’s and we’s. Each card does not carry the full DNA (or RNA?) of As They Fall. Does Sappho require her translators to be gifted, or just dedicated?
There was no hill to look down from
Johnson’s work resonates when many cards are legible at once, overlapping and helping each other. Phrases need the poem around them. The deck of cards is a useful formal approach for poems that don’t want to be glued in a two-dimensional page arrangement. Was the poem As They Fall best served by this choice? Is this even the right question – is As They Fall a poem? If re-reading is my tenet for readers, then re-writing is my tenet for writers, even for artists commited to chance operation. I’m unconvinced that ‘[the] fever’ of the work was as powerfully conveyed as ‘[the] flood behind it.’ I hope that Johnson, Oakland publisher Timeless, Infinite Light, and others will continue with poem-decks, however. I look forward to more forms and concepts which seek unity and multiplicity of form-concept-language away from argument and away from hierarchy.
Everything CAN BE TAKEN AWAY set fire to it
The greatest risk As They Fall runs is credence; the dis, the dismiss. Big questions of poetry – what makes it poetry? what makes it good? – are riven by anxiety about artifice and meaning making. It’s unsettling to risk so much! How much meaning is any poet making? Metaphor – to bear across; translate – to carry over; so much falls through the cracks. Everything else gets twisted, or ‘A PRAYER WRITTEN AND BURNED’ falls on deaf ears. Isn’t that the disturbance that these small pinkish cards illicit in me?
stepped into it
Re-reading makes less gimmick and gives more poem sensation. So much rests on the reader of any poetry. “Gimmick” is a made-up word anyway, made up to mean “device to make a fair game crooked.” Poetry, like making words up, is fair game, and poetry has never been a fair game.
As They Fall is available from Timeless, Infinite Light.
Rachel McLeod Kaminer <http://racheldoinglines.tumblr.com/> grew up in the Southern Appalachian mountains near Asheville. Her poetry, editorial work and translations recently appear or are forthcoming in OR, in the Open Review Quarterly, and The Laurel Review. She lives in Los Angeles.