REVIEW: Alkali by Craig Dworkin

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by Michael Gossett

Writing out of the saline oikeios of Utah’s Great Salt Lake and informed by a career-long cultivation of non-expressive, constraint-based poetics, Craig Dworkin, in his new eco-conceptual compendium Alkali, has landed on the figure of the crystal as the site of recent experimentation in a way that borders on the teleological. Dworkin’s crystals—whether taking the form of mined quartz sitting on a desk, as in his restaging of Clark Coolidge’s sustained meditation “The Crystal Text,” or kept in the ground, as in the “spathe filtered fields” of the desert pastoral “Feldspar”—are rendered in a densely textured and amalgamating language that accrues in equal parts by Objectivist, Language, and oulippean strategies. As such, these crystals inform not only the subject of each of the book’s six poems, but a kind of syntax as well. If Alkali is thought of as a kind of glass case of such crystals, the beauty of the collection lies in the range of size, dimensionality, and opacity contained therein.

At the smaller end of the range are two of what the book describes as “geometrical exercises exhausting the limits of two particular oulippean constraints.” “Feldspar” is the resulting text from a paper-folding exercise Dworkin began in 2000 in an attempt to see if a text could be written in three columns and read in a plurality of ways—down one column, across and down two columns, and across and down all three—while sustaining the cohesion of both the poem’s grammar and its subject. (Note: Limited by the standard, unfolded pages of the book, the version of “Feldspar” captured in Alkali is a list of all available permutations of the columns.) The result is a line like “Over path — fulled filtered yielding spats of foliage fall to to fill” unfolding and evolving into “Over march of path: fault of fulled runs filtered by spare yielding spart spats; sprattle of foliage and felt fall to sparging to fill a scaf” and further into “Fold over march of grown path — fault of feldspar fulled runs in spathe filtered by spare fields yield spart — sprat spats sprattle pleats of foliage and felt, failing to fall to sparging pare to fill a scaf.” What was already difficult by virtue of its unexpected word choices and usages—a dictionary is absolutely a necessary reading companion—becomes increasingly more so as words shift parts of speech, relationships between ideas change as new ideas are thrown into the mix, and the echoing of sounds disorients us and even tricks us into misreadings. We are forced to parse sentences at a glacial pace, and are expected to hold multiple lineages together in our minds as if committing to memory a family tree. It is hard work, but the payoff is in the feeling of capturing the many faces of a vast mountain meadow as one zig-zags along a meandering path beside it.

The second geometrical exercise, “All Saints,” is so short it can be recreated here in its entirety:

I.

Ored arches ern
inky rivers out
rust-raddled rows
ranged even over
aging riven rove-
ringed axes — randed
ewers raining ash,
raked eye ruts uttering reams.

II.

Eves addle ere
our ender annum
ages air rung
under riper eaves.

Taking as an epigraph John Dowland’s “Weepe ye no more, sad fountains,” the first part of “All Saints” figures the “inky rivers” flowing under the “ored arches” of the Utah desert as tilted water jugs (“randed / ewers”) emptying out their contents as if “raining ash,” an image aligned with the Elizabethan ballad’s pair of crying eyes that find its correlate (and comfort) in springing fountains and melting snow. But where Dowland merely compares the short-term sadness of human concerns with events taking place on a geological timescale, Dworkin locates the sadness in the earth itself. The signs of age and fatigue (“rust-raddled rows”) associated with the rivers’ flowing (they have “riven” “ring[s]” with their “rov[ing]”) are amplified by the constancy and duration signaled in the depths of “rake[s],” “ruts,” and “reams.” These ecological tears are, in fact, scars: scars further carved with each “e” and “r.” The poem pivots into its second part around the word “eves,” which both alerts us to a temporal transition and prepares us for a frame of nesting rhymes that ends in “eaves” and contains the “addle”-”under” and “ere”-”air” pairings, further concentrating the textured sound patterning. In sifting through these pairs, we come to understand the synecdochical relationship between the human and the fountains in Dowland’s poem to be parallel to that between the rivers and the earth in Dworkin’s, a relationship extended ultimately to that between the discomfort brought on by the end of a day (“eves addle”) and that brought on by the end of the world (“our ender annum” aging “air rung under riper eaves”).

The linguistic play and ecological concerns of these two minimalist poems are extended and developed further in the expanded pastorals “In the Dark Wood / Nella Selva Oscura” and “Haligraphy,” two limited-edition letterpress pamphlets Dworkin created in June and July of 2012. The former takes its bilingual title from the opening lines of The Inferno, wherein Dante finds himself in an indeterminate forestscape that proves ripe for a disorientation both physical and psychological. And though we know Dworkin’s dark wood to be the landscape surrounding the Great Salt Lake, such knowledge does nothing to undermine the sense of intellectual and spiritual uncertainty. As if Samuel calling out “Here I am” to an unseen voice in night, Dworkin here seems particularly attuned to the sonic qualities of the space around him, following the question “Who hears the sound in the dark wood damping?” with a recognition of substance that is there, has always been there: “to hear / in the (her) // of what inheres, inured, / innate in names (in yours).” And yet, what is there seems also simultaneously not there, is both at-home and not-at-home, is Uncanny, as when the salty molecules of a woman’s cry are all at once “petrified, revenant, dissipating,” that is, solidified, ghostly, and disappearing, a fixed “static addenda” on the ever-expanding fractal “dendral record.” Like a “glistening and resinous” light flickering in its presence, what is “whole” is “in rounds, repealing,” vanishing.

In “Haligraphy”—Dworkin’s neologism for the study of halation, the way light forms a foggy halo around a photo or screen—light, like sound, demonstrates its equally transitory nature with dramatic consequences. “Halation at the lake’s horizon,” we’re told in one section, “occasions the visual collision of the distant hills; the granulate behind a scrim of calinated haze.” And in another, “the calice of the Great Lake’s basin salinates in an evaporative slake; sky, draining, etiolates; haze shades to hazard the azure’s hue.” Our attention is drawn time and again to “shallow light” and “laquered glaze” and things “lost to shimmer,” and yet it is only when the “night air rarefies” and “dissipate[s]” and the “accruals of shadows under boulder-curves merge” that we are allowed to see the way that, in the dark, “everything radiates, cools and quickens.”

Finally, the two largest pieces in the collection: “The Crystal Text,” the aforementioned restaging of Clark Coolidge’s poem of the same name, and “The Falls,” a long lyric essay on the concept of falling as it appears in French Modernist texts. “The Crystal Text,” easily my favorite poem in the collection, is an attempt at acknowledging the infinitely withdrawn nature of an object by exhausting its descriptions, uses, and resemblances. A kind of cubing exercise, Dworkin locates a crystal on his writing desk and, in the tightly controlled language we have come to expect from the collection, sustains his attention until the crystal takes on an oblique life of its own. “A rose quartz quarters on my desk,” he writes. “It obligates. It obliquates. Around an axis the crystal twists. The crystal finds an assectation in this text.” Dworkin’s later observation that “the crystal riddles” turns a key for the subsequent fourteen pages of the poem and brings an important literary tradition into the fold, effectively linking the long history of the riddle in English poetics—the monstrously alive riddle-objects and their alliterative accentual-syllabic distiches date back to the tenth-century Anglo-Saxon Exeter Book—to bear directly on two hot contemporary traditions in object-oriented ontology (“The rock is loud, though it resounds too low for me to hear… The crystal can only transmit, but no one is listening.”) and constraint-based conceptual writing (“The crystal is a lens. The crystal lends. It colors. The crystal as a prism imprisons certain shades. Its polar optics set selective spectra free.”). And like the riddle-objects of the Exeter Book, the crystal in turn is rendered as a writer (“The crystal is a scribe.”), a household object (“The rock is a clock.”), an erotic subject (“The crystal winks and lustres… and underneath the finger feels slick.”), a judge (“The rock is just.”), a crustacean (“The stone scuttles…”), and a storm (the stone “stirs the waves of the sea”). But despite the potential for a seemingly infinite series of comparisons, and though each comparison seems to open up some facet of the crystal in a new, undiscovered capacity, in the end Dworkin acknowledges that he is left no closer to truly understanding the small noun in front of him than he was at the beginning. “Only it can know how accurate and imprecise I have been here,” he writes, “the extents of my unfaithfulness and simultaneous fidelities.”

The book concludes with “The Falls,” a long lyric essay that, when premiered, was described as “part lyric catalogue of the sculptural condition of everything beholden to gravity; part essay on French Modernism; part elegy; and part grammatical investigation into how we speak of falling into abstractions (love and sleep and illness) with concrete consequences.” The meat of the essay, like that of many of Dworkin’s other pieces in this collection, is made up of several dozen quotations and fragments of quotations culled from sources ranging from Plato to Proust to an article on the photographic techniques of processing reversal film. Dworkin writes into and out of this material in a kind of lyrical annotated bibliography, allowing the line of thought to reel out a bit in exploration before bringing it back in again with a quasi-anaphoric structure reminiscent at times of Juliana Spahr’s this connection of everyone with lungs. The end result of this activity amounts to a magnificent juggling act in which disparate, but not unrelated, ideas, sources, structures, and themes are kept up in the air and treated one-by-one in passing en route to the formulation of argument and instruction common to the essay form but noticeably lacking in the lapsing cliches characterizing contemporary conceptual practice. “The Falls” resists summary in a way that is difficult as a reviewer but is satisfying as a reader, with its combination of encyclopedic research and associative poetic movements ultimately amounting to less of a singular text that can be mastered and captured than an illusive event than must be reexperienced from multiple angles for multiple unveilings.

The bring the crystal analogy full circle, Alkali is a wonderfully refined hunk of work, one slowly formed over the course of more than a decade. As a stone, it has weight, is lyrically dense and intellectually complex. As a prism, the light passing through it breaks out into spectra identifiable in conceptualism, object-oriented ontology, ecocriticism, and information/archive theory. This makes it an important book. It is an object as stimulating to peer through as it is to turn over in your hands. It is “always more important, more interesting, more capable.” Its “grid ranges, and will continue until something gets in its way.” It is “generous.” It is “generative.”

The difficulty with difficult work is that one rarely knows how much effort to put in without a guarantee that the effort will be rewarded. Difficult work often appears to be at best unintelligible, and at worst completely indulgent. But what distinguishes Dworkin from other conceptual writers and Alkali from other difficult works is the generative generosity embedded at each step of the way, and the clarity and intelligibility of ideas once encoded. The key is always there, in other words, and once unconcerned with the viability of access, one is freed to enjoy the movements by which the pins fall into place.

Buy it from Counterpath Press: $18.00.

Michael Gossett is from Memphis, Tennessee. He tweets commonplace books of poetry, riddles, comedy, and basketball at: @michaeljgossett and @theebigsir

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