Colorado State University Center for Literary Publishing

Book Review

The Absolute Letter

By Andrew Joron

Reviewed By Jeff Alessandrelli

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One of her most well-known and, to these untrained eyes, most accomplished paintings, Dorothea Tanning’s 1943 work Eine Kleine Nachtmusik depicts a world of interstices, where dolls look as real—if not more so—than their human counterparts and, off-centered at the picture’s crux, a giant sunflower simultaneously furls and blooms, representing some form of life force that knows no bounds. Often characterized as a maker of surrealist artwork, Tanning’s Eine Kleine Nachtmusik surely represents that movement’s subconsciously focused tenets but it also goes beyond them. There’s an alternately playful and stoic subterfuge at work. Discussing the matter some decades after the painting’s creation, Tanning writes that ultimately it’s a work “about confrontation. Everyone believes he/she is his/her drama. While they don’t always have giant sunflowers (most aggressive of flowers) to contend with, there are always stairways, hallways, even very private theatres where the suffocations and the finalities are being played out, the blood red carpet or cruel yellows, the attacker, the delighted victim.”

Although at first ponder Tanning’s Eine Kleine Nachtmusik and Andrew Joron’s latest collection of poetry, The Absolute Letter, have little to do with one another beyond certain surrealist predilections (Joron previously edited a survey of American surrealist poetry, Neo-Surrealism: Or, the Sun at Night, and his own work has often been couched and discussed within surrealist parameters), reading through Joron’s volume is, à la Tanning’s painting, to confront one’s fundamental notions, linguistic and otherwise. From its first poem to its last, The Absolute Letter endeavors to sonically and euphonically elasticize the scope of the poetic form.

As a nesting doll is to a child, with so many secreted opportunities, language is a toy for Joron—and I mean that in a good way. It exists to be exalted in; the heard-out-loud wonder that can be enacted via putting one certain word next to another certain word. In “Blind Illumination,” the poet writes:

What science
            guided me
Toward silence—
My wanting to know more about
            no more?

I wanted to hear about
The nothingness beyond God.

Stirred the random to render
Stored order—
            eye-dead I did.

Later, the final stanzas of the last poem in the volume, “A =A,” contemplate the questions, “What is the word for getting words & forgetting? // Might night right sight?” before ending with a finality besot with tension:

I, too late to relate
            I & I, trap light in sound
& sing no thing that breath can bring.

Strict narrative sense for Joron, of course, matters less than aural sound, although that isn’t to say that the direct assertions lack staying power. The previous “I wanted to hear about / The nothingness beyond God” surely imparts to the readers some force of contention and, in “The Phrases of the Moon,” Joron writes:

A minor truth betrays
A major one—
A lore
            for the lyre.
For it is written: liar with a why.

The point’s been made before, but what are poets but mellifluous liars bathed in music, every truth, minor or major, melodic or anti-melodic, being advanced to serve the structure that is the poem, its human-made artifice?

Because they can’t easily be solved, though, we keep coming back to these best toys—for Joron this is language, act of articulation by way of implicit or explicit rhythmic confrontation. In The Absolute Letter’s preface, “The Argument; Or, My Novalis,” Joron states: “The world itself is composed of the letters of the Absolute: anything, real or ideal, that undergoes a self-complicating—ultimately musical—form of motion becomes a sign of the processual emergence of the Infinite within the finite.”

Sound takes precedence. It’s left up to lesser readers to ask what the below stanzas, the opening ones of “Neither Nor,” mean and to do so, anyways, is to largely miss the point:

Silent, what
            listens, lists
Sideways—

Not & knot, knot &
Night—alight, a

Force
            paired
For a
            spared

Soul, sole
            respiring upward of
Word.

It isn’t hard to, line by line, piece out each particular here, no. (The silence of the soul, awash in repetitive lassitude; the soundlessness of so many spoken words.) But Joron isn’t writing “Neither Nor” to be understood; he’s writing to be heard. Filled with unending phonic gyrations, language’s inherent sensuality matters as much as its cognitive literalness to Joron.

It goes without saying, then, that the entirety of The Absolute Letter begs to be read out loud. Indeed, one can’t get a full sense of the volume’s depth without doing so.

It’s not the most immediately noticeable aspect of the work, but in Tanning’s Eine Kleine Nachtmusik there’s a barely open doorway at the painting’s far right, an opening that enters into a landscape wreathed with fiery light. Only the sunflower is apparently aware of this doorway’s existence—but the entirety of its being seems to derive from that knowledge.

Constructed of sound encased within language, words, Andrew Joron’s The Absolute Letter mirrors this aspect of Eine Kleine Nachtmusik. Each illumining—music by way of language; language by way of music—needs its counterpoint to bloom into full-throated actualization, and it’s a testament to Joron’s aural fluency that nearly every poem in the volume succeeds via such a melding. By The Absolute Letter’s end, then, the reader is confronted with the certainty that the drama of language, poetic or otherwise, is the drama of life and such an understanding will last until that “nothingness beyond God” completes us all.

Recent work by Jeff Alessandrelli appears or is forthcoming in Lit Hub, Denver Quarterly, Witness, and the American Poetry Review. He’s also the author of the full-length poetry collection This Last Time Will Be The First and, to be released in the fall of 2017 by the UK press Eyewear, the essay collection The Man on High—Essays on Skateboarding, Hip Hop, Poetry and The Notorious B. I. G. Additionally, Jeff also directs the vinyl record-only poetry press Fonograf Editions; in 2016 Fonograf put out albums by Eileen Myles and Rae Armantrout, and in 2017 it’ll put out albums by Alice Notley and Harmony Holiday.