Reviewed By Tim Wood
- Fence Modern Poets (2012)
- 88 pages
Clark Coolidge is no stranger to crystalline poetic forms. But sonnets? Such a traditional structure for an experimental jazz-influenced writer to take on. Then again, jazz is known for transforming standards in unpredictably meaningful ways, and this is not Coolidge’s first experiment with the sonnet. There is also the aleatory Bond Sonnets, published in 1965. As Tom Orange reminds us, though, Coolidge thought Bond Sonnets lacked energy. This, however, is not the case with 88 Sonnets. In his recent foray into the form, Coolidge moves in an 8/8 double-time, improvising within the square 4×4 rooms of the sonnet’s stanza and syncopating on the pentameter’s 4/4 time. For the reader of traditional sonnets, Coolidge’s expectorated syntax and enteral lines might seem very far away from Shakespeare, Spenser, or Petrarch. But really the poems are not that different from the interworking of other sonnets, even classic ones. It is just that Coolidge dispenses with the customary narrative framework, revealing the language machine revving underneath, and reveling in the kinds of juxtapositions and polyphony familiar to musical composition.
Although Coolidge replaces narrative with pyrotechnic displays of language, Coolidge’s improvisational riffs nevertheless hold true to the sonnet’s deep structure. If, reading these sonnets, one were to complain, “I don’t understand what he’s saying!” Coolidge might rejoin, “But do you understand what I’m not saying?” (56). This is a key question, since a sonnet is almost always more about what goes unsaid. Perhaps more than other poetic forms, the meaning of any sonnet is fixed to its formal strictures, which usually results in a reflexivity that, in part, imparts the rules by which it might be read. So what do Coolidge’s sonnets have to say about themselves?
Here are eight possibilities:
1. buildings too small for / the journey (20)
2. An insanity of misinterpreted surfaces (26)
3. This crust of repetitions that tell you / a thing and no more telling hocus pocus (42)
4. Many odd entrances including the piece of cake (43)
5. a make-believe hamper full of surprises (52)
6. this sum of all miscalculations (53)
7. atomic numbers clicking in this capsule to nowhere
8. mastication of an upchuck (67)
And here are eight more:
1. it’s a form of excitement a rule hole (67)
2. the pen flows where the brain cramps (69)
3. a sink full of ruined drinks moist sconces / emptied corridors that no more lead / a bellhop’s idea of bread than a doorstop (73)
4. the field is full of notes not dates (77)
5. an orgone booth I bid on on a whim (85)
6. Some tough phonecalls in an iron bucket (89)
7. Broken exponents of strained primes (94)
8. Streams of one language through the clutter (96)
While the above lines can be taken as crazy commentary on the sonnet, Coolidge’s approach soundly critiques the one poetic form that might possibly serve as a metonymy for the most formidable mode of lyric poetry in Western literature, dating from the Renaissance (e.g., Petrarch, Wyatt) and continuing on through to the Enlightenment (e.g., Donne, Milton), then Romanticism (e.g., Wordsworth, Keats), then Modernism (e.g., Yeats, Frost), and onward (e.g., Berryman, Lowell ). Whatever the subject, as the most traditional of love poems, the sonnet traffics in rhetorical seductions that Coolidge’s sonnets resist through confusion’s subterfuge and the uprisings of linguistic surprise—“do I smell the smoke plume of a pearl?” (34). The poems in 88 Sonnets, though, are not merely a sendup of this tradition; as sonnets themselves, Coolidge’s poems are interventions, charging expectations to react against the prolepsis of form.
Constructing fourteen-line echo chambers where fragments and phrases ricochet until “a green can explodes inside your thoughts” (76), Coolidge’s poems upend certain “structures of feeling,” to scrounge that trenchant phrase coined by Raymond Williams, that the sonnet seems to predetermine and that the tradition of sonnet writing tends to reify. For example, in “Scratch Glass Park”, the phrase “greenery in it somewhere” leads to “red at all points nothing you could call a stop” (9). Though red is a sign for stop, red as a sign cannot stop. Think of Stein’s “A Box” in Tender Buttons: “…it is so earnest to have a green point not to red but to point again.” “Red,” of course, is also “read” and, in this sense, Coolidge’s sonnets can be read “at all points.” Also, as far as words point to their opposites, within “red” there exists “greenery in it somewhere.” How pastoral!
All this talk about sonnets, though, may be a misplacement of emphasis, drawing too much attention to the poetic form and away from what might be the greater operational inspiration: the number eighty-eight. Why eighty-eight? Symmetry. Infinity. Allegory. A quick look at Wikipedia’s entry on eighty-eight suggests some other possibilities. As a number able to be refactored, a primitive semi-perfect number, an untouchable number, eighty-eight turns in on itself even as it contains other numbers in intricately geometric ways. As a palindromic repdigit, it is made up of a replicated, self-mirroring number, two infinities carving twin routes in time like two two-dimensional Mobius strips. And as far out as it is infinite, eighty-eight is also the number of constellations in the sky, the number of days it takes Mercury to orbit the sun, the atomic number of radium—“atomic numbers clicking in this capsule to nowhere”(61)—and the number of keys on a piano: “the piano is nattering again” (20). By modifying “sonnet” in the title, the symmetries of 88—four circles making a square—give an immediate visual for the 4×4 and 4/4 (like double whole notes stacked) containing the circuitous and cyclical “o” de-noting these ever-retraceable, nesting loops of language. Through the music of their phrasing, Coolidge’s sonnets push us to feel the intense but fleeting pleasures in those ephemeral utterances that, while apprehended, cannot always be fully understood. Like the alienated majesty of chitchat overheard from passersby coming back to you as your own best thoughts.
 Orange, Tom. “Arrangement and Density: A Context for Early Clark Coolidge.” Jacket 13, April 2001. Web. (http://jacketmagazine.com/13/coolidge-o-a.html)
Tim Wood is currently a Fulbright scholar at the Universität Tübingen in Germany. He is the author of the book of poems Otherwise Known as Home (BlazeVOX, 2010) and co-editor of The Hip Hop Reader (Longman, 2008). His poems have recently appeared in likewise folio (http://likewisefolio.org/). His critical work can be found in Convolution (http://www.convolutionjournal.com/), Jacket2 (http://jacket2.org/reviews/between-bibetgekess-and), and Leviathan: A Journal of Melville Studies. His poetry reviews are accessible online at Colorado Review, the Iowa Review, and the Boston Review.