Lyric Multiples: Aspiration, Practice, Immanence, MigrationNonfiction
Reviewed By Kylan Rice
- Nightboat Books (2018)
- 224 pages
John Keats’s “Ode to Psyche” begins with an act of trespass and ends in the middle of a construction site. At the start, the poet, wandering “thoughtlessly,” stumbles across a sacred forest scene, a scene he hastens to apologize for seeing: Psyche and Eros, soul and love, together postcoital in deepest bedded grass. Recognizing Psyche only gradually, the trespassing poet proceeds to pledge himself to her, this young goddess, offering, at the conclusion of the poem, to build her a shrine, “a fane / In some untrodden region” of his mind. The poet’s ingenuity at the climax of the ode is to perform this act of construction, an achievement that is not merely architectural but also geospatial. His thoughts become the branches of pines that climb, “steep by steep” a wild-ridged mountain—the creation of a psychic valley that encloses a wide quietness, a deep woodland filled with zephyr, streams, birds, bees, dryads, and in the midst of all this, a thoughtful sanctuary, “the wreath’d trellis of a working brain.” The poet builds a whole world in his head and clears a space in the middle of it in order to construct an intimate temple to the soul, its “casement” window left ajar, in the closing lines of the poem, “to let the warm love in.” It is crucial that these final lines leave an opening in an otherwise wrought, sealed structure. Keats’ poem or shrine is built to be open. To let the outside in.
George Albon shares this project in Lyric Multiples: Aspiration, Practice, Immanence, Migration, a wide-ranging book of poetics and queer phenomenology in which the lyric (though not necessarily the lyric poem, which “often seems to rehearse an interiorized setting”) “affects three-dimensionality. It presumes the excursional.” Here already we have reached the paradox at the heart of Albon’s book, and perhaps also in Keats’ poem. Three-dimensional, spatial, the “lyric is a tough warren on its own,” a fane or shrine, but there is also involved in it a necessary element of perambulation—of excursion and wandering, even of trespass. Indeed, epitomizing the flâneur, Albon drifts apparently regardless of fence and thoroughfare through forgotten pockets of space in San Francisco, poking around abandoned machinist shops, ambling through backyards and private alleys, studying from there the rear exteriors of old Victorian and Edwardian buildings that have, in recent years, been divvied up and compartmentalized into apartments or townhouses. He writes: “I want to go into spaces, their implications.” This practice is inseverable from his poetics. Thus, he poses the question to himself: “Why poetry and building, human geography,” responding that “Both intend to do something to the world. But poetry does its doing minimally, even stealthily, while building—even when it chooses to be slight—is a declarative takeover of matter and space.”
Unlike brick-and-mortar structures, the lyric’s built environment is barely, quietly there:
Like nylon cables, carbon nanotubes, and resin shells, but also like tin roofs, plywood pallets, and plastic crates, the lyric is light. I can imagine many of its works issuing from the recent one-or-two-room mini-houses that can turn or otherwise move sections of themselves toward the warm spot.
The lyric is a light, movable structure, or a structure in motion. To achieve this, the writer of the lyric endeavors “to make something barely, to keep ending open.” The ending ends ajar.
In his book on Moby-Dick, the poet Charles Olson declares, “I take SPACE to be the central fact to man born in America, from Folsom cave to now. I spell it large because it comes large here. Large, and without mercy.” Albon also takes space as a central psychic, physical, and poetic fact, but his treatment of it is more sensitive to the compressions and partitions that increasingly crowd out and overdevelop even the amplest vistas. Invoking Gilles Deleuze and his theory of folds, Albon points out that “in a world of leaping populations and shrinking resources, the buildings of the future will indeed need . . . to bend and fold and stack and retract.” It is one of the most striking aspects of Lyric Multiples that the borders between urban architecture and poetry become so permeable. Perhaps it is worth reflecting, in light of Albon’s observation about folding, stacking, and retracting buildings, whether there are similar exigencies that weigh on modern poems, too. To be sure, poets write in the midst of a glut of accessible material, cultural refuse, memes alongside monumentalities. Does the poem face leaping populations and shrinking resources, too? As though in response, Albon reaches for materials both banal and exotic, nylon cables and plywood pallets, to model the construction of the lyric. The ecosystem of source texts that his book contains bears this lyric impulse out: Heidegger jostles with Bronski Beat, Piet Mondrian collides with William James. All the while, Aquinas, Baumgarten, and Kant consort with outsider artist James Castle, whose materials, a little like Albon’s, were “cast-offs and waste, the stuff that remained even after stinting: cardboard supports, cut-flat wax cartons, the backs of things.” The back of the book is devoted to several pages filled with dense bibliographic lists and liner notes.
The cover of Lyric Multiples reflects the referential restlessness of the pages it encloses: a blue-washed photographic negative of Charles Peterson’s “Endfest, Kitsap, Washington 1991,” which shows young punk bodies at a rolling boil in a mosh pit. As he montages personal experience with scholarly gloss and lyric fugue, Albon curates and studies “restless facts, unsystematic stresses.” Much like Gilles Deleuze, who rejects metaphor in philosophy, Albon likewise insists that his mosh pit of images, facts, and impressions do not reduce down to so many symbols, even symbols for the lyric. Like Edmund Husserl (“To the things themselves!”) or William Carlos Williams (“No ideas but in things”), Albon works to grasp and respect things as and where they are. Let me repeat: things as and where they are. For Albon, the identity of “as” is intextricable from the coordinates of “where,” and a “where” is a complex, a situation already tangled up in dimensions, in backgrounds and foregrounds. By applying this phenomenological or metaphysical insight to poetry (or perhaps deriving it from poetry), Albon demands that poems be situative, that they embrace “contingent life, shouts from the outside, recombinance.” Thus Albon implicitly channels Charles Baudelaire’s theory of the flâneur:
For the perfect flâneur, for the passionate spectator, it is an immense joy to set up house in the heart of the multitude, amid the ebb and flow of movement, in the midst of the fugitive and the infinite. To be away from home and yet to feel oneself everywhere at home; to see the world, to be at the centre of the world, and yet to remain hidden from the world. . . .
Away from home, yet everywhere at home, Albon’s poet builds her home en route, wherever she finds herself, there fashioning “composite sites” or psychic spaces, lyric apartments out of thin air, or out of what was there. One of Lyric Multiple’s beautiful intervals involves a short poem whose ambition is carefullest, solidest architecture, scribbled down by Albon in a pocket Moleskine, before it “ran out of gas after three pages,” built to last and then abandoned:
wood and copper,
wood and copper
wood and copper
wood copper and a reed
copper and a reed
a reed in water,
arches by the viaduct
arches by the span
by the viaduct
For all its virtues, I think there are limits to Albon’s restless, constructionist theory of lyric, or his aesthetic of the squatter—a concept he borrows from the artist Thomas Hirschhorn. At one point, Albon implicitly compares his space-creating project to artist Mel Chin’s relationship to Houston, Texas:
Chin grew up in Houston, an unusual American city that has no zoning laws. Private homes, pool halls, churches, taverns, schools, cafes—all could be found on the same block. “And this had an impact on my thought processes: that everything was available, anywhere, anyplace.” The ambience he grew up in he now hands forward in heterodox art practice that throughout forty years of work has never gone through a front door. He calls it, the Aesthetics of Existence. “There is not a stylistic arcing medium or formal direction that can be easily identified so therefore you have a ‘no zoning’ within a lifetime.”
By my reading, at least one facet or monad of Albon’s aesthetic is a mirror of Chin’s. But the problem with Houston’s no-zoning policy is that it spurred rapid growth and development, transforming the city into an unplanned flatland of concrete and asphalt that impedes natural drainage without any kind of infrastructural replacement. Some claim that this contributed to the catastrophic flooding the city experienced during Hurricane Harvey. Of course, Albon might justifiably point out that his aesthetic is less prescriptive than it is responsive, adaptive. The point isn’t to mandate a no-zoning policy like Houston’s; instead, zonelessness is an emergent condition, a dynamic acknowledgement, rather than a brittle refusal of real cacophonies. An advocate for poetic and urbanist responsibility and sustainability, Albon seeks “to let the present conditions speak their own exigencies, their block-by-block eccentricities . . . to listen to the haphazardness rather than talk over it.” All the same, I wonder if Albon’s logic of spatial multiplication contributes to the overcrowding to which it appears to adapt, to take in stride and live with and within, and celebrate.
Of course, Albon is not building cities. He is writing poems. The same physics don’t apply. Moreover, he is explicitly critical of poetic preoccupations with worlding, with limitless creative expansionism. In response to a poetics of the “all-inclusive, pan-disciplinary, immeasurably absorbant, ever-generative,” Albon points out that “these all-embracing gestures, so generous and benevolent, might reflect nothing more than a maximalizing ethos, and/or a mind-set that wants everything, or wants nothing to end, is an issue that rarely emerges from the enclosing warmth.” In contrast, Albon suggests that “the healthiest way to have the embrace is to feel its peculiarity—to understand its ‘boundless’ contours as a form of temperament. To know that your look into the cosmic telescope invites a look back at you, with the complementary shift in perspective, and corresponding judgment.” Here Albon alloys creative absorbency and maximalism with sober self-reflection and careful parallax, a sensitivity to the contours of boundlessness and the countlessness of contours, of whorls, and ridged fingerprints of the multitude inside a pluralistic universe. For Albon, there is nothing inherently wrong in an all-embracing gesture, as long as it brings the poet back to a sense of herself in relation, helps her to remember infinite difference, boundless boundaries, the multiplicity of compartment and spaces and identities that are already there. Perhaps, then, the lyric does not create space as much as discover it. Or:
The lyric does not prefigure the actualities that emerge from it. Rather, it is the impelling force, or principle, that allows each actual entity to appear (to manifest itself) as something new, something without precedence or resemblance, something that has never existed in the universe in quite that way before.
Albon shows me that the lyric isn’t there to multiply, but to clarify multiplicity, to mark it out and praise it. After all, the poet in “Ode to Psyche” must step back in the end, relinquish architectural mastery, and let warm Love climb in through the open window and find his Psyche there. The poet merely facilitates this reunion. For Albon, as well as Keats, the poet’s task is letting be.
Kylan Rice has been published in Kenyon Review Online, Tupelo Quarterly, West Branch, Denver Quarterly, and elsewhere. He is editor-in-chief of Carolina Quarterly. He has an MFA in poetry from Colorado State University and is pursuing his PhD in nineteenth-century American literature at UNC Chapel Hill.