Book Review

Coding languages (HTML), the human genome project (gene splicing), cloning, genetic engineering, chance operations, and character-based languages all have rule-sets, just as metered forms do: rare, however, are the poetry collections hazarding a union between constraints imposed by form and a political ruler or despot.

“Like a subject living under the ostensibly constitutional, but actually autocratic, government of Lorenzo de Medici, we feel the tautness of an intricate and purposeful order,” Jennifer Moxley says in her introduction to My Lorenzo, by Sébastien Smirou, translated from the French by Andrew Zawacki.

Divided into eight sections (“the battles,” “the kiss,” “the tournament,” “the sentence,” “the government,” “my giuliano,” “the falcon hunt” and “the gout”), Smirou takes the possessive pride of appropriation, or rather, personalization, of a historical figure:  in this case Florentine Lorenzo de Medici, an Italian statesman and de facto ruler of the Florentine Republic during the Italian Renaissance: a magnate, diplomat, politician and patron of scholars, artists, and poets, most notably Botticelli and Michelangelo.

My Emily Dickinson (Susan Howe); My Alexandria (Mark Doty); My Paris (Gail Scott); “My god (my god!),” Gerard Manley Hopkins, and My Lorenzo. However, the possessive pronoun my is more complicated in French, wherein the propre designates self-ownership or entitlement yet also adjectivally appropriateness or cleanliness. (Ma propre maison: my house).

The language play, embedded parentheticals, and wide variance of diction in My Lorenzo (from medieval to contemporary idioms) is reigned in primarily by the section titles, which either indicate possession (singularly, “my giuliano,” or as the definite article “the” as in “the battles,” “the kiss,” “the tournament,” etc.)  Le mien is etymologically connected with the physical hand (la main): to grasp as understanding rather than to possess materially. Other important distinctions regarding the property-as-external-object-rather-than-self-possession meme include the self-agency inscribed in reflexive verbs (je me lave, je me couche—I wash myself, I lay myself down).   

Here, too, the modernist failure of language to produce or order meaning becomes a means of preserving epistemological spaces for intimacy, familiarity, and a working politics of difference (“‘if there should be something between us . . . it’s up to you says lorenzo”).

René Girard’s triangulation of desire (we want what we see others enjoying) figures here, particularly as it concerns an economy of conquest and commodification, paradigms of which Smirou, a French psychologist and author of two other titles—Beau voir (2008), forthcoming from La Presse in Zawacki’s translation as See About, and Un temps pour s’étreindre (“a time to embrace”) (2011)—is keenly aware.

For example: “‘myself is nil’ giuliano to win ‘I’ll win I will let my brother win.’”

The problem is aesthetic, psychoanalytic and, as Moxley points out, formal: one of spacing, tempo, durée:

to love to feel this wanting to touch ascend within the body
pleases a sec but reaches him rightquick the notion of total
abandon to a totally other totality without even letting on
trapped internal thinking in circles wood swallows himself.

How can the poem transition from art object to interior space, intentioned for a reader and the love relation to a mutual exchange between subjects, rather than a subject-object dyad or deadlock of mutually assured destruction?  While considered since Shelley a legislative act, poetic language, unlike narrative language or speech, remains “private,” though dialogic at best rather than public or universalizing; its hermeneutic code (prosodic, as well as cultural) is consigned to genre theory and structuralism (ahistorical and prescriptive). The symbolic language anterior to signification from which lyric utterance issues, furthermore, is the space of ideology, according to Kimberly DeFazio, for whom coming into consciousness as a subject coincides with one’s awakening from parodic “non-being” or unconscious rehearsing of socially prescribed roles.

At moments, Smirou’s verse reads like a Shakespearean sonnet in Ophelia’s resurrected hands:

sixteen jousters effortless who lost his head who guzzles
the ocean who let love pass him by or else who touched
the heart of his sister forgotten a second but all the same
enrival their eyes the citizens glance at their lances glow

Despite the rendering of the poem as algorithms by such contemporary poets as Kenneth Goldsmith and Christian Bök, and its inner workings, a post-industrial motor, many poets and writers still chafe against this idea. Whatever one believes about the dangers of false ideology in Romantic, bourgeois, sentimentalist art, and kitsch, there still remains a linkage to the poem’s unit of measure not as an iamb, but breath. If the journey beyond the post-political, post-humanist aegis does not include resistance to the final usurpation, of living to dead labor and organicity to static forms, are we not then “post-art”?  Citing Oulipean Jacques Roubaud’s Parisian seminar, Moxley says:  “I could scarcely accept what I took to be the cold numerical calculation behind this idea of poetry.”

Syllables, words, and beats, in each line of prosody and in each stanza:  without rhythm, content drifts, drowning, unmoored as a floating signifier of arbitrary meaning, erased by, or in, history: through Stalin’s purges, Hitler’s poisoning of intellectual life, the “planned obsolescence” of music, language, memory, or, for Smirou, the feminine, driven into the imaginary or denied representation patriarchal or autocratic regime.

“(none shall find in my library a trace of anna or even of eve),” says the poet, in one of many embedded parentheticals reading as a necrophilic whisper, or sigh:

(are we loaded as a micro synthesis of our self in a single
eternal bone do we speak the same dead language dead or
does it speak to us and under how many pressed traces of
leaf of animal carcass and of rain do we become nothing?)

What poetic, humanist or teleological goal or form, not yet conceived (other than making money and spreading the mobster laws of exploitation, misery, and greed) is achieved by conceptualism’s phantasm (form for form’s sake)?  When a beyond cannot be conceived to formalism, empty boxes become objets d’art—semantics and other non-quantifiable aspects of the human experience not just occluded but made to service the spectacle of worshipping nothing:  architectural hollows, Buddhistic voids, yes, but also in history, Nazi aesthetics. Like the reduction of romantic love to marriage plots, the class war, or pheromones, or of human sympathy to self-interest, allowing for the golden ratio or mathematical precision in aesthetics (Bach, Da Vinci), or meter in poetry, confirms the fact that beauty is equal parts rigor, grace, and form: the search, authentic only in its obsession, for a heuristic recalling us to the beloved:  form turned oracle.

Smirou: “the essence of love to my heart proffers an unpublished/ lust for life and tenders it taste when we fix it it’s a quatrain/ that said where the eye is worth the prettiest hand replies// no further ado.” Poetry, like passion, is somatically durational:  the beloved as prosthesis, image, or cannibalistically, food, as a Proustian madeleine, heaven-sent manna or industrialized meat product, to be consumed in time.

It’s only when affect is substituted for feeling, effect for cause, impression for vision, and style for intent, that disunified aesthetics become a fetish of its own. If the “point” of aleatory forms is that, at least according to set theory, formal constraints are necessary yet arbitrary, what does that bode for the new generation of conceptualist “artists”?  Deconstructing sense in order to chart a new path to knowledge, My Lorenzo and the numerological traditions (Oulipo, Kabbalist, Gnostic) of which it is heir, bears testament to the fruits of a strangely familiar tree: vision of the beginning in the end, not as apparition, but something already there: “if I were you i’d stop/ your eyes if you rub them a tad like that too much scold/ the moms will redden then blazon with tears at the limit/ you will see blurry your eye will swell the truth you’ll see.”  So what if the body and natural law is the limit-case, the end-stop, beyond which there is no reality, except inexistence (hell)? In Smirou’s broken music, transliterated through Zawacki’s perfectly-tuned ear, this ocean wall becomes a blessing and meter (rhythm and rhyme) a ballast:  a pulsional, flawed body, textual, newly arisen, and of flesh, which we can caress, speak tenderly to, or if seen as abject object, against which we can hurl our own.

About the Reviewer

Virginia Konchan is the author of Vox Populi (forthcoming, Finishing Line Press). Her poems have appeared in The New Yorker, Best New Poets, The Believer, The New Republic, and Verse, and her essays and criticism in Boston Review, The Conversant, and Jacket2, among other places. Co-founder of Matter, a journal of poetry and political commentary, she lives in Montreal.