Sunday, July 20, 2008



Open Box (Improvisations) by Carla Harryman
(Belladonna Books, Brooklyn, 2007)

Carla Harryman’s Open Box is a meditation-in-process on the possibility of a poetry available to cultural, social and political critique that does not unwittingly reinscribe the political, social and cultural formations (textual and otherwise) against which it is posed. Because Harryman wants to preserve a “place,” if not “places,” for an aesthetic and procedure resistant to reification, she deploys improvisation as writing, as textual practices open to the future and, more ambitiously, to the past, to the written. Since this must include Harryman’s own written, even in this very book, the provisional is privileged over and against the dogmatic. Therefore the poetics enacted here are “Neither efficacious nor harmful/ Something wanted here/ A decision/ With the option of turning back or resting between.” (10) This apparent anti-narrative stance is, must be, just that: apparent. Though the forward-pull of normative reading habits narrativize even that which resists it, Harryman too, as reader and writer, narrates at certain moments:
The psyche of the poet
Exceeds the poem
Without the poem

Into an exterior world
In which it cannot survive
The poem is therefore
A representation of an edge

In other world
Not this

The forward-pull of narrative is elsewhere resisted by the self-reflexive play of language at the lexical and stanza levels. Here, however, narrativity dominates precisely as meaning, as an unavoidable metaphysical gesture signaled by the presence of the soul (psyche). For Harryman, each word, each line, each stanza (each “room”), is both node and network, closed and opened box. This box, a kitchen in motion (“Kitchen/ Is a fluid, then later”), processes language (a poem then is always already “cooked,” avatars of the “raw” notwithstanding), makes, forges, an artifice. Its resemblance to the language of ordinary life tempts absolute conflation (a poetics which reifies the quotidian as an intrinsic good) or absolute separation (e.g., New Formalism). Harryman emphasizes that “between,” the poem as not an edge per se (and hence not the box—the poem is generated by performance; it must be spoken or read), not language per se. It is a “representation of an edge,” of a language. Boxed in by author and reader, printed text and performed text, the poem exists “between.”

The political and cultural consequences of these distinctions and open-at-both-ends writing are significant. Avoiding metaphor, symbol and allegory (though my reading, as a critical practice, does not), Harryman draws analogies, analogies which are necessary but insufficient in themselves for metaphoric-symbolic moments of transcendence. Thus crowds, poetic movements (like Language Poetry), psyches, coalesce and disperse, come together and drift apart. Like the box that opens and closes (one needs to “read” these poems as flash texts at the online journal mark(s) to get a sense of the multi-dimensional movements Harryman sets into motion), Harryman’s poetry is an analogue to its very “subject matter”; the in-and-out movement enacted at every level here might lead us to the temptation of organicism, but “the poem does not inflate/ Lungs do.” (7) This respect for an alterity irreducible except by violent yanking (write this Yankee) not only has biological, cultural and political consequences but, as noted at the outset, must turn back upon itself, must respect its own difference from itself. Whatever or whose ever side one takes, “Sides turned over/Sun.”


Tyrone Williams teaches literature and theory at Xavier University in Cincinnati, Ohio. He is the author of two books of poetry, c.c. (Krupskaya Books, 2002) and On Spec(Omnidawn Publishing, 2008). He also has several chapbooks out, including AAB (Slack Buddha Press, 2004), Futures, Elections (Dos Madres Press, 2004)and Musique Noir (Overhere Press, 2006). Recent poems are in or forthcoming from Critiphoria, Laurel Review and The Nation. He is currently writing a book of poems for the innovative writing press, Atelos Books.

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