Monday, March 11, 2013

Charles Alexander's Pushing Water

Charles Alexander has been working on the Pushing Water poem sequence since 1997, and now, we finally have the full collection available in one volume from Cuneiform Press, available since September 2011. During a recent poetry reading at Casa Libre en Solana in November, Alexander said that Pushing Water arose from a vision he was given of a hand pushing through water, leaving its imprint in its wake. The image of pushing water occurs again and again in the book, as in this snippet of the 51st section of the poem:

and when the cat bird sings
I have another voice
or two or three and they
sound like water flowing over
a ledge
a thin wall a screen of water
flowing and I push my hand
through, as they say,
to get to the other side (171)

This is not the transparent poetry of William Carlos Williams, his red wheelbarrow and plums in the icebox. Pushing Water is language poetry at its finest. This is a meandering, dream-like journey as we listen to many voices and try to “get to the other side.” In this collection, the poet is continually altering his environment. What is metaphor, simile, and any foray into language, but an effort to transform one thing into another; to take what exists and mold it into something completely different; to finally have control over something, since so many things are out of our control?

Pushing Water is perfect for the pursuer of language poetry, a school of poetry originating in the 1970’s, where the meaning of a poem becomes secondary to its language. The reader is encouraged to take an active role in the work, constructing his or her own interpretations of the text. “The mere shapes and patterns/ of things” become the real joy in this collection, as the reader is carried along, becomes “a guest of the poem/and made place rapture.”It is important to note here that new level of understanding is achieved when we hear Alexander read his work aloud. The listener is able to engage in the work in a way which is more difficult when reading the work alone. Hearing Alexander’s inflections and linguistic stresses allows the listener to truly become a “guest of the poem” (69, 50).

Along with language poetry, there are also echoes of Frank O’Hara’s personism. In his manifesto on the subject, O’Hara says that as a writer, you must “…go on your nerve…you have to take your chances and try to avoid being logical. Pain always produces logic, which is very bad for you.” Pushing Water is certainly a text which often lacks in logic and “goes on its nerve” more often than not. O’Hara also stresses the importance of relationships in relation to poetry. In describing the origins of personism, O’Hara said that he was going to write a poem for someone, but then, he realized that he may as well just call that person on the telephone. Indeed, Alexander’s book is a dialog with other poets and artists, both dead and living; both known and unknown to the poet , including, but not limited to, Robert Creeley, Mei Mei Berssenbrugge, Emily Dickinson, Rae Armantrout, H.D., David Jones, Thomas Wyatt, Walter Ralgeh, and Alexander’s wife, the painter, Cynthia Miller. Alexander’s poetry reminds us that worthwhile art is not about following certain rules; art is not about upholding a pretentious loyalty to an artificial audience. Alexander’s book is about taking chances, trusting our intuition, and finally, art is about the formation and preservation of relationships. As the poet claims in section 50:

in the dream was possibility
of creating the world again
the only way was to lift
everything up and undergo
a mingling of molecules so that
all objects knew all other objects
each was a part of each and
person as well love is form
love is mingling of form” (164)

Pushing Water is a book that dwells in possibilities that Emily Dickinson would appreciate. Alexander tells a slanted truth. Each line is a tiny riddle that one can puzzle over and meditate on for days at a time. In this way, Pushing Water is truly a never-ending work. As the poet affirms in section 37:

when the poem can not
end because it’s never
been clear what it means to
rest in its own unfolding
and so it unfolds or perhaps
folds like a field of vibrations (108)

***This review can also be found at Gently Read Literature

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