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Novel Pictorial Noise (National Poetry Series) Paperback – September 18, 2007
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From Publishers Weekly
Starred Review. The prolific Gordon here takes his cues from Ashbery—who picked this collection for the National Poetry Series—but also from poets ranging from Rilke to Peter Gizzi. In alternating pages of prose and spare verse lines, he plays freely in the realm between theory and lyric: Sculpture seeks articulation of the air around it. Thus, a heron thrusting overhead mutes modernism. Each of the 50 one-paragraph prose poems starts with a proposition and then attempts to both follow through on its initial lunge and also force the reader off the most obvious trails of thought, usually by tossing in a few surprises: an Ajax bottle, Alice Neel, a dab of wisteria and a strip of duct tape make appearances in two lines of one poem. Gordon closes each poem with an artfully clumsy rhyming couplet—One packs in what one can, as the real point of art is the subtle reiteration of the is, ain't it? The way I see it, we're all partially tainted—alternately lending irony and vulnerability. While this is a difficult book steeped in canonical and postmodern poetic traditions—meaning it won't appeal to everyone—it's packed with thrills and discoveries that might engender some discussion. (Sept.)
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Noah Eli Gordon's poems take the form of jotted notes in an artist's notebook (I was reminded in particular of Odilon Redon's). Each day one begins anew to weave the web, having moved a step forward (or sometimes backward) since yesterday's attempt. Thus each prose bloc, modified or modulated by the ghostly fragments that interleave them, sharpens the focus by which he "attempt[s] via the unknown to give grammar a purpose." The effort in itself is its own reward, and a prodigal one.
"what Gordon has done is nothing less than to make simultaneously visible and audible the spark within all metaphor: The pages literally confront you with material that does not belong together, forcing you to find new connections, and even to discern possible alternate fragments that could be explored.There's a crazed bidirectional temporality at work:Words and phrases from paragraphs you've not yet read coruscate through the one you're currently reading, yielding an impossible exploding of language that seems to come-simultaneously in anticipation and in retrospect-from the future."
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The above is representative of what's in Novel Pictoria Noise. If you enjoy trying to decipher what this means, great you will love the book. If you want to read something that means something . . . well, not so much.
With the way I read (which involves starting numerous books at once, and finishing them at leisure), I often find myself involved in happy accidents that beg comparison. The most recent example: I started Ben Lerner's Angle of Yaw and Noah Eli Gordon's Novel Pictorial Noise on the same day without realizing that both were collections of "prose poems" (a term I still despise, even in those rare times when it's accurate) that dabbled both in dadaism and social consciousness. Because of this, I can't help but compare the two. And my comparison came out the same as everyone else's I guess. I saw Angle of Yaw on a lot of best-of-the-decade lists. I didn't see Novel Pictorial Noise on any.
This isn't to say there aren't some great lines in here. (I snagged one for my review of Speed Racer [q.v.], and my favorite piece of the book, "composition of noise A thought is music is concept", is eventually going to become an XTerminal track title.) And I am willing to at least consider the idea that I felt about the book the way I did because I'm an utter dolt who is incapable of penetrating the depths of Gordon's thought processes to see what Rae Armantrout does in her blurb ("Gordon's dark portrayal of what we've come to circa 2007"), or Anselm Berrigan in his ("When the poet says, 'perhaps unreliability is the locus of representation,' he's not trying to club you with irony; he's trying to figure out how the whole shebang, the big picture, hangs together."). But before you clobber me over the head for just simply not getting this, remember that I cut my poetic teeth on the dadas and the surrealists, back in the day. I'm used to reading stuff that sounds like nonsense and having it make connections in my head. I've been doing it since I first read Apollinaire and Reverdy back in the early eighties, and I've done it as recently as Timothy Donnelly's scintillating Twenty-Seven Props for a Production of Eine Lebenszeit, one of my favorite books of 2005. So, yeah, a lot of the time I do get it. But here? Nope. Not at all. It's clever, and some of it is enjoyable, but I can't find a foundation to it. And Gordon seems to want to substitute wordplay for sound here, which alienates me. I'm a fan of wordplay, but one of the things that separates poetry from (most) prose is that poetry's main feature is to sound good. If it's clever in the process, that's great, but cleverness shouldn't ever be at the forefront as it is here. Sound is left by the wayside.
I know I probably shouldn't compare books when reviewing them, but I can't help it; Angle of Yaw and Novel Pictorial Noise both start out on almost the same footing, and Angle of Yaw wins every head-to-head match-up. I certainly don't regret reading this (as I do, say, Mina's In My Eyes, reviewed last month), but it's not something I'll return to any time soon. **