Academic journal article Chicago Review

Dialectrics; or, Turmoil & Contradiction: A Reading of J. H. Prynne's Kazoo Dreamboats

Academic journal article Chicago Review

Dialectrics; or, Turmoil & Contradiction: A Reading of J. H. Prynne's Kazoo Dreamboats

Article excerpt

The unpretentious thing evades thought most stubbornly. Or can it be that this self-refusal of the mere thing, this self-contained independence, belongs precisely to the nature of the thing?

--Martin Heidegger, "The Origin of the Work of Art" (1)

The concept of resistance may provide an alternative criterion of intelligibility; one which does not undermine the "presence, actuality, and existence" of an object or person, but which makes accessible the fact of its existence without impairing its status as a substantial, independent entity.

--J. H. Prynne, "Resistance and Difficulty" (2)

1. Desceuvrement

Perhaps the first thing one might say about J. H. Prynne's recent Kazoo Dream boats; or, On What There Is, is that its absence of line breaks marks a new departure:

   Along the corridor of near frequency I saw willing
  and discrete the season not yet for sorrow advanced,
  nearby not yet even so inference to claim. 

There are, to be sure, two prose pieces that Prynne collected in Poems: "A Note on Metal" (1968), and "The Plant Time Manifold Transcripts" (c. 1973). (3) And Kazoo's way of putting words together continues the paratactic procedures of Prynne's later poetry. (4) But when paragraphs replace pentameters the force of disjunction seems all the more powerful:

   We'll make folly in pledge to stem-division as decisive
  for cut to cut across narrows, passage throat offensive
  in try once only or by defiance vectors, filmic particle
  mist degraded nor yet conjugate in mission. Always desired
  by zero option wide-eyed node employ cloud droplets en
  masse phantasmal, near in to scar friable distinct
  cash-back nexus, on the plate. What's to be got
  contagious dendrite hit conductance ran fast even
  flash-like, punished in stupid glory by ever the
  same to say. (My emphasis on "dendrite") 

For the record: in the subatomic world the term "dendrite" refers to the frazzled branches of a neuron, comparable perhaps to the frazzled lines of this passage--except that dendrites are "contagious": they conduct electricity ("fast even flash-like") in variable directions, whereas parataxis is the trope of interruption: "passage throat offensive in try once only."

We might call Kazoo Dreamboats a "poem in prose," or maybe a work that is neither "poetical" nor discursive but "nongeneric." (5) The French often speak simply of recriture: writing that is neutral with respect to concepts, categories, and distinctions. I'm reminded of Maurice Blanchot's term for the fragmentary assembly: desceuvrement (worklessness), "an arrangement that does not compose but juxtaposes, that is to say, leaves each of the terms that come into relation outside one another, respecting and preserving this exteriority and this distance as the principle--always already undercut--of all signification." (6)

2. Fair Fields of Turbulence

However, call the thing what you will, the important question is not aesthetic (What is it?) but philological: How might one read it? Some purchase on this question may be gained from the fact that Kazoo is, whatever else it is, a work of citations--and it is so even more abundantly than are many of Prynne's other poems, which frequently ring with the echoes and epigraphs of a polymath's library. (7) Not only are the numerous quotations set off from the main text by scare quotes and indentations, but also we are given at poem's end a list of "Reference Cues" that help to identify its chief formal antecedent--William Langland's Piers Plowman--as well as the philosophical and scientific concepts that regulate the poem's progress, if one can call it that. For arguably, as the subtitle suggests, Kazoo Dreamboats is a work of metaphysics in which what the "I" of the poem sees is no longer "a fair field full of folk" but a variable series of force fields (electromagnetic, linguistic, and even musical) whose patterns and elements follow models of chaos and complexity rather than any principle of linearity or noncontradiction. …

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