Tuesday, December 16, 2008

Sasha Steensen, THE METHOD: Palimsest of Poetry over a Dream of History

"BUT THERE IS ANOTHER METHOD" Olive Schreiner Quoted at the beginning of Barryman's 77 Dream Songs.

THE METHOD, Sasha Steensen. Fence Books, 2008

From the book jacket: "The Method is a manuscript of theorems and proofs written and diagrammed by the mathematician Archimedes in Syracuse around 250 BC."

A book lost, found, written over by prayers and bills of lading, stolen leaves transported to Cambridge, auctioned at Chirstie's, a journey become a dream palimpsest by Sasha Steensen. Read in a single gulp this morning from which I pulled myself free as reluctantly as from my morning dreams of a few hours earlier. Found yesterday at Robins lying on the table in the back where books of poetry are shelved, this is poetry that makes me wish there were no need in my life for anything but reading poetry.
road, come pass
with me terrors
by the side
of seas & easterlies

She dug the box
out of the closet.
She stuffed the baby's clothes
with rags
until a body
like a scarecrow's
filled the clothes.
She placed the body
in the bed
beside her.

And so it begins. The Method is at once Archimedes refusing to give up work on his theorems even as the Roman soldiers arrive with drawn swords to kill him, the manuscript lost and found, the voice of the poet, of poetry, of death and remembrance. By the third poem I heard Berryman's Henry and on page 53, there he was, lines quoted from the first of the 77 Dreamsongs.

If you had never seen a second snow
in Baltimore or Minneapolis, what matter, really
marveled Method,
scratching himself slowly in solemn spots.
You joined thought with thought thought outwent
measly Method to live on

rotten and stinking up the world's libraries.
O joyous departures fumbling in the trees,
coming emptily.
It wasn't the thought they thought they could
do it, was it,
out with it:

what was it, then, got under your pelt?
As you say, we suffer on, a day, a day, a day.
The weather's bad,
the sun much worse, yet Method jobs,
pays bills, banters, winks, shits, and sleeps
while your ghost limps comelier away.

Quite a lot of Barryman, it turns out--Barryman with a greatly expanded menu of forms: the middle of the book, a series of prose poems. THE PROPERTY OF A DECEASED'S ESTATE is a literal (and for once I can use the word literal , literaly) palimsest: lines overlapping. There is a PANTOUM that does a striptease, shedding words in repeated lines as it progresses.

Bones had slipped by half noticed ten pages earlier (ME, THEE ODES).

There are 44 poems in the book --no "collection," but a single long poem in 44 parts suffused and bound together as the fragments of a dream defy either division or coherence: read these two...


Every little whale-thought waits
awhile, then dives deeper
into sleep.

Once awake, blowing hard
for air, The Method dunno
what he saw

Ganging to remember
how he ate stars
how his liver escaped out his anus
and the sun rose through his genitals
or, how his eyebrows,
the two parents, or two sons, or two partners,
or two spouses
or two handmaids, or two proxies

became bushy and beautiful, then fell out

Only now,
beached on Cape,
driftwood stuck and nudged
into each side
by curious vacationers
does he know how every object
that looks like an object
will be destroyed


By heaven, and by the nightly visitant!
Would that you knew what the nightly visitant is.
It is the star of piercing brightness.

As the Method mulls this over, his bed coverings shift.
Someone slips in beside him, silently.
Someone sets a hand over his mouth, softly.
Someone lifts his teddy bear from his grip, gently.

At the Baltimore museum, the Method had met an exhibit of holy-mouthed men
set upon a bundle of hog hairs.
Had they tracked him here to bristle him in his bed, he asked Allah.

They scheme against you: but I too have My schemes.
Therefore, bear with the unbelievers, and let them be awhile.

I copied out lines. I poured over this book, page after page, but I cannot quote lines apart from the poems that contain them--it's enough to tear the poems--like the stolen leaf from Archimedes' manuscript--from the book itself, which simply must be read as a whole. Steenson's poems are at once gentle, aching with longing--and torn by violence, from the murder of Archimedes to Abu Ghraib:


from his corner
the Method sees
the methods
of torture:

if there had been a hanging machine
or quartering
had there been the stake and wheel
the gallows
beating detainees with broom handles and chairs
military dogs
bed of nails
if there had been sodomizing with chemical lights
or steam machines
if there was a network of gazes
a ball and chain
a scaffold
or photographs
of smiling guards
pointing to penises

(the other option was to take eastern Islam from the rear)
I take courage and flee,
carry it carefully
in my pants
& under my hat
spotted pards
sing a song

& it's like looking
at a noise
faraway, closer.

These are poems that cannot be reduced to paraphrase, that I would violate by attempting to explain or explicate. I can only respond, and beg you to try them for yourself. Perhaps someone else can do them justice. I looked in vain for a review or mention of Steensen on Silliman's blog. Was disappointed that I missed her reading at Robins early in December. Do read them and let me know what you think.

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