A Review of: A Fiddle Pulled from the Throat of a Sparrow by Noah Eli Gordon

CENTRAL QUESTION: Can sense and nonsense, melody and dissonance, together make a single work of art?

A Review of: A Fiddle Pulled from the Throat of a Sparrow by Noah Eli Gordon

Stephanie Burt
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It’s not true (despite Walter Pater’s quotable claim) that all art aspires to the condition of music. It is true, though, that if your art involves language—if you are, for example, a poet—and you avoid consecutive, propositional, discursive, so-called prose sense, you might want to find in music some analogies and models that explain how your art can cohere. You might seek the naturalness of wordless birdsong, or the unfolding arrangements and meaningfulness-without-representation of much “classical” orchestral music. You might even want poems with a little of both. That goal seems to explain Gordon’s title; it also describes a good deal of his book’s success.

Though Gordon is known for détournements and cutups, most of these eight sequences don’t feel like collage at all. Sometimes mournful, sometimes angry or anxious, they go out of their way to tell us that the proper comparisons for this postmodern poetry come not from new, harsh techniques but from old orchestration:“have you put away your toy internment,” the first poem asks,“turned to the first movement // where the house was empty // & the dead hair of the harpist spread on the lawn.” Gordon’s grim pun promises to revivify an art as he investigates its demise.

All eight sequences can sound chaotic, “pretty transitive, aleatoric” (like art that incorporates chance). Just as often, though, they sound symphonic, with lines that remind us to listen in order to hear: “Bent notes keep the wolves at bay, / fallen petals mistaken for a fuse.” Gordon maintains unusual contrast between the legato of individual phrases—conventionally beautiful, flaunting their images, almost lush—and the discordant, heap-of-shards organization at the levels of page, series, poem. It’s a contrast familiar from Michael Palmer,but Gordon lacks Palmer’s obsessional repetitions: at the younger poet’s best, each title announces a new event.

Those events come off as hyperalert, youthful, hip—one-third Palmer, and one-third Bright Eyes: “begin with a boy on a park bench practicing adult exuberance / & end as the ear disallows.” Late in the book non-naturalistic theater, abstract drawing (a suite in homage to Cy Twombly), German Romantic visionary writing (Novalis), and even Rorshach blots (“the inky shape / of astonishment arresting our attention”) join orchestral music as bright models for what Gordon says he is doing.

Gordon shares older experimenters’ idea that nonconsecutive, nondiscursive poetry should feel not only like music or abstract art but also like archaeology, a piecing together of incomplete terms that suggest alternatives to common reason and to market-based society:“an alphabet of palm-worn tools, a fistful of permanence,” “human nouns what the nucleus of commerce won’t replicate.” Such work can be oxymoronic or paradoxical, since we comprehend it, like it or not, through our English-speaking, reason-seeking, value-assessing minds. If interpretation is violation, then we are always violating what we see and hear: “details solidify with each retelling / but someone coughs and the theater caves in.”Though Gordon titles one poem “An exact comprehension of the composer’s intent,” it would be useless to ask for such a thing, or to judge the poems by their ideas.We might ask instead what arcs, gestures, analogies, and suggestions Gordon makes with the words he puts into play, what he can do (in the words of that selfsame poem) to make “the worldliness, wordless,” to establish “a measure of sound or movement to song.”

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