Loads of Learned Lumber

Monday, April 22, 2013

Jon Woodward, _Uncanny Valley_

WOODWARD'S PREVIOUS BOOK, Rain (2006), is an outstanding contemporary example of how very precise, even sui generis formal constraints  can generate poetry that feels spontaneous and emotionally urgent. His 2012 book, Uncanny Valley, does not superficially have much in common with Rain, save in the vital respects that it too is willing to explore new formal resources and that it too packs  an emotional wallop.

The title poem, for instance, includes couplets, marked by a vertical line, that "Are repeated (as a pair) / As many times as the reader desires, / From zero to 255, before continuing." This reader settled for one repetition, occasionally two, but even taking so little advantage of my opportunity as that made a discernible difference. The looping effect sometimes generated a little anxiety, as in Maya Deren's Meshes of the Afternoon, but other times led to a peculiar meditative calm; similarly, the images, which seem to involve a car accident on a desert highway, sometimes felt painfully immediate, sometimes far away.

It turns out that "Uncanny Valley" is also the text (libretto?) for a musical composition by John Gibson, for piano and electronics, which Woodward and poet/pianist Oni Buchanan have been performing around the country lately. For the curious:

Part 1

Part 2

In a musical setting, the looping had a Steve Reich-like effect, as in Different Trains or The Cave, balanced on much the same tipping point between reassuring and disturbing.

"Unhappy Valley" is the most striking thing in the book, but it's in excellent company. "Huge Dragonflies" uses the repetition device but in a more determinate way; "Heard, Half-Awake, August 14, 2009" not only brings in the possibility of leaving the number of repetitions up to the reader, but also experiments with slight garbling of a line's phonemes, a trick that reappears in "Uncanny Valley," a bit of ostranenie that turns presumably ordinary phrases into transmissions from a remote galaxy.

The book's other long-ish poem, "Priscilla Lioness," has some traits in common with "Uncanny Valley"--lions, for one thing (a section about lions mysteriously inserts itself in "Valley"), opportunities for readerly participation (Jorie Graham/Mad Libs style blanks, some already filled in), and above all the atmosphere of sun-drenched catastrophe, pity and fear kept at arm's length but pushing back hard.

It may be that my favorite poem in the book, though, is the short and strange "Between Identical Cities (A Reminder)," which walks a line between release and containment, between being bound and being free.

1 comment:

Jon Woodward said...

Thank you, whoever you are, for the clarity and generosity of this review.