U of T Quarterly, 2008
In her recent collection, AVATAR, Sharon Harris offers the following recommendation ‘For Reviewers’:
There is a very simple method for distinguishing a good poem from a bad one without hurting anyone’s feelings. Rotate the poem in question on a plate, and the true masterpiece will spin in the mind for eons. If its form and content are uniformly distributed and mostly pure, then it will stay upright like a top.
The contradictions within a lesser work prevent this. Since the form and content are likely warring, these opposing forces create a sense of inertia. Thus the poem falls flat and doesn’t stand up to the force of reviewing.
Harris isn’t just trying to put a fresh spin on the reviewer’s business here; she’s agitating for wholesale revolution. Her method eliminates the vagaries of personal taste and individual knowledge that inform any review; in fact, it pretty much eliminates the reviewer. For some, this may not be much of a loss. And there would be gain, of course – the resulting judgments would have an irrefutable objectivity, a near-pontifical infallibility. So it is with regret and relief that I confess to having encountered Harris’s recommendations at a late stage in this review – too late for me to apply them to the books under consideration and still meet my deadline. Readers who proceed beyond this point will have to put up with my own idiosyncrasies of taste, sensibility, and ideology. But there is a more positive side to this situation. The idea of a wholly objective scale of aesthetic judgment is, after all, a bit terrifying; I’m not certain that I would want any of my own work (this review included) to be assessed according to such principles. the poets of 2006, then, may well breathe a collective sigh of relief, since any disagreeableness in the following pages may safely be ascribed to the idiosyncrasies of my own taste, sensibility, knowledge, ideology, and so on.
But of course I don’t intend to be disagreeable. I come to praise our poets, not to bury them. And I want first to praise some poets who published their debut collections in 2006 (Harris’s AVATAR is one of them, and I will return to it a little later).
As I’ve already suggested, Sharon Harris’s AVATAR set my mind spinning. This is a mixed-media book. A sequence of ‘Figures’ labelled A-Z is interspersed among the poems, and some of the individual drawings are similarly mixed – they often confound the distinction between verbal and visual art forms as, for example, the phrase ‘I LOVE YOU’ forms itself out of and disappears into a series of abstract, geometric shapes. Harris has been influenced by ‘L=A=N=G=U=A=G=E’ poetics, but also has a distinctly Romantic sensibility and, as her title suggests, has absorbed a fair amount of Eastern philosophy and mysticism; among the ‘L=A=N=G=U=A=G=E’ group she seems closest, perhaps, to Susan Howe. The poems and visual works of the book’s ‘Virus’ sequence raise questions about how words, thoughts, and emotions interact and replicate themselves throughout the cultural sphere; these pieces show an ironic awareness of the infinite iterability and impersonality of the most supposedly personal of statements – ‘I love you.’ But there is something other than a purely ironic sensibility at work here; playing with the phrase’s reproducibility in various media and technologies – photographs, billboard lettering, handwriting, graffiti, programming language – Harris also testifies to its durability. The phrase, in other words, is simultaneously ironized and celebrated, and this doubleness is in keeping with Harris’s acknowledgement, in a rather programmatic piece at the end of the book, that ‘Even my beloved I Love You – which I think is the most useful sentence in our language and closest to truth – is a lie.’ Harris’s deformations and ironizations of language, then, are undertaken in the name of a truth beyond language, a belief that ‘body talk is more dependable than words,’ that ‘Love opens you to new ways of communicating that require less words.’ Some of the more programmatic material, though, tends towards sentimentality (Harris forgets that bodies can also speak in unpleasant and violent ways – they can even lie, too). It was the prose pieces of ‘Fun W/ ’Pataphysics’ that I enjoyed most in this volume, and the first of the series, ‘Where Do Poems Come From?’ helps me to explain why. To answer the titular question, Harris insists, you need only ‘Moisten your finger and hold it straight up in the air. You will notice at once that one side of the finger is cold. This is the direction from which the poem is coming.’ This is an amusing take on the idea of inspiration, on that ‘blessing’ in Wordsworth’s ‘gentle breeze’; but it fits nicely with Harris’s sense of the non-verbal source of poetry and of the value of the extra-linguistic realm. There is just a hint of something unsettling or mysterious, too, in the coldness of that finger, in the sense that the poem is not under the writer’s (or reader’s) control. The whole sequence is a nice bit of serio ludere.