Jim Leftwich

A Parallel Poem: (to) Erica Baum's The Point

Erica Baum: The Point

Clark Coolidge, from Arrangement (1977): "To explicate a poem seems to me to be nearly impossible, but I've seen in done once by John Ashbery in an incredible way. I'll tell you about it, but I don't presume to be able to do it. We'll see. He was on a panel discussion at Columbia in the mid-sixties and they had mimeographed copies of his poem Landscape, which is in The Tennis Court Oath and has incredible lines in it like "the bartender examined the lumps" and "the ladder failed" and things like that. And somebody said—everybody in the audience had a mimeographed copy of this—"Well, what does this mean?" So he took each line and he erected another line from it. In talking about it he created in the air a parallel poem, which was just as fantastic—in my memory of it at least, of the time—as the original poem. But it was a different poem, and he was giving people an example of the artist making up the work right there. I still can't believe it. But he did it, I'm here to tell you."

From a series of folded texts/poems. Each poem is a square. In each one there is a text written left-to-right, top-to-bottom, and another text, folded, cut diagonally, which reads top-to-bottom, right-to-left. The arrangement offers a couple of reading options, and it serves as a guide for us as we make our decisions during a reading.

The first line reads "there will be no" and ends at the beginning of the folded text. The folded text begins with the letter "w", sideways at the end of the line just quoted. The entire first line of the folded texts reads "is in my mouth." So, "there will be no w" or "there will be now" — "in my mouth."

The second line reads "not to finish" and ends at the beginning of the second folded line, "ended. I am." Thus, "not to finish ended. I am."

So far we have:

there will be now in my mouth.
not to finish ended. I am.

Be here now, as speech, or song, ongoing, an identity in process and duration.

The third line begins "the point" and ends with the folded "there one."
The fourth line begins "long as" and ends with the folded "I knew."
The fifth line begins "know" and ends "wise."
The last line begins with "it" and ends with "nd."

there will be now in my mouth.
not to finish ended. I am.
the point? there one
long as I knew
know wise
it nd

The visual poem is reminded of its origin (mythological) in the oral tradition, present in the moment — the now is in the mouth — the noun is in the hand and/or underfoot, from Homer to the troubadours to Bob Dylan, wandering and singing poems. This is where we are, but it does not / cannot end here. Not this, not that. Not here, not there. "Not to finish ended" is a perfectly clear assertion of how the open poem (text) (song) takes to the open road (as origin myth) and leaves no stone unturned: each poem finishes at a set of new starting-points. Where to go, what to do, when every ending is also a beginning. (At this point the "I am" reminds us inescapably of the Biblical I AM: "I am. / the point?" Yes, you as I, the creator, writer into reader and reader as writer, writ large or small, point blank — filling the experiential emptiness with the existential self, or emptying a part of what was before the existence of any IS, as in the Kabbalist concept of tsimtsum...) The point? Of course the point is a question. What's the point? The first point is to get you, the reader, to ask that question. First point, best point. The second point (or as Howlin' Wolf would have it: "if I had listened to my second mind" — the second mind being the mind that watches the first mind as it works, questions its conclusions and exposes its agendas) is to ask you to accept that question as its own answer. But the question "the point?" is only the first half of the line, which in its entirety reads "the point? there one" — and, enjambed, reads "the point? there one / long as I knew" — to the end of the poem: "the point? there one / long as I knew / know wise / it [a]nd." What again, is the point, other than the attentive being-here-now expressed as the question presented more than posed? It is the extension of that special attention, from the page into the world: take it from the (unstitched and re-stitched) sentence, and take it to the streets. Where we will be is in and with any given "it" — the duration of that "will be" "[as] long as" — as long as I knew, from that particular past, knew leading up to now, to know — we can see here what is "new" morph into what is "now" ... the "w" of the "know" broken, cut, at the crease of the fold, so it turns, the cut "w" turns, and turns into the initial "w" of "wise" — "know and "wise" becoming one — "there one" — followed by "it" and its cut "[a]nd" — an "and" we could, in any other context, also read as "end."


(Image courtesy of Erica Baum and Bureau, New York.)

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