ELEMENTAL SONG, by Roberto Harrison
Answer Tag Home Press, 2006
Review by Alan Davies
Roberto Harrison has written a deliciously spare book, a poem in tercets. I’m a sucker for tercets. It seems that almost everything can be done with them – and it’s not Dante (little of which I’ve read) – nor is it alone the last stanzas of a sonnet (though controlling them well is a mastery beyond compare). Perhaps it has to do with Aristotelian logic – with its inimitable syllogism – which Aristotle described as – a discourse in which, certain things having been supposed, something different from the things supposed results of necessity because these things are so – making of it no less a contrivance than any other (of course) – but one which is almost hard to grasp (especially repeatedly) particularly because of its (unrepeatable) simplicity. The logical progression – a slightly more contrived version of the if A and B then C type – is not strictly available as a contingency to poetry. It isn’t necessary – poetry proceeds by and within (or without (without (without))) other bounds. But something of the structure survives in the poetic tercet – and certainly all (all) of the potential for its simplicity. We all know – especially those of us who’ve milked cows – that a three-legged stool is more stable (more controllable (more able of control)) than a four-legged one (perhaps because that one is too much like the cow – I don’t know). Anyway – there is something essentially graspable about the tercet – and something that says that it is just complete enough. Couplets are ok – but they can be as sloppy as prose poetry often is (at the other end (when we think of ends)). A tercet always saves itself just in time – and its meaning (its energy (its energy)) with it. It’s also amiable – two friends – shaking hands (see what I mean? – such that there is one hand). It’s always adequate – most often more than merely so.
But still they are difficult to control – perhaps because they have the potential to be so still. Is that all? It’s not always easy to be there – among those three lines – as capable of closing as of opening as a hinge (or as wings). They can – they always – take us. But where?
We can only know what we haven’t done.
Roberto throws images to the wind. And that is where they stay. Kept still by tercets that way. See what I mean? – mean to say?
There’s something about this poem that makes it fill the time of its writing – of its absorption – as if it were obeying another Aristotelian injunction – the one about unity of time and place. This is a poem remember – but there is about it the suggestion that its writing is consistent with that injunction – that the poem doesn’t exceed the bounds of the time and place of its writing – that it doesn’t take that (other) kind of advantage.
It’s not kicking up space. It’s laying into it – furrow after furrow after furrow. Space. Furrow after furrow after furrow. Space. Just in case.
From the beginning – a shadow scraped, the negative / is answers – defines in a way how the poem will progress. It scrapes itself for its own implicit or latent meaning(s). Meaning has been impressed into this poem like watermarks (the paperable kind). Which might be (too) the marks water leaves on wharf or rock – the dear impress of time and motion over all our obdurate lives (that (that) quickening). That will to survive. This poem is (in that way) an ecological gesture – an insistence that the elements sing. They do – and here they do.
Not a word is left out. Which means no compromise. Which is the linguistic moment (the ecological intact).
is not what a question is, the reply has
Reverse that – and we understand that – the reply has / is not what a question is – ie that our effort to conflate the two into further meaning is the question of that meaning (the constant question of that meaning). And so it should be.
This poem has density – is incondensable – never will be. It’s best like that – the impacted fact of the (perhaps sad) truth of its own imminence. That is it (perhaps) paralyzed at such fact. But it does not fail – in no sense does it do that. It – is – the – fact. as time’s single eye
You can’t come unstuck from great verse.
to the inside dust, in the corn
that beads out with horses
for rain, for a marriage
in the rising flood, for night
to pulse the headlines
that a rate, a forest, each miniscule
ash, that a hand
in easter, for the rain can give
Why to coins? Who cares? The horses are (are (the horses are)) there.
Nothing is as charming as today.
May it stay that way.
There are resonances that reflect the passion of the poem. Words that repeat words – sometimes as changelings (as it is). They make the music of the thing torque into what is – a passion is such an inflected thing. May it stay that way.
Again – to speak of the moment being the moment – and the ongoing moment being this – we can say that we can absolutely feel (feel) Roberto writing this. He brings us in there with him – into that. If we only listen.
The images stumble against one another – but not in the way they might in surrealism – rather in the way they might in life. This is not – what? – but it’s not that. This is the willed moment of a fact. And that fact is insistent. On that.
It’s a sure sign that it’s worth it because you can take a chunk out of it and that can be that (that) poem –
that has to a real engine that is
gone to a host, the web is
the settled that no one makes
in each that a moon increases to it
to the mile high sign
that a spoon that makes time in a picture
and to the radial that has its own in the ice
gone to it, to the seeping that has
in the gone that a super has to know
in the door, in the increasing cloud that points
in the gone together
to the wrong in the wrong in the right
And that the wrong in the wrong is (is) the right – ie that there’s realization (wisdom) in this – to have kept it going all these years. This is just an example.
In a sequence of stanzas Roberto equates the tone with the face – and indeed the tones are the face of the poem – the ways it confronts the world. And in this case – with grace (a new obsession of mine).
A tercet is like a staple with a wedge between it – and the wedge is the poem.