Further Uplands and in More Wide-Lying Pastures: Nathan Hauke's In the Marble of Your Animal Eyes, by Derek Pollard

                Nathan Hauke’s In the Marble of Your Animal Eyes dares to be overlooked. For all of its force and forcefulness, it simply refuses to shout. That fact alone should make us take notice; all the more so once we begin to realize—and it is an awareness that seems to dawn on us only as we continue reading—the care with which the poet has constructed a choreography for each poem and for the collection as a whole. Hauke’s faith in us as readers is so unassuming, and so necessary, that Marble risks becoming “yet another” among the welter of small press publications among which it has taken its place. But we would err were we to dismiss the poems because they seem at first glance too familiar. At its best, Marble is not merely another iteration of that post L=A=N=G=U=A=G=E poetics still being played out in so many contemporary American poetry collections. Hauke builds on the tradition—or on the traditions—by setting postmodern theories of écriture and of the exercise of power and authority in conversation with the American pastoral as envisioned by Henry David Thoreau and Walt Whitman, by Charles Olson and Robert Creeley. In doing so, he gives us ample evidence for why Marble ought to register above the din. It is a poetry of strange concatenation, where allure is routinely met by refusal, and where each poem collaborates in some way against itself as it spans the page (how much like the poetry of Whitman, whose writings regularly contravene their own assertions, and whose concept of the pastoral is as urban as it is Arcadian).
                However—and perhaps this is merely the result of his knowing how unlikely all of this is when put together—there are times in Marble when Hauke approaches the poems too casually, too imprecisely, as when he puts the first poem in the collection under erasure, only to leave on the page what appears less a poem in dialogue with itself than one in draft form:1

Thinking    you should be home already.

Bark scarred from antlers or whatever

Black leaves float and fold
in a spiral

Woods are a surface too—/2 a shore or semi–transparency of glass. 
leaves   tunneled milky stars. Hammer
little blue dents of sky./3 Inky black scribbles

Weeds near the bank

Say arrowhead

My face my leaves my

                Mapping the breakdowns of language, the particular infelicities that occur in a context whose parameters are themselves always shifting, is not without its perils, and the chances of going astray are great indeed. In fact, such mishaps are common, in poems and poetry collections no less than in the theorizing about poetical operations that poets themselves have done over the past several decades. One must applaud Hauke for setting himself such a difficult task, even in those instances when the poems don’t quite bear up under the pressures to which they have been subjected, where the need to “show the work” of indeterminacy comes across as being too categorical.
                In the case of this first poem, the result is not, as it is elsewhere, a greater and more nuanced involvement with the poetical text, where the interplay between object (poem) and activity (writing) energizes our reading, but instead a mounting desire to interrogate the interrogations the graphical marks propose. What, for instance, is gained by retaining the scored words and lines here? Why the proofreader’s marks (see footnotes 2 and 3 below)? With each additional question, we find ourselves being led further away from the poem into the territories surrounding it. Unlike those instances where this displacement is sprung from what seems a more necessary overdetermination—the poem destabilizing itself through its own peculiar advances and hesitations—here it comes across as too neat, too self–conscious a gesture, leaving us to wonder why the poem has not instead been presented in the more tightly controlled “final” version the handwritten inscriptions indicate.
                Tight control, however, that long–acknowledged hallmark of poetic craft, is for Hauke suspect from the outset. It is the imposition against which his own violent, almost painterly erasures set themselves. And yet, Hauke’s violence is not brutal but oftentimes ravishing, as when he attacks his own writing in the first and final stanzas of the penultimate poem:

In the rough texture of an instant—

My grace     Voice my

Like someone thought they wanted a chair that looks like a soccer ball
Current shredding against brightness while I swim
through matte cool greens. Loose change shines
in worn blue carpet.
Caught in wrenched echoes of your most hateful voice.
You put the magnetic cow into the barn on the refrigerator
door: Moo
I was in love with all of you.
Hard to say

with branches in my coffee.

                It is important to note that the last three lines are not merely crossed out. The first has a single horizontal line drawn through it, yes; but all three are struck with bold, double–drawn lines resembling waves. This is not simply to insist on a preferred reading or to preserve the poem’s aesthetic integrity, in which case we would find ourselves circling back to those same questions that lead us away from the first poem. Rather, it is to show that the poem cannot be comfortably fixed on the page and that the expectations fulfilled by the struck lines are too much with us not to be challenged. The words beneath the marks of erasure remain visible, though, creating a depth that both interrupts (as with the first poem) and draws us into the play of available meanings. When this double movement occurs, Hauke’s poems deftly carry forward the experiments with simultaneity in the plastic arts at the turn of the twentieth century, as we see in the work of Marcel Duchamp and of Robert and Sonia Delaunay, for instance, where flat surfaces and static media are relentlessly teased toward activity.
                Because they mark a rejection of tropological convention and sentimentality where the poem can least afford it, these erasures also recuperate that looseness or undecidability that might at first appear to be a fault, making us aware of how limited and limiting a “finished” version would be. Hauke’s reluctance to square the poem’s circle may demonstrate the most provocative, if the most fraught (because of its clearly recognizable affinities), aspect of the collection—the willingness to deprive the poem of its formal coherence in favor of a reading that becomes itself a writing. Much like Emily Dickinson’s manuscript poems, which more closely resemble Choose Your Own Adventure novels than the sparse, finely wrought miniatures we know from the editorialized versions with which we are most familiar,4 most of the poems in Marble grant us multiple ways of reading, none clearly preferred. The erasures, whether extensive or of a single word, incorporate graphical “noise” into the poems. As with a sound spectrogram, this noise becomes one register of the poem’s articulation; as such, it must be read over and alongside the poem in order to make possible a full reading. Thus, optionality comes to replace le poème bien fait, and the poem on the page is able to retain, to a certain degree at least, its motility.
                Clearly, the publishers of Marble realized this, as their decision to bind the poems between covers consisting of plain Smead SuperTab folders only emphasizes the notational quality of the poems. It also frames any discussion of their presentation around notions of utility and non–utility, which is one of the tropes threaded through the collection, if somewhat obliquely. It’s a move so obvious that we might overlook it, and as such warrants our attention if not our appreciation. While covers such as these signify work or labor, especially work in progress or work to be filed away, they also recall the plain brown wrapper that we know is meant to conceal something illicit—the “package” of package liquor, for example. Additionally, they align the collection with those astonishing handmade books of the Russian Futurists. Although we may grant greater privilege in such a genealogy to contemporary literary journals such as Forklift, Ohio and With+Stand, Publication Studio has done well to emphasize the connection, as the poems in Marble derive no little amount of energy from the desire to bring writing into closer conversation with the other arts.
                But let us not get lost in “this rigor / [i]nfecting the mind,” as Kenneth Koch puts it in his poem “Fresh Air.”5 After all, the poems in Marble are not solely concerned with complicating notions of authority, of authorship, and of the parameters of the poetical text. They also engage the tradition of the pastoral—the collection’s epigraph is an intriguingly redacted definition of that word—and as such, encourage the reader in a number of sensuous pleasures, “congregation,” which is listed in the epigraph, being but one of them. Take as an example the opening lines from the collection’s third poem (15):

The sheer force of a perfectly pitched stone
shatters a streetlamp    near the tracks::::
Matter eats scratches of light
that steal into shadowy pockets of reeds near the bank

The parade of sibilants—sheer force, stone, shatters—combined with the alliteration and assonance of these lines—perfectly pitched, shatters a streetlamp, matter eats scratches—creates a musicality and a rhythm that effectively speeds the poem over and down the page. While this quick tempo underscores the expressionism of the graphical interventions (form, as we have seen, is necessarily content throughout), it also directs our attention to another aspect of the poem’s operations, projectivity, the body’s speaking and reading set in conversation with the poem’s theoretical provocations. What results from this admixture often verges on the uncanny. “Matter eats scratches of light,” for instance; what does this mean? It seems familiar enough—we recognize the objects matter and light—but everything is at a slant. Matter is personified, and light is somehow split into scratches, which are ingested, cannibalistically, by matter. The staccato rhythm, the push and pull of the line’s music, only adds to our uneasy titillation. 
Assonance creates a slight drag in the vocalization of “matter” and “scratches,” slowing the pace briefly around the more piercing and abrupt “eats” before pushing the phrase “of light” toward line’s end, where it must fall in order to complete the clause. The preponderance of hard stresses, eased only slightly by the pauses indicated by unaccented syllables, physical space between words, and idiosyncratic punctuation, jangles the eye, ear, and voice together. Yet, the discomforts that arise only buoy our pleasure in a projectivity that is, literally at times, breathtaking. Much to its credit, Marble is rife with such instances of jouissance as this.
                If you are interested in poetry that both floats and stings, that teases at the felicities of language while insistently questioning its own authority, In the Marble of Your Animal Eyes will reward with each new reading. At their most compelling, the poems in the collection are, as John Ashbery has remarked of Brice Marden’s paintings, not “like so much of today’s art, allusions or comments, however oblique, on ideas that are elsewhere: they are themselves what is happening.”6 And here, what is happening is well worth paying attention to.

            [1] All poems in the collection are untitled, or are sections of the larger sequential poem In the Marble of Your Animal Eyes; as such, I will refer either to the order in which they appear in the book or will include page numbers (or will do both) for reference. It is also important to note that it would be prohibitive to reproduce in exact detail the particular markings Hauke makes in the poems he places under erasure. In all cases, the lines are drawn by hand; in many cases, the lines are expressionistic: thick, abrupt, and demonstrative, clearly having a meaning beyond simply that of striking through a given word, phrase, line, or stanza.

            [2] The virgule here represents the proofreader’s mark for transposition, with the phrase following the em dash meant to appear, according to Hauke’s instruction, after the line beginning, “little blue dents.”

            [3] The virgule here replicates the one of the page, although the latter is much longer, extending down to the “a” in the word “bank” in the following line. Presumably, the mark is meant to indicate either a line or stanza break.

            [4] For a detailed facsimile presentation of these poems, see The Gorgeous Nothings: Dickinson, Emily. The Gorgeous Nothings. Ed. Marta Werner and Jen Bervin. New York: Burgin–New Directions, 2013. Print.

            [5] Koch, Kenneth. “Fresh Air.” The Collected Poems of Kenneth Koch. New York: Knopf, 2012. 126. Print.

            [6] Ashbery, John. “Brice Marden.” Reported Sightings: Art Chronicles 1957–1987. Ed. David Bergman. New York: Borzoi–Knopf, 1989. 216. Print. 


Derek Pollard

Derek Pollard is co-author with Derek Henderson of the book Inconsequentia (BlazeVOX). His poems, creative non-fiction, and reviews have appeared in American Book Review, Colorado Review, Court Green, Diagram III, H_ngm_n, Pleiades, and Six-Word Memoirs on Love & Heartbreak, among numerous other anthologies and journals. He is Assistant Editor at Barrow Street Press, Managing Editor at Interim, and is currently a Black Mountain Institute Fellow at the University of Nevada, Las Vegas. More information can be found at www.twodereks.com