The Construction of Syzygy

A brief biographical note: Having published a number of books of poetry in the late 60s and early 70s, I underwent an almost complete poetic silence for about twenty years. This was broken, in 1995, by stone floods, where I tried to do some new things under the disguise of the standard slim volume of lyrics. An invitation to participate in the Assembling Alternatives conference in NH in ’96 ended by convincing me that the disguise was unnecessary.

Struck by the way in which, even to feign the illusion of the lyric, it had been necessary to distill a very personal poetic vocabulary, of word, image and thematics, I grew interested in the incessant cycling of language through both public and private realms; how private vocabularies of passion and grief were constructed of the same units which comprised advertising, politics, gossip. I wanted a form which would enact this oscillation between the intimate and the estranged.

Some formal analogues suggested themselves: the palindromic form of Guillaume de Machaut's Ma fin est dans ma commencement; Steve Reich's sampling of short cells of words in Different Trains; Dogen's deliberate distortion of traditional Buddhist phrases to extract new meanings; John Cage's mesostichs in which two texts interpenetrated; and the combination of emotional and intellectual intensity with speed and textural openness in Tom Raworth's poetry.

My published notes to Syzygy describe the importance of the Machaut piece:

In the mediaeval form known as cancrizans, one or more parts proceed normally, while the imitating voice or voices give out the melody backwards. The name derives from cancer, the Latin term for a river-crab or sea-crab, though, as one authority observes, crabs tend to move sideways rather than backwards. This palindromic form came into use in the fourteenth century and surfaced again in the serial music of our own time.

David Munrow notes, of Guillaume de Machaut’s Ma fin est dans ma commencement, that “the words of the popular mediaeval aphorism provide less of a text than instructions for performance” and, remarking that in such a canon “the words inevitably obscure the overall symmetry”, he elected to go for a purely instrumental performance. In addition to the antecedent voice and the reversed consequent, Machaut had added a third voice which is itself compactly palindromic, moving from its opening to a point, exactly midway in the piece, from which it meticulously undoes itself, note by note, until it re-arrives at its commencement.

In the present instance, the drift having been established, the identical voices are intermeshed to weave the palindromic net. This is roughly analogous to Machaut’s canon, with the first four voices combining to produce the first line of each composite verse, the second four making the middle lines, and the final four contributing the last line of each verse. Here too, the words obscure the symmetry.

The design: a bicameral, or two-part work, one (The Drift) continuing the distillation of personal language which I had pursued through stone floods, the other (The Net) deliberately fragmenting and estranging that language.

The overall structure hinges on the numbers three, four, and twenty-four. The stanzas of The Net are composed of three lines, each line corresponding to one of the three voices in Machaut's composition. Each line is comprised of four 'cells', phrases drawn from The Drift. There are twenty-four (1x2x3x4) possible permutations of four elements.

The Drift consists of three groups of four 'lyrics', with each lyric originally composed as a chain of twenty-four phrases. These provide the material for the stanzas of The Net as follows:

The Drift                        The Net

Drift group 1 (lyrics 1-4)       Stanza 1, Line 1, permutation 01
                                 Stanza 1, Line 2
                                 Stanza 1, Line 3, permutation 24
Drift group 2 (lyrics 5-8)
                                 . . .
                                 Stanza 24, Line 1, permutation 24
Drift group 3 (lyrics 9-12)      Stanza 24, Line 2
                                 Stanza 24, Line 3, permutation 01

That is, the first lines of each stanza of The Net are composed of phrases drawn from group 1 of The Drift, and so on. Each composite line uses a different one of the twenty-four possible permutations, with the order of permutations of the final lines of each stanza exactly reversing the order of permutations of the first.

I will leave it to the interested reader to recognize why I could not find an exact equivalent of the compactly self-contained palindrome of Machaut's third voice, represented in my schema by the central line of each composite stanza. I am less than entirely happy with my solution to the problem.

Having arrived at this abstract structure, the poem next demanded some words.

As that language which we later make so intimately our own is first learned from the world, it seemed appropriate to begin populating this lyrical machine with some phrases taken from the public realm. As I described in my notes:

The line ‘and then there is this sound the red noise of bones’ is from the poem Agua Sexual in the second volume of Neruda’s Residencia en la Tierra. Sean O Boyle records, when discussing The Irish Song Tradition, the curse of an old woman, having finished a song on the wreck of a fishing-boat on its way to the off-shore grounds: ‘the thieving sea, the thieving sea. They say it will go into three quart jugs on the day of Judgement’. The fear that we may suffer a severe exposure was in the financial pages of some paper I’ve forgotten.

Having already decided the mapping between each phrase of The Drift and the corresponding composite lines of The Net, I broke each of these public statements into four distinct cells, and thus generated the opening line of each of my twelve lyrics. As The Net was to be palindromic, the identical lines had to occur also at the end, in reverse order, thereby determining the final lines of each lyric.

As I was dissatisfied with my less than compactly palindromic central lines, I added a further constraining element in the form of a line which I found buzzing in my head after reading some commentaries on Dogen, but which I believe is of my own composition: “there is nothing either finished or not yet begun.” This, also, I positioned within The Net—twice, in the two central stanzas—and so derived the twelfth and thirteenth lines of my central group of lyrics, numbers five to eight.

Each of these four repeated lines seeded in The Net was disarticulated differently on each of its two occurrences, giving the following initial distribution of words:

and then there is this sound | the | red noise | of bones         Stanza 01
when the thieving | sea will fit | in three quart | jugs
we suffer an | exposure to | the tune of several | millions
. . .
xxx                                                               Stanza 12
there is | nothing | either finished or not | yet begun

xxx                                                               Stanza 13
there is | nothing either | finished | or not yet begun
. . .
we suffer | an exposure | to the tune | of several millions       Stanza 24
when the thieving | sea | will fit in | three quart jugs
and then there is this sound | the red | noise | of bones

This in turn meant that, for example, the fifth lyric of The Drift, was constrained to include the following lines:

when the thieving     Line 1
. . .                 . . .
nothing               Line 12
there is              Line 13
. . .                 . . .
three quart jugs      Line 24

All that was then necessary was to join the dots, as it were, to complete the lyrics, attempting in the process to deepen and draw to an even higher intensity, the personal linguistic world sketched in stone floods. There would be no point in estranging a language which was not almost unbearably close to begin with, just as there would be little value in a personal apparatus characterized largely by privation from the world.

The predetermined mappings, implemented with a simply programmed Excel spreadsheet, automatically generated the remaining lines of The Net. The lyrics of The Drift were re-lineated more conventionally for publication, to signal their readiness for the public world, its nets, machines and matrices. Contrariwise, I began to understand passages from The Net, recuperating some of them within the personal language of later compositions such as Trem Neul, and even, after some months, recognizing that phrase which became the title of the volume within which Syzygy was collected, with the first dream of fire they hunt the cold. Happily, however, many passages still resist accommodation, though in performance I regularly re-score and re-punctuate The Net differently, hoping thereby to identify within it further unforeseen meanings.