by Ayten Tartici
Published by Kenning Editions, 2011 | 136 pages
There should be nothing surprising about the title of Bill Luoma’s recent collection of poetry, Some Math. In fact, it’s hard to imagine a more perfect title for a volume of poetry published during an era preoccupied with quantitative analytics and bottom lines. But, for the aficionado of avant-garde poetry, the delicious twist of Luoma’s title is that, in Some Math, language is alive and quite well in its state of play. In fact, this book—which is hardly the volume of story problems or word algebra its title suggests—might be thought of as instead a meditation on the messy scene of poetic genesis: the simple, sometime senseless pleasures of the word. Some Math is a paradox: it often feels like a temporally misplaced work of high modernism, even as its allusions are drawn from the recesses and abscesses of twenty-first-century culture. Its many aesthetic contradictions, however, and more importantly Luoma’s willingness to persist amid them, are the engines of its success.
Take the reader’s basic experience of a passage such as this one, which occurs in a blank verse poem called “The Concept of Mass,” and which typifies one of the two dominant poetic modes present in Some Math:
If I arrange my local effects
in shells of equal energy
like a saddle mounted by a rider
whose boots were made for Tony Danza
in the tap dance extravaganza
then I’ll be humming all day
stuck inside the large hardon collider
with one higgs boson whose primary concern
is facetime on the linoleum.
Thematically speaking, there is a high proportion of imagery in these lines from the realm of the sciences. But the joy of this poetic sentence clearly lies elsewhere, namely in the cleverness of its rhymes, in its loose parody of its (iambic) pentameter, and in its jokey, punny cultural references. One may have reservations about laughing at the notion of a “large hardon collider” or a “higgs boson” coveting “facetime.” It may be difficult to accept that “Tony Danza” really belongs in a poem at all (no offense, Tony). Then again one has to admit: the actor’s name does work beautifully, and disarmingly playfully, as a rhyme for “extravaganza.” Of course the rhyme is ridiculous. This precisely is the engine of Luoma’s innovation: his willingness to go there, so to speak. Luoma celebrates the defilement of aesthetic standards.
Notoriously, modernism— perhaps best emblematized by Ezra Pound’s twin imperatives to “break the pentameter” and “make it new”—has been a difficult act to follow, especially in the realm of poetry. Beguiled by the prospect of perennial reinvention and ever-shifting standards of poetic virtuosity, postmodern poetry can to a degree be understood as primarily a negotiation with what John Barth called “the literature of exhaustion”—the “used-upness of certain forms or the felt exhaustion of certain possibilities.” Not so in the case of Some Math. In fact, if one can distance oneself from the temporal specificity of its references—“the fishladders of gmail,” “the slaughterhouse of altoids,” “the bhopal of die hard” are a few of the most spectacular—the work can seem, anachronistically, quite modernist. At times Luoma’s work seems to be a product of what might be called poetic heteroglossia—the impulse to mix a diverse range of high and low voices, languages, and references—the same impulse, interestingly, that engendered T.S. Eliot’s “The Waste Land.” Luoma doesn’t have the sweeping range of nuanced cultural reference available to Eliot or Pound. Yet there is something of Eliot’s basic impulse—to bring such varied cultural reference points together in the space of a single poem—in the basic gesture of Some Math.
Of course, it is slightly inaccurate to talk about Luoma’s book in this way, as if it were a singular innovation and not part of a literary movement. It takes a little bit of dredging through Luoma’s acknowledgements to track this fact down, but the book bears a strong relationship to Flarf, a recent avant-garde poetry movement from which Luoma obviously derives much of his method. Flarf is distinguished by a high level of irreverence and play, but, more importantly, by its use of Google, that postmodern oracle of signification, as thesaurus and content generator. Although the movement began as an email listserv circulated half-jokingly by several cutting edge poets—Gary Sullivan coined the term; the Google-method was pioneered by Drew Gardner—practitioners of Flarf have since garnered serious critical appraisal. New media critics have been particularly warm to the Flarf aesthetic, and even so esteemed a barometer of poetic sentiment as Marjorie Perloff has acknowledged the form as a “hip, digital reaction to…boring, genteel poetry.”
To witness how Flarf works, albeit in reverse, take the rhyme of “Tony Danza” and “extravaganza.” “Do a Google”—to paraphrase Adriana from The Sopranos—on the two terms, and below a few thumbnails of the Who’s the Boss? star’s handsome mug, you’ll encounter links to websites relating to an extreme metal band called Tony Danza Tapdance Extravaganza. It is entirely possible, even in keeping with the aesthetics of Flarf, that Luoma literally took his rhyme from this search result. But, whereas this would traditionally have threatened to undermine the originality of Luoma’s work, Flarf’s entirely aesthetic pivots precisely on this laxity and flexibility of poetic voice. What is important here is that Luoma deadpans the band’s rhyme and reconfigures it as part of a larger poetic sentence as if it were his own. Which places us very much in the space of “The Waste Land.” What Eliot’s modernism and Luoma’s Flarf have in common is thus their assumption that it is possible, and in fact necessary, to suspend traditional notions of poetic authority in order to channel the poetry of the culture, which is diffuse and not attributable to a single source. Such poetry offers the reader not a defined aesthetic experience or argument, but rather a chance to rethink how poetry—here defined simply as a meaningful, self-aware language pattern—comes into being. Like Eliot’s famous emulation of ragtime in Part II of “The Waste Land”—“O O O O that Shakespeherian Rag—/ It’s so elegant / So intelligent”—Luoma asks us to trust, and perhaps to examine, the sounds of the world around us. By extension, the reader’s task in Some Math is not a matter of identifying Luoma’s particular voice or message, but rather of making poetic discoveries for ourselves.
I mentioned previously that Luoma’s volume is comprised of two dominant poetic modes. Whereas most of the collection consists of long, blank verse poems, the second poetic mode of Some Math occurs in four poems that are much more intricately plotted in terms of meter, and far more cryptic: “gobi,” “Alystyre Julian Certified Orient Minimal Clothing,” “nogo,” and “swoon rocket.” Here are the opening stanzas of “gobi,” which epitomizes Some Math’s second mode and which really must be experienced firsthand:
gobi time have aranciata
anull skimmer I oblangada
simone blue havlock turretno offense fence cranes post
ammo glan ye gary reynolds
tiz bat wren funky neros
shrimp fare tule varmin
dot dot jill b tay
In the Tony Danza passage from “The Concept of Mass” it is difficult to follow the trajectory of Luoma’s unusual poetic imagery, but it is still possible to witness a congress of ideas from disparate cultural realms. Here things are different; in “gobi,” it is almost impossible to read for meaning or theme. It is, admittedly, difficult to know what to do with such text, beyond wondering why these particular words are sutured together in such a tightly plotted, peculiar metrical form. Again, reading Luoma’s poetry as modernism misplaced in time may provide an explanation, and a method. Modernism has always been an affair of what Ian Watt called “delayed decoding,” and Luoma’s poetry, too, is best understood as an affair of meaning’s gradual unfolding, slowly and by degrees. The much stronger insistence on metrical regularity in these stanzas, however nonconformist to any traditional stanzaic form, amplifies the urgency of hunting for meaning in these latter more cryptic constellations even more than in the more typically Flarf inspired poems. At the last line of the first stanza—“no offense fence cranes post”— the homonymic “offense/fence” repetition hints that something is surely up, however ultimately obscure. The sense here is found not in what this passage means but rather in what it means that this passage might mean at all. The metapoetic register of “gobi”—the aspect of the poem that is an invitation to the reader to enter the mind and workshop of the poet—is thus where its significance truly lies.
Luoma brings us no closer to traditional poetic transcendence in “gobi” than he does in the more intelligible, blank verse Flarf poems that form the backbone of Some Math. But in “gobi,” and in its sister poems written in Some Math’s bizarre second mode, he offers us valuable lessons in how to make meaning out of the potentially (and even probably) meaningless. These lessons bear on the collection as a whole and, perhaps on how we engage literature and culture in general. To take Luoma seriously, then, we might say that reading “gobi”—and by extension reading all of Some Math—we are a little like travelers walking through the Gobi Desert. The ground is littered with randomly scattered stones and other debris, but we are watching for the cairns that will denote a path. When we think we recognize a few stones stacked into a pile, we might be hard pressed to call them a sculpture—an intelligible, readable formation—but we know we are in the presence of a human hand. Our task is merely to follow. If we are looking for a philosopher poet or a language artist, Luoma will sorely disappoint us. He is our subtle, almost anonymous guide through the twenty-first-century cultural waste land.
Kevin C. Moore is a PhD candidate in English at UCLA. He works on nineteenth- and twentieth-century American literature, and he is currently completing a dissertation titled The Rise of Writer’s Block: Myths and Realities of American Literary Production. His essay “Parting at the Windmills: Malamud’s The Fixer as Historical Metafiction” is forthcoming in Arizona Quarterly. He lives in Santa Barbara, California.