Online Edition: Spring 2005

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Under Albany

Ron Silliman

Salt Publishing ($14.99)

by Mark Tursi

Buy Under Albay from Amazon.com

Early in Under Albany, Ron Silliman suggests that he has “spent 17 of the last 24 years actively undercutting expectations within form.” This statement seems hardly debatable considering the evolution of his work, spanning from Ketjak (1978) to The Age of Huts (1986) to his newly finished 26 books of The Alphabet, and including the immense output of commentary produced on his internet Blog (http://ronsilliman.blogspot.com/). Silliman quips further about his process regarding form: “This thought makes me wonder if I shouldn't think now of proceeding in yet another way.” It seems he's done just that in Under Albany, which resists genre labeling and the easy jargon-laden qualifiers (non-referential, constructivist, language-centered) so often associated with Silliman. The text even resists Jackson Mac Low's description “perceiver-centered,” as it seems to create and reinforce a way of reading that is based squarely on the experience and personal history of the writer, yet somehow avoids the conventional memoir. This isn't to say it shuts down a perceiver-oriented reading: it deepens the ways of seeing each sentence, each phrase, and each shift in language and invites the reader to explore them more cavernously, but through Silliman's own autobiographical lens. His multi-layered, expansive approach serves to debunk numerous myths about what Language Poetry is or is not, and it demonstrates the complexity and the mindfulness implicit in all of Silliman's work.

The book is a deeply personal account of how and why one of Silliman's earlier poems is constructed; the author elaborates on, expands upon, and at times even explicates “Albany,” first published in Ironwood 20 in 1982. He takes each line—each “new sentence”—and describes a number of possibilities all relating to its construction, some of which include the following modalities: 1) the catalyst/impetus for the sentence, 2) when and where it was written, 3) how and/or why it was written, 4) the events and people involved in its writing (i.e. the historical, social, cultural and personal context surrounding it), 5) reflections about the time it was written compared to his current state of mind and ideas, and 6) opinions/responses/diatribes about particular events or situations. He doesn't explore all of these possibilities for every line, but, often, incorporates several, as in this passage, which expands on the phrase, “Off the books”:

The idea of poetry as a “career” in a society that doesn't value literacy is an inherent contradiction. I have worked as an encyclopedia salesman…a shipping clerk, an accounting clerk, a mail sorter, an amanuensis for blind graduate students, a janitor for Giant Hamburgers…

Some of these explorations deal with the specific details of day-to-day life, relationships, and familial interactions while others explore the political milieu of the time. This includes student anti-war protests in the 1960s and '70s on or near the Berkeley campus, the ins-and-outs of the prison reform movement for which Silliman was an integral part, the socialist and labor oriented movements from the last several decades, and the massacre at Jonestown. Other sections include Silliman's encounter with other poets and his development as a writer. Each section—like a personally and creatively charged annotated bibliography of quotidian reality—seems to evoke an earlier line from Silliman's Tjanting: “Build an Onion.” If he has a modus operandi here, this seems to be it. Albany is the building of the onion and Under Albany is the peeling away to see the various possible layers.

This re-presentation of the personal is interesting in light of Silliman's adamant opposition to “the poem as confession of lived personal experience, the (mostly) free verse presentation of sincerity and authenticity.” But, what exactly is happening here in terms of the lyric, the personal, and the autobiographical? To borrow a term from Rae Armantrout, this text is largely “ambi-centered,” centered in reality and experience as well as in language; they are not mutually exclusive, and language must be representational in some way, even if resisting and challenging these references. Silliman's method is ambi-centered because he foregrounds his own process, enabling the personal to bubble to the surface of the language, but not to overtake it. He enacts what Charles Bernstein calls a “constructivist memoir,” enriching the text with explorations of its “context to reference, subtext to meaning, back story to presented experience, and composition to poetics.” This description calls to mind Gilles Deleuze and Felix Guattari's idea of the text as a rhizome that splits and attaches to various other possible chunks of language and realms of meaning. Always though, Silliman makes us aware that the original lines from “Albany” are not simply a mimesis of the experience in which they were constructed, but rather a part of, an additional object within, the already existing flood of language, memory, and experience. The final line of the book, “It is not possible to ‘describe a life,’” is an acknowledgment of the impossibility of imitation and description to accurately portray human experience, yet his attempt demonstrates that the effort is, in fact, necessary and worthwhile.

At moments, the book is very meditative and philosophical, as when Silliman writes: “I crossed a line in my life from which I have never stepped back. This, in a sense, is the exact opposite of telos, but rather a recognition that choice is central to freedom. With both its intended and unintended consequences.” At other times, it is a touching narrative about his own life, as in the elaboration of the line, “Here, for a moment, we are joined,” a narrative description of he and his wife Krishna falling in love. The very personal tone of the book is increased by certain sections which seem direct addresses to his two sons, for whom the book is dedicated.

Overall, Under Albany shows us that “Albany,” a representative of Silliman's characteristically language-centered work, is not a product of random language, chance operation, or chaos, a charge often directed at writing like this. Rather, it is a profoundly complex exploration of the mind and emotion that is directly connected to the world and experience from which it emerges. If for Silliman, “The relation between agency and identity must be understood as interactive, fluid, negotiable,” this text demonstrates that one level of this negotiation involves a strong personal impulse where language is seen as grounded in the day-to-day. Thus, Under Albany does not explain “Albany,” but rather it complicates it on another level. The dislocation and fragmentation of the poem is still there, but now it is imbedded in more layers and more possibilities that reveal Silliman's unique life and signature.

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Spring 2005 Table of Contents