by Lucas Klein
Time was when moving to Europe for an American poet was a good career move. But the era of the Moderns and their romance of the self-imposed exile had ended by the time Gustaf Sobin—whose lifework in poetry is newly celebrated in his Collected Poems—moved to Provence to apprentice himself to René Char in 1963, where he remained until his death in 2005. While Sobin found affinity with Char, isolating himself from an American poetic community of growing importance may have nearly erased him from existence. As a result, his work appears at first socially adrift, with few obvious American forebears or associates.
The recent salvo of Sobin publications serves to redress some of that, primarily through directing attention at Sobin’s work itself. But while Counterpath Press’s single-volume issue of Sobin’s translation of Char’s The Brittle Age and Returning Upland offers details for understanding the relationship between Sobin’s writing and Char’s, and his essays—in Luminous Debris (University of California Press, 1999),Aura (Counterpath, 2008), and Ladder of Shadows (University of California Press, 2009)—describe the archaeological grounding beneath his poetics, as a displaced American, his poetry nevertheless descends from, and remains within, dialogue with a longer tradition of postwar American poetics.
Specifically, Sobin’s Collected Poems shows him as a descendent of late Objectivism, having digested the George Oppen of “Of Being Numerous”—beginning, “There are things / We live among ‘and to see them / Is to know ourselves’”—and adding to it both Louis Zukofsky’s intricacy of sound and his sense that poetry must embody that “rested totality [which] may be called objectification—the apprehension satisfied completely as to the appearance of the art form as an object.” Consider “Isn’t That’s Almost,” from his first book Wind Chrysalid’s Rattle (1980), both as a meditation on being amidst surroundings and as an assertion of crafted object:
that’s almost (its vastness, infinitesimal: a glint
in the voice’s wondrous shadows). isn’t
that dreams itself: the translucent herd of its
kisses driven, ineluctable, the
earth germinal driven into the absence that is.
But if Objectivism is about the object, Sobin’s poetry is often equally about its opposite, the negated. This places Sobin’s poetry not only after Objectivism, but after continental philosophy as well. In particular, his poetry derives from Heidegger, whom Sobin knew personally through Char, as well as—according to Andrew Joron’s and Andrew Zawacki’s contextualizing introduction—the “Lévinasian rejoinder to Heidegger.” The editors see philosophical investigations as “integral to Sobin’s poetics: the relation between Being and beings; the insistence on language as ontologically central . . . the fourfold gathering of earth, sky, mortals, and gods . . . the phenomenological play of appearance and concealment . . . and the fundamental human need to build and to dwell.” Such inquiries are indeed as evident in Wind Chrysalid’s Rattle as they are in Breaths’ Burials (1994) or Towards the Blanched Alphabets (1998) and In the Name of the Neither (2002). What these titles reveal is possibly what Michael Palmer was getting at in his back-cover blurb: Sobin’s way was to walk the “via negativa.” In other words, Sobin’s is a poïesis of paradox, about
Being and the impossibility of describing silence in language, and he traces in his writing the demarcation between the yin and yang of presence and absence.
Perhaps because he only began publishing poetry at forty, Sobin emerged with his concerns and his style fully formed. The same meditations on poetry as
a wind spindled to a stone
from early in his career remain in The Places as Preludes (2005), his final book:
say that the
world doesn’t end in
some gratuitous gust of wind but in this, its
And yet, the undeniable beauty of these passages, and of his writing in general, overrides any frustration at repetition or redundancy. But while the core of Sobin’s poetry is in page- or two-long poems, the ambitious reader (though slightly less ambitious than one who will read the entire collection, cover to cover) might want to look more closely at Sobin’s more ambitious poems. These begin with the propositions for poetry in “The Earth as Air: An Ars Poetica” (from The Earth as Air, 2005)—which also serves as an anchor for the reader alert to Sobin’s concept of poetry—showing
eithered to another, the this
whatevered to the
lyre- propellant: wind
and white roses
wrapt in a taught, vibratory weave.
and continue through the series of “Transparent Itineraries,” a nearly yearly updated poem-in-progress that takes the reader from
it’s the inference, not the inferred, that draws, seduces, abducts.
(“Transparent Itineraries: 1983”)
always an ‘elsewhere’ that isn’t, a ‘there’ that’s not, while, out of the very midst of the ‘here,’ an infallible instinct infallibly points.
(“Transparent Itineraries: 1996”)
that ‘here’ was still here, and world something other than the fast-fading imprint of something it never was.
(“Transparent Itineraries: 2002/2003”)
And in what strikes me as his greatest poem, “Late Bronze, Early Iron: A Journey Book” (from Towards the Blanched Alphabets, 1998), the ethereal ponderousness of Sobin’s poetics take root in the ethnographic contexts available otherwise only from his essays:
as you, in a science of your own, would trace, if you could, the envelopment of the verb—of language itself—in a similar set of constrictions. self-enclosures.
how, against the innate radiance (call it aura) of a polymorphous diffusion, language —as well—would undergo a near identical circumscription.
find itself slowly, inexorably locked within the fixed perimeters of the literal.
(breath itself as if monetized).
Especially in his shorter pieces, with shorter lines, Sobin’s style is one of interruption. With commas, hyphenations, and enjambment, he forces attention to the parts and particles, solid or hollow, that make up the words we know— “re- / member,” “with- / out,” “ab- / sence”—and our sense of being that comes from them. Even his seeming missteps are significant; he has a predilection for “very” as an adjective (“the very instant,” “its very effacement,” “the very air”), which at first might seem to controvert the precise economy of his expression, but with further thought seem more like “empty words” designated by ancient Chinese grammarians. These “empty words,” which serve a grammatical function but do not have any meaning per se, unlock something of Sobin’s sense of poetry: like all words, his use of “very” directs focus on something he believes not, in the end, to be there, the “being” crossed-out, the isn’t.
This isn’t may, alas, be what Sobin became, both by removing himself from the American poetic community and by dying before he could reclaim any rightful readership (Rachel Blau DuPlessis cited him in her entry on Neglectorinos). The paradox of the Collected Poems, of course, is that it collects the work of a poet whose work was to efface himself and the words that constitute his work. And yet in the book’s final section, presenting sixteen previously unseen poems written since the publication of his last volume, is what we may take to be Sobin’s final piece, and his final statement on language, poetry, and writing. The first line of “Written in White: An Exegesis” reads,
only written in white would the world, at last, become legible.
May this gathering, showing the totality of poetry Gustaf Sobin wrote in white, make him legible, as well.
Rain Taxi Online Edition, Summer 2010 | © Rain Taxi, Inc. 2010