Review: Dragon Logic

Book by STEPHANIE STRICKLAND
Reviewed by TERESE SVOBODA 

Dragon LogicBegin with the cover of Dragon Logic: double Garamond italic ampersands. Inverted they propose elegant dragons against a green hide background. “TWO dragons,” Stephanie Strickland writes in the eponymous poem, “keep a pearl/in the air untouched/if yes then no if no then yes.” Their “dragon logic” insists that the reader consider sets that consist of themselves, a common problem in questions of reflexivity where the self of the self-reference is a human self. This proposition enlarges the idea of the juggling proposed by John Keats’ concept of negative capability—“when a man is capable of being in uncertainties, mysteries, doubts, without any irritable reaching after fact and reason.”

Dragon Logic is Strickland’s seventh book of poetry, not counting her over a dozen electronic projects. In it, she sets out to recast nearly every aspect of the discipline, from titles to punctuation, from syntax to subject.  The entire first word or first several words of each poem are capitalized as sort-of-title, the first signal that she takes no part of poetry—typographical, sonic, spatial, or connotative—for granted. She uses nearly every symbol on the keyboard to force the reader to reconsider signs on the page. No punctuation is given unless it’s rethought, e.g., a colon or a double colon surrounded by space. Such a mark might suggest equivalence, or just a brake to consider the possibility of a break. Not many periods. When she refers the reader to the glossary, she places not a footnote number nor the fussy asterisk beside the arcane noun, choosing the more elegant “degree” sign. Her strict but uncommon syntax can usher the reader into new meaning midline, her tendency toward modernist enjambment, piling nouns on nouns often suggest the progression or the expansion of a concept, rather than a simple causal linking, as in “idolizing idle incubus’s/incubation idyll isolated Individual/infatuates itself” (from “GREAT Pan is dead.”) Her lines often become so densely sonic that the ear delights before the mind can gather why:

dear cuz surcease click artifactuals attentively

touch you can but not track down my eventeffect
my singuvocalocity no less entangledly yours

(excerpt from “IN-DIVISIBLE plays X-streame dial with her cousin”)

The pre-postmodern modernist Abraham Lincoln Gillespie who eventually moved toward sound performance did something similar a hundred years ago:

Sweettrustmisery-Eyed hurtbyherMan-Woman
motherready-responsewarmth
cashregisterAnnote dissemINFO. . .

(excerpt from “Textighter Eye-Ploy or Hothouse Bromdick?” in The Syntactic Revolution).

Strickland questions the postmodern edge—have we come so far? Poems about skyscrapers were as shocking as poems about sex in the Modernist period. Strickland’s take on science—ecology, math, physics–nods toward the same kind of shock with its determined reaching into what is seldom considered a proper poetic subject. As erudite as Pound with his history and economics, Strickland never assumes that the reader isn’t informed, but she does provide a glossary for those not up-to-the-minute with physics or math or tech or the Pillars of Hercules. That little box you have to fill in on websites so the computer knows you’re not a predatory machine?  A captcha, the acronym for Completely Automated Public Turing Test to Tell Computers and Humans Apart, of course, but so wonderfully musical, provides the title for a poem about avatars and peregrines swooping and reappearing near the Plaza. “About” is not quite accurate—Strickland surrounds her subject—

cranium chambered cairn and passage grave
bulging Neolitchic earth mound enclosing the vault

callibrated stone to this standard surpasses us
lost too inner touch on bone pale solstice beam

The peregrine appears in the second section:

an IM app in your dream equip folding but unfading
tutelary mesmerie with chat while falling as a peregrine

tinsel buttercup foil painted roof ruined roof of the Plaza
verdigris mansard copper slate rushing toward her she could tell

(excerpt from “CAPTCHA”)

The effect of the poem is a start of recognition: yes, these too—captcha and IM and app—make up a part of the speed and dream of contemporary poetic landscape not so different from the way the strangeness of skyscrapers and bridges were apprehended by Modernists like cummings:

the dirty colors of her kiss have just
throttled
my seeing blood, her heart’s chatter

riveted a weeping skyscraper

in me
(“the dirty colors of her kiss have just”) (1923)

as well as Lola Ridge’s

Brooklyn Bridge
Pythoness body—arching
Over the night like an ectasy—
I feel your coils tightening…
And the world’s lessening breath. (1918)

Strickland poem, “RARA AVIS,” chronicles a sort of sex (“another newer way to enter each other to share”) through telepresence experiments inside the body of live birds, new media explorations now passé for interactive artists but just (barely) introduced to the public in this year’s Hollywood movie Her.

                Participants share owl's body
                      vicarially in and out of the macaw
                             other birds in the aviary ( flying ) 'real'
                                  though for them too this is negotiated

The playful poem “ALGORITHM” captures the exquisite aha moment in code when the numbers do what they’re supposed to, through a recipe split between “ingredients” and “instructions.” The fascinating Octofungi, an inorganic anemone that moves its legs when sensing light—a neural net a little like a sensitive plant–escapes the coils of DNA in “MEASUREABLE pleasures”

               Cross it! Jump the bitomic / atomic barrier of declared frontier
                     the airy cages hacked
                              reconfigured  felled unspared--  are we clear?

               (excerpt from “MEASUREABLE pleasures”)

”UNTIL recently considered not writing” explores readme files that programmers insert that no one but other programmers read. The first example of a readme line is  “>The housekeeper arrives to remove Eryk” repeated as a couplet. The “less than” symbol suggests more a sweeping away than a notation in code, Eryk with its aberrant spelling might not be a rude visitor but a virus, and the housekeeper might be the sys admin who could in turn be the author editing her readme files. Or merely transcribed dialogue with admin functions represented linguistically?

The section “Sea Dragons” (rhymes with the opening sections’ “e-Dragons”) begins with “IN the shot they take” playing with the impossibility of knowing objects through light that speeds or has sped through a world we try to photograph—or even try to “know” as poets.

              Moment through light hit lens in an instant
                          deferring all stories of where a photon
              goes ) for the sake of survival
                                        for the sake of passage ease
              the sake of cosmic reading
              ease ease in
                        to this none
                                can
              exist companenera feel it know no instantaneous

              photo           “the whole”             lake

              (Excerpt from “IN that shot they take”)

Similarly “UPSTART stars” questions even the usefulness of metaphor for astrophysics.

                                ...'hidden dimensions' sounding way too much like
                                                              angels

               on the head of a pin
                        I know (don't clone spam or text me
               your complaints ) how grossly heavy a feather
                        is
               it's a metaphor--
                        if only

                        (Excerpt from “UPSTART stars”)

Strickland gives three pages over to the fabulous musings of William Katavalos inBomb magazine when interviewed about his liquid architectures with “blood dripping over its edges…”  The first line of the next poem, ”KEEP it |  kill it     call it!     up”  uses small bits of sensory detail to accordion our understanding of data and detail. It ends with

                                     Octavia swallowing mandorla martini
                                            glasses of unclouded
                      gin in the permadim grotto
              or echoing surfaces a faint jade in the beveled edge hint of mint

“I FORGOT I can forget because I’m not I’m”  postulates beyond Descartes. Half of the poem is footnotes, a tangled performance with linebreaks slashed midline andsotto voce asides (aren’t footnotes already a kind of sotto voce?) and dashes hauling forward the footnotes’ single sentence-like triplets up to

…my grandfather could fix a buggy and a jet
not a computer but that my dad did

do. And then I forgot I can forget because
I’m not : all support adoption invention Dichtung
connection techne flow imago schooner can’t get off

(excerpt from “I FORGOT I can forget because I’m not I’m”)

Dichtung is German for poetry, techne is Greek for art or craft, imago refers to the last stage of metaphorphisis in an insect.

Bodies preoccupy “Hunger Dragons of Unstable Ruin,” the third section. In “VARIETIES of ecocide : does it matter”  the poet announces that “leeches make shocking comeback,” and in “VANISHING moist glade a dump of readymades”  the glade is “ready for transpackaging.” “TECHNICIANS in blue collarless jumpsuits trained” admits an “I” with a body under the scrutiny of medical personnel who scan it with their machines. In contrast to the “fundamentalists….who avow/the body’simportance near death if not in life–/whitecoats know better shuffling mindset on the hiPod ).” Man’s presumed mastery of science on both micro and macro levels threatens vast devastation to the human body as well as nature. The very center of the book intones, with a bow to Milton and Elizabeth Barrett Browning, that “GREAT Pan is dead” with its “leatherclad greenmen” who “melt into the woods.” “VAGARY” which closes the section ends with a very elegant Thomas Merton quote stretched between its two stanzas to suggest the verity of nature.

Nobody started it, nobody
is going to stop it. It will
talk as long
as it wants, the rain.

(Excerpt of VAGARY)

“Everyone knows that dragons don’t exist…The circle of sportsmen, their weapons cocked and ready, finds only a burned patch of earth and an unmistakable smell,” according to scifi writer Stanislaw Lem in the next-to-last section, “Dragon Maps.” The ephemerality of matter, no less, is the subject.  An email from the poet Alan Sondheim inspires “SUBJECT: [webartery] Short Graphism.” Since 1994, Sondheim has worked on The Internet Text, a document or “residue” of his writing and performances about computer mediated communication and online culture.  Before the couplet of URLs at the poem’s end is “Elsewhere, the real renders. Here it has already given up.”

Give up is what I do when I reach the columned BREAKING THE MANDALA with its algebraic equivalences. I went into writing to avoid mathematics. However, the chart can’t be ignored entirely because it is referenced most complexly two poems later, in a list called “THE SEVEN” with a final shaped section. Oy vey! Of course she follows with a perfect mirror poem, “SO it comes in the fullness of mind and it came to” about the collapse of columns—and mind. By the time I get to “YES Jane it is regrettable that the mathematical/with so much to offer” a few pages later, I am reconsidering the URL as a streak of text, a cognate to an almost-English, postulating here that it contains the full story of the algebraic geometrist Grothendieck’s struggle against military investment in science. Finally, under the why in “CATASTROPHIC FORMS AND SAFEPATHS” Strickland describes the emptiness, the dragon-less world of nonexistence:

               parabola's ellipse one focus at infinity
                      inverse transform of a cardioid

               baseball in the air without the air
                        parabolic umbilic

               neither
                    is there any ball

               (Excerpt from “CATASTROPHIC FORMS AND SAFEPATHS”)

The final section, “Alive Inside the Dragons” begins with “LINES spears nets knots have-nots.” Set in Polynesia “from Diamond Head to the Harbor” where the curl of a “bluebird,” the collapsing thirty-foot wave ridden by the famous surfer Duke is not like the speaker’s “back in collapse,” she unites the genius of the Polynesian’s knotted maps, the tatting of an aunt who “bore [it] to her grave for want/of a human relay with “a dream of we,” all the generations mapped inside. Her poem on Beatrix Potter, “LONG BEFORE PETER” applauds the woman’s great accomplishments in mycology.  “INVOKING Tzimtzum Persephone contracted Peirce” begins three-quarters down the page with so many wonderful arcane proper nouns (Tzimtzum, Peirce, Lucretius, and Ereshkigal) that one plunges straight into the glossary, “Codemakers,” for enlightenment, but not without noting the poem’s final two lines: “every dawn every dusk pour me out on the sand/sluice my letters from the slate.”

Yes, there’s an Afterword. Strickland found one more way to shape the book and celebrated the opportunity. In “UNSOLVED PROBLEMS” she ponders “What if divided changes its nature?/duration distance solitude,” the “it” being the world, which needs solving with

life-

time obedience :  not ten-hut
military
rather ob-au-di-re (hear. . . thoroughly )
then too  endurance

(Excerpt from “UNSOLVED PROBLEMS”)

Precision, that’s Strickland’s metier. To corral the feeling, the glimpse, the proposition in perfect relation to the reader and the text. No poet has plumbed or plummed with her thumb so deeply into the pies (πs) of physics, math, and myth and made them interlock on the atomic level. She’s brilliant, slyly funny and profound. This is a great book.

 

Terese Svoboda is the author of several books of poetry and prose, most recently the novel Bohemian Girl, which Booklist named one of the ten best Westerns of 2012.

Olivia ZhengReview: Dragon Logic

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