Language Slipstream

Amy Catanzano, iEpiphany (Erudite Fangs Press, 2008)

            Heisenberg’s uncertainty principle states that it is possible to know either the position of an object or its momentum—that is to say knowledge, of force, involves selectivity. You can choose to know where you are or you can choose to know where you are going and how fast you’ll get there but never all at once. Like an electron shot down the long chamber of a particle accelerator, Amy Catanzano’s iEpiphany speeds through a spectrum of moods, forms and images at a reckless pace—her verse moves so quickly that reading it is a constant act of sorting through sensations—deciding whether to enjoy the pleasure of the present position or to give in to the pull of that other pleasure, momentum. It would be difficult, if not impossible, to do both simultaneously. From this friction between velocity and hieratic form, iEpiphany manages to draw both its best and worst qualities. A mixture of prose poems and spare stanzaic verses scattered across the page (“everything can/fit into the most/unfashionable/forms” 60), Catanzano’s words often seem disembodied, suspended in the white space that surrounds them, an effect belied by their quick rhythms and teasing rhetorical feints: “You were more like a time machine than a treatise. Starlight had become viral.” Catanzano’s work is profoundly concerned with how lyric occupies time and space for readers and writers of poetry. Her poem “coexisting” suggests that interfaces between people and text operate like “multiple dimensions/of time and space/informing the spacetime/of poems.” She borrows the language of science to talk about the physics of poetry and the result is a valiant mix of poetic gamesmanship, dry irony, rapid motion and a very few fatuous mishaps.
            Although grounded in the traditions of L=A=N=G=U=A=G=E poetry and Objectivist poetics, rather than in the more discursive confessional or post-confessional modes (She teaches in the Writing & Poetics Department of the Jack Kerouac School of Disembodied Poetics at Naropa University.), Catanzano’s aesthetics balance on the margin that divides the accessible from the elliptical in a way that demonstrates, depending on your sensibility, either a capacious tonal range or a vexing inconsistency. iEpiphany reads a little like a more avant-garde version of A. Van Jordan’s Quantum Lyrics (2007), a little like the Lyn Hejinian of the mid-1980’s and a little like a sequence of anagrams compiled from back issues of Popular Science (a fine publication, by the way). I am inclined to be seduced—I can forgive a certain measure of flirtatiousness, which iEpiphany employs nearly to excess, in a book that balances lines like “do you consider re-entry a political act?” (65) (perhaps a bit too delicious) with chiseled declarations like “We use the word galactic to mean impossible scale” (13) and “The recorder in my body reads out at 1 and 1 even as I dream in dendrite compositions” (35).
             There is room in contemporary poetry, I would suggest—a great deal of room—for everything from the prosiest of prose poems to the wildest of linguistic experiments, a claim which critics wed to a more aerodynamic view of poetics might have cause to suspect. We are like a few explorers in the middle of a large, dark space we did not expect to find. Our maps were too schematic or perhaps simply wrong—we say we cannot move from familiar ground, that the things that do not exist in our cartography can hardly exist in the notoriously imperfect world of the senses. Instead of striking out to discover what we may with what faculties we have, we cling to our preconceived notions of the place we have found ourselves. We claim we can see in the dark. There is room in contemporary poetry both for accessibility and difficulty—Catanzano’s work manages, with few exceptions, to offer the gratification of both, as in “selfsame”: “We are both starry and geode. We present our/papers upon being asked but not quickly enough” (11). If poetry requires credentials, official sanction, then Catanzano’s poems, like a slapstick act aimed at a stern ticket collector in a silent film, gently satirize this kind this kind of authoritarian thinking. iEpiphany wants to argue that tricky, challenging poetics can coexist with a breezy, inclusive sort of openness. Catanzano doesn’t just preach, she practices; in a move that you may perceive as either charming or cloying, she fills an entire page with blank lines and invites the reader to fill them in: “Hey you are you a/poet?” (60)
            The key to iEpiphany lies, perhaps, in the coy  “flying,” which I will quote in its entirety:


The poem sums up, in eleven letters, everything that appeals and repels about Catanzano’s collection—the flaw of much experimental poetry is that its concept often intrigues more than its execution. On one hand, the verse—a single word broken into component letters, its orientation flipped from the horizontal to the vertical—appears insultingly simple, too easy and snide in comparison to Catanzano’s other, less laconic compositions. On the other hand, the poem undoubtedly accomplishes its aim—to allow us to consider a basic question of identity in a new way.
             By recontextualizing the letters of a commonplace word, Catanzano reminds us that no word is commonplace when held up to the right kind of inquiry. Notice how the “i” hovers at the top of a stack of disconnected letters, as if it were the summation of the characters below it. This visual trick intimates that, perhaps, the scientist and the post-modern theorist have it right and the ego lies at the nexus of a cluster of points strung together by expectation, habit, sensation and perception. The “i,” of “flying” is the “i” in iEpiphany, a self defined as what it knows—the concatenation of a field of discrete fragments of “information”—a presence at once intimate and impersonal, particularized and collective. (The title is also, needless to say, a sly pop culture reference to the facets of contemporary culture shaped by the internet and a certain fruit-flavored Fortune 500 company, genus Malus.) What shapes, these poems ask, do our epistemologies take? Does the universe require us to understand it or do we require to understand the universe? What is necessary to an epiphany? The precursor to any more voluminous type of knowledge, Catanzano seems to tell us, must involve some kind of self-knowledge: “i”  (lowercase) before “Epiphany” (uppercase). Before we can make effective decisions about the nature of the environment that surrounds us, we must come to terms with the physics of the fragile interior landscapes we carry within us: “circadian rhythms are strongest over open water./left to human calculation all living creatures/experiments have shown” (39).
            The ego may be no more impermeable, in fact, than a layer of oil over water but, though the illusions of identity and language may be fallible, Catanzano invites us to investigate how our small, rickety histories are coupled to an overwhelming system of truths. In examining its shortcomings, Catanzano also glories in consciousness as the finest and only apparatus we possess for understanding the world. We may not exist at the hub of a web of “Programs surrounding/Products derived from/Specialized pictures which/Define their centers” (51). Nonetheless, it is our nature, our gift, our curse and our responsibility to parse the “multiple dimensions/of time and space” (42) where “like astrophysicists we adventure with precision to counter how words behave in their un/natural/Climates” (52). Catanzano implies that we may be no more than the sum of our parts but we are certainly no less. If iEpiphany proposes any thesis, it is this: we can acknowledge that we are composite beasts, hybrids of what we know, compendia of the things we have seen, heard, touched, smelled, tasted, thought and done. We can recognize this and, although we know it is only a necessary fiction, go on to live our lives anyway, as though they were whole, seamless and uninterrupted. We are lowercase—“i”—but in constant conversation with the proper nouns that organize the universe—“Epiphany,” “Evolution” (51). As we study the world around us, the conditions of our particular narratives continually inflect the inquiries we make (“nebulae are/Rorshach/tests in space” (58)) and the conclusions we come to (“As if autobiography/can take the skin off our most durable starships” (64)).
            It is tempting to accuse Catanzano of preciousness—but that would display a decidedly Uppercase Cynicism. What Catanzano has done in “flying” (“i n f or m a t i o n,” recall) is not merely to assert that knowledge gives us wings (a slogan typical of inspirational posters in elementary school hallways) but to discover a truth in a seemingly quotidian word and, moreover, to spell that truth out—literally, in this case—for us. Is it an obvious ploy? In some ways, yes. But “flying” achieves with one word an end that many more verbose poems have failed—to observe a point of intersection between language and experience and to help her readers to engage with the same observation in a fashion that feels at once calculated and utterly spontaneous—as if we had stumbled into (yes) an epiphany of our own.
            Catanzano clearly delights in the aphoristic, the homiletic, the gnomic: very short poems. When these economical verses succeed, they project a precise, transparent glister—like a star that snaps into clarity as you find the right focus on your telescope. My favorites hinge upon playful rhetorical reversals, deft ironies and statements of poetics. The poem “periodic,” for instance, reads: “This is more like the science fiction of genre than the genre of science fiction” (56). Meanwhile, “fractal,” is merely a series of nine words arranged in a pattern that the mathematically alert will recognize as a fractal—a kind of fragmented geometric form that can be split into divisions, each of which is roughly a microcosm of the whole. The words are: “sidereal,” “coinciding,” “transparent,” “astonish,” “lattice,” “scarabs,” “falling,” “conscious,” “centers.” Again, Catanzano predicates her poetry on a conceptual experiment and the degree to which you enjoy iEpiphany will depend very heavily on how much you are willing to indulge her penchant for these kinds of cognitive acrobatics.
            If the occasional poem veers a bit too far into coquetry or didacticism or facile metapoetics—or all three at once—the title that displays the worst of these abuses would have to be “true.” A poem staged as a dialogue, “true” protests war on the reductive grounds that “the performance is a war” (Not a particularly surprising conclusion to anyone who has taken the slightest interest in current events for the past five years). Not only is it the worst poem in Catanzano’s otherwise very skillful opus, “true” is also the longest and, perhaps, might have served the collection better had it been omitted or judiciously revised.       
            Luckily, “true” is the only specimen of its kind in iEpiphany. For the most part, even when bits of Catanzano’s work verge on the pandering or the simplistic, the poems usually right themselves, compensating for flippancy with philosophical inquiry or ornamenting an unoriginal claim with a gorgeous barrage of imagery: “Some poems sail like soldiers on the violin’s taught strings, powered by wind until tipping” (33). “morphospace,” a startling moment of extended rhetoric in a collection primarily constructed in more fragmentary form, made me sorry to turn the page (“This is a question that/Involves and possibly more/Dangerous animals” (50)) but, on its first reading at least, iEpiphany drives the reader forward, as if powered by some kind of liquid, linguistic propellant (a concept that Catanzano might actually find aesthetically provocative). I could not linger.
            Often compelling, rarely clumsy, Catanzano’s lyrics skate through meditations on time, physics, language and human communication with enthusiasm. Her poems radiate a warm, wily intellect, often reveling in their pared-down, diagrammatic design. Essentially a listing of chapter titles for a potential book, “messages” contains some of Catanzano’s most teasing juxtapositions: “Chapter One: Quantum Poetics/Chapter Two: A Science of Imaginary Solutions/Chapter Three: Poetry and String Theory” (41). By the time I had reached Chapter Eleven, “Clinamen and Hybridity” (41), I half hoped that the book in question actually existed in completed form. (In a Borgesian turn of events, or perhaps a tacit confirmation of the Many Worlds Interpretation model of quantum mechanics, I learn, even as I write this, that Catanzano’s next project is, thankfully, a work investigating intersections between poetry and theoretical physics. The title? Quantum Poetics: The Science of Imaginary Solutions.) Her verse inhabits an uncertain place. It disorients, disquiets and amuses by turns. iEpiphany does not give us a pat equation to help us discover where we are and how quickly we’ll get there—it’s too sophisticated not to enjoy the ambiguities it stirs up and too whimsical to waste too much time with ponderous condescension—it encourages us to take pleasure in the journey itself. Catanzano leaves the work of triangulating our position to the last airless degree to practitioners of “the faux/science inside/our eyes” (48). Her observations chart an interior terrain that is infinitely stranger even than the geographies of outer space, the “star-/forming regions” she returns to again and again in metaphor. “What can you see from the satellite?” (65) she asks—and answers, after a fashion: “everything/that stars are/not, taking/the shape of familiar things” (58). The distinction is this: Catanzano writes not of stars but of the language we use to dream of stars.


Reviewed by Rebecca Porte


Rebecca Porte reads and lives in Ann Arbor, Michigan. Her criticism has appeared in Contemporary Poetry Review, PN Review and the Boston Review.