Compression & Purity
Compression & Purity
by Will Alexander
City Lights, San Francisco, CA, 2011
94 pp. Paper, $13.95
Reviewed by Allan Graubard
New York, NY 10019 USA
Will Alexander is a poet and poetic-critical interpreter of the world with a uniquely compelling voice, which has finally gained him the kind of recognition he deserves. On its own, that is enough to interest us in him. At the same time, his is a voice that Americans in the main have avoided, as much for its metaphorical density as for its reach, including the epic or anti-epic or what might resemble one given our current state of culture. From his Asia & Haiti, a 1995 national book award nominee, to his recent The Sri Lankan Loxodrome (New Directions, 2010), he has offered us an intensity that we cannot mistake for another’s. He is his own medium: complex, transparent, opaque, shifting, hermetic, poignant, subversive, demanding, intimate, distant and, more than not, all at once.
I could go on here, but perhaps you see my point. Alexander is not the usual poet or, I should add, novelist, playwright, artist, performer and sometime pianist. His roots in jazz, the symbolists, and surrealists have fed him well, and he returns perpetually not so much as a source but certainly as a vector through the realms he envisions and revisions.
Nor is that the end to it. His avidity for scientific lexicons, the discoveries that form them, and the way he uses them precisely toward poetic ends has also opened that juncture where knowledge and sensibility couple – as much to avoid the weaknesses that each reveals distinctly as to engage their reciprocal strengths. In this light, it is best perhaps to describe Alexander’s work in terms of analogy, inspired by an insatiably lyrical desire to free language from the quotidian, along with its emotional subtexts, yet informed by current perspectives on any number of topics, from abyssal oceanography to astrophysics.
Compression and Purity, Alexander’s newest volume, speaks to all this in the 22 poems and texts he populates its pages with. And he does so with largess but also as a counter-active to it.
From the first poem, “The Blood Penguin,” Alexander sharpens this boundary. Here is a visceral image raised from the unconscious that touches on the symbolic (and I use this term in its potential collective sense, as a matter for ritual and ceremony). Yet this bird turned “carnivore” with vestigial wings for swimming rather than for flight, and whose “air” is both gaseous and soluble, draws to it interior/exterior squalls that dispense with known markers. It is also one of three poems in the collection that appear “in character,” making them monologues of a sort, and all the better for it. What other poet would speak to us, not about, but as, a “Blood Penguin,” a drop of “Water on New Mars,” or the “Pope at Avignon”; perhaps an amalgam of the seven Popes who reigned there in the 14th century: stark deadly years that saw genocide (the campaign against the Cathars) and massive epidemic (the Black Plague). And of Mars, we have the rovers and satellites to thank for our new sense of the planet but Alexander to thank for his visionary mutation of what we have met anew. As he puts it to begin the poem: “Being water/I am the voltage of rocks/of algid suns in transition/flying across a scape/of bitter Martian dioxide.”
Who, then, is “The Ghost Survivor,” this “body by drosera” that declines to “an invaded mausoleum,” no doubt the husks of creatures ingested by the genera with its near 200 species of carnivorous plants? What, for Alexander, is the relationship between “…Scorpians and Swallows”? Does “The Pointless Nether Plow” only allow the farmer to carve “his soil with volcanic blue seeds” or are their other uses that we can invent for it if just for ourselves alone? Is the horizon anything other than “…Parallel and Sonar,” an ambient target for “Alien Personas” who exist in us “beyond each iota of reason” we might bring to their configuration. How does the “Vibration from the Coast of India” affect us as the history and reality of that country compel ever-greater concern? What is it about "...Prana" that we seize and lose, that ennobles and abandons us; this static.
These are some of the scenes and several of the questions that Alexander presents in this volume. For those who know his works and those who don’t, his clarities and opacities, with their internal rhythmic charge, will invoke a dynamic that figures, as the constellations once did, the myriad connections that tie us to our human and natural universe; the one interpenetrating the other without cease.
Illuminating that dance both as foreground and background, masked or unmasked, in as out of character is Alexander’s pleasure and method.
The rest is up to you…