Fragile Replacements by William Allegrezza
(Meritage Press, San Francisco & St. Helena, 2007)
WHEN THE SAINTS GO MARCHING IN: WILLIAM ALLEGREZZA’S FRAGILE REPLACEMENTS
There is no outside
I have abolished it
Materials of construction rarely resemble what is being constructed. A workbench with saw, hammer, nails, wooden boards loosely assembled within reach gives no indication of a table or book case. Construction sites often are surrounded by fences that forestall anticipation. I've seen crews make work sites look more chaotic than they really are simply to prevent inquiries about what is taking place and when is everything going to be "back to normal."
In taking office in 2009 as U.S. and the world's financial structure were falling to pieces, President Barack Obama sought to act quickly. In doing so, his concern might have been largely psychological, hoping to reassure a society in disarray. Perhaps he was mindful of F.D.R.'s famous statement that "We have nothing to fear but fear itself." Obama's target was consumer confidence, the intangible though strongly evident apprehensive mood of a nation.
This anxious and indeterminate moment, this time in question, this interval, between the fragmenting of a stable structure and the reemergence of stability and prosperity, between beginning of crisis and its end is actually common in the way life proceeds and presents itself. In fact, life is a time between, a time “immemorial,” its starting and stopping points arbitrarily imposed for the sake of convenience and self-stirring approbation.
It is this indeterminacy, this unexpected ambiguity that William Allegrezza's 2007 poetry collection from Meritage Press, Fragile Replacements, is about.
in the middle to restart the system
with flags full in breeze and handles turned
full forward to hear everything crack
tumbling off its nicely stacked shelf
incipit and so it begins in desire
tracing out a new path for memory out of
long unused space
copied from a dream
in which one awaits a portal of erasure
or moves and changes and hopes and
finds a voice that repeats in clear
rhyme and reason.
This is the first poem of the collection, the first of forty-two roman numbered poems in the first section, titled "Go-between." It is also one of the best poems in the collection, giving an inventory of themes contained, like a table of contents, beginning of course with the phrase "in the middle." This, then, is followed by the idea of reassurance needed to "restart the system." The symbolic tokens in which reassurance is found are such as "flags" and "handles" and robust Obama-like movement going "full forward" and hearing everything crack like a whip. The poem also brings in fleeting Proustian touchstones associated with desire and memory and dream, the "momentary stay" as Robert Frost called it, sparkling with the heft of a greater reality. One might think of "a portal of erasure" as neo-Proustian, the philosophical absence and negation that give birth and shape to the substance of hope and movement. This is the absence out of which cries the human "voice" and "reason" and existence itself.
There is also a counter theme in the poem. It brings in the idea of "change" that was an emphasis in the 2008 Presidential campaign, with the phrase "Change We Can Believe In," itself a phrase tending toward reassurance. Certainly the election of the first African-American U.S. President has to be considered a change in some sense. It reflects a change in values, attitudes, laws, perhaps in demographics. A change in focus, in depth. But it is not as much a departure or tearing down as one might fear. The U.S. system of government that produced it was not changed; rather it was more strongly established. Its promise, its foundation reached a fulfillment.
Change, particularly change that can be believed in, is not piece-meal or all-at-once. Political and social change is brought about by ideas working through time. This we call progress. It is progress that at times requires reassurance, that tests confidence. So that though life is indeterminate, theoretically, forever, the indeterminacy of ideas is only until they reach fulfillment. In calling ideas "inalienable" and "self-evident," we are saying that once they are put in motion nothing can stop them. "Times of change" are time-of-construction when the materials and the tools are discernable but fulfillment is still remote.
Regarding life, we are always "in the middle." There are no times of change but only constant motion. But regarding progress with its subtle direction, there are historical moments when, in Allegrezza's words, the "silvery skin" of the present comes "tumbling off its nicely stacked shelf." The advancement of progress destroys and causes us to rebuild our societies. This process amounts to a removal of pretext, a clarification and reestablishment of the indeterminacy from which is derived the fundamental values and foundations of life. These are important ideas Allegrezza has done well to put in place for consideration.
Matter is a priori. Though we attempt to hold matter down for the sake of an instinctive predilection, for a given or psychic symmetry, it groans and protests, “do not restrain me”. We are “hampered” by diversity, contradiction, imprecision, transition. In feeling this way we forget that others feel the same, “the pain of so many happy surrounding [our] sorrow”. We are “happy/ that life seems secure/ that days seem long” once we have “unplugged the cords and/ switched off everything switchable”. Yet, in spite of happiness, “each verse is a journey” “so that/ now an argument for oneness/ seems hopelessly misguided” and so that “devotion leads to self-destruction”.
It’s these fragments from Allegrezza's stylistically fragmented poems that are the “fragile replacements“ that stand in reassuringly when worlds to which we have become attached crumble and collapse. Revealingly, Allegrezza's poems have a temporality similar to the those of Larry Eigner. Two of the poems in this first section are visual or “concrete” poems, with words, letters scattered “beyond the widest circle” on the page. Though life is indeterminate and “hard to comprehend,” the clouds, birds, sunsets, stars, new words, buildings do contain some sort of meaning, an overall meaning. Even from Allegrezza’s anti-cogency vantage, “a marvelous vision on a rainy afternoon/ signals an end”.
The second section, “Under Clear Fields,” is a variation on the first. Whereas the first section takes up the idea of a go-between and reassurance during “times of change” and disruption, the second section seems more intent on making a case for accepting randomness. It yearns anarchistically. The first section is an introduction to the indeterminate, the concept of it, the workings of it. The second section is a field guide to indeterminateness, the way it appears in life, its disguises, its mistreatment, even in relation to something as pervasive and innocent as the image of "clear fields."
The first poems of the second section, titled “Rider,” is six lines long, though it covers the same amount of space on the page as a later eighteen-line poem. The difference is white space, emptiness. The poem begins with the word “lost.” The second line further down is lower case “i.” The last line at the bottom is “he moves.” Matter may be a priori. But no less so is emptiness, thought, mystery, form and formlessness. Correctly, Allegrezza gives these an equal place. Moreover, matter is only what Robert Lowell called “detritus,” parts broken off, rocks, debris. Matter is not of uniform value, or else it is uniformly valueless. Words are similar. They have their place and their power, but their power is the ability to produce a space that they themselves do not occupy.
Other titles in this section are “bits from austin,” “nominal phrases,” “glass views” “dust,” “drift,” “without vision.” They speak in sonar blips of confinement, out-of-body experience, real numbers, flowers, actuality. They have the aimless inchings of Andy Warhole movies of real-life objects, such as the Empire State Building, presented in long time spans utterly without pretension. They wash through evolutionary super-eons, where even the human form is arbitrary, where, as in some of Charles Bukowski’s poems, we are unaware of what we are witnessing. They enjoy sub-atomic word play. The strophes glide past like creatures at the bottom of oceans or objects in deep space. Perhaps they aren’t new life forms, but they are the exciting and curious forms of new life. Clumping in a primordial linguistic ooze, they evoke an exciting metaphysical renunciation of falseness. Even light, filtering through the depths, does not go unquestioned.
in a blue room
hydrants are left slowly running for birds
as though simple ashes gathered along a
single street in reverential communing
a congregation its place
like anything that moves within or moves without
all of which is taken prisoner of enlightenment
Truth to tell, Allegrezza’s indefiniteness and his poems about it reach toward a mystery that is beyond the metaphor or “theory” of evolution. This is not surprising, since as obvious as evolution’s having some merit is the fact that it leaves questions unanswered. Even if humankind were able to repeat the process of creation, it wouldn’t preclude the existence of a god. Perhaps it would vindicate those that say evolution is continuing, into an era in which Mankind becomes some sort of deity and creator. The talk of billions and billions of years seems to enhance the mystery. But for Allegrezza the Big Bang is living just down the street.
bullets surround a signal phrase like
a guiding light in the sixth circle
i stopped near a fence
reached into my coat
and pulled out oblivion
and the poem “utterance” (with its unassuming periods)
as I stop waiting
for fireflies to sweep
the city clean
as though life
could end with
the entire mechanism
so many streets
continue to run
blossoms on trees
Tielhard de Chardin says that the process of creating unites. But it could also be said that the process of creating divides. And, here, Mcluhanist ideas barge in impolitely, with the notion of divisive unity (nationalism) and tyrannical order (linearity). Visual writing, visual poetry has the ability to show us the finished logos. One might take a moment to describe some of its attributes: unassuming, humble, non-visual (non-pictorial), the “trace.” With the trace, multiplicity and diversity come through in the finished logos. Visual writing speaks with the voice of many. It represents a hidden mystery, a subdued mystery. The finished logos is a Jungian archetype. It describes not a tyrannical order but a liberating perhaps pre-existing order of system and infrastructure, an order that Allegrezza surprisingly doesn’t seem entirely to contest.
What textual writing shows us, by contrast, is the unfinished logos, which we in turn view as the unfinishable, the never-ending logos. This is the logos of “differentiation,” of “infinite content.” Though textual writing appears to tend toward hegemony, in fact it has the effect of liberation. Textual writing establishes subjectivity, endlessness.
The third section of Fragile Replacements, “Gathering Forces,” is a tempestuous envoi of various sorts of visual and textual writing, a rousing estuarial Wynton Marsalis Dixieland chorus with instruments blaring at the top of their lungs all at the same time, superimposed on one another, in a grand saturnalian march...but a march of what?
At first one wants to say “triumph.” The title “gathering forces,” the festive effect of the large and small fonts, vertically and horizontally on the pages, in black and in white lead the reader toward a sense of arrival. On the third page of the section is an unmistakable oversized bold-face "V," first letter of the ordinary sized phrase "voice returning." The section itself is introduced rather simply with a lone untitled poem, which begins,
i came into the valley to protect myself
against coming storms
after i searched desolation near
racks and old schools
where towers stood in
dark skies and fires burned.
for clear air
i came searching
and for a voice
with which to claim
Several pages later are the lines "i search/among rocks" and "poetry 'is a way of saying,/of noting how to become and unbecome'" and "i toss bits of paper in the wind" and "we cannot remain huddled/next to rock with our/words clear warnings/so we/slither into cities/and are/thrown up among signs/on buses and cars." These phrases give the sense of self-possession, summation and indeed of a "voice returning."
But some of the oversized, overarching superimposed words and phrases would not be associated with triumph: "control" "anguish & the lash" "must stand in line" "space surrounded." Nor do they especially favor unity. These are decidedly dissatisfied phrases. Phrases of repression, obstruction and of subsumed, "sullen," misunderstood selves.
What we must see in Tielhard de Chardin's idea that in creating we unite is that the unity he is talking about is not a simple or, perhaps, platitudinal unity. It is not based on the sacrifice of self. It is a unity kept vital by division. A unity based on diversity and multiplicity and subjectivity. Regarding Mcluhan: Is all unity divisive? Is all order tyrannical? Allegrezza, in this third section, says that "to write/ is to engage with an agenda". Are all agendas subversive? Cannot a writer conceive the complex and favorable agenda of a unity that is predicated on, held together by diversity? Cannot we think of an order that is not restrictive but is the fulfillment of a system of freedom? A self-balancing order, an actual order, a living order.*
In my opinion, in this third section, Allegrezza has done precisely that. He has given us the triumphal arrival that we expected, but he has complicated it with various uncharacteristic and broadening elements. For example, the title of the section, "Gathering Forces," is, I think, intended to be seen in a light without preference, as neither a good or bad thing, but only as a description. This gathering might be a society rising up or a society falling down. It is more specifically the dark cloud of a society that understands depth, complexity, responsibility, honesty. Though the visual and the textual writing clash, they do so with a tension that, like a gravitational orbit, symbolizes stable motion, a purposeful "steady-state." (Perhaps it would be helpful to interject a word from a different sort of discussion--"homeostasis.") Their clash is nothing more than a representation of society itself. This is a finished logos, a finished unfinishable logos. It could be a World War, a Depression, a Russian Revolution or a prosperous Golden Age. Any and all of these things. What Allegrezza is saying is that at bottom they are the same.
(*President Obama, in the euphoria of his inauguration, spoke daringly of unity. He even dusted off that word we have not been able to think highly of for so long, “patriotism.”)
Tom Hibbard has new poems in Cricket and the special green issue of Jack just out this spring of '09. Besides poetry, Hibbard has many reviews in various journals, on and off line, especially of Philip Whalen's Collected Poems at issue 13 of Word/For Word and anthologies of Turkish poetry and Chicago poetry at the current Big Bridge. A poem and a review are scheduled for the upcoming issue 37 of Jacket.