Franco Cortese's Lip and Matthew Tomkinson's oems
Reviewed by Zane Koss
In recent years, at least in some corners of the poetic world, there has been a revival of interest in a group of late-twentieth-century French writers and mathematicians who sought to push language to its limits. Beginning in the early 1960s, the Oulipo group, short for Ouvroir de Littérature Potentielle [Workshop for Potential Literature], sought means of generating new forms of writing through a series of predetermined writing procedures and formal constraints—limiting their lexicon, setting rules for the length of words or sentences, arbitrarily substituting words according to their position in a dictionary, and so on—a sort of automatic writing for the mid-century “physics envy” crowd. In her 1983 essay “The Rejection of Closure,” Lyn Hejinian argues that such processes demonstrate how language is “magnetic to meaning.” That is, rather than understanding meaning as something that emerges from the user’s interaction with its elements, Hejinian argues that the materials of language themselves create meaning independent of a reader or writer. By deploying language in non-standard ways, Oulipo-style constraints generate novel and idiosyncratic configurations of language that, nonetheless, signify—that can’t help but signify. Any string of words necessarily generates meaning—narrative, psychological, spiritual, or otherwise—regardless of the intent or lack of intent behind the creation of the text.
In the most famous example of Oulipo writing, George Perec’s 1969 novel La Disparition (published in English translation as A Void), the author entirely omits the letter “e,” the most common letter in both French and English. This constraint enforces a greatly reduced lexicon, and the absence of certain words (mère [mother], père [father], and so on) which create their own sites of signification-in-negation, which scholars have read as means for understanding Perec’s writing in relation to his biography and historical context—Perec was an orphan whose father was killed early in the Second World War and mother in the Holocaust. Tomkinson’s oems redeploys an established Oulipo gambit, the Prisoner’s Constraint, which forbids the use of words that contain letters with ascenders or descenders (b, d, f, g, h, j, k, l, p, q, t, and y). The cover copy of oems suggests that we are meant to understand Tomkinson’s choice of constraint in relation to his experience of obsessive-compulsive disorder, as if dermatillomania took hold of the uneven surface of the words, obsessively plucking them smooth. This can make oems a difficult book to skim as a reader, especially if you’re looking for a particular, partially remembered passage—the words, truly, do all look the same, stripped of the visual patterning that makes each stick out from the other. The book offers a smooth plane that either challenges the reader to plumb for hidden depths or to construct their own meaning from the play of connections across this surface.
The poems of oems, each numbered by a lower-case roman numeral, are composed of eight tercets of center-justified, sans serif text, broken up by walls of text that alphabetically list words that fit Tomkinson’s constraint. Each poem tends to present a series of grammatical fragments—lists of nouns or nouns modified by adjectives, oppositional pairs, and so on—that often seem to follow a logic of alphabetic proximity (e.g. “innocuous criss-crosses / incurious invariance” or “warm unworns / wars unwon”), which suggest that Tomkinson might write the poems by picking his way through the walls of text that segment the book, looking for moments of resonance or paths that might generate meaning. The book alternates between mantra-like inventories and sudden bursts of syntactic completion. The moments where full sentences and complete thoughts cohere from this limited repertoire puncture the reading experience like surprises—startling flashes of clarity. These moments often twist the accumulating fragments toward new meanings—as when the poem “xviii.” follows the phrase “renounce nuance” with “cue a non-vaxxer.” Elsewhere, when “x.” excavates a minimalist theory of “memories” from “cinema” and “aromas,” the preceding poems gain a new layer of meaning—each preceding poem becomes fragments of a memory filtered through the anxieties of obsessive-compulsive disorder. As with any poetics that relies on paratactic structures, there is a desire to read any one of its poignant fragments as an encapsulation of its poetics. Tomkinson, knowingly, I imagine, offers many such opportunities, especially in the earlier poems, with varying degrees of irony and self-critique: whether the reader views the poems of oems as “rococo run-ons” or “wearisome sameness” may depend on their willingness to play along with Tomkinson’s “sensuous monomania” as he excavates his “neurosis mine.”
Moments of repetition, partial repetition, like a slant rhyme—it appears that a secondary though not strict constraint here is to avoid repeating words, aside from the basic and necessary structural tissue of language—offer glimpses of older poetic structures, intentionally jarring across the machinic and the organic valences of Tomkinson’s poetics, creating rhythms and rhyme within the constraints: “scour us / caress us / uncover us.” Such moments show Tomkinson as working closer to a more traditional understanding of verse than the language of constraint-based poetry might tend to evoke. Tomkinson’s poems remind us that those older poetic forms—sonnets, villanelles, sestinas, and so on—are themselves arbitrarily determined, but which nonetheless permit an expressive understanding of the poetic act. Tomkinson might set a very stringent set of rules for his compositions, but the poems nonetheless emerge from an expressive poetic consciousness that makes decisions and selections from the always limited repertoire of available language—language, after all, operating by communal consent. Hejinian stresses how such arbitrary constraints lead to a poetics of openness through an awareness that completion is impossible: “The undifferentiated is one mass, the differentiated is multiple.” Tomkinson’s poetics thus offer a blending of old and new through this attention to rhetorical forms, such as repetition, that call our awareness to how older poetic forms always route an expressive consciousness through arbitrary constraints.
If oems, then, turns the author’s compulsions into creation, Franco Coretese’s Lip, too, offers another gloss on compulsion as a creative act. Here, rather than locate compulsion within the subject, Lip instead tracks the obsessive need for language to mean—for signs to signify, no matter how finite, restricted, or constrained their components—or, taken in a more humanist direction, perhaps, for consciousness to seek meaning from meaninglessness, to see linguistic forms everywhere—a sort of semantic pareidolia. In Lip, whose title clearly alludes to Oulipo poetics, Cortese assembles pre-arranged (typically, alphabetized) lists of similar clusters of letters that—to a pair of eyes familiar with only English, Spanish, and French—primarily appear as non-semantic fragments of language. An elemental example, drawn from the first poem in the book “ar am,” reads “áa / ab / ac / ad / ae / af / ag / ah / ai” (18). Cortese takes these fragments, processes them through various online dictionaries, and, choosing among the possibilities, assembles a “translation” in English. These lines from “ar am”—the English version titled “fire water”—read “lake / water / and / fire / water / out of / water / to be / water” (19). Elsewhere, Cortese translates a similar string of words—with ‘áa substituted for áa—as “to be alone / not attached to anything anymore / and / I / one / done / dawn / to be / at all times” (25). The almost-repetitions of the untranslated poems reinforce the degree to which any translation results from Cortese’s careful selection among the available paths, often clustering each poem around a similar topology where possible. At other moments, where a topical concordance doesn’t appear, the poems careen across a seemingly random linguistic landscape, incorporating a swaggering assembly of elemental elements alongside dictionary explanations of verb tenses and possessives. These latter poems are abstract in a way that recalls much of the most minimalist and hypotactic writing to emerge in the work of the (so-called) Language poets, such as Barrett Watten or P. Inman, similarly working to break the typical lines of logic—grammatical, associative, narrative, etc.—by which we’ve become accustomed to understanding language.
The poems move through a variety of compositional approaches: repeating a single vowel attached to each of the alphabet’s twenty-six letters in turn, as in the example from “ar am”; strings of three-letter clusters lacking vowels; a single repeated vowel framed by identical consonants (“bab / cac, dad / gag” in “wed”) and vice versa (“oro, / oqo ono omo; / olo, oko” in “ono olo”); or of a single vowel, over and over, with different diacritical marks (“å a å a å; / a a a” in the aptly titled “a,” which Cortese translates as “a creek towards a small river towards a big stream; / water towards water”); among others. The sheer number of poems in Lip, many of which closely repeat the “original” poem—with wildly different “translations”—suggests that Cortese, like Tomkinson, is working in a state of compulsion and obsession, albeit, here, not in a clinical sense. That loose connections between “original” and “translation,” a fraught linkage in any literary translation, here helps to emphasize the arbitrariness of meaning—the necessity that words will signify regardless of compositional intention.
In the poems that open the collection, much of the language Cortese filters from these fragments tends to express a language that allies with a vision—however fantastical—of how the earliest hominids invented language in order to communicate to each other about the essential elements of life: water, fire, father, bone, axe, dawn, and god—as if Jerome Rothenberg’s The Technicians of the Sacred had been written in the wake of Language poetry rather than acting as a spark for it. The line drawings—by the legendary bill bissett—that accompany the title page of each of the book’s subsections helps to reinforce this sense of neo-primitivism—or, as Cortese coins in the book’s extensive afterword or “adieu”: “primal-not-primitive.” (Either that or reviewing this book while reading David Graeber and David Wengrow’s The Dawn of Everything: A New History of Humanity has steered my mind toward seeing everything though a neolithic lens.) There’s an almost utopian impulse underlying these concordances that sits uneasily next to the post-conceptual poetics and continental theory that give this project its motivation. That friction feels valuable to hold onto—to let neither a pre-Babel utopianism nor a post-Derridean cynicism to overwhelm any reading of the text.
Both books, then, are premised on the intuition that interesting things happen when you push an experiment to its breaking point. Both, too, have complicated relationships with subjectivity, the primitive, and obsession. While neither book might offer what a reader conventionally might expect from “poems” (whatever that means anyway), each book nonetheless works to open wider the circle of the possible in poetry. As a journey, along which you will encounter moments of aesthetic pleasure and intellectual provocation (and frustration, to be sure) both succeed, in their different ways—asking the reader to understand language as a complex material that generates meaning out of its varied linkages and sedimented histories, a material that needs constantly to be renewed through experiments designed to test (and expand) its limits. In these books and their previous work, Cortese and Tomkinson have demonstrated themselves to be two writers working at the forefront of innovative writing in Canada. If you believe in the idea that literature exists to expand our consciousness or the realm of our experience, both books are worth being taken seriously.
 Peter Middleton, Physics Envy: American Poetry and Science in the Cold War and After (University of Chicago Press, 2015).