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Sillman

Before Thought Thinks: A Review of Ron Silliman’s REVELATOR
(Toronto, ON: BookThug, 2013. $17.00, 80 pages)
Review by David Swartz

To read Ron Silliman’s Revelator (2013) is to unleash a 200-mile-an-hour wind through the eye of a needle. Above all, Silliman teaches us how not to stay still, why we ought to rethink our normative views of termination, of the sentence-ing act itself, and of its relationship to reality. Revelator is a living breathing poetry machine, fuelled by the poet’s memory, and a passionate commitment to formal inventiveness; at once natural, whimsical, brilliant, and humane.

Throughout Revelator, Silliman uses five-word lines, a form borrowed from the final section of Louis Zukofsky’s poem, “A.” Clearly, Silliman views Zukofsky as his immediate predecessor and perhaps mentor. His own book reveals a vision of infinite enjambment, and takes a leap of faith in the direction of what the author calls “the new sentence” technique. According to Silliman, “the new sentence is the first prose technique to identify the signifier (even that of the blank space) as the locus of literary meaning.” The main effect of “the new sentence” is that “each sentence plays with the preceding and following sentence.” In Silliman’s hands, this idea is taken to its logical conclusion, allowing the active subject of the poem to remain perpetually in the present moment.

Seemingly composed of one sentence only, Revelator’s multiple caesuras turn words themselves into sentences, which are then juxtaposed with other word sentences, causing surprise. Perhaps the biggest surprise is that the words are not intentionally linked up by logic or argument. According to Silliman, the magic is in the “blank space[s], between words or sentences.” Silliman uses caesuras and enjambments to create such spaces, and to help his spiralling song lift itself off the ground. Something different at every turn. It could be the middle of the night or the break of day. Watch out for the narrow tunnels!

As Silliman loosens his hand, words tumble forth in playful combinations. Silliman plays with words in the same way a painter might play with paint and colour. He allows us to see how language does things on its own. The poet’s role is to allow this to happen. To play curator to one’s own voices. Language does not allow for random permutations, the more reckless the abandon, the more meaningful and thoroughly poetic the outcome.

Silliman’s ceaseless stream of words seems silly. He sets us straight at the outset concerning his true intentions: “Words torn, unseen, unseemly, scene.” The author’s admission of being “unseemly” is particularly illuminating. Silliman’s “unseemliness” is a way of “seeing,” a way of making a “scene.” It many cases Silliman sounds silly as a result of his mixed-up propositional logic, in conjunction with his run-on sentence from here to nowhere. Ultimately, the poet’s vision merges with an invisible, ostensibly “randomized” presentation that gives way to a close interweaving of logical and illogical elements. Words “torn” from other places become one united thing bound together by “the binding” stitched into the body of the book:

………………………………..each page would blow wild
………………………………..but for the binding stitched
………………………………..deep into the notebook’s spine

The organic nature of the notebook is a reminder that its living essence is the living man.

On another occasion Silliman writes:

………………………………..Eternity in the present only
………………………………..I shut my eyes, inhale,
………………………………..deeply to hear five speakers’
………………………………..simultaneous yatter, squirrels up high

Here the poet alludes to the metaphysical foundation of his poetic vision—to his one and his many—to the multiplicity of voices in his hands, and ultimately, to the five words spoken at the same time as a line of poetry, as a projection of thought before thinking.

………………………………..there’s an art
………………………………..to it intuited before thought
………………………………..thinks—

The slender body of Silliman’s poem adds to the ease with which it can be read and digested. Its lack of traditional subject matter and narrative, along with its exuberant and wide-ranging trajectory of ideas and ramblings, liberates the reader from being forced to follow a simpleminded train of thought. What Silliman has discovered is that the meaning of the train ride is not about ever reaching the final destination, but the experience of movement itself.

Revelator is about the power of awakening the visionary self-conception of “I-amb that Iamb,” echoing God’s declaration of His unnameable name. Only in this case, it is the poem itself declaring its sovereignty and unity over its multiplicity of disjointed voices. The word Revelator is a reference to Saint John the Revelator, the presumed writer of Revelations. The cover photograph depicts Silliman in 1978 reading his poetry aloud on Market Street by the Bank of America in San Francisco. This is the place where street preachers would address the teeming city crowds with prophecies of doom and gloom, salvation and redemption: “Change your ways, O ye people of the marketplace, the Kingdom of God is near!” Like John the Revelator, Silliman points the way to salvation through “the new sentence,” towards an end of our bondage to traditional language narratives, teleologies, and sentence usages.

Silliman’s iambic syllables dream his poem into being. His five word lines, engendered and inspired by the tangential illogic of “the new sentence” reveal a powerful source of raw energy. The magic of the book is that it seems to never end or begin. Afterwards, words merge, our notions of direction, time, and space are suspended. Most of all, ours ideas about the nature of the sentence are transformed.

Echoing Michelangelo, Silliman argues that the poem he is writing already contains itself, and needs only to be voiced:

……………………………………………………………..Stone
………………………………..said to contain its own
………………………………..sculpture thwarts choice—to voice
………………………………..vowels languidly moist lips purse
………………………………..their part—there’s an art
………………………………..to it intuited before thought thinks

In an interview with Silliman, arranged by BookThug, Silliman says: “The poems are telling me where to go rather than the other way around.” Indeed, while Silliman’s poem, like the human experience, “seeks fate through narrative causation,” we find such markers both everywhere and nowhere.

………………………………..What narrative cut asunder, short
………………………………..of a proper end, but
………………………………..ends themselves aren’t proper, fixed
………………………………..image (the camera always lies!)

Having grown into its own, Revelator refuses to go the way of all flesh. A living thing not only defies logic, but all forms of terminative fixation. There is, at least according to Silliman’s poetic philosophy, no end to the living sentence. The way things grow involves constant change. Revelator itself, the author maintains, is only 1 out of 360 sections of a larger unfinished work called “Universe.”

Silliman’s juxtapositions of puns surprise us, without confusing us; we know we are out of time, and that the author is gluing together seemingly random fragments of meaning, combined together to achieve one larger projective meaning.

Poetry is as much about form as it is about subject, e.g., philosophy, love, inspiration, or any number of things. Form not only crystallizes ideas, but also gives birth to thought. In order to reform our thoughts we must liberate them from their self-contented propositional logic, and look for “teleological justification” in what is right in front of us (“Eternity in the present only”).

Revelator is a sculpture, a river, a tonic, an inspiration; an invitation to a fantastical inner world where spectacles of seemingly silly speech reveal the boundless possibilities of poetic language. Ron the Revelator reveals the word made flesh as a living breathing poetry machine. Expect an unexpected turn anywhere. If life is a sentence (however short or long), “scream for // that which is unnameable” and “balk // at any configuration,” but above all else, don’t stop writing!

 

David Swartz is a Canadian writer, editor and visual artist. He has a Masters Degree in Comparative Literature from the University of Toronto and is currently studying painting at the Faculdade de Belas Artes at the University of Lisbon in Portugal. Check out his website: http://www.davidswartzart.com/.

 

This review was published in issue 11:2 “Speed.” To see more from this issue, please visit Vallum‘s website here: http://www.vallummag.com/archives_11_2.html