Noah Eli Gordon’s newest collection, The Year of The Rooster is like a hyper-intellectual conversation in the midst of a total rager. It’s easy to get lost, but that’s half the fun. Especially as these poems huck themselves around from existential doubt to post-modern denial, especially with this rooster running around giving everyone a hard time.
The book begins with “Diminishing Returns,” a section of poems decaying from sonnet to nothingness. In sonnet form, and in the first few variations, Gordon’s rhetorical contract reveals itself, the poems bouncing from Romantic-era picturesque to Camusian negation. The sky loiters around, waiting to become a topic of argument. The Earth is literally battened down in anticipation of newfangled discoveries. As we, alongside the speaker, posture on the “timeless, unmoving, & immutable, an arrow passes our illusion.” Here, these little worlds are allowed ample room for development and so the forays into the anti-logical read as sanctioned disavowals. But as the poems dwindle, the contrast between the competing aesthetics becomes starker. For my part, the intuitive logic connecting these visions of the world can seem harder to parse as the poems dwindle (though my sensibility has always preferred the maximalist). Gordon, in my opinion, flourishes where he approaches the maximal, and it seems that these diminishing returns are mainly a sort of anticipatory stage dressing for the Rooster’s big (BIG) premiere. As the poems diminish, so too does our footing seem to slip, until we’re left with “A Subjective Matter,” a single-lined death knell for personal nostalgia that keeps tolling in your head, even as you dig into the next section, and the Rooster (who goes variously by “he,” “she,” Roo” throughout the poem) begins to rise for its day.
Gordon calls the Rooster “a trope,” but it seems also to be partly a rhetorical foil—especially, I suspect, when the goal is to avoid outright endorsement of an idea. “The Year of The Rooster,” delights in washing us in a surf of competing intellectual currents. On one page, it can ask, “[w]ho’d want to move from the particular?” while on another, it will seemingly reject any value for particularity, as when a nameless presence, a “he or she / or me says / to no one / in particular” that “[s]ense is some- / thing else you make willingly.”
In terms of “intellectual current,” Roo often seems to play l’enfant terrible. Like a cartoon troublemaker, he hops around a scenic backdrop, lighting tiny hotfoot fires in our critical ideals—here with a sonnet made exclusively of crowing; there with a “teen rebel” standby against adopted assumption:
in the farm
that he’s sure
he must have
in the thought
This is a poem that moves like the devil, though. And so rarely do we find out whether these blazes are extinguished, or whether they take off. Still, “The Year of The Rooster” is building toward some new terrain, built up almost impressionistically, like the worlds of Borges or Simic, so that we can’t quite figure out where the walls and doors are, but we have a pretty good sense of the rules. It is a world where “[t]he first painting / you’d ever done / is the best you’ll do / not because you didn’t / know what it was / that you were doing / but because you didn’t / know what it was / that you weren’t,” where, “for the rest of your life / you get to be an adult / trying to reconstitute / the age of the egg,” and where “[y]ou don’t plunge headfirst into the pool / First, you make sure someone’s there to see it happen.” It’s a world where every action is bristling with both the ironic and the painfully serious. Does a cannonball, alone in the pool even create a splash? We’re asked to believe, simultaneously, that it does and it doesn’t. That to “make sure someone’s there to see it happen” is both a real necessity and a self-important ideal. “It’s a deafening sound drives through / sincerity,” Gordon says, and it’s true: there’s a feeling of post-modern “Importance” to every line, even in those places where the inquisitions begin to get almost ambient (“or is it / the light’s / half solicited / by his simple rhetoric?”).
It’s hard to see this project as unrelated to “capital T Theory,” but thank God for Gordon’s acute humor, or it might risk being as unnervingly insular as those other works so often tend to be. When we emerge from this bizarro world of the Rooster with our notions of everything—from gender and its performative aspects to the universality of relations—completely restored to question marks, we’re led by the first few, zig-zagging pages of “The Next Year: Did You Drop This Word” into another treatise on nostalgia, this one in essay format, invoking Ashbery’s Three Poems with its luridly transient train of thought.
“Returning Diminishments” ends the book with a sort of completist symmetry, reversing the first section’s mission, now building from a single line back to a sonnet, the ultimate poem taking its images and devolving them into nothing but actual imagination figments. “Reduce the lizard to a thought, / the flag to a thread, & sun to a smear of yellow inside the flower. / The rock is already a reduction.”
Our overall sense of the speaker is something sort of contemporarily yogic: the anodyne jargon of the theorist bolstered and simultaneously rejected by the ultra-talk sincerity. Even when Gordon dives into anxiety, it seems brief and vaguely sunny. He’ll call out a fraudulent rhetorical “you,” with “your mouth salvaging prude armor of a pride encased by lesser speech with louder reach,” before undercutting it with instances of diminishing severity: “You & Roo’s collaborative poem / on the ills of capital / You & Roo’s condemnation of nudity / with all clothes removed.” This is just one of the pervasive (and oft-needed) reminders in Year of The Rooster about just how deadly serious and complex everything is, and how the only way to even approach a successful navigation is with a well-tuned sense of humor.
The Year of the Rooster, by Noah Eli Gordon. Boise, Idaho: Ahsahta Press. 144 pages. $18.00, paper.
Joshua Kleinberg lives in Ohio.