Noah Eli Gordon’s The Word Kingdom in the Word Kingdom is a text that takes up the struggle of the word itself. Kingdom weighs in at a boisterous 158 pages and is the longest of Gordon’s thus far eight poetry collections. In this text, as with anywhere else, words are all powerful, capable of defining, expanding, creating sense, but also of limiting. That is not to say that they have a “proper” use but that we are responsible for their use and their waste. “To paint the word lighthouse on a lighthouse is deserving of shipwreck.” There’s a decade’s worth of meditative knowledge packed into these poems that are as personal and playful as they are philosophical. It’s been aptly stated that Gordon has a knack for shifting between epigram and aphorism, and no poem in Kingdom is better prosodically staged to deliver such syntactic acrobatics than “For Expression.” The poem enacts the simple repetitive gesture of for, and against and quickly becomes more than a list:

For the capacity
to imagine
your nakedness
Against the endless images
of it

For enchantment
in general
Against the generals
of entrenched

Against the rifles
the aggressors
of elegant discourse
display as flags
For riffling elegantly
through discourse
to display
aggression flagging

“For Expression” is a poem that’s elegant in its simplicity, and a lesser poet might not have been able to pull off the constraint: having an almost villanelle quality to its recursion but never taking up the form. The gesture transcends repetition as a nod to Gertrude Stein, and as her quote opens the poem, it also enacts a calling to action, which Gordon has certainly taken up in Kingdom: “Sing a song of utterance. I mutter to you. Sing a song of expression.” Another poem that takes the modus of the list to its fullest extent is “Ten Ways to Put Together an Airplane” in the second section of Kingdom: “3. Turn weakness of the libido into the asset of a well-stocked garage,” which reads as a less colloquial translation of a pornographic ad, or as satire of SkyMall and its kin. Let us collectively reproach the kitschy, the look what our neighbors have got. And hell, while we’re at it, let’s: “4. Shatter utopian tendencies against the earthly ballast that anchors them.” Tauntingly delivered as both a command and tip, it has a Cezanne quality to it (just try to build an airplane from that!). Often Gordon’s lines seem equal parts play and intellectual gymnastics, where perception moves instanter on another:

taking a tidal wave apart a salty

phoneme sinks in sand it is not

novel pictorial noise but the limits

of draftsmanship standing for the limits

of earthly existence removed from

the videocassette multi-petaled rose

Here, images are able to shift and become in the mind, apart from being tied down to any gravity of an actual plane. An imaginary sensory apprehension of experience where something can be put together just as observation takes it apart. In this instance, it is right to unencumber the poem from commas, periods, or other punctuation. Each of these well-bound lyrics demands its own rules and functions. For all of its play, Kingdom doesn’t fall short of its own technical philosophy. Section two takes as its primary concern the object of the airplane, both replacing it and representing it. This effect enacts the airplane more than it embodies it: “Can a poem really take an airplane apart?” from “Questions for Further Study,” and for that matter, can a poem really build an airplane? To say that the book answers this question would be coming on too strong, but the fourth poem of “Ten Ways to Take an Airplane Apart” addresses it for us in a roundabout way:

Dear apple, the earth photographed
in its entirety doesn’t place you

at odds with your animal
That’s perspective’s job

When we recall that the first organized use of airplanes was to take pictures of enemy lines, a reconnaissance of bases, the idea of the photograph gets inside of our attention. Use doesn’t change our perspective, but it does align it in a certain way. The way that we use a thing helps to define it and thus limits other uses for it. Keeping with the whiplash tradition of Gordon’s line movements, the poem quickly voltas into:

Automation never found a gardener
in want of work, but seeding the clouds

above this mechanical sense
of draftsmanship begs the question

is it still impossible to improve
upon the ladder

Gordon seems frustrated with the utilitarian. At odds with use. This is of course a commentary on poetry: from what perspective will the poet use language to construct or deconstruct? From what distance do we approach? How do our habits of convention place us? I can think of several ways to improve upon a ladder, but which of them would be right to do so? In these poems, we find evidence of argument, challenge, and affirmation to the new directions of the world. Speech is no ornament in these delightfully crafted lines wherein the poet will place himself as for or against the subject. A kind of reflexive engagement is required to experience any given poem as a whole as one can get lost in the lyric and “wake up in static” only to be reminded that there is an argument taking place.

What charges these poems with continuous energy is their ability to surprise. That with each unpredicted swerve of the line, we’re left with an omnibus of possibilities. Reading Kingdom is like seeing the Hubble space telescope’s “Galaxies Galore” image from 2004 where within a sliver of space no larger than the hole of a straw we’re able to see millions of solar systems (thousands of galaxies). Endless possibility for contemplation. It just so happens that Gordon captures this image in another way in “A New Kind of Poem”:

Between the questions, as between
two towering beachfront hotels,
there are waves upon waves
upon waves passing through
a tiny sliver of ocean.

The Word Kingdom in the Word Kingdom, by Noah Eli Gordon. Brooklyn, New York: Brooklyn Arts Press, April 2015. 158 pages. $18.00, paper.

Alex Rieser is the author of the chapbook Emancipator (New Fraktur Press, 2011), and has internationally published poetry, fiction, interviews, and criticism. His work has appeared in Ploughshares, The Cossack Review, The Portland Review, Paris Magazine, The Prague Review, and many others. He holds an MFA from the University of San Francisco, where he served as Chief Art & Poetry editor for Switchback. He currently lives in Riverside, California, with his wife and son. More at

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