“The Harmonic Structure of a Life”: Ryan Nowlin Reviews The Unwanted Sounds, a poetry collection by Lorraine Lupo

Writing letters to Lorraine Lupo over a period of three years was an extension of our friendship. Also, we engaged in dialogic literary criticism. Every time I sat down to write in response to a letter from Lorraine, not only did I reflect on what was happening in our current lives but also what I had been reading, and what was new in my thinking about poetry. Further, exchanging letters facilitated the kind of voice, which is, to paraphrase Robert Lowell in his book Imitations, “one voice running through many personalities.” Perhaps like a radio dial, different stations, one dial.

I think there are two versions of what it means to be a poet in America. One version is when a poet who is relatively young finds a publisher for work that was created in MFA programs, often poetry that consists of recounting important life experiences with objective distance. Once these poets are published, they begin to promote their work via formal book tours, and readings. After grad school in 2004, I stopped writing until meeting the New York School poet/editor/publisher Larry Fagin, through whom I was also introduced to Lupo in 2016. For me, she represented a different way of being a poet; she was excited about experimenting and delving into the mystery of poetic creation.

Instead of recounting her experience, what I hear in Lupo’s new book, The Unwanted Sounds, is the harmonic structure of a life. In this collection of poetry, Lupo achieves a delicate form of improvisation where the music is not yet familiar, sometimes almost too far out to be heard.

To forsake harmony would mean all noise has equal value and thus inherent meaning or structure is not to be found in the world except in terms of the meaning we attribute to it through language. When John Cage tried to capture noise in his famous composition entitled 4’33”, he was reflecting only one part of the gestalt of the moment. We can reconcile these divergent ways of being a poet in America by referencing the critic Hugh Kenner, who wrote that, in Robert Creeley’s Collected Poems, “a problematic aura attends the simplest utterances.” This problematic relationship with language and identity cannot only be seen in Creeley’s poetic work, but also in Lupo’s poems.

Her opening poem, “Yes Is Always the Answer,” is rhythmic, graceful, and rich in gesture:

Take this small gesture
Made in China
Invent it, then name it
Not the Reverse
If there’s no word for this feeling
Someone else can map the sound
On our way down the chute
We can close our eyes
And say what’s missing
Below, water rushes
And sweeps away the inconsequential wrappings
Of this important product
One of the facts of existence is its inescapability

Later, in the poem “Yes Is Always the Answer,” Lupo writes: “It is not the fate of words / To make sense.” In her poetry, each simple line is often part of a more complex form such as in the sestina, the pantoum, the prose poem, or in wry, often cautionary poems such as “Ne Plus Ultra.” In addition, some forms such as the pantoum or the sestina force the poet to write differently and examine habitual poetics. According to the late poet John Ashbery writing a sestina was “like riding downhill on a bicycle and having the pedals push your feet. I wanted my feet to be pushed into places they wouldn’t normally have taken.”

In another sestina, “Epiphany on the Beach,” Lupo propels us into the unknown with the interpolation “collection of particulars abstracted / to the intentional mark.” In the pantoum, “Herrick,” there is an enticing mystery of doors “placed at such an angle that / No one can see in but any can enter.” One exciting aspect of this pantoum is its subtle shifts in meaning that occur as repeated phrases are revised and re-contextualized. Here Lupo raises questions about what it means to witness or even participate in awakening from a dream, that stage of silent confusion.

What I admire about Lupo’s work is the extent to which she achieves separations, yet the situations are always changing. A similar example is achieved in the famous first sentence of Max Jacob’s preface to his book of prose poems, The Dice Cup, in which he writes: “Everything that exists is situated.” He develops two related ideas, “situation” and “style.” By style Jacob means the handling of the medium that creates the separation between the person of the author and the created work. By situation of the poem, he meant the margin that distanced it from real life. For example, in “Hobble” Lupo writes about private and public thoughts which seem to belong to an arena that goes beyond the personal locus: “every hill / you go down / is a lost / vista in the / mega city / and that’s twenty / million eyes / on your / dumb idea / in neon hypocrisy / is easy / to spot.” Associated with these lines above, she asks “What if we’re through inventing?” And she also addresses this in her prose poem, “The Power of Thought.” What might seem initially like self-deprecation and wry speculation, on second reading seems in fact disarmingly earnest. In a sense, the subjective element of thought can seem manufactured like “plastic geegaws that go right into the trash.” Lupo concludes the poem with the declaration that she has “churned out many a machine, some of them with legs running in the air,” as though they were an assemblage of desire.

A problem for some writers involves relying on intentionality or habitual ways of writing, but experimental writers use various forms in order to break out of this type of pattern. Another way of using writing to discover form and to see differently is through collaboration in which the normative linguistic exchange is subverted through collectivizing the writing process. Lupo’s collaborations with various poets include Paul Maziar, Larry Fagin, myself, and many other poets. This kind of fragmented and sequential interrelatedness can be seen in her and Larry Fagin’s collaboration, “Other Things Which Should Be Automated,” which among other things includes “an automatic je ne sais quoi (Simply wave your hand under it).” I have participated in these kinds of collaborations with Lorraine and with others, so I know firsthand that it is impossible to be intentional because your contribution results from a dialogue with the other person.

In a recent conversation Lupo explained to me the circumstances surrounding the poem “Only More,” dedicated to the poet and visual artist Norma Cole. As Lorraine didn’t really know Cole socially, she always felt awkward in her presence:

I went to the museum today where I
ran into the Sonic Boom Lady
but, as usual, didn’t have anything to say

Norma Cole, who has lived in the Bay Area since 1977, has received great acclaim for, as she puts it, her “openness to traditions and practices, artists and writings, radically divergent from her own.” Reading Norma Cole’s seminal book Spinoza and Her Youth made a significant impact on Lupo as a young poetry reader. Incidentally, Lupo’s friend Brett Goodroad coined the name the Sonic Boom Lady, in reference to Norma Cole, one day when he and Lupo were admiringly talking about her work.

In “Agnes,” Lupo pays homage to the Abstract Expressionist painter Agnes Martin. Here Lupo observes that “The same line / traced many times / is the perfect memory / of the illogical rectangle / The will bends it / to the eye’s description.” Lupo seems to be suggesting there was a lack of precedence among the Abstract Expressionist painters in terms of representation. The latter may make it difficult to formulate words or ideas that could describe what the Abstract Expressionists attempted to achieve.

Towards the end of the last section of Lupo’s book, in her poem, “Consciousness,” she contemplates the dualism of mind and matter, the mystery of consciousness (and its termination), the illusion of selfhood and sparks from the wheel. She concludes:

That’s the difference between the dog and me
History isn’t interesting
if we remember just one thing

The last time Lorraine and I met up in the Lower East Side near Avenue A for dinner we were discussing how difficult publishing opportunities were and that striving for poetic freedom felt like an insurmountable wall. Yet with Lorraine’s poetry one feels that she entertains a Negative Capability found in The Letters of John Keats, “that is, when a [woman] is capable of being in uncertainties, mysteries, doubts, without any irritable reaching after fact and reason.” There is a wall and through a chink in the wall Lorraine glimpses at a greater kind of consciousness, which allows us to recognize ourselves in a familiar persona. Lorraine’s poetic investigations of memory and desire allow for more connectivity than we would ordinarily associate with experimental poetry.

The Unwanted Sounds, by Lorraine Lupo. Cuneiform, July 2022. 104 pages. $20.00, paper.

Ryan Nowlin received his MA in creative writing from Temple University in 2004 and MLIS from Rutgers in 2011. His concentration was in postmodern American poetry and 20th century Modernisms. For the past few years he has been an active participant in the Poetry Project at St. Marks in the Bowery. He currently lives in New Jersey and teaches as an English Adjunct at Hudson County Community College. Recently poems of his have appeared in Sal Mimeo, The Delineator, Boog City, Across the Margins, and Posit, as well as the anthology/photography book, Like Musical Instruments: 83 Contemporary American Poets (Ed. Larry Fagin & John Sarsgard). Also, he has published two chapbooks, entitled Banquet Settings and Not Far From Here. Kugel is his first full-length collection of poetry. A recent chapbook entitled Time with the Season is due out this spring by Slacks Press.

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