Culture & Conversation

Variations of the Elegiac Memory

When poetry’s relation to consciousness was configured as a linear construct, a concurrent understanding of the poem was that it embodied a concordance between the language of the creative impulse and the real world into which the poetry was cast.  The aim was to achieve a harmony of results between the two arenas. Over time, though, an extraordinary evolution has occurred in this idea. The poet is no longer seen as a mediating figure, but as someone engaged in actually overthrowing the poem through subversive acts against language and against the linear paradigm of consciousness itself.

In his new collection of poems, Indexical Elegies, Jon Paul Fiorentino joins this struggle. He has gone so far as to cleanse his work of almost all poetic effect, though he continues to bang on the cracked kettle that Flaubert likened to human speech.  He seems to like the echo of clangor. His poetry is a collage of syntactical disjunctions that are the beginning symptoms of a collapse of serial logic.  Fiorentino takes the occasion of loss as his “subject” in this book, and develops it according to Derrida’s notion of the archive, or index, as a structure on which to create variations of the elegiac memory.  He busies himself undermining the tropes of what E. M. Cioran called “a winded civilization.”

But Fiorentino’s true tutelary god is the Austrian philosopher Ludwig Wittgenstein, who articulated his ideas in lapidary aphorisms.  “A serious philosophical work,” he remarked somewhere, “could be written entirely of jokes.”  In this book, Fiorentino attempts to be Wittgenstein’s model student.  Following what he thinks are the master’s instructions, his work embodies its subject’s deterioration rather than describes it.  Everything lyric has been stripped away. Metaphysics has been banished in favor of harsher thinking. In the end, though, he’s a bad student. Wittgenstein’s own work took up the best tools of language to construct his mordantly paradoxical attacks.  He gave the intellect a punch in the ribs. More often than not, it’s the option to refuse that Fiorentino exercises most powerfully — refusing responsibility, refusing consequence, refusing consolation.  Even the most avid reader will find no memorable or quotable lines in this book.  That would be too retrograde.  Instead, it qualifies as an example of art that will ultimately lead poetry into an arid silence.

Roger Sauls lives in Chapel Hill, North Carolina.  His most recent book of poems is The Hierarchies of Rue from Carnegie Mellon University Press.

  • 2 Responses to “Variations of the Elegiac Memory”

    1. Bev Akerman

      this review leaves me (almost) speechless. it is writing like this that give intellectuals a bad name.

    2. Martin Dansky

      This also leaves me disappointed about the manner at which a person can express himself: there is more interest in talking incongruously and dropping names, than considering what the reader can really appreciate. I had a similar experience with an Italian art critic years ago and call is psychobabble!


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