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Gordon Lish’s Cess: A Spokening (OR Books, 2015)

Gordon Lish’s Cess: A Spokening (OR Books, 2015)

In contrast to Alexandra Psaropoulou’s All The Stars, which I wrote about yesterday, Gordon Lish’s book, rich in language play, employs a loquacious first person narrative in two extended notes before and after a list of select vocabulary. It is implied that the narrator is loosely based on the author self, although this is more of a ploy to draw the reader more closely into the narrative world with its frequent call to check the factual details of the narrative online.

The first note delineates the biographical details of his mother and her sisters, Jewish immigrants from Austria, based in New York, and his own situation at Mills public high school, at Millbrae, California. Finding himself without a job and having to support a wife and three children he wrote to his winsome Aunt Adele asking for work not dissimilar to hers. Apparently, in 1963, Lish was refused tenure at the school due to his association with the Beat writers he published in Genesis West and Ken Kesey and Neal Cassady of the Merry Pranksters. The narrator’s aunt worked as a section leader in cryptology for the National Reconnaissance Office and replied with a long list of words with the instruction to solve this and perhaps we’ll talk. There follows 165 pages of rarefied vocabulary and the quest to find some links between them to solve the puzzle.

‘Into The Cesspool’ makes play on ‘cess’ meaning a tax or levy before herding readers into the full on verbal play of a ‘cesspool’. Here is a random sample of the list:


On first glance some connections and associations emerge, a succession of words from severable to spall about breaking apart, and then there are words that are variations of more common words. Soon one is lost in the Collins or Oxford English Dictionary placing words into sets of words, the ponderables and possibles, both repeated, that make up the list. The selection is seemingly isolated from context until one picks up on the repeated use of interpellate, mischance, perchance, orison and onton, which is not in the dictionary, as a sign of humour and the list becomes a way into Adele’s character. Adele, the spy and cryptologist has a predilection for words from a range of discourses that can be at a stretch connected to a cesspool, cloaca being an archaic word for sewer and so on. She has a wicked sense of humour beginning her list with ‘FLUSH LEFT’ and ending with ‘ALL SMALL CAPS’, which turn out to be the key to the puzzle. ‘Flush’ here is employed for all its meanings and has a neat comic touch.

The joke may be on the reader as one skips to the final note, which is a tour de force of narrative ebullience. The narrator is considerably deepened and extended into a maniacal loudmouth. The sentences are rich in rhythms, asides and resonate with biographical detail creating a memorable persona. The reader tends to look back on the long list as a conceit, a way into the deeper layers of language, and wants more engagement with the nature and uses of language. This then becomes the point of the list an insistence on grappling with the use of words within lived experience and literature. The final note succinctly illustrates this with its combination of a probing, quizzical tone and continual search for the right word. The narrator drew lessons from his Aunt and her witty and joyous list. Who would not like to discover more about such words as fent, spall, fard, slub, doce, pelf, frit, sot, ort and orse?

Cess: A Spokening has a power and pointed veracity as a language game and fiction of distinction.

David Caddy 11th August 2015

Alexandra Psaropoulou’s All The Stars (Austin Macauley, 2014)

Alexandra Psaropoulou’s All The Stars (Austin Macauley, 2014)

The arrival of this concrete poem coincided with that of Gordon Lish’s latest work Cess: A Spokening (OR Books), with its one hundred and sixty odd pages of rarefied vocabulary set between two longish notes. There could not have been a greater contrast. This long poem won me over though with its insistent rhythm, well modulated in terse, irregular stanzas employing a limited range of vocabulary. Its engaging charm and childlike simplicity has a surprising forcefulness.

Divided into 38 parts and set in 36 point bold typeface within seventy pages of colour digital designs the poem holds its own above the setting. The designs are intrinsically part of the whole serving to reinforce the cosmic, elemental and lived part of the poetic journey towards spiritual fulfillment. The poem is centred on a first person narrative attempting to transcend dead-ends calling upon inner will and imagination to create, both internally and externally, and enact the vision of a life longed for. The opening part sets up the repetitive structure and subtle twists that continue throughout.

And all the stars
are in the sky
and the waves
are lapping
and the nightbird
is singing
And all the stars
are in the sky
And all our wishes
are true
And may all our wishes
be true

The poem’s highlight is not so much the quest for a creative vision but rather the virtues it makes from such a restricted vocabulary. In a way Psaropoulou is a modern Greek equivalent to the concrete poetry of Edwin Morgan or Ian Hamilton Finlay employing subtle and nuanced changes within a narrow pattern of repetition. The difference being that Psaropoulou uses more words and thus has more rhythmic pressure over the longer poem.
The digital work is necessary serving to echo, adding detail on the page, and locate the vision in the daily life of the poet-narrator. It is thus not otherworldly. Nor is it timeless. The modern world is present from the coloured lights in the garden to the busy road scene where the poet-narrator is situated carrying a large handbag between a Range Rover and a scooter, and the text set on the right hand page reads ‘Running / to let out // Running / to let the madness/ out of my heart’. The poem is centred by the digital design adding to the impact and engagement of the whole. At its heart is a portrait of the poet-narrator and her family having an alfresco luncheon with the left page text reading ‘And you must find / the happiness now’. This is an instruction of which the late Lee Harwood and you, dear reader, would surely have approved.

David Caddy 10th August 2015

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