Henry Gould

Tod Thilleman
A World of Nothing But Nations
Hive Press (3 West 102nd Street, #5b, New York, NY 10025), 1999, 176 pp.; $12.00
[Order from SPD]

Tod Thilleman's A World Of Nothing But Nations is a book-length poem in four sections — "Level One" through "Level Four" — each section prefaced by the same phrase ("Toward an Ontology"), and the same epigraph (from Robert Duncan: "The Master Architect has arranged horizons in a renewing design"). At first one is struck by the oddness of repeating the same epigraph four times: but Duncan's phrase in repetition encapsulates the paradoxical thrust of this work, toward "unity of being" (horizons/design) within infinite dispersal and regress (or white noise). The poem pivots on itself, cornered, going nowhere.

     You had an idea
once, somewhere hip pocket
now gaining on
stellar opportunity
for someone else in
the far-flung galaxy of man

The publisher's preface explains that the poem was constructed from individual "strophes" — brief 5- or 6-line elements making one statement, without break or grammatical flourish — culled randomly from "300 notebooks." The poles of this poem might be said to be the miniature notebook and the NY subway; the private thought and the background roar of the city. "Mosaic" as design principle surfaces repeatedly:

     How can
the strophe be
from first to last
the absolute
plenum of
the entire mosaic

— the poet is asking himself: what am I doing? And the desperation pervading this project's descent into randomness and chaotic gotham—reality is a function of the firmness of this "300—notebook" commitment. It is a firmness of resolve which finds "levels": for, ironically, one must be skeptical about the publisher's preface: the poem seems to progress or grow, in spite of its extreme leaps and disjunctions, from the somewhat tentative uncertainties of Level One:

     Empiricism
still munching
at the mythic biscuit
     Upon this height
where the look and fell
goes down into the world
we fear to enter
and stand here
stamping our place with feet
never meant to go further

— to the agonies of Level Two:

     Trying in my mind
but this mall I'm in the tiles
a voice and squeaks
are what I let myself become
in order to see into the coincidence
charging my info for what?
     It really does
pressure one to act
that's the way, the measure
the knowledge of all
the force thru the contrivance
to adapt, move, to be again

(here you can actually hear the ghosts of Williams, Olson and Dylan Thomas thrusting — "trying in my mind" — against the tiles of the mall! a counter-mosaic) — to the animal despair / maturity / sophistication / damnations of Level Three:

     I am the continual birth
of the little boy lost
     Again, for those of you
who followed not my program
I will re-enter:
media's model
the d, g, and b sounds
go to break up, attach
and practice cat sounds
sparring Eddy needs some territory-male

— to the fluid juxtapositions of abstract and personal of Level Four:

     She has come
to swallow
ALL
     In the nothing grip
pulls me into it
all the source
to all my problems
     My father says
you're really good boys
really nice people
you don't deserve this
     "He had come on horseback
from Kentucky
and ended up with a
big spread
and a fine house."

If there is indeed a progression and development, it is based on the cumulative absorption of disjunct nuclei, bound one to another by intense centripetal force — a force motivated by a consistent quality of forthright directness — something Thilleman recognized in his own review of another poet — defined as candor. Thilleman's particular candor (a simplicity of statement, framed by the vertigo— desperation of Manhattan actuality) is able to bind together his own heaven and hell: on the one hand, a faith in the "woodpath" of poetic language to express a new human relationship to the cosmos; on the other, an acid, irritable, Baudelairean spleen.

Mosaic is one way to approach this project, since the simple structure of mosaic — rock, pattern, and mordant (glue) — is clearly a model. Once upon a time melted gold was used as a mordant, holding the individual tesserae up against gravity and the curve of the dome. What is Thilleman's glue? What underlies this mordant, candid vision — akin to Bruegel or Bosch — which differentiates his poem from the prose tradition (even Joyce's Ulysses is framed by the "solidity" of Bloom's Dublin), and from an unproblematic craft tradition (where the background noise is not life in the city but the whispering sibillance of creative writing classrooms and Granddad Grammar), and from any unproblematic career—pattern (where the measure of value is not in the poem but in the already—powerful audience of Academies, Grants, Awards, Blurbs, Publishers, Fellowships, Travel, and so on smoothly into the Archive and the Canon)? What is the philosophical mordant here?

These tough little interlinked strophes drill like a woodpecker's beak into the special realm of poetry. They hang from the mordant of poetry's particular imaginative vision, as opposed to that of scientific or analytical discourse — which entails poetry's unique and troubling role or place in the world-as-a-unity. This acknowledgement of or participation in a distinctive way of seeing or mode of being is what binds this poem to the uncompromising stance of Dante, Blake, Dickinson, Whitman, Pound, Stevens, Williams, Crane, Stein, Olson (not to mention the Hebrew prophets and Aristotle) ... — a stance which aims to express (with candor, in truth) a vivid formulation — a mimesis — of cosmic actuality. In other words, Thilleman is bold enough to incorporate aspects of the sublime in poetry, a stance utterly at odds with the ultra-sceptical, hermetic, self-referential, art pour l'art mentality which dominates America's avant-garde "other" tradition at the present time. This kind of "romanticism" must create and prove its own criteria for measuring "the real": but the act of measuring itself acknowledges a reality outside the poem and confronts it intellectually. In doing so, the poem echoes on the rational level what it accomplishes simultaneously on the level of sensation, by carefully incorporating the "noise" of trying to exist and thrive in New York City. It is this convergence of different forms of candor which underwrites the reader's sense of cumulative growth, the integration of disparate and chaotic materials, as the poem moves forward in its seemingly random way. Situated like Crane's Poe in the New York subway — with Blake's Gates of Wrath straight ahead — Thilleman finds an idiom through which to speak in spite of everything (and keep speaking).

     To win all life
within a form
make the form
and in its creation
the making coincides
with creation
     The pens in my briefcase
water going down the drain
birds squawking in the yard
a rhythm transposing order
a jet goes by in the sky
cans and other instruments clink
sight sees lines on paper
thump
     "... he memorializes
a sacralized time
through his behavior."
     Am I always in
touch with myself
when I drool?


This review originally appeared in Samizdat #4, and is republished with the permission of the editors. One year subscriptions (three issues) $10, to: Samizdat, 9 Campus Circle, Lake Forest, IL 60045

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