Wednesday, November 19, 2014

“I Had Every Intention”—New Poetry by Michael Gottlieb

Recently I heard Michael Gottlieb read the title poem from his new volume of poetry, I Had Every Intention, at the Faux Press party at Le Poisson Rouge in New York. I’ve known Michael for a number of years and have admired and enjoyed his work. In addition to the title poem, the new volume includes “You Unacknowledged Legislators You” and “No Thought Best Thought.” He was one of four poets who read brief selections of new work that evening. The others were Kimberly Lyons, John Godfrey, and Vincent Katz. Music was provided by Drew Gardner.

It was several nights later, when I read the short volume through in its entirety, that something clicked in a major way. A revelation, certainly, but the revelation was this—as smooth and seemingly light as the surface of these poems may be, it’s what’s below the surface that will transfix you, and the world with it.

The syntax is deceptively simple:

what about the other laws
he broke
like verb noun agreement

A little later:

he has an abstinent spirit
proudly renouncing easy pleasures

Easy to read, very easy to hear someone read the lines aloud. But then, there’s the question of specific vocabulary. At a public reading, the words go down easily. But should they? Isn’t the selection of these casual, almost throwaway phrases absolutely intentional? And shouldn’t these exact words lead us to ask certain questions before we proceed to the next line?

For example, what precisely is the Dunning-Kruger Effect? Or the business judgment rule, for that matter? The answers are shocking in a way, and should bring us up short. The definitions are entirely relevant, whether to the banking crisis of 2008 or to our everyday lives.

Then there are the words that we think we know—coruscate, for example. No, it doesn’t mean to excoriate, but to shine, to glisten. And what’s the definition of skeumorphic? What about assortative? What exactly happens in a Faraday Cage? What or where is Ploesti? And have you seen an eidolon lately? 

There is something subtly subversive about this way of using language, the casual allusions that at first glance don’t need to be delved into. Subversive of what, one might ask. Of our complacency, of our pretense to knowledge in a world where knowledge is infinite, perhaps even subversive of theories that presume to explain how language works. 

Then there’s the reference to Hölderlin—this is hilarious, a very backhanded way of referring to someone who is the opposite, someone we’d be relieved to see the last of. Then again, look up Hölderlin, look up his evanescent verse, and one realizes that several things are going on here. Someone is disappearing and someone isn’t, but who has just walked past us isn’t clear.

I Had Every Intention by Michael Gottlieb is available from Faux Press and from Small Press Distribution. A video of the reading can now be seen at Ron Silliman’s blog for November 19.