The Poetry of Performance
The phrase “to read” is surprisingly ambiguous. “I am going to read a book” implies going to a quiet room, sitting in a chair, and silently reading a book. “I am going to read a book to my kid to put him to bed” implies reading out loud, creating an aural version of the text. “I need to read this for class tomorrow” implies going to a desk or a library, reading and re-reading until meaning is gathered and understanding is reached.
Jane Ormerod’s Recreational Vehicles on Fire pushes toward and away from each of these meanings of “to read.” Ormerod’s work demands to be listened to out loud. One of the blurbs for the book is from Paul Baker, a radio programmer, who describes the work via his auditory experience: “To listen to Jane read is to see a dance of images, some pleasing, some disturbing.” Another blurb bypasses the book at hand and relates, instead, to the performance of reading aloud: “I first saw Jane Ormerod perform in Vancouver, B.C. when we began our Perpetual Motion Roadshow tour, and what a trip it was! The second Jane started doing her thing, I got it . . . ”
Both of which are to make one imagine that something is missing when the book is read silently alone in the living room. And something is missing, but something is also missing for those who have only experienced Ormerod’s work read aloud. While the poems do demand the auditory experience, they also embrace their physical existence on the page as text. To get the full effect, one must experience Ormerod’s poetry aurally and visually, as word, as language, as text, as sound, as object, as utterance, as poem.
Form, sound, word, and language eclipse meaning in importance. The poems are not meant to be parsed and explicated in the traditional sense. Instead, the poems are a place where things—words—are put: “This is my receptacle for nonsense.” Encountering the succession of words in “Termites”—
Ah, but I cannot
a sable drape
a cook’s knife from Germany
Number five the signature
Rivers Liffey Thames Mead
that is to say
—one is challenged to make up some form of stable meaning. But creating a singular meaning of higher power is not necessary, not what is intended, if these poems are receptacles for word-objects. A scene is sketched here, with the possibility of meaning. We seem to be in a room, possibly a kitchen, surrounded by household items. The scene that is created is one of being surrounded by things, and as a reader the language likewise surrounds us. There is no particular meaning to somebody sitting in a room looking at a sable drape, just as somebody reading the words “a sable drape” does not experience a particular symbolic meaning. They are objects that we surround ourselves with.
How are these poems to be read, then? The standard of reading-towards-meaning seems thwarted. Meaning is subsumed by other motives, most notably by treating the poems not as a place of meaning-creation but as a place of placing.
Take the poem “(Culled Termites)”. It is prefixed “Poem Chopped to Final Three Letters of Every Word,” and it delivers, offering words suddenly reduced to three letters or less:
Ah, but I not
a ble ape
a ok’s ife rom any
Again, Ormerod challenges the reader: what do we do with this? How do we read this work? The words, phrases, and sentences that were legible in the earlier poem, “Termites,” are now difficult if not impossible to parse. The words as we read them have been irreparably changed from the words that they initially were. Is “any” really “any” or is it the last three letters of “many”? Would one guess that before the erasure it was “Germany”? Is “ife” short for “life”, “strife”, or “knife”? The possible meanings, in the traditional sense, are first multiplied by the ambiguity of what remains on the page and then eradicated as that multiplicity reaches a threshold of too many possibilities. This multiplicity is not meant to frustrate or deny the reader that elusive meaning; the multiplicity is meant to move the reader’s primary attentions elsewhere, to other aspects of the text.
The kitchen scene from “Termites”, which was already beginning to undermine itself, has now been completely distanced from the reality of the place. Even the reality of the words themselves are in question, leaving just the reality of black markings on a white page.
The poem, once it cannot be read as words, reads instead as a chant, an expulsion of sound-morphemes reminiscent of a romantic conception of a proto-language. Each line is experienced as a verbal expulsion with the sound of the language and the experience of listening to the sound of the language becoming most important. One almost passes over brief moments of potential understanding: “‘Can you not see it is ing oom nly?’”.
But some typographic decisions reject a solely verbal reading:
t/coffee c/toffee (chew dammit)”
How would one read this line? “Toffee . . . Coffee”? “Tuh-Coffee”? It is unclear, as both verbalizations leave out an aspect of the verbal play at work. Lines such as these are an awareness and use of the word as an assortment of letters that remain static, once written, on the page, not just an auditory expulsion.
There are plays with the visual appearances of the poems, such as the center-justified “Hurricane”:
Not old enough
Just tall enough
I am the original full stopper of
all manner and matter of facts
The center-justified column gently resembles, visually, a hurricane. The words converge upon the silent epicenter of the middle of the page, causing the lines to whip around this point and down the page. The poem itself is a hurricane, and the experience of reading it is a whirlwind of words and lines.
Reading through Ormerod’s poems prompts the question again and again: How does one read these poems? What becomes increasingly obvious as the book progresses is that choosing any one way to read the poems is setting oneself up for imminent failure. Each poem requires being read in every possible way: out loud, in one’s head, in front of a microphone at a coffeeshop, on a YouTube video. This is re-reading in a unique sense. Not re-reading in one mode of reading again and again, to improve upon an explication, but re-reading in a contemporary sense that involves a multiplicity of media and forms. To read fully, Ormerod’s work argues, is not to understand some elusive singular meaning of the words; to read fully is to experience the work viscerally in every form possible.
Andrew Wessels has lived in Houston, Los Angeles, and Cambridge. He currently splits his time between Istanbul and Las Vegas, where he is pursuing an MFA in poetry at the University of Nevada, Las Vegas. He is the editor in chief of the literary journal The Offending Adam. Recently, he co-edited with Mark Irwin the forthcoming anthology 13 Younger Contemporary American Poets (Proem Press). He also writes the literary blog A Compulsive Reader.
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