Scape, Joshua Harmon. Black Ocean. 73 pp, $12.95.
Joshua Harmon’s first book of poetry, Scape, comes two years after the publication of his debut novel, Quinnehtukqut (Starcherone, 2007), a difficult and often brilliant text that draws on the work of William Faulkner and Samuel Beckett in equal measure (not to mention John Ashbery and Susan Howe) to form a complex weave of narratives about a town in the wilderness of late 19th- and early 20th-century New Hampshire. In the novel, Harmon writes of “how a man’s head cannot begin to take in the places he has been, or the people, each word spoken a line somewhere in the land.” Following this notion, Quinnehtukqut not only takes up a meditation on local history and geography (or, as we are told, “a story of lost dreams and places now vanished”) but is also an investigation of narrative and language itself, and of how those two things—location and locution—relate.
If Quinnehtukqut is, like Faulkner’s Absalom, Absalom!, a story about telling stories, Scape’s six sections (“Whither,” “Landscape,” “Inscape,” “Escape,” “Summer Letters,” and “Summer’s Tenants”) are in a similar sense poems about making poems. At the same time, these poems blend in larger concerns: the nature of the self, the possibility or impossibility of communication, the insecurities of being in the world. While Harmon does draw from Language poetry—a line from Bob Perelman forms an epigraph to the “Landscape” section—the work here balances, as does much of the finest contemporary practice, linguistic inquiry with a strong lyrical instinct, making for readings both fascinating and challenging in the best sense.
The book’s first poem, “Whither,” opens with an em dash as we encounter the speaker uttering his journey in medias res:
—heelprint and halter, halfway
heard: before means back
then, to know before
it breaks it lurches
so in the snowfield’s
stalk- and stem-broken
edges a rosehip bends,
reddens at its tip.
Despite the bristling particulars of “the snowfield’s / stalk- and stem-broken // edges,” this is not nature poetry per se, nor a traditional pastoral. Overall the book prefers the abstraction of the map to the land, the page to the tree, the word to the thing. Perhaps it would be better to say that instead of finding “the speaker uttering his journey,” that we find the poem itself uttering its journey.
That said, an ecology remains even where a connection between page and world is tenuous. It is formed by the moments of lyrical attention that comprise these poems, moments marked by an “I” seemingly assembling itself from the particulars of the (linguistic) landscape. At times this voice sings, as in this excerpt from the “Inscape” section:
Fettle the unlasted, embered other
in rash of burnt furze: flapper, a forethought,
bloom of timing to feaze percussive
memory. Airy swap, camlet cloak, go:
it isn’t want of finish that fetches
fiery loft, shivering glaze in full dusk:
may fables of enclosure wish otherwise.
As is especially evident in this passage, Gerard Manley Hopkins is one of the guiding lights of the book (as is Louis Zukofsky, whose fugue-based modernist epic “A” supplies Scape’s title and epigraph: “—scapes welcome young birds—”).
In addition to Hopkins’s jagged musicality and neologisms, Harmon takes as one of his section titles the Victorian poet’s idea of “inscape,” a notion present throughout the book. As discussed in Catherine Phillips’s introduction to Hopkins’s Major Works, “[i]nscape is often used of the characteristic shape of a thing or species.” It is “the crucial features that form or communicate the inner character, essence, or ‘personality’ of something.” In Harmon’s hands inscape is less a matter of communicating the essence of, for example, Hopkins’s windhover, than a matter of communicating the way that one’s modes of attention, and the interpretative framing of attention to that essence, construct not only the world but oneself (another kind of “inner character”):
I built a frame around the landscape, to shape it in a way more sympathetic to its own inclinations. . . . At the edge of the frame, I leaned over to see what was beyond. A boy walked through the landscape, counting quietly the numbers of stars that had sparked while I shut my eyes.
Even as the book focuses on the capacities of language—whether in its musicality or in its capability to represent—Harmon’s “I” is no mere cipher. Personality shines through: Harmon’s novelistic instincts proclaim themselves through tone of voice, humor, and a tinge of insecurity. We may even find this “I” endearing, as when the speaker proclaims that his “is a drive-by melancholy,” or when he notes that he wants “less a sense of space than to exert a reason for my arm’s reach.” One feels for this speaker even as we keep in mind that “he” is, in this case, two letters—h, e—in the field of language. “And fuck this conversation with the natural: I can’t outlast the outdoors,” the poet writes, as if to simultaneously undercut and reinforce his project. “I’m raising a pennant for a brittle self.”
Aside from the beauty and intelligence of its forty short, untitled lyrics, the long section “Landscape” makes for an interesting reading experience, if only because the lack of titles makes reading the sequence so unexpectedly unsettling. The poems seem discrete—more discrete than, say, many of Jack Spicer’s serial works—though they also seem to mingle one into another, as if only one “Landscape” poem really exists, but mutates into new forms and variations on the landscape of the page.
That is not to say the section is monotonous in any way; here Harmon plays with and refuses to conform either to the expectations of lyric poetry or to those of the postmodern serial poem. The effect is intentional, as our unease mirrors that of the speakers of the poems, whose anxieties find defect nearly everywhere:
. . . or if life daggers us most
thoroughly in its suspended moments,
grant me a witness: let my injuries
bed down amid the bungled like slo-mo
pleasures shaken from troubled instruments—
Most of the other sections are very short—”Whither” and “Summer’s Tenants” each contain one poem, and “Inscape” and “Escape” each contain two. The other, “Summer Letters,” is a ten-poem sequence organized more traditionally than “Landscape”—that is, it uses numbered sections, and is more clearly meant to be seen as a single piece). The section also takes abstraction a step further, giving us a kind of narrative shorn of the piercing specificities of “Landscape,” while retaining those poems’ mystery. This, from the second section, is a good example:
his breath the collage of speech
his breaks culled never
his hands left marks all over this town
on returning forgets
endures fathoms years
fashions speech’s garb
skin masks pale stars
In all, Scape’s often startling poems, especially when coupled with Quinnehtukqut, announce Harmon as a young innovative writer of high quality. If this review has failed to consider in depth many of the book’s other concerns and pleasures—technology, communication, and the multiple nature of the self, to name a few—one can take solace in knowing that the intelligence of this poetry will lead any reader to many more discoveries of his or her own. These poems are, as Harmon writes, “a // time for sound alone / to quiver assembled lives,” and they deserve our hearing.
Andy Frazee’s book reviews and criticism appear in Boston Review, Jacket, Verse, and elsewhere. His chapbook of poetry, That the World Should Never Again Be Destroyed by Flood, is forthcoming from New American Press. He lives in Athens, Georgia.
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