The Sri Lankan Loxodrome, Will Alexander. New Directions. 112 pp., $14.95.
Nothing is given. Everything remains to be constructed. I do not know beforehand what the poem is going to say, where the poem is going to take me. The poem is not “expression,” but a cognitive process that, to some extent, changes me.
—Rosmarie Waldrop, Dissonance
A loxodrome is a path across the globe that crosses all longitudes at the same angle. From a bird’s eye view above the North Pole, a loxodrome would appear to be a spiral toward the outer edge of the earth. Although when viewed from such a vantage the loxodrome seems to be an inefficient path, following a loxodrome is a method by which a sea craft with basic technology can chart a consistent course. What becomes most important in a loxodrome is the origin point; to begin traveling on a loxodrome, one takes an initial compass bearing, and that initial bearing is retained for the entire course of the journey. The moment of decision, then, at the origin point predetermines the entirety of the subsequent journey.
Will Alexander’s formidable The Sri Lankan Loxodrome poetically charts the journey of a man named Loxodrome on a quest across the globe to behead seasnakes. Though his path is preset and, technically, Loxodrome knows precisely where he is heading in a linear way, his journey is one of eternal surprises. The path itself is only a locational element in his reality. Like Waldrop’s description of poetry, Loxodrome is unaware where the path is taking him as it relates to himself.
Through Loxodrome’s tangential odyssey across the globe, Alexander juxtaposes nature and civilized progress. Loxodrome’s boat and weapon—a rusty knife—are primitive, but his language is not the language of an unlearned native. Loxodrome might appear outwardly as Queequeg, but he speaks with the diction of a scientist. The diction of the poems begins to overflow with terms rarely seen in poetry, particularly in such abundance. The terminology swings from scientific to mythic:
so in the depths
a glassy conduit of ore
a propulsive cilia
a whiplike Chimaera
This passage moves from the scientific eye viewing bioluminescence to the mystic eye seeing evidence of a Chimaera. Is Alexander reducing science and progress to nature, or is he elevating nature to the level of science and progress? Or is it both, because there is no separation or difference between them? The opening stanza of the opening poem, “Bedouin Ark,” gives some possible hints:
Repetition as de-existence
as condoned & re-spun vapour
which continues to post-exist
as mirages across an ark
as lucid underwater scent
What is the difference between “condoned” and “allowed”; “lucid” and “clear”? Alexander claims it is an artificial difference that has arisen through the natural use of our language, simply by virtue of a smaller number of people using the first word. An argument could be made that there are nuanced differences in the definitions, or even connotative differences. But Alexander’s correct use of these terms and phrases is not probing the differences; it is probing the interchangeability and similarities. Neither “condoned” nor “allowed” is a perfect symbol of the occurring concept they describe. Each word is simply a word. No word is inherently harder; a word is simply more or less common in its use.
Ultimately Alexander’s use of heightened language fades away as the reader becomes used to it as the norm. At some point during the book it is no longer strange to see a line filled with terms that make one retreat to the glossary or to a separate dictionary. These technical terms create a new poetics as even more obscure terms continue to appear, such as Nocticluca, Hexagrammidae, and Leucosolenias. These terms, almost all outside the realm of common knowledge, force the reader to turn to a an external source of information—which is ostensibly provided in the book’s glossary.
Alexander’s glossary, in keeping with the poems, is far from simple and straightforward. Rather, the glossary functions in much the same way as Eliot’s notes to The Waste Land. There are purposefully ambiguous entries:
MAKASAR STRAIT/CELEBES SEA
Within the realm of Indonesia
There are entries that admit creative license:
Taken from the Latin adjective vulturnus, which is characteristic of vultures. In this case I have taken license and created a variation on the word which implies fire or volcanoes.
And there are quotations included that have no stated citation or reference:
BETA URSAE MINORIS
Yellow Giant. Was “one of the pole stars from 1500 BC to 500 AD.” It can assist “people in grounding information from their past lives.”
In this entry Alexander includes two very different sources. The first is seemingly an encyclopedia entry giving a basic astronomical fact. The second is seemingly from an astrological source. Neither is cited, and both are given equal standing in terms of veracity. Together, these various types of entry work to destabilize the very idea of knowledge and information: as with his use of less common words, Alexander encourages the reader to let the need for information slip away—and in its stead let the poem itself exist as its own unique world.
There is no privileged information. There is just information, and receiving the information, while interesting, does not give one a specific key to the poems. More information is simply more information. No information or type of information or source of information is privileged over another. It is just thoughts, words, and ideas out in the cosmos that Loxodrome is traveling through.
We leave the text considering: what is the difference between a dissection of a snake for scientific purposes and the decapitation of a snake for spiritual purposes? We are asked to ponder a convergence in these two seemingly disparate world perspectives of a journey towards the unknown, an unknown that is infinite in its distance from our present space:
&#amp; I know the ocean in its Indian expanse
with its turbulent infinity
with its sudden seaquake morasses
with its quickened asteroidal trenches
being like the mountains at the bottoms of Venus
the distance of Apollo & Ceres from the earth
As the journey nears its close Loxodrome claims, “I develop moment after moment.” Each moment is, by definition, a development from the previous moment, and Loxodrome embraces this existence of continuous change. Returning to Waldrop: “Everything remains to be constructed.” Loxodrome is on a continuous journey that incorporates both a primitive and civilized nature, as we all exist in a state that falls somewhere between animal and pure civilization. Just like Loxodrome, we are not civilized, we are not primitive; we are, instead, a locus of continuous evolution, movement, and change.
Andrew Wessels has lived in Houston, Los Angeles, and Cambridge. He currently is pursuing an MFA in poetry at the University of Nevada at Las Vegas. He also writes A Compulsive Reader.
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