Monday, June 22, 2009

Lisa Jarnot, Ring of Fire

or... I wish we all could be California girls.

Oakland, San Francisco, Los Angeles: the sun-cities of the sea-edge recur through Lisa Jarnot's collection Ring of Fire, her first full-length collection to be published in the UK (although it contains a suite of poems, Heliopolis, that appeared as a chapbook from the late-lamented rem press). Jarnot was born in Buffalo, experimental poetry capital of the East, and the East/West tension between avant-gardes (as weather systems, and vice versa) plays lightly through her book.

Heliopolis includes a) a poem called "Suddenly, Last Summer," which turns the sunny-side down in its invocation of the 1959 movie (Elizabeth Taylor's finest moment?) and b) a poem called "O Razorback Clams" dedicated to Daniel Kane, author of the new book We Saw the Light, which concludes with a conversation between Jarnot and New York-based filmmaker Jennifer Reeves, in whose film The Time We Killed starred Jarnot as an agoraphobic lesbian erotic writer.

Kane's book is a conversational history of the (all-male) connections between avant-garde poetry and film in 1950s and 1960s America, and the Reeves/Jarnot conversation seems to underscore his argument about the radical interconnections between the Beat scene and the New York underground -- but it also detourns it and queers it: not only are they the only women featured in the book, but the only pair who actually made a film together. I'd like to write more about the conversation they have, but I can't get the e-book copy Iowa sent me to download. So it's all speculation based on my hallucinatory memories of the wonderful The Time We Killed.

It's interesting that Jarnot and Reeves combined forces in NY given that film's sear(ch)ing light appears as part of the Californication of Jarnot's poetry: its desiring, devouring brightness. Hers is, after all, a book about things on fire (particularly cars: the American dream goes up in smoke spectacularly in "What In Fire Did I, Firelover, Starter of Fires, Love?"). But then the Reeves/Jarnot New York is neo-noir, a chiaroscuoro (high) contrast to the helter-skelter heliopolis of Ring of Fire's "specific incendiaries of springtime." There are foreshadows in "The Bridge" and "The Specific Incendiaries..." of Reeves' most recent film, When It Was Blue, which shares with Jarnot's poems a paratactic approach to the catalogue and a situated take on the lyric.

"The Bridge" positions the lyric voice as both conditional and as a logic problem -- "that I write about myself" -- the grammatical (and rhetorical) construction requiring a completion that never comes. The "I" is a thesis for which there is evidence, both eyewitness and anecdotal -- the speaker of the poem, prefiguring Anne Carson's Men in the Off Hours, is Thucydides -- not a fact. Similarly, the poet's position (job?) is rung through its changes in "Tell Me Poem," where the narrative imperative is transfigured: this is an impulse that reappears in "Autobiography," where the poem first proposes a sexual algebra, then geological parallels, and finally an anti-lyric moment.

One of the poems (why can't I remember which or refind the resonance?) in "The Book of Providence" reminded me of Maya Deren's iconic avant-garde film Meshes of the Afternoon, with its shifting scale of the intimate and the tectonic. Deren, the quintessential New York avant-gardist, made her most significant films in Los Angeles; Jarnot returns from her Californian dreamscape to New York (as marker of distance and strangeness: "terrific, living / on the Hudson, inside the months of spring, an / underwater crossing for the cows in dreams") in "Poem Beginning with a Line by Frank Lima" -- which in its turn has become an animated short film:

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