February Read of the Month: “Sheer Indefinite,” by Skip Fox

Reviewed by William Aarnes

Skip Fox’s Sheer Indefinite ranges over many topics.  Early in the book a poem describes events in Louisiana in terms of Bosch’s Garden of Earthly Delights.  There are poems that worry about how well words relate to the world (“This language is broken playground equipment”).  There is a sequence of poems focused on the tongue (“the mind’s thumb”).  And there are poems on the thumb (“it gives us purchase”), on skin (“It holds the body in”), and on the “Economics of Metonymy.”   Written in a variety of free verse formats, the poems often consist of sentences that keep growing, that extend themselves as if prompted by an urge for—to use one of Fox’s favorite words— reticulation.  Here, for instance, is a left-justified strophe consisting of lines of nearly uniform length and containing the collection’s title words.  Opening with a brief main clause, the passage accumulates phrases, appositives, subordinate clauses, and pauses for word play (“cast”/“cast by,” “led”/“led in”).  The effect is to leave a reader “suspended” and “adrift”:

Night draws on darkness, unknowing caul, unsuspected because we

were suspended, an eye in its socket, slung in orbit over a blind

world, itself suspended within the conditional, white the sheer

indefinite opens each moment beneath it, that there be an end

to it, whatever it was, distensions, business, the throbbing numbness

of limb or life while engines crawl even deeper into a space beyond

the shadows we cast, were cast by, are yet contained, wherein we

led a life, were led in turn by others, and by existence itself

endlessly back to where we have come, no longer toward, space

without distance, where we wake to voice, adrift in fetal dream

Made up of serious-minded, intriguing, and at times even absorbing poems, Sheer Indefinite tests a reader’s patience.  With many of the poems it is hard to get purchase.

My concern with purchase is in part prompted by Fox’s preoccupation with fourteen-line poems, one of which he calls “Sonnet.”  There are more than fifty of these unrhymed, unmetered poems in the collection.  They first appear in a sequence called “Wallet.”  Adapting the form of a crown of sonnets, the sequence has the fourteen lines in the first poem act as the first lines (and titles) of the subsequent poems.  The opening lines of the initial poem announce a concern addressed by the sequence (and many other poems in Sheer Indefinite)—the theoretical concern about the distance between actuality and attempts to articulate it:

Even the least story begins nowhere, in the webbing of

                        what cannot be touched, by definition.  Between the transmitter

and Spicer’s radio.  Deep space.  “The primitive does not

exist” (Todorov).  Before beyond.  What’s beneath

the word.  The word we say.  Names of the gods beneath

the word.

The clipped fragments and the allusions to Jack Spicer and Tzvetan Todorov epitomize how this sequence works.  Just as the poems are in conversation with themselves, the sequence is in conversation with other writers and artists.  The notes to the sequence acknowledge, besides Spicer and Todorov, eleven other writers, Martin Heidegger, Charles Olson, Robert Duncan, and Willem de Kooning among them.   Reading the sequence is like overhearing snatches of allusive, elliptical banter that is about and seemingly enacts “primal indeterminacy.”  The experience may leave a reader feeling, to use words from the third poem in the sequence, like “a country boy in the city for / the first time.”

In work originally published in 2008, Fox began to shape many of his fourteen-line poems with both left and right margins justified.  Here is an example, one that I choose in part because what the poem says about “the sound from a syn- / thesizer” will help me clarify concerns about Fox’s changing the sonnet form to rectangular formatting:

God Bless America”

(You’d  think  they’d  at least  have  the decency   to use a

comma.) On  one  of those  horrifying  morning  local talk

shows, a  woman  sits  on a couch  with  oxygen tubes still

in her  nostrils, “I was in intensive care for two weeks,”she

croaks and begins  to cry  before I can change the channel.

Something    has   scared    the   shit   out  of  one   of   my

fellow creatures. The trick is to let the mind adjust with the

eyes in the  dark.  Eliminate  the figure.  Eno was  right, all

electronic music has allowed us to hear a single note from

an acoustic   instrument; whereas the sound of from a syn-

thesizer results  from the  movement  of a few atoms, only,

amplified, notes from the baby grand involve the vibrance

of billions.  What confusions of being, then, in the human

who sounds  abeyances  of self, or  of the world without?

There is some fun in this poem, particularly the pert parenthetical opening.  But what is lost and gained with this formatting?  Noting that such poems are sonnet length, a reader may miss the pleasure that comes with reading how a poet works with meter and rhyme (in one poem Fox uses “rhyme” as an appositive for “obstruction”).  Also lost is the clarity and force that might be achieved by having a turn.  Furthermore, this formatting also leads to Fox’s losing the sense of pacing and shrewd use of white space he has in other poems. This rectangular formatting loses, well, “vibrance.”  And it is not clear what Fox means to amplify by this abeyance of the complications of the sonnet.   (Even less clear is what is gained when Fox is tempted into the gimmickry of “Solstice Two Days Out,” where he uses the fourteen-line formatting to stretch words like “Christos,” “cold,” and “stem” across a space as wide as the lines quoted above.)

A reader may have an easier time getting traction in Fox’s poems that are preoccupied with the worry over what in the passing of life endures. He introduces this focus in “sic transit gloria mundi”:

I always wanted to write

about the resurrective powers of the world

so I waited

‘til my faith is waning.

Fox returns to this theme in at least twenty poems, thirteen of which have the title “sic transit.”

The poems he writes come out of the Romantic tradition of poet observing and listening to his surroundings, noting down what occurs:

the Renaissance

mocking bird is at it again, but you

can tell he’s listening as well, two

vans, and a pickup, a medium

size luxury car, and a small bare

bones white sedan drive by

while I write this, a bell sounds

in the distance

like it means something . . .

The most rewarding poem that shares this focus is one of the collection’s longer poems, which in Sheer Indefinite is called “from Scroll: Star, Clouds, Earth.”  Employing a variety of formats, this poem moves past noting how “that which is enduring, endures, even in the arms  / of the transient” to worrying over such concerns as how “the weak eye / wanders, wonders,    what is actually here,” as whether there is “correspondence between that which exists       and that which . . . we find ourselves among,” and as how our senses turn phenomena into “presences.”  Somewhat like a late Stevens poem but without the clarifying constraint of grammatical sentences, this philosophical poem (which quotes a “variant” from Heidegger) can be difficult to follow, but it is a thought-provoking exploration of how human consciousness works.  And it contains some of the best moments in the collection.  The image for how the enduring is held in the transient is “Orion cradled in a young maple.”   The closing depiction of coming to attention gives us “still / our breathing        douse the cigarette       and listen.”

A poem that rewards patience—and a good reason to own this book—is “Canticle of Recovery: Burn Ward.”  Giving considerably more sympathy to a sufferer than that given to the woman with oxygen tubes in “God Bless America,” this sequence explores what it feels like to be a hospitalized “node of pains unutterable.”  The second and sixth sections of the poem recall the burning:

they have torn

me apart                        the angels              and have scattered me

to coincidence                                   and back

The sequence opens with the speaker attended by “restorative” graces like “amnesia” and “oblivion.”  The three middle sections of the poem are lyrics spoken by a hen, clouds, and mountains, each ending with the refrain (from Shakespeare’s “The Turtle and the Dove”), “Love has reason, reason none.”  The final section is an aubade of sorts, dawn prompting a searing “Intent, a dilation, to be up and doing.”  “Canticle of Recovery: Burn Ward” explores a “mind saturated  / with senses, informed by intellect,  / grounded in body.”  And it does so memorably.

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