The Absolute Letter
By Andrew Joron
Reviewed by Connor Fisher
In the eighth poem of The Walls Do Not Fall, the first book in H.D.'s 1944 wartime Trilogy, she delivers the following ultimatum to those critics who would accuse poetry of being useless or irrelevant: "if you do not even understand what words say, / how can you expect to pass judgment / on what words conceal?" The poet, then, is she who knows the content obliquely hidden within words and who can access this material, in an act of serious playfulness, and construct or reveal "what words say." Like H.D., who throughout Trilogy builds her poetics by revealing the strange interiors of words and the ways in which words can be deconstructed and recombined, Andrew Joron forms his poems around revealing, muddling, and playing with "what words conceal." What words conceal, of course, is other words and fragments of those words, which can be re-formed and recombined into unexpected combinations and rhymes.
Through the poems of The Absolute Letter, his seventh collection of poetry, Joron explores the deeply-rooted, profound, and sound-based connections between words and their constitutive letters. He uses the book as an experimental platform from which he can investigate and expound on the hypothetical "Absolute" that exists within language. To this effect, Joron opens the collection with an address to Novalis, the early German Romanic poet, who serves as a patron saint or ghostly presence throughout The Absolute Letter. As Joron explains in the opening note, "The Argument: Or, My Novalis":
According to the German Romantic poet Novalis, verbal language is a subset of what he called the "general N-language of music." The very letters of the alphabet, in his eyes, dissolved into vibrational patterns . . . For Novalis, [sonically formed patterns of sand on glass] were the "a priori letters" of a universal script. The world itself is composed of the letters of the Absolute: anything, real or ideal, that goes a self-complicating . . . form of motion becomes a sign of the processual emergence of the Infinite within the finite.
Joron's project in The Absolute Letter stands as its own type of idealism: a search, through language, for an "Infinite within the finite"; a type of constitutive fabric that can provide access to the linguistic Absolute. As H.D. would also articulate, in this collection, the small syllables of individual words provide the poet with his most direct means of access to the Absolute: a sublime force which guides poet and language. For Joron (as for Novalis), sound is the key.
Sound serves as a crucial element of poetry through all of Joron's recent work, but especially so in The Absolute Letter. He makes the implicit argument that readers and poets alike gain access to words, poems, and certain areas of thought itself through the sonic qualities of a text. Rhymes—whether direct or slant—as well as assonance, consonance, and other sonically-oriented compositional techniques, are never innocuous or child's play in The Absolute Letter. Sound is a tool, a technique used to probe the depths and capacities of language, and which reveals to poets and readers something of the quality of language. For example, in the fourth section of the long poem "Breath Breaks: Ten Takes," Joron writes:
Slow train coming.
slumming: the owed code, the
must of dead dust.
Shake, cash: too-tiny
of the blood
blare through, throw
Solo so low, so
low as silence.
The sound play is perhaps the most serious part of the poem. Syllables mutate and re-form in adjacent lines with new intonations and meanings: the opening "slow train coming" inverts itself and becomes "Trace low / slumming." In the next two lines the single-syllabic insistence of "owed code," which repeats the long, open "O" vowel sound, finds itself mirrored in the firm stop of the "D" in "dead dust." In the eighth line, Joron highlights the thin, nearly vanishing, sonic distinction between homophones by juxtaposing "through" and "throw."
Nearly all of the poems in the collection are composed in a style similar to the example quoted from "Breath Breaks." Poems seldom cover more than two pages. In several poems in the collection, Joron highlights the ability of language to function as a riddle or a playful cypher. For example, he structures the poem "Illocutionary Reels" as a series of couplets, each formed by two bullet points. The couplets play against one another by setting up sonic and visual rhymes. Even words within the same line will effect small sonic variations which cause dramatic changes in meaning.
- Die rolls, rules die.
- Reaper, repairer, here appear.
- Wear sorrow, noiseware.
- Ring, bring news from nowhere. . . .
- Voice voice, mark mark, as voices of ice is to vices of eyes.
- For a chorus is incarcerated in every point of space.
In poems where Joron turns more seriously to investigate the sonic power of language, the letter "A" holds a major position in his philosophical inquiry. Since the letter "A" occupies a primary position in the English alphabet, it allows Joron an entry point into language as a system of linguistic and phonetic symbols. He devotes the title poem (placed second in the collection) to presenting the "A" from a variety of perspectives, each of which establishes its centrality to his (and Novalis's) question concerning the "Absolute" within language and sound. "Proof primitive: / That two sticks / point toward / A / vanishing: / A / accumulation. / . . . / A / version in in- / version. / A / pure statistic . . . . The final poem of the collection, titled "A = A," likewise leans heavily on the letter to make its philosophical point. Joron writes:
Mine to ask a mask to say, A is not A. . . .
What is the word for getting words & forgetting?
Might night right sight?
I, too late to relate
I & I, trap light in sound
& sing no thing that breath can bring.
The poem highlights the blurring and sonic substitution implicit within language: the way in which one letter or one sound-producing phoneme becomes another (e.g. "for getting" and "forgetting"). Joron argues that, if not even letters are identical to themselves ("A is not A"), then language contains slippage and difference at a deep level. Perhaps this provides a more somber tone to the idealism of The Absolute Letter: the dissimilarity of language to itself provides readers with amusing rhymes and verbal deconstructions, but also makes language (both its visual and sonic qualities) profoundly Other, perhaps unknowable.