In bart plantenga’s sometimes amusing, sometimes trenchant new book of poems List Full, he supplies a multitude of variously sourced lists. Some, such as “Abridged List Pre-Move Busy 1996, NY-NL,” are ones he made for mundane purposes. Others are inventories of discovered objects, including “Contents of Foppe’s Secret Cigar Box,” or ones he created after research, “List of Gun Violence Videos.” A few are created from the whole cloth, “Suggested Poem Titles for Jose Padua on his Birthday.”
This fascinating book begins with a strong introduction though, to air one my pet peeves, it cites the famous list of animals that appears in an essay by Borges, which purports to be from a Chinese encyclopedia called The Celestial Emporium of Benevolent Knowledge, and includes such disparate items as “those belonging to the Emperor,” “stray dogs,” and “those that have just broken the vase.” This annoys me since this list, though amusing, represents Chinese categorization as outrageously nonsensical in a way that illustrates total ignorance (and perhaps disdain) for Chinese thought. Compare his list to an actual Chinese list like the one mentioned in the Tang dynasty story “The Legendary Marriage at Tung-Ting” from the short story collection I-wen chi. Editor Russell McLeod footnotes a list mentioned in passing in the text. It is a traditional classification of animals: “bare-skinned (man); feathered (birds); furred (beasts); scaly (fish); shelled (tortoises).” Hardly nonsensical.
Continuing for a moment with the introduction, it’s notable that plantenga starts with some etymology. The author mentions, “In ca. 1200, strangely – or poetically – ‘list’ meant ‘pleasure or enjoyment.’” To follow his discussion, let’s look at the background of another word for “list,” the ideogram:
A couple of points about this sign will lead into an appreciation of some facets of plantenga’s book.
First, a native speaker, like my wife Nhi, would read this ideogram as “list”; however if read literally, it consists of two signs, each of which can stand alone. These are “name,” applicable to humans, objects or whatever, and “single item.”
Second, some Chinese words have two (separable) ideograms, beginning with a general category word followed by a specification. So “run,” if broken down into its separable words, reads “foot” ideogram + “run” ideogram. “Sole of foot” is “foot” + “bottom.”
In the same way the category name comes first here; in personal names, the family name, which could be considered the category, comes first. So a typical Chinese word order would be: “Let me introduce you to my friend, Doe, John.” By the way, this is why when speaking English Nhi says things like, “Our daughter went to Twain, Mark, middle school.”
The salient point in relation to the book at hand is that in Chinese (read literally) “list” is separated into “the name” and “item (on a list)”; and this draws attention to two risks facing a writer composing a list poem. Each “name” or item on a list might be so striking that it impedes the development of any gestalt for the poem as a whole. On the other hand, if each entry is viewed mainly as an item included in an overall content, individual names may appear undistinguished.
To situate the “list poem” historically, it might be said it is tailor made as a representation of liberal ideology. Two versions of liberal thought are described in The Tragedy of American Diplomacy by William Appleman Williams. To him, the key tenet of centrist liberalism is “the existence of a harmony of interests [which meant] it was possible to produce the general welfare only under conditions of free competition.” The left liberals, “while they accepted this doctrine of a natural harmony of interests … argued that certain institutions [such as trusts] prevented the natural harmony from emerging.” This basic liberal view is used in establishment political theory to explain how democracy works. Nicos Poulantzas notes in Political Power and Social Classes that in this mainstream perspective, “Institutionalized political power [the state] is conceived as being composed of a ‘totality’ of powers/countervailing powers,’ of compensatory powers,’ of ‘veto groups,’ i.e., of equivalent parts,” all interacting to produce compromises adequate for competing social groups. So a leading idea of liberal thought is that a heterogeneous mix of materials makes for a vital and harmonious society. It might be speculated that this same principle of the harmonious amalgam appears in literature in the long catalogues in writers such as Whitman and Ginsberg.
Two current liberal poetic “schools” which utilize the list poem tend to fall into one or the other of the aforementioned errors. The Language Poets, centrist liberals, go wrong on the side of singularity. Each line is so different from those before and after that the reader has to make a complete mental reorientation for each line, which kills any overall effect. By contrast. the left liberals of the New York school often go wrong by looking so much to the overall configuration that individual lines becomes pedestrian. (Of course, certain New York school writers, such as Jeff Wright, Tom Savage and Bernadette Meyer, have found ingenious ways around this problem.)
plantenga writes from a radical perspective that stays outside liberalism, so that, to my mind, he is less hindered by such facets of liberalism as the emphasis on absolute originality demanded by the Language poets or in a harmonious containment of a poem’s materials in the community-spirited New York School; and thus he can play more freely with the elements of a list poem. So it is that in a mini-masterpiece such as “Suggested Poem Titles for Jose …” each individual line sings with energy while the overall production has a fine coherence.
A defining trait of plantenga’s vision, again in distinction from the historical obliviousness of liberalism, is a sense of the past. The Foppe of “Contents of Foppe’s Secret Cigar Box” is plantenga’s father who, the author says in a headnote, “gave me several small boxes inc. a cigar box containing sparse & smudged–difficult-to-read diaries & tiny agendas covering the period when he was plucked from Amsterdam’s streets & transported by train to Berlin where he worked as a … [forced laborer] in armament factories,” and well as later times. The list has multiple valences as if the author were playing on many keys of regret and grief. There is a look back to his own younger day’s: “Neg of mother feeding me in a high chair”; there is mystery: “Photo of father’s girlfriend[?] posed in front of Berlin ruins; and even uncomfortable revelations: “Negatives of an art photo session [nude woman].” While each entry pulls in a parallel way toward bittersweet nostalgia, the work has a whole has the combined force of lost time poignancy.
Not to say every poem is as shapely and personal, especially as, in an engaging way, the author also collects lists from friends and intimates as in “List of Ex’s Reminders to Herself ,” which in a quick array gives a thumbnail portrait of, for one, her occupation,
tonight – rapido borders on large Personal boards
— lay down personal
— check all boards with mock up
One also gets insight into her dress code, “wear perry ellis skirt [if looks good, switch with owl skirt],” and concern with the world, “My Lai.”
Having come back to the Far East, perhaps I can sum up by saying in List Full, the author avoids the pitfalls stumbled into by poets following the liberal tradition by taking the list into history as a way to compose an adventurous, fragmentary autobiography in which much is hidden but also much discovered.
–review by Jim Feast