Prose Feature: World-Making Through Lexicon and Object: A Review of Eric Linsker’s LA FAR (University of Iowa, 2014), by Connor Fisher

June 12, 2015

Eric Linsker’s Iowa Poetry Prize-winning La Far is a rare type of book that, while innovative both formally and conceptually, feels immediately familiar through its deft engagement with a common poetic concern: the operation of written language in the material world and how this language both bolsters and challenges our perceived and lived-in reality. To do this, many of Linsker’s poems strategically introduce more transgressive techniques, such as the bracketing of words and lines, or the repetition of a single title for a succession of multiple short poems.

Through Linsker’s fascination with linguistically-formed objects (such as the sections of “Dongzhou Sea,” each of which maintains an interrelated autonomy from the surrounding sections) and the slippages that occur among and between these objects, the poems in La Far argue that the primary existence of and interaction with objects takes place within the mind of a conscious perceiver. Lexicons (largely unique to each individual poem, as quoted and described below) establish a discursive space for each poem; repeated sounds and words engender this space, which is both sonic and conceptual. The specific lexicons act as a generative constraint upon both poem and reader. The discursive element emerges as the poems ask each reader to engage (via Linsker’s already established lexicon) with the deliberately constricting sonic and linguistic space of the poem. The poems of La Far, then, place the reader’s imagination in a verbal and sonic box, and ask the reader to find meaning without reaching out of this limiting space. In “Facts after Baudelaire,” Linsker writes,

Where a sleeping man drew a clear theory
Like a fresh shape in wet sand

Dropped more shapes over sand
Than ever and they give us more drugs
What if you published our trains
Of thought in prominent ally-like theory
Would you find the mind a sleeping pentagon
Drugs drugs drugs drugs there

The repetition of “theory” and “drugs” establishes a discursive space for the poem, within which slides and rotations of language and objects occur. From the section’s initial “draw[ing]” in wet sand, which occurs in the horizontal dimension, it moves into a vertical space: “dropped more shapes,” which then shifts into an immaterial space indicated by thought and the “sleeping pentagon” of the mind. In nearly all of Linsker’s poems, the mind retains primacy over both language and object. His poems provide the reader’s mind with enough linguistic traction, stability, and repetition (recalling the discursive lexicons mentioned earlier) to navigate the book’s experimental abstraction. Yet the poems are often abstract; objects float through them and are moved by language. The poem calls the mind not to dominate language and object, but to navigate them in a manner dependent on reason and interpretation. Repetition, concepts (trains, motion, momentum), and sounds enable the mind to move through and find meaning within “Facts after Baudelaire,” and La Far as a whole relies upon the mind’s perceptions and its control of language and object to draw out layers within each poem.

“Irreversibility Ode” likewise displays Linsker’s dexterity with controlling the fluid geometry of poems. The long poem is divided into twelve sections, and section four begins:

aerial limning
trees are all my consciousness allows, and branches
compensatory effects of power
I again have nothing and am running into such resistance

While this excerpt refers to few physical objects (“trees” and “branches”), it presents them as accessories that the conscious mind of the poet translates and permits. The “compensatory effects of power” may refer to power immanent in the natural objects, or in the mind itself—either way, nature is keyed to perception, and phenomenological awareness guides the course of the poems. Here and elsewhere, Linsker uses sound to gesture and transition in his poems—in this example, the frequently recurring “s” sound, prevalent in the second and third lines, is all but absent in the final line, paralleling the speaker’s lack of possession and “resistance,” as the persona is, perhaps, unable to fully articulate and rotate the “trees” and “branches” of nature into consciousness.

La Far rarely falters, but on the few occasions that it does, the book suffers from an over-extension of its own methods of language-manipulation and alteration. Linsker’s writing commonly defamiliarizes the subject material and articulation of his poems; as many have theorized, defamiliarization often forces the reader to fall back into a generative space of interpretation at the levels of language, motion, and perception. But some poems lack efficacy when they draw out the process of defamiliarization. This results in primarily conceptual pieces such as “We’re So Social Now,” whose energy seems already depleted as the poem begins to deconstruct itself. “We’re So Social Now” begins with a series of brief, declarative lines (“We’re so social now / SO SOCIAL / SO SOCIAL”) that then lengthen and begin to switch and intersperse words and letters, until the lines are intentionally illegible:

new is job
Muddy candy w. Newbe stow efn new is job
Dental cost who pro irons
sfhfjn lnrpwlxamsnt z fond

While this is a fascinating experimental technique, it’s indulgent and poorly paced; the exercise holds more interest than its implementation, and the poem does not substantially add to La Far’s ambitious project. Unlike the majority of Linsker’s other poems, “We’re So Social Now” prioritizes the experiment above the poetry, and the piece consequently focuses excessively on its own method. As the poem exhausts its own energy, so it excludes the reader from participation in its unfolding thematic work. Lines become (intentionally) jumbled and difficult to read—not an inherently exclusive technique—but the poem has already taken too long in making its point and repeats its method without engaging the reader’s interest by adding new methodological or conceptual material. “Figure,” another of Linsker’s longer poems, handles the form more successfully—the poem introduces new linguistic functions throughout its eight pages, does not exhaust the limit of any formal or experimental devices, and consequently does not feel that it has “arrived” before its own conclusion. The poem’s lines differ in tone and content; lines range from the direct and philosophical: “I can only observe the other [it used to be]—I would have to begin / as the object,” to the evasively abstract: “[what we call describing a technique] / [what we call nor to tell time] / [the voluntary] [one slick side].” Although the language of “Figure” resists normative syntax and composition, it engages with more than its own decomposition, and draws the reader into a compelling meditation on images and subjective perception.

Despite the occasional minor misstep, La Far stands as a lasting poetic landmark. Linsker’s bold forays into language and object manipulation, while maintaining a firmly grounded lexicon, press our understanding of poetry and of the mind in relation to externality. La Far advocates not a blind or negatively controlling engagement with objects outside of the mind, but rather a generous and permissive awareness of the inherent difference of objects and the manners in which we guide and alter them. Linsker permits us to treat the world with imagination and allows a theory of mind, an autonomy that resists domination, to pervade objects and others outside of ourselves and our poems.

—Connor Fisher

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Connor Fisher was born in Albuquerque, New Mexico, and currently lives in Denver, Colorado. He received an MA in English Literature from the University of Denver and is working towards an MFA in Poetry from the University of Colorado at Boulder.

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