TOM JENKS Reviews
Parsival by Steve McCaffery
(Roof Books, New York, 2015)
Critic and theorist as well as writer, Steve McCaffery has elsewhere transposed Georges Bataille’s notion of the restricted and general economies onto literature. For Bataille’s restricted economy, that of commerce and capital, see mainstream poetry, with its transparencies, easy absorption and shrink-wrapped wisdom. For Bataille’s general economy, characterised by more fluid and plural modes of exchange, see innovative poetry, with its refusals, its multiplicities and its conscious artifice. McCaffery, throughout his long and distinguished writing life, has always walked what he has talked, in text, image, sound and hybrid forms. Parsival is no exception. Espen J. Aarseth speaks of ergodic works, those where the reader, rather than being a passive recipient of pre-determined meaning, is instead a participant in its creation, gathering threads, picking up scents, connecting and inter-connecting, “writerly” rather than “readerly” texts in the terms of Roland Barthes. In some cases, this is a worthwhile but nonetheless arduous task, “good for you” like medicine or muesli. Parsival, by contrast, is pure pleasure, a funhouse of semantics and syntax, shot through with disjunctive humour, intertextual allusions detonating underground on timed fuses, echoing like footfalls in a haunted house.
With its exploded poetic field, shards of text hanging in white space, Parsival recalls, on a visual level, John Cage’s mesostics or Ronald Johnson’s erasures of Milton, but these are false trails, for where Cage and Johnson’s process was one of deconstruction, systematically disassembling a text into fragments, McCaffery’s process is one of construction, assembly from the ground up. The text here, although fragmentary in appearance, is actually not fragmentary in that what we are seeing are not the parts of a whole text, rather the constituent elements of any number of potential texts. As Heraclitus said, you don’t step into the same river twice. Every reading of Parsival is a new reading and a new river. Shoals of text coalesce, arrange themselves in oblique geometries and then disperse. Threads are spun and interwoven. Paths through the forest emerge, split, fork and loop back upon themselves. Charles Olson’s projective verse, with its emphasis on structure emerging from perception, is a further visual reference point and there is indeed something of this in McCaffery’s fleet footedness, hopping deftly from one hot brick to the next with unremitting celerity. Again, however, this does not quite tell the whole tale, for where Olson emphasised the body, the heart and the breath, Parsival is very much the work of a mind at play, of protean sprezzatura, purposeful purposelessness, perception not so much following perception as occurring simultaneously in several places at once, a poetics more of breathlessness than breath.
This results in a text that is wide open, multi-level and multi-faceted. Parsival can be regarded as a single long poem, a sequence of very short poems, somewhere in between or all of these. Whilst the ingrained reflex is to begin at the beginning and proceed to the end in the culturally proscribed downwards and left to right fashion, strolling towards the exit as if browsing a mall, McCaffery’s disruptive tactics refuse such easy passage. Upper case eruptions stud the text, pulling the reader up short. Snaking helixically through the book, these interjections, like being shouted at over email, can be followed through and read as a contingent micro-text: “IN EFFIGY […] BURNS AND PLAYS […] FOR THE MASSES […] OPENS TO […] THE INCINERATOR […] EXTERMINATION REACHES […] THE LAUNDRY BELT”. Sometimes, these occurrences of capitalisation are larger than the standard font size and sometimes they are larger still. An isolated, monumental “A FACE”, for instance, impacts like one of Ezra Pound’s passing apparitions on the Paris Metro. The same tactic can be employed to read through the book by picking out all instances of italicisation: “squandered […] specimens […] have […] all […] the […] qualities […] of an axiom […] pulsating […] perhaps […] like […] your […] patience”. Relocated in their spatial field, these threads assume a different context: “an axiom”, for example, is re-housed as “THE SILENCE / of an / axiom”; “FOR THE MASSES” becomes “all the origami /Othello combos / FOR THE MASSES”. This is nuanced, nimble magic.
Thematic content recurs and reverberates. The Romantics wander in an out from the misty moors, first with a reference to Wordsworth’s definition of good poetry as “strong emotion recollected in tranquillity” and then again with Coleridge’s “person from Porlock” who knocked inopportunely and broke his Kublah Khan reverie. McCaffery’s invocation of Wordsworth et al is interesting, for this is marshy ground for experimental poetics. Wordsworth’s reference to emotion, in particular, is often quoted as an example of all that is wrong with poetry as it is conventionally conceived: unreflective naturalism, the hegemony of plain speech, distrust of any consideration of process. Oulipian Harry Mathews, for instance, holds Wordsworth (“nauseatingly bourgeois”) responsible for all that is wrong with modern literature, which in Mathews’ view is plenty. Such a perspective is a useful corrective but taken itself unreflectively it can ossify into dogma, resulting in a privileging of process over product, a wholesale rejection of affect, a view of any step towards the reader as ideological betrayal. Parsival has none of these failings, for whilst rigorous in its poetics, it is an immensely readable work, locating the reader at the heart of the generative process in the best Barthesian sense. It is a book that is ludic whilst remaining lucid, never limited by the rules of its language games. Returning to the aforementioned “person from Porlock” as McCaffery speaks of him is illuminating (with apologies for any slippage in formatting from the original):
with a person from
no less in
Here, as throughout Parsival, we don’t quite know where we are or what it is we are looking at. McCaffery invites us to position ourselves both as creator and disruptor, witness and protagonist. Just when we might think we have attained the high ground we look up to find further snow-capped peaks extending to the horizon in every direction.
I take the title to be a mutation of Parsifal, Wagner’s opera, or Parzifal, the thirteenth-century poem by Wolfram von Eschenbach which it is based upon, or perhaps a collision between the two with a further nod to McCaffery’s own concretist Carnival sequence. Parzifal tells the story of the Arthurian knight who we would now refer to as Percival, a story which exists in multiple forms. In earlier versions of Arthurian legend, it is Percival who, in the course of a meandering journey, discovers the Holy Grail by chance, although he does not recognise it as such. In later versions, he has been downgraded, shunted onto the hard shoulder by the more telegenic Sir Galahad. As an illustration of the dynamic at play in Parsival, where all is circuitous, contingent, changeable, molten and malleable, Percival is an apt avatar.
Parsival is a work of kaleidoscopic coherence, of multiple voices, of ellipses and lacunae. Above all, it is a work characterised by space, both in the physical sense on the page and in the sense that, rather than being presented with a smooth, finished structure to marvel at as we might the grand edifice of a palace, we are instead being invited in to pick things up, move them around and hold them up to the light with no thought of whether we might break them. As a reader, it’s like going to a firework display and being allowed to light the Roman candles, an experience both disorientating and delightful.
Tom Jenks' most recent book is Spruce (Blart Books). He co-organises The Other Room reading series in Manchester, UK, administers the avant objects imprint zimZalla and is completing a PhD at Edge Hill University.