Tuesday, July 28, 2009

The Asphalt of Influence

Kate Greenstreet sent me a copy of Court Green 6 (among other journals) to look at. (Thanks, Kate.) Tonight I sat up (and ruffled my hair, I want to say) when I read Susan Briante's "Dear Mr. Director of the Census Bureau" (page 97). Here's the opening stanza:

Last night, hundreds of broadwing hawks moved in kettles over eastern Travis County, dropping shadows on scaly pines and glassphalt drives, powerlines and watering holes, sailing in currents of rise and fall, heavenly, purgatorial.

It's quite nice, and the rest of the poem satisfies Pound's injunction that the poet must "build us [her] world". What struck me is that the world Briante builds, the mood she stretches out between things, is manifestly also the world that Tony Tost built for us in his untitled piece on "playground reform" on page 3 of Invisible Bride (also published in No and available online here). It opens thus:

For years, irate mothers’ groups have demanded playground reform as child-guidance experts, educators, architects and artists formulated the exact number of dangerous illusions in the world. For openers, the lakes appear to be sheathed in glass while it is in fact the dreary expanses of asphalt that are stuffed with it.

Both works are prose poems and both affect the style of public speech. Briante's can be read as an open letter, Tony's as an op-ed piece in the newspaper, though each with its own strangeness, of course—a sort of clinamen. Both poems get us thinking (or, rather, feeling something) about the place that adults grant children in their world, but because we empathize with the children, not the adults, they ultimately draw our attention to our own tenuous relationship with public spaces. (Briante does this quite explicitly.)

The awareness they occasion can be compared to that described by Leo Frobenius in Part One, Section 6, of Kulturgeschichte Afrikas, in which he imagines the keen observer of a group of twelve-year-old boys reacting to the passage of two girls through the square in which they are playing (page 22-23). Different means are employed, but the essentially "poetic" aim of "emotional notation" (Ergriffsschrift) is the same.

In any case, the affinities between Briante's poem and Tony's are so striking that they seem intentional. I'm assuming that Tony's is the precursor (and nothing about either's familiarity with Frobenius). The "glassphalt drives" in Briante's poem, if I'm right, should be read as a reference to "the dreary expanses of asphalt that are stuffed with [glass]" in Tony's. Both, like I say, appear in the first stanzas. Likewise, in the final stanzas, Tony's "wintry ground" can safely be imagined beneath Briante's "winter treetrops".

[Update 18/12/2014: I just found another reference to glassphalt in Ben Lerner's new novel 10:04. On page 26 he writes: "We chatted for the length of her cigarette about the show—the opening started in an hour or two—most of my consciousness still overwhelmed by her physical proximity, every atom belonging to her as well belonged to me, all senses fused into a general supersensitivity, crushed glass sparkling in the asphalt below" (my emphasis). Ben Lerner edits No.]

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