C. S. Giscombe, Prairie Style (Dalkey Archive, 2008, 80 pages)
In his necessarily extensive “Acknowledgements” to Prairie Style, Cecil Giscombe refers to the second largest quantity of rhetorical units in his book as “poems” and says that they are in four “groups.” Like most poems, these are short, averaging a page in length if you trim the white space, and each is individually titled. They don’t, however, do what poems usually do, which is to use lines and stanzas rather than sentences and paragraphs as the most noticeable internal rhetorical units.
Line and stanza indicate a more complicated rhetorical intent than sentence and paragraph, which mostly display logic. In traditional poetry, that intent may be to score a rhythm or bass beat (counted syllables) and/or repeated sounds (rhymes), sometimes syncopated with sentence meaning (as in the couplet “conclusion” of a sonnet). In free verse (Williams), which “stacks” phrases and clauses with some indentation and fragmentation, the intent is to supplement grammar with a more complex kind of punctuation. The same intent is exhibited in projectivist verse (Olson) through more radical indentation and spacing. Williams and Olson, very serious about theme, tended to score their poetry as meanings of measured impact, somewhat (in intent) like the scoring of speeches.
Giscombe sticks with sentence and paragraph, his paragraphs highlighted and rendered familiar by the justified left margins of most printed prose. I suppose a lot of readers and critics would say that his poems are really prose-poems or poetic short stories/essays, but these designations lack or at least are never given precise typographical definition and so seem more an acknowledgement of the marketing implications of genre. Presumably prose-poetry adds some prose readers to the small (but more desirable?) audience of poetry.
More probably, though, these newfangled hybrid designations just make readers suspicious. Shampoo-conditioner? All-season tires? So Giscombe is right in going for “poems.” He could’ve called them essays, too, prose utterings of the first person. “I’d essay,” he says in the third poem, “I’d go toe-to-toe.” In fact, his poems/essays read to me a lot like the Essays of Francis Bacon, which are the first true essays in English literature. Bacon’s are more assertive, so maybe this is why Giscombe chose “poems.” If Bacon were to produce a book on Giscombe’s themes, the table of contents would read Of Prairie, Of Location, Of Memory, and Of Juxtaposition.
But Giscombe is as sure as Bacon of one thing: all minds are defective when it comes to dealing with (and to generalizing from) reality. The problem is preconceptions, what Bacon calls “idols.” You use them to jump over facts to conclusions. “Studies” (reading and writing) are the cure. The great Elizabethan went from essays to books that promoted experiment and invention as necessary additional controls for useful generalizing. He went into science, where questions can get answered with absolute certainty even though it sometimes takes ages.
The noun “essay” comes from the verb, which Webster’s (the dictionary that Giscombe loves to “converse” with) defines as: “to put to the test, to make an often experimental or tentative effort to perform.” The essay is described in most genre dictionaries as “discursive,” meaning it can be either “moving from topic to topic without order” and “rambling,” or “marked by analytical reasoning.” Naturally the essay, like all discourse, combines both of these totally opposite ways of thinking, induction and deduction, favoring induction in its early stages of fact-collecting and comparison. These two steps are what Giscombe calls “juxtaposition.” The essay became a favored genre of Enlightenment philosophers and prose writers (including book reviewers), a sort of rambling around collecting data, a kind of botanical foreplay, with ejaculative jabs at theory and maybe even a touch of analytical afterglow, a relaxed estimation of the quality of the ejaculation.
“Juxtaposition,” Giscombe says, is “a kind of melodrama.” You can leave your mind outside the door, as they say. He is candid in explaining his preference: he is lazy, and he finds laziness to be sexy. His laziness, though, is energetic, willed. It may be easier to just collect facts, maybe set up some comparisons, than to proceed to cause-effect. But it’s not easy to resist eureka!s. Giscombe lives in America, after all, where jumping to conclusions is big, is monstrous, where orgasmic utterances of faith and the rush of action are preferred to the foreplay of research, pre-analysis, theory, post-analysis and on and on. Some things gotta be done right now. Like if your gasoline supply is threatened or God tells you to drink the Kool-Aid.
Giscombe also loves the analytical way, which he calls “coherence” and which he attaches to “intention,” which is the opposite of laziness unless you intend to be lazy. But he knows that coherence can be illusionary:
I like coherence well enough but am by nature more articulate than dependable./I’ve been inclined to want juxtaposition to do its job. The devil’s in the details . . . . To me intention’s a fact, a register equal to any other value. Intention’s the device in nature. It repeats the range. I like that it’s noisy or can be; I like that it’s a measure. The median is full of images. Argument’s there to discern, to straighten you out. To me, meaning’s like parallel streets. Meaning stands in. Nothing’s more sexual than laziness. I’d be equivocal, I’d pass.
If you are equivocal you are inclined, as the dictionary puts it, “to avoid committing yourself to what you say, often with the intent to deceive,” or “to use ambiguous words to conceal truth,” or “to quibble.” To say of yourself that you “pass” (on coherence), and that you like to be “equivocal,” can be taken as defensive self-depreciation. It’s meant to forestall judgment, since equivocators can be burned at the stake, tortured or otherwise harassed by those wanting instant confirmation of their own version of coherence.
Some readers, even those who enjoy poetry or prose-poetry, might, while not wanting to burn Giscombe, feel antagonistic towards him. Just give us your anecdotes, they might say, using the most commonly accepted significations of words, with the usual cues (like paradox) to their symbolic import. Or they might generalize, in checking the Acknowledgements before they chance the poetry, that he’s an academic, paid to quibble. Or if they are academics themselves and tending toward theory they might want a less ambiguous, less hesitant, more strident stand against the evils of Western Civilization, Patriarchy and Reason.
I see Giscombe as a ruminator. He’s not intending to deceive or to conceal truth, but he’s given to “ideas gone over in the mind repeatedly and often casually or slowly.” This definition too could be taken as a criticism, and maybe the word was so intended the first time someone’s thinking was compared to cud chewing, an essential digestive activity among cows. T.S. Eliot, a man of faith, a Royalist, an Anglo-Catholic, and a Classicist, says somewhere, about some poet (it might’ve been Matthew Arnold), that it is a curse to have a ruminative mind. Prufrock is his proof. But I like Prufrock better than I like Eliot with his fascistic impulses. It seems to me that, judging by Prufrock (or his more famous predecessor Hamlet to whom he denies comparison), ruminators are not always just evasive, self-centered, procrastinating, over-educated, smart-ass nabobs of negativity.
Ruminators may be driven by the dangers of certainty. Most people think that Hamlet had very good reasons for procrastination. After all, can ghosts and suicidal urges be trusted? And he does finally establish the truth even if it kills him along with some other innocents, though Polonius and his kids were frenetic simpletons, doomed no matter what Hamlet did. The others deserved what they got. And maybe in a lot of circumstances even when you’re very sure what the truth is it’s best not to arrive at it.
Ruminators may know too that there is a lot of “pleasure” — as Giscombe puts it — in ruminating. In getting to the truth “the transition is happiness.” Here Giscombe is quoting the Canadian poet Barry McKinnon, a notorious ruminator. Having quoted him, he asks, in true quibbler style, “How complete does the transition need to be?” Prufrock doesn’t think the mermaids have a message for him and if they do he doesn’t want to know what’s in it. Meanwhile he’s heard them singing to each other, and even seen them swimming, and all that’s got to be good.
Maybe the joy of the transition is greater than the joy of getting there. For one thing, the ruminator has time for wit, born out of quibbling to be the sniper-enemy of certainty. Prufrock, Hamlet, Giscombe and McKinnon take advantage of this. Also, the ruminator has time for others. Giscombe right away invites his reader to participate. “You and me” are introduced, in the first poem “Downstate,” to the joys and dangers of definition, of moving towards and around — without grabbing at — symbolism.
“Downstate” is the first poem in the book’s first group “Nameless.” In it, Giscombe defines “location” as “what you come to; it’s the low point, it usually repeats.” A “low point” is a “value,” in the sense of “a precise signification,” like sea level or absolute zero. You use it repeatedly in defining things, and every time you use it you test its value. When it applies to you and me, it becomes “the obvious statement about origin.” Where you from? “Location’s the reply,” and “it goes without saying that [I’ve italicized it to indicate that it’s not a relative but a demonstrative pronoun referring back to the act of telling someone where you’re from] pleasure’s formidable.”
However, there are dangers in going for the value of location: “I would be remiss [this word is Giscombe’s code for “necessary” quibbling] if I didn’t acknowledge how an event [coming from a certain location] could be talked about like it was you or me being talked about.” Later, Giscombe shows how location, relative to, say, railroad tracks, is used to establish “values” like class and race. Or those “values” determine location.
In “Cry Me a River” location “stands in” for memory, like a metaphor (Kenneth Burke’s definition), like loving your neighbor as yourself, like the ancient Toastmasters’ trick of locating ideas in, or associating them with, doors, windows, chairs, lighting fixtures etc in the room where you are giving your speech:
Generally, value exists in relation to opportunities for exchange — seeing something in terms of something else — but for the sake of argument say that the shape of a region or of some distinct area of a city could stand in for memory and that it — the shape — is a specific value because it’s apparent and public, and that way achieves an almost nameless contour.
Definitions are unlike metaphors, though they use the same formula, because what is being defined is an abstraction, which is (outside of geometry and some science) a kind of theory, “a hypothesis assumed for the sake of argument.” Giscombe lays out these theories, like “Property’s a measure of elimination,” “value exists in relation to opportunities for exchange,” and (a favorite) “juxtaposition is a kind of melodrama.” In Bacon it’s “Dissimulation is but a faint kind of Policy or Wisdom,” “Men’s thoughts are much according to their Inclination,” “Fortune is like the Market.” After the definition is proposed, the theory is argued.
You can define abstractions with abstractions, but that is considered not too meaningful. “Beauty is truth, truth beauty” works only in conjunction with Keats’ poem, and some critics think that it doesn’t work at all. Is it a definition or a metaphor? Giscombe uses dictionaries to help, and their definitions often start with abstractions. In his “Acknowledgments” he talks about his “conversation with two dictionaries: the College Edition of Webster’s New World Dictionary of the American Language (Cleveland and New York, 1959) and Clarence Major’s Juba to Jive, a Dictionary of African-American Slang (New York, 1994).
He also uses encyclopedias, which are sturdier. One is The Encyclopedia of Indianapolis (1994). Third, he includes etymology, “the history of a . . . word . . . shown by tracing its development since its earliest recorded occurrence . . . by tracing its transition from one language to another . . . by analyzing it into its component parts . . . by tracing it and its cognates to a common ancestral form.” Etymological dictionaries proceed mostly by showing the development of a word’s meaning through literature, drama, movies etc (arts that use words). Fourth and finally, Giscombe includes personal experiences.
As an example of how it works, part of Giscombe’s definition of “prairie” is a definition of “inland,” at the beginning of the group of poems of that name: “Inland is a group of poems about downstate Illinois.” Part of the definition of “inland” is, in the poem “Far,” the definition of “fox:”
Inland suffers its foxes: full-moon fox, far-flung fox — flung him yonder! Went the story — or some fox worn like a weasel round the neck. Foxes are a simple fact, widespread and local and observable — Vulpes fulva, the common predator, varying in actual color from red to black to rust to tawny brown, pale only in the headlights.
It’s that this far inland the appearance of a fox is more reference than metaphor. Or the appearance is a demonstration. Sudden appearance, big like an impulse; or the watcher gains a gradual awareness in the field, taking shape and, finally familiar. The line of sight’s fairly clear leaving imagination little to supply. It’s a fact to remember, though, seeing the fox and where or, at night, hearing foxes (and where). The fox appearing, coming in view, as if to meet the speaker.
Push comes to shove. Mistah Fox arriving avec luggage, sans luggage.
The definition starts with fox avec luggage, a character in a story, probably Anne Virginia Culbertson’s At the Big House (1904). It moves to the fox in clothing, the fur worn as a scarf around the neck where a pet weasel will often settle. Then an encyclopedia definition using the scientific (Latin) name. Maybe (in that a fox’s range can include suburbs, greenbelts and freeways) the encyclopedia is the one about Indianapolis, but foxes are everywhere. Then personal experience, the fox in these parts, inland, in prairie style, “more a reference than a metaphor.” You see a lot of foxes on the prairie, so you don’t move too quickly to turn your precious little anecdote about seeing one into a symbol or literary generalization.
A part of Giscombe’s method in essaying definitions, a further part of his poetics/essayistics, is the actual hard work of warding off or postponing coherence, which is “louder” than juxtaposition, which can disappear writer and reader, personal experience, producing “closure” without maybe fully exploring meaning, introducing those dangers of being located, defined, generalized. “Facts,” he says, like elephants, “make a train, trunk to trail.” Again, Giscombe loves coherence, loves those noisy trains and elephants (big guys like him, with access to big memories or archives), and speaks of Amtrak as a “location” wherein he can write (but also as a location on the wrong side of which he could happen or be required to live).
So again he says, “I would be remiss. I would be remiss./Pleasure’s far.” He “closes in” on this idea with a story: “I’m a day-labor and my job’s regular hell, the stretch between the mowing devil [“the devil’s in the details”] and the horizon or between being God and being like some animal in the near distance. The bigger the region is, the more important the meaning./Achieve and avoid, both./One advantage eclipses the other one.” Avoiding meaning (moving directly on to the next possibly important and in any case really interesting consideration) is as pleasurable (as sexy) as achieving meaning.
This is the problem of the essayist/scientist, the problem of when to strike the theory, when to leave the pleasure of juxtaposition for the pleasure of coherence, when to determine when the region of juxtaposed facts is big enough to produce important meaning, when to leap, Icarus-like, above the facts, knowing you must fall down into them again in the course of analysis, knowing that your theory, your definition, is likely to be flawed even if it is an improvement on the one you had before.
Giscombe illustrates the problem very well in his third group of poems, “Indianapolis, Indiana.” He has arrived there, “certainty and bare heat everywhere in town,” with “five days to kill.” Five days to penetrate that ubiquitous certainty. He buys a room at Jeannette Life’s hostelry, the Stone Soup, in the near North Side, from where he “could walk to the archives.” To start, he’s after an encyclopedia “value” known as “original inhabitants,” crucial to any definition of any place. Among these inhabitants, he’s discovered, are the Ben Ishmael Tribe, which he reads about in Hugo Prosper Leaming’s 1977 essay of that name, subtitled “Fugitive Nation of the Old Northwest.”
At the start of this third group of poems, there’s a quote from Leaming — who is a Unitarian minister, an historian, and a civil-rights activist:
The Tribe of Ishmael, or Ishmaelites, was a tightly knit nomadic community of African, Native American, and “poor white” descent, estimated to number about 10,000. Fugitives from the South, they arrived in the central part of the Old Northwest at the beginning of the nineteenth century, preceding the other pioneers. After a century of fierce culture conflict with the majority society, the tribe was forcibly dispersed. Camp sites became nuclei of present-day black communities, and Ishmaelites of the diaspora participated in the rise of black nationalism, perhaps even contributing memories of African Islam to the new Black Muslim movements.
Problem: Leaming romanticizes the tribe. Other sources suggest other facts. “Thinking People” quotes one of Leaming’s sources:
Leaming’s essay having been a counter to his sources, among which was J. Frank Wright’s ‘The Tribe of Ishmael’ (c. 1890). Wright wrote, ‘There is no doubt that the family name originated from this thievish characteristic . . . . What [the name] was before the suffering farmers called them ‘veritable sons of Ishmael,’ ‘Ishmaelites,’ etc., no one knows.’ And later, “ . . . that [John Ishmael] and his mongrel hoard [sic] were so like the Indian in their habits of life, so lazy, so filthy, so primitive in their habits.”
Another of Leaming’s sources is mentioned in “Camp Sites.” In this poem Giscombe, finding his studies more and more depressing, mentions “Evil day after ugly day in Indy,” and then quotes from Oscar McColloch [sic] who “had written that the ‘tendency to parasitism’ is handed down in the blood to the parasite’s descendents, that it’s ‘irresistible,’ that ‘degradation’ is common, and not ‘peculiar to Indiana.’”
The Reverend McCulloch was a pastor in the Plymouth Congregational Church at the end of the nineteenth century. He did charity work in Indianapolis. He was dealing with the indigent family of Ben Ishmael and used Wright’s study, which had “diagrammed the family” on instructions from the county commissioner, discovering 30 related families all descended from one John Ishmael, almost all those families needy. McCulloch argued that charity to this group be withheld –it merely aggravated the problem — and that the whole family be sterilized. In 1907 the 30 families were the target of the “eugenics” program of forced sterilization.
Leaming’s attempt to counter with myth the earlier myth of Wright and McCulloch is admirable, sort of. It can be used by people like the Panthers to establish a history, a cause, a group definition. It can also be used by other “thinking people” to drag folks in for sterilization. It’s dangerous in that it’s a distraction from facts. Truth may be closer in a quote in “Big Towns” from the Encyclopedia of Indianapolis:
Virtually every page of Leaming’s article contains distortions, matched only by those of the eugenicists who prepared the original sources. Given that, neither side proves its case and, in the end, there are only two myths, clear to those of faith, opaque to those who look for their historical basis. There was no Tribe of Ishmael; there were only the poor of Indianapolis.
In illustrating the dangers of the Ishmaelite myth, Giscombe uses an analogy. Leaming, Giscombe notes, “argued that James Whitcomb Riley’s feral icon “Orphant Annie” was an Ishmaelite child, ‘a girl so desolate’.” The quote is sourced in the Acknowledgements as being from William Carlos Williams, whose “girl” may be from “a legendary band of north Jersey hill people” referred to as the Jackson Whites (probably Jacks and Whites). The Jackson Whites are hung with similar origins as the Ishmaelites and their history has been seen, by public authorities, as the actual history of an Indian band in Jersey. In the Acknowledgements, Giscombe says: “Of particular interest to me has been the years-long debate about the ethnicity — the purities — of the Ramapo Mountain Indians. The name ‘Jackson Whites” is considered pejorative by the group itself, a name used by others to describe them.” It seems that if the authorities can pin the history of the Jackson Whites on the Indians, they can deny them status as “real” Indians.
For Giscombe, the story of the Ishmaelites (or the Jackson Whites) is a Frankenstein, a patched-together, mongrel monster. The monster of myth, of faith, shambles through Prairie Style from beginning to end:
Closure re-gathers the shape of the original undoing, the place where memory changed or picked up. Or it’s human-looking: big-boned, about as noisy, parts missing or left out, parts overstated. A loud brother to the divine, an admonishment; I was two men, I was “something monstrous.” Jokes just drain the spirit.
The dear old Northwest, laced up at the wrist like Frankenstein, and shambling like him too, the old Northwest. (The name applied to that monster, in those movies themselves he was nameless and unnamed; and he never spoke, he was truly simple. What was said later, say two big girls hulking around after you, that was the name they looked like. And you the singular passion — a blunt argument — that ranged around the dear old Northwest.)
Some questions push or shove like they were magic or they thought they were. The monster’s based on something looking enough like anybody to be a reference — you see him when you fear yourself and give him ways to talk . . . .
If you put a monster in a big town there’ll be a story you can open like a book but you need the town, the monster being just old terror without it – a roaming hull, a speech balloon. You need a grid for temptation to have come to location.
Conversely, if you take a monster out of his context, you can see him better for what he is. If you joke about the monster, he loses spirit, he fades.
Prairie Style shows how you do the proper approach to definition, generalization, symbol, myth. It is a “prairie style,” a rhetoric like the one you might have used in freshman English, like Sheridan Baker’s, with lots of examples. It’s “practical” too, more practical than Baker’s because it applies to life, not just school, to poetry and/or essays, not just report assignments.
Baker advocates shortcuts, school being a busy place, grades being important. “No one knows everything,” he says, “so make a desperate thesis and get into the arena. Giscombe warns against this approach in real life. In prairie style, there are no shortcuts, just an empty horizon, God or Indiannapolis over that horizon or seductively “trim” in the distance, Mistah Fox in the near distance. He’s “far flung” fox, coming and going, always on the move. He’s in every location. He’s either a reference or a metaphor. As a metaphor, or avec baggage, he’s the smart one:
Dusk to dawn, Mistah Fox is out on night patrol. There’s little surprising about location; I’d say Mistah Fox can match or resist the prairie with equal success.
4006 words November 18, 2009