Many of us come to poems with what might be called an outdated metaphysics. We have been conditioned to think that poems are puzzles waiting for their “Deep Hidden Meaning” to be unlocked, that the poem’s meaning is in there, coherent and whole, just as the poet intended. But a lot of contemporary poetry doesn’t work that way.
I have tended to blame this on Derrida, the French philosopher who brought us deconstruction, the infinite play of signifieds, the metaphysics of presence, and, ultimately, the realization that meaning is at best slippery, if not impossible to determine. But roots of this crisis of meaning go much further back, and in other forms of art, this crisis doesn’t concern us. In painting, for instance, we only have to think of Picasso or Dali, or even Monet, but writing is different.
We want language to “make sense.” And even when we read the work of someone like Derrida, which at first seems impenetrable, we can locate the argument if we persist through the density and complexity of the ideas, the language. This new poetry, however, of which Alan May’s Tracking Systems is a shining example, takes this concept of an impossibility of meaning to a different place entirely.
Poet/publisher Jake Berry once said that reading this kind of poetry is like listening to music. Its beauty is in the experience, in the immediate aesthetic response. And like music, our response to it is more emotional than lexical, but it also brings with it emotion intertwined with intellect.
A book of poems like May’s Tracking Systems is not for the faint of heart. It is a kind of poetry not intended to make sense, at least not in any conventional way, but May’s rich, multi-layered wordplay rewards thoughtful probing, providing quests for sense with even deeper insights.
The book opens with the title poem introducing by name a theme that runs throughout the collection. Several poems portray a palpable dread of being watched, of satellites, computers, even neighbors. The poem begins:
The mailman came at noon and the moon
Was far offline. The G.P.S.
Tracked the moonlight and tracked
My thoughts. Two birds (not sure what kind)
Dwelled within my mind, two houses,
A dog and the moon, the airwaves:
Infinite and loony.
The first thing we notice is May’s juxtaposition of the ordinary with the unexpected, the everyday with the seemingly nonsensical. Once we get past our initial questionings of sense, however, we quickly notice the lushness of the language, the repetition of vowel and consonant sounds, the internal rhyme. And then we notice the central metaphor presented by the title, tracking systems that track our communication and our thoughts, that track nature even better than nature does itself. The birds, the first of many echoes of Wallace Stevens in the book, become yet another reminder of our dichotomous world that is beyond both our comprehension and capacity.
As the poem continues, we catch a glimpse into what May appears to be up to: “I changed the page / Into a tracking system.” The poem ends with the tracking system coming to roost in the everyday:
Rang and the sun proceeded
To huff and puff, huff and puff.
This notion of tracking also appears in “Four Attempts at Intimidation,” where “The satellites we use to detect the machete carried by some unregistered democracy,” and “The satellites in the western sky fly low to look in my window.”
Another theme that runs through Tracking Systems is fixedness. The entire volume drives continually toward the fixed. For instance, in “God Is the Present Moment,” the computer flows, while what should be real is fixed.
The gotcha/ constant fixed to seam. The parenthetical to
shatter, to know. She prayed to the real. She combed her
hair, she felt the same way again. She wanted to walk
beside it. She wanted the flag to rise and to see the
feathered wing. In fixed meditation, she laid it down on
the rock. Just to know ancient w/out the usual…
This concept of the fixed continues in “The Museum Closes at Five.” Its opening sentences, perhaps the best in the book, wonderfully capture what would seem to be the book’s most incessant message, that to know is to reify:
He made something. He made summary. The Sumerian or ancient Babylonian.
Later, this point is made even more strongly with the lines:
Nothing left for the tale-teller but to sell the truth. To
leave the slow-witted in their rowboat, looking at the
splinters in their hands.
This image of the truth we are sold as mere splinters aims directly at what I perceive to be May’s aesthetic.
The book is not simply an anthem to the elusive, however. It does achieve fleeting moments of lucidity, indeed of deep and lasting beauty. In “The Winged Divine,” a cavalier represents something lost in the past, honor and value in life, perhaps even the divine that has been left in the past, replaced by cold modernity.
In “Sketches for Tara Faber,” May presents what would seem to be the foundation of his aesthetic.
We peered through the trailer’s
underpinning into the vast dark glory
that is the poem.
Down the hill, we could see
through the dark,
the pale blank wall before
its illumination. Moving images
thwart the imagination.
The way to poetry is through the underpinnings amid the darkness, and while the imagination may well be thwarted by “moving images,” it is shut down, even tracked down, by fixedness. April 2011
Robert Gray, the author of Drew: Poems from Blue Water and I Wish That I Were Langston Hughes, lives in Mobile.