NonZero Definitions, Gil McElroy
2004, Talonbooks, 132 pages
isbn 0-88922-499-4, $16.95 CAD/$12.95 USD
“not / the next / thought // but the fact / of it” (p 55, Julian Day 2445136)
The second trade poetry collection by Gil McElroy is NonZero Definitions, a follow-up to his previous, Dream Pool Essays (Talonbooks, 2001). Continuing his interest in cometology, astronomy and others of the sciences, the collection is built in a number of sections, some including a variety of pieces, and others including either a single piece or sequence: Anger Sticks; (The Function & Field) Of Speech & Language; Vacuum Activities; Some Julian Days; Meteor Showers A Descriptive Catalogue; and NonZero Definitions.
“There are / no clear- / cut strings.” (p 9, Strings)
With poems written as brief essays, writing about writing and how science interconnects, managing to bring it all together in a seamless way. Zero, an invention of the Greeks. McElroy repeatedly references cosmic bodies and planetary things, from “Every night / is a planetary thing.” (p 75, Julian Day 2450834) to “An enormous Everest, / a planetary thing.” (p 113, Lament), and even to “Horizon is everywhere a containing.” (p 20, C). McElroy can reference without holding to a reference, taking each poem in a variety of directions and collusions, such as in the poem “Lament,” that reads:
Kentucky-back of that
uses masculine translations,
shame, & disunion
found in weeds.
The dialectic of shame presses to addenda things of inclination.
Chaucer versions Chaucer knows.
Silent intervals are void places.
Exasperated concision. An enormous Everest,
a planetary thing.
Articulations of a shore.
It’s as though McElroy’s main strength is in finding precision in the inference, as in this fragment of the poem “Distance & The Device,” that reads:
The whiskered self,
average & a bit wrapped,
implies the left or right in ways that are cousin
to the precise.
Twice the relationship.
McElroy has a number of double poems, writing pieces as doppleganger, such as his side-by-side poems “Card Trick” and “Coin Trick,” “A,” “B” and “C” or the piece “Double Star (A Visual Binary)” collected in the first section, “Anger Sticks.” Consider what he writes as footnote to a line in the poem “A” (p 18), after the line “Narrative is everywhere an apparent.” as the small “a” leads down to “Consider the / beast cold- / blooded, viscously / specific. Hell / Is a point somewhere / sudden.” The piece “Double Star (A Visual Binary)” reads as though an invisible line cuts through the middle of the first section, to have the two halves switch places for the second, overwriting and wrapping around itself, switching “The world The sun sets / is hard flint when sunlight” to “The sun sets The world / when sunlight is hard flint” (p 21).
Many of the pieces in this collection work against the idea of the single voice, overlapping instead the multiple, from these pieces to a number of the “Julian Days” poems, and the “chorus” written as addendum to each poem in the “Meteor Showers A Descriptive Catalogue” section. They almost read as the “poem” and “commentary” pieces do in Leonard Cohen’s Death of a Ladies Man (McClelland & Stewart, 1978). Each piece has its own variant, a comment on the piece itself by a later hand.
The waiting else
adds to my new socks.
As McElroy works through his poetics of naming, some of these pieces remind of the work of Toronto poet Lise Downe, in both the deflections and suggestions pulling against one another. And the non-zero, in poems that are not nothing, never set out as absence, but somehow, barely present. (It was the Greeks who invented the number zero. Was there thinglessness before them?)