Monday, October 30, 2006

Bruce Whiteman's The Invisible World is in Decline


The generating gap. Refusing to write what had come into your
mind out of a wish to push against its being spoken, to query its
occasion. The labyrinth of rebellion against the prompter. You
have a bright memory of the occurrence of the leading word of a
text, subsequently erased through a dangerous discipline that
leads toward silence, absence, a book of blank pages. The hole
from which the poet rescues by some weird instinct of self-
preservation what he had almost thought to say. (Book II)

Originally published in part as The Invisible World is in Decline I (Toronto ON: Coach House Press, 1984), The Invisible World is in Decline II-IV (Toronto ON: Coach House Press, 1989) and The Invisible World is in Decline V (Toronto ON: ECW Press, 2000), the entirety of the project has just been released with a sixth volume as The Invisible World is in Decline (Toronto ON: ECW Press, 2006). Almost a sister project to Ken Norris' own ongoing Report on the 2nd Half of the Twentieth Century (the most recent, Books 16-22 appeared with The Muses' Company in 2005), Canadian writer Bruce Whiteman started the project while still working as a librarian at the McLennan Library Rare Books Room at McGill. During that same period, he was also editing poetry for ECW Press, until he finally moved down to the United States to work at UCLA in 1995, the same time his Visible Stars: New and Selected Poems (Dorion QC: The Muses' Company, 1995) appeared. Since originally starting his long poem, he has published a number of other books including the poetry collections The Sun At Your Thighs, The Moon At Your Lips (1978), Ten Lessons in Autobiography (1981), The Cold Engineering of the World (1983), A Nature Murder (1985), Polyphonic Windows (1993), Tristia (2002) and XXIV Love Poems (2002), as well as being responsible for the non-fiction works Leonard Cohen: An Annotated Bibliography (1980), Raymond Souster and His Works (1985), A Literary Friendship: The Correspondence of Ralph Gustafson and W.W.E. Ross (1994), Lasting Impressions: A Short History of English Publishing in Quebec (1994) and J.E.H. Macdonald (1995). Why is it, that of all the poets in and around the original 1970s Vehicule Poets and further Muses' Company poets, most of their company still active and publishing (Ken Norris, Claudia Lapp, Bruce Whiteman) are living in the United States? As American poet Theodore Enslin writes in his preface to Whiteman's Visible Stars: New and Selected Poems:
It is true: "Language outlasts the uses we put it to" as in section II of Book I of The Invisible World Is in Decline. The development of that work through five books is carefully measured. It is not a place that all men might want to go, and I confess that I am not always convinced by its philosophy, but it is an arresting development. The poet at times is that ancient mariner who will not let the wedding guest go on until he has told his story. In the sections of Book V, "Zukofsky Imprompus," there is the deep need of both Bach and Zukofsky, but to a measure not known to either of them. What might Zukofsky have thought of this? But there is an underlying sweetness and affirmation, and after so much "decline" it is a mark of restorative health.
The "prose-poetry" tradition is much stronger in the United States than it is in Canada, with practitioners few in number, but including poets such as Rob Budde, Nicole Markotić, Jacqueline Turner, Daphne Marlatt and Robert Kroetsch. What is it about the prose poem that lingers, against such continued disuse? It is good to finally have all of Whiteman's long poem The Invisible World is in Decline in one place, his long poem in place, something that Ken Norris has suggested for his own continued and continuing poem. Unlike Norris' poem, holding more to the modernist traditions of Montreal, including Louis Dudek, Whiteman's Decline works out a lyric prose from that central Montreal modernist point to include Ralph Gustafson, Louis Zukofsky, William Carlos Williams, bpNichol and a slew of others, continually picking up influences as he increases speed. This is a painstaking and loving work.


The customs official turns a complacent eye on the few things
of any value the poet hauls across the border. It is a deft
translation, taking pornographic notebooks and a piano with
ivory keys over the line. A new country collates all the neglected
verities and transubstantiates them like an oblate who has
forgotten his place. Even the ownership of words is lost track of
in the process, and "aloe" becomes a metaphor of strangeness.
The poet translates everything in his head into the superlative
degree and gets away with it. The invisible cannot be stopped at
the border. (Book VI)

No comments: