poetics & style: theodore enslin

From Shearsman 56 (September 2003)

Theodore Enslin: In Tandem
(Stop Press, London, 2003. 262pp, pb, £14.50. ISBN 0-9529961-8-9).
With photographs by Alison Enslin.

Enslin is a poet whom I did not take seriously enough upon first acquaintance with his work. I don’t know why, and from the perspective of a further thirty years, I wonder at my former idiocy. It’s true that Enslin writes a lot, some would no doubt say too much. His output is vast and his two very long poems, Forms and Ranger, dating from the 60s and 70s respectively, each run to over 650 pages. Besides being a poet, he is a composer – past titles such as Ländler, and references within the poems to Bach suggest a classical inclination, as do his early studies with the doyenne of all music teachers, Nadia Boulanger.

He lives in the Maine woods, and has done for decades. His work seems to be grounded in that environment, and music seems to be one of his main interpretative methods.

This is Stop Press’ second edition of Enslin’s work: the earlier, and much shorter Sequentiae (1999) was very fine, and similar in formal terms to the poems presented here, which draws on work already published in chapbook form in the US. Enslin’s work has taken on a different kind of organisation in recent years, in which repetition is used musically – it’s tempting to suggest Terry Riley and certain other American minimalists as musical comparisons, but I think we’re seeing a different kind of musical organisation that goes back several centuries — pace the several clear references to J S Bach, above all in the Six Music Lessons group of poems. The result is an odd (at first) incantatory quality, that also suggests to me Beckett’s late prose:

Not alone and yet alone within this room
others who have come and left a darkness
after chambering and cold with the shadows lone
remembering an air of loneness not alone
within without the rooms a chambered emptiness
the rooms grow larger smaller as a complement
to those who are and those were alone
and not alone the secrets of the rooms continued
contained within contained without a chambering
pertaining to the chambers not the rooms
in loneness as not the last will leave them
as the rooms themselves remain alone lose memory
the rooms containing not the memory a key
upon returns that’s possible pertaining to a memory
of what is loneness of a chambering a room
alone the cold still grief within the room
a room remembered out of need a music
in the stillness soon abandoned or alone
the past turned future not enough to show
in darkness what is shadowed in the room alone

(from the sequence Out of a Dark Room Its Light, 1998)

The sequences demand to be read as a whole and not as a group of discrete poems, with the musical impact building throughout the sequence and the whole having an architecture not available to the single short poem. The complexity of the organisation, which at this stage I’m only just beginning to see, is at variance with those huge poems from the 60s and 70s, which were structured like many a Great American Long Poem in the wake of Pound and Williams, relentlessly ploughing forward, carrying everything in their path, and rarely stopping for an editing (or so it appeared).

Old age not winter reaches something
of a clarity of a voice to say what reaches
many keys the modulations one or two
still left a surety not a cadence quite
the motion in reverse not a mirror
much to negate yet to repeat a melody
one not known was always known remains
a ground whereon to build no haste
the signature of many times that left us
what are few to come once more and so
the last of it a wild surprise

(from Six Music Lessons)

The whole book is shot through with musical forms and sounds, with landscape – Enslin’s New England, its sounds, smells, and changing seasons. His way of dealing poetically with nature in a poem is quite fascinating, an attempt to convey its wonder through participation rather than the haphazard similes we tend to be fed by lesser writers:

Crow punctuates his sound across
the closing dark of clouds snow filled
that sound to be a punctuation
iron filing that the sound is brittle
as the sharpness of the winter air the ice
of sound flakes through the dark the clouds
that close on snow and silence sound the punctuation
of a sentence active in its silence
punctuate a closing dark snow filled
that sound of iron filing to a punctuation
slow to be a sound of sharpness ice
in winter air of closing clouds dark
crow sound across the dark of iron
filing ice flakes of sound punctuate
the sentence a winter air brittle
a sound of punctuation crow in dark
across an iron filing dark to ice
brittle sound across a punctuation
crow his sound across

(from the In Tandem sequence, 1994-5)

I can only scratch the surface of this marvellous book in a short review; US readers will have access already to some of the contents through publishers such as Longhouse, tel-let and Talisman, but this is a first for British readers, for whom this work will come as something very new, rather alien, and, I trust, captivating. I should add that the photographs of Maine accompanying each of the sequences here are by the poet’s wife, and are also very fine indeed.

In the US, the book can be ordered from SPD, in the UK from Peter Riley’s mail-order service, or direct from the publisher at 263 Nether Street, London N3 1PD. It’s well worth acquiring and, I think, not expensive for what it is.

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