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Shelf Life

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Trance states are mental episodes poised at the perilous border between consciousness and insensibility, volition and hallucination. Deemed aberrant from the standpoint of wakeful, rational intelligence intent on the business of problem-solving, these liminal states are, as David Lewis-Williams argues in his fascinating if highly speculative study The Mind of the Cave: Consciousness and the Origins of Art, an ineradicable fact of human cognition and may have played a role in the emergence of the specifically "human" form of consciousness first signaled by the cave art of the Upper Paleolithic period some 40,000 years ago. Like dreams and drugs, trance experiences are a perpetual source for the trans- and nonrational explorations of poets, a means of provoking the "systematic derangement of the senses" prized by Rimbaud.

About the Author

Steve Evans
Steve Evans teaches poetry and poetics at the University of Maine and tends the website Third Factory.  

Alice Notley has employed self-induced trance techniques in the composition of most of the volumes following her visionary quest poem Descent of Alette (1996). Her new book, Reason and Other Women (Chax; $21), takes its title from Christine de Pizan's fifteenth-century proto-feminist utopia, La Cité des Dames, in which "Reason," along with her friends "Justice" and "Rectitude," assists the author in the construction of an allegorical city where upstanding women from history and fable serve as the building blocks. The art and architecture of the Byzantine period are also in evidence, ranging in scale from the vast, intricate basilica that supplies Notley with her book's overarching structural analogy to the individual tiles of the mosaic icons that decorate the imaginary basilica's walls.

A stabbing intensity, quickened by frequent shifts in mode of address, pulses through Notley's ultralong lines and boundless-seeming stanzas; based on factors and multiples of six, the stanzas often stretch to eighteen and even twenty-four lines of more than ninety characters each, creating a festina lente tempo that races along at a glacial pace. Each poem records, with an insistence on fidelity that leaves keyboard mis-strikes intact, the poet's experience of descent into a trancelike state where situations unfold before the mind's eye with an unsettling quasi objectivity; though "unreal," they are not mere figments of her imagination. The phantasmal scenes of what she calls "the second world"—which, in contrast to the quotidian "first world," knows neither causality nor linear temporality—are host to fleeting patterns, as characters twin, double, divide, antagonize and lavish care on one another before dissolving back into an ever renewing wave of affect and action flecked by the kaleidoscopic hues of Notley's mental palette.

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If the densely covered sheets of what I'm tempted to call Notley's "trance-scriptions" were reduced to their barest minimum, the distillate might be the kind of poem found in Andrew Joron's Trance Archive: New and Selected Poems (City Lights; $14.95), which, moving by way of minuscule alterations in phonemic structure, seek to cast cerebral neo-Surrealist spells through multilayered, self-reflexive punning: "If there is a floor/It is a flare/too quick & too bright/to be trod upon.//Enter here/Inter here/—turn among/the torn, the Entire.//—a lexicon seems mysterious/Because it is inhabited by no one.//(Sense alone/has many senses.)" As Velimir Khlebnikov did with zaum poetry, Joron employs linguistic devices such as homophony (his trademark move) in a self-canceling manner, his ultimate referent being the chaos his poetics presumes is also cosmological: "As if the totality of all possible statements/formed but a single statement./A self-refuting one." Not all of the poems culled from his seven small-press volumes since 1987 and placed before a new and wider audience in Trance Archive are endowed with sufficient syllabic chemistry to alchemize the mystical insights that this theremin-playing adept of Philip Lamantia and Barbara Guest strives to deliver. But in the best of them can be heard an echo of the "Solar cry that according to Copernicus inhabits the center of every voice."

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Aaron Kunin's The Sore Throat and Other Poems ($16)—his third volume with Fence Books, after Folding Ruling Star, his debut volume of poems, and The Mandarin, a novel in the manner of Virginia Woolf's The Waves—sets out from an unsettling insight into what exactly inhabited the center of his voice. Having painstakingly apprenticed himself to an idiosyncratic form of sign language ("technically a binary hand-alphabet...that looks more or less like fidgeting or piano playing," as he explains in a helpful "Note on Method"), Kunin gradually became aware that his compulsive transcriptions of the language around and within him were being supplemented, in "quiet moments when no one was saying anything and I wasn't reading or even thinking," by "short phrases of indeterminate origin"—"It won't be easy and can't be a pleasure," for example—that his hand would uncannily generate all on its own. Attending closely to these unbidden phrases, Kunin compiled an inventory of just under 200 words and set himself the task of inhabiting as fully and exclusively as possible the restricted vocabulary within which his unconscious mind was evidently in the habit of expressing itself. The Sore Throat brings this "white noise" phrase bank to bear on two texts, Ezra Pound's "Hugh Selwyn Mauberley" and Maurice Maeterlinck's play Pelléas et Mélisande, offering emotionally raw, prosodically staccato and altogether estranging "trance-lations" of the source texts' subject matter: literary and political in the case of Pound's 1920 sequence of chiseled quatrains about his taking leave of London and the persona he'd adopted there; libidinal and mystical in Maeterlinck's doom-driven crepuscular tale. Like Notley and Joron—indeed, like all the poets of what Jack Spicer famously called "dictation"—Kunin fashions his art out of messages intercepted "from somewhere else." Are there, finally, any other kind?

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