Sunday, December 5, 2010



COLLECTED POEMS / Gustaf Sobin, Edited by Esther Sobin, Andrew Joron, Andrew Zawacki, and Ed Foster
(Talisman House, 2010)

TO THE ENDS OF WRITING: “that scattered set of cognitive facets we’d come to call world
Language as effulgence, caesura as severest praise: these are the extremes between which Sobin’s poems wander, now in obsessive concentration now rapt to the parenthetical.
—Editors, COLLECTED POEMS / Gustaf Sobin

It’s evident that Gustaf Sobin’s strength in his writing lies in knowing exactly where he’s headed and there lies the problem with his poems. Despite his claims to be open to the process of the poem as being one of discovery his poetry lacks the allure of surprise. Strangely this would seem to contradict Sobin’s intentions, as represented by the editors in the introduction:
… Sobin’s impulse to erect his poems earth and skyward hailed from a commitment to the physical world and its organic processes: “don’t write a poem: grow it,” he remarked, “the poem grows out of the poem, not out of one’s own, particular intellect.” Sobin saw his compositional method as “natural” and innate,” like a training vine, rather than “intellectually acquired,” and trusted that breaking with linear prosody meant a divorce from positivist thought.

Or does it? As valid as following the turn of “a divorce from positivist thought” may be, Sobin sculpts and sculpts the lines to such an extent, parsing syllabics and applying enough torque to the syntax that any thing, elemental or not, beauty or otherwise, which may have been striving to gain a presence inside the utterance of the poem breaks itself into a frustrating opalescence.
audible meander of the air’s
vacant octaves: the drift,
            that is, of that single, ir-
repressible instant; what
            knows, indeed,

antecedent nor

Poetry needn’t explain itself, of course! but with Sobin everything’s a little too cherished, too wrapped up with its own internal business syllable by syllable to mind anything else going on with the world outside of that one which the poems create and operate inside of. (Here let it be readily acknowledged that this may indeed be just what Sobin’s agenda with poetry is, but that doesn’t mean it makes for an interesting and/or useful poem.) The preciousness found here is simply over-bearing.

written, the
become anyone’s, no one’s.
wouldn’t need you,
now, the


trees, what
you’d scribbled, in white
bars, across so

mute scoring. on that

ground, its
raised chords, wouldn’t even

need your-

Perhaps this lack of contextual grounding in the poems is appropriate. Sobin removed himself from his native Boston and pursued his interest in the poet Rene Char to the extreme, living an expatriate life in the Languedoc area of Southern France, where he set himself up to pursue writing in, as the editors describe it, “a cabanon containing a modest writing desk and chair, a manual typewriter, a shelf for a few books and dry lavender, a cat.” Modest (with maybe more than a hint of the pretentious) indeed is the word.
This simple hut, with its small windows opening out onto the wide fields of Provence, would serve as Sobin’s singular workspace from the beginning of his apprenticeship to Char until the end of his days. Here, in this writing cabin, over the course of four decades, Sobin produced eight books of poetry, four novels, three volumes of essays, and two books of translation.

Sobin’s linguistic isolation—in so far that it would appear he did not carry on in any regular day-to-day business using the language in which he wrote—was one he chose. If he intended his poetry however to extend beyond that world which he created for himself and for it—that is, the limited confines of his own isolated situation—to be of use to readers in a way in which they could locate a place for themselves in it and thus take up concern and interest drawn from their own living— he was mistaken.

Sobin doggedly pursues his own agenda with the poem. He is never beholden to a character or portrait and the risks that such writing entails, the perhaps irrevocable blurring of one’s consciousness, and in this sense he is very un-Shakespearean without a taste of Keats’ Negative Capability or Lorca’s Duende, such outside forces which might act upon the poem beyond the control of the poet, rejecting any preconceived trajectory. Sobin never gives up his authority. And unlike Paul Celan where the life and death tension between languages is persistent throughout the lines, testing the life and identity of the poet, it’s difficult to get a sense of Sobin being vitally engaged with anything in his poems aside from the poem itself—which, admittedly, is usually of benefit to the work but sadly is not so here. It wouldn’t necessarily improve the poems to have some sixteen year-old girl skateboarder chattering through the background of them, but it might not hurt them so much either.

With Sobin’s poetry just where, what, when, and who he is writing for remains elusive (unlike say the Troubadours.) His “ear” (in that Creeleyesque parlance) is impeccably well tuned… but to what good, Creeley’s (again) sense of ‘use’, is it put to? If poetry is to be nothing but beauty of syllabic vocals, very well, here it is. Sobin’s work shows a life given over to poetry purely in an ungrounded interest. He lunges in, but does so for so far and long, that all that’s left is the un-sounded act of an intended sounding solely concerned with nothing outside of its own self-made meaning.

one mouth
blows into another.

have grown on the
white fats
of the petal ; we

lessly open… let
one another

out. Nowhere
is what’s around
we turn and

touch, as if
one of us—the other—
were still there.

This is rather stillborn, frozen within spasmodic internalizations. The clipped staccato measure, reinforced by decisive line breaks along with the syntax possibly locate the poem in post-WWII American 20th century style of verse, but little else of identification holds. Sobin’s repeated reach for an absolute where words float crystallized in air as a sort of ultimate perfection is rather absurd, and often much worse, quite boring. Mallarme at least had the sense to deal with a variety of formal issues when he sought perfection, bringing variance into his work and reaching to the (for his time) extreme, such as his “Un coup de des jamais n’abolira le hazard” shows.

At some point the poem must hold relevance as well as show concern for its effect towards its audience, of the sort which is wholly without preoccupation with itself—unless, of course, rebuffing, destabilizing and/or critiquing such matters is of paramount to the poem’s intent. This may be exactly the sort of business Sobin is shooting for, but if so he fails prove his case. At best Sobin presents frozen passages of vision, sight, and hearing which the imagination has overtaken—and not, sadly, for the benefit of the poem. The first couple hundred pages of this book (at most) readily provide a clear picture of what Sobin’s up to. If he hasn’t flipped your lid by then, there’s little gained reading further. Beyond that point one finds only repetition without remuneration. Even though Sobin tells us poems are written “that substance might transit through us” he fails the task as his poems demonstrate only language as uncalled for exaggerated exuberance of untested endurance pumped up on self-indulgence.

This is a poetry going nowhere. The opening line of the introduction to this heavy tome says it all, “Gustaf Sobin lived in the south of France for over forty years.” And it would seem he never left! (He did in fact.) While the land itself in that area of the world is heavily laden with centuries of evidence for humankind’s slogging through it, not to mention the beauty of the landscape itself, the reader of these poems is left without a feeling for the location where the writing happens. This is a shame because elsewhere—Sobin’s three volumes (the third of which was unfortunately left unfinished) of prose studies on the Languedoc region—Sobin fully demonstrates a passion and zeal for real insight into the physical fact of the landscape. What for most would appear a barren field comes alive with activity as past and present mingle together on the page.

Sobin’s poems are nothing but language games, not The Language Game, whether L=A=N or otherwise, but the sort resembles a cat batting about a ball of yarn. At least in his carefully considered prose probing of the countryside he turns his analytical eye to the actual, identifiable thing(s)-in-itself and produces a bountiful yield of splendidly refreshing material, encouraging a closer look at a past that doesn’t fail bear witness to the future found within it. Here is the opening piece from his final unfinished collection of last essays Aura “Getting the Skeletons to Speak” where he hits upon the grand measure to which all our earthly endeavors are bent.
From all these posthumous inspections, something, at least can be said to have survived. Out of so much meticulously observed fracture, genetic deformation, and anatomic degeneration, the sparks of a certain enlightenment would seem to have arisen. Something, indeed, of these anonymously dead, their bones irreparably calcifying in their sarcophagi, hasn’t entirely died.

If only these poems were found to be of such material.


Patrick James Dunagan lives in San Francisco. His critical essay on Creeley's debt to Stevens is slated to appear in Fulcrum 7 anytime now. Poems and such will be appearing in the next issue of Amerarcana. This Spring Post Apollo Press will publish his "There Are People Think That Painters Shouldn't Talk": A GUSTONBOOK.


james cook said...

In my opinion, his poems are cut from very similar stuff to those of Paul Celan. I'm not quite sure one can dismiss a poet's entire corpus when you haven't tried to understand why his poems move the way they do. I think Sobin is important (and his poems well-constructed) because he returns the poem to the music of the object, the stammering, physical act of speech.

Unknown said...

HI James Cook (of POLIS? cause we've met, yeah?) or a different James Cook? Either way, point taken that dismissing an entire corpus is rather absurd...however, I felt like it was a 'bluff' of sorts that needed to be called (at least at the time, now I'm not sure I'd quite go this same route, but I might. I definitely stand by the review anyways. I DO very much dig Sobin's prose! As I said to artist Will Yackulic--who studied with Sobin one summer-- in a chat about my book GUSTONBOOK--- in which a quote from Sobin appears-- "Man, did you really study with SOBIN? Is that what you’re saying? That’s crazy...I just dissed his Collected Poems in a review but I do adore his books about the landscape of Provencal … from which I took that quote."
I am also well aware of Sobin's continuing to relevance later generations of poets, including a couple pals of mine whose work I dig. At any rate, I continue to be engaged with this line of influence, for instance, I recently wrote appreciatively of his poetic mentor Rene Char's Hypnos: And I am very interested in Celan... I guess with Sobin what I am hesitant about is his attempt as I see it to twist English, being an American no less, into a European tongue... I mean he's not using French or German, but writes as if he is! which i think silly, more or less... I do dig the prose tho! cheers, Patrick james Dunagan

james cook said...

Hi Patrick, this is not the James Cook who runs Polis, though he is an acquaintance of mine. I'm the James Cook who is writing a long epic/investigative work based in American history and the 'psychic' corridor of Upstate NY in the 19th Century, called The Croatoan Songbook:

I understand what you're saying about Sobin 'twisting' the language as if it were French or German, but I think that's part of what makes him an interesting poet. The English language is versatile enough to be twisted, hacked, savaged, torn apart and recombined, and Sobin generally writes at the periphery of the language, at the almost physical pressure of its edges. But we can agree to disagree. I will say that his influence on the work of Andrew Zawacki (one of the editors of the Collected) has been profound (to my understanding) and Zawacki is taking poetry in some really interesting directions. I also dig Sobin's Provencal prose.

I wanted to say that I'm a big fan of your GUSTONBOOK. I think its beautiful in form and execution, and I'm tracking down more of your work where I can find it. Thanks for the enlightening back and forth. Feel free to FB me or email at if you feel like continuing some sort of correspondence. Best wishes. James Cook