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Friday, December 5, 2008

Duetcetera by Ira Lightman (Spearsman, 2008)

reviewed by Elizabeth Burns

Ira Lightman's Duetcetera asks of the reader what it asks of itself: "Are you with me?" "Are you able to travel?" The questions do what the best poems can: they ask. Bishop's Questions of Travel, and Ashbery's Self Portrait in a Convex Mirror are two examples of book-length poems disguised as questions, and these are just two obvious examples. Stein's work, measured aside Bishop and Ashbery, shows how shape and question tease a reader into a temptation of statement. But statement, as we read at the end of this project, never comes. We arrive at a kind of knowledge, but only because we have been unafraid to travel the distance, and we have trusted the poet, our guide.

Duet says we're in this together, the writer and the reader. Etcetera says there's something else, or many other things, along with this duet. Let's conflate, imaginate, deviate. I say this last because, once, I was accused of being a "deviant" reader because I read only last lines of a Milton sonnet. My crime was imagining that a poet read his own poetry, and enjoyed wreaking a little havoc with it.

Lightman's Duetcetera is not havoc. It is at its lightest a parry and a volley. And at its heaviest, an exchange of both knowledge and pain. Because Lightman is a visual artist, the shape of the poem is the poem as much as the poem is the words. This poem/book is carefully split, a mirror/not mirror work impossible to reproduce here because of my own technical ignocrankiness. Each line is flush center, and fans out in mirror shape. In the following, notice Lightman's ability to flow downstream and across the water. Column two slaps back at any surfacing meaning in column one, causing a sort of belittling rhyme attack. But should each column be read separately, as it flows downstream, we read a sadness, tender and questioned. Even then, meaning is not settled, since to know Lightman's work is to know there would not be "a wife governed" but rather "life governed slovenly by my lapses." The poem will not let you slip between lines.

BE                          THE
wife                        life
governed             slovenly
by                           my
lapses                    perhaps is
it early                  literally
aches                     makes
a free                     happy
hand                      and
enough                 bluff

As much as a commentary about joining and separating, wondering and declaring, Duetcetera questions epistemology. Elizabeth Bishop's "At the Fishhouses" is one of the most astounding comments on knowledge, in part because of its "transmutation" of knowledge into a startling physical pain:

If you should dip your hand in,
your wrist would ache immediately,
your bones would begin to ache and your hand would burn
as if the water were a transmutation of fire
that feeds on stones and burns with a dark gray flame.
If you tasted it, it would first taste bitter,
then briny, then surely burn your tongue.
It is like what we imagine knowledge to be:
dark, salt, clear, moving, utterly free,
drawn from the cold hard mouth
of the world, derived from the rocky breasts
forever, flowing and drawn, and since
our knowledge is historical, flowing, and flown.

Like Bishop, Lightman inspects the physicality of knowledge by drawing on the British educational system, which can be a set up for a class system insofar as it points children towards a "respectable" career or manual labor. He entwines the British system of education tracks, in which "comprehensive" and "streamed" refer to the categories of the average student and the above-average, respectively. A question here might pose the placement of "families/ under a happy/ deal" who luckily have children smart enough to be "streamed" into the better, more challenging education track. Lightman offers more questions about the twinning stanzas of DNA: what kind of genes, of history, of biography and environment are we weaving into the life of our offspring? Are there tolls taken in courtyards, the gangs of the comprehensive students hating (and therefore beating up) the adolescent streamed children? Are we responsible for the fragility of DNA, the obscurity and possible uselessness of the information and scholarship we pass along? This last question is a rough one, but essential. Yet, poets can't turn from it. We can't take back what we have already passed to our children, or what has been inherited either genetically or environmentally.We have dipped our hands into what we imagine knowledge to be like, Bishop writes,"and since/ our knowledge is historical, flowing, and flown." Like the flowing river of Lightman's verse, knowledge is not contained, and at any point, we find ourselves swept, and startled.

SACRAPPARENT!                      ACQUAINTED my
what was that                                related via a
means to land                               married above
slid families                                   frowning once
under a happy                              one had so by
deal or soles                                  work of a DNA
& court cards                                that unseeing
as that would                                at all copies
low muttering                              far theatrics
counted games                            through trees
by totallings                                  like a Coptic
& transparent                               helichopper’s
non-secondary                            environmental
adolescent as                                for the radio
swaddled upon                            quasiwaveform
primary gangs                               and biography
fed man after                                 tolls in life
comprehensive                             at least thus.

"Sacrapparent!" asks what is obvious about the sacred.What about the sacredness of the Church is our "parent," as in, our holy parent? Our Sacred Parent is on one side, and those who are related via marriage, who have our DNA, reside on the other side. "Copies" play with the sequence of our life story hidden in genetics, but "Coptic" hides the sacred stories of the Church. Our own biographies are pressed against the son who was swaddled, and yet, our souls are solitary. This son is God made flesh, which indicates a holiness and a knowledge made, well, available. What the soul can know is sacred, and beyond words, but not beyond reference.

Duetcetera ends with

Daddy put me to bed with                      knowledge accounts
no time for bath, with a story               veils of smoke screen rent.

This is the way I feel: I have been put to bed with a story, and the screens have been rent, one column by the other. The knowledge pierced through has been cold or warm, flowing or not, and down or through. Nevertheless, the veil is gone. One might sidestep knowledge accounts, but not the mirrors.

[Duetcetera by Ira Lightman is part of a larger project titled Coinsides, and is published by Shearsman Books, Exeter, UK, 2008. It is available through, or]

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