Eric Baus, Tuned Droves
Publisher: Octopus Books
2008, 73 pages, paperback, $12
in the introduction to American Hybrid: A Norton Anthology of New Poetry, editors David St. John and Cole Swensen offer a troubling caveat to their criteria for selecting representative samples of “new” poetry: Each contributor need have published three collections before consideration into the anthology. Given the current state of publishing–much less the state of poetry publishing–this requirement leaves what is considered “new” up to individuals who came a generation or two (in some instances, three) before the loose cadre of poets currently producing work that straddles the threshold between avant-garde and mainstream.
Eric Baus’s second full-length collection, Tuned Droves, seems a more representative sample of what American Hybrid should have consisted. It’s a collection that is descriptive and mysterious; the speaker(s) are by no means reticent, but are certainly reluctant to make pronouncements–needless to say, there are no first-person, situational lyrics found here.
The first section, titled “The Sudden Sun,” is a self-contained fragment: “When a boy’s mouth collapses into itself, tiny flames release from his / limbs. Although this is a small flash, he is startled by the sudden / sun.” The next section, “Something Else the Music Was,” is a collection of seventeen untitled segments, followed by “A Different House,” a set of seven pieces that appear to look more like traditional forms–poems with stanzas, couplets, tercets, etc. “I Know the Letters this Way” is a set of seven more pieces, all of which are in prose form, centered on the page; “A Dismantled Mouth,” which consists of eight pieces in various forms and lengths; “The Continuous Corner,” a six-page sequence; “A Ding and its Echo,” a sequence of ten loosely-associated poems, and concludes with a single poem, “Orange Water,” which, like the first, appears in its own section.
The poems read with the mysterious rhetoric of ekphrastic: perceptions of an infant, a haunting yet beautiful revelation of a slightly strange universe–the textual equivalent of tuning forks out of phase. Not anchored in the usual means, the work relies on ellipses of referents to offer grounding for the reader. The syntax and logic of a particular set of lines may be bizarre and entirely illogical, but the reader is grounded in the troping of concrete images: a boy, a bus, the rain, a tree, a paper bird–the coupling of splintered logic with the familiar material world is how the work exists in “Hybrid” territory.
If one hopes to find meaning (though it may be against the work’s impetus to do so), one must look to those mysterious conjunctions that come in the uncontextual leaps–this technique is not fresh by any means, but Baus’ speakers contain a sonic and aesthetic quality rarely seen. Many lines contain a discursive/dialogic cadence, but are tempered with absurdities–it is as if the speaker reports an act of eavesdropping, but the signal is scrambled on delivery to the page:
The determiner knows that ants are not a symptom: I am sorry, Miss, but they’re not coming up on the screen. That’s like asking what the most important part of the floor is. I mean, I could pretend that ants are a symptom, and give you a small shovel, but that would be a false address.
In a current climate of coy and ambiguous leaps–associations with cryptic connective tissue left to draw upon for meaning, Baus makes no apologies for delving in mystery. But the poems need not be mistaken for the merely oblique; there are multiple levels of the subversion of form. Many of the poems appear in chunks, having the appearance of prose pieces, but do not offer the grounding of context. These disparate chunkings and scramblings of logic are also highly lyrical, creating a swirling of formative subversions. It is akin to the chaos of an orchestra warming up before a performance.
The tensions constructed between the aesthetic and sonic qualities of the poems rely less on traditional formal approaches, those that utilize line and syntax to reveal these tensions. For this, the lyrical ease of the phrases can be strained; one cannot rely on the stop signs of breath or punctuation while reading aloud–it is a poetry propelled by content, but this content lacks context. But it is perhaps Baus’ intent to subvert the usual nomenclature of criticism and poetics. His is a poetry of foundered language, dependent upon misprision and its sonic equivalent.