Plural by Christopher Stackhouse
reviewed by Patrick Thomas Henry
Christopher Stackhouse’s Plural crams philosophy, aesthetic theories, familiar objects, and everyday events into the compact shape of lyrical poems. At first, the collection seems claustrophobic, trapping the reader in networks of the poet’s own free associations as he mulls over marks on pages, lecture notes, drafts of poems, human fingers, animals, and devices like computers and radios. Yet, these poems reward repeated readings. A curator, visual artist, and poet, Stackhouse crafts his lyrics into complex textual pieces of visual art, elegantly depicting the fraught qualities of the visible world and building that reality without the tactile heft of the objects that infiltrate his lines.
As a textual work of conceptual art, Plural obsesses over the crisis of representation inherent in language. Stackhouse’s poems question poetic diction and imagery as if they were Chinese boxes, each word containing a multitude of other ideas. The volume’s opening piece, “Mark,” immediately places the reader into the concepts nested in a single typographical mark:
as a mark is made it becomes an image
as you make a mark you become the image
of an image making a mark—
Here, Stackhouse implicates poets and readers alike in this system of words. A poet setting pen to paper will inevitably “become the image / of an image making a mark,” so that writers themselves become markings, letters on a page that represent an abstraction. But this maps onto the readers of Stackhouse’s book, as well. After all, readers must encounter these marks, grapple with them, and conceptualize the things represented by language. Without the reader’s intervention in these poems, the texts cannot reproduce the lost “ephemeral moment” of experience. “Mark” suggests that the act of reading is an effort to signify the ephemera of the visible world: “the vapor, the audience, the contrast, the sophist- / ication swollen by a bee sting […]”
Stackhouse charts these efforts to articulate an already lived experience in formally experimental and ambitious poems, which usually hinge on following a web of free associations. Some of the poems in Plural drop readers into a philosophical framework they can’t readily grasp. The lecture note poems, “After Alain Badiou” and “Arthur Danto at the Guggenheim,” can prove especially disorienting for readers unfamiliar with Stackhouse’s theoretical frameworks, which include Jacques Lacan’s brand of psychoanalysis and Arthur Danto’s post-historical theories of art. Such poems à clef (for lack of a better term) require some background to unlock how they, to quote “After Alain Badiou,” describe “what is an artistic event—a ‘new’ trace— / materialist, materializing, materialism of art.” Other poems that seem to intentionally occlude readers’ access include the collection’s brief homage to experimental composer John Cage, as well as notation poems like “Notes from Panel Disc. @ The Fish Tank Gallery.”
These dense pieces are confined to the first fifteen pages of the sixty-page volume. The forbidding, highbrow edifice that these opening poems erect will no doubt intimidate certain readers. However, a reader who breaches Stackhouse’s wall of abstractions is greeted with poems that depict the genuine struggle of representing anything—let alone in an aesthetically pleasing way. The first “Extractions,” subtitled “From Poet to Draftsman,” labels “the poet’s depiction” as “an intimacy, concision of economy and line,” which requires readers to become intimate with all the possible connotations of a poet’s language:
They have that effect
defy viewer attempts at drawing out or divining some
These three lines state the relationship that Stackhouse imagines between poets, poetry, readers, and critics more elegantly than the conceptual and experimental lecture note poems. For Stackhouse, even straightforward poems should possess an element of abstraction: a well-wrought poem denies facile readings and forces us to prod, question, and evaluate. It is little surprise that the first “Extractions” rankles against critics who, like students in a lazy workshop critique, attempt to limit poetry by saying “this is art, this drawing, this is A drawing, this is the soul, this is / the record of the soul.” So, the second “Extractions” poem, subtitled “Addendum Section III,” proposes that poetry does not speak to the individual identity of a reader, but instead to “[a] system of audiences.”
These two poems mark a dramatic pivot in Plural and its use of innovative diction and forms. In speaking to this “system of audiences,” the book’s experiments become sensual, evocative, and disarmingly sincere. “Angel Smoke” captures a “moment thin as parchment”: the disorientation of the speaker’s senses as he cogitates on beauty and symmetry as a woman performs fellatio on him, the “angel smoke” of her breath “reduced to mirage on the glass.” The provocative prose poem “Short” follows, casually sketching out a day consisting of a breakfast (“Special like bacon and eggs and toast with jam, my morning coffee”), beer, pornography, and a dog walk.
The tenacious verve of a piece like “Short” is Plural at its apex, distorting conventions of narrative time to express the tumultuous immediacy of human thought. “Short” launches in media res, as the speaker says,
Seventy-five cents short of three dollars and fifty cents, I couldn’t purchase my favorite bottle of beer before I headed into the apartment after walking the dog. All I wanted to do was sit down to the computer and talk about my day with myself, while I surfed the web and intermittently wrote.
Time is compellingly disjointed: the speaker reflects on his desires while stopping at a bodega to buy a beer at the end of his dog’s walk. In a single moment of thought, all of these disparate events are of equal importance. Indeed, everything in this poem is “special”—the speaker’s cigarettes, his morning coffee, his computer, the graphic pornography on his computer. Imagining the pornography arouses the speaker, even as he stands in the shop: “I am shocked and absorbed imagining, as I stand in front of the counter paying a dollar eighty for a Negra Modelo,” The poem, which happens in a single moment like Ambrose Bierce’s classic story “An Occurrence at Owl Creek Bridge,” comes full circle: the speaker fantasizes going home, smoking, writing, and watching porn, so he frantically “handed the man a fistful of change” so he could rush to his apartment and live his fantasy.
Small, graceful phrases power the poems in the latter half of the book while toying with Stackhouse’s interest in representation, in imagery’s endless Chinese-box deferral of meaning. “Efficient and Particular” refers to the title’s abstractions as “[i]ndifferent / to the indifference of cats,” while “Chew the Candy” coaxes readers to “[b]e comfortable in all that is not / there. It simply is.” Stackhouse charts these indifferences and absences onto poetic diction and images. “Each Bird,” for instance, begins with a reflection on lovemaking in the grass, and the speaker considers “the swaying / shadow of leaves” before imagining the birds inhabiting a park’s trees:
Each bird is this poem’s color against—no, with
the asphalt, between the white stripes, wherein
strollers cavort, fertile, intrepid, antique,
soft with age, browning beneath the blaze
By refuting the vision of “color against [. . .] the asphalt,” the poem melds the bright colors of birds’ plumage with the black of pavement, the white lines separating lanes, the sidewalks, and strollers pushed along. But this assimilation is notably a poetic project: the speaker cannot imagine the vibrancy of birds without the swarm of sensory information. A conventional poem might edit out these details, but Stackhouse’s Plural insists that poetry thrives because of—and not in spite of—the network of external objects and forces that shape a poem’s vision of reality.
While the dense, associative poems of the opening pages may put off readers, pieces like “Short” and “Each Bird” encourage us not to fear the endless system of marks, images, and representations abounding in Plural. After all, as Stackhouse asks in “Radio,” “If you don’t know what the (a) secret fiction is how can it depress you?” Living with ambiguity—rather than resolving it—is necessary for appreciating this volume of poetry. In Plural, Stackhouse treads the intersection of lyric poetry, conceptual art, and theories of representation. Even if representation in art creates “one implausible copy after another,” Stackhouse’s poems depict the individual’s struggle to shamble together reality from the abstract stuff of experience, from intimate encounters with a quotidian world inhabited by animals and objects.