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Essay for NPF

The poetry of the 70s is partly defined by a fierce consideration of place in terms of a precise location in space-time co-ordinates. At one end of the continental US, the New York School was elaborating an expressive poetics cheerfully linked to an affirmation of quotidian life in an urban community, while at the other end of the country the group of writers who were to map themselves in the next decade as Language Poets were writing formalist works in which the quotidian details of the Bay Area landscape grounded to a significant degree the heady application of Structuralist theory. Despite the nuances that can be brought to bear on this generalization, the two poles—or places—are well-known among poets and scholars as hubs of 70s literary activity, partly because the poets are 1) American; 2) living in two stateside cities noted for poetic community; 3) grounding their poems with representations of place; and 4) furthering, in different ways, the concerns of trans-Atlantic Modernism. Members of both communities were drawn to the work of Gustaf Sobin, an expatriated American poet deeply attached to a place distant from the primary bi-coastal settings. Living in the isolated countryside of the Luberon Mountain Range in the Provencal region of France, Sobin's representation of place was neither theatrical nor skeptical. Inaugurating an essentially Heideggerian poetics in which "site" is a "place" of being and nonbeing, Sobin's inclusion of the rural French quotidian translates into an eroticized immanence of language enacted in—or through—the poem. Nowhere is this tendency more pronounced than in his premiere volume written in the 1970s, Wind Chrysalid's Rattle.  

Sobin's inaugural volume of poetry is perhaps his most buoyant. Marking the end of a protracted apprenticeship the book seems written with compulsive verve, performing the rite of passage into literary maturity with, on the one hand, an almost Rimbaudesque responsibility to the clarity of vision, and on the other, a penchant for formal restraint that recalls the crystalline lines of George Oppen. Because Wind can be read as a "who's who" of literary allusion and influence, it's a critic's goldmine to which we will only give passing recognition here. For present purposes, let's note that Sobin was a member of the famous Thor seminars given by Heidegger in the 1960s in Provence. The poet was steeped in Greek philosophers, especially Heraclitus, as well as the works of his master, Heidegger; his mentor, René Char; and contemporaries, such as the structuralist anthropologist, Lucien Sebag, and Black Mountain poets, Robert Duncan and Robert Creeley.   Wind is, in many ways, the product of an omnivorous mind doted on by the tensions and polyvalency of literary bi-nationalism. Sobin's deepest commitment to poetry written in American English  evinces a fascination for the verticality of European culture and learning as well as the candor of daily life.

Continuing the modernist tradition of expatriation, Sobin lived, until his death in 2005, on the outskirts of Goult, a rural village in Southern France, in a modest stone home. On windswept foothills, isolated from both the power struggles of literary careerism and the competing opportunities of urban life, Sobin was intensely focused, both literally and literarily, on the landscape outside his window; but this engagement with the Southern French countryside did not give rise to "nature" poetry or "nature writing," because, interestingly enough, Sobin's concerns with the natural world do not reside in nature per se. The observation of "stone," for example, participates in linguistic, historic, anthropological and philosophical discourse as well as deeply personal speculation, both actual and potential, literal and propositional. In short, Sobin's quotidian encounter is with the "world," a term used here to allude to Heideggerian thought as well as to denote more specifically an ontology of location, both exterior to the poet, in terms of the landscape, and interior, in the sense of observed consciousness. Writing on the interface between objective and subjective worlds in his stunning nonfiction work, Luminous Debris, Sobin avers,

Each of us, I suspect, cherishes a particular landscape that outwardly reflects some all-too-familiar invisible condition within. Its very topography gives color, contour, dimension to otherwise inaccessible areas of inner reality. Endows them with palpable configuration (101).
Although the preceding citation appears many years after the volume Wind was written, it clearly conveys the poet's encounter with landscape as a vehicle of personal revelation or what he prudently refers to in Luminous Debris as "inaccessible areas of inner reality." In the original Wind, however, the landscape is anything but measured and tame. For example, in "All Octaves Simultaneous," the poet finds himself  "in the midst of voluptuous space," observing "the thirst of this / white vibration" and "the shivering ions," where he watches "perspective, in its cubes, the length / of its verb, [”] collapse, at / last, into its deepest orchard" (10). As expressed in the lexicon of "voluptuous," "thirst," "vibration," "shivering," and "collapse," Sobin's 'youthful'  encounter with landscape is very much alive, even orgasmic.  But this framing of the poet's apparent enthusiasm for randy pre-Socratic animism is not transparent: Sobin's inscription of eroticism is everywhere coupled with a formal investigation of language which, in this inflection, owes more to Saussure's analysis of speech segmentation than to Derrida's primal grapheme. In other words, the sanction of theory in Sobin's "world" takes a very different form than that elaborated by his contemporaries in the US.  In distinction to poets who promote an apparently unyielding rationalism, Sobin is suspicious of theory that fails to incorporate affect while, at the same time, he cringes at the prospect of sentimentality or facile transcendentalism. Consider, for example, these lines, again from "All Octaves Simultaneous,"

                                  What you say, said the voice with the green, momentary eyes of
       oak, is what you hear: hear me saying. (Wind 11)

This couplet raises the issue of who is speaking in the poem, a trope that repeats in the first volume and throughout the poet's oeuvre. In Wind, the notion of voice, which is anything but a predictable metaphysical concept, is often linked to mouths—licking mouths, breathing mouths, speaking mouths. "As the tongue touches, the flesh / blooms" (9), he writes, or "the thrust of a single whisper" (6), or "who are you // who's breathing through me" (23), or "my teeth; your shoulders // flesh / in the throe of its flower, / the air's / spirally meadow" (8) or "lip // lips // and the blind spine's // bright / shiver" (13) or "becoming is the breath of lust" (5) and so on. All these lips, tongues, breaths and teeth lend a kind of physicality to the trope of the speaking voice focused on its own speaking, what Sobin refers to as the "incestuous sound." In fact, the mouth, the body's sound-producing apparatus, takes precedence over what the voice actually says. It's the sound that's at stake—voice prior to the semiotic act, voice as sound.

Now consider that Sobin's preferential body part, the mouth, is anatomically poised at the interface between inside and outside, subjective and objective, where sound is both inside us and outside of us, produced and projected. It's impossible, for example, to find the physical boundary of /s/ or /t/. Similarly, since the sound of the voice in Sobin is heard, voice elicits the ear as a corresponding body part where, once again, the location of sound hovers between inside and outside, subjective and objective. Once again, it's difficult, if not impossible, to delineate the point at which the sound wave moves from outside the body to its interior. Is the music you listen to, the scientists ask, inside or outside your head? Is your voice, for that matter, inside or outside your head?

Sound—and here I mean, of course, voice as sound—is then an oddly dual phenomena, projecting and penetrating. Despite the pressures of taxonomy imposed on the word, "sound" is not referentially a "thing." Research on the nature of sound argues that it is an event, not an object, although when we hear a sound we opt, so to speak, for particle, not wave—e.g., the object making the sound, the meaning of the sound, but not the event of the sound. We say, for example, "the bell sounds" instead of "the sound bells." Even the observation that "a sound bells" itself seems startling, revealing the degree to which the experience of sight has objectified our experience of our bodies, occluding, in this case, the fact that sound production and sound reception are porous sensual phenomena, as linked to the intimacy of an open orifice as they are to the vicissitudes and loyalties of the emotions. For a poet such as Sobin, a poet who proclaims "the poem is verbal, rather than nounal" (Talisman 43), acoustic phenomena function primarily as events within the poem—in other words, sound as verb. Thus Sobin writes:

here the
as they pour through the     comb of their
octaves; and the      words,
of    all but their     breath,
radiant. (CST 22)

The "intervals," "octaves," "words," "boned" and "breath" of this passage, as well as the homophonic "here," engage the process of sounding in which sounds are physically transformed by the act of being sounded. The words are being "boned" of everything but their "breath," divested of their materiality, translated into verbs in some vaguely transcendent process which, in turn, ensures their radiance. Should the reader then assume that by shearing words of matter and leaving spiritus intact that the poet is avowing, if not advocating, religion? To do so, I believe, would be a mistake, one that would produce a potentially reductionary reading of a body of work that is better served by a recognition of enormous philosophical and linguistic complexity. Andrew Zawacki, Sobin's literary executor and a poet to whom I owe discussion of many ideas in this essay, argues that Sobin is partial to continental philosophy, a religion without religion, that features "structural parallels to spiritual transcendence, but missing the divine, dogmatic center" (Zawacki 20). In other words, Sobin imports signifiers as well as paradigms of religion into his work, but turns them to non-normative ends. In this case, the "missing” center" that Zawacki identifies in Sobin's poetry suggests that the radiance itself is shorn, in its turn, of cultural baggage. The word, as a verbal sounding, or to use one of Sobin's principle terms, "a vocable," is liberated, not just from its social and political freight, but from the throttling assumptions of signification
itself. What the word loses makes it free—not to be anything, but to be.

The productive agency of loss in this passage exemplifies a key theme in Wind as well as in the body of Sobin's work. Objecting to an "all-reductive, all-exclusive rationality," the poet observes that "we can't do, it would seem, without something that isn't" (Verse 110). For the "we" in this quote, substitute "civilization." Sobin, it should be recalled, was an accomplished student of archeology and history—his collection of artifacts, from the Paleolithic to the Ligurian, is on display in meticulously labeled vitrines that he himself made, at the Ecole René Char primary school in his village of Goult. Sobin found the artifacts himself, underfoot, in Provence, because he could read vestige in landscape as well as any professionally trained eye and numbered leading researchers in the field among his friends. He spent hours pouring over historical documents and analyzing the various peoples who lived in the Provencal region, from Early Man sites through the Middle Ages. In many ways, this research was a research of loss, because, as he explains in Luminous Debris, "every fresh concentration of knowledge generates, ipso facto, a dispersion" (38) because "the data do not seen to bring us any closer" (44). But the essays tell us that now and then, when he holds a glint from the past in his hand—a potshard from a Roman castuum, or a spearhead from a Ligurian flint workshop—he has a frisson of recognition in which history exceeds its construct and intimates being. The presence is fleeting in context. "We cannot see and depict who we are," he writes in his essays, "without seeing and depicting who we aren't" (77). Or, as he observes in Wind, "it's by what we didn't see that we'll recognize ourselves" (17).

The apprehension of the invisible that threatens to materialize—or the material that is on the verge of disappearing—infuses Sobin's version of Heideggerian phenomenology and of his 'theology without theology' of imminence that precludes immanence.  Loss and absence recur throughout his poems. In Wind, for example, he writes of the "absence / that elsewhere, is / equally present" and "the absence that     is" (4). Being, it would seem, is locked in a permanent embrace with non-being, in these lines and throughout Sobin's oeuvre. The being/non-being conjunction, as this essay hopes to suggest, is declined in the landscape, in sound, in history, in language and in love; it operates at every level of structuring, from the book to the sequence to the poem to the line to the word; it fills Sobin's gorgeous nonfiction works. Sobin was arguably only fascinated with what he found in front of him—or in him—to the degree to which it wasn't there.

Hence the inclusion of mirrors and mirroring throughout the `oeuvre—not mirrors in a Lacanian sense, but mirrors as vehicles of Presence. As objects, mirrors show us who we "are," if the visible apprehension of one's exterior can be read, not as surface, but, like language itself, as a medium of being. Again, this apprehension is not narcissistic. Following the poetic and philosophical traditions of the mirror as a vehicle of the actual and speculative, Sobin writes in Wind candidly of the "flesh of / your mirrors" (24), or more explicitly,

       for even the infinite
would crease, and the infabled bodies    touch
     touch, and             rubbing
                                        mould themselves
              invent themselves
              in the wet               wavering mirrors of            the other (14-15)

These "wet” wavering mirrors" linked to the "infinite" where "touch[ing]" and "rubbing" is taking place could not be more explicit. "It's the beloved," he writes in Wind, "that becomes the poem."  

1.  My use of Heidegger in this essay is pragmatic, not essentialist.
2.  Henceforth referred to as Wind.
3.   Sobin was a voracious reader in numerous disciplines, including archeology, history, philosophy, religion, psychology and anthropology. He was conversant with the major figures in French, English and German literature and theory.
4.  Sobin reserved English for poetry. The language of his daily life was French, and French was the chief language in his household.
5.  The poet's "youthfulness" is a state of mind, insofar as he was well into his 40s when his first books of poetry appeared. This same youthful giddiness appears in his later volumes of poetry as well.
6.  Sobin's interest in heterosexual behavior should in no way be construed as anti-Feminist.  
7.  It is worth emphasizing that Sobin knew theory as well as his counterparts, but his research interests were neither exclusive nor careerist.
 8. Sobin's layout is impossible to reproduce without developing a methodology for spacing and line breaks, which would be counterproductive to a short conference paper. Therefore, my rendering of Sobin's lines is only vaguely approximative.
9.  This discussion on the nature of sound is drawn from Michael A. Forrester's essay, "Auditory Perception and Sound as Event: Theorising Sound Imagery in Psychology" in the Sound Journal published by the University of Kent.


Books by Gustaf Sobin

Celebration of the Sound Through.  New York: Montemora, 1982.

Luminous Debris: Reflecting on Vestige in Provence and Languedoc.  Berkeley: U. California, 1999.

Wind Chrysaild's Rattle.  New York: Montemora, 1980.  

Interviews with Gustaf Sobin

Foster, Edward.  Talisman: A Journal of Contemporary Poetry and Poetics 10 (Spring 1993): 26-39.

Schwartz, Leonard.  Verse 20.2&3 (2004): 106-112.

Also Quoted in this Article:

Heidegger, Martin. Poetry, Language and Thought. Harper Perennial: New York, 1976.

Zawacki, Andrew. "Gustaf Sobin." American Writers—Supplement XVI, ed. Jay Parini (New York: Charles Scribner's Sons, 2007): 281-298.