BlazeVOX [books], 2012
Reviewed by Joseph Harrington
It makes perfect sense to me that Cheryl Pallant’s background is in modern dance. In her writing, one hears a vocal movement reminiscent of the physical movement in that other art form: it is always musically aware and syntactically limber, and it contains a large measure of improvisation and play. The pleasure of reading her books is in following patterns of linguistic energies as they take shape, move, and morph. Her work also reminds me at times of early Gertrude Stein, in that it contains Stein’s use of “insistence” (what some would call repetition with variation); of words as musical notes rather than referential signs; and what might be called non-representational renderings. Pallant shares Stein’s love of words for their own sakes without taking them (or oneself) too seriously: “let us stand beside ourselves outside ourselves in riotous play. let us be they. let the cantor sing paradoxical fugues snugly and rewind” (from Into Stillness 10). This ecstatic play, fugal variations on themes, and “beginning again” are all evident in Cheryl Pallant’s newest book, Continental Drifts. She uses “lively words” to create kinetic writing that always surprises, that seems never to be entirely under the management of the writer: “Verbs fight for their enactment . . . Knowing knows what saying wants said.” The self is a moving target; just as in dance, “[m]e arrives on the spot no longer me . . .” (“A Directional” 13). These are poems best read aloud, though you might occasionally trip up on homonyms, puns, and other displacements.
In all of these generic twists and turns, one rarely encounters an impulse towards closure, towards ending the poem with clashing cymbals and ostensibly profound epiphanies. Instead, we hear a sometimes bemused, sometimes serious, always oblique voice. She is a master of contact improv with words, always on guard against the hubris that language can incite:
A bespoken. A cry. An orange glow
fire beings sparks fiery
gliding by ferry to an opposite shore.
Sureness sometimes here
_____________________and there. ______(“They cavort” 29)
Pallant’s preferred form is the prose poem. However, her oeuvre encompasses a wide range of forms, and Continental Drifts is perhaps her most ambitious and formally varied to date. It includes prose narrative and meditative free-verse lyric (sometimes in the same poem); poems composed of couplets that stretch across the page; white-out poems; and pieces that create a chant-like rhythm through heavy use of anaphora.
Pallant’s paratactic paragraphs are in the tradition of the New Sentence, but she doesn’t shy away from narrative – which, in Continental Drifts, often deals with eros and the gender politics entailed therein:
The men rarely listened. En mass they stole glances, each amassing a thief’s bounty. Violation with one who permitted, who didn’t give much fight. Thighly the women opened with blush.
The women spoke behind the men’s backwardness. Talked in full frontally as well. . . .
_____(“Attraction and deflection” 34)
Sometimes the narrative is faux or quasi-, as in “Eyes follow the text in the sky”:
The one who said
to the one who would never say
to the one who did
with the one who already had done
to the one who listened to many
heard each sound utter in its own chamber. (102)
Some of these poems seem to have to do with “topics,” such as cancer and other diseases (“Hair”) or reincarnation (“Slip stream”). Some of my favorites are detourned burlesques of famous documents, such as the Declaration of Independence (“Who holds these truths to be self-evident, that to shun or welcome are equal, give or take a sum, give or take a man bedding woman or a headstrong woman stroked by the sun” 75); the Ten Commandments” (“Thou shalt have no goods before me, regardless of packaging and country of origin” 79); and the Constitution:
to which some other person
shall not prevent
who may be acting. _____(“Amendments” 78)
Some pieces are composed largely or entirely from spare parts of scientific jargon, as in the English sonnet entitled “A marriage of monophasic action potential” (54). Other poems read like “an anthology of transit” between epigrammatic statements and those that resist standard semantics: “We cage what dies in the cracks of history. Your sitting so far away molds a more illustrious choice” (“The pineal gland in gladness” 89).
The book has a decidedly Buddhistic sensibility (“no use empty nor use full” 107) and an insouciant attitude towards not-knowing – making no-sense instead of nonsense or sense, “somewhere between the outspoken and the unheard” (85). The author wrecks her own reed: “Don’t behave like somebody else unless you are somebody else” (16). Cheryl Pallant is that person. Her newest book is well worth a pas de deux or trois or more.