This post is part of the Found Poetry Review’s Book Review series. Questions or comments can be directed to the author, Douglas Luman. Photo: The 60-inch cyclotron at the Lawrence Radiation Laboratory, University of California, Berkeley, August 1939 from the collection of the United States Department of Energy
In recent years, the concepts and definitions of the word “poetry” have been challenged, remade, unmade, destroyed, championed, and lampooned. And, to the chagrin or joy of many readers and writers, they will continue to be. For some, poetry has become a frustrating changeling—an essence that, already difficult to pin down, keeps moving, morphing, and adapting. Others have been much more accepting and encouraging of the new directions and potentials of what the term “poetry” can encompass. Immediately, the emerging study of visual poetics, or “vispo,” is a particular junction of these kinds of tensions; the broader reemergence of (big “c”) Conceptualisms has occupied interest. There are certainly many other forces in the contemporary landscape of poetics that are competing for the same eye/heart share.
Somewhere nestled among these tensions lies Michael Leong’s Cutting Time with a Knife, a collection that embraces all, shuns none, and acts as a faithful reporter, explorer, and archivist of these intersections. Taking this calling as its point of departure, Leong combines several unlikely sources, namely the periodic table, T.S. Eliot’s “Tradition and the Individual Talent,” and various forms of glyphs to create a language model that is lyric, visual, and concrete, a synthesis of objects in the landscape. In the same way that Eliot’s generation was attempting to break with tradition and demonstrate potentiality in poetry, Leong’s text endeavors to the do the same. In fact, the influence of the essay as a formal constraint seems a continuation of the work done by Eliot, though in Eliot’s time the dialectic was between the moderns and romantics; the context of Leong’s work is much harder to summarize in a few neat sentences in a review.
However, though this might imply the necessity of a new model, like Eliot’s essay exhorts that “the difference between the present and the past is that the conscious present is an awareness of the past,” a fact of which Leong demonstrates both his own awareness and competence. Merging present technology with historical symbol alongside presently-altered historical text, Cutting Time with a Knife collapses time into a singularity, a poetic event that draws attention to itself but, more importantly, demonstrates the ebb and flow of poetic discourse that surrounds it. It becomes a product shaped by natural forces, a feature represented by the visual juxtaposition of elements appropriated from the periodic table dominating the poetic field with text and archaic symbol weaving themselves around it.
Leong’s treatment of seaborgium is one of the most emblematic of the poetic endeavor of Cutting Time with a Knife, weaving commentary in forms that display present, past, future, and possibility with the kinds of visual arrangements and disruptions that have been parts of other poetic traditions, but are also becoming focal points of contemporary poetics.
In the way that Eliot’s essay is a kind of periodic table, a structure that can both account for current and anticipate future development or discovery of new elements, Leong’s text functions as quasi-historical and predictive matrix of possibilities.
On the excerpted page, Leong’s main media—lexicography—is used to display an English that Eliot would have recognized, and one that contemporary readers would, alongside a character of Cyrillic origin with an unusable hyperlink to listen to its pronunciation. In reference to the earlier comment of collapsing time, the page is certainly a singularity. But, the layering of meaning on the page creates the kind of both forward and backward looking scope of the statement being made. Seaborgium being a synthesized element alongside the pseudo-synthesized Cyrillic alphabet and the future gaze of such words as “blog” and the inclusion of contemporary, but non-functioning technology seems to speak the reader in all of its visual and semantic parallels, placing itself both in and out of the conversation. It both embraces and shuns the traditional “line,” engaging in both poetry and prosody.
The parallel structure of each page and the depth thereby created is stunning. The ephemeral nature and short half-life of the element engages with a conversation with the text around it. The inability of the reader to interact with elements that should normally be interactive (as we understand them) is just one instance of Cutting Time with a Knife placing a reader in the time before technology and the time after. We are able to use what we know, expand our understandings of what we think we know and, at the same time, are unable to use some of the information that we think we grasp. We must both break from and embrace tradition simultaneously—a kind of tension that is enviable in the process and means of its creation.
For a text that could be considered speaker-less, Leong seems to be crafting a new kind of speaker, one that relies upon an aforementioned “archival” mode that signals a deeper harmony at work here than what a reader might consider a single voice. It is a challenge in appropriative poetics to craft singular speakers from the cacophony of sources that join together to make up a poem, but Leong’s long poem thrives in its use of apparent disorder; each page only seems to be a haphazard or happenstance arrangement.
Though the conceit of spontaneity can only go so far in a text, Cutting Time with a Knife straddles the line between the entropic and procedural, introducing a tension that many attempt in vain to capture with a strict focus on a single strand of language rather than engaging in the many various literacies that we all have.
Many readers may find Leong’s interactive model difficult to engage. However, for those looking to begin to develop a pivot for investigating both where poetics have been and where they might be going, Cutting Time with a Knife is an essential text in its ambition and elemental constitution, particularly as a primer for visual poetics and how our traditional sensibilities as readers and writers might be used to move into this somewhat nascent space. Leong has also created a kind of talisman, an enciphered object that brings to mind the hermetic spaces of H.D. alongside the linguistic possibilities of Christian Bök, a kind of direct lineage that creates a sense of excitement as to who might be the next group of poets to complete this organic chain. Certainly Leong’s approach is one installment, and it prompts us to consider (like Eliot) what will come after.