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 credit:A plan of the Third Parish in Newbury, [Mass.] : March 26, 1761, Phillips Library, Peabody Essex Museum, Salem, MA , Flickr User: aehdeschaine
Reading Karen Weiser’s Or, the Ambiguities begins with questions fundamental to every text: how does a reader orient themselves to a text? How can both a reader and writer find themselves in the parallel moments of composition and reading? That we ask ourselves these questions while we read is not surprising—in fact, it’s an intuitive part of the process; the rules for reading are codified as cultural practice. However, when we become aware of the various ways that our “reading brains” synthesize a text, we enter a metacognitive space which calls attention to the ways that we consume each printed letter as a sequence of meaning-carrying symbols. But, can texts ferry a reader through gateways other than those that lead to tacit meaning?
Anecdotal experience indicates that a metaphysical connection to literature is possible, if not desirable.
Or, the Ambiguities is a book which engages in process that Weiser describes as a game of Ouija, a conversation with various spectres of Herman Melville, giving the reader a sense of spiritual geography, an orientation in letters that morphs in form and shape, offering itself as compass which both orients and disorients. Through the book’s four sections (each designated by a cardinal direction), Weiser allows form to speak as loud or as quiet as the source text intimates, with varying degrees of imposed or perceived order. The table of contents, if it is to be taken as any indicator of an ordered reading, implies a common sequence of “N,” “S,” “E,” “W,” but the intriguing piece is that the reader isn’t provided a map and, instead, must improvise with whatever textual maps and compasses invoking Melville implies.
The first section, “N: Dear Pierre,” introduces the reader to a personal invocation/self-erasure/anagram which transforms the personal circumstances of the speaker into a sentence which appears near the beginning of the Melville text which acts as the generative source for this work, Pierre, or the Ambiguities. Weiser achieves an interesting and profound effect, enacting a filter on the language which translates it from the contemporary Weiser to the classical “Melvillian” vernacular, with the Weiser’s dialogue with Melville taking the primary place on the page by flipping reading order with little warning. In writing earlier of metacognitive moments, Weiser’s attention to both the rhetorical situation of the text is compelling.
As readers, we’re aware that we are reading another author’s text; as readers of largely sourced work, we realize that we’re reading an author’s transformation through another author’s text. And, in the case of some texts, this is foregrounded (I think of Srikanth Reddy’s Voyager in this respect), but Weiser makes the “meta” move to fade into her own text in a way that both semantically and visually foregrounds this exit from the practical, tangible world, out of our experience, and into the more ambiguous and subjective nature of text. Or, as Weiser writes, “[t]wo books are being writ…in a mirror behind me,” making us conscious of these two books we’re also reading as the texts seems to write itself. The only way to do justice to my description, I think, is to show it:
And with the start of the second section, the reader is firmly transported into the adapted text through a more traditional lyric form. However, with the way that the first section is structured, I can’t help but attempt to discern, as the speaker of the ninth entry in the sequence (“Mount Greylock”) tells us:
[t]his poem contains a smaller/inner poem
that they are “somebody’s landscape/[a]t this moment exactly.” For Weiser, Melville assumes a kind of landscape status, which is one of the ways that her work through the text speaks so profoundly. Rather than foregrounding the use of a source text, the collection feels much more like these are the words that should be here, regardless of where they are found. Again, I cannot help but make connections to the way that I perceived reading Voyager, which was a catalogue of reading a text just as much as Or, the Ambiguities is.
But what of the notions of the spiritual that Weiser describes in her endnote, that the composition process of Or, the Ambiguities is a study in how “the slow accretion of letters [is a] means to converse with the dead”? The text is, after all, prefaced by an epigraph from William James, the psychologist and scholar whose preoccupation with the psychology of the mystical and religious has come to form a cornerstone of our understanding of spiritual thought.
Perhaps one of the most intriguing ways that the collection foregrounds its interaction with the past, with most texts written from sources, the acknowledgement of interaction with an author or poet is one hidden among the various “readerly” assumptions we make.
Weiser’s choice to call such attention to it, however, transforms appropriation to elegy. It reinforces that the book is all about orientation, be it to a physical or spiritual geography. Weiser’s use of various shapes and forms transforms text into a collection of ritual, such as that of the last section, “W: In the Darbies,” a sequence which takes the concrete shape of manacles, the text fitting in the negative spaces around which the cuffs secure, emphasizing
the shapes you’ll no longer//make out, just ease these too tight forms at your wrist,//they’re made of the systems that hang us through
as if to exhort the self- and time-aware reader to transcend the various notions of containment, confinement, imprisonment, privilege, among the many other concepts that the form and shape of the poem places at the center of the experience.
Associating Melville with poetry proposes the inevitable link between this text and Susan Howe’s study of Melville’s marginal notation. Both endeavor to work for and against the practice of reading, but where Howe’s is a project meant to conceive of the mind of Melville, Weiser’s Or, the Ambiguities is a study in attempting to embody the reader than one meant to inhabit an author or represent a particular reading. The book summons Melville in the same way that Ronald Johnson addresses Milton’s ghosts in Radi Os, albeit in a much more personal an intimate way, though both are innately connected to similar projects of spirituality.
Perhaps it’s because I have a much closer connection to Melville than Milton, but I find myself drawn more to Weiser’s text with regard to the closeness of her lyric, the illusion of presence exerting itself in a much more apparent manner. Or, maybe, somehow I’m just comforted by the notion that I see a writer exploring the concept of death in a quieter way, one which offers some sort of succor to the reader in both beautiful presentation and language, ensuring that even though the “end” is always “in a box in a hole/in a drawer in a lake[,]/the vanishing is going low—/the vanishing is going low.”