This post is part of the Found Poetry Review’s Book Review series. Questions or comments can be directed to the author, Douglas Luman.
Barely one-fifth of the way through Noah Eli Gordon’s 2011 book The Source, readers confront an essential question: “How can so literary a thing be so against literature?” It is a moment that encapsulates the context of the book perfectly, even if it is somewhat cynical; Gordon’s project to sample text from the 26th page from as many books as possible from the Denver Public Library during a 21 month period resulted in the collection of language from over 10,000 titles creating something that is more of literature than against it. Strategically replacing many of the identifying nouns of these excerpted passages with the more proper noun “The Source,” the poetic sequences that comprise the collection are an endeavor, as Gordon writes in a note that concludes the book, to explore “whether or not constraint-based, conceptual writing might have a spiritual dimension.” And while The Source is characterized by an eerie spiritual dimension that reads like a text that is part catechism, part scripture, and part parable, it becomes less and less adversarial to its literary roots and serves the larger purpose of becoming an odd type of creation story that uses text to explore notions of textuality, language, and being.
In the somewhat chance-driven operation that Gordon used to create the text, the idea of poetry as one of the last living descendants of a kind of magic is a palpable and unavoidable force.
That is not to say that there is any removal of agency on Gordon’s part. Rather, those who wish to pay attention to the mere craft involved in such a large undertaking will find much in the way that The Source is forced to weave together disparate source texts in order to maintain a through-line, albeit not necessarily a narrative one. In fact, the experience of reading the text is one of disorientation, with a seemingly infinite amount of entry and exit points. Pick up the book and open to any page, and Gordon’s arrangement of the text will render complete phrasing as each is a contained poem that, part of 7 individual sections, can either be read as-is or in the context of its surrounding passages, endowing each reading whether casual or intensive with a kind of re-readability that is nearly impossible in any other text. The experience of reading one page is different than that of two which is different than that of engaging with a section or the entire book.
Each piece feels like a lesson about our relationship to text and how we understand it as the text switches between modes of semi-rhetorical, catechismic questioning,
Are these merely suggestions for speech plans?//
Extensive rephrasings of outside sources?//
The more questions you respond to with a yes, the more likely the first sight of a hostile encampment in a country disused to war no longer looks so disheartening
to passages that create reader-text relationships:
The Source will not tell you how to find food and avoid predators, how to turn a moral or other structural principle into one of Fate’s dispensations—a magnificent chariot to which are harnessed two stags with silvery fur and golden antlers, when before you there is only a discreet silence.
There are also passages which seem to mock the intrepid reader who may undertake a mission to decode it, inasmuch as a hermetically-oriented text can be “decoded,” when Gordon’s text proclaims
But enough of this filth! The Source puts up with you, laughs at you and teases you unmercifully throughout life.
Few of the individual moments endeavor to create traditional linear meaning. If looking for the relationships between any two discreet parts, there are none to be had in The Source. But, this is never the point of the enterprise—the mere scale of the project, in part, prohibits a willful author from exerting will or intent on the text outside of creating a text that is meant to be read in part or in whole, to evoke a kind of spiritualism that can exist only in text.
It is an odd sort of direct dogma that escapes codification of practice beyond merely experiencing the text as printed and the associations thereof and therein.
In many of the discussions of books in this review series, a common question seems to crop up: what, if any, characteristics of poetry does the text engage with? What makes these seemingly coincidental bits of text weave together into a poem? While The Source takes on the form of a poem in a few instances such as in a later section of the book when it reassumes a questioning register,
Why couldn’t/the proper matter/to make The Source, after/its dispersal in different/places, reassemble/at length in one/spot, and there lay/the foundation/for a new starting point?
The Source operates in a persistent poetic mode—that is to say that in grappling with conflicting, nonsensical, tangential, and divergent units of meaning into which the poet is attempting to conduct an inquiry into a science of being. As an “investigation into constrained bibliomancy and ambient research,” the pieces of the book roughly approximate and embrace the disconnected and shattered nature of multiple stimuli and voices around us at any given moment; it just so happens that Gordon chose a convenient and traditional place to do research in order to produce an unconventional and uncanny text sourced from a relatively unlimited store of language, the thing that makes our experience and interactions with the world nameable and real. The Source as “bibliomancy” is an attempt to engage with what is perceived as the randomness of this experience through a process of apparent randomness in order to create a text that, in the end, seems not to be able to fall together any other way.
One cannot leave the text without performing the kind of experiment that Gordon applied to his source texts and turning to page 26 to see what exists there. Doing so greets the reader with an affirmation of the project of The Source, the notion that “the feeling it expresses and evokes, and even in large part its subject matter comes from only two words: ‘is’ and ‘are’,” the terms “is” and “are” being the fundamental states of being. Each page operates in this way as a self-sustaining creed that, when linked together, starts to demonstrate that every moment is a kind of source which, beyond itself, is only complicated by the way that, like the many books that Gordon culled from, at any given minute we exist on a separate page.