Lopez, Tony, Only More So: New Orleans: University of New Orleans Press, 2011.
British poet Tony Lopez seems to know what he’s doing when it comes to titling books. Like other reviewers, I find myself consenting to the poet’s own terms when trying to come up with a heuristic for explaining the wry sensibility present in his newest work, Only More So. On the dusk jacket of his 2007 collection Covers (Salt), we read “as the title suggests Covers is a deeply derivative book in which the poet, without even any pretence of originality, takes other well known literary works and makes his own versions or mashups, splicing them together with unlikely partners to create something unexpected, even monstrous.” To understand how the phrase only more so aptly encapsulates the contents of Lopez’s new set of extended prose poems, we need only recognize that much of what is said about the derivative quality of Covers could likewise be applied to the poet’s current collection, only more so. Just like in earlier poems, Lopez’s Only More So engages with a conspicuously constructivist collage method, which the poet marks as being influenced by the example of U.S. L=A=N=G=U=A=G=E writing. And just as in those previous outings, the result of this style is a startlingly droll depiction of how our personal connection to world and word has become devalued in the public sphere. In this book, as in the earlier work, we are at the mercy of those meager words that Olson admonishes in Maximus, those rhetorical forces that seek to advertise, standardize and democratize us out. Thus Only More So continues in the same vein as Lopez’s earlier work, but differs, more than slightly, by virtue of degree. One can appreciate the book as an intensification of the poet’s commitment to tempering geopolitical commentary with deeply satisfying sonic textures.
Applying the books’ title to the poet’s practice, the crucial question becomes how does more of the same result in something altogether different? Of course one doesn’t have to look far to see how an idea of more might separate this new book from the others. Not only is there more language on the page but there are also more pages in the book; and this seemingly flat-footed observation carries wide-ranging implications for how Only More Soaffects the reader. Where Lopez’s collage method in the past occupied a conventional poetic shape–as seen in its adherence to open-field composition or the sonnet form–now there is no delicate line-break to regulate eye movement and oral performance. Instead, we have hulking paragraphs that seem to frustrate all attempts at immediate consumption.
In his review of an earlier, shorter version of Only More So (entitled Darwin), which contained less than a fourth of its current contents, Ron Silliman claimed that his practice of progressing through the book entailed reading through each paragraph twice and then pausing before moving on to the next one (Silliman’s Blog, 6/15/2009). Yet it was not the dense and expansive quality of Lopez’s prose paragraph that troubled Silliman in his review. On the contrary, the only reservation Silliman had of Darwin was that it was simply not long enough. He writes, “my admittedly self-indulgent process of reading and rereading every paragraph over many times before heading on to the next one does point up to what I think of as the book’s only serious limitation: it’s far too short. I would have loved Darwin to have been 200 pages” (ibid). I don’t read Silliman here as thoughtlessly praising Lopez. Just because a reader likes a book doesn’t mean that they would like to see it continue ad infinitum. Rather, the desire for a book to be longer should be treated as an indexical reaction, one that only applies to certain varieties of poetry. Often times the slightness of poetry, its quiet rectitude, leads one to believe that more language–whether on a given page or in the volume as a whole–would only ruin the subtlety that has been rendered. When Silliman writes that he considers Lopez’s prose poetry to be a site of “infinite riches,” it causes me consider the various ways in which more and the extended duration of Only More So all relate back to what I see working at its core. Namely, that this is the kind of book that one could imagine going on forever and therein a distant cousin to those epic novels of Melville, James, Pynchon and Foster Wallace, which articulate a similar anxiety about the rise of large-scale managerial structures. In other words, the book mines an aesthetics and ethics of excess.
Imagine walking up to one of those really large Barnet Newman paintings, something like Vir Heroicus Sublimis. After strolling pass the other visitors in the crowded gallery, you’re able to focus without obstruction on the single strip of prominent color, the “zip,” that runs the height of the canvas. Standing close enough to attract the eye of a nearby attendant, you survey the subtle pattern of brushstrokes, and notice how the oil still manages to catch the light and seem almost fluid. As you look up towards the ceiling to get a sense of perspective–a sense of the grand gesture–it appears as if the painting could go on forever. In formal studies of the midcentury color field movement, it is common to read about viewers feeling overwhelmed by the striking colors and broad shapes that are characteristic of the style. This popular sentiment comes close to capturing my experience of reading Lopez. Like the Newman, the aesthetics of the excessive in Lopez are not simply a product of scale. It is not the amount of paint on the canvas or the number of words on the page, the size of the canvas or the number of pages. The excessive beauty of these pieces belongs to how well the material is fitted together. It is the information contained in the meticulous fine point that makes us want to understand the heavily wrought materiality of the illusion in front of us. And then once we are caught inches away from the page, we feel the simultaneous tug to step back, and take in the entire tableau, to have it overwhelm our sensory preceptors, and strand us in the depths of surface.
On the back cover of Only More So, Lopez’s publisher describes the work as a “twentieth century poem [that] seamlessly combines writing from many fields of science and culture.” The word seamlessly here is not totally faithful to my impression of the book. Rather my impression of the excessive in the work has to do with the jagged seams that Lopez leaves uncovered, so as to point back to the segregated fields of science and culture. Here is an example, taken at random from the sequence entitled “Collecting and Polishing Stories”:
The harbour now reaches up the Mystic River, while the Charles River has been dammed to make an ornamental basin. Animal impersonators probably preceded all other impersonations. The apparent motion of the visual field is shown by small arrow symbols, directly alongside or on top of the self-motion band. The main library is at the heart of the main campus and has room for over 540 readers in modern air-conditioned surroundings. The many small holes and domes that form in the ice when it starts to melt become temporary habitats for organisms to escape predation. These are events that simply happen, out of nowhere. From a “standard” shock, the downstream flow would be subsonic, but Voyager 2 found it to be cooler than expected and supersonic.(91)
There is no development of a consistent narrative or coherent argument; one obscure idea feeds into the other, without any ordering of importance. The sentence about the harbour shifts us away from the fixed, static language of thesis and structure and toward a more dynamic vocabulary of action and response. Likewise, this action is in no way linear or well-suited to our expectations of narrative. Yet there is a mysterious logic at play behind these unincorporated swaths of text. They speak each to each through a strange interlocking movement or melody. Elsewhere Lopez stresses the extent to which the “writing-editing process includes reading runs of lines together to see if they ‘go.'” “For me,” he writes, “the process of writing poetry always includes reading the word aloud and checking whether it works when spoken” (Meaning Performance, 81). I feel safe in saying whatever it is that does indeed make the above paragraph go, or work; it is a product of the attention Lopez pays to the oral quality of his culled sentences. For a set of prose-poems constructed out of language taken primarily from dry academic studies, it is remarkable how warm the text feels when read aloud. The immense pleasure of the text reminds us that in addition to having an eye for the material, Lopez also possesses an intuitive feel for it as well.
Describing this material, Lopez refers to the borrowed language as that which is “always already in the public realm” (Meaning Performance, 43). It is not necessarily apparent what Lopez means here by “always already in the public realm,” since one could argue that all language, by virtue of it paradigmatic aspect, could be labeled as imminently available for further manipulation. There is no such thing as a private language, as Wittgenstein would say. Yet, we can assume what Lopez means to point out is that his practice entails utilizing documents that do not belong to our conventional notion of authorship. Perusing the prodigious works cited pages at the end of Only More So confirms that these works are in fact written by actual living, breathing authors. Yet, most of them are written in the context of intellectual fields, wherein the convention is to suppress the individual, idiosyncratic writerly voice, in exchange for a distant tone of primed objectivity. Anyone who has had the joy of recently attending an academic conference will likely be able to attest to the anonymous homogeneity of this brand of prose. If a thing of beauty is a joy forever, then it reasons to conclude that a thing of pure convention is destined for disregard. What Lopez has managed in Only More So is a resuscitation of these anonymous words that all too often languish in common spaces. When there is language, language everywhere but not a single morpheme to speak, Lopez seems to suggest that the poet need not purify the dialect of the tribe, but collide head-on with that unwitty circus.
Reviewed by J. Peter Moore.
J. Peter Moore lives in Durham, North Carolina, where he is a PhD candidate in the English Department at Duke University. He is currently at work on a dissertation that traces the socio-cultural implications of postwar American speech-based poetics.