blame linguists: A Review of Stephen Pender’s “some of our finest problems became science”

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 blame linguists: A Review of Stephen Pender’s “some of our finest problems became science”

by Aaron Daigle

 

 

These poems are trapped on the near side of language, writing into the gap between signifier and signified. In Stephen Pender’s new chapbook “some of our finest problems became science,” put out by Flat Singles Press, the finest poems turn to words themselves in lieu of faith in expression.

 

Stephen Pender (right), with Robert Stewart

Stephen Pender (right), with Robert Stewart

Ourobosian language encircles the speaker, who stands ensnared in the centre. The same words repeat in sentences or shift as if unstable; Pender spoke at the launch of reversing the relation between subject and object: for example, rather than writing the land, the land writes us. Blurring the distinction between the two erases a defined object, so the subject echoes, self-references: “see / seeing” and “memory / where memory was, opening openings / in a scene” (“3276”), “locking” and “looking,” “folding, unfolding,” “rarely” and “rarely” (“Saint Spyridon”), “an emergency of birds” twice (“An Emergency of Birds”), “driving [against] a long sky” twice (“Under the Mansard”). The more striking for their rarity, words like “calqued” and “demur” recur, less so “hours.” The poems are “looking for syntax, itself” (“For SH, Dead”): “what you wish / is how you wish, and well. That hole / in the self is wishing, and it is. That law / is was, the was that is the day” (“Ill-Starred”). Subjects, verbs, and objects of sentences fill in for one another, a deliberately-limited vocabulary makes vocabulary the topic itself.

 

2013-12-11 11.50.25The poems begin in observation and tangibility, “marking faces” (“In Montreal”), but as the speaker steps out into language to capture the ineffable, vague and indirect pronouns flood the writing. These poems are “here, in the half light, courting rules, antinomian” (“In Montreal”), seeing with unfocused eyes as he who is “here with uncertainty” finds “the antic something, too, fronted, aside” (“In Montreal”). The writing resists logical positivism and the picture theory of language even while within it; language fails to signify precisely where it is most meaningful or most needed, producing a peculiar ache at the moment of its breaking down. As “Saint Spyridon” might have it, the “question”/catch in the “unlikely” throat is a bittersweet moment.

 

2013-12-28 22.49.57At the book launch, Robert Steward described Pender’s poetry as full of yearning, and it is. The longing for something not categorizable contributes to the uncertain pronouns of the poems, especially at the conclusions: unknowablility, some, thing, it. Stringing the sentences of several poems together reveals a theme where “Somehow, you emerge,” “Light found it” as the speaker “attempting to see” that “what we do not know makes us,” claims that drinking “sheds the need for anything like a thing” even as “things said” are “a guess.” The poet rings in “some future” “for the things that things allow,” “when if is something that was,” with “some wish to fine the light.” Ironically described in language, is the imprecision of language a failure, or freedom for the reader to impose their own “room in possibility” on the text? The speaker, tongue-in-cheek and in reference to Ulysses‘s conclusion, says offhand “in some future, there are horizons / which meaning warms: there, in an emergency of birds, / I will ring and, with septic grace, say yes, yes” (“An Emergency of Birds”).

 

Stephen Pender

Stephen Pender

Either way, the attempt to surpass language itself is the paradox that lies at the heart of all poetry. Some portray the struggle as futile and fragmented, while for others there is seductive beauty in the attempt. Rather than language writing the speaker altogether, they write one another: and this relationship, the poet eating language eating the poet, leads to some beautiful lines in Pender’s chapbook. It is not the goal or ideas that make poetry worth reading, but the affirmation of the journey there: commemorating Seamus Heaney, the speaker reflects “you took, with you, / some wish to fine the light, / to make it read, a written / life asking more of the lived” (“For SH, Dead”). Rooming with words, airy and laying over our experience, these poems “free its shape for the waiting inside you” and seek “rarity emptied into sentences and beauty”: somewhere there’s “a world that meets its stars,” longing for more than meaningless distinctions, one “where apologies and wishes are the same”; perhaps there’s a “a balance, lawful” between the appeal of language and its dangers (“Ill-Starred”)

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