Tout cela est matématique: Ian Seed’s Shifting Registers

Reviewed by Virginia Konchan

Rainer Maria Rilke and Anna Akhmatova are among the 20th century poets for whom the human face symbolizes the integrity of the person: the evisceration of same as equated with death.

From Rilke’s prose poem “Faces”: “Other people changes faces incredibly fast, put on one after another, and wear them out. At first, they think they have an unlimited supply; but when they are barely forty years old they come to their last one. There is, to be sure, something tragic about this. They are not accustomed to taking care of faces; their last one is worn through in a week, has holes in it, is in many places as thin as paper, and then, little by little, the lining shows through, the non-face, and they walk around with that on.”

From Akhmatova’s “Instead of a Preface”: “One day somebody in the crowd identified me. Standing behind me was a woman, with lips blue from cold, who had, of course, never heard me called by name before. Now she started out of the torpor common to us all and asked me in a whisper (everyone whispered there): “ ‘Can you describe this?’ “And I said: ‘I can.’ “Then something like a smile passed fleetingly over what had once been her face.”

For 21st century poet Ian Seed, the face is as rich with signification—perhaps more so for its Heraclitian tendency toward perpetual flux and maskings—as any other element of the human body. Many post-lyric poets, influenced as they are by continental theory’s critique of the subject, which conceives of the self as a linguistic and ideological construction, spend little time mourning Horace’s “disjecta membra poetae” (the scattered members of the poet): even fewer poets spend any time at all on the signification of the dissemblance—and reassembly—of that fragment of the human form that still lays claim to outmoded concepts of uniqueness and presence: the face. From “Mining the Seams”: “The fusion of the face/ with its shadow is total in verisimilitude/ beyond the real . . . Ecce homo: the color/ of his eyes, the shape of his nose/ are never the same. For something more lasting,/ insert glass eyes into broken skin.” The language of this and other lines—largely composed of quatrains and couplets—in Seed’s second full-length collection is indeed visceral, but not for the purposes of engendering shock or discomfort in the reader. Rather, to show just how terrifying the deconstruction of Nietzsche’s “human, all too human” can, would, is, and may forever be. The language in parts that haunts and, occasionally, damns: “Our eyes are holes/ our noses blotches/ which lead to a gaping mouth . . . You’ve got to have a good/frost to make everything die.” This focus echoes the words of Ronald Bogue on Francis Bacon: “the face is the most heavily coded zone of the body and hence the point at which the effects of diastolic forces are most pronounced.”

Rarely are two distinct tropes woven so seamlessly in one collection than the two outstanding tropes in Shifting Registers: the (re) assembly of the face (and the shift from chaos to composition on the level of the human figure and the cosmos itself) and pure (versus applied) mathematics, or what the speaker refers to as “segments of the act . . . [and] the matrix/ from which it is removed.”

This discourse stakes place at the level of the line, unraveled forms and unraveled narratives echoing movements in scientific circles during the last century—the concept of the event horizon in general relativity (a boundary in spacetime beyond which events cannot affect an outside observer) being paramount to this collection. From “Theory” “ . . . we must be cautious with/ parables and patterns. Best/ pierce the order of/ symmetry, the sentence truest/ when readily lost.”

The ever-receding event horizon permeates Shifting Registers, in poems resplendent with mediations on inhabiting a post-human world: “ . . . you wander towards the happy end/ where it will happen,/ whatever it is/ in the emptiness of what was there”; “Referring/ to the act euphemistically,/ how can Miranda do colouring/ real and true through the flipbook/ of ‘alternative realities’ . . . ”

The felt pathos of Seed’s second collection is in its classical recourse not to redemptive figures, whether messianic or not, or to any version of futurity, but, rather, to the “beauty of geometry”: the promises of formalism, yes, but also of pure (Platonic) forms. “ . . . you can fall/ fast and cheap through the unknowns/ of algorithms precisely because you don’t think/ much of maths.”

The disfigured face and the beloved face, for Seed, are one: as are algebraic forms, Romantic concerns (truth, beauty) and Enlightenment dreams of reason restored to the world. It is difficult to imagine a poet of our times bent so painstakingly over a mirror that does nothing but refract, hoping, by the sheer power of patience and concentration, to see a face—however splintered— emerge: as difficult as loving the passage from form to decomposition, then back to form again. Quiet moments in this powerful collection suggest that this dream and this dreamer (accompanied by centuries of compounded desire) are to be realized not, as the speaker fears, in the future, or never, but soon—or, perhaps, now. “The new song is in the leaves/ the young queen on her coin.”

Shifting Registers is published by Shearsman (2010)

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