Other Planes of There
Divine Blue Light (for John Coltrane)
City Lights, Pocket Poets No.63, 2022. ISBN 978-0-87286-870-0
reviewed by Howard Slater
reviewed by Howard Slater
I first came across Will Alexander’s writing in an Anthology called Hydrolith: Surrealist Research and Investigations (2009) published by a co-operative publishing outfit based in Berkerley, California. I quickly followed up this imprint which appeared to be the most visible outcrop of Alexander’s poetry and prose. I was thus shocked last year to see a collection of his, Refractive Africa, published in the UK by none other than Granta, a publishing house I have always shied away from as Brit-centric and formally conservative. What was happening? Well, it seems after 30 years in the fecund margins Alexander had gained the dubious distinction of being shortlisted for the Pulitzer Prize. It was this that surely brought him to the attention of Granta as English publishing has long held forms of surrealist writing in a kind of frigidaire contempt. Or, could it be that Alexander’s output, a continuous accretion of dissonant intrusions and lingual jouissance, had made of his oeufre an almost geological force that had risen-up as an unchartered terrain in the mid-Atlantic?
Rooted in the rhizomatic tradition of maverick Bob Kaufman and other Bay Area beats who embraced surrealism, such as Philip Lamantia, Alexander seems to have pursued poetry as “phonemic density” (p.30) to the left of the left of the left field. This is, perhaps, in no small part due to one of the major shared inheritances of surrealism: that a writerly practice can and should be opposed to a literarity that reifies language just as much as it reifies its readers, lodging them into the ‘super-imposed rationality’ (p.xiii) of a loded-culture ruled by an accumulation of commodities, an abstracted labour, that utters its deathly whisper into the ear of infants in the womb. Such a rationality cannot abide that which escapes its grasp and Alexander’s writing, full of “psychic fracas” (p.4) and “maniacal translocations” (p.11), most definitely opens up a vista not so much to an irrational-to-be-feared as to the panoramic rejection of an overdetermined cognition; modes of thought that restrict us to endless unnuanced repetitions of the same: “suppression has cast its lot on our neurological realm.” (p.21)
That the habits of thought and thoughtless habits have been unsettled by surrealism may have been dulled in surrealist image-making by the likes of Salvador Dali (= Avida Dollars). Such paintings and collages have become commonplaces employed by advertising and attention-seeking (self) publicists. However, surrealist writing, especially that at its margins, has, I feel, maintained a consistent sense of the uncanny and estrangement because whilst not all of us can make viable images, all of us need language to communicate and thus words become a currency of all kinds of exchange that extend from the performing of a job to the lalangue of the unsaid. Alexander’s unsettling of language – from unusual usages and dissonant compactions to drawing upon a wider vocabulary than the self-referential literary – unsettles the smoothness of an untroubled exchange (social realism with its lack of ‘internal murmur’), revealing, as does this book by Alexander, a “lingual ravine” (p.7) into which we, as practicing readers, fall.
But we do not fall into the void by entering this book. We fall, or ascend, into “microbe warrens” (p.15) into “a solar force 25 trillion miles from our momentary continents.” (p.43) The void which “blazes and gives strength” (p.4) is only the dwindling twilight of our knowledge, the limits of how we conceive of our ‘self’… and so we should welcome Alexander’s urging of us, his readers, to no longer be a ‘subject that knows’. We must, and indeed as we journey across this book and its multi-valent vocabularies, we must (= a positive imperative to read Alexander’s work), be the subject that does-not-know and never can know-in-full. In this way we are disabled from any longer heeding a totalitarian beseeching that seduces us to be the proprietors of our ‘own’ self-knowledge. And so, in this way, the sensuous delight of language (as “cartographic plenums” p.16), the ricochet of signifiers (“holographic sonics” p.7”), really makes ignorance blissful, places us at the outer-limit, the interface, of the conscious and the unconscious, a suspended state akin to listening to music, akin to levitating in the liminal sphere of the senses as they reappropriate a rationality that thus far has been used against us.
In this way there is something apt about Alexander dedicating this collection to John Coltrane. As in some of Coltrane’s freest moments there is not so much a departure from lyricism as an undermining of it, a transformation of tone with the introduction of timbral blue-note after blue-note: “hemispheres colliding/ as bricolage/ as osmosis/ as sonic notation.” (p.32) For Alexander this dissonance, rooted as it is in recognisable verse forms, is introduced by vocabularies more akin to autodidact scientific studies, studies that see Alexander as a ‘receptor’ (Édouard Glissant) who gathers and shares rather than a professor who ‘ring-fences’. So, drawing from geo-chronology to astrophysics and, more pronouncedly in other collections, a deep study of “African cellular memory” (Refractive Africa, p.ix), Alexander sets up an estrangement that is propelled by the more or less total absence of himself as ‘poet’ in the poems themselves. The word ‘I’ is used twice in this collection as if to emphasise our own de-individuation in the grand durée that these poems place us in. As Alexander phrases it: “Implied inner palpability as transpersonal dictation.” (p.68)
It is this de-placedness (emphasised by Alexander’s plentiful use of the prefixes ‘pre’ and ‘post’) that has the effect of not so much situating us in a placid transcendental realm as, and this applies to Coltrane too, placing us in the equivocity of a materialist vitalism! Alexander’s words and Coltrane’s notes are sonorous matter that place us as readers and listeners in a freeness of the signifier that outstrips us as ‘selves’, enabling “thinking to encounter within being, more than being, something […] ‘non-realised’” (Samo Tomsic). And it is maybe this non-realised, or yet-to-be-realised, that again links Alexander to a mutating Surrealism.
“We are listening for those who have stumbled beyond civilian incorporation…”
Will Alexander: Refractive Africa, Granta, 2021.
Will Alexander: Mirach Speaks to his Grammatical Transparents, Oyster Moon Press, 2011.
Édouard Glissant: Poetic Intention, Nightboat, 2018.
Samo Tomsic: The Capitalist Unconscious, Verso, 2015.