Revelator by Ron Silliman cover image[BookThug; 2013]

With Revelator, Ron Silliman provides us with the initial gesture of an audaciously large-scale project: a projected 360-part poem titled Universe.  Silliman, a central figure in the West-coast Language poetry scene and an extremely influential blogger, is no stranger to the (extremely) long poem.  He claims to consider his entire life’s work as part of a work in progress titled Ketjak (named after the Balinese monkey chant), in which Universe would constitute the fourth volume (following Age of Huts, Tjanting, and The Alphabet).  Silliman’s ambitions for Universe, however, are unprecedentedly grand — according to Bookthug’s website, the entire poem would take 300 years to complete.  Silliman has always been a divisive figure, alternately hailed as a major late-century poet and assailed as unreadable.  This polarizing effect seems to result not just from Silliman’s high level of visibility in the contemporary American scene, but also from his unusual technical tendencies: in Silliman’s writing, extreme prolixity and effortless command of large-scale formal techniques have always coexisted with apparent indifference to the kind of sculpting of individual phrases and sentences that poets have traditionally considered essential to their art-form.  In an age where poets and students of poetry tend to be at best modest and at worst melancholy about what their work can accomplish, Silliman is notable for having persistently and unapologetically pursued projects that are expansive and optimistic in their sense of how poetry can capture our experience of the world.  To use a term that is not his and which he would not necessarily feel comfortable with: while other poets have struggled with a sense of their own diminutiveness, Silliman has continued to write epic.  Revelator extends this inexplicable optimism about the viability of the epic mode, and accordingly reenacts many of the (considerable) strengths and (considerable) weaknesses of Silliman’s previous work.  I would like to conjecture, however, that it also signals a turn in Silliman’s poetics away from parataxis and toward blurriness, a move toward new and more capacious ways of imagining how poetic form can hold worlds together.

Silliman wrote Revelator according to a simple procedural concept: a long poem with exactly five words per line, and exactly enough lines to fill one notebook.  The result is 75 pages of flowing, free-associative verse, drawn largely from Silliman’s everyday life with periodic excursions into politics and poetics.  Road trips, pre-dawn writing sessions (Silliman is an early riser) and meals at restaurants blend into indictments of the federal government’s response to Hurricane Katrina and allusions to such figures as Charles Olson and William Carlos Williams.  At times, Silliman uses assonance and internal rhyme to hold this sprawling texture together, as in the poem’s opening lines: “Words torn, unseen, unseemly, scene / some far suburb’s mall lot.”  More often, however, he simply lets his pen follow its own course, allowing one tableau to bleed into another:

neighbor waddles out

to fetch paper, hard copy

is an old copy, cold stone

atop which to scoop even

colder cream, white chocolate kisses

battered in, the maple reddens

while the oak goes yellow (18)


These lines, which careen from a front lawn to an ice-cream shop to an autumnal scene, indicate the contours of the larger work, which is nothing more or less than a slew of such material held together by a simple formal scheme.  Silliman’s technique may be baggy, but his commitment to it is rigorous, at times carrying him perilously close to bathos: “I scream, you / scream, we all scream for / that which is unnamable, unquenchable, / inconsolable (deep in one’s chest / surrounding the heart)” (12)

In many ways, all of this amounts to saying that previous readers of Silliman will find themselves treading familiar ground with Revelator.  Silliman’s poetics have always drawn their energy from the interaction between localized content and large-scale form, binding a cascade of heterogeneous, effusive, messy sentences into austere formal structures.  A personal favorite of mine, for example, is “Ketjak” (the opening poem of the Age of Huts cycle, not to be confused with Ketjak, Silliman’s life-work), a long prose poem that begins with a single sentence and then repeatedly supplements it with additional sentences until the poem balloons into paragraphs of ponderous, unassimilable length.  This procedure, which organizes a chaotic wilderness of prose within the parameters of a procedure simple enough to be understood by a child, illustrates what is important (I think) about Silliman’s work: an acute instinct for the potential of form to organize bewildering content.  Silliman is a highly adept poet, but his contributions have never originated in his “ear,” his sensitivity to the minute resonances and contingencies of language (which, truth be told, is rarely more than passable).  The acuity of his work, rather, stems from his intuition for how to make landscapes of impossible complexity unfold from the simplest formal conceit — or, conversely, how form can allow poetry to manage and contain complexity, to make an overwhelming flood of information visible as something simple and elegant.

Silliman’s complementary tendencies toward grandiose form and diffuse content are both visible in Revelator, which stitches a dizzying array of material together via its simple procedural constraint.  Or perhaps mashes rather than stitches: to my ears, something has also changed in Silliman’s idiom.  This change can perhaps best be encapsulated by pointing out a simple typographical fact: in the nearly 2000 lines of verse that comprise the book, Silliman does not use a single period.  Question marks, commas, and em-dashes abound, but none of Revelator‘s phrases ever arrive at the closure and stasis afforded by the humble full stop.  This fact would be interesting in any poet, but within the context of Silliman’s oeuvre is remarkable.  Among Silliman’s most important early contributions is the famous critical essay “The New Sentence,” a manifesto for prose poets. The essay famously proposes that poets adopt the prose format in order to interfere with inherited notions of what sentences, narratives, and paragraphs are, and more particularly to assert the autonomy of the individual sentence over the assimilating forward motion of narrative flow.  The classical account of Language writing, Silliman’s criticism included, tends to describe this effect in terms of Jakobsonian linguistics: the New Sentence makes language assert itself over its referents, stages the becoming-opaque of the signifier.  Yet there is also much to be said about the way that parataxis — the whiplash-inducing apposition of apparently unrelated sentences beside one another — prompts a set of questions about what alternate forms of narrative cohesion might look like, how paragraphs might hang together differently.  If the New Sentence shatters the serene invisibility of prose writing, it also begins to address the question of how its pieces might be put back together, and what new varieties of form they might add up to. (Bob Perelman, a Language scene fixture and a deft technician of parataxis himself, gestures toward a similar reading of Silliman’s New Sentences in a short essay.)

Take this example of Silliman practicing what he preaches in “Ketjak,” a perfect instance of Silliman’s classical idiom: “Revolving door.  The garbage barge at the bridge.  Earth science.  Resemblance. Fountains of the financial district spout soft water in a hard wind.  The bear flag in the plaza.”  The fluidity of each sentence fragment and the simplicity of the images they narrate is counteracted by grinding parataxis: at each period, Silliman’s sentences seem to drive themselves into the ground, as if stumbling in an attempt to rush headlong into narrative flow.  On one hand, this effect creates a paragraph that is nothing more than a collection of unbound images and phrases; on the other, it re-assembles these disintegrated parts into a crystalline, grid-like structure.  The paragraph-form, once teleological and hierarchical, becomes a democracy: each sentence is autonomous, related to its neighbors but only in a formal and schematic way.  The period — its lacerating caesura — is the punctuation mark on which this technique turns.

The abandonment of the period, for this reason, suggests a significant development in Silliman’s poetics.  Though Revelator is unmistakably a Silliman poem in its voluminous, messy representational landscape, its lack of that crucial element of punctuation, the period, signals a move away from parataxis and toward a more supple, fuzzy way of conjoining strings of dissimilar content.  Silliman has departed slightly from New Sentence crispness in the past (for example, in some of the wilder poems in The Alphabet), but nowhere, to my knowledge, does he abandon the paratactic jerk provided by the full stop as radically as in the current book.  The transitions between ideas and tableaux in Revelator are often, in filmic terms, dissolves rather than sharp cuts.  For example, a transition from a rafting trip in Yosemite to a jaunt through the Bay Area allows one landscape to bleed into another:

facing backwards briefly, we spin

slowly down river, or carry

the blue raft ashore

[. . .]

wash the pot left soaking

overnight, sun against east face

of new Emeryville highrise condos

already the hum of traffic

cats and dogs and shadows (70)

Rather than abruptly yanking us from a backcountry canyon to the gentrifying urban landscape, Silliman uses four words as a pivot: “sun against east face.”  Grammatically, that is, the east face of the condos, but surely the first image that occurs to the reader is the wall of the canyon, or perhaps a mountain (both of which are generally said to have “faces” in a way that apartment buildings are not).  Silliman might have thrown the wilderness and the posh urban landscape into sharp apposition, but chose instead to let one space flow into another.

Some of the book’s best moments come when Silliman leverages this post-paratactic dissolve-cut technique for political purposes, as in an account of a trip to the beach:

[. . .] the dead lying abandoned

on the Convention Center sidewalk

intolerable Southern sun, the gulf

now carries its second meaning

forward, N’wlins of the heart

truly broken, the wave smashed

hard against my chest, up

from down means nothing, pull

of the tide back in,

I stood again, my cap

invisible in the green sea

[. . .]

one boy builds a levee

only to watch it flood (47-48)


This passage apparently combines the horrific aftermath of Hurricane Katrina with memories of a trip to the beach; the ordinary experience of being momentarily overwhelmed by the surf comes up against images of human bodies permanently reclaimed by the sea (the impact of a wave against one’s chest, in particular, is equated with the devastating affective realities of social injustice), and a resemblance is drawn between the minor childhood drama of having a sand castle wash away and a catastrophic failure of infrastructure.  The instability of the boundary between these two tableaux folds the unassimilable reality of disaster into the small pleasures and pains of everyday life.  Silliman’s formal technique thus reminds us that we ought not to fool ourselves into thinking we have escaped politics: the political, in this passage, is imminent in the ordinary.  An earlier Silliman might have conjoined these two worlds across a period, dramatizing their stark contrast but also allowing for their separateness; the Silliman of Revelator allows us no such luxury.  Leveraging poetic form in order to display a suppressed reality undergirding social life, Silliman confirms the critic Jerome McGann’s account of his earlier work: “In [Silliman’s work] language is carrying out — dramatizing — certain fundamental realities of social space and social relations.  Silliman’s text is a vast trope of the human world.”

Like much of Silliman’s work, and perhaps even more so, Revelator is best read quickly, in a single sitting if possible.  Its value lies not in the middling to low level of attention and craft Silliman brings to bear on the individual line, but in its exuberant rush to capture a world within the confines of poetic form.  As I’ve tried to say in the course of this review, the manner in which it does so is both familiar and unprecedented within his oeuvre: if Silliman has always been interested in how poetry can hold together the otherwise irreconcilable contents of life, the disappearance of parataxis and the sentence-form from Revelator comprises a significant development in his approach to such formal reconciliation.  Where the younger Silliman cultivated discontinuity, apposition, and jerkiness, the older prefers flow and celerity.  It is as if the atomistic building-blocks of his sentence-based universe had melted and run into one another.  We can only hope that Silliman continues following through on his ambitious project so that we can see where this turn away from fragmentation and toward (fuzzy) unity leads.

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