Reviewed March 1, 2014 by Julia Bloch.
I started reading Kelli Anne Noftle’s Omnidawn Poetry Prize-winning collection I Was There for Your Somniloquy at the same time that I was teaching a class on the literature of California. We were working our way through Eleni Sikelianos’s sprawling long work The California Poem, a poem that reminds me of Charles Olson’s Maximus Poems in its epic gestures and its flagrant uses of page space, illustrations, and typography. At the same time, The California Poem also uses first-person speech to call our attention to the ways in which place is shaped subjectively. In its uses of the first person, Sikelianos’s poem tends to problematize what it means to write about a specific place, as in this passage, which invokes the way the act of mapping is an act of possession:
Do my eyes
own this? Oh yes
I think they do
I spin them left
I spin them right
a cool geometry
Sikelianos’s speaker asks whether seeing is an act of ownership, and to test the theory, recalibrates her vision, turning the eyes from left to right like an optometrist’s phoropter, with all its multiple lenses and knobs and levers. What click into view, later in this passage, are a number of features of California: sea, wagon, freeway lanes, cities at night, trash heaps. Do these objects constellate in a map, and is that map something owned by its author? The California Poem suggests so, and raises a crucial problem with writing about place from a particular perspective. What is the object of study: the place or the seer?
I Was There for Your Somniloquy asks that question a bit differently. This is also a different kind of California book, a series of poems written by the Southern California-based poet and musician Kelli Anne Noftle. Whereas The California Poem participates in the tradition of writing about place in epic form, many of the individual pieces in I Was There for Your Somniloquy concern themselves with two sets of phenomena: hypnagogia, or the transition state between sleeping and wakefulness, and the behavior and taxonomy of deep sea Nudibranchs, or sea slugs. The book takes its title from the somniloquy, or the act of talking while asleep, an act that converts the private phenomena of the unconscious into a form of exchange. Across three sections of this book—“Somnus,” “Somnambulist,” and “Hypersomnia”—Noftle’s poems dwell in a space of uncertain wakefulness, and seem interested more in the fissures and omissions of their object of study than in making the map cohere within a single line of vision.
Early in the book, for example, “Nomenclature” intersperses sketches of sea life and meditations on mapping with italicized passages taken from two sources: California marine biologist David Behrens’s writings on the Nudibranch, and an online forum on sea slugs. Noftle writes:
All the other names: flatworm, cucumber, anemone, bootlace.
Found this animal recently hugging the north island rock. I have been searching for weeks with no results—
Hydroid, peanut, sea pen. Enter gorgonians, whips, branched creatures, starfish. I want to start there, drawing in the sand with a stick around the missing portion of your body.
As a reminder.
You are curious about the dorid of circlet gills, but they are merely tentacles, for feeding—
Because you have another name I hold the rod to the sand, marking. This is your body, these are your parts. This is your scope. These are the tiny pools you belong to, your ancestors, your double sex.
Neptune’s Reef. There are two in what could be mating or feeding. If yes, what kind?
Like the objects in the corners of our eyes. You bristle, hook, shed, break shell. Because the water washes out the shape, because I trace a map of your trajectory. Following the branch against loam, scraping out the letters to spell a word for you. (20)
The italicized and non-italicized passages dialogue in a kind of parallel structure, never quite intersecting or lining up in hierarchical question-and-answer. Initially, the second speaker seems to address the first by noting, “You are curious”—but then the second speaker shifts the identity of the ‘you’ to the Nudibranch itself, which with its ‘double sex’ becomes a kind of beloved object described tenderly against the drier scientific language identifying its features. If a poet and a scientist both speak in this passage, it is never entirely clear who is which, and who or what is the object of address. There is mapping going on here, but it seems conditioned by impermanence, the “water washing out the shape” just as quickly as a name can be scratched into loam with a branch.
These efforts at descriptive precision are reinforced by the tendency, in the first section of the book, to follow a poem by an italicized passage about the sea slug’s behavior, habitat, or physiology. The interplay of these two kinds of passages makes the poems feel almost like decoder rings gone haywire: rather than, say, colloquializing scientific language, making it more accessible, the poems both narrate and interpret scientific detail. The poems also come before the scientific language on the page, a formal choice that suggests that the science writer is interpreting the poetry. In “Penis Fencing,” for example, Noftle transposes a passage about sea slug sex into associative language that invokes Facebook stalking:
Coming at this with a foil, poised darling, perched
along the high reef’s pinnacle. Self-awareness is severe.
I read your biography. I learned everything about you from the internet.
Who can get whose hand around your throat, de facto male, de facto female?
Like the bathroom photo uploaded to the world wide supermarket bag.
The flatworms do it because they have to. Watch them
swing and slit the most private wound of all.
You say rapier because it is the French word for dagger. I say come at me
with the irony of your fist.
I read your profile. I know who you were fucking last night.
They do it because they have to. Call it survival, but one of the worms must lose, inevitable pregnant hiss of disappointment.
One of us must waste our lives caring for the sting.
Each flatworm tries to pierce the skin of the other by using one of its penises. Mating is a fight because the worm that assumes the female role then must expend considerable energy caring for the developing eggs. (18)
The italicized passage functions almost as a key to the poem, but doesn’t quite meet the mark: instead, coming after these lushly expressive lines, the scientific text sounds overly flat, almost absurd in its simplistic grammar (“Mating is a fight because”).
There are many other love poems in this collection that foreground assonance or other sound qualities: “Orchestrating the drive down Occidental Blvd, we’re accident in future tense” (30). (Noftle is a singer-songwriter, and a keen sense of lyricism comes through many of these poems.) In the poem “Sleepwalkers,” Noftle foregrounds the kind of misrecognition that can accompany a poetics of place:
the bluff is not a Hollywood hill, is not
a canyon plunging into nothing,
but it’s what I have
the desert shows me a pattern
of tiny scars, lying
on its back, air funnels song
I write I’m awake
I drink something half-frozen
the heart must work harder (33)
Here, the speaker identifies a keenly affective, almost poignant, attachment to place—the bluff is nothing, “but it’s what I have”—but the landscape remains distorted, defined more by what it lacks than by what it resembles. At the same time, these passages about Southern California capture the vacancy that can so often characterize those places: a canyon plunging into nothing or rising into smog; things that fall short. “No one told me how / much space to leave / for silence” (37), Noftle writes in “Sunday Night Insomnia”; later, in “Ars Poetica”: “In a house, I am following myself, / one mirror after another. / Not only myself, / but also in relation to” (52). These are poems that place the objects of modern life in relation to themselves and to the gaps in our memory of them, poems that ask provocatively again and again about the stability of our own vision.
Vulnerability of vision likewise runs through Jesse Seldess’s 2011 collection from Kenning Editions, Left Having, which consists of four long sequences that question the narration of history. “Until I can describe something to you, until I can / develop some dimension to this space, what I am writing / will lack color,” Seldess writes at the opening of “The Silent Aspect.” The poetry in this collection explores many different kinds of lack, most prominently the kinds of meaning that are created in the spaces left in lines themselves.
Unlike Noftle’s collection, with its texture of modern, even mass cultural objects, the poetry in Left Having dwells in a more abstract, shifting landscape of perception. These shifts often negotiate turns toward and away relationality: to others, events, or more concrete moments in history. In “Which Is Exhibited,” for example, Seldess opens with a conditional phrase that recurs and comments on its own sense of omission:
If I let the ending
Wishes in the air
If I let the ending
If I left the ending
If I let the ending continue
Which is in the air
What you wished for
Which is desire
If I let the ending continue
Which is entire in the air
If I left impending continue
If I left the end to you
Which is regenerating your sleep
Which is longing to be misspelled (37)
Both the switching of “let” to “left” in this passage (“If I let the ending // If I left the ending”) and the suggestion that an experience might be “misspelled” are moves that foreground the materiality of Seldess’s language. The repetion of “If I let the ending” also calls our attention to the way “which” operates semantically here: does “which” refer to the ending, or does it launch a new kind of question? Is it a feeling? A point in a narrative? Seldess’s uses of repetition here and throughout this collection function, as Gertrude Stein argued, more as forms of insistence than replication. One of the chief effects of repetition is to destabilize the authority of the information contained in the repetitive gesture: in this case, the repetition, especially with subtle variation, of key lines suggests an incompleteness to the poem’s inquiry at the same time as it questions the effectiveness of that inquiry itself. “I left the ending to be reformed,” Seldess writes later in this sequence, reminding us that to “reform” means both to convert as well as to correct. Also, of course, the line suggests that the I has left the sequence in order itself to be reformed: the poem’s own speaker will be changed by the experience of exploring inchoate moments of history.
The book’s startling final sequence, “End,” leads us to consider how the repetition of certain words might be experienced by the reader. The section begins with a prompt:
Thought end Happened Separating Over
time And happened End remaining
Remaining brought on Or separating
over In Through Then thought
Brought through then in and
Write each word on a notecard and sequence them as shown. Reading through the following pages, when you come across a word for the first time, lay the corresponding card on a surface while pronouncing the word. When you come across a word again, tap the corresponding card on the surface while pronouncing the word. If it word is underlined, lay or tap the corresponding card but do not pronounce the word. (63)
The following thirty-eight pages present these words in a number of different sequences, mostly sparse, taught lines with one word each (the shortest page contains three words, “Thought end / Happened”). As with “If I let the ending,” the repetition almost begins to resemble a kind of echolalia, in which patterns of words or abstract sound are repeated by someone learning the language (such as a child). In these two poems, which appear on facing pages, the use of underlining emphasizes how the language has been scrambled and refitted to the page:
Seldess has performed this procedure himself; you can watch him do so online. You’ll notice that as he arranges the cards on a surface, they appear differently than they do in the pages of Left Having, disobeying line and stanza breaks, appearing in a grid in which each word takes up the same amount of space, lining up in neat margins. The cards transcribe capitalization faithfully, a phenomenon that suggests that the list of words at the beginning of this sequence is essentially a transcription of the poems themselves—that is, that the procedure was designed after the poems were written. Otherwise, why include both “an” and “An,” for example? Including duplicate words in different cases helps them break away from semantic function and become like objects. The procedure, then, emphasizes not only the reading but also the performance of this language: the speaking, the pointing, the laying down of the cards, the keeping silent at certain points. At the same time, seeing the cards laid out makes me think of them as their own material poem, and the grid as a second sort of page, maybe a second edition of Left Having. And of course the typical function of the underline—to emphasize—is reversed by this procedure, which has us read those words silently. Like I Was There for Your Somniloquy, Left Having offers provocative methods of mapping language that refocus our vision on the thingness of language.