The Arty Semite

Beyond Poetry: Ammiel Alcalay

By Jake Marmer

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Contemporary avant-garde poets have done a great deal to question and redefine the concept of good poetry; new styles, approaches and whole movements emerge constantly. It does not happen often, however, that the notion of a “book of poetry” gets challenged. Ammiel Alcalay’s “‘neither wit nor gold’ (from then),” published this year by Ugly Duckling Presse, is precisely this sort of experiment. It contains not just poems, but also a collection of photographs, newspaper cut-outs and posters, as well as, most crucially, scans of handwritten drafts and sketches from the author’s archives of the early-to-mid 1970s. These elements aren’t linked in an easy logical manner or sequenced in any discernible way. Yet, their ordering appears entirely organic. In fact, having experienced it, a regular poetry book feels contrived by comparison.

Alcalay explains in the afterword: “I was very dissatisfied with some idea of ‘selecting’ poems since it precluded or sidestepped the very fundamental and instructive (at least for me) process of composition… working through these materials is in itself a statement about the present and how a body of work might be made not only to cohere but become the carrier of messages no longer so readily available.”

This, perhaps, goes beyond contextualization. What the format and the content lays out is a life, filled with poetry and music, work, frenzy, scribbles, reportage and so much more. There’s a great narratological power in the fact that the book’s point of entry is not the first page, but any page.

Today, The Arty Semite is featuring several pages from “neither wit nor gold.” Page 18 is an excellent example of book’s approach as a whole: There’s a handwritten note, a photograph and the text, which refers to a few great jazz players — Sonny Rollins, Archie Shepp and Jaki Byard — along with many other people who may or may not mean anything to the reader. What’s clear is the frenetic, jazzlike movement of the thought, and the pleasure the writer takes in reciting these names. In a way, they become musical in the context of his recitation.

Page 32 is a stand-alone poem describing an “order” that is wonderfully indicative of the book’s overall approach: “admit a new / vocabulary, renew such / ties the mind denies.” Page 43 is like page 18, but the stream of consciousness is focused not on entertainment and socializing, but on work — car repairs, for the most part. Also, this page features a poster of Cecil Taylor, a legendary jazz innovator who has done a great deal to deconstruct and invent contemporary notions of composition and musical structure.

On page 45, above a photograph, there’s a poem that isn’t whole. Only a zoomed-in version of it is visible, yet there are enough images for a reader to reconstruct, or, rather, reinvent it. The poem’s fulcrum is the words “A Night in Tunisia,” which is the name of a jazz standard composed by Dizzy Gillespie. Finally, page 64 is a stand-alone, memorably lyrical poem whose jazz and blueslike rhythms are established at each stanza’s end with a syncopated pause, offering a moment of breathless wonder at what’s about to come next.

Ammiel Alcalay will be performing with Marc Ribot and Jessica Lurie at the Forward’s Jewish Art for the New Millennium event this Sunday.

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