K. Silem Mohammad Responds to Alan Gilbert’s “Outpatient Procedure”

Close readings are iffy lately, but I will write to you anyway because I was given this book, Alan Gilbert’s Late in the Antenna Fields, a book that gives me a sense of icy but colorful gratification. What I mean about close readings is how do you even know these days if what you’re reading is the result of someone’s actual greasy thought patterns, or if it’s produced by some elaborate procedure which when revealed will make your “interpretation” look silly? Of course, as we all know, close reading can be defeated by too much clarity as well as too little intention, so if I’m going to be too clever by half, it might as well be a case of inserting a point where none is originally rather than missing one that’s already there.

The dawn would be nice if it didn’t arrive so early.
I don’t know why I rarely want what I can have.
There’s a logic to animals and to tumbleweed assembly lines
reconfigured between shifts to produce Escalade interiors.
But it doesn’t quench my addiction to you, as a family
of civilian ghosts phase-shifts through the fog lights
piercing an Olive Garden parking lot.

Let’s take stock of our formal devices here: we’ve got a recognizable LangPo-ish “New Sentence” structure, the androidy affectlessness of which is mediated by a personable New-York-School-inflected flavor (a flavor marked by light self-mockery and mildly ironic wistfulness). The stylistic DNA of this New York Schoolery seems made up of about equal parts Ashbery and O’Hara: Ashbery in the syntactic sleight of hand whereby discontinuous thoughts put on purposive leggings, creating the sense of a coordinated outfit where when you look closer it’s not even clear that the clothes are all on the same body; O’Hara in the more basic linguistic make-up of the poem, the actual grammatical musculature, the tone of intimacy (or far from it?) as though the reader just woke up in bed next to the poet and were specially treated to his effusions. Oh good, an aubade! All for me! Really it’s all for him of course, but he’s so charming you can’t help forgiving him.

The poem’s two most specific references to contemporary culture are in this first stanza: “Escalade” and “Olive Garden.” First off, have you seen a Cadillac Escalade interior? Eerie! The seats look like weird humanoid robots. The fog lights in Olive Garden parking lots are eerie too. I did a Google image search: you’d be surprised how many pictures there are of Olive Garden parking lots! The word “shifts” comes up twice here, and it’s tempting to try to connect that to the poem’s abrupt thematic transitions, but honestly, I think when Gilbert deployed the verb “phase-shifts” he simply forgot he had just used the noun “shifts” two lines earlier (no harm in that). We also get the first of several mentions of “ghosts” throughout the book. “Civilian” ghosts, which implies I guess a larger perspective in which the unmilitarized and the militarized sectors merge into entirely militarized (civilians are automatically militarized by being called civilians, like in Starship Troopers). Both Escalades and Olive Gardens are endlessly replicated objects, identical in their multiple manufactured manifestations, but the phrase “tumbleweed assembly lines” suggests something vaguer, an intrusion of the organic into the world of corporate fabrication. At this point the different levels of overdetermination become too messy to navigate, and that’s when refreshments arrive. At least they do here. I’m on my second glass.

Switch the camera over to movie mode. My favorite
bartender storyboarded the decline of the rural gentry
while clearing away the empties. The remaining spills
dribble uphill at $100 a barrel, like buying a whole CD
to hear one love song or renting a lifeboat by the hour
in the Arctic. I used to be the person in my building
who dragged the trash curbside each week.

I’ll be frank: I’ve never seen a bartender storyboard anything. But then, I’m always selling people short. The governing metaphysical trope of this stanza, in fact, seems to be about selling things short, or investing unwisely, or some kind of economic spazzing out. The disembodied instruction to “Switch the camera over to movie mode” operates as a blank segue, an indication that the next part of the transmission is beginning, but one that doesn’t have any necessary connection to that transmission. Similarly, the first sentence in the next stanza acts like a filmic “wipe”:

A hand moves across the sky. I already said that I’ve made
mistakes, though they don’t include spot-ironing wrinkles
out of the matches stored next to the kerosene and feeding strays
with the other neighborhood housewives while performing
the rain dance. I fade just a little bit when your star goes away.
It could be midnight madness in the middle of the day
and still remain quiet.

The stuff about “spot-ironing wrinkles” and so forth is about as nonsensical as the poem gets. Suddenly we are presented with the notion that the speaker is one of several “neighborhood housewives” when nothing else supports that identification, except maybe the line at the end of the previous stanza about dragging trash to the curb. What being presented with this idea does is not to make us actually entertain it (unless we are naïve readers), but to re-alert us to the collapse of reference to which the poem, like all the other poems in the book, is committed. It’s not a total collapse, and that’s what makes it interesting. What resists disintegration is a stubborn architectural soundness, a solidity that is not so much formally conservative as structurally opportunistic. The occasional first-person and otherwise “traditional” lyricisms (sometimes they even rhyme, as in “I fade just a little bit when your star goes away / It could be midnight madness in the middle of the day”) are like sexy spies stationed seductively around the dance floor. Their job is to make us think we might get lucky, when really they’re just there to plant microchips on us.

But these used hospital slippers fit the system or the individual
watching dirty bathwater swirl down the drain. There goes
our safe space, ignoring a knock at the door. Children don’t give up
on love and say where will the snow carry you?
After 9/11, I felt frozen in place and didn’t leave the city
for almost a year. Then the police came to take
away the pain.

The “used hospital slippers” almost lend some relevance to the poem’s title, but again, we don’t want to be that reader. Nor do we want to dwell on the grammatical ambiguity of the next sentence, where it’s not clear whether it’s the “safe space” or an unspecified subject who ignores the “knock.” And we certainly don’t even want to struggle with how to read the question mark at the end of the stanza’s fourth line. What matters is how the last two sentences arrive like gendarmes to announce gravity, or the shape gravity once assumed.

“Outpatient Procedure,” like its brother and sister poems in Late in the Antenna Fields, is shapely without just coming out vulgarly and being shapely, well-wrought without being some godawful vargueno or something. With this collection, Gilbert joins the exclusive ranks of a very few of a certain kind of poets writing lately whom, despite their tendency towards elegant literariness and other such “errors,” I have quietly (quietly until now, anyway) bracketed in my mind as worthy of escaping eradication when the Big Aesthetic Purge starts—poets who have a particular approach to using the familiar historical surfaces and framings of poetry to create pieces that don’t bore the stuffing out of me. I’ve already described what I see as the indebtedness of that approach to certain New York School and Language-based influences, but that doesn’t get at what makes the work truly interesting, since there are a lot of other poets with the same influences who aren’t nearly as successful. If you press me to say what makes writers like Gilbert different from the countless Ashbery imitators and such that have been out there for years now, I would be forced to say something about the way their work is “politicized” or something, so please don’t. Press me, that is. But I will say that what I like about Gilbert’s poetry is the quality it shares with work by Chris Nealon, Kevin Davies, and a few others who have made me think that it might be possible for contemporary verse to exhibit a distinctive personal “voice” after all, a voice that works with and through subjectivity effects (discursive wit, emotional revelation, etc.) at the same time that it carries on the critique of subjectivity initiated by earlier late-avant poets.

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