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Noah Eli Gordon
A Fiddle Pulled from the Throat of a Sparrow
reviewed by Andrew Grace
89 pp. New Issues Poetry & Prose. $14.00. 1—930974—68-X paper

This review is about 8 printed pages long. It is copyright © Andrew Grace and Jacket magazine 2008.
You can read another review of this book in Jacket 34.

Dual pleasures


Noah Eli Gordon’s A Fiddle Pulled from the Throat of a Sparrow is one of four (yes, four) books the poet has published in 2007. In a recent interview, Gordon remarked that the other three books (Novel Pictorial Noise, Inbox and Figures for a Darkroom Voice, a collaboration with Joshua Marie Wilkinson) were each composed during a concentrated period of time, whereas Fiddle is more of a selected poems from 1999—2005. In other words, these are the poems that, for whatever reason, did not fit into the other books. A term as pejorative as ‘leftover’ would not apply to these poems, but rather, these are the poems that many poets have to find ways to reckon with — the ones that have equal merit as poems that are written to be part of a larger project, but do not seem to be cut from the same cloth. In fact it is often in just these types of ‘square-peg poems’ that many poets try some new tone or prosodic technique that opens up an unforeseen direction in their writing. Gordon, a poet who delights in going in many directions at once, has written a collection that is formally varied and tonally restless, and it is precisely this urge towards the new that makes him such a compelling young poet.

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Fiddle consists of eight sequences of poems, which I will describe in turn. Of the 82 pages that make up Fiddle (minus front and back matter), 54 actually contain poetry, the other 26 pages are either blank or are the title pages for an individual section. The danger of such frequency of section breaks threatens to make this seem like eight chapbooks stitched together to make a full-length manuscript, and it is well known that Gordon is no stranger to chapbooks (he has published eleven of them and has a chapbook review column in Rain Taxi). What binds these poems together and make them a true collection is Gordon’s unique blend of the comic and the dramatic: his linguistically innovative poems refuse to coolly smirk at the world and its fallible language, but rather engage them earnestly, while always keeping an eye out for the absurd.


The book’s opening section A Dictionary of Music is occupied with sound, in particular, with what constitutes music. Gordon describes the musicality of instrumentation,


A ring of clarinets could draw out
the wolves, mimic a boat

growing smaller.


of landscape,


            the landscape, a cathartic duet

acquiescent to the order of the day

            or plain unaware: stupid rock, stupid air


of labor,


                         poison of a dead wasp,
                                           its wound potential

                             mimic the music
         of one digging a ditch


and of language itself,


felt as a mistake

in translation:

leave for leaf

so the tree is an exit

a door into weather


But perhaps the most intriguing conception of music comes in the last line of the section. In a reversal of Stevens’ fifth part of Thirteen Ways of Looking at a Blackbird, in which Stevens wonders what is more beautiful, the inflection of the heard sound or the resonance of the innuendo after the sound has died out, Gordon describes in his poem An exact comprehension of the composer’s intent:


                           [...] a translation

of sight with speech, awoken not by voice
      but what precedes it: the worldliness, wordless;
a measure of sound or movement to song.


For Gordon, the pre-utterance is also a form of music: the word or note shown on the screen of the mind, the inhalation of breath, the manipulation of the tongue. To include this “movement to song” into the definition of music is a generous notion for poetry, that the primordial materials of the pre-conscious, before we have translated them into language, have their own sonorous properties. It is an homage to the inception of song.


From here, to book moves from music to origins, as the poems in the second section, The Right of Return, each tell of a human prehistory in which the relationships between the body, language and the external world were still being negotiated. The eight poems each detail the inception of some large idea, from The book of journeys in which ‘the body became a voyage,’ to The book of definitions where ‘thought of this night / took form first as bone.’ The nameless inhabitants of this world with ‘all matter in flux’ seem to still be trying to determine how to speak of the concrete objects, including their own physical selves:


When the youngest asked

why this hand was different from others,

another drew in his fingers & said

‘This hand is called a fist.’

Not to take note but to transcribe

Bells were rung & special knots devised


Several objects recur throughout the section, each connoting violence: a bloodless pound of flesh, a coin which becomes recast into a bullet, and empty shoes, which are called ‘acceptable losses.’ Gordon implies the apparent inextricability of human progress with death. We as a people may be capable of grand journeys of foot, mind and word, but the oars we used to travel by were carved out of bone.


The third section, the longest of the book, entitled How Human Nouns operates in a much more elliptical fashion than the poems previous. Each poem is made up exclusively of monostichs, and while sometimes the lines flow from one to the next logically, more often the lines collapse into each other, and sense must be made of the non-sequiturs after the dust settles, as in these lines from Nothing under the stones but the story of lifting:


there was grace, ease, a hero’s mask assembled

from an hour’s background music

our inclination to trail a supposed mother toward the concrete

a crow calls out it lineage

a surrogate thorn      an imperfect Xerox


As with most well-written poetics of fracture, there are dual pleasures to be had here: first the interpretive play the reader must engage in to make sense of the text, and secondly the occasional flush of surprise when the poem does string together a more normative progression to the language, especially when the lines are as beautiful as these in An approximation of the actual letter:


I died in a book

& couldn’t touch the ink around me

it was autumn

I died in a book asking

the word for leaf for leave

I died in a book on the eve of music

in the distance, another distance


The following two sections only consist of four poems each, all of which are variations on the sonnet, and both turn to other forms of art in order to speak about poetry. The first, Untragic Hero of Epic Theater, revolves around ideas of theatricality, at times adopting the dramatic speech of the stage (‘Glorious indifference! Hapless providence!’) while elsewhere entering into Brechtian commentary on the artifice inherent in all plays. Through his choice to write this sequence in untraditional sonnet form (fourteen lines, but no rhyme, irregular meter and syllabics), Gordon successfully draws a parallel between the artifices of the stage and poetry. In a typical experience at the theater, many proofs of non-reality of the production are asked to be accepted, or rather ignored, by the audience (the curtain, two-dimensional props, etc.). In other words, it is necessary to accept the frame to accept what is inside of it. The same could be said of poetry, particularly formal verse. The frame of the sonnet is the formal demands which rarely occur in everyday speech. So the reader has to wink in understanding at the unnatural qualities of prosody before he or she can consider the content, and how the formal restrictions interact with it. When Gordon writes sonnets in which the only sonnet-like feature they possess is that they are fourteen lines, he is breaking the field of artifice, and turning to his audience to speak directly: ‘Continue to the next page & ignore what’s behind the curtain / The imperative’s wax center & a magnifying glass held to the sun.’


Four Allusive Fields, the next quartet of sonnets, all respond to a series of paintings by Cy Twombly titled 50 Days at Iliam, in which Twombly engages in a dialogue with The Iliad, but instead of painting images from the text, he makes what are essentially visual reading notes. The paintings are more representative of the process of reading than of the text itself. Gordon’s sonnets, all of which begin with the line ‘Cy listens absently to absent Homer,’ are a sort of a third-hand Iliad, in which the poet writes about the process of viewing these paintings, and puts back into language Twombly’s source material. The results are playful, and the shifts in imagery and allusion move as quick as the mind:


A cricket’s ankle is not fragile to the cricket
Dab it there. It has nothing to do with the sun
The sun is a system free from authority
& you sweet shy Achilles have already worn
through your shoes & the pedestal beneath


Gordon’s examinations of language continue in the following section, but instead of using other artistic genres as lenses, the poet engages his subject directly. Book of Names calls into question one of the most written-about and controversial issues of late 20th century and early 21st century poetics: the relationship between the signifier and the signified. The poems, which take a deep bow to Creeley in their form, employing his clipped phrasing and short, enjambed lines, both point towards the arbitrariness of our names for things and people,


Why Bernadette & why David?
Why Rebecca? Why Mark?
Why the book of names? Why say yes and no?
Why a syllable & its buoyancy?


and acknowledge the necessity (or at least the irresistibility) of such artifices:


I named

a dead bird


Ultimately Gordon seems to settle on the only tenable ground that poets can stand on, that language is utterly suspect and yet utterly necessary, and that no matter what we write, the things of the world will remain themselves regardless of any new light poetry sheds on them:



is a spectacle

& soon the trees

are still
the trees outside


If one section of Fiddle had to be chosen as the centerpiece of the collection, it would arguably be the penultimate section of the book, A New Hymn to the Old Night. The poem is a conversation with the early German Romanticist Novalis (real name Friedrich von Hardenberg), who was an early pioneer of the use of fragments in poetry. Novalis’ major poetic achievement was Hymnen an die Nacht (Hymns to the Night), in which, in a similar movement as The Divine Comedy, a dead beloved acts as an intermediary between the speaker and God, granting him more knowledge about the relationship between life and death as the poem goes on. Gordon modernizes his hymn, simultaneously looking at the world from the far-removed view of the dead, as well as one of the living attempting to explain the current moment to one of the dead who has been recently revived. A New Hymn to the Old Night is a fragmented, celebratory list of what there is to love about our gorgeous and dangerous lives. It is rapturous without being naïve, grand without being hyperbolic:


you try explaining a computer to the long dead

forget almond trees, grapes & poppies

what he wouldn’t believe is the inescapable music here

the night filling with beloved firetrucks

cover your ears to cover the passing sirens

praise the passing sirens


The message of the whole could be said to be contained in this last line, which is one of the poem’s refrains. The passing sirens are the audible indication of human suffering, or at least the threat of it, but the music of them is arresting. The sirens represent a liminal space between two states. They are the night’s held breath, and worthy of praise.


At only three pages long, the final section A Little Book of Prayers is the shortest of the book. Although the section is brief, it is paradoxically the most disparate: each poem is engaging, but they do not share the same unity that all of the previous sections have. If the book overall is made up of poems that did not fit into previous collections, then perhaps these final three are the hardest of all to fit under any umbrella. Which is not to day that it was a mistake to include them; in fact, one of the most arresting and disturbing images of the book comes in A black mirror for the capital:


You’ve seen the girl, naked & screaming
arms splayed as though she could take flight

from the road — from this heat
how it raises a map of welts:

blueprints for a massive ark


While the year 2007 will obviously showcase Gordon’s prolific nature as a poet, it will also establish his range. It is nothing less than astounding that in one year a poet could release poetry as conventionally unlyrical as that of Inbox, which is made up entirely of emails the poet has received, to the frequently gorgeous poems in Fiddle. One wonders if Gordon can keep up such rapid production, while continuing to stretch what a lyric poem can be. If Fiddle alone is any indication of his ability to do so, we can be certain that he will.

Andrew Grace

Andrew Grace

Andrew Grace is currently a Wallace Stegner Fellow in poetry at Stanford University. His poems have appeared in Poetry magazine, Denver Quarterly, Boston Review , and he has work forthcoming in the Indiana Review, Seattle Review and Another Chicago Magazine among others. His first book A Belonging Field was published by Salt Publishing, and his second book Shadeland has won the 2008 Ohio State University Press / The Journal Award in Poetry.

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