Serge Gavronsky, AndOrThe: Poems Within A Poem (Talisman House, 2007)
“Words are my life…” the 1930s Objectivist poet Louis Zukofsky once confided, “the poet’s form is never an imposition of history, but the desirability of making order out of history as it is felt and conceived.” With AndOrThe, his most recent book of poetry, the venerable French-born New Yorker Serge Gavronsky honors Zukofsky by setting his own imagination to the task of crafting a long autobiographical poem.
The book’s narrative is at once personal and objective, unfolding in part to embody the spectrum of disparity that Zukofsky imagined between the articles “A” and “The.” Zukofsky’s verse epic—simply titled “A”—spanned over eight hundred pages, which included an elaborate index with passages written on musical staff paper. His poem consisted of twenty-four sections to reflect the hours of a day. These sorts of formal particulars do not elude Gavronsky in AndOrThe, though his permutation (with his riff on Zukofsky’s kind of formal emphasis becoming a title; the words “And,” “Or” and “The” stand alone as poems within the larger poem) delves even further into the personal. In a way, the elaborate and precise structures only clothe the poem, as AndOrThe manifests the wholly distinct poetic identity of its maker. The book’s title(s) recur like turnstiles through which Gavronsky’s entire life on the page passes, as AndOrThe encompasses the provincial and the universal, the philosophical and the emotional, the sensual beside the pedantic: “clearer / Than prose she discovers the body / Unilateral / Or nude / like a blank wall.”
In keeping with the eclectic dimensions of “A” (as it happens, Zukofsky wrote another long poem, just as sinuous and allusive as “A”, which he entitled “The”), AndOrThe roves back and forth across genres, from memoir to short-lyric and further. Parts of the book read as if they were the opening statements from Gavronsky’s long awaited jeremiad on contemporary aesthetics. He stands at a suddenly obscure crossroads, questioning everything he sees,—“All authentic / All an invention / duplication”—hazarding a guess as to the fate of philosophy as observed with the help of another fellow wordsmith: “Derrida died / Here’s William Blake’s answer: / O, reader, behold the philosopher’s grave!” The book is full of allusions that reach further back than Post-Structuralism, though Gavronsky never showcases his intellect through the insertion of these sorts of labels for movements, historical figures, etc. Notions of Freud, Nietzsche, and others linger in the drawing room of Gavronsky’s poetry, like the aroma of old pipe tobacco: “Benjamin’s aura / Skeleton keys.”
Though he moors the poem’s on-going description with his short, incisive lines, certain passages appear entirely as prose. Gavronsky collages newspaper articles and business letters that he has contrived for the poem. There’s even a bibliographical entry that revives the memory of his Russian proto-Bolshevik grandfather: “a student at the U of Moscow,” Gavronsky recounts with a sudden deadpan accuracy, “he joined the ‘People’s Will’ Society…in 1883 he was arrested for the first time.” After being freed from forced labor in a Siberian camp in 1896, “Joseph” went on to organize the Social Revolutionary Party, and later served as interim mayor of Moscow in 1917 before settling in Paris where Gavronsky grew up. “He looked like a Biblical prophet with his long grey beard,” Gavronsky adds. AndOrThe hinges itself on these kinds of digressive reminiscences.
While Gavronsky endeavors to let the reader recognize the energy inherent within every single word as it appears on the page, no formal instance in AndOrThe overwhelms the sense of the poem as a whole. Locations around the world—Montparnasse graveyards where stray cats sun themselves on renowned authors’ gravestones, the “Blvd Raspail” in Paris, the West 80s and the old “3rd Ave El” train-line in New York City—become clear even as they overlap and interchange throughout Gavronsky’s life story. As he reflects on a life experienced “In the presence of the eye / Lived between clauses shielded,” he sees the act of writing as perhaps the one true source of sanctuary amid the contemporary clamor. Still, for Gavronsky, all language, whether common or lofty, rises to the same universal call for artifice: as “A fireworks / feu d’artifice,” which he manages to wield with equal caution and intimacy in AndOrThe.
Ben Tripp is a poet and editor of the literary magazine Gerry Mulligan.