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On the Verge of Rational Meaning: P. Inman’s per se

Peter Inman’s per se (Providence, Rhode Island: Burning Deck, 2012) is his 15th book of poetry to date. My own Sun & Moon Press, still in its nascent stage, published his very first book, Platin in 1979, and I was one of the earliest of commentators on his poetry, with a short piece about his writing in an anthology published by Richard Kostelanetz years ago, of which I no longer seem to own a copy. I do recall that I spoke of Inman’s work in that short piece as bearing resemblances to the Russian Futurists, describing him as an American transrational writer.

In some senses, that title still might fit, but over the years I have become less interested in how his writing has little or no “literal” semantic meaning, than, despite the often seeming impenetrability of his poetry, how Inman’s language actually does mean. Certainly, the title of this 2012 book, published by the unstoppable (thank heaven) Burning Deck press, is appropriate. Inman’s work is “of itself” or relating, at least, to itself. Unlike so much of  today’s best poetry writing—the marvelous work, for example, of Charles Bernstein—Inman’s work does not seem, at first, to reach out to its audience, but demands, rather, that each individual reader enter its world, opening him or herself to whatever associations and possibilities of semantic significance the work might suggest. Inman’s wordscape—more often, fragmentized parts of words—is a private world of interruptions, walls of punctuation, sounds, and newly-coined phrases that goes far beyond what most readers might describe as disjunctive.

One is tempted, of course, to represent these “poems” as having a deeper relationship with music, indeed, than with prose or poetic expression. But Inman’s work, we quickly realize, has little connection with, for example, John Cage’s structural and chance-oriented writings. For Inman’s phrases, despite their seeming to come from some “other language,” are apparently quite intentional, careful word combinations that the reader senses might have great meaning, if only he spoke “Inmanese.” Consider, for example, one of the first poems of per se:

another lang(e)
for art lange

distance evanesce.

pekoe stein duckling.

konitz next to some drummed time.

all the song form dusk coast broken up.

ink neck texture business end.

aleatorist upon nylon.

thus often since where weight leaves off.

pony monad ocean neural.

talk nudge plural bone o’hara.


Although we can all share the pun of the title and the play on the poet-critic Art Lange’s name, from there on, where do we go?  The poem, indeed, begins with a distant fading, like a puff of smoke, almost vanishing before it has begun. But then we suddenly are presented with what almost might be an image, a “pekoe duckling,” a duck steamed in black tea. What does “stein” have to do with this duckling? Is the poet suggesting that the relationship of words is more like the writing of the poet Gertrude Stein, or that the duckling was served with a stein (perhaps of beer), or, if we want to go back to German, set out on a stone? Who or what is konitz* that appears next to a period of “drummed” time, presumably a portion of a jazz piece where the drummer dominates, or maybe just a period of silence where the diners drum out time on their fingers. The song or just the event, apparently, as in the first line of the poem, has been “broken up” in the gathering “dusk” or “fog” of the coast, not necessarily a body of water, but the coast or slide of the mind into the pleasure of the music. And what does “ink neck texture business end” mean? Is the drummer tattooed around his neck, the image getting lost in the crevices of his shirt? Is the chance pattern (suggested in “aleatorist”) lost in the texture of his garment? Perhaps this often happens where “weight,” the size of the body, intrudes, or where the “heavier” seriousness of the piece ends. Perhaps it can be attributed to loss of seriousness of their conversation. The “pony,” probably a small unit of liquor rather than a little horse, makes the nerves placid (“pony monad ocean neural”), while the conversation turns to the poet Frank O’Hara, with a joke about his many lovers and the social community, but which he was surrounded (“talk nudge plural bone o’hara”). So the minute, the little things, are transformed into minutes in what might be perceived as another gathering of friends (perhaps poets) eating and drinking while listening to jazz or simply talking.

I certainly do not suggest that this is the way one should read an Inman poem! My “off the cuff” interpretation is obviously strained in its search for definitive significance in a world in which no such thing has even been proffered and is, at moments, firmly rebuffed (Charles Bernstein described my slightly mad narrative interpretation as reminding him of the questions a translator might ask). But what I want to suggest by my rather absurd grasping at meaning is that Inman’s poems hint at such a possible language, just out of reach. If Inman’s words are fascinating for their tonal possibilities—and are often just as exciting as musical gestures—there is a feeling that they exist always on the verge of rational meaning.

In fact, in this book, three related poems, “now/time” (in memoriam, Walter Benjamin), “nono” for the Italian composer Luigi Nono, and “prose lachenmann,” presumably about Nono’s student, the composer Helmut Lachenmann, Inman tips his hand, and suggests some of the methods through which he composes his poems and how we might read them.

Nono, who late in his life was very influenced by the works of Benjamin, wrote one his major lectures with Lachenmann, “History and Presence in the Music of Today,” arguing strongly against the composers, such as Cage, of chance and aleatoric music. Indeed, particularly in the later works, influenced by Benjamin, Nono’s clusters of sound were intended to be perceived as highly politically charged (he was an outspoken Marxist) that express the “concept of history.” And in later works such as Das atmende Klarsein, Diario polacco II, and Guai ai gelidi mostri, he worked with other composers and musicians on technologies that would create a sound that circulated in space rather than simply emanating from a particular instrument or group of instruments. His grand “operatic” productions, involving often harsh, dissonant, microtonal writing, created drama “within” the work rather than upon the stage. In short, although one might think of Nono’s works as aleatoric explorations of musical sound, they are, in fact, highly intentional acoustic expressions of ideas in time and space.

Helmut Lachenmann expressed it, perhaps, even better that Nono in his description of a music:

in which the sound events are chosen and organized so that the manner in which they are generated is at least as important as the resultant acoustic qualities, such as timbre, volume, etc, do not produce sounds for their own sake, but describe or denote the concrete situation: listening, you hear the conditions under which a sound-or-noise   action is carried out, you hear what materials and energies are involved and what resistance is encountered.

     In short, as my outrageous “reading” of “another lang(e)” reveals, even though you cannot (nor would not want to) “translate” Inman’s poems into a standardized poetic narrative or poetic expression, there is always in his work the suggestion, the feeling that deeper coherency lies just behind the surface that involves particularized ideas of the social, political, and historical context. Consider, for example, part 2 of Inman’s poem “Six Feldman Amounts”:


a split alone of finicks

haircut prairie

planton dusk
shoe workers into con-


Or, a page from his “Prose Lachenmann”:

 a hair of tea lap cement
of myself around a bed


slaves’ history buried under asphalt
at its core was how flat he saw as
the ives piece in its own few language
state itself class itself
lighthouse cattle lengthens.

Certainly, we sense a political message in this world where “state itself [is] class itself,” and the “slaves’ history is buried under asphalt.”

Although Inman’s poems are not perhaps “easy” to digest (who would want them to be?), like Stein, even today, they need new readers unafraid to dip into their private and public connotations.

*Lee Konitz, born in 1927, was a major jazz composer and saxophonist who performed with most the jazz greats. In 2012 he performed as part of Enfants Terribles (Bill Fissell, Gary Peacock, and Joe Baron) at the famed Blue Note in Greenwich Village.


Los Angeles, August 16, 2013