Jargon by Brian Clements
(Quale Press, Niantic, Connecticut, 2010)
This is the first time I have reviewed a book that does not have any page numbers. Whether the absence of page numbers is deliberate or not I do not know. The contents page sets out six sections of five prose poems and each section begins with a Fibonacci number: 44, 89, 144, 233, 377 and 610, [F10 through F15]. The title of each prose poem is followed by an italicised extract from the text. As well as being from the text, these may be quotations from somewhere else or they may represent the core of what is being said. There are section breaks consisting of poems in smaller fonts which begin by being scattered across the page (making reading difficult) and then into other formats. Like the Fibonacci numbering sequence, there are words and phrases that are carried forward into most of the consecutive section breaks thereby achieving some kind of cumulative effect.
Clements doubtless chose to make use of the Fibonacci sequence because of its intriguing connections between mathematics and the natural world; growth and patterns of growth being governed by mathematical properties exhibited in the Fibonacci sequence. (Examine the criss-crossing spiral seed pattern in the head of a sunflower, for instance, and you will discover that the number of spirals in each direction are invariably two consecutive Fibonacci numbers.)
The Chambers dictionary defines jargon as being the terminology of a profession, art, group, etc., an artificial or barbarous language, a pidgin, unintelligible talk, gibberish, etc. Alternative words for jargon in Thesaurus concentrate for the most part on the “gibberish” aspect with suggestions such as balderdash, bunkum, drivel, gabble and nonsense. Jargon, in the sense of terminology, is certainly present here. Scientific terms, especially words relating to particle physics, are scattered throughout the text—everything from muons, string theories, gravitons and leptons to neutrons, photons, sound waves and black holes. Clements’ prose poems are not impenetrable but some of them are, at times, hard to follow.
In an interview with Cheryl Pallant in The Argonist Online we get a glimpse into some of Clements’ methods of composition. The starting-point is some kind of “collecting tool”—“any kind of operation like cut-ups, random generation, n+7, etc.” out of which a poem is created. “In other words [I] take an objectively collected word bank and filter it through a subjective consciousness to produce a poem. “Suspicion” from Jargon is probably a pretty good example. The word bank for this prose poem was collected by performing a Google search on the word “suspicion” and selecting random phrases or words from each of the first 100 sites listed, then composing the poem primarily of words and phrases from the bank (or at least a skeleton of a poem—I don’t recall the ratio of collected to added words here).”
Clements tells us that he tends to write from small projects, or around a certain question or set of questions. “Writing tends to be for me a kind of problem solving, exploratory in the way that a land-surveyor explores—mapping out a piece of land, finding its contours, its boundaries, getting to know it by knowing its possibilities”.
In Jargon, the major preoccupations are science, history, philosophy and religion. In the opening section, Clements poses the question
What, you might ask, is enlightenment? Does it happen in the brain? Is it a meeting of science and faith or the erasure of both?
Later in the poem he asks:
Or is enlightenment Brain Opens Door to New Dimension? Or is enlightenment You Are Nothing But a Speck on a Map? Whichever, the brains of the bodies of this group are in the dark, sitting in the dark and spinning, spinning a dark and regular thread in a regular cycle that goes spin, weave, and dye, spin, weave, and dye, spin, weave, and dye.
I like the reference to the Fates, the threefold repetition of “spin, weave, and dye” and the suggestion of substituting the word “dye” for “die.”
Xeno’s Paradox –which I take to be a reference to the set of philosophical problems devised by Zeno of Elea to support Parmenides’s doctrine that, contrary to the evidence of one’s senses, motion is nothing but an illusion, Clements offers up a reflective meditation on motion and stillness:
You hear a rumour that the inner life is moving into the suburbs….
but then it’s nice sometimes just to sit and be a stem.
There are some fine prose poems in this collection. Take Orange for instance, in which Clements touches upon a range of seemingly disparate topics that all have the word “orange” attached to them in some form or other:
You can have it with lemon in the bells of St. Clement’s.
“An individual clothed in orange is “afire”…a chariot or a car on fire has the same significance as a man in an orange-coloured tunic” [Cirlot, Dictionary of Symbols]. The Orangemen march through the streets of Ulster to stir things up per their King, William of Orange.
It has its own mountains and a Free State. It is a province and a tea…
One of the most lyrical passages in the book occurs at section 233. It is the prose poem called Subatomic Particle Ritual:
Dance into a room repeatedly. The first time just peek in the door, and another time come prancing in, waving your arms. Another time stand calmly beneath the lintel and appear to be both in and out of the room. Yet another time be in the room with only a certain degree of certainty.
Pick a partner and send him/her out of the room. Dance in your separate rooms. Though you cannot see each other, an observer would see that when you spin one way, your partner spins the other. When you change directions, your partner changes too. Surprise your audience by momentarily disappearing, then reappearing in opposite rooms, still spinning.
Once again, we see how Clements uses a process of accumulation to build up his text: the solo dancer, the dancer with his / her partner, the presence of an audience and then, in the next paragraph, the presence of a larger audience and more dancers on the dance floor. It is a wonderful extended metaphor on the idea of particles coming together and flying apart.
In the next prose poem, the two dancing partners are replaced with an image of two libraries from different parts of the world—one from the West and one from the East. The Library of Congress and the Library at Alexandria. Are these libraries travelling through space towards each other or is it the case that one of them is moving while the other is at rest? An interesting take on the East / West divide and the clash of civilizations.
One of the preoccupations in this collection seems to be the question of where does history begin and end—does it have a beginning and does it have an ending? What does it consist of, and how much of it is imagined or real? In A Brief History of Brief Histories Clements says:
So what is a brief history? There are a number of opinions: a scale, a structure, a note, a philosophy. One problem is that brief histories aren’t sung or played. They are much freer and may include the wild cry, the bent-over-backwards sentence, or the stage whisper, without sacrificing brevity or historicity. They are made things with organic insides and mechanical surfaces. Regardless of whether they are constructed of brass, steel, string, mud, or spit, brief histories, like all history, are products of desire.
The final section break comprises a concrete poem composed of ten columns of one word: Bang. The word is typed in different combinations of upper and lower case letters giving the impression of varying intensities of “noise” being scattered across the page. Maybe this is the “Big Bang” exploding the jargon that has accumulated since the beginning into something more cohesive or, alternatively, nothing at all. As Clements says at the close of the preceding section:
Forget about a personal God. We’re getting old. And getting old means you get to say anything you want and don’t even have to stick to the point.
This collection deserves to be read again and again. Clements provides us with an intriguing text from which we can extract a whole range of interpretations and be the richer for it. Recommended.
Neil Leadbeater is an editor, author, essayist and critic living in Edinburgh, Scotland. His short stories, articles and poems have been published widely in anthologies and journals both at home and abroad. His most recent books are Librettos for the Black Madonna (White Adder Press, Scotland, 2011); The Worcester Fragments (Original Plus Press, England, 2013); The Loveliest Vein of Our Lives (Poetry Space, England, 2014) and The Fragility of Moths (Bibliotheca Universalis, Romania, 2014).