Stuart Cooke Reviews Francisco Guevara

By | 16 January 2017

Constitutive of the first part of the book, Guevara’s Adam and Alice sequence is a mutated anti-myth, or a liberation of meaning into pre-stratified praise. The aim is to recover a sense of language as the primordial ecology; in searching for those originary sounds, the poet moves ‘[f]rom hearsay to heresy’. As a result, the orphic invocations of an Adam and Eve are translated into a fecund stammer:

He thought himself into thinking & reviled

his whispered/ mispronounced is & what it is.
But it was morning, or then it was winter

talking December—the snowflakes deferring

to no one’s communion, so the revolver could
permit itself to their eyes here for a period

(‘The rhyme is magnetic’)

Flecked with bloody, violent images, the first poems of the series are instances of habeas corpus, where Adam is brought to judgement, his wrists ‘slit’ and, amidst ‘the scent of burning skin’, is re-born into an alternate language. It is a language without location, or with many locations: next to the contemporaneity of Guevara’s discourse, the depth of history lingers in a ‘mymy my myan original’ or in the Steinian ‘pretense of a rose is—or’. ‘In these poems,’ Guevara wrote in 2012, ‘I wished to unsettle the addresses of Adam and “I” in order to acoustically render the experience of feeling at home in them.’ The nature of this ‘home’, however, is a decidedly nomadic one, where, like Pierre Joris, Adam and Alice are ‘in / between’. Language and its vocalisation is enough to provide the stage for their presence, but from there they must follow the progressive present:

                                                     […] to haunt by

trying on breath & if one retried her and then
her waived interval to frame a ditch,

or struck our mooring enough for the filament
one takes for the premises of when she scatters.


As is probably clear already, Guevara’s inclinations are towards innovative and conceptual poetics. Central to his reading and practice, his US heritage is to be found in certain poets of Donald Allen’s The New American Poetry – in the Opening of the Field rather than Life Studies, for example. Guevara’s delight in the design and materiality of words, in the capacity to unmoor and reposition them in an open field, extends to the very limits of expression; indeed, in 2014 he published a chapbook-length interview with conceptual poet and provocateur Kenneth Goldsmith. But while Goldsmith was more of an intellectual curiosity, Kokoy was an avid, long-time fan of West Coast poet Jack Spicer. In part, Spicer’s work was of such interest because of the potential for differentiation that it unleashed. ‘More than a page’s capacity to document how fact took place,’ wrote Guevara in Cordite Poetry Review, ‘I am interested in the way sound can become revolutionary inasmuch as the word “revolution” asserts the necessary paradox of motion in its etymology. As revolution implicates the tension between old and new, the force of its rupture is also present in our sense of the world: one’s gravity, the passing of time and our states of being here.’ Revolution is a circular thing, paradoxically. Spicer’s language excited him because of how starkly it reveals that tension between history and the liberation of the present, between a body and the vocalisation of resistance. For both poets, the objective of poetry is ‘to make things visible rather than to make pictures of them’, as Spicer puts it in ‘Dear Lorca’, ‘to make them visible ‘as something alive – [but] caught forever in the structure of words’. Or, from Spicer’s ‘Awkward Bridge’: ‘Love isn’t proud enough to hate… // Or strong enough to return / Or strong enough to return (and back and back and back again) / What was’.

Like so much of Spicer’s work, what Guevara accomplishes in The Reddest Herring isn’t a set of crystalline representations or epiphanies, but something more akin to assemblage, or the gathering of forces into a potentially endlessly readable text. Like Peter Gizzi and Kevin Killian write of Spicer, we could say that Guevara is a ‘dissembler’ – he ceaselessly deploys misunderstanding, puns, counter-logics of distortion and disfigurement – but neither poet pursues such dissembling in order to eradicate meaning; the result, rather, is ‘an excess of meaning,’ with forms echoing or bumping into one another. What is ‘the reddest herring’, anyway? It is the ultimate deferral, the unmissable distraction, so seductive that it all but obscures the ‘real’ path but which, despite such size and such power, is destined always to be the Other, the un-real, the not-same. In this never-ending deferral, however, concepts never settle, closures are fractured, and language stays alive.

The book’s most explicit link to Spicer appears in the poem ‘Solstitial’, which begins with a fragment from the eighth of Spicer’s Fifteen False Propositions Against God (1958):

Shredded wheat, paper maché
Nobody believes in you
Least of all us trees.
Who find ourselves at the final edge
Of a cliff or at least an ocean
Eating salt air and fog and rock
Just standing
Bother your fuzzy heads about God. Gee
God is not even near your roots or our roots
He is the nearest 

Guevara’s ‘Solstitial’ begins where Spicer finished, literally:

He is the nearest 
Tree to a lighter—so, the summer
Twinkled from the Book of the Rot-

Ten; rotting from a taproot until
A storm swells & rests on its own

So, your saliva becomes an under-
current owing the struck match
minus the fourth house, ascending

where the water would labor
into its wanders

What is ‘shredded’ in Spicer is now ‘rotten’ in Guevara, but productively, as if it were a compost. Spicerean dissembly here becomes ‘an under-current’ for mythic deferral, deformation and regrowth; if God is the reddest herring, he is also the basis for subsequent deviations.

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