Poetic Quanta and the Terrestrial Residue of Gil McElroy

Ordinary Time

Dull sublunary lovers’ love
—Whose soul is sense—cannot admit
Of absence, ’cause it doth remove
The thing which elemented it.

-John Donne

The continuous work of Gil McElroy contains poems that are more suggestive of physical matter and processes than some other poems, in the sense they cannot really be defined by any one of his respective books, but more by what George Bowering might call “particular accidents” over time.

Ordinary Time

Four of his titles with Talonbooks, including his most recent book of poetry Ordinary Time offer the reader a building process for poetry that inquires into the finite elements of our origins and reaches outward toward a realm of cosmology and quantum physics that may be unfamiliar to many.

For this reason, I feel that a short retrospective of his books is timely, with the consideration of giving reviewers an entry point for what may at first glance appear mystifying.


Dream Pool Essays

In Dream Pool Essays (2001), McElroy’s “Sublunary” section is couched in a geological near-narrative that sounds out its terrain, of which “The potatoes of such lives / are terrible & overheated”. By his “Tenth Echolocation”, an abstruse creation myth of things in the world has drowned out the sound of any singular poetic voice:


& our usual inclusions?
That crowd, mysterious & standing together,
could do only the work of twig
& stone, & for the want
of just some esoteric doctrine,
dinners & shoes settled into the world
obsessing about the dental position of nasal twangs
& the pimples there were
of matter.


Then, in a Dantean twist, the second section “Some Julian Days” attempts to apply a concept of astronomical measure to the movement of these poems, which are reinforced not merely by their presence but by their irresistible cohesion catalyzed by future poems in other books that are to follow. McElroy hints at this (or is it merely another particular accident of beauty?) in “2449375”:


It was all part
of an etiquette you could
really feel

a kind of a
twinge worked out right
through history

& run aground
before remarks


In “2449600”, McElroy shifts quite abruptly from a familiar communal experience to some, from being a kid at a Woolworth’s lunch counter to worries about stoppages to the Heraclitean flux of time:


Sipping & swallowing
I couldn’t stop
the flow once begun would go on
without me

where in the gravity of the argument
afraid the flow
the logic once begun
would go on without me

& me quite incapable
of the physics


Then in the title section “Dream Pool Essays”, McElroy provides decontextualized anti-similes that echo the language games of Jack Spicer. His series of Carbon poems utilizes Capital letters against the left hand margin to stress the existence of a poetic verge instead of a speaker and the inexorable link between each line and its origin. In poems like “Carbon 5”, is the story about the beginning of all life or perhaps all language or anything at all:


Pronounce “a little fire.”
The tooth alphabets, they are as sputters.
Some brains are all glottis.
The world skips & frolics with such noises,
but I hurry beyond my ears.
Perceptions happen, chummy fulfilments.
Hence the ecstasy of limbs.
Retracing my presence constricts the meanness.
The mouth, though, likes the slap (a habit words possess),
& not the thin, rhomboidal silences.


NonZero Definitions

In NonZero Definitions (2004), McElroy really hits his stride in a similar vein, using Jack Spicer’s technique of introducing footnotes in order to obfuscate and further poeticize rather than clarify anything:



Narrative is everywhere an apparent.a Chains
of command. A shrieking cascade in terms
of certain friction.


Go to the threshold & listen there. The
low murmur you hear has a fabled resonance. The
ghostly plot of a particular strangeness.

It has a story to tell.

a   Consider the
beast cold-
blooded, viscously
specific. Hell
Is a point somewhere


In the newer poems appended to “Some Julian Days”, Ezra Pound might have pointed out they will not cohere. That is to say, there is a wonderful fragmentation of the form used in Dream Pool Essays. This appears to be the place McElroy was aspiring to build/tear down in his previous book, with stellar echoes of everything from the last of Pound’s Cantos to Phyllis Webb‘s Naked Poems. Even as it narrows in form, this is charting astronomical changes in an expanding ‘verse, whether there are corresponding twins in the heavens or no.

McElroy provides a definition from A Dictionary of Astronomy with his additions to “Some Julian Days”:


The consecutive number of days makes
the system independent of the length of
month or year and the J[ulian] D[ate] is
thus used to calculate the frequency of
occurrence of the periodicity of phenomena
over long periods.


This statement is important, if McElroy is indeed hinting at how the more precise we become in our measurements of phenomena, there more we find ourselves dealing with abstractions. To generalize the quantum approach to poetry, the more we focus here, the more we are missing over there. One particularizes, and in the attempt of examination, inexorably alters the phenomena in question, as can be observed in “2445250”:


The speed of light is

or not
in the same manner as
the one

which sums up this
edge             in the metaphor


Beyond the fragmentation, the poems also return to a more lyrical mode with rhythms that remind one of Pound’s Lustra, as in “2452293”:


A lapse,
& the good feet
ply products.

We remember
the laundry, its motives, examples,
& patiently radical tasks.

Bitterness comes.
Bitterness would be different,
deflected like the impossible grass
morning makes throughout
the day.


Moving on to the section “Meteor Showers: A Descriptive Catalogue”, there is a concomitant parallelism between the top and bottom sections on either side of a solid line across the page, as in this excerpt from “Geminids December 6-19”:


The shore
is like paving stone, the water
some condensed form of recreation

We have little skill in falling


average (radiants
daylight streams
nodal passages)
strong (returns


Last Scattering Surfaces

Last Scattering Surfaces (2007) presumably derives its name from a state of transition of our nascent universe, if we are to appreciate a poetic with a colour temperature that continues to diminish as the universe expands, and as we measure the radiation from a spherical surface called the surface of last scattering.

Applying this theory to McElroy’s book, we may take into account we are observing residual evidence of poems than once existed, the light of which has only just reached our eyes.The start of the book does suggest remainders of what once existed over “fossilized durations”. Any sense of structure is briskly overtaken by the expressed possibility of transition and loss:


The house
has a generated size,
mollifying space.

We withdraw
upon dreams
in one short

Exploit this picture.


McElroy’s section “(The Work of Art) In the Age of Mechanical Reproduction”, a nod to Walter Benjamin, brings to mind continuous assembly lines of verse, with a parallel interruptive narrative, the thoughts like those of works lost or crushed by the lines that never cease. While the lyrical form of a single first person speaker is a process that may seem mechanical, the stray thoughts justified to the left of the page act like spanners in the work(s):


Given                                                                                      art
that the
apparent occurred,
I should’ve been periodic
in the face
& tendency, but I,
I fell                                                                                       Catastrophes,
in, instead, upon a circle become
invisible during
it, forgetting summer, the
liquids left behind, &                                                                 of course,
the startling atmosphere.
This was an                                                                             both
all-sky matter,                                                                         main
& the glaucous horizon
may’ve called to me, but nothing interrupted
my point.


As in McElroy’s other books, the most vibrant and stirring section is the continuation of his ongoing long poem, “Some Julian Days”:


Stars circle.

It is all brightness & spirits.


& water, the curving
path of.

Past Hangman’s Beach, walking a long arc looking for the path thru to the far side of
the island, past sea-driven wood & the intermittent tumble of loose stone.

After the beach there were blackberries, staining my hands so that later, fighting thru
the thick brush choking the path, I tore my lip & touching it couldn’t see the blood.


These poems also shift from pre-established forms to a minimalist style akin to Robert Creeley’s later work, once again giving the reader the sense of residual language, or linguistic structures breaking down in the middle of talking (and breathing), as in “2452896”:


The last is,
in fact, fore-
stalled by

Whatever it is
get it


The next section “Ecumenical Maps” is quite a curiosity. The word ecumenical derives from the Greek word oikoumene (“the inhabited world” or “the whole world). Yet the word has a context associated with churches and religions, which is perhaps to say my universal and not your universal. In this case, the maps pertain to letters and the alphabet, defining phylums and categories of classification.


A face acquiring fluidity. A fantasy for many years alluded to. A fate never dissipated.
A ffair. A fervent cult of more & more. A ffirm. A fine baritone. A fixed key. A fflux.
A fford. A ffray. A ffront. A field. A fire. A flame. A float. A fore. A fresh.

A gain. A gape. A gaze. A given. A go. A gog. A ground. A glow.

A happiness convinced. A head. A heavy melting of blue. A hem. A highly interferred
comet. A horizon forced by heat. A hoy.


It was highly amusing to look up Dreyer Descriptions (from Johann Dreyer’s New General Catalogue of Nebulae and Clusters of Stars, circa 1888) and to find a pseudo-Romantic language of abbreviations to describe objects in the sky. McElroy’s use of these codes in a poem look to the untrained eye like either the dumped contents of poorly encoded text or spacial debris or a finely crafted sound poem. Perhaps these would be tedious to a devoted stargazer, but in the purely aesthetic sense, in textual or sonic formation, they are quite extraordinary:


!, vvB, L, R, psmbMN


which unless I am misreading translates into a construction of mostly adjectival and adverbial modifiers:


remarkable, very very bright, large, round,
pretty suddenly much brighter toward middle of nucleus


Finally, in the title sequence, McElroy returns to those nascent surfaces, to these glimpses of the most transient observations, although it is the fleeting reality of language that is being scattered:


the what I’m
talking about, a
universe of
a few seconds
with at least
a few sunlights to be
answered, numbers
that were
banged into
helium, collapsing
in reverse, a third of the way between

There are
so many letters.


McElroy’s books are intriguing, partly because although they attempt to adopt scientific systems of classification, they never wholly surrender to their potential monotony or to the tendencies of pedants or dogmatic avant-garde poets to offer the reader perfectly formed yet airless structures to occupy, without taking into consideration the full possibilities for exploration of the poetic form in question. In other words, the allowance for human errance and emotion. In addition, the nature of the continuous thread in his books is really what defines a poet writing a lifelong poem, and the magnetism that is sparked by this continuity renders them rather irresistible, even with an impermanence subject to ordinary time.


Cold Comfort: Growing Up Cold War

Gil McElroy’s upcoming memoir Cold Comfort: Growing Up Cold War will be available from Talonbooks in May, 2012.