Saturday, December 10, 2016



The Primordial Density Perturbation by Stephen Collis 
(Tinfish Retro, Hawai'i, 2011. Electronic edition available here)

Stephen Collis’ chapbook, The Primordial Density Perturbation (Tinfish Retro Series, 2011), collects five poems whose energies direct responses to language’s unique ability to represent the physical world while also smoldering in socio-political baseness. Collis, of the Kootenay School of Poetics, works in a poetry and scholarship of politics that opens itself to the raw nature of language as a vocal resistance. His work Through Words of Others: Susan Howe and Anarcho-Scholasticism (2006) focuses on the merging of scholarship genres— the critical and creative— as they appear in the archival methodologies of postmodern poets such as Howe, Olson, and Duncan.

Coming in under 600 words, Collis’ five poems, sequenced by number as title, comprise of approximately 62% unique word types. These arrangements draw attention to a chaotic infusion of scientific noun phrases and corruptions of idiomatic saying. Their range of diction compacts the complex images of a scientific vocabulary with the intrusions of vulgar speech, enjambing the two categories in lines that build up to micro-sections yielding small conceptual fragments. These fragments do not live in isolation however; as one moves through the poems, repetitions of some of these word tokens return us to the powerful work of poetry, which is establishing systems of language in order to better grapple with meaning and significance.

These linguistic arrangements are the “densities” the title suggests; the “imperfections” of idiom (poem 4) are the “perturbations” that augment humanity’s consciousness in the abounding galaxies with an inbred vocabulary. This is more than an uneasy alliance, Collis seems to say, and the social manifestations that arise from language’s flexibility are, similarly, corruptions of rhetoric born from a corrupt species.  

The poems’ politics — their ontological overview — take up a riparian stance between the usefulness of language and its strange capacities to have birthed our day-to-day vulgar communication. Language may describe our universe, but it also a shaper of culture and ethea such as capitalism; Collis clearly fumes about the latter:

the fundamentalist conceptualists their
finger puppet diaries explaining
oscillatory structure like
dupes dropped a news bomb on it
now it’s celebrity this or
catastrophe that solar or social
this thing capitalism begun
in a flurry of accumulations
(that’s robbery between you
and me) lightcone spacetime
free-fall of photons and matter
so culture is imperfections the
little welts of words along
the paper horizon muttering         (Poem 4)

The “muttering” of “little welts of words” have their accumulations. This is how we create meaning: through use we define function. Collis uses words for sound: this is poetry meant to be heard, and here phonetics contribute to the pattern of meaning. For example, light is a repeated token in the chapbook, and establishes one feature of the poetic world’s physics. Below we have light’s distribution through concordance:

hey you should pay me for that!     light     bulb moment or another like we could
and flesh and fabric fluid the time   light     travels from dead origins last one out
origins last one out / turn off the     light     conserve crazy for the rebound universes
yelp or yawp we're bardic homes    light     years ahead of this catastrophe season
so hold it up in a satanic                  light     and read it backwards-- time was smooth        
robbery between you and me)         light    cone spacetime free-fall of photons and matter

Similarly, keywords such as density, spacetime, and slicing provide the resources for the image of Collis’ world interpretation.

like actual bankers! describing spacetime     slicing and threading manichean poetics all dolled
or leaky hominids the leap into event            slicing and threading their cartesian coordinates
grill the chalkboard sea with ship equations  slicing and threading it's all soup

Spread throughout the text, this example — slicing that collocates with threading —demonstrates Collis’ overall message, the critical inquiry that permeates his poetry and scholarship. Cutting and joining, “cleaving” perhaps in its two senses of severing and attaching, is the factorial work of language, which does what Collis proposes in his work on Howe: to merge exegesis and expression (Through the Words of Others 9). Collis seems to succeed in Primordial Density Perturbation, and we should continue to follow his projects as they get at the potencies of poetry in action.


Joshua Hussey teaches composition in the School of Literature, Media, and Communication at Georgia Institute of Technology. His research considers the concept of the archive in American literature, specifically how texts operate as emblematic storage devices containing the rulebooks for ontological worlds. He has taught courses on memory, narrative and folklore in videogames, and most recently, detective literature. For the Georgia Tech library archives, he recently constructed a MAME cabinet to emulate classic arcade games in order to preserve old videogame content. His present Digital Humanities project involves creating a dramatic voice that emerges when psychological expression conjoins with the lexical expression of a digital corpus.

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