28 January 2013

We Are Pharaoh

Robert Fernandez’s debut collection of poetry We Are Pharaoh (Canarium Books, 2011) opens with the poem “Polyhedron,” which by definition is a multi-surfaced, three-dimensional object; or, as the poet himself writes, “2,700 intersecting tiles.” As an added twist, though, Fernandez’s polyhedron contains the uncanny ability to emit “cosmic background radiation,” enabling him both to “highlight sound” and “fall back into the life of a painter” (3). To this extent, the polyhedron can be employed as an apt metaphor for the poems in this collection: a series of intersecting and multi-layered tiles that delight both through sound and image. Take, for instance, the following excerpts from the aforementioned poem:
Speed and seeing are the only requisites
to positioning oneself in tradition

or catching rhythm
bare chested, youthful (4)

The eye is present if the rain is out,
threatens to bend not only reeds

but pitch, guitar, eggs of the macaw
Not just the river but the shadow of the river travels (5)

as a pearl Ferrari approximates
the angel of history,
so our mourners shy off
into flatness and ice (12)

tomorrow beauty shifts its name,
swallows landscapes,

the seams vanishing across that discourse (13)
These four sections are indicative of the thirty-six sections of the poem: short intersecting tiles that catch a “rhythm” that harnesses “Speed” and “youthful” exuberance, while “seeing” such disparate images as a “guitar, eggs of the macaw,” “a pearl Ferrari,” and the Klee/Benjamin “angel of history.” Of course, Fernandez doesn’t just provide readers with images, such as a “river”; he also offers a more abstract “shadow [that] the river travels.” The poet’s rhythms, then, move the poem furiously through idea, image, sound, and abstraction, such that “beauty shifts its name” in rapid fashion. Indeed, in these light quick movements, the “seams” which demarcate the different “discourse[s],” modes of engagement, and artistry vanish in such a way that make these fragments appear to be a singular whole.

Just like “Polyhedron,” most of the poems found within We Are Pharaoh join “contradictory spontaneities” into functional “bodies” (18) that are “cut with / berserk lines” (32) but built from “a concise logic” (38) greater than the sum of their individual parts. And what is the “concise logic” that Fernandez’s poems employ? The conclusion of the poem “Halo” provides a hint:
                             The center
unravels no more easily

than a stone:
it spreads in leaves,

it erases itself in
strands of brilliance,

it unlocks in florets
through the reflective blackness. (60-61)
“The center / unravels no more easily / than a stone” because the center has “erase[d] itself.” It no longer exists. If such a claim sounds suspiciously familiar, it is due to the fact that the passage contains clear conceptual resonances echoing from Derrida’s “Structure, Sign, and Play.” In his essay, the French philosopher wrote:
From then on it was probably necessary to begin to think that there was no center, that the center could not be thought in the form of a being present, that the center had no natural locus, that it was not a fixed locus but a function, a sort of non-locus in which an infinite number of sign-substitutions came into play… extend[ing] the domain and the interplay of signification ad infinitum.
In other words, Derrida contended that the center (as a guiding, transcendental, or absolute presence) no longer existed and, thus, engenders an infinite series of playful substitutions bound within a finite set. In its place, he proposed a revision of Levi-Strauss’s concept of the bricolage, which he defined as “the necessity of borrowing one’s concept from the text of a heritage which is more or less coherent or ruined.” Because the bricoleur borrows “less coherent or ruined” concepts from a variety of sources, themselves which have been formed from other borrowed and ruined sources, the bricolage signals the “abandonment of all reference to a center, to a subject, to a privileged reference, [or] to an origin.”

To this extent, then, the Fernandez’s polyhedron (i.e. We Are Pharaoh and the poems therein) functions in a similar manner as Derrida’s adaptation of Levi-Strauss’s bricolage: a mythopoetic hodgepodge of sources formed into an ever-altering construction in an effort to highlight the cosmic radiation emanating forth from the 27,000 tiles used to build his book. Yes, it is the “noise that is pleading to the noise that is listening—[his] insolent varieties of actions bonded together” (96) for a moment in sound, image, abstraction, and rhythm that eventually dissipates into silence.

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