25 August 2006

SILVER STANDARD, by Justin Sirois

Justin Sirois’s Silver Standard (New Lights: Tempe/Baltimore) comes at the reader with teeth bared, or staples out (toothy side out). Ron Silliman, in his estimable blog (that I read regularly and learn a great deal from) thinks this is a bad thing, because it’s a book, and one wants to put books on shelves with other books on either side of them, and Silver Standard would tear up other books. I get that, and I even agree with the premise, usually. But I think SS is something else, an artist’s book whose outward-pointed staples perform a function in terms of the book’s meaning, and that’s all I need to accept them, and to accept the somewhat greater difficulty of encasing the book in something, or of putting it in a file folder. What I think I will do, though, is put it in some kind of envelope or cut a file folder down to its size, and go ahead and put it in my bookshelf, with the spine side as the open side of the folder or envelope, so I can see it there. For this book, that doesn’t seem too much to ask. Because this book is one of the best books of poetry I have read in some time, equal, this year, to the amazing Knot, by Stacy Doris (more on that one in another post), the long-awaited A Reading 18-20, by Beverly Dahlen (also in another post), Under Virga, by Joe Amato (I won’t post on that one because Chax Press published it) and Cornstarch Figurine, by Elizabeth Treadwell. If there are others this good, I have not read them yet.

Silver Standard’s 374 staples (I can’t see that declared anywhere in the book, but that’s what Silliman says, and I’m going to trust him rather than perform a recount) are not the only unusual physical characteristic of the book. The cover is not attached to the book, but it coheres by means of magnetic strips, which are just magnetic enough that one is not likely to lose the cover, but not so much as to exert a strong pull. These magnetic strips go from top to bottom on the inside cover of the book, possibly making a statement of their own, i.e. the pattern of staples forming one kind of net of entrapment, and the stripes another. The inside cover (gray) and its endsheets (a shade of brown resembling café au lait) provide the strong structure of the book, as they fold into the middle of the book and make a sewn concertina that encloses the two signatures that make up the book. I love this kind of structure, and it’s used perfectly here, as it’s a structure most appropriate when a book has too many pages to allow for saddle-stitch pamphlet binding, yet not enough pages, perhaps, for a perfect binding – although in this case a perfect binding would simply not be desired, for both aesthetic and marketing reasons. At the physical center of the book, which opens perfectly flat, these cover & endsheet papers are cut off to become tabs. On these tabs occur the one instance of letterpress printing in the book, in Hermann Zapf’s lovely Optima font. Printed very well, the top left reads “end::quiet colossus,” and the bottom right reads “begin::bell,” The “quiet colossus” is a sports super-arena pictured in lovely graphic in a foldout on the previous page which has much to do with the first work in the book, “silver standard (quiet colossus),” and the “bell” precedes a similar foldout page of a graphic of the interior of a bell that likewise will be the moving figure of the second work in the book, “silver standard (bell).” As I write this I wonder if the physical parenthetical enfolded presence may be a part of Sirois’s meaning in the book, too. At the very bottom of the pages, almost beyond the page but not quite, these titles appear as follows:



The careful enclosings, ends and beginnings, letterpress final or initial physicality, all play a role in our own sense of entrapment begun by the stapling. And not only are we entrapped, but everything is enclosed within everything else. The beginning of the first work links our own physicality to that of language, the oil industry, and the medical establishment. Tattoos mix with pharmacology, membrane sap, and neurons, all getting nowhere, or at least never beyond, “nothing more.”

    in the nose bleeds we shiver & mingle with membrane sap,
    I mean membrane sap like I mean plates of neurons chaffing
    their shoulders or just plain old nouns & platelets heckling
    yards below, herds of common folk call to petrochemical
    knights & pharmacological egos, juiced up & flexing to
    advance, a tattoo signs autographs & nothing more

Section one of the this “quiet colossus” ends

    the unless soil of the proverb erodes
    long before the first ball was thrown

so that “unless” and “long before” mix past and future in the present of eternal entropy.

One of the abiding tropes in “silver standard (quiet colossus)” is the river, but it might as well be a river of hell, where boats “saved the rotts & kittens,” toes key “the flow like webbed shifts as workers float by in gondola portfolios,” and sometimes it is a “yellow river, cautious about the local toxins.” It is never a river out, or to, some other place. It is, rather, where we are, otherwise imaged as “the quiet colossus” that “fills to capacity.” Fills to the point of overflowing, but it won’t, can’t, as our futures “are tied to policies policed by dicey monopolies.”

I’ve gone too long, perhaps, and haven’t touched on the sounded delights of this work, nor on part two, whose directive is entirely different, a working out of the bell’s “chime” which is a kind of all-enabling and all-destroying (but the irony here is that things can’t be destroyed, or they already are in a state of perpetual destruction) sound that Foucault would understand immediately as linked to his prisons, structures whose systems form the basis of societies, the basis of our lives, a basis the marketplace seamlessly commands us to accept.

    the chime should & the chime did. You forged the after
    effects from boric acid & dictionaries of chlorinated
    sample, chiseled away with professional tools until the
    pulsing center sent ultrasonic climaxes through our
    chairman’s gullet. The board is pleased & after test
    marketing these beeps

    they’re sure the consuming hordes will giggle & cheer when
    they hear what you’ve so artfully engineered

Silver Standard is devastating, and beautiful, and dangerous in the combination of those two qualities. The language is so well-crafted and conveyed that the book needs its staples, so you know that what you are about to enter is as dangerous as our contemporary world. Silliman notes a lack of pessimism and nastiness in the book. I disagree entirely, and I find those qualities all the more harrowing because of the flat tone, the flat line toward which we are all headed.

Read this book, please.