Alli Warren took the title to “Moveable C” from Ornette Coleman, who, at the age of 14, “developed a lifelong suspicion of the rules of Western harmony” when he learned a piano’s C is an alto saxophone’s A. By contrast, Coleman, a practitioner of what’s been called “free-jazz,” believes everyone has (and by implication should be allowed to practice) their own “moveable C.” For a poem that takes its title from a musical term, it rarely—if ever—uses diction about music, but for those who work in words, this concept may suggest why two people could say the same exact words but mean something entirely different, or why one person’s swimming may be another’s sinking like a stone, or how the meaning of the word ‘spring’ changes from one climate to the next, etc. —as if moveable C suggests tone, moods, connotations, more than denotations (which sound too much like detonations).
In Alli Warren’s book, a linguistic skepticism—or call it a healthy sense of the absurd—is often present towards everyday ‘practical’ uses of language (“What of its slippages” 15), especially when considering abstract words like the present—since “the present is a tradition” (15) “I study the past to denaturalize the present,” (11)—or the ‘expressions of love’ we post-boomer babies of mass culture were razed on:
Does “I will always love you” necessarily imply imminent
To change things by changing their names?
To produce numbers and so produce norms?
Coleman’s quote may also shed light on Warren’s imminent critique of capitalism, and how the ‘exchange values’ and “accelerating clogs” (9) of our always already mercantile language get into our labor body on “office time” even when granted an ostensibly autonomous sliver of “free time” —much of which is “spent” (see?) trying to shake off the soul-draining dynamics of the workplace in tender measures of nature reverence and hope only to be sucked back in by an atrocious manifestation of injustice; even in the most despairing reportage, though, she’s able to seem much calmer in the her vacillations than my characterization makes it sound. Yet, it is partially because she does not underestimate a world in which “everything organized to deliver force on a routine basis” (16) that she is able to suggest alternatives to it.
Through a conversational tone, and the illusion of polyvocal interior monologue, the speaker becomes more present to me—in her very skepticism—than a more ‘transparent’ one would. As Alice Notley puts it, her “principal method is articulation of exquisite units of speech (thought) that, maintaining separation, are capable of connection….” Her lines at times seem to borrow as much from the 21st century form of discrete tweet or facebook status report (“Mandatory self-reporting is optional but strongly encouraged” 35) as they do the one-liners of stand-up comedy (or, at times, what Maxine Chernoff calls, “Stand up tragedy”) or a meta-koan. Her ear for the imaginative leaps necessary to see “drug-store talisman, pop-up dust bowl” (11) and a cellphone in your pocket as “hibernating rust” (9) put the macro in the micro while also seeming to evoke the name of the kind of edgy bands they play on KALX, but increasingly it’s the “presence” of the spaces between the lines that best effect the de-acceleration.
Although one doesn’t have to look for a forward moving narrative, on a thematic level at least, Warren’s artful use of spaces between lines—as both bridge and wall—become ever present as one reads and rereads her imagining possible connections beyond an implied vicious circle or narrative of decay. It’s almost like what’s unsaid between the lines is asking us: does it really matter what the author thinks about the statements she presents? But can they be scaffolding for your thoughts and feelings today? I like the way it makes me self-conscious of the reading process (and just because the spaces between lines look the same length doesn’t mean they last the same length).
For instance, what do we make of a question like: “Who is permitted unhindered breath?” coming as it does after a passage straight out of The New Jim Crow on racial profiling: “Orders are phrased as questions and compliance interpreted as content.” (15) Could we read it as ordering us to breathe as unhinderedly as possible? Or what do you make of the seemingly obvious contradiction between “there is a possible future in a tender measure” (13) and “demand a future equal to polemic” (14), as if she’s clearly preferring the former and satirizing the latter. We could spend at least an hour tracing the lines of how she got there on the way to “some better measure might be underwater” (18)
It’s also difficult for me not to draw a line between her admission of “self-disgust” (10) and her powerfully acerbic critique of the “self-satisfied men” (“He thinks we share a world, and my horror to the extent that we do” 12-13) as if to suggest a belief in self-disgust as an ethical strategy (though it’s not like she harps on it in a cloying fashion or anything, it’s just there). I connect it with an attitude toward death…The “everyday violence vigorously and unequally enforced” (12) by these self-satisfied men is inextricably linked to a steely latent threat (presumably death). By contrast, on page 14 Warren writes:
the dead, electively present, conduit for all
the both/and meadow—beautiful and bleeding
Is this attitude towards, or relationship with, the dead, an adequate opposite to the violence-inducing fear of death? Or is it the kind of necromancy that runs away from life and love? Is it still a refusal to let the mystery be? Or is the alliterative beautiful bleeding both/and meadow but fragile cover of the everyday violence of the cruel self-satisfied? Sometimes, it’s difficult to read her tone, but I do not say this as a criticism. I read a line like, “My responsibility is to others first and from this I come to myself,” (16) and say “Yes! That self-abnegating interdependence is good thing, right?” But then on page 18, I read:
The disorder? Global
Self diagnosis? Nearsighted
Since “the body clock rings in line with office time” (18), the conflict between economy and ecology becomes analogous to that between the performative self (not mind per se, but “one’s dress, demeanor, movement through public space, tone of voice, companions”) and body (“the bones remember, gather round the legible bones…”) In this sense the poem occupies (or negotiates) the contentious eco space between onomy and ology, ego v. eco, consciousness & behavior. And I think of those who were too busy thinking they were thinking globally to see how they were acting locally, or “lost their center/fighting the world: The function vs. the particular one who embodies this function…”
This quote—near the end of this 11 page poem—reminds me of a quote near the end of the second 8 page poem, “Visual Letter”—
Strolling around like a subject
Speaking about a who as though it were a what (28)
The form of transposing, does not necessarily preclude its opposite, at least in my (mis)reading: and there’s the possibility of relationship that isn’t mere exchange, of suggestion of a shared feeling despite disagreements on connotations….I would assume my “movable C” is different than Warren’s, and as I try to transpose from her A to try to find my own (“Since there is nothing remarkable without you to see it with” 36), or at least one that could harmonize—though Beethoven’s harmony may be Coleman’s cacophony I am grateful for the tender underwater measures I neglected to talk about and that thwart my desire to piece together narrative, or even any argument.
In the end, there’s no resolve between the opposing impulses or voices, but what she does offer “as gift more than condemnation” (as Notely puts it) is even better; an evocation of the “whale’s heft” and a “hope we can be buoyant in the break, I hope we can be forked.” And “the break,” too, is ambivalent about its connotations: it could suggest being broken (“the crippling caving/Unintentional day of silence” early in the poem) as a condition for buoyancy, the unspeakable horrors of an un-representable present, the radical uncertainty of death, or it could be time off from work, the death of capitalism, or a purely descriptive musical term when the issue of “movable C” is moot because the melodic instruments aren’t playing, or is it working? Finally, this break could be the space between her lines, liminal between being ‘self-contained’ and being ‘capable of connection’ while brilliantly and generously taking the con out of context. (And who, or what is “the fork” if not a tuning fork?)
I love this little pocket-book book; buy it. Get your library to buy it — if they ever open again.