Perhaps I fish by carnivorous scorpion
By integument as glutinous rash
Breathing day after day formalistic dilation
So begins the poem “Fishing as Impenetrable Stray” in Will Alexander’s The Brimstone Boat. To the left, one of Alexander’s sketches—part life form, part saccade, part luminous offspring, part offal, part a net from the Digha Nikaya, part Cajal’s Stain—invites the reader to stare at it, watch it disappear and emerge again from beneath the page. Closed circles like prayer beads populate the forehead and skin of this organism.
The apparent diameter of the sun, the organism itself appears enveloped by open lines, weighed out by a Zheng He under the fluctuating influence of his emperor, a civil servant surrounded by invisible petitioners from Albania, from Nubia, from Aztlan, from Darfur, from the Gulf, from a thousand other places simple enough to list down, but too numerous to forget. It is a vision that holds its ground somewhere between a mandala and a transcribing spiral arm. When my attention drifts, I turn to the poem.
To read a Will Alexander poem is to engage in dialogue. I mean that in the most serious sense possible. As soon as I start reading the poem, hearing takes over all my other senses. Hearing not only the sounds, the rhythm of the actual words (and this is where that frequent feeling of being overwhelmed by the breadth of the references used that might plague a reader), but also the labyrinthine sense of balance unique to the ecology of the poem.
This balance is not a flight from all things into the arcana of the poem. Not just lists of faceless names salvaged from encyclopedias, not the Nine Books of Disciplines, that get collapsed into a something, but a something that develops through the words and the sheer volume of associations that they call up. When I say a “something,” I say it self-consciously. The voice that emerges from the poem is not an epiphenomenon that drains off in rich phrases, but a conscious and attentive voice that takes risks and allows meaning to evolve, be approximated and be transformed.
There are rules of composition, patterns of invocation, surreal practices there for every reader to see. But they do not define what the poem is. Who is speaking? It is definitely not Alexander himself. It is something older from within our cells.
Alexander’s is a vision, a voice rooted in the body.
“The curtain of death must be pulled open in every body.” (Sat Prem)
Be it The Sri Lankan Loxodrome or Mirach Speaks to His Grammatical Transplants or Compression and Purity, throughout his work Alexander is surprisingly universal. It is not just the wide range of sources he draws from, but how he puts them to work. “One need not be expert on grain farming, or Egyptian mystical practice, but one needs an accurate feel for the core principle of the subject at hand” (from the preface to Kaleidoscopic Omniscience).
It is this “accurate feel for the core principle” that a poem such as “Fishing as impenetrable stray” leaves us with. The poem is not a residue deposited on our nerve ends but something that allows us to work in and around it, sculpt it with our own genius and potential for innerness.
Alexander’s poems are as much about creating space, clearing space for experiences of a higher order not derived from or against a stratified order (since from and against assume the same perspective), as they are about activating and revivifying languages and disciplines and mythical/subjective histories which otherwise remain isolated fragments of thought, accessible only to initiates and specialists, scientists and subaltern studies scholars.
In “The Sri Lankan Loxodrome,” for example, the overriding metaphor is the trawler. The voice is that of a fisherman who is engaged in a solitary venture. He hunts for hydrophidae, the poison sea snake, and removes the poison from them. The constant conflicts and geopolitical tensions of the region disturb his peace as does the shade Gianini, a composite figure from the “North” (in Alexander’s Mirach Speaks to His Grammatical Transplants the Northern nations are supposed to be the purveyors of “European mechanization”)—Gianini appears and charges the poet with being “an isolate medium of negative exchange.” This resonates with Alexander’s disdain of economic or linguistic “mechanization,” and also with the need he feels to interpose the poet as a shaman figure, an “outsider artist” in the codified exchanges between the subject and the world.
The trawler becomes the vessel of dharma. A negotiable space where dialogues and epiphanies take root and disperse. So with the metaphors in Alexander’s works. To talk about genocide as genocide, consciousness as consciousness, the cosmos as cosmos. To speak with a directness that does not filter out the world through Ideas but allows Ideas to struggle and evolve within oneself.
I attempt no belletristic index
no formula which blandly contains the hideous
the corpse as biological malfunction
like a signal
or astrological corruption as vault
I cannot assume
any sabbatical from existence
or any buried or revealed origination
which swims with a singular logic
in a bloodless lagoon
or a gallery of salt
To turn death into a sign, into a sermon or a fossil, is the focus of “a singular logic,” a “belletristic” writing that is only so much a “sabbatical from existence,” sleep of reason parading as reason, and breeding circular monsters of thought divorced from the body. This is to say a “singular logic” is what Alexander’s poetry is not about. Nor is it simply off-the-shelf mysticism in a ghost light. What it embraces is life in all its splendor and unavoidable complexity.
The comfort with language as speech acts, categorizing each caulked emotion, the fetishization of language in science, the ossification of language in religion, the sharpening of language elsewhere (“pointless as to tabloid probings in Rome”).
“See how high the seas of language can rise. And at the lowest points too.” (Saul Kripke)
Instead of pinning down thought to an exhibit for further theoretical exegesis, Alexander’s poems are drift work, à la Jacques Derrida, or maybe more Abraham Ortelius who claimed that “the Americas were torn away from Europe and Africa … by earthquakes and floods,” a new land
which utterly de-exists
degree by electrical degree
Mystification qua mystification does not exist in Alexander’s lexicon. Not even a mindless animism. His language aims at achieving transparency instead of another epistolary clot or a sedimented Manu Samhita. This is language that does not simply talk about the conditions of possible experience but brings real experience to life, delimits our familiar engagement with language.
“For people who are truly bilingual, an immediate separation sets in between language and the unsayable beyond, what we call ‘reality.'” (Jorge Luis Borges)
A true bilingual sees separation as a possibility. A fissure between reality and language, science and literature, Western and Eastern, oppressor and oppressed, major and minor, that is usually passed over as expediency, as sanity, as logic. Alexander chooses to bridge this gap with language itself. It is a bridge of salt, a textual cosmos that transfers energy to the reader continuously, in stabilizing and destabilizing interactions and flights that do not shy away from transfering its aural vibrations like the roar of leopard waters miles below.
It was at the US Library, Kolkata that I first came across a Will Alexander poem. I had recently left my job, was drifting, and spent most of my time in one library or the other. This one had few books on offer but it was quiet in there and cooler than the 37 degrees (Celsius) outside. I remember thinking that the ambient temperature approximated my internal body temperature and about how pleasant it was to step away from that equilibrium.
To paraphrase Alexander’s words from an interview, where he talks about his introduction to surrealism through a book on Rimbaud he has forgotten the author of, I was already ripening toward a something I had no clue about back then.
… a stray
wandering in the indian water mass
slaying hydrophidae by spells