Joshua Ware’s second and third collections of poems, Unwanted Invention and Vargtimmen, respectively, are published together here in a tête-bêche format book (one side printed upside down in relation to the other, like the faces of a coin). Though printed together, I’ll review them separately, discussing Unwanted Invention here, as each occupies different intellectual real estate.
In Unwanted Invention’s opening poem, “Out of the Dimly Remembered Whole,” Ware writes, “I want to redeem an obsolete style/ in an effort to create a new history that begins and ends/ with the memory of something that never existed.” Here, I interpret “style” as “form.” Style is a method or a mode. I interpret “redeem” as “repeat.” For something to be redeemed, it must be repeated. If I sound equivocal, it’s because I have little choice. And this is the generative tension of Unwanted Invention.
One way to look at language is as something received. Something which must repeat indefinitely. If so, how can this repetition become a redemption? How can style lead to significance? In Ware’s poems, significance spins off loose forms. For example, in “Thought Works off Its Mooring,” he writes,
and drifts into waves of speech: tonal aberrations
seeping beneath the bedspread
Your dreams down in a foreign sea
deep within the southern hemisphere
I want to shorten my name
so it consists of no syllables: an abstract concept
no one can vocalize. You stare at a map
composed of an invisible topography
a disoriented traveler groping
for landmarks that never existed. We skim
cartographies of linen, dirtied with black eyeliner
for outlines of vanished countries
Here, a number of forms and formal elements provide a scaffolding that significance both leans on and digresses from. For example, there is the confessional style, the lyric mode, the poem as a medium, etc. And yet, while the poem’s significance comes from these compositional elements, it’s equally derived from the ways Ware subverts them. As the title suggests, thought becomes agentless; significance arbitrary. The “I” transitions to a name with no syllables; the “you” a tourist looking for landmarks that never existed, and together they draw outlines of erased countries.
“Significance” in these poems isn’t a message or theme outside of the poem to which it points, but rather the opening up of the possibility for invention, or as Ware states, “the creation of memory of something that never existed.” In “Think of People As Buildings,” Ware writes,
built of brick on corrugated siding
whose rooflines cut across cloudheads
making everything an angle
into which the heavens slice from themselves
a momentary reflection of a figure
peering at the screen of a camera and gauging
distance between bodies that become
something other than themselves
all for the sake of aesthetics
What this says about
the photographer, or the photographed
cannot be determined
without blueprints or some other map of
the soul, which has long been lost
in an aperture that opens and fills us with light
washing out our features and leaving
faint traces of a façade, a face
a something that is neither
These poems act as apertures, frames letting in a light which eventually washes out everything. Reflection severs. Observed and observer become blurred into “something which is neither.”
At various points in the book, Ware creates taxonomies. For example, he writes “There may only be/ three kinds of accidents// but I cannot tell you/ their names…” Or, later, “There are no less than seven types of darkness/ each determined by how long it takes you/ to distinguish the outline of angels.” Still later, he writes, “I see no less than five faces in my reflection.” And yet these gestures, instead of creating clear distinctions, draw attention to their rhetorical nature. In lieu of providing clear boundaries, they seem to draw attention to the very arbitrariness of boundaries.
Still another way to look at language is as a continual renewal, something that is being created over and over with each utterance. Because, despite each word’s perpetual recurrence, each repetition is not identical. For example, in “Impossible Motel, Room 500,” Ware writes:
We sit cross-legged on the floor of a motel room—your back against the Western Wall, and my back against the Eastern Wall. We construct a tin can telephone through which we speak because a motel room is five hundred miles wide. You say Hello? and I say Hello, then you say Hello and I say Hello. We have five hundred different ways of saying Hello, differentiated by pitch, tone, inflection, and rhythm. Each Hello corresponds to one mile between us. Our string of Hellos travels across the string of our tin can telephone and vibrates with differences.
In Ware’s poems, “invention” is unavoidable. As another example, throughout the book are non-mimetic images possible only in language. A moth is described as “dusted with a body undone by touches.” Later, Wares describes the darkness of a bedroom behind heavy maroon drapes by saying, “This absence is a monk’s cowl/ under which hide bluebirds/ that alighted from the heavens/ many poems ago/ failing to reappear until now.” These are images of pure invention. Ware’s text is like a musical instrument. It only makes noises when you play it.
Ware ends his poem “Your Body Devours Itself,” with the lines, “A stand of oak trees both invisible and infinite/ crowd your bedroom/ rooting their way through the hardwood floor// Imagine for a moment this is not true.” Here, we see Ware use the ambivalent nature of language to both create and erase simultaneously. A copse of trees is both invisible and infinite. There’s an imaginary image we are asked to dismiss and, in the act of trying to dismiss it, are forced to create it. His closing assertion becomes a kind of causa sui, a statement grounded in itself, made all the more paradoxical as the statement only becomes valid once we accept the statement’s premise of its own invalidity.
In Unwanted Invention, everything is subsumed into a language that potentiates and simultaneously erases. In “Imaginary Portrait,” Ware writes,
You stand in a desert somewhere west of Reno
and rant about cowboys, nationalism, and murder
But you also lie in a budget bed
in North Platte, Nebraska
and watch yourself on a computer screen
as you stand in a desert of grayscales
somewhere west of Reno
and rant about cowboys, nationalism, and murder
But you are also words in this poem
which is to say
the joyous confusion of pronouns
I view “the joyous confusion of pronouns” as the continual indeterminacy of language. The “you” is always the invention of an “I,” writing it into language, and that “I,” not a entity outside of language, but rather an invention of language itself, the dream of a dictionary. As he writes in “Impossible Motel, Room 31911”: “You want me to believe that you are not an invention, but you are an invention always. I am an invention always. The moon is an invention always. A motel room is an invention always.”
The imaginary portraits that are Ware’s poems are not so much glimpses of an imagined reality, but rather of reality as imagination, an unwanted invention we hear as an echo of something we don’t remember saying. In his text, Ware has provided us with his recording of those echoes.