I Cut My Finger, by Stuart Ross.
Reviewed by Alessandro Porco
In 2004, poet Stuart Ross edited Surreal Estate: 13 Canadian Poets Under the Influence (Mercury Press, 2004). As Ross explains in his introduction, the anthology — which includes poets Daniel F. Bradley, Alice Burdick, Kevin Connolly, Ross, and Steven Venright — is not in any absolute terms a book of Surrealist poetry but is rather a book that more humbly seeks to document poetry “influenced [to varying degrees] by the literary phenomenon spearheaded by Breton, Jacob, Eluard, & Co. from 1924 until the second world war.” Emerging from the rubble of Dada, Surrealism aimed to contest, or to use Breton’s more suggestive term, to “revolt,” against the strictures of Reason and Rationalism, embodied in capitalist, religious, and political institutions as well as in the institution of Bourgeois literature that emerged in the late 19th century. Surrealism’s concerns are simultaneously ethical and aesthetic: the conditions of living and the conditions of art are inextricable; and, for Breton, they demanded a response. As far as Breton is concerned, if Surrealism succeeds, it succeeds precisely because it unconceals the deceptive myth of order that checks the individual’s imagination and, corrspondingly, the individual’s potential as a politicized subject: in other words, Surrealism would unconceal (if I might borrow from Jean-Luc Nancy) the myth of foundation, and the foundation of myth,” upon which coercive strictures of a Western “façade of order” depend.
Not surprisingly, many of Ross’s comments in his introduction to Surreal Estate as well as his artistic statement from the anthology echo sentiments of first-wave European Surrealists he admires. He “embraces the possibilities of randomness, absurdism, chance, error, and the unconscious” because they mark him as “happily out of step” with norms, norms both ethical and aesthetic. Surrealism, for Ross, is a means of accessing and inhabiting the “out of step” or interstitial times and spaces, the lacunae within Western metaphysics: “Surrealism,” as the “Declaration of January 27, 1925” states (most notably signed by Aragon, Artaud, and Breton), is not “a metaphysic,” but a challenge to it. For Ross, occupying the “out of step” enables his paradoxical and powerful imagining of the citizen as both God-like and, at the same time, as decidedly human in a world increasingly disarticulated from humanity. Breton calls for “total liberation of the mind,” which Ross articulates, in his own words, as the absolute “absence of boundaries[,] the freedom to mine the should-be-possible.” Thus, the poet is Orphic (a central mythopoetic source for Surrealist poets): that is, he possesses the capacity to control nature, to transmutate what-is into what-may-be — in the words of that great mid-century American Orpheus, Jack Spicer, “Poet be like God.” Such hubris, however, is synthesized with a much-needed humility or what Ross refers to as “humanness” and “humanity.” That is, his Orphic as well as his Adamic relation to the world and the word is still only gesture, “sincere and heartfelt,” a moral gesture to others, a desire to touch but never to possess, order, and / or bowdlerize.
Such a philosophy is evidenced in Ross’s latest collection of poetry, I Cut My Finger (Anvil Press, 2007). The collection begins with “The Door,” which I read as a key “threshold poem” (an idea coined by poetry scholar Saundra Morris) — that is, in its initiating function for the entire collection, the poem provides an “interpretive paradigm” for Ross’s collection as a whole. And, of course, rather fittingly, a door is quite literally a threshold. Here is the poem in toto:
I approach the door.
The door approaches the Welcome mat.
The Welcome mat approaches the stairs.
The stairs approach the flagstone path.
The flagstone path approaches the curb.
The curb approaches the street.
The street approaches
the topic gingerly,
cowering behind the bushes
that hide the naked dog.
The poem’s governing formal conceit is that of anadiplosis, a type of gradatio (see Longinus) in which the last word of one line of verse provides the first word for the proceeding line of verse. The effect in Ross’s poem is to suggest that each object (“door,” “mat,” “stairs,” etc.) is a liminal threshold to the next line — an interconnectedness from line to line, object to object, event to event. Notice Ross’s choice of verb: “approach.” The term indicates incompleteness: that is, to approach is not to arrive completely; to approach suggests intimacy, being-with, but not a controlling grip. The poet never possesses the objects that populate his narrative, but rather let’s the objects lead him where they may. If Ross only “approaches” his “topics,” it is because his poetic is dependent upon everything — he as speaking subject, his objects as topics — being provisional. And in this provisionality, he is very much situating himself in the Dada-Surrealism continuum. As Hans Arp writes in his “Infinite Millimeter Manifesto,” “I for one don’t draw up a plan first as if I were dealing with a timetable a calculation or a war.” Similarly, in “Notes on Poetry,” authors Breton and Eluard write,
How proud a thing it is to write, without knowing what language, words, comparisons, changes of ideas, or tone are; neither to conceive the structure of the work’s duration, nor the conditions of its ends; no why, no how! To turn green, blue, white from being the parrot…
We are always, even in prose, led and willing to write what we have not sought and what perhaps does not even seek what we sought.
A philosophy of not-knowing, of provisionality, of being-with is how Ross can create poems of the “should-be-possible.” It allows for the intensities of co-incident and accident. There is no predetermined telos.
The poetic argued for in “The Door” appears repeatedly throughout I Cut My Finger. It might best be described (borrowing from the title of a Ross poem) as the art of because one thing bumped into another. For example, consider “Monday Morning, August,” which is a seemingly simple enumeration of events —
cluster of children,
slung over their shoulders,
sneeze. A butterfly
is carried into the sun
by the morning breeze.
— yet there is meaning in the menial task of taking account. In the process of counting and recounting (telling tales, which Ross does often) it’s inevitable that things change:
I sit on the curb
Counting my slender
White fingers. Look!
Five to a hand!
Last time I counted,
There were only four.
To not take account would be to lose a sense of “humanness.” The speaker’s astonishment is not — or not only — in the blessed appearance of a new digit (a nice pun considering the counting theme throughout the poem) but rather in the very experience of coming to an awareness of that change. In other poems, for example, “I Left My Heart,” Ross assumes such change as ontological fact and, thus, as absolute poetic conceit:
I go to bed one dark night
thinking I’m catching a cold,
there’s a distant tickle in my throat,
and when I awake I am
How or why this happens doesn’t matter. What matters is that it does happen, and the poem does not exist to ponder reason (a lack of reason, more accurately) but rather it attempts to negotiate living in and with such a world. A similar thing happens in “New Hope for the Disenfranchised:”
“Everything’s different later on.
A guy got shot
and hubbub ensued,
but when the dust settled, Dad,
it was a whole other thing.”
It is the potential of the “whole other thing” that Ross is always trying to access. It’s a process. Thus, that some poems succeed more than others hardly matters and any such considerations would wrongly emphasize the verse-making rather than the larger political-ideological project proposed. By bringing that “whole other thing” into conversation with what is, Ross attempts to configure a new “now” in terms of time and space. Thus, his “humanness” is deeply idealistic, making it even more moving to this reader.
Ultimately, as a critic and reader of Canadian poetry, one often deflated by work that is mind-numbingly the same and often on the verge of doggerel, I must say that I am very excited by the efforts of Ross in I Cut My Finger. Indeed, I look forward to his forthcoming collection of poetry, Dead Cars in Managua, to be published by poet extraordinaire Jason Camlot’s new DC Books poetry imprint.