Practice on Mountains. Boise, ID: Ahsahta Press, 2013. 112 pages. $18.00.
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David Bartone’s Practice on Mountains, selected by Dan Beachy-Quick for the 2013 Sawtooth Prize, is a confession in the genre of a reading notebook, where twentieth-century poetry informs the inner life of a speaker navigating a doomed love affair with a married woman. The ten long-sectioned poems that comprise the book are, as the title suggests, instructive of a discipline applied to conflicted love and reading.
The collection begins with an epigraph by Bartone himself, taken from early in section four of the book, that describes, in characteristically knotty aphorism, the practice at hand: “I want to elope from where there is no tradition into a tradition, and then out again, the sweaty grip of tradition.” One imagines Bartone writing with the OED next to him. “Elope’s” primary definition, “For a wife to run away from her husband with a lover,” and its more common contemporary use, “To run away from home with a lover to be married,” conflict in punning so as to confuse the relationship between the poet and tradition, between the speaker and his paramour. Beyond that, “tradition” here is both marriage and the canon. “Canon” is both “a rule” and “a song sung in round,” the speaker reminds us. So, eloping into and out of canon becomes canon, becomes practice. It is in this exuberant and slippery play of meanings that I’m reminded of Duncan’s ideal of an artist of abundances who “delites in puns, interlocking and separating figures, and plays of things missing or appearing.” There are differences in Duncan’s and Bartone’s poetics, but in each, meaning is neither precedential nor retrospective, but is instead addressed as the poet works.
In a potent exercise of the twin work of love and reading, an outcrop near the center of the book of homophonic translations of Pound’s translations of Li Po lyricize the psychology of the speaker during the affair’s breaking up. Where Pound says, “They say the roads of Sanso are steep,” Bartone says, “Thistles roar in sand sores on the feet.” Where Pound says, “Sheer as the mountains,” Bartone says, “Fear as the dismount ends.” Where Pound says, “The walls rise in a man’s face,” Bartone says, “The walls rise in a man’s face.”
Bartone’s homophonic translations, like the Zukofskys’ Catullus, are by nature not interested in passing the sense of the original from warm hand to warm hand, but are instead wholly new creations, in this case a confession by Language. The account of the affair’s end is constructed from the sound of another’s poetry, making these translations the crux pitch of the narrative’s reading-into heartbreak. Even though the method is academic, the effect is rending, and what keeps the translations from buckling under their apparatus is the poet’s adept lyricism. Where Pound says, “Our horses neigh to each other / as we are departing,” Bartone says, “Of course, to pray to hug her / a sway art of parting.”
Early in the book, a volley is made to triangulate reader, lover, and speaker, though the effort is qualified and doubled-back so that the terms and nature of the relationships remain elusive:
I am trying to inhabit you, reader, but I’m sure it seems like I am trying to revile you.
. . .
I am cute and full of ardor
. . .
You two are my mistresses.
You are my sacred mistress, and she is my gallivanting mistress, and I don’t suppose you two need to compete with each other as much as I need you to feel competitive.
To satisfy me so whole.
If only I can control the outcome, if only I can control everything.
Control from accounting, to check against a duplicate roll for fact, Bartleby the Scrivener, not Bartleby the Controller, for remember his preference to not check his copy work, he is not controlling.
You are my mistresses and I have tried to check you against everything I dwell on.
The “copy work” is Bartone’s own writing and “gallivanting,” and he is checking it against a reading life, Melville included. Of course a reader can’t actually compete with the lover for real attention or affection, but perhaps the two could feel competitive, the speaker thinks. Ridiculous, though, that a reader might actually feel this way. What’s important is that the speaker wants the two to feel competitive, revealing his vanity (self-effacement runs throughout the book). But we are told just before that the speaker is sometimes “cute” and sometimes “full of ardor.” So which is he being here? Should we trust the formula? Further, the sequence begins with the speaker telling us that he wants to “inhabit” the reader, but the speaker supposes the reader must think that he wants to “revile” her or “prepare” her. What is the kind of inhabiting that might feel like repulsion? How can repulsion behave like preparation? And prepare the reader for what exactly? Practice is constantly spinning out questions that resist their own answering, so neither the reader nor writer seem to have control, only longing for it.
But what can be said for sure is that this simultaneous attraction and repulsion, or taboo, is as central to the narrative of the affair as it is to the form of the poems and their method of composition. Sometimes the speaker is intimate, sometimes kept at arm’s length, and in the case of the homophonic translations discussed above, sometimes both at once. If taboo had a grammatical emblem, it might be the ellipsis, which Bartone uses as a kind of fleuron throughout to section the poems. The ellipsis is a tantalizing reminder of what remains unsaid, many of the particulars of the affair being left in the margin. If you have ever talked with a friend after his breakup, you know the experience of listening to someone keep his privacy:
However I know the form at hand, of making ellipses as of each erased thought between, is intended to propel my own ease, which is I know a momentary feature, not rest, which is surely more perpetual
For rest having the most concrete biological effects.
. . .
Ease for both of us, that I get to erase the parts (I erase immediately) that do not threaten to embarrass myself, that you get to (should you choose) read as vertically as you.
Read up and down.
. . .
I am not threatened by excerptibility.
Allusion, like relationship, means as much to erase as to assimilate, and the speaker encourages us not to be afraid of that fact.
Another way Practice intimates as it repulses is by anticipating the reader’s reactions and responding to them in text, “churlish” and “masked.” The speaker tells us that this gratingly self-aware conversation with the reader is like when “Glenn Gould hum[s] along to his playing causing recording disturbances.” The speaker knows he is being tedious and assures the reader generously that “it is okay to turn the little book you bought to its original ambition, the bed stand.” But the tedium of the book’s layered self-reference is mostly bearable because the poet lifts the sustain pedal frequently enough, delivering clear and striking insight, “It has been thus far a four-colored fall. / / Kitchen window light. Stove light. Sink light. Lamp.” Or take, for example, this tender and revelatory moment, “If I truly accept the heartache I would not need to hate her, I could live so close to her and let her go. / / A balloon almost touching the ground.” Because of moments like these, when the reader does finally return the book to the bed stand, he can be content to have found in Bartone a compassionate, animated, albeit impish friend.