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With a Bang

Karen Weiser and the poetry of first things

David Kaufmann
July 29, 2010
Karen Weiser.(Photo: Anselm Berrigan)
Karen Weiser.(Photo: Anselm Berrigan)

Karen Weiser’s first book of poetry, To Light Out, turns on a cosmic conceit. In 1964, two scientists realized that the static they heard on their radio device was the sound of the Big Bang. They were, in effect, listening to the origin of the universe. Weiser riffs on this in her introduction:

When I became pregnant my brain and body were suddenly filled with static. This static was less a sound than a sense that the flickering of snow on a tv screen had been made into liquid and pumped into my veins. It was difficult to think, hard to do anything at all. After a while, I realized that it was her signal. I couldn’t hear my own ways of thinking or feeling with this other person’s atoms multiplying inside of me. It was the sound of the big bang, and my own radio brain was tuned in.

Everything gets crossed in this passage: sounds and liquids, big and small, inside and out, baby and universe, time and whatever it was that was before time. And the poet, somewhere in the middle, registers it all.

I’m not sure what the hiss of poetic static would sound like, but I guess it would require a uniformity across the bandwidth, a murmur without specific information. Weiser gives us something else, a fine jumble that signals too much, not too little information:

A person sits next to a world of almost situations
making a living as a memoir
thoroughfares fill with drizzle scrambling
progressive strangers with their ding eyes
I am sure a fugue is near
in the almost-echo of park benches—
this is not the city of the blessed worker
Americana seduction like original face paint
reflected in a gridiron puddle

The lines veer off from each other after an initial point of contact—you can reconstruct how punctuation might connect them. There is even a kind of electrical tension between then words, especially when Weiser makes her nouns act as adjectives. You get the sense that the phrases “ding eyes” and “Americana seduction” are merely momentary hookups. Momentary, but not necessarily or completely arbitrary. Weiser’s disruptions serve a clear purpose. She is trying to get at something between the senses and between sense. She is trying to get at what she in one place calls “the ocean of more everything.”

We Jews call this ocean and this plenitude God, the Big Bang’s Big Bang, and it is tempting to read Weiser’s poems as something akin to an expression of faith. She definitely nods in this direction. She articulates a very Jewish notion of revelation:

Revelation is at heart a linguistic event
and all creatures with lungs can speak

After all, God reveals Himself by voice and in writing. He talks to the Jews. And He makes sure that the Jews and that Nature talk back. The psalmist tells us that the heavens declare the glory of God and that their voice fills all speech and every language.

But these lines appear in a poem about “macguffins,” the false leads that drive the plot of thrillers and mysteries. Our Adamic acts of naming, of finding the real names of things, might be nothing more than our own “bludgeoned burgeoning of sleep’s asymmetry.” By the same token, names are all we’ve got. In other words, while all creatures with lungs might be talking, we can never be sure what exactly it is that they’re saying. We have to pretend—for the moment at least—that we do.

So, Weiser is really much more a skeptic than a mystic. For all that, she is a cheerful improviser on infinite themes. She sees ahead of her “an endlessly opening frontier of rapid sketches/ pressed between the pages of knowing.” The vision thing can get awfully dreary unless—like William Blake or Henry David Thoreau—you can muster a sense of humor. Karen Weiser has a sense of humor. She likes to play. She mixes up her diction and lets music direct her lines:

when I imp my wing to sing
and thrice appear a melancholy thing:
I should sleep-wake in my third-best days

On her first-best days she doesn’t seem like a melancholy thing at all.

There’s no reason for sadness. The driving force behind the poems—at least as Weiser presents them—is childbirth, not death; a potential gain and not a certain loss. At bottom, her book is predicated on the possibility, almost the certainty, of being able to meet and greet at the appointed time:

It’s small, the moment of opening between us
and I will meet you here without fail

She counts on what she terms “the generosity of opening.”

This opening might be spiritual. It is also quite literal—there is nothing as concrete as pregnancy and childbirth—and thumpingly American. At the end of Huckleberry Finn, that quintessential, boys-own dream of freedom, Huck tells us that he is going “to light out for the Territory ahead of the rest, because Aunt Sally she’s going to adopt me and sivilize me, and I can’t stand it.” Weiser wants to light out for new territory as well, but she’s not a guy and the adventure is internal. At the same time it’s also out there in the ether, in the linguistic equivalent of an electromagnetic hum.

David Kaufmann teaches literature at George Mason University.

David Kaufmann teaches literature at George Mason University.