The Fragments of the Frame: On Alan Gilbert’s Late in the Antenna Fields
Late In The Antenna Fields
Reflecting on Late in the Antenna Fields, a book of poems from cultural critic and poet Alan Gilbert, I think immediately of lines from Jack Spicer’s elegy for poetry, “Thing Language”: “Aimlessly / It pounds the shore. White and aimless signals. No / One listens to poetry” (11-13)1. And so here we begin with Gilbert as our guide, late in the fields that once may have reached for sun, for Apollo’s dawn, and yet, we are left here, still with much to look at. There is something distinctly postmodern about these poems, too, and while we are, indeed, in the heckles of academic debates about the fate of postmodernism and what may be next, we are still very much enmeshed in its legacy, and Gilbert shows us this.
Late In The Antenna Fields is an architecture of loss and longing, though mediated by the signals that still come through the wires. There is something markedly animalistic about it. Gilbert begins his book with a poem called “The World One Summer,” writing “The day was still but the animals were moving. / We took a number and stood in line. / Sometimes the wounded land softly and sometimes with a thud.” (1-3) It is as if the human, the all too human of modernism and its hard edges, has receded into a Deleuzian “becoming-animal,”2 a refusal to be too moved by visions of Faustian development, a saving grace coming through the wires in the form of dailiness and care. And this animalistic softness is tempered, all the while, by a strangeness, as in the title of one of the book’s sections, “Home on the Strange.”
Gilbert cools down the heat in the mind’s tenement with these poems. Hence the title of one poem that I especially like, “Coolant System.” It begins thus: “It’s not heroic, it’s broken. It’s the silent trip / between unspoken. We recognize the architecture / but don’t name it. We take a place amid the holes” (1-3). So what do we do with this tension of the cool? There are laws to cool, and Gilbert names them, and they reside in signals and machines, but loosely. He takes off the layers of childhood intensity with a laid-back commitment to air and what it has melted from, and yet retains a dignity of the political at the same time. In “Shed,” Gilbert writes: “We pay for the war regularly, / but it still won’t go away, / along with an impulse to flicker” (1-3).
1. Jack Spicer was a member of the Berkeley Renaissance group of poets. His theories of poet as one taking dictation, often related to Lorca’s notion of duende, was and is popular among contemporary poets. “Thing Language” can be found in its entirety here: http://www.poetryfoundation.org/poem/182444.
2. For Gilles Deleuze, “becoming-minor” and “becoming-animal” were ways to avoid the all-too-present “becoming-fascist” that many equate with the contemporary political milieu. Cf. A Thousand Plateaus. Trans. Brian Massumi. London and New York: Continuum, 2004.
This same sort of cooling-off technique is explored further in “For Future Tips or Everyday Life,” the book’s last section, in which Gilbert gives us an architecture of small spaces, a closeness of the daily, but never entirely ideal, always sort of tempered by the real’s deserted landscape, the interiors. In “Interior Design,” he writes: “At this point, I don’t remember what we were fighting / about, although I think it had something to do with the inverse of our desires and impairment” (1-3). There is something breezy and detached about this poem, yet it betrays a deeper desire for what subtends the golden age of paraphernalia that we live within, its advertisements and mass cultural constructions. He writes later in the poem: “I’m more than happy to skirt the authority / of false authorities with their refugee-camp tourism.” (14-15).
This book of poems is slyly introverted and always discreet in its placements of lines and images, and there is something refreshing about its acquiescence to spectacle, which is not always a straightforward acquiescence. It provides a mirror to us for the truth that poetry, indeed, makes nothing happen, that poetry is not what we hear, but rather an art that requires critical sensitivity and maneuvering among social criticism and the rubrics of the theories that we ingest, and a crucial intensity of manners that Gilbert deftly displays. If you’re looking for a quick pick-me-up, this isn’t it, but it is a book that bears rereading for its playfulness and edginess, an edginess that isn’t quite countercultural but is tempered by some of the same mainsprings that fuel countercultural motives. That said, what’s not to like? As Gilbert would put it, “Every animal forgets its training—also known as the border patrol.” Perhaps we will be able to forget what’s been ingrained in us, a desire for cruel development, a series of monikers that are outlived by the crush of daily living and its soft spaces and interior places. And what of it? We have a guide here, a guide to what is not exactly postmodern but still interrogates the terms and conditions of mirroring and its graces, a guide to what is best in our lives by simply looking at the ruins and learning to love them for their shimmering and discreet ambiguities.