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Because there is a profound difference between writing something to be read and writing something worth reading; and in that difference might beauty be found.

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Wednesday, May 1, 2013

"Phlogiston Footage" by Nicky Beer -- Verse Daily, 5/1/2013

from Pleiades
poem found here


First lines:
The lights dim. We creak in our seats.
A diver shadows the bottom of the Aegean Sea


prose hiding behind line breaks

— reformatted 9/30/15

Twice in a row, now, I have been offered a poem that fits perfectly into a subject I have been wanting to address. Though, here, it is more an experiment I want to try.

Before we begin, though, I want to congratulate Verse Daily for yet another botch job in transposing a poem to html. I am curious what the poem really looks like in Pleiades, for I have no confidence in Verse Daily's page writing ability, and as such question if the inserted, voiced sections are supposed to be full justified. (Notice the third one is not in italics, as I am sure it is supposed to be.) Now, if it was not full-justified in the original, then my question moves to Ms. Beer: why not? To be honest, whichever the case, I also do not understand why there are words in those sections that are hyphenated.

That said, my experiment: Since this poem is in sentences, and the line breaks seem arbitrary, let's print the poem out in paragraph form just to see what happens. (I add to the text what seems to me to be two natural paragraph breaks.)

The lights dim. We creak in our seats. A diver shadows the bottom of the Aegean Sea like a ponderous yellow-footed heron trailing a champagne wake. Mycenaean amphorae thrust their necks from the ashen sand, all rounding their lips to the same vowel shape as he plunges his glove down their gullets. We see his fist opening rubber petals to the camera, revealing another fist slowly loosening itself to a walnut-sized octopus. Nacreous and opaline, pied, rubicund, its eyes are damn near half of it, a livid doodle in his black hand.

Now comes the calm intervention of the voiceover—baritone, gently professorial, just a touch embarrassed by the excess of its knowledge:

One of the more unusual denizens of the coastal-Mediterranean waters is the phlogiston, commonly known to marine biologists as Octopus phlogistonus. While certainly no rival to the Giant Pacific Octopus in size, nor anywhere nearly as dangerous as the venomous Blue-Ringed Octopus, the phlogiston nevertheless possesses a certain attribute which for the longest time could only be described as magical.

The camera tilts down into one of those ancient clay mouths. We gaze into shadow for a beat longer than seems necessary. Then: A flaw in the underwater celluloid. A flirt of acid on the film. A morsel of dust smuggled into the spool. A prank of chartreuse stipples the black, casts a fragment of ghoul-light on tentacles scrolled backwards. Wait a moment. Watch again. The animal takes small bites of the darkness, releasing crumbs of green light into the water, dozens of sparks leaping and guttering from its underside with mayfly brevity.

Apocryphal evidence indicates one American soldier fortunate enough to catch sight of the phlogiston while stationed in Naples during World War II dubbed the creature The Little Zippo—

There's no crashing grandeur here—it's the private self-sufficiency of the animal's gesture that charms us like a lonely whistle overhead in an empty street. And yet, drifting in its earthenware cul-de-sac, this diminutive marine Prometheus could not be more dull to itself:

... was discovered to be thousands of bioluminescent microorganisms inhabiting the keratin of the phlogiston's beak. The octopus scrapes the top and bottom halves of his beak together to rid himself of the surplus buildup. This agitates the parasites, which emit a faint greenish glow as they're released into the water. The "magic act" the octopus performs is, in fact, nothing more than a bit of absent-minded grooming.

Which of our own human wonders may be little more than chemical whiff, an odd kink in the genetic helix? The thought's enough to make us shut our eyes, pull our ignorance a little closer, embrace it like a mildewed doll— dented forehead, chipped-paint stare and all. But we're still drawn to these tenebrous theaters, lulled by the tidewhir of the projector, detaching our terrestrial ballast as our lungs relax to airless anemones. Perhaps the light ruptures the darkness so that we may better know the darkness in the palm of our own hand.

Now they're looping a scene in night vision chartreuse, the sparks first swarming the tentacles like spermatozoa, then rushing the lens, spawning with the clouds of dust in the camera's beam, silently trickling into our laps. Look how our hands become strange speckled cephalopods when we try to brush them away, the knuckles arched with primal alarm, poised to flee, to live out their own mysteries beyond our sight. The motor shudders. We whiff cordite. A single celluloid tentacle whips into the air, puddles to a glossy slither.

What remains unknown—.


Note: The phlogiston is an invented animal.

So there you go. Simple experiment with a simple question: Was anything added to the text by breaking it up into poetry? The accompanying question: Was anything lost?

I leave that for you to ponder. I offer it as evidence to my continuing argument that much of what is considered poetry these days is really prose left-justified and with narrow columns. Since it is pointless to disguise my opinion, I obviously think nothing is added to the value of this particular piece; in fact, I think it flat works better as prose.

Except . . . . .

Once I started reading it in paragraph form, a whole lot of issues started to pop up. So what I have decided to do is to approach the piece as though I were commenting on a student's creative writing assignment.

My method here is first to mark the place in the text to which my comment is addressed; then to make the comment, as I would write it on a page. (Some language will have to be used to replace what would be done with non-verbal marks, like circling a word.)

  • ["A diver shadows"] Do you realize that you are saying the diver's shadow is like a heron's shadow? So "yellow" makes no sense. Also, would anyone naturally call a tall, thin, almost fragile-looking bird like a heron "ponderous"?
  • ["amphorae"] I don't think this personification of the amphorae works. It's a lot of energy going to the container, when really the energy should be saved for what's in it (whose introduction, in fact, doesn't even get half has much).
  • ["loosening itself to a walnut-sized octopus"] Correct preposition? does a hand loosen to?
  • ["Nacreous . . . ."] Sentence is a complete mess.
  • ["commonly known"] You don't use the phrase "commonly known" to introduce its scientific classification; you say "it is ippidus bippidus, commonly known as the 'get the hell out of my nose' bug"
  • ["Giant Pacific"] Why are you capitalizing the names of these two octopi, and not "Phlogiston"?
  • ["could only be described as magical"] It was magical then, but now it's mundane? Why then the movie? (or this poem?) Or are you saying that up until the 18th century everyone literally ascribed the phenomenon to magic? Bad phrasing.
  • ["The camera . . . ."] This entire paragraph is a mess. Adjectives and such are all over the place and out of control. It reads like your thesaurus puked on your paragraph. (The whole text reads that way.) Also, it starts with "a flirt" and ends with "dozens" without any building up -- so I ask, which one? A little, or a lot?
  • ["apocryphal evidence"] A story can be apocryphal, but not evidence. If there is evidence, it's no longer apocryphal
  • ["chartreuse" and "rubicund"] Great words, but chartreuse is not a color one generally hears associated with an animal. They sound forced. Q: does "rubicund" generally work in a context that is material, rather than biological?
  • ["lonely whistle overhead in an empty street"] Which one? Overhead or in?
  • ["could not be more dull to itself"] What does that mean? Are you saying the octopus is existentially bored with its own being?
  • ["surplus buildup"] And yet "dozens" of visible specks are put out by an octopus the size of a walnut in what is apparently a very brief period of time? Your text makes it sound like the bacteria grows so quickly that if the octopus stopped for five minutes it would be wholly enveloped by the stuff
  • ["chemical whiff"] I want to make this work, but in context can't
  • ["embrace it like a mildewed doll"] I can't come up with a single thought that, once thought, would make me want to embrace it like a mildewed doll -- you are totally out of control ideationally
  • ["But we're still"] Somebody shoot that sentence before it breeds!
  • ["we try to brush them away"] Brush away what? Our hands? How do you brush away your hands? What do you use? Did they fall off, and they're creeping you out, and so you're brushing them away with your feet?
  • ["primal alarm"] At the beginning of the paragraph we were talking about "little more than chemical whiff"; Where did primal alarm-type energies come from? Your sudden escalation is wholly unjustified, and completely out of left field.
  • ["What remains unknown"] You got me. Not sure what this is about.
  • ["Note:"] Never explain your jokes.

I think we can agree, what we really have here is some really, really bad prose, disguised as even worse poetry. Give this text any critical attention and you are going to come to that conclusion. Let me ask as I have before: would the above have ever made it past a prose editor? Why then did it a poetry editor? (I am, actually, embarrassed for Pleiades. Not the editors, the journal.) It is not like the work was written to the line breaks and without them it fell apart: the line breaks were arbitrary. And don't give me the "well it's poetry" justification. Just like being called the designated hitter does not magically mean a person can actually play the game, so also does being called "poetry" not magically cure a text of bad writing.

Or, at least, it shouldn't.


I actually may start doing this more often. The first questions of any "prose with line breaks" poem: Is there anything gained with the line breaks (or is it really just prose? and, What is concealed by the linebreaks?

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