A Review of Noah Eli Gordon’s
A Fiddle Pulled from the Throat of a Sparrow
New Issues Press, 2007
Paperback. 98 pgs.
Review by Mike Maggio
In a recent interview with Rain Taxi, Noah Eli Gordon was asked about the accessibility of a poetry whose meaning is inherently elusive to the reader. Gordon’s poetry, after all, does not offer immediate access to meaning, an element that, to some, constitutes the very purpose of the act of reading: communication. How, specifically, he was asked, does he respond to people when he is questioned about what a particular poem means?
Gordon’s answer, replete with references to Rimbaud and Wittgenstein, provides a clue on not only how to approach his own work but also on how to appreciate the modern aesthetic of experimental and conceptual poetry. For in today’s poetics, poetry often goes well beyond simple meaning. Instead, it can offer an experience that forces the reader to explore language, concept and formality. In this type of poetry, meaning becomes secondary, thus turning the concept of what a poem is, at least to some, on its head. In essence, as Gordon concludes, quoting MacLeish, “A poem should not mean / But be.”
Gordon’s newest collection, A Fiddle Pulled from the Throat of a Sparrow, illustrates the dilemma the reader is faced with when reading poetry that is simply meant to be. The uninitiated reader, doing what he or she has long been taught to do best, searches for meaning and then, finding none, at least on the literal level, comes away frustrated, concluding, at best, that the book is not worth reading or, at worst, that the author is not worth further pursuing.
While most readers read for meaning, those same readers will tell you that they also read for pleasure. Finding meaning in text, one can assume then, provides the pleasure that these readers are seeking in a book. Yet, there are pleasures in contemporary poetry (in all well-constructed poetry, for that matter), and in Gordon’s poetry specifically, that are there for the asking. One simply needs to seek them out, to relearn, so to speak, how to read. This involves work, perhaps not one of the pleasures most people associate with reading, but the work certainly pays off in the end.
A little research, for example, reveals things that might otherwise go right over the reader’s head. In the same interview mentioned above, one learns that the first section of the book, “A Dictionary of Music,” comes out of Gordon’s experience reading a music dictionary from the 1800’s. This bit of information immediately provides a context in which to read the section, allowing the reader the all important sense of meaning, therefore grounding him or her and enabling them to move forward in the book and to move on to the other poetic elements that are at play.
The title poem, for example, is filled with musical terms:
little piece of silence
astray in the circumstantial music of a crowd
part myth, part massacre
have you put away your toy internment?
turned to the first movement
where the house was empty
& the dead hair of the harpist spread on the lawn
its arrayed core drawing a grace note
from the muttering of those exhausted by wild dance
showing an oar for a lyre
a turtle shell a tear
cleaving a bird call on the kettle drum
to unsettle a dust of harmonics
expelling an itinerant elsewhere
an epistolary scratching-post
a winged thing for the gypsy’s chime
the timbrel’s return to nowhere
Even a cursory reading of this poem will reveal all of the musical terms that one can assume were extracted from that 19th’century dictionary: movement, harpist, grace note, dance, lyre, kettle drum, harmonics, etc. The poem, with its esoterics, verges on the collage, though one cannot say with certainty that this is a collage poem. Still, the element of collage is there, beginning with what one can assume is extracted text and continuing with its emphasis on language which is used in delightful and interesting ways: the unexpected end rhyme of lyre/tear or the internal rhyme of winged thing; the surprising sibilance of an epistolary scratching –post; the wondrous phrases such as have you put away your toy internment or & the dead hair of the harpist spread on the lawn. These elements, which are essential to Gordon’s poetry, provide an overriding harmonics which are easily lost to the reader who is trapped into reading solely for meaning. It is, perhaps, for this reason that meaning is not emphasized, for the lack of meaning forces the informed reader to concentrate on the poetics at work.
Gordon’s poetry is often a response to something he has encountered, as in the section discussed above. Later in the book, “Four Allusive Fields” provides us his reaction to an art exhibit he attended at the Philadelphia Museum of Art, another tidbit picked up from the Rain Taxi interview. However, this section begins with an epigraph which, coyly, asks the same questions the reader might ask: “Who is Cy Twombly” What is it he does? And what are we to call what he does?” Here, Gordon grounds the reader with information critical to approaching the section, giving readers an avenue in which to do further research into the subject matter if they wish.
These four ekphrastic poems, each written as a single stanza and making use of counterpoint and enjambment, resemble canvasses on the page and propel the reader forward with its language and imagery, as in this first, untitled one:
Cy listens absently to absent Homer
& his refusal become a dead thing full of music
Smash it on a cyclotron. Drag it across a dozen centuries
Drips are old. Smudges are old. Talking a museum
out of its eternal monologue, it’s not embarrassing
to leak in waves & cones. Nudes fall from newspapers
as you fell from an oily twilight, from a painting
of the world twilight, arranged without letters, inkless
like a fire that consumes all before it, or better inkless
as the phrase: “like a fire that consumes all before it”
Who wouldn’t be mayor of a worked-over surface
returning clutter for a broom, ever-after for Cliffs Notes
Work smudging talk, talk smudging work
Obedience is an awful word I think to get lost in
Again, there is an element of potential collage, a certain mixture of words that seem to collide into meaninglessness (Talking a museum/out of eternal monologue, it’s not embarrassing/to leak in waves & cones) but which surprise and delight and even make sense on a certain level. And, again, there is the sense that the poetics takes precedence over meaning: the word repetitions that work their way through the poem; the interesting turns of phrases that make the reader stop and wonder.
It is perhaps a reflection on our culture that, while we are one of the most literate societies in the world, we are at the same time one of the most non-literary. While most people know how to read, most do not know how to derive pleasure from language beyond the immediate payoff of meaning. This paradox – the literate vs. the literary – creates a dilemma for the contemporary poet who wishes to utilize all the poetic tools at his or her disposal, who wishes to push the envelope to provide a unique linguistic experience. This raises the question of how literacy should be measured and whether the literary dimension should be included in that calculation. In the meantime, the contemporary poet persists, hoping to affect the calculus of that formula.
A Fiddle Pulled from the Throat of a Sparrow is not an easy book to read. It requires work, even dedication. It requires the literate to approach the literary. It is, however, a book worth working at, filled with phrases that glow like polished glass, that echo with harmony, that sing with a music, that, esoteric as it may seem, rings with a serene, subdued beauty.
For those with the skills necessary to approach it, it will be filled with delight. For those not so endowed, a slow and careful read will allow for a re-evaluation of what it means to read, of what pleasures a good book of poetry holds.
Gordon is to be praised for sticking to his poetic guns.
 Online Edition, Spring 2007.
 The quote is from Archibald MacLeish’s “Ars Poetica.”
Mike Maggio has published fiction, poetry and translations in journals and anthologies in the United States and abroad. His work has appeared in such places as Phoebe, Apalachee Quarterly, Potomac Review, Pleaides, Black Bear Review, The Arabesques Review, Pig Iron and many others. He is the author of Your Secret Is Safe With Me, a audio collection of poems (Black Bear Publications), Oranges From Palestine (and other poems) (Mardi Gras Press), and a collection of short fiction, Sifting Through the Madness (Xlibris). His newest book, deMockracy (Plain View Press), is a hard-hitting, poetic critique of the Bush administration and its cavalier and unjustified attack on Iraq and on the democratic institutions here at home in America.