The Poetry Project

ROMANS/­SNOWMARE by Cam Scott (ARP Press, 2019)

Review by Dagan Brown

ROMANS/SNOWMARE: almost an anagram, save for a ‘we’ remainder, a couple letters in excess. It’s fitting. For Scott’s writing glides forward, in large part, by way of what is considered excessive in language, i.e., that dimension of language having to do with the coincidences of sound: “If anyone compares Père, pear-shaped, to Herr President, I’ll pull my hair. Les non-dupes errent.” Glide is not my descriptor, by the way, but Scott’s. The first line of the book tells us how he proceeds: “First notebook with the pen Jen gifted me and I could hardly write more gladly, gliding word to word in alphabetical legato.” It is the alien, propelling force of the glide—that ‘force’ being here the coincidences, the excess—that allows the poem to “get by.”

We would say a poem “gets by” if it goes on being written; if it can survive the pressures of daily life to see through its creation. Of course, considering the pressures of daily life gives the lie to any mythically self-generating poem. For who must go to work? Not the poem, but the poet. And the poet must find a way to get by in his poem, too, to keep up his writing in addition to, or in a way amenable to, his getting by in the world. He must find a way to get by in the poem that is best suited to the world of demands and impingements that constitute capitalist life.

ROMANS/SNOWMARE wears this struggle plainly as its formal procedure: the poet finds just enough time in the interstices of the working day, during lunch breaks or in transit, to jot off a line or two. The lines accumulate, a log of daily life. The final product is this amassing and arrangement of stolen lines on stolen time, thus the great disjunction of ROMANS/SNOWMARE's lines, as well as their super-loaded linguistic pleasures.

For Lacan, this linguistic excess speaks to what language could never express, its intractable remainder; i.e., the physical fact of the speaking body itself. In a sense, it is as if Scott’s lines burst forth and attest to the buzzing body which has contained them, by way of an insistence on sound, sensation and resonance—by foregrounding, in other words, the physical over the semantic. Scott exhorts us later: “It’s not enough to have seen the words somewhere / Try putting them in your mouth”. These lines come after a “[s]caborous collectivist lisps in [his] ringing ear”. The insistence of language at the level of the body, then, not only speaks to the pressurized existence of capitalist life (forced to forego the expression of certain desires, etc.), but to the envisioning of a different kind of politics from an anemic contemporary left—a politics of personal articulation rather than the alienated rehearsing of abstract keywords.

Not for nothing does Scott ask us: “Is getting by like making out?” Here: not only making out as the sensual act, but also making out in the sense of figuring out slowly, coming, with difficulty, to comprehend, as one is said to “make out” some figure in the distance. We are being asked, then, if figuring things out, figuring a way out of this world, requires the rubbing up of bodies, a rubbing up, even, in pleasure. (There is, remember, the comradely jostle of bodies taking to the streets.)

The question of pleasure is a particularly vexed one in ROMANS/SNOWMARE. The book reminds us that some pleasures can no longer be secured and some pleasures we shouldn’t want to secure, anyway. “I lack the libido to write city poems, like I lack the knack for daily work,” we read at one point. Indeed, our speaker may glide in language, and there’s all sorts of talk of cities in these poems—the muted sexual encounters had therein, the getting by in them, the leaving them for a bit and thinking about them even then—but we never see him slide around the city in that frisson of open sociality that belongs to a marveling O’Hara. In fact, our speaker has grown rather suspect of this joyous cosmopolitan circulation and the other circulations (nastier ones, brutal ones with a human cost) that undergird it: “A foil boat floating atop an aluminum sea / Entrails effluvium / We thrived on it.”

On the one hand, ROMANS/SNOWMARE recognizes the limits of certain promises: “I will take my knocks / Stay buoyant / Write my books / Which spell resistance / In an egoistic & restricted sense.” On the other hand, it’s history that sets the limit to, among other things, ways of feeling. O’Hara could tap into a certain optimistic and urbane thrum when it was historically viable, but the images of America’s decrepit cities (“Abandoned homes like battlements / Flank the extension bridge”) give us a sense that whatever spoke to O’Hara in his day has made bad on its word. So if the speaker lacks the libido for city poems, we should consider this more a social symptom than a personal one.

But ROMANS/SNOWMARE is a city poem after all, and a reader can’t miss the observations of daily life that fill this volume, so remarkable for their vividness and sober awe. The details, so tenderly recounted, feel salvaged from a future oblivion that has not yet come, dense artefacts for a future reader interested in our times: "Nights I would lie awake and savor the thrum of the street. A plane passing over a train above construction made a solid chord so powerful the cyclists stopped in awe,” or, "A cab driver emptying a Gatorade bottle of urine at a red light. We are so many woven bags of water.” With a close-up sensuousness to rival Keats, the speaker provides us with an image literalizing this ability to get to the sweep of things by way of the minute: "But, then, a piece of lint suspended in a stream of piss as if by magic, dancing on a mere hair in a sparkling arc of four am relief, gave me a Lilliputian intimation of enormity." A wonderful figure: the vast, the world-historical, gleaned in the trifling—the silly, even.

“Après la fin du monde / There is the after-party— / After the party is there politics?” Another consideration of getting by: how to do so when it seems the previous ways forward have been routed or simply obsolesced?

One way of getting by is response. When something is withheld from a child, he responds; and he doesn’t try to temper that response, either. Children provide, every day, an honest response to the everyday. ROMANS/SNOWMARE is a collection of just such responses. Despite their historical and theoretical import, these responses are, as I mention above, given over to the level of non-sense, the love of pure sound associated with children; think of a baby’s babble or the famous nonsense verse of children’s literature. I do not think this relation to the child-ish incidental. In “Thirty-Five Dollar Poem,” the speaker points up the political usefulness of (a kind of) childishness:

xxxxxOne’s inner child incants ‘it isn’t fair’

xxxxxAn inner adult seethes, this isn’t metaphor

xxxxxWhy not regress to expectation?

Expectation and its attendant response. The child is a helpful figure; in a related register, so is the lover. Expectation and attendant response is just how one gets by in the sexual encounter, too: “Ask what is to be, as always, what is, if imprecisely, to be done, as lovers do.” What is to be done? It’s the big question posed by the big 20th century political thinker. We should expect ourselves totally ejected from anything as ‘frivolous’ as the amatory. But yet we come, by the end of the lines' stutter-stop movement, which mirrors the tentative feeling out of lovers, the immanence to the body of another in the decision of the next step, to that final, romantic comparison, “…as lovers do.” But note that Scott doesn’t invoke politics-as-love, nothing here smacks of facile hippiedom. Rather, he forces a comparison of strategy: politics as a starting from response, honest and physically given over, an unallayed articulation of need.

This is not a plan or a party line, but a way to orient oneself. After all, the poem’s content and form is at the level of the everyday, the level of getting by and going on. In any case, I agree with the poem: “To leave requires an axis, not a destination.”

#260 — Feb/March/April 2020