The Poetry Project

On 26 Tears by George Tysh and Chris Tysh

Tyrone Williams

Though they have not always received due credit for their contribution among the oral (and, of course, musical) artistic innovations that have dominated the history of poetics in Detroit, George and Chris Tysh have been crucial to the development of a materialist countertradition of poetics, literary and otherwise. They have not been alone in this endeavor, especially if we think of Detroit as the hub of an experimental, even avant-garde, cultural matrix in southeastern Michigan (for example, Ken Mikolowski’s The Alternative Press and Clayton Eshleman’s journal Sulfur). Nevertheless, the LINES Reading Series that George Tysh initiated at the Detroit Institute of Arts in 1980 provided an important complement, if not rebuttal, to the traditional lyric and narrative poetics propagated by most of the poetry I encountered in the English Department at Wayne State University and, more generally, throughout the surrounding Cass Corridor. Both traditions, the dominant lyric/narrative one and the innovative/experimental one, were crucial to my development as a writer when I lived in Detroit (e.g., I took classes at DIA with Chris Tysh and with Edward Hirsch at Wayne State) and so everything that follows must be punctuated with a qualifying asterisk.

Though they have each published books of poetry separately, this new collection, 26 Tears, represents, I believe, the first joint publication by the Tyshes. It’s not exactly a collaboration since, as Chris notes, she wrote her half of the book after George had finished his. Indeed, her poem is, in certain respects, a response to his. Comprised of two abecedarians—George’s follows tradition, going from A to Z, while Chris’s moves in reverse order from Z to A)—26 Tears, in toto, meditates on what it means to survive, as individuals, as couples, during the twin disasters of the Covid-19 pandemic and the Trump administration. Those familiar with George’s previous books of poetry will not be surprised by his sparse, laconic lyricism, moving seamlessly among couplets, tercets, and quatrains. Though often serious in a Kafkaesque way (“Masking // tape removes // the instant // from recorded / memory”) (38), George will occasionally allow himself some coy linguistic play: “a golden / word / messy // so close / to / necessary” (32). Chris’s abecedarian is more serious and full-bodied, more fleshed out, though the stanzas are primarily couplets and tercets (except for the opening, single stanza “Z” poem, dedicated to Etel Adnan). As in her previous works, leitmotifs circulate throughout the abecedarian, so that “In the waning days / A narrow window // Might lead to / One icy fact” (90) prepares the reader for “You watch them walk / Across the thin ice // Of a cover story / Meant to reshuffle // What accrues as fact” (111). Moreover, both poets treat the verso/recto format of the book page as both a uniform field and as distinct, discrete fields. Combined with each poet’s use of enjambed stanzas, the status of the poem can appear unsettled, both a particulate of linguistic matter and a nebulous moment on a temporal spectrum. Formally, then, the two abecedarians constitute a miniature history of aesthetic influences as George’s poem draws its lexicon from innovative poets (e.g., Jack Spicer), novelists (e.g., Haruki Murakami), filmmakers (e.g., Robert Bresson), and jazz musicians (e.g., Ornette Coleman) while each section of Chris’s poem quotes a single word from each section of George’s work, forming an interlocking chain or, if you will, string theory of artistic practices.

26 Tears reminds us that in the wake of the poetry wars of the late 20th and early 21st centuries, the old binaries between “expressive” and “anti-expressive” poetics, while necessary strategic positions, were often, in fact, more entangled in certain practices (think of Michael Palmer or Susan Howe). As whimsical, polemical, and humorous as it is formally innovative and engaging, this new take on an old form is a welcome addition to the oeuvres of both writers.

#271 – Winter 2023