Review by James BentonThe Arakaki Permutations by James Maughn

by James Maughn

Black Radish Books
ISBN-13 978-0982573167
2011, 120 pp., $15.00

Drawing from his training in the martial arts, and building on his earlier work, Kata, Maughn creates poems simultaneously energetic and spare in a challenging, extended exploration of, in his words, “the connections and intersections between [his] practice of traditional Karate and [his] practice of poetry.” The project sounds simple enough: take a highly structured Karate form, then write from, or into, or against, this form, not to talk about it, but to participate in its controlling energy. Maughn organizes his collection into five sets of permutations, each representing a different kata, or form. Each section begins with a selection from his first book, each line of which then serves as a title or tone center for a new poem.

The resulting poetry demonstrates through its extreme compression of diction the economy of motion and conservation of energy so highly valued in the martial arts. In addition, the poetry is correspondingly enigmatic, exotic, and, some might say, opaque. At first I found this to be an obstacle to understanding the book, but after staying with the poems for a time, the nuances of what turned out to be a kind of nonce grammar began to emerge. Take for example the following:

VIII.               (sentence)




The first thing one notices about this poem is its extreme lineation. Each line a single word, most a single syllable. The compression of the lines mimics the compression of the syntax with its lack of punctuation to guide the reader along familiar paths. In this poem, Maughn uses, among other devices, homonyms (passed = past) to interact in two ways with the word “time” to give us both the passage of time and the loss of opportunity. When combined with the title, “(sentence),” which also works in more than one way, he evokes a prison term. Immediately, our suspicion is confirmed and heightened by the word “condemned,” but instead of the hopelessness of condemnation and the lost opportunities of irrecoverable time, the poem turns on a sonic dime toward commendation, while the idea of “no last meal” implies hope and continuation. Far from acting as a mere intellectual exercise in wordplay, this poem produced a genuine and surprising melancholy once I felt I had apprehended it.

Without recognizable grammatical clues, the meaning of these compact poems comes from other sources, other indicators. Ron Siliman has suggested a socio-economic rationale to argue for creating sentences whose organizing structures lay outside the schoolbook rules of the dominant culture, but which possess internal consistency to guide the reader to their meaning. Maughn takes this idea to heart. In order to express what he sees as ultimately inexpressible, he abandons the ordinary terms of expression, replacing subject/verb/object constructions with connotation, secondary definitions, subtle puns, sight rhymes and other devices. The more I lived within the tight universe of this poem, the more sense it made, and the more different senses it made, and this, it turns out, is the method of the book as a whole.

Most of the poems in this collection are of this slender-spill-of-smoke variety, their hyper-truncated lines taking Robert Creeley’s aesthetic to its ultimate limit. Later permutations, however, become more expansive, showing both that Maughn is not afraid of longer lines, and that his choices are far from arbitrary.

Sometimes the connections between a poem and its title resist easy interpretation. This too reflects Maughn’s deeply realized experience of the spirit of his martial art. It is combat, after all, at least a restrained, controlled form of it that he tries to capture. But sometimes, with combat in mind, his connotative use of words coalesces quickly into layered performances, best seen through a kind of peripheral view, gazing past the need for syntactical correctness and into the middle distance where one may take in the whole poem at once. This poem, from the “arakaki no jo permutations,” is a good example

VI.     (intent      rivet gatling)

cover fire ground-
                                                   works for a stable
uncover staked
                                                   to –tenable earth
leave posts where
                                                   you drive them in
man your outcrop
                                                   it’s showing get a
grip or switch-hit

Here, the appearance of words like ground, stable, earth, and outcrop, combine to form the impression of territory, fixture of place, immovability, while gatling, cover fire, hit, and Armageddon, combine to disrupt the stability of the others. Notice, though, that these opposing terms intermingle in, among, and between the line segments, suggesting an inseparability of the forces of stability and chaos. By denying us a linear, English-grammar-based semantic statement, Maughn likewise disrupts our readerly expectations and forces us deep into the chaotic moment of the poem. We have not a narrative about combat, but language at war with itself.

I often wonder how we came to the idea that difficulty and value in poetry are inversely proportional, for surely difficult poetry enjoys a far smaller audience than it deserves. These are not easy poems; they require some solitude, some time, and some egoless attention to mine their true worth. This is not a collection you will read in a single sitting, and you should not expect to hear any of them recited on NPR. You should, however, expect to be well rewarded for the effort it takes to enter the core of this book.

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