Sandy Florian - Rewriting the myth of Genesis to be beastly, bloody, philosophical, revealing and hallucinatory

Sandy Florian, The Tree of No (Action Books, 2008)

"Beastly I fall at Adam under the shade." Sandy Florian's second book dilates under Milton's Forbidden Tree, plumbing God's unjustifiable ways, and Man's. In a world made from scratch, eros and artifice, thanatos and theology give off mixed and exquisite signals, here buckled in Florian's bejeweled and rigorous sentences: "words like chords like emerald snakes, words like lords like humble smoke." Florian's intellect blazes in this bold, ambitious work: "I have a war with history."
"As a reader of the King James Bible and of John Milton’s Paradise Lost, I never anticipated a contemporary author would, by reverse-engineering those works, simultaneously delineate anew their imaginal worlds and break into a realm of imaginative thought so singularly her own. But I had yet to read Sandy Florian’s The Tree of No.
An experimental lyric novel retelling the Biblical-Miltonic fall and its aftermath, The Tree of No arrives in the wake of Florian’s Telescope (Action Books, 2006) and 32 Pedals & 47 Stops (Tarpaulin Sky Press, 2007), each a sequence of poems. Telescope meditates on aporias of reference, reification, and self-articulation. 32 Pedals anatomizes the disjunctions of selves from moments of potential revelation, selves unknowingly despairing of self-knowledge. Telescope and 32 Pedals demand and gratify the utmost attentiveness, as is the case with the sentences fruitfully multiplying throughout The Tree of No.
The thoughts Florian articulates fully motivate the sportive intricacies characterizing the experiments with English her works pursue. The speedy bookworm might read either Telescope or 32 Pedals in one sitting and enjoy thoroughly ways with words elsewhere unavailable. This dictum applies also and especially to The Tree of No, the invigorating language of which buoyantly carries the reader along.
But, among several distinct readerly challenges, Florian weaves into The Tree of No invitations to listen for the echoes of myriad precursors’ words and thoughts, most notably Biblical resonances arcing from Genesis to Revelation and refracting from Paradise Lost’s close-ups of the Edenic garden where Adam and Eve fall into exile.
In preparation to encounter sentences from the overture of Florian’s novel, recall the openings of the Bible and of Milton’s epic. In Genesis, by commanding first the beasts and then the humans to “[b]e fruitful, and multiply” (1.22, 28), God asks them to continue the work of creation in which he lets himself engage, a work Genesis 1.1-27 articulates as a burgeoning, vital proliferation of differences, the birthing into distinct existence of light and dark, sea and land, fish and birds, and human males and females. Alluding to this parallel between the creatures’ fruitfulness and God’s, Milton opens Paradise Lost by describing how, in the act of creating the cosmos, God, as “Spirit,” “with mighty wings outspread / Dove-like sat’st brooding on the vast Abyss / And mad’st it pregnant”.
Now consider Florian’s opening sentences:
Beastly, I fall at Adam under the shade, unclocked, first frocked, ovened at the core, from words no western man can wet. Beastly, I fall at Adam under the shade, shaking shadows from the shadows, pretending, beastly, that toads aboard the oncoming train are throned, green toads of the goodliest worth. Beastly, debarred, hunted, wanton, I take refuge by the timber, entrapped in the awkward position of waking.In Genesis, having listened to the serpent’s wetting words, Eve eats the forbidden fruit, draws Adam into her act, and then hides from God among the shady trees, feeling as if scales have fallen from her eyes. In Paradise Lost, before the fall, Satan whispers into Eve’s ear a dream in which the angelically winged demon praises the fruit and declares his desire to eat: “This said he paused not, but with vent’rous arm / He plucked, he tasted” (5.64-5). Satan does not hesitate, and Eve only does so briefly, falling when her “sensual Appetite” usurps within her the place of “sovran Reason”.
Milton has the archangel Raphael explain to Adam that he and Eve share in common with the beasts a capacity for pleasurable sensation, which Raphael opposes to what he argues the beasts lack: “Reason” (8.591). Only because of the capacity for free, rational choice are Adam and Eve “[s]ufficient to have stood, though free to fall” (3.99). Along with Milton’s Eve and Adam, Florian implicitly refuses the Miltonic God’s stratification of sensation under reason.
Florian explores the fall as an act undertaken willingly, with sensation fully open to reason and reason fully open to sensation, however much both border on the inexpressible. In The Tree of No, despite anticipating the female gender’s sufferance of less than Adamic “toads,” the narrator, anything but anorexic, does not hesitate:
Beastly, foaming, feral, foul, fit to stand, fit to fall, unhesitate to taste the waste. Beastly and with blistered fingers, bear the blossom from the blossom, pare the pleasure off the round, and taste, for the first time the adamantine sublimity, nine times the measure of day and night.How what Milton calls “Spirit” could participate (even metaphorically) in any impregnation should be a puzzle. Florian’s narrator ponders “Joseph the husband of Mary, who begets Jesus, by that little mechanical indiscretion that does not beget”. Christianity’s God must only contribute to immaculate conceptions, but in figuring Genesis’s event of creation as a “Dove” copulating with an “Abyss,” Milton half remembers the blank earth and deep waters of Genesis 1.2, certainly “without form, and void,” so for Milton an “Abyss,” but also fluid, prolific, and participant, the qualities the belated dogma of the creatio ex nihilo demands Bible readers forget entirely, as the contemporary theologian Catherine Keller forcefully contends. What the Immaculate Conception is to Christ, the creatio ex nihilo is to the cosmos.
“Beastly, foaming, feral, foul, fit to stand, fit to fall, unhesitate to taste the waste”: the Biblical-Miltonic fall, in Florian’s novel, becomes an event an act countersigns, the event-act (“I fall at Adam”) of an “I” unhesitatingly participant in the flourishing proliferation of the creation Genesis articulates but predominant Christian traditions strive to forget. Through the novel’s “I” swarm forces of creation the logic of the Immaculate Conception or the creatio ex nihilo would implicitly subordinate as “Beastly.” Florian superbly recovers those forces, but to conclude that her narrator personifies them would be misleading insofar as a reader thinks of personification as the human embodiment of some serenely static abstraction. Rather, the “I” of Florian’s novel emerges as the turbulent, actantial locus of an ongoing event of recreational inventiveness.
Exercising this inventiveness, the novel’s “I” articulates penetrating meditations on imagination, dreams, religion, war, civilization, and so on. Beginning with a redo of Eve and Adam’s fall, the novel moves on to the felling of trees to make way for roads and cities, continues through a set of Psalms, and arrives at a replay of Revelation only to finish with a post-apocalyptic affirmation: “But the sin in me says I”. Florian takes this statement from Simone Weil’s Gravity and Grace, specifically from the aphoristic meditations Weil’s posthumous editor grouped under the title “The Self”: “The sin in me says ‘I’”.
Weil argues that, to heal the rift in being the distinct existence of the “I” constitutes, the “I” must relinquish back to God the existence God gives. The process accomplishing this giving back Weil calls decreation, to “make something pass into the uncreated,” as distinct from destruction, to “make something created pass into nothingness”. To return to “the uncreated” would be an act of love toward God on the part of the “I.”
In Decreation (2005), Anne Carson articulates the logic of Weil’s program for disappearance in finely eloquent detail and notes the complex irony writing about this program involves: “To tell is a function of self,” so telling of decreation remains in paradox to decreation, a paradox only heightened when the teller attempts to perform decreation by writing out a “dream of distance in which the self is displaced from the centre of the work and the teller disappears into the telling”
A full consideration of Florian’s departure from Carson’s reading of Weil awaits a work in progress of which this review will become a part. For now, consider the following thesis: The Tree of No’s narrating “I,” rather than simply either being or not being of the creation, recreates (in) the creation’s creation, a dynamic blossoming predominant strains of the Christian tradition learned to call “sin,” just as those strains learned to call the uncreated precedents of creation “nothing.” In The Tree of No, the teller betrays no compulsion to disappear into the telling. Indeed and to the contrary, in perusing The Tree of No’s sentences, the reader travels a path from the novel’s first two words, “Beastly, I,” to the novel’s closing word, “I.” In the interval, the reader enjoys marvelous recreations." - Robert Savino Oventile

"It was inevitable that Florian's book would invite comparison, in my mind at least, with Ronald Johnson’s RADI OS, his epic reworking of Paradise Lost through the lens of Blake and by a process of erasure. However Sandy Florian’s book is a totally different animal. Johnson’s text opens:
______________into the World,

___________________________the chosen

Rose out of Chaos:

____________________________ song,Sparse, contemplative, verging on the hermetic, these lines/fragments sailing in a sea of metaphysical whiteness. Constrained by the properties of the original text, Johnson’s writing takes place between the words by a process of removal, “with God and Satan crossed out” (as the book’s blurb states), “reduc[ing] Milton’s baroque poem to elemental forces” and giving those words that remain space to breathe outside the strictures of Milton’s syntax. Johnson writes silence as an invocation of the primal and the metaphysical, and the silence enacted by the deletion of the divine, in the face of unanswered prayers, becomes inaction of the texts intertwining of chaos and celestial order, chaos out of which rises man, or out of which springs this new-blossoming flower. Here I am also reminded of Paul Celan’s “Psalm” and it’s “Niemandsrose”, the “No-one’s-rose”. The implications of this metaphysics of absence or deletion are to vast to go into here; perhaps the place for this is another essay. There is a kind of deformance at work (see Lisa Samuels and Jerome McGann, “Deformance and Interpretation”), and this is also evedent in Celan’s reversal of prayer in “Tenebrae”: “Bete, Herr, / bete zu Uns, / Wir sind nah” (Pray, lord, / pray to us, / we are near).
In contrast with Johnson’s stillness, Florian’s book is one of perpetual movement. Her poem opens:
Beastly I fall at Adam under the shade, unclocked, first frocked, ovened at the core, from words no western man can wet. Beastly I fall at Adam under the shade, shaking shadows from the shadows, pretending, beastly, that the toads aboard the oncoming train are throned, green toads of the godliest worth. Beastly, debarred, hunted, wanton, I take refuge in the timber, entrapped in the awkward position of waking.The text is dense, animalistic and driven. It is “beastly” and “wanton”, enacting a very different conception of humankind’s creation “under the tree of no”. The dawn of humanity is in falling, in movement, timelessness and heat, and “words no western man can wet” brings to mind Emanuel Levinas’ ur-language – a language of communion and contact prior to any necessity of signification or “regime of signs” (Deleuze and Guattari).
The tree of the title is the Biblical/Miltonian tree, the Tree of the Knowledge of Good and Evil. This, however, becomes far more complex through the dissolution of this moral binary, and the appropriation of the signifier as the title, and designator, of the text itself. The “No” within this title becomes the unutterable/blasphemous statement of God/”Montgomery’s impotence and complicity in humanity’s fall, evil, and “beastly” nature, created “fit to stand, fit to fall” and, in God’s own image, “unhesitant[ing] to taste the waste”.The “No” becomes a pseudo-synonym for the post-human “I” enacted within the text, denoting a collectivity or assemblage of humanity as flow and flux, driven and driving at breakneck speed (in parallel with the text’s analogous performance) toward destruction, absolution, or something different. This No becomes, paradoxically (and in true Nietzschian fashion) an affirmation of human animalistic passion and velocity: “But the sin in me says ‘I’”.
This arboreal metaphor mirrors the post-human assemblage, supplemented (and made more realistically complex) by the text’s rhizomatic network of interrelations, mirrorings, stammers and repetitions." - Ross Brighton"the first lyric language to drip into my head [today] belongs to Sandy Florian:
I give birth to a singing pit. Dig it all out and I lay myself supine inside. My open throat becomes the open grave where my larynx howls out. There, I give birth to all my enemies. There, I take them by the horns and string them up like bags of gold. They tear me open like a lion. Rip me into pieces. Leave me shrilling in my pit. There, my thoughts bring me back to the void where my righteousness is roughly stored.I read from Florian’s The Tree of No — a ‘lyric novel’ Bible-and-Milton mashup, of a feminized, violent, singing-while-self-overhearing sort— as I came out of deep-sedation grog, home from the hospital, on my couch.
Florian’s novel (is that what to call it?) is the speech and psalms of a female speaker who sings like David, births nations like Eve, and self-determines, like Milton’s Satan, in sin: in the titular rejection and falling away. The novel’s revolutionary heave, sexualized energy, and sense of deep- (rather than forward-)time recall Julieta Campos’s Fear of Losing Eurydice or Alice Notley’s The Descent of Alette. Its moral quandaries— its arc from “Beastly, I fall at Adam under the shade” to “But the sin in me says I”— remind Robert Oventile of Simone Weil. However, more than these, it’s the tactile environment of Florian’s novel that was perfect to read this morning: episodic, blood-kitschy, spiritual, and charged (I could sympathize) with an untameable, grotesque, generative bodyhood.
Before my operation I’d held, or tried to hold, tight onto consciousness— counting seconds on the clock when Gary the nurse gave me an IV, noting a taste like copper on my palate— before deep sedation (not sleep, quite, Gary said: I could respond to questions, indicate pain, and breathe deeply) set in. Florian:
I keep a muzzle on my tomb, then I give birth to a horse and a mule, a shield and a buckler, without understanding whose temper is meant to be curbed. By bit and by bridle, my wounds grow faster and faster, and when I am sick, I wear a sackcloth, and when I am sick, I afflict myself with fasting against those despised by the winks of their eyes.Where does the mind slip to? Thirty minutes later I was awake, in bed and puce-curtained off from other recuperators, asking for apple juice and buttered toast. Two hours later I was awake again, craving lentil soup and feeling for The Tree of No." - Jay Thompson

Sandy Florian, On Wonderland & Waste, Sidebrow Books, 2010. 

Sandy Florian's On Wonderland & Waste is a novel in narratives bent on exposing the mind as an instrument of language "not entirely there." Featuring full-color collages by Alexis Anne Mackenzie, these 12 lyrical meditations on desire, delirium, duty, and dismemberment destabilize what we can measure of the meaning underlying our experience with a visceral diction that reminds us that "the sharpest of tongues cut their own throats first."

"The modernist impulse toward innovation and experiment alive in James Joyce's Ulysses and Gertrude Stein's Tender Buttons lives on in Sandy Florian's On Wonderland & Waste. Florian writes at the leading edge of the contemporary." -Robert Savino Oventile


Sandy Florian, Boxing the Compass, Noemi Press, 2013.

read excerpt

This novella of compressed, accreting, hungry paragraphs is full of sparkling diction and pinching rhythms; mysteriously, it silhouettes its interlocking motifs. Geography, family sadness, facts about the Old and New Worlds come into play. A real pleasure of a book. -Stacey Levine

Sandy Florian’s gorgeous meditation, Boxing the Compass, begins with kinds of unfolding, a sort of anti-origami of intention and desire: like love letters or lovers’ bodies, exposing and withholding simultaneously. Any reader who opens herself, himself to this book is risking a special kind of pleasure. But the presiding engagement is not pleasure itself, but experience of unfolding, which can also be violent—an earthquake is a cosmic origami, and an accurate account of the mind awakening in this extraordinary book. -Bin Ramke

If Sandy Florian’s novella Boxing the Compass is the answer, then the question might be: is the era of climate change spawning a specific literature? Some exploration of this question will lead us into the astonishing work of mourningBoxing the Compass is.
Ironically, the phrase Homo sapiens is Latin for “wise man.” Like all species, the existence of Homo sapiens has always been finite. No divine favor, cognitive privilege, or technical fix has ever exempted Homo sapiens from eventual extinction. None ever will. Climate change just promises to turn this “eventual” extinction into an uncomfortably close event. In 2010, the renowned Australian microbiologist Frank Fenner hypothesized Homo sapiens will go extinct within a century. Entertain Fenner’s hypothesis, and then try to write a book for the ages: for at most two or three generations more.
Whatever else climate change is, it is an event in language. The extinction of myriad species of fish should make writers differently aware of the biotic referents of tropes such as “to spawn a literature.” Extinctions bring about irreversible absences. The prospect of the extinction of Homo sapiens draws language into a hurricane swirling words up and away, or down and out, from anthropic referents. What happens to words as their referents irreversibly disappear? In becoming bereft of their referents, words may kindle mourning. Within language, climate change is metamorphosing frighteningly many words into words of mourning.
Imagine a novella catching intimations of the oceans in their terrible fragility as sustainers of life by narrating a daughter in mourning for her mother. Imagine that, through the daughter’s grief, this novella allows the mourning climate change solicits in language to find articulation. With these imaginings, we arrive at Sandy Florian’s uncanny work of mourning, Boxing the Compass.
Florian’s novella remains also a work of ecstatic joy, but the joy only arrives by letting a profound and unprecedented grief achieve verbalization. In her novella, Florian coaxes her readers to open themselves to the abyssal mourning climate change brings into language. The novella threads together various topics: familial loss, the siftings of memory, the quest to realize self, and the struggle for artistic achievement. The novella also conducts exhilarating and ambitious engagements with precursors, including Plato, Montaigne, and Joyce. Yet, as with the contemporary world, climate change defines the novella’s horizons.
Perhaps the only devastation worse than climate change would be a devastation of language due to a refusal of the mourning seeking articulation in it. Why worse? The devastation of language such a refusal precipitates would block Homo sapiens from confronting the devastations climate change is bringing to their own species and to so many more. Alienating them from their only existence, their being one transient species among many, this blockage would also numb Homo sapiens to joy. Resisting such devastation of language, Florian’s novella bears witness to the devastations to which the mourning now at work in language testifies. This courageous resistance leads toward joy.
The third-person narrator of Boxing the Compass follows a woman through a day into which she awakens. After awakening, the woman leaves her apartment, walks to buy bread at a local store, returns to her apartment, brews tea, takes a bath, and again leaves her apartment to ride an urban commuter train toward the cemetery where her mother lies buried. Actually, the entire day confronts the woman with a process of awakening. The day is an anniversary of the day the woman’s mother died, the day disorienting the daughter utterly.
The novella’s conceit, boxing the compass, gestures toward this disorientation:
Sunless she peers. Moonless she seeks. Lifeless she searches the mirror longing for an internal magnetic compass, for those children cannot sail their ships who can’t with ease

box their compass.
To box a compass is to name in clockwise order the thirty-two points on the compass face. The novella has thirty-two chapters, each titled after a point on the compass: “0°,” “11°15´,” “22°30´,” and so on. Though the character learns well to box her compass, to think she simply regains orientation would be a mistake. She undergoes a radical disorientation of language, as distinct from its devastation. She learns to affirm a here and now in which the most traditional of semantic accretions dissolve in the hurricane of her imagination.
The narrator weaves biblical, poetic, and scientific language into meditations on the seas, and the woman recalls how in her childhood her mother taught her of the seas. She also lets us know her history as a bible reader. The motifs of bread and fish in Boxing are of biblical provenance. In the Gospel of Mark, at the shore of the Sea of Galilee, Christ feeds five thousand with five loaves of bread and two fishes (6.35–44). In this gospel, the five loaves and two fishes become superabundant in their figuration of the Word, the Logos Christ is. Christ invites his followers to meet his risen self at or even in the Galilee, this sea coming to figure the entire unhinging of words from dying and death by and through the risen Word. Florian brilliantly mourns, disorients, and appropriates the biblical motifs of bread and fish in their figuration of the real presence of the Word. Rather than resurrection, Boxing is about lying down in various boxes: a bed, a bathtub, a coffin.
The woman also remembers lying down at the bottom of her family pool, and in this memory sound the words “Come here, come now,” words that iterate through the novella:
From the bottom of the pool, she looked up, eyes wide and blood red, she looked up to the blue sky refracted in blue sunlight, to the sunlight so scattered and skewed. She looked up through the warps of waves to the warping faces, and listened for the warping sounds of her singular name, Come here. Come now, my precious little fish. For the kettle on the stove is warming. For the waters of the world are rising. Come here, come now and forever, or until you disappear,northeast, forty-five.
This call to come here, to come now, becomes a joyful affirmation of the here and now in all its finitude. Words entirely free of the referential may become entirely fictitious. Embracing language turning wholly fictional, the woman affirms a world wholly becoming, altogether transient. Hamlet says the readiness is all. Boxing the Compass helps readers to become ready, ready for joy too. - Robert Savino Oventile 

Sandy Florian, Telescope (Action Books, 2006)

"Sandy Florian's Telescope is a strange book, made up of fifty-three formally similar pieces that aren't narrative and aren't, necessarily, poems either. But if we need to decide, let's call them poems for the way Florian's texts foreground language in its struggle to get a handle on some material thing. Each poem presents a common object—a clock, a vacuum, the telescope of the title—and sets out to render in a page of unlineated prose the what-ness of the thing. What is maybe most surprising is the degree to which Florian develops the real characteristics of the objects she describes: it's true, there are always moments of linguistic play in her description, like the way she breaks "Lighthouse" into its component, shorter nouns. But to a startling degree for poetry so formally experimental and attenuated, Florian shares a passion for solid physical things as well. If the resulting poems share certain characteristics with that other catalogue of household objects, Tender Buttons, there are as many differences in the two collections as there are similarities.
If the purpose of Tender Buttons was to mystify perception, Florian seems interested here in something different: she takes less liberties with the objects she writes about than Stein did, and her language is almost mechanical, nearly atomistic. In place of the self-regarding fluidity of Stein's sentences, Florian's writing is regulated by grammatical and syntactical functions: if you see a conjunction, stop and start a new sentence ("Birdcage of the Muses. Or. Boundlessness of Universe," from "Museum"). If you see a preposition, stop and start a new sentence ("You have the advantage. For. Wherever there is likely to be Friction, you are playing the game with me," from "Roulette"). Florian's poems thereby stress the instrumental quality of syntax to do certain work for us, but they also press against these syntactic limits to show the (relative) failure of our received language to accurately render the things of the world.
It's Florian's hunger for fidelity to the world as it is that is most odd, wonderful, and ultimately challenging. If Florian finds and exploits faults in our language, they are fissures set to sunder sense, not sound. There are poems that tackle this problem of the insufficiency of language more or less directly (for example, "Noun"), but it's even present in the segmented syntax of poems that seem to have other agendas. Note the way the breaks disrupt the attempt of the title poem to fully capture the reality of telescopes: "If the instrument can render seeable to unseeable. Obvious the imperceptible. You out the balloon to your right eye and number the moons of Jupiter". The gaps between Florian's fragments bear witness to those gaps between what we know of the world and what we can manage to say about it, as each break-point opens up another cascading linguistic possibility, and our inability to choose one signifies a solipsist's paradox. The work of the sentence diagrammer is romantic, after all, driven via a desire to hold language in suspense, to dangle it like a mobile that would make Alexander Calder proud. It's incredibly appealing and daring at the same time for Florian to write poems so committed to the world of things which also wrestle with the challenge of communication.
There's a lot to like in this book, whether it's Florian's strikingly crisp observations or the way she repurposes what feels like unusually self-conscious boilerplate language to devastating effect (consider this passage, from "Orhcestra": "A semi-circular section in front of a proscenium. Elegant and commodious. And. Reserved for the seats of senators. As. The Noblest Seats of Heaven" for the way it sounds like an actual definition of the word from some less creative source, but achieves the status of elevated, crafted language, especially in the last phrase and its attention-drawing capital letters). If I read three or four of these poems in a magazine, I would love them and might think they were the best things in the journal. En masse, though, they are somehow less charming than they might be individually. It's not just that Florian's love for the things of the world is a little catholic, though there's that. It's more that the act of collecting them together should present opportunities for something larger to emerge, but at least in my reading of this book, that doesn't happen.
There are a lot of these poems collected together, but I read them without an increasing sense of what makes them fit together as a manuscript. It's true, they share a common approach to the world, share a method. Their language is distinctive, sharp and fresh enough to quicken and reawaken this reader's relationship to the world. But without a larger project to justify their composition, the poems risk making language a mechanical function or algorithm; at times I found myself reading the poems for the pattern, not for shape they revealed. For me, that's a bit of a disappointment, given the crisp specificity of engagement with the world I glimpsed in the best of these poems." - Matt Dube
"In the poetic tradition of Gertrude Stein's Tender Buttons, Sandy Florian's Telescope is a series of prose poems that examines, one by one, the machines and concepts that, together, have contributed to making the modern Western world. From the ancient abacus, which represents the world mathematically; to the clock, which presents time in terms of forward progress; to the accordion, whose keyboard and internal mechanism literally convert the world's rush of sound into quantifiable and repeatable "tones"; these machines abstract an expansive universe into a series of measurable, calculable, and manipulable "objects" that exist solely for our benefit. Add to this list the phonograph, the gun, the factory, the skyscraper, the radio, the prison, and even tools of language like the noun and the question, and you may begin to get a sense of the scope of this book. Moving as it does from recording devices to weapons to capitalist production techniques to scientific tools to mass media technologies to language, Telescope brings into view the machinery and technology that we like to imagine as distant from our "true" edenic nature.
Resembling an encyclopedia, each of the book's entries, titled by the machine under consideration, begins with a definition. For instance, from "Loom": "A machine for weaving. And. Bars and beams fixed in place. To form a frame. Or. Hold parallel threads in alternating sets". From "Noun": "A person. A place. A thing. A class or category. Or. A unique entity". From "Phonograph": "A character representing sound. Or. A machine invented by Thomas Edison by which noise is recorded and reproduced". Yet, Telescope is no reference manual. Each poem quickly moves away from its subject to show us the factory-like world woven by the machine, complete with its servile laborers. That is, Telescope presents a world not where machines and technologies exist within (and defile) some pre-existing natural environment, but a world brought into being by what we might call, to borrow from Heidegger's The Question Concerning Technology, the "technological"—a way of thinking that sees the world and all it contains, humans included, only as a potential resource waiting to be consumed, an Other to be manipulated to our ends. Thus, the telescope is not a machine that lets us see distant worlds. Rather, it is "A magic glass that forms the distant worlds". Of course, the telescope is not at fault here, it is simply one more product of the technological thinking that has dominated our culture, according to Florian's account, since the invention of the abacus in ancient Sumer, around 4500 years ago. What is at issue, in other words, is the way these machines, these factories of "reality," present and represent (or produce and reproduce) our world, and indeed our selves, in their image.
While every machine is therefore a factory punching out a world in the mold of the technological, Telescope is a different kind of factory, one whose machines work to unhinge and open themselves and their world to scrutiny: a factory more like Willy Wonka's than Henry Ford's. (Indeed, the poem "Balloon" finds its speaker taking the place of Wonka's Violet Beauregarde, "eat[ing] the experimental gum [,] turn[ing] blue and inflat[ing] like a giant balloon" — how different are we from the bad girls we like to condemn?). "Loom" may therefore open with a straightforward definition, but it is quickly reconfigured by the poetic machine, fragmenting into a playful meditation that allows us to see its products—not only the "linen, wool, or ribbon" we would expect, but the power relations and gendered subjects (or, more to the point, objects) subtly woven into the fabric of Western culture, the "wenches weav[ing] their shadows. Beneath the shade of blooming trees": the servant girls manufactured to weave and re-weave our world, a world of smoking castles, of ships isolated on the "loom[ing]" ocean, of textile workers quietly toiling away in fuming towers. No simple product, this is a world of romance, imperial vision and conquest. And, subject to its patriarchal rule, we are all its servant girls.
Later in this same poem, the speaker voices the hope of liberation, and thus, I would argue, the paradox posed by the book as a whole. "See," she says, "I am trying to leave this room." Is there, Telescope asks us again and again, a way outside the world woven by the technological? If "we" exist only as products of this machine, can we say that we are "trapped" within it? What is our role in its machinations? What would it mean to pull at its exposed wires? If it comes apart, what of us, its eager servants?
The poem "Centrifuge" poses this conundrum in other terms, combining imagery from the space-age with figures from ecstatic religious sects, grade school science experiments, measures of chronological progress, and tools of navigation (and map-making), pulling these seemingly disparate images into both a poetic narrative of modernity and a metaphysical puzzle. Florian writes, "For. If you can filter the astronaut from the man, or the dervish from the Devil, you whirl this bucket round your head in the clockwise direction. Compass-wise? Never. You risk separating the me from the it" . Are we the mechanical man revealed by the technological (the astronaut, that pinnacle of technological progress), or are we the mind or soul beyond the mechanical frames of technology? Aren't we both? What does it achieve to fragment ourselves in this way? What, or whom, does this dichotomy serve? What is its "risk"? Is there another way to conceive of ourselves?
It is these disruptions, then—encouraging us to question what we think we already know about our selves and our world, revealing the seams sewn into the fabric of our reality—that constitute the poetic, and that transform this would-be factory into a book of poetry.
Later in "Centrifuge," Florian's speaker offers some kind of answer. She writes, "For. If you can filter the astronaut from the man, you can use the same device to clarify vaccines. And. To purify both milk and motor oil. Reactor grade uranium." Technological thinking, in other words, produces medicine and milk, motor oil and nuclear power. All good, right? (milk! vaccines! the open road! cheap energy!) But from these same processes we also get less than pleasant consequences, some unintended—accidents associated with the Exxon Valdez and Chernobyl, for instance—and some intended—wars of conquest, horrific experiments carried out in the name of medicine, ecological destruction justified by economic necessity, an ever-present threat of nuclear war. We certainly benefit from the dichotomy, but it obviously has its costs. Can we reap its rewards while avoiding its worst conclusions? Can we retool our machines (and ourselves) to produce a different kind of world?
The answer is neither simple nor clear, but a book like Telescope points the way. For, one thing that can help us conceive of a different world is a poetry that grapples with this one; that can, with its creative vision, see the structures that underlie our daily lives; and that can show us what we are and why we see things as we do. A playful, fascinating and revealing machine, Sandy Florian's Telescope is a magic glass, and its refracted product is poetry." - Jeff Sirkin"Over the past few years, several small books in quasi-encyclopedic and dictionary-like formats, many written by women, including Haryette Mullen’s Sleeping with the Dictionary, Jen Benka’s A Box of Longing with 50 Drawers and Marisol Martinez’s After You, Dearest Language, have helped prompt a rethinking of how books of poems are structured. Historically, encyclopedias and dictionaries have not been known to be the refuge of feminists. It’s perhaps too much to call this trend a movement, but these books give those musty formats a much-needed kick in the butt.
Sandy Florian’s first book, Telescope, is a collection of prose poems describing a carefully chosen set of objects and concepts in a near-alphabetical order that preserves both the arc from Abacus to Zero and the backwards stroke of the oars propelling us forward. A neat choice, it’s key to the flow of a collection that’s more interested in the dynamic of definition rather than the objects she describes.
Each three-or four-paragraph prose-poem presents first a dictionary-ish definition, a more encyclopedic definition and a poetic riff, using sentence fragments set off by periods and connectives such as a, but, and for, also set off by periods. These relentless ostinati can get annoying. The constant stops combined with the wall-like arrangement of the pieces make it hard for the lyric impulse to shine through. It’s as if song were forced to grow like moss between the bricks. Here’s one of my favorite moments from “umbrella”: “I am arching my back again. A shade before your bolded body. Or. A shell. Limpet-like, and marked by concentric lines. And. A furled fan.”This kind of beauty seems to be extruded under intense pressure. In fact, the speaker seems generally oppressed by the power of definition. “Fact” is neutral until we get to “At length you commit a fact that accomplishes my annihilation.” The “you” could be culture, an abusive lover breaking her will, or worse. This piece starts with oppression, and ends with liberation:
For. You are the attorney of truth. The fact is. You stand on Buckingham. You walk across London Bridge. I, on the other hand, live in the world of windmills. And. I ask you to stop disproving my fictions. See. While you commit yourself to the harder science, I am truth-terrified. I skill myself instead the art of unmaking. For. To undo the deeds that have undone these dreams. Is the noblest of all metaphors.Towards the beginning of Telescope, the “you” is a dominant force for precision, and the “I” is a force fighting for imprecision. Often, the precise “you” is depicted in a higher position looking down at the “I.” This tends to encourage a culturally gendered reading, yet there may not be sufficient artistic and political leverage to break through the wall. Looking back to the end of “fact”, the speaker seems less to escape an oppressive self-definition than to accede to a weary détente. In “bridge” the oppression is more religious in nature:
None but the Lord can bridge my days. And. I am trying hard to bridge the distance between us. Gestures bridge my way to spoken language. But I am as beside the bridge. Off track. I’ve gone astray. An attractive way of escape. These are the Gates of Hell. For. You have laid the bridge of silver for me, your flying enemy.What started as an optimistic piece ends with the I/You pair as enemies. Another clue that the format doesn’t give the author quite enough room to breathe is found in “Factory”. At first bouncy, the tone is forced to modulate without any corresponding change in diction:
My unbeing. Factory of river. Factory of rain. Link in the Alps’ globe-girding chain. A prison. A police station. A whorehouse. As. The lass I adore, the lass for me, is the lass in a female factory. But. The factory of manifold machines is a perpetuum mobile. These machines could produce forever. And. If the machines are in the production of your sense of forever, the magnitude of this great profit whets your appetite for more time. You endeavor to thoroughly exploit the sunny times of your first love by prolonging the unfixed day. The child, now five, works hours fifteen. While I. Under the burden of this rock, suffer its forever falling backwards. I am rheumatic. Paralytic. I am become stillborn.
A graveyard. A cemetery. A nuclear reactor. A concentration camp where prisoners are systematically murdered.Some of that is amazingly awkward. The bounciness of “the Alps’ globe girding chain” could have turned into an ironic reference to The Sound of Music, but didn’t. In this example, the reader is not given enough cultural specificity to go there. This chain of meaning isn’t fertilized by the usual feverish and often self-undermining cross-references of an encyclopedia or dictionary entry. This could be attributed to the fact that the entry is about a factory, but the general effect is similar over diverse subjects. Florian’s speaker seems as oppressed by her self-chosen form as she might be by a culturally imposed form. Self-imposed walls can be the hardest to break; though as the book progresses, the poems speak to each other more easily.
Halfway through, the sense of an antagonistic, gendered reading modulates to a point where the “you” can be more easily read as God. It’s still an up/down relation, but the stage is set for a few poems where “I” comes out on top. The I/ you dynamic becomes less oppressive by the end— though “zero” predictably ends with the word “infinity.” This poetry struggles with culture, identity and belief. Brief moments of lyric beauty often seep through like moisture weeping through a wall.
Speaking of walls, a few lines directly refer to Roger Waters lyrics: “My hands feel just like two balloons” “To go to the show,” and “This is Radio Chaos.” Sometimes her use of shards of biblical language reminds me of the parody of the 23rd psalm in Animals. Surprisingly, the parallels go deeper, given Florian’s concern about nuclear war and American militarism. This extends even to prosody: those unfunky, hammering semi-classical ostinati, and clunky lists that seem at times just to fill out Waters’ songs. I can almost hear Roger’s strained voice declaiming some of her lines, but Florian has none of his acid, humorless self-importance. She does display his touching, honest struggle for equality and peace in what seems to be a permanently Manichean, militaristic world. I don’t want to encumber Florian’s work with a strained analogy, but it’s the best explanation of both my affection for this book and the reason why I have to give it a five." - Mike McDonough

Sandy Florian, 32 Pedals & 47 Stops (Tarpaulin Sky, 2007)

"Sandy Florian is obsessed with time, which is a good thing. Etymologically speaking, obsession means to be besieged, and so to be obsessed with time is to be besieged by it, to feel it around you, to worry about it and to celebrate it, to think about it constantly, to know that it is always there and that, paradoxically, there is never enough of it. Of course, a literary art obsessed with time is nothing new; Sandy’s predilection puts her in a long lineage of writers and some heady company. What's new in 32 Pedals & 47 Stops is not the rendering of time past, but the experience of time itself passing. Here, Florian’s mode of measurement is a template of sentence structures, paragraph breaks, and tones through which each of her characters pass. Each scene, each moment in time is affected by a shapeshifting personality intent on disruption. As characters and objects appear, disappear, and reappear, one experiences both the evanescence of things and the ghostly accretion of memory, a sense of déjà vu, a sense that something you have experienced is somewhere just out of your mind’s grasp. Throughout these prose poems, Florian “makes strange” the mundane moment by revealing its artificial measurement—and by revealing that there is always something strange happening—in moments that are playful, sad, jolting, pick-pocketing, surprising, puzzling, and beautifully disorienting."

"Any discussion of what a prose poem can do would be enhanced by a reading of Sandy Florian’s enviably smart work. Her new chapbook, 32 Pedals & 47 Stops, a beautiful object in itself, particularly the handbound edition with a woodblock print depicting an organ keyboard, reads more like a full-length book with its satisfying pages of paragraphs and fragments. After hearing Florian read a few of these poems, I thought it was the musicality of her sentences, her ear for meter that guides the reader through her tortuous logics, making their destinations feel surprising and inevitable at the same time. After reading through 32 Pedals & 47 Stops a few times, I realized that this was just the jumping off point. Each poem in the sequence depicts a scene or a “moment” in full paragraphs, then finishes with an (often) alliterative mini-poem at the end that sort of sings or cries out or laughs for the scene. Somehow these endings both amplify the impact of the poems while diffusing their logic.
Florian is a collage artist, referencing artists and writers from Arbus and Hemingway to Handel and Shakepeare. In this way, she covers so much territory in a short book: a consideration of the signs that surround us, quite literally, such as the “English Only Spoken” in the first poem, the “distortion lens” through which a person must see another, and constant the presence of “The Moment,” which exists in this book as a sometime ghostly sometime corporeal presence in each scene. It seems wonderfully appropriate to use an image from an iconic photograph for the opening poem of a book with the epigraph, from Faulkner, “Only when time stops does time come to life.”Likewise, a redux of Hemingway’s “Hills Like White Elephants” equally suits the project, as Florian’s lovely, spare line treats the story well, and somehow manages to be rather funny and spooky at the same time:
To The Moment, the American and the girl are merely interchangeable characters of the same short story. To the American and the girl, The Moment is a waitress whistling a ditty in the shadow.In this way, the portrayal of characters moves effortlessly back and forth between the iconic and the particular, always mirroring two characters against one another to different effect.
Florian’s sentences becomes progressively more dizzying and evocative as the book progresses, the details accrue, and the poems, the moments begin to web together in unexpected ways. As a reader, you don’t know what she’s going to say next, but you begin to trust that it will reveal more territory on a complex map of rooms, streets, and dioramic scenes, the whole of which, viewed from a distance, appears to be two people regarding one another, mirror-like. In several scenes, twins look at one another, and in one poem it is mentioned that for twins, “To each, the other seems a consecrated comet, replete with heliotrope halo, two diamond strengths, and one natural orbit.” In another poem, a man stands in a bathroom with a mirror behind him and in front of him. He is reflected endlessly in the mirrors, and imagines a woman regards him from the tub: “To the woman, The Man is frank infinity.” These sometimes clausterphobic encounters with the self or others repeat and repeat, gaining a kind of nauseous momentum over the pages.
The intellectual rigors of this book, the way the poems connect together through recurring characters or bits of dialogue and the presence of “The Moment,” which acts sometimes as a scribe, other times a catalyst, are constantly offset by the mysterious envoys at the end of the sections, like this one, after the end of a scene in which a pair of twins visit a cemetery:
Hence, when The Moment declares, “Make a wish,” the two twins look at
one another and declare the other lighter.
You are the Lighter than Air.
You are the Lighter than Sound
You are the Sound of All Suns.
The Songs of all Sins.
You are my Silver-Lined Desiderata
The final lines of the last poem in the book, following one of the wedding scenes:
Love is not love
Love is not love
on one hand evoke the next phrase, “which alters when it alteration finds,” from the Shakespeare sonnet so often read at weddings, which speaks to the recognition and acceptance of the other. But the lines, separated from that second phrase as they are and repeated, present a logical conundrum that can only be solved by assuming that the first love in each line has a different definition or connotation from the second. Here, it seems Florian evokes the deep lexicography of her book Telescope, with its intuitive, anecdotal definitions that function as surreal Venn diagrams of a word’s history and territory. These final lines also close the book on a note of doubt, fittingly, as doubt is as much of a presence in the book as is The Moment: self-doubt, the possibility of falling down, doubt in the recognition of self in the other, and the companionable doubt that trails us through rites of passage, such as the wedding that evolves as a train ride seen in glimpses throughout the kaleidoscopically engaging collection." - Heather Green
"Sandy Florian is a writer who at first may seem as if she is caught between the two worlds of fiction and poetry; however, if one gets to know Florian's work, s/he begins to understand that Florian is constructing a new methodology of writing. Her work is unique in spirit and delivery. At times her philosophies remind me of Bruno Schulz as she wants to create myth and at other times her philosophies remind me of Gertrude Stein as her prose purposefully works against the rules of punctuation to achieve a precise rhythm or meaning. .
You find yourself in a position similar to Gertrude Stein where both poets and fiction writers are claiming your work under their genre banners. Do you classify yourself as either or do you consider your work hybrid? Do you find these labels problematic?- Well, as a genre bender, yes and no, I do and do not classify myself as a hybrid writer. And while, yes, to me all generic labels are very problematic, there is something about the word hybrid that insinuates a superimposition or an uninvolvement in the writing process. Like writing hybridizations is somehow passive writing, I don’t know. But it’s because hybrid plants are produced by a third party human, a third party majesty who impregnates pistils with pollen without plant participation. In the animal kingdom, hybrid animals are considered mongrels and mutts. And while they might be the strongest of the species, the most Darwinian of the survivors, I would rather consider myself a purebred, a thoroughbred, from an pure-blooded pedigree of writers whose active action is the manipulation of awareness through manipulation of language.
In other words, I consider myself an artist, a language artist who approaches the medium of language like a painter would approach a canvas and paint. Like a sculptor would approach a piece of marble, perhaps, while chipping away to see what it’s made of. I am fascinated by the materiality of language and its ability to make art, to make myth, the make law, to make religion, to make belief and to make believe. This is why I write. And if I write prose poetically, it’s because I’m influenced by a line of other poetic prose writers like Woolf and Faulkner and Gass and Ducornet. Pynchon. Gaddiss. Beckett. Acker. The list goes on. I’m not alone. My work may or may not be more distilled than some of these writers, but it’s the attention to the materiality of language, I think, that sets these writers apart from traditional story-tellers. And don’t get me wrong, there are great writers whose sole goal is story. I’m just not one of them. I’d rather work with words to unpack them, unravel them, to disassemble them and reassemble them, to approach them with respect for the power they have, and to try to treat them with the attention they deserve.
Poets do that, yes. More so than most prose writers, I think. But for me, with my prose books I’ve been wanting to communicate what I sense is my claustrophobia of language. My recent “poetry” books, on the other hand, which are oddly more narrative than most of my “prose” books, deal more with language as installation, language as line-drawing, in a manner similar to that of the Maximus Poems.
So, I guess my generic slants from book to book have more to do with the word or words or the ideas I’m approaching. The word “beastly” or has a lot of color to it, don’t you think? It’s kind of a Pollack. The word “no” is gigantic and inescapable, like a Cristo. The word “well,” on the other hand, is more private, more blind. I think of silence and solitude. Only a line-drawing would work. Does that make sense?
How did your last book The Tree of No begin?- The Tree of No started in my Milton course at the University of Denver. In that course, we read Paradise Lost, Blake’s Milton, Radi-os, West’s Sporting With Amaryllis, and probably some other books that I’ve since forgotten about. I had never read Paradise Lost and when I did, I was frankly disappointed. I couldn’t “see” anything in the poem. It didn’t move in any direction until very late. Reading it felt like running on a treadmill. I felt [it] was colorless, flavorless, rhythmic but ponderous, exhausting and dull. More importantly, I felt it didn’t unpack what to me is the most crucial development in the book of Genesis: the question of language and of God’s voice, which is something I think Shakespeare could have addressed with far more grace.
Radi-os was an even further disappointment. The fact that RoJo took only the first 4 books of PL, I thought was an astonishingly bad decision, especially considering that, in my opinion, PL only begins to pick up, if it can be said to pick up at all, with Adam and Eve in books 5 and 6. But further, I was surprised that I could turn page after page of Radi-os and find not one interesting word, not one interesting focal point. That Davenport compared it to Joyce’s Finnegan’s Wake I felt was frankly preposterous. I mean, come on, Finnegan’s Wake?
Anyway, going back to your question, I decided that I was going to try to rewrite the myth using the kind of language I thought Genesis deserved. I wanted it to be beastly. I wanted it to be bloody. I wanted it to be philosophical and revealing, and I wanted it to be hallucinatory as only an awakening from undifferentiation could possibly be. I’m not sure I accomplished that, but it’s what I wanted. So, I went on a two month writing retreat and read the bible pretty much cover to cover, generating my own erasures of the PL, as well as much of the Bible, and filling up the empty spaces that RoJo left void with my own words. I loved writing that book. It was easy because it was so free. It was a blast...
...How much of your work do you consider autobiographical? I ask because I know you’re focusing on the art of the memoir lately, and I’m curious if this is something towards which you are working or part of your process for some of your earlier work?- I don’t write autobiographically at all, unless you consider my philosophies autobiographical. I worry about things, and I write about things that I worry about. In that sense, my books reveal something about what I’m thinking and feeling, what’s on my mind, but not what I’m experiencing. I mean, I would love to say that I’m in love with a corpse, as my main character is in The Tree of No, but that obviously can’t be true. Instead, my character exhibits something I think to be true of the human experience. That living and loving can only be experienced in relationship to death. That living alone without knowledge of death is not interesting. And that we can only begin to love when we approach feelings of loss.
You are right, though. It is true that I spent a lot of time last year reading the genre of the lyric essay and focusing my attention to how other writers were handling the genre. I was curious to see if there was something in there for me to learn. In the end, however, I learned only that as a genre bender, I can’t truly call myself an essayist, since most essayists, like their predecessor Montaigne, keep their autobiographies at the forefronts of their work. My life is pretty uninteresting. No matter where I am, I write, I teach, I run, I practice yoga, I hang out with friends, not much else. I’m really dull unless you take into account my worries. And then you hit a whole bucket of knots.
Your work violates the “rules” of grammar and punctuation frequently. Is there a reason for this outside of sound and timing?- Rules change! I don’t know. Yes, I have my own rules that vary from sentence to sentence. For example, I like putting things in threes. I think they make more internal logic that way. I think a lot of my writing is based on the rules of the sonnet. 3 4’s and then a zest at the end." - Interview with Duncan Barlow

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Liberating the Canon - an edited anthology capturing the contemporary emergence of radically innovative and non-conforming forms of literature in the UK and US

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