At the Intersections of Surrealism, Science and Spirituality (Book Review of Will Alexander's Compression and Purity) by Alison Ross
I am often annoyed by how the media pigeonholes "minority" scribes as only being capable of writing poetry or fiction that thematically centers on "minority" topics. Sure, oppression of women and blacks, hispanics, native americans, asians, etc abounds...no one is arguing the contrary here. And poetry and fiction that assert the rights of the oppressed and attempts to subvert stereotypical notions of these groups is needed for edification and reinforcement. But I do think that dwelling inordinately on these topics can actually do harm to anti-oppression movements, and further entrench these issues in the realm of the insoluable. Satire is one way, I think, to relax conversations about oppression, and point out the problems, say, of stifling political correctness.
And another way of helping to overcome oppression without dwelling on it is to simply be a "minority" writer who does not focus on "minority" topics as his or her main mode of expression. A writer who does this, whether conciously or unconsciously, is showing the world that women do not always need to focus on gender inequality or blacks do not always need to focus on bigotry toward blacks, but rather on topics that anyone would focus on, regardless of "oppression status." This mainstreams "minority" scribes rather than ghettoizes them. People can focus on the content of the writing rather than the gender or ethnicity of the writer...those become afterthoughts, as well they should. If we are ever have a truly blended society sans obsession with racial and gender differences, we need to let go of the oppression narrative to a certain degree.
Poet Will Alexander is one of these "minority" poets whose subject matter is not preoccupied with his "minority" status, at least in the volume of poetry that I read, "Compression and Purity." The poems, which are psychedelically surrealistic in their language treatment, instead focus on themes such as physics, astronomy, music, philosophy, culture, painting, ecology, history, and so on. The language is layered and abstract at times, and often littered with obscure words. There is a palpable jazz influence in his poetry, but this could be said of many authors of many races. After all, jazz is poetry in musical incarnation.
The one frustration with Alexander's poetry is that owing to the abstract arcane nature of much of the language, it's difficult to emotionally relate to it. It doesn't move you in the traditional sense...rather, it speaks to you cerebrally. And that's fine, but sometimes a reader wants poetry to work on the dual levels of impacting the intellect and stimulating an emotional response. It's hard to emotionally dive into Alexander's work, because it can almost read like a textbook, except that the juxtapositions are just jolting enough to remind us that it's not academic, but rather creative writing.
Take, for example, the title poem:
Compression & Purity
In this fire of fluidic jeopardy
& reconstruct & re-condense
like adjudicated burins
or telepathic moon forms
like psychic drafts & diacritics
being pressure by conundrum & purity
compressed below the level of the gaunt reflecting metals
crushed & glinting pions
incessant suns in the pedalfer vapors
where the sun quakes by quanta
by powerful interior fractual
like singular diamond
like a juggler or a hawk
in condensed mercator warrens
where signs ignite in the phosphenes
like the shape of a comet as Sedna
or holographic combustion
the dialectic of the ice house
the ground as habitual day star
as perfect star in the fathoms
known as pyroxenes
as repetitious pyroclastics
as lowered concentrations of void
being basalt by subductive infinity
diamond as subduction
as errata of mist under vapor
& these diamonds in my mind
not of the human blood soil
of protracted avidity
but of blank alchemical stresses
being wealth as random mountain ore
being poetic spurs
being strange supraphysical hallucinatory hives
which come down & retreat in the ethers
like double blinded mountains
or a halting circuitous heat from the Permian or
not an avalanche of morals
or a decided human predicate
but the predicate as primordial
as “hydrated minerals”
as feral ozone dosage
with neon reversals & flaring
with dense & angular heightening
being a fabulous schist
being monoxide & hearing
These labyrinthian lines can be tricky to navigate upon first reading, and even subsequent readings can render one a bit vertiginous. The opaque language, too, can repel a reader; it's certainly not poetry for the masses. But Alexander at least pairs mundane language with opaque as often as he sees fit, so that a patient reader is not eternally bemused and is impelled to dig out meaning. Granted, that meaning may be ambiguous, but one gets the sense that Alexander does not readily deal in ambiguity, since he does choose precise, scientific words. But of course, these scientific words are used in a surrealist context, and in surrealism, nothing is precise, so there is a bit of an oxymoron at play here. So perhaps Alexander embraces ambiguity after all.
One thing is for certain, though: the significance of the poetry in this collection is inherent in the wildly innovative sounds and images that his poems engender. In other words, while the poems may imply meaning beyond themselves, the meaning innate in the word structures Alexander has constructed is what truly matters here. The verse can be confounding, yes, and even emotionally estranging, but that is partially, or perhaps wholly, the point. Startling word-pairings such as "feral" and "ozone" and bizarre, mind-bending phrasings such as "halting circuitous heat" or "the dialectic of the ice house" suggest an unshackled mind at work, forging a linguistic freedom that titillates our cosmic sense of things. The pairings and phrasings have a stream-of-consciousness logic to them, even if decontextualized they seem alien and alienating.
Ultimately, despite its scientific pretentions, Alexander's work is deeply spiritual. He uses the medium of science to convey a surrealistic spirituality.