Madison Morrison's Web / MM: The Sentence Commuted / Toward a Poetica Cosmographica

Toward a Poetica Cosmographica

Peter Carravetta

Take your pick: ferocious iconoclast, perennial avant-gardist, implacable innovator, obsessive writer, transdisciplinary voyager at the limits of (mortal) comprehension, mind-bending researcher of (im)possible cosmographies. The list of critical epithets or of guiding threads could be expanded, perhaps it already has been, at the hands of more daring interpreters; but Madison Morrison is not to be contained within any, however supple, theorem of art. Fantastic! Let us thank the riotous assembly of the gods on Mount Olympus. (Yes, I know there are clusters of other even more intriguing pantheons disseminated throughout the globe, in fact, that’s what makes Morrison so refreshing, enthusiasmatic?).

This past decade, the decadence, the decay, has been most horrific. At all levels. Some of us, some of my colleagues, some of them poets, had most recently renounced the very possibility of an art form—what am I saying?—of an artistic practice which would yet disclose unimaginable images, unthinkable thoughts, unwriteable scripts. As if with the end of the Cold War, with all that talk about the End of Modernity (and with that, necessarily, of the Avant-Gardes), artists had to moor and mothball their sloops, corral their vaticinations, museumificate their ever-challenging per-versions, and yield to the digitized channels of untrammeled videocapitalism. In one Dominant Version of (Literary) History, with the passing of (chronological) time, the present becomes past, the new becomes old, and what was revolutionary yesteryear is transformed into conservative Tradition, at best an ever-present procedure or strategy, at worst an unseen unrecognized habitus, a stock-response. The Avant-Gardes of yesterday won Pyrrhic victories: From Picasso to Man Ray to Dali to Pollock, from Apollinaire to Zukofsky to Bern Porter to Kostelanetz, pure signifiers (color, line, grapheme in vertiginous endless juxtapositions and cross-pollination of genres and styles) have won, and can now be seen daily, tons and tons of it, in advertising. Aesthetic Entfremdung has severed the links between forms and contents, with the adulation of the former at the expense of the latter. Wozu dichter in these days of obsessive serial recycling and free marketing of several millennia’s worth of icons and images and tenuous yet durable encapsulations of . . . Grand Values?

Kostelanetz once wrote that “Modern art at its best deals not in the manipulation of conventions but their conspicuous neglect, because familiar forms are the most common counters of commerce; one test of genuine innovation in art, even today, is its resistance to an immediate sale.”1 Like most writers shaped by that generation, Morrison certainly manipulated conventions, especially in his earlier work, but, we might say, that that was the mode of research and expression for a writer whose only overarching characteristic can be subsumed under the aegis of graphology. And he has to this day progressively gotten more and more difficult, complex, definitely not someone up for “an immediate sale.” It doesn’t matter that he is “difficult”: again, in the great tradition of the Avant-Gardes, may “the plain reader be damned,” as the magazine transition announced way back in 1927.

Art ought not go out to the reader: everything in our society seems to want to do that, every sales pitch, each political rally, all human intercourse. But at the same time, no one is advocating total detachment from the reader: this is no lyrical poet! Rather, what counts is a shift in emphasis, of the type advocated a few years ago by Ron Silliman, Don Wellman, Lyn Hejinian and others who worked with O.ARS/Toward a New Poetics.2

Morrison seems to believe we have to make the effort to go to the artwork. From here one of the traits of his poetics can be expunged from later works such as Engendering,3 and Realization.4 If art is sacred, if art is cosmological, then one must accept the rituals, the trials and tribulations of the journey, the sense of wonder and discovery that emanates from this dynamics of the mind, this expurgation of the habituated social unconscious, the catathonies of our self-reassuring selves. But art is also production (as opposed to reproduction), it is a first-time experience again and again. Madison Morrison spares no one, he takes no prisoners. From the very beginning, he is off on the scriptural charts of the endless journey, and unlike a pious Christian, he is not so convinced there is a salvation Afterwards: there is only the search, la busqueda, la sfida perenne, l’entretien infini, a communication with the world both seen and unseeable apparently just around the corner, beyond the next crest, or somehow perceivable on the riverbank across.

Let’s look at Revolution.5 It is written by two authors, “by four hands,” the Italians would say. It deals with two young college coeds, their experiences, their relationships, a married professor, and a grid of oblique discourses. Techniques of citing from diaries, transcriptions of phone calls, reproduction of the French texts the characters utilize, direct translations, scenes wherein characters drink, party, extol or question or reminisce about what they are reading. Style is cut and dry, descriptive, a sort of école du regard approach. But also a post-Pirandello post-Beckett somber ex-position. Certain topics teased in different contexts, for example, the problem of non-communication (between mother and son, p. 58, with a clerk, pp. 67-68, within the couple, p. 138), or the relevance of dreams, which are as important as actual conscious memories of bygone experiences. The prose makes us go from dream to reality to newer projection effortlessly. One begins to get the sense that according to Morrison there is no one life, one identity, or a single unifying Logos or Ratio that can hold all these interlocking vicissitudes together. This is not seen as a crisis, but rather as an opportunity. The multiple identities are not necessarily to be equated with clinical schizophrenia. Rather, it would appear that we have a possibility to reconnect or interweave somehow all the strands of our thoughts, as many pulsions from the imaginary as may occur to us during the act or process of reading (or experiencing). This allows for the re-instating of the present. The technique of reproducing journal entries in tempo reale, in the jetz-zeit of the act-of-writing does not so much intrude into the narratological realms created and explored along the way as remind us, or even warn us, that this is a writer writing a story. This technique allows for historical reconstructions, and since the line between Story and History has long been crisscrossed and often erased,6 Revolution may be understood not only as a major turn in the writer’s journeying toward a new kind of geohistorical narrative, but also as representative of the theoretical juggernaut of the boundaries between genres and among disciplines.

For instance, in Chapter Six: “A Chinaman Looks at Paris” (which reconnects with Ch. 2): who is to say that the “outsider’s” experience of Paris is not as important as Voltaire’s or Michelet’s version of what Paris is, or was? One can read/hear a battery of voices: from conscience? An alter ego? A phantasm? A friend? A citation from Roussel? Or Napoleon? A “heavenly maiden”? Slipping from dream into history (pp. 141-42), the narrator meets a “guide” (is it an Enkidu? a Vergil? an angel?) who takes him through the Louvre, synecdoche of the Western Understanding of (the) Art(s).7 The two undergraduates, Elizabeth and Kathy, re-emerge from time to time in the economy of the narratological domain. They mull over grand philosophemes, occasionally from a non-Euroamerican context: “All life is sorrow. All sorrow is due to desire. Sorrow can only be stopped by stopping desire” (p. 165). Does anyone believe in this? Morrison will go on in subsequent books to question, explore and reframe the question. The character’s leaning toward idealism and dialectic is no longer suspicious (see p. 234). History, according to Tu Fu. We haven’t even begun to think the Ancient Chinese Way. But the notion—history as/is adventure—is a great leap forward. Roussel: the undying, the primordial belief in the power of literature (p. 167). Revolution survives, in my mind, the intratextual topicality, as well as the external context of its genesis.

The Cold War is over, the Avant-Gardes have been defanged and subjected to the laws of mediacommerce, some experimental and committed literature is beginning to sound “dated,” but not this text, not at all. It was already full of its own self-transcendence, it made a cogent case for the immanence of allography, as Genette calls it in his recent book,8 the writing of the other-place, the writing as placing-elsewhere. In order to be able to write in such a continually transformative manner, some well-oiled, if not ageless, techniques are necessary. In a sequence in Chapter 7, “Storming the Bastille,” we have the following rhetorical crossings: the narrator’s story alights upon an episode beginning with a journal entry, in which a character, Deflue, enters from within an imaginary historical consciousness, introduces in turn Governor de Launey, who in turn exists solely within Elizabeth’s dream, which now is nested within the story of the highly circumstantial taking of the Bastille, which, it is made plain, exists now only within the textual dimension (engagement with a Reader is assumed), which exists within a merchandise object called a book, which existed in the mind/hands of two authors for several months perhaps, one of whom is a person called Madison Morrison who, of course, may have several “biographies” or life-stories going on somewhere in the eastern hemisphere—in the end, trouncing the very question of authorial intentions, of historical causality, and of semiotic or logical primacies, closing with the equivalent of a punch in the eye: Who fired the first shot? The soldiers or the crowd? (p. 148).

The collection of poems SOLUNA9 affords another possibility of entering Madison Morrison’s cosmos in a near chronological fashion. Already his trademark acrostic following the frontispiece but preceding the Table of Contents alerts us that we are about to embark on a rich journey. The key Figuras are arranged in the tradition of visual poetry and some of John Cage. These are: the Sun, the Moon, the deities Ares, Hermes, the messenger or bearer of communication and all exchanges par excellence, then the earth-mother Hera, Aphrodite, the über-symbol of femininity, ending with El, which in the Old Testament stood for God. If anyone looks for the ganglia of Morrison’s pluriverse, then here we have some “constants.” SOLUNA is a search for “sense” at that fatidic mezzo cammin: “you’re an extraordinary thirty-three. / Some say you’re not typical. Your demeanor says / otherwise. You have squeezed until it hurts / but found nothing in the middle” (p. 13). In other words, the narrator ponders what he is all about, juxtaposing the external image he is recognized by with what he feels is his inner perception or attitude. Wringing the knot further, he finds there is nothing there to rest his soul or psychoassumptions on. Unlike many a poet confronted with these neoplatonic dilemmas, he is not satisfied with self-irony and social parody.

Morrison will not wallow in self-indulgent defeatism. He will look outside, further out, further into something that might contain both his body/soul and the “sense” of life, of society, indeed of the universe. Here then commences the endless journey. So he begins to continue his experimental/experiential quest in allegorical terms. A Triptych of Anapocrypha (p. 25) attempts to meld opposites. Then, he turns to the figura of the “guide” (p. 28). Further down, in “The Blinding of Homer” (p. 40), he pushes the envelope: “Is there really any choice?”—somewhat perplexed that there exists a circularity to the questing after the Great (Western) Metaphysical Questions. The narrator becomes a witness, both passive and participatory, processing the pulsions, reckoning with the recurrence of beginnings-and-endings.

And then we edge into that geography of the cultural (un)conscious that will become his trademark. The sequence O (pp. 51-83) is a minimalist elenchos of specific flashes whose only claim is to have been raised by the narrator’s consciousness, where word, image and place re-present an unseen, unsayable sequence of feeling, image, idea. In the sequence Light (pp. 87-158) the poetic voice, or persona, grows and conquers longer linguistic structures, what the Italians might call bozzetti or frames, deploying cinematographic techniques, two to three stresses per line, still short and swift. The next poem, U (pp. 161-185), re-turns to an externalized, and therefore sign-dependent ego, signaled by the letter; thus the poet can narrate in realist terms what one may see of one’s self from the outside, as it were. Here nature, quotidian events and the “others,” can be catalysts toward self-knowledge without the preassumptions and liabilities of the all-knowing Platonic or Cartesian Self. Need (pp. 189-213) moves in another direction, exhibiting a pseudo-epic function, but in style and tone it wraps along its pentameter the entire English tradition, from medieval quest narrative through Ariosto-like extra-diegetic reminders to the reader, the pedagogic neoclassical tale so blatantly evoking the quest narrative, staying just inside irony and parody, in a way allowing a philosophical (search) for trans-historical topoi. For one thing, the geographies are now a plethora of inner struggles (p. 189), inscribing a cosmos with endless trajectories, equilibria and schisms. And I will go to the ends of the road(s) for the Unions, indeed the conjunctions.

Some palpable evidences are that the greater understanding of one’s many selves must occur with/through a woman. The narration of the journey must be self-consciously allegorical, therefore both literal and figurative. Moreover, that obsessive (and class- and culture-induced) need to resolve contradictions begins to yield to the “need” of a flowing dialectics of opposites; indeed, it seems to allude to the necessity to recognize, accept and work with irresolvable paradoxes, the enigmatic, what is unsentimentally the way. This entails, as we gather from some of the shorter pieces at the end of the collection, dealing with the exacerbation of the schism between word and thing, between person and the naming of the person (cf. “Faculty Exchange Envelopes” (pp. 222-224), the ubiquity of the tags and names of the lived-life, the traces of having-lived reduced to a restaurant check. SOLUNA is at one and the same time the transition from the “end” of the experimental avant-gardism of western poetry and the beginning of a different, cosmographic, planetary approach to the writing art.

Reading Madison Morrison over the past week or so, I have often felt I was reading a long projected, but never realized, version of my own poetic auto-biography. That’s when I ran to Kostelanetz’ Autobiographies.10 An in-progress textuality that abhors any prescribed poetic or work dynamics. A forever stalled pro-ject, the very moment one is aware that programming is de rigeur. Programming. I remember the scriptoric caldron of Raffaele Perrotta.11 Unlike Morrison’s, Perrotta’s indefinite lexicophilosophical exile is strictly intraconsciousness. I like Morrison’s approach to interleaving the sacred books of the Veda and other ancient Indian texts in an open-handed manner. Although I also think many readers are initially derailed at the intercalating of non-European scriptures in Morrison’s work. But that’s the challenge. I am still too much inside western metaphysics, I have always worn its logologies uneasily and have unsewn and shed many a shocking theorem during these past 40 years. I have also been reading more non-Italian, non-American writers during the past seven or eight years than I had ever done before. Now that I think about it, Raffaele Perrotta did teach for five or six years at the University of Sydney, I still have his letters. He lived it like a Napoleon on St. Helen’s, like a Baudelaire out in Morocco, come un castigo di Dio. He returned to the endlessly roiling poetic magma of the West, I tell my friends when I describe him: somewhere between Heracleitus, Nietzsche, Pound, D’Annunzio, Derrida and James Joyce.

Morrison exhibits similar traits. Less intellectualoid, of course. But I don’t think there is a re-turn possible from Morrison’s exile. Uh, I surely haven’t traveled as much as he has, but I did travel to and from several cities and countries and counties and condominiums, voraciously engaged. In plain English, I would say I think I understand where he is coming from. Scratch that: where he is going. Owing to the extra-tension(al), the rhyzomatic cross-breeding, the inter-esse (that cantilevers the supervigilant self-awareness, as when he says “the present author,” “in front of me,” et cetera, Morrison can entertain a true non-axiomatic, non-prejudicial ex-change, con-versatio, actualize a mit-sein, in sum, a dialogue! Where what counts is the inter-relation without either beginning or end. I think I can follow this up with several quotations from Heidegger. In Was heißt Denken12 what needs to be thought is Sage, that is, myth insofar as Saying, as that articulation (writing, say) that speaks to the thought-provoking (das Bedenkliche). There is no outside to this cosmos, but at least there is no longer a beginning and an end. Elaborating (not without anxieties) Nietzsche, Heidegger did clear up the intro-spective self-consciousness of the 20th-century understanding of the human being. Did he go “beyond”? Perhaps. In Heidegger’s assessment of what is there left us as viable to transcend the silent strictures of western metaphysics, we find the Event, the Happening, das Ereignis as the sole locus where a meaningful entrapment of/by the Lichtung is possible. Madison Morrison seems to have made of these Radiating Clearings (my translation, or better yet, vision/version) a way of life, extending them horizontally (across cultures, geostoric sites, vertically-lived Being-in-such-and-such-a-place). Now Heidegger goes on to repeat that what must be retained is Memory, a sort of mare nostrum wherein Andenken (recalling) can happen. In Morrison, geohistory is the operating realm. Heidegger remains within western logology, Madison Morrison chooses to exercise his quest for a divine disclosure in the heterology of non- or extra-western mythologies and philosophies of the planet.

He could rightly be called a Planetary Writer. His cosmology will inevitably look to the divinities of other peoples, of differently compressed or expanded times, and introduce a sense of temporality that we cannot clearly and quickly identify. The writer who pens down meticulously, almost obsessively, the interweaving of these clusters of discourse is, of course, unfurling a cosmology. Cosmology is a tricky business. It is in-between Physics and Metaphysics. In his Philosophia Rationalis (1744) Wolff writes: “Cosmologia est scientia mundi qua talis,” better yet: “pars physicae quae de corporibus qua talibus agit atque docet quomodo ex iis componatur mundus.”

Matter and form, movement and rest, quantity and quality, image and thought are here ab initio co-related. What in other contexts—for instance, in postcolonial and diasporic writings—are re-defined, reconceptualized critical notions of both philosophy (and with it, science) and art (and within it, literature) and exude vague agonistic, ideological attacks on ever more abstract social forces, are instead recast, in Morrison’s Realization and Happening, in a processual fusion of disparate long-narratives, exhibiting the diverse temporalities of the writing-act, the reclaiming of a-temporal prophetic Saying, the pragmatics of existence, the negotiations of living life as a thinking/feeling Being. And, yes, a still elusive spirituality of sorts. It is a spirit of both man and nature, society and history, aligned upon borders, boundaries of all types. But not, because of this, partial and de-limiting. Quite the contrary. And since the cosmology can only come into being as Writing, then we must call Morrison’s work a cosmography.

The poet is here an allographic author, the convener in his scene of writing of textualities, of semantics, and more broadly of images (or ideologies) that rub sharply against one another yet engage by sequencing frames (Gestell) yielding relatively accessible juxtapositions, alter-natively by (symphonic) resonance, by metaphoric affinity, by metonymic conflict, by micro-semiotic abductions. Here one might also suppose that the epic journey undertaken by this author ultimately wishes to re-concile (not ri-legare) the undaunted différends13 of existence. That may be why he speaks of a project of 20-plus volumes. Should he live to prophetic ages, 300 to 400 years being typical (as in the Bible, the Veda and the Popul Vuh), the journey will go on. And Hermes, is it a co-incidence? is his protector, guiding/guardian angel and playful trader of signification, the aegis of the scripting nomad.


1. Richard Kostelanetz, Autobiographies, Mudborn Press, Santa Barbara, CA, 1980 (1975).

2. See for example O.ARS/1, “Coherence,” Cambridge, MA, 1981; O.ARS/2, “Perception,” ibid., 1982; Ironwood 20, Tucson, AZ, 1982, and other special issues of poetry and poetics journals from the mid-to late ’80s that grappled with the issue of what constitutes an audience or a community in the face of, on the one hand, the splintering of the poetic parole, and on the other the issue of the role and relevance of poetry among the other arts in the advanced stages of electronic and media-driven performance arts.

3. Madison Morrison, Engendering, Poetry Around, Norman, OK, 1990.

4. Madison Morrison, Realization, Anterem Edizioni, Verona, 1996.

5. Madison Morrison and Dan Boord, Revolution, Bookman Books, Taipei, 1985.

6. See on this the theoretical work of Paul Ricoeur, principally Temps et récit. The issue has been at the center of many debates in postcolonial and cultural studies in the United States for the past 20 years at least. Writers on both sides of the Atlantic have long raided official histories and used their “fiction” in variously motivated attempts at re-writing history or the national allegories of emerging sovereign states or diasporic cultures seeking some sort of homogeneous or coherent sense of identity.

7. Reminded me, minus the stylistic fireworks, of Gabriele D’Annunzio’s dazzling romp through the allegorical images of the Sistine Chapel in Maia, 1903.

8. Gérard Genette, L’oeuvre d’art: Immanence et transcendance, Minuit, Paris, 1993.

9. Madison Morrison, SOLUNA: Collected Earlier Poems, Sterling Publishers, New Delhi, 1989.

10. I also spontaneously associated Morrison to works by Paul Vangelisti (for example, Portfolio, Red Hill Press, Los Angeles, CA, 1985), Thomas Pynchon, and some artists published in Dock(s) and Carte Segrete. But the list could be expanded. See my next installment.

11. See for example Raffaele Perrotta, Insignia, Antonio Pellicani Editore, Rome, 1992.

12. Martin Heidegger, What is Called Thinking, translated by J.Glenn Gray, Harper & Row, New York, 1968.

13. Conflict or contest of phrases (meanings, therefore, and of referents) as elaborated by Jean-François Lyotard in Le Différend, Minuit, Paris, 1983.

Peter Carravetta