Caramboles by Alexander Dickow
(Argol editions, Paris, 2008)
Laughter Toads: Alexander Dickow’s Caramboles
Alexander Dickow’s first book, Caramboles, promises, delivers, and promises that much more compelling poetry will come from this poet. Reveling in “error,” irascible, irreverent, the poems’ jumbled syntax jerks down the page, across the book, a fractured fairy tale, the last dance of a wedding, bride and groom stumbling to their own premature nostalgic beat. Or Charlie Chaplin wobbling out of the stranglehold of our stringent cultural expectations.
Fluent in French and English, Dickow writes original poetry in both, or so it may appear on the surface. Through the multitude of “mistakes” in these poems, Dickow may actually be positing that he cannot be–that no one can be–fluent in any language. Any language has its limitations, its presumptions. Starting with the title, few things can be taken for granted in this book. There are two possible reads, the first not an accurate translation yet perhaps more indicative of the poetry. The verb caramboler means to strike, to bump into, evoking the colliding syntax (not a poem in English without a dent; I cannot say if the same errors occur in the French). More literally, a carambole is a somewhat acidic fruit characterized by its star shape. I cannot fathom how that fact acts on the poems, so I will dance with my first read, even if I step on someone’s toes.
I hypothesize that Dickow wrote the poems in French first, then made a loose translation in English, producing the syntactical quirks that abound in clumsy student translations. Surely he could not have created the contorted syntax in his native language.(Who the hell was his English teacher?) But then again he may be implicitly arguing that fluency is an illusion at worst, elusive at best. Many of the poems hinge–or unhinge–on this flawed grammar, the enjambment demanding the reader’s attention, dizzy on the precipice of meaning. These fender-benders of nouns and verbs are also at the root of an abundant humor, a contagious playfulness, throughout the book.
Caramboles is a political book insofar as Charles Bernstein’s argues in “Sign Under Test” (Girly Man, The University of Chicago Press): “The politics in a poem has to do with how it enters the world, how it makes its meaning, how its forms work in social contexts. The politics in a poem is specific to poetry not politics [my emphasis].” This series of poems pokes at the poetry world, the teetering syntactical structures jabbing at poetry’s conventions. The book perhaps takes a stab, too, at the larger world, at American provincialism. An American studying abroad in France, Dickow thumbs his nose at those in the United States who not only do not know another language, but who also garble what little information they gather about another culture (remember “freedom fries”?). The former political stance, positioning against the norms of poetic form, however, dominates the latter, the social/cultural.
The reader is given no time to settle into a passive reading. The first rupture in syntax occurs at the end of the fifth line and/or the beginning of the six line of the opening poem:
Clumps of smarmy grackles
splutter quoting Trakl’s
Whispered into After-
noon. Melodic like a
nervous flock of laughter
toads, they clash and strike a
different chords together,
birds of neither feather.
Is it “laughter/toads,” a curious image, or is it “laughter[missing/implied/invisible word/s]/toads. Is it then the toads who “clash and strike a/different chords together”? The grammar “mistake”–“a/different chords,” plural noun when the article calls for a singular noun–produces a kind of nervous laughter, a flock of stumbling “birds of neither feather” unable to fly but flying nonetheless. In this poem and others, form is the armature of content. The muffed syntax draws attention to itself, the poem driven less by what the poet is saying than how he is saying it, the effect coming from the syntactic mish-mash rather than semantic content.
Another example shows how the garbled grammar creates ambiguity. One poem (all the poems are untitled) begins plainly enough (though it is not clear by the end of the poem what the object “it” is): “I have glimpses everywhere for it.” But then the next two lines veer from expected order:
I will scouring any single one
by one of that belongings from me
The “will” can work as an auxiliary verb as in “I will scour,” yet it can also function as a noun, the will, the poem’s will, behind the scouring. In the next line, “belongings” can act as a noun, as in property, or can be a bungled verb, “belongs.” One of many first person poems, the syntax unfolds a perplexed autobiography:
I will be break all of rules
to be finding it back.
Besides myself to worry,
because if I would lost it,
I have none of moreover.
The speaker works hard to make sense, to recover his rightful path, but it, whatever it is, is out of reach far into the future. The speaker, however, retains a smidgeon of hope:
Following for clues, is notice
some kind of resemblance…
Had you to seen it anywhere,
you are telling me? Once
day I would maybe to wake
thoroughly up myself,
I’ll found it here was whole
the time, right affront of me.
Abruptly the poem closes with a call for help, a plea to the reader to discover coherence in the confusion of the world:
Help me to seek for I lost it there.
Caramboles has four sections. In the first, the English is right justified on the left hand side of the book, the French left justified on the facing page, the two languages meeting squarely in the margins. In the second part, “un conte–a tale,” the English becomes left justified on the left hand side and the French right justified on the right hand side, the binding opened up with ragged spaces. In the third part, “a tale–un conte,” the French has shifted to the left hand side, right justified, and the English is on the facing page, left justified, French and English meeting in the middle (creating an arrow shaped poem on pages 70-71). In the fourth section, the French is again on the left side, now left justified, and the English on the right hand side, right justified, replicating the staggered spacing of the second section. What is with all this jockeying of margins? In total effect, the book swings across pages, across time and space. That iconic wedding again? Or naively swaggering Charlie Chaplin? More likely, Dickow eschews the rule-abiding poetry too often presented in contemporary literary journals.
Would I know anymore if I could read as fluently in French as I think I can in English? Or is this book an argument against fluency, subverting the transparency of most poetic language? On the back cover (translated from the French on goodreads.com), Dickow writes, “I merrily reduce the English language to a frenzied shuffle. Or else I unhinge language, dislocate it, as though I were a gnome in a museum tilting picture-frames for a good laugh, just enough to discompose the patrons. Aficionados object; campaigns are launched against the crooked: the virtuous demand redress.”
Whether you are a stodgy aficionado or a mischievous gnome, you have got to chuckle reading this book, the cracked picture frames of the poems deflecting just enough light to tickle your eye.
Crag Hill until recently edited SCORE, one of only two journals dedicated exclusively to concrete/visual poetry. In the last three decades his work has appeared in over 100 journals and anthologies, including several available on-line. His creative and critical works in progress can be found at http://scorecard.typepad.com. AND: During the anemic Carter administration, Crag Hill kicked the "i" out of his first name. Continuing to be underwhelmed by his elected leaders, he threatens to kick out the last vowel, too soft, too soft, he says. Something in the Scotch-Irish in him thinks he'll be well-represented by the guttural "Crg."