Some thoughts on André Spears’s Fragments from Mu

Michael Boughn


André Spears’s new book, Fragments from Mu—A Sequel, follows from Letters from Mu Part 1, first published in France in 2000. The first volume introduced Spears’s unique poetry. A sci-fi poem, he claims, it is made up of epistolary exchanges between "A" and "S," a husband and wife. She is on a ship lost at sea after a cataclysmic battle with "aliens," while he, the card player of the second book, is lost in the underworld of a deep trance induced as part of a high stakes game of Tarot against an "alien" opponent. Both are identified with alternating Major Arcana from the Tarot deck, the imagery of which works throughout the poems.

A. and S. write of a familiar yet wildly different space/time that gradually reveals itself as an often satirical foray into the slightly rejigged dimensions of our own unfamiliar realities. At one point, A writes to S:

Shapely and firm of flesh, Gucci had pale skin and a pretty face,

with short dark hair and small darkish teeth.

As she stood there on the sand, resplendent with new life

they offered her poems and blessed her with myrtle.

Then, arm in arm, McDonalds and Gucci led the others

in a joyous procession by the sea, past the cave,

toward JuJw forest—each rear end more beautiful than the next,

according to Baboozas.

These darkly funny revelations of the commercialized realities of our own overly familiar situation are one of the hearts of Letters from Mu (alien being that it is, it has several) which carries over into Fragments from Mu.

"Mu" resonates on several levels throughout the poems. It refers to the famous sunken continent in the Pacific from which humans are alleged to have spread around the world in the immemorially distant past. It’s also the answer to the famous Zen koan in which a monk asked Joshu, "Does a dog have the Buddha nature?" Joshu’s answer is "Mu!" And it has also been proposed as the etymological root of the word Mystery, deriving from the sound closed lips make—mmmmmmmm.. In all three senses it informs the haunting sense of some immense Mystery at the root of our condition that hovers around both books.

With Fragments we can begin to see the larger scope of Spears’s ambition. Combing dream imagery, unlikely variations on the archetypal imagery of the Major Arcana of the Tarot deck, a rich range of reference to history, science, contemporary culture, poetry and philosophy, a visionary exuberance reminiscent of William Blake, and a deep strain of satirical wit, Spears introduces us to a whole new experience of epic possibility at the beginning of the 21st century.

Epic is the issue here, at a time when we are still caught in some ambivalent or hostile resonance toward the form that followed Charles Olson’s shot at it. Olson was too big and too powerful—like the epic—and his critics went after both he and the form for being what they called "totalizing." But Olson’s move beyond the lyric—and all the sense of such a form—was a move not toward totalizing or containing but toward a poetry of the [discovery of the] world. Or you could say, the world and discovery are one in the same in Maximus and elsewhere. It’s not that discovery happens to the world. It’s not that the world is being discovered. Or that poetry is about that. Discovery is the world, and the language of the poem—in this poetry of the world—is that discovery. This is hardly containment. It’s the end of that in some opening that goes on forever.

What Olson called the hard beak of the ego was for him the enemy of poetry. That figures not just in singing of the self, but of doing so in a specific mode of address, one that always organizes the poem around the preexisting forms of the self, even as it makes that self endlessly the subject of poetry. Olson’s move was to find a form that would allow the world in. The reaction to that was, on the one hand, to return in panic to the furniture of the self (meubles, as Olson had it) claiming "expression" as some libratory, democratic gesture, and on the other to various modes of evading meaning or sense (and presumably the self’s control) while claiming that such tortured syntactical flatus was relevant to various political postures (see Kent Johnson’s on-line piece, "competence, linguistics, politics & post-avant matters."). In addition, there was something called "the long poem." The long poem is long. There’s really not much more to be said about it. It seemed to arise out of a combined recognition of the lyric’s dead end and a fear of the epic’s form. To be long is not to be totalizing. The problem is, it’s not to be anything other than long.

There were other more creative responses. Ed Dorn’s mock-epic, Slinger, managed to take on Olson even as it honoured him. If Dorn satirized the epic, and especially Maximus, much as Pope satirized Milton, at the same time he used it brilliantly to shine his dark light on American culture. John Clarke also took on Olson in In the Analogy, another variation on the epic that engages what Clarke saw as Olson’s brilliant failures. Unlike Dorn who poked fun at the form even as he used a variation of it, Clarke attempted to rethink the form’s possibilities, improvising on its conventions in order to reach after a new sense of it. But that’s really about it for the epic after Olson. Until Spears, who moves off both Dorn and Clarke, as well as Olson, but takes the formal possibilities in an entirely new direction.

In addition to Olson, Dorn, and Clarke, Spears summons up William Blake, Gene Wolfe, Gilles Deleuze and Felix Guattari, and Lewis Carroll to name a few, unleashing their work in this poem in gusts of thought that whip up words into wild and unpredictable formations of world. World here is a verb—to world, as it were—that drives Spears’s language to constantly unravel the present and reweave it into new recognitions of History, not as what was, but as Olson had it, what is. And always with a wicked sense of humour.

Like all poetry, the epic is a thing of conventions, and the central convention is the journey. Gilgamesh, Adam, Odysseus, Aeneas, Dante, Maximus are all on their way somewhere. What matters is where. And how. And why. Jumping into Spears’s poem is, as I have proposed elsewhere, like following Alice down the rabbit hole. The worlding forth you wind up in is a journey that explicates in ways that are always alien, yet vaguely known. The journey, which is a journey "I" takes through a landscape—really, an inscape—is recognizable, yet always other, as if we never quite know what we think we know. This is THE rabbit hole, though it’s not quite the same rabbit hole. And yet at every turn we encounter figures haunting and hilarious in their familiarity even as the journey from wi’n wi’n to loo’zz loo’zz marks a passage of twists and turns that speak to I’s transformation.

This rabbit hole says at the outset "I think" and we are on our way. Suddenly therefore hovers nearby, claiming not just predictable operations, but the operation some insist set our whole world in motion, a world called The West. But then it isn’t. There is no therefore—although like the hippopotamus Bertrand Russell denied to Ludwig Wittgenstein, it thereafter refuses to vacate the room—and instead we find "I have been here / before." Is before a therefore?

One thing for certain, whether you have been here before or not, once the journey has begun, there’s no telling what comes next. No telling it what? No telling it to behave? No telling it to mind its therefores? It is a journey, but it is not so much a journey one is on (as, say, one is on a horse?) as it is a pouring forth of words that weave a world—a worlding. If it is a journey, it’s a journey as adventure, as what’s coming at you, always, the world outpouring in words. It’s as if I had acted in such a way (as we all act) so as to unleash forces beyond our limited telling (in Homer’s epic they are called gods) and they began to tell us in their own figuring forth. In Spears’s poem they come fast and furious.

Sometimes they are great figures from the Tarot speaking of relations and modes of being that circulate through random (a throw of the die, a turn of the cards) and unpredictable tellings, where telling now figures as a kind of counting or fingering as if we were being measured by them. But there is another measuring going on as well, and the figures here are of another order. Not the Duchess of that other rabbit hole, nor the Mad Hatter, but Mad Boy, the Neanderthal, the Fat Man, and the Godfather, among others. The I they tell is caught up in the powers of a world called history and society, and here we see them as their powers swell into some enormous and often hilarious telling of our lives as they might be seen by some visitors to our planet in an immensely distant future.

It is in this arc overseen

by The Godfather—extending

from the Twins to The Scales

by way of the Charioteer—

together with the overlapping constellations

of The Hunter and The Prophet

below the Godfather’s left hand,

and The Emperor and The Skywalker

above his right hand,

that I retrace the larger outline

of the White Humvee

encrypted in the whole,

and come to a Revelation:

The Godfather sits

in The White Humvee.

What we see is how I, moving from room to room, often cannot tell where it is. What we call here from room to room (Blake called them states, Homer islands) may also be called station to station. On the train, station to station is mostly measured by a to or a from, say, something called home. In Spears’s telling, though, it may be something vaguely resembling stations of the cross. The stations of the train seem to be bereft of what we might call sense. One just comes after another and before another not unlike a mad tea party following a smile with no cat but preceding a croquet match. The stations of the cross come one after the other too, but they tell us within an unfolding that may bear the fruit of an understanding, as if the stations are knots in a string and when you get to the end you have measured something, tallied it or told it. Perhaps what you have measured is the passages of the self toward some terminal.

The terminal may be home, or at least on the way home, in which case the stations of the train like the stations of the cross in fact mark a telling of us. Certainly Spears’s rooms or station or states mark a passage. One measure of it, the movement from wi’n wi’n to loo’zz loo’zz, registers in the poem’s terms an escape from something called History where History is a telling of the entanglements of self in compulsive gestures that tie it to a terrific fate.

Gradually, with the realization that

the Combinatorial Logic of loo’zz loo’zz

is informed by the Algorithm

of a Worst Case Scenario

that coincides with the flow

of my Perpetual Assemblages,

and that my Degree of Power

is unstable, I begin to Meditate

on the Mythic Will to Cosmic

Delirium as the Revolutionary Solution

to a wi’n wi’n loo’zz loo’zz

Mutation that is Torture-free.

If it’s an escape from History, then it’s also an escape from the self that believes in that history, as if that was a journey I makes, or can make, if it grasps its terminal situation. This is not to suggest that the journey is toward some perfection or even improvement of the self that is itself a symptom here of the problem. Jean-Luc Nancy, in his essay on Michel Leiris, puts it this way:

There is no road leading to the Indies, even from the quayside of the most powerful empires. There is the slow glistening of the boundless, iridescent sea, with salt in your eyes, and sickness, and you end up somewhere else, or do not arrive at all. There is no gold road, no silk road, or self road, or any road leading to the self, but there is this long impressionable gaze touched every day by millions of gold birds, or by a few fine rods of rain.

André Spears, ending his poem on a note that rings with the tones of Olson and Whitman even as it veers into unpredictable variations that reweave the world into an unprecedented virtuality, puts it this way:

Nothing can stop me.

I set out now


a Box

upon a hill.