The Practice of Worlds: Will Alexander’s “Compression and Purity”
by Gary Sloboda
I first encountered Will Alexander’s poetry after enduring (almost willingly) a six-year lapse in my own writing. To a recovering non-writer, the amplitude of Alexander’s poetry exploded and reinvigorated what had degenerated into the shorn lingual sphere I had come to inhabit. Since reading Alexander’s works, such as Asia & Haiti, Above the Human Nerve Domain, and The Sri Lankan Loxodrome, his poetry has loomed large for me, becoming in my view, along with Alice Notley, Linh Dinh and Ben Lerner, a touchstone for the currents upon which some of the best contemporary poetry is riding. Yet Alexander’s work reflects perhaps the most dynamic current among these writers as evident in his wildly dispersed topical ranges and allusions, deep and angular rhythms, and far-flung lexicons derived from the complete arc of human knowledge; in the space of a stanza his poetry will often reach to the furthest corners of the historical record, leaping through geologic epochs, spiritual traditions, scientific learning, and diverse cultural cognitions. It is a poetry that asks a lot of its reader and, I would submit, also rewards.
After dwelling with Alexander’s vigorously surrealist poetry in my mind for several years, my apprehension of the authorial control of the work, the segmentation of book and collection, the individuation of the pieces, began to break down as if I were contemplating one reoccurring poem that shape-shifts from page to page. This continued to the point where I was no longer reading Alexander’s work, but would scan along the lines of his poetry as if to plug into a hidden palimpsest of meaning — in other words, I was surfing his poetry. That said, despite this manner of contemplation, which evokes its own kind of exhilaration, Alexander’s poetry definitely requires a different approach. In fact, it is the specificity of Alexander’s verse, the intense artistic determination of each poem, that buoys the breadth of his work into a recognizable poetic statement of the condition of the universe. As with all great poetry, it calls out for close consideration.
Given that Alexander’s poetry is massive in its scope and implications, it helps to first ground it in its roots, which are undeniably surrealist. In his introduction to Alexander’s Towards the Primeval Lightning Field, Andrew Joron writes that Alexander’s work is “Universal History as an instantaneous burst of information.” Joron describes this information burst as “a Signal composed of the sum total of all signals” and, by way of a double analogy, recognizes its relationship to surrealist Andre Breton’s supreme point of convergence “wherein all contradictions between past and future, known and unknown, life and death, are reconciled.” Imploring and defending the revolutionary political intent of the surrealist project in response to criticism that the surrealists’ automatic writing methods were just trendy and offensive free associations, Breton defined the supreme point of convergence this way:
Everything tends to make us believe that there exists a certain point of the mind at which life and death, the real and imagined, past and future, the communicable and the incommunicable, high and low, cease to be perceived as contradictions. Now, search as one may one will never find any other motivating force in the activities of the Surrealists than the hope of finding and fixing this point. From this it becomes obvious how absurd it would be to define Surrealism solely as constructive or destructive: the point to which we are referring is a fortiori that point where construction and destruction can no longer be brandished one against the other…
Today it’s rare that surrealism is used to describe the methods and goals that so concerned Breton in his manifestos, even though much of our poetry is embedded with the influence. In Alexander’s poetry, however, the surrealist endeavor espoused by Breton is alive and well. I would argue a key thrust of Alexander’s difficult poetry, which plays out similarly to Breton’s concept of the supreme point of convergence, is the vigorous alchemy evident in the poetry’s transmission of elemental energies and processes that atomize within the poem so that their distinctions or disunions break down and are erased, but yet are ultimately transformed into radically new and unified architectures of expression. The resulting new energy or process – in alchemical terms, the new substance — is the poem itself. And in enacting this transformation, Alexander’s work kicks the door open to the full revolutionary weight of human expressive power – image, diction, allusion, reference, associative connections, music and rhythm – to represent and embody scientific, spiritual, and historical forces that permeate existence. This deeply learned but uncannily intuitive character to Alexander’s work is perhaps most identifiable in the title poem to his collection, Compression & Purity, which begins (lines 1-13):
In this fire of fluidic jeopardy
& reconstruct & re-condense
like adjudicated burins
or telepathic moon forms
like psychic drafts & diacritics
being pressured by conundrum & purity
compressed below the level of the gaunt reflecting metals
crushed & glinting pions
incessant suns in the pedalfer vapours
where the Sun quakes by quanta
by powerful interior fractal
Obviously, the subject here is the diamond and, more particularly, its emergence out of the destructive forces of the earth, which are also, without paradox, forces of creation. The play of these forces runs throughout the poem. And while this is a feature of surrealist poetry nearly within the four corners of Breton’s manifestos (as is the symbolic ideal of the diamond), in its tenor and vividness, in its rebellious force, the poem embodies something akin to what Allen Grossman terms “eidetic violence.” Although Grossman uses the phrase somewhat nebulously, eidetic violence is the force of transgressive expression. In assaying Hart Crane’s “The Broken Tower,” Grossman grounds the poem’s project in the act of appropriating the creative force of language and imagery reserved in the Old Testament for the one God:
The reconstruction of the “city and tower” of Genesis 11 (that’s what Crane’s poem narrates) is a restoration of divinely prohibited communicative universality on other (matriarchal) grounds. It is the nature of the patriarchal Semitic “God” that He requires an unbounded discursive territory. Hence He prohibits representation of Himself – guards himself against the violence inseparable from the representation – the making visible of anything – eidetic violence – as I will call it. The difficulty of the “difficult” poem in our time both marks and also therefore maintains a divine (that is at least to say, a structurally fundamental) theological prohibition.
What is interesting here is that Grossman ultimately posits Crane’s rebuilding of the tower of babel as a “cure” for eidetic violence, alleviating the need for and disturbance of transgressive or alienated expression, and resulting in the reestablishment of a universal communicative hierarchy. In Alexander, however, the force of eidetic violence is evoked not in an effort to rebalance the expressive field by the reinstitution of an alternative hierarchal mode but rather to merge the universe of knowledge fragments and conceptual threads into a new and larger broadband for expression, which is whole/complete because of its radical inclusiveness. And whether one considers the theological prohibition of the Old Testament God in Hart Crane or the global hegemony and cultural superstructure of Alexander’s time, this kind of writing indeed enacts violence upon it. Therefore, although manifesting quite distinctly from Crane’s poetry, it is this furiously creative, promethean force and voice, this eidetic violence, that emerges in Alexander’s poetry, and is reflected in not only the primacy and multiplicity of its imagery and esoteric linguistic range, but also in the objective content itself — as, for instance, the forces of nature that shape the diamond. And in “Compression and Purity,” these same forces form the words in the poet’s mind (lines 30-42):
diamond as subduction
as errata of mist under vapour
& 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
Although a metaphor in the strict sense, the diamond is not presented as a logical analogy to the poem. Instead, the diamond and the poem result from the same generative forces. And taken a step further, the evocation of the poem springs not only from the same energies found in geophysical and chemical processes, but also the historical, paleontological and artistic linkages that run with them. For instance, the above stanza shifts back and forth between images of geology, chemical processes, human creativity, and hybrids of all three, ending finally with the historical antecedent of the “Mississippian,” which term intuitively grounds the stanza in the poem’s multi-layering of allusions: the geological era of the Mississippian; the ancient and lost Mississippian culture; the historical locus of African-American culture and oppression in the Mississippi Delta of the United States, and therefore the connotations of the dispersal of African culture and knowledge central to Alexander’s work. In this way, the varied constituents of the geophysical world, human knowledge and culture bleed and blend into one another, and the layers of the poem multiply and go deep.
But despite these tracings, the poem is not a literal conception. Rather, it’s the automatic or trance flow of the poetry – the thought-music unfolding, the heavy and angular jazz — that confirms the validity of the poem’s multivalent fields, as we listen to (lines 23-28):
the ground as habitual day star
as perfect star in the fathoms
known as pyroxenes
as repetitious pyroxenes
as repetitious pyroclastics
as lowered concentrations of void
Like a jazz-fusion bass solo played over an odd time signature or a hip-hop artist rapping the lines of a science book, this is music that calls attention to the idea of itself, carving out space against the order of things. Although this is assured and specific music, it is the rhythmic and melodic aesthetic of off handedness, of improvisation, that convinces the reader to ride along through Alexander’s cascade of thought. With its aural resonances, Alexander’s poetry channels a new frequency, and thus seduces and persuades the open reader to entertain his revisioning of consciousness, his rebellion against fixed or doctrinaire ways of knowing and seeing everything.
Indeed, at the root, Alexander’s project is this reconfiguring of perspective and consciousness. As Alexander writes in “My Interior Vita”:
Creativity being an ongoing praxis, is a continuous trance, in which one deals with the unification of worlds, rather than fostering inclement fragments. Insights, worlds within worlds, which include not only scintillations of the conscious mind, but more importantly, its ability to both elevate and descend, thereby traversing the triple levels of the mind, the conscious, the supra-conscious, and the sub-conscious minds, creating in the process a concert of worlds.
Following this ethos of radical interconnectivity, in the last stanza of “Compression & Purity,” the roiling linguistic frequencies and knowledge strata culminate in a new unified field: (lines 50, 54-56): “compression then / […] being a fabulous schist / being monoxide & hearing / with the Sun spun around & condensed by petrology.” This confirms each force that acts on the diamond is no longer singular but is intertwined and inseparable from the endeavor of the poem, so that the diamond is “schist “ and “monoxide” but also “hearing,” and thus is poetry. As such, the poem mediates scientific knowledge and re-postulates it as a mode of connectivity to other layers of existence and modes of consciousness, including direct connection to the forces embedded in and engendered by the poetry itself. In the alchemical sense, the poem functions as the mystical philosopher’s stone, capable of transmuting its content into completely new material of rare and exceeding value. Taking this angle even further, Alexander’s poem parallels not just the alchemy of myth but the historical practice and discipline of alchemy, which Carl Jung rigorously explored in Aion and Psychology and Alchemy as both a metaphor for the transformation of the psyche and a philosophical and scientific predicate, along with the later development of psychics, for the melding of the psyche with the physical world. Writing of these fundamental conjunctions in the context of the interconnections of the psyche and modern psychics, Jung wrote quite similarly to Alexander’s manifesto of creative purpose in My Interior Vita (and similar to Breton as well), as follows:
[…] Sooner or later nuclear physics and the psychology of the unconscious will draw closely together as both of them independently of one another and from opposite directions, push forward into transcendental territory, the one with the concept of the atom, the other with the concept of the archetype [¶] […] Psyche cannot be totally different from matter for how otherwise could it move matter? And matter cannot be alien to psyche, for how else could matter produce psyche? Psyche and matter exist in the same world, and each partakes of the other, otherwise any reciprocal action would be impossible. If research could only advance far enough, therefore, we should arrive at an ultimate agreement between physical and psychological concepts. Our present attempts may be bold, but I believe they are on the right lines. 10
While Alexander’s poetry is not in search of this scholarly resolution to Jung’s hypothesis for a further reach of analytical psychology, his work nonetheless calls out and establishes these same connections. Thus, if Alexander’s work can be called alchemical at all, it is that of the highest form: a philosophical mechanism for truth and human discovery.
Operating, then, as a kind of condensed philosophical treatise unbound by the labors (and limitations) of rational explanation, Alexander’s is a singular poetry that fully inhabits and necessitates its exclusive but expansive aesthetic. As evident in the workings of “Compression & Purity,” Alexander fuses the shaping of knowledge/experience, thought and levels of consciousness (the endeavor of high poetry) with the shaping of “Creation” — everything merges. And although this is difficult poetry for anyone, it transmits in the most fruitful sense by radiating an expansionary and revolutionary capacity of nearly infinite connectivity and transformation. In essence, this is Alexander’s ambitious praxis, his concert of worlds, which has ensnared my attention as a poet and reader, and which, I would argue, deserves the close and further attention of those committed readers of contemporary poetry capable of carrying his remarkable work forward.
 Andrew Joron, “On Alexandrian Philosophy,” introduction to Will Alexander, Towards the Primeval Lightning Field (O Books 1998) 11.
 Joron, “On Alexandrian Philosophy,” 11-12.
 Andre Breton, Manifestoes of Surrealism (The University of Michigan Press 1994, trans. Richard Seaver and Helen R. Lane) 123-124.
 Will Alexander, “Compression & Purity,” Compression & Purity (City Lights 2011) 22.
 Allen Grossman, “On Communicative Difficulty in General and ‘Difficult’ Poetry in Particular: The Example of Hart Crane’s ‘The Broken Tower,” Chicago Review, vol. 53, issue 2 (Autumn 2007) p. 142.
 Allen Grossman, “On Communicative Difficulty in General and ‘Difficult’ Poetry in Particular: The Example of Hart Crane’s ‘The Broken Tower,” 142.
 Will Alexander, “Compression & Purity,” 23-24.
 Will Alexander, “My Interior Vita,” Compression & Purity, 69-70.
 Alexander, “Compression & Purity,” 24.
10 Carl Gustav Jung, Aion (Princeton University Press 1968, 2nd edition, trans. R.F.C. Hull) 261.
Gary Sloboda is a lawyer, writer and musician. His work has appeared in such places as Rattle, Drunken Boat, Glitter Pony, and Filling Station. In 2008, he published a chapbook of poems, Pine (Finishing Line Press). His latest music project was the short-lived band, Chido Llanta, which has left him again between bands. The essay appearing in this issue of EOAGH is the first published in a series that focuses on single poems by experimental or post-avant garde contemporary poets. He lives in San Francisco.