"Elemental utterance guttural": A Review of Magus Magnus' The Re-Echoes
Magus Magnus The Re-Echoes Furniture Press Books © 2012 ISBN: 978-0982629970 Paperback, $12
From start to finish, Magus Magnus’ The Re-Echoes "ripples,” “rips,” “ricochets,” “meanders,” and above all, sings its way through a fascinating exploration of language and listening. The book’s title suggests exactly what the text does—this book-length poem creates echoes of echoes—“a game of telephone” where complex word chains progress from sonic riffs, erasing and creating meaning one lovely phrase at a time.
At first glance, the constant repetition of “is” throughout the book seems to insist on the urgency of definition and description. The book starts and ends with “is,” and many of the poem’s lines begin with “is” followed often by a present tense verb—“is rips,” “is splurges.” The missing subject preceding each “is” undercuts this urge to define and proves it impossible. Again and again, we are presented with one half of an analogy. A fascinating “fill in the blank.” This mystery is an equally gorgeous and humorous way to enact the de-construction of the speech act. During a first reading, I found myself thinking of the word “language” as the subject before all the is’s. Then, “poetry,” or “time,” or even “life” or “death.”
Then, like the moment you see the single white vase instead of the two black silhouetted faces in an optical illusion, the alternative reading of the phrase emerges—the “is” is the subject of the phrase. The “is” is the entity engaging in the actions of the present tense verbs following it. After this realization, phrases like “is insists,” “is steadies,” or “is intrigues” take on an entirely new meaning. Through this lens, we’re asked to examine the word “is” itself, and, in so doing, the very act of defining, and the very act of being.
In this way, the book never becomes stagnant—as soon as one pattern becomes established, something is altered to shake things up. The first time an “it” appears before an “is,” for example, the change sets off a slew of denser, more syntactically complete text for several pages. The visual density of this section, combined with the sonic density of the rhymes, creates a fantastic, frenzied feeling that then abruptly drops off again with an appropriately selected “is” phrase: “is ruins/is rebuilds.” Later, about halfway through the book, a “he” emerges, complete with children and hands and arms, raising the stakes yet again and introducing the reader to a brand new element to consider in this cascade of language. The book thus follows an arc that builds and progresses, climaxing near the end with the simple, resounding phrase “is unless isn’t.”
Another pleasure of The Re-Echoes is the intertextuality at play in its pages. Magnus evokes Stein through his dexterous verbal wit, with puns like “since in is in vain/is vain//since in is in since/insists.” The book also calls up Oppen and the Objectivists in its careful, loving precision of language, and the way it creates entire universes out of the “little words.”
Indeed, more than anything, this is a book that revels in the beauty of words—their “weirdness,” their specificity, their grammar. As Magnus puts it: “words pleasurable for their textures, lingering feel/words pleasurable for the concepts root-illuminated/words pleasurable for the haunting.” In The Re-Echoes, words like “skullduggery” and “spigot,” floating on their own lines and surrounded by white space, are finally granted their moment in the spotlight. And as the book progresses, the ominous short fragments on their sea of white page seem both like the remnants and building blocks of something epic—a “flameout” or “sunburst,” in Magnus’ words.
Some poets use sound for sound’s sake, some for lush description, and others to communicate ideas. Magnus does all three. At times, his sonic chains seem to progress purely for the beauty of their music—an “elemental utterance guttural.” At other times, Magnus uses the language to offer lovely, sensory description: “improbable planets and their lingual moon jellyfish.” And then there are the moments when the poem pushes toward meta-commentary, elegantly whispering to us that “listening is learning/is the letter part of wisdom.” And listening is easy when the poem sounds this nice.