So while I am not comparing the work of the two, I am saying that my desire for meaning feels a little manipulated and tortured just about now. And that’s a good thing. Let me explain.
Manipulation is also a form of channeling, of conveyance, it seems. In the Author’s Note at the beginning, after a jouncy bit of dissembling about the title, purpose, and content of the book, the reader will come to this admission:
Usually, a book is about something very particular.
The note lays down several key processes: iteration, revision, erasure, misspeak. Deformation as reformation. The act of reading, too, is a manipulation, and there is a lot of “scraping off” in this book. Whether it is the series of variants on the “man walks into a bar” formula, early in the book, or the sequence of letters to god toward the end of the book, there is a persistent clearing away by piling up, covering the last entry with the newest entry. The text observes, laments, revels in, and identifies with these processes of deformation as reformation:
You mean to say one thing, and you slip and speak a password, and the
The city, like the text, is many-edged, inwardly expanding, prismatic even, given all its shining epithets. “All words are names,” after all, and every naming reflects and distorts the names that crowd, that came before. This is history, or prophecy, and none of it settled:
City of augurs, city of oracles, city of interpretations in this sense,
city arousing no carpet’s harmonious pattern, city of divine origin,
controversy. City of similarities, come to the universe…. (27)
Weaving the reader in and out, from room to room and place to place, including an array of half-rhyme repetition and doubling of images, Dunbar works through a sometimes nightmarish scenery, some of it violent or at least malevolent, but also buoyed by a heroic sense of the possibility of regeneration. It’s never clear whether this is a progress toward something, a final draft or perfect rendering, or an interminable but unavoidable processing of possible outcomes, synapses firing in ways they had previously not:
As you die, your soul will scatter from your mouth like confetti.
It would be nice if the confetti would subdivide into hundreds of small,
bulbous confetti eggs.
And if each egg would pop, and profess a rain of confetti all its own, like
signals igniting the bush of undiscovered neurons.
It would be nice for this to be especially convenient. (35)
…but there are clues, from the beginning of the book, that this division, this multiplicity, is utterly unsurprising:
A large part of the appeal of snowflakes in
popular culture is their proposed uniqueness
on a molecular level, a uniqueness that every
organic and non-organic structure shares by
the exact same criteria. (5)
In other words: settle down – it’s just a unique snowflake. And what isn’t?
If George Steiner is right that “to decipher is to understand” and “to hear significance is to translate,” then listen for significance, and don’t worry so much if you understand. There may be nothing new under the sun, but in this book everything is vague and uncertain at first, like listening to a partially-known language; everything an as-yet undeciphered significance. (Dunbar is transmitting a method as much as any meaning; and the method changes meaning.) Again – for what it’s worth – William Logan: “most poets who give us meaning don’t know what they’re talking about.” So sit back, relax, and enjoy the honest-to-goodness manipulation:
And someone’s likely to not understand at first; when they do understand am I
then communicating honestly? (64)