Procedural poetry + music: this combination might put you in mind of John Cage. And Geoffrey Gatza’s fascinating new book is definitely in the tradition of Cage, Jackson MacLow, or Jean Lescure. But there’s a twist: these procedural poems are based on a form of traditional church-bell ringing – namely, “change ringing,” a practice which dates to the early 17th century in Britain. As Gatza explains in his introduction:
The sequencing of the bells is numbered 1,2,3,4,5, [...] from the highest-pitched bell to deepest-ringing bell. After each sequence, or round, the order of the bells is changed slightly in a prearranged way [...] For example:
1 2 3 4 5 6 7 8
2 1 4 3 6 5 8 7
[...] No bell moves more than one place in the row at a time, although more than one pair may change in the same row.
This is the type of operation used to produce the poems: phrases, phonemes, or words in each line are rearranged in the same order as the bells are rung in one or another of the traditional routines of change-ringing. Indeed, these poems are designed as performance scores for the voices of several reading “ringers.” By contrast, “How to read these poems on the page [as an individual, that is] is entirely up to the reader.” I found myself becoming my own performer/co-creator as I read and re-read the pieces (often aloud) – which turned out to be rather fun.
The expression “ring the changes,” also dating from the early 1600s, almost certainly derives from change ringing; and Gatza rings the changes, as far as contemporary poetry is concerned. This book is certainly something unattempted yet in prose or rhyme – and some of the poems do rhyme. For, as Victor Hugo puts it (in the epigraph), writing of the bells of Paris, it “is not a chaos . . . it has not lost its transparency; you behold the windings of each group of notes which escapes from the belfries.” Indeed, one way to read these poems on the page is to behold it, as visual poetry. For instance, in the first few poems, Gatza assigns different colors to the several units in the line, creating a visual composition worthy of a Sol LeWitt, as in “Alpha Zeta”:
The composition here borders on the asemic, albeit the “spelling” of the letters invites the reader’s brain to form new compositions from it. This is the “Plain Hunt,” the simplest of change-ringing scores. As the book progresses, however, polysemy rules (albeit in a very orderly way): the phrases become longer and the words representing each “bell,” more complex. It’s like going from the pawn’s moves to the knight’s to the queen’s. For instance, what starts as “When a Poet Dies An Entire Library Dies As Well,” when rearranged in the sequence of the “Cambridge Surprise Maximus,” becomes:
When An Library Poet As a Dies Entire Well Dies
When As Library An Well Poet Dies a Entire Dies
When Well Dies As Entire Library Dies An a Poet
When Dies Entire Well Dies a Poet As An Library
There is a certain Steinian “insistence” at work here, as well as a strong overtone of dada. But once again, the pattern is not at all random; it changes rapidly, in a set order, and the new order produces new memes within and across the line. The overdetermination can be a little overwhelming, but for those of us who appreciate polyvalence, that’s a good thing.
Sometimes the effect is both droll and incisive. “What Is Done Cannot Be Undone” ends up sounding like the trochaic tetrameter of “By the shores of Gitche Gumee” – which slathers a layer of Verfremdungseffekt over Longfellow’s Hiawatha:
What Is Done Cannot Be Undone
Is What Cannot Done Undone Be
Is Cannot What Undone Done Be
Cannot Is Undone What Be Done
But sometimes the effect is disturbing, as in “I’d Worry More About Terror If I Could See It” (after the change-ringing pattern “Plain Bob Minor”):
More Terror I’d If Worry About Terror I could see it
More I’d Terror Worry If About About I could see it D
I’d More Worry Terror About If More I could see it O
I’d More Terror Worry If About About I could see it W
More I’d Worry Terror About If More I could see it N
More Worry I’d About Terror If Worry I could see it
This is like a grammar lesson run amok, but the “lesson” plays with a very loaded sentence. But after a couple of pages, one reaches a point of semantic satiation – or misprision, if, like me, you start to see “terriers worrying a bone if” (and so on).
But some of the most interesting pieces are those in which new meanings are created on a very local, granular level, as in “You Can’t Destroy Time; It Has No Place to Go.” “Place It Has To Go Destroy No Time” might suggest that the place has to go; we can destroy it in no time. Or evocative short phrases emerge from the lines. The title poem produces “The Lost City”; “A Dog City”; “The Outlawed Lost”; “Dog Outlawed a City”; “The Trees Lost”; and “A Brick of Trees.”
One can also allow the syntax to cross line breaks, as in “In Love, We Are Invincible Apples”: “we are In love, / In love, we are apples again invincible / love [...] / [...] we are invincible / In love.” Sometimes the meaning is flipped, as “The day / frightening the strong money good will rule” becomes “The day will come // money will rule the strong frightening good [...].”
Even when there is no apparent semantic action, reading these compositions can soothe an over-active brain. One can follow the dance steps of a single word down the page or enjoy the pure mathematical pleasure of the form. But some of the very intriguing titles/seed phrases don’t let one range too far away from the social: “We Will Occupy Your Bank Before Your Brain”; “Money can only return more money take”; “Peace Hath Her Victories No Less Renowned Than War.” The grand finale of the collection is “Ten Synonyms for the Word Peace” – which is just that, albeit arranged and rearranged after the “Surprise Royal London No. 3” (one could do a lot with that name, too). This piece, which goes on for 29 (!) pages, has to be seen to be believed (or appreciated). The mix of nouns and modifiers makes for a dizzying array of possibilities that will delight and immerse anyone who loves words.
And, in the end, that is the point of the exercise. Poetry is for people who love words: their sounds, their visual appearances, the connotational sparks they give off when rubbed together in different permutations. This is and is not aleatory: Gatza knows exactly what he is doing, even though the results surprise, unsettle, and delight. That’s why lovers of words will not be disappointed by A Dog Lost in the Brick City of Outlawed Trees. It is a brilliant performance, well worth the price of admission.
Joseph Harrington is the author of Of Some Sky (BlazeVOX Books 2018); Things Come On (an amneoir) (Wesleyan UP 2011); Goodnight Whoever’s Listening(Essay Press 2015); and the critical work Poetry and the Public (Wesleyan UP 2002). His creative work has appeared in BAX: The Best American Experimental Writing 2016, The Rumpus, Hotel America, Tupelo Quarterly, and elsewhere. He teaches at the University of Kansas (Lawrence).