The Arugula Fugues

Arugula, its provençal name, is a yuppified salad ingredient from the crucifer family. Under its alternate name, rocket, this lunchtime treat conjures 1950's jet age enthusiasm in vegetable form, like the veg-o-matic machine and vitameata-vegamin elixir.

A fugue is an interesting concept in poetry. In music, imitative counterpoint compares and contrasts two voices or themes. At first, the resulting polyphony is easy to hear and too logical, but then a chaotic episode ensues before the end. Additionally, the fugue form in music was devised after the first and arguably best fugues were written. The word originally meant "to flee", maybe to leave its "locked" logic. Many poets have written fugues, including Alicia Ostriker and Paul Celan. From the beginning of Celan's "Todesfuge":

Black milk of daybreak we drink it at sundown
we drink it at noon morning we drink it at night
we drink and drink it is the first theme; the second includes

A man lives in the house he plays with the serpents he writes
he writes at sundown in Germany your golden hair Marguerite

These themes recombine in the end:

Black milk of daybreak we drink you at night
we drink you at noon death is a Master from Germany...
he plays with serpents and daydreams death is a Master from Germany
your golden hair Marguerite

This makes sestinas look silly, or as Adeena Karasick ends her chapbook, The Arugula Fugues, "In the / tic-tac taco staccato proxy stock // jacked in // the sonatina sestina scarred tarplet of / her burnished whirling." The other fugue poems which come to mind as comparisons are Delmore Schwartz's, particularly parts of "Will You Perhaps Consent to Be" or parts of "All of Us Turning Away for Solace":

play billiards, poking a ball
On the table, play baseball, batting a ball
On the diamond, play football, kicking a ball
On the gridiron,
seventy thousand applauding.

This amuses, this indeed is our solace:

Follow the bouncing ball! O, fellow, follow,
See what is here and clear...

It is easy to read he's including the sound of ball-based sports and describing tv or at least mass entertainment while bursting into song.

Karasick uses sound across syntax, so her fugues are the interplay of meaning across conventions for sequencing. Because words that mean alike often sound alike if they are from the same language group, these poems develop auras of meaning as a side effect. The poems have the full scale of sound effects, including stress patterning, song sampling, and remixing.

She has fancily foresworn the obscurity which can follow from diversifying away from plain speech by playing with language itself. She offers headings as explanation, at least as the first fugue begins,

Huddled in the shadow of these syllables
dwells the troubled grammar of
so many sentences

while still punning and evocative on many levels (for example, this recalls the poem on the base of the Statue of Liberty).

The poems continue in a particularly bodily way, through mouthed sounds and the language which describes them (labial, liquid, sibilant, sonant) and their cases (vocative, genitive, ablative, locative). Words written by Karasick consistently and constantly remind it is the body which resounds, stickily, though syntax may bring "finials" and flourishes to ground. She writes on page eight: "my / frosted syntax sucks / in knotted tuft puffery, / in the flux of fat lustre."

Literally a mother as well as a mother of invention, Karasick seems to have conceived every conceivable permutation as she proceeds to give us an exhaustive survey of heightened language. She uses nouns in many languages as other parts of speech ("we fleure"), continues to pun on lettuces ("frisbee frisée frolicking"), but she has punched up her verbs as well. She uses similes. The passive voice allows words to act upon the narrator and reader. There is a lowercase "i," a "you," and a "she." There are necessary dull phrases which might glimmer in other verse ("with wanting,"so i say"), but these phrases have different sounds than those that build into riffs, clauses, and lines in the poems.

After a string of sonically-associated words, there is a "break" which is not a line break or punctuation mark, but more like a caesura. This break provides closure to a clause. In this quote, from the first page of the chapbook just after the heading I quoted, "tucked" moves to "torque" with the addition of an "r", but then a break separates these from "wick slick":

Tucked in torque wick slick
serial surfaces like chic smut fluff...

the line break divides "slick" from "serial surfaces", the presence of the "i" unites "like" and "chic" even though they have different "i" sounds, and different "i" sounds from "wick slick"; "smut" and "fluff" have the same vowel. This is probably a bit of speculative ancient Hebrew prosody applied to English; heady stuff; one of Adeena Karasick's many specialties.

At the end of page one, in a font called Algerian, is the phrase, "in the neolyric acrylic frill fandango." She begins the sixth section of the first fugue with, "So, when i appear / as a heteroglossy and overproduced fontophiliac, a / flurry of probity strobes...." Karasick, in all her books, uses fonts, images, and other devices. It is important to note the production value of this chapbook. Zaesterle chapbooks are perfect-bound and glossy. While this chapbook is black-and-white, Talon books in Canada has generously supplied me with Karasick's The Empress Has No Closure (1992), Mêmewars (1994), Genrecide (1996), and Dyssemia Sleaze (2000), which I can reasonably expect to review. The latter two books are full color. The fonts and their usage in The Arugula Fugues compare to that in Dyssemia Sleaze.

The fonts are not the other voice in the fugues. The poems themselves are more similar to "Mellah Marrano" in Dyssemia Sleaze than they are to the other portion of that book, but have more energy (if that is possible) or less anger behind them. Karasick's combinations of essay and poetry, which are completely unlike any others I've read, are not in the chapbook.

Zaesterle Press, in -- ah -- Tenerife (Spain) has an incredible list of chapbooks available through Small Press Distribution and listed at a site hosted by Duration Press.

For this 30-odd page chapbook, Karasick has relaxed into her facility. These are bright and joyful fugues which can be appreciated variously, and which reweave or recombine given multiple readings.

by Catherine Daly
Adeena Karasick
The Arugula Fugues
Zasterle Press, 2001