The Short Version: An ABC Book

Norbert Ruebsaat

Stan Persky’s The Short Version: An ABC Book (New Star Books) is a “miscellany” that Persky defines as a book “composed in alphabetically arranged entries of indeterminate length that can run from an aphorism to a complete essay or story.” Persky got the idea from the Polish Nobel Laureate Czeslaw Milosz, who published Milosz’ ABC in 1997 when he was in his mid-eighties and wanted to remember the “faces, voices and things” that threatened to disappear from his world. Persky also acknowledges Roland Barthes as an inspiration for the literary prose form in which the author is both object and subject and can write “about anything worth writing about.” The alphabetical ordering becomes a literary conceit that cleverly echoes the encyclopedia form that ushered in the European print age. The Short Version, which includes lengthy essays on Persky’s mentors, Robin Blaser and Jack Spicer, contains smart echoes of the serial poem form that Blaser and Spicer and Robert Duncan invented in San Francisco in the 195s and ’6s to compose books in which “individual poems are at once independent episodes but … should echo and re-echo against each other.” I’ve been a fan of Persky’s work since I stayed awake all night reading his first “literary” (episodic) book, Wrestling the Angel, back in 1976 and was startled by the audacity with which he eschewed boundaries between poetry, prose, journal entries, anecdotes, stories and essayistic digressions, and created a genre-bending mélange ordered not alphabetically but by the dated “letter.” I was trying to figure out whether to be a poet or a “writer” at the time, and Persky’s book offered a way of becoming neither or both of these. After that I continued to lie awake at night reading or waiting to read Persky’s ensuing genre-bending books (Buddy’s, his 1989 “Meditation on Desire,” was a masterpiece, and the 1997 Autobiography of a Tattoo was a close second), and The Short Version kept me alert into the wee hours as well. This one worked less well as a coherent book than the other two did; it reads at times like a “true” (as opposed to literary) mélange in which arbitrary titles have been placed, in keeping with the alphabetic stricture, on occasional pieces written initially for other venues—most notably the Web zine Dooney’s Café, to which Persky regularly contributes. There are still some brilliant pieces here: for example, Persky’s literary essay on Robin Blaser’s often hard-to-understand poetry and his Hommage à Walter Benjamin, which takes us into the heart of both authors’ “inner city,” Berlin—and handily fits into the Bs. Persky once said that he did not become a poet after his apprenticeship with Spicer and Blaser because he did not “feel the line.” He could not “get” the breath control, or whatever it was that Ezra Pound and the others proclaimed was the source of “poetry.” Persky did understand sentences, however, or at least came to understand them, including their breath patterns, and so, after a sojourn in journalism, he developed the literary prose form, inspired by Barthes and Milosz, at which he has become a master. Most recently, Persky has posted a series of prose pieces called New York Poems on the Dooney’s Café web site; these, with their subtle nod to Garcia Lorca (whose The Poet in New York inspired Jack Spicer’s first serial poem, After Lorca) and to Spicer himself, perform an elegant triple entendre that comments on and recapitulates not only genre history but also the history of language-producing technologies. It was Marshall McLuhan who reminded us that we don’t understand what a medium is doing to us until its power and control are replaced with a new medium. The Internet has shown that books were—and are—a form of the imagination that fused speech and thought in a silent template in which the joins between these different modes of perception are rendered invisible. It’s not until we “translate” between media technologies, between forms, between genres, between the spoken word of poetry and the silent word on the page, that we begin to notice the peculiarities by which and through which we compose a world. After refusing to decide whether to become a writer or a poet I became a translator, rendering German texts into English. The German literary tradition has been less resolute in separating the professions of “poet” and “writer”—a distinction that since Shakespeare has haunted English literature. The German word Dichter, has, since Goethe’s time, described both kinds of authors, and the word Dichtung (which literally means “thickening” or “compressing”) can refer to all written and printed and spoken “texts,” as Barthes would call them. The categories poet and thinker, Dichter und Denker, are also more conflated in the German literary tradition than they have been in English. And I am happy to report that Persky currently lives in Berlin part-time and has started to write some apprentice pieces in German.

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Norbert Ruebsaat

Norbert Ruebsaat has written many articles for Geist. He lived in Vancouver and taught at Simon Fraser University.


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