Catalogue of Burnt Text by Timothy David Orme
(BlazeVOX, Buffalo, N.Y., 2009)
whereupon alone by the leaving tree I sit…
Pay attention to the trees and to their leaves, trees that reach, balance, span, grow, fall, lighten, shade and levitate on the pages of Timothy David Orme’s book of poems, The Catalogue of Burnt Text. Leaves here are copious and evocative—they leave us with an overwhelming sense of solitude.
Solitude, but also a sort of mannered plenitude. The pages of Orme’s book, their generous whitespace, have fastened to them provisionally as in a scrapbook, Latin sentences, fragments of seemingly archaic English songs, lists, lyrical interludes, asides, cryptic epistles, generously titled [and subtitled and untitled] poems—pastoral, visionary, punning and anagrammatic.
The pseudo-catalogue is a mannered literary device, and the burnt text—well, our era seems to favor the simulated historical artifact delivered as an artistic product. All of this places Orme’s Catalogue of Burnt Text squarely in the postmodern tradition and might predispose the critic to cynicism. But Orme invokes Osiris who, dismembered and re-assembled, is the god of the present moment. Orme offers us a near-enough anagram, and justifies his own poetic practice:
The taking of two for one to exist
Or desire. |osiris dies! (50)
Very little of the book resembles a catalogue. The formatting—strikethroughs, gappy arrangement of text, parenthesis—suggest transcribed (and likely annotated) literary remains whether burnt, torn, worn, weathered or (self)censored. The simulation is not heavy handed, but almost ethereal. No, it is ethereal, and the book is heartbreaking.
The Catalogue—or at least the first 20 pages—is ostensibly composed by an unnamed poet and dedicated to another poet—Ipsentius. If you’re like me, you’ve also come by some Latin, neither liturgically nor academically, but organically. Trust your hearing of “absent” in “Ipsentius”, and then consider who and what might be absent. Consider, too, that absence has shape and form. The vital engagement, and arrangement, is with what is “not there”, not wholly anyway. Ipsentius, the younger poet’s mentor, is evoked in Ovid’s Latin as a burnt elm which, though blasted by Jove’s thunder, is “laden with the tendrils of a vine” (19, 62).
Incidentally, reader of Orme, do not be intimidated by the Latin quotes. They are translated at the back of the book. As for the seeming archaic fragments of English song, they are not impenetrable. Recall that a “welkin” is a cloud or the sky, and that Peter Riley used fragments of English madrigals to great effect in Distant Points. In fact, it is to Distant Points that Orme’s Catalogue might usefully be compared, both formally and thematically.
Orme did not tag the Latin quotes and poetic fragments with their author’s names—Cicero, Pliny, Ovid, Crashaw, it is as if their names no longer matter although something of them still occupies space:
Another re turn to the ancients
(for solidity -- or the
impression thereof) (42)
And a return too, to the elemental for even more solidity, or for the trickful, immaterial impression thereof. In the Catalogue, streams and mountains are generic. Water is water and mountain is at most “rock mountain”. It’s a youthful past or a primal world, but also a simulation of these, a painted backdrop.
Most of the trees in this world—Orme often addresses them directly—are unspecified, like his Latin poets. There is one aspen, one tamarind, and the aforementioned elm. Birds in Orme’s Catalogue are also overwhelmingly generic, although a song sparrow and a nightingale lend their voice and flutter to two poems, one of them in which the “gentle auspices”—the Roman diviners of the future via the flight pattern of birds—are also invoked (37). Flowers, however, as they were in Milton’s funereal Lycidias, are named—“o leander”, hellebore, hyacinth, marygold, moonflower, dewdrop. Milton’s blindness drove him to lament the loss of the “sight of vernal bloom” and Milton’s age was as mannered as our own and as particular about specifics as the internet.
But back to Orme—he has created a catalogue which, in that it eschews particulars, evokes them, and some great absence too, as overwhelming as it is common. Things—trees, but poets, too—lose their specificity when they fall out of relation with other things. It happens especially to the legions of dead.
The middle section of the book [after the lovely lyrical “Summer Songs”] includes the old fashioned expanded table of contents of an “Enchiridion” or “handbook” which self-referentially describes its own blowing away in the wind in its last chapter (31). The page that follows “Enchiridion” is a list of tentative questions for the Catalogue as a whole:
why such a name
whence the Latin poem
why all this construction
why all this why all this again (32)
The list is eponymously titled “the catalogue of burnt text (inquisitions)”.
“Thoughts and Remembrances” is the last section of the book and is comprised of lyrical arrays, titled and untitled poems and sections of prose. There’s yet another eponymous list-poem, “extended catalogue of burnt
why all this why all this again (32)
The poet’s seemingly singular voice that spans the entire book is itself an assemblage, a collection formally circumscribed yet paradoxically hinting at the transcendence of limit. To read the Catalogue is to watch it variously declaim and whisper against a painted backdrop. This theater set, with its generic trees and birds, water and rock, simulates the span of worlds up to our own. It is where the Catalogue is lived, written, burnt and transcribed from voices, at intervals human, bird, the rustling of leaves, the leaves of books and of trees.
A photo (by Jay Saenz) of a burnt tree trunk, supine and about the size of a human being is on the cover of Catalogue of Burnt Text. There’s an empty school-type chair and a tin can in the picture, too. The backdrop is a brick wall, maybe a school. The ground is concrete pavement. The Romans invented concrete, and their concrete and brick construction revolutionised architecture. The cover tableau is a sort of “school of the ancients.”
Greek and Roman architecture extended human reach upwards, and classical buildings with their columns and capitals took the form of orderly forests. If burnt text evokes anything, if human activity does too, it is the ghost of spent forests. So here is another mannered stance—the great age and decreptitude of the world. The 17th century described it as brittle, tired, lame, “out of joynt”. In a similar spirit, Orme’s expressions of isolated futility increase by the Catalogue’s end, they are as leaves on some remaining tree:
What does the tree offer? It leaves
[us] as we grew accustomed.
Me vix misereque sustento. (57)
“I keep going with difficulty and wretchedness”, wrote Cicero, in one of his letters to Atticus. The implication of Orme’s arrangement of these lines is that change and transformations occur. Leaves, trees, whole forests of poets—they fall.
When one “leaves” and cannot be found even in one’s own words, in the leaves of one’s own book, the exoneration is to not struggle against this:
You do not need to understand or remember. Already
You know what I say. (61)
Sonically, “leaf” is “feel” backwards (53). Orme, having explored the rhyme of human hand and leaf, the symmetry of their touch and aspiration, finds their fates symmetrical too.
I like a catalogue, a list, a summation, bullet points. It’s as if in the enumeration of things, the things themselves are sufficiently present and related, one to the rest. In a melancholy way they are, as in Orme’s sensitively arranged pages, and as such they create their own remedy for solitude.
Petra Backonja lives in Madison, Wisconsin. Her poems, lyrical essays and drawings have appeared in Phoebe, Word For/Word, Big Bridge, Indefinite Space, and 88: A Journal of Contemporary American Poetry. An online portfolio is available at http://petrabackonja.wordpress.com/