18 May, 2010


According to some preliminary research into the matter (though I doubt I will go further into the idea after this!), the word tantalum is derived from the Greek mythological Tantalus. Tantalus is punished in hell, eternally condemned to stand in water with perfect fruit growing above his head. He thirsts and hungers, but if he bends to drink, the water moves beyond his reach, and if he reaches for the fruit, the branches pull away.

Tantalize comes from this, and this was apparently in the mind of the man who discovered the element tantalum. Apparently the metal cannot absorb acid. In 1801, Charles Hatchett had discovered the element columbium. The element now known as tantalum was discovered in 1802 by Anders Ekeberg. In 1809, a chemist compared columbium and tantalum and found they were identical. He decided to keep the name tantalum. This conclusion was later disputed in 1846 by a chemist who found that there were two additional new elements in the tantalum sample used by the previous chemist, and he named them after the children of Tantalus. Then someone noticed this last chemist was wrong again--that one of the new elements was actually columbium (discovered, as noted above, in 1801). Every time someone tested the element, they found different results based on density and oxidization. The tantalizing desire to discover new elements led yet again to two more elements being "discovered" and "named"-- only again to be refuted. Tantalum seems to have been aptly named.

I don't know with certainty if any of this played some role in the naming of the print journal Tantalum, but I like to think it did. According to the website, "Tantalum presents the many possibilities of prose that redefine the fictive." The difficulty in pinning down the genres here--prose poetry, micro fictions, lyric mini essays, short stories, and the many structural analogues--seems to be analogous to the quest to define and to unravel new elements out of the whole of the element, but also analogous to the tantalizing between. Those structural analogues I'm talking about are short pieces that make a nod to the novel or longer prose forms while evincing brevity--but never fully committing to only one idea of form.

For example, in issue 2, Eileen Myles is here with two "Rosie" excerpts (Rosie is the speaker's dog) from The Inferno/a poet's novel. Dante (and the ghost of epic) only further complicates the notion. The speaker refers to herself, in a 12-step meeting, as Poet Eileen. Within this excerpt from the novel the narrator suggests that the performed and staged unfolding that is the epic has been subsumed into the everyday, where poems are what happens as one speaks to others--"in bedrooms and parking lots," but without the audience, and unlinked (we only get the excerpt). Each of the "paragraphs" seems to move along the line of the associative break. This is epos, the idea behind a series of poems not united, though their theme is conventionally epic. I think the best example of epos is Byron's Don Juan. It is so digressive--each numbered ottava rima stanza section seems to me to stand alone as well as contribute to the whole mock-epic theme. I like to open the poem randomly and select one section to read as a small stand-alone poem. The digressions are so modern and radical compared to his contemporaries (The Excursion surely could have been more pleasurable and less focused around the greater themes for Wordsworth).

Paul La Farge's "Very Short Stories" is also very self-reflexive about genre and form: "Some people were talking. It was like the Decameron, only they weren't telling stories." Boccaccio's 100 narratives collectively handle similar themes, but each stands alone, too. La Farge's piece works by negation of Boccaccio: "Also, no one was sick. Also, they were all in an office. Also, it was at a meeting."

Many of these pieces, like Myles', are excerpts from longer works that stand alone (Donald Breckenridge, Mina Pam Dick, Cynthia Nelson, Filip Marinovich, and Johannah Rogers). This is not left-to-right reading; in the imagined whole of all of these sequences, the reader ideally "drops" in and creates, actively, his own reading path (I'm doing this with Evan Lavender-Smith's recent From Old Notebooks with a sense that a whole is forming though I am unsure of where I've already read). Cynthia Nelson's structural analogue in her "from Learning Bergamot: Summer on the Fence" is the self-examination-- a Q & A process that digs deeper into the psyche, as in, for example, the "Heroin Q & A" section:

I was trying to write the dream about heroin. Why were you trying to write it? I have to go to the bathroom. Why are you being evasive? I am in conversation with myself. Why are you anxious about that in a notebook? Excuse me for a second...

Another structural analogue of Nelson's writing seems to be the notebook (and seems yet another connection to Evan Lavender-Smith). I imagine that what I am reading is from the original notebook--that after the self-examination, we get a series of poems that have been written, while the speaker/narrator sits in the grass in a pastoral setting (many of the sections of the piece are focused on what happens/happened in/on the grass, and there is I think some punning with grass and associative movement from the word itself-- "What a crass wine"). The poems within the prose do seem to be an extension of that landscape, such as in some lines from one titled "The Squirrel of Not Focusing (No Focus)":

The chipmunk of not focusing

The big green tree of not focusing...

The hot sun of focusing...

The sunburn of focus...

Other highlights: I also really enjoyed Rosmarie Waldrop's "School"-- I kept recalling images of people biking through evening streets--and I felt somehow this was the primary image of the entire piece. I like the Donald Breckenridge piece as it mutually arcs between a narrator who is writing a story and that story's narrator, blurring (without transitions) the boundaries between these worlds. And Stacey Levine has always been one of my favorite writers (I recommend Frances Johnson and My Horse and Other Stories). Here she offers "Alia," a story where married people speak and don't speak to each other, directly but indirectly, passive-aggressive-- and there is a sort of distraction and focal point in the figure of a bird named Alia, the sublimated "bride" of the husband. Levine does her characteristic "jump cut without indication"--as if we were missing scenes from a linear film--where we get the effect without the cause, the action without its agenda. I also was impressed by Dorothy Albertini's "Proportion," in how it compares the speaker's world with that of (imagined? real?) prisoners'--especially in the rules of eating. It was interesting to imagine a vegetarian in a prison-- an idea that is surely true but I have never seen represented in classic Brubaker prison cafeteria scenes (I highly recommend Animal Factory, directed by Steve Buscemi).

The materiality of writing itself seems to be one of the main concerns of the journal. Overall, this handsome letterpress journal, edited by Yasmine Alwan, is impressive. The selections do seem to be living up to "redefining the fictive." This is the second volume I've been able to get my hands on, and I'm looking forward to future volumes.

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