Thursday, May 08, 2008

The Archeology of Sluice

I’m beginning to read Paterson again (assuredly this is the end . . .) and so, whereas the last re-read looked for overarching design not readily perceivable in the first reads’ struggle with thingness, now I am back to the thing, its minuteness, with a vengeance. I wondered how specific was Williams about the “mechanics” of the “sluice” evoked on the poem’s first page (the pre-page, the extended subtitle starting “: a local pride . . .”) “Sluice” is undoubtedly the first vaguely complex technology on this page, predominated by “a reply to Greek and Latin with the bare hands.” Confession comes first, the primitive radio booth of guilt linking mouth to silent ear of authority; then a basket, and then—whether it be for tabulation or architectural support—a column (is this a very sketchy pan of history from neolithic to classical times? From the loosely gathered to the artistically or actuarially organized? I’d rather, as in my comments in an earlier entry, consider it more surreal non-sequitur rather than overinterpret the history of the world onto these fragments. Nevertheless . . . Williams is not a surrealist, nor is he yet a language poet. And there is a consistency with these technologies as kinds of “gathering up.”) Then we get: “the clouds resolved into a sandy sluice.” Footwork in the city of Rochester—which, like Paterson, is another northeastern city which owes its life to the powers of the falls, and the webwork of canals, factories, raceways, and railroads that extend from their harnessing, which here, mirable dictu then becomes the fount of all photographic images, creating a double of the world via Eastman's photographic processes—delivered me, serendipitously, to an actual sluice which fed a waterwheel still extant (pictured). Now, while a sluice controls and regulates flow, it doesn’t normally accommodate clouds, unless of course, Williams is skipping as many steps here as he does between neolithic basket weavers and classical aestheticists. It is an ellipsis that is “poetic,” yet not sluicelike (since the sluice depends on an active surface-to-surface connection of contiguous parts—such as gears—in order to do anything; or rather, it is the place where this process starts out from an undifferentiated flow.) Perhaps poetry's penchant for ellipsis is why the outcome is sandy. Unless you are Sam Patch, a poet can’t go from the clouds (mystical transcendence) to the sought-after gold in one jump, just as the sluice (which one normally thinks of as “sandy” when designating the filter used for panning gold) is best used to power a kind of plodding continuity—the weight of water falling, the slow grind of gears, and the painstaking transformation of that into various powers (triphammers, furnaces, and a “beyond” not metaphysical, but organized up to its gills.)

(5/10/08: Belated discovery . . . the Rochester falls pictured above are not merely a random stand-in for the Passaic Great Falls, but were the place where Sam Patch met his demise, as mentioned in Book I.)

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