Language is inherently under pressure, even this sentence. There’s the restriction of time, the constrictions of page space. There are the the limits of understanding. “The thing itself always escapes,” Derrida wrote. And yet, an utterance’s ultimate inability to fully represent the mysterious source material of its existence can reveal other layers of meanings, which ripple outward from a speech act in ways the speaker doesn’t always control.
I’m just beginning to describe a quality within poetry I’m going to call decomposition, something we as poets can not only identify, but cultivate. For what is a poem other than a tantalizing glimpse at meaning dissolving, a ceremonialized “experience of almost” slipping through our hands? “A word is elegy to what it signifies,” wrote Robert Hass in his most famous poem, “Meditation at Lagunitas.” The very material of our art—words—are mortal. Linguists predict that at least half of the world’s 6,000 or so languages will be dead and forgotten by the year 2050.
I want to immediately draw a happier parallel to food. Cheese. Wine. Kimchi. Pancetta. Yogurt. Bourbon. Pickles. Bread. What do these foods have in common, other than their exceeding deliciousness? The answer is they are all produced using cultures and fermentation, which are fancy words for rotting.
My home is part Korean, so let me tell you about kimchi. It is 3,000 years old, nearly as old as poetry itself. To make it, cabbage, radish, garlic, red chili flakes, salt, fish sauce and other ingredients are combined in an unsterilized clay pot, which in some seasons is then buried underground like a corpse. The concoction immediately begins to bubble and rot as lactobacilli take over. After a passage of time, the harvest is unmistakably like a resurrection. Opening a jar —especially in a kitchen with the windows closed—is an experience no one forgets.
(Is it too cute to say we used fermentation to preserve food before we had refrigerators, just as we used poetry to preserve our myths and stories before we had iCloud? Is it too cute to point out that in Korea, people say “kimchi” when having their photo taken, just as we say “cheese,” proving that the language of fermented food is cross-culturally inseparable from preparing an idealized image of ourselves for preservation?)
We love fermented foods for their strength, depth, umami, idiosyncrasies, their unguent, desperate pleas for our strange animal appetites, and no doubt in some part for the threat they present—or at least represent. These foods are all almost, but not quite, lethal. Like eating fugu, the otherwise poisonous Japanese puffer fish, perhaps we love them, in part, because they tempt not only our appetites, but our mortality?
A poem is no different, in that it places us precariously on the edge of the annihilative powers of silence itself. A poem is provisional, composed as it is largely of the act of its own undoing. The lines break. So, too, do the stanzas. In the case of the lyric, we begin reading and immediately watch the end approach. The poem “breaks down” and dissolves in front of us. This is a good time to point out that the verb “decomposition” means literally “to be unwritten.”
The codex, too. Think of the district odors of an aging book. A recent article in the journal Compound Chemistry reveals how the different chemicals involved in book manufacturing over time contribute to the smells of book decomposition. Hints of almond are released by benzaldehyde. Sweet notes come from toluene and ethyl benzene. Something called 2-ethyl hexanol produces a light floral fragrance. Additionally, the book can also release odors it has been exposed to during its history: smoke, food, pressed flowers, the sea.
Lately I’ve found myself writing while listening to a piece of music called “The Disintegration Loops” by electronic composer William Basinski. The poet Heather Christle has written a long poem inspired by this music. In the 1980s, Basinksi created a series of analogue, reel-to-reel tape loops consisting of processed snatches of music captured from an easy listening station. While going through his archives in 2001, Basinksi decided to digitize the loops to preserve them.
So he started a tape loop on his digital recorder and left it running. When he returned a short while later, he noticed that the old tape was decomposing as it played. The fine coating of magnetized ferrite was slivering off, and the music was decaying slightly with each pass through the spindle. Astonished by what he heard in this new recording, Basinski repeated the process with the other loops and obtained similar results. The decomposition of his original recording became a symphony of the new.
What I learned of Basinski’s methods, accidental as they were, made me think of techniques used by the contemporary German artist Gerhard Richter. I’m thinking in particular of his squeegee paintings.
Richter creates these abstracts by building them up in layers through a fairly calculated sequence of color applications—which are then quickly alternated and disrupted by dragging a squeegee across the surface of the wet canvas. A painting isn’t “created” so much as it is revealed through repeated acts of semi-destruction. It’s “un-painting” as much as it is painting. If you watch film of Richter creating these canvasses, you can see him stagger back from a squeegee run, shocked by the results. He never knows exactly what he’s making. “Virtuosity alone has nothing to do with art,” Richer has said.
Turning back to poetry, we can begin to see decomposition at work nearly everywhere. Decomposition can contribute to form. Think of Dickinson’s dashes. Williams’s white space. Saroyan’s deleted vowels, Komunyakaa's ampersands. We can see revision as a process of decomposition. We draft the poem, and then we revise the poem, un-writing the original. We break a poem down and recycle its constituent parts. We drag a squeegee across the page and the poem we never intended to write —the better poem—reveals itself to us, or so we always hope.
Beauty is not the same thing as perfection. It’s not the same thing as “doing all that you are able” within the space of a poem. “Before you leave the house, look in the mirror and take one thing off,” said Coco Chanel. Undressing as decomposition: the most important part of being a fashion icon!
Beauty is a dynamic event that occurs between an audience and an art object, a delicate relationship always both under threat from—and highlighted by—decomposition. But forget faux rustic-ness, or shabby chic. I’m not making an aesthetic argument here, but a phenomenological one, if not a spiritual one. I’m arguing for the presence of a deeper value in poetry. One akin to elegy, I suppose, but more subliminal, an echo. One defined by irregularity. Thoughtful wrongnesses. Brazen chance. Gaps and layers. The marks that reveal the warm imperfections of human craftsmanship. One that celebrates the beauty of beauty threatened by impermanence— is there any other kind?—and acknowledges the poem to be a liminal state, both evolving from, and devolving back toward, nothingness.
A poem is an experience of loss. Strong in the face of its dematerialization, the poem mourns for its own completion. When we’re jettisoned from “a poem event,” we mourn our release from the poem-state, which can only be fleeting and sweet-dream like, like the briefly cold beer I’m about to momentarily drink after finishing this essay. Beer that was created, not incidentally, by fermentation: beautiful, complicated, decomposition, to which let’s toast. In Korean: gunbae, or “dry the glass.”