Seven Poets, Four Days, One Book
by Christopher Merrill
Motet for Seven Voices
A review by Kelly Lenox
In October 2007, an international group of poets -- Istvan Laszlo Geher of Turkey, Ksenia Golubovich of Russia, Simone Inguanez of Malta, Tomaz Salamun of Slovenia, and Marvin Bell, Christopher Merrill, and Dean Young of the United States -- gathered for a four-day experiment in creative collaboration. Each day, they would write a first round of poems in each other's presence, share the results, then write again for a second round. They'd leave with notes for a third to be written that night. (The poets who wrote in languages other than English translated themselves for purposes of this collaboration.)
Beginning with the word union, they take off in seven different directions. As they riff on what they hear from their colleagues, the poems develop in a fashion that becomes more musical the further one reads. Each poem is presented with only the initials of the poet at the bottom, though full names would have helped familiarize the reader with those poets they might not know. Nonetheless, one does begin to recognize each poet's voice, enhancing the sense of listening to a musical composition: recognizable voices each carry their own "tune" through the symphonic whole of the book itself. In the last paragraph of Merrill's introduction, he describes "a choir of voices cascading from one line to the next."
Thus, the themes running through the work may first be recognized as themes in the musical sense more than the literary one: a single word or phrase, like a melodic passage, appears in different contexts, with varieties of emphasis and tone. Upon rereading, deeper continuities emerge. Looking only at the poems from the first day, one finds, in addition to the initiating theme of "union," words and phrases such as "totem," "silence," "sun and moon," "quicksilver," and "light-blue shawl" recurring several times. Here are two poems in full from the first day (they agreed that their poems would all be 15 lines long) which carry several of these theme-words:
Marvin Bell's second poem of the day (untitled)
Ah, that worm half inside desire
moves, yes, trailing a slime
of tears, an earthworks of eggs, blood
and tunnels. "Move on, move up," we tell it.
"You are our contamination." You can try
counting from five to three or three-two-one,
this worm will never reach the bottom
of your being. You might better imagine
the wind as your father and mother
than look back for your birth. Is it time yet
to speak of war, of the worm half outside
our better nature? I know we are wild, yet
we are more like the clam beneath the mud
than the heron in the pine. I see
the little bubbles, and I know where to dig.
And here is the third poem from Ksenia Golubovich (also untitled):
Silence stores a forgotten voice
at its very bottom. Or voices
(like outer space) store music.
Strip bare the moon and sun
all those silent, misused things
to find in them a worm--
that lonely voice, to bring
its thin pink skin
You toil and toil,
we hear it deeper now.
In the depths of its pit. Inexpressible.
I see the bubbles and know where to dig.
Besides the familiarity of recurring words, the delight of re-encountering that last line, after six intervening poems, magnifies its hopeful tenor. The reader feels something like the relief that comes in the closing chords of a musical composition, when the notes played by each instrument resolve to the tonic, and we realize how we've been longing for that chord.
The choral nature may be reinforced in another way, by reading a single poet's poems in sequence, so that his or her own voice more strongly carries its part in that choir. It comes as no surprise that by the last day music itself becomes one of the recurring themes.
Edited by Christopher Merrill, 7 Poets, 4 Days, 1 Book collects the whole intriguing cycle of poems. As his introduction establishes, this collective writing endeavor has precedent, from the renga of eighth-century Japan to the "exquisite corpse" of 20th-century surrealists. Each poet is remarkable in his or her own right, and, taken together, these poems provide a rewarding insight into the creative process. The variations of voice and of imagery arising from different homelands find continuity through recurring words and ideas. And, in the context of our shrinking world, they inspire us to pursue the potential of creative collaboration that every human interaction makes possible.