Postmodern undone

Auster gives his all in new poetry book.

Feb 18, 2004 at 12:00 am

Paul Auster is an artist with many talents. In addition to several volumes of poetry and 11 novels, the Brooklyn writer has also written screenplays for the indie films, Smoke, Blue in the Face and Lulu on the Bridge, which he also directed.

His Collected Poems brings together decades of poetry, translations and a small amount of experimental writing. From his early 20s, Auster’s poetry has depicted hard visions of the material world set against the flux of higher consciousness. At times, these alternating currents of physical reality and philosophical abstraction give his poems a kind of mental rhythm.

At other times, carefully stacked images of stones, clouds and birds collapse into a black void of doubt and inquiry, as if the voice in the writing is struggling to free itself from the oppression of its own senses. As intense, harsh and mentally dizzying as they can be, Auster crafts these strange spirals with precision and care.

Despite the friction and conflicts at work in them, the poems can be compelling and lyrical, and they always shine with a remarkable eloquence. In the second section of the book, “Unearth: 1970-1972,” “poem 19” ends:


Shoulder to shoulder with dust, before

the blade and beyond the tall dry grass

that veers with me, I am the air’s

stammered relic.


Later works in the collection include some exceptional poems from 1971 to 1975. The section Wall Writing features many longer, more narrative works. It includes “White,” a beautiful homage to the late poet, Paul Celan, and “Ecliptic. Les Halles,” a darkly erotic poem that shows Auster’s jagged intensity tempered by his presence of mind:


You were my absence.

Wherever I breathed, you found me

lying in the word

that spoke its way back

to this place



in the prowled shambles

and marrow

of a cunning, harlot haste — a hunger

that became

a bed for me,


Tucked between collected poems and the translations is Auster’s genre-crossing prose piece called “White Space,” a series of paragraphs that seems to hover over the page with lines like: “It comes from my voice. But that does not mean these words will ever be what happens. It comes and goes.” He seems to be undoing, unwriting, tearing down everything without surrendering to the tyranny of thought and speech.

Auster’s translations (1967-1969) focus on French poets who influenced his writing, Paul Éluard, André Breton, Tristan Tzara, Philippe Soupault, Robert Desnos and René Char, among others. The connection between Auster and some of these writers is striking, when his intelligent shifts in and out of varying states of awareness share space with like-minded poems, such as Tzara’s lengthy mediation, “Approximate Man (1).” Part of the last few stanzas reads:


with these lives beside us we cannot see

the ultraviolet of so many parallel paths

those we might have taken

those that might not have led us to the world

or have led us out of it already long ago…

I think of the heat weaving the word

around its kernel the dream called us


Finally, Auster leaves the reader with very early “Notes from a Composition Book,” which could have been called “Footnotes from a Composition Book,” as they illuminate many of the ideas expressed in the poems that precede them. His dense epigrams are lined up like high-watt light bulbs:


1. The world is in my head. My body is in the world.

2. The world is my idea. I am the world. The world is your idea. You are the world. My world and your world are not the same …


The poet’s passionate examination of perception and language doesn’t align his art with one side or the other, but breaks everything into pieces that mirror the beauty of ideas trying to form, trying to happen. As Auster puts it most succinctly in the last section of his book: “Language … gives us the world and takes it away from us. In the same breath.”

E-mail Norene Cashen at [email protected].