Ground control to Major Tom
The time is near, there's not too long
Can you hear me Major Tom?
Can you hear me Major Tom?
Can you hear me Major Tom?
Here am I floating in my tin can
A last glimpse of the world
The planet Earth is blue and there's nothing left to do
-“Space Oddity” by David Bowie
The 1967 song written by the enigmatic David Bowie famously dramatizes a call and response between Ground Control and Major Tom, except that we don’t know whether the call goes through, and we don’t know whether the response is actually a response. In the song’s opening, Ground Control announces the countdown to launch and issues safety instructions to Major Tom, but the latter never directly responds to the former; by the time Major Tom speaks, or sings, it is to intone “This is Major Tom, I’ve left forevermore.” From here on out Major Tom and Ground Control switch speaker positions, each addressing the other, but with no evidence that either has heard the communiques of the other, and this is what they are, largely, communiques, reports on the status of the self. We have two monologues twinning in the night or in space, asymptotically parallel, but also very far. The only privileged listeners are us. This is largely the condition of poetry.
WITH A FARAWAY LOOK
is from page 16 of David Larsen’s The Thorn, published in 2005 by Faux Press. Although this will largely be an essay on David Larsen’s new poetry collection Zeroes Were Hollow – just published December 15th, 2022, by Kennings Editions – I’m going to begin by spending some time on The Thorn, since Zeroes is its sequel. I don’t think I’ve ever read a sequel poetry collection before now; it’s fascinating. It’s a time oddity.
I found The Thorn at a library in Iowa on January 15th, 2014; I know because I emailed my best friend Leif that day telling him as much. “neat,” he said, which was a reasonable response, insofar as I hadn’t provided him with any compelling content to respond to, but he still wanted me to know he had heard me, “the line of communication is intact, Major Tom,” he was saying, like when Roman Jakobson, the Russian linguist and literary theorist, defines the phatic function of language – employing words like “um” and “neat” and “how’s the weather” – as communications essentially devoid of content, but which performatively communicate that communication is happening. I had, at the time, just wanted it to be known that this was an event, and to build a communication event around it, too, though I don’t know whether a poem is a communication event. The Thorn is, if not a communication event, a sort of community event that builds the communal conditions for later communions: though the majority of poems in the book are typed, the poem above is the first instance of what will become many instances of poems handwritten by Larsen, the same sort of intimacy as when one encounters a freshly inked diary entry, though of course this handwriting is printed and copied and is a published intimacy: more like receiving a nude than encountering someone’s nakedness. In The Thorn, the nude speaker seems to hold up a mirror to cover his own nakedness and reveal mine:
OF THE REACH OF MY ARM
AND THE HEAT OF ITS HARM, AS I
YOU KNOW WHAT YOU
WHAT WILL MAKE YOU KNOW
NOW YOUR PANIC
WILD EXCITEMENT FLOODS
I CANT TELL YOU NOT TO HATE ME
BUT I CAN MAKE IT VERY HARD
I don’t think anything in school taught me more about poetry than this moment in The Thorn. The book is dedicated in the same “signature” handwriting “TO MY MANY / FRIENDS / AND TEACHERS.” My friend Sophia Dahlin, an amazing poet, bought me it some months later without knowing I’d read it – she had felt it must be shared, communed with.
In the untitled “SMTTN / LITTLE MOZART,” Little Mozart is smitten, and this smittenness gives LM a faraway look, a dreamy quality or aspect rendering LM distant-seeming, but which also portrays LM looking into the distance: the precocious Little Mozart has himself achieved the condition of music. We don’t know whether LM presents one faraway aspect and then a second and finally a fourth faraway facial aspect, or if “faraway” is the object of the look, i.e. whom LM looks at/towards, where there are four such objects or trajectories. Next, “from a” and “to the” are dramatized, i.e. the source of the look and the target of the look, and then, the source of the look and the target of the look are translated into the source language of the book, English, and the target language, Spanish, via “miradas,” which more or less translates as “looks,” but in the one main sense of “ways of looking” – “their eyes look faraway and dreamy” – and in the other main sense of “ways of looking” – “their eyes look at us from far away” – and then via the lens of “miradas” the English “look” is refracted into multiple meanings, multiple distances traversed by looks and longings, asymptotically close because also faraway. This is largely the condition of poetry.
1 year after the publication of The Thorn, Larsen released a chapbook that is a collaged remix of The Thorn, entitled Syrup Hits. The chapbook is released pseudonymously, by LIL MOZART / AKA DANISH FLY. So we have here two heteronyms for Larsen on the book jacket level, but even within the work – a politically charged parody excoriating the Iraq war that juxtaposes comic book graphics with poetry – we have several speakers and characters who act as sort of ciphers and personae for the author. One such persona, alternately named PUZZ and BEETLE, avers:
to get to me
you have to walk through
the ones that make you
they have to shoot up
from the ground at you
and you must walk
through them to get to me
who is shouting at you
from behind a hill
13 years after “Space Oddity,” David Bowie released the song “Ashes to Ashes.” If “Space Oddity” looks like a poem, “Ashes to Ashes” looks like a poem that looks at the original poem from afar:
Ashes to ashes, funk to funky
We know Major Tom's a junkie
Strung out in heaven's high
Hitting an all-time low
Ashes to Ashes settles the dusty ambivalences and ambiguities of Space Oddity; whatever uncertainties the listener may have had about Major Tom’s fate are put to rest. Major Tom was never high up in space, he was just high. In fact, Major Tom is in a sense more lost on earth than he would have been in space, because his agency to choose to live on earth is rendered impossible by addiction. In the same manner that “ashes to ashes, dust to dust” is chanted from the Book of Common prayer during Christian burial, Bowie buries his previous song by building another over top it. Of course, the irony of the prayer is that committing the body to earth so that it can become dust only initiates a mundane process whose sacred end aims towards spiritual resurrection; similarly, in referencing his own previous song Bowie re-renders the original stranger and stronger and, for me at least, the new song invests Space Oddity with new interpretative possibilities; “Ashes to Ashes” is as much a beautiful song as it is an act of reading.
Both Bowie’s “Space Oddity” and Larsen’s The Thorn concern themselves with distance in space; the faraway look of each work, however, travels distances across time, to gaze upon their sequel works. The sequel works gaze back. 17 years after the publication of The Thorn, on December 15th, 2022, David Larsen published Zeroes Were Hollow with Kennings Editions. Zeroes Were Hollow is as much a poetry collection as it is a rereading of The Thorn – or a remix, as Syrup Hits is a remix of The Thorn – as much a beautiful song as it is an act of reading. Consider for example the following stanza from the final poem of Zeroes, the again-handwritten “AFTERMATH IN AMERICAN RHYMES”:
WITH A FARAWAY LOOK
THE DANISH FLY
HAS FOULED HIS BOOK
If the first FARAWAY LOOK looked towards the future, this FARAWAY LOOK looks back on what is, in many ways, the inaugural poem of The Thorn, but the miradas are a little different. Here LITTLE MOZART is replaced by “AGAIN,” a word that marks repetition, while leaving complicated emotional residues. Think of a father named Mozart and his son Little Mozart: the two have just ridden the same rollercoaster three times and Little Mozart, exhilarated, says “Again!” and Mozart, with a faraway look, thinks “Ugh, not again.” This to me is the continuum of innocence to experience compressed in the zip file that is the word “again”; to The Innocent, the experience of “again” seems to short-circuit linear time, whereas to The Experienced, no “again” is innocent, all time is irrecoverable, and on the 4th instance of the same rollercoaster ride a bird shits on Mozart’s head. Or in other words, if to The Innocent “again” is an example of exact repetition, then to The Experienced “again” is an example of a rhyme; “look” is now recalled via “book,” but this recalling simultaneously effects a hitching of the two together into a meaningful relationship which retroactively changes whatever meaning the original might have had or been. “A FARAWAY LOOK” is now interpreted (from the faraway look now not of LITTLE MOZART, but of his alter-heteronym, DANISH FLY) via the gaze of “FOULED HIS BOOK.” Ashes to ashes, etc.
This self-splitting introduces an ambiguity into the already protean pronoun “he”: has the Danish Fly fouled his own book Zeroes Were Hollow, or has the Danish Fly fouled Little Mozart’s book The Thorn, and does it make sense even to split proprieties? Larsen in no way appears interested in resolving this issue, as an earlier stanza in the same poem indicates:
A PERSONA IS SOMETHING
TO HIDE BEHIND
AND TRY TO TALK THROUGH
SOMETHING HAPPENED TO MINE
We can’t know what happened to the speaker’s persona; after all, the speaker of a poem is a persona, too, whose microphone is the lyric “I.” As Ariana Reines’ says – or as her speaker says – in Coeur de Lion, “But this ‘I’ is the I of poetry / And it should be able to do more than I can do.” While this characterization of the literary device seems to lionize its power, the “should be able” nonetheless points towards its limitations. LITTLE MOZART does not appear “again,” i.e. “AGAIN” replaces it, so something has happened to it through time. Zeroes Were Hollow is a book that is largely preoccupied by time, as we see in the final two lines of Zeroes’ very first poem, “AMBLES OF A HEAVY.” The poem opens with the line “In this dream I was a rabbit,” and ends accordingly:
In this dream I’m still a rabbit
coming last in the turtle dash
By dint of what I
scrambled a troop, baffled a wall
imbued with wisdom is the unwise boast
The art of song is very old
but not as old as I am
The opening line’s perfect tense shifts to the final stanza’s progressive present, “I was” to “I’m still,” a nonlinear movement. In terms of folk narrative, positionality is subverted, too, with the rabbit now losing to the turtle. This scrambling of expectations and pacing by way of dream logics mirrors the line-breaking logic of the poem, with sentence structures self-abridging at the end of the line: “baffled a wall” baffles the reader at the end wall of the line. Finally, “unwise boast” gives way to a boast that seems imbued with the wisdom of the master songwriter or poet, “The art of song is very old / but not as old as I am.” The very title anticipates these torquings of chronological structures via fragmentation: “PREAMBLES” would thematically make more sense than AMBLES, but the “pre-“ prefix is elided,. The line “By dint of what I” has “I” come last in the turtle dash, and so one might ask the question “what I,” as in “which ‘I’?” Who is this “I” who is older than song? What is it this “I” of poetry can do? The poem “I WRITE IN THE MIRROR” mirrors this question:
The day has every hour in it
and uh clouds everywhere
some game inside to keep them warm
as if time turned a pitcher
as if the internet were there
as if the internet expected
I write in the mirror
How about you
Larsen has a way of making everyday language absolutely wonderful, through off-kilter redefinitions of otherwise taken-for-granted concepts – e.g. dictionary entry: “The Day. Noun. That which has every hour in it” – and the employment of extraverbal language such as “and uh clouds everywhere.” We have the day as a vessel that holds hours and clouds, and then, forming a layer between the day and its contents, “some game inside to keep them warm.” The game could be an abstract form of play, or it could be a hunted animal, which supports “to keep them warm,” and then “time turned a pitcher” and so time becomes a vessel, too – we have a Matryoshka doll of concentric metaphors. The gaminess of this structure allows the reader to “misread” the line as “time turned a picture,” and sure enough, pages later, we find a black and white picture of an hourglass turned over, spilling out time like a pitcher.
I think about the title of the collection, ZEROES WERE HOLLOW, and its near-eponymous poem, ZEROES ARE HOLLOW, the only difference between them being, again, a matter of time:
You probably know somebody
crazier than me, wilder than I
I bet you have this freak on speed dial
Call them! I’ll wait.
♪ I’ll wait ♪
The stanza references WILD SPEECH as well as the speaker of WILD SPEECH; one imagines “♪ I’ll wait ♪” to be the hold music sung by Larsen as Larsen waits to pick up, the speaker of the lyric poem and the voice machine message playing on speaker. Dialing zero would only grant you access to the operator. Even Larsen has difficulty accessing the self, whose fixity as a written self is itself a literary device, an artifice which, as you try to talk through it, time eventually happens to:
Where did I go between the months
Why is my hat on crooked, and my life all bad
I hate to say it. There is a time of night
a giant shadow cast over a tiny world
whose gravity wants you
The writing here seems a sort of anti-stylus that measures time by way of darkness rather than light, and it casts a light rather than a shadow, and this light is style, and style is all I, as a reader, feel I have any access to as an indicator of change and growth. I’m still curious what magic number I should dial, and how different numbers will reach people based not on location, but on time:
Many numbers stand close together
at a distance next to none, but
ZEROES ARE HOLLOW
I choke and can’t swallow
the sign or the concept or anything at all
a complete and total zero puts their mind to
The stanza reads like a riddle to be deciphered, and I think it is this itself that provides the clue: in Arabic the word Sifr, or صفر , connotes “zero” as well as “void,” the latter being, lets say, a hollow zero. The English “cipher” – in archaic usage the English cipher denotes “zero” – derives from Sifr, both defined as a code or sign that hides a concept, something towards which you have to put your mind. If the writer writes in signs, and if the writer speaks in ciphers and even wears them – LIL MOZART, DANISH FLY, the speaker, “I,” someone WILD – what happens as time hollows these ciphers for the user? What happens to the voice of one who tries to speak through them?
Larsen is no stranger to the art of decipherment – which itself could be interpreted as the art of translation – specifically regarding the Arabic language. First published in 2009 by Atticus Press, and then re-published by Wave Books in 2017 with revised translations and updated notes, David Larsen’s Names of the Lion – Asmā' al-asad – is a translation of an excerpt of medieval lexicographer Ibn Khālawayh’s Kitab Laysa Fi Kalam al-‘arab, or “Book of Not in the Speech of the Arabs.” It is no wonder to me that Larsen would feel an affinity with the work of Ibn Khālawayh, himself a cataloguer of names, ciphers, lexical curiosities, etc. The excerpted work that Larsen translates and reconstructs is a list of hundreds of epithets for the lion.
Gone is the tenderly bombastic, lionskin-wearing Larsen the Poet. Larsen the Translator is more of a lion-tamer, an archivist and theorist of names and facets. Near the center of this page’s list of epithets we find Usāma, “The Mighty Name,” which footnote 48 beautifully surmises is “a meta-name, that is a name that names its own naming.” Footnote 49 adds that al-Miqdām, “Who Seeks The Forefront [Of Battle],” could “without violence” – a subtle pun that affords us a glimpse of the playful workings of Larsen’s thought – could be translated as “The Avant-Garde.” Where Usāma is a meta-name, al-Miqdām could be considered meta-translation or -interpretation, the bridging together of different epochs and cultures into a sort of mutual recognition: “avant-garde” reveals its warlike roots, the English zero reveals its many-faced Arabic ciphers. If Zeroes Are Hollow and The Thorn are works of breathless encipherment, where each intimation of authorial disclosure is delivered through a newer and shinier encoded mask, Names of the Lion is a work of textual decipherment dependent on the decipherer’s – the translator’s – exhibition of his own efforts.
At this point in my essay I recognize that much of this reads like the reading of tea leaves, like I am searching for a throughline between the faraway looks of The Thorn and Zeroes Were Hollow, or like I am engaged in omen-interpretation. The reason it looks like that is because, to me, it looks like that, too. From The Thorn’s “ON SIGNS GIVEN OFF”:
If you adhere to a belief system that reveres every moment of every day as sacred, every creature equally as the vessel of some divine soul, every rock and flower as consecrated holy etc. you will not have much luck interpreting omens[...]As for interpretation of the omen, this is arrived at only through long experience and reflection[...]of even less help are the poets, who as St. Augustine noted were fonder of commemorating the mantic arts than actually teaching them. True interpretation imposes a painstaking process of linking a particular omen to its relevant fortunes. These may take months or even years to play themselves out, at the end of which you may forget the direction taken by that angry-looking owl in its flight, or what its talons carried.
From the above I learn that an omen is a sign given off, and not all phenomena give off signs, so one must be discerning. Rather than an interpretation of a word or cipher, however, it is more like the learning of a language; this sort of reading is an apprenticeship demanding time filled with careful reflection, with endurance of thought. It is, in a sense, like relating two David Bowie songs, or me having read David Larsen for seventeen years now. Omen-interpretation is like close-reading via close-looking from far away in space and time.
The disclaimer on poets is the wrench thrown in, however: poets don’t teach omen-interpretation, they’re of no help. So what are we learning in reading this book of poetry? Is it a bad omen? Is Larsen, the poet, not coextensive with the speaker here, then, and is this speaker someone else, a non-poet? There is a zero placed in the center of the meditation, and the zero radiates out and transforms the meditation: it hollows it, or it enciphers it, it codes it with a new coat of meaning. This, to me, is the omen I have followed throughout Larsen’s work: the point is not only to keep the secret, it is to keep the secret in view. My ideal telescope would be one that, rather than showcasing to me dead stars that masquerade as live stars, revealed instead these lines from Zeroes Were Hollow in the viewfinder:
But I like being hard to reach
I like remoteness
I care what people think about me
but not how often