At Clark Coolidge: Allegory and the Early Works
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American Literary History 13.2 (2001) 295-316

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At Clark Coolidge:
Allegory and the Early Works

Michael Golston

The task of literary history, by the way, is precisely to reveal form. From this point of view, literary history which explains the nature of a literary work and its factors is in a sense dynamic archaeology.

Juri Tynianov, "Rhythm as the Constructive Factor in Verse"

Juri Tynianov's "dynamic archaeology" might better be construed as "dynamic geology" when considering Clark Coolidge, who synthesizes his various interests in geology, minerology, crystallography, and photography into an important and often astonishing body of poetry. But while Coolidge has often been cited as a major precursor to the experimental writing of the last 25 years, no one has undertaken a major study--especially not of his early writing, which has arguably exercised the greatest influence on subsequent poets (and is notoriously difficult to read). In order to assess Coolidge's work and situate it in the history of American poetry, the formal contours of his formidable poetic landscape must be mapped, for Coolidge writes a series of texts significantly different from those of the modernist period and the 20 years following World War II, and it is precisely in his approach to the nature of poetic form that he brilliantly engages the central issues of postmodern aesthetics--the nature and limits of linguistic representation; the impact of technology and media on writing; and what Craig Owens terms the "allegorical impulse that characterizes postmodernism" (74).

Indeed, a reader confronted with Coolidge's writing may feel like a surveyor of foreign terrain. After all, how exactly are we to respond to the dense sheets of verbiage comprising Polaroid (1975)? [End Page 295]

few part once and then one as around leaves close stays then some
of you few head so forth by whom why leave either to go
part and it leaves once you then some do you within stays besides
either few or just some once of either leaving miss it to close to it beside
the either one or it you part per whom via either one or
few do stay once it's close to you missing the whole either one
still few part once and then either it's around you or some close beyond (92)

Aside from the obvious peculiarities of such writing, one wonders what relation it has with film, and particularly with Polaroid processing; but it is here that a critical reading can begin to take place. Coolidge's preoccupation with film and photography is obvious from titles of his books like Polaroid and Smithsonian Depositions/Subject to a Film (1980), and while Jerome McGann has noted that photography acts as both the topic and the agent of much of Coolidge's writing (270), what is immediately clear about the passage above is that it is not in any sense "about" photography; one cannot read this text looking for its ostensible "subject." So in what sense is the text "Polaroid"?

I will argue here that Coolidge's early books--particularly Space (1970), The Maintains (1974), Polaroid (1975), Quartz Hearts (1978), Own Face (1978), and Smithsonian Depositions/Subject to a Film--can be read as an ongoing, allegorical enactment of the process of filmmaking, from its initial phase as a microlevel chemical process of crystal distillation (in Space and The Maintains), to the orienting of those crystals to make the image-sensitive surface of the film/text itself (in Polaroid), to the "developing" of actual "photographic" images (in Quartz Hearts and Own Face), and finally to the making of a movie (Jaws) in Subject to a Film. The strangeness produced by this allegory, the deeply integrated terms of which derive from two very different media, is compounded by the fact that its contours unfold over 10 years and stretch through six books. 1 Each of Coolidge's works from this period contributes in sequence to a radical equation of photography and writing that illustrates what Fredric Jameson calls the postmodern "return and the revival, if not the reinvention in some unexpected form...