Wednesday, February 14, 2007



the allegrezza ficcione by Mark Young
(Otoliths, 2006)

I sometimes begin my engagements with someone’s work by first talking about myself (e.g., my review of Dan Waber’s First Adventures of Col and Sem elsewhere in this issue). I do so because I don’t mind -- and for transparency, even prefer -- when reviewers (myself included) first share something about themselves that would color how they read a book.

To the allegrezza ficcione, Mark Young’s novella viz poems and not just prose, I must concede: I first groaned. You see, I thought that Young -- eh, let me call him Mark -- achieved something I’ve been attempting for years: a novel whose narrative unfolds based on what are inspired by poems written by others as well as poems written earlier by the same author in a different context (than writing a novel). I’ve been trying to write such a novel for years without success and Mark, I thought, did it! And so, I read his book, loved it, but also … Groaned.

As it turns out, I’m wrong. Mark apparently used a different approach. And I might as well quote his emailed response to a query I’d sent asking about his process (it’s an email I sent before I decided to engage with his book for Galatea Resurrects). Mark replied:

My use of poetry was a bit akin to Raymond Chandler's dictum about if you don't know what to write next, have somebody come out from behind the door with a loaded gun.

There are only two "genuine" poems in the novella, one by Alisher Navoi & one by Rudaki, neither of whom I knew anything about before I started, & one genuine quote, from William Gibson. Everything else is a ficcione. All I had was that first chapter, which, similar to the book, could have taken a journey in any direction, in any time. I used Bill's surname for the main character because his vicious bunny "translations" were akin to what I was doing with my ficciones. [Editor’s note: “Bill” refers to William Allegrezza; I also recommend his book The Vicious Bunny Translations]

The other thing was that I was writing it as a serial. My favorite book by Charles Dickens is Hard Times, which he wrote as a contract serial for a magazine, one chapter to be delivered a week, sparse writing, no room for embellishment. I didn't have that temporal deadline, but I did feel a considerable amount of internal pressure to keep it going. It went like a Markov chain, what happened in the current chapter / post determined what would happen in the next. & if I couldn't think of the next part of the journey then a poem as either an aside or a stepping stone.

Plus, like all my ficciones, it has to be historically accurate, that is, placed in a time where it would be possible for these things to happen. [Poet-critic] Tom Fink, in an email, described it as "pseudo-scholarship" (not maliciously) &, in a sense, that's what it's all about. I think of the things lost to the world through human destruction -- the Library of Alexandria, the Buddhas at Bamiyan; I think of what may still be out there, hidden or lost; I add the things that I like -- Monkey, Paracelsus, Hassan-i-Sabbah, Gibson, fable from everywhere -- & a bit of contemporary stuff but give that a history which it may or not have.

Thus, as I’d initially thought, there wasn’t a set of poems that worked as a scaffold to Mark’s story. Instead, it was process-based, unfolding “like a Markov chain.”

The process-based approach, of course, is how many poems get written (and Mark is a poet, after all). But it also is an approach that receives my empathy for its attempt to write the novel in a non-conventional way -- by non-conventional, I mean something different from how many novelists rely on an outline for the narrative and/or idea for a story ahead of the novel being written. Of course, there are overlaps to the approaches but I suspect that most novels do not rely as much as poems might on process if the novel (unlike a poem) is to be bound by story. And, as with process-based poems, the effectiveness of the work often relies on the author’s having done sufficient homework to be able to source a myriad of interesting references. Thus, part of what impresses me about Mark’s novella is its capaciousness. Within its mere 80 pages, we see the protagonist Umberto Allegrezza move across time and space -- from a caldera lake in Hokkaido to Julius Caesar’s Rome to Tehran to the Turkmenistan border to the Pamirs where he died during a climbing expedition. Sprinkled throughout are poems presented as Allegrezza’s translations of “historic Central Asian poets.” The scope testifies to the poet’s admirable breadth and depth of interests.

But since this is a novel(la), what is the tale? I could say it’s Allegrezza’s exploration of roots, his search for an ancestor. Let me collage in here the book’s description which is as good a summary as any I can offer:

MARK YOUNG's the allegrezza ficcione is a speculative novella about journeys — the contemporary journey of Umberto Allegrezza as he seeks to discover the truth about a legendary journey East from Europe made by an ancestor decades before Marco Polo. Other journeys are intertwined; the journey made before Tripitaka to bring back the Buddhist sutras to China, the relocation of the Library of Alexandria, the continued existence of the followers of Hassan-i-Sabah.

But the insertion of poems by Mark and others, as well as faux observers commenting on Allegrezza’s life, create poetic disjunctions and leaps that make the whole transcend its plot summary. For example, here is one poem (by Mark) in its entirety:

For Shahryar

Given the here
& now

of this place
it is

not surprising

found only the

worth writing

The poem is effective on a stand-alone basis. But within the novella’s narrative, it’s presented as an “entry … found in the visitor’s book at the Poets’ Memorial, Tabriz” where the protagonist Allegrezza visited. One need not know anything about Tabriz to appreciate this poem which could be applied to many other “place(s)” and times. But the poem is also enervated by its context within the novella, which says about Tabriz:

Tabriz used to be a great cultural centre, a major stopping point on the Silk road, one of several places that had at various times been known as The Dome of Islam. Taken without bloodshed by the Mongols in the 13th century C.E. it had thrived. It was where the Ambassadors from Venice were received. The Blue Mosque -- the Jewel of Islam -- was built. Several of the greatest religious schools of the period had been established here. Now of the schools only the towers of the Shanb Gazan survive.

Tabriz had come apart during the war between the Safavid Dynasty & the Ottoman Empire in the 17th century. The artists & many of the carpet makers fled to Isfahan, the only poets left were those buried in the Poets’ Cemetery. It became a city modified by each successive modern era.

It had been the capital of Persia during the Qajar dynasty. The Constitutional Movement was born here in the 19th century, revitalized again in the first decade of the 20th when it had succeeded in forcing the creation of an elected parliament despite the execution of two of the leaders. The first modern school was founded in Tabriz. The first printing hall, the first theatre, the first periodical, the first municipality, all were established in Tabriz. The first Town Hall in Iran was built here, designed to resemble “an eagle with widespread wings.’ What was perhaps the major demonstration that led to the exile of the Shah & the return of the Ayatollah Khomeini had taken place here in 1978.

But modification & modernity at a price. The best carpets were no longer to be found here. The market had been reduced to a fraction of its former size & its infinite variety. The Poets’ Cemetery had been built over with apartment blocks & shopping malls, the graves replaced with markers & a monument erected in 1976. Only the death of Shahryar, author of the famed “Haydar Babaya Sallam”, in 1988 & the subsequent creation of a small park around the monument ot celebrate his life & writings have left a whisper of the former glory.

Allegrezza left a small poem in the visitors’ book…

Even more clever and amusing -- though I am biased given my role with the hay(na)ku -- is the presentation of a hay(na)ku presumably written by Ptolemy. Supposedly -- and in a context that helped develop the book’s narrative -- this astrologer, astronomer, geographer and mathematician who lived in the first-second century wrote:

Universe’s true centre?

It couldn’t have been possible for Ptolemy to have written a hay(na)ku since I publicly inaugurated the form in 2003. Mark didn’t identify the tercet as a hay(na)ku so, to a reader unaware of the hay(na)ku’s existence, it could just be another tercet. But the hay(na)ku’s presence and the reference to the last name of William Allegrezza (Moria’s editor/publisher, poet and blogger) are just two of the clues that point to the book’s creation in the early 2000s when poetry blogland truly took off, introducing poets around the world to each others’ existence and writings. Such relates to perhaps the most brilliant facet of the novel: its ending.

I don’t think sharing the book’s ending will be a spoiler because there’s really too much in the book I’ve not shared here. Only your own reading of the book will make you appreciate the level of trickstery that Mark pulled of -- a process that Mark says pays homage to such beloved writers as Borges, Eco and Samuel Delaney. Regarding the ending, here’s first an excerpt from the section, “A Postscript”:

A reminder of the [2001] tragic death in a climbing accident of the late Umberto Allegrezza, the Italian scholar who resided near Bukhara for a number of years, has come about with the publication in a Finnish literary journal of five poems, purported to be translated by Allegrezza of Phoenician writers.

Nils Pedersen, a Danish systems analyst, claims to have been given a notebook containing the poems by Allegrezza in a backpackers’ café in Termez. “It was a strange gift, but I thought it was nothing special at the time,” said Pedersen. “Then a week or so later I saw a report of the tragic accident on State TV & wondered if he’d had a premonition of his imminent death. I decided to keep the notebook until I returned to Oslo & see if I could get the poems published. I have just arrived back here after five years abroad.”

Jukka-Pekka Kervinen, the editor of the magazine xStream in which the poems appeared, said, “I have seen the notebook. It has on the first page the inscription ‘Translations from the Phoenician, #3, Umberto Allegrezza, Bukhara 2001’ with five poems on the next recto pages. The hand-writing on all these pages have been verified as that of Umberto Allegrezza. I believe in the poems’ provenance.”

I tell ya! Great things come out of Espoo! From Espoo (where Jukka resides), there is a real-life (uh, I think) as well as virtual Jukka-Pekka Kervinen who has been editing/publishing some of the world’s most innovative poetry and literary journals online, spanning xStream, textual conjectures, xPress(ed), minimum daily requirements, Black Lion Books (coedited with Peter Ganick in West Hartford, Conn.) and, most recently, epidermis, among others. And this is in addition to his extensive solo and collaborative blogs!

And check it out! xStream really did publish in December 2004 a set of five poems -- “Five Translations from the Phoenician” -- by an “Umberto Allegrezza!” Now, xStream’s readers most probably read the poems as stand-alone poems, that is, not as part of another project that would become the allegrezza ficcione. The fact that xStream published these poems is a hilarious cap to the narrative of this book which, basically, melts down -- alchemizes -- history into a very mischievous novella.

The mischief is significant: isn’t reality often more bizarre than fiction?

Through xStream, Mark’s project becomes one that literally jumps off of his book’s pages. the allegrezza ficcione is a novella that also unfolds as performance, an e-performance. Its conclusion -- bringing the reader from the book into the world (internet) -- brilliantly parallels this excerpt found in the journal of Allegrezza’s ancestor, Giovanni, as presented by Mark's novella:

“That there be someone who, at a later date, will read this journal I have no doubt, & let me say to them that what I am about to set down, no matter what they may think, is, although fantastical, a veracious account of my travellings. This is not a ficcione.”

Indeed. the allegrezza ficcione may be fiction, but it is not just fiction. This is imagination “writing reality.”

I admire this book and not just because I wish I wrote it. I admire it because I am glad I read it. Not only is it an enjoyable romp that extends modernism but, as great literature often effects in its readers who happen to be writers, it raises the bar for me in my own attempts to write the novel in a fresh way.

The effects of blogging on literature are obviously still being written. Mark Young’s the allegrezza ficcione is undisputably one which will reflect how history, poetry, speculative fiction and magical realism were alchemized into something differently-modern through the existence of poetry blogland (some of the “chapters” were written through Mark’s blog) and the internet.

That’s right -- you heard it here first: Mark Young’s the allegrezza ficcione is historic and will come to be considered a 21st century classic. CHECK IT OUT HERE.


Eileen Tabios HEARTS wine, dogs and Thou.


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