Eliot Cardinaux: Review by Z.L. Nickels

Eliot Cardinaux, On the Long Blue Night (Dos Madres Press)

Out of Silence, Into Night

It is often remarked, not lacking good sense or reason, that naught can be known that cannot be spoken aloud. To name the world, after all, is to articulate our experience of it. Naming well sets things in their proper places: the result is a fixed landscape across which we move. However, the brute force of this logic ignores the fact that what is articulable possesses its own conditions of emergence. Speech must be occasioned. Writing must be occasioned. Poetry, which is the highest form of human expression, is also occasioned—though not always in the manner we suspect. As Rilke once ordained, true singing is a different breath. The poets are those who sing from silence.

Eliot Cardinaux is one such poet. Like Celan before him, Cardinaux is no stranger to the silence that occasions poetry or the agonizing process of gathering one’s breath. In his debut collection, On the Long Blue Night, Cadinaux’s speaker “walk[s] through poetry out into the world” where he is greeted by exile. (Observers of silence are seldom met with a warm embrace). And so like many outcasts before him, the speaker journeys—from scene to scene, section to section—encountering old regrets and apparitions, time spent and time lost. One might expect the speaker to lament his misfortune, to be given over to anger and resentment. Instead, he turns his attention inward, offering himself to the reader:

The pain of a body

Excesses of
courage & strength

I love this language

Love it madly

Here it is

Although silence is the occasion for poetry, modernity is marked by profusions of sound. This is true, insofar as our structures are built phoneme by phoneme and poetry collections are consumed in the corners of coffee shops. This is true, insofar as our poets respond to the babel by writing into it. What Cardinaux does exceptionally well, by contrast, is attune us to silence. Taking our hand, his speaker guides us into the quiet and beckons—sit now. But this kindness masks the outcast’s sacrifice. Consider lines like “to make room for you / who looked away / & confirmed my secret” or “I grieve my splinter out.” As readers, we must accede to silence if we are to follow Cardinaux into On the Long Blue Night. This is not an insignificant demand. It requires a worthwhile payoff.

& death will measure

xxxxxxxxas long as I live

& carry on
carrion in

Above is an example of the poet’s ability to gather language from the poetic clearing. Notice, in the second stanza, how Cardinaux attaches and detaches units of sound around carry. “Carry on” stacks atop “carrion,” while the words in between invert to create “uncaring” and “incarnation.” Thus concludes “Host,” a poem that explores the duality of not just eating but also starving in service of one’s wounds. This final thrust of language arrives only after an invocation of silence—death, or the inevitability from which silence emanates—then the rupture of this silence, in the form of a stanza break. We are reminded once more of the speaker’s exile: the distances that must be overcome for one to make it through the long blue night.

Here, a bit of biography is useful. Cardinaux was trained as a pianist in several conservatories; in fact, poems from On the Long Blue Night appear in an experimental record titled pain is a form of violence prone to happiness. Like poetry, music is occasioned by silence. The difference between these respective forms is the affect they have on their player: the pianist’s breath is demanded by his instrument, whereas the poet’s breath is the foundation of his prosody. “You cannot read some books / except in silence / & you can / not write some poems / without music.” Both music and poetry contain melody and rhythm—their respective calls arise from what is not played. Cardinaux intimately understands this distinction.

There are so many ways
of doing wrong now
saying you understand
asking if you
wonder at the light
when it does not touch you
warming me in comfort
where I do not notice

Those who are cast out are rarely received back into the fold, and the speaker is no exception. But it is the poet’s response to exile that drives the initial comparison to Celan: like his forebear, Cardinaux kneads language in an original and compelling manner. And while this makes On the Long Blue Night an exciting collection, it also complicates the conclusion of this review. You see, the role of the reviewer is to present the text so the reader might decide where to place their attention; however, this text is unlike the others you might read. That is because if you give this collection your attention, you must give all of it. You must sense the rhythm in the absence of noise. And that means you must surrender to the silence.

Z.L. Nickels has published reviews and interviews with Image, The Rumpus, BOMB, Hopkins Review, Gulf Coast, Colorado Review, and SPIN (among others).

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