CUTBANK REVIEWS: Float, by David Abel

FloatDavid Abel Chax Press, 2012

Review by Sarah Ghusson

To float - through the air, or in water, an action that is either aimless or directed, perhaps both; floating through rivers and on seas to reach other continents, floating on the winds, like a bird, simply because the bird is capable by nature, or because it holds an ultimate destination at wing; humankind floats through space for discovery. In David Abel’s Float, this motion is captured in several related ways -- his words mimic flotation in that they are conjoined in carefree looseness. This poetry, like something caught in water or on air, seems to merely flow wherever the current takes it. However, if attention is paid, and the current of Abel’s movements is tracked with consideration, the destination the author has perhaps intended through this innovative work will be reached.

The first section of three is titled “Conduction,” suggesting a process or movement of material through a medium, whether that material is electricity, heat, liquid, or sound. In this case, the material is meaning, and language the medium. “Conduction” is a montage of Abel’s poetic work interspersed with italicized passages from the work of others, sourced in endnotes. Thus the work already compels readers to hover between its first pages and its last ones, and thus begin their own process of conduction: drawing meaning through words. He writes: A combination of characteristics: dense, vibrant rhythms within constrained compass (thus the pattern almost parsable) - as in moving water (24). Abel’s work is rich and varied, it challenges and compels us to float with it and discover its nearly discernible design, but escapes perfect examination for: The meaning of a meaning / (its tendency) / is more than the sum, sequence, or / description / of its instances (15).

“Orbis Pictus” is named after the first picture book written for children, suggesting this section’s intention to function as its own “Visible World in Pictures.” The section is split into six parts, and the first two are drawn from volumes of Orbis Pictus. “Land Sought, Found, Claimed” contains vibrant imagery from historical events, colorful description of natural environments, enchanting bits of of fable and myth, and lessons of science. “Ambulatory Windows” enters the creation of blown glass as if an alchemistic attempting to produce wonder. Therein, David Antin describes glass as a desert / that transmits light / the thirst is not appeased (47). The motif of transference and the illusion of fluid are cleverly reflected in the material of glass, but the water-like substance will not satiate. It is another instance of the challenge of Abel’s work, where the reader’s thirst for meaning is continuous and ever-increasing. “Lebanon” is described in the end notes as a homage that draws from a book of Lebanese colloquial poetry, and so Abel’s work here is largely influenced by the poems of Michel Trad. He prefaces this piece by stating that bodies are the truest sense of words, emphasizing the human aspect of language, and the pivotal role they play in the interaction of words and meaning (51).

“Time Words” is a compendium of terms all containing “time,” and this broad search warrants results from a variety of subjects. This section speaks to the human desire to classify and contain even that which cannot be classified and contained, and perhaps the futility of such endeavors -- with time serving as an ultimate example. “NEG” and “First to Last” function in a similar way, both sections gather sentences from other works in an attempt to create meaning beyond the source text; they are concerned with the intertextuality of language. The first collects example sentences from The New English Grammar, which itself reads like a source text, forming magnetic images of race contention and war, as well as motifs of water and epitstomology in lines such as: Knowledge is power / How much is there?, Swimmers are graceful, and We have our language problems (74-75). Abel again brings up the limits of knowledge through language, and the graceful swimmers serve as a metaphor of the desperate navigate towards meaning, floating through waters, words. In “First to Last,” Abel gathers first and last sentences from every work in an anthology of first stories by famous authors. In doing so, he creates a near fiction of his own. Throughout “Orbis Pictus,” one must gracefully swim through Abel’s semi-adapted creations, referring to his endnotes for clarity, seeking for meaning and hoping it exists.

The third and final part of Float, a single poem called “Times of Day,” is a long sequence of words, arranged vertically into mostly single-word lines. The act of reading this piece recalls the continuity of motion requisite for floating, the swift consistency of word after word is like the rhythm of waves lapping on a shore. The contradiction lies in the simultaneously jarring quality of language. When read aloud, the brain rebels against the logic of Abel’s word arrangement -- it breaks with expected sentence structure. The disparity of these two characteristics forges comment on the duality of language, it can be used to inform and create, to convey meaning through academic and creative product, but it can also perplex, divide, and fail us. Abel’s book of poetry encapsulates the many possibilities language provides, and inspires a dedicated analysis of adapted texts and innovative forms. He encourages us to float, to delight in the floating, to seek what may await us at journey’s end.


David Abel is an editor and teacher in Portland, Oregon and the proprietor of Passages Bookshop and The Text Garage. He is the publisher (with Sam Lohmann) of the Airfoil chapbook series, and edits and produces the free broadside series Envelope. A founding member of the Spare Room reading series (now in its eleventh year) and the collaboration collective 13 Hats, he is also a Research Fellow of the Center for Art + Environment of the Nevada Museum of Art. As an interdisciplinary artist, he has devised numerous performance, film, theater, and intermedia projects with a wide range of co-conspirators. In 2011, he curated the international exhibition Object Poems for 23 Sandy Gallery in Portland. His recent publications include the chapbooks Tether (Bare bone books), Carrier (c_L), Commonly (Airfoil), and Black Valentine (Chax), and the collaborative artist’s books While You Were In and Let Us Repair (disposable books, with Leo & Anna Daedalus).

Sarah Ghusson is working towards a BA in English Literature with minors in Creative Writing and Business Administration at the University of Arizona. She is currently composing a creative thesis of short stories within the English Honors Program. She work as a Publications Intern for Chax Press.