On Catherine Meng and The Development of a First Book

Catherine Meng’s Tonight’s the Night

I: Getting to Tonight

“So, in trying to understand the work of the composer, one must first think of him as living in a world of sounds, which in response to his creative impulse becomes animated with movement.” —Roger Sessions, The Creative Process

Neil Young’s “Tonight’s the Night,” the opening title track from Tonight’s the Night, was written in 1975. Although the lyrics offer several connotations, as all lyrics do and can if one chooses to prod them well enough, the chorus tonight’s the night remains, in itself, hypnotic enough to sustain excitement throughout the entire song. The chorus, or specifically the refrain “tonight’s the night,” will thus be one focus herein. In the beginning of the song, the phrase “tonight’s the night” is repeated eight times, each time with a progressively inter-weaved addition of guitar, bass, and/or drum. In fact, the song begins with Neil’s voice only, then a backup vocal, then a stronger Neil voice, then a different backup voice, then an even stronger Neil voice, then both backup vocals, and so forth. The slow progression and addition of instruments at the beginning, accompanied by the rather haunting refrain (in that it builds over itself with a very pinched and noticeably Youngian whisper—actively hypnotizing) act as a reminder of how one thing, when repeated, becomes another version of itself, a slightly varied image of itself, a reflection. Or more specifically, the beginning of “Tonight’s the Night” immediately introduces a fugue, which, in music, and as made most famous by Bach, is defined as a “polyphonic composition based upon one, two, or more themes, which are enunciated by several voices or parts in turn, subjected to contrapuntal treatment, and gradually built up into a complex form having somewhat distinct divisions or stages of development and a marked climax at the end.”

The word fugue is taken from the Latin word fuga, which means flight, and is related to fugeree, which means flee. Aside from its musical definitions, the word fugue is also associated with psychiatry, and is defined as “a period during which a person suffers from loss of memory, often begins a new life, and, upon recovery, remembers nothing of the amnesic phase.” I draw this distinction, and operate from this introduction, because the poet Catherine Meng’s first book, Tonight’s the Night, maneuvers within both definitions of fugue, making her collection, itself, fugally poetic. Not only does Meng construct a book whose forty-eight poems are all entitled “Tonight’s the Night,” but she also comments on, quotes from, and actively engages the work of Neil Young, Johann Sebastian Bach, and Glenn Gould, among others. The Neil young reference is obvious by now, the Bach reference is supported by his compositions working with varied fugues, and the Gould reference holds in that he became a well-known pianist partly due to his intricate recordings of Bach.

Bach, Gould, Young; where does Meng fit in? It would be simple to plunge into Meng’s first book with random notes about its form and content, yet I think such an act would lessen the aesthetic undercurrent, possibly even miss the arc. It would be similar to the search one takes in undressing the intentions of lyrics when the refrain so obviously plays a lead role in the song, in the poem. To begin with, each poem is marked in the table of contents by one of its lines (in italics) and then supported by a quote from musicians prior mentioned, as well as other and often more relevant thinkers in the study of movement, color, and fugue: Max Ernst, Samuel Beckett, Walt Whitman, Ludwig Wittgenstein, and Martin Heidegger to name only a few. With such a palimpsestic table of contents, the reader not only feels instantly obligated to sit with the contents and poems separately, as to manage the meaning, but also willing to flip back and forth between the poem and the quote-driven contents. This technique, that of the fuguist, is one of immediate complexity, a type that would weed most readers out. However, it is something I myself, as a poet, feel as though I’ve been waiting to encounter for years.

Aside from the usage of the fugue, Meng begins her collection with an author’s note—“the poems that follow began as an experiment in repetition after reading biographies of both Neil Young and Glenn Gould.” As readers, we immediately receive an admittance that A—this began as an experiment, and B—music is at the core of this creation and repetition is its key resident. Upon first reading, it becomes easy to swallow this note as a gift and to take the following poems as mere reactions to the biographies Meng read, yet upon second glace at the note, it becomes highly important to highlight how Meng adds that the Gould biography was purchased “after obtaining a portion of the liquidated library of the Professor, who, in the later stages of Alzheimer’s became consumed with underlining & re-underlining the numerous books in his collection to the point of destruction.” Here we not only understand the relevance of music but also the second definition of fugue, as related to Alzheimer’s, or dissociate fugue.

But why all this foregrounding in talking about a book? I suggest that there are two ways of reading Tonight’s the Night. One can roll through its appealing style—one that holds almost every poem on one page with a double space between each line—and leave with the repeated images and themes of grass, geese, highways, song, Bach, the eye, and photography dissolving into their own senses, or one can prod the delicacies of the subjects in the book by listening to Young, Gould, and then reading a bit more about those artists and thinkers who promulgate the table of contents. How far into our reading, for instance, can we take Ernst’s quote that “it is the marvelous capacity to grasp two mutually distant realities without going beyond the field of our experience and to draw a spark from their juxtaposition,” or Nietzsche’s idea that “everything arises as a result of opposition?” Never mind that these quotes are excerpted from larger works, for here they play their importance twofold: since they are a part of the contents, they precede the poems and thus cloak them in either clarity or ambiguity, given one’s acceptance and/or understanding of the contextual epigraphs, and, secondly, they elevate the focus on fugue and thus stress the contrapuntal aspect—that there are, in addition to being two or more lines of melody, two or more meanings available, or even a tautology at work. Coincidentally, Meng plays closely with this particular idea of negation and double-meaning in that, within these poems, the eye often comes before or becomes the I; additionally, Bach is repeated so much that he becomes simulacrum. Things become variations of themselves as the poems begin to fugue.

It is precisely at this point of figuring and tautology where I fall madly in like with Catherine Meng’s Tonight’s the Night. I have spent a heavy chunk of time with this artifice, clinging so closely to it that recently, on buses and while walking, even on the phone with friends, I catch myself singing or saying tonight’s the night. At first, I did so in reaction to having listened to Neil Young’s album on repeat so many times that I forgot my headphones were on, but then I started saying it as if to bring myself into the field of imagery that follows the refrain, as Meng does so smoothly in her poems. I’ve touched on how the opening track of Young’s album resuscitates itself through repetition, yet I did so without mentioning that his album is book-ended by “Tonight’s the Night part II,” which is almost identical to the opening track but has a slightly mottled if not drunken climax. Moreover, Meng’s momentous layering of poetic imagery, often the same image used again and again, makes the construction of this collection just as fascinating as that in which the construction calls to—the poem. Specifically, I mean that as a reader I am just as invested in how these poems were made as I am in the poems as separate entities. In fact, this investment seems mandatory in coming to terms with the overall arc of this “experiment,” which seems to be an answer to why tonight is the night, an answer that, unfortunately, I really cannot explain myself, but feel as though I am feeling when I read this collection.

II: Tonight’s the Night is a Great First Book

By now it might seem obvious that I enjoy this book, yet maybe not specifically why. The strength of this book is that it propels the reader into it. On the surface, there doesn’t seem to be a lot going on in these poems, which Meng soon notes. Since they all share the same title, they seem harder to ground, like continuously light comments on one engulfing theme. Yet because of this they demand more attention, they challenge the reader to accept the intentionality of the project and to take a bit more time extrapolating its themes. Let’s go to the first poem in the collection:

Tonight’s the Night

In April it snows your favorite song. It wraps around your ankles

where Bach should be. Eyes confuse leafless trees with artificial trees.

Toward chord curve, towards trucks

barreling into their breaks where the lights of the city pick up

you follow the line. Shitting troops of geese

bellow toward an ugliness which wobbles weird,

the bald tire they make of the sky. Where this world folds

exposed to sun you can learn

about face. The articulate patterns of each blade of grass.

They grow most before dawn while people are sleeping,

while the trains leave with a muttering of lead & petals.

While the videographer films a chopstick

tracing statues in window steam. Cutting open his breath.

The last line of this poem is a much returned to theme throughout. The cutting open of something is not always calling to the cut, but that in the cut. So if the cut is a breath, we are drawn back into the videographer or he who holds the lens to the eye, the world to the “I.” Secondly, this poem excitedly plays on the well-known poetic aspect of April, that cruel month, and it toys with many artistic mediums—music, light, motion, video, etc. Yet while enjoying it, I also immediately wish to encounter its other parts, or those poems that are there to follow. If I spent enough time with the poem, I could easily take enough meaning from it on its own, as well as some incredible lines—“where this world folds/exposed to sun you can learn/about face” —but the task at hand is to see to that at which the poem points. A breath has been opened; a postmodern setting has been appropriated in that many artistic forms paved the way for the poems in the table of contents, and the musicality has admitted to its fascinations: “eyes confuse…the articulate patterns of each blade of grass…while the train leaves…films a chopstick tracing…”

The strength here is that the poems point at one another and crescendo; they repeat their imagery in order to pile on the importance of each image until a climax is reached. Incidentally, the repetition is also a form of deconstruction—“if/you are looking for action, you are in the wrong place/because nothing happens in these poems.” What I see as a potential flaw here is that if one wished to read this as a book of poems, as opposed to essentially one long poem, they may become dissatisfied with what would then seem to be a an incomplete construction site. The reward, therefore, comes in sticking with these poems until that site is built, and it is. At the point in which Meng says that nothing happens in these poems, the reader will have enough material to know that the idea that nothing is happening is exactly what is happening in these poems. Nothing is happening because everything here already happened and will again—the fugue.

The idea of sticking with poems until the end may be the ultimate reason I chose this book as a model for my own developing thesis. I am of the belief that not many people read a book of poetry front to back. For most books, there are often sections that allow for pause, or poems with titles that make a reader flip to their pages immediately. Here I think of Dean Young’s collections; although quite entertaining, it is very likely that one glance at the table of contents will have me on page 25 to find out immediately what happens in a poem with the title “Ode to Hangover.” However, the books of poetry I have come back to recently and have been more or less blown away by are all books of either long poems, balanced interconnectivity, or repeated titles: John Berryman’s Dream Songs, Lyn Hejinian’s The Fatalist, Rusty Morrison’s The True Keeps Calm Biding Its Story, C.D. Wright’s Deepstep Come Shining, to name a few. (Note here that this might just be a way of saying I like book length projects). Catherine Meng’s Tonight’s the Night is one of these books. It quickly becomes so involved with its core of questioning that the poems answer and recycle themselves in a succession of heightened awareness. The poems move through themselves as if to come back to why they began; thus, the scope of this book is the transfer of an experiment into a realization, as opposed to a forcing together of poems that a poet may or may not feel work well together. These poems don’t necessarily demand that they be read in succession, but they successfully take a reader into such path, almost without the reader realizing it.

Catherine Meng released one chapbook prior to Tonight’s the Night, called Fifteen Poems in Sets of Five, and one since, Dokument, both of which I’ve ordered out of extended interest. After initial researching, it seemed that she might remain somewhat of an enigma. Apostrophe Books, who chose Meng’s book as their debut, have since published only one other book, the intensely visceral and beautifully bizarre A New Quarantine Will Take My Place by Johannes Goransson. Coincidentally, I found out about Meng by examining the website of the press in order to see what else they were doing if they were working with Goransson (aslo because, might I add, my close friend, the poet Thomas Cook, told me to read the book after my telling him to read Goransson). Not only do I believe Meng’s first book does everything I would like my own work to: it rewards the reader for reading it in its entirety, it repeats its themes in a subtle way, it incorporates the ideas of philosophers, painters, and writers, it challenges its own existence, it arrives out of and sustains an experiment, but I also believe that it is a marvelous example of a press I both respect and feel completely involves itself in the work of those to which it represents.

Presses such as Apostrophe Books spark the interest of readers willing to read everything that seems within relevant mention or connection to the books they are putting out. Meng’s book, specifically, only becomes more and more engrossing (if not entirely addicting and consuming) when one acknowledges its cultural connectedness. At first, I read it straight through, then I was so drawn to the Young references that I listened to the album on repeat, then I listened to the album while reading the book, then I read the Young biography, then I returned to the book, etc. If there is one thing I would like my thesis to accomplish, it would be for it to allow what postmodern signs it arises from to surface, at least enough to point at that which they arrive out of, so that a reader is rewarded for cross-referencing and activating one or more artistic mediums. Meng does this with what seems to be ease. The most remarkable aspect of this connectivity is that the poems come back to their involvedness with other material, rather than coming off as a result of what they are involved in; they become less referential, more holistic. tn9780979362705

III: “Please don’t shoot the piano player, he’s doing the best he can”

The holistic feel of this book represents a very important aspect of a poet’s creative approach, something that I wish to incorporate into my own work. When fascinations with certain arts remain within a writer’s radar, they often find their way into a piece of work. Additionally, over the course of that work, on its way toward a whole, or a full book, these desires carry the themes almost unnoticeably along, as if they are minor characters, or even understudies. Whether or not the author acknowledges the desires of fascination, desire’s presence alone will undoubtedly play into the work. For Meng, it serves as both an artistic stabilizer and a form of release. The fugue becomes a backbone, Bach a device, and the images Meng installs are then able to charge more forcefully into the climax of the book. The musical refrain and the cyclicality of images move as if from a piano player, instead of a pianist, and this allows for the writing to pick up on its own themes, overlap them, and move toward an end.

Poets, quite arguably as much as musicians, live in a world of sounds. If we think of the poet as a composer, it seems befitting to then assign him or her the task of sound-organizer and melody-arranger. When images arrive on the page for the poet, they suggest a movement that has positioned itself from creative impulse. Since poets thrive on creative impulse, the way in which it is sustained or grounded on the page becomes increasingly significant. This grounding, however, is something I have long struggled with but feel as though I’ve just been taught how to do in Tonight’s the Night. The all-inclusiveness of Meng’s chosen elements (impulse, musical admiration, philosophical inquiry) may risk being just a gesture, but here it goes beyond the gesture to hold the entirety of the investigation in one piece of successful experimentation.

“Buoyed by the churning field where levels overlap, the notes know/surface only as departure.” To touch again on how “nothing happens,” the previous note must be highlighted. We can accept these poems as a surface and depart from them with what we can and will, but by the time we read a few of them we become them and everything begins to fugue: the imagery, the language, the writer, the reader. I feel as though I don’t need to note what I will and have taken away from this book, but I must note that it has taken me into it, and I feel that I will be inside it for a while.

On last note, I am now entirely consumed by the multiplicity of a fugue. I am ready to go back to Tonight’s the Night and examine it from the psychiatry side of a fugue. If this form of fugue approaches the idea of memory loss and not recalling the amnesiac phase, then all the greenery, geese, chopsticks, and Bach in this book will take on a whole new and probably equally enjoyable meaning for the reader. Also, the role these poems has played in revealing themselves has made me gloss completely over their form, which might be a nod toward the form’s power. It’s almost as if I have forgotten where I am when reading this and nothing matters beyond continuing—fuguing away.


2 thoughts on “On Catherine Meng and The Development of a First Book

  1. Pingback: Tyler Dorholt on Catherine Meng’s Tonight’s the Night « APOSTROPHE BOOKS

  2. Pingback: I’m Done Rampaging « Third Factory/Notes to Poetry

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