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Explanation of Quintessence: The Elements Project

by Patrick Lawler




For twenty-five years I have been writing a quartet of poetry books inspired by the four elements and collectively titled QUINTESSENCE. The first is A Drowning Man is Never Tall Enough, which was published in 1990 by the University of Georgia Press. The second is (reading a burning book), published in 1994 by Basfal Books. The third book, Feeding the Fear of the Earth, was published by Many Mountains Moving Press in 2006. The fourth, Breathe a Word of It, is completed and seeking a publisher.

The overall structure for the books has provided him with a vessel to pursue some innovative, poly-lectical approaches and an opportunity to explore recurring, spiraling themes.

Following is a brief description of the four books:


A Drowning Man is Never Tall Enough (University of Georgia Press, 1990)

T h e   w a t e r   b o o k

When Marcel Duchamp learned his painting on glass "Bride Stripped Bare by Her Bachelors, Even" had cracked, he replied, "At last, the painting is complete." A Drowning Man is Never Tall Enough represents work that intentionally explores its own cracks, the spaces between self and the world, the spaces between lyric and story. The collection is a shattered narrative which tries to capture the changing shape of consciousness: from self-consciousness (dense with desire) to a consciousness (a discourse between body and mind) to a world-consciousness (language interacting with self and world).

The book strives for a language open to possibility and risk, going beyond the linear and logical. The poems attempt to capture the fragmentation of self and culture. And in the process they strive to go beyond the self-contained and consuming, and open out into other worlds where the “I” is not present. Always the questions: How to go beyond the draining solipsistic voice? How to connect? How to tell the story of the crack? How to tell a story with cracks?

How to tell the story that is drowning us?


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(reading a burning book) (Basfal Books, 1994)

T h e   f i r e   b o o k

This is a book-length poem divided into ten sections: (sleep), (silence), (breath), (words), (water), (death), (food), (love), (light), (dreams). It was written with the intention to reduce everything to the essential. The sections explore dividedness and desire, connection and clarity, while focusing on issues related to the environment, gender, and language. Throughout, the struggle is for meaning. The sections spiral into one another achieving a liquid structure built out of questions and creating a current of voices: the personal, the historical, the poetic, and the philosophical.

The titles of the sections are meant to suggest what is essential, what is necessary, what is critical for our survival. The poem explores the potential of a number of images (hunger, dance, light) and gathers a number of voices (poets, theorists, feminists, artists, activists) in an effort to catch the words on fire, to have ideas and emotions come together in a fire-weaving--to hold a fire where one expects to hold a book.


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Feeding the Fear of the Earth (Many Mountains Moving, 2006)

T h e   e a r t h  b o o k

The major concern of this collection is ecological, and it is structured through a series of titles alluding to various historical figures in unusual contexts. The central theme and vision of the book is interconnectedness. The titles of the various poems reflect conflict, interrelationship, and a “re-contextualization” of ideas. The poems themselves strive to challenge preconceived boundaries: time, cultures, disciplines, gender, race, genre. They are essentially dialectical, working within the conflicts and syntheses created by the tensions invoked in the titles.

This collection is the most overtly political and historical of the four books.


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Breathe a Word of It

T h e   a i r   b o o k

In an effort to avoid arriving at a contrived conclusion for the series, this collection rethinks the structure of a book. To circumvent the linear sense of destination, the poems in Breathe a word of It are organized from the center. They unfold around an embracing space. The book is structured from the middle. The pages are meant to be unnumbered, and companion poems unfold from the center. The center poem is “breathing/ cave.” The first poem in the book and the last poem are titled “Wonder.” And there are various companion poems (“Inhale”—“Exhale” etc.) that open up on both sides of the central poem.

This structure suggests some obvious organic metaphors—labia, petals, lungs, caves—and suggests that we must re-immerse ourselves in the physical world. The title of the book suggests the themes which have been engaged in the three previous books, the movement from the subjective to the objective to the trans-subjective (breath as both spiritual and physical).

To capture the sense of breathing, each poem is written as if it were inhaling and exhaling. Shorter lines alternate with prose lines, so each poem looks as if it were alternating between fullness and emptiness, between taking all in and leaving all out. This affects the rhythms of the poems and visually captures the themes of the book.


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Finally, the combination of the four books will be gathered under a collective title which will provide a space, an alembic, in which the elements interact. The title of the completed project is QUINTESSENCE suggesting that in the combination of the four elements a fifth essence is formed.