Ali Znaidi: rob mclennan’s Poetic Experimentation in “Essays, before a sonata”

rob mclennan would usually sketch something before it disappears into the blur of oblivion. He writes in “Essays, before a sonata” (Mad Crab Journal, 2017):


Fingers at the ready, keyed.

For him a poem appears to be sequences of experiments, each stemming from a different series of observations and ruminations. He builds his poem on the kinds of sequences that create a different text. Bits playing on a certain degree of confusion that yields a framed poetic harvest. He sketches sequences of meditative patterns that weave their way across the subtle tapestry of the text—something akin to petals that amalgamate to form a rose. rob mclennan projects the bits, then filters them through the billowing body of the text. He is a master when it comes to sequences and sequencing. The poem looks like a sort of visual art—something akin to an outfit on a clothesline held by pegs. The sequences epitomize his infatuation with details which function as keys. In turning details into keys, the lines fill the reader with the courage to open the door even in times of crisis. He writes in “Essays, before a sonata”:


Wind, a long door. Collapsible, winter.

rob mclennan wants the reader to open doors, hence opening new ways of thinking—ways that acknowledge that structures or bits are not only continuously intersecting but also continuously stitching each other to be free from being archived and to be a source of an identity quest. He says in the same poem:

The archive, indeterminate.


Who are you, really.

The reader is required to enter a world made of broken shards exemplified in his startling use of the comma, which is imbued with novelty and experimentation— something capable of generating codes to illuminate the different dimensions of this postmodern post-human life.

The shards mix. They reassemble. They resurrect out from the ash—the possibilities are endless, both within and outside of the norms. Interesting, too, he says in the same poem:

Cultivated, forms. Syllabus, a buried cigarette.

Prior to reading mclennan’s work, I thought of poetry as a shadowless fixed body. However while reading through his poems I am be struck by the continual threading of the sequences that resemble glossy freckles on “[t]he white flesh of page” as he puts in his poem “from distinctions.”

Although it respects the regulations of grammar, mclennan’s language is full of syntactical deft play that brings to mind the way aesthetics of the avant-garde and vision are bound up with the vocation to push against fixation and stagnation. The poignant and subtle playfulness of his language, which oftentimes comes with perspective, helps hold the more experimental bits together into a solid whole. And it’s common for the poem to contemplate the bits as artifacts of rumination or clues in a quest.

mclennan’s poetry is a blend of playful language and twisted motion that takes readers into a structural journey that pushes against any kind of stricture. The playfulness of the language gestures toward philosophical questions and problems about the center and margins. He says in the same poem:

An edge. In order again to never hold. To hold.

mclennan’s imagery is stark pure. The vividness, the starkness and the sensory depiction of place and atmosphere work hauntingly to constellate the sequences. Through the use of unconventional commas, as mentioned earlier on, symbols and the brevity of the sentence mclennan evokes a universality that belies concealment. mclennan has no vocation but to leave readers stark naked in front of the mirror of the poem. He writes in “Essays, before a sonata”:

Thread count

leaves you, strips us bare.

mclennan writes a particular way of perceiving the world, which is made up of dissimilar structures and bits. For him a poem is a constant struggle to render coherent all the different threads of experience. While struggling, the poet needs a breather. For an experimental poet like him nothing would be better than the use of unconventional commas as a breather. Reviewing rob mclennan’s The underside of the line (above/ground press, 2011) Susan McMaster writes:

The comma, that appears sometimes in odd places such as at the beginning of a line, acts as a soft exhale, a lyrical pause and gesture forward.

mclennan himself said in an interview conducted with him at OmniVerse by Susanne Dyckman:

Poems for me have always been visual, so I’ve enjoyed playing with punctuation and spacing, both for the sake of the visuals on the page, and as a playful-pause.

Each bit or sequence in his poem demonstrates not only an intense abstraction, but a unique ability to transform the words into visual narratives, all of which connect into an architecture of a text that demands to be seen with concentration. Thus he invites readers into an intimate seeing of the words. mclennan also insinuates a pseudo-political agenda, but doesn’t articulate a point of view, rather expecting the reader to interpret the innuendo of silence through embellishing the eyes with the poetic word. He says in the same poem:

We dot the eyes,

a thin-spate. Speckling. Silence,

wrote this out.

mclennan’s poem is full of vibrant gaps, an accumulation of details infused with surrealist commentary and facts drawn from the everyday; the poem becomes a work of erasure and collage. mclennan is concerned with the gaps left within the tapestry of the poem and struggling with generating a sense of wholeness from fractions to push against loss and degeneration. mclennan’s work is a delight to read because of its aesthetic depth, its incredible sensitivity to minimalism, and its immense respect for the poetic. mclennan merges the complexity of a postmodern approach with aspects of close observations. His approach is thorough and analytical because it relies on details as stated earlier. He says in a line which is imbued with surrealist flavours in the same poem:

Such staggered, loss. In fashion. Warped, arrival.

mclennan’s poetic corpus is characteristic of his remarkable theoretical depth and his analyses of details. For him poetry seems to be the genre in which language is able to best emanate beyond the shackles of standardization and to explore its own anarchic properties and emancipatory possibilities. This includes the radical nature of his abstractions as a repudiation of the familiar.

The lingering trace of assemblage, if this is what it is, is not devoid of such stylistic literary devices as alliteration. The latter serves as a sort of thread that stitches the fragments in an extraordinary geometry. mclennan often similarly reorients the reader’s expectations as regards the past or even the now toward a historiographical rendition. Therein lies the justification for his—honest enough—infatuation with assembling history for the future:

Sling, a sling. Soft letters folded, back. Speculation, structured.

mclennan’s poem offers a wide range of observations and speaks to them in a variety of ways spinning from the surrealist—“Such staggered, loss.”—to the straightforwardly hypothetical—“Chance, by no means. Twisted.” Writing from this privileged perspective, especially in tandem with poetry’s own internal inducements to twisted forms of showing instead of saying, produces a peculiar kind of seductive rhetoric that holds readers in and to it until they collapse. Readers will be in awe of mclennan’s inventiveness, twisting syntax, and luscious language. The vividness displayed in his poetry is quite striking as he has a good command of playing with familiar devices in fresh ways and perspectives. Throughout his poems, he presents an enjoyable combination of courage, disparate facts, and ambiguity. Could his capacity for ambiguity reveal the concealed banality of discourse that precedes the banality of postmodern life despite its complex nature? In this regard, this approach seems working well. All the while, mclennan is stuffing his poetry with such an innocence coupled with wit and deftness.

A jelly of diverse practices and influences, nourishing a variety of cutting-edge experiments to grow, spread, and multiply: the quotidian landscapes of language are eroded and reshaped over the years as events come into and out of the poet’s life, hence forming a narrative that is both baffling and incomplete. Thus his poetic oeuvre would serve as an engine or a rite of passage that delivers readers to a place redolent of poesy that is a carefully rendered in an assonant, rhythmic, playful language of discontinuity. It is this kind of playful inventiveness that makes mclennan’s work such a sublime pleasure to read. There are many moments of music packed into his poems, and readers will be excited about the ways they expand and build upon a memory dotted with gaps.

In the same interview conducted with him at OmniVerse by Susanne Dyckman mclennan says:

Poetry, in many ways, is a collaborative form: between the writer and each particular reader, each of whom bring their entirely separate histories (and baggage) of reading to each individual piece.

Thus the gaps are of paramount importance in allowing the readers to engage with the poem and to be actually living inside its verbal labyrinths trying to extricate themselves from the dilemma or the dichotomy of questions and answers.



Ali Znaidi (b.1977) lives in Redeyef, Tunisia. He is the author of several chapbooks, including Experimental Ruminations (Fowlpox Press, 2012), Moon’s Cloth Embroidered with Poems (Origami Poems Project, 2012), Bye, Donna Summer! (Fowlpox Press, 2014), Taste of the Edge (Kind of a Hurricane Press, 2014), Mathemaku x5 (Spacecraft Press, 2015), and Austere Lights (Locofo Chaps: an imprint of Moria Books, 2017).

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