The Opposite of Vanishing
Berkeley: Etherdome, 2000
Artwork by Spencer Selby
The poems in Merle Bachman’s chapbook, The Opposite of Vanishing, meditate on the macabre, reflecting on loss, shadows, winter, and ghostly apparitions. Some of the poems muse philosophically while others, collagist in nature, integrate sentences from the journals of Dorothy Wordsworth or Mary Shelley. But Bachman de-emphasizes content by foregrounding the sounds of words, providing the reader with a moment-to-moment sensory experience that is, in a way, similar to the experience of attending an opera. While an opera’s story line influences the spectator, it is the delicate yet powerful ring of the soprano, the expansive rumble of the bass that lures the opera fan back to the theater. Bachman sets up a gestalt, but avoids lineal meaning by disrupting normative syntax, leaving the reader with impressions, pieces of meaning, supported by sounds that are autonomous, raw, and resonate.
The first poem in the chapbook, “descants on happiness,” utilizes sound to suggest the fleeting nature of happiness. Take, for example, stanza 4:
striving to be happy
“it’s all I want,” he said
–where nested? in texture of trees
smoke rising from raked leaves
faint color green entering
vocabulary of earth (10-15)
Bachman uses an abundance of hard sounds such as “t,” “r,” “x,” and “c” (i.e.: “striving,” “it’s,” “want,” “nested,” “texture,” “trees,” “smoke,” “rising,” “raked,” “faint,” “color,” “green,” “entering,” and “vocabulary”). The hard sounds create a sensation of discomfort, which supports the feeling of unfulfilled desire expressed in lines 10 and 11, “striving to be happy? / ‘It’s all I want,’ he said.” In line 12, “–where nested? in texture of trees,” Bachman introduces soft and drawn out “e” sounds (i.e.: the “e” sound in “nested” and “texture” and the long “e” sound in “trees”), evoking sounds that can be associated with ease and contentment. The juxtaposition of the soft “e” sounds with the hard “t” and “r” sounds phonetically represents the inconstancy of happiness–happiness cannot be controlled, it presents itself, then disappears, “–where nested?”
Musically orchestrated, stanza 4, like many of the stanzas in The Opposite of Vanishing, consists of pairs or triplets of sound which echo and reverberate, bouncing forward and backward as one reads and rereads. The word “rising” is echoed in “striving;” the long “e” sound repeats in “trees,” “leaves,” and “green;” the “nt” sound is heard in the second line in “want” and the second to the last line in “faint;” and the “o,” hard “c,” and “l” sounds in “color” are repeated in “vocabulary.”
Bachman’s poems, as the accompanying artwork by Spencer Selby implies, can also be likened to impressionist paintings. The definitive, hard line of linear meaning is replaced by short strokes of sound, creating sound shapes that merely suggest ideas and images, giving the mind a rest and the ear a symphonic spree.