The Bull Calf

Reviews of Fiction, Poetry, and Literary Criticism

Indexical Elegies by Jon Paul Fiorentino

Reviewed by Mike Bennett

Jon Paul Fiorentino
Indexical Elegies
. Coach House 2010                                                
80 pp.                                                                  $16.95

In Indexical Elegies, Jon Paul Fiorentino’s bold new collection of playful yet moving poems, he engages with philosophy – specifically, the philosophy of signification, semiotics. Indexes are signs that point. Over the last few years, Fiorentino has made a name for himself by producing volumes of poetry organized around cleverly superimposed tropes derived from various rhetorical fields. Hello Serotonin drew its images from neurochemistry, and the celebrated Theory of the Loser Class, from sociology and economics. Fiorentino is concerned with the trajectory of words, their (potentially interrupted) lines of flight from the page to their referents, physical or otherwise. Even the form of his new book is an echo to the meaning; shaped like a library index card, the book itself, as a physical object, indicates that it will concern reference.

Following a schema beloved by C. S. Peirce, the book is organized triadically. Of the three sequences of Fiorentino’s book, two are full of locative indicators, pointing first toward Montreal, then toward Winnipeg. Peirce, whose theory of signs is explicitly invoked, likens indices to guideposts, street signs. They refer by being physically close to their referent, by being nearby. An indexical sign (say, one of Fiorentino’s, “Notre-Dame-des-Neiges Cemetery”) can tell you something about the field full of gravestones you’re standing in, but not because it resembles it; it would not tell you anything if you took the sign home with you. Indices are thus highly contextual. Fiorentino goes a step further and arranges his indexical signs in a specific psychological constellation, informed by doubts and anxieties, palliated by Xanax and cigarettes.

Many of the titular puns gesture toward the instability of the indices’ new orbit. ”Hysterical narrative”, for instance, and “Cautiously solipsistic” gently twist the pliant meaning of an expression away from its conventional reference. They recentre meaning on a direct, though perhaps neuropathological, perspective. But as the concrete references multiply, it is some consciousness, in Fiorentino’s poems, that detaches signs from their symbolic referents: “The ATM looks lovely tonight/if you believe in the word lovely” (20).

Yet in some respect, the poems are about the anxiety caused by this detachment, and the resistance to totally floating signifiers. It is perhaps for this reason that Fiorentino refers to Peirce in an epigraph: “The index is physically connected to the object; they make an organic pair”. Indices bear witness to the existence of their referents. Peirce himself likens indices to subatomic particles slamming into one another. Caroming apart after impact, each is an index of the other, a sign pointing backwards. For Fiorentino, the elegy is the most indexical of poetic forms, and his book consists of three of them. The middle, title sequence is specifically an elegy for Robert Allen, Fiorentino’s mentor. The poems here are concerned with memorializing, remembering, pointing toward the physical connection of the sign with its object.

Peirce claims that there are three kinds of signs: icons, which resemble; indexes, which point, and symbols, which have a publicly shared meaning. Fiorentino refers to all three, but seems to reserve a special place for indices. “Icons bore us to death”(41), he quips; and as for symbols, he quotes Peirce almost verbatim, it would be “An injury to language to add a new one”(35). Indices have sometimes gotten short shrift in the history of philosophy; Hegel famously showed how the deictic ‘this’ is not simply given and certain, but implies and requires higher forms of (symbolic) mediation to make any sense. Fiorentino’s elegies must remain indexical, must retain their connection to the object, even in its loss – the loss of Robert Allen, the loss of Montreal, of Winnipeg.

Peirce’s two other kinds of signs are inappropriate to Fiorentino’s project: icons are only accidentally connected to their objects, by resemblance; symbols are only connected to objects by habitual mental association. Only indices have the virtue of traversing this chasm of signification. Indices are particular. Symbols are diffused too quickly into generalities, banalities; they can be traded or exchanged economically. Fiorentino’s tribute to Allen resists such transitivity. The title sequence becomes gradually more frank, as Fiorentino begins to address Allen directly, calling him by name, declaring his own loss. These indices are, necessarily, partial, incapable of bringing the referent back; to recreate it would be to make the index an icon. The privacy, the particularity of grief cannot, without violence, be transformed into something tradable or economically viable.

Fiorentino’s achievement with this volume is to remain perched on this tensile edge for so long, resisting both temptations, never allowing his mourning to become too representative or too conventional. Peirce says that, since an index is wholly contextual, it is the only regime of signs that gives any information, but indices can neither resemble or be exchanged. The information indices give may be unsatisfying, but at least they point us somewhere.

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About the Author

At press time: Mike Bennett is a PhD student in Philosophy at McMaster University. He is currently working on a dissertation about Deleuze and Aristotle.



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