Lytle Shaw's Fieldworks is both fascinating and perplexing. All literary history and criticism operates by synecdoche, taking selected lines and passages and assembling them to represent an overall work or period. In nine chapters Shaw examines work by eight writers or groups of writers to document the changing ways in which US poets have conceived locality, from William Carlos Williams’s Paterson, Charles Olson’s Gloucester, Jerome Rothenberg’s ethnopoetics, Amiri Baraka’s Newark, through the Bolinas poets community of the late 1960s to Clark Coolidge and Bernadette Mayer’s conceiving of the book as a site, and the Flarfists and other late conceptualists conceiving discourse itself to be a multiplicity of sites. In a sense these chapters are like eight core samples drilled into a vast geography – they tell you something of what is there but not a whole lot of what is there. The chapters are juxtaposed but not necessarily connected. There is a rough chronology from Williams to Flarf but many concurrent moments of contrast and disconnection -- which is good, because major developments in poetics can be concurrent and not necessarily connected. The chapters fulfill the promise of the title of demonstrating the poetics of place and site in some US postwar poetry. But do they support the generalizations which he offers about such matters as “the New American poets and their immediate successors” or “the present moment in poetics” (261) when the work of so many of the major US postwar poets – Zukofsky, Duncan, Levertov, Spicer, O’Hara, Ashbery, Mac Low among them – is unconsidered? Perhaps it’s best to read the generalizations only as plausible hypotheses.
There is of course another generalization implicit in this book – that only poets who are usually considered experimental, avant-garde, cutting-edge or ‘research’ poets constitute the US’s contemporary or “postwar”