Thursday, August 31, 2006



Trying my darnedest to pull together an “annotated” list for Steve Evans’s Attention Span, that “collectively-drawn map of the field,” one of the most satisfying collaborative labors of the “age.” Trouble is, I look back at a year “in ruins,” full up with fictions. And, my books a-jumble, double-shelved everywhere, I am sure to’ve overlooked something. My big reading jags included everything I could find by Gilbert Adair, a monster-passel of Jonathan Lethem, a growl or two of Edward Dahlberg, some Susan Sontag, culminated (fiercely soared—meaning if I had to pick one single book of the year) with the first volume, recently translated by Joachim Neugroschel, of Peter Weiss’s extraordinary trilogy, The Aesthetics of Resistance, and moved lately into the newish Spanish-language writers Roberto Bolaño, Javier Marías, and César Aira. If I review my meagre notes, I see too little poetry—as if the bust-out torrential accumulation of it all’d made me draw back. That, or my aversion to the increasingly predictable and puerile “disjunctive” practices, as if a heap of fragments’d be enough. Nevertheless, I’ll squint and spit and consider. (Some of the notes are new, some pulled out (“reframed”) of notes at Rue Hazard, or Isola di Rifiuti. No particular order.) Alors:

Merrill Gilfillan | Selected Poems 1965-2000 | Adventures in Poetry | 2005

For the precisions (and imprecisions) of the natural world and all the human debris that impinges on it. “A hem of willows worn basketball orange.” Lots of Gilfillan’s early work, the originals published by Doones, Angel Hair, Blue Wind, legendary and now hard to find. Poetry less spare and incisive (cut) than Gilfillan’s current stuff, though the eye is nearly as infallible. See:
Piss Ant and Peony

The word peony
like the word firefly
held so powerful a charge
for the Japanese
it was used in poems
sparingly, with great care

and Harry
was Thomas Eakins’
dog. . . .
Bonus: back cover photograph of Gilfillan in Iowa City circa 1968, manual typewriter, pheasant feather stuck in Lancer’s bottle, dirty ashtray, paper clutter, tumbler in fist.

Ryan Murphy | Down with the Ship | Otis / Seismicity | 2006

Disparate elements hard-bargained for, and won. “Alka-Seltzer, auburn, / creosote, combine. / I resolve.” Murphy’s first book, though he’s put out a couple chapbooks. He’s another (authentic) sucker for the ongoing miasma and effervesce of the natural world, a thing increasingly rare. “We mourn the loss / of our nature poets.” Dopey syntactical sleights, Poems for Pitchers (“Dear Gaylord Perry”), a willingness (rare, too) to write feelings plain, or barely daubed with admissible sardonic tinge, enough to complicate the delivery of things:
You’re undressing in the dark

You’re undressing in the shotgun light
of a Coors can
What tides await us

Sincerely, Hokusai

Elizabeth Willis | Meteoric Flowers | Wesleyan UP | 2006

Though I didn’t exactly savage Meteoric Flowers, I did turn a wry eye at its achievement (only if aligned against its ambition), drawing my measure for the latter off Willis’s nod to the polymathic over-achiever Erasmus Darwin, late eighteenth-century doctor, botanist, inventor, poet, and intellectual precursor to grandson Charles. Willis, in a “Note on the Text,” says Darwin’s Botanic Garden (1791) “suggested not so much a form as a sensibility with which to approach a period of political, intellectual, and biological transformation.” Of the pieces in the book, Willis admits how “In their unwieldy asymmetries and their sudden leaps between botany, political and aesthetic history, technology, and pastoral romance, this work of the late Enlightenment seemed an eerily apt model for riding out the inter-discursive noise of the early twenty-first century. Poetry, it says, can be at once an account of the physical world, a rethinking of the order of things, and a caprice.” I deplore the lack of the “nitty-gritty” in Willis’s book, the lack (mostly) of everyday horrors, daily loss and seemingly systemic moral hijinx that passes for government—nevertheless, the book does provide satisfying lyrical displays in prose that sings the synapses alert. “If I appear to play the violin, it’s only to keep my head on. Everything heavy falls in September, a fire truck lost on polar seas.” “I’m drawn to the warmth of what doesn’t belong to me, waking up on the bus with money in my pants.”

Ange Mlinko | Starred Wire | Coffee House | 2005

I first encountered Ange Mlinko’s poems around the period of Matinées, I don’t recall where exactly. Immediately struck by the speed, dash, verve, a kind of headlong full-tilt reminiscent of some of O’Hara’s (think of stuff circa “For the Chinese New Year & For Bill Berkson”). That “mode” is still evident in Starred Wire, mighty and insouciant, as in the first poem, “Là”:
In a dream grief feels like grief, joy feels like joy,
adrenaline in any case is adrenaline surging through the veins.
Why do dreams affect us so strongly, turning innocents
into incubi or worse making us fall in love and ruin our lives?
In dreams there is communication between interior and exterior,
as they say of labyrinths. That means there’s at least one exit.
But all the gates and port may be put on alert.
You may get a malady. . . .
Tracery of a mind’s shuttlecock, weaving it in. Other poems in Starred Wire indicate a restlessness, studying beyond to see what else Mlinko is capable of. Plenty. High sassy diction flings: “‘Amuse bouche,’ she said. ‘Now that we’re alone in the camp here, / foot caught in the bag handle, impish.’ / Whenas she became a Supreme Court Justice, / and ‘Ev Geny Believe Dostoevsky, Fyodor,’ reverse-engineered / an acronym limpidly decoded on piano. Also, / the coffee stopped working.” Deadpan humor bouts: “—is it ‘plumage’ if it doesn’t ostentate?” and “now ‘Shellac the lilac’, I instruct.” Uncanny precision: “A cape of rain hit the horned land.” Ludic philanthropic (free, rather than gratuitous) stylings: “It exercises cerise . . .” Exclamatory hyperventilisms: “Screw you, charm!” Good sense scorn: “The argument that year that year was that ‘hyacinth’ / should not be used where ‘flower’ suffices.” Direct statement (as momentary resting place for excitement): “I was trying to describe the perfect library when I remembered that all you need to know is its etymology, rallying place.” And (writ for the twenty-first century) feelings: “You be eros, I’ll be pensée.

Kent Johnson | Epigramititis: 118 Living American Poets | BlazeVox | 2006

It is entirely possible that Kent Johnson’s Epigramititis’ll come to seem the “Hugh Selwyn Mauberley” of our age. Guy Davenport: “It is man’s ineptitude that he has not remembered his own past.” And: “What is most modern in our time frequently turns out to be the most archaic.” What Johnson’s done, with an amiably sharp wit, and deftly, is to revive (for, particularly the dull originality-scrounging “post-avants”) a manner and a form—naming names, taunting (boastfully), pricking the pomposity of the smug, the retrograde, and the earnest. He does it with a roughshod ease, a “friendly” note—if nipping satire can be termed so. “Combative collegiality” is what Johnson himself terms it—in the Greek tradition—a thing “long gone.” As Johnson puts it (rightly): “Poetry is a kind of business now,” (and such pricking is disallowed). Here’s one epigram, placed next to a petulantly toupéed and pouty-looking Donald Trump (the accompanying pictures are impeccably selected, and paired):
David Lehman

In the Preface to the 1999 edition
of The Best American Poetry,
he called me “incontrovertibly brilliant”
and invited me to read at the KGB.
But then (O bitchy fickleness, thou marrow
of all poesy, of the last avant-garde,
even!), he decided he didn’t like me.
And, permit me, one more (put next a defiantly bored-looking Telly Savalas, negligently idling a lollipop in mouth, bald):
David Antin

Shortly after 9/11, he spoke in writing
on the listserv Poetics: “If you encounter
a terrorist on a plane, you don’t politely
request that he return to his seat, you
pull out a .45 and you shoot him.”
History is unstoppable in its teleological
drive to unity: Pop culture merges
with the humanities; the Talk Show merges
with Talk Poetry. And huge decompressed
machines fall, like ideologemes, out of the air.
The book’s a veritable incendiary device (better stomp on it).

Jeni Olin | Blue Collar Holiday & A Valentine to Frank O’Hara | Hanging Loose | 2005

I find Jeni Olin’s work “simply smashing”—and the way that rather Carnaby Street lingo comes up is, I think, directly to the point. She is reckless, omnivorous, veering, pop-culture-savvy, and daring—in “The Correction,” ostensibly “about” “corrective lenses,” she (halfway through) writes:
                                             But today wherever there are people
There is Stevie Wonder’s music, & in the toucan-spattered darkness,
“Living for the City” sparkles like calcium deposits
In a pair of stingray boots.
Myself—I have a stigmatism, am Christly smashing & white
I hate the earth so much I miss my wife, that sickly
Night blindness—he lies there gasping—I’m always dehydrated
& I am always alone, & Mohammed is our prophet
He had more “breakaways” than anybody
But me—I does what I pleases, deep in my heart
I am just a guy showing himself a pretty good time.
End of poem. End of carnival rocketship ride, the tautest centrifugality, always “about” to go out of control. “Toucan-spattered”: one can only shake one’s now-seemingly-Neanderthal head at that. Olin’s willing to admit sleaze, and trash, and several degrees and varieties of “hard core” into her poems—with disarming innocence. Rather like the innocence and pathos that soak through Nan Goldin’s photographs. And humor, no holds barred and ferocious: “Anything I do will be an abuse of somebody’s aesthetics.” With color illustrations by Larry Rivers.

Geraldine Monk | Escafeld Hangings | West House Books | 2005

Out of a parcel titled “She Kept Birds”:
Troglodytes troglodytes

cutty stumpit
wranny wrannock
scutty skiddy
chitty jitty
our lady’s hen
(T. troglodytes being the common winter wren: “a loud and melodious singer . . . Its characteristic call is a single or double note sounding like large pebbles being knocked together . . . It is one of the smallest European birds at about nine centimeters . . . it appears even smaller by its habit of sticking its very short tail up in the air. It has a fairly long, thin bill, a buffy supercilium and dark bars on its wings and flanks. Its name means “cave dweller” and derives from its habit of building its nest in a crevice or hole in walls, trees or steep banks.”)

Which (poem) is only a tiny piece of the center of the book, titled “Mary Queen of Scots,” who was kept captive in Escafeld (Anglo-Saxon version of Sheffield, where Monk lives) between 1570 and 1584. Monk presents (among other pieces), a series of Mary’s letters, funny, pointed, full of contemporary mayhem:
Crashworthy Ermines

Madam, Goode Sis,

The stone walls steer a distraction then stare back. Can a mind pass my life by and leave a body wholesome? The meat is bad with rancid fat as I grow gauche and stringy and a monody of crashworthy ermines sways from the rafters and furthermore sways to a chanson some stocking-woman sang as a chit.

This is what a mind does mid mindless onrush.

At first glance the words gave up a system shock on reading ‘several hands’ as ‘severed heads’—it speaks a maybe sleight of eye or worried mind or both conspiring on the side of darker plurals. There is nothing worthwhile I can do: Ask misery to cease? Being punished in a world like this my portion’s in eternal bliss.

God speed the menopause.

Toots now,
Minging May. Query. Scots.
With a terrific accompanying CD, “Mary Through the Looking Glass,” performed by Monk and Ligia Roque.

Eugene Ostachevsky | Iterature | Ugly Duckling | 2005

Reminded, off the bat, of the “stance” of O’Hara—that crumple-up-the-English-Literature-anthologies one of, say, “At night Chinamen jump / on Asia with a thump”—in reading Ostashevsky:
I Struck Rhetorical Poses

I struck rhetorical poses
around me rose various roses

they were my frame I their spectacle
Then I walked around very skeptical

Then I sat down, void of thought and emotion
gas was my only motion

I would like to know I would like to know
the difference between yes and no

knight and night, Kurd and curd
what l means in the word world

if a fiend in need is a fiend indeed
what is the maximum number of the dead

O you who are a) love
                            b) remove
                            c) fauve
                            d) none of the above

you’re not going to tell me anything I don’t already know
so I’m just gonna wait till my braincells grow
Akin here to the O’Hara of the poem beginning “It is 12:10 in New York”: “it is good to be several floors up in the dead of night / wondering if you are any good or not / and the only decision you can make is that you did it / yesterday I looked up the Rue Frémicourt on a map / and was happy to find it flying like a bird over Paris et ses environs / which unfortunately does not include Seine-et-Oise which I don’t know / as well as a number of other things” That swarming insouciance, that self-knowledge that knows its excellence (and simply doesn’t care), that odd tilt up out of nowhere that exposes (briefly) the dead. I expect he (Ostashevsky)’ll keep doing exactly what he feels like with an ever-malleable American language, brash Play-Doh-like, Oberiu’d.

Lisa Robertson | The Men | Book Thug | 2006

Written, or begun, in 2000, if one troubles the numbers (“Robertson, Lisa, 1961-” cut on the bias against a narrator aged 39) and thinks autobiographical seepage is permissible, semi-permeable. Like the Robertson work I most admire—Debbie: An Epic, The Men strikes me, among other things, as sustained argument for a rampant use of adjectives, singly (“my sensuous intuition”), doubly (“To have been forgiven by them is delicious and tawdry” or triply (“The men breathe into me, tender, phallic, kimonoed”). Adjectival clusters for music, for rhythm, for fearless brash ornamentation. O’Hara’s “democratic and ordinary and tired” and Ted Berrigan’s “feminine marvelous and tough.” Too, a full gamut of sexual politics:
A lyric
With succulence and bigness of deep red.
Happy echoes of Stein (“Hydromel violet hydromel cadmium hydromel apples I am / Ejecting form . . .”) pressed up against echoes of the Rolling Stones of Some Girls (“Some smoke as you lick them. Some / So dull, some equivalent, some / Dwindling.”)

Big numbers of abstract nouns. Against the palpable: “Nothingness entwined with the mental and the odour of smoke.” A kind of double reversal at play of the Pound “Retrospect” dicta—“Use no superfluous word, no adjective, which does not reveal something” and “Go in fear of abstractions.” The effect is a kind of landscape purely and indubitably mental, or secondary to the actual world (my terms emerging out of Robertson’s own lines here.)

Forrest Gander | Eye Against Eye | New Directions | 2005

For the poem “Present Tense” if for nothing else (and there is plenty): it captures the jittery coagulate that is “the present,” irreversible ecological failures beginning to occur (unstopped), the new U. S. imperium-blitzkrieg (unstopped), and, still, one’s “private” gratitudes and morasses, one’s noticings, unexpected beauty, feral and domestic:
By mid-morning thrushes go quiet
in fingerling birches the hay field
exhales two tons of water
and someone who leaped into your life
like a crown fire blows out
in an ambulance trailing its hee-haw siren
insects called death watches
click behind the wall what happens
to the virtuosity of feeling as it meets
the mineral-hard quiddity of the world
while half a continent of raptors
funnels into the narrow
corridor along Lake Ontario’s edge
or sweeps through the gash of Lake Champlain Valley
toward Mount Defiance
with your depression like a retinue of black centipedes
was how you left Arkansas
Gander’s poise (think of “weighing” each syllable) is nigh-perfect, the diction worthy a rodomontade (somewhere he writes “two sparrows titter in fescue”—I could repeat that all day), the concerns major. “What I want is simple enough: to combine spiritual, intellectual, emotional, and technical elements into a resistant musical form” is what Gander writes in A Faithful Existence, (Shoemaker & Hoard, 2005). And: “Writing, I pass from time to space, from succession to juxtaposition. I write the poem in all directions at once, emphasizing not the stability of single words but the transition that emanates between them, or between it and its rings of association, rings of silence. My idea of meaning derives from the continuity of the transition, which is, for me, erotic.” Eye Against Eye is saturated, too, with photographs by Sally Mann.

William Fuller | Watchword | Flood Editions | 2006

A book in three parts, two of prose poems interlaced with lineated, syntactically fragmentary pieces, and a final poem called “Middleless,” with the epigraph “Like to flies upon a plum.” (See Edward Lear: “Mrs. Spikky Sparrow said, / ‘Spikky, Darling! in my head / ‘Many thoughts of trouble come, / ‘Like to flies upon a plum!’” A verse that concludes “‘Chippy wippy sikky tee! / ‘Bikky wikky tikky mee! / ‘Spikky chippy wee!’” Stevensesque folderol in disguise.)

I go directly to the prose poems—scanting the fragmentary, longing a little of late for the “age of the fragment” to haul its long locomotive self into the terminal. It’s in the prose reveries that I see Fuller’s genius at tracing the wayward flow of attention, the way it offers up a shapeliness in spite of itself. When Chaucer says, “After the synne of Enuye and of Ire, now wol I speken of the synne of Accidie,” he’s in the winterland of torpor and sloth. Here’s Fuller:


When to be obsessed not whether is what leads the brain away, buzzing with distortion, encased in a present exempt from increase or decrease and whose image awaits you, its purpose having been realized. Now I’m cold and have to linger. If you don’t believe I’m sinking look at the ice—the lights in the darkness extend themselves after the trajectories of your original expression—if anything the cold is worse and steals into my shoes (which are made from small books). My eyes won’t close and my breath drifts into leaping snow. You’re lucky not to have required I know not what loveless waltz on the river not yet frozen and if I live on, on glass, I will hear those sounds forever . . . o mule in the alley / its / burnt unutterable name—who calls down the jake-leg snake to immobilize it. On the bridge the air stands at needle. Dead skin wraps the whole body of darkness. Then all runs clear—the concrete and the clay are streaming through me, supplemental life forms. Coevals chatter deep. Arise teachers and appropriate the jasmine groves. In glazed winter ditches, river-crusts glitter. Look out Willie Steele, all kinds of creatures inhabit you.
Fuller’s version, American accidie, is a restless one—blues-inflected (“don’t believe I’m sinking” up against that “mule in the alley”—calling up all those mules that kick in stalls, that illicit love-jam, all up against one Willie Steele, inhabited, a Howlin’ Wolf session drummer . . . (At the introduction of Steele in the final sentence, the poem chitters off anew—a mostly depopulated place suddenly creature-full, skitter-prone, marvelously alert, a little mysterious. Lovely.)

Voilà. Of the bigger books, the Collected Ted Berrigan ought surely get mention; of somebody (newish) I look for near-constantly, Jeff Hilson, author of Bird Bird (Gargoyle Editions, 2005) and Stretchers (Reality Street, 2006). Mark Twain: “mostly a true book, with some stretchers, as I said before.” Hilson, like Monk, did a piece called “Troglodytes troglodytes (wren)”:
Must work without the wren their shiny coats there their fat small hands. They once were kind. Once they all faced the same way and sang. Once. Doubtful bird you have seen. The word that the wren said: “shoes!” A wren doesn’t cost any money. There! There! Dipping in Northern Europe. The story of its longer wings from England. Must buy ham. This will not be liked much either. Under the tractor I shoved it in her hard, but each take was spoiled by the king wren. Tit parties in winter, small loose parties erupting westwards sometimes high up. Golden England. Down and down Newington Butts caught moths with the smaller birds, again wren-like. Wren as host, magpie as host, above whose clashing hands, business-like, now a wren costs a few pence.

Wednesday, August 30, 2006

Cloud Bullion


My clockwork journeywork here on the cloud-baffled earth continues. Clouds, the breezy illegibles. Ineligible haunts of my days, though at it, oh, at it. (This morning a lavender scrim shifted across some higher-ups, whiter, backlit by the

sun’s ineffable booming . . .) If I report how Henry David Thoreau, dining chez R. W. E., noted Louis Agassiz’s notion “that the intestinal worms in the mouse are not developed except in the stomach of the cat,” am I exempla or

metaphor. (Guy Davenport is there, too, one mouse below me: cat.) Or, as a model of literary clockwork, is that all too friable and vitriolic, likely to suffer reduction to citation-counting, ugh. (Go, man, go.) Or a moment comes—we’re not

getting anywhere, here, évidemment, évidemment, though the timer is outracing itself, the one thing that is always “at it,” and, as Kent Johnson predilectly (indelicately) points out: “We’ll all be dead soon.” And, if not, then

my name isn’t Cees Nooteboom! “I asked Posthuma de Boer to let me have a list of the hotels we had stayed in together. He sent the following inventory: Sucre Palace Hotel, La Paz . . . Hotel Mamounia, Marrakech . . . Apollo Hotel, Banjul,

Gambia . . .” Tedium’s cake, though I do love the way the sounds act like frosting to the mouth, something to make the tongue militate against. That old “nearest alphabetical match-point.” (Lost.) According to Rebecca Solnit, “in the third

century after Christ, Solinus located horse-footed men whose ears covered their bodies in place of clothes in Asia, birds that gave off light in Germany, and hyenas whose shadows stole the bark away from dogs in Africa.” (Resume incommensurate

niggling.) “I have today decided to undertake the composition of a book of poems. I shall name it “A Legal Pencil.” (Not jam-worthy.) Oh, bring all money of gold and siluer to our bullion which we shall cause to be ordeyned at our said Staples, yea.


Tuesday, August 29, 2006

History of History

Yellow Dog

Ain’t it hard to juggle the miasmas of one writing—the too hot brainpan’s ratty and unrefined and conniption-prone industry—against the sweet morning’s demand for another? Yes, it is. I like my roughage plenty, and early, and a cleansing—all so’s

my percept’s greased and ready for whatever comes down out of the atmosphere, sunningly. And too many mornings of late: sketchy detachments of my little list grown too-too congregate to havoc me. What a way to talk. I scoot by the Sysco

delivery truck, two men dressed as if for an anonymity survey, unloading boxes of American cheese in front of a sign: “Lawyer’s Club.” I am reminded for no reason of the hordes (incalculable) of poets (calculating) who seek nothing beyond a chance to

one day say: “At least I wasn’t on the wrong side of History.” History, that vacuum. Penetrating the dirtiest crevices with its “wand.” As John Koethe says: “Pound and Eliot gave way / To Charles Olson and the dogmas of projective

verse, / To Robert Duncan and the egotistical sublime . . .” Ain’t it right: how completely we fool ourselves thinking “here’s a way,” and clogging the way? It is. It is right. Outside the library is a sheet of card-stock with nine or so circular

targets inked on it. It is labeled “Elm Bark Beetle Trap” and is nearly black with insects, scattered pointillist, Benday-dot-style, against its shiny surface. We are flotsam (we are gold-dust) of that ilk, still we go on. We do go on. And that O’Hara

rip about “You just go on your nerve.” He’s not just talking about writing one damn little poem (though there’s that). He’s talking about integrity (damn that nonsense about the self and its pieces): the way one ought best go slovenly in public (“comb?

can’t be fuckin’ bothered”) if all the coasters (East, West, Midwest—all those loafers who’d just as soon set the beers on the chapbooks long’s there’s room for them in the bar) be spit-shined and pert. I know a metaphor-clot when I see one.

Just keep running. See Martin Corless-Smith:
(I’ll not run over the Ground we have passed
One of the pleasantest means of annulling self
is approaching such a shrine as the Cottage
I would always find an eggshell for Melancholy)


Monday, August 28, 2006



Time’s adipose inconstancy, its longueur and accelerations, the weekend left its bruise nowhere on the week, meaning to say, no (little) writings accrued. Hence a vagary of morcels, sliced off the literary cheese. First: Genet on Rimbaud:
“O let my keel burst! Let me go to the sea!”

What’s surprising is that “O let my keel burst!”—the boat itself says that, the Drunken Boat, and in slang “keel” [la quille] means “leg.” When he was seventeen, Rimbaud said: “O let my keel burst!” That is “O let my leg . . .” And at thirty-seven he had his leg cut off, by the sea, at Marseille. That’s all I wanted to say.

There is, it seems, though I can’t prove this, with every man, every man, whether a poet or not—“poet” doesn’t mean much—but with every man there is, at a given moment, something like a prophetic gift with regard to himself, that he himself does not see. I’m convinced that Rimbaud meant to say, and did say, that his leg would be cut off. I’m convinced that he wanted his silence. I’m convinced—to stay within the realm of the poets—that Racine wanted his silence; I’m convinced that Shakespeare really wanted anonymity, in the end, and Homer too.
And, the turned obdurate and contemptuous misanthrope Melville, in Pierre or, The Ambiguities:
He could not bring himself to confront any face or house; a ploughed field, any sign of tillage, the rotted stump of a long-felled pine, the slightest passing trace of man was uncongenial and repelling to him. Likewise in his own mind all remembrances and imaginings that had to do with the common and general humanity had become, for the time, in the most singular manner distasteful to him. Still, while thus loathing all that was common in the two different worlds—that without, and that within—nevertheless, even in the most withdrawn and subtlest region of his own essential spirit, Pierre could not now find one single agreeable twig of thought whereon to perch his weary soul.
And, Javier Marías, in All Souls:
Everything that happens to us, everything that we say or hear, everything we see with our own eyes or we articulate with our tongue, everything that enters through our ears, everything we are witness to (and for which we are therefore partly responsible) must find a recipient outside ourselves and we choose that recipient according to what happens or what we are told or even according to what we ourselves say. Each thing must be told to someone—though not necessarily always to the same person—and each thing will undergo a selection process, the way some one out shopping one afternoon might scrutinise, set aside and assess presents for the season to come. Everything must be told at least once although . . . it must be told when the time is right or, which comes to the same thing, at the right moment, and sometimes, if you fail to recognise that right moment or deliberately let it pass, there will never again be another. That moment presents itself sometimes (usually) in an immediate unequivocal and urgent manner, but equally often, as is the case with the greatest secrets, it presents itself only dimly and only after decades have passed.
Meaning, one supposes, that by not writing (every day and minute of not writing), one is not “putting off” a thing—one is losing (irrevocably, no calling it back) a thing. Arrêtez ces conneries . . .

Scott Keeney’s resumed “Nobody in the Rain” with, amongst other things, some terrific Stop graphics. Kin to my tiny collection of photographs of stencil’d Stop signs.

Herman Melville and Arthur Rimbaud

Friday, August 25, 2006


Pheasant and Fishing Boy

Out, hoofing the dusk. What’s up in the air is a circling of nighthawks, near kettle-forming. Not the sort of behavior I associate with nighthawks. Usually, downtown, they sail out singly between buildings: one knows they’re around by the nasal beeep, “catarrhy,” I’ve called it, possibly thrice in my (meagerly-associable) outer consciousness, my “work.” So I look. The kettle drifts vaguely south, amiable, loose, with individual gymnastic maneuvres (“thieving the air of its insects”). I figure I can see the white wing-patches (undersides), though I cannot. Nighthawks are not hawks, they are goatsuckers (Caprimulgidae). Peterson says “ample tailed nocturnal birds with small bills and weak, tiny feet.” (Tempting me to repeat the perfectly gaseous remark of Wyndham Lewis: “Many small-nosed men have big feet.”) Related to the whip-poor-will, and chuck-will’s-widow. The other notable tidbit of Peterson: “In courtship the male folds his wings and drops earthward like a dive-bomber, zooming up sharply at the end of the drop with a sudden deep whir that sounds like the well-known ‘Bronx cheer.’”

Odd to fossick the files of one’s own familiar machine and find things one cannot recollect. And note how impossibly long ago one writ such lordly “gunk.” Look, here’s one called “Libra,” dated 22 February 1998:
To delimit the field, uproot the lanes of memory and pursue
Byzantine the writing of beeves.

Diverse strategies: the weight of Germany, the Boston crater, the hard
Necessity of whatever tints the milieu.

One catalyst is the storm full throttle, conducive
To the notion that a narrative self threatens integrity.

Lashing out at the pandemic, “law so lordliche and loth,” or going about
Collecting Cuba in its juices.
Ain’t that something? I fully intend to dismantle that thing, so here’s the last you’ll see of it. Goo’bye!

Though (musky with yesteryear’s scent) I cannot forego one more, a twin, scribed just the preceding day (21 February 1998). It is called “Historia de la Eternidad,” and it is, as Philip Levine would say, a motherfucker:
Yo soy la A y la B . . .
The light pours endlessly up,
A tango in its fists.

O contraband! Distant loins of salt!
The balustrade spurns the use of
Risk. A liquid columnar shimmering!

Papier Arches with different sound-textures scribbled on it.
My jacket shed at the reading.
Copperplate. Potential for “deep storage.”

Brunt of a cruel prank
Borne by the circular kind
Of story: intuitional lock-up.

Tense, or deadpan in mutuality’s
Barrio, its glossy refrain. There
Is no night that attains morning.
To the chopper with it!

How easily I amuse myself.

A Nighthawk

Thursday, August 24, 2006


Hand Puppet

Last night, trying to write an “entry” for Steve Evans’s splendid Attention Span project (see 2006 call here), I noted something about how tired I’d become of poetry’s late “puerile disjunctive practices” (as if that were enough). It (the phrase, possibly “incautious,” just the way I like my phrases) knocks at me, boat against dock, slap of wavelets, sun-glare and horseflies tucking into a rolling dive-bomb . . . Against the fragment, the “heap” of fragments, the sliver-stuck hand, the untidy (or, often, tidy, wholly “justified,” a prose “heap”), one could posit the whole, that’s “pretty obvious.” And there is, certes, a whole conventional practice of the “whole,” the well-wrought urn, a sense of unity, of closure, the completed gesture (see the “whole”—with minor fender-dings—murderously efficient truck that is literature in the West). (I sense my chassis coming apart.) The lie (in the promise of unity) (every language convention tries to hide its particular lie) is that it is possible (likely) for one to see a world represented by such “full-blown” (think of the glassblower’s art, think of a disease’s “progress,” think of breaking out in hives) coverage (as a “unifying” literature claims). Old hat stuff—see Barthes in The Neutral, lecturing at the Collège de France nearly thirty years ago (25 March, 1978):
The ideosphere tends to establish itself as a doxa, which is to say as a “discourse” (a particular system of language), which is experienced by its users as a universal, natural discourse, one that goes without saying, whose typicality remains unperceived, whose every “exterior” is demoted to the status of marginality, of deviance,: discourse-law that isn’t perceived as law.
A discourse (poetry) whose “typicality remains unperceived”—that sounds like the dread “period style.” A thing that could be defined as exactly what every writer must write against. The paradox is: what is called for is not a simple paradox, else one “returns” to a doxa previously rejected. (No call here for the finely-made baubles of the elders.) Oddly enough, the language available (I’m talking about what’s sliding fitfully about on the possibly too-greased surface of my own brainpan) points to Bloom (not Leopold), that “swerve” to avoid, “misprision,” “clinamen” (I always think of it as a kind of flower). “At night clinamen jump . . .” I don’t know: my sense is a period of change settled rapidly into a period of consolidation (imitators, refiners). Time to pack in all that and head “out” (Barthes’s “exterior”) again.

Harold Bloom and Roland Barthes

Wednesday, August 23, 2006

Deux Captifs

Triptych: “No,” “Clouds,” and “Blue Tree”

Jean Genet, in Prisoner of Love (Captif amoureux,1986):
Lack of imagination on the part of the leaders, panic and indiscipline on the part of the resistance and the population—these are mere words, the same as bravery and defensive genius. They all carry the emotional charge that invests our language whenever we try to describe something that really concerns us: we forget that what gave the words the weight they have today is the very past against which we are rebelling. We also forget that we’ll always need words whose meaning is shaky and uncertain.

The Palestinians will never escape the paradox that as the years and the centuries go by, words become charged with emotion, self-interest, scandal, contradictory events, even with different facets. Just as capital acquires interest, so words, too, grow richer. How hard it is to bring about a revolution if you can’t move those for whom you’re fighting! But when you have to move them with words charged with the past—a past on the brink of tears, of tears that fascinate—then you’ve got your work cut out!
Because they never owned anything, the fedayeen imagined the luxury they wanted to rid the world of. That’s what I meant—what I wanted both to say and to conceal—by the “quiet periods” I mentioned above: the day-dreams people have to work off somehow when they’ve neither the strength nor the opportunity to make them come true. It’s then they invent the game of revolution, which is what revolt is called when it lasts and begins to be structured, when it stops being poetic negation and becomes political assertion.

If such imaginary activity is to be of any use it has to exist. But gradually people learn to do without it, like a detachable lining in the West. Then our preoccupation with merely imaginary wealth and power is supposed to help us create weapons with which to destroy real wealth and power when we meet them.

. . .

Some of the fedayeen asked me to bring them the works of Karl Marx back from Damascus. In particular Das Kapital. They didn’t know he wrote it sitting on his backside on pink silk cushions—wrote it in fact to fight against soft pink silk, and soft mauve silk, and against little tables and vases and chandeliers and chintz, and silent footmen and portly Regency commodes.
It is the metaphorical capacity of Genet that staggers me, though it is nigh uncapturable. To posit a past “on the brink of tears,” to call “the game of revolution”—and, by implication, all “poetic negation” in the West, “a detachable lining”: one is thrust rueful into an excoriating region where the meaning of words, “shaky and uncertain,” is nonetheless an inditement, and indissoluable. One—here, today—combats nothing beyond the ennui of information overload. One dicks with pleasantries, one unloads one’s “rage” (tepid, studied, infantile) making meaningless and inept discriminations, as if the slings and arrows of any art’s drayhorse fortune (or function) could ever jockey up a sizable population for an attempt at a larger liberation, and a meniscus (a dead skin) forms on the body politic, inert, inarticulate, spooked, despairing. (One barricades oneself in metaphor, one piles up the exhausted needs unmet.)

Breakfasting (cereal with banana) with book (Javier Marías’s All Souls) open, I gibbered up one sentence: “The hunter of books is condemned to specialize in subjects related to his main prey, which he tracks down with the greatest eagerness, and at the same time, as he becomes infected with the unstoppable collecting bug, he grows irremediably and increasingly more generous and accommodating in his enthusiasms.” And immediately (irremediably) thought of Ron Silliman’s recent and embarrassing paean to Kirby Doyle, he who happed to see poems published in the mother-anthology, The New American Poetry, 1945-1960. As Wyndham Lewis once aptly remarked: “Many small-nosed men have big feet.”

Palestinian Fedayeen

Tuesday, August 22, 2006

“My Explanation”


Jean Genet, in Prisoner of Love (1986), translated by Barbara Bray: “Even now—they’ll never grow up—Japanese potters still play with accidents. Whether it arises from the clay, the wheel, the kiln or the glaze, they watch out for any irregularity and sometimes even emphasize it. In any case they use it as a starting point for a new adventure. The shape and colour may be perfectly classical, but spoiled by a scratch or being under- or over-fired. So they pursue and develop the flaw, struggling fiercely, lovingly with and against it until it becomes deliberate, an expression of themselves. If they succeed they’re overjoyed: the result is modern.”

In the current “age” I suddenly recall how typing a piece (an “erstwhile” piece) went: that indelible mark unexpungeably there, and that propulsion to continue, messless and unstymied. I would begin a word wrongly. Rather than x-ing it out, I’d come up with a different—fitting—word. I wrote many pale blue aerogrammes in one “era.” (Why the ironic shakedown of time itself? That fierce old quick-change artist I destroy by relenting?) Over the oceanic surfaces of the four-fold marked flimsy aerogrammes I sent my brash and fatal pen, a yellow Penguin, boldly slant. (No pen fetish-monger me, it’s simply what the “moment” recalls.) There, too, any nib-slip would call for invention and prestidigitation. What grief if no substitute out’d.

I do—I notice—a mildly similar sketch with “my photographs.” (One must accommodate the pronoun with the picayunest sneer of a guffaw. Please.) I shoot wildly, download a bushel load, and attempt a genial (genius) recovery by means of crops and torturesqueries galore. The usual dim-outs and blackings. My motto: toss nothing to the dogs of rancor.

And “my words,” those profligate jots and tithes (to no churchly kingdom known)? “The scraps of God looked after by God’s scrapyard.” I render and sunder, assuaged by the activity of rendering, of sundering. I look askance and misapply. I sham-amble amongst a drift of idioms. I peruse indefatigably the razed tablets of the deciduous woods, leaflets of a supernal knowledge. In my beery globality I eschew nothing. I plant, I abrade, I wait.

Jean Genet

Monday, August 21, 2006


Lamp and Duck

Back, red-burnt and bagged by fleas. Knapsack full of mutter and flub. An antique, a journeycake, johnnycake, a youngun’s food. One walks and walks over hard ribbed sand. Or rounded stones, algae-slick. One is waist-deep, surrounded by miles of water.

One goes off and sees nary a pencil, nary a paper, and one returns half-crazed with words. Spilt into the already-spoilt present, sucked up out of a fleet past gone. See Proust. One is startled by irrevocable “coverage”—how the goats one butts up

against daily look crocked, snooty urns of butter pre-churned. They’s a world—yea, several—out there inhabitable. Where the auctioneer bangs the gavel: whole frigging worlds get sold in lots. A kind of unrelenting mythomania covers one’s tracks.

“Inspected a yellow fang”: two hummingbirds perching on a white pine limb, perfect horizontal, two thumbs up, two snapped-off twigs. It takes a kitchen to make a village, we pierced a trout with a green bough sharp, turned it against its convection, unbuffered.

Friday, August 11, 2006


Trumpet Flowers

Off again, north. Land of sweet fern and bog water. Black marl stink. A week of aimlessness, living outside (in the contradictions). A modest stack of Javier Marías books to accompany me: “I saw myself freed from the specter of being accused of the wide variety of depravities . . . balanism, strangury, satyriasis, nequicia, mictionism, pyromania, enfiteusis, positivism, erotesis, felo-de-se, or perhaps even lardy-dardiness . . .” (Dark Back of Time, New Directions, 2001)

Also, likely, is Jean Genet’s Prisoner of Love (1986):
Vernacular Arabic sounds as if it ought to look like vermicelli when it’s written down, and it is all twists and turns. The Lebanese refer to Hebrew script as ‘spare parts.’

Arriving in Beirut from Damascus and seeing those signposts at the crossroads was as painful as seeing Gothic lettering in Paris during the German occupation. The trilingual road signs reminded you of the Rosetta Stone, but the languages were English, Arabic, and Hebrew . . .

The Hebrew character, drawn rather than written and carved rather than drawn, induced a sense of unease, like a quiet herd of dinosaurs. Not only did this writing belong to the enemy—it was also an armed sentry standing over the people of Lebanon.
In the words of Vernon Sullivan, “J’irai cracher sur vos tombes.”

Jean Genet, Chicago, 1968

Thursday, August 10, 2006


Four Cherries

Gerhard Richter (12 October 1986, “Notes”):
What shall I paint? How shall I paint?

‘What’ is the hardest thing, because it is the essence. ‘How’ is easy by comparison. To start off with the ‘How’ is frivolous, but legitimate. Apply the ‘How’, and thus use the requirements of technique, the material and physical possibilities, in order to realize the intention. The intention: to invent nothing—no idea, no composition, no object, no form—and to receive everything: composition, object, form, idea, picture. Even in my youth, when I somewhat naively had ‘themes’ (landscapes, self-portraits), I very soon became aware of this problem of having no subject. Of course I took motifs and represented them, but this was mostly with the feeling that these were not the real ones, but imposed, dog-eared, artificial ones. The question ‘What shall I paint?’ showed me my own helplessness, and I often envied (still do envy) the most mediocre painters those ‘concerns’ of theirs, which they so tenaciously and mediocrely depict (I fundamentally despise them for it).

In 1962 I found my first escape hatch: by painting from photographs, I was relieved of the need to choose or construct a subject. I had to choose the photographs, of course; but I could do that in a way that avoided any commitment to the subject . . .
Richter, in a 1990 interview with Sabine Schütz:
My own statements about my lack of style and lack of opinion were largely polemical gestures against contemporary trends that I disliked—or else they were self-protective statements, designed to create a climate in which I could paint what I wanted.

But you have also said that it doesn’t necessarily matter what one paints. And by painting the clothes-drier or the stag or the housewife you show that it really doesn’t.

But then you can also see all of that as a coherent theme; and then it does matter. All these themes—the clothes drier, the family on the sofa, the stag –are also highly selective.

Wasn’t there a touch of irony as well?

I never think that way. If I ever did admit to any irony, I did so for the sake of a quiet life. Because at some point, of course, I did care about the motifs. I didn’t find the clothes-drier ironic; there was something tragic about it, because it represented life in low-cost housing with nowhere to hang the washing. It was my own clothes-drier, which I rediscovered in a newspaper—objectivized, as it were . . .
And, in a 1986 interview with Benjamin H. D. Buchloh:
[Jasper] Johns was holding on to a culture of painting that had to do with Cézanne, and I rejected that. That’s why I painted from photographs, just in order to have nothing to do with the art of ‘peinture’, which makes any kind of contemporary statement impossible—

. . .

There are contradictions here that are hard to understand. On the one hand you were attracted by Fluxus and Warhol, but on the other hand you’re saying ‘I couldn’t to that; all I wanted to do and all I could do was paint.’ You align your own painting with this anti-aesthetic impulse, and at the same time you maintain a pro-painting position . . .

So the negation of the productive act in art, as introduced by Duchamp and revived by Warhol, was never acceptable to you?

No, because the artist’s productive act cannot be negated. It’s just that it has nothing to do with the talent of ‘making by hand’, only with the capacity to see and to decide what is to be made visible. How that then gets fabricated has nothing to do with art or with artistic abilities.
A clumsy way of circumambulating my thinking, imprecise, about “subject,” and “method,” and “irony.” (I am not a systematic thinker. I “dodge” systematic thinking.)

I am certain that “seeing” is all, and that “seeing ironically” is nearly, of late, all we do. Is it that before seeing occurs, a sort of interposing scrim must be present? (One scrim is “irony,” another “awe,” another “beauty”? “Scrim” is used to identify period, or fashion.) I keep thinking of Christopher Brayshaw’s photographs, a series called “One Hundred Famous Ghosts.” An unfinished series that begins with some unassuming pictures of the commonest urban dejecta, tossed off plastic shopping bags. Not prettify’d, not ironized, just undeniably made noticeable, “seeable.” One long weekend in New York City, I saw Brayshaw “ghosts” everywhere—detritus made present—all, I think, one asks of art. (All art is able to do.)

Christopher Brayshaw, One Hundred Famous Ghosts (1), 2006

Is any of it “applicable” to writing? Is writing’s aim to make available? I recall a period of drift, writing. For a long period, every poem a love poem. That is the “subject.” A long period of thinking “there is no subject.” (“I have nothing to say.” “How write a poem if I have nothing to say.”) A short period of writing out of the sounds and rhythms that rattle around in my brainpan. Noting a trajectory (direction) amidst the emergent gibbers, pointing my trolley there. (The writing is so banal, I assuage myself with metaphor, gussying it up: “trolley.” “Method” is banal.) A shorter period of writing out of the flotsam and jetsam (dejecta) of the “outside.” (Everything begins “outside.” In the Blue Ridge mountains the metal in my teeth made a radio of my mouth—me, à la recherche du Nashville warblers. I have no metal in my teeth. Invention is “banal.”)

I do think the writing must change. The smugness, the frippery, the abject stances, the frivolous clip. Any “how” becomes a poem whose subject is precisely that “how.” (Every sestina is precisely about “the sestina,” and little more.) (Every “flarfwerke” says the same old same old.) What is needed is (temporary) (provisional) invisible forms—one way to make “subject” (“content”) available (“necessary”) again. Writing in the forms of the majority. (I must repeat myself, I do repeat myself: that A. R. Ammons story, surrounded by hippie detritus, or pirate-punks, Ammons saying: “I’m so fuckin’ crazy I don’t need to wear crazy clothes.”) That’s one “how.”

Lines Found in a Strongbox

That Orpheus that
In one life-
Time had made

Applications to as
Many gods as
There be days

In the year,
(And thence perhaps
It was that

Mexico had so
Many Temples) grew
Wiser by more

Observation, and left
In a Will
That there was

But One
. ’Twere
Well if we
Did so too,

Profit by that
Experience, devest our
Selves of all

Our aiery poetick
Dependances betimes, and
Roll our selves

Wholly upon God;
’Twere the only
Probable thriving policy

In the world.

Wednesday, August 09, 2006

Mean Means Average

Two Bicycles

I love how the lingo of twentieth-century big science, all a-doozy amongst the earnestines, comes to invade the poetry circles. Everybody’s got they “project.” They “next” project. Manhattan Project, “lifework” project, same dish. (Wait for the next plausible monicker to out, the avant-garde taking its military nod seriously in the grim “age of hits”: the “operation.” Not as in “chance operation,” no—“Operation Big Chance,” or “Operation Fueled by Flowers,” or “Operation Wrong’d Narcissist.” “I’m in the midst of “Operation Blank Cartridge,” the going’s rough, though I should end up with a chapbook.”)

Splenetic fury and raw alcohol’s rendered the possibility of longevity in the Latta male something “post-miraculous,” a moot accountancy. Mostly we merge (fade) into the poplar-studded pre-coniferous zones of northern Michigan, all a-dangle with delirium and quake, just another pulpwood log about to make a low-grade paper product. In view of which (and having completed my first several major projects—the fever-stacked miscellany I call “churlishness on foolscap” is one, the drawer of South China Sea-smelling scraps called “junk-scribbles of a saphead” another), I embark on my final “projects,” cognizant of eventual and complete failure. I would ask for nothing more.

Epigraph for a book titled Against Ubiquity:
As if the passive page of a book, by having an epigram or doggerel tale impressed on it, instantly assumed at once loco-motive power and a sort of ubiquity, so as to flutter and buzz in the ear of the public to the sore annoyance of the said mysterious personage.
                                                        —Samuel Taylor Coleridge

Epigraph for a book titled Mean Insects: My Coevals:
. . . in this AGE OF PERSONALITY, this age of literary and political GOSSIPING, when the meanest insects are worshipped with a sort of Egyptian superstition, if only the brainless head be atoned for by the sting of personal malignity in the tail!
                                                        —Samuel Taylor Coleridge

Epigraph for a book titled N’oublie pas que je t’adore:
. . . eating of unripe fruit; gazing on the clouds, and (in genere) on moveable things suspended in the air; riding among a multitude of camels; frequent laughter; listening to a series of jests and humorous anecdotes, as when . . . one man’s droll story of an Irishman inevitably occasions another’s droll story of a Scotchman, which again, by the same sort of conjunction disjunctive, leads to some étourderie of a Welshman, and that again to some sly hit of a Yorkshire man; the habit of reading tombstones in church-yards, &c.
                                                        —Samuel Taylor Coleridge, attributing it to “Averrhoe’s catalogue of ANTI-MNEMONICS, or weakeners of the memory”

Epigraph for a book titled An Impudent Sauce:
Seeing a mackerel, it may happen that I immediately think of gooseberries, because I at the same time ate mackerel with gooseberries as the sauce.
                                                        —Samuel Taylor Coleridge

Epigraph for a book titled Conjunctions Disjunctive:
There is a sediment indeed at the bottom of the vessel, but all the water above it is clear and transparent. The Hylozoist only shakes it up, and renders the whole turbid.
                                                        —Samuel Taylor Coleridge

Epigraph for a book titled My Minutiae:
Thus the whole universe co-operates to produce the minutest stroke of every letter, save only that I myself, and I alone, have nothing to do with it . . .
                                                        —Samuel Taylor Coleridge

Six books, and done, kaput. (Luckily, my concept of the universe, being that of one plucky six-sided tumbling die, six “booklength” books’ll do it—not for me the dull circular hell of the three hundred and sixty degree’d universal circular. Then again, I don’t work “a reasonably stressful 80-hour per week gig,” I need merely be present and upright at my desk forty hours a week—with ample hours to pose egregiously as “slacker in the stacks”—and any cockamamie scribbling I do is industry enough, and gravy . . .)

Samuel Taylor Coleridge

Tuesday, August 08, 2006

A Preen


Coleridge, in the Notebooks, on Erasmus Darwin, author of The Loves of the Plants (1789), amongst others: “Dr. Darwin’s Poetry . . . arrests the attention too often.”

The vaunted preface to the Lyrical Ballads ’s been called “one long blast against Darwin.”

Wordsworth: “The remotest discoveries of the chemist, the botanist, or mineralogist will be as proper objects of the poet’s art as any upon which it can be employed, if the time should ever come when these things shall be familiar to us, and the relations under which they are contemplated by the followers of these respective sciences shall be manifestly and palpably material to us as enjoying and suffering beings. If the time should ever come when what is now called science, thus familiarized to men, shall be ready to put on, as it were, a form of flesh and blood, the poet will lend his divine spirit to aid the transfiguration, and will welcome the being thus produced, as a dear and genuine inmate of the household of man.”

Erasmus Darwin’s long poem, The Temple of Nature, traces “the progress of life from microscopic specks in primeval seas to its present culmination in man.” He explained “the principles of artesian wells and of fertilizers; he discovered how clouds form, by the adiabatic expansion of moist rising air; he gave an almost complete description of photosynthesis.” Darwin’s inventions included “a speaking machine and a horizontal windmill . . . novel designs for carriages, drill ploughs and canal lifts.”

Elizabeth Willis, in “Note on the Text,” ending Meteoric Flowers (Wesleyan, 2006):
The muse of this book is Erasmus Darwin, the late eighteenth-century doctor, botanist, inventor, poet, and intellectual precursor to his grandson Charles. The investigative energy and poetic ambition of his Botanic Garden (1791) suggested not so much a form as a sensibility with which to approach a period of political, intellectual, and biological transformation. Darwin’s poems address everything from the sexual life of plants to the evils of slavery, the conquest of Mexico, Franklin’s experiments with electricity, and the relation of poetry to painting. In their unwieldy asymmetries and their sudden leaps between botany, political and aesthetic history, technology, and pastoral romance, this work of the late Enlightenment seemed an eerily apt model for riding out the inter-discursive noise of the early twenty-first century. Poetry, it says, can be at once an account of the physical world, a rethinking of the order of things, and a caprice.
She continues briefly, notes that the titles in the book—forty short prose poems clumped into three sections, each section labeled “Canto” and each interrupted by a short poem, first, “Verses Omitted,” then, “Verses Omitted by Mistake,” finally, “Errata”—are “drawn from Darwin’s text.”

Two random Willis poems:
Loud Cracks from Ice Mountains Explained

The alarm in my heart is made of silly brass, some of us can’t help but mourn the end of Lorca. Rain continues into rain, fire interrupts my car with all the better reason of the forest. I see misfortune in the eye of real weather. Pronouns understand their game before we join the histories that betray us. The happening of summer, all verb upon the land. Could word belie its little clouds, Montblanc would storm against the poet’s skin. His mansion is her excess love, a careful avalanche of we and they. A footstep bound for wary day awaits its sound upon the grain.

Glittering Shafts of War

Lost words are lost boys. These woods are combing the hair of paradise. You’re waking and thinking, an opera of our minor ways: Sweet William, Virginia. What we fear in fearlessness turns over the table. You don’t blame the lamp for what you cannot read, the fire in the match not struck. How many coats, by federal surprise, regard you from the banks? We think we see them through the screen, the darkest flower’s gabardine.

Sample Darwinisms. Out of the fourth canto of The Temple of Nature:
Each pregnant Oak ten thousand acorns forms
Profusely scatter’d by autumnal storms;
Ten thousand seeds each pregnant poppy sheds
Profusely scatter’d from its waving heads;
The countless Aphides, prolific tribe,
With reedy trunks the honey’d sap imbibe;
Swarm on each leaf with eggs or embryons big,
And pendent nations tenant every twig. . . .
—All these, increasing by successive birth,
Would each o’erpeople ocean, air, and earth.

So human progenies, if unrestrain’d,
By climate friended, and by food sustain’d,
O’er seas and soils, prolific hordes! would spread
Erelong, and deluge their terraqueous bed;
But war, and pestilence, disease, and dearth,
Sweep the superfluous myriads from the earth. . . .
And, out of The Loves of the Plants, second part of Darwin’s bestselling Botanic Garden, lines out of an introductory proem:
Whereas P. OVIDIUS NASO, a great Necromancer in the famous Court of AUGUSTUS CAESAR, did by art poetic transmute Men, Women, and even Gods and Goddesses, into Trees and Flowers; I have undertaken by similar art to restore some of them to their original animality, after having remained prisoners so long in their respective vegetable mansions; and have here exhibited them before thee. Which thou may’st contemplate as diverse little pictures suspended over the chimney of a Lady’s dressing-room, connected only by a slight festoon of ribbons.
(One imagines Darwin besotted with a desire for mobility in plants—elsewhere he notes “The various motions of peculiar parts of vegetables evince the existence of muscles and nerves in those parts, such as the closing of their petals, and calyxes, at the approach of night, or in cold or wet weather; though the fibres and nerves which constitute these muscles are too fine for anatomical demonstration.” Or categorizes plant and animal based on “locomotive organizations” versus “stationary organizations.”)

That vegetable animality, here in the “sensitive plant”:
Weak with nice sense, the chaste MIMOSA stands,
From each rude touch withdraws her timid hands. . . .
Shuts her sweet eye-lids to approaching night
And hails with freshen’d charms the rising light.
Veil’d, with gay decency and modest pride,
Slow to the mosque she moves, an eastern bride.

Glancing up, I reread Willis’s “We think we see them through the screen, the darkest flower’s gabardine,” and think it sounds a near-pure Darwinesquerie. The Popean rhyme, the almost heroic couplet, the clotheshorse flower.

Is there a noticeable lack of nitty-gritty in the Willis book? There are lovely things, and a kind of comfortable assuredness, and a range of diction (“berm” to “blog”). Does the fact of the evoking of the polymathic and systemic Erasmus Darwin overpower the book’s somehow smaller accomplishment? Is Meteoric Flowers small, or merely denying any “total” gesture? I love things like: “The world is clanking: noun, noun, noun.” Or like “Who could get over the blatant radiance of a name like Doris Day. . . ?”

It’s that “riding out the inter-discursive noise of the early twenty-first century” that throws me. Vainly, I fossick the book for evidence of something like “the tedium, the defeat, and the horror of the century.” I find “Suddenly the daisycutter someone was waiting for.” I find “Everything heavy falls in September, a fire truck lost on polar seas.” I find “If a fox tore my throat, I wouldn’t sell it to lead a life of ‘curable sorrows.’ Vive la guerre, said the box.” I find “Folks pan out like zeroism on the grid, the state is red or blue.” I find “Gorky to Hartigan” and think the age needs its George Grosz, its Leon Golub.

One thought: why not a poetry that arrests the attention unceasingly? Why not a glut of poetry, shrill, harried, an overkill, a barrage of poetry concomitant to the beleaguered, ravished age? (Or it is that that notion of the modern world’s become an unexamined assumption, an encumbrance, a sententious thrill: “we so messed up!”) On the concomitant, Willis in the piece titled “Errata”: “for word, read world.”

Another thought: all “gists and piths,” hints and sleights, am I braiding together an argument here—or avoiding the challenge of making one? It is that I want to declare that the piling up of fragments—artful, wan, with a “luxe enamel,” or with dash, like a “goldleafed bug”—suffices no longer? It’s not that the Willis book baffles me; it’s a beaut. It’s that I am baffled by the (my own) irritant and niggle, can’t we (mustn’t we) begin to anger, to denounce, (at least) to assuage rather than to assemble our world-bits and word-hoards?

Erasmus Darwin

Elizabeth Willis

Monday, August 07, 2006

Negra espalda

Clouds and Wires

A Rueful Modesty

Word is, the inestimable and fiercely independent Henry Gould’s written a fine review of my book, Breeze, and the inestimable and poetically polyglot John Tranter’s published it in Jacket. Gould makes me out a flagrantly smarter and astonishingly better reader than I am, quotes lines out of my poems wisely and generously, and deftly inserts my work into a tradition—just about everything one could possibly ask of a review. So—a public thanks, Henry. Trouble is, in my own “personal pantheon,” I put both Stevens and Whitman on somewhat lower pedestals—indeed, regarding the former, I wholly and abashedly doubt I have ever made my acquaintance with all of Stevens’s lines. However, it occurs to me: if one were to rub the two sticks, Stevens and Whitman, together rather strenuously, one’d likely stir up a conflagration not unlike that of A. R. Ammons. Those dozen or so years in Ithaca—maybe more of the Old Peanut-head’s wild synthesizing rubbed off on me than I knew (and here I thought I was studiously avoiding that particular influence), something “in the air,” like the ’flu.

Stray Reading Notes (Mostly)

Out of Edmund White’s My Lives:
Like all key words in my vocabulary, love puzzles me so much I can scarcely say whether I think it’s good or bad. It’s good (and bad) because passion-love, unlike esteeem-love, is transformative, obsessional, impractical. It can’t be fitted in with a job, errands, homework. It pushes friendship aside and upstages family attachments. It crowds out every mild or disinterested pleasure; in fact it has little to do with pleasure of any sort except at the very beginning of its trajectory when the poor lover still imagines he might live happily ever after with the beloved.
Love requires incomprehension. We can love only the people who are opaque to us. Or rather opacity is only another aspect of the divine. We don’t understand the gods but we can love them, especially when they appear in human form.

The story of “the gloomy Romanian aphorist Cioran eating periwinkles with a straight pin in a Paris café.”

The possible apocryphal story of Jean Genet high on plenty of Nembutal, dancing for the Black Panthers in a pink negligee.

Reading Javier Marías’s short novel, The Man of Feeling (El hombre sentimental, translated by Margaret Jull Costa). Monologue of an opera singer. “I have never seen the point of talking about music, it has always struck me as either exhausting and arid or frustrating and stupid. Either you talk about the technical aspects, which is exhausting and arid, or you talk in sentimental terms, which is just frustrating and stupid, mere chatter.”

The uncertainty of the dream narrative versus memory’s narrative. (Somehow I think of Jean Eustache’s little movie called Une Sale Histoire—“A Dirty Story”—with its two narrators—only one an “actor”—each relating the same story of discovering a peephole between the men’s and women’s toilettes in a Parisian restaurant.) Marías:
I do not know why the selective memory of dreams is so different from that of our conscious senses, but I cannot believe in those vengeful explanations according to which the things that the latter suppresses resurface, in various guises, in the former. Such a belief, I feel, contains an excessively religious element, a vague idea of reparation in which I cannot help but see traces of such things as the presence of evil, turning a blind eye, the oppression of the just, the struggle between opposites, the truth waiting to be revealed and the idea that there is a part of us which is in closer contact with the divinities than our own direct perceptions. And that is why I am more inclined to believe that the frequent slowing down of time in dreams provides a civilized, conventional breathing space of a dramatic or narrative or rhythmic nature, like the end of a chapter or an interval in a play, like a post-prandial cigarette. Or the minutes spent leafing through the newspaper before getting down to work, the pause before reading a long-feared letter or that last glance in the mirror before going out for the night.
Marías’s is an indulgent prose, refulgent, dedicated to its languors and ellipses. Often reminiscent of W. G. Sebald. “Proustian” is the commonest epithet.

The story of the opera singer’s throat-clearing gargle with the clear white of an egg.

Javier Marías’s “Epilogue: Something Unfulfilled”: how the novel started with two images. One—unused, “it served only as a stimulus, it was—to use Nabokov’s expression—its first throb”—belonging “not so much to the real world as to an illustrated edition of Wuthering Heights: “a man and a woman standing in a rural landscape and separated by a fence.” The other of a (real world) woman encountered on the Milan-Venice train: “She was wearing an anachronistic pearl necklace; she was wearing a red stole around her neck; she was wearing a double silver ring on her middle finger.” And: “Her head was back, but her face was covered by her straight, brown hair, deliberately thrown forward, perhaps to protect her shallow train-bound sleep from the light, perhaps, too, so as not to offer up, gratis, the image of intimacy and abandon of which she herself would be unaware, her sleeping, lifeless image.” Two images and the opening sentence: “I don’t know whether I should tell you my dreams.”

Marías: “I don’t know, but I do believe that love is based in large measure on its anticipation and on its recollection.” And: “. . . as the narrator of The Man of Feeling seems to acknowledge: ‘For, as I well know,’ he says, ‘the most effective and lasting subjugations are based on pretence or, indeed, on something that has never existed.’”

Marías: “. . . a man writing can begin to understand what he is writing from one chance phrase that tells him—not suddenly, but slowly—why all the other phrases were as they were, why the were written in that way (which he will see now as having nothing to do with either intention or chance), when he thought he was just feeling his way forward, merely playing with paper and ink to pass the time, because he has been asked to do so or out of the sense of duty felt by all those who have no duty.” (Reminding me of the Kurt Schwitters remark: “A door may happen to fall shut, but this is not by chance. It is a conscious experience of the door, the door, the door, the door.”)

Somehow, in Marías’s writing—or my reading of that writing, here, lazy, pert, amidst rare spells of irrefragable attention—what I “apply” all statement to, is writing. If a character admits (through “a mouthful of unexhaled smoke”) that “It’s hard to know whom one favors by an action or by an omission, but one can also tire of having no preferences at all,” I relate it not to a sudden alliance between lovers—or a deft sundering—but to the way one occasionally must push against one’s own “natural” writing, tinge it with an alterity it “normally” relinquishes. The squish of defiance. The high brassy prospect of tomfoolery. The comatose whims of denial. Etc.

William “Seven Types of Ambiguity” Empson’s vouchsafe of disagreement. To disagree adds something (if only a wronged voice) to the available arguments—a refutation where none previously existed. It is to come down on the Medusa-spiked head of variety. It is to seize a dogma by the single horn of its fallacy, hoo! Too: the most “morally disreputable” thing a writer is (capable of being) culpable of: suppressing the conflicts that trigger the intellect, that fire off one’s own intellect.” (You rooters for a placid playground, look out!)

Empson’s decrying of “the sloven’s pomp of evasive jargon”—rabbity turnscrews of critical apparati—or “a typically donnish way to obscure the issue.”

William Empson