Tuesday, October 31, 2006


Some Clouds

In the buckthorns, sagging with blackish berries, tiny kinglets, probably golden-crowned, based on the thin mimsy calls, skittering through. Leaves downed everywhere, intermittent high winds, and a swelter-spell, hitting the sixties nigh on fivish and after on into the dark. Prepositional pileups, another sign of the working class. The crows beginning to flock, haphazardly drifting, ungainly, undisciplined. Huge cardboard cutouts, ashes of a terminal world. Another chapbook in the mail, and my clap-o-meter afoul’d, that continuing disconsolate rut of immobility. Why write about poetry? Why write a poem? Why write a thing—proposed by Green Mountains Review—about the American Apocalypse? Isn’t apocalyptic talk precisely the other side of a coin that clanks down into the dull empty hearts of the same camaradoes who claim’d these United States “the Promised Land”? I hate all that “post 9/11 novel,” “post 9/11 poetry” talk. I hate the way it continues a narrative of “the Chosen”—as if what we’re seeing is mere acts of an “Angry God,” and not the result of the late up in the velocity of a centuries’ long imperialist push. Truth is, nothing changed. And to act as if something did, as if we are now gone over to some other side, is an outright disingenuous lie. One only need look about to know it: same galloping consumerism, same blinders, same self-satisfaction.

Konrad Lorenz, in King Solomon’s Ring: “How much the real character of the singing nightingale is generally misunderstood, is shown by the fact, that the bird, in literature, is always represented as a female; in the German language, the very word nightingale is of female gender. It is, of course, the male that sings and the meaning of the song is a defensive threat to all other males that might invade the songster’s territory, as well as an invitation to any passing female to join him. To anybody familiar with birds, the masculinity of the singing nightingale is so blatantly apparent that to attribute loud song to a female bird is as comically incongruous as it would be to the student of literature had Tennyson invested Guinevere with a beard.”

I see that Emerson complained about Thoreau’s lack of ambition, making comical the perceived fault: “instead of being the head of American Engineers, he is captain of a huckleberry party.” Precisely what we need more of. Idiot savants putting food, saucers of sugar-water, hydromel, out for bees and ants. Jaunts into the deeper recesses of the self, there where the self goes wholly unrecognizable, becomes mere pink anatomy, dumb-flesh the way all flesh is dumb. Revery-slack flesh of the daydreaming work-thief. Against the savage ravages of success (under what terms?) a loud long laze. A layabout state. A dawdle with lettristic arrangements. Concocts of implausible applesauces. Partial rapture shakedowns. A toy towhee put in shrubbery. Local miasmas of doodling. Or drooling. Anti-heroics and mimic thrushes.

Konrad Lorenz and Greylag Goose

Monday, October 30, 2006

Broken, Key

A Tobacco Ad

So the day parcels itself out and adds itself to the diminishing stock, so the sky adjusts its blue, trues it to some imaginary blue it sees mirror’d below it. Walking the cornfields one thinks how geld’d the literary life is. For a long while I claim’d that most of what occur’d to ignite the meagre bonfires of fancy occur’d in the brainpan itself. (The bonfires of the brainpan add themselves to the diminishing stock.) Out in the cornfield roots begin in air. Anchoring rings. Or the cider mill: fifty apples to make a gallon. Mashing a combo of Empires, Ida Reds, Golden Delicious and Mutsu. Not too sweet, with a clear winy after-beat, S. in a “beat” beet outfit: beret and shades and Howl in pocket, beet-colored chinos and workshirt.

Of course, one cannot stray away out of the stench reach of literature long. Stumbling into Dahlberg’s 1952 mock of Faulkner’s Sartoris, (first printed in 1929) wherein he claims “in most of Faulkner’s fiction, the corpse is the hero,” and quotes:
And the next day he was dead, whereupon, as though he had but waited for that to release him of the clumsy cluttering of bones and breath, by losing the frustration of his own flesh he could now stiffen and shape that which sprang from him into the fatal semblance of his dream . . .
And, peckishly, rightfully, and puckishly so, Dahlberg lands one on the snoot of a matter rarely ever witness’d in the white rings (annals) of American prose. Of that particular Faulkner, whose “reputation is very stuffed at present” (he’d just received a Nobel), he says: “It was a mournful folly to have published such arrant scribbling the first time, but it is total waste to reprint it when there are poets in America who can’t get printed at all.” Which is precisely how I react to the news that the University of California’s doing Silliman’s Age of Huts (compleat). And “compleat”? Why the goofy eighteenth century orthography tout à coup? I thought that the haven of mad mannerists and covenanters.

Having decried all that, I scoop morning toward me, slathering handfuls of buttery sun, saved up after nights of roaming. I pull down my “Prose Keys to American Poetry” and read:
You come into my life a little yellow
Around the gills and I offer you 41
Pills of indeterminate mixture but you
Will not swallow them you are like

The Sunflower: you are waiting for a
Madman! Now you are like a madam, I
lean over and gaze intently into your
Eyeballs for 32 hours whereupon you swoon
And say, “Perceval, you’re wonderful!”

“Everybody sucks nobody fucks” says John
Which I must admit is disconcerting in light of
My premature weaning! Because actually I was in love
With all of those Saturday Serials even if Charley Mackin

did beat me up every week for sixteen weeks
straight! I simply repressed it all!
Thus Ted Berrigan. Because the sun today is a white cross tablet hung up in the errant sky off over “yonder” I’ll repeat a story Kenneth Rexroth relates, how, when he lived in a “basement apartment on Grove Street just off Sheridan Square,” two poets lived upstairs—“Allan Tate and, directly over me, Hart Crane.” Rexroth:
The week I moved in Crane was busy writing one of his best poems. At that period he was writing everything to what he considered jazz—in this case, Bert Williams’ “The Moon Shines on the Moonshine.” On his phonograph he had one of those old tin contrivances which picked up the needle and sent it back to the beginning of the record with a loud squeak. Hour after hour, day and night, I could hear coming through the ceiling “So still de night, in de old distillery, de moon shine white on de old machinery.” It wasn’t jazz, but it produced “Whitely, while benzene rinsings of the moon dissolve . . .”
Where one finds that in Crane, I do not know. I’ll be looking in my PROSE KEYS TO AMERICAN POETRY nightly.

Bert Williams in Blackface

Friday, October 27, 2006

A Cigar

Yellow Slugger

Imbecilia continua. I see I recently committed myself to writing poems with the following titles: “A Cigar,” “Itch,” “Sack,” “A Hole,” “A Thin Opera,” “Pepper Nights,” and “Nigh Nigh.” Ouch, a devilish task. Now I find the source of my belief in the necessary furtive supper, my hermit-shot scuttlesome muskratry: Gandhi. “The process of eating is as unclean as evacuation, the only difference being that, while evacuation ends in a sense of relief, eating, if one’s tongue is not held in control, brings discomfort. Just as we attend to evacuation, etc., in private, we should likewise eat and perform other actions common to all animals always in private. . . .” Hence, years of solitary boudin and noodles. Nouilles à la Neuilly. Is there an essential difference between the brainpan in critically astute manoeuvre and that same sprain’d brainpan in the offal of poetic sottishness? Yes. A minor Sisyphean lumbar tautology creeps in to expose the demeanor I suffer.

Here I go (again) keeping myself stupid, looking for evidentiary bundles in the briefcase, or any too solitary rip in the scrim my bafflement throws up—that’s the way forward into the netherlands of song, no? What if dialectical in nuce just means all messed up? Adorno: “The task of art today is to bring chaos into order.” (Funny, I never thought of Adorno as suffering preciosity, still, that smacks a little of the insufferably clever. (As we write on the walls of cyberspace: Nous sommes tous insufferably clever.) And: “[The artist’s] lot is rather a hysterically excessive lack of inhibition over every conceivable fear; narcissism taken to its paranoiac limit.” I misread it as “historically excessive lack of ambition.” I always think when Freud gets under Adorno’s skin he muffs it up for the rest of us. I’d better get busy with that cigar.

Theodore W. Adorno and Sigmund Freud

Thursday, October 26, 2006


A Signal

My critical lingo’s abaft (with the life-preservers) and there’s a whiteout upstairs. How many nights I spend pawing books, my slender fingers, my solicitors. Edward Dahlberg says: “One day I assisted the frail Lawrence across                               the street

to the hotel where he was staying, and I thought there was nobody inside his clothes.” David Herbert Lawrence. Henry David Thoreau. (Of the latter, Dahlberg claims he “did not even like the sex habits of cabbages.”) Consider                                       Rexroth,

who says he hitchhiked to Taos, New Mexico (financing the jaunt by pitching—medicine show shill style—copies of “a Little Blue Book on diet” he’d snapped up in Chicago for two cents a copy to hawk elsewhere for a quarter). Taos he                               found “under

the bitter cloud of the presence of D. H. Lawrence.” At the high-dudgeon high-priestess Mabel Luhan Dodge’s: “I went to a couple of parties at Mabel’s where everybody shuffled around full of sugar moon while tame Indians hammered on                               tom-toms—

a weary orgy of skinny or overweight millionairesses, hitchhiking hobohemians, disordered anthropologists, lady imagists from the Middle West, and a select number of very mercenary Indians. During these brawls the Master                               periodically stormed out

of the room in white-faced, red-whiskered rage whenever anybody used a dirty word.” (Of what little Lawrence I forced myself to read: works shallow and clumsy, one suffers the feeling of being drubbed by words used as the blunt                               instruments of

another’s desires. I can think of no one I’d rather avoid reading except, perchance, Theodore Dreiser.) (My critical lingo’s abaft, I repeat “sternly.”) Interrupt’d by the pleasures of driving a wide car into a cold sun, its daily freight. A                               spasm of

Hejinian: “Sentence by sentence, all these exertions (looping, jutting, and providing pleasure from numerous sources), these judgments and extensions, whose curves often repeat themselves, form a whole which, despite momentary                               pauses,

is unbroken by the angles, shadows, and impeding particles included.” A whole,
yes, a grammatical
                                            whole (not a “whole”).

D. H. Lawrence and Lyn Hejinian

Wednesday, October 25, 2006

Still Life

Chairs with Table


Content mops its brow
And lunges into
Form, a perfect ar-

Rangement. Contends with
With no exertion

Whatsoever. If
What matters least is
Occasion for such

How a kiwi looks
On the shiny lid

Of that sensibly
Flat shoe-polish tin
Serves equally well

As any athlete—
A heedless batter
With enough clout to

Face any pitcher,
Knowing a precise

Is about all I got down on the yester-eve of my morn. Tough to juggle the demands of song (it is song) with the spatula’d slap of domesticity and “all.” I like the way Moore niggles the syllabics, no contusion, no throaty outpour, no floody dumbshow

vernaculars. I keep thinking of an ink drawing by Mu Qi (c. 1200-1200), “Six Persimmons”—how arrangement doubles with something like grace, pinpointing a momentary stilling of the ever-grinding flux. One looks to Giorgio Morandi’s countless “Natura

Morta”—vases and bottles and pots, all “of the earth”—for a similar quelling of the visible. How opposed it is to a contortionist sense of form, “wild.” (Rexroth, who gets it right: “Then as now, most advance-guard writing was in fact amateurish

corn.”) Though: “The imagists writing in English owe their beginning to the French symbolists. We see this primarily in their loathing for the cliché, for rhetoric and pretentiousness, for oratory, that glib style used by Victor Hugo’s imitators (in

English, Swinburne, Tennyson, and Thompson) who have always repelled us. According to their constant rule, they seek precision of language, sharpness of vision, and compressed thought from which they like to draw a prevailing image.” That’s Remy de

Gourmont, in 1915, reiterating Pound. How (I ask myself, who is always talking) jibe the love of precision and the love of the profligate and messy rootings-about? Damp down the flares of one’s shoutings with the grid’d scrim of syllable-counting?

Giorgio Morandi, “Natura Morta,” 1957

Mu Qi, “Six Persimmons,” 13th century

Tuesday, October 24, 2006


A Field

Completely dumbfound’d to learn of the death of Deborah Tall, of cancer, aged fifty-five. I fumble with the early books—Eight Colors Wide (London Magazine Editions, 1974) and the one we printed at Ithaca House, Ninth Life (1982). For five years in the ’seventies she’d lived on the island of Inishbofin off the west coast of Ireland, then she’d returned to the States and earned an M.F.A. at Goddard. I think the first piece of Tall’s I read, “Three Anecdotes,” the first poem in Ninth Life, probably convinced me we should publish the book:

We made love in a field outside Gort
while the population was at mass.
You wanted to be caught by Christ himself
I guess, incinerated on the spot.
No one noticed. A cat
stared at a quivering leaf and wisps
of chimney smoke rose from the empty houses.
I discovered what nettles were when they
touched my thigh and stung. You laughed
at my surprise then drew me closer
while clouds moved in single-file from the sea
and assembled ahead. I stared abashed.
You said I’d learn to love this country.
Bordering tulips stammered and snapped.


We developed a yen for scaly fish
and bottom feeders. I learned to skin
still wriggling eels and soak the hard crust
off fragach. Plaice fought in my oven.
I slammed the door, dragged my line
on the sandy bottom again to snare
flounders unawares or perhaps a crab.
But what came up gave battle, a cuttle
spraying its camouflaging spit.
Inky poison just missing my eye and once
in the boat its tentacles grabbed at my boot.
I watched its organs through transparent skin
turn purple, blue, then green, a bright bouquet
of dying taking, as always, much too long.


You found a younger girl for lover so turned
me into woman overnight. Deep lines
appeared at my eyes and mouth, but that’s just
“anecdotal,” as the doctors say. Aging
was anyway overdue. By afternoon,
snow wiped out the road. Still I drove you
to the airport for your plane, navigating
the unbordered white by hearsay and respect
for what lay buried. Unaccountably
your laughter turned to dark hysteria.
I swerved. “Go on, we’re late,” you recomposed
yourself, lied and said you’d be all right.
Do we choose to leave as implausibly
as we choose to stay? Your face turned toward the gate.
If, today, I see the Plathisms I ignored twenty or so years back, typesetting the words in a job stick, or the tiny sentimentalist excesses, it hardly matters. I see, too, precision and narrative swiftness, how things change between people limned with humor and surety. There’s present, too, the way of telling a story (or making an argument) whilst leaving things out—one of the techniques of the “lyric essay” that Tall and John D’Agata defined and promoted in the pages of the Seneca Review.

We put together a reading for Deborah Tall in the Ithaca House gallery at 108 North Plain Street in Ithaca. In my copy of Ninth Life is written March 25, 1982. We raced to finish the book (toward the end, I remember a day of waiting for a possible telephone call from Robert Penn Warren—Tall, who was friends with Rosanne, Warren’s daughter, had apparently asked him rather late for a blurb, and suggested he might call), borrowed a hodge-podge of chairs, supply’d some wine. Tall had an interview for a teaching job at Hobart & William Smith, up the lake in Geneva, and a couple of people on the hiring committee—Jim Crenner, who, with Ira Sadoff, founded Hobart’s Seneca Review in 1970, I recall—came to the reading. She read with a kind of quiet force, clear, even, self-possessed, steady.

I saw Tall rarely (never, I think, after I departed Ithaca in 1986). I recall dinner in Zorba’s, a Greek restaurant in Ithaca, before a Seamus Heaney reading, and, my hermit-like declining to attend the post-reading brouhaha (I sensed, too, that Tall, who, I think, ’d known Heaney in Ireland, had her own petty demons to confront). I did read her books—The Island of the White Cow: Memories of an Irish Island and From Where We Stand: Recovering a Sense of Place with pleasure, and fossick’d the excellent Poets Notebook: Excerpts from the Notebooks of Contemporary American Poets. And admired the Seneca Review, one of the most open and ecumenical journals in the increasingly parochial and stingy U.S. poetry world, and one that’s long made it a practice of publishing large numbers of translations.

That she and her work not go unnoticed.

Deborah Tall (1951-2006)

Monday, October 23, 2006

A Seed

Green Smoker

Bah. The weekend bolt’d like a Burpee. Scant exfoliate and everything’s cow-nettles. Bah. I tossed white marigolds into mud-colored waters in three port cities, sung out in prophetic nasality a song of the blow. Sarcophagi dumped in the plain of mulleins. Hellenic unearthings amongst the mock-adders, the asters, the stalks.

A messianic pottle in twelve acres of mustard greens. Romantic dither. Try, une fois, to say it straight. None of the putti-talk, chubby galas of mirth for one. (You are not “clubbable” is what the good Doctor’d mutter, awash in slips and quotations.) It comes a day when I see I am off-track and unwoo-ably reading a dozen

books, switching and baiting, dissatisfying so. Implacable romps in the word-hoard, pliable as a fish. Rexroth (a return): “A large percentage of the most talented people I have ever known have vanished, and I think the reason for this is that to be a successful poet or painter or a musician you’ve got to be a kind of fool,

you’re got to want to. You always arrive on an ass and the foal of an ass. Persistence as an artist seems to require a kind of folly.” Who is Rexroth talking about, one Olaf Olson a.k.a. Olivier Olssen, and Ole Olson, “a farm boy from Green Bay, Wisconsin,” published in The Dial, met Carl Van Vechten and Muriel

Draper and was “given brief immortality in Peter Whiffle and The Blind Bow-Boy.” Bah. Everything impinges on (converges into) the hermetic. Code-talk. Amusing to read in Benjamin’s On Hashish, a chapter titled “Crock Notes”—“There is no more valid legitimation of crock than the consciousness of having suddenly

penetrated, with its help, that most hidden, generally most inaccessible world of surfaces which is constituted by the ornament.” And if one reads the note regarding “crock,” one suddenly penetrates its inaccessibility (quoting Jean Selz, who got crock’d with Benjamin on Ibiza in 1933): “There is no word ‘crock’ in

German . . . What was actually involved was a slightly Germanized form of the French croc, ‘hook.’ Of course, the meaning we gave to the word had nothing to do with this. At once absurd and secret, it was the term we used to refer to opium. Some friends who smoked had invented the expression; I got it from them

and shared it with Benjamin. We didn’t know exactly how this special usage of the term arose. It is conceivable that it originated in sympathy with the humorous vocabulary of Père Ubu (in Alfred Jarry’s play Ubu Rois) who speaks frequently of his ‘croc à phynances.’” I knew a girl who used to leave notes

for “Corinne”—is Corinne going to New York, is Corinne coming back, is Corinne out of town? All Burpee-talk, code and lingual feints. If the world be “constituted by ornament”—all surface—what better than to invent one’s own cabal of gists and piths, or a Scandinavian called Olivier? And so art, seeking autonomy, withdraws to

the interior, all codework and crank, a private language—and so the ornamental outside world invades in perpetuity, its perps and pranks borrow’d off art and nobody else. A story of art’s exceptionalist flailings written by a crank. Or Adorno: “The dialectical critic of culture must both participate in culture and not

participate. Only then does he do justice to his object and to himself.”

John Tenniel, “Alice in Wonderland: Advice from a Caterpillar,” c. 1865

Friday, October 20, 2006

A Potpourri

Beer and Bicycle

Restless as an industrialist. Fossicking the books. A pot of rot. A froth of impenetrables. Gait of a lintpicker. A scrub-bucket of unwashables. A yowser of unmentionables. Yeast of concordance. The “idea” is always to lend my sloppy consideration to anything that roars of the new. “New” in the sense of rubbing its hackled back up against my unsturdy leg, liable to topple me. It could be Epictetus, that dullard.

“Ideas are always wrong.” (William Bronk)

“feeling is pap” (Amelia Rosselli, Diario in Tre Lingue, 1955-56)

to fo´rnicate. To commit lewdness.
                It is a new way to fornicate at a distance. Browne’s Vulgar Errours.

(Samuel Johnson’s Dictionary)

            “A music
supersedes his composure, hallooing to us
across a great distance     .     .”

(William Carlos Williams, “The Desert Music,” 1954)

A Shambles (Lightship)

“the shapes nearest shapelessness awe us most, suggest the god” (A. R. Ammons, Sphere)

It comes, without a consternation—
Dissolves—the same—
But leaves a sumptuous Destitution—
Without a Name—

Profane it by a search—we cannot
It has no home—
Nor we who having once inhaled it—
Thereafter roam

(Emily Dickinson)

“The prisonhouse of cogito.” (John Keene, Annotations)

A Mess

“the final letters in Joyce’s notebook, the U.S. after FINEST VIRGINIA, did not mean the United States but alluded to the ultima sigaretta in La coscienza di Zeno and to its author’s last cigarette” (Julián Ríos, Monstruary)

“He has as small patience with the fat, inert ear and the filmy, indigestive eye in literature as the Prophets. Pound believes that the metaphor and the adjective are generally nuisance stumbling blocks to perception. It was Huysmans who said that the central force of the sentence lies in the verb, and when the verb has this strong male health in it, one can hope for good poems and a remarkable culture. A glance at Egyptian ideographs shows us that nouns are always active, and so are free of the supine adjective.” (Edward Dahlberg, Samuel Beckett’s Wake and Other Uncollected Prose)

Suppose that the following line represented a typical composition of yours:
(Wyndham Lewis, Time and Western Man)

“What, if not the derivative, will keep us warm? The tragic interchangeability of nouns?” (Ben Lerner, The Lichtenberg Figures)

Two Tips, Orange (British)

Thursday, October 19, 2006



Écriture oblige, what ignoble sport. Evidence in the ragged sundries, the dragged-in dross and curio. The oblietjie: a thin Huguenotish biscuit, rolled. How easily one is misdirected, off-kilter, drifting out of the reach of intent.

Why, biking, did I decide “shrift” descended out of “writing”—though it is, see Old English scrífan, various Frisians scrîva, skref, skreven, skriuwe, skreau, skreaun, skriiw, skreew, skrewen, schriuwe, various Germans schrîven,

schreev, schrêven, scrîben, schreip, geschriben, schreiben, schrieb, geschrieben,
and various Dutch schrîven, screef, ghescrêven, schrijven, schreef, geschreven—all somewhat stems off the Latin trunk scribere. Screw that.

(I am turning into Ron Padgett.) I biked along in the semi-dark thinking I’d make “short shrift” of my “little writing” and ran right into a priest. Ran right into a guillotine. I confess it, with no criminal intent. “Make a short Shrift, he

longs to see your Head.” (Shakespeare, Richard III) Who recalls James Hurdis’s mightily scribed and ornament’d poem “The Favorite Village” (1800): “The monarch daffodil uprears his head, / Nor dreads the guillotine of the keen gale.”

(Hear that storm in the long e’s of “guillotine” and “keen.”) So the meteoric synapses flip, and flip one off. Écriture oblige, escrito obligado. I ain’t talking about a command performance, though I ain’t

exackly adverse to wearing tights. Man’s an obliging creature, habitual, and what writing starts starts in the semi-dark. (“In Dreams Begin Responsibility,” and who is it—O’Hara?—who riffs that into something like “Our dreams began

not in responsibility, though they did begin in bed”?) Such is the bramble-patch and anthill of the pandaemonium’d reader who gives short shrift to the morning’s post, who sees the dodge that language is, shape-shifter and recalcitrant.

Forrest Gander (in A Faithful Existence: Reading, Memory, and Transcendence): “Whether form or cadence trigger the poems, measure always conducts my composition. 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.” And Marilynne Robinson pointing out that “the characteristic mode of thought of most of the classic American writers . . . is based on

the assumption that the only way to understand the world is metaphorical, and all metaphors are inadequate . . . you press them far enough and you’re delivered into something that requires a new articulation.” An obligeant critter.

This is my letter obligatory to the world.

Forrest Gander, Berlin, 2002
(Photograph by Tom Raworth)

Wednesday, October 18, 2006


A Painting

Thomas Gardner’s got a terrific-looking new book out—A Door Ajar: Contemporary Writers and Emily Dickinson (Oxford University Press, 2006). In it, he offers substantial interviews with Housekeeping author Marilynne Robinson, Charles Wright, Susan Howe, and Jorie Graham, claiming that they (among others) enact “for themselves, in their own terms, some aspect of the broken responsiveness before a world that can no longer be held in place that Dickinson puts into play.” He writes:
Susan Howe speaks of this as Dickinson’s “antinomian strain,” Charles Wright as her “negative spirituality,” and Marilynne Robinson as the way a Dickinson metaphor deliberately “ruptures the illusion that it has created.”
The unspeakable and irremediable gap between, say, world and God, that Dickinson’s style points at, widen’d to include a variety of writerly responses to the world using the primitive tool of language. As Gardner writes: “fragmentation, discontinuity, use of pauses, shifting styles, bodily language, instability, opacity, wandering and loneliness, dread, uncertainty, silence, disorientation are equally, often simultaneously, explored as nontotalizing responses to what can never be grasped.”

A compelling defense of the lyric (reminding me somewhat of Nathaniel Mackey’s talk about ghost limbs) comes up in conversation between Gardner and Wright:
TG: In an interview, you said that “The true genius of poetry is lyric and imagistic. It lies in concision and allusion, something withheld but partially glimpsed.” It strikes me that your notion of lyric form is quite close to the view of the world in “There’s a certain Slant of light” or in . . .

CW: Well, yes. It’s certainly no news to the world that things partially seen are almost always stronger than things completely seen, because you get to do the imagining yourself, to make them complete in the way that you want to. I suppose this all goes back to Sappho, bless her heart, who was the first to stop writing two-hundred-page poems and wrote these little lyrics. As we have them now, they’re partially seen because they’ve been lost. One wonders if part of that aspect of the lyric was accidental and that’s how we got it and made an aesthetic of it, or whether the aesthetic was already there and she slipped beautifully into it once she was resurrected and reinstalled. The idea of something missing, I mean, being part of the lyric aesthetic.

I don’t know. For me, since I am unable to do real narrative, the associative lyric has always been the one form that I felt, if not at home with, at least on the same block with. I have worked in it constantly, and have either expanded it or condensed it to my own ends. But I think what you said was true—that the form seems to imply the glimpsed thing, which then becomes more fully formed than the seen thing would in, say, the sonnet which, in its heyday, mirrored a complete statement, an argument, an entity. It gave you a narrative that started and finished beautifully, whereas in the lyric, even if it starts and finishes beautifully, the argument is never fulfilled. At least the lyric as I use it, or it uses me. It always has that incompleteness which I feel is necessary to art—that almost completeness, but kept apart right at the end so that you can make the synapse yourself without the argument being made. Which isn’t to say, of course, that the sonnet is not “lyric.” But a good one is always tied up, isn’t it? At the end, I mean.
And, because it is everything, and I trust no writer who’d argue differently, I repeat a couple things about music. Wright: “No one wants to say any of this, because we all want to be so meaningful, but in fact, the music drives an awful lot of these engines.” And:
Critics, for the most part, only talk about the meaning, the content. Naturally—that’s what’s there. But often, though they don’t admit it, poets come at it from a different angle. I think I come at it from a musical one, a sound pattern, and then the other stuff—since my subject matter is an obsession—falls into place, or doesn’t fall into place. I never approach it from the title of a poem—I never start it that way. It comes from something else. It usually comes from something I’ve seen, or some sound pattern that will come into my head. I used to write down nonsense words with a pattern, a line pattern, I liked and then figure out what I was trying to say after that. (Laughter.) I’m not sure that’s a good idea, but that’s how I do it sometimes.
And, a snippet out of Susan Howe’s (brilliant) interview, where she, too, puts “sound” (and “the sight of words”—evoking in me thoughts of a whole ongoing battle against words I find too unsightly to use, and strive to avoid: “his” is one, “upon” is another) first:
“Providence has a wild, rough, incalculable road to its end,” Emerson wonderfully wrote in “Fate,” “and it is of no use to whitewash its huge mixed instrumentalities.” The lyric mystery of poetry includes sound and surprise. Chance or Fate are words for an undeciphered form still unknown to us. It’s the sense that particular words are electrically connected through meter and melody. Poems are intentional and intuitive at once. The interest is in the spirit of execution. The spirit of execution is a spirit of experiment, an openness to order which chance creates. Though you think you have control as your write—
. . .

Emerson’s “mixed instrumentalities” are connected or conducted through particulars. That’s one reason I’m drawn to the pragmatist thought that truth consists in the process—in gathering and locating—in making connections and transitions. Poetry is the path of rhetoric to logic. Each sensible sound is a sign that awakens the condition for understanding. A poet surrenders with discipline to the beauty of the sound and sight of words at once. As if they are visually concrete and tangibly audible. “Affection” is the passion of a mind bent on a particular object but without its actual presence. The word stands in for the object. So the words you choose must be perfect.
How New England (Puritan stock), that “with discipline.” Later, Howe’s talk nearly mimics Wright’s about lyric concision, though Howe is sampling (amazingly) Dickens’s Pickwick Papers:
Pickwick was beyond me when it came to plot but I loved his enjoyment of the names of characters and their ridiculous escapades: Samuel Pickwick, Esq., Mr. Winkle, Alfred Jingle, Count Smorltork, Job Trotter, Mr. Stiggins, Miss Wardle. Talk of relation and compression—of jolt and unexpected sallies.
“Poet, Sir?”
        “My friend Mr. Snodgrass has a strong poetic turn,” said Mr. Pickwick.
        “So have I,” said the stranger. “Epic poem,—ten thousand lines—revolution of July—composed it on the spot—Mars by day, Apollo by night,—bang the field piece, twang the lyre.”

(Twang. The liar.)

Susan Howe and Charles Wright

Tuesday, October 17, 2006



A yellow-leaf’d deluge, hard rain providing knock enough to strip petioles off twigs, and a general heathenish light of slicker and leaf sails forth ungodly and incongruous in the pre-dawn black. Invariably about halfway through any book a longueur talon-hoists my enthusiasm, osprey raking up a flapping walleye just where a runnel hoves to earth, and I dangle over an abyss of indecision.

Whether to continue or slough off another book, Max Stirner-style. Flinders Petrie style! “The unwrapping of Horuta!” “Ape head of Hapi, and speech of Nebhat” is exactly how I begin to see myself—not afflicted by the permanent ennui of the century, rather a ruinous need to go forth anew. Rexroth tells the story of Beryl Bolton, “leading lady of the famous old heavy Frank Keenan,”

who, in making a Garden of Allah-type movie ’d “ridden a camel on a treadmill all day into an airplane propeller at which two men continuously shoveled sand,” apparently causing much loss of skin. Something there jibes with my slow reading, my impatience, my bluster. The gadfly Maxwell Bodenheim pops up everywhere Rexroth goes, Chicago, Boston, New York and I madly search for what Rexroth calls

“a little field croquis by Cazin—dove-gray skies, pale sienna, and terre-verte withered grass rising in a faint swell to, in the middle distance, a cabane with silver and peach cob walls and pale, mottled, coral tile roof.” He claims it “satisfies” him “more than any other painting” in Chicago’s Art Institute. I suspect memory is fussing around here, getting its clumsy mitts in,

the way memory does. Bodenheim (b. Hermanville, Mississippi, May 26, 1892) claimed (amongst many other things) he’d been dishonorably discharged out of the U.S. Army after a stint in the Fort Leavenworth brig for going AWOL and for bashing an anti-Semitic officer over the head with a musket. In “East Side Moving Picture Theatre—Sunday”:
A slender Jewish boy whose forehead
Is tall, and like a wind-marked wall,
Restlessly waits while leaping prayers
Clash their light-cymbals within his eyes.
. . .

Then the blurred, tawdry pictures rush across the scene,
And I hear a swishing intake of breath,
As though some band of shy rigid spirits
Were standing before their last heaven.
So go the books. One continues, though one is tempted by the Richard Foreman compositional strategy:

“Every CHOICE closes down most of the world . . . what is one left with? Phenomenon which, as it arises, must be ‘tossed away.’ This ‘tossing away’ as the interesting aesthetic event. The fascinating new rhythm.

‘Ah—this moment starts to be interesting?—Toss it away!’ The ‘music’ of that ‘toss it away’—a kind of ecstasy, a stripping down that reveals—what? Some strange, new oscillating ‘thing’ under all other ‘things.’”

Allow that to serve, too, as method for reading. A reading deluge.

Maxwell Bodenheim

Monday, October 16, 2006


Night Pine

Kenneth Rexroth (in An Autobiographical Novel): “I don’t understand why French painting—with the exception of Delaunay—had so little influence in America in those days. Everybody seemed to be anxious to distinguish himself from the Cubists by every means in his power. Partly, I think, this was militant provincialism, defiance of the capital. Partly it was the besetting sin of the American arts—the Poe-esque notion that if you had the right theory the masterpieces would appear automatically.” He’s talking about post-WWI, early ’twenties, mentions a 1924 Anthologie Kra “still one of the best collections of the best days of French verse.” And mentions (at end of paragraph) how Paul “Klee’s scratchy crow-quill pen drawings of those days were commonly coupled with George Grosz and there were many arguments as to who was better,” (before self-satisfy’dly indicating he’d known it’d be Klee—Rexroth’s memoir makes a habit of showing him rectify’d by history, just as it points continuously to Rexroth’s own participation in nearly all the stellar movements of the period—here, I am reminded of nobody so much as Ron Silliman, another Mr. Self-props Galore.)

Rexroth, though, ’s got a jam-packed couple of sentences there. First, one’s certain Rexroth isn’t talking about Sonia Delaunay here (probably the bigger talent, certainly the more various). I am curious where one perceives a Robert Delaunay (“Art in Nature is rhythmic and has a horror of constraint. If Art relates itself to an Object, it becomes descriptive, divisionist, literary.”) influence, that Blaue Reiter color tendency, the slapping down of Tours Eiffels, the jaunty scatter-hint of cubism, without any pretence to analysis? (He’s not, evidemment, one of my preferences.) What I do like here is that “militant provincialism.” I suspect that the “militant provincialism” these days is more stridently a feature of the capital itself (or the “capitals,” both east and west varietes)—say, New York City and its various unruly rumbustiousnesses and rambunctives—defiant only in its predilection to disinterest in anything beyond itself. The defiant mediocrity of the “scenic.” And, too, Rexroth may’ve clobbered one nail on its head in identifying “theory” with Poe, much to Poe’s disgrace. Here’s a man famous for short story (and poetickal) theory—“read at one sitting,” “unity of effect and impression,” the “one hundred lines” ideal poem length, nutty stuff if one subtracts the historical aura of getting picked up by the French avant-garde and jitters-prone Charles Baudelaire. True, Poe’s got a trenchant and acerbic critical mouth, though to sling (back to Silliman) that “School of Quietude” remark around without trumping it with Poe’s own theories (all precisely the kind of “handle language gingerly, nothing too long, or too wild” torts that the oft-scoff’d-at quietists apparently obey—why, they is simply disciples of the marvelous E.A.P. himself!) that strikes me as clumsy thinking.

What (to smooth my own ruffled feathers) Rexroth’s little knot of things brings forth, is a kind of animosity toward the smooth assumptions that any art theory or poetic can discard the man or woman—with all the desperate little grubbinesses, pig knuckles, fears and sorrows and delights, and immaturity and sudden dartings here and there—all that that makes an individual, that hopelessly mired in its own-ness thing. Of course it’s dumb to say, ah, Klee turned out the winner against Grosz (what assumptions get buried in such a statement—one about the efficacity of art (none), one about savage caricature versus cute enigma, one about the market for the prickly . . .)

So it goes. Struggling to find reading space, writing space, dropping everything in a heap. So one riffs without melancholy, just in a tizzy, Monday morning, say, and, say, trousers bunched up around the ankles, say, and doorbell bonging away.

I see (off fetching a link) that Silliman’s in red-alert defense mode again about not being able to “hear” the mother tongue. My preferred number on that particular canal-blockage is, of course, Mr. Puthwuth’s at Bloody-nosed Georgia Sam. And Mr. Puthwuth’s follow-up.

Out of Compositions, Couleurs, Idées, Sonia Delaunay, c. 1930

Friday, October 13, 2006

In Tights

A Fence

Continuing dispersions. Flopping open books and noisily (one-handedly) smacking them shut. Who thinks about Franz Boas anymore? Is it “of note” that Delacroix percept’d Mandelbrot’s fractal theory in 1849: “I have often noticed, when drawing trees, that a give branch taken separately, is a little tree in itself: for one to see it so it would be sufficient if the leaves merely had the right proportion.” (Invariant structure repeated

irregardless of scale: the only example in contemporary poetry I think of is David McAleavey’s Huge Haiku, and that I’ve barely looked at.) Though if I wrote twenty-six (letter’d) alphabets, that’d commence a fractal build-up that’d possibly prove unstoppable. (Every modernist’s revery and trauma: to torque out (the final Big Torque) mid-achievement, undone. One way to keep to the processual groove.) Or Charles

Blanc (I trust Lévi-Strauss here) says: “Great colorists never render the local tones.” The greatest colorist I know is Milton Avery. What’s comparable to color in the poetickal domain? (Pray, tell.) Is it mash-ups of improbable dictions? (Cormac McCarthy, John Ashbery.) Tiny escorials (scoria) of various (jangly, massive) syntactic or semantic units? (Everybody.) Is color voice? Is it style? (How I hate all questions. Interrogatives

benumb the skull, or it that Rogaine poisoning?) I never did note: “you are proud of my mean tongue / and the snow like Charles Olson working on one of his ABC poems / is quietly and bitterly falling . . .” Is that better or worse than: “our melancholy lights / and vaguely proud dissemblings”? (Frank O’Hara.) It’s nuts to ask questions. Just breeze along indefatigably like a siren in tights, that’s one motto, toots. Unless one begins feeling

indicted by one’s own participation in what Hugh Kenner, talking about the mid-1920’s, call’d “a massive triviality, a failure of will on a truly forbidding scale”—that of “allowing English culture to lapse into shapes characterized by childishness, self-indulgence, utter predictability.” If one asks where “we” find ourselves today, in the froth of negligence, the war ongoing with no particular viable resistance, our

pixilated and Paxilated selves zombify’d by our own spew of casual and meaningless “industry,” our angers subsumed by giddy frolicking in the info-glut, isn’t one likely to admit to precisely such a failure? Ron Silliman’s two Tjanting sentences, “Not this” and “What then?” need toss off the carefully-draped Fibonacci formalist capes they conceal themselves in (never of huge interest anyhow), and elbow

out into the agora nakedly, answerable by none other than us.

Milton Avery, “Red Rock Falls,” 1947

Milton Avery, “Summer’s End,” 1945

Thursday, October 12, 2006


Red Drips

Kenneth Rexroth, on voracious youthful reading:
This omnivorous appetite for reading things in sets and subjects stood me in good stead, because it meant that I got most of the world’s important fiction out of the way in adolescence where it belongs. I would take the Constance Garnett Chekhov, Turgenev, or Dostoyevsky, the Archer Ibsen (a dreadful translation), the New York edition of Henry James, or the mail-order sets of Joseph Conrad and Jack London, start with Volume I, and read straight through. I’m not proud of this. It seems to me now to be more or less a substitute for nail-biting.

Amusing to see Kent Johnson’s query regarding the purported split in Flarfsville between the rancorous party militants and the jig’s-up accommodationists—those pufferfish who live by mutual puffery, die by mutual puffery. My only question: how’s it going to be possible to slice that teensy wedge of pie any smaller? No particular voluntary or involuntary “ability” is required to see that flarfismo’s a one-trick pony with all the derring-do of a fart in a crowded elevator. Even human corpses’re known to emit the piggish oink-tremoloes of long escaping gas. And joiners? always the avidest ones to join? Why, they’re the avidest ones to bar the doors of whatever flophouse they finally heap up in—and then the ornery neighbor-biting begins . . .

Cold, and a solid-looking hard blue bank of clouds to the north, ladled over in the heights with peach. Biking with a headband and gloves, thinking about Mt. Tamalpais and Pound’s “Mt. Taishan” off beyond the Monte Pisano, Pound thinking he’s in China, like the crabby hermit Han Shan. I confuse the two mountains. Impossible to de-bug the wires going into and out of the brainpan (a kind of deep fryer) and my concern lately: all the surges and counter-surges lost. I shoot down the flat stretch by Fingerle’s (a lumber yard) and one nigh-bolt asks: “What about Indiana? Why the odd radical energy there, Wabash-sluiced?” Marguerite Young: “In an impolite world of things as they are, in the early nineteenth century, an Indian prophet arose—even on the banks of the Wabash—Lolawawchicka [“Loud Voice”], the Indian Patrick Henry. If they did not hang together, they would all hang separately, Lolawawchicka said, a little belatedly. He proposed to establish a community of Indians in the Wabash valley, where the problem should be the Indian as an end in himself, rationally considered.” And all the utopianists she writes about in Angel in the Forest, Frederick Rapp and Robert Owen and, later, Eugene V. Debs, of Terre Haute. And Gene Stratton-Porter’s terrific Girl of the Limberlost. Inchoate zingers, fraught with little more than conviction, that’s the brain-swell today. Snow crazy in the air now.

Marguerite Young at Yaddo, 1946

Gene Stratton-Porter, aged ten

Wednesday, October 11, 2006

A Chrestomathy

A Wall

Jonathan Williams, on putting together Edward Dahlberg: A Tribute:
If you ask 125 battered literary people for anything, 100 will take issue with you and insist that you were totally wrong to begin in the first place. And here I was asking writers to bury the hatchet—when Dahlberg had buried it in more writers’ skulls more often than anyone else living! Does he not say every day of his life: “I reflect the age to which I am opposed. . . . It does not matter how often I fail; what is important is that I never joined the intellectual or the academic crowd. The rabble esthete is not better than any other species of demagogue, or what Prior calls the comma and colon men. Every time a bum-bailiff of our venal, literary agora praises a bad book he starves the writer of a good one. . . .” There is nothing like such a red flag to rally the curmudgeons.
And Ronald Johnson, introducing a selection of Dahlberg’s letters to Jonathan Williams:
Edward Dahlberg springs out of that thistle patch where once Thoreau tended his beans, and now there is the litter of motor courts and paved roads. Thoreau longed for a book “which shall push out with the skunk-cabbage in the spring,” and Dahlberg has written it, its odor unmistakably moral, inescapable, primordial. The Emersons of our day fidget in the parlors, and talk of the properties.

There are both correspondences and differences between the two, but the signature is on the leaves of the plant: they believe, in Dahlberg’s words, that it is impossible “to create a civilization in a land that covers more territory than the body of a Titan”; they are the self-appointed pariahs to this civilization, the gadflies of what is more titanic that Titan; and the prose they have developed is individual, prickly, as solitary as the mullein and as indigenous as sassafras. Thoreau withdrew to the woods, however, While Dahlberg, more cosmopolitan, more modern, engages himself, jousts at the windmills of his own humanity and the manners, erudition, politics, sex life, honesty, gullibility, and warmth of others. All in a style as close-packed, as variegated as the legendary ancestor of Indian corn. And as elusive. He declares in these letters: “It may take you a while to find your symbols, the air in Quito is sometimes too refined to breathe, but the heavens are lucid, and twilight there lasts no more than three seconds.”
Or out of Guy Davenport’s rollicking squib:
In a world that counts more the manners with which a thing is said than the sentiment or fact itself, he is gloriously boorish . . . He is earthy and overcivilized all at once, smooth and bristly by uncalculable turns, and wildly melancholy at all times. We do not know what to think of such an Habbakuk; he does not play the game. Politics, religion, fads, movements, groups, styles, editorial boards: they have all failed to touch him. Like all stubbornly personal men he seems fetched on, decidedly curious and unaccountably outlandish. Never mid. He is there, like Doughty and Zukofsky and Pumpelly and Jardiel Poncela.
And, dipping into the letter extracts, in one dated June 29th, 1966, Dahlberg writes to Williams:
I guess you know I don’t require your help to lard my renown, but what kind of friendship is this? Was I ever pompous with you? You published all sorts of squalid fools, and still do. Zukofsky is a dwarf, and Olson a refrigerated verser; I was duped by them at one time, but long since realized there was no point in drudging for Narcissi. . . . When you cease printing dizzards who have neither erudition or love for others, we can be friends again.
Worth noting: essays by Eric Mottram (“Ishmael in America”) and Anthony Burgess.

Guy Davenport, Abbey of Gethsemene, 1964
(Photograph by Jonathan Williams)

Tuesday, October 10, 2006

My Ambition

Green Skeleton

“Adjusting my finger-grip on the wrench-scarred nut, and painstakingly failing to achieve a proper torque, doffing my glasses for a more intimate inspection, and standing almost immediately to reach for the pliers that lay angel-sprawled on the cedar-board table, I scooped them up and quickly kneeled again, demolishing with my one good knee, the afore-rejected glasses.” Reason enough—in a mere sixty words—not to take off in some moronic headlining kind of dash into prose. The way it gets all goony and unnatural, because of its sour nineteenth-century history of being goony and unnatural. (A large part of me loves that thing about it, precisely.) Mannered prose, though, seeks a commitment us slacker poets cannot shoulder: think about having to go off burning that shitty fuse for, oh, several years, and just to complete a “book.” I get to thinking someone’s got a halter binding my nose or a bit chiseling my gob after about one dumpy canter around that track. If I can’t pull a different voice up out my bandanna, and within a line or two, I am one permanent bandylegged dog for sure.

The thing about ambition: one calibrates that instrument oneself. If John Ashbery writes one hundred pages (Flow Chart) in commemoration and grief in, say, a year or so—that’s not so ambitious as Ezra Pound sniffing the crabbid ordinary saliences out of John Adams’s letters in the course of what? A botch that’d begun to yank him around that particular barnyard? (Be wary of the projects begun in youth and sass and gladness. They start to dog one’s heels in the middling age. And one begins to think that dog somehow “important.”) A. “I smiled convulsively and in an instant was left / somehow darkened, though the pressure / was relieved and since then has never been a problem.” Or B.: “I was apprehensive in particular that / ‘natural history’ and ‘good humor’ wd/ be struck out, / Wrote John 34 years later.” (Defend the measurable ambition of A. Or of B.)

Truth is, ambition tends to dry the mucous and seize the joints. One’s style nosedives. One’s coefficient against drift and lassitude skyrockets. One eats hardboiled eggs and runs a straight track mornings. Begins to see numerical meanings in the animal gruntings of the spurious, the immodest, the coddled. One caters to career-helpers. One strokes one’s own fuzzy boundary, Messiah-like. One’s polemical spottiness gets mistook for a kind of poetry. And in the unendurable final gelling of that terrible ambition: one becomes an ideologue of a period. A textbook bimbo. Or a textbook clown.

Tony Hoagland, in “Fragment, Juxtaposition, and Completeness: Some Notes and Preferences,” strains (a little) after a “usable terminology” and says: “fragment is the unit, juxtaposition is the method, collage is the result.” Which is precisely how we used to talk about the “image”—all coming out of that ambitious ideogrammist Ezra Pound. I rest my potlatch-grubby paw on a stack of Donkey Gospels and swear: we used to juxtapose things mightily (Picasso: bicycle handlebars + bicycle saddle = bull—there’s a textbook illustration for the simple.) One image nudges against another image to make something new, unforeseen, poetickal! (I note now how Hoagland fusses with the definition of “fragment” in the piece, suspecting, I think, that the new nomenclature’s in danger of toppling the argument. He says: “When you juxtapose two fragments next to each other, without transition, you get collage. In fact, when you place any two dissimilar units side by side—even complete sentences, even paragraphs—they acquire the quality of fragment . . .” Why the necessity of that “dissimilar”? Because he’s trying out the old hat idée reçu on for size, and it’s looking a little “funny.”)

I used, briefly, to run with Tony Hoagland. Not run, drink. He lived in Ithaca for a year or two, in a house with a “one-half” in the address—114½ Mitchell, something like that, I pictured a shack behind another house, though I never visited—and worked (for a period) in one of the nearby state parks, Buttermilk Falls, or Treman. Typical hippie in the hills stuff. A summer “crew” job, meaning going off in a truck to dig or patch or plant something, with plenty of country to hide in, plenty of opportunity for reading, and napping. I think he told me he grew up in Cut Off, Louisiana, or a parent lived there. Or Slidell, I don’t know. We’d drink and get into arguments about different poets, though without any “ideology” (or “poetics”) causing the differences, simpler than anything like that. Obstreperous and serious about poetry, he. We went to Cortland one night for a reading—whose, I burned that gangly neural bunch, what I do recall is the bottles of red we kept going, and how Hoagland fill’d up the tank of the car for a buck or two, something about a broken pump, got away clean. He attempt’d to convince me that Darrell Gray was a grand overlook’d American poet. Or was it Chuck Miller? (Some alcohol-stymied number, vaguely “Iowan.”) A few years later, Hoagland went to the University of Arizona, got involved in the Sonora Review, and began writing rather intelligent review pieces. I started to see ambition, bleeding ambition. I got a few occasional pencil-scrawled ordinary index cards post’d to me, and we stopped writing, the way people do.

Theo Scratcher writes: “All the marks here of a rhetorical ninny. Though I know you like “exploratory prose,” it compleatly disfigures a poor soul to make a usable stretch of fence out of such tossed-off hay-baling wire. You skitter off sideways like a crayfish. Why, if you going to make a point, and a mark, and a name for you bad ambitious self, you got to grab an idea by the tail, chuck it inside some ordinary gunny sack, and beat at it with several consecutive paragraphs of you baddest bluntest prose. To a bloody pulp of an idea. If you aim to become a poetry marketeer, you needs an instrumental prose. Prose of a tool.”

Tony Hoagland

Monday, October 09, 2006



The way the sun slashes down late Sunday afternoon, like a saber. Poking around in books “about photography.” Think who writes about photography—an ensconced myriad, a fervency: Susan Sontag, Roland Barthes, Hervé Guibert, Walter Benjamin, Baudelaire, Wittgenstein. Not counting the photographers (mostly a rather writerly breed)—Paul Strand, Edward Weston, Moholy-Nagy, Robert Adams, Minor White, Robert Frank. And veering off—sun-struck—after reading Guibert, in Ghost Image, translated by Robert Bononno (Sun & Moon,1996):
. . . there are brief notes in Kafka’s diaries that are pure photography: “Main street, empty tramways, pyramids of cuffs in the window of a store selling Italian imports.” (“A triptych,” S. exclaimed with ridicule.) “An old town; a man in a blue shirt clumsily descends a steep narrow street. Staircases.” (Except for the addition of color, we might think we are looking at a Cartier-Bresson from the thirties.) “Woman with black hair, serious, her mouth drawn; she is seated in the hall.” “A child framed by a window, behind the passage leading to the urinal. Pleasant sensation at the sight of a lizard on a wall. Psyche with flowing hair. Soldiers passing on bicycles and hotel employees dressed as sailors . . .” Kafka’s diary, from 1910 to 1923, the year before his death, develops by a process of contraction, of rarefaction—the final entries are the shortest, sometimes no more than a single word . . . like snapshots of his inner being , exposing his suffering almost the way x-rays expose the dark spot on his lungs. The last descriptive notes are a little like the mental images of a paralysed man, whose visual sense continues to perceive small differences in light, limited movements in an immediate visual field.
Which shoots me off in several directions simultaneously, knives out, sun-splash’d. First to Kafka’s own contra-photographic truth boo-yah, as reported in Janouch’s Conversations with Kafka. Janouch reports how two “automatic photographic machines” were installed (1921) in Prague, capable of reproducing “six or ten or more exposures of the same person on a single print”:
When I took such a series of photographs to Kafka I said light-heartedly: “For a couple of krone one can have oneself photographed from every angle. The apparatus is a mechanical Know-Thyself.”
      “You mean to say, the Mistake-Thyself,” said Kafka, with a faint smile.
      I protested, “What do you mean? The camera cannot lie!”
      “Who told you that?” Kafka leaned his head toward his shoulder. “Photography concentrates one’s eye on the superficial. For that reason it obscures the hidden life which glimmers through the outlines of things like a play of light and shade. One can’t catch that even with the sharpest lens. One has to grope for it by feeling.”
(Kafka as the anti-Barthes. What if that particular—“the superficial”—is precisely where the “hidden life glimmers through,” the punctum, forever defined in my own putanesca’d brainpan as the severe crease in Theodore Adorno’s trousers. (See photograph.))

Self Portrait in “Automatic Photographic Machine” (c. 1974)

In a foreign capital. (And the only other occasion I recall: in New York in one of the coke-addled nightspots, the ones constructed of huge shark-filled tanks, and with “powder rooms” the size of gymnasiums. I recall a photograph booth and the shenanigans (duel) for the all-seeing eye—and the pictures never slid down the chute, or were lost in the nigh-universal muddle.)

In “Photobooth (Florence)” Hervé Guibert writes:
The photobooth became my most frequent pastime. The photograph was guaranteed to be indestructible, it would remain unchanged for twenty years. On the machine, I read that the photograph could be used for passports, cards, trade licenses, and gun permits; someone had added “narcissimo.” I returned several times to these 400-lire photobooths. I didn’t know whether the pictures that came out of the machine reinforced my isolation, or if they freed me from it. I went into a store with one of them and ordered my funerary medallion.
Jack Kerouac, with Kafka, is the other “rarefacteur,” with what he called “American Pops”—“Keep the eye STEADILY on the object”—making of the writing of the three-liners a sport, a kind of training like batting practice, or an art like photography. A “pop” (for Kerouac) provides “the sensation I get looking at a great painting by Van Gogh, it’s there & nothing you can say or do about it, except look in dismay at the power of looking.” (American know-nothingism.) How Kafkaesque it is to write:
Empty baseball field
      —A robin,
Hops along the bench
In the desert sun
      in Arizona,
A yellow railroad caboose
Sun kaput, seeping tentative piano in another room, with imprecations. To think by reconciling the diffuse, the disjunct. Reconcile, or misalign? To put a focal point to the various. Flat to the plane of the page. Framed by a momentary conjunct. (Just jamming. You can go now.) Time’s inebriate self at the moment of its departure, how capture that? Edward Weston:
I have been photographing our toilet, that glossy enameled receptacle of extraordinary beauty. . . . Here was every sensuous curve of the “human figure divine” but minus the imperfections. Never did the Greeks reach a more significant consummation to their culture, and it somehow reminded me, forward movement of finely progressing contours, of the Victory of Samothrace.
All because of Kafka’s urinal. (You can go now.)

Victory of Samothrace and Edward Weston’s “Water Closet” (1925)

Friday, October 06, 2006


Three Bottles

Reading Rexroth’s An Autobiographical Novel, struck by the extent of something akin to Greil Marcus’s “old weird America,” even in mid-sized midwestern towns like Rexroth’s Elkhart and South Bend, Indiana. Rexroth [he’s recording what becomes the Novel in the early ’sixties]: “People today have no idea how living a thing the Abolitionist sprit was as late as 1914. We can no longer gauge the destruction of native American radicalism and liberalism in the First World War.” Clubs and cultural societies and lectures and touring companies coming through.

Reminding me of a peek inside a stunningly gorgeous opera house in Calumet, Michigan, way up in Copper Country. Built of red sandstone hoisted out of Lake Superior, known as the Red Jacket Opera House. Somehow abashed to learn that Sarah Bernhardt’d played there. Too, a big, rambling, weather’d wooden Norwegian Church (Lutheran, apparently), a magnificent thing, noted whilst tooling through in the late ’eighties. Maddening to think of the never-ending descent into mass popular culture. (Recalling, too, in the reticular jumble of a net that “contains” my brainpan’s leavings, how I took dictation for some weeks for Baxter Hathaway, Ithaca House’s founder, dying of emphysema. He composed sentences, revising and making additions, and I scribbled it all down. Or stopped to read it back. The final story he managed had to do with getting a professional whistler and bird-mimicker to come to Kalamazoo for a performance.)

(Rexroth worries both notions, a perennial itch. Later: “The period just before the First Was witnessed the last flowering of Western European man and the last days of the old Western European family structure.” And: “Modern historical writers . . . have destroyed our memory of the dedication of the Abolitionist soldier, and plenty of soldiers were Abolitionists.” Elsewhere he talks of Civil War as “America’s great revolutionary war,” adding “it was a revolution which was won. It was from several generations who had won all their revolutions and expected to go on winning them that I came.”)

Rexroth: “I still think sitting still by a beaver pond in the sunset and early dusk is about the finest activity of man.”

And: “He covered the coop with insulation and then with shakes which he split with a frow. It’s the first time I ever saw a frow used, and I was permitted to help him. It gives me great pleasure to this day to sit on a warm late-summer afternoon and sock a frow and split off shakes. I’ve forgotten the name of the mallet like a one-handled rolling pin that you hit a frow with. I wish someone would tell me. It’s a fine name like those old British names for parts of windmill and tails of animals.”

No luck. Though, curiously, regarding froe, frow, the OED says: “Now chiefly U.S.” And: “A wedge-shaped tool used for cleaving and riving staves, shingles, etc. It has a handle in the plane of the blade, set at right angles to the back.”

The citations: 1573 A frower of iron, for cleauing of lath. 1616 In~castinge stooles, ropes, froes, chaines . . . and all trassh whatsoever. 1624 [Captain Smith in Virginia asks for] 5 frowes to cleaue pale. 1668 A Frower, an Edge-tool used in cleaving Lath. 1685 A set of Wedges and Fraus . . . to every family. 1775 A river or splitter, who rives them [trees] with the fro. 1851 With froe in one hand and mallet in the other.

Rexroth, in Europe as a boy, seeing the Hungarian Guard surrounding Archduke Franz Joseph—more talk of animal tails: “They all rode white horses with dyed tails. They were cuirassiers, and they had tight white pants and high boots. And then gold-brushed steel cuirasses and a peculiar round Bronze-Age-looking metal cap. Hanging from the cap was an immensely long red horsetail, and around their shoulders a whole wolfskin, with the wolf’s head up on the left shoulder and his hind paw in his mouth, and they carried long-bladed lances with horsetails hanging from them.”

In, in the dark, on the “bicycle found in the street,” one, admittedly, rather small. Rather than imitating a gangly upright knock-kneed insect, I did the French motorcyclist crouch, compact and bullet-headed rocket-fury. And wonder’d aloud to nobody in particular: is it O’Hara—the glorious Frank—who details similarly some “feelings” about types of underwear? In boxers, breezy and free; in jockeys, “like a projectile.” Oi.

Red Jacket Opera House and Norwegian Church, Calumet, Michigan

Thursday, October 05, 2006


Two Pears

Flood Editions (meaning Devin Johnston and Michael O’Leary, with typesetting and design in the capable hands of Jeff Clark) just published its twentieth poetry book—there is, too, one prose collection, Fanny Howe’s Economics—and I’ve read or nosed around in all of them, written some small assessment of a number, and thoroughly admired the care and tenacity of the operation (modeled, one senses, partly on something like the early Jargon Society of Jonathan Williams, partly on Jack Shoemaker’s various presses—Sand Dollar, North Point, Counterpoint, Shoemaker & Hoard). The difference: Flood continues printing only (mostly) contemporary poetry, distributes the books largely without a distributor (though SPD carries the titles), is averaging, steadily, about four books a year, and, apparently, makes a go of it financially. (That the press’s succeeded editorially and artistically is, I think, beyond argument: the catalog offers early poems of Jennifer Moxley, late (and early) poems by Ronald Johnson, collections by Merrill Gilfillan, British poet Tom Pickard, John Taggart, and the first U.S. edition of poems by Australian Robert Adamson. Flood smartly combines books—essential, new, or reprints of things impossible-to-find like Johnson’s Radi os—by somewhat known writers along with the upstarts, angelic “youngsters” like Graham Foust, William Fuller, Lisa Jarnot, Philip Jenks, Pam Rehm. In the works: the rather neglected African-American poet Jay Wright’s Music’s Mask and Measure,, another Graham Foust title, (Flood’s demonstrated willingness to stick with an author is both admirable and increasingly uncommon), and a book by Michael O’Brien.

The latest Flood Editions offering is a beaut: Elizabeth Arnold’s Civilization, cover a detail of “Pine Trees” by the sixteenth century Japanese master, Hasegawa Tohaku. It’s Arnold’s second book—her first, The Reef (U. of Chicago, 1999)—I missed completely. (Such is the result of the bounty of the era, result, too, of the kind of dismissive seep-down of the high-toned old labelers, those who’d have us believe one can divide something as lively (slippery) as poetry into opposing “camps,” ridding oneself of imaginary difference by means of the sledgehammer of nomenclature . . .)

Arnold is a revelation: spare, somewhat “literary” (there are poems “after” Melville, Pound, Thucydides, Kurosawa, Apollonius, Nijinsky, and Guernica—a marvelous and variegated batch). She is wry, capable of the slightest tonal nuances, consider tone in something like the two-line poem, “Solstice”:
We laugh to think the Romans lit great fires in December
to persuade the sun to come back. To persuade the sun!
(A vacillating between incredulity, admiration, giddiness, and something akin to hope, all in four repeated words.) Arnold weighs her vocables (rather than syllables—there is a strong sense of one speaking here) with remarkable restraint. Witness a poem called “After Kano Tan’yu”:
Two screens meant to stand together
so that each one’s set
of six hinged panels

sends the eye down, sideways, off
into a void where like a ghost
Mt. Fuji crowns

a gap in space. It’s barely there,
as the eye knew right off,
missing it at first.

I wonder just what more I’ve missed,
nosing my way through days
more tenuous than this,

distracted by how tight my waistband feels,
or blisters on my feet,
how one who sits

across the room, not paying attention,
even then oppresses.
In the landscape,

human figures are too small
to count for much: a ripple
on a lake

or river, the thin lip of the water raised
where the boat’s bow points a way
through what is otherwise

a dead white disappearing act
in all directions, any land seen
no friend.
If Kano Tan’yu, a seventeenth century (Edo period) Japanese artist, and the enormous scale of landscape painting (with humans minuscule, lost within) is trigger to the poem, what’s remarkable is the kind of systematic emptying out (I’m reminded a little of Elizabeth Bishop’s villanelle “One Art”—“The art of losing isn’t hard to master . . .”) that is detail’d. The gaps and disappearing acts in the two screens mock (match) those in the apparent relationship between the poem’s “I” and “one who sits / / across the room, not paying attention . . .” One moves (in and out of the two screens) through a succession of near-voids: Mt. Fuji, the other human in the room, the tiny human figures of the screens, the thinnest curl of water off the boat. (One is subsumed finally by the painting: gone, “no friend.”)

Deft, without fuss, sure: one senses Arnold’s art is caught (engaged) by a need to assuage, mercifully, the ordinary (and always, therefore, extraordinary) ravages of being human. In “Nijinsky’s Dance” she quotes the dancer and diarist: “Let this be the Body through which WWI passed.” And juxtaposes the line against the matter-of-factedness of “It’s been known a long time / that malignant cells can be engendered / by the damage minute particles inflict / as they pass through the body.” To inflict an engendering: one thing the “literary” can do.

Hasegawa Tohaku, “Pine Trees” (Momoyama Period)

Wednesday, October 04, 2006

Deux Hommes

Army Life

Deux hommes parurent.
L’un venait de la Bastille, l’autre du Jardin des Plantes.

That’s what the Anglo-French critic Miles Baisers wrote about Jeff Clark and Geoffrey G. O’Brien’s 2A (Quemadura, 2006) in its earlier (French) edition, a sumptuous work of never-tawdry plangency and mollish instability. To evoke Flaubert! how apt! For what is here is various and demanding, ferociously serio-comic, messy and severe toute à la fois.

What there is. Photographs: scratched, spilt with unidentifiable liquids, poorly cropped, Ben-Day dotted into near obfuscatory spleenishness, over-exposed, ill-focus’d, random, murky, unsettlingly aquatic, dated, forlorn, and lovely. There are men in uniforms, boys in ducktails, a girl standing in stovepipe bells in sheer innocent glory on a grand piano, and waves and purses and beach umbrellas and leaves and unidentifiables. A kind of nostalgia seeps out of the photographs, a vaguely “cute” nostalgia one’d like to throttle just to deny the innocence of its call.

What there is. Poems and a longer prose piece titled “Beausoleil.” There are four poems called “Leaves on Sunday” and three poems with the perfectly snarling title of “You and All Your Friends.” One of the “Leaves on Sunday” begins
This close where waste is
changed somewhat my affections
all the same. Nothing believed
nor motionless this day again
where you remember time
as demonstration, halts to check
who develops, someone taken to
wherever inquiries begin why what
and the stances between, who sentences,
eyes changed from a distance as on
a beach attention is abandoned . . .
A dirge undertow, stuttery (like grief?), incredibly moving without a speck of mawkishness, exploratory and tentative: I say all that without knowing precisely what is “going on” here, just extremely willing to fit myself out (or in) (or to) the pace, meticulous and trustworthy, wheresoever it goes. I cannot say it any other way. If the piece reaches a point where it says “The kindness of sure knowledge / edited to make morning plain”—I think of the way language stands in for (I want to say “is a hired dick for”) knowledge, pistol whips it into some semblance of “plain”-ness.

The prose piece weaves together the story of “Greg Topper, the once and always king of Orange County rock & roll,” whose act apparently routinely culminated with the torching of both piano and crotch (using Bacardi 151) whilst he bang’d out Jerry Lee Lewis’s “Great Balls of Fire”—and the story / mutterings of Charles Manson: “Are you so white and pure? You put me on Life Magazine and had me convicted before I walked into the courtroom.” (Manson shows up in a later (long) “Leaves on Sunday” piece, too: “Well, Charlie told us to go into the kitchen, get a sponge”—a sense that, re-reading, the reverberations multiply.)

Greg Topper and Charles Manson

“The Rose Shots,” a long (several pages) skinny (no more than one or two words per line) piece (the words array’d around a vertical gap—some puerile novel in my youth call’d it a “vertical smile”): repetition and monosyllabics, a goofy kind of Steinism at work, in play. Reminded me, too, of Ashbery’s great “Litany” (“meant to read as simultaneous but independent monologues”)—although one is syntactically thwarted here reading in either direction, across or down. I cannot replicate it.

A few textual indications point to 2002 for composition date for some of the poems. There is no indication of who wrote what, or even, where the fault-lines lie—swapping lines, or words, or poems. Everywhere though: bravado and surety—“A word is fucking empty until I use it / Why it’s so easy to invent”—wager’d and won.

Envelope (Quemadura)

A Rexroth story (out of An Autobiographical Novel):
One sultry afternoon with thunderheads on the horizon but with a clear sky overhead, a fireball materialized in the attic, came down two flights of stairs, passed among a number of people without touching them, went out the front door, collided with a bicycle in the yard, and exploded, leaving nothing but a slight burnt smell in the air. It was sapphire blue, the size of a basketball, and seemed to be spinning at great speed. It floated about four feet above the stairs or ground and preserved that height throughout its course. As the folks said, it moved more like an intelligent being than an electrical phenomenon.