Friday, December 21, 2007

Look Out

Aimless (Stamp)

Going to squelch the racket here for a week or so, bang a drum nowhere slowly and random about in perspicuity. That’s the plan. Terrific to find a note today, sign’d Eric von Dorster, reading:
Thought you might like to know that yesterday I was in the Bibliothèque Nationale in Paris trying to track down the geography of Paris in 1832, the year during which according to a letter from Alexandre Dumas he spent time wandering the streets with Edgar Allan Poe. Poe set “The Murders in the Rue Morgue” in a small street (called Rue Trianon in the first draft of the story) found between the Rue Richelieu and the Rue Saint Roch, both still around today. A map of Paris in 1821 shows small streets there that were destroyed when the Avenue de l’Opéra was constructed later in the century. One of the streets was the Rue Hazard.
Which got me, knowing little of Poe—though I did de temps en temps press my physiognomy ignominiously up against the see-through door of Poe’s room (wash basin, pitcher, sagging becoverlet’d bed, too short for a man) there along West Range at the University of Virginia—scratching about for evidence that Poe’d travel’d to Paris à l'époque. None found, though I dug shallowly. In lieu of it, I am thinking of The Book of Lost Streets.

I’d plow’d a little in the terrain of a new collection of Raymond Queneau’s occasional prose, Letters, Numbers, Forms: Essays, 1928-70, translated by Jordan Stump (University of Illinois Press, 2007). Found a thing call’d “What Is Art” (1938) wherein Queneau traces literature’s post-Romantic turn to scientism (“it was the litterateurs themselves, gripped by who knows what masochistic pride, by who knows what taste for self-flagellation, who first began fulminating against their own art”):
The novel became a sociological treatise, a medico-psychological observation, and novelists took their place in the Academy of Medicine. Zola wrote The Experimental Novel. Poetry would disappear, and theater would become a thesis defense.
        Confronted with these scientificators, backed up against the wall, the post-Romantics invented art for art’s sake, which, permanently isolating literature, reduced it to an idle game and to the bitter rambling of misunderstood geniuses (that singular invention of the modern age.)
        . . . jealous of their rivals’ [the novelists] successes . . ., poets undertook to become scientists themselves, announcing the coming of a new age, an age of industry. Rimbaud neatly expresses this new tendency in his May 15, 1871, letter to Demeny. [“The poet must become a seer . . . by a long, immense, and reasoned disordering of all his senses.” The “reasoned” is crucial. Too, Rimbaud’s pointing to the poet’s becoming “a multiplier of progress.”] But not until Apollinaire was poetry seen as akin to scientific invention, and poems offered to the public as experimental findings.
Queneau points out how “while the experimenting poets were busy doing nothing other than taking up the succession of the art-for-the-artist crowd,” the novelists’ own possibilities shrank with “the rise of psychology and sociology,” and forcing them to try justificatory partisan moves (“proletarian literature”). Queneau:
Thus, every school since Romanticism has progressively diminished the value of literature, sometimes by hitching it to the wagon of science, sometimes by reducing it to partisan journalism, sometimes by limiting it to a morose masturbation.
Which is funny, and may not be a completely leaky bucket, though one’d not just how dystopic Queneau’s version is—a kind of reverse scientism, “progressively diminished” echoing “multiplier of progress.” The kind of talking through (two sides of) one hat (is how the French proverb goes, I think) that one’s gets used to in these precincts. One groupuscule running the other’s boat up a flagpole, the other groupuscule seeing if that flagpole’ll float. One longs for the sassy French negritude of O’Hara, partisan of no stripe, that tender line that ends “Personism,” how “it, like Africa, is on the way.”And subsequent hoof in mouth warning: “The recent propagandists for technique on the one hand, and for content on the other, had better watch out.”


Thursday, December 20, 2007



Methinks—vaguely, inchoately, ineffectual sweep of the feather-duster—Ron Silliman’s rather too pleased with the nomenclature. Zen Cowboy, trying to rectify (repeatedly) what Donald M. Allen probably lump’d together in an evening with amanuensical help of a scotch and soda, Barney Rosset hurrying the chore along (or offering little semi-annoying ritardandoes and interrupts) telephoning every half hour. Isn’t that how introductions get writ? Shouldn’t somebody remove that book out of Silliman’s grasp? (I am remind’d of a reader’s report for my first book, Rubbing Torsos. Something about language being like a loaded pistol in the hands of a boyo.) And the lines about Whalen (along with Kyger, Berrigan and Creeley)’s being possibly “the definitive generation of American poets, not just of the 20th century” because, “after all,” they were ”the American poets right at the moment when this empire peaked”—buncombe. Since when do poetries align with empires? One’d pray the opposite’d apply. That, against the death-throes of imperial self-masticatings, poetry’d sound its alarums, klaxon out its warnings. Silliman’s foolish Zen Cowboy monicker, though, is a hoot, particularly in the attempt’d Zukofsky integral of “Whalen at one end, Ed Dorn at the other, one all Zen & no cowboy, the other just the reverse.” As if there’s an ant’s forefoot’s worth of evidence that Silliman’s got any understanding of Zen or cowboys. Here’s Thoreau:
Methinks that these prosers, with their saws and their laws, do not know how glad a man can be. What wisdom, what warning, can prevail against gladness? There is no law so strong which a little gladness may not transgress. I have a room all to myself; it is nature. It is a place beyond the jurisdiction of human governments. Pile up your books, the records of sadness, your saws and your laws. Nature is glad outside, and her merry worms within will erelong topple them down. There is a prairie beyond your laws. Nature is a prairie for outlaws.
That out of a new book titled I to Myself: An Annotated Selection from the Journal of Henry D. Thoreau (Yale University Press, 2007). (It’s too annotated: for example, “prosers” is defined, “Tedious writer or talker.” It is poorly designed: the journal entries falling into the gutter whilst broad half-pages of white space get reserved for the marginal notes. It is not what is needed: what is needed is a paperback (cheap) series of all of the Journal, without the scholarly apparatus of the Princeton hardcovers.)

Those “merry worms” within nature serve to remind me of Saint Anselm’s talk of the narrowness of hell, how one’s (according to Joyce) “not even able to remove from the eye a worm that gnaws it.” Enough to precipitate ocular itching, that. The narrowness of hell is the narrowness of category. Thoreau again (1853):
When I returned to town the other night by the Walden road through the meadows from Brister’s Hill to the poorhouse, I fell to musing upon the origin of the meanders in the road; for when I look straight before or behind me, my eye met the fences at a short distance, and it appeared that the road, instead of being built in a straight line across the meadow, as one might have expected, pursued a succession of curves like a cowpath. In fact, it was just such a meandering path as an eye of taste requires, and the landscape-gardener consciously aims to make, and the wonder is that a body of laborers left to themselves, without instrument or geometry, and perchance intending to make a straight road,—in short, that circumstances ordinarily,—will so commonly make just such a meandering road as the eye requires. A man advances in his walk somewhat as a river does, meanderingly . . .

Zen Cowboy (Sitting)

Wednesday, December 19, 2007



Mars is known as the “red planet”—not that swol’d up wobbly pamplemousse-color’d “orb” nigh. So I think, first compleat thought of the day. If a thought is a sentence, one that locks one in to its ever-narrowing logic. Nabokov (in Despair): “While apologizing for the muddle and mottle of my tale, let me repeat that it is not I who am writing, but my memory which has its own whims and rules.” (One is that memory’s “whim” is its “rule”—so it careers, so it slips off the shabby-warp of the funicular’s wood track and leaps into the wood’d abyss below. Another is that it makes its sentences of a rare pedigraic balance: “muddle and mottle” gets echo’d by “whim and rule.”) Hence, thinking (in pursuit of memory): one’s now down here floundering amongst the sapins and dropped tins and biscuits of those mountain picnickers whose anticipatory hunches had them finishing lunches “completely” on the ascent—the better to enjoy the down-valley view. Ach. The trouble with scratch, the starting from. I would be as Byron, here “astride” my tiny island:
I was sick of my own country, and not much prepossessed in favour of any other, but I drag on “my chain” without “lengthening it at each remove”.—I am like the jolly miller caring for nobody and not cared for. All countries are much the same in my eyes, I smoke and stare at mountains, and twirl my mustachios very independently, I miss no comforts, and the Musquïtoes that rack the morbid frame of Hobhouse, have luckily for me little effect on mine because I live more temperately.
Which, the way thinking, after getting suck’d down into the meagre parse of its delimiters, effects a reversal (car in snow), rocks back and forth to scuttle forth elsewhere, or why else’d one see a twentieth century Apollinaire “stance” in Byron’s 1810 epistle? See “Hôtel”:
Ma chambre a la forme d'une cage,
Le soleil passe son bras par la fenêtre.
Mais moi qui veux fumer pour faire des mirages
J'allume au feu du jour ma cigarette.
Je ne veux pas travailler—je veux fumer.
My room’s like a cage.
The sun sticks its arm in through the window.
Me, I just want to smoke, to make something out of nothing.
I light my cigarette off it.
I don’t want to work. I want to smoke.
Byron and Apollinaire. Who’d a thunk it? (Sign of stopped thinking.) Venus is known as the earth’s “twin”—or, too, the morning star (in the east, at sunrise), or the evening star (west, sunset), or the cauldron, or Quetzalcoatl, or tai bai the “big white one,” like Byron in Greece, or China, where he never did go.


Tuesday, December 18, 2007

Omoo versus Moocow

Aimless (Book Jacket)

Dawdling in that mufti-color’d slough that the season dips into, unwilling to tackle anything with any “seriousness.” (Am I ever serious?) The crows that fly out of the southwest into town late in the day—singly and “streaming” or in gangly squads—to bivouac in slovenly loud array in a stand of hardwoods, unsettled and flapping like tarps, or loose tarpaper (under occasional gusts)—the crows flying high and small today. My vague ballooning hypotheses that collapse inward—the cold, the alter’d landscape, the . . . poof. How I look’d everywhere for a picture of a pandybat. How I open’d a book of Gerard Manley Hopkins to a reference (in the “Early Diaries”) to “lawless honey.” Late reading into Joyce’s Portrait last night: it’s inexpungeable clarity, its (comparably) tiny vocabulary. “Words which he did not understand he said over and over to himself till he had learned them by heart: and through them he had glimpses of the real world about him.” Being a sort of “guide readerly” to Finnegans Wake, its words, its glimpses, avant la lettre. Being a tiny doctrine of the visible: how the world is word’d into being. How few books there be that one craves, that the reading of is a slaking, the way a dog will gobble fiercely at water gushing out of a hose, trying to get it all in (spilling most of it). Zeal without prudence is like a ship adrift. The Joycean writing lesson. Versus the imprudent Hopkins, who’s off in Switzerland throwing a tiger in the air (Journal c. 1868):
There are round one of the heights of the Jungfrau two ends or falls of a glacier. If you took the skin of a white tiger or the deep fell of some other animal and swung it tossing high in the air and then cast it out before you it would fall and so clasp and lap round anything in its way just as this glacier does and the fleece would part in the same rifts: you must suppose a lazuli under-flix to appear. The spraying out of one end I tried to catch but it would have taken hours: it was this which first made me think of a tiger-skin, and it ends in tongues and points like the tail and claws: indeed the ends of the glaciers are knotted or knuckled like talons.
How the glacier, old toss’d pelt, comes to life in the talon-flex, energy-grip at the end! Pure animal potential. And that “lazuli under-flix”—careening blue shadows, skin-cinematic, is what one sees now in the early twenty-first &c., though the lexicographical trot says “The fur of various quadrupeds; the down of a beaver,” and points to Dryden: “His warm breath blows her flix up as she lies.” Or to the addlepated old codger Robert Browning: “Hair, such a wonder of flix and floss.” Elsewhere, Hopkins is simpler: puts down in the Journal the spondaickal scrap “Neck tie,” one full day’s work. Which somehow must needs bring one around to the late-’eighties Swiss electronica band Yello, with Shirley Bassey dress’d in a John Ashbery-design’d Moi, je suis la tulipe ensemble. Lawless honey of a voice.

Monday, December 17, 2007

Joyce, Snow

Half Moon and Cloud Remnant

Friday’s squibs had all the earmarks of a diminuendo, and the snow Saturday night into Sunday mark’d a readjustment, what one used to call a “downer”—shovelling “out,” and blasting the Lumina through the bigger “drifts.” And napping lightly in lieu of seasonal chores, rather thanking the mad accumulation for that. One’s about to elbow the planetoidal umbrageous aside, turn again into the lengthening days, something to measure with a wet finger poised to the breeze coming up out of the south, and one ought thank the bloody gods for that. And a corner turn’d’s a corner turned. I keep thinking of how Gordon Matta-Clark would simply cut a big hole straight through a house. Or sop up odd lots at city tax auctions, in order to own, say, a ninety-five foot long “parcel” of Queens, something that ran down the middle of somebody’s existing driveway and measured one exact foot in width. And, re-reading A Portrait of the Artist as a Young Man for what is probably the first “adult” reading (“am I an adult?”)—I recall reading “most” of it in my youth, thinking “who’s Parnell?” and I think, abandoning it amidst some Joycean (Dedalus-esque) religious turbulence near the end—being raised a Unitarian, I couldn’t “abide” religious turbulence. I recall, too, reading its first page or so in the Modern Library edition pull’d off the bookshelf at home when I’s a wee lad (a shorn lamb, baggy under-eyes, Buster Brown T-shirt, angelically complect’d, oh)—and how it unnerved me (and thrill’d me—I would read it again and again) to read about “the moocow coming down along the road” and how it “met a nicens little boy named baby tuckoo. . . .” And that father who had “a hairy face.” All that. The “baby tuckoo” got vaguely associated in my angelic brainpan with Little Black Sambo—“baby tuckoo” ’d all the mysteries (considerable in northern Michigan) of any “darker race.” The “moocow”: I simply couldn’t comprehend why an adult’d talk so stupid (authors didn’t exist, even though books did—I wouldn’t’ve thought to wonder about Mr. Joyce’s particular enfeebledness in calling a cow a “moocow”). That “lemon platt” bother’d one, too. “The moocow came down the road where Betty Byrne lived: she sold lemon platt.” The “platt” sound’d like a rude noise. Or like some kind of choke-evoking blubbery coagulant. Only at the beginning of the fifth paragraph did I reach a tender truth identifiable: “When you wet the bed first it is warm then it gets cold.” And that somewhat shame-worthy. All of it as if Stephen Dedalus’s apprehensions of the world got mimick’d in my apprehensions of the book. I probably read the first pages a half a hundred times before I could launch myself into it.

James Joyce

Friday, December 14, 2007


Dumpster and Splash

Tittles and jots. Which is either excess mopped up and re-deposit’d elsewhere, or the skinny squeezed out of a nearly dry rag. The end of the week in a season of hustle and malfeasance (partout partout). Sudden picture of one’s own childhood: galloping through the buttercup-lit high meadow in pursuit of a lesser fritillary, the Pigeon (a river, a trout stream in northern Michigan—P. S. Lovejoy (1884-1942) want’d the surrounding forest left “bumpy and bushy” without any “parky fixings up”—“I don’t want any pansies planted around the stump”—and, up to the early ’sixties, when one found oneself a-gallop there, it did get (left)) tossing below—all in a crush of sunlight glancing white off the waxy leaves of the sweet fern . . . I am trying to write myself into that there. Lovejoy, who, according to Aldo Leopold in an obituary, refer’d to good writing as “words with high muzzle-velocity,” took up forestry and land policy and collect’d (and wrote himself, in a devilish attempt to get some of the “old timers” to cough up more) lumberjack stories. He took, too, to the vernacular—after a nigh-fatal bout with something late in life, he recovers and writes Leopold how he’s happily able to “keep splitting more and more slabs of savvy off the bug wood.” Leopold: “I believe that P. S. Lovejoy aired more ideas about men and land than any contemporary in the conservation field.”)

Guy Davenport says, talking about a fragment of Heraclitus:
The Greek says that ethos is man’s daimon; the moral climate of a man’s cultural complex (strictly, his psychological weather) is what we mean when we say daimon, or guardian angel. . . . The daimon has foresight, the psyche is blind and timebound. A thousand things happen to us daily which we sidestep or do not even notice. We follow the events which we are characteristically predisposed to co-operate with, designing what happens to us: character is fate.
How compare that with the lines of Lyn Hejinian (with her quoting of Gilles Deleuze) that ambuscaded me a week or so back? Hejinian’s sense of ethos seems hell-bent to avoid “fate”—unless one considers the “psychological” and “ideological constructions” one “passes through” in “daily life” a contemporary version of “fate”—depending on something akin to agency: “being conscious of one’s objects (and, optimally, choosing them) and intending the character of one’s interrelations.” The Deleuze supporting line: “Either ethics makes no sense at all or this is what it means and has nothing else to say: not to be unworthy of [i.e., inadequate to] what happens to us.” There were some couple of decades after the Pigeon River romps, some in New York, some in Virginia, when—if I think back now—it’s clear I had daimon and psyche going upside one another’s heads. My perennial lament about “how to live one’s life” (whilst going about it rather disastrously—there’s that “fate” again, bury’d in “ill-star’d” disastrous). My “daimon”—Thoreau claim’d it rest’d “lurking under a human eyelid”—spur’d (and justify’d) a lot of aimless crashing around. Seeking an ethos against pathos—a kind of straitlacedness, as if character must needs abscond off with the raging mischievous heart? One finds it in attending to time’s unreeling, au coup par coup, with a broad (or miserly) scripture, emptying one’s days into tender pixels. (I am losing the thread of my going.)

Finish’d Joseph Brooker’s Joyce’s Critics. Something of Pound’s, quoted therein, regarding the “followers of Flaubert” who “deal in exact presentation”: “They are often so intent on exact presentation that they neglect intensity, selection, and concentration.” That objective presentation of “the thing as it is” (versus the making of a correspondence, a relation, a shifting pattern of things, intensities, stories.) Trying, too, to think (again) about the New Sentence, how one could claim Ron Silliman’s sentences (is Silliman a Flaubertian?), intently observed, and arranged so’s to preclude the bunchings-up of, say, narrative, or most any other large-structure rhythmic distending (or slackening), as so neglectful. There’s a kind of leveling of elements, every pick’d morsel of language equal. (The “equals signs.”) And, reading about Ireland in Brooker’s book, the changes brought about by all the forces that get swept up by the term “globalization”—the loss of local “forces,” identities, cultures, all that—one begins to think maybe Silliman’s sentences marvelously meet the demands of the global “era,” a self-replicatory sameness, the commercial goods display’d here no different than the commercial goods display’d there. Or not “meaningfully so.” The barman in Fitzgerald’s pub in Dublin who “bears a striking resemblance to James Joyce” is no different than “the Whitby fish-and-chip shop owner who bears an uncanny resemblance to Elvis Presley.” Wyndham Lewis, of course, complain’d (wrong-headedly, deliciously) of something similar in Joyce’s Ulysses, how the “amount of stuff—unorganized brute material” in the book becomes “a suffocating moeotic expanse of objects, all of them lifeless, the sewage of a Past twenty years old.”

End of tittles.

P. S. Lovejoy Monument, Pigeon River State Forest

Thursday, December 13, 2007

Trevor Joyce’s What’s in Store

Along Lake Erie

Nate Dorward of The Gig recently sent me a copy of Trevor Joyce’s fat collection What’s in Store, co-publish’d with New Writers’ Press in Dublin. And, reading around in its strange and bold and marvelous pieces, pieces that seemingly sprout out of nowhere, that exhibit incredible variety, that often enough seem spoke by ancient voices up out of the boggy penetrable earth, I think how what one cannot speak of, one calls genius, or quotes too lengthily. A majority of the pieces lack titles, or seem to lack titles, and even consulting the two tables of content (one, sparse, in front; one more detail’d in back), it’s occasionally difficult to tell what’s part, what’s not. So that: a smeary continuum is hint’d at (cover copy talks of eight years’ worth of work—completed since Joyce’s with the first dream of fire they hunt the cold: A Body of Work 1966-2000—here shaped into “a continuous booklength structure”). Example. One’d want’d, astonish’d, to quote a piece (in WCW “variable foot” step-down six-line stanzas, untitled) beginning page 236—but. Reading the “expanded view” contents, what one sees is:
De Iron Trote (for Keith Tuma)                               233
The Peacocks’ Tale (for Fanny Howe)                     239
Meaning, the untitled poem on page 236 is—must be—part of “De Iron Trote”—a prose piece covering two plus pages. Nothing for it—something about material relations, cruxes and referents, here’s the whole thing:
As man, in deep and level sleep, periodically draws a long inspiration, song is learned and figured in the brain. Think of the way a musical box, wound up, potentially represents a slow or lively air.

Clothes, however thick, diminish little the sonorities of breath. Touch the stop and the air sounds out; send an impulse along the proper afferent nerve and voice starts on song. Succussion, too, may raise a splashing sound much like the respiration, voice, and tinkling. Odd.

Garments of silk, or thin dry wool, also give rise to a noise calculated to cause error, sometimes mitigating the production and carefully controlled cropping of live creatures for high ends. Else, from every corner of the woods and glens see them come creeping on their hands, for their legs cannot make fast, as in humans the larynx migrates down the neck since the age of eighteen months, from which arises the sound of voices. In time these come to speak of a political meeting, of market shares. Someone tells of a woman who murdered her lover. “A chauffeur kills his wife,” says another. All teetotallers like sugar. No nightingale drinks wine. Go figure.

The respiration of the plumpest child is louder clothed than of the thinnest adult frame stripped down. The throat is delicate and worthy to be protected. Says who? Whose voice? What proof is there these brutes are other than a superior race of marionettes, which eat without pleasure, cry without pain, desire nothing, know nothing, merely simulating true intelligence, for all it has been said that emotions stir within, they take form in words?

To be included here is the agopithecus, an ape-like goat whose voice is very like a man’s but not articulate, sounding as if one did speak hastily with indignation or sorrow, as here, where one such encounters in the woods a boy: “What’s that you have?” The boy holds it out. It is a toy, a bear. A teddy bear. The boy’s eyes are large, but without expression. “I don’t want it, keep it.” The boy hugs the bear again. A house takes fire. Later comes the writing of authorizations and designs on shop window tickets, and of inscriptions too private to allow printing.

In women who are both grown up and fat, the respiration is often audible with great force, even through the breasts. When your raptors are at fault, prevent all speech: let such as follow them ignorantly and unworthily, stirrup all aloof, for whilst such are chattering, none will hunt. A-propos, Sir, a politician will say: “What news from America?” A-propos, “Do you think both the admirals will be tried?” Or, a-propos, “Did you hear what has happened to my grandmother?”

Such rustling sensations are nothing else than a purring-thrill, an when this co-exists with the sound of the bellows, rasp, or file we may be assured others will soon resemble anatomies of death, like ghosts crying out of their graves, and will eat the dead carrions, happy where they find them, and the very carcasses they spare not to scrape back out of their deeper sleep.

Ticket writers may proceed to designs for posters when they can name their own figure. The illusion of experience, as a rule, begins by filling in provided letters with paint, and later gets on to the proper writing and lettering. Attendance at technical classes would be useful in order to bring up a good style of writing with some originality.

A dull but strong sound like that produced by a file on wood has something harsh in its sound. So, other boys start as heaters, then exercise as rivet-carriers, holders-up, anvil-hands, and lastly platers. Hear the whizzing sound of the left auricle.

Caution: Boys are often required to stand inside the chamber, as supporters, which the men pierce, and then hammer it outside, and deafness is apt to result. I found one who had abandoned his laborious occupation and gained an easy place as servant to a priest.

Work with letters may be done sitting without difficulty and is quite suitable for cripples. The trade is not a large one.
In order
          to succeed
                    a boy
should have a
                    for drawing

          with wild
          by thumb-

and thereby
          put by
                    for a secure
old age
          a tidy

for he might yet
          have to pit
                    a warrant
’gainst a blackjack,
                    his doll

with teats
                    not as the fastidious
          but heaved
                    in fullest view

by a snurting,
          as if some crack
had outrageously

against all
when we would have
          some prudence
                    hinder her.

          exit and begone,
                    my own
exhibitionistic pet!
          Let’s catch
                    the track

will lead us
          to our train
                    of state,
then venerably
                    “A chorus

we must have
          to free ourselves
                    of drills
and drawbacks,
                    and tribulations.”

          will seize
                    the way.
Don’t fix
          what ain’t yet broke.
                    You’ve heard it’s true

that by a snifting
                    the air
is expelled
          from the
The title, “De Iron Trote,” I find is local reference to the Cork Eye, Ear and Throat Hospital in the city of Cork, where Joyce lives. What’s stunning here is the reach of the registers, the demotic intertwined with the proverbial, a kind of trade school technical up against sudden medical precision, and a sneaky sense (the language cocking an eye-wink at the reader) that some good bit of it is all rather an extended blague, a cheery stand-in for what is (partly, at least) a story about writing itself. One thing that is evident immediately is how “trustworthy” the writing is—in the mirey and exhilaration of “not knowing,” one is perfectly happy to follow along. Arriving at the gaseousness “expelled” out the pickle-pot ends the piece with something akin to a nudge in the rib, a stinker’s been loosed, all the “inspiration” (breath) of song, all the metallurgical hammering inside the heart, all that amounts to a little flatulence finally, and a good joke after all.

Joyce’s range is phenomenal. The book opens with a lovely set of tiny things, the “Folk Songs from the Finno-Ugric and Turkic Languages,” work’d up out some rudimentary literal versions. Here’s one:
A birch tree
bends on the hill.
For a plough, girls chop
a handle.

That moustache,
is it your first?
For caps, girls braid
fine tassels.
Which seems to catch that particular moment of adolescence when the girls’re outstripping the boys and there’s a combo of taunting and impatience and self-reliance going on amongst them. Too, Joyce reworks a series he calls “Love Songs from a Dead Tongue,” out of fifteenth (and earlier) Irish originals, and a series of “some of the surviving poems by Juan Chi (pinyin Ruan Ji, 210-263).” The upshot of the threading through of translations and versions is a splendid estrangedness, where the alien flips into customary, and one’s happiest reading the song of a horse:
How happy the life of a horse! Hey!
Till the end when they mock him
and whip him and kick him,
and for Purgatory sell him to gypsies.

Thirty years I served one man,
hauled his harness like a colt,
now I’m old I’m down and done for,
corn-stalks hurt my gums.

Smiths and farriers rot in hell!
Your tackle was the death of me,
they broke my head, they stole my skin,
now sheep dogs sniff my meat.
One final piece of something. A longish (actually only a half-dozen pages or so) impenetrable looking piece call’d “Stillsman” is placed about at the book’s center. It looks (and begins) like this:


Right down to the Copperplate Gothic caps. (Reading it, it seems as if birds, referenced often in the pages, begin to twitter in one’s head—though I am almost certain it is an effect of the skittery type . . .) I include it mostly as indication of Joyce’s restlessness, or maybe rambunctiousness, that willingness to try anything that is a terrible earth-defying strength, a freedom-granting “fix.” As Joyce puts it in a fragment:
Say, why
          should I
          for the forms
                    of men?

          rid now
                    of all familiar
                    my self?
Files of Trevor Joyce reading, including “De Iron Trote,” here.

Trevor Joyce
(Photograph by Jason Lee)

Wednesday, December 12, 2007

The Grand Piano Notes

“Everyday Life”

Steve “Biff bam boom!” Benson gets the final swing at “everyday life” in The Grand Piano 4. (Though, reading through the unsign’d back matter, I see a disclaimer—“As originally planned, each author was to follow the prompt of the previous, but as the work has grown in complexity [!?] many sections have been written out of order. In the end, there is no simple temporal sequence in the writing, nor do the authors adhere to any prescribed themes. The Grand Piano’s development is thus nonlinear [tired code word of “the modern”], even as it is being published in serial form [like Dickens!].” Okay, my gassy. Benson’s contribution takes the form of a self-interview, mostly concern’d with Benson’s fitting in (or not) to various social roles. A snatch of it:
I joined an MFA program in poetry writing, without any comrades to counter the atomizing normalizing influences, so there I was just alone with my difference, showing it, and it was acknowledged—
        —Like in your family.
        —Yes. They were sort of impressed, but now it was largely frailness, flailing, and self-sabotage that was on display, as everything centered on the portrayal of the self.
        —The betrayal of the self?
        —Yes. That’s what I meant.
        —To what degree was your participation in the Language school a vindication of the self?
        —A revenge of the self, maybe. A counter-assault of the self. Self against self. Biff bam boom! The creative writing program aesthetic was identified, by Language writers, as totemizing the self, if not totalizing it, which was in effect a tiresome domestication—a reduction of being a person into the terms of my family of origin, terms they might get, whether transfigured into excellent writing or not.
Which sounds like a tinker’s version of an MFA “aesthetic” cobbled together out of the Dictionnaire des idées reçues. “Transfigured” into “theory-speak,” which is not writing (meaning écriture, with all its gappy dissipance and scrawl, the way it whiffs at pitches). One is reminded of the observation of the Swiss Joycean Fritz Senn, who claim’d that while early critical looks at Joyce missed the language (busy spotting the myth, symbol, whatever “behind” it), in the age of theory, “language, though given generous lip service, tends to be bypassed now for different reasons.” Senn: “At first it was not seen at all. Now that it has become Language (or its upstart twin, Discourse), it is abstracted out of our focus again.” (Is there any writing left in Language writing’s memoirs? Or is it become all buzz-word, analysis, and rehash, with the kind of sleepy authority old semi-autonomous discourses and vocabs gain out of sheer longevity, running along, stoked by the drones of what one might designate “indefatigable tiredness”?)

By the end of ’s few pages, Benson seems ready for an assessment. He asks:
What are the conditions for this kind of group-specific political praxis making a difference or not? If it made a significant difference in the development of its agents who would later disperse into diverse functions in a larger society, enabling their agency, resilience, self-awareness, and invention, is there any problem with that?
The answer, of course, is, of course not. (Though the use of the term “agents” is a little spooky.) What’s odd and noticeable about the argument is how precisely it aligns with the arguments made for MFA creative writing program graduates by the less benight’d chiefs of that industry (the ones who must’ve realized early on how training writers to become writers who’ll teach more upcoming writers is an impossible Ponzi scheme, completely untenable). Those chiefs’ll argue that, though not all individuals exiting a particular program will “go on to become writers,” they’ll each have sharpen’d reading skills, attentiveness, heuristic and critical abilities, &c., &c. “Fail’d writers make better citizens.” Even fail’d Language writers.

For you compleatists, all The Grand Piano notes jusqu’à présent: 1 2 3 4 5 6 7 8 9 10 11 12 13 14 15 16 17 18 19 20 21 22 23 24 25 26 27 28 29.

Stances (Pronounced Stanzas)

Tuesday, December 11, 2007

The Grand Piano Notes

“Everyday Life”

Continuing with The Grand Piano 4 indefatigable lowdown boogie, where everyday’s a parade, and the quotidian a “savage sideshow.” Or so it seems reading Ron Silliman, who must’ve fail’d to “get” the memo about “everyday life.” He talks about the Talks. And a well-rehearsed talk it is. A pastiche of tidbits and opinions that’ve poked up they snouts in Silliman’s vicinity for a number of years now: one begins to think he wrote the thing out with one hand tied behind ’s back. (Or, I suspect I could’ve done so, for all the rehash in the pokey—Harvey Brown’s Frontier Press Spring & All; Creeley’s “poems are not referential, or at least not importantly so”; Grenier’s “On Speech” in This 1; René Wellek and the New Critical bastard-usurping of Roman Jakobson—even though New Criticism did, as Hugh Kenner notes somewhere, “return the study of literature . . . to the central American intellectual concern, which is Language,” &c., &c.) Same old same old set pieces re-arranged make a set piece. I stumble a little where Silliman attempts to limn the cachet the Talks carry’d:
The Talks were the great generator & differentiator. Nothing we did more thoroughly separated us from our immediate peers or set off more fear & loathing. We were vilified because we talked. But we were admired also—some of the largest audiences I have ever had were for talks, some of the most diverse too.
Talking offered a model for critical discourse as being outside the academy, tho this was not always recognized as such, especially by outsiders. For some people it opened up avenues that would lead into the academy even as the poets involved were actively working to change that institution.
The pell-mell vagueness here lends a kind of heroic overcoming of obstacles aura to the story, “vilified,” then “admired”; “outside,” then “into the academy.” Though: who’s doing the vilifying, who the admiring? Why would “outsiders” refuse the offer of “discourse . . . outside the academy”—unless some “insider-dom” (“differentiator”) ’d pitch’d its defensible tents? Is the intent to find a way of talking “uninstitutionally,” or to make a new institution, or “change that institution” (the academy)? There is, in the muddle, a big confusion of in and out with the Pianists’ innocence deposit’d in its midst. (A scrubbing over of proprietary positions that makes the Pianists’ position somehow impeccably neutral, eliding any whiff of—to use a Janus-faced Briticism—the “clubbable.”)

Curious about the Talks and “diversity.” The Talks (according to the Chronology put together by Alan Bernheimer):
In 1977—Carla Harryman, Bob Perelman, Barrett Watten, Steve Benson, Ron Silliman & G. P. Skratz, Barbara Baracks, David Bromige, Bill Graves, Lewis MacAdams, Douglas Woolf, Clark Coolidge & Michael Palmer, Robert Duncan, Lyn Hejinian, Tom Veitch, Tom Mandel, Morgan Wines, Peter Holland.

(At the end of 1977, beginning 1978, a couple events occur’d at 80 Langton which may or may not’ve been bona fide “Talks”—Bob Perelman & Francie Shaw, Steve Benson & Humphrey Evans III, Steve Benson.)

In 1978—Christopher Dewdney, Tony Towle, Bob Perelman, Bill Berkson, Michael Davidson.

In 1979—Robert Duncan, Barrett Watten, Bob Perelman, Eric Mottram, Fanny Howe, Warren Sonbert, Lyn Hejinian, Sherril Jaffe, Ron Silliman, Melissa Riley.

In 1980—Alan Bernheimer, Kit Robinson, Michael Palmer, Robert Glück, Steve Benson, Robert Grenier.

(Early in 1980 Bernheimer’s listing puts Ron Silliman at the San Francisco Socialist School—what Silliman himself calls a “third talk”—“The Political Economy of Poetry,” though it’s not identify’d with “Talks” the way the others are.)
Silliman reports how, at the Talks, “At the back of the room, there were always people pacing, most often men—the tension was much too high for some people to sit still.” I could do the numbers here, distribute the sexes into little clumps, count the piles, figure the percents—except it’s preposterously obvious: the “men pacing area” must have been undignifiedly crowded with tense and sweating men, angling for rebuttals, name-checks, anything. If I check Bernheimer’s listings against Perelman’s notes in the 1980 Hills 6 / 7 (titled Talks), I see Perelman adds talks by Ken Irby, David Antin, and George Butterick, and fails to mention the 1977 Clark Coolidge & Michael Palmer “Conversation.” The talks listed by Bernheimer for 1980 would’ve occur’d too late for inclusion in Hills. There is one number to note: of the eleven talks printed in Hills, only one is by a woman—Fanny Howe. Out of two hundred and seventeen pages of talks, Fanny Howe’s talk fills six pages. Diverse.

The Talks

Monday, December 10, 2007

The Grand Piano Notes

“Everyday Life”

Bob Perelman is proving the most recalcitrant of the Grand Pianists, dodgy with memory, jocular-stubborn with how—as he puts it—the “structural containment of this project, the Bay Area, the 70s, the 10 x 10 grid, triggers my unease.” He coins the word UTOPIANOPLACE, a place to keep a musical instrument (“abandoned in a field,” the meddlesome Tom Clark’d say) out of harm’s way. PIANO the “equals sign” between UTOPIA and NO PLACE. The levels of irony get tetchy and immeasurable (generally) with Perelman, and if one adds in one’s own—one’s apt to end up in pieces, a currency good for nothing besides “pure” speculation. So, talking of utopia and the subtitle that adorns each booklet, Perelman writes:
The stated project, “an experiment in collective autobiography,” does have a utopic tinge. It undoes, at least verbally, binaries of inward and social. It assumes that there is some call to be autobiographical, that our collective trajectories remain of interest. And in avant-garde fashion, it’s an experiment, and it’s transgressive (at least of old nonnarrative habits).
Now there’s a word that makes me reach for my “a-moldering in its grave” diploma: “transgressive.” Is Perelman a step ahead of the “pack” here—noticing how formally recidivist be the narrative “strands” that propel the thing along, crab-walking backwards into the past? And then—monumental irony—calling such a return “transgressive”? It’s as if one’d took to transgress by walking with a weimaraner after years of keeping a lobster on a leash. Write daft a spell, turn about and write like a diplomat, and you’s transgressing on yo’ bad self.

My sense is that Perelman’s fed up with the too earnest shenanigans of “writing oneself in.” He relates how Erasmus and friends, in a response to Thomas More’s Utopia (form’d by a trench cutting a peninsula off to form an island) refused “to dispel the thought formed by some naifs that Utopia was a real place.” Suggesting that “Language writing” or “so-called Language writing” (variably, “an unimpeachably recognizable object of study,” “an item in the cultural marketplace, a brand name,” “a fact of history”) is another of those thoughts “formed by some naifs,” some of whom (may or may not) be participants in the current grand “project.” Perelman’s insistence that, while “How we got here / can be partially / glimpsed in a set / of overlapping accounts . . .” the writing (and the “utopia”) “had best be / part of the present / or it’s simply antiquarian curiosity.” (Which’s largely the garner’d response to the project: the “Isn’t everyone in love with Carla?” kind of thing.)

(Later, reading around in the terrific new collection out of Northwestern of Haroldo de Campos’s writings, a thing titled Novas, a line about de Campos’s “attempting perhaps too strenuously to define the terms on which his own achievement would be understood” strikes me as pertinent. Rather along the lines of “The lady doth protest too much, methinks”—that odd overkill that tags the Piano. The classic model of the new literary work that teaches one (in the reading of it) how to read it, here, fail’d. Hence the back-looking, the retro-fitting, the rehash. Hence the recalcitrant Bob, kicking against the . . . uh, constraints.

Irony’s queer état
is about
To grabble up

One’s only opportunity
To lionize oneself
With comfort-confronting

Candor. Turn to
History for succor.
Return to story’s

Taut line that
Tethers one’s balloon
To earth, that

Puncturable earth one
Subdues without compunction
All airy up

In the air.
Innovating, isn’t that
The thing one

Fell into, distraught,
Or distract’d, amidst
A practical task

Set for oneself,
And only after
A set-to

Or dust-up
With one’s conscience
About whether or

Not one oughtn’t
Finish dusting off
The photographs, antique?

So goes one
Antic summary of
The way mayhem

Arrests the dream
Of telling it—
Howsoever it is.

Dust Storm, 1935, New Mexico
(Photograph by Dorothea Lange)

Friday, December 07, 2007

The Grand Piano Notes

A Ladder

Lyn Hejinian—in The Grand Piano 4—disposes of daily life by defining it as precisely that which is goes by unnoticed, unrecall’d: “Daily life, insofar as it’s the realm of recurrence, habit, unmarked continuity, and routine, lacks evident singularity and, though it runs on memory, it doesn’t make itself memorable, except by chance, as prompted by contingencies of the present or of imagination.” (In a lovely definition, Hejinian puts the “substance” of daily life into “the way things went along, as characteristic and definitive as a person’s gait or way of drinking from a cup, the termination of which is what death brings about”—why do I want to call that the “lilt” of daily life?) A brave attempt to limn its late ’seventies version (for her) results in a “near but unclear horizon,” the lost vagaries of dailiness fill’d (quickly, firmly, pointedly, though with a natural grace—one senses that Hejinian ’s never one to dally or lack self-command) by talk of the “black cast-iron Chandler-Price printing press and two wooden California job case cabinets” housed in a room off the kitchen, Tuumba Press—its “handset, hand-collated, and sometimes hand-decorated chapbooks.” Thus, the sharable daily is the literary daily, melding the personal and the public through words, through work’d and word’d objects. Hejinian:
It was an ongoing mediating activity, a multi-valenced sphere of interactivity, between myself as a social subject of the books (the books in relation to me as a subject who was forming and formulating emotions and commitments) and the books as particular objects (things in the material sense but also as bearers of identifications and social structuring).
Not exactly the sense of how a job stick’ll go heavy in one’s hand as the leads (between lines) get chuck’d into place with a satisfying thunk. Not exactly how the tympan sheet’ll get so emboss’d (invisible dent-writing finger-read) after one run as to thwart using it for a second. (Maybe memories of daily life reside mostly securely in the muscles.)

There’s a remarkable balance to Hejinian’s sense of “work” (avoiding the “Puritan”). She sees how the Tuumba chapbooks represent “significant . . . work—work that I did for the work they could do by virtue of the work others might do in making sense of them.” And she neatly sets such activities into what amounts to both an epistemological and an ethical way of (daily) life:
. . . attention to the shaping relations between subject and objects (things) and the nature of their orientation to each other can tell us also about how (and perhaps what and why) we experience. I am continually interested in experiencing things . . . I mean things in the multiple co-existing senses that the term (in English) carries: as event, deed, action, affair, detail, matter, possession, item, fact, idea, entity, etc. Things that get experienced accrue content; that may be what it means to gain experience.
And, in a brilliant paragraph:
Daily life, because we live by doing things with things and do them according to habits, rules, and routines, passes through all kinds of psychological as well as ideological constructions, and querying such assumptions was part of our daily life, in turn. Agency—being conscious of one’s objects (and, optimally, choosing them) and intending the character of one’s interrelations—depends on it. As Gilles Deleuze says (in The Logic of Sense), “Either ethics makes no sense at all or this is what it means and has nothing else to say: not to be unworthy of [i.e. inadequate to] what happens to us.”
Would I—had I read that twenty or thirty years back—have somehow avoid’d the lost years of flailing about, yammering wildly about how one ought “live one’s life, rather than allow it to slip by,” trying to figure out a way to do that? Which means, simply, finding a way to make one’s literary life daily?

Hejinian’s move is to reconstitute “daily life” out of the newspapers, going to the archives for the price of meat and potatoes, for the names of the bestsellers, making history’s minutia (wholly unequal to the “lilt” of muscle-memory) stand in for it. What’s remarkable is how little things change—even the names remain:
The “This World” section of the Sunday paper [for September 16, 1979] includes a short review of three “Washington novels,” including Executive Privilege: A Washington Novel by Lynne Cheney (“wife of Wymoing [sic] Rep. Richard Cheney”). The characters include “Vice President Boyston, who kicks chairs when he gets mad,” and “President Jenner,” who “previously in his career . . . went through a psychological funk.”
À l’époque, Hejinian’d just finish’d Gesualdo; she quotes its opening: “Gesualdo d rests his life faithful, his, in pieces, are discontinuous and harm the use, who did not lack intensity.” Yeatsian echoes, disintegration, autonomy, reflecting its era solely (possibly) through form? Is this what it means to make an art that is rendered harmlessly ahistorical by its formal insistences? The lines ring oddly against the newspaper report’s overwhelming banality—“Could You Give Up Your Hair Dryer?”—punctured rarely by glimpses of the dire—war “raging in ‘Zimbabwe Rhodesia.’”

Oddly enough (or perhaps not so—each Grand Pianist “responds” to the writer immediately prior) following my ineffectual hand-wringing (flailing) of yesterday about class, Hejinian, too, mentions (only to drop): “. . . class remains one of the least discussed, most vexing, issues affecting our social and political lives—and, perhaps, our artistic ones. It’s an issue I’m persistently uncomfortable with personally, although I am often engaged with it at a theoretical level.” Of course (my flailing). Though, oughtn’t the “experiment in collective autobiography” allow the group a place for trying to write against that discomfort? Unless the Piano is merely the opportunity to write oneself—as Tom Mandel says (jokingly, I think) “into the record.”

Exercise Class

Thursday, December 06, 2007

The Grand Piano Notes

Detail, Unexamin’d

Rae Armantrout’s entry in The Grand Piano 4 is spare and brave and forthright, written out of a sudden intrusion of mortality: “I have been diagnosed with adrenocortical cancer, a very rare and often fatal disease.” Still, she manages to distill—plainly, without resorting to jargons theoretical or psychotropic—a keen sense of what “everyday life” means for the writer: attending openly to one’s surrounds. “My poems respond to everyday life by using happenstance . . . they are penetrable, interrupted . . . the noise becomes the signal.” Incorporating the intrusive. Making of capaciousness itself a (discerning, discriminant) system. Oddly, in Armantrout’s case it results in tiny, though not necessarily tidy pieces. Not so oddly, if one’s read any Armantrout—seen her way of bemusedly (and deftly) allowing the other its place—she responds with fettlesome humor, calling her diagnosis “the ultimate unexpected input.”

Armantrout reassures one that after “successful surgery,” she is now residing in “a sort of hiatus,” waiting to see if the disease reappears. And, in a brilliant summary of how time itself, its thinning, is liable to attenuate one’s attention, writes: “Everyday life seems largely composed of the placid expanse of theoretical time surrounding it. That’s what’s missing now.” There’s nary a sign of any lessening. As Armantrout puts it: “In many of my poems I don’t put a final period where one ‘should’ be.”

Ted Pearson’s entry, hard after Armantrout—I note how the context makes it seem wordy, diffuse. What I see: if one’s working out a poem titled “The Grit” (“not a metaphor . . . part of everyday life,” beach sand heavings wind deposit’d) and one’s bookmark’d Creeley’s “The grit / of things / a measure / resistant”—isn’t “grit” exemplary of “literature” and not “everyday life” at all? Pearson’s clothed in “literature.” Quotables come out the mouths of Oppen, Lorenzo Thomas, WCW, Zukofsky, Heideggar, Blake, John Cage, Larry Eigner, Nadezhda Krupskaya, some plusieurs fois, plus Creeley and Pearson himself. Against which, Pearson puts a straight up query about class:
How reconcile a life in poetry—not the scene, but the practice itself—with a deeply internalized, class-based conditioning that words (especially words-as-art) in fact belong to others—and that (but how?) one must earn one’s use of them in the doubting eyes of those others.
Pearson’s entry point: Zukofsky’s “Poem beginning ‘The’”—“I’ll read their Donne as mine.” (Perhaps, too, explaining why Watten found himself reading Donne, with notes, a l’époque.) And later, Pearson relates how, hired to drive a bus, he’d type “the day’s words on an unlined 3 x 5 card” and tape it to the windshield—“my ad hoc, homemade (pace Hugh Kenner), blue-collar ‘test of poetry.’”

Class markers, class “airs,” class-related subterfuge, class hindsight, class authenticity and pretension—all that gets look’d at rarely and obliquely in cultural formations. Here in the “experiment in collective autobiography,” a groupuscule seemingly containing a variety of classes (though, who’s to say? identifying one’s (or another’s) class seems particularly fraught with pitfalls)—mention of it appears rarely, inconclusively. I am more or less thinking aloud. What would class mean? If I read something like this (Pearson’s talking about a juventude-writ poem-fragment evoking “the slow, epiphenomenal unfolding of trauma, long accrued, in the steady ritardando of the daily grind”)—“Symptoms, no doubt, these simple verbs, but figures as well of the diminishing returns on one’s libidinal and social investments—as if the quotidian, in the modest iterations of its increasingly limited repertoire, has been remanded to the all but undetectable pulse of its remainder”—is that diction a sign of class vengeance? Revenge of age against youth? Revenge of a critical sensibility in spite of itself? After all, the fragment itself went: “body too / to barer body / so splits / and turns // turns to // drifts // and burns.” Barely enough to poke with a stick. (Some days, looking at such doggedly, uh, little displays of minimalism—by fully-grown persons in the world—, I can only think of it as a kind of literary slumming. Pretending to be poorer than thou art.) (I am more or less thinking aloud. Coming over-dress’d to the ball’s one sign of class-fretting; another is dressing “down.” What “ball”? Class-talk careens off into metaphor-wreckage.)

Post-war (Vietnam), another war: “the language said to be ‘ours’ . . . become . . . another theater in the war.” Why then? (Why not now?) Versions of language poetry’s emergence out of the routine lies of officialdom, old hat. And counter-intuitive. Pearson’s:
. . . Lorenzo Thomas insists, after serving in Vietnam, “The sponsors of that program / must not have another word.” [The televised war—“they” determined not to do that again. If there’s no “program,” the “sponsors” don’t have to sell anything.] What, then, of poetry, which (pace Williams) fails to bring us the news? Could it do no more with the oppressors’ language than bear harsh witness to the failure of that language and the fatal entailments of that failure? Could it only preach to the choir? Clearly, a linguistic breach had been opened—and not only by official misprision, bald lies, and double-speak, but also in response to a widespread belief in a model of communication based on the transparency of language.
Is there confusion here? A breach is open’d in language—language is broken, a gap is there (“Once more unto the breach, dear friends, once more; / Or close the wall up with our English dead. / In peace there’s nothing so becomes a man / As modest stillness and humility: / But when the blast of war blows in our ears . . . / Then lend the eye a terrible aspect . . .” out of Shakespeare’s Henry V sizzles across the brainpan. Is it the ringing silence of post-war that makes one itch for another “theater”?) What is the relation between rejecting “a model of communication based on the transparency of language” and a hole in language? Failure of transparency means muck it up more? for “pedagogical reasons”? (A whiff of pedantry hovers around the language “project”—“What were the rules?” Too, a hint of Puritanism, the difficult is good for you.) Pearson quotes Blake: “We are led to Believe a Lie / When we see not Thro’ the Eye.” What is the relation between trusting the eye and rejecting “a model of communication based on the transparency of language”? (I am more or less thinking aloud. I am not “getting” anywhere.)

I do recall the mocking / break things / sneery goofing impulse in those years, combo of anger and sass, sheer buoyancy of youth. I look at something like “Fragging,” a longish poem I wrote in about 1972, and see it. (I had the good sense not to make a program of it.) A snip of it, and undignified bow out:
                                    We pack ourselves in—salvation like this
is a pen with refillable cartridges. The only difference between meaning
and contempt is this limp sandpiper on a blue platter called
Futility. It isn’t ours.

Culling brio, the quick pulp of a primrose, the wind comes down
like a noose. Pursed lips. This is dusk lassoing the trees,
pulling taut, a pony tail, a node trammeling this end of the earth.
This is a dog show, even the lichens line up like pedigrees. No more
tail wagging. I troop out the ribbons like lingerie, hanging out
these husks of a stiffened lethargy, ovaries. This is autumn,
a menstrual period, a sexual flush—the same dopey nostalgia is kicking
through the leaves, the inner linings of the uterus. And nothing
is new—peevish October, bilious like evaporated milk,
Vietnam, our impotency attaching this to a grenade for the lieutenant,
our poverty like a Caesarean scar, our boisterous unconcern, a Fiat
humming empty near a courthouse, our monuments like
extinguished afterthoughts, our misplaced feelings, our secrecy . . .
Et comme on dit a l’époque: ’Nuff sd.

Odilon Redon, L’Oeil, comme un ballon bizarre se dirige vers l’infini
(The Eye Like a Strange Balloon Mounts Toward Infinity), 1882

Wednesday, December 05, 2007

The Grand Piano Notes

Blue Arrow

The period between the end of the Vietnam War and the “big noise” of language poetry (1976-1980) is mark’d, for Barrett Watten, by “a kind of floating window, an historical hiatus,” though “it felt like everyday life.” Some of the things (a smattering) one learns of that “everyday life” in Watten’s report (The Grand Piano 4):
—a annoying bus park’d late nights outside Watten’s dwelling in San Francisco’d “sit for hours at a time with its motor running”;

—Watten pictured himself “obtaining a high-powered rifle and shooting out, carefully, one by one, the tires on the bus, then the rear-view mirror”;

—“the grand narratives . . . had to be abandoned with the Fall of Saigon”;

—Watten “shot” six hundred or so photographs of the area “below the diagonal dividing line of Market Street” focusing on “architectural detail (windows, garage doors, gas meters, mail slots), signage (on trucks and buildings), with occasional longer shots of freeway ramps and factory buildings in the working-class and industrial districts” (“I faced the mute surfaces of the industrial zone and attacked; the camera recorded the results”);

—a late 1979 “residency at Langton,” according to Watten, “began with two talks that would become centerpieces of my early critical work: ‘Life Among the Surrealists’ and ‘Total Syntax’”;

—“When irony [in the form of Tom Mandel who had “a brilliantly ironic attitude toward the possibilities of intellectual life”] conjoined with power [the Poetry Center] . . . all hell would break loose”;

—the Russians called the epoch “the Era of Stagnation” (“A void opens up and time is locked into an Hegelian freefall, out of which monstrous nihilisms sprout”);

—on the day Watten “wrote ‘Silence,’ the centerpiece of 1-10,” (“a Saturday like any other writing day,” is how he puts it, presumably mimicking Joe Friday), “I had been browsing in an academic edition of Donne, caught up by the notes”;

—Watten’s rent for “a three-bedroom flat on Potrero Hill” was $325 (sharing with two others made for “a postmodern domestic arrangement of productive and ludic potential”);

—“the murders of George Moscone and Harvey Milk,” “Jonestown, 1978”;

—“Poetry . . . could not tolerate a paradigm shift whose name was not yet known. The fatal unfolding of that paradigm shift was the debacle with Duncan over Zukofsky in 1978.”
Meaning, I miss’d the reference I’d look’d for—complaining in my earlier remarks. Here, like Mandel, Watten too puts the “infamous Zukofsky evening” up for “centerpiece” of the era—and leaves it wholly unsung, unexamined, a “fact” and a void. He mentions Zukofsky again a few pages later only under the sign of the inchoate elided semi-jargon’d verbiage that mottles Watten’s “thinking”:
The authors are in eternity, but we were in everyday life. Under the aspect of . . . materiality? Louis Zukofsky was our name for the unnameable paradigm shift of the moment, unlinked from his actual position in a Hegelian unfolding toward . . . a violent antihistoricism. Literariness, a poetics. The first step along the way to undoing our learned Marxism toward a moment in which “we are democrats, but we have no name.” An historical emptiness that would be converted into a politics, a poetics, if only . . .
The kind of empty yearning one’d expect out of a teenager, first date-bound. Which is, of course, how Watten’s narrative is construct’d. Ignore the little San Francisco maps with the corny fortune-cookie captions (“Certainty is not the mystery”). Ignore the period-style Perelman theory-speak interspersed—out of a Langton “catalogue essay”—though it’s generally less drossy that Watten’s own (“Incompletion (subjectivity) does not disappear obligingly upon being named. One of the most persistent, and compelling features of the work are the traces of his subjectivity, violently erased.”) Ignore, too, the “present”—Watten in Michigan with Michigan pigeons, Watten in Berlin where a man sleeps in the “open field” where the Wall stood, Watten mock-aphoristical (“There is no difference between myself and what I do, all day every day, except that I myself am suspended in that difference: this is not me”) or thinking about twenty-year service pins. The story is elsewhere, is plainly heroic, model’d after Pound, Olson, the Abstract-Expressionists (“we wanted a big canvas, of time and space”), and goes: Watten’s December 1979 presenting of “a series of four events at 80 Langton Street as part of its Writer-in Residence series” end’d one era (next would come “the Reagonomic rappel à l’ordre of the 80s”), and mark’d the arrival of Watten, hero. The story here—what little there is—is of Watten’s emergence-moment (like a bug out of its larval husk) through the “events.” Bystanders, apparently recognizing the efforts (whose worth is never question’d), cheer’d:
As Bob notes, the language of the talks was often as dense as the creative works they explicated, and the performative demands must have been great: each talk was three-and-a-half hours long. After I staged the third night’s performance, Judy Moran, co-director of Langton, said she found it “heroic” . . . In the drama of recognition, there are few times when you know—and this was one of them. On 24th Street with C—, anticipating my final event, I knew I had arrived as an artist.
Which, coming nearly at the end of Watten’s piece, makes for tidy closure, boy (with a camera) makes good. And yet: what about those photographs of urban remainders, seemingly devoid of people? Isn’t the hero’s story precisely opposed to “everyday life”? Who’s behind the garage doors and mail slots in the six-hundred photographs? What good’s “an essay on the psychodynamics of topography” (a Wattenism for the charge of the “noble six hundred” pictures) if it skirts the chaos and crannies, misses the populace, trades heroic form against humble quotidian mess and grit? Apparently, that don’t matter none. Watten’s coda:
Nothing was going anywhere, and we wrote until it did. A simple response to lived conditions, out of which all hell would break loose. We were just about to make a big noise.

Western Hercules Beetle, ♂

Tuesday, December 04, 2007

Greasy Thinking

Fire Escape

Cold morning, thirteen degrees, so the tears that the wind makes spatter against my spectacles whilst biking freeze, salty and glacial. Nothing in the hopper—Monday evenings I am “constrict’d to reading”—so there’s that happy hiss of imparticularity, stray sentences put to no use. I keep thinking “oleaginous prose,” that of someone both convinced of ’s excellence and, well, implacably needing to “butter up” the bystanders, the readers. What to do with a thing like that? Reading in circles of late—on the table, The Grand Piano face-down (spine too skinny to break); an edition of Billy Budd (I got caught up reading about the textual editing of the thing, minutia that assuages what exactly?); the Mark Scroggins-recommended Joyce’s Critics by the fleet-styled Joseph Brooker, a terrific history of how the receivable Mr. Joyce got put here and there (I keep thinking how I’d like to read about the receipt of a fail’d book, something that caught a critical fancy, got fought over, got demolish’d, is forgot now completely except as a shimmer of a whiff of impossibility and hubris and a particularly high annoying level of ambition). Talking Mark Scroggins: the fat and gorgeous and impeccably design’d Zukofsky biography, The Poem of a Life is out, there too, waiting my clearing off of the dusty circles, making space for astonishment. (The pristine always affects me that way—a new notebook, the hard glassy cloud-studded surface of a lake, its forbidding / alluring dialectic, and the mighty-ing up for a splash.)

Pound to Joyce, admitting he’d only get “the fag ends of [Pound’s] mind”—because Pound’d spent the morning writing an essay—that ragged “Gathering fuel in vacant lots” fuel fuels the morning hurry, too, for the unprepared. (I clumsier sentence ne’er got writ suiter.) (Beckett talking of Shakespeare’s “fat, greasy words.”) Is it that I’ve never actually cotton’d to (or, gulp, comprehend’d the inherent refusals of imagism, of “the image”? Meaning, how it sends the brainbox’s input / output wires a-scooting off away from the word-grease itself? I want the oleosity of the word itself, that smudge, not to be lost, and for it to fetch forth its harder, dryer, clearer kin, “the idea,” “the image,” for inspection and comparison. (That’s what I want.) (Apparently, with December’s caterwaul in, my pulque-remedying poems got sliced—top off the agave to you!) (Rather, I mumble in my soup about “technique.”) (Mostly, a “temporary hiatus,” whilst I scour the blade of my machete by running it through . . .) (Words must be more than the sludge of thinking.) (Writing must be more than radical and ineffectual.)

One note, a kind of exculpatory thing for the madhattery and indulgence. Ron Padgett’s new How to Be Perfect is highly refreshing. A self-deprecatory faux-naïvete, disarmingly humble, not showy. A literalist’s approach (I think of Amelia Bedelia without the wooden illustrations) to the way language prevaricates and winces and side-steps or soft-shoes out the door, tipping a hatful of change (and change-ups) all the way. And a tonic to doomy high-falutin’-ismus partout partout. Here’s “Toothbrush”:
As the whisk broom
is the child of the ordinary broom,
which is cousin to the janitor’s broom,
I am a toothbrush
when it comes to bristling,
insufficiently angry
or maybe too angry
to keep my bristles intact
since I know the debris
of the world is too great
for me to handle.
If I could save the world
by being crucified
I certainly would.
But who would nail
a toothbrush to a cross?

Ron Padgett
(Photograph by John Tranter)

Monday, December 03, 2007

Juliana Spahr’s The Transformation


Finish’d reading Juliana Spahr’s The Transformation (Atelos, 2007). And kept, in my attempt to finish, thinking of something Joe Brainard’d written—I think in a near-final issue of Gegenschein Quarterly, current whereabouts unknown—a remark (regarding yellow smiley faces) that ended with a hard scribble, an emphatically dangerous scribble, beautiful in a way, as only Joe Brainard’d make a scribble of exasperation beautiful. And I thought, reading Spahr, if I had to read one more sentence that contain’d the phrase “those who had genealogical ties to the island from before the whaling ships arrived,” or one that contain’d the phrase “fragmentation, quotation, disruption, disjunction, agrammatical syntax, and so on,” or one that contain’d the phrase “words like asbestos, lead, mercury, dioxins, furans, hydrogen cyanide, benzene, xylene, chromium, polychlorinated biphenyls, aromatic hydrocarbons, and volatile organic compounds entered their daily conversations,” that I would just—and there I would reproduce Joe Brainard’s famous dangerous scribble . . . Not because The Transformation is a kind of yellow smiley face of a book—it attempts to avoid that, it turns itself red in the face trying to avoid that. No, because it insists on willfully, “purposefully naïve” mannerisms—a kind of superficial Stein technique, dumb’d down and repetitive—to accommodate a whole complex of feelings, political statement, and artistic thinking. And just as the yellow smiley face glosses over anything besides a kind of wide-eyed zomboid affirming (“Have a Nice Day!”), no off-key notes in the choir, so The Transformation (as a result of its infantilist stance) transforms nothing, nor asks that anything be transform’d: its gloss is of an engagement little beyond pinning a shiny yellow button to one’s lapel.

Spahr points disapprovingly at a kind of touristique writing, one particularly noticeable in pieces about Hawaii (where she’s located in the early parts of the book), a “nature writing,” or “local color” writing:
Many people around them were so moved by the island that they wrote poems celebrating nature. Sometimes people from afar arrived by plane, wrote a poem, and then left by plane. These poems were called 747 poems by those who did not leave by plane, those of all sorts who called the island home.
And, sure, orientalism is everywhere, that tendency to drape little nothings in new-found exotica, gussying up the otherwise mundane. (I recall Baxter Hathaway telling me about a brief month or so in Mexico—“I had the good sense not to try to write about it.” Rather, he wrote a novel call’d The Stubborn Way, about the four years after high school he spent working in a paper mill in Kalamazoo.) Though: I find Spahr’s a rather untoward (disingenuous) claim next to the kind of Internet writing (“arrive by modem, write a poem, leave by modem”?) that crops up regularly in the book, lists of species migrant or invasive, anatomical parts of the heart, military Operations lists, &c. Surface textures, various enough, though perhaps not differing “all that much” from the sorts things one thieves off a brightly illustrated guide pick’d up at the Visitor’s Center.

My strong sense that a memoir (if one must write one, and increasingly, one notes, one must) ought to try to shape whatever life-tissue it puts under the lens, ought to examine lived experience with something like Montaigne’s Que scais-je? in the inquiry-hopper, some attempt to grapple with things. And my sense that Spahr’s attempt therein fishtails off out of control—too many variables, too much surface static, formal decisions that distract and flat-out the exploratory, rather than offering clarity. Nowhere moreso than in the “they,” the threesome at the center of the story—“They avoided words to describe their relation because words felt wrong.” Words do out—“zombie,” “pervert”—not even private Stein-mimicking “code” words, but the socius’s own crass vocabulary, words that finally only seem coy, a tease and avoidance, unwillingness to examine that part of one’s life, though Spahr claims it as central. One learns little of anybody’s autonomy (solitary feelings, difficulties, adjustments) in the group beyond metaphorical stabs (mostly glean’d off the TV): “They did not know what to make of how it felt reassuring to watch on public television the female hedge sparrow vigorously shaking its tail feathers at two different male birds to indicate their desire to be inseminated by each of them in close succession . . .”

Relatedly. One thing that’s funny is to see how quickly the Doxa-apparatus shifts into gear within the “avant-garde” (or howsoever one wants to label it). That is, how suddenly the work of some individuals is push’d up into the exemplary light unmottled. Thus, in a posting just last Friday, Ron Silliman is able to say with no apparent discomfort that Spahr’s book is “the midcareer masterpiece of a poet in her prime, a text that situates precisely at the intersection between memoir, essay and the prose poem.” The sort of pronunciamento, fait accompli, which saves all of us the energy of thinking and reading and discussing merits and alternatives, &c. Think how amusing I find it to read that very evening Spahr’s account of what I’d identify as the post-9/11 warmonger trio of Silliman, Marjorie Perloff, and (probably) David Antin:
At this time the world felt divided between two types of humans: they who wanted an end to killing and they who wanted even more killing. And because some they had respected or at least had seen for years as having a certain political sensibility such as a poet who was a self-proclaimed lefty who had been involved in grassroots organizing for years, a critic who was devoted to work that used fragmentation, quotation, disruption, disjunction, agrammatical syntax, and so on, another poet who was prickly and intense in their hatred of hierarchical systems, were all calling for more killing very vocally in various e-mail messages to various discussion listserves or in letters to the editor of various prominent newspapers, they didn’t know as a result who they were, who they could trust.
A remark that snaps (doglike) both ways—toward both the “self-proclaimed lefty” and cohort, and back at Spahr herself (I find that “they didn’t know as a result who they were”—even considering how it’s clad in faux-naïve, particularly depressing). Sign of a hierarchic-gazing, sign of lineage-malady, sign of entirely too little individual integrity (or wider perspectives—“They rarely widened their perspective or used their peripheral vision”) in the “avant-garde” groupuscules that inhabit “our” particular era.

Bandwagon-jumping. (Incidentally, one wonders why Silliman himself—and hundreds of others—avoid making a list for Steve Evans’s Attention Span: the invite is open, the terms of engagement innocuous, scrupulously noncommittal, apolitical. I think the wording asks for “a list of up to eleven titles (poetry and otherwise, recent and rediscovered) that have engaged [one’s] attention since this time last year.” An “ever-changing constellation of interests.”

According to Montaigne, one gets consubstantial with one’s book,
Like a tin of ‘greasy French viand’ empty’d over a plate of rice.

Juliana Spahr