Thursday, January 31, 2008

Glaucous and Bloom

Coil and Smudge

My unpreparedness become legion, la belle au bois dormant. The cold nickering in under everything, horse nose bucking the piled-up coverlets. Beckett’s final “folly for to need to seem to glimpse afaint afar away over there what—” and a birder’s report of “braving” Port Huron’s rough water, wind and scouring sand to scope the lake and rivermouth for the odd gull species, Glaucous amongst. Walk’d a street corner’d by a catalpa, long straight pods ahung black, or Whitmanesque, “beautiful uncut hair of graves.” “Roc’s auk’s egg in the night of the bed” ducking in out of somewhere with sackbut and cornet flourishes. Announcing what arrival? Announcing no arrival.

Kenner: “skepticism cannot acknowledge its dogmas: that when statements can have no substance they can only have style. So one goes off aconcerting, to see the tall barrette’d pianist lift one sleek haunch off the bench in musical grimace, the way a cat’ll arch its back into the stroking. Her hands red and chafed. One noted a salutary minuscule contempt in her nod acknowledging applause. The violinist all ball of the feet bounce and shuffle, compensating for being a largish man. And too stertorous emphases, or prettifying the mouth into a little Clara Bow, even whilst pizzicato-ing. Grieg and two Schumann’s, Robert.

Clara Bow

Wednesday, January 30, 2008

Tempus tacendi

Blue (Chicago)

A brutal wind riled up about midnight. Half-sleep pictures of short-grain’d muscular oak limbs dashing the roof to pieces, and Beckett. Or a line out of Kenner: “Objectivity eschews nudges.” (Joe Friday: “Just the . . .”) Tempus tacendi, et tempus loquendi, as the reversible Mr. Pound in a black impermeable did not say.

There is a final big bounty of things to read in EPR 8, one of the electronic “ancients,” though susceptible—like us all—to irregular musketries of sloth and fervor. Edited by Katherine Hazzard, D. A. Powell, and Xu Smith.

I, too,
Visit’d by

A moment
Loose fly

Scarce anent
The ends

Of vernal
Skirl, and

Skew out
Vent’d dismay.

Shine a
Combine surfeit,

An implacable
Hey with

Ho nonny
Puttering about

Unfasten’d, unrestrain’d,
And quibbling.

Quandoque bonus dormitat Homerus . . .

Sleeping in Chicago

Tuesday, January 29, 2008

“Shiny combines”

A Wall (Tigris and Euphrates)

Read Lawrence Rainey’s Institutions of Modernism: Literary Elites and Public Culture (Yale University Press, 1998), chapters on Ezra Pound’s copycat Blast-ing in response to F. T. Marinetti’s London provocations, and on the lucre-hoist’d offers to print T. S. Eliot’s The Waste Land unread and unseen, amongst others concerning the high-end marketing of Joyce’s Ulysses, Pound’s yearning for patronage bottoming out in Il Duce, and the effect of H.D.’s claustral coterie on her writing. All writ in a lively story’d style (“Stories are analysis—by other means”) with a fine Bourdieu-inflect’d sense of the cultural forces underpinning (or -mining) writerly intent and industry, and a strong turn to textual investigations and conditions. All almost alarmingly free of theory-pettifoggery and like abuses. One quotable of note regarding how the Vorticist Blast hit the cultural field and swamp’d in the wake of the Futurists:
Almost all the pictures reproduced are (like the typesetting of the first pages), Futurist in origin and nothing else. And as for the productions of the literary Vortices, these are not even so fresh as that. . . . All it really is is a feeble attempt at being clever. Blast is a flat affair. We haven’t a movement here, not even a mistaken one.
Mr. Pound used to be quite interesting when he was a remote passéist and wrote about the Provençal troubadours; but as a revolutionary I would rather have Signor Marinetti, who is at any rate a genuine hustler, whereas Mr. Pound assuming violence and ruthlessness is as unimpressive in his movements as a man who is trying to use someone else’s coat as a pair of trousers.
Sign’d, “Solomon Eagle” (John Collings Squire) in the New Statesman. Somehow it all brings up (again) the decidedly minor (and passéist) stinks of the tiny league of unrequited flarfdom, who, I see, are planning another upcoming “go” of it in the metropolis. Bande des minables. If one’s not quite peculiar enough, one bands together with other lackers to “fashion” an little industry, just socially ept enough to boost itself up. What’s noticeable is the insistent manufactured bravado of such pre-supplied social context—all groupuscules suffer it. Not they, inheritors of Greil Marcus’s “old weird America,” or of what Robert Hass, talking about both Anne Bradstreet and Edward Taylor, calls “the solitariness, self-sufficiency, and peculiarity of the American imagination.” The private wild strains finally flourish.

Reading, too, one of Hugh Kenner’s littler Joyce books, Joyce’s Voices. Learning that Yeats claim’d to’ve seen George Bernard Shaw “in a vision as an incarnate sewing-machine, but a sewing machine that perpetually smiled.” Almost enough to make me want to allow the (mostly) dreadful Mr. Yeats another chance. (A history of sewing machines invading the imaginary: the Comte de Lautréamont’s “Beau comme la rencontre fortuite sur une table de dissection d’une machine à coudre et d’un parapluie.” “Beautiful as the chance encounter of a sewing machine and an umbrella on a dissection table.” One recalls that the Comte is talking about a boy, convulsively “beau.”)

Kenner’s assessment of Joyce’s (poor) natural sentence-constructing apparatus, and “not extensive” “repertory of syntactic devices”—he is master of the single word placed with phenomenal accuracy and effect. “His sentences, on the whole, suffice to get the words together, and when he is unsure of himself, in an early draft for instance of a bread-and-butter letter, entangled priorities will entangle his constructions as gracelessly as Gerty’s though less entertainingly.” MacDowell, of course. And provides an example out of Stephen Hero:
A metaphor is a vice that attracts the dull mind by reason of its aptness and repels the too serious mind by reason of its falsity and danger so that, after all, there is something to be said, nothing voluminous perhaps, but at least a word of concession for that class of society which in literature as in everything else goes always with its four feet on the ground.
Which I love mostly for its mocking percept of the literary bunch (“dull,” “serious”) so four-footedly leery of metaphorical “flight.” Like, I know of cats like that! Scrupulously “literal,” caught in the coffers of the mildest eye-propell’d “objectivism”—as if a lyric outburst’d carry off the final vestiges of whatever little percept they opticks glean’d . . . Literary gleaners, following the solitary thrashers sitting high up on they big shiny combines.

James Joyce in Trieste, 1915
(Photograph by Ottacaro Weiss, a friend who was “scandalized” by Joyce’s guitar playing.)

Monday, January 28, 2008

“Blurs selector forks”

A Wall (Aggregate and Weasel)

Lazy. Or distract’d. Several little minor boils pucker’d up the weekend, none apt enough, or of a puncturably roseate readiness. Time skips off and one’s left—the defeatist in the parlour—gazing after the ghost of a sure plenitude, or sleepily scratching a surface gone slack. One high-water moment a poem by J. H. Prynne, out of the 1974 Wound Response:
As grazing the earth
                                      the sun raises
its mouth to the night
                                            rick, ox-eyed
and burning, strewn over
                                                the phase path

At the turning-places
                                        of the sun the
head glistens, dew falls
                                            from the apse line:

O lye still, thou
                                Little Musgrave, the
grass is wet
                        and streak’d with light
Heartbreakingly quiet, as if one’ll never know a quiet like that again. “Phase path” and “apse line,” terms of celestial mechanics—the latter, in a lovely definition, call’d somewhere “the imaginary line defined by an orbit’s eccentricity vector”—indicative of the slow invasion of such terminology into Prynne’s later work. The piece spading around in the nigh-invisible furrows of history’s (literature’s) arable trace. I see now I am thinking of some combination of a John Constable painting, ox overwhelm’d by field and (mostly) sky, and of the story of how the tracks of the huge white billowy Conestoga wagons remain etch’d across the plains. I see, too, that the Musgrave is he of one of the Child ballads, “The Ballad of Little Musgrave and Lady Barnard,” he who is caught out boinking the Lady and is kill’d by the two-sword’d Lord returning:
Arise, arise, thou little Musgràve,
      And put thy cloathes nowe on,
It shall never be said in my countree,
      That I killed a naked man.

I have two swordes in one scabbàrde,
      Full deare they cost my purse;
And thou shalt have the best of them,
      And I will have the worse.
Prynne: “none of my poems are expressions of the personality of the writer or part of any biographical history: sometimes they contain several different voices, and sometimes no specific voice at all or any person who is assumed to be speaking.” Which banks parallel in an odd combinatory track (jumping off out of St. Louis with the settlers) to the claim of Mr. Thomas Stearns Eliot himself: “Poetry . . . is not the expression of personality, but the escape from personality.” Or, “extinction of personality.” Prynne’s lingo of the physical sciences (particularly in the “difficult” late work) oddly echoes Eliot’s scientism. Eliot: “It is in this depersonalization that art may be said to approach the condition of science . . . consider, as a suggestive analogy, the action which takes place when a bit of finely filiated platinum is introduced into a chamber containing oxygen and sulphur dioxide.” I long to read something like the sections of Prynne’s 1998 Red D Gypsum as “saying” another ante-upped version of that thing:
Did you light furtive aggregate late-flow samples
to peter out frozen turns almost dive back cloven
slate, nearly slow now. Lastly lit well did you,
not yet waiting over, visibly knowing ahead blank
parts zinc plates yours. Thermal in latch fluid
image blurs selector forks, aspect sweet would my
do its wash and round lower lower still to steps
grounded for all rejoinders to miss so new a weave.
Elsewhere (“The Metaphysical Poets”) Eliot calls directly for difficulty and dislocation:
We can only say that it appears likely, that poets in our civilization, as it exists at present, must be difficult. Our civilization comprehends great variety and complexity, and this variety and complexity, playing upon a refined sensibility, must produce various and complex results. The poet must become more and more comprehensive, more allusive, more indirect, in order to force, to dislocate if necessary, language into his meaning.
Tactical ploys, invariably futile. Eliot’s attempt to outwit language’s slippery ways—refusing, the imperial “refined” sensibility of the ear coming to the fore, to admit how language, all desiring—a monstrous system of desire—’ll invariably “take” one, no matter what the avoidance schematic, the ploy, the ruse—gets overturn’d by someone like Prynne. One example: how a title like Red D Gypsum provides a miniature excursus and exemplar of lingual wantonness: is one to read it as packaging (marketing) lingo: “Red D” = “Ready”? Is there a Prynne-joke duplicitously dump’d therein? “Ready (to) gyp some . . .”? Or is the Eliotic edict to “force . . . language” still present in Prynne? In “Some Aspects of Poems and Translations” he says:
In poems which are perceived as difficult to understand clearly and fully, often . . . help from the study of context does not work so well. Individual words are placed in close relation in a new way, so that it is not easy to guess how the meaning of one relates to the meaning of the other. Sometimes a whole string of words seems to be making uncertain or doubtful connections, so that when the reader or translator consults a full, inclusive dictionary the different meanings for each word all seem at least partly possible, because the guidelines of sense and idiom seem to point in so many different directions at once.
Clearly Prynne’s talking about Prynne poems, and clearly there is, in Prynne’s version of how writing gets written, more than a dollop or smidgen of intent in the proceedings. No Romantic riding the high cloud of one’s gathering maelstrom, the poem spat out like so many droplets, a rainy incomprehensible wash flooding the writer. Is there something of that in “visibly knowing ahead blank / parts”? Is that in opposition to “fluid / image blurs selector forks, aspect sweet” with the wash itself oncoming? Where lies the sense of rejoinder (to the reader? or, “joinery” in its fist, suggesting the making of new things out of old?)—“to miss so new a weave.” Here’s where—easing into a not entirely aimless, though not too cautious, exchange with the poem calls up another of Prynne’s notes re: translation: “Take up a relaxed but alert position, and clear the mind of restless outside thoughts. Don’t attempt this work is you are at all sleepy, or have a demanding task immediately ahead of you. . . . This control of mood is important because you will need to respond to translation challenges by using your own imagination; it is not enough to work at a foreign text without any spirit of your own.”

J. H. Prynne

Friday, January 25, 2008

What Comes Next

A Wall

Easier to shoot my mouth
Off in a round of
Unassessed particulars, a stunt one’s
Pull’d a number of times
Before, rather than to go
Out looking for anything meatier
To grace the table with.
Meaning the three-foot’d baroque
Sprint with a burlap sack
Bagging one’s normal maneuverability is
Here in the offing, ready
To go, the dibble poised
Left, the seedling dandled right,
The tamp foot angled up.
Something of big opera circuitry
To the bent, the solar
Recklessness of inserting oneself into
A history of laborers striking
Out after the tenuousness of
Forage, planting oneself against interminable
Movement, hauling up the upright
Timbers of a house, a
Hat rack, something to thwart
Any too major weather. News
Is a Mesmer system, canny
Syllabary, something in the bushes
That won’t out. The king,
The dead king, the puling
Of the people, the tick’d
Off universals, one turn around
The track. O the magnanimity
Of one’s despair! O the
Collapsible fronds of one’s waving,
Just another palm tree off
Tweaking the distant light! The
Trick is not to believe
A tack of it, nor
The dumb thumb that keeps
Pushing it as if to
Attach a label under dread
Ægis of its naught. Picture
That. Picture the sanguine adulterate
Complexion of one’s sound indifference,
News crib’d off the shunned
Simplicities of wild criard angels.

Hoofing it through the mighty cold, the word swish attach’d to my one het-up neural ganglion, misfiring its rhythmical spit, some animal portion of my constitution grappled with Williams’s:
                                        It is difficult
to get the news from poems
                    yet men die miserably every day
                                        for lack
of what is found there.
To no conclusion. A newspaper’s good for stuffing in one’s boot to keep out the cold. Or keeping the smallmouth offal, hook’d with a thumb and tumbled out in a gleamy pile, off the countertop. And shooting off one’s lyrical cowboy mouth? I don’t know. A stunt of leisure? A story of one’s mere extravagance and superfluity? A utilitarian hat too big keeps falling over my opticks. What if that “what is found there” is the mere regal extirpt’d distillate of supposed helplessness? “I cannot help writing.” Insatiable ebullient graphomania, a potter’s field affliction. (I note the clumsy swing between the hint some regal “leisure” is such writing’s undercarriage, and the hint of the poorhouse upshot, any extreme a liability.) Susan Howe: “Prefaces are usually afterimages.” And, in a single paragraph, compleat: “variant unabridged bits, mortal and menacing, anything but pliable and apart.” Meaning: the hell with it, one writes oneself into a cage, one proceeds engulf’d and floody, blind’d by one’s own graphemes that mount, menaced by what is both lack and plenitude.

The hell with it. “Jack of Diamonds is a hard card to beat.” Texas bluesman Mance Liscomb—named after a man named “Emancipation”—with a bust’d digit and a jack-knife. Rheumy-eyed skepticism is never resignation.

Thursday, January 24, 2008

Taylor and/or Howe

A Wall (“Distempering the Colours with Ox-gall”)

Words Mentall are Syllabicated thoughts:
      Words Orall but thoughts Whiffld in the Winde:
Words Writ, are incky, Goose quill-slabbred draughts:
      Although the fairest blossoms of the minde.
      Then can such glasses cleare enough descry
      My Love to thee, or thy rich Deity?

Words are befould, Thoughts filthy fumes that smoake,
      From smutty Huts, like Will-a-Wisps that rise
From Quaugmires, run ore bogs where frogs do Croake,
      Lead all astray led by them by the eyes.
      My muddy words so dark thy Deity,
      And cloude thy sun-shine, and its shining sky.

Yet spare mee, Lord, to use this hurden ware
      I have no finer stuff to use . . .
Thus Edward Taylor in 1701 in Westfield, Massachusetts, out of the second series of Preparatory Meditations. One supposes it a conventional trope, consternation before the sully’d word’s inadequacy (and dirt) approaching the deity (that “naked Idea” again). Though: considering Taylor “had delivered several thousand sermons, written more than 2,000 manuscript pages of original prose, and composed some 40,000 lines of poetry—practically all of which remained only in manuscript form for more than two hundred years” (eventually sought out by Dickinson scholar Thomas H. Johnson in the mid-’thirties)—one stops a little in baffle’d wonder at such a relationship to one’s “tools.” Taylor’s love of language, its rhythms and rages, musicks and orthographies, is everywhere evident, randomly cough’d forth. See, after witnessing a bout of smallpox (“Blew streakt Poyson hellish, ranck, / Bubs hatcht in natures nest on Serpents Eggs”), lines like:
I cannot kill nor Coop them up: my Curb
      ’S less than a Snaffle in their mouth: my Rains
They as a twine thrid, snap: by hell they’re spurd:
      And load my Soule with swagging loads of pains.
      Black Imps, young Divells, snap, bite, drag to bring
      And pick mee headlong hells dread Whirle Poole in.
Internal echoes and pivots (what’s the sonic relation between “thrid” and “spurd”?), a jagged antagonistickal music, slant-rhymes (“Curb” / “spurd”), and that marvelous syntactical pirouette that somehow makes the final line ape the increasing liquid velocity of water circling down into a drain.

What’s the appeal of flailing through half-uncover’d things, of “keeping oneself a little stupid”? I got to Taylor by thumbing around a ransacked F. O. Matthiessen-edited Oxford Book of American Verse I haul’d out of a yard sale off Slater Settlement Road near Ithaca, New York. It’s inscribed “To John / Christmas 1969 / from Kevin” by pure chance. “Had not my Soule’s, thy Conduit, Pipes stopt bin / With mud, what Ravishment would’st thou Convay?” Is that the line, “stopt” up itself, stutter-y, that convinced me a longer look’s required? (I’d been trying to think about Jonathan Edwards and Susan Howe.) Though, now, returning to Howe, strindging the pages for a stitch of Taylor, I see a possible connect in the form of a title:
One Christographia
ink not steadfast one
screech-owl feather

Clipped this word—
Strict to its number
The rest come after
Out of the title piece of Souls of the Labadie Tract, “about” the Labadists—contemporaries of Taylor—in what they call’d New Bohemia, in Maryland. “Preparing themselves for the coming millennium.” “Marriage was renounced. They held all property in common (including children) and supported themselves by manual labor and commerce.” “The 3,750 acre Labadie Tract, consisting of four necks of land.” Curiously enough, the library at the University of Michigan maintains a collection of anarchist / utopian / social change movements papers and pamphlets, &c. known as the Labadie Collection. Howe’s Labadie:
Jean de Labadie. His reach is through language hints; through notes and maps. In the lapse of time the pressure of others. So it’s telepathic though who knows why or in what way
And the sentence ends without its period. “Language hints”: look how Howe’s lines echo the echoes of Taylor: “Greenest green your holy cope / feigned cope and tinsel cap.”

Morning drubs me out of my reverie and, coffeeing up against the cold, I think: is it possible that those “incky, Goose quill-slabbred draughts,” that sense of words “befould,” is one traceable source for the curious and rampant notion that perfect style is nigh-invisible, that writing that calls attention to itself is decidedly not the “finer stuff”? Hectorings for plain speech, plain style, against prolixities and verbosities: one notes it in things like Strunk & White with its sleek imperatives: “Prefer the standard to the offbeat.” “Omit needless words.” (Taylor’s complaints of how ’s would-be “Damask Web of Velvet Verse” runs “To rags, and jags: so snicksnarld to the thrum.” Or how ’s “pimping soule, These wonders pins up in an Auger hole.”)

Another dim burst of phosphorous in the brainpan: if, as is suggest’d somewhere, Taylor’s sermons detail the “ratiocinative part of the meditative process,” do the poems of the Preparatory Meditations descry a resultant emotional stir and fallout? And is Howe’s hybridity, prose and poetry, kin to that? Look at a sliver like:
Crossroad two antithetical
crossroads motif of mirror
civilly silver when and if

You you loose ramshackle
extract poem do hold ashes
as history qua history half
The inexpungeable trace ash of the fiery mind, distillate of reason.

Le Tombeau d’Edward Taylor

Wednesday, January 23, 2008

What Comes Next

A Wall

Isn’t the inclined
Self-moved mind
A rather cursory
Prospectus, consonant with
An elided sense
Of possibility, shrunk
To a walnut-
Sized mettle, churlish
And curl’d in
Against its own
Release, and hamper’d
by woody partitions?
Isn’t it wind
Impropitious wound invisibly
About the pole
Of its longing?
Shill allure of
The impact’d, the
Bundled, that meat
That blithers and
Bans? I like
That. Mind suppurating
And stanching, wellspring
Of the smote
Offal of flesh,
Stopper, gracile, of
Its own soft
Masonry’s leakage. How
Its will, rhythmical
Fleet number-skipper,
Linnet of baffle-
Grasses, morose tug
Of trepan-itch,
Sallies forth only
To get waylaid,
Detour’d out in
The whereto askant.
Here’s a story.
Jonathan Edwards, riding
A circuit nag
Around Massachusetts thinking
Himself a bag
Of filth, pinned
Slips of paper
To himself, each
To a part
Pre-delineated mnemonically to
Award removal with
Recall of whatever
Slant insight occasion’d
Its attachment. The
Fleet temporal body
Become a topology
Of memory. Edwards’s
Horse canters under
The bloat’d moon,
Bladder-big, urine-
and staining
The rumpled coverlet
Of snow, and
Edwards helplessly pins
Another paper square
Mid-riff approximate,
Alarm’d by proximity:
The mounting thicket
Of leafiness at
The leggèd fork.
The odd way
The physical world’s
Got of dodging
The heavenly fretwork,
Steering the mind
Out of its
Reliable districts with
Unappeasable larceny, with
Ladles spilling down
Globular red fire.
I like that.

The Jonathan Edwards story is out of Susan Howe’s Souls of the Labadie Tract wherein she spells it out simply:
As an idea occurred to him, he pinned a small piece of paper on his clothing, fixing in his mind an association between the location of the paper and the particular insight. On his return home, he unpinned each slip and wrote down its associated thought according to location.
I tend to write sentences in my brainbox whilst biking to work, or whilst walking the dog, and’ve found the limit of my memory’s about six or seven words—meaning I can manage three or four sentences if I stow only the “major” words of each. What amuses me about the brainbox though is less what a poor container it is, and more how uncontainable it is itself, veering off with spare conglomerating whim, conduit to naught will’d, all wild. Completely untraceable, bestial in its freedom. Hence the worrisome admonition of the preacher Mr. Edwards: “Extricate all questions from the least confusion by words or ambiguity of words so that the Ideas shall be left naked.” Idea uncontaminated by language, or its meaty conduit-system, those by-ways, “confusion by . . . ambiguity of words.” Howe quotes that line of Edwards, then seems to agree (or is she merely reiterating?): “Poetry is love for the felt fact stated in sharpest, most agile and detailed lyric terms. Words give clothing to hide our nakedness.” That “felt fact” akin to Edwards’s “naked” idea, nominalist hesitancy to descend to using mere words to sully an insight (Edwards’s blank slips). Materiality of language, that thing, gone to the dogs. Surely, elsewhere, Howe’s leaning is toward lingual obstreperousness, the words calling out. In “Personal Narrative,” originally a talk about finding “in Hope Atherton’s wandering story the authority of a prior life for my writing voice,” she writes (wandering the archival thickets) a fine synæsthesia: “Font-voices summon a reader into visible earshot.” (Too, in a line that, hard on the heels of reading Scroggins’s Zukofsky, connects Howe to Zukofsky—something heretofore unconsider’d—she talks of “ghosts wrapped in appreciative obituaries by committee members, or dedications presented at vanished community field meetings” and how such can be “reanimated by appropriation.” Suddenly, lines like “velc cello viable toil / quench conch uncannunc / drumm amonoosuck ythian” begin to resemble the Zukofsky of 80 Flowers or the Catullus.) That “agile” is essential in Howe’s line about what poetry is—poetry as motile force. Howe:
I believed in an American aesthetic of uncertainty that could represent beauty in syllables so scarce and rushed they would appear to expand though they lay half-smothered in local history. . . . I wanted jerky and tedious details to oratorically bloom and bear fruit as if they had been set at liberty or ransomed by angels.
Which lines—it occurs to me—echo those of another New Englander, Frank O’Hara, in “For Grace, After a Party”: “. . . in rooms full of / strangers my most tender feelings / writhe and / bear the fruit of screaming.” I like that.

Jonathan Edwards and Susan Howe

Tuesday, January 22, 2008

What Comes Next

A Wall

To trot out the usual
Dullard’s inventory of dross, implacable
In its neglect, gets, Pound
Says, the bump. To slap
Haphazard at the sharp scapular
Rump of an ordinary cow
Shooing it off the plow-
Turn’d row, gets a drubbing
Going, a mischief that’ll sparse
Out into the tobacco-cheek’d
Bonhomie to foul the feedlot
Drollery into collapse and fug.
Meaning, of course, the bump.
Running out into the slough’d-
Off peninsular meadows of devil’s
Paintbrush and other hairy-stalked
Monocots, that’ll get the bump.
We do it anyhow, criminal
Under the present conditional, lit
By repoint’d particulars, a commemorative
Plate flying out through a
Window, a cook’s handiwork, with
A toque like a dent’d
Cloud on a stem, or like
Cary Grant’s chin up-side-
Down, and the cutlet nouveau-
Something’d by the addition of
An asparagus stalk or two
Trailing right behind. Elegy truckles
With what withers, sowing alarm
Amongst horses and all we
Got’s big kid guffaws, improper
Turbulence, and a dusting of
Snow. Chomping at ‘bits,’ unchewable
Brash indices of the full
Nothing that cannot be slaked.
So one goads a particular
Up and out the door,
A lament for a singer,
Sonorous blue trailing off black,
A song akimbo, a ‘derelict
Slouch’ of a voice, delta
And calabash, gappy and precise.
Music roil’d out of river
Slurry and le vent, what
Suckles the teats of no
State: ‘on n’a pas trouvé
Quel rapport établir entre un
Nom et son objet.’

A piece riffing—begun in a funk of indecision, pawing the books, abaft with loss of focus—off, I see now (and admittedly, seeing, push’d it a little off that way), a few lines out of David Wheatley’s recent chapbook, Lament for Ali Farka Touré (Rack Press, 2008):
Monsieur le Maire de Niafunké
returns from the well at sunset

with the walk of a trader
after the fair, whistling

a tune whose name
means happiness

and slapping the rump
of the first donkey he passes.
Wheatley’s is one single longish piece, admirably avoiding the folklorique, or the touristique: “This belongs in no book. / If found in a book / consider it lost / and return it to its keeper.” (And, to keep one off balance, if one begins to think one’s “got” Mali, or Africa—references to things like “the best / pizza in Bamako.”) And a fine sense of the too-ready circumambiences (that is, the subterfugal flow and mock-reflowering) of story, the mean taking and exchange and refurbishing: “Traders’ tales: / we tell you these things / and you tell us them back. / The masks discarded / after the dance haggle / with us over the price / of a rich, hollow laugh.” Holding one’s own: “Do not / look to the sky for the sun: I think we are inside the sun.”

Ali Farka Touré at the Festival in the Desert (2003), a song call’d “Goye Kur.”

Monday, January 21, 2008

The Lingual Stomp

Broken Letters

Pound’d into being a bookshelf, eight feet tall, three feet wide and deposit’d it upright next to my table, and rotated a variety of books off other (double-shelved) shelves, and the floor, and out of the forlorn crammed in sideways here and there. The upshot, a different disorder, a whole new indiscriminant astigmatism running its coloratura brocade up and down my periphery, or, turning my brainbox slightly, a new staring space. Against which the optics bump and go haywire seeking a vista out into the lamentable beyond, lamentable for its being the beyond. What do the Portuguese call it, a miradouro? One of the benefits of keeping one’s library in havoc and turmoil, half-hid, in no conceivable order, ranging wildly—why here’s Alexander Theroux’s Three Wogs (“Picric, antagonized, scuffing forward with a leer, Fu Manchu readily confirmed a common fear: a distorted mind proves that there is something on it.”) next to James Tate’s Riven Doggeries (“How ’bout some coffee? Don’t mind if I do. Take a little ride on my donkey. I love that donkey. Hell, I love everybody.”) next to Alice Notley’s At Night the States (“The Earth is one word deep / that is your name.”)—is how it makes one range omnivorously about, mimicking the century, or both, the one gone, the one begun, its helter-skelter ways, how a traveling neutrino’ll zip through a five-foot-shelf of books and leave no trace, or traces everywhere, off into the aluzejos blue of Lisboa, putting a tiny treble burr into a fado . . .

Or, biting cold, foregoing the bicycle for the bus, reading under streetlights (bus late, “engine trouble”) out of Graham Robb’s The Discovery of France, how the post-revolutionary rational officialdom of the académiciens attempt’d to squelch the lingual resources of a clamour of yesses (one chapter is marvelously call’d “O Òc Sí Bai Ya Win Oui Oyi Awè Jo Ja Oua”):
The size of the Academy’s official dictionary (about fifteen thousand words, compared to forty thousand in Furetière’s dictionary of 1690) showed its determination to eradicate the rabble of synonyms, onomatopoeias and vulgarities. French was supposed to be a product of the rational mind, a beautiful estate carved out of a jungle of strange sounds and obscenities. Dialects were seen as natural excrescences of the landscape.
Though the words themselves proved the wealth and vitality of ‘patois,’ and the impoverishment of official, academic French, they were treated as a natural resource to be plundered by the dominant language. Dialect terms such as ‘affender’ (to share a meal with an unexpected visitor), ‘aranteler’ (to sweep away spiders’ webs), ‘carioler’ (to cry out while giving birth), ‘carquet’ (a secret place between breast and corset), ‘river’ (to strip off leaves by running one’s hand along a branch) and a thousand other useful gems were like trophies brought back from foreign parts and cleansed of their original context. None of them were admitted to the dictionary . . . When linguistically omnivorous writers like Balzac used dialect words . . . they were accused of sullying the language . . .
All making me think of Cathy Park Hong’s Dance Dance Revolution, with its voracious international “patois”-sing:
. . . I’s born en first day o unrest . . .
Huzza de students who fightim plisboi patos!
En gangrene smoke, youngins t’rew butane Colas
chanted por ole cantanka Rhee to step down . . . he did!
Or of Whitman’s now nigh-homiletic: “I too am not a bit tamed—I too am untranslatable; / I sound my barbaric yawp over the roofs of the world.” That zuppa inglese—a pudding of lingual unconstraint, all toss’d in the pot. Extravagant reach across centuries, across spaces in a manoeuvre against clarity, and nationalisms, and cultural “purities,” and the impoverish’d “state.”

Cathy Park Hong
(Photograph by Thomas Sayers Ellis)

Friday, January 18, 2008

The Poem of a Life Notes

A Wall

I did finish The Poem of a Life in a rip of post-midnight reading, a splendid trajectory. Answer’d in an “Appendix”: why one senses a “palpable lack” of the (received) Lorine Niedecker / Zukofsky story. Niedecker is hardly absent—just less prominent in the book than expect’d. Seemingly for two reasons: she apparently cut to pieces a large part of Zukofsky’s correspondence, in part to offer up what she call’d “just the essence, tincture of Z!, a drop to a page”—it turn’d out to number 370 typed pages!—in imitation of a project Zukofsky himself had consider’d and abandon’d: a sort of autobiography in the form of an arrangement and compiling of letters received (those from Bunting, Williams, Pound, and Niedecker). (Zukofsky, too, apparently destroy’d early letters from Niedecker.) And: the story / gossip regarding a possible “affair” between Zukofsky and Niedecker is apparently only traceable to a single unreliable witness with a grudge, Jerry Reisman. Scroggins’s refusal to conjecture or offer credence to the story within the heart of the biography seems wholly justifiable: what I wonder is if—as a result, and rather unintentionally—the reporting of the collaborative energies (by post) of the two doesn’t get tamp’d down just a little. There is, of course, the Jenny Penberthy-edited volume, Niedecker and the Correspondence with Zukofsky 1931-1970 (Cambridge University Press, 1993), for one side of things.

In a lovely phrase, Scroggins calls Zukofsky the “laureate of excision,” indefatigable parer-down to some essential syllabary. And points to Zukofsky’s refusal of epistemological wheel-spinning: one ought better spend one’s days “thinking with the things as they exist.” Too, he points to Zukofsky’s insistence that the poet’s aim is “to avoid clutter” so that “the order of his syllables will define his awareness of order. For his second and major aim is not to show himself but that order that of itself can speak to all men.” It’s in the Sidneyesque “peyzing” and placement of each syllable (vocable-piece and motif-piece in sonic or thematic recurrence) that the self comes through, thus avoiding the gloppy rote familiars of confessionalist subjectivisms. (To put it forth with excess and juice. The longer Sidney’s apt: “not speaking . . . words as they chanceably fall from the mouth, but peyzing each sillable of each worde by iust proportion according to the dignitie of the subject.”) Scroggins puts the useful term mosaic into play to depict Zukofsky’s care-intensive method of composition (to distinguish it from twentieth-century Everyman’s paste-pot clumsy collage):
In ransacking the history of Western literature, Zukofsky clearly felt that he was taking the shiniest, most colorful materials for his own “mosaic-work.” As well, “A”-22, “A”-23, and 80 Flowers dispose those bits of language on carefully considered, bold, and striking “designs”—most obviously, the six-thousand-year timelines of the two movements of “A”.
“Avoid clutter.” I admit the imperative tugs against (mocks) my (writerly) temperament, fan’tic of dizzy unreelings of excess in a profligate age. (Two sorts of writers: the Merz-constructors adding debris to debris up through the ceiling—and beyond, versus the undaunt’d whittle-skinniers cutting the oak down to the size of an acorn.) What’s notable about Zukofsky is how he works both possibilities, one against the other. The monumental push of “A”’s grandeur—two penult sections (“A”-22 and “A”-23) of one thousand lines each—and each one thousand pared down (excised) mightily out of an uncommon flourishing of notes.

Louis Zukofsky and Paul Blackburn
(Photograph by Elsa Dorfman)

Thursday, January 17, 2008

What Comes Next

Same Puddle

‘So much straw’
Is how Aquinas
Put it, writing

Provender to naught,
And the death-
Bed astink with

The harrying autochthonous
Devils of inapproachable
Night. So it

Is—stumpy meanderings,
Runt conjectures, meddle-
Some aerial ecliptics.

A yellow willow’s
Ropery adjusts its
Branches to rub

The arbitrary earth,
Unfussy mistress, tag
To a bandying

Prevaricant. A slag
Heap of misfired
Longings, torrid tootings,

Goose marasmuses, and
Bawling. (The hilarity
Of earthly needs.)

So it is.
Writing out a
Discrepant plaint, a

Measure inharmonious, a
Truckle torch’d by
The official weight

Of its burthen.
Naples and Etna,
Console and chock.

A ledge traversing
A life, ligature
And ‘swarte byndynge.’

The straw I’s
Collapsible and hardy,
Writ big into

Landscape’s own largesse,
The lavender balling
Up under sun-

Slant, black horse-
Leech stretch of
Lee-shadow where

I put down
My sack. All
Night my pen,

Shirt-pocket’d, leaks—
A pendicule of
Ink the shape

Of Corsica soaks
The cambric. I
Nod into residuum,

Simple and thin,
A theriomorph made
Of cloud-canter

Splay’d out across
The field. Nothing
Amassing at a

Regular abridgeable docket
Pace, blowing off
Into copses and

Corridors, nothing writ
In indigestible doggèd
Musickings dug out

Of the air’s
Most valiant denials,
Straw-chafery, ‘a

Kodpese like a
Pokett.’ So sewn,
So sown, doubting

Thomas Aquinas fever-
Tree-rack’d, pester’d
By the scurrilous

Droll ‘daunce’ of
What the wind
Carries off, chaff

Of mandibula, speech
Put down for
Naught, the ‘severall

Fallaxes and elenches
Of them.’ So it
Be, writ city

Word-fluvial, its
Misshapen escarpments, its
Hoist and drivel.

One pounds together
A momentary mayhem,
And goes off.

Thomas Aquinas, Fra Angelico (1395–1455)

Wednesday, January 16, 2008

The Poem of a Life Notes

Stone and Leaf

The Zukofsky biography. See if an assemblage (out of my execrably scrawl’d pencil notes) is possible. How, Mark Scroggins alerts one, the flowers strewn through all the stanzas of the second half of “A”-9 may be “intended as a submerged pun on a couple of passages” out of Spinoza’s Ethics: “The more any image has reference to many things, the more frequent it is, the more often it flourishes, and the more it occupies the mind” and “The more an image is associated with many other things, the more often it flourishes.” (The radical relationship betwixt flourish and flower did, heretofore, keep itself out the sheepish reach of my soil-caked etymological paw.) So: loading the rifts with ore, dragging the roots and rootlets (that severe hid exfoliating, the way a tree’s visible part is duplicate to its radices, its stock, supplier and occupier) of the word along into the poem: aim and practice of the topnotch (Shakespeare), by brash raw intuitings, or by precise mathematical incisings. So: apropos a tiny reverie-piece in Anew
I walked out, before
“Break of day”
And saw
Four cabins in the hay.

Blue sealed glasses
Of preserves—four—
In the window-sash
In the yard on the bay.

The waters
At the ramp
Running away.
—Zukofsky insists that the word “bay” conveys “something of all the meanings of the word ‘bay’: red brown, the laurel wreath, a bay horse, a deep bark or cry, a window-bay, a large space in a barn for storage as of hay or fodder, the state of being kept at a standstill, but more specifically two meanings that seemed to include all the others, they are, an arm of the sea and a recess of low land between hills.” Undercurrent of duration, tiny slapping wavelets of “superficial” time. Or—where’s it writ?—the imperative, “Music, itch according to its wont—” Or, bringing together “all the meanings”—“This imagined music / Traces the particular line / Of lines meeting / by chance or design.” Bass boom underthrob and high iterant recitativos. Where I go astray—likely the fault of my wily innocence of Spinoza (I did peek into the Ethics, and fled): how figure that clasp-the-daisy-root flourishing against Spinoza’s claim (Zukofsky-quoted in Bottom) that “unhealthy states of mind owe their origin for the most part to excessive love for a thing that is liable to many variations, and of which we may never seize the mastery”? Which’d seem to cut against the grain of Zukofsky’s mode of rangy variation and recurrence. Scroggins, toujours deft with the apt, quotes five lines out of “A”-12 that seem a marvel:
                              Each writer writes
one long work whose beat he cannot
entirely be aware of. Recurrences
follow him, crib and drink from a
well that’s his cadence . . .
“Crib” is the center-pole there: a purely musical (echoing off the near-mirror of “drink”) move whose semantic rags (harlequinesque, surely, in the whelm of motley—crib meaning, amongst other things, “to feed at a crib; to confine, hamper; to pilfer, appropriate, thieve; to complain, grumble”) get overlook’d at the formal—indeed, cause the others to go a little sporty (“that’s”).

Craft and precision versus onslaught and chance (“crib”-music). Scroggins’s remarking how
while Zukofsky liked to stress slow and painful composition—“Emphasize detail 130 times over—or there will be no poetic object,” or “Six nights on one page, / No complaint. / Only in the end to write it / Exactly as sketched / in the first draft”—when he was in the midst of a piece, he actually tended to write rather rapidly.
I think of Oscar Wilde’s resoundingly-fatuous-in-face-of-the-earnest “I was working on the proof of one of my poems all the morning, and took out a comma. In the afternoon I put it back again.” Or of (what I wager’s an echo of Wilde—) Charles Wright’s note that “caught / Between the edge of the landscape and the absolute”:
My job is yard work—
I take this inchworm, for instance, and move it from here to there.
Zukofsky’s back-to-first-draft skepticism somehow making the nigh-inextricable braid of sources in the late “A”-sections what? less forbidding? That, betimes, he’s just goofing like the rest of us?

Odd factoids out of The Poem of a Life (a tiny list incompleat): That WCW first call’d that book (that Zukofsky edited), THE (lang) WEDGE, or, alternatively, The Language. That when Michael Palmer invited Zukofsky to read at Harvard (1963) he went by the (given) name of George Michael Palmer. (How differently I would read a Notes for Echo Lake by George Palmer!) (I do love Palmer’s later recollection of Zukofsky: “he took up only a small part of the chair.”) That Zukofsky got asked (and sent) a manuscript to Donald M. Allen for The New American Poetry, 1945-1960 (reject’d, perhaps for reasons of age—Olson six years younger). That T. S. Eliot used the phrase “spike the guns” regarding the notes he provided to “The Waste Land”—guns of the critics who’d accuse him of hotch-potch-ismo or worse. “To render (a gun) unserviceable by driving a spike into the touch-hole; also, to block or fill up (the touch-hole) with a spike.” Lovely.

Because I get caught in the rabble of thinking (with and against) Zukofsky—and in the wind-turbulence of trying to put it to the page (wings sheering off left and right), I neglect to note things like just how excellently Scroggins reads. Here’s one tiny example, examining the smallest of “A”’s “units”—the four word “A”-16:
Given the spareness of “A”-16, the transition from “A”-15 to “A”-17 is likely to detain the casual reader only a moment; but the elegance of Zukofsky’s joinery here, how the poet has engineered the movements to fit one into the next, is masterful. “An / inequality / wind flower,” “A”-16 reads. “An / inequality” precisely repeats the first sounds of “A”-15, “An hinny” (the “an” forces one to elide the aspirate—“an ’inny”). “Inequality” brings to mind the inequalities that Zukofsky has pondered in “A”-14 and “A”-15: between first world and third word, between black and white within the United States, where all are supposedly created equal; “wind flower,” suspended delicately towards the bottom of the page, picks up on the short i of “inequality,” and ends the movement on a dying fall. But it also picks up on the floral scene at the very end of “A”-15, and leads into the “Coronal”—a crown or garland of flowers—of “A”-17. Windflower is the Greek anemone: the “an”-word beginning “A”-17 is “Anemones.” Such patterns of phonetic, thematic, and literal recurrence give “A” its unity: The harder one stares at the poem, the more one discerns such patterns.
Surely a moment of explicatory succor, and savoury!

Mark Scroggins

Tuesday, January 15, 2008

What Comes Next

The Makings

The hideous blank
Of a morning’s
Skiff of snow
Scumbling out any
Outline, and edge.
Everything bulks intrepid
And vaguely herbaceous,
A car mastodon-
Like, cumbersome with
Frowse and lost
Grace. That telephone
Pole with its
Lines sagging under
Grease-weight of
Snow: ‘a great
Fruz-tower and
A fat amber-
Necklace,’ is how
Congreve rptd. it
Somewhere. The electricians
(Pulling up out
By the loading
Dock where I
Chain my bicycle—
It’s unloading that
I see there
Mostly) unpack tools,
Strap leather belts
Up under mid-
Riff sags, there’s
A music to
All motion, muscularly
Inscript’d, the way
The fingers clench
A pencil, sense
Itself ‘shewn’ by
The disagreeablenesses of
Invention. The scroll
Is formatting itself,
The music, too,
Is a farce
Of invincibility, stuff’d
To the gills
Of its makeshift
Necessity, humming whilst
It goes, clove
To a brash
Choral redundancy, flourishing
And restrain’d (a
Pinch’d off sprig
Of gillyflower). The
Sole obstacle is
The unnamable, that
Vague consistency mid-
Brain, not exactly
A clot, too
Stringy and astringent,
In the pottage.
A mucilage or
A mucous—somehow
Not unlike okra’s
Beneficent alluvial glutin,
A slimey coagulant
Attempting to sing
Out its untemper’d
Ferocious name, isn’t
That exactly what
Every writing does?
A resurgence of
Circumstance cartwheels in
Off the blood-
Soak’d echt prairies
Where history lies
Contrary to sophistry’s
Chant a fixèd
Point, uncaught by
Slippage and drift.
Song that, mayhem,
Song that. So
Unboundedness catches in
Its throat, and
The music goes
Bashful mid-bash.

Continuing the fiction that I am pointing myself in the direction of (tying myself to the railroad tracks of) a longer piece—though maybe I’m just morning-riffing and the industry’ll go for naught. “Naught,” a poem. I read another splurge of Mark Scroggins’s ever-terrific and beauteously-writ The Poem of a Life: A Biography of Louis Zukofsky (Shoemaker & Hoard, 2007)—it’s probably becoming all too evident what a terribly slow reader I am, or how I lurch about not altogether willingly (think of the brain-box as a miniature handball court, a jeu de paume wherein the impressionists used to reside, a human-scale place) whilst reading anything. That song about “losing oneself in a book”? Nunh-unh. It’s a jittery compelling world, one of solenoid pop and ricochet and number-tumblers and bells. One emerges scathed and dizzy and plangent. Unfocus’d as a plant. Enough for now.

Kids in the Town of Latta, (Pontotoc County, Oklahoma, 1947)

Monday, January 14, 2008

The Poem of a Life Notes


Troubling the practice of sewing figures into the embroidery of a piece, numerical feints leaving faint traces, Joyce’s numerology, Zukofsky’s counting of n’s and r’s in parts of “A”-8, work difficult and largely invisible—Mark Scroggins says, “Zukofsky could not have expected any reader to detect the working of these mathematical underpinnings when reading ‘A’-8”—alors (to use the lingo of a French thug), what’s the point? And quoting Hugh Kenner’s reasoning that “Such hidden laws, presenting a different face to the poet and to us . . . suspend the whole poem on some plane other than the plane of unresisted discourse, much as musical laws, though we may not know what they are, yield effects we do not confuse with random sonority.” Or, we note a something without pinpointing its source, subliminal mischief, the movie frame that singes by “unseen” to send one suddenly off to get popcorn? Though: if one’s Zukofsky, the “sonority” of the result’s just one thing to consider—another’s how the obstacle—Cagean, where is it that Cage more or less labels art the “giving of oneself instructions, and carrying them out”?—provides a resistance, a constraint, a “self-appointed challenge.” Scroggins is exactly right in noting that the use of mathematical formulae (the numbers of n’s and r’s drawing on “the calculus of a curve,” a kind of acceleration / deceleration series) is “in the purest sense an experiment at finding, new, potentially productive structuring devises for poetry in English, just as the Italian sonnet form must have seemed revolutionary to sixteenth-century English poets.” Experiment of such complexity and originality’s to put the wan mechanical impertinences and repetitions of today’s dime-a-dozen “experimentalists” to the dogs, he ought to’ve added. (To note: Cage’s mesostic stanza out of “Composition in Retrospect”: “aCt / In / accoRd / with obstaCles / Using / theM / to find or define the proceSs / you’re abouT to be involved in / the questions you’ll Ask / if you doN’t have enough time / to aCcomplish / what you havE in mind / conSider the work finished.”)

The unfettered (other) side of Zukofsky, the “without obstacle”: horses. Thus, in a letter to Babette Deutsch, Zukofsky’s line calling the “human imagination . . . a kind of uncontrolled horse itself.” (One terrific Scroggins “interchapter” is titled “Numbers and Horses.”)

Alors, Sunday’s work incomplete, the assemblage of Zukofsky notes accumulated lifting sweet voices in protest (and waving white hankies), one leaps aback one’s current swayback vehicular beast (I love to overdo it) and drives into Detroit, an uncommon trajectory. And is spit out into a tangle, immediately lost (a little lost), that’s how it goes in the Motor City, rare dominion of empty red sandstone beauts and boulevards too wide for a sparse populace. Happy to find myself driving along Aretha though (a little lost), one of a number of Motown-monicker’d streets, and found the sought orchestral hall in plenty. James Ehnes playing Samuel Barber’s Concerto for Violin and Orchestra, Op. 14. Peter Oundjian conducting the Detroit Symphony Orchestra doing Dmitri Shostakovich’s “Leningrad” Symphony (No. 7 in C Major, Op. 60). The latter mostly composed in 1941 amidst the siege of Leningrad, boisterous and tender, notable for a crescendo—commencing Boléro-style with a banal and repetitious little tune, it “achieves” only after ten minutes of continual pilings up. There’s a scratchy little sarcastic circus music attack in there, sinister, implacable. Shostakovich points somewhere to its being “a polemic against the statement that ‘when the cannons roar the muse is silent,’” and to the midriff (intermezzo) of the piece’s trying “to express the thought that art, literature and science must advance in spite of war.” Truth is, I listen to music with a dodgy sense of approbation and an idiot’s sense of fun. I tap my foot. I decide one cellist is a shoo-in for Kenneth Rexroth, and equally anger’d by the world. If asked anything, sure am I he’d politely reply: “I would prefer that history’s / Senseless wheel ran down and the wheel / Of man’s appetite that wants to / Go on spinning for ever, stop.” And one’d know to (politely) back the f— off. I convince myself one violinist’d pass for Virginia Woolf in a pinch, high-vault’d brow, a look quizzical and constern’d, oyster-watery eyes. The cranial sweep liable to contain star-systems, odd planets, new musics made solely of arrangements of stellar debris. I see monks in brown rough-cloth robes attack’d by clowns, the red-complect’d and dwarfish violists thumb-plucking madly. Zukofsky’s line about the “Stock / Opera House of vocables— / None of us wants to sit in it—” puts in a word, and, too, the (probably stol’n) fat truth of “The vowels / abide / in consonants / like // Souls / in bodies” out of the lovely zig-zag music of “4 Other Countries.” I doodle against a knee-propped note pad, “To tend / to naught but / the haec- / city time // emits, back’d / up into / a tight / spot.”
Louis Zukofsky
(Photograph by Elsa Dorfman)

Friday, January 11, 2008

How It Begins

Aimless (Pencils, &c.)

A round of rosy post-
Slumberous companions, my dog is
One, and the scattery big
Droplets of the midwinter rain
Hitting the matted-down oak
Leaves another, or I duck
Out into the kitchen, empty,
To peel a couple of
Potatoes for boiling. Where is
That piece about Harold the
Horse, that’s got potatoes boiling
In it too. No matter,
In the reckless dismemberment of
My history, my rout out
Of the rubble, I fossick
The black notebook, find something
White as a clock, and
Post-architecturally soft, draped off
The tines of the unconniving
Fork of an angry god:
A Piece of My Autobiography
Is what it banners up:
“My middle name is Alex,
The neighbors call’d me Bing.
The autumn following the summer
Of my divers experiments with
The shaman Kurt, I suffer’d
A relapse of mimesis with
Toby, a wayfarer with a
Yen to obtund. My first
Princess is a random animal,
A Bolshevik named Agatha. Explicit
And hardy, rubbery and dull.
She snaps her fingers negligently,
And that first moment didn’t
Seem one, or more, or
Less. Agatha is aghast: I
Klaxon. It is Missus Polk
Who teaches me to correctly
Porrect my P. Palmer method,
Kept after school, a leery
Wreck in a starch’d shirt.
‘My little bum,’ and she
Guided my pencil so queerly
In the shivery cloakroom. Next
Year I had Miss Dot,
An eager prune with a
Strong sense of disabuse and
My tom-tom beat no
More ugh and ugh. I
Grew moss, and monstrous. I
Cater’d to the brown analphabetic
Birds I was present’d for
Puberty, Q-Tip and Stannous
Fluoride. I split two demi-
John’s with my half-brother
John and hit the airwaves,
Sprung out of the earth’s
Half-Nelson hold like a
Wrestler, by a bicyclist. If
Not addled, not proud, if
Not puzzled, not grand,
What he remark’d. The next
Morning a cheesy hello and,
White as a sepulchre, I
Black’d out. I wrote my
First story, ‘Gaylord Graustark Naked,
Or, Philology in the Bedroom.’
The hero discusses histrionics with
A minor Venus who is
Trapped in a fly’s body.
She is reveal’d to be
Spanish, and the tiresome tale
Concludes, That’s gonadotropic, Gaylord said,
In order to say something.”
Which is unlikely, though who’s
To say a made thing’s
Got steerage once it brooks
A high-water mark, and
books? I tender it out
Strung catgut taut and turns
Out it’d need a guy
Wire to keep it out
Of trouble. A man with
Two slipper’d feet up dirtying
The ottoman says an object
Hewn of a stump dug
Out of a lot in
Council Bluffs’d just maybe be
Prettily turn’d on a lathe
By a slapdash hoot in
Joplin, or Vernorsville. And being
Once succinct, he nods to
Somnolence. Knowing goes drafty and
Vehicular at such remove, try
Running a saw against a
Piebald mess of formica adhered
With macular imprecision to a
Block of composite, thing’ll buck
Right out of one’s hands.
Nothing for it beyond continuing,
Seeing how seeing’ll bring what’s
Unseen around with its whiff
Of hot metal, its pied
Type irretrievability, its kcheck noise
Hitting the firing bucket whilst
The rollers sweep and pivot,
Platen to lock-up, lock-
Up to ink. Seeing a
Gadabout, a gimp of delivery,
A khaki-pant’d boy with
A bouquet of jasmine achieving
A porch. Or seeing mocks
What it cannot see, a
Clown with a lash saying
Lug you’sef ovah heah,ya
Venereal fat and cupiditous one.

Calls unsatisfactory and earthly, bound up
In practical making, countersinking nail-
Heads, stuffing sphagnum into wounds,
Finding a plover’s egg under
A tump. One’s out in
The continual hungry world, indubitably
Motz, undeniably son, feverish for
Something beyond the wiry armature
Of the sensual.

Uomo di Latta

Thursday, January 10, 2008

The Poem of a Life Notes

Needles, Snow

If The Poem of a Life delivers up various Zukofsky volumes out of hoard-cranny and barrel, too, it fires the engines of one’s curiosity elsewhere. Mark Scroggins’s mention of Mallarmé’s 1877 Les Mots anglais, “a little handbook on English philology,” apparently done up for measly lucre, though containing some terrific Mallarméan observations regarding “the properties of poetic sound and the nature of language ”—not unlike the Zukofsky writings about handcrafts collect’d in A Useful Art: Essays and Radio Scripts on American Design, writings Zukofsky did after being hired by the Federal Arts Project to write for the Index of American Design—that, the Mallarmé, had me swimming in other waters (how reading works, going off up smaller and smaller tributaries, finding oneself stuck in a fog-striated dawn creek near Varna, N.Y. call’d Monkey Run, looking for a blue-wing’d warbler, source of that lazy slur—Beeee-bzzz, (inhale and exhale)—if, as one says in the Midwest, “you know what I mean.”). (Shoot a cross-bow over the bow of that sentence and maybe it’ll steer itself shoreward.) I did go off with Mallarmé for a short spell, end’d up in a piece titled “Mystery in Literature,” ga-ga about the way he argues for music’s dominance:
I know, it’s to Music that people want Mystery confined, when writing lays claim to it.

The supreme rifts produced by instruments at play, and flowing from short-lived whorls, explode more truthfully, more directly, in light-bathed argumentation, than any stretch of reasoning ever pursued; you ask yourself what terms you need from the lexicon, if ideationally, as you listen, in order to translate them, because of this nonpareil property of theirs. A plain adaptation with—how shall I say?—the feeling slipping when, at the point of contact, a word would be a dissonance, an intrusion.

Writing, that speechless flight of abstractions, reclaims its right over and against the downward pull of naked sound: both of them, Music and writing, calling for a preliminary splitting off, from speech, for fear, to be sure, of supplying idle talk.
Perfect. Aligning “writing” with music and its (I want to say unsingable) mysteries, and against speech. The paragraphs (translated by Malcolm Bowie in a New Directions Mallarmé in Prose) read with such persnickety intent, I decided to look into Barbara Johnson’s version, in the new complete translation of the 1897 Divagations (Harvard University Press, 2007). She calls it “The Mystery in Letters”:
I know, people want to limit the Mystery in Music; when writing aspires to it.

Supreme instrumental tears, a consequence of transitory winding, burst out more truly than any possible argumentation; one asks oneself, by what terms of vocabulary, if not in the idea, they should be translated, given this incomparable virtue. A direct adaptation with I don’t know what, and, during the contact, the feeling slipped in that a word would clash here, would be an intrusion.

Writing, tacit flight of abstraction, takes back its rights faced with the fall of mere sound: both it and Music presume to a prior disjunction, that of speech, for fear of adding to the chatter.
The most perfect writing, one thinks, is wordless. Somehow akin to it is Zukofsky’s attempt’d transferal of “the fugue / . . . / To poetry.” Scroggins quotes him writing to Lorine Niedecker, explaining that the music of “A”-8’d be bound up not in the intricacies of word-sound, but in “counter-pointing”: “it must be music of the statements . . . but not explanation ever—that’s why I seem to leave out—but the reader will have to learn to read statement, juxtaposed constructs, as music.”

Scroggins ably puts Zukofsky’s research and writing for the Index of American Design into context, pointing to how the fact of anonymity of many of the tin-smiths and other craftsmen he study’d, and the resultant emphasis on the made object itself contributed to Zukofsky’s aesthetic: “The anonymous was Zukofsky’s answer to Romanticism’s heroizing of the poet, his assertion that the lasting value of humanity’s makings lay in the care and craft manifested in the made object itself, rather than in the biography of its maker.” And there’s Zukofsky’s sense of duration and continuity, the object being a moment enterable by all history, by means of its use. Scroggins quotes Zukofsky: “In objects which men made and used, people live again. The touch of carving to the hand revivifies the hand that made it.” Which two hands remind one of the ax-handle piece variously done up into English by Pound in the Shih Ching: The Classic Anthology Defined by Confucius:
How cut haft for an axe?

Who hacks
holds a haft.
To hack an axe-haft
an axe
the pattern ’s near.
Though, whereas Pound’s Confucius posits a template for an infinity of objects (one kind of duration), Zukofsky seemingly puts the human maker first. Perhaps it’s within that sense of priority that lies Zukofsky’s argument for a poem’s political efficacy: that it work “to confirm revolutionary theory in sensory values.”

Is it in Zukofsky’s essay on Charlie Chaplin, where he writes that “There exists probably in the labors of any valid artist the sadness of the horse plodding with blinkers” that one finds a Zukofskyesque version of O’Hara’s “You just go on your nerve”? Blinker’d full-throttle adamancy, is there a sadness there, fix’d up against the exhilarant fuel?

Stéphane Mallarmé (1842–1898)

Wednesday, January 09, 2008

The Poem of a Life Notes

Puddle and Leaf

Slowly my various Zukofsky books assemble around the table, fetch’d forth, handy. It’s one thing a good biography is for: to point one back, renew’d, into the works. So, out of A Test of Poetry, one notes Zukofsky’s remarks about difficulty:
The less poetry is concerned with the everyday existence and the rhythmic talents of a people, the less readable that poetry is likely to be. But the forms of particular communication—which are necessary enough for a varied life—may never, in any society, be absorbed as automatically as air.
Manic stray axioms assemble too: “To live as variously as possible” and “beauty is difficult” and one looks to the folk-jig mimickry of the Thomas Hardy poem Zukofsky is pointing at cleansed of all pretense:
Yes, she is nearing,
Nearing, nearing,
Weather unfearing
To come to me.

Near is she now, O,
Now, and now, O,
Milk the rich cow, O,
Forward the tea . . .
Thus another continuum is put forth, innumerable smear of plausibles—not unlike the one stretching speech into music. Here, cadence, the everyday, the “people” pour forth in several arcs and arc-lets to reiterate in becoming various, particular (removed), “societal,” air. Zukofsky’s limit structures (functions, integrals) are pleasing and amenable and useful for the very wide swath of includables cut, and kept.

Le style Zukofsky. One thing Mark Scroggins points out in The Poem of a Life is just how “marked . . . by tense, crabbed, and clotted syntax” and “relentless intellectual abstraction” Zukofsky’s prose can be. “It is as if Zukofsky’s primary poetic impulse—to condense—when translated to the more expansive medium of exposition, produced prose from which not merely the connectives, but the particulars themselves, had been squeezed.” Scroggins reports a terrific exchange with Pound regarding “clarity”—after Zukofsky’d sent a copy of The Writing of Guillaume Apollinaire (the Taupin / Zukofsky scam-project, design’d mostly, it seems, to get a little of Taupin’s Columbia University salary into Zukofsky’s hands) to him. He quotes Pound’s reply:
I don’t know if it is YOU or René / BUT in anny kase you MUST now at once start on study of technique of FLOW. As I may have said [:] I started after Tacitus and did learn a bit about concentration / BUT AFTER that you have . . . to go out for the NEXT step / which is clarity /
Scroggins, LZ-laconic: “Zukofsky didn’t seem to get, or want to get, the hint: “clarity, in my handy dictionary,” he replied, “has two lines after it, so: ||. Which means archaic.” (I suspect I’d argue that Zukofsky’s prose-crabbedness is the result of trying to keep possibilities open—precisely to the “particular communication” that is not “absorbed as automatically as air.” That is, density, ambiguity, tangled syntax, all of that admits to continued looking and incompletion in lieu of clarity’s easy wholes. Next (rootless fossicking the surrounding volumes), I get bogged down in Aristotle quoted in Bottom: on Shakespeare and think I’d connect the LZ-prose-clench to duration: “Seeing seems to be at any moment complete, for it does not lack anything which coming into being later will complete its form . . .” (Ethics, X, 4) The question being, simply, how to write like seeing—seemingly complete, always liable to completion? Or: one attempts a writing as complete as seeing’s moment, and as unfix’d.)

Back to the biography. Stunned by both the extent of Zukofsky’s 1933 travels and contacts in Europe (through Pound he met both Constantin Brancusi and Fernand Léger, two out of a longer list he tend’d only perfunctorily to) and the apparent lack of enthusiasm for the place. Scroggins reports how, in Budapest with violist and composer Tibor Serly, Zukofsky, interview’d by a local newspaper, “claimed not to be much interested in Europe; he was there ‘chiefly to meet the master of American poetry and in some sense its father, Ezra Pound.’” (Report of the Pound / Zukofsky “Papa” / “sonny” epistolary salutes is a little cringe-making.) And, too, how disappointingly aestheticist Zukofsky’s poetics apparently sound’d to the interviewer—“above socialistic problems and class struggles.” Zukofsky’s remarks, iterated in terms of those poets (“we”) “broken with the known, customary, successful, banal forms,” point first to staking out a melopœic plot (against pomposity, against muzzy impermanences) in the wilderness, and seeing comes second:
. . . we tend to write an expressive and musical verse rather than a magniloquent one. We seek the plasticity of words and their interrelations and musical connections rather than their denotations. We look for actual beauty (value) and not for atmosphere.
Scroggins details, too, how, in leftist circles in the Depression-wrack’d U. S., where a “simplifying aesthetic, whose ultimate goal was rhetorical: to move the work’s reader to political action,” such a stance’d be greet’d with dismissal. Indeed, New Masses editor Mike Gold insist’d that such “verbal acrobatics” were “only another form of bourgeois idleness.”

I love the tiny story of Zukofsky’s rather unworldly suggestion to Basil Bunting—who’d “arrived in New York, carrying a sextant and sporting ‘yeoman muscles’ from a year of living alone on a six-ton sailboat, wandering around the coasts of England”—that he “might work for Lorine Niedecker’s father, who seined carp” in Wisconsin. I like to think how literary history might’ve changed.

Louis Zukofsky

Tuesday, January 08, 2008

Doggy Life

Chien de vie

Rain all night, splashing mischief into heroic undaunt’d sleep. And rain all morning, full slicker’d yellow bicycling, soak’d socks, sopping begrimed bag. Droplets streaking the round optics, exemplary pre-fracture world out there, post-lapsarian, preternatural. The crows know it—flocking aimlessly. The dog knows it, bellying down to pee “at” the few piles of remaining snow. Alain Badiou knows it: “Every truth, whether bound to calculation or extracted from the song of natural language, is above all a power. Truth has power over its own infinite becoming. It can provide a fragmented anticipation of a universe without completion.” Unprecedented rain light making for a wash, a method. And Rimbaud, he who’s always “in a hurry to find the place and the formula”: “Method, we affirm you!” Jamming, pointing the shatter’d glass at a page, rain-besmear’d, titled “What Is a Poem?” One possibility: “a new survey of the resources of language.” (I drag one file to another and am inform’d by a “dialogue box”: “Copying ‘Definitive Collection’ to ‘Definitive Collection.’”) Another possibility: “mere” rapture took down in the presence of a presence. A representational grunt of acknowledgment. Sniffing in the mollusk-scent’d air! Another: dogging a field zig-zaggedly, snout to the furrows, nosing up a reticular trace unsung!

Another version. Reading latish at The Poem of a Life. Where reading singes (monkeys up) the scribbling nerve, and one reads without writing. (Incapacity to say it straight.) Memory obscures itself in reading, and then the rain comes down—blotting and pernicious—and one’s stuck with patches of it, or snatching it back like Clarence Carter. The tiniest handy ingredient goes into the goulash. Emerson, in Venice, soaking it in: “I collect nothing that can be touched or tasted or smelled, neither cameo, painting, nor medallion; nothing in my trunk but old clothes, but I value much the growing picture which the ages have painted & which I reverently survey.” And poor dead W. G. Sebald noting that “we are a species in despair.” “We’re living exactly on the borderline between the natural world from which we are being driven out, or we’re driving ourselves out of it, and that other world which is generated by our brain cells. And so clearly that fault line runs right through our physical and emotional makeup. And probably where these tectonic plates rub against each other is where the sources of pain are. Memory is one of those phenomena. It’s what qualifies us as emotional creatures, psychozootica . . . I think there is no way in which we can escape it. The only thing that you can do, and that most people seem to be able to do very successfully, is to subdue it.” So, one walks, upright, “with the dog.”

Rain, Upright

Monday, January 07, 2008

The Poem of a Life Notes


Mark Scroggins’s Zukofsky biography, The Poem of a Life carries one along, willing and avid, between the ongoing weekend chores, the post-charivari (only, I suppose, in the sense that the seasonal excess, that marriage of brute commerce and easy sentiment, is headache-making) mop-up ops. I love its structure of chronological flow interrupt’d by pause—the “interchapters”: “unnumbered discussions of topics in Zukofsky’s writing and thought: figures who influenced him, ideas and images that obsessed him, compositional techniques to which he frequently turned.” It’s rather as if the structure mimics two opposing and inseparable human models of time: a Spinozan duratio (“indefinite continuation of existing”) wherein the one moment collects another in overlay, an unclockable synthesis unlock’d by the reader reading versus Shakespearean everyday “Devouring time,” precipitous time timing away inutterably, unstoppable. (Something of that being what Scroggins explores in the second interchapter, the one titled “Duration, ‘Liveforever’: Time.”) There’s a satisfying rhythm of chronos and topos, travel and pause, to the book, a thing nigh novelistic—I think of the Flaubertian rhythms of scene and summary.

Two things it’s obvious Scroggins is good at: limning milieus and “secondary” characters with full-flesh’d tangible detail, though swiftly enough so’s not to interrupt the narrative pace. So we have fine miniatures of René Taupin, say, or Basil Bunting. And: excellent (and context-smart) close readings of Zukofsky’s poems (beginning with “Poem beginning ‘The’” and moving directly into the early-composed movements of “A”.) The latter’s got me with my copy out for another perusal—it must be about ten years back that I first blast’d straight through it with a kind of determination to sop up what I could, and damn the rest—a pure kind of reading akin to travel without the cumbersome guidebooks. Liable to get one off into the undergrowth up an oddly military (guarded) hill of, say, Athens—bursting out into a bunch (mitraillette’d and fatigue’d) of soldiers, and absolutely missing the big fluted stones crowning the Acropolis, whazzat? but (such reading) a way of seeing—“phwhat nerve!” as Zukofsky says somewhere—the tinier things examinable hors de contexte. N’y a pas de horse there. (Says Derrida somewhere.) (Or Stein.)

A few scribbles. Talking about Bunting (the American Zukofsky and the Northumbrian Bunting the two greatest “ears” of the immediate post-Pound “era”?), Scroggins writes how following a brief Bunting-initiated note of 1930, “Over the next four decades, Zukofsky and Bunting would carry on a constant, detailed correspondence, and would show themselves continually aware of their position as—in the words of Pound’s Guide to Kulchur (1938), dedicated to the two men—“strugglers in the desert.” And, being an amateur of letters, that’s enough to get me plowing around in the notes to the book: isn’t there somebody who’d swiftly put that exchange together for us epigones? (BB to LZ letters in Austin, LZ to BB where?) There’s something unjust about literary history, how it’ll all—the part that’ll thrill one most, that of our near-contemporaries, the ones who boot’d us into the very tracks they trod, and got us “going”—out too late (think of Ashbery’s letters, think of—damn the clench-fist’d—O’Hara’s) for us “for whom they’d matter most.”

The story of Zukofsky’s experience (1929-30) translating (out of German) a hack-job biography of Albert Einstein. Zukofsky the parer-down, the tightener (in “A” he quotes the Einstein axiom that “Everything should be as simple as it can be / . . . / But not simpler”) confronted with the biographer’s “rambling, directionless prose, and with his own obligation as translator to render all of that prose,” finds some little satisfaction only in Einstein’s own half-page preface. Scroggins provides the essential of it, Einstein’s recognition that in the biography:
What has been overlooked . . . is the irrational, the inconsistent, the droll, even the insane, which nature, inexhaustible operative, implants in an individual, seemingly for her own amusement. But these things are singled out only in the crucible of one’s own mind.         This is as it should be. For, otherwise how could the isolation of distance be approximated?
Which reminds me of Nabokov, that putting of nature into the rôle of grand artificer insouciantly baiting little traps for the earnest makers, trifling with the seriosos, meaning us. And, of course, Zukofsky, too, doing the “implants,” humoring the humorless, gleeful taunt mode—“oreye mush blige” or “142 Is it true what you say, Zukofsky, / 143 Sorry to say, My Peter Out” or “The flute / The flute / The fluke.” Mockery and pratfall, the honorable caustics.

Changed: one’s sense of how adamantly Zukofsky opposed group formations, and how strenuously Pound (and maybe moreso Harriet Monroe, who, apparently sensing the marketing opportunity inherent in an identifiable—nameable—“movement”) had to push to get the “Objectivists” born. Monroe writes, “I shall be disappointed if you haven’t a ‘new group,’ as Ezra said . . . I think you should have an editorial showing what you and your group are aiming at and what you think of modern tendencies in general.” And Zukofsky writes (back to Pound): “Naturally, I haven’t a ‘group’ or know one . . . ‘Perhaps’ you know of a new group.” Too, Scroggins offers up T. S. Eliot’s 1944 comment (out of “What Is Minor Poetry?”) on groups—Eliot likely referring to Pound’s imagists of thirty years earlier, how
. . . a small group of young writers, with certain affinities or regional sympathies between them, may produce a volume together. Such groups . . . frequently bind themselves together by formulating a set of principles or rules, to which usually nobody adheres; in course of time the group disintegrates, the feebler members vanish, and the stronger ones develop more individual styles.
What’s rather astounding is how forty or so years later the Language boys prop up the Objectivists not only as a group formation, but one that got somehow ruin’d, lost, hegira’d and silenced by other (damnable) literary forces. Scroggins’s report of Pound’s hectoring of Zukofsky a couple years earlier to form a group that’d make use of Pound’s magazine the Exile (“Somebody OUGHT to form a group in the U.S. to make use of the damn thing now that I have got it in motion”) reminds me more than a little of Ron Silliman’s overblown breathless greetings to even the most mechanickally asinine and simperingly cynical (Flarf) or sotto voce’d joking asides (the New Brutalists) of groups. (Though that attitude’s capable of being replaced by a kind of know-it-all “you youngsters’ll never . . . if you don’t” discourse of the “ought.”) Fact is, for the document of origin, the famed issue of Poetry dated February 1931 and titled “‘Objectivists’ 1931”—note Zukofsky’s quotation marks, Zukofsky cut down a piece on Charles Reznikoff he’d written the year before, and offer’d it up in place of any “manifesto.” And nigh-immediately, in a letter to Carl Rakosi, admitted that he found the whole group notion “Foolish—but may excite the reading booblik, hysterectomied & sterilized readers of ‘Poetry’—and I owe it (maybe) to the honor (!) of my contributors.” Ah, the booblik’s necessary gwoupuscules . . .
Louis Zukofsky
(Photograph by Elsa Dorfman)