Friday, April 18, 2008

Dos Passos Notes

Lamp-post and Palm


The moment, pre-sun-
Up, when the under-
Belly of clouds is
Umber’d and the scurvy-
Color of the marsh
Reminds one of Mark
Catesby hoisting a flint-
Lock to bring down
A limpkin lifting smartly
Out of the saw-
Grass, hummock’d and sere.
An ought clumsy way
Of writing, one bulbous
With rain, or lop-
Sided like a crab
Reaching out with one
Big claw, the other
Vestigial, mock, exercising dumbly
In faultless air. A
Menu in a cafeteria
Lists John Marzetti, green
Beans, canned Bartlett pears
In syrup, and milk.
A poster for BAREFOOT
With burnt sienna hills
Pinned up against a
Citified domain of yellow,
The cardstock itself, making
Urban the norm against
Which the natural’s imposed.
And the moment’s fat
Coagulant pull busts up
Under its own glom
Kleptography, writing it down
To snatch it in,
Benignly thieving time’s constant
Off-loading, asks itself
Who’s John Marzetti? recalls
A viably nondescript casserole,
Pre-dominant in mid-
Western grade schools, named
For a janitor, named
For a moment sack’d.

Continuing curiosity about John Dos Passos, who sign’d letters “Jack,” who near Verdun in 1917, in a war he calls “utter damn nonsense,” writes in a diary about using a garden for a makeshift dugout against German shells:
It is just the sort of garden a pensive little French boy with large brown eyes & premature scepticisms should play in, a garden full of such plaisance with its white roses and its fat-juiced pears and its white blotches of phlox-flowers among evergreens that it makes one hate still more all the foolishnesses with which men try to disturb the rich ease of life—The soul of it is in the faint breath of box, musty with generations of tranquil closes, shutting out the turbid asininity of life about of us, or of death & dullness.
      Death, that should come tranquilly, like the dropping of an over ripe pear, brimming with sweetness, why should it come in the evil shriek of a shell? And what’s it for, what’s it for? Governments are only makeshifts—like patent toothpaste—less important perhaps—and who would die for toothpaste, or kill for it.
      The gas waves of stupidity!
The clumsy blurt and dash of it—that’s some of what keeps reminding me of William Carlos Williams. (See remarks on “style” in a 1918 letter to Rumsey Marvin, pure WCW: “About style—I think that reading people in order to get ‘style’ from them is rather soft-headed. Your style is like the color of your hair or the cut of your pants—half-accident, half act of God—to take thought to change or improve it results usually in rank affectation.” O’Hara’s blithe “common sense” of pants “tight enough so everyone will want to go to bed with you” is a step away from Dos Passos’s equally blithe—and funny—“half act of God.”)

Dos Passos, immediately following the ditty quoted, makes an odd complaint considering the bold romp of the farrago preceding—the longing to “write verses”: “I cant concentrate my mind enough on any one rhythm or mood—My ideas come in little hesitant showers, like flower petals when a wind blows after rain.” (Predicting exactly the farouche splash and change-up to come in U.S.A., most wildly “poetic” of novels, intersplicing newsreel headlines and semi-garbled (that is, in a helter-skelter present, unfilter’d by retrospect’s sort and meaning-assignment) historical narratives with biographical sketches (Eugene V. Debs, Randolph Bourne, “The House of Morgan,” Paul Bunyan) with individual character-trajectory (aimless, interwove, inconclusive as any life) with parts call’d “The Camera Eye” wherein Dos Passos deposits in Joycean running (smeary) ruminant patches all “the subjective” impulses, vaguely tracing and recording a life of pure sensation, all, according to Dos Passos, a planned means of keeping such a contaminant (the self) out of the remainder of the novel.

(Reading some early prose to comrades Dos Passos reports: “their sum of criticism was that things are too jerky, not elaborated enough and that too much is left unsaid, so that the unfortunate reader wallows desperately in a slough of constant misunderstandings. My retort was that happenings meant nothing in themselves, anyway—and that I tried to give that impression, by the recurrence of words & phrases etc—”) And everywhere the argument for the free life of the individual (“our natural American easygoingness”), the rejection of the instituted and organized (“Organization kills” and “The world as it is at present hardening into organization seems to be a worse place for humanity than it has almost ever been before”), coupled with a recognition and lament for the stupid inadequacy of such a stance, how it allows power (any power) its viciousness, it cudgel, offers itself as prey (“How damnable is the vast complacency of people about the world” and “I suppose one should do something conspicuous if possible—I hate conspicuousness—We have so much to do—it will take generations to leaven the great stupid mass of America . . .”)

Too, one finds in the young Dos Passos a kind of gusto and ferocity gone out the precincts of so much of the present’s fat conformity, the self-satisfy’d cultural consumers, phlegmy consumptives of the one keyboard stroke global zupping. To Rumsey Marvin (1918):
Like you I believe in frugal living, unwasteful—Like you I abhor the puppyish lying about of college life, the basking in the sun with a full belly. Life is too gorgeous to waste a second of it in drabness or open-mouthed stupidity. One must work and riot and throw oneself into the whirl. Boredom and denseness are the two unforgivable sins. We’ll have plenty of time to be bored when the little white worms crawl about our bones in the crescent putrifying earth. While we live we must make the torch burn ever brighter until it flares out in the socket. Let’s have no smelly smouldering.
O’Hara’s admonition and exhortation clatters forth in agreement: “Don’t be bored, don’t be lazy, don’t be trivial, and don’t be proud. The slightest loss of attention leads to death.”

John Dos Passos, “Still Life with Plants and Apples in a Basket,” c. 1964

John Dos Passos, 1896-1970