Friday, August 29, 2008

Core Kora



                        Only suppose
One were to argue with
(By means of) music itself,
Icing meaning down, letting a
Phonic swath made of letters—
Each rocketing through the turn-
Stile of the vocal narrows
A little differently, and just
Recklessly enough to trouble a
Chamber to resound against air.
It is unlikely one’d succeed:
Dun bicameralism, done din, John
Donne two-legged like a
Compass, one down, one circling.
My argument is a freight’d
Diminuendo, a horn-pipe skirl’d
Out by a bag of
Air jammed against a rib.
A remote way robotic of
Making anything sing. My dog
Is circling about, too, propitiously
Looking askance, whining toward night.
Out there the insects make
A variable sawing, scritch of
Emery board, rasp of wood
Rasp, and the melodic interject’d
Into the percussive slurry. A
Truck tire catches a loose manhole cover and tips it up so that a rear tire’ll slam it down doubly hard, clunk-clunk, a Morse code A, dot-dash. No beleaguer’d encrypting indeterminacy, no tawdry designating of no insufficient thing. A thing sufficient to itself. A thing that nicks the solidity is what William Carlos Williams says. That, and “Eclipse of all things; sun’s self turned hen’s rump.” A line I associate with Apollinaire’s Soleil cou coupé where “Zone” goes to the chopping block and the butchery I invariably see is direct’d against a rooster. Deliverable violence of words.

What start’d out of Lyn Hejinian’s talk about saga is apparently going to continue for a spell (I rather moronically decided to add to it for one hundred days, likely without altering its declared rhythm of Zukofskyan fivers interrupt’d by pools of prose, though who knows?) The weekend squibs’ll go into a folder, mostly to insure that its (“The Everyday”)’s ingenious formal nodes and hazards go (at least temporarily) incognito, a crave in the stir of the world’s body. Unh-hunh.

I went looking for a copy of Kora in Hell yesterday, curious about the context of the lines “A thing known passes out of the mind into the muscles, the will is quit of it, save only when set into vibration by the forces of darkness opposed to it.” (And found it preceded by two sentences: “That which is known has value only by virtue of the dark. This cannot be otherwise.” Where the emphasis shifts out of the embodiment of knowledge to its place. I think of Joan Retallack’s writing about figure / ground shifts: is a thing singularly seeable only in gestures of “background” denial? Somewhere Retallack talks about the kinds of drawings that look’d at one “way” become, say, “of” a goblet, another “way,” “of” two profiles approaching for a kiss: an instability exactly like Williams’s “set into vibration.” Retallack quotes R. L. Gregory in Eye and Brain:
Ambiguous figures put our perceptual system at a curious disadvantage; because they give no clue of which bet to make, and so it never settles for one bet. The great advantage of an active system of this kind is that it can often function in the absence of adequate information by postulating alternative realities.
(The lines of Williams form a commentary “note” to one of the late improvisations, one that includes the sentence: “The screaming brat’s a sheep bleating, the rattling crib-side sheep shaking a bush.” Where Retallack is (partially) using the ambiguous figure trope to consider how a poem might be “nothing but content . . . and coextensive with it . . . nothing but form,” Williams’s juxtaposing of the lines about knowing against the two turbulent metaphors of brat-sheep’d seems to go against the kind of periodic renouncing of such relational gambits elsewhere. (See, in the “Prologue” to Kora in Hell: “the coining of similes is a pastime of very low order, depending as it does upon a nearly vegetable coincidence. Much more keen is that power which discovers in things those inimitable particles of dissimilarity to all other things which are the peculiar perfections of the thing in question.”)

I intend’d something completely different. How I went looking in the stacks for Kora in Hell and found a batter’d copy of the 1920 Four Seas Company edition, fox’d and water-stain’d and typo’d and ample. The “Prologue” is the peppier of the two parts: like so many experimental doings of the twentieth century (and the twenty-first) the panning out of practice provides a tedium against which the nugget of theory’d better light up—another possible meaning of Williams’s “virtue of the dark.” I note how Williams’s first line—“The sole precedent I can find for the broken style of my prologue is Longinus on the Sublime and that one far-fetched”—is unabashedly echo’d four decades later by Ron Silliman in “The New Sentence.” What makes the “Prologue” sing is its mustering of a variety modernist arguments and assessments (in the form of letters by Pound, Stevens, H.D.) Suddenly Williams it seems is nowhere more attentive to (worrying) reception, that heinous under-buckler that girds one up or breaks one down, (and trusses all who attend to it). Catch the lingo of, “Of all those writing poetry in America at the time she was here Marianne Moore was the only one Mina Loy feared.” Or the one-two punch of one paragraph relating how Pound’s first response to some of Williams’s improvisations (“he urged me to give some hint by which the reader of good will might come at my intention”) follow’d mischievously up by Williams’s story of Pound’s “glancing through some book of my father’s” (“‘It is not necessary,’ he said, ‘to read everything in a book in order to speak intelligently of it. Don’t tell everybody I said so.’”) One persistent argument: the pared down, the “Hellenist,” the rock solid versus the permeable, the exfoliating, the promiscuous. Pound to Williams:
The thing that saves your work is opacity, and don’t forget it. Opacity is NOT an American quality. Fizz, swish, gabble, and verbiage, these are echt Americanisch.
(And Williams retorting that ferment, “the dispersive explosion,” is exactly what is required: “Hellenism . . . is too staid, too chilly, too little fecundative to impregnate my world.”) H.D. telling Williams she want’d “to delete from your poem all the flippancies . . . the hey-ding-ding touch” and Williams insisting that “There is nothing in literature but change and change is mockery. I’ll write whatever I damn please, whenever I damn please and as I damn please and it’ll be good if the authentic spirit of change is on it.” Stevens (in a letter to Williams) trying to have it both ways, rock in the stream:
      . . . My idea is that in order to carry a thing to the extreme necessity to convey it one has to stick to it; . . . Given a fixed point of view, realistic, imagistic or what you will, everything adjusts itself to that point of view; and the process of adjustment is a world in flux, as it should be for a poet. But to fidget with points of view leads always to new beginnings and incessant new beginnings lead to sterility.
(The sterility of the fragmentist, the collector of in(con)sequential one-shots.) Against Stevens’s “fixed point of view”—orchestrator of the flux, like a conductor, like a commanding officer—Williams, in the improvisations proper, posits an opposing model: the solid particular that releases the mind into its own glut and fervency.
The particular thing, whether it be four pinches of four divers white powders clearly compounded to cure surely, safely, pleasantly a painful twitching of the eyelids or say a pencil sharpened at one end, dwarfs the imagination, makes logic a butterfly, offers a finality that sends us spinning through space, a fixity the mind could climb forever, a revolving mountain, a complexity with a surface of glass: the gist of poetry.
It is what, finally, Kora in Hell is for: “deliverance . . . from the desolation of a flat Hellenic perfection of style.”
The attention has been held too rigid on the one plane instead of following a more flexible , jagged resort. It is to loosen the attention . . . that I write these improvisations.
      The imagination goes from one thing to another. Given many things of nearly totally divergent natures but possessing one-thousandth part of a quality in common, provided that be new, distinguished, these things belong in an imaginative category and not in a gross natural array. To me this is the gist of the whole matter.
Problem is: if there comes a point where it is no longer possible to make a distinction between “imaginative category” (index, alphabet) and “gross natural array” (lump sum, pile, compilation), what then?

William Carlos Williams
(Photograph by Hans Normoth, Beinecke Rare Book & Manuscript Library)

Thursday, August 28, 2008

The Grand Piano Notes



Box of pure inflect, the
Way one knows a harangue
By a Bible-thumper long
Before one ascertains a single
Word, or is pummel’d by
Loss and its dull blue
Idiocy by another’s farewell monody
Sound’d through a hubbub of
Imprecise and relentless leave-takings.
So one knows the weather
By its impertinent changeableness, the way it scuffs up a perfectly blue sky with drab-looking clouds, and furrows. I scrub out a frying pan and slice a tomato. I pour orange juice into a glass the color of insect-trapping pitch. I look up segotia in the Webster’s: not there. Teetering seems of what is enough. How to assemble a thing that dips into and curdles up the sour whey of time’s meagrest onslaughts (moments it is not “there” at all). I’d better rouse the sleeping boy again. Or the way it is a stopcock for a mind’s rummaging: I know time is not stopped because a sequence of words avails itself of me, my little motor, even if one string’ll get stuck and repeat. Tableaux vivants. Meaning language at a standstill, though well-lit, though in period gear, though reeking of greasepaint and rouge and lime “smoaking” up the loveseats in the boxes and the domed ceiling d’orée’d with stars.
The fetch of the transfigurable,
That’s what makes us tick.
Tedium is the aesthetic strategy
Of the stars, malign whimsy-
Workers, apparel’d in caustics and
Fires, don’t bother with stars.
There’s a burgeoning necropolis of
Stories uninhabitable, nobody’ll ever get
It all down. An orange
Cat hits out at air
And withdraws. Is economics a
Natural phenomenon maim’d by statistical
Over-advantage? Global-figure warp
Speed. I carry a bowl
To the sink.

The Grand Piano #6: mopping up. Ted Pearson segues off Rae Armantrout’s Siren-stomp and ducks into a Greek smithy shed to bang together a latticework of connections and relations: the Siren songs versus silence, that demandingly “empty signifier” filling with one’s own desires; the Sirens and Hélène Cixous’s “the language that women speak when no one is around to correct them”; the Malatestan reversal of Ecclesiastes inscribed near the tomb of the terrifically-named mistress Isotta degli Atti: tempus loquendi: tempus tacendi, what Pound took to repeating in the late botch of Venice (evidence of Pearson’s deft Hephaestan smithing: he notes Malatesta’s intertwining I and S—Isotta and Sigismundo—replacing the usual “sacred monogram” IHS, and riffs: “The H Malatesta places under erasure stands for hoc, ‘this’—from the motto of the Church Militant, in hoc signo vinces, ‘in this sign, you well conquer’—a canny instance of lettristic play we can take to mean ‘not this.’” A fine example of writing Derrida, Pound, Malatesta, Rimbaud, Silliman, Cixous, and Isou—at least—all on one sheet of paper, and proceeding to squabble it up into a toss-ball lacking only a target.) Most of Pearson’s piece works similarly, running high cotton exchanges on “language beyond speech” among some classical stalwarts (Sappho “struck dumb by lust” versus Catullus simply struck dumb), and others. All to resuscitate, long-windedly, though with moments of chilly finesse, the story of the languaged body (and how it tangles with the body of language (“Words’ materially, no less than our own, derives from the very particles and waves that allow us to speak, hear, write, and read them” in one of the more schoolbookish formulations.)

Ah, materiality! One’d think, to listen to some late-century yatterers, it only recently conceived and noted. Think of Sir Philip Sidney’s talk of “fittest raiment,” of poets “not speaking . . . words as they chanceably fall from the mouth, but peizing each syllable of each word by just proportion according to the dignity of the subject.” That obvious sensed weightedness of the word-materiel (reminiscent of Demosthenes talking with ’s mouth full of pebbles): pure materiality. Pearson quotes the Williams of Kora in Hell (“a thing known passes out the mind into the muscles, the will is quit of it, save only when set into vibration by the forces of darkness opposed to it”) and concludes: “Whence, from the actual body that writes, the subject sings of desire.” What if the “will . . . quit of it” is akin to the sapping Doxa, or leveling habit, whatever allows words to “chanceably fall from the mouth” inconsequent and weightless? (I am arguing with myself here: between writing as involuntary physical act of the body, that lightning rod pulling words out of the aether rather indiscernably; and that same involuntary lack of “will” leading only to the spurious and sententious, the unmistakable slush of the period style indistinguishable.) I do like Pearson’s gist of “What, after all, is a literary work if not a lexicon cast in disarray? At issue is what we literally make of language’s constitutive disorder—including statements.” Only question is why “statement” is singled out as a discursive singularity. Seems so male prerogatory assertingly pushy, no? (Pearson quotes Watten: “Language . . . must be the relation of an inadequacy, of a statement to itself. But statements are what I wanted to make.”)

Alarmingly, Tom Mandel quotes Ned Sublette (The World That Made New Orleans) talking (rather indirectly) about the “avant-garde” as “a site . . . of culturally encrypted communication.” I say “alarmingly” as a partisan of Peter Bürger’s vaunting of an historical vanguard defined by its desire to posit little difference between art and everyday life, to whittle down that boundary, realign art’s practice with that of lived life. And Mandel: “the word encryption did get me thinking about places we encode with margins, even frontiers, to mark out what is ‘not for them’ in a world that is ‘not for us.’” (The t-shirt: “You wouldn’t get it, it’s a L=A=N=G=U=A=G=E thing.”) So it’s predictable, where Mandel goes, reminiscing a Chicago youth: Bughouse Square for its Wobblies and cranks; The Sutherland Lounge (in a “black mohair suit . . . wearing shades at night and with my hair combed straight back”) for Miles Davis; and the Gate of Horn for the inaugural Big Table reading (founded in 1959, after “the University of Chicago suppressed an issue of Chicago Review that included work by Jack Kerouac, Allen Ginsberg, and William S. Burroughs.”) Nothing of any consequence occurs in any of the vignettes: a walk down a tenement hallway, through “a service door reinforced with wire screen” and out into an alley (and back); a walk down another (Sutherland Lounge) hallway and out to interrupt Miles Davis mid-cigarette (“That’s all right, man” in “inimitable gravel”); not finding the door to whatever hallway’d lead to “the post-reading party” (“I had the briefest of talks with Ginsberg, only a couple of sentences, and I remember nothing of it.”) Along the way Mandel reports how a “young pianist” says to him: “You really want to be black, don’t you.” And how he, too, consider’d himself (if only partially, a little wryly) “beat,” writing poetry that “reflected in a confused way the influences of Eliot and Pound, Ginsberg and Brother Antoninus, and the poets of the forties I read in Oscar William’s Pocket Book of Verse, especially Gene Derwood.” Cred talk. Mandel’s the “youngest,” one (with ’s friend P__) of “the only Caucasians” (in the Sutherland).

In a “Coda,” Mandel relates an imaginary conversation with Miles Davis wherein Davis talks about CIA meddling in Black Mountain, in Jackson Pollack’s Life magazine notoriety, in Davis’s own kicking of heroin. And, after Mandel theatrically (and brusquely) says “in about forty years, I think I’m going to write
Like participation, perhaps resistance
has been forced upon us too,
Miles instructs: “write it when you know it, and it’ll have a chance.” And adds: “That word you took from your friend’s book title—encryption—that’s an art, man.” Slender jokes about too tight suits, and curtain, man. Is it the presumptuousness of Mandel’s indirect aligning of himself (and the Language boys) with black resistance movements that I find intolerable? It is. And to see it come with a gerry-rigged Miles Davis stamp of approval. One turns one’s back against it.

An assembly of notes to The Grand Piano (compleat): 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 30 31 32 33 34 35 36 37 38 39 40 41 42 43 44 45.


Wednesday, August 27, 2008

The Grand Piano Notes

A Cosmos


                              Bob who? is what the yonkers say, salience another word for sticking out one’s tongue. The everyday is hid: that is one definition of the everyday. It is the forlorn history of a quarrel with history that makes the everyday shy off unuseably. A walk into the blacking night, out where the katydids do brushes, snared by summer’s end. Reading a page of Greek history each night, stalking a sense of contiguity in the land’s scar, cut by fire, the burning of dead warriors made one day on the Scamander plain. “Age” ought to go in the title of any story about the everyday: “The Age of the Everyday.”
To prevent, deter, distract, thinking
Heists itself up into pitch
And glyph, and so ceases.
Its wild impermeable empirical suck
Gone to smithereens of thought,
Saleable courtesy cards, oily personal
Cups of munchies, master mixes.
Or the yellow sun arrives
Tintinnabulating like a cymbal struck
And a morning begins with
A walk under the cyanide-
Color’d sky, feet a retort
To the brain’s selectable capsules.
A rabbit nuzzling into clover.
One awaits the pitch and
Yaw of turbulence that signals
A dash beyond the common-
Place utility-mongering, out into
A field tassel’d with asters,
Goldfinches bouncing in flight, singing
On the run. The vocabulary
Of obscenity is not easy,
The vocabulary of the everyday
Smudges out beyond the bandwidth
Required for its receipt, it
Is grunt and sigh, clipped
Off vocables and shrugs. A
Radio is a rhythm.

Rae Armantrout’s short offering in the sixth volume of The Grand Piano traverses gender’d territory between The Feminine Mystique (“the unexplained restlessness of housewives stranded each morning with their vaunted new appliances”—a terribly ’fifties scene in the Viewfinder; today it is all of us, inexplicably empty-head’d and lacking all will in the vasty post-surf space of our sleek “laptop and venti-sized chai” run-ins with the world) and Kathy Acker’s “radical surgery on the canonical text, removing some part of it and replacing it—absurdly, daringly, glaringly—with some version of herself.” And, quoting opening lines of a 1987 poem titled “Necromance,” Armantrout slightly shifts the George Oppen lines of the volume’s epigraph (“Obsessed, bewildered // By the shipwreck / Of the singular”) to read: “The Siren always sings / like this. Morbid / glamour of the singular.” And, in fine self-explicatory fettle, claims that (in the poem) the song of the Sirens “is connected with an attractive aesthetic which celebrates precision and, implicitly, identity”:
The desire for the singular runs deep in Western culture. The siren song may be luring explorers to search for the smallest, indivisible particle of matter, for instance, or for the “mot juste.” In either case, the poem implies the search is doomed from the start. The beauty of the classical Sirens’ song drove men mad and, presumably, caused shipwrecks.
A goodly and palatable fining down, and succinctly limn’d. It puts singularity in the hoosegow of the helpless, the drawn, the garreteer. A singularity in physics is that unresolvable point where all human-made laws collapse into gibberish. What, though, to extend Armantrout’s meditation, of the siren song of community, the “scene,” that “glam” storm of yea-saying glitter and competitive grutch? Isn’t that, in fact, the more suasive of the Sirenic regimens? Isn’t it there that the blood-rush of sheer number whelms up to quash (the helpless, the drawn, the garreteer)? “Of being numerous,” indeed: at what point’s the fecund gaiety of “the gang’s all here”—coterie junction—tip into the commandeering kind of morbidity of the mob, with its own brand of “morbid glamour”?

T=H=E    D=O=L=O=R=S    O=F    T=H=E    N=E=W

Tuesday, August 26, 2008

The Grand Piano Notes

A Wall (“American Gothic”)


                                                                        Hurrahs for the finite transitory bop of context, reckless and permeable like a Sting T-shirt, its way of letting meaning’s osmotic sluice “have its way” with a thing: so the writing gets taint’d by no retro-fittings, slovenly and torn like a man call’d Cy. Ah, the justificatory ways of erring, whole schools of erring! Angel gibberish, immaterial and nervous. If one’s longing for a signature that’ll lodge itself in a furrow of unspaded earth: paint with paints. Writing is for buffing up the post-honorary and musical like a soul-shouter grabbing ’s crotch.
Everyday I sing the blues
And everyday the black red
Gardenias carry down a celestial
Writing to earth, yellow coronas
Of it, epicurean and beggarly
Both, the way of all
Things. Every day scoots off,
A firecracker in its teeth,
And one square mountain repeating
Its dullard’s gape at sky
That is measured only by
Its passing, it and a
Tree that is a stand-
In for a tree. What’s
A profile for if not
To flaunt? Just now out
In the kitchen I sliced
A cucumber the long way
After paring off its bumpy
Skin, examined the whitish seeds—
Benign uncials sunk in pulp—
With rudimentary indifference uproot’d, with
A sense of vernacular green
Tossing out its primeval taunts.
I did not. Angels puckering
Up in the paintings of
Old Masters made me say
It—the natural world is
Not a book, it refuses
To speak to any of us, and rightfully so. Even if yon torrid apricot of a cloud ought arrive in a fleecy coach to bend my ear with homily and cream, I’d feign not cotton to it! Everyday one reads a page or two of Capital. or some lines “left upon a Seat under a Yew Tree.” And everyday ones writes back, digressing noisily like a jay, or cutting through blue air with a blue slash, oh you interpreter! One story begins with a boy and a girl in a piney woods, off the trail where the downed limbs bank’d up with brown needles make a place for what begins with a pratfall and ends with shyness at the sheer quiddity of things. Everyday haeccity. “Landscape plotted and pieced—fold, fallow, and plough” is what Hopkins writes, a tiny escutcheon of delight with God himself placed at
Fess point. I confess too:
The everyday is uncountenanced and
-Able, it moons up crater’d
And yellow, quince-hoary and
Orb’d, radical in its whelming.
City workers with squared-off
Shovels throw down piles of
Gravel, a stage of street
Repair, and repair to curb
To squat behind thermoses, green.
A truck left in reverse
Beeps a continual cadence of
Warning, unalloy’d it falls into
The understory of noise, or
Is itself punctured, made scrim
And backdrop by one man’s
Sudden yell, or a quieter
Voice talking into a cell-
Phone in the seemingly too-
Animated way one recognizes now
As merely an effect of
The absence of a visible
Interlocutor. Things do occur though: fit conniptions and brisk connivances that mock the continuum, its filial poise, it gracile bent, its toss. “In spumous heave a slavish river runs”: normal history in the bob contingency.

Here’s a moment to cherish: the decision of two members of the self-appoint’d avant-garde, Steve Benson and Carla Harryman, BART-crossing the bay, industrial Oakland to San Francisco, to “some little street in the Mission District” in order to improvise for a “professional respondent to performances-in-progress” (elsewhere call’d a “grant-supported evaluator”). Ah, “I am ashamed of my century / for being so entertaining / but I have to smile.”

Harryman considers briefly, too, the material dispersal and subsequent “registers of communication” of fragments of a poem by Kathleen Fraser, “Bresson Project: ‘Forget you are making a film’” (out of Il cuore: the heart: Selected Poems, 1970-95). She needles the meaning of the second half of the title rather endlessly:
If one forgets one is making a film, or a poem, or a performance, is one forgetting medium, subordinating the conventions of medium to a direct encounter with materials? If one forgets one is making a film or a poem does one engage in reinventing the form and meaning of aesthetic conventions. Is forgetting that one is making a “thing,” such as a film or poem, related to a desire to erase a distinction between art and reality or between the consciousness or identity of the maker and an objective thing? Does this instruction suggest the transposition of the aesthetic practice onto the plane of spiritual existence . . .?
Oddly dated-seeming questions for one who talks of “laboratory-like collaborations” and “structured improvisation—a formal strategy that lends itself to constructing connections.” “Forgetting” sounds positively Romantic. Think of Coleridge’s infamous “fragment, not recoverable, composed, in a sort of reverie brought on by two grains of opium, taken to check a dysentery, at a farmhouse between Porlock and Linton.” During that “profound sleep, at least of the external senses,” Coleridge reports he “could not have composed less than from two to three hundred lines; if that indeed can be called composition in which all the images rose up before him as things, with a parallel production of the correspondent expression, without any sensation or consciousness of effort.” It is Spicer’s Martians dictating. It is akin to Hejinian’s quoting how “Gregory Flaxman, writing about Gilles Deleuze’s work on cinema, remarks, “One must think without an image,” which is to say one must think in such a way that thought outraces forethought (expectation).”

Too, Harryman dislodges a “disavowed” Barrett Watten prose-poem (out of Opera—Works), a dullish piece that begins “Dreamed last night that I had to fuck the fat lady” (I kid you not). Harryman attempts to argue that it exhibits evidence of “a ‘coterie’ poetics of the seventeenth century”—aligning its (minimal) moves to those of “young John Donne and the Inns-of-Court poets who, in reaction to petrified decorums, a culture of sentimentalism, and the nasty politics of the court wrote works characterized by satirical edges, intellectuality, lack of sentimentality, plain direct speech, and argumentativeness—not to mention masculine aggressivity.” That—minus the intellectuality—it does. Whether it is, too, an “attack on certain products of rationality such as Claude Levi-Strauss’s structuralist analysis of exogamy” I’ll leave to Piano readers amenable to that sort of thing. “Coterie can be a useful literary term, as Michael Davidson commented from the audience, after my delivery.”

Harryman’s final pleat in a drapery that hangs there rather truculently, bestir’d by no wind, is a mostly rote reading of an excerpt of an Erica Hunt piece call’d “The Conservation of Volume,” publish’d in Harryman’s magazine QU in 1980. Here is “petrified decorum”: “the work challenges the reader with a refusal to stabilize identity”; quoting Nathaniel Mackey, the “work ‘inhabits descrepancy,’ engaging the ‘imperfect fit between word and world’; “Unpredictability moves through the familial , interpersonal, social, and political spheres breaking the instrumental line of her narrative into bits of a contingent new language.” The work itself, with its “forty-three gloves without mates and in different colors, pinned with dummy pins opposite the stove” sounds not half so deserving of the kind of semi-somnolent critical buzzing Harryman offers it. To what end in the grand scheme of the Piano? Pas aucune idée.


Monday, August 25, 2008

The Grand Piano Notes

Solitary Hollyhock


Dilute, the hammerings on, dissolute,
The musickings. The necessity of
Populating a saga with extended
Family, one wild-eyed blatherer
Thrashing scrawny legs against a
Park bench in Dupont Circle,
Black-nail’d fingers collapsed around
A brown-bagged bottle of
Something fortify’d, suggesting we ought
To hitchhike out to California.
One a black lump of
Sheets in a Vicks-smelling
Room with draperies blotting out
The flat disc of Ontario’s
Sun. Dispersal and distancing, young
Blades in credit-bought duds
Making off for foreign ports,
Mailing home photographs hinting at
Nothing so much verifiable as loss,
Something gone awry, fires combusting
Up in the prairies, sod
Walls bung’d out, tornadoes licking
Up a swath of earth.
The family sets down stakes
Nowhere and everywhere, plotting out
A tent big enough to
Hold it, a circus of
Particulars, each lowering itself down into the slot of its oneness. Or is it history that is simultaneous, a rash and not a line cut by a knife come suddenly out of nowhere, we were sipping ouzo and now there’s a long row a shiny red globules of blood blistering up along one arm. A succession of simultaneities: how make that visible? The invisible is what’s in plain sight, hidden by the rapt countenances of the visible: history says that. Roberto Calasso says Kafka sensed that “only the minimum number of elements of the surrounding world ought to be named.” Every photograph is called “Local Trees.” Just so, “history” draws its power off a barrier and sequence of dynamos, enormous black shiny turbines, blue with spilled oil, a deafening array. Every story is called “E Pluribus Unum.”
A circus of particulars, accreting
And dispersing with all the
Rampant punctuality of time itself,
The way it so ceaselessly
Courses its bland continuum, though
We inevitably rearrange its doings
To suit makeshift maps of
Longing and encumbrance, speeding off
To goals never realized, or
Nodding off into reveries of
A period of an obsession
With slot cars built to
Run endlessly around tracks at
A cost of so much
Per hour, the place used
To be a roller rink
And skating no longer drew
A crowd. One moved away
Shortly thereafter, and subsequently met
Some new friends with other
Leanings, one an amateur paleontologist,
Another a falconer, thus one’s
Youth got sopped up by
Terribly serious pursuits, though the
Porosity of self that that
Seriousness allowed eventually out’d, and
One turn’d to fiercer regimens
And alcohols and a considerable
Accumulation of something ebbed away,
To no perceivable consternation. It’d
Return at odd moments, trilobites
And brachiopods hacked out of
Shale up where Cargill Salt
Work’d its diggers, a mania
For coastal estuaries. Just the
Way the saga of everyday
Life allows one to go
Off into some other room
And nurture strange expediencies there,
Only to return invigorated, to add some paragraphs “covering the war years” to a piece of writing here, aimless and inconstant, apt to turn on itself like a dog trying to capture a flea between its incisors, biting at the fur of its haunch. Which causes a local itch to launch its trireme fleets across one’s elbow, oaring. Off one goes to put clear the table of signs of eating, knowing it’ll require new settings again shortly.

Lyn Hejinian, still “rebellious,” (a word she uses) isn’t going to be bother’d with the body. Not exactly petulantly, though precisely, with the force of clarity (it is the increasingly luminous nature of her writing, unmuss’d, utterly without pretense, nimble, and direct that I love), she stops—after several pages of thinking about the differences between epic and saga—to say:
I’ll get to the 1970s eventually. Force of will alone, however, can’t get me there. I’m caught in the encompassing present moment, demanding and obliging as we know it rationally to be, in which we age and mourn and are unfree.
And, rather like a small joke, at the end of Hejinian’s entry, she admits a kind of writing / body conjunct: “Writing itself provides a perfectly viable site for sequential (and more rarely, simultaneous) alterities. One can cross-dress at one’s desk: one can become a mule, or a goose. I know, because I do so.” “At one’s desk”: the entry begins with “John Ashbery’s Girls on the Run is on my desk” and makes mention of a maelstrom of writers and titles—Henry Darger, Erlich’s Russian Formalism, Kenneth Irby, Wilhelm Dilthey, The Classical Greek Reader, Adorno’s Aesthetic Theory, Ketjak—citing and quoting out of the teeming node and collision, “desk” become site and signal of a primitive exploratory brainbox (that is the body), a kind of energy attractor. About saga and epic:
Power and time are elemental themes of both the epic and the saga, but the two modalities treat them differently. The epic is monumental; it erects power (whether or not its content deals with a quest for power); the saga is long, a testimony to powerlessness. The epic aggrandizes and culminates; the sage chronicles and continues. In its monumentality, its bulk, the epic takes time into itself and posits it as historical fate, the future perfect: that which was and always will have been. The saga, meanwhile, is caught up in the turbulence of time—swept along, sucked into an eddy, left bobbing. Girls would not be on the run in an epic, but they could be in a saga, and often have to be. If the telos of the epic involves nation building, that of the saga is something like the negative of that. The saga depicts the impossibility of empire. Or it portrays the fraying of empire and foresees its inevitable undoing. It focuses on genealogy, sequence, even seriality, and emphasizes the reversal and revolution inherent to generation. Ultimately, the saga is skeptical.
Written in an exemplary conjectural-declarative mode that seemingly allows innumerable ports of entry. A “putting into relation” of two items for epistemological ends, a testing. (A terrible anticipatory eagerness to read Hejinian’s new poem “The Distance” that is the Saga half of the forthcoming Saga/Circus (Omnidawn, 2008). Hejinian quotes some of its opening lines: I am struck and thwarted by this: “I’ve been swept / Against objects, lost habits, / Knowledge grows / But it has to be connected to things. / That connection is usually best achieved / So they say / Through perceiving similarities. No way! [. . .]” The ellipsis—is it wont to justify the rejection of the canny relation? Elsewhere, completely elsewhere, in the Jack Collom and Lyn Hejinian collaborations in Situations, Sings (Adventures in Poetry, 2008), a rocketship of a book for anybody who’d hie to exploratory, Hejinian says:
Philip Whalen told Joanne Kyger that poetry is to be practiced every day, like play. And just as the little girl playing in the shade with plastic animals would never think to ask if the play was “good” or even “the best she could do,” so the poet shouldn’t ask such questions of her poems.
And isn’t any writing inescapably, prima facie, a putting into relation of things? Word to word, word to thing? Pins jabbed into a map invariably defining a frontier?

What Hejinian says about solitude (circa 1960-1975, pre-Grand Piano, that is, roughly covering the years when she—reflecting back—admired “above all else the heroic nonconformity and rebellious eccentricity of (artistic) genius”):
I believed in progress but with an emphasis on my own progress; I believed in individualism and I thought to develop my own individualism through self-improvement. Calling myself a rebel, I considered myself antisocial; not wanting “to compromise with reality,” I valued solitude; considering “the world” a source of interruptions and distractions, I repeatedly “dedicated myself” myself to poetry.
She admits the portrayal is the result of “a fantasy life that was quite unlike what I actually did every day, but even as I was living a more worldly life than I might have admitted, it was centered in the domestic rather than in the social.” The route to the “social” is not explicitly traced, though one marker provided is the reading of Creeley’s For Love in 1962 after Kenneth Irby present’d it to her (“it is probably with my reading of that book that I date the beginning maturation [surely an odd phrase] of my own literary project,” Hejinian writes, though in the next sentence warns how she doesn’t want to “unduly exaggerate the influence.”) The other marker: the beginning of the Tuumba chapbooks. Is it the “social” one moves into in any attempt to include the world? Hejinian says she “did not stand firm” vis-à-vis that “preference, as a poet, for solitude.” “My work has not had solitude at its center—and it has not been immanently lyric—since at least 1977 . . . ; in fact, my writing seems to have grown, over the years, increasingly populous.” Which seems to correlate the solitary life (hermit scarcity and refusal) with “the lyric” and with a stripped-down de-populated writing. Isn’t that a too reductivist stance? Solitary Henry Darger’s own squads of Vivians counter it. The mark of one’s “beginning maturation” is, I’d argue, not found in the “social” so much as in one’s finding a way to integrate one’s writing with the overwhelming saga of everyday life with all its claims various and concomitant. An entirely individual task, that is: determining a right (shifting) permeability for that membrane.


Friday, August 22, 2008

The Grand Piano Notes

Flag and Gadgetry

The Grand Piano episode: What is one to make of this? Barrett Watten, early in the writing he’s muster’d up for numéro six, attaches a footnote to the sentence: “Proofs for the second edition of In the American Tree had just arrived, along with a request for a new introduction to Tjanting. The footnote reads:
The first version of this essay, from early in The Grand Piano process, was published as the introduction to the second edition of Ron’s Tjanting (Salt, 2002). In it, I rearranged the paragraphs from my introduction to the first edition (The Figures, 1981) and interspersed them with newly written material. In this version, I have substituted fourteen stanzas from Progress (Roof, 1985) that mention “body” or “bodies” for the paragraphs of the first introduction, and interspersed seven new, titled sections that question the relation of “body” to “language.”
Chiaro? The “essay” (assuming that means the piece one is reading) is titled “The Turn to Language” and, yes, one recalls vaguely something like that, though damn’d if we’d look it up. I do recall that method: stretching the dough of one’s skimpy “output” into saliences it never meant to address, that is, turning in (recycling) the one and the same ten-pager to several different profs. We outgrew the practice.

Snark city breakdown, what’dja expect? Truth is, one’d probably’ve ignored the whole precious thing if Watten hadn’t subsequently made a point (in one of the “seven, new titled sections”) of how, oh, (beyond) rad and (post) zesty such a re-use ruse is (all the while managing to pat ’s own back):
In Total Syntax (my first critical work, and the first of our school to appear) occurs a careful distinction between technique and method. By technique I meant the sum total of constructive devices that make the work, while method was the extension of technique as an engagement with the world, in the public practice of art (mapping intension and extension as entailments of the work). The work does not remain on the page but is the beginning of a series of acts, of which “interpretation” is only the first. Interpretation could also be deferred and thus constitute the agency of the work, always deferring its interpretation in becoming the site of endless (and public) consternation and projection.
For the “say wha?” crowd, Watten reiterates: “. . . the nonidentity of these terms was what I wanted to stress—that technique is the beginning of a series that provisionally arrives with the work, while method is its conscious re-presentation in different contexts, toward meanings that could never have been foreseen.” (Isn’t, I am thinking, leafing through my zoological specimen books, there a kind of parasite that for sustenance latches on with a powerful absorptive “mouth” to—not its own kind—but its own self?) Watten then claims the technique / method distinction “paralleled much theoretical work of the 70s,” naming Barthes, Eco, Roman Ingarden and Wolfgang Iser. (Uh, yeah, precisely.)

So one supposes that the theoretical comb-over excuses the bald expedience of the practice, then what? (Or, for those who like to nod knowingly: “What then?”) The totality of a work’s “always deferring its interpretation in becoming the site of endless (and public) consternation and projection” recalls a little too strongly, I’d say, recent claims for the requisite endlessness of the “war against terror.” Vigilance without end, deferral sans cesse. One must “attend” to language writing now and forever. The monumentalism of Watten’s proposal is staggering. The final section, titled “Site,” begins: “The body is in pieces; language constitutes a new order of reality; the work is constructed; what can be said of its agency?” (At what point is it appropriate to stop politely overlooking the hints of fascism inhering to such rhetoric?) There follows a fantasy of language writing as kin to the Chinese “classic text, hidden by scholars in dangerous times only to be dug up later.” Watten recalls a “Chinese funerary inscription” reading “The clean air comes from the mountain of things” and, bizarrely, launches into a story of a site, half-shrine, half blogspot:
In Chinese, wen xian would be that mountain, to which all literary production adds; imagine oneself at the heights! This is what history ought to provide, for the careful and long-lived scholar. I think the provenance of history will be otherwise: I can only imagine a return, not to a snow-capped mountain, but to a site that has been constructed of the traces of what has gone before. Such a site would be the work of art as reembodied: in my own case, Progress and Total Syntax; with us, I hope, The Grand Piano. A site continues to create the moment of its method through the technique of its construction, which could be both literary and archival. The site persists; it is a place one comes back to. It makes sense of the time in which it was first intended and all that has happened since. It is material: the primary responsibility of a site is to maintain it. It is virtual: we need to maintain a form of continuous activity on the site. If the site were material and virtual in this sense, we would still need to facilitate its being seen or read. I intend to construct a site in this way, as a work whose meaning is a prospective return. The clear air comes from such a work, as it inscribes the condition of its making as available to other times.
Spooky, no? I picture Mussolini’s sterile cube unassailable, the menacing “Colosseo Quadrato,” high up overlooking Rome. If one approaches it, is one likely to be accosted by “facilitators” to its being seen or read? Reception and its control: “literature,” for Watten, ’s never ceased to be about reception and its control.

Colosseo Quadrato
(Photograph by Paolo Fusco)

I want’d to note one other thing. Watten tells a story of the body (“the body in pieces”—or in pain—he busts two bones in one leg in it). It is a story of driving back to Iowa City after visiting Robert Grenier at Franconia College, late November 1971, with Bob Perelman and “a Slovenian poet” who’s at Iowa’s International Writing Program. There’s significant Watten distrust of “the Slovenian” (who insists on driving)’s driving ability; there’s a sotto voce exchange between Perelman and Watten regarding that ability (“my distrust of the Slovenian’s driving skills was questioned by Bob—in the basement of his parents’ suburban home in Youngstown (pool table and hanging lamp)—an early instance of ‘who’s driving the car’; so I let him drive.”); there’s the requisite vindicating fuck-up by “the Slovenian” who skids out on an icy overpass (“not being used to American highways”) and rams a guard rail, precipitating Watten’s injuries. Throughout: “the Slovenian,” nameless, wholly Other’d by lack of name. And, this: “The Slovenian, who has gone on to a relatively big career by Balkan standards, as a workshop poet of moderate notoriety (due in part to the status reserved for international figures of the Brodsky, Heaney, or Simic variety), insisted . . .” Is there more than a mild whiff of nativism there? What are “Balkan standards”? (How do “American highways” differ?) Watten’s broad-brush’d contempt (what “variety” is “Brodsky, Heaney and Simic”?) indicates pettiness, fear, bristly aloofness, a stunning kind of narrowness. “The Slovenian” obviously refers to Tomaž Šalamun, a fact confirmed by Steve Evans’s piece on Bob Perelman written for The Dictionary of Literary Biography. Oddly enough, there the crash is precipitated by a truck suddenly swerving into the car (in Watten’s version the car is “narrowly missed by a truck immediately behind”). One so adamantly concern’d with “agency” ought to ascertain cause with undeniable certainty.


Thursday, August 21, 2008

The Grand Piano Notes

Blunt Tin


Pluvial is the reigning word
Banter’d about the cathedral where
The torrid distinct is up-
Ended by applauding that sounds
Like rain, turbulent and falling
Against itself like that. Apt
It is to eye bathos
With a denatured sense of
Form: no straight lines in
The wild
kind of thing.
Of one écrivain Français George
Sand née Amandine something or
Other’d say only: ‘His forehead
Is flat!’ A damnable nuisance
Pressing forth against the real,
All a green and spiny
Tangle the way it is.
When disorder mocks a tableau
Put squarely up against a
Wall, when a simple off-
Red-studded buoyancy of rasp-
Berry vines is plunged into
By kids in a gabble
Of thorn-abated procurement, when
One boy’s sneaker squashes the
Semi-cavity of an abandon’d
Field mouse hole wherein squats
A furious squad of yellow-
Jackets, when the stinging begins
And the running and pain
Devising its noise-packets unloos’d:
That is no picture hanging
In a gallery, no rainy
Pittoresque caulking up a floody
Leak in the magnified perusal
Of one’s sentiment, unspecified, no
Sodden mortifying nod to an
Historical shim under a delinquent
Moment (keeping it upright, Time
Itself seeming to teeter), none
Of that. One’s a mere
Discard, sample off a barrelhead,
And is sampled in turn,
Enough ‘to make the Asse
Runne proude of his eares.’

The Grand Piano episode: Kit Robinson offers a capsule history of a life (half) in theater—from the kid playing Bottom in Cincinnati, through Living Theater quasi-guerrilla manifs and R. D. Laing-inflect’d “physical and interpersonal exercises” at Yale, to early ’eighties Poets Theater work (acting and writing) in San Francisco. Informing (in its limit’d way): I kept thinking my usual skeptical “I don’t know about theater”—and seeing that shift slightly towards “I don’t know much about theater.” (I recall— department of puzzling sudden whims—one night in the Wyckoff half-cellar, in the big white house built by Ezra Cornell for ’s sisters to inhabit—that’s how I heard it—deciding to write a “piece for the theater.” I list’d maybe four or five characters—easy enough—and near-immediately slump’d at the daunting occasion—uh, requirement—of making a single one of them say a thing. The only one I remember: “Curt—An abrupt young man.” Declaring a loyalty to the lisible versus the physical: language acting out its little jokes for the solitary reader versus its offering up anything actable. Kin to Frank O’Hara’s barrage of (impossible) stage settings throughout “What Century?”—“Waves breaking like bees on the shelf of Armorica, while the scent of burning almond leaves fills the nippled sky. . . . Which of us has not cried “Bearings? what bearings?” at one time or another when disaster seemed to be gathering its bouquet for the maiden toss? To be alert is to be decorative. Winter.” With that for a model, who needs the messy body?) (Reminding one of Lou Robinson’s terrific lines in Napoleon’s Mare: “Why does everybody talk about the body? All the best states leave it behind. It is a launching pad, a jetty.”) Truth is, the activity of theater / performance as such is insufficient evidence of the body. For the body’s natural alignment is expressivist in tendency and, in Robinson’s practice and orientation, theater is solidly, admittedly, constructivist:
I wanted a constructivist theater, not a psychological one; my model was not Stanislavski, but Meyerhold. What I was after was not intimacy but a kind suspension of characters in time and in relation to each other, as evidence of the recombinatory power of the imagination.
Characters as words, essentially: like the relation of “Curt” to “abrupt.” Robinson’s method of writing the play Collateral is indicative:
I did not sit down to write a play. At the time I was writing prose works in notebooks that blurred the lines between theory, poem, and personal journal. . . . To compose a play, I tried to identify different voices in various fragments of the prose, assigned a character to each voice, rearranged the fragments to form dialogue, and deployed dialogue to create scenes. . . . There is no plot, no exposition, no context, and precious little to grab hold of. There are forty numbered scenes, ranging from brief dialogues to cryptic one-liners like “Litmus settee bodega hamlet” or “Blossom harping vitamin.”
Mildly amusing to read, possibly excruciating to see perform’d? Surely it is the awkwardness of the body (humor, cruelty) in collision with the artifice of language that is point’d at here (in performance)—a rather limit’d effect (guffaws dying out to titters). Toward the end, in a curious turnaround, Robinson sees language squeezed completely out by the body, so that the question becomes not “Where is the body?” but “Where is the language?”
The theater achieves power by the physical embodiment of meaning. In theater, speech, abstracted from life into writing, is again returned to the body that occupies time and space. It is in this respect utterly unlike film, with is arguably simply an extension of writing by other means. In the theater we experience the limits of writing, as the physical dynamics set in motion by actor and director outstrip the senses of the written word. Here we are reminded that words only signify up to a point. Where that signification leaves off, language continues in the form of physical movement, light, darkness, and the dim, common ground of theater seating, which signifies our collective dream state.
There’s something primal and pre-linguistic about that ending—womb-reverie, or Plato’s cave, or theater as sensory-deprivation tank—all rather annihilating “states,” body- and language-empty (with language first to go). Partisan of language, its snares and rococos, I find it vaguely troubling. Surely a languaged theater is less limit’d than a theater of grunts and twitches, strides and sighs . . .

Note: I gulp’d a little at Ron Silliman’s self-portrayal in The Grand Piano numéro six as a former “ethnographer in the Tenderloin” and how the reading of Ketjak’d be a “perfect way to punctuate the end of my work on the ethnography.” Hadn’t all previous references been to “running the Tenderloin Writers Workshop” or “editing the Tenderloin Times” or working as administrator and editor for some researchers at the Central City Hospitality House”? Now, though, I see the self-mythmaking at work: if the University of Alabama Press’d like to call the forthcoming The Alphabet “a work of American ethnography” (a rather bumptious assertion), one’d better strart reflecting it in one’s own self-notices, no?

(Photograph by Russell Lee)

Wednesday, August 20, 2008

The Grand Piano Notes

Scales with Figure of a Man

Steve Benson’s piece in the latest installment of The Grand Piano: An Experiment in Collective Autobiography, San Francisco, 1975-1980 (to be exhaustingly “formal” about it) negotiates “the shipwreck / Of the singular” (the epigraph is George Oppen’s—and, in the context, that “shipwreck” comes to represent the body, what each is “Obsessed, bewildered // By”) with no little savvy, and only occasionally hamper’d by the vagaries of psychological jargon that’ve marred earlier entries. Benson’s writing about how—beyond the never-ending process of “settling into” one’s sexual identity and habits, a thing invariably difficult, though likely moreso for gay individuals in the period in question—beyond that, Benson is confront’d with new (literary) constructs of “gay identity” (“the branding and codification that was ongoing in gay male culture at that time, unremittingly structuring and canonizing and valorizing”) and figuring out ways to respond to that. He salutes (and rejects) the “hilarious, moving, generous, and wry” stories of Bruce Boone and Robert Glück (“exemplary of a new gay literature”) with a somewhat wryly perceptive remark: “My actual affections for others, whether unfulfilled or complexly baffled, lent themselves to turgid, relentless melodrama of a self-demeaning ruminative kind I was not ready to find comedic or lucid in any way worthy of print’s equivocal integrity.” And seemingly settles avant la lettre into what he claims the “queer movement” eventually coalesced around, that is, a “feisty assertion of variance as value.” “Gay,” Benson writes, “honestly conceived, Whitmanesque, contains multitudes.” And, indeed, it is likely the case that Benson’s practices—along with Lyn Hejinian’s—prove the most various (least dogmatic?) of any of the Grand Pianists:
The ways I did conceive gayness . . . as value showed up in my writings and performances in variously obvious, pervasive and systemic ways, through costumes, undressing, changing clothes, through performances without advance plan or fixed focus, with arbitrary, often unduly awkward constraints, through reframes, pronoun changes, occlusions of identification, and inversions of sense and context, through willful shifts of syntax and expository intention mid-sentence and an elastic orientation toward narration, form, and address that refused stabilization while still insisting on any present state or statement as it is.
Writing with the (gay) body as such finding “form to some degree in the open fall (a.k.a. negative capability) of reorientations,” constant and restless and assertive reorientations. Even Benson’s vocabulary bespeaks the wanton body with its talk of “engaging the medium as something elastic, tensile, porous, mutable, everywhere resistant and yielding, immanent and ready to be overthrown.” Body of language, both angel of light and ruinous muddy tangible besmirch’d with use, the body intervenes with its taut sinews, its reeks, its rough-voiced warnings, its habitudes of use, and it shapes a body of work.

For Bob Perelman, the body is other (Le corps, c’est lui as Flaubert puts it in the one policier he wrote in Egypt with that stringbean Maxime du Camp), rarely (or barely) one’s own. The premier body is seemingly not the writer’s own, but the measuring body, the receptive / rejective body. Perelman deftly weaves together exemplary incidents of each: Norman Fischer’s reassuring laugh (“the embodied reaction”) at a shared (and grand) passage out of Coleridge’s Biographia Literaria and Barrett Watten’s attack (“violent repudiation”) of a Perelman-offer’d snippet of Robert Rauschenberg on method (“I put my trust in the materials that confront me because they put me in touch with the unknown. It’s then that I begin to work. When I don’t have the comfort of sureness and certainty. Sometimes Jack Daniels helps too . . .”) during a post-“Talks” discussion (after David Bromige’s “Intention & Poetry”). Lots here. The Rauschenberg line sounds like Keats’s “being in uncertainties, Mysteries, doubts, without any irritable reaching after fact and reason” with a dollop of sauce for good measure. That “Negative Capability” that fail’d Coleridge so spectacularly—I hadn’t known, or’d forgotten until just now, looking again at Keats’s letter in order to fossick out the line—how Keats himself sees Coleridge’s failing, pointing to how Coleridge “would let go by a fine isolated verisimilitude caught from the Penetralium of mystery, from being incapable of remaining content with half knowledge.” Donc, one suspects, Watten, whose sniping about Rauschenberg (“this huge figure of a self that’s being ‘acted on’ by these materials”) I’d read today as discontentment with (fear of) “half knowledge.” Which’d make Watten’s outburst parallel to what Perelman (unfairly, I think) calls “Coleridge’s gripe”: “a pedantic fulmination by the inventor of the clerisy (a vision of the professoriat).” Professor Coleridge, meet Professor Watten.

Because I enjoy Coleridge’s sass so much, here’s the passage Perelman lineates and abridges (slightly), follow’d by Perelman’s own enjoyable sass-reading of its “application for today.” Coleridge:
I have attempted to illustrate the present state of our language, in its relation to literature, by a press-room of larger and smaller stereotype pieces, which, in the present Anglo-Gallican fashion of unconnected, epigrammatic periods, it requires but an ordinary portion of ingenuity to vary indefinitely, and yet still produce something, which, if not sense, will be so like it as to do as well. Perhaps better: for it spares the reader the trouble of thinking; prevents vacancy while it indulges indolence; and secures the memory from all danger of an intellectual plethora. Hence of all trades, literature at present demands the least talent or information; and, of all modes of literature, the manufacturing of poems.
My enthusiasm didn’t arise from some trans-historical truth value of Coleridge’s words. While one could read the sniffy “Anglo-Gallican fashion” as anticipating contemporary tut-tutting over Derridean styles, read “unconnected epigrammatic periods” as a version of the New Sentence, and read “a press-room of larger and smaller stereotype pieces” as prefiguring Flarf’s internet appropriations, such more or less strained prophetic analogies are not what grabbed me. The excitement came from watching a powerful verbal boxer landing real blows: “spares the reader the trouble of thinking,” “prevents vacancy while it indulges indolence.” with the final ‘couplets’ [here, the final sentence] a vicious pair of one-two’s knocking poetry—or at least contemporary poetry, that hapless hostage to “the present state of our language”—clean out of the ring.

Reading, too late, and in terrific long gulps, the autumnal air beginning to flood in through the windows, Antonio Muñoz Molina’s moving Sepharad, translated by Margaret Sayers Peden. One thinks of W. G. Sebald’s hybrid fictional / non-fictional narratives, one thinks of Peter Weiss’s terrific The Aesthetics of Resistance (two volumes of which remain un-English’d). Mid-book, Muñoz Molina offers up what I read as vignette of’s technique:
For two or three years I have flirted with the idea of writing a novel, imagined situations and places, like snapshots, or like those posters displayed on large billboards at the entrance to a movie theater. That these stills were never in narrative sequence made them all the more powerful, freed them of the weight and vulgar conventions of a scenario; they were revelations in the present, with no before or after. When I didn’t have the money to go inside, I would spend hours looking at the photographs outside the theatre, not needing to invent a story to fit them together like pieces of a jigsaw puzzle. Each became a mystery, illuminating the others, creating multiple links that I could break or modify at my whim, patterns in which no image nullified the others or gained precedence or lost its uniqueness within the whole.
Written in discrete and not obviously sequenced chapters (“large billboards”), the book is ideogrammatic, surely a species of Shklovsky’s “plotless prose”—or, one’d say: “all narrative is local.” Lives get traced (most movingly, perhaps, those of some members of the regularly decimated German Communist Party, Willi Münzenberg and leader Heinz Neumann and their wives, the sisters Babette Gross and Margarete (Greta) Buber-Neumann, who, at “the death camp of Ravensbrück . . . listened to stories her friend Milena Jesenska told her about Kafka.”) The lines between invention and history cross and weave: I sit upright at the narrator’s announcement of finding “Arthur Koestler’s autobiography, Invisible Writing, published in London in 1954”: “I had bought that volume with the red binding and coarse yellow paper in a secondhand bookstore in Charlottesville, Virginia, one winter day in 1993. The store was in a red wooden building that reminded me a little of a cabin or a barn, at the edge of a snowy woods.” And one’s caught in the crosshairs of Muñoz Molina’s capacious technique, unable to “account” for that red bookstore (one reminds oneself, one left Charlottesville two years earlier), longing, though, to delineate the tangible, get one toehold on the “real.”


Tuesday, August 19, 2008

The Grand Piano Notes

Sun Set Acres


Such animal scrutiny is a
House assembling itself, making a

Scorcher of a solo out
Of its one gradient song.

Or “radiant,” I don’t know.
Feedback welcome means Google me

First. The Italian word for
Today is oggi, an exemplary

Pile-up of vocables, all
Ball’d up like a sock.

Is an équerre a T-
Square in French, or a

Right angle? One’s très confined
Sense of the radical conjuncts

The rearguard likes to enthuse
Itself up by regarding—well!

(Utter’d with the petty explosive
Petulance of the solitary windbag.)

And here a horse’s ass
Hove up into sight, a

Big peachy duel-globular thing
Like a dumptruck, with a

Twiggy braid for a tail,
Trying to drum up support.

I like how “off” one goes out there in the nether-bracken, messing about in the woods, the cyber-pipeline turn’d completely “off.” One comes up with a travelogue (“I changed my handwriting and way of doing my hair, jumped first instead of last into the fetid plunge-bath, played football better and became an exhibit: the gay, generous, rebellious Irishman, with a whiff of Kipling’s McTurk”—thus Cyril Connolly in 1938)—or succeeds in shedding an ounce or two of quotables and finds oneself suddenly exhaust’d, or singing tunelessly to mock-surreptitious (the sneaky surreal, like nudging a Gila monster with one’s toe and calling it a poem) Tate-Simic ditties of the late ’sixties, nigh-comatose with wonder at one’s apparent lower’d estimation of oneself. (Or, one addles forth with random noises, seeking to jumpstart a parade, savage for it, “a vicious little golden-haired Caligula.”) I did (I swear I did) try to impose a duty on my wayward self: I took down off the lectern (it’d been splay’d wide to support the atlas of the former Soviet states in turmoil) the latest volume (I use the word grandiloquently, trading “up” for “effect”) of The Grand Piano. Part six. Meaning the marvelous marketing mis-adventure’s about to come full throttle or my name’s not Norman Douglas (“They were both at their best when serving on committees. They did not make the mistake of handling human affairs in the bulk, but disposed of them item by item, sharply. The body was the item before them now, and on it they turned their well-trained brains. Ron Silliman, after a little demur, accepted the body as genuine, and they passed on to the next point.”)

If only. How many attempts did one make to “begin” the Crayola “regulation-brown” book? “Where is the body? Where’s the body in the text? That text, this text, any one? Silliman’s idea of a rhetorical strategy advancing like a cloud missing its trousers (or a bored cop on the beat)—no sign anywhere that that interrogation (“this interrogation, any one”) ’ll ever relent (see “Sunset Debris”). The disappointment in Silliman’s squibs for the Piano persists, and the reason for that disappointment comes clear: these are pre-rehearsed pieces. There is no “essaying” in sight, no exploratory anything—all is pat, pre-determined, vetted and signed. Nowhere is Silliman out to see where thinking goes, to try out some mischief, to collapse in a fright-puddle at the sound of a dud of one’s own making. He is “product-oriented” and must think “quality control” means never having to dodge, say, a yipping wire-hair terrier of a sentence that is doubling back to nip one’s preconceptions (to quote Montaigne). A whole carload of trademark Silliman “petites histoires” shoots off the assembly line of the prose, wrench’d here and wingnut’d there. So: the story of the “unreadable” “‘typewritten’ Courier text” of Duncan’s Ground Work: Before the War; the story of Denise Levertov and “The People’s Prick”; the story of Jack Gilbert’s creative writing class strategically interrupt’d by two dancers who “suddenly burst through the door stark naked” (the assignment to “write what we saw” apparently lost on Silliman, who invariably reports the scene in terms of “burst,” “door,” “stark” and “naked,” as if he drew a bad lot of vocabulary-leftovers out of some rejected Penthouse letters); the centerpiece story of how Silliman, in September 1978, read the whole of Ketjak “at the corner of Powell & Market in San Francisco, in front of the original branch of the Bank of America” (why that particular detail in every recounting?) “to celebrate my first ‘big’ publication as a poet.” The story of a particular performance lends little credence to Silliman’s “argument”—an attempt’d refuting of the “accusation about Language poetry . . . that it had (has) no relation to the body”—though it allows Silliman to trot out another heroic (and favor’d) detail: that at the end of the reading he’s “literally spitting blood”—here with the curious appendage “tho not enough that anyone would notice.” Stories without depth. Nowhere a consideration of how Language writing react’d against the Olsonian breath, the count’d breath-measures of Duncan, the mantric prosody of Ginsberg. No attention to what “I HATE SPEECH” meant (means) to writing’s relation to body. No contemplation of how the line (essentially disposed of by the New Sentence) might enact the body’s own fierce and variable measures. Beyond the heroics: a fetish for notebooks (“I can take weeks just deciding which notebook to use for a new project & I’m willing to spend serious money to get one that I think might have a good text hidden within, just waiting for me to come and release it”—see Language text as damsel-in-distress) and pens (“I’ve largely used the same pen, a Waterman converted to a felt tip, since maybe that same year of 1978 . . .”), sophomoric stuff. One lovely paragraph, oddly short for “motor mouth” Silliman:
As for sex in my poetry—it sometimes seems to me that it’s everywhere. Just pick up Sunset Debris and start reading aloud.
Which strikes me as smelling of that same disingenuous faux-innocent pleading George W. Bush indulges in, a kind of entitled whining. Accompany’d by unfound’d insinuatings as to one’s—in Bush’s case—patriotic or moral fervor, or one’s strength in adversity. Silliman’s own version of using insinuating tactics against perceived “enemies” of Language writing goes like this:
The formula, “the Language poets don’t X,” whatever X might be at the moment, strikes me as part of a larger phenomenon, the fear of Language, just possibly with a small l.
Nowhere expand’d. No troubling of what such a “fear of Language” (or “language”) might mean or entail or how it might manifest itself. Just a bugaboo, a threat, that free-standing linguaphobe.


Monday, August 18, 2008

Out Swimming with Asklepios

Board and Patcher

A week dawdled away just south of Elk Rapids, swimming sandbar to sandbar out into the East Arm of Grand Traverse Bay, lazing in the wind-pummel’d blue to see the Caspian terns rifle by. High bluffs of cherry orchards and sunflowers, the usual junk emporiums (and its desperadoes), the remainders in the cellar of Horizon Books in Traverse City, generally good for coughing up a couple of five dollar numbers: John Banville’s Prague Pictures: Portrait of a City and Wu Ming’s 54, translated by Shaun Whiteside, work of the anonymous Italian collectivity (of five) whose name means “no name” in Mandarin. I transport’d a deadweight of books north and read (ignoring a few chapters of Melville’s Israel Potter) only one: Cees Nooteboom’s rather minuscule The Following Story (1993), translated out of the Dutch by Ina Rilke. Epigraph’d by Theodor Adorno (Notes on Literature, II): “Modesty hesitates to express metaphysical concepts directly; if one tries, one delivers oneself up to jubilant misunderstanding.” Because I conceive of Adorno as rarely “jubilant” about anything, because I love Jonathan Williams’s title Jubilant Thicket with the Harry Callahan pubic tangle (demurely call’d Cape Cod, 1972) gracing its cover, because “jubilant misunderstanding” ’s got echoes of Beckett’s “fail better” or Stevens’s “The poem must resist the intelligence / Almost successfully” or Stevens’s “Lean encyclopædists” or Stevens’s “cloud-pole / Of communication”: look what occurs if one, stymied, decides to open the book of Stevens. I did pursue a translation with some vigor, roughing it out, going a little courser-batty hunting down possible unbeknownst (by me) idioms: of Emmanuel Hocquard’s 2007 Conditions de Lumière: Élégies. And somehow, particularly whilst out swimming (“the body whole, working perfectly”), the two books, Nooteboom’s and Hocquard’s, twined up against one another, interloop’d, tangled. I suppose one’d say, too broadly, that Nooteboom’s writing about “time, narrative time” and Hocquard “the changeable ‘look’ of things.” Which is to say each is a memoirist, an elegist. Nooteboom’s broodings about time (“time is an enigma, an intractable measureless phenomenon into which, out of sheer helplessness, we have introduced a semblance of order. ‘Time is the system that must prevent everything from happening at once.’ I had caught that sentence in midair, so to speak, coming from the radio one day . . .”) seem’d to transform into measured and genteel havockings about the conspiracies of light:
. . . there are nights when the stars are out to strike fear into us, and this was one of them. I had never seen so many stars. I felt as if I could hear them above the sound of the sea, calling to us, longing, angry, jeering. Due to the absence of all other light, they encircled us like a dome, light-holes, light-gravel, laughing at the names and numbers we had given them long ago in the belated second of our appearance on earth. They were ignorant of their names, of the bizarre shapes our limited eyes had once seen in them—scorpions, horses, serpents, lions of burning gas—and far below them we stood, suffused with the ineradicable notion that we were standing at the very center, with far beneath us another closed dome, a safe, spherical screen all around us which would present itself forever in the same guise.
(Perfect, certes, for one lolling out in the blue of the East Arm, looking up into the whole big welter of blue, disfigured only by the series of spit-clouds running along the land that runs out to Old Mission, land that “divides” the water, making East Arm identifiably something “other,” West Arm too.) Nooteboom’s invasion into Hocquard’s “changeable ‘look’ of things” occurs in the next paragraph:
I . . . looked at the others. There was nothing to prove it, but they had changed—no; they had changed again. Things were disappearing, lines were missing. I kept seeing part of someone’s mouth or not, or an eye, for the tiniest fraction of a second their identity would be gone; then I would see the body of one through that of another, as if their solidity were being dismantled, and at the same time the radiance of what was still visible intensified. If it didn’t sound so absurd, I would have said that they were luminous.
Put against—for the sense of the decipherable part of the Nooteboom-Hocquard mind-braid—the third (of twenty-one) sequence of Conditions de Lumière, rough, excising (with the sudden whim of the imperatrice) whatever counter-readings I noted or intended, making a “thing unchangeable” out of a week of lovely flux. The attraction of translating is surely that processual sense of constructing a work of innumerable spinning plates, none of which need topple or stop. Hocquard:
No more metaphors
H is the letter of the door
Surface calendar or
self-contained garden
      One’s back against the wall

The day’s mark       Prohibited
by its body       Terrestrial lines
To count by subtracting       How
the weather is
      Insistence with claws

The character of subordinate
questions       Limpid iris-light
The third wall or the door
extended out
      Entry & exit

Pose a question in its
place       Two gets bigger by
diminishing       Light penetrates
“for communal use”
      Going off separately

To join together with bodies       The
inventory is welcoming       Hand-worked
passages       The book is opened       Light
enters in
      An index unfinished

Each to its page. A thousand minor adjustments possible. Tempt’d to hoodwink the enterprise, knot up a harness to fetch the word-regiments into one’s own turf, cut loose with a volley of different intent (one’s own), to hell with accuracy and couth. (Some’d say I did that anyways.) One notes: how fraught with hair-trigger traps the translated is! A single lapse of diction enough to blow the whole thing to smithereens—make of it something entirely different! And how lumbering and hide-bound and witless one’s “own” work appears next to it! Skin of a bull elephant. Or it is ding’d and malleable, a cloud-jalopy, a fume, a rough-houser! Tough canvas bolster with legs, clod of no finesse whatsoever! One might replace all of its words and still, a nigh-identical poem’d remain.

Side marks. The big bald eagle up in a white pine like an old overcoat flung there, with scarf, rumpled, white. My father noting a geological shift—some combo of sand, vegetation, elevation—coming down a slight incline just shy of Clare: “Here’s where the North Country ends.” Nooteboom’s talk of “owing a cock to Aesculapius”—“which I say to show them that I want to die in this world, the world of reality,” And a radio announcer—near Grayling, or maybe with my brother returning up out of the jaunt to several barns full of rusty traps (fox, weasels, mink, &c.) and sack’d cane chairs and the most God-forsook mildew’d collection of books and magazines ever in Rapid City—saying how Neil Young insists, particularly of late, on “the real.”

Cees Nooteboom
(Photograph by Serge Ligtenberg)

Friday, August 08, 2008

“A Lupus Loping through Lupine”

“Into the Woods”


1     mere off-white figures:   Undoubtedly, the reference is to the Achaians, the intruders to the Eastern continent, they who, having carefully advanced a pre-fabricated story of abduction and honor in order to rally a people at once downtrod and made imbecilic by ease, entered into a foreign excursion for eventual wealth and control. Imperialists are always “off-white.”

5     xanthopemphredoniae:   The Wasps, a penumbral squad of twenty-somethings led by a Hollywood noir teetotaler who went by the name “Guzman.” Guzman’s aims were unintelligible, vociferous, crude. He advocated what he called “serene excess” as a means of toppling the Achaian usurpers.

7     wine-borers [oenotrype]:   A rare usage, here seemingly referring less to the fabled midges of the amphora (who, in a manner not unlike that of the pourriture noble or noble rot’s striking the grape itself, aided in what the Bourdieuvians called “taste-formation”) and more to the endless ratiocination without pause of wine drinkers.

8     [                 ]:   A clean gap in the shape of a parallelogram is mysteriously cut into the papyrus here, as if with a razor blade. The previous word chasma [gaping] and the succeeding cathamma [knot] led some early commentators to propose (famously punning) “a riddled text,” that is, an intentional material aporia. Others pointed to state-controlled conspiratorial archivists; others to vandals.

14     See Pound’s definition in “Provincialism the Enemy”:
Provincialism consists in:
      (a) An ignorance of the manners, customs and nature of people living outside one’s own village, parish, or nation.
      (b) A desire to coerce others into conformity.
To the point, too: the way Pound identified the mania he’d eventually succumb to himself with the prescient epigraph by Gustave Flaubert: “If they had read my ‘Education Sentimentale’ these things would not have happened.”

20     ram-clannish:   A species of apple of my eye-ism, “best-of-ism.” The Achaian self-construct required continual delineations and declaration of it, veritable epidemics of self-righteousness, celebratory ruts and displays of bounteousness, God-dispensatedness, yea, holiness. Historical record points to a people mean, dumpy, delusional.

21     cerebrophenax:   Literally, “braincheater.” A dish favored by The Wasps. Baked succulent cauliflower tops and calf brains drizzled with olive oils and a sort of precursor of parmesan cheese. Cooked, the two main ingredients ought to be indistinguishable.

24     Lucas Cranach type:   Clearly an anachronism. See Cranach the Elder’s Eve. Trying to point to a “ripe skinny without slatternliness.” An earlier version had “trailer park girl.” Raphael’s “La Fornarina” ’d serve, too, but for the sullen coquetry about the eyes.

One could continue rather endlessly, though the chore of “filling in” a form that’s declared itself and beckon’d—that’s always struck me with the long gong of tedium. I lit (like a starling) “upon” this particular saucer full of milk in a coincidental perusal of Georges Perec’s “last complete book”—it’s novella-sized—A Gallery Portrait and Peter Russell’s The Elegies of Quintilius (Anvil, 1996), a thing I found in Pittsburgh, the two in rapid succession. The Perec, I read now in David Bellos’s introduction, “is a kind of jigsaw puzzle in its construction, . . . made up at least in part of fragments of other texts, of allusions to others works . . . and of personal nods . . . to friends and to places associated with them.” Code fun! The Russell provides appendices and notes (a whole apparatus I’ve not exactly untangled the riches of, thinking it better to proceed in a confident—though not swaggering!—stupor into most literature, a little off-balance) to, particularly, a couple of “late” elegies (one is subtitled “A poem of Quintilius’s madness”; another begins with the lovely line: “Spartan I am indeed, lentil-fed, farting”). If translation is all about relations, word to thing, word to word, thing (cultural practice, etc.) to thing: where a better ground for romping through relational mayhem (that is, making literature)? And look, here’s Peter Russell supplying a note to a line in the “madness” poem that reads in its entirety, “In the Age of Wolves”:
Q.’s extremely vulgar Latin has variculti which plainly does not fit the context here even if it is construed as dog-Latin. In the archaic Scandinavian context, plainly it is a transcription of vargöld, ‘time or age of wolves.’ This seems more plausible that a possible vargljoth, ‘wolf howlings.’ The lack of culture in Q.’s time was indeed appalling and in may ways due to its ‘variousness.’ It was at first tempting to accept the seemingly Latinate word at is face value.
      Q.’s inspiration plainly comes from some rudimentary knowledge of the Eddaic traditions though they could hardly have been written down in his day. Even so, his memories of Rome or Athens or Hadramaut, where homo was indeed homini lupus, can hardly have been much different from those of Santayana, or of Mandelshtam (in the Third Rome), with their animadversions on wolves. The translator himself has seen a wolf in Venice at a late hour of the night, though it is only fair to mention the fact that his verbatim report to the International Association for the Protection of Wolves has been held up to doubt on the grounds that the observer maintained that the wolf was in hot pursuit of the poet Shelley. In any case, it is plain that wolves are with us to stay, whether in the Alban Hills or in our supermarkets and gift shops, not to say the Foreign Office. Celtic etymology—and I shall shortly be publishing fragmentary evidence for Q.’s familiarity with the Celtic world—bears this out in a singularly convincing way. The German Volk, ‘the people,’ neutered in English into ‘folk,’ appears in Irish of olc meaning evil, rapacious, wicked. Obviously this is cognate with the Russian volk, ‘a wolf,’ and the Sanskrit vrka or Avestan vəhrka, so identifying the root with the predominant class in modern society. That Quintilius was aware of this connection some fifteen hundred years before Karl Marx was born is surely noteworthy? Indeed I shall demonstrate before long from another Quintilian fragment carved in Runic letters on the tail of a maple-wood mermaid now in the museum at Cape Breton that Mr Al Purdy’s celebrated lines
Tho we run to the edge of the world
our masters would track us down
—probably the best Canadian poetry has produced in the modern age—are in fact, though of course quite unwittingly, a word for word translation of a couplet—yes—of Quintilius, which permits us to claim the latter as the first Canadian poet . . .
And so forth. One might suspect Peter Russell’d sprung fully grown out of the hornèd brow of Mr Kent Johnson, if one didn’t suffer the oddest sensation at the very (meagre) thought: a kind of subcutaneous growling that sets in all up and down one’s body, accompany’d by uncontrollable salivating and a tendency to lope.

Off, points north, for a week.

Lucas Cranach the Elder, “Eve” (Detail of “Adam and Eve”), c. 1538

Raphael, “La Fornarina,” c. 1518