Tuesday, January 20, 2009

The Grand Piano Notes

Man with a Bag

During a brief spate (epidemic) of one-line poems around Ithaca, New York in the mid-’seventies, trigger’d, I think, by a little booklet of one-liners by William Matthews call’d An Oar in the Old Water, A. R. Ammons had one that went: “If anything will level with you water will.” (Too: “Cowardice runs in my family.”) That’s what I’m reduced to thinking about reading the convoluted opening to Barrett Watten’s piece in The Grand Piano 7:
Generation is not progress, nor is it a vertical descent. As we go through the locks of the Generalized Life Course, the scenery changes on all sides. Always the iron clang of the locks as the waters rise, and we move seamlessly on toward the next section of level water. The Amazon River as an intricate tree-structured conduit of the river of life, the flux of spirit as imagined by Blake. Generation is horizontal and always unfolds, a series of positions taken. It is the force of water that seeks its own level.
And, a little later: “Poets are the mechanics of transmission. Central figure in landscape is obliterated.” What is the tone here? Tie me to a raft and send me spinning through the rapids like a misconstrued Kinski, but I do not know. “Generalized Life Course”: that’s newspaper columnist humor—I get that. That Blakean “flux of spirit”—if it is Blakean—that sounds a little bare-boned shorthand (Death’s crabbid claw, with a pen) for some spooky mystificatory stuff, though it immediately wars with the (stultifying) “a series of positions taken.” Is it “generation” like in “look, a sprout!” or like in la Gertrude saying to Hemingway, “man, you is so lost”? Or is the whole opening mere lyrical outburst, that ebullience of good feeling at (merely) having found a pencil, or at finding a “spare” moment before C— put dinner out, or at having just rework’d (sigh) a 1972 piece (“a meditation on identity, split between identifications with ‘China’ as politics and ‘Tibet’ as culture, with the non-identical poet turning to language as a result”—sounds alarmingly like Bunyan’s Pilgrim’s Progress!) titled “Tibet.” Oh dear, snark levels high.

Good thing one gets push’d immediately into a dilemma:
As the Third World Liberation Front staged a strike in support of Ethnic Studies, I read Durkheim, Malinowski, and Evans-Pritchard. I remember the ethical dilemma of crossing a picket line to attend class, even as I was unsure whether the class should be taking place at all. I wanted the information; I would have only four years to complete my education, at which point I would be subject to the draft. Classified 1A: education incomplete.
Two paragraphs of hemming and hawing about the “contradictions I was in” and how “oneself” is “foregrounded, in relief, as a result.” The upshot, result of “having to suspend my immediate aims for an undetermined truth of the whole,” “became increasingly identified with having been forced into that position in the first place.” And there’s the giveaway (if the “forced into that position” lingo weren’t sufficient): “I began to see myself at the receiving end of an injustice: misrecognized as a newly formed organic intellectual, subject to history and its demands.” That, no matter how one parses it, is victim-Sprechen. Middle-class white male “organic intellectual” at Berkeley as victim. And even if Watten attempts to pull the stuffing out of the prop with the next sentence (“An example of the necessary and legitimate undoing of the universal aspirations of the middle class”), the total syntax indubitably says: history made me a victim, “misrecognized” equal to, apparently, being on “the receiving end” of what? an unleash’d German shepherd police-attack dog? And with usual and customary victim-launch’d narcissism, Watten proceeds to nod at Kit Robinson’s Dolch Stanzas as if the piece were paean to Watten’s own “deferred education”:
Its phenomenal text is readable as an impeded movement toward sense, though readers may miss what it is they read: the horizon of language as deferred education. Language is occulted in the transmission of knowledge, if knowledge is reducible to a vocabulary of 220 words. Education was possible, but it would always be incomplete.
(Regarding the supposed “impeded movement,” one thinks of perfect precedence in Robert Duncan’s remark to Ekbert Faas: “When you write a sentence beginning with the word ‘the,’ aren’t you already under the law of ‘the’? No matter what you do from here on, you are under its law.” Regarding the 220 words: the limit is—point’d out here—not nearly so strict.)

Watten (apparently seeing no discord with identity politics) attempts a pursuit of what he calls “the poetics of nonidentity.” Vague unattributed rehash of Robin Blaser’s idea of Spicer’s “practice of outside” (Watten: “the other exceeds what I am; therefore othering is knowledge”; Blaser: “A reopened language lets the unknown, the Other, the outside in again . . . The safety of a closed language is gone and its tendency to reduce thought to a reasonableness and definiteness is disturbed. . . . [Thus] language is not so simply relational, but rather a knowing”; Ammons: “I think a poet ought to keep himself a little stupid”) is what it is. That combined with both an oddly inflated parvenu sense of importance (“Soon even we would arrive, but not as Thelonious Monk. As not.”) and a propensity, for all the talk of “nonidentity,” to identify with Monk and a whole slew of black jazz musicians as a model for “the politics of othering oneself in.” Watten: “A mask, a serious act of camouflage. Woodshedding in Willits. The outside as not.” Somehow “woodshedding” there begins to sound precisely like “slumming.” (Slumming as a kind of orientalist intrusion, a temporary and misconstrued “borrowing” inimical to a thieving. Watten mentions orientalism in connection with Ron Silliman’s Ketjak and suggests that “the ketjak, or ‘monkey chant,’ was invented by an American to pander to Western tastes for shirtless native boys in the 1930s,” before remarking that “One [presumably Silliman] tries to gain knowledge by hearing what one is not—not by possessing it from a perspective of what one already is. The difference between othering as a basis for knowledge and the display of imperial trophies as the already known.” A distinction based on intent (and solely on intent)? What, too, to make of Watten’s description of the cover of the first edition of Ketjak: “This Press, 1978: a Balinese calendar I purchased on my travels in 1971. Title page: stupas from Borabudur in a guide book.” Imperial trophies, or “not”?)

The other concern of the arriviste: the “originary” moment. Watten’s tick’d-off catalogue of presence (or, as often as not, absence, right’d (writ) into knowledge (memory) by using the othering “as not” formula):
Listening to Monk on Potrero Hill, 18th and Connecticut Streets, as I did.
. . .
I remember the first performance of the Rova Saxophone Quartet at the Blue Dolphin, 24th and Utah Streets, June 1978, which I did not attend.
. . .
I confirm the origins of the New Sentence to be on 1 June 1974, after Ron and I, having spent the afternoon proofreading “Karstarts,” Clark Coolidge’s collaboration with Bernadette Mayer in This 5, attended a performance of Steve Reich’s Drumming at the East Asia wing of the De Young Museum in Golden Gate Park. [“Karstarts,” incidentally, is newly available in Coolidge and Mayer’s The Cave (Adventures in Poetry, 2009)]
. . .
I heard Dizzie Gillespie perform in Redondo Breach. This was not an originary return, but a displaced register of surface that unveiled its unocculted source. [Wha?] Sarah Vaughn and Carmen McRae were in the audience and stood up to join the band.
. . .
In an originary return to amnesia, I began listening to techno (and am likewise fascinated by noise).
. . .
As for noise: on 14 January 1978, the Sex Pistols gave what was to be their last concert, at Winterland Auditorium. I remember the posters for the event, even an excited buzz at its approach . . . I would not have given a thought to going to an apocalyptic show in that period. Likewise, I passed up a ride to Altamont in December 1969.
. . .
When I visited New York in the 70s, I often stayed on Bowery Street across from CBGB’s. Not once did I go in.
And directly after that final detail: “Quite clearly, we were too busy making our own scene; if there were a question of culture, it was going to be our own response.” Isn’t there something pathos-choked about scrivening out innumerable miss’d opportunities only to claim (ghost of Bartleby) “I prefer’d not to.” It’s akin to Watten’s brash claim that “I reject the collector’s mentality as the ultimate bore (Nietzsche agrees with me on this!)” [though fellow pianist Ron Silliman obviously doesn’t], follow’d by: “No authoritative account of what I listened to will be given here.” But, in a lengthy footnote a couple pages later, the miserable catalogue (God forbid a reader think Watten a musical dork, and there’s an opportunity—unmiss’d—to show suitable breadth and arcane “penetration”):
Of course, techno and noise are not the sum of my musical habits. When I began this essay, I was listening to Handel, Webern, Cage, Schnittke, Conlon Nancarrow, Stacy Pullen, a Spanish anarchist band called Sin Dios, remixes of Serge Gainsbourg, and the then unnamed band of the former lead singer of Pavement. As I revise it, I have been listening to Braxton, Rova Saxophone Quartet, To Rococo Rot and Rechenzentrum (German techno-pop), Depèche Mode, Wolf Eyes, Fela, John Adams, Cage (Etudes Australes), Elliott Carter, Giancinto Scelsi, Shostakovich, and chamber music of the Soviet 20s.
Aeugh. That’s enough. [When I began my essay, I was listening to G. practicing Max Bruch. As I revise: air blowing through heating ducts.]

“Poets are the mechanics of transmission.”


Stale kisses, a
number stolen off
the elsewhere, inconsequential

as a rivulet.
In the front
garden, a radical

impermeability, ghostly scenes
with a kind of ha-ha
at the end of the meadow

where the wild
monocots flourish. A
long walk through

the Forêt de
Laye, its marshalling

yards and engine
sheds, finding bomb
craters amidst oaks,

all ashimmer with
skinny saplings, a
wholly explicable human

topography. The pincer-
mimicking prong’d tails
of two earwigs

tentering the rosy
stem-hole plush
of an inveterate

peach. Totalling up
a skeet-afflict’d
pell-mell memory

is one way;
another is sticking
to the track

of an uncertain
wordy plunge in
and out of

oh, a military
cutter’s wake, at
play, rakish, déchéant.