Friday, April 24, 2009

Nothing in the Hopper II

Magnolia, Late Afternoon


What’s unaccount’d for—
                the long intransigent
periods of infinitesimal
flux and nodding

between fits of
                petulant industry. New-
dug potatoes extract’d
out of common

fields black-rotting
                in floody cellars.
Skeins of yarn
tangled into inutile

matting, cat-urined.
                The pitchfork’d dog.
The cloy of
sorghum expung’d too

Late. Scuff of dire
                proximity, neighbors going
at it with
occasional cries uninterpretable.

Hepzibah’s delusional slumgullion,
                undeliverable pixels, m’aider
signals poorly angliciz’d,
too much lunch.

Like the pitch-
                men say—all
that, and more!
Scoot’d inscrutably by

against legendary diligence,
                uninscribed. Light dazzles
the daily insatiate
with epicurean pudeur.

Nepenthe, Naphtha, Lethe, “with a likeness burst in the memory.” How’d that accumbrous cloud begin? In the raw morning, bit by all that dribbled through my hands, lost like money in the night (or, as Beckett puts it, in Murphy: “It is so easy to lose personal freshness”), I found myself perusing a 1971 issue of David Morice’s Gum, a tiny Iowa City thing (25¢), reading Darrell Gray’s “Nepenthe”:
The many senses like little open doors
Into one huge room full of colored fumes
Speeding across the sky
My hand touches yours
Yours mine
A spine-tingling actuality
Born and raised on a pin-head
In the fraction of time it takes
Gloom to glisten
The faucet to drip
As you enter the room and are seized
By the information
And I try’d to remember how Frank O’Hara’s “Naphtha” went, certain that a connection exist’d between the two, composedly ignorant that “Naphtha” is not “Nepenthe,” &c. And all I recall’d: “Ah Jean Dubuffet” and something about doing military service in the Eiffel Tower, and Iroquois ironworkers and that lovely “with a likeness burst in the memory” line. (And then, in the Gray poem, I got distract’d into thinking whether or not “A spine-tingling actuality / Born and raised on a pin-head”—which incited its own pricklinesses of delight—might’ve been a “source” for the brief blast of “Actualists” in Iowa City and San Francisco, that groupuscular seizure young men (mostly) and old seem particularly “prone” to.) Where along the bicyclist’s swift trajectory did he begin to accustom himself to the sneaky-Pete apprehension of a mistake? Nepenthe is “the one that chases away sorrow” [ne = not, penthos = grief], particularly, one adds, thinking of poor Darrell Gray, in the form of “straight, no chaser.” And Naphtha, root of naphthalene, “moth balls,” and (according to the O.E.D.) “Liquid petroleum, particularly of a thin, volatile kind.” O’Hara: “there is a parable of speed / somewhere behind the Indians’ eyes.” (There is an O’Hara letter of 1 February 1961 to John Ashbery—who’s putting together a group of works possibly under the spell of Reverdy for an issue of Mercure de France—wherein O’Hara asks “Do you think Naphtha is sort of Reverdian?” And if one thinks of Reverdy’s speed, which is cubism’s speed, of shifting p.o.v., cinematically adroit, and sees how O’Hara fidgets with looks at “the gaited Iroquois on the girders / fierce and unflinching-footed / nude as they should be / slightly empty / like a Sonia Delaunay” and into the speed “behind the eyes” and telescoping back “out” to how “they invented the century with their horses / and their fragile backs / which are dark,” one thinks, yes, Reverdy. Is a Sonia Delaunay “slightly empty” because it is lacking the penile Tour Eiffel that husband Robert Delaunay characteristically insert’d into paintings? “Stop that.”) And, returning, Lethe’s simply a Greek tagalong bum steer, cross-fouling the “burst in memory,” that river in Hades where the water made one forget. Here’s the poem:

Ah Jean Dubuffet
when you think of him
doing his military service in the Eiffel Tower
as a meteorologist
in 1922
you know how wonderful the 20th Century
can be
and the gaited Iroquois on the girders
fierce and unflinching-footed
nude as they should be
slightly empty
like a Sonia Delaunay
there is a parable of speed
somewhere behind the Indians’ eyes
they invented the century with their horses
and their fragile backs
which are dark

we owe a debt to the Iroquois
and to Duke Ellington
for playing in the buildings when they are built
we don’t do much ourselves
but fuck and think
of the haunting Métro
and the one who didn’t show up there
while we were waiting to become part of our century
just as you can’t make a hat out of steel
and still wear it
who wears hats anyway
it is our tribe’s custom
to beguile

how are you feeling in ancient September
I am feeling like a truck on a wet highway
how can you
you were made in the image of god
I was not
I was made in the image of a sissy truck-driver
and Jean Dubuffet painting his cows
“with a likeness burst in the memory”
apart from love (don’t say it)
I am ashamed of my century
for being so entertaining
but I have to smile
Which deposits me back at the feet of Darrell Gray’s poem where the “room” is akin to the “century” in “Naphtha,” isn’t it? Again the sense of irrevocable speed, again the primordial acceptance of the actual: “you enter the room and are seized / By the information.”

The daily Adorno. “The category of the new produced a conflict . . . a conflict between the new and duration. Artworks were always meant to endure; it is related to their concept, that of objectivation. Through duration art protests against death; the paradoxically transient eternity of artworks is the allegory of an eternity bare of semblance. Art is the semblance of what is beyond death’s reach. It is not only reactionary rancor that provokes horror over the fact that the longing for the new represses duration. The effort to create enduring masterpieces has been undermined. What has terminated tradition can hardly count on one in which it would be given a place.” The nonsensicalness of an avant-garde tradition. Is it in keeping with Adorno here, too, to declare that artworks of overweening and blatant ambition (the “monumental,” the imperturbably and self-satisfy’dly “grand”) by definition conflict with the primer of the new? (I admit it: I am thinking of the conscious grandiosity of my bête noire Ron Silliman’s The Alphabet, how it so evidently is playing for keeps, staking—les jeux sont faits—it all on something like Pound’s antiquated view of things, recall Pound’s image of the conservation of “great literature” under the dross of critical response “heaped up and conserved round about them in the proportion: one barrel of sawdust to each half-bunch of grapes.”) Somewhat later Adorno writes: “As soon as artworks make a fetish of their hope of duration, they begin to suffer from their sickness unto death: The veneer of inalienability that they draw over themselves at the same time suffocates them.” The answer (there is no answer): “the unsurpassable noblesse of fireworks . . . the only art that aspires not to duration but only to glow for an instant and fade away.”

Darrell Gray, Berkeley, 1984
(Photograph by Alastair Johnston)