Thursday, May 07, 2009




‘In the unseemly work of
the new glamourists, sheen mops

the brow of what is
precisely call’d makeshiftedness, the neologism’s

awkwardness spelling out the barely
prehensile lurches catastrophic (see John

Milton) of the underlying body
itself. These are clumsy girls.’

‘Do I recall the days
of art pre-look, that

is, when a fresh-mill’d
stack of sweet-smelling pine

boards’d make a contraption simple
as a coffin? You bet.’

‘The neutral, the unadorn’d, the
plain, the lagniappe of good measure:

it’s art-scat one puts
down (like a dying dog),

a carcass tether’d and suspend’d
in a Utah lake, simple

wavelets (in little point’d caps)
(carrying slosh-cups) reclaim it

piece by piece (blanch’d, unspooling
gunk) for nature’s never spurious

use.’ ‘(Like a dying Cub
Scout,) art’s capacity is limit’d—

fever-blisters and provincial schisms,
the now tragically invisible moppers-

upper’ll rue the day. Rue?
I meant to say rule.

Read John Yau’s essay about Frank O’Hara’s art criticism, “Passionate Spectator”—the epithet out of Baudelaire’s 1863 essay, “The Painter of Modern Life,” wherein he unsettles the term flâneur (literally, stroller, loiterer, drifter, dawdler, saunterer—I think of Thoreau’s marvelous lines of bastard etymological conjecture out of “Walking”—
I have met with but one or two persons in the course of my life who understood the art of Walking, that is, of taking walks, who had a genius, so to speak, for sauntering; which word is beautifully derived “from idle people who roved about the country, in the middle ages, and asked charity, under pretence of going à la sainte terre”—to the holy land, till the children exclaimed, “There goes a sainte-terrer,” a saunterer—a holy-lander. They who never go to the holy land in their walks, as they pretend, are indeed mere idlers and vagabonds, but they who do go there are saunterers in the good sense, such as I mean. Some, however, would derive the word from sans terre, without land or a home, which, therefore, in the good sense, will mean, having no particular home, but equally at home everywhere. For this is the secret of successful sauntering. He who sits still in a house all the time may be the greatest vagrant of all, but the Saunterer, in the good sense, is no more vagrant than the meandering river, which is all the while sedulously seeking the shortest course to the sea . . .
—one of a tiny wash of connectings). Here’s some of the Baudelaire (somewhat beyond what Yau quotes):
The crowd is his element, as the air is that of birds and water of fishes. His passion and his profession are to become one flesh with the crowd. For the perfect flâneur, for the passionate spectator, it is an immense joy to set up house in the heart of the multitude, amid the ebb and flow of movement, in the midst of the fugitive and the infinite. To be away from home and yet to feel oneself everywhere at home; to see the world, to be at the centre of the world, and yet to remain hidden from the world—such are a few of the slightest pleasures of those independent, passionate, impartial natures which the tongue can but clumsily define. The spectator is a prince who everywhere rejoices in his incognito. . . . Thus the lover of universal life enters into the crowd as though it were an immense reservoir of electrical energy. Or we might liken him to a mirror as vast as the crowd itself; or to a kaleidoscope gifted with consciousness, responding to each one of its movements and reproducing the multiplicity of life and the flickering grace of all the elements of life. He is an ‘I’ with an insatiable appetite for the ‘non-I,’ at every instant rendering and explaining it in pictures more living than life itself, which is
always unstable and fugitive.
Now, Yau’s argument (a good one) is that O’Hara’s “stance” is precisely that of the flâneur, that is, one of no fixity at all (“Instead of approaching art with a theory, whose primary purpose is to aid the critic in establishing a hierarchy of verifiable values, he lived as a flâneur, which means he tried to live in the now as completely as possible. It is not that O’Hara ignored or rejected the past or that he didn’t have values. Rather, he didn’t contextualize the present according to a preestablished framework.” And: “To be a flâneur is to reject a vantage point and any trace of omniscience in favor of being open.”). (Some of “our” most highly visible critic-exhortators, particularly those seemingly wholly “improvident without slots” ought to look to O’Hara for exemplary attendings abiertos, no?) What struck me, though, reading Baudelaire’s script’d “flâneurie”—how it sounds like it descends out of a hotch-potch of St. Augustine bump’d up (or down) by Pascal (“Our nature consists in movement; absolute rest is death.” And: “Nature is an infinite sphere of which the center is everywhere and the circumference nowhere.” Pensées, 1670.), or by Emerson (“The eye is the first circle; the horizon which it forms is the second; and throughout nature this primary figure is repeated without end. It is the highest emblem in the cipher of the world. St. Augustine described the nature of God as a circle whose center was everywhere and its circumference nowhere. We are all our lifetime reading the copious sense of this first of forms. One moral we have already deduced in considering the circular or compensatory character of every human action. Another analogy we shall now trace, that every action admits of being outdone. Our life is an apprenticeship to the truth that around every circle another can be drawn; that there is no end in nature, but every end is a beginning; that there is always another dawn risen on mid-noon, and under every deep a lower deep opens.” “Circles,” 1841.) And, with Baudelaire’s “crowd” as “an immense reservoir of electrical energy,” I think of Whitman’s “body electric” or the lines out of the 1855 Leaves of Grass, the enclosured quahog versus the terribly exposed, vulnerably open:
To be in any form, what is that?
If nothing lay more developed the quahaug and its callous shell were enough.

Mine is no callous shell,
I have instant conductors all over me whether I pass or stop,
They seize every object and lead it harmlessly through me.

I merely stir, press, feel with my fingers, and am happy,
To touch my person to some one else’s is about as much as I can stand.

Is this then a touch? . . . . quivering me to a new identity,
Flames and ether making a rush for my veins,
Treacherous tip of me reaching and crowding to help them,
My flesh and blood playing out lightning, to strike what is hardly different from myself,
On all sides prurient provokers stiffening my limbs,
Straining the udder of my heart for its withheld drip . . .
No conclusions. A swoll’d up blister of thinking in the form of interconnectednesses likely mischievous and ill-wrought. A note to range my Appaloosa in alongside the dandy Baudelaire’s black Arabian and see what he’s reading. Yau notes, too, one of Wallace Stevens’s “Adagia”: “To live in the world but outside existing conceptions of it.” To work, attendant.

John Yau
(Photograph by Charles Bernstein)