Thursday, December 03, 2009

What Is Reading?

A Tangle (Grasses)


My sommers flowre
summons up sweet
lash of summery
breeze. Up, mizzenmast,
up, my cheek.
Feign’d majescules, sirrah.
Feign’d aimless impiety.
My dickering with
the common welter.
My moaning un-
abash’d, my sloth,
my godless impropriety.
I love it
the way stealth-
menacing content bats
ungainly along beneath
form’s radar, colossal
abrupt, yawing. Yawning,
sirrah. I doubt
the pedigree of
what the tender
chorle makst, what
plops niggardly into
the bucket. Constrain’d
into a beast.
Hang it all.

Javier Marías, out of the newly-translated (by Margaret Jull Costa) third volume of Tu rostro mañana, English’d to Your Face Tomorrow: Poison, Shadow and Farewell (New Directions, 2009), with a trail of Proustian languor, or what one character’d call “loquacious introspection”—here, trigger’d by a reminiscence of “sharing a bed while awake” with one “young Pérez Nuix,” and how that activity
. . . arbitrarily marks the frontier between discretion and trust, between secrecy and revelation, between deferential silence and questions with their respective answers or, perhaps, evasions, as if briefly entering another’s body broke down not only physical barriers but others too: biographical, sentimental, certainly the barriers of pretense, caution or reserve, it’s absurd really that two people, having once entwined, feel that they can, with authority and impunity, probe the life and thoughts of whoever was above or below, or standing up facing forward or backwards if no bed was needed, or else describe both life and thoughts at length, in the most verbose and even abstracted fashion, there are people who only screw someone so that they can then rabbit on at them to their heart’s content, as if that intertwining had given them a license to do so. This is something that has often bothered me following one of my occasional flings, one that lasted a night or a morning or an afternoon, and, in the first instance, all such encounters are just that—flings—as long as they’re not repeated, and all encounters start out the same with neither party knowing if it will end right there, or, rather, one of the parties knows, knows at once, but politely says nothing and thus gives rise to a misunderstanding (politeness is a poison, our undoing); they pretend that this relationship isn’t going to come to an immediate halt, but that some really has opened up and there’s no reason why it should ever be closed again; the most terrible mess and confusion ensues. And sometime you know this before you’ve entered that new body, you know you only want to do it that one time, just to find out, or perhaps to brag about it to yourself or to shock yourself, or you might even make a mental note of the occasion so that you can recall or remember it or even more tenuously, have it on record, so that you’ll be able to say to yourself: ‘This happened in my life,’ especially in old age or in ones’ maturer years when the past often invades the present and when the present, grown bored or skeptical, rarely looks ahead.
Which—is it the lazy needling persistence of the interrogatory?—invades reading itself, so that the immediacy of one’s mental and physical “husk” is implicated, becomes charg’d with a kind of staticky cling-aura trailing off . . . I’d just earlier had a “fling” with a book of letters between Pound (goading the flabbiness of Ford’s “impressionist” miasmas: “The half of you that is english, conduces to englishness; namely tangential. ¶ The god damn Briton do not go at a thing straight / Shx. [Shakespeare] play wright / / mebbe began it.”) and Ford Madox Ford (goading back: “Our distinguished colleague has always hated prose.”)—mostly scouting for the story of Ford’s late brief sojourn at Olivet College (just down the road) and attempts, circa 1937-8, to haul Pound there (“Does Olivet USE my text books? Will the clog-dancer [Olivet’s president: “Fordie” ’d mention’d how he, Joseph Brewer, “impressionable and youngish and ready to learn,” “is also one of the best clog-dancers in the world”] . . . GET a printing press / LINO or monotype / I.E. practical and not fancy hand arty machine for the DISTRIBUTION of knowledge and ideas?”), to make him part of the “extremely meritorious” experiment (“to create a number of chairs for imaginative writers who won’t do much lecturing but sit about and be Influences.”) Fail’d, naturally (“I do NOT propose to go into any sort of YOKE.”) What remains: the perennially lilt’d pettifoggery of “Cantico del Sole,” song of the blameless “servent” overlook’d—“The thought of what America would be like / If the Classics had a wide circulation / Troubles my sleep. / Nunc dimittis, now lettest thou thy servant, / Now lettest thou thy servant / Depart in peace.” Differing somewhat off what Ford call’d Pound’s “wearisomely incomprehensible” “1892 O Henry stuff”—“Get the waiter at your hotel to write your letters for you; he will at least write comprehensible dog-English.”

I think I am trying to write about reading, its aberrances, invasions, its drifts and velocities and listlessnesses. I am wholly uncertain of that, I am sidelined, spur’d out. Truth is, I keep thinking of how Bhanu Kapil recently talk’d about the “grid” and how it may “extend the range of what we see.” She numbers it (number is a grid):
2. The grid is an imaging technology. Maybe part of the work of prose writing is to invent a form that disturbs the given field of information, even if that information is beautiful.
I love that. Numbering itself capable of disturbing “the given field of information.” Truth is, I slug’d off to sleep reading Marías, though, as it occurs regularly enough, roused up a little later, refresh’d, and turn’d to Maggie Nelson’s Bluets (Wave Books, 2009), a thing “intend’d” for weeks now. It is there that Kapil’s grid and numbering (one’d say, perhaps: “arbitrary markers of the frontier between indiscretion and trust”) lodged up alongside Marías’s languor and brag. Maggie Nelson manages (partly by cyanophilia, that motif of blues, though largely, I think, by the simple expedient of a writing atomized into discrete propositions Wittgensteinian, how it allows an uncanny copiousness to emerge, how it bends the autobiographical against itself, denatures it, makes it “of use”), Nelson manages, I say, to keep a fraught and obsessive narrative of a fail’d love affair out of the homily-recycling depths of mere prurience—in a way, she, too, like Marías, is working out of “loquacious introspection.” She veers, she collects, she assembles quotes, she confesses, she wheels unsignal’d between ornate preciosity and the unclutter’d blunt:
18. A warm afternoon in early spring, New York City. We went to the Chelsea Hotel to fuck. Afterward, from the window of our room, I watched a blue tarp on a roof across the way flap in the wind. You slept, so it was my secret. It was a smear of the quotidian, a bright blue flake amidst all the dank providence. It was the only time I came. It was essentially our lives. It was shaking.

19. Months before this afternoon I had a dream, and in this dream an angel came and said: You must spend more time thinking about the divine, and less time imagining unbuttoning the prince of blue’s pants at the Chelsea Hotel. But what if the prince of blue’s unbuttoned pants are the divine, I pleaded. So be it, she said, and left me to sob with my face against the blue slate floor.

20. Fucking leaves everything as it is. Fucking may in no way interfere with the actual use of language. For it cannot give it any foundation either. It leaves everything as it is.
Too, stories of saints, of looking, here poised against one “image of the intellectual” as “a man who loses his eyesight not out of shame (Oedipus) but in order to think more clearly (Milton)”:
56. There are, however, many stories of women—particularly saints—blinding themselves in order to maintain their chastity, to prove that they “only have eyes” for God or Christ. Consider, for example, the legend of Saint Lucy, patron saint of the blind, whose name means “clear, radiant, understandable. What seems clear enough: in 304 ad Lucy was tortured and put to death by the Roman emperor Diocletian, and thus martyred for her Christianity. What is unclear: why, exactly, she runs around Gothic and Renaissance paintings holding a golden dish with her blue eyes staring weirdly out from it. Some say her eyes were tortured out of her head in her martyrdom; some say she gouged them out herself after being sentenced by the pagan emperor to be defiled in a brothel. Even more unclear are the twinned legends of Saint Medana (of Ireland) and Saint Triduana (of Scotland), two Christian princesses who were pursued by undesirable pagan lovers—lovers who professed to be unable to live without their beloveds’ beautiful blue eyes. To rid herself of the unwanted attention, Medana supposedly plucked her eyes out and threw them at her suitor’s feet; Triduana was slightly more inventive, and tore here out with a thorn, then sent them to her suitor on a skewer.

57. In religious accounts, these women are announcing, via their amputations, their fidelity to God. But other accounts wonder whether they were in fact punishing themselves, as they knew that they had looked upon men with lust, and felt the need to employ extreme measures to avert any further temptation.

58. Love is something so ugly that the human race would die out if lovers could see what they were doing” (Leonardo da Vinci).

59. There are those, however, who like to look. And we have not yet heard enough, if anything about the female gaze. About the scorch of it, with the eyes staying in the head. “I love to gaze at a promising-looking cock,” writes Catherine Millet in her beautiful sex memoir, before going on to describe how she also loves to look at the “brownish crater” of her asshole and the “crimson valley” of her pussy, each opened wide—its color laid bare—for the fucking.
Brash, feverish, intractable, exploratory, and terribly “touchant” Nelson’s Bluets is, I am remind’d for some reason (it’s in Marías) of Rimbaud’s line: “Par délicatesse / J’ai perdu ma vie.”

Maggie Nelson