Friday, January 30, 2009

Against Plain Style



Blue at the end of
the novel of indispensable pessimisms,
the boy’s readerly instincts kaput.
He cannot admit he’s confused
B. Traven with Baron Corvo,
or puce with anything thumb-
sized or “the lesser,” continuing
down to the flea-sized
mark of the personal he
uproots out of the holy
in a whey-faced attempt
to “get at” the Absolute.
The idea of the human
strabismus of God, all-seeing
(albeit with a squint) with
one eye misalign’d, how it
throws off the world’s balance,
and makes tranquility flail obscenely
like a June bug tether’d
to an arm’s length of
filament, or a fat man
in rut, pinned by two
lips, up against the firmament.

Finish’d Gaddis’s J R and went “into” that fandango of indecision that is the result of being stuck with one book for a lengthy period whilst other beckoning possibles accumulate. Loved the outburst at the end, all undoing, Jack Gibbs, one of the artists (a writer) loose in the novel, seemingly rejecting the stasis of, what? a woman (“when she finally called he wouldn’t speak to her, heard her voice he pretended he was an old black retainer yas’m, yas’m, dat old Mistah Gibbs he a genuine rascal to play de ladies so, say he clear out to a place yonder call Burmesquik set him up a little factory there hasn’t answered the God damn phone since . . .”)—cartoonish shades of Leslie Fiedler’s thesis in Love and Death in the American Novel, the “lighting out for the territory” syndrome—and when somebody fails to comprehend (“I mean I still don’t under . . .”), the reply’s got something to do with the habit of scribbling away (painting away) for years and years, terminally and completely “took” by turns of monstrous funk and uninhabitable glee:
. . . you don’t have to understand nobody expects you to! What you just threw in that box on the sink nobody expects you to know what it cost him, nobody expects you to see what he saw there all these papers, these boxes what we saw here that painting back there it’s magnificent, the way it looks right now it’s still magnificent he’s down on his knees picking plaster out of it nobody expects you to see what he saw there!
Which seems a bleak and proper “assessment” of any maker’s drive (probably encumber’d, too, by the critical dig of “difficulty” assess’d against Gaddis’s own work, and the “cost” of twenty years between The Recognitions and J R.)

So that: I turn to a man capable of writing (of a girl): “this unhandled slip of mulierity.” Because of a need to think about the limits of language (again) ? Simultaneously Alphonse James Albert Symons’s The Quest for Corvo (1934) with its intriguing subtitle, “An Experiment in Biography,” and a late (posthumously publish’d in 1934) novel by said Baron Corvo (a. k. a. Frederick Rolfe) titled The Desire and Pursuit of the Whole (subtitled “A Romance of Modern Venice”). Is it full contentiousness in a dumb’d down “era” to put up with a writer of such high disdain, invent, and peculiarity? (Oui, j’espère. I am all esperance.) Symons records some of the extent of Corvo’s oddity (he’s writing about Rolfe’s first novel, Hadrian the Seventh):
Fr. Rolfe shares his hero’s liking for compound words; and his pages are studded with such inventions or adaptations as ‘tolutiloquence’, ‘contortuplicate’, ‘incoronation’, ‘noncurant’, ‘occession’, and digladiator’. In constructing his sentences he sets his adverbs as far before both parts of the verb as he can; and though he often lapses into learning and Latin, the most homely expressions are not disdained in his elaborate paragraphs. But these peculiarities do not rob him of a real eloquence . . .
Here’s a sample (fitting, rather accidentally, with the Fiedler thesis), Rolfe writing about protagonist Nicholas Crabbe pondering Plato’s “The Desire and Pursuit of the Whole is called Love” and “relations with women”:
His natural bent was for treating them as goddesses in niches . . . He didn’t in the least admire their physical beauty, as a rule. He looked upon them as he looked upon those very venerable black Madonnas who invariably work miracles. The form and ornament of them made him simply sick, ‘usque ad nauseum,’ by reason of its vapid bunchiness and vacuous inconsequent patchworkiness. . . . You should have observed his furious forbearance with the scraggy ladies of rectors, or with the tailor-made females who still hoped to allure a man with their motley mangy boas and hybrid hand-bags and clinking beads and heterogeneous high heels and foolish fat stockings and hard waists (o Aphrodite Anadyomene) and tabby hats like crumpled wrecks of flea-bitten birds’ nets of felt plastered with the scratchings of rag-bags and gigantic withered old cauliflowers.
Do I thrill to “vapid bunchiness”? I do, I do. Is it the result of the sheer shallowness of all the short vowels? It is, it is. What about “scraggy ladies of rectors”? Isnt’ the contempt rack’d up in that scr, that rect, like a man hocking up a clot of phlegm? (It is, it is.) What Auden says in a foreword to The Desire and Pursuit of the Whole:
A gift for literary expression can embarrass its owner for it is always revealing his nature to others without his consent or even his knowledge. Banalities and platitudes are effective masks which can be worn by any face and it is impossible to guess the character of the wearer through them; but a genuine style, however ‘artificial’ or ‘impersonal,’ however intended to conceal, is the creation of the unique face behind it and its ‘unlikeness’ to the latter is never arbitrary.
Ammo against the prevalent plain style. Argument that (possibly) what it most successfully conceals is the “banalities and platitudes” of its “wearer.”

Baron Corvo a.k.a. Frederick Rolfe, 1860-1913

Thursday, January 29, 2009

The Sienese Shredder 3

Trees, Snow


Impasse at the washout, the
brusque manœuvres in the jeep.

Books piling up and no
end to the snails I

lift out of the window-
box with the penknife’s blade.

Categorical innocence of autumn: trees
stripping down, the geranium bolt’d.

“I don’t think I’m ready.”
Weekly mingling, with speech emphasis.

The third issue of The Sienese Shredder, an impeccable and gorgeous sumptuary of a magazine (of, according to cover copy, “art, design, literature, poetry, music, culture”) arrived. Edited by Brice Brown and Trevor Winkfield, it is proving adept at disgorging minor incroyables—items one unabashedly gasps at—with alarming regularity. One is only troubled by the exorbitance of its riches—how work one’s way through it all, nearly sated by examination of a single page, say, that photograph entitled “Yippee” by Tim Davis—the word itself labelmaker’d and attach’d to a (shower?) wall of vaguely gingko-shaped leaves, nail-holed, mildew’d, worn—one of eight Davis C-prints reproduced. (Considering the contracting economy and the poor niggardly poet half of me—exacerbated by my stingy Scottish forebears—I do do a little flummox-frownery attempting to comprehend how the “item,” nigh three hundred pages in a largish format, design’d at The Grenfell Press and print’d in Verona, Italy at Trifolio, with innumerable color plates and a pocket’d CD of music by Eric Moe, sells at $30—totally happy though I be, I mean, dang, that scrubby Grand Piano booklet cost’d me, what, better’n a third of that?)

Some select’d notes (what strikes a fancy). There’s a notable two dozen epigraphs collect’d by English oddball William Beckford (author of Vathek),“found in the cemetery of a considerable town on the high road from London to Bristol . . . probably the production of the same goose-quill; but whether wielded by the sexton, clerk, or even parson of the Parish, I could not learn . . . apparently enough before the dawn of our present most wonderful poetical Æra” (so Beckford report’d in Bath, in 1822). Here’s one:
I went and listed in the Tenth Hussars,
And gallopped with them to the bloody wars—
“Die for your sovereign,—for your country die!”
To earn such glory feeling rather shy,
Snug I slipped home; but Death soon sent me off,
After a struggle with the Hooping cough.
There’s a 1946 watercolor and ink by Denton Welch (the Maiden Voyage and In Youth Is Pleasure author). Call’d The Coffin House (and accompany’d by a photograph of the original, rather half hexagonal-looking structure in Kent), the painting unmistakably recalls the work of Samuel Palmer, that “lit within” visionary fastidiousness, replete with a natural world (a large hare nibbles away at a red-capped toadstool in the foreground) that is more robust than anything human (two figures appear to crouch under an umbrella behind an overgrown stone wall in the middle distance). Astounding to learn Welch paint’d.

There’s a clutch of poems by Michael Gizzi that recall somehow little collections of Glen Baxter captions, with lines like “The father in exile stripped of his sundial borrows the equator for a belt,” and “One branch of the family is antiseptic, another a lecture on prickers.” Here’s one call’d “Translation”:
A shadow sneezes on the stridulating ghosts of grasshoppers.

Deer parse privet.

Wild words begin with k, hell yeah.

With a wave of a wand, the oaks rush to shadow the son of an old librarian and six white cantos in pants.

Sandstorms suffer flashbacks and people bother their dusty heads and drop their shower caps.

It’s good to spruce up your journey with a comma, a toenail from infancy.

No pedigree but riffraff endowed with pure Cistercian flesh.

A pale eye the color of a few words.
A kind of surrealism with loud materialist alarums pinned to the words—the precise efficiency of “Deer parse privet,” the way it makes one mouth to parse.

There’s a grip of artworks by Elsa Von Freytag-Loringhoven, the Baroness, work’d to the extreme and (mostly) worded. One is a “gouache on foil” (1923-24) of a furl’d umbrella leaning against what could be an overflowing wash basin, with a large shoe’d foot and bright-color’d trouser leg stepping emphatically out of the tableau left. Indistinguishable objects cover the floor in the foreground—books, pocketbooks? Blockprint’d (in violet): “FORGOTTEN—LIKE THIS PARAPLUIE / AM I BY YOU / FAITHLESS / BERNICE,” though parapluie looks as if it’s spell’d parapluice. Another page appears to be a draft of two poems, with doodles. One piece, “Equinox,” begins:

Ice bears



Evidence of the period disease of Joycean double-epithets, though I am fond of “slatekites,” presumably roofing tiles.

There’s a fine interview by (mostly) Mark Polizzotti with “novelist, composer, musicologist” Maurice Roche, author of “eight of the most challenging novels ever written”—Polizzotti himself translated Compact (Dalkey Archive, 1988)—who, too, mentions Joyce (Roche is responding to a suggestion that Roche’s own play with language in French inevitably recalls Rabelais):
Joyce was nothing if not a huge fan of Rabelais. Of course the translation comes across like Rabelais! But it comes across as flat Rabelais. No, listen, there’s the story, if you want to talk about foreign languages in a novel, when Pantagruel meets Panurge “whom he loved his whole life long,” etc., etc. He begins by asking him a question, and the other answers in—he goes through everything, made-up languages, Hebrew, Danish, Pig Latin, until they finally get to, “Ah! You speak French too! But that’s marvelous, why didn’t you say so…!” The point is that the use of foreign languages in literature is a commonplace. And when you talk about Joyce, of course Joyce was inspired by all that, by Rabelais’s invented languages, the words he made up from bits of Greek, student lingo, medical terms . . .
Miles Champion offers a portfolio of nine poets, including the mysterious (some say “neglected”) Iliassa Sequin:
Two Variations of Poem I

wooing a vice per device
who is who per arts rake

to deliver the share of its burden

alas ‘clickity clack’ art’s infinitude
how does it do it

oh dear, a reality of illusions
a bum steer
it is dogged as does it

as a rose being forged
she bled

alas, clickity clack art’s spite
how does it do it

oh dear, an overawed rebellion
a counter-claim
thrown to the dogs

beneath a glaring error
what a sucker

wooing like a loafer
to strike a route
Which sizzles like a sparkler, sending out off lights. Each act of “making strange” seeming to echo / provide under-song to a familiar (“it is dogged as does it” singing through “easy does it,” “dog eat dog,” “nobody dog me around”—a plethora of “humours” spouting up.) Too, Champion offers several of Tim Atkins’s terrific re-workings of Petrarch’s canzoniere. Here’s Atkins’s “Petrarch 199” (“O bella man che mi distringi ’l core,” the one Sir Thomas Wyatt’s “O goodely Hand” itself reworks):
(Medieval music. It is dusk. In the woods above Avignon, Petrarch and his brother are walking. In the middle of the path, they come upon an enormous glove.)

PETRARCH:     An enormous glove!

BROTHER:       Look at those pearls: they appear to be of oriental hue.

                            (He tries to lift it) It is as heavy as a great ball!

PETRARCH:     Hush! (He appears to be listening) Dear glove that covers polished ivory and fresh roses:

                            Who on earth ever saw such a thing?

BROTHER:       Not me.

PETRARCH:     And yet . . . I recall the necessity of her astonishing fingers.

                            Every night they squeezed my heart tight.

BROTHER:       Brother! I believe this be Laura’s.

                            (He sighs) It is late and we are cold. (Yawning) Let us sleep in this.

PETRARCH:     Would that I had as much of her as the thought of her—now—naked fingers.

BROTHER:       Ay. Yet they are France’s. And will never belong to us. And yet for one night . . .

PETRARCH:     (He weeps) But this is theft, and must be taken back.

BROTHER:       (Exasperated) Dude! Is this a glove or a social event?
Quenching. (Typing away, and with one eye peel’d off to the Wyatt, I am thinking how satisfying such reworkings be, put up against the (mostly) lamentable results of “homophonic translation.”)

If there’s a “gist and pith” to the overall editing approach in The Sienese Shredder, I’d say it’s a tendency toward the unabash’d jack-of-all-trades “cross-disciplinary” sort of thing that says, why not print Larry Rivers’s poems (or Denton Welch’s paintings)? So Melissa Meyer, with several primary-color’d watercolors (all titled Muse Cubi, Bogliasco, 2005), offers, too, a page of quotes. (I prefer: Joan Mitchell’s “I carry my landscapes around with me” and Nicholas Ray’s “Sometimes telling the truth is very dull.”)

Willem de Kooning, Untitled (Last Drawing), 1985
(The Sienese Shredder 3)

Wednesday, January 28, 2009

The Grand Piano Notes

Catalpa, Snow

Is it William Matthews who retorts (smart-alecky) somewhere (regarding that piece of Shakespearean self-help, “to thine own self be true”): “as if one had a choice”? One’d think that, under the gusts and thrusts of generic-brand continental theory and its ruinous bastard-offspring by Language writing (to say nothing of Time magazine)—one’d think the burning spear of the “self” (who he?) would’ve moved along considerably by now, hiss’d itself out in the oceanic onslaught of self-admonitory verbiage. So what is Steve Benson doing beginning a seventh Grand Piano entry with: “The expectation, which I hold in common with the fictive reader, is that I will represent myself, that I will make an effort, at least, to remain—even be—true to myself, as I was then”? I am not sure whether Benson means the “reader of fiction,” or the “imaginary reader”—I doubt it matters—and, unsurprisingly enough, he is less concern’d with the ontology or stability of the self (he demolishes that with “as I was then”), and more with the epistemological incertitude of the whole gewgaw. “Who,” he complains, “am I to know and say? In any case, here, now, I am. Cut adrift, the battery dead, and I am rowing.” And (snore): “‘I’ appears here only by way of compromise, by consensus, since ‘we’ appears absurdly presumptuous, and ‘one’ or even ‘anyone’ unjustified.” (Suddenly, “one” sees exactly what “I” long for—a history of the period (and its individuals) without the accompanying poses, the constant reiterant position-takings and claim-buttressings: a Joe Friday run-through, a chronology, and not the fraught chippy-whine, not the bag of elbows nudging—us and one another.)

What one gets: another recital of Benson’s “talk” call’d “Views of Communist China,” where he moved belongings (out of the “railroad apartment” he occupy’d—unfailing, the same old same old details) into Francie Shaw and Bob Perelman’s Folsom Street “loft,” read some of an Orville Schell New Yorker article about China, and did semi-provident, semi-stall’d out improv on the décor of the Benson re-negotiated, post- Perelman / Shaw aparto. (You had, as they say, to be there.) All record’d and retrieved and print’d first in Perelman’s Talks issue of Hills (1980), again (pieces) here, and “forthcoming” in a Perelman-edited thing call’d The Bay Area Talks (Salt, who cares?) The extend’d mileage guarantee of limit’d resources. Of the transcription re-present’d, two pieces I prefer. Benson’s reply to Perelman wondering (with regard to the homey arrangement of one’s “things”) if there’ve “been moments when you’ve really felt them as if you were an other.” Benson:
—with just these things, themselves, unless like there’s a new one, and then, then, if it’s new, then I like will identify with the other, yeah like I just did it, you know? And so, uh, sometimes that feels good, like, some of the collages in the front room. I still like identify with them as though like I somebody else coming to see them, and so then that feels good.
Which makes me think: how good William Gaddis is at mimicking the infelicities of speech, those strain’d roundabout boobish utterances we make with such serious intent. Which makes me think: how prescient that I (and cohort of running dogs of the “era”) never bother’d to transcribe (or even keep) similar goof-propell’d rhapsodies of my own youth-muddy’d effusions with those comrades in Ithaca. It (they, the unembellish’d cassette’d rhapsodes, were just a momentary trial, not evidence and expenditure for a “posterity”—there was never any “future” out there then.) The second “piece.” Barrett Watten’s bright remodeling idea:
What about, what about building so much tension and drama into your walls, you know, you never know what was the biggest thing about them but you’re sort of always uh sort of like they’re defining those parts of the walls to you differently every time. Have you ever thought about doing that?
And at Benson’s attempt-to-clarify query—“Like to just be changing them all the time?”—and Watten continuing with what sounds like a bout of mania: “To completely kill the surfaces with tension until they can’t take it anymore.” Yow.

One terrific line out of the report of the talk-machinations: “The situation that I had prepared to present my knowledge in had unfailingly prepared the question I did not know how to answer.” Which is, I’d argue, exactly the proper mess that any of art’s fool machinations ought to plunge one into; is what binge-predilection (name the “substance”) or mousy “constraint” is for: to propel one flawlessly out beyond the dodge of the ordinary. One of Benson’s ruses: “I played a tape of a speech ad-libbed minutes earlier back through headphones while I spoke a new version based on it.”

And? Music reduced to a report of watching Dylan’s 1965 KQED press conference, the way he snort’d off press’d intimations of presumed seriousness, having a gas at it, refusing any premature “fit.” (Some of “our” Young Turks—and they increasingly desperate “Elders”—’d learn a little about the snares of blindly coveting a public identity by seeing it.) Too many, in Benson’s piece, again, verbatim (raw) pages out of diaries. Reading that in 1980 Benson noted how Hejinian’s My Life “suggests all the incomprehensibility of the complex of contingencies that makes up a human ecology + the frameworks we conceive it in, resonances”—aye karamba!

Orientalism (Folsom Street “Loft”)

Rae “Diamonds” Armantrout musters the briefest of notes—essentially three paragraphs, a miniature “setting.” The Eagles singing “You can check out anytime you like, but you can never leave.” The “thoroughly colonized” self who—dropping acid—is present’d with “a cartoonlike parade of tootsie rolls and small American flags”—imagination become ward of the State. (I am remind’d of the close of Wim Wenders’s astounding Im Lauf der Zeit, where the traveling repairman—he fixes film projectors and / or delivers new movies to small town cinemas—park’d out somewhere in the no-man’s land between the two Germanys with U. S. armed forces radio playing continuous American top-forty—says, simply: “They’ve even colonized our subconscious.”) And (Armantrout’s third paragraph): I Love Lucy coming up next on the television (“It’s so silly the way she wants to do what Desi does, the way she wants to go too. She gets punished for this desire eternally . . .”) and Armantrout’s refusal to the enjoinder’d “Come and see”: “I’m not coming. I won’t answer to that name (whatever it is). A scale (balance) of forces: how choice itself is disarm’d. At the end, a summary (one senses that it is a requirement of prose-memoir, or a demand: “What cultural work were we doing? Learning to say “Not me,” and “Not so.” The Bartleby motif. And yet (plain as the posterity-promulgating “cultural work” of The Grand Piano), “The song remains the same.”

A complete sucker I am for book lists, bibliographical Pandora’s boxes. Welcome, then, is the final part of The Grand Piano 7, a thing call’d “Chronology: Timeline of Book Publications Significant for The Grand Piano, 1965-85.” Divided by year (presumably of publication, availability), the list contains “roughly 450 titles . . . divided into primary and secondary texts (including theory, poetics, and anthologies).” The list is one of “book publications (first editions, anthologies, and translations as well as reprint and collected editions) that were significant for authors of The Grand Piano and remain so. Each author supplied a bibliography of works (antecedents, contemporaries, and contexts), which were discussed and edited to fit the available space.” Quick graph observations. A few things one’d not expect: Merwin’s The Lice, Plath’s Ariel, Morrison’s Sula. The bleak paucity of prose fiction. Minimal history, scanty travel. No natural history. What would a list look like without the inclusion of one’s own (and co-Pianists) titles? Why the arbitrary twenty year cut-off dates? (The odd cocooning / time capsule effect of ending with 1985—what do the Pianists read now?) That coy red pennant of “and remain so”—just which precisely are the books one returns to, how often, and why? Why not offer the original unedit’d lists—I am curious who the “big readers” be, and who subsists mostly on televised “offerings”?

Current muster 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 46 47 48 49 50 51 52 53 54.


Like finding
a mentally congenial divine
somewhere beyond my beard.
Prim, or into immaterial denial.
Just the gist of someone else’s
brotherhood, and loyal as a fool.
I cannot fail to strike
you now as parsimonious, something
like a cauliflower shyly mouthing the muck,
or a thick-finger’d thief, or
a box turtle, pulling my boot-
thick skull down
to cover the vex’d and softish
blazon, neck’d.

Tuesday, January 27, 2009

The Grand Piano Notes

Echinacea, Snow

Tom Mandel’s latest squib (in The Grand Piano 7) rustles dry and wintry with a (mostly) endearing melancholy. Seemingly a more “relax’d” jaunt compared with some of the earlier outings. One isn’t put off by the buzz of import, dynamo hum of “ain’t I something” here. Mandel captures the odd disconcerting fever-spell of the earliest years of AIDS (and its casualties) in a sweet recalling of filmmaker Warren Sonbert and partner, Ray Larsen: “I found my friend Ray Larsen somewhat hobbled, having, he said, injured his leg. By September, unaccountably, he was dead.” (Fitting precisely with a kid I knew in Ithaca, New York, a man who made a minor splash designing clothes—I think I probably had exactly one direct conversation with him: at a dinner he remark’d how he’d never seen anybody smoke so many cigarettes so quickly. Encounter’d on a street looking entirely, gut-churningly skinny. A month later, unaccountably . . .) The difference: Mandel’s recalling 1992. I think of the fleet incoherencies of the disease occurring earlier and am a little shock’d by the apparent silences / dissembling of Sonbert and Larsen. It’s no matter: Mandel’s writing into the strains (musical or not) of mortality is moving.

Out of that (a set piece) Mandel moves to consider music (largely radio, growing up) in a kind of clumsy opposition to “music” (defining it, “ideas, pictures of and out of the past, memories, names and the people they named, stories, and more.”) So that: in a short sprint of memories—Uptown Chicago, late ’forties—what comes through is predominantly visual (“mother in profile, pregnant, wearing a dark dress with small white polka dots”). And oddly iconic—as if a sense of mortality, once instill’d, sweeps off the brash different-insistences of youth. Mandel says of a furniture-sized radio: “Such a device must be an iconic memory for many of my generation, both for what it was and for the way over the years that it shrank, assumed arbitrary forms, then vanished into other devices . . .” And, more alarmingly, if one’s accustom’d to thinking of Language writers as (somehow, or, self-proclaim’d) iconoclasts, Mandel reports (of a somewhat jaunty mortal goodbye, a “nice knowing you” en route to the hospital):
That’s normal in a good sense, not Ozzie and Harriet, not I Love Lucy, but the films of Howard Hawks, where there is a norm to aspire to in action—nothing objectified, not even named but rather referred to in passing while being made (made true) in process, natura naturans, like an L-system which from the iteration of simple rules allows something complex to emerge, in Hawks’s comedies an iteration of confusion, misapprehension, costume, all leading to love, in the more serious films to death, with love along the way.
And Mandel adds, “all that is made, natura naturata, must die so that if you enlarge the frame of the comedies, they too lead to death.” No doubt. Enlarge any human frame and what’s there is death, inevitably. (Lindenmayer systems, busy generating self-similar fractals, wouldn’t seem the most obvious vehicle to attach that idea to, though it may just do it by sprouting up an “iteration of confusion” in some minds.) The curio here is how simple Mandel’s “norm” finally is: “love” and (follow’d by) “death,” the old human, too human standbys.

Toward the end, Mandel kudos up a book about John Donne by one Arthur Marotti, one “unmasking a completely different poet from the one whose name was made by the New Criticism.” Mandel’s seemingly startled recognition that “the work itself . . . can have no stable character”—“The work takes its existence from the ‘prospectives’ . . . and processes of its writing, and because each experience of the work redeploys them, there can be no stable nature to which the general terms ‘literature’ and ‘writing’ seem to refer”—well, certainement. Mais quoi d’autre encore? Isn’t that a rather minimal (read, obvious) thing? Every new reader remaking a piece, and every new reading (by a single reader) remaking it, and every new groupuscule (kowtowing or defiant) remaking it (or unmaking it) . . .


Radio Icon
(Five mornings a week, from 1932 to 1942, Allen Prescott, host of the program
Wife Saver, greeted his faithful audience of housewives with a cheery, “Hello, girls.” Prescott, who sometimes received as many as five hundred letters a week from women all over the country, solved some of life’s more mundane problems by offering such homey advice and household tips as how to get meat out of the can, where to store hats, and how to make new silk stockings last longer. Prescott’s signature sign-off, “Mrs. Housewife, I hope there’s nothing burning,” typifies his droll delivery.)


The stall’d moment prior
to the musical cut,
the bow tensing its
horse-hairs to barely
and rather prepossessedly singe
the bent arc of
the saw, is incongruous,
undeignedly conveyant, intemperate, full
(oh yeah) of all
that art intends without
becoming it. Or all
it portends. That moment
spurns all that that
is uncountable, all that
that arrives somewhere unaccountably
unperceived, all that that
draws up a contract
without end, a mainstay
against the unending harness’d
turbulence of its quiver,
its noise tat-tatting
like a drill. Art’s
lawless cutpurse precedents—I
keep trying to withhold
something, fit the equi-
poise of indifference to
the unleash’d stride of
grubbing desire, snatch a
mitt of coinage, put
doubloons in a sock,
gain mastery out of
mystery, and how completely
I am scathed by
my unsheathing, incapable of
exercising restraint at that
unabating bid for some-
thing indicative to start.

Monday, January 26, 2009

“Slew” or “Sluice”

A House (Skokie, Illinois)


What affinity with the bright
square yard surround’d by fencing,
its circular scrawls of razor-
wire entangling the border between
light and night? It is
piled up with tires, or
junk’d cars and a stocky
Mexican man is hammering up
under the cantilever’d door of
the garage. The place is
cordon’d off by two expressway
ramps and several ailanthus trees
shoot up out of apparent
rubbish along one embankment, the
only half-green in evidence.
Involuntary stimuli in its disequilibrium.

Eight below zero and the crows clumping meanly up, too cold for the usual dispersal out into the hinterlands. Listlessness of a weekend, “feeling stems out of awkward necessity,” and / or trying to finish “off” William Gaddis’s J R vacillant between its own dyspepticks of vigor. “Invention was eliminating the very possibility of failure as a condition for success precisely in the God damned arts”—that’s what mechanical toys do—like the player piano that keeps playing its loony parsimonious niceties long after the piano player’s slump’d to the beer-slosh’d floor, nape-pierced with a small-caliber hole. To fail precisely on one’s own two-hand’d terms, all “got up” in one’s own frippery, not part of some job lot of “invention” (or some groupuscule)—that’s the way. Gaddis’s epigone dilemma (twenty years between books):
      —Ten years late staggers out God damned pianist already shot God damned sunshine everybody step right over him God damned hurry go noplace nobody give a God damn book everything’s happened book about everybody knows hate it!
      —Man like that’s what people want’s books that tell them what they already know, I mean that’s why they’re all such bullshit . . .
Which may explain the popularity of the poo-poo crowd, the recycling of minable materia minima: “Your Argument is so sillie, as that not some exquisite Sophister, but any punie Sophumer may at first sight discover the feebleness of it.” It’s one (but beautiful) thing to find oneself in terror and awe at the source of one’s “material,” at the unabideable ways it burns “forth”—“neon in daylight”; it’s another (lazy, failure-eliminating—and that’s not a ca-ca-joke!) to root standoffishly around (with a stick, with Google) in world-garbage (like a “punie Sophumer,” like a dead piano player, or a player piano) to drag out for one’s inspect what everybody know’d they’d find. More dumbisms. Think of Thelonious Monk who “played the piano as though he’d never seen one before”:
Came at it from all angles, using his elbows, taking chops at it, rippling through the keys like they were a deck of cards, fingers jabbing at them like they were hot to the touch or tottering around them like a woman in heels—playing it all wrong . . .
      He played each note as though astonished by the previous one, as though every touch of his fingers on the keyboard was correcting an error and this touch in turn became an error to be corrected and so the tune never quite ended up the way it was meant to. Sometimes the song seemed to have turned inside out or to have been constructed entirely from mistakes . . . he was always wrong-fingering himself. . . . Listening to him was like watching someone fidget, you felt uncomfortable until you started doing it too.
(Geoff Dyer, in But Beautiful: A Book about Jazz) Think, though, of some mechanical Monk, or a man mechanically train’d to fidget. Or record a fidget. I see—I could bewail in a long pitoyable dog-howl my lack of a home “connect”—that I miss’d a slew (or a sluice) of Flarf feistiness (well, what passes itself off as such, riddled with Anonymous gibberish the level of a reasonably intelligent hellbender). What I see, mostly, within such self-diadem’d (and self-proclaim’d “hilarious”) groupuscular démarche, is a serious failure to engage. Flarfists and Language boys, même chose. (In something over fifty pieces of writing about The Grand Piano, one writer—Tom Mandel—had anything to reply, and that, privately.) (Flarf, of course, positions itself flatulently beyond the shit-pail of the dirty’d circle of human discourse—what’s to engage when there’s another idiocy about squid to let fly? Which is reason enough, for me, to let the bumptious cowards go off pummeling one another and heaving out choked hilarities, staggeringly narcissistic, off into the gloaming . . .) (I did, though, recall seeing a Greek boy haul in a squid and proceed to scrub it around against the pier—“to get the ink out.” Left it looking something like a four-day old sock. I could do that.)

A Groupuscule of Hellbenders

Friday, January 23, 2009

The Grand Piano Notes

Twigs, Snow

Ted Pearson’s piece in The Grand Piano 7, call’d “Etude 7: Some Intermittent Music (I)”—promising a “(II)”—dispatches with what Pearson calls “my years in music” in about a half-sentence in order to supply “a set of reflections on the issues that underlie those memories.” He writes, about reading Zukofsky’s essay “Poetry” in 1970:
It was at once a provocation and a touchstone. I had spent much of the preceding decade playing and composing music. I was also writing poetry “on the side” as a mostly private pleasure, albeit one that came to demand the attention I had once given music. Zukofsky’s essay initially gave me a way to think that transition.
Is it the preciousness of the academic prose that “disallows” me any anchor here beyond a vague dilettantism? In the rarify’d airy intangibility—“think that transition”—I long to say, uh, just to begin, what instrument did you play? Rather, one is stretch’d between the tenterhooks of “a provocation and a touchstone”—whatever that means—it’s seemingly a prefer’d construct (and position) of Pearson’s, the negligible midriff between two vagaries (later one sees how the Language bunch’s “heterodox practices and poetics” “seemed at once to invite and to dismiss the viability of discrepant lyricism.”) Oy. A succinct invitation to a dismissal in itself. Anybody encounter’d that “discrepant lyricism” animalcule anywhere “avant”?

Look how Pearson goes all Watten-y on us:
Given the convergence of my thinking at the time with the evolving critique of speech-based poetics—and the attendant disidentification with expressive form and identity politics—what could warrant my intransigent commitment to the lyric after “the turn to language”? In a word: nonidentity. More precisely, fidelity to a set of nonidentities: between music and speech, speech and writing, writer and text, writer and self. At issue was whether I could make a case for the relevance of my work to my peers in Language poetry.
Which somehow makes me think of approaching the stern and upstanding “men of the community” who once populated draft boards with a “case” for conscientious objector status. That, or Oliver Twist: “Please, sir, more discrepant lyricism?” Let’s see what the beast is. (Requiring some somewhat tedious review in the form of the new doxologies of theory.)
Where some saw lyric poetry as inextricably bound to lyric subjectivity—and therefore irremediably compromised by its service to the liberal subject—I was unwilling to concede its use to those who would thus restrict it. Rather, I found grounds, in its much older provenance, to see it in relation to the process of subjectivation, and not as expressive of an already constituted identity.
Whoa, Jack. “Process of subjectivation”? That’s wild. One simply makes an end-sweep around “the lyrical I” by tying it to the processual—“excuse me, I need to subjectivate”—“fence,” one that marks no boundary. Identity thus becomes something like a juice, lemon, real, ever reconstituted, ever—oh flux and instability, get down with me tonight—not. The thing is, the pre-determinedly stable and lyrical I, that stuck pig of some monotonously expressive squealing, that reject’d (over and over) thing, hardly exist’d, is a straw I, iconic as a tenderloin toss’d to a dog. That much’s been clear for centuries: “All the world’s a . . . merely players . . . And one man in his time plays many parts.” Pearson continues with platitudes: “Works once seen as iconoclastic may themselves become iconic in a reconfigured field—producing new readings of past works and provoking further innovations.” And provides the following explanation of the workings of “the poetics of subjectivation, for which discrepant lyricism is a major mode” (nothing like a taxonomist with a fish too slippery to hold):
This approach doesn’t smash the icon; it gradually erases it. But this erasure is not that, say, of Rauschenberg’s erasure of De Kooning—it does not seek to preserve the lineaments of prior mastery as an absent presence. Rather, by removing the distinctive features of identity-based expressivity (however abstractly rendered), which it sees as merely decorative, it opens the underlying process of subjectivation to view and reveals the interstitial spaces in which radical, resistant subjectivities are articulated.
Uh, maybe if you just guided my hands while I try’d it myself . . . ? If one ain’t about to cotton to the “lineaments,” why bother with the “interstitial spaces,” is what I want to know. It’s all dangerously high up in the American academic tree, one suffering canker rot (leading to cambrium and sapwood decay, a thing causing degradation inside the tree whilst releasing fungal spores call’d “conks,” thus infecting entire surrounding areas—hybridity, anyone?) and in danger lately of toppling out of its own failure to reinforce itself in the real.

What proceeds out of Pearson’s initial argument is a kind of canned history of (mostly) musical debates (“processes, outcomes, and debates are homologous across the arts”)—Pythagorean harmonics, Aristoxenus’s argument for pitch “by ear,” Plato’s saddling musical change with disturbing the social order, Augustine’s saddling it with disturbing individual moral character, the mid-eighteenth century Sturm und Drang movement’s seeking a music “meaningful in itself,” atonality and new musical syntaxes, &c. Somewhere along the way, Pearson asks (recalling Hejinian’s “the obvious analogy is with music”):
What is analogous with music? Apropos poetry, my provisional response would be: syntax, not lexis; temporality, not telos; affect, not effect; structure, not form. Hence, the most salient analogies are neither mimetic nor representational, but rather processual and constructive.
An oddly peremptory and emphatic set of particulars for one who’d so lately touted “intransigent commitment” and “fidelity to a set of nonidentities.”

“My Years in Music”


A loud variant art, that
Ape of nature, sitting awkwardly
Like a donkey dress’d up
In a blazer and spats.
And men dying daily like
Bugs, like the squat toad-
Color’d ticks comb’d out of
The dog’s belly, the dog
Who is riotously writhing, legs
In the air, vaguely trying
To grab its own tail.
Loud and variant the attempts
To write oneself out of
Dying, harking after the constant
Austere bark in the night.
Teethy the leer of it,
Cynical the terrain, soak’d down
And rank with human juices.

Thursday, January 22, 2009

Charles North’s Complete Lineups

Some Crows

Two things. One: Vladimir Nabokov’s particular synæsthesia (Greek: syn-, together, + æsthesis, a perceiving) asserting itself in the form of audition colorée (color’d hearing—though, Nabokov labels “hearing” an inaccuracy, “since the color sensation seems to be produced by the very act of my orally forming a given letter while I imagine its outline”), the involuntary attributing of colors to the sounds of letters. So that, in the marvelous autobiography Speak, Memory one reads:
The long a of the English alphabet . . . has for me the tint of weathered wood, but a French a evokes polished ebony. This black group also includes hard g (vulcanized rubber) and r (a sooty bag being ripped). Oatmeal n, noodle-limp l, and the ivory-backed hand mirror of o take care of the whites.
And so through the alphabet, upstaging Rimbaud’s voyelles (“A noir, E blanc, I rouge, U vert, O bleu”) with usual undiminshable Nabokovian glee. Two: Robert Morgan (Ithaca, my scuffling days) insist’d that poetry’s proper kinship be with mathematics—its order, clarity, number, proportion, &c. That (I conjecture) the mammoth shaggy beast of the novel had little in common with the poem, less than, say, the Pythagorean theorem, the complementary angle, the tangent, &c.

That’s just some of what bubbles up reading Charles North’s sturdily delightful Complete Lineups (Hanging Loose, 2009). It comes in a pocket format, chock’d full of finely lined ink drawings (some reminiscent of Joe Brainard, though more restrain’d, more delicate) and washes, watercolors and oils, all by Paula North. (There are some close-up postcards done for William Corbett’s Pressed Wafer press—one a baseball become all red seam-stitchery with only the letters us c out of Plotinus c visible, just damnably nice.) And Corbett himself provides a fine introduction, witty and deft, even providing a quick interpretive paragraph for the “non-fan” (and noting—rightly—that “for those who love baseball North’s book is bliss.”) Here’s North’s first lineup (Corbett labels it “Cities”) written in 1972:
San Francisco     ss
Munich     cf
Paris     lf
Rome     c
Madrid     3b
London     rf
Athens     1b
Istanbul     2b
New York     p
And what Corbett writes:
The first lineup, “Cities,” has Rome catching and batting cleanup. Yes! Catcher is the position to which all roads lead. San Francisco, the Baghdad by the Bay, leads off, surely a thief on the bases, and plays shortstop. Istanbul batting eighth and playing second, is just right for the “exotic” position played by Hall of Famers as worlds apart as light hitting Nellie Fox and the power-hitters Joe Morgan and Ryne Sandberg. New York pitches for this lineup, a potential 20 game winner, with high heat, total command of all his pitches, and the confidence to throw his change-up on a 3-2 count.
(Is it permissible to note London stuck out in right field—little action there, where the distract’d ball-shy get put? Not so with Left Bank Paris, batting third, in left field where everybody hits.) Corbett nails it: “The ‘players’ in these lineups set off the associations and echoes we expect from real poetry.” And later, after noting how the lineups could’ve been left as mere “amusements” (the early Lineups (1972) was North’s first publish’d book): “He could have stopped there, but he took the form seriously, and it is a form—the lineup is a batting order. That’s only the half of it. Each player in that order takes the field so that he must have the requisite skills, metaphorically, for his defensive position.” So one gets, in a lineup of “British Poets” (for Walter Levy):
Pope     ss
Keats     2b
Shakespeare     cf
Milton     1b
Spenser     rf
Chaucer     3b
Jonson     lf
Yeats     c
Donne     p
The pokey Edmund “Slow Eddie” Spenser, writing in archaic Chaucerisms a couple hundred years too late, fittingly, in right field. And Milton, “‘Big John’ Milton” as Corbett calls him, right there in the slugger’s spot. In a piece append’d titled “Lineups II Commentary” (North work’d up a second batch of lineups in 1988) is a tiny history of the form:
I wrote the first baseball lineup poem more than twenty years ago for a friend who was struggling with a doctoral dissertation in English. By arranging major British poets into a batting order, complete with field positions, I was presenting him with a “dissertation” ready-made. Scrappy Alexander Pope was clearly a lead-off man; Milton played first and batted cleanup; Donne pitched (and won 30 games four times).
Too, North calls attention to “the real inspiration” ’s being Rimbaud’s “Voyelles”—“which both deranged and rearranged things, was outrageous as well as beautiful, and made no bones about any of it. I wanted my own de-arrangements to be somehow systematic, the idea being that the entire world could theoretically be located on metaphorical coordinates of batting order and position.” North’s not only invent’d a form, he’s invent’d a form capable of containing the whole ballgame. One late (1997) lineup titled “A Midwinter Lineup” and construct’d of quotations—some lengthy—is convincing enough on that score. Catching, and batting eighth, is Gertrude Stein’s “I like a view but I like to sit with my back turned to it.” Perfect! And at third base, batting sixth, is Arthur Cravan’s “To think that, given that we exist, we do not laugh continuously.” (Which is delightful exactly the way North’s Complete Lineups is.)

Charles North

Pondering the question, “Why do poets love baseball?” Marianne Moore. Tom Clark (see Blue with cover drawing of Vida Blue!) Richard Hugo. Jack Spicer. (I try to picture Hugo and Spicer, two alcoholic self-loathers and baseball fanatics, together—if only. They’d have toss’d poetry in the corner, drunk up and talk’d about the pennant race, and the whole contentious history of American poetry would’ve been entirely different.) Donald Hall. George Bowering. Ron Silliman. Surely (tons of) others. Paul Blackburn (“Yanquis, come home.”) I dug out a copy of the Baseball Issue of Io (No. 10, c. 1972?—“a journal exploring myth, geography, origins, and the common source materials of literature, natural history and physical science.” Previous issues: “Alchemy, Doctrine of Signatures, Ethnoastronomy, Oecology, Dreams, and Mars.”) And Baseball? Richard Grossinger, editor, prefacing, is a little at pains to justify the thing (“Why baseball at all?”) He tells a story of how, in Portland, he’d recently “organized an experimental film showing on myth and magic.”
It opened with a short film by Emshwiller, then some Brakhage, followed by Connor’s “A Movie,” two Anger films: “Scorpio Rising” and “Invocation of My Demon Brother,” and then . . . The Mets’ 1969 Film, the souped-up public relations account of their path to the World Series Victory. A lot of people walked out and were very very irritated; their aesthetics, or ethics, had been violated; they had paid to see art. Some were utterly delighted . . . aroused as if by a cool summer breeze, but they considered it nothing more than a fortuitous accident.
Some, too, according to Grossinger, “said that it turned around the showing . . . that suddenly they saw what the other films were about. The whole notion of “experimental” as an aesthetic had seemed dry and mechanical . . . but when the pattern was broken by something as starling as the Met[s] film . . . within the same generative matrix . . . it became new.” Words to clamber up out of one’s narrow little hole by . . .

Anyhow, tussling with the Io (a poem—“Brooklyn August”—by the pre-Stephen King Stephen King—“In Ebbets Field, they come and go / and play their innings, blow by blow”—I kid you not), I found what’s called an “unfinished translation” (baseball connection nil) by Jack Spicer. It’s noted by Robin Blaser as “One of the few unused pieces he prepared for After Lorca. This one ends in the midst of the third stanza of García Lorca’s Romance Sonambulo with the tenth line.” Thus:
Verde, que te quiero verde .
Green wind, green branches
The ship on the sea
And the horse in the hills.
With a shadow at her loins
She dreams about a railing.
Green flesh, green hair
With eyes of cold silver
Verde, que te quiero verde
Under the living moon
Everything sees her
And she sees nothing

Verde, que te quiero verde
Large stars of frost
Swim with the fish of shadow
That follows the road to sunrise.
The fig tree rubs the wind
Like sandpaper, with its branches
And the mountain, a cat that steals
Bristles with sour cactus.
But who will come and from where
She follows the railing,
Green flesh, green hair
Dreaming of a bitter sea.

Friend, I want to trade you
My horse for your house
My saddle for your mirror
my knife for your blanket
Friend, I come bleeding
From ports of the south.
If only I could, child,
This trade would be closed,
But I am no longer I
And my house not my house
The poem is dated 1957. Not included (seemingly) in the Black Sparrow Collected Books, nor in the new collected, My Vocabulary Did This to Me. It is, mostly, “straight” translation (seemingly), though there’s a shift in pronouns in the third stanza, her become your. And truncation à la Pound’s Seafarer. My question: should it’ve been included in the Gizzi and Killian Collected? As a note to the poems of After Lorca? (This is, of course, assuming that it is not in there—I look’d rather hurry’dly.)


Quips and prayers, incomplete fiascos of blank
commitments undone by perfervid decencies, the way
the haymaker that clobbered the studious confrere
milked off all contempt only to leave him writing,
narrowly, a paean to its unadornable meetings. You
tell it so much better. Where the fears trundle off
to is into the blunt oceanic gun-metal chill of being
without a dime in Walloon Lake, or White River Junction,
with a train covered with white roses heaving up, belching.
I think I’d rather be a Negro. The sergeant with the mendacious
prick scolded me for that, inadmissibly leaning into the breeze
coming off the rude interplanetary lusts of the skyscraper we
leaned against. If that’s narrative, you’ll need a ladder to
fetch me down, is how the Polish lady put it, gulping. And
a consort of hoboes rode by, sounds like Bellini driving a stake
into a railroad tie, or a harpsichord. Scrawnily snipping verselets.
Adjacency motoring up with a collapsible scorn, anything
to make fetid a sweet moment. You put a sobering pound note
into the garden box and presto! there’s a beanery worth
traversing the street for. What’s intruding here? the fumaroles
of a long-soured volcanic indecision, a spate of copycat excrescence
like a Doberman with a skink. It mouths it. That and impiety,
that belabored carpentry of the conventionally rank. Hoo. Hoo.
Caught up in the reiterative reel of the Kemo Sabe handjob,
Morandi taupe-colors daubing up the celluloid, the swank
toothlessness of a dud belletrist of sass and canny in a fez, a
Huddie Ledbetter of the ass and fanny in Marrakech. Dirt in
the outrigger. Gourmand cacophony. Now I am going down
into the sinningest of the Carpocratians and deliver my tirade,
mark my words. “You are forged of a mountain of mash
notes of pure imbecility and doublure (animal skin)
sniffing out a contrail as a mere construction of air.”

Wednesday, January 21, 2009

The Leurre

Some Chains


How the cognoscenti
say venue (one
lolly-tonguing a

reed unlatches two-
thumbedly the hasps
of a clarinet

case) marks out
a wily in-
adequate music. For

isn’t a venue
a stroke, a
smiting? The lyon

made a gret
venu, / And wolde
have him al

getting in some
idle licks.) Hello

says the unjammed
object of one’s
muster, I am

Hundreds of
black crows sail
into town, gauntly—

tiers and stories
of ash, a
binge medieval impingement.

One way is
to go all
out for “proper

simple speech” dash-
adamant, unfetter’d and
loathe, a clean

mechanical unrused like
a corkscrew. The other
is to do

a mock-up,
a licorice sticking
“fygure of irony”

cojones tuck’d in
a hatband, sweet
venue-animadverter, loud.

Time, that discus hurler who pussyfoots around the projectile object (curl’d in, tuck’d up tight) only to fling it away with untoward suddenness, time’s again timed out, found one unprepared, bereft. Mumbling along within myself (under a cold pre-dawn moon, stars “nicks in the sky’s finish”—or is it “night’s finish”?) thinking how every “thing” must become a verb of itself—so that: the grass grasses, the foot foots, time times and the I I’s, a kind of perfect death of language (or “literature”) as we know it. (And, ruminant in shoes under the cloud my breath made to hide my head, plodding along, the obvious instability of Rimbaud’s je est un autre enter’d my mind unmindedly (which is to say, my mind minding took up the phrase for use (temporary) just as it did Paul Valéry’s je suis l’instable, a kind of self-variance—I I’ing—he associated with dance (the pussyfooting dance of the discus hurler). Or, thumbing (literature is all thumbs) through Nathalie Stephens At Alberta (BookThug, 2009), I see reference to Tzvetan Todorov’s “literature is like a deadly weapon with which language commits suicide” (which puts a newish hollow-eyed physiognomy of “lean Despair” to the “turn to language” crowd, no?) And (“anding”), marveling that in here, under the throb of fluorescents fluorescing, I is I-ing along “out there” under the dangling bright lures of the sky (who sits rocking that rowboat on the surface of the black sea above?) whilst l’instable keeps flipping, or the thumbs do:
Here, then. What I call here shall be ‘the failure of translation’. A place, liminal, interstitial, abyssal—all of these—into which we fall, as one might fall in love, braakingly, or else fall apart, devastatingly, catching on the pieces of our own ruination, jaggedly, tearingly, seemingly (seamingly?). Fall away, imperceptibly. Still, the leurre of falling, is that the movement finds completion. It is not so at all; I have not found it to be so. Is it possible, here, in this moment of failure, of ‘the failure of translation’ (begun before even beginning), to evoke a fall without drawing into this space, a whole exegetical mess? I do hope so. I would like to find fall (find fault?) in a bodily way, with all the bruising this entails, the marking of the body, and the inscription of the fall in the body’s tissue. A downward movement that stops at the breath, that stops at nothing, carried into and by the breath, such that it, the fall, becomes indistinguishable from our own exhalation. We may find, in the end, which is of course neverending, that our failure, the place into which we fall, it’s the very thing that catches us. . . .
Out of Stephens’s “Want: L’intraduisable (Desire in Translation).” Echoes of Barthes, echoes of Stein. The Bartleby motif. I want to say “the fall become indistinguishable from our own exhaltation.” I want to say “the leurre of failing, the lure.” For what is language but a colossal failure?

Nathalie Stephens
(Photograph by Sina Queyras)

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.

Monday, January 19, 2009

The Ignis Fatuus Factor

Snow, Rear Window


A copy of
the memo blew
listlessly up against

the jumble of
thumb’d up empty
ointment tubes. Or

thumb’d down. A
stock phase of
unknowing’s bleating arpeggios.

Or stock phrase.
Oh distortion’s homely
algorithms. The squash’d

flat. The malleably
got. One presumably
inveigles oneself into

it, it of
all its, by
bringing the not

up into
the vicinity of
the me, barking

up its notoriety
on the leash
of its wholly

abstract’d rage. Or.
in a cage.
That is one

of the halt
messianic sunspots of
the ordinary utopianist.

Or blindspots. Hailing
it the kind
of originary spark

that’ll work to
get a fire
going, or get

a fireman to
put it out.
Or put out.

Gah. A Year seems to dispose of itself in dopey “pieces” wholly lacking in continuity. And forcedly. (That’s the word out of the helmsman’s mouth, meaning me, the one here at the “controls,” wearing the gigantic shiny helmet. Winter’s undeniably invading my “keep,” that little shack I call my own. Too many shovellings out making a zip monstrosity of beleaguer’d time and its sidekick fervor. Meaning: three days go by astride the slick highways, gobbling down wheat “thins” for heat, barely keeping the Vibe between the ditches. All around the Lettrists with shill primitivist musics, pure phonetic compositions “based on an elementary rhythm that serves as background to the sound plot, grumbling stutters, noises, moans and cries” (Adriano Spatola). Long row of EEEE’s lying on their backs, waving their “extremities” in the air like Gil Shaham, like Gilbert Sorrentino. Their “bowings.” Incantatory power of the word that fails right at the moment the eeee hum of the tires against the dry “pave” changes “register” to a higher iiii just before the consonantal shoulder-rubble breaks it all up and one finds oneself hanging off a belt, wriggling one’s fearsome ineffectual “limbs.” (I’m just jamming: we had a passable trip, thanks. Yes, we adequated our considerable trajectory.) Somewhere there in a lost minute I did peek into Pierre Michon’s Masters and Servants, translated by Wyatt Alexander Mason (Mercury House, 1997), to listen in on what Joseph Roulin, van Gogh’s facteur and drinking buddy, thinks about painting, “a question perhaps as imposing, perhaps as superfluous as and even more opaque than the future of the human race, which, in his own words, he called the republic; the question that played through him and that certainly never made it into words, but in which he exalted, filling him with a great pity for, and devotion to, the painter”:
by what ruse . . . by what outlandishness painting seemed to him, and actually was, a human occupation like any other, carrying as its burden the need to represent what is seen, as others are burdened with raising wheat or making money beget money, an occupation that is learned and passed on, producing tangible things destined to make the houses of the rich look nice, or to be placed in churches to exalt the devoted little souls of the children of Mary, or in the prefectures to call young men to a career, the army, the Colonies—how and why this occupation, useful and clear, had become this phenomenal anomaly, despotic, dedicated to nothing, empty, this catastrophic labor that, on its passage between a man and the world, had tossed to one side the carcass of the redhead, starving, without honor, running straight for the bedlam and knowing it—and to the other had thrown landscapes left formless from the force of thought, and unrecognizable faces wanting perhaps but to resemble the man, all in a world streaming with uninhabitable shapes, with stars burning too hot and water in which to drown.
Roulin “rethinking the enigma of the beaux arts.” Madness and the calculated madness of the ones intent on getting some of the world’s attention for something that requires only solitude (which is not misanthropy, though the carnival barkers’d have one believe it so) and attention and steady application (and not constant recourse to the shill histrionics of the “new”—painting is not, nor is poetry, a medicine show). Back, soonest, to work. Gah.

Vincent van Gogh, “Portrait of Joseph Roulin (The Postman),” 1888

Pierre Michon

Thursday, January 15, 2009

“La Belle Dame sans Merci”

Snow, Weeds, Fence


Night sunk down in my arms
      With pail of ale and loitering—
The wedge goes slithering across lake-
      Ice, hum of the awl’s song!

No night for ice-fishing, too cold!
      Sluggard in the shanty reading Dickinson.
A quarrel with the fat guy
      All about the meaning of circumference.

I suspect that I am dying.
      The ceiling joists deflect the wind.
On the bully’s shirt a button’s
      Popped, and he is dying, too.

I met a girl in Kroger’s—
      I’d stopped to get some bait.
Bagging groceries with a studded belt,
      Wild-eyed, her nametag said Belle.

She spoke to me in Serbian,
      Either that or the Croatian tongue.
She’d been a refugee in Italy,
      And learned to say Te amo.

We sat in her Gran Torino.
      The falling snow made a cave
Of it. I kissed her four-
      Eyed face, and fell to sleep,

And dreamed of walking all night
      Where no road split the woods
Or fields. To reach a lake
      With shanties laid out like coffins,

Where one of the ice fishermen
      Handed me a tall cold one.
He had only a few teeth,
      Or none. “Belle got you, too.”

I’d better go check my tip-
      Ups, or go bore another hole.
My pail of ale is diminishing,
      And the fat guy’s headed home.

Ah, John Keats, the inimitable “junkets” of. The letters, who’d deny the letters? The poems? “Often I am permitted” to think it the lamentable work of an excitable boy, rather annoyingly breathless, entirely caught up in “being a poet” (something every “era” sees, even Robert Duncan’s, even one’s pitiably excessive own, nameable culprits to the left, to the right), that kind of blue shadows falling (see Son Seals: “don’t bother me boy, can’t you see me workin’?”) continual outburst of maudlin delusional song. Thus, my “different kind of stupid.” Thus, my cohort of gigglers and mickey-mockers. Here’s something:
      —Listen, got it marked right here listen, it may be asked, as to illusions in respect of the male organ, whether, granted that the devil cannot impose this illusion on those in a state of grace in a passive way, he cannot still do so in an active sense, the argument being that the man in a state of grace is deluded because he ought to see the member in its right place, when he who thinks it has been taken away from him, as well as other bystanders, does not see it in its place . . .
      —Mister Gibbs I, I think Mister Eigen is ready to . . .
      —Like those other bystanders don’t you? Listen, and what, then, is to be thought of those witches who in this way sometimes collect male organs in great numbers, as many as twenty or thirty members together, and put them in a bird’s nest, or shut them up in a box, where they move themselves like living members, and eat oats and corn, as has been seen by many and is a matter of common report, ever see that Tom?
      —No and I’m . . .
      —Make a nice musical listen, for a certain man tells that, when he had lost his member, he approached a known witch to ask her to restore it to him. She told the afflicted man to climb a certain tree, and that he might take which he liked out of a nest in which there were several members. And when he tried to take a big one, the witch said you must not take that one, adding, because it belonged to a parish priest. Make a God damned lively musical wouldn’t it?
William Gaddis, of course, in J R, material that jumps out’s rather more befitting The Recognitions. The rather drunk Jack Gibbs, reading it (presumably out of the Rev. Montague Summers’s translation of the Malleus Maleficarum—the Hexenhammer or Hammer Against Witches, compiled by Heinrich Kramer and Jacob Sprenger, two Inquisitors of the Catholic Church, in 1486—a thing Gaddis used in the earlier book). And Jack Gibbs adding: “All those God damned bystanders there’s your chorus . . .” (One thinks speech documentary and speed is all in the employ of the comma.) That, and pouncing around about in Ross Chambers’s Loiterature wherein he argues both that “a distracted attention . . . escalates into a sort of euphoria or ivresse (“an orgy of comprehensiveness . . . pitted against the forms of comprehension that are predicated on foreclosure: limited perspectives, disciplined attention, and closed contexts”) and that it (digression) is “a critical act”:
Any digression enacts (although it may not intend) a criticism because, once one has digressed, the position from which one departed becomes available to a more dispassionate or ironic analysis: it must have been in some sense inadequate or one would not have moved away from it.
(Par exemple: I digress by not continuing with Barrett Watten’s “entry” in the latest Grand Piano.) Or it’s a matter of time and the way time’s got of proceeding (without one—one who’s junket is still the dainty sweetmeat, the kickshaw, the dish of confection itself and not the pleasure excursion of continual roistering passage). Chambers:
To be dilatory is to defer the future, or to express a desire to defer the future, by living the actual movement of time from present to future as if it were an infinite expansion of the present, a dilation sideways, as it were, instead of a direct and inexorable march toward a future that the nature of the present leads one to find unattractive. To be belated is to live in the present, but out of phase . . . dawdling in the past functions as a judgment on the present and in the present as a judge on the probable future.
Oh, but look how late it is “now.” One’d better get with it.

Benjamin Robert Haydon, John Keats (Study for “Christ’s Entry Into Jerusalem”), c. 1816

Wednesday, January 14, 2009

The Grand Piano Notes

Giant Cleaners (Skokie, Illinois)

Bob Perelman’s rather consistently position’d himself as the skeptic, the recalcitrant memoirist, the anti-memoirist in The Grand Piano. Here, in a piece call’d “NOTes on MEmoir, Revisited,” he (again) riffs (the mot juste, aptly enough—the echo-y contrapuntal structure of the thing is about the only hint of Perelman’s bowing to the “music” motif of the others) on Stendhal / Henri Beyle’s completely odd (and sublimely uncharitable and caustic) Life of Henri Brulard. And on “NOTes on MEmoir,” a piece in Perelman’s recent Iflife; on “typographic splay” and parallel lines refusing to meet (with evidence set: “Pa ra ll e ll ine sd o not me et”); on “the problem of delineating now / a close but heterogenous scene then”; on the provenance and mute material fact of a Vintage copy of Stendhal’s The Red and the Black; on the “writer as failed revolutionary” (“a knotted up place to write from”); and (largely) on the impossibility of autobiography. In a fine plausible (and pleasurable) metempsychosis (“I find that Marie-Henri Beyle, who wrote under the name of Stendhal, who wrote his autobiography as Henri Brulard, began writing my contribution to Grand Piano 7 o n th e ins id e of h is wa ist b and”—referring to Stendhal’s report, how, confront’d with the usual combo of accidie and harassment of social life, he writes “inside, on the band” of “a pair of white trousers of English stuff” he’s wearing, “I am going to be fifty”—in code: “Imgo ingt obef if ty”—thus beginning the Life), Perelman ends the entry with some of the final lines of Stendhal’s Life:
      I read in a book which was sent me today: “. . . but from a distance, and from the point of view of history, one can observe at what period a people loses its originality of character, etc.’ . . .”
      One spoils such tender sentiments by narrating them in detail.
Lines of that final (brilliant) Brulardesque romp Perelman doesn’t employ:
      How to portray a mad happiness?
. . .
      I swear I can’t go on, the subject surpasses the teller.
      I’m very conscious of being ridiculous or rather unbelievable. My hand can no longer write, I shall put it off to tomorrow.
. . .
      I am like a painter who no longer has the courage to paint one corner of his picture. So as not to ruin the centre he roughs out a la meglio what he can’t paint.
. . .

      All these are discoveries I’m making as I write. Not knowing how to describe, I am analysing what I then felt.
. . .
      Nothing can prevent folly.
      As an honest man who loathes exaggeration, I don’t know how to go about it.
      I am writing this and have always written everything just like Rossini writing his music, I think about it, writing down each morning what I find in front of me in the libretto.
All that Stendhalesque turn away from language, its corruptibility, its failure. What comes through: sheer elegy for indomitable loss. (I love one sentence of Perelman’s that goes, “I do remember reading The Red and the Black then and being extremely enthused—a common condition in those days.” The particulars of memory become wash: “condition.”) (There is another point, talking about Ted Berrigan’s “white out rewriting of a cowboy novel” Clear the Range, where Perelman says “being objective and aleatory about subjectivity seemed sublimely comic”—and though it captures the deep giddiness of youth and the high pleasures of goofing around, one knows he wouldn’t have said it like that at the time—another “wash” of the past.) Too, musically, (the “riff”), I like the tiny percussive catalogue of facts that Perelman arrays against that “wash”:
      Stendhal did use mercury for syphilis. Fact. How did I learn that?
      Julien Sorel was his name, of course. Fact, led up to memory via mystery channels. But what was hers?
      I don’t want to look anything up. Fact, meaningless quixoticism.
      There are sometimes minutes between paragraphs, and sometimes days. Fact.
      Waves of impatience beat on conventional shores, waves of repression beat on the shores of light. Fact.
There, at the end, Perelman (knowingly or not) ringing some changes on (most conventional) F. Scott Fitzgerald’s riff (final line of The Great Gatsby), “So we beat on, boats against the current, borne back ceaselessly into the past,” that tidy contrapuntal to “the orgastic future that year by year recedes before us” that precedes it in Fitzgerald’s book.

One more thing (in my own swirling “wash” of excitements): I love the bravado of Perelman’s getting seduced by the material book (a copy of The Red and the Black belonging to ’s mother):
The back of the paper spine adheres to the right-hand section. I’m intending to quote from 175, but this has to wait as my attention is fixed on the inside of the broken-open spine. It’s a flap of rough beige paper, fraying abruptly at the torn side, with a few tiny curls lifting up from it. But this vocabulary doesn’t really bite into anything and I keep staring at what’s not a noun, just matter, stained by time, moving back from human manufacture at is own pace. The difference between the communicative mysteries of print, lively, endless, truncated, and the brute material of the binding strikes half of me into words, leaving the rest numb.
I recall a tiny virtuosic Perelman reading of the giant S in “Stately, plump . . .” in the Random House edition of Ulysses; outdone here by an astute reading of the “flap” of the broken spine. Need’d amongst the Grand Pianists: more of such ludic insouciance (oh just call it “goofing off”) for the pleasures (call it “mad happiness”) of its discoveries.

Doing the Wash


Oh my asemic
days of wiry
biceps and grace—

clad in gladiatorial
tin scissor’d out
of raw acetone-

stinking paint thinner
cans, oh that
and frippery, demoiselle,

caustic knock-kneed
revelry in sheets!
Oh such blatant

Erasmus for you—
my empyrean smut,
Spinalonga, my crab-

cake, my millionairess!
If I cannot
get a purchase

by leveraging against
one thigh, I
refuse to sigh,

I try borrowing
against the other.
Oh the ruttish

artistry of high
finance, its exchanges,
debentures, and fiscs!