Monday, November 30, 2009

Jeff Clark’s Ruins

A Wall


My monstrosity tugs
the line taut
like a hook’d
dingy tench going
deep to tangle
itself in green
elodea. A quibble
no cause for
the anxious remedial
hush, a reversal’s
not a casual
errancy. I think
it’d be dirtie

is how she
put it, unaccomplish’d
at the specious
sexual snare. Stuff’d
a bacon down
my pants, pack’d
up a picnic
for the boat-
ride, slipping contrariwise
between two cabin
lockers I’d bang’d
the locks off
with a ballpeen.
Ah, the skew’d
dark realisms of
the heraldic brat.
The sphere of
the perceptual keeps
narrowing: klieg light,
individuum, the randy-
making shots of
sweet genievre with
the laundress Mehitobel.
Life is such
a gloriously unstable
thing to us
contra-vendible swifties,
us pudding-generous
nymphos, us stable-
boys like me.

Jeff Clark’s Ruins (Turtle Point Press, 2009)—nigh-Gesamtkunstwerk (if that means “total work of art”) with its slews of reversed black pages and smeary muss’d photographs (of flower-needling hummingbirds, of garden tangles, of dogs with war-grins, of a wonderfully pensive little girl in a sewn cotton shift), with its titling that looks like words emerging out of watery muck-emulsion Sally Mann-style, with its tender and angry Clark poems and its excellent Louis Aragon translation—arrives bound in slightly dirty white linen-ish boards, and black, black end-papers. A smallish limit’d edition, print’d to accompany an exhibit chez Turtle Point of Clark’s “book covers, collages, wood constructions and paintings.” (Exhibit’d, too, two collages made by Clark for John Ashbery’s forthcoming new book, Planisphere.) One senses a nigh-religious structure to the book, clench and release of the blood pump, the sinner redeem’d, or the anger undone, that contracting systole to drive forth demons. Here, in the form of “Four Fathers”:
My old man was a dead man
He was too young
My old man face and ass
Thin dark white man
from Long Beach, Los Angeles, Colorado
Thick-armed stud from the ground
Money, family, I don’t give
a fuck about yours
Don’t give my money to dick films
My old man was a roach, a casanova
Got you high, made you strong, knows
art, reads poetry
His house burned, he lost a wife then a son
My old man made sex of anything
We’d go out in the garage, I’d jump
rope and come for money
The lights would be dim in ghetto stadiums
And acts of testimony
My old man snuffed out a daimon
Strangled it pig daddy
At a lumber yard in Yorba Linda
He snarled at a man he’d meet him out front
When we did it was a group
“You gonna mess with me now?”
I stood silent behind him, I was seven.
How I wanted to lunge, and wept
Big beige dream wrecker
The other one, remember him, you should
have thrown him against a wall
kept his smack in folded-up fashion ads
I’m each of them, and in my garden
Nowhere else to go, to eat
muscle, music, to excoriate—
A child comes in too late
She’s the one I’ll never love more
Than in this cold poem I find her
My old man was a dead man anywhere
a mattress was in a photograph
He lives in a house in
Berkeley I’ve never seen
He lives in a house I’ve been to twice
He’s dead in a Burt Reynolds
movie with my face
In a garden with a little girl
assembling a bouquet
My old man drives a red truck
My old man drives a Cadillac
The butterfly weed and calendula
Seeds she sewed at three
are blooming
My old man was a dead man any day
a boy was waiting
I don’t know what kind
Ungainly, direct, and absolutely without preciosity or smarm. And heartbreaking. What’s recall’d is the kind of fuckall anti-literary messiness of Jack Spicer, the plunge of a relentless going for, “sewed” for “sowed,” no matter. If at “pig daddy” one thinks of Sylvia Plath’s “Daddy” that’s not the point, if the repeat’d “My old man” riff ricochets back in the brain cavity off something out of Anne Waldman’s Fast Speaking Woman, so what. What I like here is a refusal of the current mode of quasi-surreal, quasi-“analytic” (meaning the unanchor’d abstract) hybridity. Clark’s plain (and fierce) willingness to brave the sentimental weathers is admirable and necessary in such a climate. Here’s the final piece, “Remains”:
So long I was hungry
for your love, and lonely
when it didn’t come, which was
always. Now I find love in others,
doves, daughters, lovers.
I feel you every day,
fury at what you could not
love, or take care of. I’ll meet
you in heaven where I won’t
live but will visit for its wine
and warm winters.
I’ll love you even then
as I love money, tin,
to crave, dark days.
Which spills its guts and erects a questionable marker there, something temporary like a Quonset hut.

Just to note, too, how terrific Clark’s translation of Louis Aragon’s “Poème à crier dans les ruines” is—veering off a literalism only when sticking too closely’d result in exactly the kind of affect’d refinement Clark’s at pains to avoid. The poem begins “Let’s spit you and I let’s spit / on what we used to love / on what the two of us used to love . . .” Here’s a few lines out of the middle, the French:
Ils en ont de bonnes ceux
Qui parlent de l’amour comme d’une histoire de cousine
Ah merde pour tout ce faux-semblant
Sais-tu quand cela devient vraiment une histoire
Quand toute respiration tourne à la tragédie
Quand les couleurs du jour sont ce que les fait un rire
Un air une ombre d’ombre un nom jeté
Que tout brûle et qu’on sait au fond
Que tout brûle
Et qu’on dit Que tout brûle
Et le ciel a le goût du sable dispersé
L’amour salauds l'amour pour vous
C’est d’arriver à coucher ensemble
Et après Ha ha tout l’amour est dans ce
Et après
Nous arrivons à parler de ce que c'est que de
Coucher ensemble pendant des années
Pendant des années
Pareilles à des voiles marines qui tombent
Sur le pont d’un navire chargé de pestiférés
Dans un film que j'ai vu récemment . . .
And, translated:
It’s nothing but a joke to those
who talk about love like they talk about a cousin
Fuck all that pretense
Do you know when it truly becomes a story
Do you know
When every breath turns tragic
When the colors of daylight provoke laughter
A draft a shadow in shade a name erased
Everything should burn and you know deep down
that everything does burn
and you say Let everything burn
and the sky smells like scattered sand
Love you bastards love for you
is when you happen to sleep together
Happen to
And afterwards Ha ha all of love is in this
And afterwards
we happen to speak of what it is
to sleep together for years
Do you hear
For years
like sails collapsing
onto the deck of a ship loaded with plague
in a movie I just saw . . .
Jeff Clark

John Ashbery’s Planisphere with Collages and Design by Jeff Clark

I see the (normally) astute Caleb Crain is reduced to quoting Ron Silliman as “literature” in a squib “Against Camel Case” in yesterday’s magazine “supplement” to The New York Times. I suspect Mr. Silliman’s mighty pleased—mention by the object of one’s raillery (to say nothing of desire) always stirs the tickle-color’d pink of the arriviste’s flesh. Mr. Crain’s quote though—the piece is a finicky polemic against the use of (admittedly ugly) InterCaps—rather chops La Silliman’s lines to near nonsense. Crain writes:
Camel case even infiltrated literature. “Deviance or innovation?” Ron Silliman asked in his 1996 poem “Under,” before imagining himself living the erotic life of the insertive capital: “How sweetly, smoothly I slip inside of you where I belong.”
The original makes it sound (thankfully) somewhat less likely that—for all Silliman’s big oyster clamor and originality-insistence—he’s laying claim to the invention of “proper” (“where I belong”) sex. (Or that the “I” is anything lettrist or capital or more than the conventional phallogocentric “I”—comme on disait à l’époque—of Baleful Lyricism 101. What Silliman wrote is:
InterCaps: deviance or innovation? How sweetly, smoothly I slip inside of you where I belong. Cat sleeps in the unused driveway, concrete warmed by the sun.
Flabby imagism. Crain, too, is forgetting Frank O’Hara’s masterly use of the InterCap in “Poem Read at Joan Mitchell’s”:
It’s so
original, hydrogenic, anthropomorphic, fiscal, post-anti-esthetic,
        bland, unpicturesque and WilliamCarlosWilliamsian!
it’s definitely not 19th Century, it’s not even Partisan Review, it’s
        new, it must be vanguard!
Sending “up” the usage (and the whole idea of nameable “institutions”—like marriage, like the avant-garde, like orthographic conventions) and doing it avant la lettre! That’s O’Hara. Compare that to the Hüsker Dü earnestness of Silliman’s “I slip”—neither deviance nor innovation.

Monday, November 23, 2009

Legible Excess



The sheer density
of occurrence—mastiff
with the inky
newspaper in its
mouth, two chums
pitching snowballs at
the red-scarf’d
skaters, the reedy-
voiced deacon who
mulls the cloister
tapestry with its
precise flowers—requires
formal analogy, aleatory
flanged plaiting of
its signals, its
strands. An ant
writing its memoirs
up the length
of a grass-
blade, a red-
cheek’d pheasant slitting
the autumnal air
with daggerly misericordia,
a smoky blue
fig bursting open
in a tent.
Writing draws letter-
forms, and drawing
writes object-forms.
What an alphabet
the ear is
with its snug
curvilinear conjuncts, factotum
to the immiscible
eye’s constant jawing.
The glyph-tool’d
moon—color of
chert, color of
of the tool-
strewn Inuit sky.

Harrumph. I niggled with that piece (“CCCXXVII” is what I call it) in the wee hours and forgot to make portable my changes. Thus, a tenuous reconstruct’d “version of a version”—surely unidentify’d as such by any but the most gnostic (rare in a post-gnostic age). I am “off” tomorrow, and sensing a flagrancy of aims: I know both “flanged” and “signal” to be “wrong,” mere “placeholders” for the “real” (though that conceit is laughable at best). I know, too, that I am lacking a little rodomontade glitz in the final sentence, though what exact wee-hour incomprehensibility that is—je n’ai aucune idée. I did write one day (aged nineteen, in my spurious and unclutter’d youth) that “All art is arbitrary” and I probably well believe it “even” “now.” (There’s a whole story waiting to be writ regarding the ironic life of the invert’d comma and the fetishization of meaning. Directly related to the late twentieth-century’s loss of “faith” in, well, “everything.” “Late” or “early”?) It strikes me odd that Stephen Crane’d bother with Henry James. I hear, though, that Michael Fried says that John Berryman says Stephen Crane took issue with some Jamesian note of writerly detachment:
What, though does the man mean by disinterested contemplation? It won’t wash. If you care enough about a thing to study it, you are interested and have stopped being disinterested. That’s so, is it not? Well, Q.E.D. It clamours in my skull that there is no such thing as disinterested contemplation except that empty as a beerpail look that a babe turns on you and shrivels you to grass with. Does anybody know how a child thinks? The horrible thing about a kid is that it makes no excuses, none at all. They are much like breakers on a beach. They do something and that is all there is in it.
“Empty as a beerpail look.” “Shrivels you to grass.” Phrases themselves like “breakers on a beach,” detach’d and unexcused punctae of the writer’s own “look.” (Here I quote O’Hara for the one hundred and sixty-two thousandth time: “They do have meaning. They’re strong as rocks.”) Meaning: the contemplatory is a siphon, a “prate” (see, “contemplatorie prate”): writing and looking is a surefire way to neither see nor write. (See “recollected in tranquility,” maestro.) (I hear Thomas Stanley (The History of Philosophy (1655)) says that Plato says that geometry is “the Contemplatrix of Planes.”) Oughtn’t all writing be that “empty as a beerpail look,” with its radically uncodify’d way of sopping up a welter of immiscibles (and squirting back “out” a few tangibly botch’d enigmas)? Frivolous and minatory and bulldozing tout à la fois? Robert Walser (out of The Tanners)*, about a painter’s dismal sense of failure when confront’d by the “torment” of the natural, the prospect of “capturing” that beauty that surpass’d all power of apprehension:
Day after day he become more and more puzzled at how I could go on lightheartedly, even frivolously painting, but he admired my talent, which he had to acknowledge. But he wished I would pursue my art with more seriousness of purpose, and I replied that in the practice of art all that was required to accomplish something were diligence, a joyful zeal, and the observation of nature, and I drew his attention to the harm that could and must come about when one approached a matter with exaggerated holy solemnity. He did in fact believe me, but he was too weak to tear himself away from this bullheaded seriousness he’d sunk his teeth into.
And, apropos my incipient jaunt to points east, the enforced listlessness of the mandatory calendric (just to put a goofy knob to it), Walser on vacations:
But vacations, what are they? The thought of them makes me laugh. I wish to have nothing to do with vacations. One might even say I hate them. Whatever you do, just don’t set me up with a position involving vacations. This wouldn’t appeal to me at all—in fact I think I’d die if I were given vacations. As far as I’m concerned I wish to do battle with life, fighting until I keel over: I wish to taste neither freedom nor comfort, I hate freedom if it’s hurled at my feet the way you throw a dog a bone. That’s vacation for you. If you might happen to think you see standing before you a man with a hankering for a vacation, you are very much mistaken . . .

Back in a week.

* News is out that a selection of Walser’s Microscripts (including pictures) is being print’d in 2010 by New Directions, translated by Susan Bernofsky. Too, Bernofsky is writing a Walser biography.

Stephen Crane in Greece, Greco-Turkish War, c. 1897

Robert Walser
(Drawing by Guy Davenport)

Robert Walser, c. 1890s

Friday, November 20, 2009

Sebald’s Walser

Door, Window, Pipe


Y nada mas.
A single scrawl’d
digger unstinting with
green rubber boots
out oystering black
mudflats. A ‘natural
magnificence of rosy-
member’d sky-rakishness’
belabors the unharness’d
visual field ‘beyond.’
That’s the unseemly
plot: the epoch’s
history-wrack’d way
of vying with
its own precursors
by nattering propinquity
or by blood-
letting, cursory repeat’d
carvings-up of
its own wreck’d
superficies. Anxious scratchings.
Ambivalent breath’d-out
jeepers. Poignant stick-
pin refusals to
mourn. Defiant button-
holings. Neap water’s
blacking the estuarial
pocks, the sky
is rubbing out
sprawl and honorific,
drooping into churlishness,
and the oysterman’s
oyesses go unproclaim’d.
Rubber boots, Vincent,
y nada mas.

W. G. Sebald, in “Le Promeneur Solitaire,” an essay that prefaces Robert Walser’s The Tanners (New Directions, 2009), translated by Susan Bernofsky:*
. . . he was only every connected with the world in the most fleeting of ways. Nowhere was he able to settle, never did he acquire the least thing by way of possessions. He had neither a house, nor nay fixed abode, nor a single piece of furniture, and as far as clothes are concerned, at most one good suit and one less so. Even among the tools a writer needs to carry out his craft were almost none he could call his own. He did not, I believe, even own the books that he had written. What he read was for the most part borrowed. Even the paper he used for writing was secondhand. And just as throughout his life he was almost entirely devoid of material possession, so too was he remote from other people.
Isn’t that the reverie of every writer? To bob unbother’d and untend’d in a pure sea of language? (See Walser’s line here, in “The New Novel”: “And now it was me in the inky blackness. Lost!”—that giddy terror is what “one” pursues, no?) Sebald:
For him, evidently, coming to an arrangement with a woman was an impossibility. The chambermaids in the Hotel zum Blauen Kreuz, whom he used to watch through a peephole he had bored in the wall of his attic lodgings; the serving girls in Berne; Fräulein Resy Breitbach in the Rhineland, with whom he maintained a lengthy correspondence—all of them were, like the ladies he reveres so longingly in his literary fantasias, beings from a distant star.
I am compell’d to recall Walser’s Doppelgänger Joseph Cornell here—in Frank O’Hara’s “hearsay” rendition (out of “5 Participants in a Hearsay Panel”): “Ernestine Lassaw told Franz Kline and Tom Young that Bob Rauschenberg told her that Joseph Cornell saw a beautiful girl in a box, a cashier’s box, outside a movie house and he used to ride past the movie house on his bike every day to look at the girl in the box. Then, one day, Ernestine said Bob said, he—Cornell—picked a little bouquet of blue wild flowers and carried them up and down on his bicycle in front of the movie house before he finally screwed up his courage and thrust the flowers through the hole in the box at the girl. She screamed for the manager who called the police but the policed let Cornell go.” (I seem to recall that Deborah Solomon’s Cornell biography Utopia Parkway verify’d something like that.) Sebald:
That Walser is not today among the forgotten writers we owe primarily to the fact that Carl Seelig took up his cause. Without Seelig’s accounts of the walks he took with Walser, without his preliminary work on the biography, without the selections from the work he published and the lengths he went to in securing the Nachlass, the writer’s millions of illegible ciphers, Walser’s rehabilitation could never have taken place, and his memory would in all probability have faded into oblivion.
Seelig’s Wanderungen mit Robert Walser seems to exist in English only here: surely a print’d edition is call’d for. Sebald, detailing the nature of Walser’s writing:
The playful—and sometimes obsessive—working in with a fine brush of the most abstruse details is one of the most striking characteristics of Walser’s idiom. The word-eddies and turbulence created in the middle of a sentence by exaggerated participial constructions, or conglomerations of verbs such as “haben helfen dürfen zu verhindern” (“have been able to help to prevent”); neologisms, such as for example “das Manschettelige” (“cuffishness”) or “das Angstmeierliche” (“chicken-heartedness”), which scuttle away under our gaze like millipedes; the “night-bird shyness, a flying-over-the-seas-in-the-dark, a soft inner whimpering” which, in a bold flight of metaphor, the narrator of The Robber claims hovers above one of Dürer’s female figures; deliberate curiosities such as the sofa “squeaching” (“gyxelnd”) under the charming weight of a seductive lady; the regionalisms, redolent of things long fallen into disuse; the almost manic loquaciousness—these are all elements in the painstaking process of elaboration Walser indulges in, out of a fear of reaching the end too quickly if—as is his inclination—he were to set down nothing but a beautifully curved line with no distracting branches or blossoms.
A terribly fine Sebald sentence itself, acting it out. Too: “Indeed, the detour is, for Walser, a matter of survival. “These detours I’m making serve the end of filling time, for I really must pull off a book of considerable length, otherwise I’ll be even more deeply despised than I am now.” The opposing forces: the pure “curved line” unadorn’d (Sebald suggests Walser’s “natural inclination is for the most radical minimization and brevity . . . setting down a story in one fell swoop”) versus the overwrought, what Walser himself—speaking of a room in which “intimate misfortune was played out”—calls “brimming with gloomy, fantastically be-palmleaved decoration gilded further by the height and scale of the whole.” Sebald says that Walter Benjamin says that “the point of every one of Walser’s sentences is to make the reader forget the previous one.” Sounds like, heavens to Murgatroyd, a recipe avant la lettre for a New Sentence scheme. One recklessly insists, though, that what Benjamin’s claiming is “merely” the way any writer reads: so wholly “took” by immediate lingual “patch” as to be unable to discern any larger landscape. Reading books in order to admire word-conglomerates, point.

* Sebald’s essay is translated by Jo Catling out of the forthcoming A Place in the Country (Random House).

W. G. Sebald, 1944-2001

Robert Walser, 1878-1956

Thursday, November 19, 2009

Tom McCarthy’s Men in Space

“Birds in Space”


Audio ossature of
the field: bleat
of homing ewes,
thin strain’d susurrus
of county road
traffic, the ‘skewy’
descending disgorgement punctual
of a wire-
perch’d sentinel meadowlark,
ratifying and abrupt.
Ah, pastoral tendency!
Ah, schematic tug
of the fortuitous
how it makes
even entrench’d nothingness
compelling! Ah, uncongeal’d
matière ally’d fulvido
di fulgore
a bank shot!
(Ah, ruddy hinder-
shine!) Morning whinges
in with rain
causing the enormous
papier-mâché props
to droop. Un-
shellack’d, that lamb-
kin’s a puddle
of goo. Nothingness’s
refinement’s a mess,
albeit attuned to
its own continuance.
You hear it
in urgency, batty
commuters running reds,
the ‘cloudy strife’
of the sun-
wondrous birds amassing.

Odd listlessness and indirection. Reading stump’d. Seem to’ve been days “finishing up” Tom McCarthy’s excellent Men in Space, though without any particular toutable horn to toot regarding it? I do like the sense (imbuing it) of the novel-as-machine (or is it novel-as-chemical-equation?), its characters colliding and pinging-about components, effecting “exchanges”—McCarthy allowing himself (thus) to think through the nature of the novel throughout. Here’s one Anton Markov (a Bulgarian in Prague, ex-referee—“the trick was to see all the near-identical shirts, repeated runs, sudden departures, switches and loop-backs as one single movement, parts of a modulating system which you had to watch as though from outside, or above, or somewhere else”), who’s involved in an art-forgery scheme (of a particular panel of a mural of the Bačkovo Ossuary*), and is jail’d briefly, stuck and uncertain (like a ruminant novelist?):
Motionless now, Anton tries to empty his mind completely, to start from nothing and build up. He stands on the formica floor. He is a human in a cell. The cell has one bed, one toilet, no windows. It could be any space. It could be a hospital room, a lecture hall, a street or a sky beside a mountain, like where the saint is in that picture. There’s no essential difference: you’ve got a space and then a person in it. The rest is contingent: all the events and decisions and complications that have led to this person being here, all the reactions and solutions that might lead him out of it again. He thinks of mystic monks. They lived their whole lives in cells like this; before was a blur of childhood, out again just darkness, death. He’ll leave this cell alive, but it’s not clear how. There are those procedures that he’ll have to pass through, like that labyrinth Helena was talking about—but he should think of them as being exchanges. They’ll present him with questions, he’ll surrender information in return and, according to the value of his information, progress through this labyrinth. Transfers of energy, like engineering—or like a game. He doesn’t know the rules but will intuit them. I will intuit the rules, he intones. I will intuit . . . But when he tries to factor the specifics back in, the whole thought-circuit overloads and he can feel his heart thump in his chest, blood racing down his arms . . .
In a note, McCarthy relates that the book “started as a series of disjointed, semi-autobiographical sketches written in what seems like another era, and grew into one long, disjointed document from which a plot of sorts emerged from time to time to sniff the air before going to ground again. That it eventually found a kind of warped coherence as a novel about disjointedness and separation is to a large extent thanks to . . .” And the usual acknowledgements. Suspect it’s a retrieval of pre-Remainder material, brilliantly rework’d.

* The epigraph to Men in Space, out of Klárá Jelinkova’s unpublish’d dissertation call’d Murals of the Bačkovo Ossuary (writ for the Akademie Výtvarných Umění, the Academy of Fine Art) reads:
Despite the richness of their colour, it is the line that is the basic means of expression in the work of the Bačkovo masters. Executing a rigorous set of formal procedures, lines never allow themselves to become mere accessories to the expression of volume, to imply depth or to confer realism: instead, they help present the world they depict as unreal, flat and dematerialized. Using inverted perspective and multiple points of view which they place within the painting itself, the Bačkovo masters set up a continuous style that enables them to represent several moments of a story on a single panel. As for the human figures, their sensory organs are drawn out and isolated, relinquishing their biological functions as they become sanctified. Their faces, serene and concentrated, are not configured to produce dramatic effect, but rather to foreground their owners’ elevated sorrow.
Another tiny meditation on the novel, particularly McCarthy’s own, proceeding rather effortlessly with its “multiple points of view.” To note: Klárá Jelinkova is, too, a character in Men in Space, leading one to wonder who’s zooming whom? Faux epigraph or transplant’d “real.”

(Seeing references now to McCarthy’s International Necronautical Society—“ a semi-fictional organization closely modeled on European avant-gardes of the early 20th century . . . [that] replays, not without parody, the politically-inflected structures of these avant-gardes, with their manifestoes, committees, splinter groups and purges,” I suspect the former. See the “Manifesto”:
We, the First Committee of the International Necronautical Society, declare the following:

1. That death is a type of space, which we intend to map, enter, colonise and, eventually, inhabit.

2. That there is no beauty without death, its immanence. We shall sing death’s beauty—that is, beauty.

3. . . . Our very bodies are no more than vehicles carrying us ineluctably towards death. We are all necronauts, always, already.
. . .

Tom McCarthy
(Photograph by Andrew Gallix)

Wednesday, November 18, 2009

The Grand Piano Notes

“Fun Again!”


There. My random
flit of agon
and predicament expunged.
Henceforth I duck
down to render
fracas moot, tuck
my rough mechanicals
into a reticular
snood. Recall how
James Joyce so
sweetly put it:
after ‘peewee’ delete
So I
yank a tangle
of raspberry bushes
out out behind
the shed, wheelbarrow
up several hot
loads of grass
clippings and fill-
dirt and plank
it all square
for compost. A
solitary house wren
upbraids me, burbles
its fizz out
the while. Recall
how Franz Hals
brush’d the white
paint of high-
starch’d collars with
noticeable speed: unearthly,
impetuous rows of
angel-singed zeroes.
Lyrical presto gossamer
aughts discern’d like
the new century’s
unflappable boosterism getting
big mileage in
cahoots with its
citizenry, new meaning
grab a pencil,
and why not,
a platform shift.

About the day I read Carla Harryman’s Grand Piano (#8) piece, “Feeling(s) Object(s): of the short decade extended” (a title that hardly makes that ineffable “turn to language” in my awkward mouth, turning to something considerably nearer to Weetabix), I read, too, Bobby Baird’s audacious and exemplary report (at the sterling Digital Emunction, that “clearinghouse”) of—among a number of things—“interloping” with the terminally brash and undiscomfit’d Stephen Rodefer at a “post-performance dinner” in Paris with Bernard Heidsieck, Steve McCaffery, Karen Mac Cormack, and “among others, two American avant-garde types” unidentify’d. Baird writes:
Though each side feinted more than once toward open war, the hostilities remained latent for most of the meal, giving me the chance to wonder at how nearly the conversational style of Stephen’s antagonist matched the dense theoretical impaction of his prose. The other poet had a free and easy sense of humor, but she also had the unfortunate habit of interrupting her stories with heavy-handed ideological commentaries, as if she needed to regularly remind herself not to be charming.
Astoundingly, that second sentence, apply’d untamper’d-with to the doings of “Feeling(s) Object(s),” fits perfectly. Regardez le charme (Harryman detailing with warmth and sensitivity a summer 2008 visit with Sandy Berrigan in Albion, California, and her “garden of resonances and feelings beyond repair,” memorial, in part, to daughter Kate, “killed in Manhattan by a motorcycle as she crossed the street on a green light”):
The garden is always changing, not only because of Mendocino’s unpredictable appearances of rain and sun but because Sandy is as much an observer as a cultivator of growing things, allowing sweet rocket , borage, kale, and collards to reseed and spread on their own. In the quilted garden with roses growing wild against a fence, Sandy and I discuss her letters written to Ted Berrigan in the early 60s when she was in residence at Jackson Memorial Hospital. Although legally an adult, she had been institutionalized in this general hospital by her family, who didn’t approve of her marriage. Her letters are amazing, mixed with declarations of love; accounts of her inmates, including one other young woman in a similar situation; a critical commentary on Ted’s translation of Rimbaud’s Drunken Boat; and vivid responses to the books she checked out of the hospital library, a motley spread of classic, modern, and contemporary works: The Odyssey, The Plague, The Little Prince, Lolita, Frannie and Zoe, Big Sur, Meditations in an Emergency, Kaddish, and Howl.
Disregarding the evidence that nobody in the “collective” butt’d in to redact that Salinger to “Franny and Zooey”—I’d say bravo. A scene limn’d and lingering with heartbreak. I wonder if it is so—for me—largely as a result of my love for Berrigan’s terrific early “Words for Love” and—immediacy ascendant, go off to re-read it, with its humble marker “for Sandy”:
Winter crisp and the brittleness of snow
as like make me tired as not. I go my
myriad ways blundering, bombastic, dragged
by a self that can never be still, pushed
by my surging blood, my reasoning mind.

I am in love with poetry. Every way I turn
this, my weakness, smites me. A glass
of chocolate milk, head of lettuce, dark-
ness of clouds at one o'clock obsess me.
I weep for all of these or laugh.

By day I sleep, an obscurantist, lost
in dreams of lists, compiled by my self
for reassurance. Jackson Pollock       René
Rilke       Benedict Arnold       I watch
my psyche, smile, dream wet dreams, and sigh.

At night, awake, high on poems, or pills
or simple awe that loveliness exists, my lists
flow differently. Of words bright red
and black, and blue.       Bosky.       Oubliette.       Dis-
severed. And O, alas

Time disturbs me. Always minute detail
fills me up. It is 12:10 in New York. In Houston
it is 2 p.m. It is time to steal books. It’s
time to go mad. It is the day of the apocalypse
the year of parrot fever! What am I saying?

Only this. My poems do contain
wilde beestes. I write for my Lady
of the Lake. My god is immense, and lonely
but uncowed. I trust my sanity, and I am proud. If
I sometimes grow weary, and seem still, nevertheless

my heart still loves, will break.
“Myriad ways blundering” into that final abrupt beauty. How, I ask, did one “get,” then, to such psycho-pomp and verbiage as this (Harryman considering Hejinian’s “considerations of objects and of description”)?
      Objects appear via “pointing,” a relational gesture that “locates a thing relative to the position of the pointing person and implies the presence of contiguous or neighboring things . . .”
      The conscientious attentiveness to “contiguous or neighboring things” does not only place a demand on the reader of her works to experience language as “defamiliarized” rather than centralized. It encourages one to engage those concerns of living that are unpredictable and that lack clarity. When one makes a decision to do or not do, to say or not say something, one has produced an action in the world. A decision is a selection that clarifies relations that are still precarious and unstable.
      Just as the object does not draw the focus onto itself exclusively, neither does description delimit a world. As a “method of invention and of composition” description is not definitive. It does not paste the object to a landscape or scene that is already fixed. Description may not be definitive but it is selective. And the objectification of selection becomes a further site for the reflection upon the decision made and the unaccounted-for and unknown contingencies of its environment.
That “objectification of selection becomes a further site for the reflection upon the decision”: too much Latinate shunning and shushing in the undertow of empire, is what I say. Things is partial, yes, things, too, is tedious. Mallarmé, perfectly ages ago, epigraph’d Igitur with “This Tale is addressed to the reader’s Intelligence that itself achieves the staging.”

“Selection becomes a further site for the reflection upon the decision made . . .”

The bonus chapter in the eighth booklet of The Grand Piano is by Alan Bernheimer: a short consideration of narrative levels in the work of experimental filmmaker Warren Sonbert (1947-1995), friend of many of the Grand Pianists. Bernheimer’s supply’d the rather foreboding title of “What Happens Next” and begins with an “onslaught” paragraph detailing Sonbert’s accomplishments (“completed nineteen films in a thirty-year career,” “widely exhibited,” “made over two hundred personal appearances at one-person shows,” &c.) Then: “In the years since his death, what a falling off . . . the screen . . . largely gone dark.” “Sadly, without the cachet of premieres and his one-man promotional juggernaut, some of the most stimulating and resplendent moving pictures in twentieth-century independent filmmaking are settling into film history.” Thereat Bernheimer, refusing to “dwell on posterity,” turns to Sonbert’s sense of film narrative. Odd, though, the starting point, the seepage of something like fear that all’s for naught (particularly without the services of a “one-man promotional juggernaut”)—that that ought intrude in Bernheimer’s initial writing, in a “project” that’s become (mostly) a series of clumsy devotionals its own presumed posterity, a Langpo promo brochure, untaint’d by differences, lacking only the glossy corporate logo.

As for the bumps and exchanges between Sonbert’s (which I have never seen) films and poetry, Bernheimer writes:
Let’s try replacing, substituting the word poetry for the word film in some of Warren’s own sentences. “The job of poetry . . . is to balance a series of ambiguities in a tension-filled framework.” Or, “I believe the nature of poetry lends itself to density: one can’t pack in too much. It isn’t necessary to have the totality of resonances immediately graspable, one should be able to return.”
No New Critic (nor Robert Lowell) could’ve put it better.

“Ambiguities in a tension-filled framework . . .”

Previous 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 55 56 57 58 59 60 61 62 63 64 65.

Tuesday, November 17, 2009

Dubuffet / O’Hara

Barb’d Wire


Corvine black up
along the running
ridge, stench of
catfish guts slather’d
into the sandy
yellow pit, blue’d
with fly-shine.
Thunder lowering its
boom a county
away. One caprice
of context is
to make inert
dandyism succumb, plumb
formlessness with a
fix’d indolence that
rebuts its rump
basis in raw
affinity. Ammonia smell
of the rookery
making me gag.
One variation is
rube standoffishness mistook
for aesthetic distance:
that’s foster’d a
certain critical encampment
around a number
of malcontents. Make
that “our” mal-
contents. The one
with the bow
and arrow-on-
a-line thunking
the river-rumpling
spawn-crazy carp
in the shallows.
The bottle flies
fly up, bespangling
the sky. Down
the lip of
the pit a
dung beetle hurries
after its ball.

Bad habit of hurrying (not unlike the dung beetle). I ought to’ve read through Michel Ragon’s Dubuffet (Grove / Evergreen, 1959), work’d up a little oomph for my half-cock’d spouting off (yesterday). One thing: the note to O’Hara’s “Naphtha” reads (in part): “Hattie Smith identified ‘with a likeness burst in the memory’ in line 38 as from a statement by Jean Dubuffet reprinted in the catalog for his 1959 show at the Museum of Modern Art.” (The remainder of the note quotes a letter—“FOH to John Ashbery, February 1, 1961”—regarding a drawing Dubuffet’d sent O’Hara after he’d publish’d “Naphtha” in a 1960 Big Table.) Michel Ragon, though, reports a (scandalous) 1947 exhibit of Dubuffet’s Portraits shortly after publishing (chez Gallimard—Jean Paulhan being a close friend and supporter—and portrait-sitter) “a small treatise entitled Prospectus to Art-lovers of Every Kind, whose main ideas can be roughly summarized as follows: Art is within reach of everybody. Any imbecile is better than professional painters. Hurrah for the imbecile! There is no need to learn how to draw in order to produce art. Down with galleries! Down with museums! Down with art dealers and art critics!” “Scandal,” of course, mostly being merely contextual nudge and readjustment, one notes that: “in 1947 geometric abstraction in half-tints was triumphant in Paris, denying itself any kind of reference or allusion to nature.” Donc, some woolly heads. Ragon:
      The invitation to this exhibit of Portraits, with its carefully worked out typography . . . was printed on one of those large folders that have since been imitated by so many young painters who think that they will thereby attract notice and who forget that one never surprises by plagiarizing. This “little newspaper” bore the title:
People are much better-looking than they believe
Long live their true faces
At the Galerie Drouin
17, Place Vendôme
with a likeness extracted,
with a likeness cooked and preserved in the memory,
with a likeness burst in the memory of
Mr. Jean Dubuffet
The cows of “Naphtha”: India ink drawings of Dubuffet cows interlarding the text, along with one amongst the tipped-in plates, “La Belle Fessue.” And: “He went through an important series of Cows (‘The Gay Beauty,’ ‘The Buttocked Beauty,’ ‘The Uddered Beauty’).”

Out of a 1957 treatise:
I have always liked—it is a kind of vice—to make use only of the most common materials, those one does not think of at first because they are too commonplace and close to us and appear unsuitable for any use. I like to proclaim that my art is a rehabilitation of disparaged values. The fact is that these elements, which because they are commonly found everywhere and for that very reason do not arrest the eye fascinate me more than all others. The voices of the dust, the soul of the dust, interest me far more than the flower, the tree or the horse because I sense that they are stranger. Dust is a being so different from us. And, to begin with, that absence of defined form . . .
Odd, that “formlessness” put up against allegiance to materials. (I think of O’Hara’s 1950 “Today,” with its “Pearls, / harmonicas, jujubes, aspirins! all / the stuff they’ve always talked about // still makes a poem a surprise! / These things are with us every day / even on beachheads and biers. They / do have meaning. They're strong as rocks.”) (Too, I think of Zukofsky’s “case” “for the poet giving some of his life to the use of the words the and a: both of which are weighted with as much epos and historical destiny as one man can perhaps resolve. Those who do not believe this are too sure that the little words mean nothing among so many other words.”) (And Ted Berrigan’s paring down the lingo to words of one-syllable, that being the chore.) (And, veering, how Dubuffet’s cows—flat, splay’d, gangly (ganglia’d)—look like dust mites . . .)

And (“Thought is made in the mouth,” according to Tristan Tzara, so, like a French fillette with a story—“Et puis . . . et puis”—I keep talking) Dubuffet’s restlessness:
      Whereas everyone today tends to cultivate his little specialty, to finick over it, to go to sleep in the intellectual (and commercial) comfort of a patented style, Jean Dubuffet is constantly subjecting his work to challenge . . .
      “It’s because I’m restless, unstable.”
      If he constantly changes his “manner,” it is also in order to prevent his art from becoming set.
      He likes paintings of heavy, muddy ingredients, painted high and in relief . . .
Echo of Valéry’s Je suis l’instable. And why do I recall O’Hara’s “[Notes on Second Avenue]” with its insistence:
      To put it very gently, I have a feeling that the philosophical reduction of reality to a dealable-with system so distorts life that one’s “reward” for this endeavor (a minor one, at that) is illness both from inside and outside . . .
      As I look this over, it seems quite a batty way to give information about the poem, but the verbal elements are not too interesting to discuss although they are intended consciously to keep the surface of the poem high and dry, not wet, reflective and self-conscious. Perhaps the obscurity comes in here, in the relationship between the surface and the meaning, but I like it that way since the one is the other (you have to use words) and I hope the poem to be the subject, not just about it.
Oddly enough, one line of Ragon’s in Dubuffet (“He finds himself, in fact, in the odd situation of being rejected equally by the supporters of figurative painting and by those of abstract painting”) reads like a percipient precursor to Ashbery’s great assessment and defense of O’Hara’s poetry, and how precisely it “has no program and therefore cannot be joined. It does not advocate sex and dope as a panacea for the ills of modern society; it does not speak out against the war in Viet Nam or in favor of civil rights; it does not paint gothic vignettes of the post-Atomic age; in a word, it does not attack the establishment. It merely ignores its right to exist, and is thus a source of annoyance to partisans of every stripe.”

“Natural savagery” alert. Another find: a copy of the Thomas Hess and Harold Rosenberg-edited (and short-lived) magazine Locations (1963) with Larry Rivers’s report of doing lithographs with O’Hara and Koch, “Life Among the Stones.” Rivers, reporting that “until this moment I’ve never tired to clarify what I was doing when Frank O’Hara and I, and Kenneth Koch and I, put our marks on the same surface”: “Maybe I’m an artist but I have gone from a baby to having the soul of a nail. I get a physical thrill in being cruel. My cruelty consists of destroying the ease I see in the presence of cliché and vogue.” And (talking about working with O’Hara): “I think our point of view can be summed up as ‘Anything is possible if we turn to it’ or ‘You name it we do it.’ What else do we have? Any of us? Being thought “modern.” That begins to feel like a good boy. Or the other great placater of our time “I don’t know if it is any good but I did it first.” How weak to create out of that simple and socially acceptable idea.”

Jean Dubuffet, “Cow with the Subtle Nose,” 1954

Magnify’d Dust Mite

Jean Dubuffet, 1901-1985
(Photograph by Sanford H. Roth)

Monday, November 16, 2009

O’Hara and “Natural Savagery”



Some big orchestral
tutti of sun
hitting a red-
throat’d rubato, a
high unmaestro’d O,
a disc shot
through with timbre-
flaws and scuff
marks of aimless
careening angel accidents.
Wash and backdrop
for the morin
khuur’s two horse-
hair strings bow’d
by a Mongol
horseman who is
deftly intersplicing earth
(the fatter string)
to sky with
a series of
incendiary runs up
into the high
unbinding joyousness of
thrash Guignol farce,
stuffing the air
itself with notes.
A series of
petites blagues musicales
prepping the devilish
assemblage for one
long-song’d syllable
that, unaccompany’d, wholly
unhinges the two.

Thrash weekend, here and there. Uncover’d a tiny cache of heroic-era Abstract-Expressionist artbooks, including a number of little Grove / Evergreen Gallery books, the first, Dubuffet by Michel Ragon, translated by Haakon Chevalier, dated 1959. (Thumbing it I note the sentence, “In 1922 he did his military service as a meteorologist in the Eiffel Tower” and think immediately of O’Hara’s “Naphtha”: “Ah Jean Dubuffet / when you think of him / doing his military service in the Eiffel Tower / as a meteorologist / in 1922 / you know how wonderful the 20th Century / can be . . .” Composed, apparently 3 September 1959. Now, I ought to read it to uncover “Jean Dubuffet painting his cows / ‘with a likeness burst in the memory’ . . .” Not evident in a slapdash peruse (an oxymoron), though there is:
      “Art and levity,” Jean Dubuffet wrote at the beginning of his ‘public life,’ “these two orders have blood in common. The unforeseen, the unwonted, is their common domain—and don’t misunderstand me, it is of the highest peaks of art that I am thinking. Of Poe’s tales, of the Chants de Maldoror, of the Easter Island statues. So none of those innocent little jokes that entertain you for a few minutes, but the great big ones, the ones that freeze you on the spot, that turn you to stone. So good and unforeseen are the jokes.
      “There is no art without intoxication. But I mean a mad intoxication! Let reason teeter! Delirium! The highest degree of delirium! Plunged in burning dementia! Art is the most enrapturing orgy within man's reach.
      “Art must make you laugh a little and make you a little afraid. Anything as long as it doesn’t bore.”
Which sounds like O’Hara’s credo of wit slung against the boring: “how boring are men of deeds to the wild passions of fugitive verse” (“Historical Variations”), “Only you in New York are not boring tonight” (“Poem Read at Joan Mitchell’s”), &c.

Another find: the B. H. Friedman-edited School of New York: Some Younger Artists, (1959) with Barbara Guest on Robert Goodnough, James Schuyler on Alfred Leslie, Fairfield Porter on Richard Stankiewicz, and O’Hara on Larry Rivers, among others. The O’Hara’s something I don’t recall seeing reprint’d, though in a tumult of the double-shelved, I didn’t locate the Bill Berkson-edited What’s With Modern Art? (Skanky Possum, 1999).* How it begins:
      American painting is in such a splendid state of confusion that it is a joy to contemplate. Would that poetry were in the same state! And perhaps it’s approaching it, for the reasons for loving a poem by Allen Ginsberg are the same reasons for loving a poem by John Ashbery, or by Kenneth Koch, or by Gregory Corso, just as the reasons for loving a painting by Franz Kline are the same for one by Michael Goldberg: they are all distinct, individual responses to distinct, individual meaningfulness—which varies so widely in scope, in drama, in contact, that the engaged person is reeling at last from contact with his own life, contact which the rest of society tries to teach him to back away from like a sick leopard who doesn’t know which trainer has his best interests at heart.
      In this pocket-abyss where one doesn’t know where one is at, where a large red painting may be a Grace Hartigan or a howitzer, where one has nightmares about not knowing what one is looking at, the only thing you have to hold onto is your own natural savagery, and your ability to recognize your own natural savagery has been given to you by this art which in turn is the cause of your anxiety about not being able to recognize anything but yourself. And that is the last thing one wishes to recognize. Most of us would much prefer to be Zen neophytes identifying herbs.
      Much has been said about the work of Jasper Johns recently—but how anyone can find his big white flag painting enigmatic is beyond me, a painting which forces a recognition in me to where I am at the brink of hysterical tears when my movie-fed head is inclined toward the Raft of the Medusa. (“Boys! Don’t leave me behind!”—Palinurus.) The same thing occurs with De Kooning Suburb in Havana. Why should it have this overpowering effect when we have the House of Seagram in front of us?
How different to the present dander’d up era! Where O’Hara makes a valiant camp’d up call for additional confusion (“reeling at last”), today “we” see our hog-tied critical delivery boys (and girls) with, not only a lack of “anxiety about not being able to recognize anything” (but themselves), but flaunting they own fervent blindnesses (and calling it “lineage”), or shucking it off into some cloister’d booths set up for a two-party “system.” “Natural savagery,” indeed. Tepid careerist me-first though remember to nudge along anybody who’s getting huzzah’d up, go with the groundswell, is the “order” of “business.” “Distinct, individual responses to distinct, individual meaningfulness,” whazzat? Rank and file sycophancy to the left and right: a clumping generalized sick leopard-dom.

* Andrew Epstein writes that the piece is reprinted, in Standing Still and Walking in New York under the title “Larry Rivers: The Next to Last Confederate Soldier.” Ah, memory, that savage slouch!

Larry Rivers and Frank O’Hara, c. 1958

Larry Rivers and Frank O’Hara, “Stones,” 1958

Friday, November 13, 2009

Peter O’Leary’s Benedicite

Yellow Leaf’d Tree


Pantheistic roundabout shudders:
who’s that doctoring
up the breeze
with camphor and
ashes, or is
that spermaceti ointment
residue? Stench of
the godly miasma,
reminiscent prickles of
former attempt’d hallowings
ruttish, incontinent, smear’d
with bastardly quotidian
truths. How simple
if one allow’d
a sprung welcome
onslaught and release
to carry one
off into finick’d
divinity. Opting out
of the semi-
laudable fraught abeyance
(daily hint of
menthol, scent of
grease and queasiness)
for the fulgent
gangster slam of
full-scale Holy,
executable and unreprieved.
A fundament un-
jockey’d, explicit, fix’d.

That, rapidly writ, a kind of gut-level outburst / recompense for a fever-sweat of, oh, envy and admiration, result of opening a brand-new (and sumptuously beautiful) chapbook by Peter O’Leary: Benedicite: From The Phosphorescence of Thought, A Poem of One Thousand Three Hundred and Thirty-Six Lines on the Nature of Consciousness (Answer Tag Home Press, 2009). Envy of the unshakeable presence of a target and a duty: Father Hopkins’s imperative—“Praise him.” I must admit there’s probably something sacrilegious about envy for the way the properly laudatory solves what is (to me) a “merely” formal dilemma: I mean no disrespect. To be allow’d (and to follow) a calling to praise God and His works seems magnificent, a right uncanny measure of unity and diversity, the one and the many—both an act of no little bravery and something of a provocation in a secular age (or in a secular community, that of, loosely, “readers of contemporary American poetry”). The Benedicite (or Benedicite, omnia opera Domini) is a hymn to creation, lauding all the works of God. Here’s a swatch:
. . . make holy
you galactic internal dynamic, you spew of stars, you luminous intensities
you waters coursing over heaven and you dynamos generating their power
you slow-burning yellow star
you socket of life
you Sun and Moon
you same sized argentine luminaries drifting in the skies
you fungal spores into the sinuses huffed
you wicked lunar eclipse
you dais of cooling light years;
make holy this song by blessing, by building up with
you telescope of time, you notion of creation
you most antique ledge of energy it peers toward
you aeonic disdain, you horror torus
you flowing forms, you atmospheric womb, you cellular chemistries, you earthly life
you showers and dew, you souls
you tenderly dusted, glimmering mineral energy wound
you little animations of things
you prokaryotic cells, you knitters together . . .
And, too:
. . . you corpses, you spent energy, you unspooling tendrils of
mushroom protein
you anuses extruding that vitalizing hash
you necrophagous moonlight fruits
you eaters of your own dead and you living things
you caloric scavengers and you sex scroungers;
make holy this song . . .
Solved at a fell swoop: the aimless “modernist” gabble abstract, talk address’d to no one in particular. In some way, beyond cataloguer Whitman out of King James, the nighest “kin” to O’Leary’s Benedicite may be A. R. Ammons. Or is it simply the nitty-gritty particulars, lingo-registers out of Scientific American (“prokaryotic cells,” etc.) that points me there? Look what Ammons makes out of different particulars fetch’d forth:

I want something suited to my special needs
I want rotary mower housing
I want chrome hubcaps, pin-on attachments
      and year round use year after year
I want a workhorse with smooth uniform cut,
      dozer blade and snow blade & deluxe steering
I want something to mow, throw snow, tow
      and sow with
I want precision reel blades
I want a console-styled dashboard
I want an easy spintype recoil starter
I want combination bevel and spur gears, 14
      gauge stamped steel housing and
      washable foam element air cleaner
I want a pivoting front axle and extrawide
      turf tires
I want an inch of foam rubber inside a vinyl
and especially if it’s not too much, if I
      can deserve it, even I can’t pay for it
I want to mow while riding
Which is, of course, stretch’d out and pinned down by the tenterhooks of terminal irony in a way that O’Leary’s direct address never is.

Benedicite is print’d in an edition of one hundred and fifty number’d and sign’d copies. Covers print’d by Dexterity Press. The covers, pale yellow with the Latin antiphon Asperges me and accompanying doxology print’d in a slightly richer yellow, with the title in rich red over all—O’Leary’s name (appropriately) lacking. So one glimpses some of the words, broken, splay’d out under musical staff with its square-blocky notes: “-sperges me, Dómine, hyssópo et m” and “emper, et in saécu-la saecu-ló-rum. A-men.” It’s lovely. Eagerly await’d: The Phosphorescence of Thought.

Peter O’Leary
(Photograph by Eirik Steinhoff)

Thursday, November 12, 2009

J. D. Reed

A Yellow Leaf


That doe not
do the thing,

hubbub considerably, etc.
My exegetical slop
compensatory notes, a
way of dogging
mock big ass’d
human mutuals down
nonnunquam alia et
Visigoth mi
whatev unspoilt
country roads ending
up nosing ev’ry
crevasse and crevice.
My Augustan cravat
emblazon’d with honesty’s
roguish pluvials, shirt-
waist and liver-
color’d Budapesti cummerbund
dry and salvageable
with its God-
pittance buttonhole reinforcements,
keeping it secure
“out behind.” I
do doubt that
anything of merit’s
likely to be
achieved by ransacking
the castoffs, unsatisfy’d
by the yellow
leaf’s way of
lying dumbstruck by
imminent microbial assault,
a sense of
mortality’s no reason
to begin acting
like a toy
martinet with bust’d
britches, is it?
Vnmoued, could, and
to temptation slow:

isn’t that impermeable
by the garden
gate yours? Such
sulky intransigence converges
wherever it lies
unprepared, unsampled, damp.
It’s there you
buriest thy content.

Sort of a “pause in the day’s occupations” kind of thing. Tired of limning pretties. Long I suspect’d that I am constitutionally incapable of sustain’d seriousness “about” nigh-about anything. Art, even tremendous art, seems as likely the result of doink-around dishing and goofing as any pursed-lip earnest crouch of pre-triumphalism. Here’s J. D. Reed (“born in the railroad town of Jackson, Michigan, shortly after the trains stopped running”):
Ode to Roundheads

You tell me time’s to fuck
not fuck away; but my business
is the exact temperature of magma,
the p.s.i. of Whitman’s old lips
on the mouth of some feverish Confederate.
He, like Mr. O’Hara (Lunch Poems) and Mr. Whitman, self-blurbs Fatback Odes (Sumac, 1972):
I have tried to deal with that layer of experience that lies between a Buster Brown shoe and the terrible foot of Christ. The crackling skin of a good pork roast is the only thing keeping the blade from the meat. The heavy air cuts us open.
I dug out Fatback Odes after noting Reed’s sub-editorship of Stony Brook. Truth is, he squib’d a tiny appendum to Dahlberg’s note, huzzahs for Dahlberg’s way of “charging rhetoric with the beat of the goat-foot”:
      . . . Argument needs its ornaments to praise as well as damn.
      An over-concern with thought, concern with it as naked, ultimate activity produces that kind of talk Hemingway called a flywheel with the counter weight gone. And if we find that argument dances, then the prose that expresses it must dance also, and that means, at least, it has its own rhythm. Find even a tub-thump in the quarterlies, if you can. “We cannot perceive what we canonize,” says Dahlberg about Thoreau, “The citizen secures himself against genius by icon worship.”
And Dahlberg himself: “The purpose of any author is to be artistically mirthful; for no writer can persuade who cannot entertain. Chaucer observes, ‘A licorous mouth has a lickorish tail,’ which is a didactic as well as a jolly line.” Too, in the Stony Brook (pick’d up for a buck with some tiny shine of making it centerpiece to contend that during some few years between the anthology wars of the early ’sixties and the new dispenses of petulance and manner’d agressivity brought up by the Language boys some few years later—that some period of détente prevail’d—akin to today’s “hybridity”?—see the (partial) list of contributors: Pound, Duncan, Levertov, Olson, Rakosi, Wieners, Snyder, Louis Simpson, Simic, Laughlin, James Tate, Ammons. Pickard, Eshleman, Tim Reynolds, Antin, Rothenberg, Mac Low, Rukeyser, Jim Harrison, Dahlberg, Paz, Ginsberg, plus a sizeable bunch of translations, Tang poets by Robert Dana, Vasko Popa and others by Simic, Miłosz and Aleksander Wat by Richard Lourie, Radnoti by Stephen Berg and S. J. Marks, Yvan Goll by Galway Kinnell, Robert Pinget by Raymond Federman . . . nothing narrow about it.) Too, therein, J. D. Reed’s longish “Tool and Die Poem,” limning a certain moment in the anthropology of working class life in Michigan:
Polacks buy old bathtubs
second hand, paint them
sky blue inside, bury half
way in their yards full
of madonnas and aluminum,
grotto of saint chevrolet.

She’ll drink.
He’ll drink,
she’ll wear slacks

the bridegroom already half mad—
nightmare of UAW and contracts

the girl-child,
the majorette strutting
down the limed yard lines
at morning practice
pumping her baton,
showing blue panties
to the band drunk on vodka.

If the ocean was whiskey
and I was a duck . . .

Make a car.
Put the bumper on it.
Put the bumper on it,
drink again . . .
Another couple out of Fatback Odes:
Gourmand Ode

247th restaurant in Belgrade,
butting a last Marlboro
in the empty caviar boat;
Paris green flakes the wall,
the brocade stinks.

Too late for second sitting,
the waiters study a map of Bosnia.

Ingested soda bread, salmon from Rumania. . . .
A woman over vodka said
she’d “been” with Tito.
But I know Tito’s glove,
the stench of its rabbit fur lining. . . .

Sure, whetstone of peasant on saber.
You don’t forget these things—
The Blue Rabbit,
peffered saddle of hare
and the small muscles of it,
the brass clams and tin wine.
Tantra (Om) Ode

Sawing organic jerky
with this cubscout knife, Ah!
Filson cruiser.

The Ashanti invented
rip stop nylon
for Hillary;
dried raisins,
tropical chocolate
and here I am, vibram,
strapped to a TX-140
magnesium pack frame,
almost to the garage.
Contributing, one supposes, to what’s becoming rather a burgeoning tradition of exposing the neglect’d (to the harsh light of the present—I did “skip” Reed’s poem with the line “And night fell like a bull dike / on a girl scout”—there is that kind of datedness that becomes most obvious if one quits mid-song . . .*) And, looking around for other likely Reed-holes, I pull’d Kayak #23 (1970) off a shelf, and lit up to its pertinence. Without examining the archives, I don’t know if St. Geraud’s “appraisal” is of the “routing out the neglect’d” sort, though I’d bet it is—Lamantia’d probably hold some kind of record for being periodically rummaged up out of torpor by the high-mind’d. (If so, then St. Geraud’s petulance here looks mighty silly.**) A letter, then, to Kayak editor George Hitchcock (a fine American surrealist himself), dateline “Watsonville, Cal.”:
Dear George:

I can’t help but agree with St. Geraud’s generous appraisal of Lamantia (Kayak 22). And Louis Simpson is also a great poet, God knows. But the trouble with them, indeed, with most poets is that they aren’t flashy enough. . . . Lamantia needs a much more identifiable image; needs to become a brand name, a household word like Ex-Lax or Agnew or Band-Aids. Poems like his “Inside the Journey” and “The Enormous Window” wouldn’t be ignored if he could just see his way to advertize himself as the psychedelic super-poet or something that would have the same stimulating effect of the confused consumer. . .

When I think of the resourcefulness of such contemporary prime-time giants as Lafcadio Dogbreath, the inventiveness of such a devastating sensibility as Arshile Smegma’s, I wonder if much of what is called public neglect isn’t artists’ neglect. Can you deny that the divine Lafcadio would not still be languishing in his San Fernando gameroom had he not contrived to present his magnum opus carved on a seven-ton block of ear wax?

Why the poet permits himself to be neglected is a mystery to me. Why, for the sake of art, couldn’t Lamantia get himself arrested for committing an unnatural act with a mail-box? Couldn’t he begin a rumor that his father was a Cossack and his mother an abalone? A simple matter. Or couldn’t he free fall into a garage full of flaming Kenyon Reviews? He could claim to be two centuries old or a text-tube experiment. But that’s the trouble; some poets have no initiative, are lacking in dignity, strength of character, self-respect, honor, righteousness, self-esteem, integrity, decorum, etc. Why couldn’t the “neglected poet” honor the holy Smegma’s memory and do himself honor as well by marrying a llama?

Yours for dignity in art,
Msgr. Junipero Balalaika

P.S.—Does he play the guitar?
One wonders if some of the “current crop” of brand-name versifiers didn’t read Msgr. Balalaika’s letter and take it unreservedly “to heart”?

* Looking for a picture of J. D. Reed, I find one in a 2005 issue of a Princeton, NJ weekly accompanying an obituary. “A poet, novelist, and journalist, he had three books of poetry published in the 1960s and won a Guggenheim Award for his book Expressways in 1970. He taught creative writing at the University of Massachusetts in the 1970s and was the director of the Creative Writing Program there for several years. In addition to his poetry, he had two novels published, one co-authored by his wife, and one made into a major motion picture. He then pursued a 25-year career in journalism, writing for Sports Illustrated, Time, and People magazines along with freelance articles and cover stories in many other national publications. He retired from Time Warner, Inc. in 2001 and continued his freelance journalism and personal writing projects.”

** “Bill Knott (1940-1966)” wrote in a letter in Kayak 22: “The best poet to appear in the 1940’s was not Lowell or Berryman or etcetera, but a teenage boy named Philip Lamantia. Because of the fascistic literary atmosphere in the late 40’s and early 50’s, he did not receive the attention he deserved. Perhaps because of this neglect he drifted away from Surrealism into other things. Now he has returned to his original vision and is currently the best poet in America. He and Louis Simpson are my personal favorite poets.” And, later, after mentioning “a new one [Surrealist] . . . Franklin Rosemont”: “Rosemont is serious. The rest of us, except Charles Simic, are full of shit.”

J. D. Reed, 1941-2005

Wednesday, November 11, 2009

The Grand Piano Notes

A Wall


The word rabble
is blocking my
purview, providing several
defiantly incompetent info-
bundlers with a
laugh or two,
a regular Mumbai
defile of hoots
unbaffled by the
usual systemic aplomb.
One’s a tennis
fana capable of
downing enormous jars
of Bombay Gin—
with lime-flavor’d
tonic—with nary
an effect unassimilable:
serve, volley, get
to the net.
Makes a homely
leap, a trade-
mark thing like
Mary Desti’s ass.
Minor mechanical repairs
I usually make
myself, the thumb-
smudg’d lens, the
magnify’d clump of
dirt the movie
projector’s juggling frame
to frame, the
granny knot un-
tying itself under
the taut pull
of the dog.
Now that cyber-
deliquescence—that regnant
unallay’d smudge of
mutually-assured propinquity—
’s made even
the singular global,
rudimentary, and dopey,
and all of
us indiscreet, fool-
proof receptacles of
what’s not need’d,
one for rubbish,
one for dross.

Singularly unfocus’d. I keep thinking of Barrett Watten’s reply to critics—or, pointedly, reply to “A     ”” who “questions the practice of quoting samples of our poetry in The Grand Piano” (Watten being the obvious perp and repeat offender). Watten: “Here I would offer a one-word explanation: ‘hermeneutics.’” The mummer’s imperiousness of that—well, do you recall the heartbreakingly young Dustin Hoffman in The Graduate (1967) (dragged off by one “Mr. McGuire,” play’d by one Walter Brooke, who apparently appear’d in one episode of just about every “thing” ever made)? Here, look:
Is that “hermeneutic” poetry Watten quotes (“Is it an analogy to, or a refusal of, the corresponding music?” he asks, somewhere out in a region beyond the query comme toujours) only perceivable as allegory? Watten:
        Animals eat words,
exorcise this great and glassy news.
The end of the road a walking flower
        as in any direction, another.
        Peripheries meet, a syntactic
forecast through hostile centuries
a slow drawing out of detail
        reflecting greys.
        To confirm the ear catches
is measured until it disappears.
Breaking code, no one recalls
        appeal to the surface of fact.
Out of Watten’s “Radio.” Blocks of it interspersed throughout The Grand Piano (#8), usually placed epigraph-style to begin sections. One tends, in reading the prose “narrative,” simply to register the intervening botch of impenetrability and jump it. Watten notes that the composition of “Radio” is of “lines cut up and rearranged from Lee Harwood’s exemplary translation of Tzara.” And: “I remember trying to capture the hybrid neutrality of everyday life in its most repetitive forms through a use of language that had been stripped of all associations.” (Watten’s sudden use of the word “hybrid”—though “hybrid neutrality” is, according to Watten, a term associated with some ’eighties visual art practices—he mentions Allan McCollum, who as a child play’d “Jimmy Lane” in Reefer Madness (1938)*, growing up to make an art consisting of enormous numbers of objects and drawings, “each made unique by combining templates according to a combinatorial protocol that never repeated itself.” Hunh. Amazing. Watten’s, I start’d to say, sudden use of the word “hybrid”—isn’t that a kind of marketing catchword right now?) A poetry of the “neutrality of everyday life” and “repetitive forms . . . stripped of all associations” recalls the aims of Satie’s musique d’ameublement, a kind of hardly diverting repetitive Muzak, not unlike a number of mold’d plastic chairs cluster’d in a dining room. (Satie, too, did a ballet piece call’d Mercure—Poses plastiques en trois tableaux (1924).) To arrive there—in a state of implacable “greys,” the sensorium mugged by a leveling, neuter’d by lack, noticing nothing, undernourish’d—I suppose one might aspire to it: “To confirm the ear catches / is measured until it disappears.” (Though I “hear” immediately Duncan’s “Years as Catches” there, confirming what? That the measure remains inescapably there?) I’d like to see a piece of that language “stripped of all associations.” Watten’s “Radio,” by so doggedly disassembling and manipulating the Harwood translation of Tzara’s cut-ups—cutting up cut ups, a kind of mass refining that sounds like that one word “plastics” to me—is certainly going to retain one association: that of “the cut up.” What would be remarkable would be if it didn’t. If the result emerged in the guise of something whole, gorgeous, singular, and just.

In Carla Harryman’s entry, a curious note regarding the whole Grand Piano “collective”:
Some of us are almost finished, have completed their first drafts years ago, but others begin again, or now. Now is the off-word that extracts the most energy.
“Years ago”? If there is a murk about the self-proclaim’d “experiment in collective autobiography,” it is in its failure to lay out its methods (simple “scientific” protocol—offering means for testing reproducibility and repeatability). If “some” are “finished”—where’s the collective nudge, where’s the trade-off and exchange, the community of making? One assumed a large part of the decision to release the writings in a series of ten booklets stem’d out of a commitment to that “Now” which “extracts the most energy” (the other part being financial? though there’s always the obvious question: why isn’t The Grand Piano simply being post’d online?) Too, it’s plain that a beginning mark’d by individual booklets with loosely-defined “themes” is now abandon’d, numéro 8 is a hotch-potch, the practice of ending with a series of questions for the next member in order largely ditch’d. (Though Señor Watten bravely holds out: “Why did you go West? What is the City you are in now?” Sounding a little like a desperado. Or a commandant.) There is, of course, in the pristine volumes, no sign of rank-splitting, no sign of disagreement: one imagines that a public pursuit of the writing’d reveal “the processual” to some advantage. (At least to the advantage of any who nod homage to—or act out—the benefits of the “social text,” or sneeze at the possibilities of the radical solitary.)

* “Singularly unfocus’d,” indeed. Lanny Quarles corrects me. Warren McCollum, father of Allan, play’d Jimmy Lane in that blunt bonkers thing. Trouble with my toss-everything-in-the-pot “method.”

Of Note

Out of Stony Brook 1/2 (1968), edited by George Quasha, with contributing editors, J. D. Reed and Eliot Weinberger. Edward Dahlberg (out of the preface to The Flea of Sodom):
Longinus has said that a simple prose contains fewer faults than any other kind, not being tumid or obscure; but he also has said that plain writing is less replenishing, and is often a sign of a weak writer who dares not take those risks which a parsimonious Imagination cannot sustain. Simple prose is often conceived for the mind that is dead rather than quick, and it is not surprising that an author who is as timid as a coney when he himself is writing, is bold and waspish in reprehending a Sir Thomas Browne for blemishes that are beyond the powers of his own Muse. However, this is not to say that plain writing, when it is not empty, is not another art, as Thucydides has remarkably shown. What is important is to employ words properly—for as Socrates said, The misuse of words induces evil in the soul—and with a tragical feeling of which our platitudinarian speech is void.

Robert Hooke’s Drawing of a Flea
(Out of
Micrographia, or, Some physiological descriptions of minute bodies made by magnifying glasses, 1635)

Tuesday, November 10, 2009

The Grand Piano Notes

Flag’d Fencing


Brevity with blanks,
a verisimilitude unfestoon’d
by any murmurous
complacency of gap-
patching or mound-
leveling (of the
“field”) or by
the presumptuously indiscreet
nonsense of chuckle-
head’d boorish categorizers
with they chuffing
snouts and opines.
We are each
complete and partial
and rioting, none
a scavenging dog,
none a bill-
cooing Cartesian, none
prone to precocity
in earshot of
the gaseous self-
appoint’d who’d like—
unstrung by uncontrollable
pluck and itch
of the whelming
sensorial fix—to
affix each swarming
member by genus
in rebuttal of
singularity, the way
it makes strange,
the way any
scrutiny of potsherd
breakage’ll uncover one
oyster-shell splay’d
off in beery
particularity, delirious ostranenie
of the ostracized.

Barrett Watten in The Grand Piano (#8) making big noise about the West, titling the squib simply “West,” unaccustom’d (seemingly) to the way the term, like any direction, is a relational and ad hoc configuration, and hardly an absolute. And hardly the mythic “portal” to the beyond Watten undergirds the Golden Gate Bridge with:
That portal is luminous, sighted in the distance. Endless space beckons from the other side. We see clearly through the opening, not to the Orient but simply onto unending space. The space of the Pacific. For the aesthetic Eastern poet, this was a limit of the imagination, timelessly invoked. We, however, lived with it on a daily basis—not within it, but alongside.
Watten’s talking about (“the aesthetic Eastern poet”—is “aesthete” an expletive to a Language boy?) James Schuyler and how “Once in New York—not thinking of the West,” he heard him read what Watten calls Schuyler’s “ode to the Golden Gate.” [Lengthy and pleasurably distracting spell of skimming through Schuyler’s Collected in hunt of said “ode” aforemention’d—ah, here, I suspect B. W. is referring to the late piece presumably referring to 1988 Hollister earthquake, register’d in S. F.]:
Shadowy Room

                for Brother Thomas Carey
                June 27, 1988

“. . . tall buildings swayed
in downtown San Francisco.
No reports
            of injuries
                        at present.”
Perishable perfection
of Glenn Gould playing
Bach purls on, oblivious
of interruption, building
course on
course, harmonious
in all lights,
all weathers, not unlike
la Rotunda and
so much airier,
spider webs and skeletons
of leaves,
the contiguity
of panes of glass. “No
of injuries at present:
details later.”
Mortal music, leading,
leading on,
to San Francisco,
the Golden Gate,
the hands of God.
For Watten: “a limit of the imagination, timelessly invoked.” I suppose it’s “the hands of God” that makes Watten say that: I read San Francisco and its blessed bridge as largely incidental to the piece, except insofar as Tom Carey, Schuyler’s friend, a Franciscan, is apparently in the vicinity and Schuyler’s rather conventionally thanking God (and Glenn Gould ceaselessly purling out the Bach) that he is unhurt. Watten’d prefer a myth. In the next paragraph:
Oceanic feelings, we may say. They suffuse the work in its boundlessness—until they become a limit condition in themselves, a necessary precondition of formal or reflexive movement toward . . . the work. Hence, we may say, a region of being is displaced—toward a limit of the imagination projected back, condensed in material form. San Francisco becomes a moment of turning back before its expansion to the unfathomable West, seen through the Golden Gate . . . This would be our passage to more than India—a condensation of the open field at the moment of return.
What, one summarily wonders, is B. W. talking about? E. M. Forster’s India rubbing up against Robert Duncan’s “opening of the field,” overlay’d by Freud’s “oceanic feelings”—all in a kind of pulsing imperialist mash: it’s gobbledygook. It certainly’s got nothing to do with Schuyler’s poem; it may, in Watten-world, provide a kind of airy poetic sustenance. I try collecting refs (B. W.’s habit of dropping in pet phrases, markers of what exactly?) How about mentions of those “oceanic feelings”—a phrase apparently indicating to Freud, one guesses, a sensation of eternity, akin to Auden’s “barbaric vagueness of the sea” or Gaston Bachelard’s “substantive nothingness of water.” B. W.’s o. f.’s in order (a list):
Oceanic feelings, we may say.
. . .
The opening of the field meant for us not only access to primary process but a more self-conscious return from oceanic feelings.
. . .
Is the turn to language a defense against oceanic feelings, or a confirmation of them?
. . .
Oceanic feelings may be as destructive as they are restorative, hence their fascination.
. . .
Not that “all expression” was a realistic goal, since what had been restricted in our experience of everyday life could only be convertible as some kind of oceanic feeling, which we rejected on principled grounds.
. . .
The hybrid neutrality of unmarked expression—condensing oceanic feelings—was a formal allegory for me then.
. . .
Oceanic feelings from which we might try to stage a return, from originary displacement to retrospective construction—but it would never be the same.
. . .
Beyond identification, an experience of oceanic feeling at a moment of self-undoing, a knowledge of self that carried with it a certainty of ending.
. . .
Sexuality is always an unrealized potential, to be imitated but never achieved. Because of oceanic feelings associated with it?
. . .
Oceanic feelings and interstellar space.
. . .
Oceanic feelings are component parts that articulate complex relations.
. . .
I am still trying to unpack the alien instructions for a poetics, comprehend my oceanic feelings, and figure out interstellar space.
That’s a lot of o. f. for roughly twenty pages. Is Watten playing the alien card there (à la Jack Spicer) with that “interstellar space” bit? “These oceanic feelings, humiliating in their disguises . . .” (He does, in fact, quote Spicer’s line, suggesting, oddly, that it refers to “an ocean overwhelming poetry.”)

Against the “oceanic,” Watten’s prose battles forth, leery of any possible admission (“I apologize in advance for the nature of the confession that must be elided here,” he says at one point) desiring, somehow, to be “Stunned into particularity,” even “while engulfed by oceanic noise.” If he manages an anecdote, it’s nearly always in service to a grudge, a puff, or a “rivalry [that] can only reinforce the heteronormative as it unfolds.” There’s (anonymity absconding with a good percent of the profits of “meaning”) “D—’s talk at 80 Langton Street” and how “I became immoderately competitive with him . . . the quick wit of the Easterner against the unsorted agressivity of the West.” [Cue Ennio Morricone’s theme for “The Good, the Bad, and the Ugly.”] There’s the “first encounter with B—,” where “he toasted the occasion of some of the most important writers of the twentieth century meeting for the first time (I think R— was also in the room).” [Cue gag-reflex. Though: do you suppose that’s Rae or Ron in that room? Or neither. Anonymity with a big kick me tack’d to its back.] There’s the meeting, in the Dordogne, of “the partner of a French Resistance fighter, now in her 80s”:
She asked about my writing. Didn’t Tristan Tzara do all that around 1916? Suddenly I was faced with the realization I had entered into contact with a culture significantly advanced beyond the one I could assume. Consequently, I was charged: that one must now live the truth of one’s belated realization, as the belatedness of one’s culture at large.
Something nigh-medieval in that, portents in the sky. Or, again, “entered into contact,” alien. There’s, too, B. W.’s report of “a book signing for Bad History at a Barnes and Noble in one of the Grosse Pointes.” “I arrived at the appointed time to be greeted by a large-format poster announcing me as the ‘author of Bad History.’ The audience was several rows of chairs while customers milled around, shopping for pet care manuals.” [The hapless Mr. Watten here, like a tramp Chaplin bumbling into a rich man’s parlor: one wonders exactly what course of presumably motivated action led Watten to such a place, even lacking the visceral distrust of any of the “Grosse Pointes” one grows up with in liberal households in southeastern Michigan.]

“Still trying to unpack the alien instructions . . .”