Friday, May 28, 2010


“Stay Out!”

To trust Providence for provender―the kind of thing that outs in the aftermath of a bird’s nailing one with an ammoniac splat whilst bicycling to work. So Linnaeus (reporting the journey to Gotland of 1741):
Grasshoppers were chirping in the meadows, and we caught one. . . . The female draws out her tail like a long sword. The male is entirely green and has four teeth in his tail and two claws between his thighs; in the wings, which lie on top of one another, there is a round hole the size of a vetch-seed and covered with a thin membrane. When the grasshopper serenades his beloved he rubs his wings together and the taut membrane produces the sound; thus his song comes from his wings, not from his mouth. The female has no such instrument in her wings and is obliged to remain silent. . . .
      The mouth of both male and female consists of two pairs of jaws, the upper provided with a number of sharp teeth but the lower having none. . . . When the farmers have warts on their hands they take one of these grasshoppers and put the wart to its mouth. The grasshopper bites and injects a black corrosive liquid which removes the wart.
Make correspondings of Providence’s rude own with like: how I love that “hole the size of a vetch-seed”—its implacable and apt “to hand’dness.” (I doubt the efficacy of the grasshopper’s tobacco juice, though the milk of the milkweed smear’d with no stinginess against like excrescences protuberant causes the necessary dehiscence.) (Northern Michigan summer days, me in a tatter’d T-shirt and runt jeans trying endlessly to capture a flying Carolina grasshopper: sand-color’d, it’d land in the sandy track of the logging road, and clack noisily up at approach.) Lorine Niedecker, who says things “worth sticking to,” in a letter to Cid Corman (January 30, 1968), says of George Oppen (after a somewhat begrudging “yes, there’s something intriguing there”), that “there are times I’ve felt he’s down in the grass as an insect (singing from his knees), all angular, a kind of constipated grasshopper.” Is the sine qua non of grasshopper-y foolishness Socrates’s story in Plato’s Phaedrus?
A lover of music like yourself ought surely to have heard the story of the grasshoppers, who are said to have been human beings in an age before the Muses. And when the Muses came and song appeared they were ravished with delight; and singing always, never thought of eating and drinking, until at last in their forgetfulness they died. And now they live again in the grasshoppers; and this is the return which the Muses make to them—they neither hunger, nor thirst, but from the hour of their birth are always singing, and never eating or drinking . . .
(Which’d make Niedecker’s Oppen-remark rather less condemning.) Too, Keats, “On the Grasshopper and Cricket” (in lieu of the hedge-crickets): “The poetry of earth is never dead: / When all the birds are faint with the hot sun, / And hide in cooling trees, a voice will run / From hedge to hedge about the new-mown mead; / That is the Grasshopper’s—he takes the lead / In summer luxury,—he has never done / With his delights . . .” Against Pound’s (Canto LII):
                Month of the longest days
Life and death are now equal
                Strife is between light and darkness
Wise man stays in his house
                Stag droppeth antlers
Grasshopper is loud,
               leave no fire open to southward.
Or the lovely (stunning by being so notably imprecise) line in Canto XVII: “Sunset like the grasshopper flying.” It’s Williams (in the second book of Paterson, the “Sunday in the Park” walk through Garret Mountain Park—“Outside / outside myself / there is a world”) whose grasshopper provenders my own:
            The file-sharp grass       .
When! from before his feet, half tripping,
picking a way, there starts           .
                          a flight of empurpled wings!
─invisibly created (their
jackets dust-grey) from the dust kindled
to sudden ardor!
                  They fly away, churring! until
their strength spent they plunge
to the coarse cover again and disappear
─but leave, livening the mind, a flashing
of wings and a churring song       .
AND a grasshopper of red basalt, boot-long,
tumbles from the core of his mind,
a rubble-bank disintegrating beneath a
tropic downpour
Chapultepec! grasshopper hill!

─a matt stone solicitously instructed
to bear away some rumor
of the living presence that has preceded
it, out-precedented its breath       .

These wings do not unfold for flight─
no need!
the weight (to the hand) finding
a counter-weight or counter buoyancy
by the mind’s wings       .
Chapoltepēc meaning “place of grasshoppers” in Nahuatl (see the Mexican word for grasshopper, chapulín). Of Cummings’s banally disjoint “r-p-o-p-h-e-s-s-a-g-r” there is little to say.

William Carlos Williams, 1883-1963

Thursday, May 27, 2010

Robert Walser’s Microscripts

Meter and Grindstone

Paul Valéry says somewhere: “Thinking is an indefinite deletion.” And Walter Benjamin recalls Robert Walser’s “admission that he never corrected a single line” (“We do not have to believe this, but would be well advised to do so. For we can set our minds at rest by realizing that to write yet never correct what has been written implies both the absence of intention and the most fully considered intentionality.”) Benjamin, in a lovely phrase, calls it “neglect of style,” and claims that it—paradoxically—“makes use of every conceivable form . . . with a single exception”: “namely, one in which only content and nothing else counts.” Thus: “Walser is so little concerned with the way in which he writes that everything other than what he has to say recedes into the background.” So, in Walser’s 1909 Jakob von Gunten (translated by Christopher Middleton):
To be robust means not spending time on thought but quickly and quietly entering into what has to be done. To be wet with the rains of exertion, hard and strong from the knocks and rubs of what necessity demands. I hate such clever turns of phrase. I was intending to think of something quite different.
As if writing itself, its minor adjustments and flourishes, saddled a rambunctious (and pure) intent with some monstrous material burden inassimilable because incompletely seized, never wholly on nor off. (Thinking demur—and hid—in the crosshairs of the sight point’d “at” it.) Here’s the beginning of Walser’s “New Year’s Page”—a piece out of the new (and sumptuously-made selection of Walser’s Microscripts, translated and with a fine introduction by Susan Bernofsky (New Directions / Christine Burgin, 2010):
Year rhymes with hear, appear. Someone tapped at my door, I shouted “come in” and then hid in the wardrobe, and the one arriving no doubt stood listening , waiting for quite some time. Many a novel has begun in a promising way. Last night in a dream, my hands were transformed into rotten, crumbling towers. A ruin, I mean to say an aging millionairess, once bequeathed to me one hundred thousand francs, which in short order I squandered. What a beguiling memory! Back then, when I would step out of a place of entertainment into the fresh air of the street, the perspectives had a fairy-tale quality to them. There’s no doubt something happy-making about spending money. I hope I shall soon succeed in penning a story that ought to be written as though a mandolin were being plucked. In the aforementioned dream my hands bellowed soundlessly for help. A bearlike groan shaggily lumbering from my lips awakened me, and I thought of a girl who had prophesied during my hundred thousand franc period that a time would come when I would be given the opportunity to heave deep sighs. Might I already have begun to approach a turning point of this sort? I am of good cheer in this regard, and shall come once more to speak of the dream whose events seemed intent on grinding me beneath their feet. Leafing through a newspaper as a young boy, I one day caught sight of an illustration depicting the chastisement of a slave. I’m being tapped on the shoulder by the question of whether I am at present writing quietly or loudly; by the same token I ask myself whether the present sketch sounds pointy or dull. In my opinion it sounds as if it were being dreamed up by a virtuous, reliable lout . . .
There’s something affably clumsy about that. Writing unrestrain’d, unconcern’d with its own propriety (blunt, brash, skittery—any number of lines’d serve a novel “begun in a promising way”) and completely a “chastisement” of itself (“quietly or loudly,” “pointy or dull,” &c.) “Written in December 1928 or January 1929 on the business card of a gentleman who specialized in importing English fabrics.” Walser’s work is democratic in its refusal to discriminate between objects—all (“hands,” “groan,” “question”) immediately vivify’d (bellowing soundlessly, shaggily lumbering, &c.) at merest ordinary meeting. (I am thinking of photographer Christopher Brayshaw’s remark that he seeks to make pictures of “a kind of vernacular realism, which I understand as a methodology that doesn’t discriminate between subjects on the basis of their place in a preexisting social hierarchy. Democratic attention to the phenomenal world is the goal of any truly critical representational practice.” I am thinking, too, of James Schuyler’s radical democracy of attention:
                                                                . . . Once, when I was young, I
Awoke at first light and sitting in a rocking chair watched the sun
Come up beyond the houses across the street. Another time I stood
At the cables of a liner and watched the wake turning and
Turning upon itself. Another time I woke up and in a bottle
On a chest of drawers the thoughtful doctor had left my tonsils. I
Didn’t keep them. The turning of the globe is not so real to us
As the seasons turning and the days that rise out of early gray
—The world is all cut-outs then—and slip or step steadily down
The slopes of our lives where the emotions and needs sprout. . . .

. . .

                                         . . . May leans in my window, offering hornets.
To them too I give leave to go about their business, which is not
Nesting in my books. The fresh mown lawn is a rug underneath
Which is swept the dirt, the living dirt out of which our nurture
Comes, to which we go, not knowing if we hasten or we tarry. May
Opens wide her bluest eyes and speaks in bird tongues and a
Chain saw. . . .
Out of Schuyler’s marvelous “Hymn to Life.” Lines not unlike Walser’s.)

Walser in a 1927 letter to Max Rychner, editor of the journal Neue Schweizer Rundschau, regarding the source and raison d’être of the curious and late-adopt’d (Walser’s earlier handwriting look’d to be “sprinting across the page . . . ornamental, calligraphic and painterly”) microscript technique (explain’d by Bernofsky as “a radically miniaturized Kurrent script, the form of handwriting favored in German-speaking countries until the mid-twentieth century . . . medieval in its origins, all up-and-down slanting angles . . . an e is represented by a simple pair of vertical ticks like a quotation mark, an s by a mere slash”):
When I referred before to the concept brouillon [draft], I was actually revealing to you an entire creative and life history, for you should know, sir, that approximately ten years ago I began to first shyly and reverentially sketch out in pencil everything I produced, which naturally imparted a sluggishness and slowness to the writing process that assumed practically colossal proportions. This pencil system, which is inseparable from a logically consistent, office-like copying system, has caused me real torments, but this torment taught me patience, such that I now have mastered the art of being patient.
Walser, after noting “a swoon, a cramp, a stupor” associated with pen-use, and a “period of disruption” reflect’d in “my handwriting and its disintegration,” reports: “I slowly, laboriously freed myself by means of the pencil . . . and when I copied out the texts from this pencil assignment, I learned again, like a little boy, to write.” Ah, the reverie of the seethe-scrambling thousands: that one’d—by dint of a utensil—return to first principles, gumptious and clean! (I think of lines quoted out of John Cotton’s 1641 A Way of Life in the Boyd Nielson-edit’d A Thing Terrible to Publick Traytors (Property Press, 2010):
You may have a land-flood run downe a channel, or a plain gravell that makes a great noiſe, and carries all before it, but a deep river runs more ſlowly, and makes leſſe noise . . . the greateſt worldly sorrow is but a torrent, it makes a great noise, but it wants a ſpring in the bottome, and will in time decay . . .
To go “ſlowly,” “contentedly,” in indefinite persistence.)

Some Microscripts

Robert Walser, 1878-1956

Wednesday, May 26, 2010

“Seethe the Day”

“No Tresspassing”

Up for the quotidian cough-up of the sun, its chorus of dislodging, light a kind of sputaminous drivel and clot (William Hazlitt: “‘Poets have such seething brains,’ that they are disposed to meddle with everything, and mar all.”) My habitual unpreparedness: cummerbund’d by a bloat of possibility. Hazlitt (who loves to quote himself), repeats the charge in the essay “On Paradox and Common-Place,” and adds:
They make bad philosophers and worse politicians. They live, for the most part, in an ideal world of their own; and it would perhaps be as well if they were confined to it. Their flights and fancies are delightful to themselves and to everybody else: but they make strange work with matter of fact; and if they were allowed to act in public affairs, would soon turn the world the wrong side out. They indulge only their own flattering dreams or superstitious prejudices, and make idols or bugbears of whatever they please, caring as little for history or particular facts as for general reasoning. They are dangerous leaders and treacherous followers. Their inordinate vanity runs them into all sorts of extravagances; and their habitual effeminacy gets them out of them at any price. Always pampering their own appetite for excitement, and wishing to astonish others, their whole aim is to produce a dramatic effect, one way or other—to shock or delight the observers; and they are apparently as indifferent to the consequences of what they write as if the world were merely a stage for them to play their fantastic tricks on, and to make their admirers weep. Not less romantic in their servility than their independence, and equally importunate candidates for fame or infamy, they require only to be distinguished, and are not scrupulous as to the means of distinction. Jacobins or Anti-Jacobins—outrageous advocates for anarchy and licentiousness, or flaming apostles of political persecution—always violent and vulgar in their opinions, they oscillate, with a giddy and sickening motion, from one absurdity to another, and expiate the follies of youth by the heartless vices of advancing age.
Citing, with an admonitory nudge, Southey and Wordsworth. Hardly tenable with the dud-trumpeting of Shelley’s “unacknowledged legislators” (mitigated somewhat by the lesser-beknownst “hierophants of an unapprehended inspiration” or “mirrors of the gigantic shadows which futurity casts upon the present”) or the surd-reverie of political efficacy of the avant-garde. (I see where Brenda Hillman’s claiming that it’s the fuck’d-up weather that is the source, burden, and requirement of “our” writing “funny”: “Weather taught / you to write funny. When it stops / being wrecked, we’ll write normally.” And, in an interview: “I sometimes think sentences have to be screwed up in exactly the same way as we’ve screwed up the weather.”* No, apparently, seething brain there.) (Interrupts—clunk—smother the train.) I think of B. S. Johnson’s self-portrait in Albert Angelo (1964):
He is orable for one thing for a nother he is a nosens
His face is like a back of a bus.
He is to big for his boots.
He is a bit of a film Star he acted the part of Carula.
He walks like a firy elelphant.
We all call him puw long of the elephant.
He has got hire like a goly-wog
All the clouth he wers are from the rag shop
I wouldnot say wot I think of him in publick
A thing located somewhere between the ding’d litany of Ashbery’s early “He”—“He is unforgettable as a shooting star. / He is known as ‘Liverlips.’ / He will tell you he has had a bad time of it. / He will try to pretend his pressagent is a temptress.”—and the preternatural itch unconfined of Christopher Smart’s Jubilate Agno: “Let Nebuchadnezzar bless with the Grashopper—the pomp and vanities of the world are as the herb of the field, but the glory of the Lord increaseth for ever. / Let Naboth bless with the Canker-worm—envy is cruel and killeth and preyeth upon that which God has given to aspire and bear fruit. / Let Lud bless with the Elk, the strenuous asserter of his liberty, and the maintainer of his ground. / Let Obadiah with the Palmer-worm bless God for the remnant that is left.” (Joel 1:4: “That which the palmer-worm hath left hath the locust eaten; and that which the locust hath left hath the canker-worm eaten; and that which the canker-worm hath left hath the caterpiller eaten.”) An approach reaching a hard-weather’d apotheosis in the straight pomp seething (and tomfoolery) of Ronald Johnson in Ark (“Beam 12, The Musics”):
Let the craters of Mercury trumpet first and last things from C to shining C.

Let The Magellanic Clouds be shot through with glissandi of migrations of great whales.

Let twin amoebae discombobulate The Leonids hairsbreadth twists.

Let spectroscopic polyrhythmics of cricket play taps on deep fields of stalactite.

Let the hooffall of buffalo be heard again, in the land.

Let the idea of man’s split brain be a grace note among the silvery Pleiades.
(John 12: 45-46: “And he that seeth me seeth him that sent me. I am come a light into the world . . .”) One thinks of a common root for see and seethe, some smouldering vaporous stew of seeing. And there’s the sun—in the raggedy “clouth he wers.”
* Quoted in the Sarah Rosenthal edit’d A Community Writing Itself: Conversations with Vanguard Writers of the Bay Area (Dalkey Archive, 2010).

Ronald Johnson, 1935–1998

Tuesday, May 25, 2010

Fat City

“Like New”

Frag’d by the bomb consequences of a high and low search for unspecify’d papers, (“nowiht aniquar” to be found―compulsory othering a sign of unratify’d doubt, or, “dute”), I collaps’d early with the semi-mysterious Leonard Gardner’s 1969 Fat City in order to study “a selection of the real language of men in a state of vivid sensation.” Men in the sightly scud and scumble of speech, “a series of infoldings,” turns and retorts (Ronald Johnson says “No one knows the first man to stare long at a waterfall, then shift his gaze to the cliff face at its side, to find the rocks at once flow upward.”) Speech is loom-work, cross-thread’d, with enormous gaps in the fabric. Gardner’s men, petty boxing promoters Ruben Luna, Gil Solis and Babe Azzolino in Stockton, California:
      “Yeah,” said Ruben. “I took the kid to the doctor and he thought the needle was dull. He wanted to get some blood, you know, but it don’t go in.”
      Gil hoisted his pants. “I know one thing, I’m not loaning any more money. Needle was dull, huh?”
      “No, no, it was a good needle. So you know what he says?”       “Well, he probably had a dull needle.”
      “No, he tried two needles.”
      “Who’s this?” whispered Babe. “The kid?”
      “Yeah, I took him down and got him his license today, and the doctor could hardly get a needle in him.”
      “What was the matter, dull needle?”
      “The kid’s like leather.”
      “That’s odd, Ruben. That’s odd. Let me tell you that’s odd.
I wouldn’t of thought that looking at him. Yeah, that’s odd. Manny Chavez had thick skin, you know, but he was tough, you guys know that, I mean they don’t come like him every day.”
      “That’s not half of it. Hold on. He finally gets the needle in, see, and gets the blood and it’s almost black.”
      “I had Chavez down in L.A. against Montoya—first round he gets butted over the eye and the blood starts running and I think well there goes the fight. But it’s not his blood, it’s Montoya’s. He’s got a cut on the top of his head must of took ten stitches. Chavez didn’t have a mark on him.”
      “Remember that guy Estrada?” interrupted Gil. “I seen him open a Coke bottle with his teeth.”
      “The hell you say. They break?”
      “Listen, I didn’t tell you the half of it. The doctor gets the blood out, it’s black, and he’s just staring at it when I ask him to burn the veins out of the kid’s nose—stop those nosebleeds. So he puts the blood down a minute and gets his spark gun and when he gets done burning his nose out he picks up the tube again and turns it upside down to have another look and the blood in it don’t even run down. It just kind of stays up at the top of the tube. It’s turned to gelatin.”
      Gil dug thoughtfully between his buttocks. Ruben sighed, made a few aimless sputters with his lips and began to hum. Babe cleared his ruined throat. “Manny Chavez,” he whispered, “had the clearest piss of any man I ever seen. He’d take a specimen and the piss in that bottle would be just as clean and pure as fresh drinking water.”
Ah, marvels and commonplaces, men who love to be awestruck. To astonish and stupefy themselves with they own righteous tales. A species of parallel play’s at work here, or a part-song (“clearest piss” contrapuntal to blood that’s thick like “gelatin.”) Gil—who’s hoisting pants and butt-rummaging, finicky and discomfort’d—’s got, too, the feeblest story (teeth opening a Coke bottle): as such, a miniature hierarchy is suggest’d. And simple Wordsworthian purposiveness “at work” too: “to follow the fluxes and refluxes of the mind when agitated by the great and simple affections.” Talk like that’s akin to “. . . the perpetual rustling of a windswept system”—Ronald Johnson’s unidentify’d quote at the beginning of “Beam 31” of Ark. The bulk murmurousness that keeps the leaves dangling in minor snit, keeps the flowers flowering. (And Johnson adds, “And that we know about as much about it as we know about the without,” a kind of marker of the numb fumblin’—Thank you, Fats—of speech, its swerves and stridencies, its ham’d up consonances and retaliatory dip reversals.) I note something I’d forgot (or fail’d to consider): how Johnson uses a Dahlberg line for epigraph to “The Foundations”: “The universe is a slumbering animal that has visions.” Another kind of numb fumblin’ (in a pre-dormant flurry). Disjoint, “seat of the pants” kind of improvisatory morning work, if “cant’d / vernacular seems to unstopper / the indwelling spook tenancy / of means,” where the hell’s that mislaid “document”?

Leonard Gardner

Monday, May 24, 2010

Curtail’d (Kerchunk)


Westerly sun dropping into its rosaceous narrows of a Sunday whence, enfin, I out the machine against the constant slippage of the days, three intervening deleted. Lyn Hejinian says (Slowly): “Euphemism, ellipsis, digression, delay, and then night . . .” and Muriel Rukeyser (The Green Wave) talks of “Man, an explosion walking through the night in / Rich and intolerable loneliness.” And Amelia Rosselli (October Elizabethans) says “O Null in the World & Null am I / who do Skamper after It . . .” The days keep sloughing off with appalling poise (and little noise). What I do: improvisatory assemblages of a moment against the fell vehicular night, that cant’d dull nocturnal blade descending with vicious restraint like a guillotine. Philip Guston’s admitted (1958): “I do not see why the loss of faith in the known image and symbol in our time should be celebrated as a freedom. It is a loss from which we suffer and this pathos motivates modern painting and poetry at its heart.” So we put immiscible sorrow into the pot, and smear a daub offering against any wild freedom to say a thing blunt. And: “I think the only pressing question in painting is: when are you through? For my own part it is when I know I’ve ‘come out the other side.’ This occasional and sudden awareness is the truest image for me. The clock-like path of this recognition suppresses a sense of victory, it is an ironic encounter . . .” Akin to what the jazz drummer Elvin Jones call’d the “door”?
The length of my solos doesn’t mean anything. When I go on for so long, I am looking for the right way to get out. Sometimes the door goes right by and I don’t see it, so I have to wait until it comes around again. Sometimes it doesn’t come around at all for a long, long time.
(Banal version: Arlo Guthrie in “Alice’s Restaurant”: “We’re just waitin’ for it to come around is what we’re doing.”) How long is that dropping (sun into slot)? Guston says (in lecture notes circa 1965):
      There are twenty crucial minutes in the evolution of each of my paintings. The closer I get to that time—those twenty minutes—the more intensely subjective I become—but the more objective, too. Your eye gets sharper; you become continuously more and more critical.
      There is no measure I can hold on to except this scant half-hour of making.
      One of the great mysteries about the past is that such masters as Mantegna were able to sustain this emotion for a year.
So that: art must bear up under the cross (“crucial”) of a split self: subjectivity acting out its wash intensity and lather under objectivity’s impaling eye, a fine madness. One thinks: Guston’s “scant half-hour of making” is down to what, now? (Flarf = “About 85,000 results (0.20 seconds).” Scads of pixilated random self’s oscillating wildly in constant negligible rut. Akin to Poe’s glee’d mercilessness in “The Literati of New York City” (1846, in the Philadelphia-edit’d Godey’s Lady’s Book):
The most ‘popular,’ the most ‘successful’ writers among us (for a brief period, at least) are, ninety-nine times out of a hundred, persons of mere address, perseverance, effrontery—in a word, busy-bodies, toadies, quacks. These people easily succeed in boring editors (whose attention is often entirely engrossed by politics or other “business” matter) into the admission of favourable notices written or caused to be written by interested parties—or, at least, into the admission of some notice where, under ordinary circumstances, no notice would be given at all. In this way ephemeral “reputations” are manufactured which, for the most part, serve all the purposes designed—that is to say, the putting money into the purse of the quack and the quack’s publisher; or there never was a quack who could be brought to comprehend the value of mere fame. Now, men of genius will not resort to these manœuvers, because genius involves in its very essence a scorn of chicanery: and thus for a time the quacks always get the advantage of them, both in respect to pecuniary profit and what appears to be public esteem.
That, out of Andrew Delbanco’s excellent Melville: His World and Work (Knopf, 2005). (It is report’d, too, by a contemporary, of Melville, how “his countenance spoke his thoughts”—no chicaneer he.) And poor Melville’s version of the intensity of the work (in a letter to Evert Duyckinck dated 13 December 1850):
Can you send me about fifty fast-writing youths, with an easy style & not averse to polishing their labors? If you can, I wish you would, because since I have been here I have planned about that number of future works & cant find enough time to think about them separately. —But I don’t know but a book in a man’s brain is better off than a book bound in calf—at any rate it is safer from criticism. And taking a book off the brain, is akin to the ticklish and dangerous business of taking an old painting off a panel—you have to scrape off the whole brain in order to get at it with due safety—& even then, the painting may not be worth the trouble.
Kerchunk goeth the sun. Against omnivorous night a splash of green fire. (Where’d I see Kipling quoted? “A cut story is like a poked fire.”) Aerating a thing up into an irregular blaze outburst. Delight in a curtail’d language, “mofo.” (And poor Christopher Smart, in a categorickal bent: “For God has given us a language of monosyllables to prevent our clipping.”)

Philip Guston, “Porch II,” 1947

Philip Guston, “The Mirror,” 1957

Philip Guston, “Multiplied,” 1972

Philip Guston, “Couple in Bed,” 1977

Philip Guston, 1913-1980

Thursday, May 20, 2010

Hull the blockheads!”

Trunk and Brush

Took in my maudlins by the story of Melville’s friend aboard “the naval frigate United States,” one “fellow New Yorker named Ephraim Curtiss Hine . . . who snatched every moment he could to write poetry.” (The story’s in Andrew Delbanco’s 2005 biography of Melville):
Fearful that his poems would be disposed of in one of the bouts of sweeping and scrubbing at which the crew was periodically set to work, Hine stuffed his manuscript for safekeeping into a ship’s cannon by ramming it in with the “tompion,” a sort of plunger kept in place in the barrel to keep out the sea spray. When the ship fired a volley in return to a salute from a shore battery somewhere off South America, he arrived too late at the sheltering gun to save his work-in-progress, which had been blown out to sea in shreds. Jack Chase, whose name Melville retained in White-Jacket, consoled him with words that were later to register on Melville, whose own publishing career was to have its share of misfires:
Never mind, my boy, no printer could do the business for you better. That’s the way to publish . . . fire it right into ’em; every canto a twenty-four-pound shot; hull the blockheads, whether they will or no. And mind you, . . . when your shot does the most execution, you hear the least from the foe. A killed man cannot even lisp.
That’s in the chapter call’d “Publishing Poetry in a Man-of-war.” Hines seemingly regain’d (or redid) enough “shreds” to arrange, in 1848, for the private printing (back in hometown of Auburn, New York) of a volume call’d The Haunted Barque. The beginning of the title piece:
Night hovers o’er the furrowed deep,
      And plaintive is the sea-bird’s cry,
The stars through azure windows peep,
      While gentle winds come whispering by;
The sun, which like a fiery globe
      Was burning on the western wave,
Hath wrapped himself in dusky robe,
      And laid him in his watery grave:
The dolphin tints of dying day,
      Grow fainter in the paling sky,
Like hectic flush that fades away
      From mortal cheek when death is nigh . . .
Which hotch-potch’s up a rather achronological sequence of inept borrowings—though I do flush a little un-hectically (that is, without turning consumptuous) to the “dolphin tints.” In White-Jacket, the “gun-deck bard”’s sea-scatter’d volume’s titled Songs of the Sirens, apparently a second collection:
“I’m a poor devil of a poet. Not two months before I shipped aboard here, I published a volume of poems, very aggressive on the world . . . Heaven knows what it cost me. I published it . . . and the cursed publisher sued me for damages; my friends looked sheepish; one or two who liked it were non-committal; and as for the addle-pated mob and rabble, they thought they had found out a fool. Blast them . . . what they call the public is a monster, like the idol we saw in Owhyhee, with the head of a jackass, the body of a baboon, and the tail of a scorpion!”
Owhyhee = Hawai’i. I love Melville for the nay-saying skeptical petulance and refusal. Somehow it recalls (tout à coup) Walker Percy in The Moviegoer (1961) in the words of Binx Bolling: “Hatred strikes me as one of the few signs of life remaining in the world. This is another thing about the world which is upsidedown: all the friendly and likable people seem dead to me; only the haters seem alive.”

Shreds and fragments. Pondering, too, Zukofsky’s tilt in “Sincerity and Objectification, with Special Reference to the Work of Charles Reznikoff” (1931):
In sincerity shapes appear concomitants of word combinations, precursors of (if there is continuance) completed sound or structure, melody or form. Writing occurs which is the detail, not mirage, of seeing, of thinking with the things as they exist, and of directing them along a line of melody. Shapes suggest themselves, and the mind senses and receives awareness.
Isn’t that both a call to allow the words loose rein—tether’d only, or largely, by music (see O’Hara’s “you just let all the different bodies fall where they may, and they always do may. . .”)—a kind of pure trust in the materials (that exist outside oneself (see Spicer’s Martian diktat nod), and, oddly enough, a refusal of the fragment (“completed sound,” &c.)? Though, there’s apparently sincerity uncompleted, too: “Presented with sincerity, the mind even tends to supply, in further suggestion, which does not attain rested totality, the totality not always found in sincerity and necessary only for perfect rest, complete appreciation.” (Which is the “objectification” half of the bargain: “the apprehension satisfied completely as to the appearance of the art form as an object.”) One ponders the fancy of the Language gang for Zukofsky, if, in fact, one heeds a call for the poem to “resolve into a structure . . . to which the mind does not wish to add; nor does it, any more than when it contemplates a definite object by itself.” Sounds like a well-wrought urn to me. (And what to do with Zukofsky’s “The revolutionary word if it must revolve cannot escape having a reference. It is not infinite. Even the infinite is a term” lines in “An Objective”?) (Long bandy’d: the idea that various absolutist New Critical tenancy—inseparability(parsed: unity) of form and content, “form is meaning”—is (routinely spurn’d) home turf to Language writing.) So goeth the morning—ought to’ve stuck to Owhyhee. I admit it: I “got” to Zukofsky by wondering if Lorine Niedecker’d read Melville. No sign of it. Though she did say (in a letter to Edward Dahlberg, January 4, 1956): “Alfred North Whitehead thinks civilization is going to get a new start in grass-roots Midwest so I’ll see what I can do while you are in the woods of New York.” And (to Zukofsky himself, “dated by LZ: Apr. 29/45”):
Time is nuttn in the universe. The elephant may be on his way to becoming a worm, and vice versa, as a species, I mean. All of which I wanted to say in my poem but didn’t quite. “Fontenelle’s rose saying that within the memory of a rose no gardener had been known to die.” (This is the loveliest and most important thing I’ve read in a long time.)
See, too, Beckett’s version of Fontenelle’s “De mémoire de rose on n’a vu que lui [le même jardinier]”: “No gardener has died, comma, within rosaceous memory.” So goeth the morn.

Louis Zukofsky, 1904-1978
(Photograph by Jonathan Williams)

Wednesday, May 19, 2010

The Vulgar Turn


Considering, in pieces, the Sarah Rosenthal edit’d A Community Writing Itself: Conversations with Vanguard Writers of the Bay Area (Dalkey Archive, 2010), with its list of writers—Michael Palmer, Nathaniel Mackey, Leslie Scalapino, Brenda Hillman, Kathleen Fraser, Stephen Ratcliffe, Robert Glück, Barbara Guest, Truong Tran, Camille Roy, Juliana Spahr, and Elizabeth Robinson—notable largely for the absence of the self-identify’d Language-writing foule (with its own mechanismos for self-promo). Read Michael Palmer’s remarks yesterday (oddly antagonistic toward what he calls “the poetry of sentimental assuagement . . . with its adhesiveness to the mushy cultural center . . . a poetry in fealty to a debased expectation”—meaning something like what’s workshop’d here and there with undue solipsism and gawk’d out retro “voice”). I say “oddly” because one’d think Palmer’d moved into a (possibly feign’d) adequate distance (he never seem’d so quarrelsome to begin with), a statesmanlike pose, no? I did like reports of a conversation with Edmond Jabès about aerating a work (though I tend to disbelieve the initial stagey retrospect claim):
Every time you finish a book, a maybe even a poem, you think, What did I not manage to include? I think of that wonderful dream of O’Hara’s of a poem that would include everything. The effort to allow more breathing room into the work is part of it too. I remember a conversation with Edmond Jabès, when he was out here in ’83. He and his wife, Arlette, were staying with us for a week or so and we would have these long conversations in the evenings; he was a wonderful conversationalist. He talked about respiration in the work. I said to him at one point, One of my problems is that I keep trying to go deep into it, yet I keep bobbing up to the surface. He said, If you stay under, you’ll drown. He then talked about his early correspondence with Max Jacob. Jacob had been a mentor to Edmond, he was then a sort of proto-Surrealist poet in Egypt. Edmond would send Jacob a manuscript and Jacob would write back and say, You’re not breathing. And then the next work would come and Jacob would write, You’re breathing too much—you’re panting! So there was this series of gnomic instructions about learning to breathe and learning the breathturn of the work. There’s a sense in this of breathing in the world (breathing in the world), which is also Celan’s notion. After you breathe the world in, there’s a turn, and then you exhale, you let it out, and there’s a moment of stillness where the meeting of inside and outside occurs.
The mention of O’Hara’s “everything” points me “at” “Second Avenue” and its delicious sass (unneed’d shim, it’d remain “erect” without) of “[Notes on Second Avenue]”—“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 . . .” And, the “batty way to give information about the poem”: how “the verbal elements . . . 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.” (There is, too, in the earnestness of that held “breath” (“moment of stillness where the meeting of inside and outside occurs”) so intently examined, an echo of Olson’s breath (and one thinks of O’Hara’s derision—he call’d him, with etymological irony intact, “a great spirit”—of Olson’s desire for “the important utterance, which one cannot always summon up.” One thinks that Palmer’d more profitably heed O’Hara’s “I want to be at least as alive as the vulgar.”)

Elsewhere in the interview, talk of “blindness as insight”—or deafness’s acceding to fluency. Palmer’s epigraph to Company of Moths out of Carlos Drummond de Andrade: “Enter the kingdom of words as if you were deaf.” And reference to Palmer’s piece call’d “The Merle Asleep”:
Asked the Merle, of Sleep,
Are you the kingdom of sand or the blessèd moon?

Asked the Merle, asleep,
Who are these blindered travelers

choiring Amazing Grace, Haunted Heart,
All the Things You Are,

while I can only speak
of thimbleberry, limestone and wheat,

of power lines and poles and shattered oaks
though I’d prefer by far to sing.

I who can only speak?
Said the Merle, fearing sleep,

I am the color of deep night
and I fear what night will bring,

its stuttered cries and moans,
its silences too loud and too complete,

the black ploughed night
far from waking life.

Asked the Merle, of Sleep,
Have you not noticed

how the notes fall through air
onto earth’s clotted ears,

how there’s no path leading up
to this gate rusted shut,

how the station pulls away
as the train draws near?

Said Sleep,
What the passengers are dreaming

I cannot tell.
You saw that newly minted sun

without horizon, that pit
of twined and mounded limbs,

that city with no center,
saw how the pines bent, stones shifted,

and the river was torn from its course,
saw how the living and the lost

breathe in helpless unison,
dancing their fevered reel.
Which, in its pacèdly prompt’d allegorical way, seems arranged precisely to avoid the vulgar (though I’d argue it, the vulgar, sneaks in, barely, in “limestone and wheat, / . . . power lines and poles and shattered oaks,” a point where the piece, momentarily—and ironically—sings). What I like (in the interview) is how Palmer’s talk of song encumbers (puts a utile weight against) Nathaniel Mackey’s “To poetize or sing is to talk like a bird, a way with words and sound given rise to by a break in social relations, a denial of kinship and social sustenance, as if the break were a whistling fissure, an opening blown on like a flute”:
. . . the merle, which is a European blackbird, can’t sing. It squawks. I often think that those of us who come to this impossible task of poetry come out of a disability with language, a lack of fluency rather than dazzling fluency. I think dazzling fluency leads to other media and other uses of language, rather than the impaired fluency of our squawkings.
Note: the merle of the poets frequently sang. See William Dunbar’s “I hard a merle with mirry notis sing / A sang of lufe.” Or Michael Drayton’s “In yonder goodly Tree, / Where the sweet Merle and warbling Mauis bee.” Or Robert Burns’s “The merle, in his noontide bower, / Makes woodland echoes ring.”

Michael Palmer

Tuesday, May 18, 2010

Collections of Nothing


That Charles Ives line, “An apparent confusion if lived with long enough may become orderly,” put up against something out of William Davies King’s Collections of Nothing (University of Chicago Press, 2008): “I collect hardly anything that is collectible, not a thing anyone else would wish to collect, but at the end of the day, having myself wanted all these unwanted things, having procured them and organized them—filed, boxed, arranged, and fussed over them—I have a collection.” King collects, among other things, bottled water labels, “a book of water, containing at least one label from each of the following brands”—and a three-column’d list follows:“Aberfoyle, Absopure, Acquachiara, Adirondack, Aga, Alaska Glacier Cap, Albertsons’s A+, Alhambra, American Faire, American Star, Amish, Apollinaris, Appalachian, Aqua D’Or, Aquafina, Aqua-Pura, AquaVibe, Aquarel, Arctic Blue, Arrowhead, Artes, A Sante, Avra, Aziza, Badoit, Bailley, Ballygowan . . .” and so forth, ending with “Zagori, Zaro’s, Zephyrhills” some three pages along. What collecting (nothing) is: “A multiplicity of objects explainable only by the fact that in relation to each other they define a unity.” And: “owning something in quantity for reasons beyond pure need.” And:
The widely shared impulse to collect comes partly from a wound we feel deep inside this richest, most materialist of all societies, and partly from a wound that many of us feel in our personal histories. Collecting may not be the most direct means of healing those wounds, but it serves well enough. It finds order in things, virtue in preservation, knowledge in obscurity, and about all it discovers and even creates value. . . . Commanding value is an assertion of identity.
Which’d seem akin to writing, arrangements against the onslaught of the quotidian itch and its miasma of doubt. King’s attending to the everywhere collectible “nothing” of words, then, is hardly unexpected:
I also have a slim volume of found words that are (or were, at the time I found them) not words at all, just marketing concoctions or neolinguistic extravagance. These words are all clipped from some printed source. Here is an alphabetical sampling, in pairs:
alphakey arizonaguide
basketwrap battenkill
colorite catling
displex dratch
eenie ecover
funkexotic flintability
gougenheim gue
hpnotiq hedstrom
infusino interphones
jarrow jerzees
khakiware kutrimmer
laidlaw lotops
microsoft modemag
nimlok nublend
ofoto obscurism
palding printloid
quallofil quicktionary
racetech risdon
slan starz
traumarama twinkie
ultimate urestone
varn vacuumatic
waveform woolmark
xhilaration xtent
yourselfer yurman
zip-clip zumanity
A riff nigh-comparable to some of P. Inman, or David Melnick’s Pcoet (“dace, moapa / scleropages”)? (There is, too, a particular “breed” of writer who delights in the neologic—scrunchie, interrobang, popo. And one, too, for whom the attest’d orthographickal funk of something like “Werrse & werrse drinnchess, & / Att te lattste drunncnenn be . . .” Même combat. King trails off into the desultory: “These are the rare words, the hopefully floated, caught-at-a-glance, mostly expired words, with a few that stuck. I have a few hundred of them in a little rice paper book.” Though: isn’t there something in the “works” of the collector of nothing that corresponds to one version of the paradox of Modernism, that meaning resides only in practice, helter-skelter and vigorous (constant)? T. J. Clark, in “Clement Greenberg’s Theory of Art” (1982):
Modernism is certainly that art which insists on its medium and says that meaning can henceforth only be found in practice. But the practice in question is extraordinary and desperate: it presents itself as a work of interminable and absolute decomposition, a work which is always pushing “medium” to its limits—to its ending—to the point where it breaks or evaporates or turns back into mere unworked material. That is the form in which medium is retrieved or reinvented: the fact of Art, in modernism, is the fact of negation. . . . negation appears as an absolute and all-encompassing fact, something which once begun is cumulative and uncontrollable; a fact which swallows meaning altogether. The road leads back and back to the black square, the hardly differentiated field of sound, the infinitely flimsy skein of spectral colour, speech stuttering and petering out into etceteras and excuses.
Asserting value in stray bits of detritus—nothingness itself made “somethingness” by sheer accumulatory assembling (“Commanding value is an assertion of identity”) flips the negative ecliptic. Pursu’d unabidingly, that is to say, freely, such “work” becomes a nigh-political act in “this richest, most materialist” world.

William Davies King

A page of dictionary art, collect’d by William Davies King

Monday, May 17, 2010

Dialogic Musics

Shed and Machinery (Constantine, Michigan)

Between driving sprees, snout perfunctory in George V. Higgins’s The Friends of Eddie Coyle, for the scuttlebutt talk of men used to bullshitting. About a “Hirst shifter” (“You let that thing out a few times and pretty soon you got this loud noise in the scatter shield. Or else she misses a shift on you and you got valves coming up through the hood like bullets.”), about (circa 1972) “joining a commune” (“I heard about this place up near Lowell, everybody welcome, you take off your clothes and screw all day and drink boysenberry wine all night. Trouble is, I hear all they get to eat is turnips.”) All rippy and copacetic in the lingo line, a tightly-strung bow with a quiver full of single-flighters. Nothing, mark hit, to retrieve. Uncover’d, oddly enough, a copy of New Directions’s original 1967 “paperbook” reissue of Williams’s White Mule (1937) with its plain white cover and Alfred Kazin remarks (out of The New York Times) reprint’d
Open Dr. Williams’s book and you are in a new world of sound. Accents cling to the air. The harmony is the rough gravely ironic rhythm of public speech. Like James Joyce, whose blindness has sharpened his extraordinary musical ear, Dr. Williams has his characters talk with such a native freshness that the sound is never obtrusive. It is a pure speech because it is so richly characteristic, and its utter realism is therefore deeper, more meaningful than the violent accuracy of naturalism.
That final sentence a species of reviewer’s sleight of hand, meaningless filler. Another quote suggests it’s “as though Joyce were to write Studs Lonigan”: one might measure out a history of anomaly by means of counting the shifting hegemony of references “hardly apropos”—see, say, Dan Chiasson’s entirely awkward piece “Entangled” in a recent New Yorker, how he (repeatedly) explains (away) Rae Armantrout, grabbing one (short) straw after another: “Somewhere behind this poem is 9 / 11 (when ‘breaking news’ became standard fare)” (hunh?), or “Like Ashbery’s Self Portrait in a Convex Mirror, Versed is the kind of crossover book that makes the border disappear.” Look, too, at the total anxiety in Chiasson’s final lines—attempting a light-heart’d riff off Frost’s “We dance around in a ring and suppose, / But the Secret sits in the middle and knows”—: “Poets like Ashbery and Armantrout are secret-keepers. For the rest of us, there remains the huge pleasure of supposing.” A nod—unsolicit’d, probably unintend’d—at the “genuinely experimental” (Chiasson’s words)’s assuming the center (where silence and pretence serve mostly to prolong the power arrangement.)

Isn’t that just post-trajectory hooey coming unstuck? All the accumulating detritus of the road―philtre of brain mitochondria mix’d with tawny crevice dust―pour’d out of its vial unsluiced? (I see the Charles Ives in Ronald Johnson’s “The Different Musics” (1969’s Valley of Many-Colored Grasses) I miss’d: “An apparent confusion if lived with long enough / may become orderly.”) And (distract’d by Johnson):

. . . accumulating,

a humus! (The upper strata―dry, newly-
fallen leaves, twigs, lichen.
Seeds from the size of the whiskered dandelion, to acorns
big as thumbs. Battalions of ants
& small moths imitating leaves & beetles & anonymous
bugs imitating pebbles.
A middle stratum of Sprouting
―blanched root-threads downward in a rich, dark
mold & cotyledons curling faintly green toward light―Sprouting
and Decay. Odors of rotted leaves―
deep reds, mahoganies &
ochre. Mauve froths, a bulbous fungus.
Bleached, lacy suckers studded in bits of glistening
quartz, or imbedded
among crushed, metallic wing-cases
of beetles.

And the under ooze & loose loam of slug & worm.)

Oddly recalling A. R. Ammons’s processuals of muck and decay (Denise Levertov select’d both poets for Norton). See something like “Preserving the Magnitude of Uselessness” out of Ammons’s Uplands (1970):
Spits of glitter in lowgrade ore,
precious stones too poorly surrounded for harvest,
to all things not worth the work
of having,

brush oak on a sharp slope, for example,
the balk tonnage of wood-lodged boulders
the irreparable desert,
drowned river mouths, lost shores where

the winged and light-footed go,
take creosote bush that possesses
ground nothing else will have,
to all things and for all things

crusty or billowy with indifference,
for example, incalculable, irremovable water
or fluvio-glacial deposits
larch or dwarf aspen in the least breeze sometimes shiver in―

suddenly the salvation of waste betides,
the peerlessly unsettled seas that shape the continents,
take the gales wasting and in waste over
Antarctica and sundry high shoals of ice,

for the inexcusable (the worthless abundant) the
merely tiresome, the obviously unimprovable,
to these and for these and for their undiminishment
the poets will yelp and hoot forever

rank as weeds themselves and just as abandoned:
nothing useful is of lasting value:
dry wind only is still talking among the oldest stones.
Detect’d (typing) an echo of Hopkins’s “All things counter, original, spare, strange” somewhere there, though I suspect the Williams of Spring and All’s “contagious hospital” presides here: “the / waste of broad, muddy fields / brown with dried weeds, standing and fallen // patches of standing water / the scattering of tall trees. . .” Williams (and how men talk):
      I suppose we’re gonna get the God damn Government Contract again this year, said Carmody, one of the pressmen.
      Why not? came back from one of the others near him. You ought to be glad you got a job to keep you from starvin’—the way you did last winter.
      I suppose they’ll be havin’ a cop standin’ behind us next when we’re workin’ and send us all home in the Black Maria for safe keepin’. You can tell what’s up when you see old parrot feet sittin’ at his stall that way this time of the morning.
      Aw go wash your drawers, said another of the men near him. Your old woman’s sinkers is killin’ you.
      Christ, you guys has got a lot of wakin’ up to do, youse guys—if you think you’ll ever get a break around this place—as long as that tamale is sitting over there in the corner—pointing to Joe at his desk.
      Aw shut up, said the one who had first answered him.
      A fine labor leader he must a bin. Who the hell do you think he’s workin’ for? Youse? He paused a moment. That’s what happens when they come up from the ranks, they turn on you and work the hell out of you for old time’s sake. I got that little Dutchman’s number a long time ago.
White Mule. Williams’s language (famously) out of “the mouths of Polish mothers.” Two ears: one “for speech,” the other for composing “in the sequence of the musical phrase.” The dialogic ear versus the musical ear. Pound’s is “musical,” Williams’s is probably “dialogic.” Zukofsky probably had both: see, certes, “the American language as she is spoke (oreye mush blige) . . .”

William Carlos Williams, 1883-1963
(Photograph by Constantin Joffe)

Thursday, May 13, 2010

The Daily Machinery

Two Doors

Quotidian placeholders and earmarks against a week of credulous rain: a stitchery of disparities, the way any loft’d nothing is. Inger Christensen, in Alphabet, plunging out by travelling in:
the naos, the innermost space of the cell
revealing whether the seed in an inner sky
gathers the limits of consciousness into a point
a flowering point where like a bit of sunshine
ice ages exist, ice ages exist

where like a bit of fire the insects’ wingless
Nike exists, neither victory nor
defeat, just the solace of nothing;
the solace of names, that nothing has
a name, namelessness has a name

that names exist, names like narwhal
nettle, names like carnation, tawny owl
and nightjar, names like nightingale, new moon
evening primrose, naiads, and the other kind of
name in which a word when named is scent . . .
Akin to Ronald Johnson, exploding (and imploding―sumptuous dizzying vertigo in the reversals) and particular. Johnson (“Beam 12,” out of The Foundations of Ark): “Man is amphibian to oblivion.” And: “From the ape at my shoulderblade I see angels. Our embryo dreamt the fishes’ sleep, became a ripple, leapfrogged itself, and later a mammal: perception is a slingshot drawn back to first plasm.” Or (“Ark 63, Builder’s Spire”): “beauty bare, // green grass writ Sanskrit / to worm below as well hawk a speck beyond cerulean . . .”

Loft’d nothings. Charles Ives quoting Thoreau: “Who has heard a strain of music feared then lest he should speak extravagantly any more forever?” (Ives mentions, too, that “Henry James (who knows almost everything) says that ‘Thoreau is more than provincial―that he is parochial’” (Ives working off memory, the line is “worse than provincial—he was parochial”), enough to put me off any intend’d Jamesian “feed” for good.) And, writerly roustabout of the sour morning’s “get”—stitcher of the minor conjunct grab’d against the transitory obturb of a sun regularly doused by rain—I grant my own admonitory decree, seeing Thoreau’s flautist’s embouchure (pinch’d in disapproval) brought to the fore here:
Only what is thought, said, or done at a certain rare coincidence is good. I would not be one of those who will foolishly drive a nail into mere lath and plastering; such a deed would keep me awake nights. Give me a hammer, and let me feel for the furring. Do not depend on the putty. Drive a nail home and clinch it so faithfully that you can wake up in the night and think of your work with satisfaction,—a work at which you would not be ashamed to invoke the Muse. So will help you God, and so only. Every nail driven should be as another rivet in the machine of the universe, you carrying on the work.
(Williams: “nothing sentimental about a machine” and “a small (or large) machine made out of words . . .”) Though, undiminish’d (and still sopping wet along the trouser cuffs) by my amphibious sloth, my glom pedigree in cahoots with a serendipity of unintentionables, I’d turn to Ives himself, the stunning “Postface to 114 Songs,” a kind of apologia to no one, a serviceable expectorant, I do what I do, and there’s the sputum’d proof there dangling off the tobacco leaf:
Some of the songs in this book, particularly among the latter ones, cannot be sung, and if they could, perhaps might prefer, if they had a say, to remain as they are; that is, “in the leaf”—and that they will remain in this peaceful state is more than presumable. An excuse (if none of the above are good enough) for their existence which suggests itself at this point is that a song has a few rights, the same as other ordinary citizens. If it feels like walking along the left-hand side of the street, passing the door of physiology or sitting on the curb, why not let it? If it feels like kicking over an ash can, a poet’s castle, or the prosodic law, will you stop it? Must it always be a polite triad, a “breve gaudium,” a ribbon to match the voice? Should it not be free at times from the dominion of the thorax, the diaphragm, the ear, and other points of interest? If it wants to beat around in the park, should it not have immunity from a Nemesis, a Ramses, or a policeman? Should it not have a chance to sing to itself, if it can sing?—to enjoy itself without making a bow, if it can't make a bow?—to swim around in any ocean, if it can swim, without having to swallow “hook and bait,” or being sunk by an operatic greyhound? If it happens to feel like trying to fly where humans cannot fly, to sing what cannot be sung, to walk in a cave on all fours, or to tighten up its girth in blind hope and faith and try to scale mountains that are not, who shall stop it?
(Out, out, brief gaud.) Or, to turn to the rare coincidence’d Thoreauvian Nathaniel Mackey, interview’d by Sarah Rosenthal in A Community Writing Itself: Conversations with Vanguard Writers of the Bay Area (Dalkey Archive, 2010):
I’m a slow improviser. The slips and slides and variations that you read in the poem, that may have a sense when you hear them of momentariness and instantaneity, something that happens in a few seconds, may have taken a week of two to come together in a composition process which is itself very fragmented. I write in spurts, though a combination of pressure and relaxation. You press and then you see where that can get you, but you can’t get everything by pressing. Some of the best things you don’t get by pressing. Some things come in a state of receptivity and relaxation when you don’t necessarily see yourself as composing . . .
So one continues (drying out a little), earmarking, riffing, a speck (pecky beneath the grand washy illimitedness of the cyber-vault). In a prefatory note to Splay Anthem (New Directions, 2006), Mackey writes (referring to a Kaluli story of the origin of poetry and music, “the myth of the boy who became a muni bird, a kind of fruitdove with a bright purple red beak”): “To poetize or sing is to talk like a bird, a way with words and sound given rise to by a break in social relations, a denial of kinship and social sustenance, as if the break were a whistling fissure, an opening blown on like a flute.” And: “A sign of estrangement, to poetize or sing is to risk irrelevance, to be haunted by poetry’s or music’s possible irrelevance (‘Tell it to the birds’), but nothing could be more relevant than estrangement, involved as we are in what [Wilson] Harris calls ‘the funeral of an age,’ an age of global intimacy and predation.” And so, brokenly, forth.

Nathaniel Mackey

Wednesday, May 12, 2010

Dumitru Tsepeneag’s Pigeon Post

Four Windows

Plus la même chose. I rather like the story Dumitru Tsepeneag, exiled Romanian writing in French, adherent of “Jean Ricardou’s cleverly phrased idea that “the novel no longer implies writing about an adventure but recounts the adventure of writing,” tells about choosing the pseudonym of “Ed Pastenague”—in an interview append’d to Tsepeneag’s novel Pigeon Post (Dalkey Archive, 2008):
So as to avoid choosing a random name, I started playing with my own, in order to find an anagram that would be legible: Stepanege, Pangestene, etc. None of these were good. Pestange? Too pretentious. I ended up choosing Pastenague, thereby getting rid of one frightening letter “e” which dominates the French language and which can be pronounced in all sorts of different ways, so much so that the unfortunate readers have no idea how to say my name when they read it in print; so they give up on my name and the book altogether . . .
      If you look up the word “pastenague”—which translates as stingray in English—in the standard French dictionary, here’s what you can read: “Stingray n. (Provençal: pastenago) Large ray found on European coasts, having a long, whiplike tail with one or more usually poisonous stings.” What a coincidence! The word sting is actually contained in my Romanian name (tsepe = stings).
And, “death of the author” (“coffin of the book”) talk. Tsepeneag, regarding reasons for writing directly in French:
I switched to French to please my French publisher, who told me that my books did not sell well and translations were very costly. He said: “Why don’t you write in French?” He was right, all the more so since what worried me in the process of translation was that my Romanian words were serving the only purpose of finding French equivalents for them—my translator’s words, the only ones that would be visible in the end. My words were mere passageways, humble and ephemeral ones, condemned to complete anonymity, buried at the bottom of a drawer. In any event, I couldn’t publish my books in Romania, they were forbidden there because I was an opponent of the communist regime. In such conditions, writing had become a sort of mortal execution: my words had to die that I, the writer, could survive as an author.
      Even before I started writing in French, I published an article in which I attempted to describe my discomfort, my unhappiness with translation, which concretely kills the text and claims to be a sham [here one’d challenge the accuracy of the interviewer (Aude Jeanson)’s rendering, “sham” in the sense of “replacement”?], leaving only the author’s name on the cover. A translated author is left powerless, because he has no presence in the text itself. What better way of having a presence than through words! The cover holds the promise of an author, but “as soon as one opens the book, a coffin lid is being closed down.”
One notes that Tsepeneag, with the Romanian poet Leonid Dimov, found’d Onirism, “a synthesis between the Romantic Fantastique (“which continued with Expressionism and culminated with the genius of Kafka. It’s that German thread of the metaphysic—they were looking for the beyond in dreams . . .”) and Surrealism.” (Elsewhere, in the Review of Contemporary Fiction, Tsepeneag says Onirism “relies on making and constructing. The author is no longer the owner of an established meaning; he is simply a writer, the product of his own product. The text is an environment of transformation, a privileged space for metamorphoses.” And, in an interview in The Rumpus: “We could say that Romanian Onirism was born from painting and not from surrealist literature. The visual is primordial. Dimov said, ‘Dreams are not a source, but a canon, a legislative model.’ We don’t recount our dreams; we construct them with the materials of reality. We aren’t looking for God, psychic truth or authenticity, but for esthetic effect. That’s why I baptized our movement Structural, or Esthetic, Onirism. Dreams and music were our models.”)

Tsepeneag’s cache-cache (or “catch as catch can”) approach (“the adventure of writing”) in Pigeon Post:
. . . when I try to write my memories , I feel uneasy. I know that a good book contains the past and the present in an endless game of hide-and-seek that readers find enchanting. I also know, or at least I know it’s often thought, that memory—especially distant memory—triggers the crisis whence writing emerges: under the spotlight of our consciousness, memory becomes an object almost outside ourselves, like a pigeon, for instance, perched on a tree, or a little bicycle abandoned in an inner courtyard. But one might just as well presume—and this explains my unease—that memory, with its magic powers, its aura of nostalgia as enticing as a vacation brochure, leads inevitably to fake literature, for it maintains the illusion of realism, of an image whose genuineness is merely based on words, without relying upon them.
Caught. Rather like Flaubert’s lament que la parole humaine est comme un chaudron fêlé où nous battons des mélodies à faire danser les ours, quand on voudrait attendrir les étoiles. (“Human speech is like a cracked kettle on which we tap crude rhythms for bears to dance to, while we long to make music that will melt the stars.”) Hardly unexpect’d, that a writer caught so between languages’d jump to note the insufficiency of any kettle. Akin to what’s become a commonplace in translation theory: there is no “original” language—every linguistic sign or phrase is merely a conveyance for another sign or phrase (of the nonverbal world). Edith Grossman, out of Why Translation Matters (Yale University Press, 2010):
If writing literature is a transfer or transcription of internal experience and imaginative states into the external world, then even when authors and readers speak the same language, writers are obliged to translate, to engage in the immense, utopian effort to transform the images and ideas flowing through their most intimate spaces into material, legible terms to which readers have access. And if this is so, the doubts and paradoxical questions that pursue translators must also arise for authors: Is their text an inevitable betrayal of the imagination and the creative impulse? Is what they do even possible?
Flaubert (Bouvard et Pécuchet) : C’était comme une tortue avec des ailes qui aurait galope parmi les roches . . . (“As if a tortoise with wings’d gallop among the rocks . . .”)

Dumitru Tsepeneag

Tuesday, May 11, 2010

Sub cortice

A Wall

“Radical sluggishness” and cold rain. That, and a propensity of late to rummage unconcludingly, a Capability Brown amongst the severer enclosures of books. Reading like the dainty-lip’d foraging of a hoof’d bovine: n’oubliez pas que the word “graze” descends out of the Old English grasian, akin to græs, “grass.” The garden, claims Lisa Robertson, is “a canvas for reverie.” And (out of “Playing House: A Brief Account of the Idea of the Shack”):
The landscape includes the material detritus of previous inhabitations and economies. Typically the shack reuses or regroups things with humour and frugality. The boughs of a tree might become a roof. A shack almost always reuses windows, so that looking into or out of the shack is already part of a series, or an ecology, of looking. In this sense a shack is itself a theory: it sees through other eyes. This aspect of the shack’s politics prevents shack nostalgia from becoming mere inert propaganda. The layering or abutment of historically contingent economies frames a diction or pressure that is political, political in the sense that the shack dweller is never a pure product of the independent present, he sees himself though other eyes.
And, following a summary of Thoreau’s “four dollars and twenty-five cents” worth of Irish shanty boards, &c.—“the currency of the minimum, the currency of detritus”—Robertson says: “The economy of the shack enumerates necessity, or more exactly it enumerates a dream of necessity, using what’s at hand. The improvisatory ethos is modern. It is proportioned by the utopia of improvised necessity rather than by tradition. How much would we need? The shack is always conditional. The disposition of things is an economy in time. The shack is in flux.” Meaning, skedaddling out the door (“Doll said heck,” as Clark Coolidge puts it somewhere), one pockets the “at hand”—shack materials—intending to combat the derangements of sluggard’s remorse, impiety’s sullenness, and anomie—all that—with a sheltering lean-to of cob’d and coupled. Reading the letters in the structures. See Gerard Manley Hopkins (1872):
Stepped into a barn of ours, a great shadowy barn, where the hay had been stacked on either side, and looking at the great rudely arched timberframe—principals (?) and tie-beams, which make them look like bold big A’s with the cross-bar high up—I thought how sadly beauty of inscape was unknown and buried away from simple people and yet how near at hand it was if they had eyes to see it and it could be called out everywhere again . . .
“Called out everywhere again”—prelapsarian longings in combo with a note of “singing the world into existence.” (And “inscape” here akin to the unspoilt mediæval “book of nature”—see Julian of Toledo’s “the whole world is sort of like a book written by the finger of God . . . and the various creations are sort of figures, not invented by human agreement . . . to signify the invisible things of God.” Or see Bonaventura’s Ideo sub cortice litterae aperte occultatur mystica et profunda intelligentia—“Thus under the bark of the open letter is hidden mystical and profounder meaning.”)

I like to pursue a thing into its whelp-incongruity (and my own impenetrability, a thing that steals along furtively, never too distant). I like to try to “know” things by pretence. Clark Coolidge (At Egypt):
Green birds on a wire, selenites from the jar
in a branch collection, oils there to never brush air
hold the dust to the limbs, a color not a bother precious
clams of time or packet cherts in or out of the limes
matrix the sand outbacks to a bandit circuitry
looking into the dead-eye brick for words to surface . . .
                                                            It’s this nature
                                                            His store horn turning

Things that lurk always watch
as if be seen be sure
the passage always ends in a death wall
beyond which holes in substance cannot take you
beyond which substance, that perfect, how particular
that plan to eat out the center of this earth
for a candy armadillo and his action stickfigures
the men are red as the women are white
and the further you go the more the snakes go out
till the herald cobra stitched to the sun disc dims
simply the notion that I was counting on
you remembering the names
Is Clark Coolidge “our” Gerard Manley Hopkins? There’s the slam-bang “noise” of the two constituents, and the “radical looking.” Hopkins: “A windpuff-bonnet of fawn-froth / Turns and twindles over the broth / Of a pool so pitchblack, fell-frowning . . .” Coolidge, who talks of Kerouac’s “second to second matter transformation of world into mind”—or “language”—an assessment applicable to Coolidge himself: reading Kerouac is “like being handed another mind, myriad-filled and ceaselessly sending.” What the two share: a demand that art go beyond mere “idea” and be that “matter transformation.” Clement Greenberg: “Art as Idea is for those who don’t ask enough from art, don’t ask enough of art, don’t ask for truly aesthetic experience for rather for something classifiable, identifiable as new, and new on the instant.”

Clark Coolidge

Monday, May 10, 2010

Darwin: “I have seen a microscopic Thrips . . .”


If a bookbinder in Edwardsburg says there’s a used book emporium in Three Rivers, one veers north off U.S. 12 and shoots through Constantine (Monsanto seed corn plants, impeccably white with green and yellow trim, study’d benignity to belie the monstrousness of its global assault against hand’d down eons of agricultural savvy) and finds oneself ambling in cold sun along another Main Street of half-ass’d taverns and empty storefronts. While one’s attempting to make a photograph of a cock-eyed typewriter abandon’d in a vacant window, a man shouts out an observation unsolicit’d―“only bars make it here”―seemingly a truism, though the book emporium awaits. (Wherein, a scan of a few shelves of la poesía norteamericana coughs up its bounty in the form of a copy of Merrill Gilfillan’s Satin Street, perfect for the milieu, and—comme d’habitude—requiring marvels and conjectures regarding its trajectory, the peregrinatory word.) Gilfillan, rather aptly:
Three Walks

We meet at Jimmy’s,
trade grocery bags
of Medicine Bow gooseberries
for day on Sheridan Square.

Did you or did you not
ride a flicker call through it all?

Nocturnal train whistles
are to this continent what
plum blossoms are to Japan.

Were you in Wyoming in 1954?
Did you see Edward Hopper
painting from his car?

with heart of harness leather,
dog iridescent
as a magpie feather.
And at what crossroads exactly did the State Police car, cornering hard, come storming up lights blazing, whilst we point’d cameras out the Vibe windows at the empty shell of a Standard Oil station? “Just grokkin’ the general desuetude, officer . . .” Tempt’d, certes, to quote the upright harvester in blue something out of Melville’s Pierre, how, “as far as any geologist has yet gone down into the world, it is found to consist of nothing but surface stratified on surface”:
To its axis, the world being nothing but superinduced superficies. By vast pains we mine into the pyramid; by horrible gropings we come to the central room; with joy we espy the sarcophagus; but we lift the lid—and no body is there!—appallingly vacant and vast is the soul of a man!
Home (where emptiness abides) after the short incalculable caterwaul through three states, one finds a copy of Keston Sutherland’s Quid 20 (“A future free for all”) with a terrific conversation between Eirik Steinhoff and William Fuller (call’d “Mr. Fuller has come to a dead end, and likes it”). Steinhoff offers a reading (out of William Kerrigan and Gordon Braden’s 1989 The Idea of the Renaissance) of some distillage of Nicholas of Cusa on “disproportion and negative relatedness”:
There is no proportion between the finite and the infinite. All attempts to know God are [. . .] disproportionate.

We cannot know God absolutely, as God knows only himself, and we cannot know ‘the quiddity of things’ in this world as they are known by God. Our knowledge rests on comparison and degree. It cannot be definitive.
And Fuller (who’s previously gong’d the bell of Samuel Johnson’s “heterogeneous ideas yoked with violence together” in anticipatory response to Steinhoff’s entomological riffing on “convulsion”—“from the Latin convellere ‘to pull violently hither and thither, to wrest, wrench, shatter,’ from con- ‘together’ + vellere ‘to pluck, pull, tear’”—and “conjecture”—“a throwing or casting together”—Fuller who’s admit’d, in extemporaneous half-josh mode, that “conjecture” ’s “helped me to think about what I’m doing—that is, during those two or three occasions when I’ve actually tried to think about it (including right now). The idea is that you’re positing things and you give them a kind of provisional existence. And there are multiple things thrown out there that either stick or are withdrawn. The process, at least for me, in writing—not that this is terribly interesting—usually involves many, many revisions, and as I revise I add or subtract elements to see if it makes things more interesting. And then if that whole structure conjures something, some fortuitous and fleeting unity . . . And I don’t know what that is, but that’s something that presumably if readers find interesting, then that’s something that they can attach to”), Fuller replies to Steinhoff’s Nicholas of Cusa (“Our concepts are provisional, like the world they hope to exhibit”) with:
Nicholas’s symbols are almost like fifteenth-century European versions of Zen koans, in that they have a tendency to lay bare the limits of intellection while at the same time offering a countervailing experience within the imagination in which irreconcilable elements are held in tension. To that extent the symbol forms a distinct conceptual entity, registering the failure of one kind of thought through the success of another. Ultimately in artistic work that’s what you’re looking for. You’re not looking beyond whatever to X, you are also looking at this, the moment that it’s leading you away from itself. I used to call this the “Neoplatonic imagination.”
“In mathematics, a Fourier (not that Fourier, Joseph, though, admittedly, I do think of the phalansterist’s “Les attractions sont proportionelles aux destinées”) series decomposes a periodic function or periodic signal into a sum of simple oscillating functions.” Oscillating: a way of laying bare. (Dylan’s “Love Minus Zero / No Limit” a kind of degré zéro de l'écriture for Kenner’s “homemade world” set: “She knows there’s no success like failure / And that failure’s no success at all.”) Migratory noises all morning dog walk and no binoculars at hand. Reverie item—just clear’d customs—a sentence ending with “Thrips.”


Wednesday, May 05, 2010

Un cornichon prêt à consommer


Onslaught of menial chores and squeeze plays―meaning one’s liable to dribble a do-nothing bunt down the line, mock-sacrificially, and hie on out of the box, only to be tagged out. (Robert Lowell recalls John Berryman visiting Pound at St. Elizabeths―“sitting on the floor hugging his knees, and asking with shining cheeks for Pound to sing an aria from his opera Villon. He saw nothing nutty about Pound, or maybe it was the opposite. Anyway his instincts were true―serene, ungrudging, buoyant.”) The “shining cheeks” kills me . . . and, drifting under the spell of a year (1972) that took both Berryman and Pound, I end up seeking Lamentations 3:63: “Behold their sitting down, and their rising up; I am their Musick.” A line Berryman’d used for an epigraph to 77 Dream Songs, capable of such parings-down of the American voice to its unsour’d jitney uncomplicatedness, yeah:
What he has now to say is a long
wonder the world can bear & be.
Once in a sycamore I was glad
all at the top, and I sang.
Hard on the land wears the strong sea
and empty grows every bed.
Or the dodge meticulousness and what Chaucer call’d Vmblesse (humbleness) of a remark like, “None of the extant definitions of poetry is very useful; certainly none is adequate, and I do not propose to invent a new one.” “I am their Musick.” That mystery of whence the inimitable proceedings—Saul Steinberg says “the smell precedes the cake” (he’s talking about “technique”—a fine admonishing for those who’d hang a shingle off a particular nouveau-ruse):
I’m captivated when I see a person who, by suddenly freezing into immobility, seems like a photograph of himself, and takes on a folk-art look. Photography has had a continuing effect on art. A painter such as Bacon clearly derives from the Polaroid, but at the same time it’s also true that art precedes technique, just as the smell precedes the cake. Bucharest, in the days of my youth, was a peculiar city, an enfant-prodige city, where the avant-garde cohabited with primitivism, as in certain places where two or three rivers converge and mingle, where there is something essential that has nothing to do with the ordinary character of the place, something that emerges at a particular moment when cultures, the forces of south, north, east, and west come together and give birth to a tornado, a typhoon, a waterspout, or if you like, an eddy—Dada.
Sly enough (Steinberg also notes—signs of the coming dumb-down—that “The whole Surrealist school tries to show man as a cliché, the standard figure copied on signs from the fashion journals of the day.”) And (with nouveau-ruse tuck’d in my hatband) recalls me monstrously to Berryman’s lines in Dream Song 364:
There is one book that Henry hasn’t read:
Ubu Roi. He feeling ignorant       whenever his mind brings it up.
Everytime anybody says
—Mr Bones, you has read everything—he singles out instead
Ubu Roi, to prove he is an idiot
and should be, as one, blest.
(And Saul Steinberg, riffing verbally concerning the way the artist and the derelict may be coupled by defenselessness and integrity (“shining cheeks”) says, oddly enough, “The face of Ulysses S. Grant, president of the United States, which appears on the fifty-dollar bill, to me represents, in a moving way, the artist and the derelict.”)

Cough and stall and rummage: I warn’d you up front. In Peter Bush’s translation of Juan Goytisolo’s legendary Juan the Landless (Dalkey Archive, 2009), a 1975 book revised by Goytisolo in 2006, there’s an apropos paean to “I / You” (ought to be plummet’d directly into somebody’s Ashbery dissertation):
impersonal pronouns, empty substantive shells! : your scant reality is the speech act by which you appropriate language and submit it to the deceptive control of your malleable subjectivity : empty wineskins, cellars at the ready, you offer yourselves up for promiscuous general use and collective social enjoyment : nuclear hermetic indicatives, nonetheless you pass on your uniqueness when with a mere squiggle of my pen I make you all jump to the diktats of my changing protean voices : the frequencies you broadcast over favor subtle sleights of hand, beyond ordinary communication : who’s expressing himself as I / you? : the shades wandering in your indispensable emptiness transmute, and you can skillfully play with signs your naïve reader doesn’t notice : immersing him in an unstable world, prey to a continuous process of destruction : assigning your scattered egos, the different parts in the choir, at the behest of the virtuoso flight of your baton : the pen gently running over the blank rectangle of the page
Music of that particular pickle (caught in a rundown). Why is it, hop-bless’d morn of the dogs unappeasable, that I find the failings and railings of Berryman so contravenable a solace?
I consider a song will be as humming-bird
swift, down-light, missile-metal-hard, & strange
as the world of anti-matter
where they are wondering: does time run backward—
which the poet thought was true; Scarlatti-supple;
but can Henry write it?

Wreckt, in deep danger, he shook once his head,
returning to meditation . . .
Think of Conrad Aiken’s talk of writing: “A sort of apocalypse, a seizure, the self becoming merely the invisible and nameless lightning-rod for an alien and unfamiliar lightning.” Think of William Dunbar’s “Lament for the Makers” with its thud of “ Timor Mortis conturbat me. The flesh is bruckle.

John Berryman, 1914-1972
(Photograph by Terence Spencer)