Wednesday, March 31, 2010

“Not inextricable in any sort of statement of itself . . .”


A Wall

Oh, grubby-finger’d Time—that fidgety kid—’s push’d an index up into its nostril and sneezed forth a high-pressure nasal wind, dislodging a tiny ficus of snot. (That’s no way to begin.) (I am talking to myself.) Work undone is work undone: one finds oneself in the morning light with light making havoc of one’s hands. Here’s a 1988 sentence by Henry James (Hugh Kenner notes how it—tiny ficus—“somehow splats down with the word ‘dullness’”):
Art lives upon discussion, upon experiment, upon curiosity, upon variety of attempt, upon the exchange of views and the comparison of standpoints; and there is a presumption that those times when no one has anything particular to say about it, and has no reason to give for practice or preference, though they may be times of honor, are not times of development—are times, possibly even, a little of dullness.
“Possibly even.” In the same book (The Elsewhere Community), Kenner tells a story he’d related, too, in the “Preface” to The Poetry of Ezra Pound, a story of a similar digital emunction, projectile land where it will:
      The Bollingen fuss appalled me. What was chiefly appalling was that the United States literati, including the distinguished jurors who’d awarded the prize, were all busy defending the integrity of the awards process. No one at all was defending Pound. Supposing I had nothing to lose, and in fact too naïve to realize I was risking my entire future, I decided that if no one would speak up for him, I would.
      In the summer of 1948, on a picnic table overlooking Lake Chemong near Peterborough, on a little borrowed Corona portable typewriter that lacked a right-hand margin stop, I put in six-hour workdays, mid-July through August. I fetched books from the University of Toronto library ninety miles away—books I needed, because, as it turned out, the best guide to Pond’s poetry was his prose, a fact that seemed not to have been noticed before. The result was the 308 typed pages of The Poetry of Ezra Pound, published in 1951 by Pound’s British publisher and also his American one.
Is it the “picnic table” there that thrills me so? (In The Poetry of Ezra Pound it’s “a trestle table under pines.” There’s, too, the lovely workmanlike detail: “Using a system I’d picked up from Marshall [McLuhan, with whom Kenner’d visit’d Pound at St. Elizabeths], I gisted quotation onto little slips, let their affinities prompt the pile they went into, and derived chapters from the piles.” (To gist: to parcel out cattle to pasture “at so much per head.”) Et puis, by the grand hazardry of the fell library—its way of provender accordant to one’s industry: Edward Dahlberg to Charles Olson (dedicatory) in Can These Bones Live:
My dear Charles: Literature, we know, is the art of ripening ourselves by conversation; and originality is but high-born stealth. How much of our talks have yeasted and bloomed this little Herman Melville loaf; and how I have played the cutpurse Autolycus, making my thefts as invisible as possible, you and my blushes best know. But here is my hand with Mephistopheles’ orison: When your own polestar Truths surge upon the whited page, may “God’s Spies” put the same vermilion Guilt upon your face!
Conversation. That’s Dahlberg c. 1940. In Olson’s 1947 Call Me Ishmael, there’s a Dahlberg reference: “Melville’s reading is a gauge of him, at all points of his life. He was a skald, and knew how to appropriate the work of others. He read to write. Highborn stealth, Edward Dahlberg calls originality, the act of a cut purse Autolycus who makes his thefts as invisible as possible. Melville’s books batten on other men’s books.” (Autolycus: skill’d in thievery and song, “surpass’d men in theft and oath.”) Isn’t Dahlberg admitting a kind of yeasty complicity—mutual Autolycus choruses—in the Melville talk? Olson, though, transforms the remark to Melville’s own sonorous thievery. Hiding, the “hid,” the illicit, the borrow’d—it’s all through Dahlberg’s own American saturnalia (in the chapter “Woman,” section “‘I Was Naked; and I Hid’”):
      From the Old Testament the Hebraical Puritan took a garbled Jahweh, added to it an inclement, Atlantic Christ and a Devil, and of these made witchcraft New England—the allegory of Adam, Eve, the Serpent and Cotton Mather. Satan’s Bible, Cotton Mather’s Wonders of the Invisible World, was the fountainhead of Puritan diabolism . . .
      All of the Puritan fantasies were unholy, libidinous quests for the wonders of the invisible world, the wicked spermaceti, the sexual Scarlet Letter. Hid within the carnal-hued Letter was the concupiscent wonder of the Privy Teat, escutcheon of Cotton Mather’s witch.
      . . . Melville shaped an antichrist Ahab, who roamed blasphemous, upboiling seas in pursuit of a Mephisto-Lamb, Moby Dick. Ahab spat into the sacramental silver calabash, uttering in final profanation a mock Lord’s Prayer in Latin:
Ego non baptiso te in nomine patris, sed in nomine diaboli.
Melville broiled in ejaculatory blasphemies; of Ezekiel’s Vision and Cotton Maher’s Shade, he composed spermaceti Angels; of a Satanic brute, Moby Dick, he made a leering monstrance, transubstantiating creamy foams and breakers of brit and squid. Leviathan’s Mead, into a wine and wafer supper.
      Yet none could speak: Hawthorne could scarce mention carnal embrace; Poe had uttered in vain, “And Sorrow shall be no more, and Eros all”; Melville made vasty, inverted oaths.
Quashing temptation to continue through Dahlberg’s delights in what he sees as Melville’s “epithalamium to the Seed”—how “Of sea grass, drear wave-plaited oceans, he wove a nuptial bed for copulating whales.” (“Morning light making havoc of one’s hands.”) Ah, talk, its unfinal pointlessnesses, its high agility, its sweats like a romp! Dahlberg (in 1966), c’est moi: “I propose to go along as I always have done, sowing dragon’s teeth when necessary, and seeding affections in the souls of my unknown readers if I can.” And: “As for myself, I’m a medievalist, a horse and buggy American, a barbarian, anything, that can bring me back to the communal song of labor, sky, star, field, love.” Time’s pull’d its black-moon’d fingertip out of its nostril now—I’d better off “to work.”

Charles Olson Reading Pound’s Cantos, at Black Mountain, c. 1949

Tuesday, March 30, 2010

Kenneth Irby’s The Intent On


A Wall

Coldish sun-slanting late March six o’clock amongst a folderol of bookish tumulus, burial “mounds.” That is, the books stack up against perennial shelflessness, lost in knee-high tightly snug’d piles. Filling a narrow corridor between the shelf itself and the table. De temps en temps I shift and uncover: redistributing, trying to determine and guide my own upcoming enthusiasms and intents. Or my dour indifferences. I keep dipping into the monstrous (glorious) anchor (or sky hook) of one pile—Kenneth Irby’s The Intent On: Collected Poems 1962-2006, edit’d by Kyle Waugh and Cyrus Console (North Atlantic Books, 2009). My remarks here inchoate, wing’d, desultory, though hardly tepid. Like all Kansas, it is something unruffled and wholly inhabitable: not a page without its magnificent thing:
Hölderlin called the lyric
“the continuous metaphor of a feeling”
the epic, “the metaphor
of an intellectual point of view”
this is the discontinuous
dendritic narrative of a journey
metaphor of pasture, anabasis and return
pastoral in that
“sluicing” meaning the juice
runs down over the head
and puddles off the fingers
That’s out of a piece call’d “Jed Smith and the Way,” though one of the things one sees with floody (oceanic, grassy) immediacy in Irby is how a writerly continuum pulls flat the fences. Is that Kansas again? Ronald Johnson construct’d an ARK out of prairie. Edward Dahlberg of Kansas City once readily recognized that Flaubert’d “said once that an artist should look long and intently at an object until he could discover some shadow or line in it that had not been seen by any other one before reproducing it”—is that “the intent on”? (There is, one hears tell, the makings of a “soi-disant Topeka School” including Ben Lerner—who begins a piece “For the distances collapsed” and editor Cyrus Console—who ends a piece “Huge, empty, he could not progress but with drifting, but in a way he had won. The air, trapped by its own weight, pushed the blimp higher into the sky.”)

In Irby, the usual markings—of poem, of part, of book—cease to matter (that diamond-point-delineated piece of “Jed Smith and the Way” is part of something bigger call’d Berkeley, itself part of a book call’d Catalpa). A dendriform (tree-shaped) continuum—I see that, the garden of forking paths is the yellow brick road up to a plethora of cities, emeraldine, smaragdine—“smaragdus, first recorded in Herodotus,” cities effervescing, regaling, transforming. See lines out of Irby’s prose poem “Narrative”:
Two cubes intersect, the intersection looks onto a sunlit meadow at the edge of which, off to the left, the dark mass of a redwood forest stands, abrupt and as great a change from the grassland as the view through the cubes is from the cubes. The pasture crowns a rounded hill, and to the West, the ocean changes color. It is early summer, mid-June, the grasses are freshly gold, in a few places near the redwoods still faintly green, kept by late rains from the transmutation uncertain wandering has carefully brought us here for.

      ♦

All earlier accounts of this country were made by nautical expeditions which landed in only one or two places, did not venture far inland, and were even completely out of sight of the coast most of the time. Already we have discovered a great bay ringed by hills which earlier explorers never found at all. We were North, we thought, of that now. What ring the seasons make in this clime, we have yet to learn. We must be North, with the ocean to the West, but as many days as that seemed certain, there were as many other days when nothing could be seen from these hummocked hills but fog, and the sun itself did not reassure us, and rose contrary to our earlier fixes if it showed at all. Of ‘greate and stynkynge fogghes’ the English cleric had written. But we were, it was clear, in another layer of this new continent than that pious man had visited. He had not mentioned the trees, and through them is one entrance. Or if he knew of this, he remained silent—perhaps proof he did know, for he does mention a native reference to ‘entrance through living wood . . . I would not discount.’ But that is only the first, or simply one of many. Also of water, and of rocks. And now these tremblings as of heat waves, from hilltop and grass, gold grass, gold gold grass become—the transmutation in the air, of gold to airy thinness beaten, to float, ourselves made to float, the portion of us floated that keeps seeking change, that rests its instability on the seasons, that trembles to go forth and join with another. The poppies will be our earrings to reach for Far Pacific.

      ♦

Five days before solstice we have come to this spot, far North we think, accessible only by several days’ slow travel through densely thicketed stream ravines, choked with blackberry vines in flower, beginning to bear fruit, we took as sign to stay most open to the sun. And when we ascended this high hill and promenaded the meadowed platform summit, the vista was clear in every direction only excepting South, where the big trees rise. And the sighting to the West, or whatever direction it is here the sun sets into, is straight, unfettered, gated in the hills, the notch deepest in this coast range, showing a clear V of ocean, precisely, we are confident, at the point on the horizon of midsummer sunset—these five days, we are to make ready, it is clear to us we were brought here now, to make ready, for that exact moment, of entrance.
That, too, seemingly drawing off the California mountain man Jedediah Strong Smith. One recalls Duncan’s meadow (“permitted to return to”) therein, that “made place”—the “sign to stay most open to the sun” a declared fealty akin to Duncan’s “given property of the mind / that certain bounds hold against chaos”; Irby’s “transmutation uncertain wandering has carefully brought us here for,” omen, too, to itself. The other big thing: Olson. Hefting The Intent On’s nearly seven hundred pages, some of it out of “the Land of the Hermetic Learning,” some of it riffs of American vernacular—“Oh Sweetie I’m going off on a dustdevil this evening for the big time,” some of it taking the æonic pulse (“the geologic history of rise and fall / inundation and explosion Mt Mazama’s / blast in recent Pleistocene rocking / even these distant oceantided streams”), some charting heavenly jointures (“that is, to join cosmology and continental geography”)—one recalls (inevitably) Olson’s claim (in Call Me Ishmael):
I take SPACE to be the central fact to man born in America, from Folsom cave to now. I spell it large because it comes large here. Large, and without mercy. It is geography at bottom, a hell of wide land from the beginning. . . . Some men ride on such space, others have to fasten themselves like a tent stake to survive. As I see it Poe dug in and Melville mounted. They are the alternatives.
And Irby, one thinks, in a sod house, dug in and mount’d, traversing (“uncertain wandering”) the oceanic prairie.

There’s a grandiosity of seeing here, obsessing, reiterative. The poppy earrings, say, or the uncertainty (and what largesse it allows). Here’s a couple sections of “Point Reyes Poem”:
There are only two ways onto the beach or back up
one down a stream’s gully, steps cut, boards back up
the other through a blow hole, another stream’s fall to
                                                                                                    caught us
ankle deep coming through from the sea side
tide up, wave backed
up the pants, sopped and socks squished in the boots

we stopped over the cliff rise to wring the socks out
poppies like earrings in the grass, over the cliff’s edge toward China



The trail back is a road left over from the dairy farms, so gradual
no rise is felt at all, through bay trees showing
eucalyptus on the hills showing the sky in scattered patches white beyond

As we turn into the first of meadows in a string before the trail’s end
a boy and girl rise from the roadside and start on ahead of us
Debussy’s Syrinx playing on her radio
our dog in gazelled leaps chases deer along the hills above them

having come to the last meadow
        seven deer in three families move contrarywise in short directions grazing

having come to this meadow
        there is only the uncertainty of all purpose
Having claim’d a Kansas, one is “permitted” California (“all architectures”—the local springs the widest propinquity) California with its “Frozen seafoam, petrified jellyfish / purpose but to wander, too rarely here, too often / mind in, locked gaze out / onto the splendiferous.”

One thing to note: the model way the editors’ve included the apparatuses of previous books: dedications, epigraphs (one terrific Osip Mandelstam line graces Cicada Woods—“A quotation is not an excerpt. A quotation is a cicada.”), statements, acknowledgments, drawings. A whole contextual history that more routinely gets stripped out of the pristine collected, or shuck’d into a corner. So: one reads Ed Dorn’s 1974 note prefacing To Max Douglas:
. . . what does it “mean” to be from Kansas. Not grass roots. That’s the broken wing dragging across the cowpiles of the republican party. Aerial roots? Yes, if the mind has aerial roots, having been in the air so long.

There is no placement but fixation in Kansas.
And, later: “Fixation. Irby has bisontine habits. No matter how far his body wanders, He never wanders. It is the endless rumination of the Big Vegetarians. It is this vaster length of service to the best earth ideas which gives nobility to the vegetarian. The habit is integral: the waving carpet of grass and the volition to movement are the same.” And, a lovely line (Irby’s “form”): “I like the long line best, but the tightest work has been done with a derringer.”

Nothing’s enough. The book’s a landmine of notational wonders. One hints and feints. A couple of parts of the stunning “Delius”:
2.

Only a sensualist could so
trap the pain of parting
the endlessness of the moment of leaving
this world, this onlyworld, for nothingness

the scent of a hopeless black pomade
on the wind, the curl
of left foam on a beer mug
along the terrace
                                      yet he
haunts me, beyond his music, from
another realm than he believed in
sentient

“human life is like a day in the existence of the world”

. . .

8.

A band of seduction, about to fall off the continent
certainly not the East getting home
beyond Sacramento is the essential roughage of the Western edge
unsettling a magnetic intestinal pole track
bloodred in the sky as the Spider Woman of the North and South
fades away, sustained in the, only in the
what man has matured as a creature of, ice
the Climatology of Attention is not the Extension of Empire
an Elephant palm we might say, nursing its dying with a nuzzling trunk to reach
    the stars
Deneb in the Swan over Bolinas the umbrella of an unquenchable reach
the drunken Strangers of the Earth stumbling into each other’s arms
falling off the road to find their way back to that barely remember home

in the hills the Leader of the Wind holds up a painted hand
pecked like a petroglyph into the rock
the Entry Sign upon the fallen shelf
down the stream bed of all many-colored rocks
leading the Wind that holds Direction

“to find a new vocabulary”
the Moki feather cloak
“hovering on the verge”

“so we must look not at the mound underfoot, but at the starry horizon”

for “the soul knows itself, and would live its own life”
That, Blakean and rhapsodic and bleak, pulling native California (Moki—whose cloaks were construct’d of California condor feathers) story up, it, too, into the “Climatology of Attention”—is how the piece ends. Earlier (English composer Frederick Delius briefly managed a grapefruit plantation in Florida, and wrote compositions with African-American musical echoes—“Percy Grainger was the first to say / he heard in Ellington likenesses to Delius / outraging England”):
“In Florida, through sitting and gazing at Nature, I gradually
        learnt the way in which I should eventually find myself
but it was not until
        years after I had settled at Grez
that I really found myself
        Nobody could help me
Contemplation, like composition
        cannot be taught”
And:
“A sense of flow is the main thing
        and it doesn’t matter how you do it
so long as you master it”
Like Delius, Kenneth Irby, too: “intent / upon a current in the world.”

Kenneth Irby, c. 2005
(Photograph by Robert Amory)

Kenneth Irby’s The Intent On: Collected Poems 1962-2006
Painting by Thorpe Feidt, Red Earth: The Ambiguities 334, to Sam Feinstein and Barbara Crawford, 1998-2004

Monday, March 29, 2010

Blanks


Some Meat

Oughtn’t I make a template, a fat plenary weekend zero? Like that Melvillean cussedness, the blank white whale blanking out the witness with admonitory plethora, so goeth the road—its numbing fever-pitch pitching idiocy directly back “at” one in its wake, a bounteously obfuscatory snow-job: “It was the whiteness of the whale that above all things appalled me.” (Appall—see, OED-hopping, “OF. apalir, apallir, later ap(p)alir, to wax pale, be in consternation; languish, waste away”: see Robert Frost’s spider “fat and white / On a white heal-all, holding up a moth / Like a white piece of rigid satin cloth— . . . What but design of darkness to appall?”; see John Hawkes’s novella Charivari:
expositor: . . . What do you see lying over there in the hay?
henry: A woman.
expositor: What is she doing?
henry: Making love to the stable boy while I do his work.
Exemplary overload. The kind of adamant chuckleheaded attachments one makes whilst the white stripes unzip behind one, the useless radio falter’d long back—somewhere near Paw Paw—gone to static and whiny self-imploring.) And, Melville, in a white study:
Is it that by its indefiniteness it shadows forth the heartless voids and immensities of the universe, and thus stabs us from behind with the thought of annihilation, when beholding the white depths of the milky way? Or is it, that as in essence whiteness is not so much a color as the visible absence of color, and at the same time the concrete of all colors; is it for these reasons that there is such a dumb blankness, full of meaning, in a wide landscape of snows?
Reading John Hawkes’s The Lime Works, endlessly struck by smells: “not the stench of rafters burning, not the vaporized rubber stench that stayed about the street for days after the hit on the garage of Autorank, Limited, but only a faint live smell of worn carpet or paper or tissue being singed within the lodging house itself”; “The loft building smells of creosote, the dead pollen of straw, and petrol”; “The train smelled like the inside of an old man’s hat—smelled of darkness, hair, tobacco.” And, looking, I note the extraordinary percept of noises, too:
. . . in the silence of the flat’s close and ordinary little bedroom he hears again all the soft timid sounds she made before setting off to market: the fall of the slippery soap bar into the empty tub, the limpid sound of her running bath, the slough of three fingers in the cream pot, the cry of bristles against her teeth, the fuzzy sound of straps drawing up on the skin of her shoulders; poor sounds of her counting out the change, click of the pocket book. Then sounds of a safety pin closing beneath the lifted skirt and of the comb setting up last-minute static in the single wave of her hair.
Is that what puts one’s senses in such a high prickly state of alert—so the story’s violence is like a gut-punch, wholly visceral? (And in the midst of a brutal beating—“the truncheon falling back, and came down hard and solid as a length of cold fat stripped from a pig”—sounds—“It made a sound like a dead bird falling to empty field. Once he stopped to increase the volume of the radio”—and sounds in the aftermath—the beater Thick “snoring and the radio had changed. Comics were talking and she could not understand a word of it.”) For no reason whatsoever—the plenum’s changeableness, meaningless empty “certificates” of existence, its losses—I think of the varieties of currency in a lovely small book of essays by the Polish writer Andrezej Stasiuk, Fado, (Dalkey Archive, 2009)—Bill Johnston translating: “the red hundred-zloty bill with a portrait of a worker on the front. On the other side was a picture of a factory that was supposed to be an allegory for industrialization in general. A dozen chimneys spewing smoke into the sky, a black locomotive rumbling along in a cloud of white steam . . . On the steel-blue twenty there was a country woman in a headscarf. On one side of the green fifty you could see the head of a fisherman, and on the other a port, cranes, and ships that looked like children’s toys. The brown five hundred had miners. They were digging coal from a dark crater with pickaxes and spades . . . the thousand-zloty bill . . . bore a picture of Nicholas Copernicus and a zodiacal map of the sky.” Stasiuk remarks of the latter note that it “had no association with exertion, with a reward for hard work. It was an abstract composition intended to serve as a reminder that money is merely a conventional thing.” Some, he vouches, “didn’t really believe you could buy anything with it.”)

Lovely sensual way to push one into a prose-writing fever, reading Hawkes. In a note, he’s admit’d the sources of The Lime Twig to be “few, elusive, and disparate”:
In the summer of 1956 . . . I found myself obsessed with what was nearly a waking vision: of an empty room which was unlike any I had ever seen in actuality yet was also totally familiar. I still see it—the rough wooden floors, the darkly painted walls, the green light that came from a single shaded window. I wanted to know what had happened in the room, or what would in fact happen in it; who had dreamt in it, suffered violence in it or was going to. For some reason I thought that this rather sinister room exited in London, though at the time I had never been to England. And for some reason the room reminded me of my father’s story of a famous horse that had been buried on the grounds of his parents’ place in Ireland. As the story went, a young woman, who was a competition rider and a person of daring, had the remains of this horse secretly dug up so that she could carry the skull back to America, where she had it mounted on a silver plaque. It was a lark that horrified her Irish relatives but made her a legend in Connecticut.
      Then, inexplicably, I thought of Michael Banks, child hero of the Mary Poppins books, and associated him with the violated Irish horse of my father’s anecdote. From horse and innocent hero came the idea for a novel about two young married Londoners, Michael and Margaret Banks, whose lives are destroyed when Michael Banks is lured by an underworld gang into helping to steal a racehorse named Rock Castle. The dream that the gang holds out to Michael Banks is of mystery, riches, illicit sex in the context of an England impoverished at the end of World War II.
Mention’d, too, Hawkes’s “admiration for Graham Greene’s Brighton Rock.” (Idle inadequate examination of one’s “own” memory in inconclusive attempt to connect Sam Shepard’s later “Geography of a Horse Dreamer” to the Hawkes novel.) (Idle inadequate &c. attempt to determine amount of hooey and nonsense in Hawkes’s anecdote of the piece’s gestatory origins. No evidence, not a thing I sense in Hawkes.) That a novel’d be a room one must needs fill with something. Heather McHugh (quoted in a book by Peter Turchi call’d Maps of the Imagination: The Writer as Cartographer):
We are creatures of habit; given a blank we can’t help trying to fill it in along lines of customary seeing or saying. But the best poetic lines undermine those habit, break the pre- off the -dictable, unsettle the suburbs of your routine sentiments, and rattle the tracks of your trains of thought.
Maybe. Though that task—and focusing it so picayunely—seems so negligible against the roar of filling a room, or a London suburb, or a road.

John Hawkes, 1925–1998

Friday, March 26, 2010

James Schuyler’s Other Flowers


Out a Window

James Schuyler, in the Diary (“Great Spruce Head Island, July 30, 1969”):
Fog continues. Humidity in my hair, my knee, my ears, my sinuses, my clothes. More gracious rain for which we return ungracious thanks. Bruno taken to the garden while we pick peas gets tied up and sits and barks reproachfully. Lizzie is in the kitchen wrangling with her mother about nothing at all. I’m as cross as two sticks—also about nothing at all. Maybe Maine doesn’t have an ideal year round climate. Wonder how much Ebby paid, or is paying for his houses, the stone house in Pennsylvania and the one they just got in Nova Scotia? Only Fairfield goes irresistibly on absorbed in his painting: “I think I learned a lot from that de Hooch-Balthus picture.”
I return’d to the Diary in the aftermath of reading the new James Meetze and Simon Pettet edit’d Schuyler book, Other Flowers: Uncollected Poems (FSG, 2010), a thing seemingly drop’d down out of the gentian-color’d celestial vault, unexpect’d (though now I think: how’d I miss the cues of its offing with tiny pre-splashes like the one Poetry made?) The story is, early in 2005, James Meetze—of Tougher Disguises—went to San Diego in order to study the James Schuyler Papers deposit’d in the Mandeville collection there, and found “boxes marked ‘Miscellaneous Collected Poems,’ each containing folders noted ‘Unpublished.’ Meetze: “Over the following four months, as I read through the myriad typescripts—many of which appeared in multiple drafts—and handwritten notebooks, I began to truly understand the melancholy of unfound treasures . . .” A phrase nigh-Schuyleresque in its combo: melancholia and treasure. Simon Pettet arranged the book: “not entirely according to chronology, not entirely according to theme,” though “keenly respectful of both.” “Some sort of narrative is proposed so each poem follows logically the poem that precedes it. Sequential constellations propel ‘the story’ along, but there is no insistence.” Result: one is continuously diving into the “Notes” at the back of the book, trying to determine the date for each piece. Pettet’s prefatory remarks call attention both to Schuyler’s epigraphic use of an Ashbery line—“Poems are written under many conditions”—and, too, to the way “Schuyler’s poetry delights in occasions.” What one sees in the Diary is how plainly the writing makes itself its own occasion (whilst, in Schuyler’s affably sardonic way, returning “ungracious thanks” with a shrug of refusal: the July 30 entry ends: “Not a day worth memorializing.”) One’s struck by how it mimics Schuyler’s poems—detailing (impeccably, jokily) weathers inner and outer, offering wit in the form of a conversational tidbit or a mite daffy homespun mot (“cross as two sticks”), grace in the arrangement of the various bodies (dog, Lizzie), and with hints of grumpiness or slightly mordant exaggerating. Compare with something like “Under a Storm-Washed Sky” (of December 8, 1962):
The grass is a yellowing green,
ready for the bleaching snow.
The shadows are violet blue under the hedges
of forsythia frenziedly whipping their canes
in the wind and the trickling sunlight
that lured out one, no, two blooms that grip
and ride the intimate tempest like bees
blazing with pollen. The big gray house with the white trim
shows on its shadowed side as violet blue, too.
An elm and its shadow are one.
The twigs of a pear tree are knotted
and glazed with light. The clothes pole
stands empty of purpose, a faint green
on its shadowed side. A cloud like a slice of mist
slides under the sun and the shadows momentarily fade
in a thinner shadow that spreads over the grass.
The trumpet vine has been chopped back
to bursts of stumps of stalks.
The wind eddies and veers, drops and lifts
just the branches of a sycamore
and shakes its seed-ball ornaments. A dog
and a puppy lope on the lawn.
If you spoke in your sleep and said,
“We are dying!,” at any rate,
we are not dead. Life goes on.
That exhibits a deft painterly ability of color-seeing (“violet blue under the hedges”). And precise words (“canes” for the wild shoots of untrim’d forsythia; “bleaching snow”—how its effect is to pull all color right out of things; the somewhat awkward “empty of purpose”—awkward enough for a “clothes pole.” (The line “An elm and its shadow are one” indubitably recalls Stevens for the merest instant—then no longer.)

There’s, too, goodly evidence of goofing off (what “we” dignify now with the term “experiment”). Sentences (stack’d semantic units) in the undated “Sentence (or Sentences),” whose opening reads: “Stir them up and they won’t stick. / The. / We will let you have our thinking on it timewise pronto.” A number of sestinas, including one (call’d “Kennexth,” undated) seemingly made up of word-scraps, or sentences diced and reassembled, a paste-pot mosaic:
1
Lemon village with walk foot gorilla
burnished Miss Thirst. The. And. Tea
have are drunken look shop China
uncups, is hunting Jane-John for eat Grace-hoops
honey-money bee-haven happy-un-bee
wear winter season summer light lice Kennexth.

2
“Isn’t is gnats midges, sorry Kennexth,”
Oh un-city club . . .
And so forth, keeping the word-rotation and sashaying off with “A gorilla we see in an extra line of tea / unvitrifying a china cup-saucer hoop / from which June Bee drinks secret Kennexth.” (Not the kind of thing to make a pointedly marketable ideological or political fuss about—that’d arrive later, and elsewhere—just a thing to try.) Prose poems, miniature plays in verse, acrostickal encomia, translations (of Giacomo Leopardi), collages and ventriloquisms (see the vaguely cowboy camp of “Twilight, West New York” that begins “Put her tits back, boys, we’re coming into town. / The sky sweats, massaging a banker’s bottom cloud. / The sun goes out like a butt in a urinal . . .”). There’s a poem in two columns (or is it circular? the final two lines—like the title—span the in-between)—an array to be read numerous ways: “make it up”—“irritability, hello”—“itchy and smeared”—“April again.” There’s fit argument with the poetic poppycock of others (see “The Village” of 1959, with its gentle mockery of Ginsberg’s pseudo-shamanism: “Dear Allen: / just to’ve thought of / “The Eagle That Is Forgotten” / is quite something. And sincerely I admire you / and haven’t a clue / when you say ‘poet is priest.’” And, at the end: “you go big for Americana: where / is Vachel Lindsay buried anyhow? He used to give readings / in the Hotel Mayflower in Washington, / which is like finding a fat book in a tank full of trout. / Allen, it’s Sunday, and like the song / I just dropped by to tell you, / I hate the Village and like you, / and what you said to me once / at the San Remo, may it burn to the ground, / and— / honest injun— / poets are people.”)

Humor: thrilling and throughout (I’d rarely thunk of Schuyler’s humor). See these lines of “Semi-Erudite” (defined in the piece as “near beer”), punctuated with lyrical outburst O’s):
                  O

the worst word in English
the first in primers and novels for children with 17-word vocabularies

                  O

I suppose it means yoni
I can speak plainer than that
in the short words kids use because they’re hungry or happy or
        “my hanth cold, my feetth cold, an’ I hathta pith”
or, to a plein air painter painting the smog-loaded light
        “It’s O.K. to eliminate if you want to, mister?”
Or see the elegy to the undaunt’d on-stage onanist (dated July 1971):
Jim Morrison

of The Doors
fame the Ad-
miral’s son hit
the enfevered deck
burning: pee-
no’m-nee-a
its wiggy name.
Goodbye Jim.
I remember him
yelling,
singing, sig-
naling,
waving a hand-
ful of meat.
How proudly
we hail! Dying
and living
salute you
dead. Wave on
Jim’s dong.
Some part of its humor in the narrow’d restraint, the dopey rhymes. (Is it that Schuyler’s skill at pure descripting o’erwhelms the laughs? Note the Diary too: “A scrim of cloud bisects the sky on a diagonal into a nautical flag and under the white hangs one curled up tinted cloud like a shelled shrimp, a “deveined” one, of course. We can’t have shrimp shit in the sky.” (August 30, 1970). Or the one-liner (April 14, 1988): “A morning like a dead sheep, with cold mutton in the offing.”)

Not all the pieces in Other Flowers are beauts, (nor need they be). If I’d quibble, though, it’d probably be about some of the “Notes.” Occasionally a little farfetch’d, conjectural, unlikely. Example: “Kennexth”—“mocking a lisp perhaps, or a passing allusion to the American poet Kenneth Rexroth (1905-82)?” Rexroth so little part of Schuyler’s realm somehow—and a title and repeat’d word hardly seems “a passing allusion.” Some problems with dates: for “Semi-Erudite,” the editors note, “Undated, but internal evidence dates it to the late 1950s.” In an additional note (to the poem’s “after Roger Shattuck, The Banquet Years” subtitle) the editors identify Shattuck’s book: “the classic study, published in 1968, of the Parisian avant-garde from 1885 to World War I, known as the Belle Époque.” Implying, uncountenanced, that Schuyler’s sous-titre must’ve arrived in advance of the book itself. (My sources show The Banquet Years publish’d by Doubleday, in 1961—a further confusion.) Similarly, a poem call’d “To Kenneth Koch”—“Dated August 19, 1965” according to the editors, refers in its opening lines (“‘Drinking a morning cup of coffee is one of the pleasures of peace,’ / I thought as I drank my morning cup of coffee while reading The Pleasures of Peace.”) to what the editor’s call “Koch’s 1969 collection, The Pleasures of Peace and Other Poems.” Quibbles of a notes hound: not to distract or harry. A longer, stunning (I think) piece to close, with hints of O’Hara (is the Dubuffet smell “Naphtha”?), and primordially fearless confidence. Here the notes simply say, “Undated. René Grousset (1885-1952) was a French historian specializing in Asian history.”
Grousset’s China (or Slogan)

Of course Tu Fu knew whom he sang to about beauty, sex and power:

                                        they killed her on the far frontier
                                        between capitol and capitol
                                                            douce et tendre

Paintings, too, exercise the senses,
an Albers, white between pale yellow, pale gray,
singing as though nipples under matted March grass sighed for spring,
receptive, fecund with a nearly inaudible clear tone,
transparent as fraying mist in Cat King

Dubuffets that smell of germicidal liquid soap polluted with pine
blend an effluvia of urinals and wool
sur la plage, sur la plage

Kline’s Siegfried and Requiem
                    the bus a fat and leaping Greyhound
winds down on beaded Scranton, and in the station Wagner lifts the roof
                    off, what has muzak come to, in the Polish Pennsylvania night?
                    Take an elevator to the black coal corridor and see

Freilichers that entice like chubby roses and sleek banana leaves
under the trade wind-scoured sky a Vend-O-Mat says TACOS
a Schwitters (cherries and blue) essence of Ajaccio violets toilet-water
                                        after Barbasol
(Some people can’t look at chicken wire without thinking
of flower arrangements, crumpled chicken wire is a swell flower holder
(household hint))

Goldberg, raw and suave, laughs cacophonously at the macaronis
pronouncing Billie Holiday: vraiment, elle n’est pas artiste

the French forties
and doesn’t Giacometti make you want to slip an Ingres girl a feel ?
or La Source’s navel make you think of salt and celery?
We will lift our thoughts higher. Now they are very high
up to the dandruff line in the wildroot-scented air
with a big-orbed de Kooning Woman. Miss Orange Crush, whose
                    eyelids come in three flavors
and in the window of course it isn’t a window but smell in the night
blue snow and stars shooting roots
a precision of multiplicity

                    in a dark house sleep is sweetened by the Reinhardt
past passage of a new broom indistinguishable from air and silence
                    sleep knows as your nose knows aired linen
And if Brancusi made marble cry
                    “don’t touch, just you
                                                    kiss me”

and cursed Despiau, still:
those lustrous bronze you might go dancing cheek-to-cheek with—
Step down.
I want to think about Niles Spencer’s factory buildings
and a well-packed lunch box. Sandwiches wrapped in wax paper.
Hot coffee. An apple. Not a Delicious. A crisp yellow with flawed skin.

James Schuyler at the Chelsea Hotel, c. 1989
(Photograph by Robert Giard)

Thursday, March 25, 2010

“Without any irritable reaching . . .”


A Wall

Rain. A slogging day, un-made, prudence uncourt’d by incapacity. “On the abyss of the five senses, a flat sided steep frowns”: the present world. It’s in periods of doubt that one fossicks the boxes, turns up a new book. (In Markson’s Wittgenstein’s Mistress, isn’t there a solitary man rummaging through boxes of books, belongings of the dead? Memory’s a dreary station. “Expect poison from standing water.”) Okay, here’s something:
Everyone knows that in our literature an age of experimentalism is over and an age of recapitulation has begun; and few of us, I suspect, really regret it. How comfortable it is to be interested in literature in a time of standard acceptance and standard dissent—when the only thing more conventionalized that convention is revolt. How reassuring to pick up the latest book of the latest young novelist and to discover there familiar themes, familiar techniques—accompanied often by the order of skill available to the beginner when he is able (sometimes even with passionate conviction) to embrace received ideas, exploit established forms. Not only is the writing of really new books a perilous pursuit, but even the reading of such books is beset with dangers; and it is for this reason, I suppose, that readers are secretly grateful to authors content to rewrite the dangerous books of the past. A sense of déjà vu takes the curse off the whole ticklish enterprise in which the writer engages, mitigates the terror and truth which we seek in his art at the same time we cravenly hope that it is not there.
That’s Leslie Fiedler in 1960, in a prefatory note to John Hawkes’s The Lime Twig. Just prior to making the uncorking sound of tongue being pull’d out of cheek. (According to Fiedler, Hawkes is an experimentalist, the dissent he posits is hardly “standard”: “He is a lonely eccentric, a genuine unique—a not uncommon American case or at least one that used to be not uncommon.” Neither stirrer at the stove of “yesterday’s avant-garde rehashed,” nor “subscriber to the recent drift toward neo-middlebrow sentimentality.”) In Fiedler’s world, the “neo-middlebrow” is mark’d by “kitsch,” a quasi-religious (sentimental) ironizing (see “mitigates the terror”) of the loud tawdry of the familiar. Hash-slinging mark’d by—see Blake—“a confident insolence sprouting from systematic reasoning.” I suspect that, today, a half-century down along the road, things ain’t changed, though the rewriters of the “dangerous” arrive now in clumps, nigh-furry (“fury” wholly absent) in their familiarity—see Clement Greenberg’s “Kitsch changes according to style, but remains always the same.”

Guy Davenport, in “That Faire Field of Enna”:
Comedy is the salt of civilization [what must needs be, one longs to add, rubbed into its wounds], its critical voice. Having, through Christian charity and Stoic dignity, forbidden cruel laughter (the ancient Roman, like the Pygmy and the Dobu, thought the pain of others to be hilarious), civilized man evolved a comic spirit concerned with his own necessary barbarity, animality, and lapses of breeding.
And, later: “The comic spirit is forgiving, stands up for freedom and elasticity, and counters the corrosive power of evil by refusing to acknowledge its claim to dominance over the human spirit. Its real enemy is custom drained of significance; it is the ability of life to assert its claims no matter what social forms dictate.” “Custom drained of significance”: isn’t that exactly where “we” find ourselves today? (Greenberg again, out of “Avant-Garde and Kitsch” (1939): “The precondition for kitsch, a condition without which kitsch would be impossible, is the availability close at hand of a fully matured cultural tradition, whose discoveries, acquisitions, and perfected self-consciousness kitsch can take advantage of for its own ends. It borrows from it devices, tricks, stratagems, rules of thumb, themes, converts them into a system, and discards the rest.”) System, is this evidence of a system?
The sort of peaceful, happy feeling of
Relaxation on experiences there, one does not
To go back home. We used to visit Ushu enjoying
Snow covered hills in summer, gathering
Walnuts from the trees. I am 64 years old.

I am also looking for more information, some
Links and pics, trying to understand if I’ve
Arrived, if this sense of imminent decline I’ve known
Since I was a child might, in one of life’s ironies,
Be arrival. I know there are invasive species

Which can be dangerous, causing harm or even
Death to humans (e.g. brown tree snake).
I know that some of the chord names look odd.
I know some of the young men here tonight
From Norfolk State, others from Rocky Hill,

Still others from the Hot Springs Chapter.
I am 64 years old. It means so much to me
That you’re keeping Wyoming safe from them
While balancing on an oscillating platform.
My students made you these musical cards

That explode when opened. Could it be
We have no right to the words, these new
Font families and serifs, that only pure
Epistemic proceduralism can make good
Soldiers from a bunch of stoned recruits? No,

I am a 64-year-old veteran without insurance
In the lap of vegetative sky-high mountains.
I believe that Pushto is the greatest language.
I faced a lot of problems and we still have problems
(Lake of awareness, mishandling of systems).
That’s Ben Lerner, the second part (of six) of Topekan Ethos (The Song Cave, 2010). Is the “mishandling of systems” a knowing nudge? With that Lake (where one likely expects Loss), isn’t there a courteous nod here that says, Yes, the self-conscious mash’d-up flatting out of all this acquired verbal debris—leveling (hence, Lake) all down to a kind of smarmy inanity is only in order to reflect the corrupt “ethos” of a dying culture? I don’t know. I am only half-convinced. “I am 64 years old.” I want to read Lerner’s “Could it be / We have no right to the words” and talk of “pure / Epistemic proceduralism” (with the latter’s hint, de rigueur’dly mock’d by the next line—that’s the “system”—of the “write what you know” maxim versus the “looking for more information” browsing approach to assembling the poem) as another “courteous nod.” (“Epistemic proceduralism” in the world of political science apparently refers to a theory that claims democratically produced laws to be legitimate and authoritative because they are produced by a procedure with a tendency to make correct decisions. Procedure itself become a thinking machine. Is that kitsch?)

Capacity. In all likelihood imprudently reach’d.

Leslie Fiedler, 1917-2003

Wednesday, March 24, 2010

The Grand Piano Notes


Out a Window

Steve Benson begins: “To write and publish The Grand Piano’s ten volumes, the ten of us have to get along and find consensus over a period of more than ten years.” And one thinks: ten writers, ten years? Isn’t the result, the series of squib-fill’d little booklets rather puny for ten years effort? And what’s the meaning of “consensus”? What’s consensual about writing, that solitary pull and compendium—unless one’s engaging in political manoeuvres (or pre-sexual-gymnastickal hat-rabbitings)? No sense is offer’d anywhere of the Grand Piano playa process (though Benson talks rather darkly of the “pressure to participate on time in a situation hurtling forward on scarcely predictable telescoping of rhythms in various dimensions” and how it causes “acute stress and challenges concentration”—Ow. “In fact ouch.”) One sees only the progress, the booklet après-vetting, or -gutting, who knows? What is a “collective autobiography”? A thing less than the sum of its parts? Change for a Jackson dribbling through one’s fingers like toy money glinting in the setting suns of the mutually deluded?

What Benson offers: a return, unrepress’d and eternal, to the piece “Views of Communist China”—“A lengthy (Benson footnotes) tour of my apartment in the Mission District . . . conducted for attendees to a talk I announced I’d give at Francie and Bob’s South of Market loft, in which I’d arranged many of my home’s contents in roughly the same spatial relationships, bracketed with a spoken recitation of documentary material regarding life in contemporary China.” Good mileage is, one begins to think, everything, “in a situation hurtling forward,” &c. Parts of the 19 May 1977 VOCC (the aficionados say), subject of earlier GP frettings, appear’d in Bob Perelman’s 1980 Talks / Hills 6 / 7, is “forthcoming in Bob Perelman, ed., The Bay Area Talks (Salt, 2009),” and is slotted in—“as complete and unrevised as I could make it”—to the Kevin Killian and David Brazil-edit’d Kenning Anthology of Poet’s Theater, 1945-1985. There, Benson admits to an earlier (pre-Hills) copy, too: “Within a week after it was performed, I believe, I had made a photocopy eight and a half by eleven inch book with cover photos by John Harryman that I gave to a number of friends. I typed it up to see what it was, and then I was so impressed that I made the book.” Pretty good for a lot of basso profundo white boy inanities punctuated by the stoner’s giggles of G. P. Skratz (here, about “Steve’s word” “comfortable”—Watten’s like a toy poodle pestering a stuff’d duck):
barry: Whenever I use the word now I’m aware of Steve using, it, you know.
bob: Really?
barry: Oh absolutely. (Then, to Steve) That’s your word, you know, so.
francie: What?
bob: It’s Steve’s word, Barry says.
dorothy: Why is it Steve’s word?
barry: Well, I just think it has Steve’s name on it.
bob: You hear him saying it when you say it.
barry: Yeah. “I didn’t feel very comfortable.”
bob: Or, “I felt very comfortable.”
barry: “I felt very comfortable.”
g. p. skratz (laughing): Putting the past case scenario on it.
steve: Yeah, well, it’s, actually it’s not a word that I like.
Oddly enough, in the Kenning anthology, Benson’s dignify’d the transcript with last names (lending a plenary “documentary” air to the proceedings), and reinterpret’d the voices: “Francie” and “Dorothy” both become “Phillips.”

If there is little context offer’d in The Grand Piano series—surely there were other writerly and readerly goings-on in the vicinity, a “milieu” and backdrop for the self-stroking bas relief of the playas herein mutually meme-ing (pronounce it how one must)—one begins to see a kind of pathological self-regard play’d out in the form of a (subsequently) will’d denial of the “beyond” (meaning, history’s particulars, any that fail to advance the “consensus”). Benson writes:
Language poetry worked itself into the seams of the poetry scene in which it found itself. It appeared to precipitate around itself tendencies toward demonization and conflict, stigma and judgment, as means to cope with the defensiveness and disorientation it engendered. Language poets often felt refreshed and rewarded by our own experiences of doubt, perturbation, overwhelm, and lack of bearings in appreciating works of evident rigor and integrity. I recall we were often hurt, upset, angered, frustrated, and surprised at the negative reactions to such work by others, who saw it as a problem unacceptable to them. We often had a problem ourselves with others averring limits or boundaries to us as a group.
Hence, the “collective.” There’s a kind of double-talk here (“experiences of doubt” versus “evident rigor and integrity”; “worked itself into the seams” versus “appeared to precipitate around itself”) along with a total refusal to name names, that is, to insert a fact into the vaguely psychological muzz. (One’s remind’d of Harryman’s cartoonish claim that “in a moment of abandon, a soon-to-be mainstream poet who worked with me at the Poetry Center declared, ‘I believe in the dictatorship of the proletariat.’” And: “Because I was a Language writer, I had to be careful what I said if I wanted to be secure in my job: when my boss insulted my boyfriend, I kept my mouth shut.”) Innuendo and lack of clarity repeatedly upped into fraught intensities that attempt to serve for sincerity, that’s one reading of The Grand Piano project. (Or is it “art”? Benson, about the writing that becomes Blue Book: “I dropped any presumption to truth, aiming my sincerity at my own level of interest and my care to maximize alertness, to minimize enforcement of any other standards, so these blue books could be art.”)

Benson ends (and one senses he’s addressing the cohort): “There are lots of other sides to this subject.” And, after running through some—“Saying the wrong thing and not saying anything. Making art that wasn’t likely to change the world”—allows doubt to pervade the consensus: “Missing things. The disquieting sense something is wrong. What’s the matter? What are you talking about?” I recall what Thoreau wrote to James Russell Lowell, who, editing a piece for the Atlantic Monthly, ’d expurgated a line out of “Chesuncook,” one of Thoreau’s Maine Woods essays, a line about a pine tree: “It is as immortal as I am, and perchance will go to as high a heaven, there to tower above me still.” Thoreau, furious, wrote to Lowell (22 June 1858) that he had “no more right to omit a sentiment than to insert one, or put words into my mouth. . . . I am not willing to be associated in any way, unnecessarily, with parties who will confess themselves so bigoted & timid as this implies. I could excuse a man who was afraid of an uplifted fist, but if one manifests fear at the utterance of a sincere thought, I must think that his life is a kind of nightmare continued into broad daylight.”

“We often had a problem . . . with others averring limits or boundaries to us as a group . . .”

Tuesday, March 23, 2010

The Grand Piano Notes


Out a Window

Carla Harryman, sashaying filmic, intersplices frames out of a “current” piece (call’d “Siren Diary,” it is dated “academic style,” various summer months of 2009, Detroit, Berlin, Pittsburgh, &c.) with a hubbub of other material, some seemingly personal (“Detroit, 2009: vacant love in a vast storage container held up by a rickety tent sharing ground with the world’s most powerful grinder”—try drawing a picture of that); some attempting, by means of tinier dumps, asyntactic burps and projectiles (one supposes—there’s some obligatory reference to Brecht’s Verfremdungseffekt—it’s all to combat the injudicious glaze that descends reading lines like “We see that the rhetoric of narrative can create narrative effects with or without conventional rules of narration or fiction”—though one begins, reading such programmatic intrusions as, say—
Although I did enthusiastically returned to the bowels of the earth for renewal* engage in it, I could not simply throw myself into the “cause for the advancement of radical literature” without also experiencing you speculated about why more women poets did not myself as distant from “literature,” “cause,” or “radical”
—to wonder if, some three-quarters of a century later, noise in the signal isn’t precisely the thing that puts one into the trance the V-effekt’s design’d to dislodge. Predictable jutting out italics unleash’d like men with crewcuts, striding up and down, chewing gum, barking commands: I certainly doze off in retaliatory slumber.

Too, in the hotch-potch, there’s a dusty-trail reading of the rather befittingly-titled (see: “You woke me up a little, alerted me to an invigorating specificity of personal gesture and thinking world. You were sophisticated and urbane . . . I observed you to be very well educated, combining higher education with autodidactic inclinations necessary to art making”) Creeley story, “The Gold Diggers”: “We read truncated rhythms, discontinuities, that bring us close to the shuffled edge between poetry and prose. The sequence is anti-heroic: the land and not the man ‘rides out.’” There’s a story of, c. 1970, composing a work for flute “based on the first several pages of the Sirens chapter” of Ulysses: “I experienced the text as a direct translation from language to music.” (That’s one “innocent” explanation. The jargon-wielding one refers to how Harryman’s resistance “to the content in Joyce” was, “in a sense,” “resistance to, or playful appropriation of, a structure of knowledge passed down by modernism’s patriarchal imperatives.” The sort of thing that’s easier to puppet than it looks.)

There’s a report of a “clip” of Jeanne Moreau in Antonioni’s La Notte (“As she walks through the city, men notice her, following her with their eyes, sometimes indifferently, sometimes not. She glances backward, almost punctually, to see them looking”), using which Harryman intends to, with Konrad Steiner, do “a little neo-Benshi project” (footnote by Harryman: “A recent innovative practice of ‘talking over a film,’ initiated by Konrad Steiner in San Francisco”—though I’d swear I used, sucking down reefer, to giggle about John Belushi or somebody doing precisely that Saturday nights in the early ’seventies, to say nothing of Woody Allen’s 1966 “What’s Up, Tiger Lily” dub-ploys.) And there’s “heroic phase” reminiscing, the “attack in Poetry Flash”; “My friends, you and I, had been under fire for a while”; “‘Language writing’ was made up by uneasiness of the speaker someone who didn’t like it or us”; and—funny considering the more recently adopt’d mode of compleat “distance” and disregard of critical antagonisms—“Did you feel as I did, that it would have been a crime to distance yourself from the accusations? Assaults informed us we were doing something scary with language.” (Ah, brave youths!)

Difficult to figure what Harryman thinks a reader’ll “make” of her rather indulgent feints and havocs. Here, say something like (not part of the “Siren Diary”):
      The writer is figured between history and now. The writing door to your Berkeley house, kitchen, workplace, yard carpeted in a tasty bitter lettuce will be contradictory. It will reflect conditions of physical displacement and confusion between personal and public life. You will come upon sentences these spirits move too quickly** faltering or skipping your platform shoes around in paragraphs. You will find phrases interrupting the flow of the sentence. I am enlisting alienation effects without relinquishing the subject (my subjectivity) to the future’s greater good. She is still here arguing with her optimism or sense of well-being, without which she does not write.
      I am attempting to create an impression of a state of mind I was in thirty to forty years ago, something I had to get control of I didn’t choose to talk about no one to drive the car poetry in order to write. I can still experience that feeling, alienated, but not alien to my subjective experience.
Doesn’t the writing merely reflect a method slouching into a (period) style? Is one compell’d to bother with the identity of that floating “you” (here and throughout)? (Watten mostly, though Silliman (“You later became the editor of Socialist Review”) too, and didn’t Rae Armantrout make proud mention of a pair of platform shoes?) Why the seemingly gratuitous nod to Williams’s “To Elsie”? Is it to remind one that “The pure products of America / go crazy—”? Or is it to point to Williams’s counter-“collective” insistence that “It is only in isolate flecks that / something / is given off // No one / to witness / and adjust, no one to drive the car”? I don’t any nod’s gratuitous know (hereafter I eschew knowing).

* Harryman notes that the “bowels” line’s out of the 1999 Charles Olson and France Boldereff: A Modern Correspondence, edit’d by Ralph Maud and Sharon Thesen. Not all the noise-makers get identify’d, though there’s a preponderance of lines out of Harryman’s own work. Reading lately an exchange of letters between Hugh Kenner and Adeline Glasheen, author of A Census of ‘Finnegans Wake’: An Index of the Characters and Their Roles (1956, with revised and expand’d editions in 1963 and 1977), I come up against (7 March 1975, Glasheen to Kenner):
I read in the NY Times review of yr new book that you don’t much like Olson. No more do I. You maybe entertained to know that, according to Sean Golden (was at the Ulysses marathon reading at Wesleyan) Miss Boldereff (our crazy FW woman) was Olson’s longtime sweetheart. Sean said Olson wrote on FW. I wonder, did he write some of Miss B . . .? Anyway a couple of Olson cultists (one from U Conn, one from Penn) were about to search the Pennsylvania Mountains, trying to find Miss Boldereff. All good American stories are by Henry James.
Boldereff design’d and publish’d a number of books on Finnegans Wake under her own name and pseudonyms: Reighard Motz, Thomasine Rose, Frances Phipps.

** “This is an extract these spirits move too quickly from a critique of Cartesian tranquility.” Part of Harryman’s note (apparently invaded, it, too). She references Catherine Clément’s “Choosing Night,” in Syncope.


“. . . we were doing something scary with language . . .”

Monday, March 22, 2010

The Literary and the Not


Green Light

Usual weekend brand of fretting and anomie avail’d naught by anodyne of (partial) sun. Book-browsing in the used emporia dislodges a tiny Penguin Poets Auden c. 1958, Auden sounding increasingly like Ashbery (“I know a retired dentist who only paints mountains” or “The wind has dropped and we have lost our public, / The faceless many who always / Collect when any world is to be wrecked”) and the “Medieval” volume of the Georges Duby-edit’d History of Private Life with its talk of smell and seduction: “Henri de Mondeville provides several techniques for eliminating body odors and adding fragrance to the hair with the help of musk, cloves, nutmeg, and cardamom. In one allegorical lay, women living in a lover’s paradise wear crowns of rose and eglantine and give off a pleasant fragrance. The Idle Lady in the Roman de la rose has the seductive advantage of a “sweet and perfumed breath,” and in the Chastoiement des dames women are advised to eat anise, fennel, and cumin for breakfast. It is wise not to get too close: ‘In the course of amorous combat do not allow yourself to be embraced, for unpleasant odors are more of a problem when you are overheated.’” Recalling a paragraph in Hugh Kenner’s A Sinking Island: The Modern English Writers that I keep marveling at:
In 1911 Lloyd George proposed a rapid fix for some of the Industrial Revolution’s accumulated damage. In the most industrialized country in the world, 4d. deducted weekly (by compulsion) from your wages would be added to 3d. from your employer and 2d. from the taxpayer. For that you’d be insured against sickness. Over furious opposition, his National Insurance Bill passed. Thirty-three years later Britons would be hearing of “cradle-to-grave” security against everything save paid busybodies. Neither fiction nor poetry took stock of such matters . . .
That at the end of a bit about Joseph Conrad who wrote (mostly) of “the taut autonomy of seamen.” And pointing to Kenner’s next chapter wherein he says, plainly, right off the bat: “One distinction between poems and novels was that poems got printed with an irregular right-hand margin, and another was that novels contained overt information but poems did not. The sheer informative power of popular fiction should be reckoned with.” Making the two parallel (and, by sheer alignment, equally obvious to the reader—though that’s hardly the case). Kenner notes somewhere how “reckon” (in the English novel) is used “to denote American speech” (“Strand Magazine realism”)—and here he is, reckoning, pragmatic, swift, American. Style may be the thing reading Kenner is for.

How measure the “sheer informative power” of la poesía norteamericana? Along a few pages or so Kenner gets to talking about early Yeats, the poems made “out of a mouthful of air,” cadence-drubbing lullabies (“Yeats’s effects were hypnotic, seldom semantic, . . . minds moved as through a thick, delicious syrup”). And, he quotes Peter Makin (out of Pound’s Cantos) on the drab ocular and aural slithery of the period:
Yeats in 1895, as Peter Makin reminds us, could draw on skills his English predecessors had been elaborating for seventy-five years. Applying these entailed confinement within
. . . a special area of images (tender, woven, mouse-grey, solitary, gold, silver, wandering, veils) and of diction (“chaunt,” high”; boughs” and not “branches”; “seek” and not “look for,” “cry” and not “shout,” “breast not “chest,” “wend” not “go”). Also of sound: the consonants and vowels in these words, for example, help to select them as being suitable for collocation in patterns of the soft and keening alternating with sharp sudden cries.
And “it took most of the nineteenth century to get from Keats via Tennyson and Morris” to the cunning elaborations of W. B. Yeats.
Which, that unfact’d slurry that somehow rather “sounds like” a poem—is it kibosh’d even now, a hundred or so years later? Randomly, out of Bin Ramke’s Theory of Mind: New & Selected Poems (Omnidawn, 2009), a 1999 piece call’d “A Little Ovid Late in the Day”:
It is late in the day
to outlive the words:
tales of incest, corruption,
any big, mythic vice
against the color of sun,
the sweetness of the time of day—
I know the story,
it is the light I care about.
The book falls from my hands
and I know all the stories,
I know better than that.
They glitter in the grass.
This is fun in the summer,
the sun descending onto my back,
the weight of eight light-minutes
warm there against skin.
Someone will read aloud to me
when I have forgotten the words,
the look they make against the page,
the kind of stain it is against the paper.
Nothing that’ll cut anybody there. Imprecise light, clumsy hands, stories, words—a smeary monotony (lens cover’d with Vaseline) of visuals (even the grass-fallen stories fail to “glitter”), no rhythmic punch (“This is fun in the summer”-style casualness everywhere), nothing liable to boost a pulse out of its twilit “Taps”-blowing beat: poésie sans raison d’être et sans oomph. The specificity of, say, a Walmart parking lot’d mar the literary “wrought.” (One’d halt well in advance of Ford Madox Ford’s label (for Tennyson’s languid pieties) of “subnauseating sissiness”—though, looking about the American poetic landscape, isn’t there a deep sludge of what Ford calls “the self-indulgence generated by the refusal to contemplate reality end[ing] in a complete literary slovenliness . . . inattention to form either of sentence or of stories . . . tautology . . . limp verbiage”?) Here, again randomly (with its etymology intact, that is to say, impetuously, galloping, probably unjustly—see ransom), the initial half of Barbara Claire Freeman’s “In the Garden of the Carelessly Sequenced” (out of Incivilities (Counterpath, 2010):
The primary line
wherever your

hand has lain

folded, pasted, torn
your anytime minutes

contrapuntal to recurring

transfers, the three-way
call, thee, thee,
and thee in

multiples of one
my constancy, your cross
borne even at the heart-

land’s edge.
As Baxter Hathaway wrote c. 1980 to a persistent supplier (returning some books nobody’d order’d): “What we have here I do not know.” That comes out of mere literary desire, and evades completely the saying of anything. Talking about Ford, Kenner skids into a distinction between “aesthetic” and “documentary” traditions that he says he owes to conversation with Basil Bunting. Of Ford:
      A powerful tradition reinforced his distrust of imaginative leaps. Along with Kipling of the brassy finish and Hardy of the studied awkwardness, he derives from Browning, who derived from Wordsworth, who despite his friendship with Coleridge is not to be associated with Coleridge but with Crabbe, and, standing behind Crabbe, the Augustans; and behind them all stand Ben Jonson. This is the “documentary” tradition, over against which, in the nineteenth century, stood the “aesthetic” tradition: Keats, Coleridge, Tennyson, Swinburne, Yeats. It was the aesthetic tradition that absorbed Symbolism, so far as English could absorb that highly French affair, and out of the aesthetic-Symbolist fusion stems Eliot.
      The Aesthetic tradition has so dominated critical thought that the documentary tradition goes unrecognized, and its writers get seen as inept aestheticians. There seems to be no historian of these affairs.
What about Ben Lerner? (What’s in reach, &c.) Here’s three chunks out of Mean Free Path (Copper Canyon, 2010):
Her literature is irrelevant to October
Anna of all the Russias, whose body was
An ideal October that has yet to obtain
A face. October approached asymptotically
By tanks. The leaves turn night-vision
Anna, do you see how the sand-sized particles
Of the true October rise from the asphalt
Like fireflies whose bodies are night-vision
Neither do I. The irrelevant I. The I of all

                            α

It will develop recursively or not at all
The new closure. In lieu of fixed outlines
Modulating color. If concentrated light
Strikes the leaf, part is reflected through
The droplet, producing a white glow around
The genre. It’s like the whispering gallery
The fighter pilot sees his shadow on the cloud
Crossed with the Wailing Wall. We can’t
Distinguish rounds of ammunition from

                            α

Applause. Speak plainly. Keep your hands
On the table. Do not flee into procedure
Do not wait for a surpassing disaster
To look your brother in the eye and speak
Of love. Make no mistake: the disjunction
The disjunction stays. Do not hesitate
To cut the most beautiful line in the name
Of form. The bread of words. Look for me
At genre’s edge. I’m going there on foot
Nigh-impossible not to read that as a viva voce response to the aesthetic / documentary rift. Elaine Feinstein’s Anna Akhmatova biography—how any approach (to art, to a life) is made “asymptotically”—line approaching nearer and nearer a curve, unable, in any finite distance, to meet. (A concept applicable to the signifier’s pursuit of the signified; to the “irrelevant I”’s ever-vex’d relation to the “I of all”—and isn’t that a terrific shrugging off of “literary slovenliness,” that “Neither do I” after the outré “do you see how the sand-sized particles / Of the true October rise from the asphalt / Like fireflies whose bodies are night-vision”?—; to recursivity’s sidelong approach to “closure.”) There is, here, not only information and its detritus (“If concentrated light / Strikes the leaf, part is reflected through / The droplet, producing a white glow”—though the “around / The genre” that follows seems coy, rather precious, unnecessary; the “Look for me / At genre’s edge” with its wonderful echo of Whitman’s “under your boot-soles” is plainer), there is—audaciously—instruction: “Do not flee into procedure / Do not wait for a surpassing disaster / To look your brother in the eye and speak / Of love.” That’s post-ironic teaching, made possible by Lerner’s wholly elastic form: “In lieu of fixed outlines / Modulating color.” If one sought a kind of stand-easy exemplary for how Mean Free Path manages to have things both ways, documentary and aesthetic, one’d need only look at: “Do not hesitate / To cut the most beautiful line in the name / Of form.” “Cut” meaning remove, banishing beauty’s pushy solecisms, warring so wondrously with “cut” meaning carve, sculpting pure sensuous form.

Ben Lerner

Friday, March 19, 2010

The Grand Piano Notes


A Wall

Ron Silliman originally post’d the whole of “Furthest Up the Trail”—a memoir of the recently deceased David Bromige (along with some assessment of Bromige’s work, particularly the 1980 The Figures volume My Poetry): I note now that only a few paragraphs of the piece remain, rather crassly serving as a teaser for The Grand Piano’s booklet numéro nine. Ah, marketing, how it stabs even at the figure behind the tawdry arras of one’s most negligible (and tenacious) delusions. It’s no accident that Silliman, whose own (incipient) poetics admittedly differ’d with Bromige’s (“it proved easier for David & I to talk aesthetics by not talking about poetry” and “since it was too charged, maybe too dangerous, to talk about poetry directly, David & I talked cinema instead, letting Ingmar Bergman in particular stand in as a surrogate in our conversations for Duncan”—one longs to know the identity then of the Silliman-surrogate, and the Bromige-surrogate), seems compleatly unable to read Bromige’s predominantly humorist / satiric mettle. Bromige’s “stance,” primarily that of the roving gadfly, gently mocking earnest seriousness of any stripe (and its shabby pretense that makes its mark by sheer unrival’d doggedness), is directly antithetical to Silliman’s own. If Silliman’s work is mark’d by single-mindedness, a narrow exploratory niche of sentence-making limit’d by an insistence on sentence arrangements that consistently thwart writerly gusto, that offer all the sense of advancement or pursuit of a toggle switch, a series of zeroes and ones, on, off, the sound of a man rattling the same lock’d door again and again—Bromige’s poetry is exemplary of a marvelously mongrel diversity (some’d say too diffuse, never adopting a style), swift and prolific, and pointedly willing to try anything. Evidence of that inability to read: surely, to connect Bromige’s lines “Whoever stood furthest up the trail was master / of the trail”—the beginning of a leisurely romp through invention and desire with more than an uptick of easy derision for the shrill (self-will’d) hierarchies of “mastery”—the piece continues
. . . which for the most part climbs
through a beautiful if crowded forest, though the final four or five
hundred yards rise
above the tree-line, across tricky scree, & end
at that peak which is also the scarp-edge, a steep
& despite the rumors, inaccessible drop
on one side, the shallow slope on the other, where the wood
grows, that is mainly conifers.
To be master
meant, to gather all those things the ownership of which
proves masterhood, a tribute
all other travelers are bound to pay. . . .
—to connect that, à la Silliman, to Olson’s “What does not change / is the will to change” seems to evince nothing beyond a “will to misread.” Isn’t there in that “peak which is also the scarp-edge, a steep / & despite the rumors, inaccessible drop” an undoing of any hint of seriousness in the idea of anyone’s being “furthest up the trail”—isn’t it ample evidence of what Silliman calls Bromige’s “twinkly wit” (“that gave me the impression that had Charles Dickens been alive and a New American poet, he would have been very much like this fellow” is what Silliman adds, vying, he, too, for levity, and gaining only a somewhat disturbing conjunct of flea-bit Victoriana under that “epoch-making” flag-daub’d cover, looking like a coyote caught in Kleig light. (See Joseph Beuys’s “action” call’d “I Like America and America Likes Me,” three days with a wholly dyspeptic coyote: meaninglessness complicity.) As Bromige writes (in “Indictable Suborners”—plenty of those about): “. . . what does not change could prove the will to change the topography of Cutknife.”

Elsewhere: typical, full-throttle grating mode Silliman, the one-two combo of rampant over-statement and unrestrain’d ego (or vice-versa). The temporal (and spatial) provincialism of the man is astounding—that unfetter’d blind asserting of one’s own milieu’s essential historical place indomitable. Just read a paragraph and count the grandeur-assumptions:
      Poetry underwent a more rapid series of changes in the 70s than during any other decade since World War II, most likely because of pent-up demand. Much of the revolution wrought by the New American poetries twenty years earlier had seemed more pronounced at first, not because the likes of Charles Olson or Frank O’Hara were overturning any great status quo, but because the enforced disappearance of the objectivists, most of whom were out of print & not publishing during the 40s (and in several cases, not writing as well), disrupted the evolution of modernism after Pound, Williams, H.D., Joyce & Stein. As the objectivists came back into print—George Oppen’s 1962 edition of The Materials, two years after the Donald Allen anthology, marks the beginning—the Poundian Maximus & Whitmanian Howl no longer seemed such a dramatic break with American poetry as it had been practiced on this side of the Atlantic.
(As opposed to, one guesses, how American poetry ’d got “practiced” over in Europe?) History as innuendo. Silliman’s willing to slight both Black Mountain and the New York School—and the Beats—in a transparent jostling attempt to make historical room—“lineage, lineage, lineage” is the arriviste’s motto—for himself and cohort. The second half of the ’seventies—with its “pent up demand” (what could that possibly mean in the context? demand for what exactly?) is, of course, “Grand Piano time”—it’s demarcated there sur la couverture: “San Francisco, 1975-1980.” Like a territorial squirt.

“. . . it was too charged, maybe too dangerous, to talk about poetry directly . . .”

Thursday, March 18, 2010

Matutinal (In Four Movements)


Rubbish

Morning’s prithee-scorning need to attach itself (“invading”) to the first object it encounters, and truss it up. Whatever moves, grab it. Today, something of Ted Berrigan’s (out of The Sonnets):
XXXVII

It is night. You are asleep. And beautiful tears
Have blossomed in my eyes. Guillaume Apollinaire is dead.
The big green day today is singing to itself
A vast orange library of dreams, dreams
Dressed in newspaper, wan as pale thighs
Making vast apple strides towards “The Poems.”
“The Poems” is not a dream. It is night. You
Are asleep. Vast orange libraries of dreams
Stir inside “The Poems.” On the dirt-covered ground
Crystal tears drench the ground. Vast orange dreams
Are unclenched. It is night. Songs have blossomed
In the pale crystal library of tears. You
Are asleep. A lovely light is singing to itself,
In “The Poems,” in my eyes, in the line, “Guillaume
      Apollinaire is dead.”
A thing that—amazingly, for such a short piece, a miniature of what The Sonnets do, slinging out repetitions with no sense of irony or effort (or artifice, a slightly bemused shrug-off tone thwarts the possible preciosity)—unclenches its own history as it goes, and drenches itself in it. Suppose one were to “apply” these lines of Auden’s (out of the unfinish’d The Prolific and the Devourer) to it?
“What are beyond those hills? More hills.”
      Paradise is a state of harmony of understanding. We are always entering paradise but only for a moment, for in the instant of achieving a harmony we become aware that the whole which had previously seemed the limit of our consciousness is in its turn part of a larger whole and that there is a new disharmony to be reconciled.
      This awareness that paradise must be continually lost, that if we try to remain in it Paradise will turn into Hell, is the pain of Purgatory, La nostalgie des adieux.
Odd semantickal careering out of control: one detects nostalgie de la boue sonically grunting under the godly tympanum of that nostalgie des adieux, mud and God, another speculum (or lens) for seeing how Paradise and Hell differ little, though the road betwixt (disharmony, that process, unreconciled) go “burning with nonchalance” along. (“What are beyond those hills?” is, Gallic évidemment insert’d, the exploratory stance of the mid-sentence writer—the leg swinging out in the big green day’s air like a sack of trout only to bump against the “dirt-covered ground,” that boue, allowing the other leg its lift-off and trajectory.) Auden (The Orators): “Continuity is that the existence of a whole results from the sum of its parts. Discontinuity is that its nature cannot be inferred from theirs. The enemy’s two ways of attack.”

Second movement. Memories of navigating c. 1972 a behemoth of a bald-tire’d Ford wagon up to the summit of Clingman’s Dome in the Smokies, mid spring blizzard: definition of “What are beyond those hills? More hills.” Memories of a snub-nosed revolver of a neurologist (surround’d by a laconic, gawky gang of neurology sub-docs) striding into my post-stroke room and—obviously pleased with himself—asking if I were capable of repeating: “Round the rampant rugged rocks / Rude and ragged rascals run.” (I reply’d, “You mean the Auden line?” and hardly succeed’d in marring the Roscoe’s bluing.) Is it the rolling thunder of the r’s that cause me to recall one British surrealist, Roger Roughton, a sort of Charles Bernstein of the day, another who (like Auden pre-Prolific and the Devourer) so desperately want’d to believe verbal inanity itself had a political role that he wrote things like: “Surrealist work, while not calling directly for revolutionary intervention, can be classed as revolutionary in so far as it can break down irrational bourgeois-taught prejudices, thus preparing the mental ground for positive revolutionary thought and action.” Stepped up a notch to syntactical “tactics,” all too familiar.

Auden’s title’s out of Blake (“The Marriage of Heaven and Hell”):
      Thus one portion of being, is the Prolific. the other, the Devouring: to the devourer it seems as if the producer was in his chains, but it is not so, he only takes portions of existence and fancies that the whole.
      But the Prolific would cease to be Prolific unless the Devourer, as a sea received the excess of his delights.
Plowing about the Blake (third movement), one snares, too: “The cistern contains: the fountain overflows / One thought. fills immensity. / Always be ready to speak your mind, and a base man will avoid you.” (That avoidance, here in the present “low dishonest decade,” is unmistakably evident—and galling—in the power-silence tactic adopt’d by the various high-ranking former grunts. See, too, Blake’s “The tygers of wrath are wiser than the horses of instruction.”) What is striking in the Blake though is how the lovely “One thought. fills immensity” recalls in sly reverse Giuseppe Ungaretti’s floody miniature “Mattina”: “M’illumino / d’immenso.” Blake’s happy insolence is to make the word itself (“thought”) the incendiary device: the song is what brings the sun up and clocks the universe, kapow! Worth the remembering, too—that Ted Berrigan did up a version of the Ungaretti piece that he titled “Matinee”:
Morning
                  (ripped out of my mind again!)
(And elsewhere: “A lovely light is singing to itself . . .”)

Atypique, a scherzo for the fourth. Early, in 1836, John Stuart Mill is saying: “Books, of any solidity, are almost gone by.” (In Kenner’s A Sinking Island, the book, solid enough, I found myself reading yesterday in lieu of the “assign’d” Grand Piano.) Talk therein of the minuscule and popular penny press (Tit-Bits, The Strand Magazine) stories and “Inquiry Column” pieces—“Has a duel on bicycles ever taken place?” Answer: “(Not long ago, in Spain, between Señores Moreno and Perez; “and it ended fatally for the latter.” The weapons were knives.)”—recalls (“low dishonest decade” redux) nothing so much as today’s nigh-substanceless tooters and networkers. Bah. “Guillaume Apollinaire is dead.”

W. H. Auden, c. 1969
(Photograph by Harry Redl)

Wednesday, March 17, 2010

The Grand Piano Notes


A Wall

Back to The Grand Piano’s ninth booklet. Is the uncanny (unheimlich) for Tom Mandel the loss of any sense of difference between “solitude” and “irony”? I am trying—“my head in my hands” (a phrase Mandel uses indefatigably, chorusing himself with point’d alarums of detachment—one pictures Sarah Bernhardt playing Hamlet, skull in hand, recalling “a fellow of infinite jest” or the cephalophorick Saint Denis walking six miles out of Montmartre—L. mons martyrium—preaching a sermon the entire way)—to “unpack” the bum-rush of alogy and illation (“wild inference” or “pennies in the cuspidor”—recall Sir Thomas Browne’s masterly “The Alogie of this opinion consisteth in the illation”) that tugs reason by its ever-lengthening nose here:
. . . I am rarely at a loss or on the defensive when alone if you can believe a first-person statement like that. Solitude suited me in those years, and it made me someone solitude still suits.
      Though overstated to the point of being ridiculous, and false as well, I don’t want to remove that last sentence. . . .
      Even a taste or a kiss is not mine to experience until, a moment after it occurs, it is “present”—so that only the past is real, and turning to it the mind applies all the armature of its attitudes. Most often in my case, that armature is irony, and probably I should replace solitude in the sentence above with irony. And then replace irony with memory.
That’s a rather desultory fillip, words flung at the wall to see if they’ll adhere. “Irony suited me in those years, and it made me someone irony still suits.” One of my difficulties with any exchange that hitches “solitude” to “irony” is how irony itself cannot exist without a Doxa, that is, a crowd-determined sense of congruity the adroit plying against which supplies irony’s dissembling with its pretense and qui vive (probably I should replace fillip in the sentence above with philippic?) How be ironic to oneself? “Memory suited me in those years, and it made me someone memory still suits.” One senses a tautological precipice, a dizzying round of replaceables: “2 + 2 = 4,” says Dostoevsky, “c’est un mur.”

One begins to note such slipshod prestidigitations throughout Mandel’s squib. He notes a “Grand Piano e-mail” by Ron Silliman wherein Silliman speaks of (what else?) “categorizing . . . putting the pointy stones (good for spearheads) into one pile and the rounder ones (better for throwing) into another” (the tribalist fantasies in that “camp” must be nigh unbearable; one notes how the (presumably metaphorickal) weaponry exceeds by several degrees the usual tepid sorting of le Ron publique.) Then, Mandel writes:
If figures of speech (acts of intellect) begin in juxtaposition and move through increasingly complex ways of framing things with respect to one another, if Zukofsky’s title “A” juxtaposes in one letter musical tone, individuation, beginning, creation, and more, think of the effects of scale inherent in Ron’s title The Alphabet.
Le grandeur des titres? Is that what we’re talking about? That’s a sentence biting off more than it is capable of chewing. By Mandel’s logic, a title like The Numbers ’d supply something approaching an infinity of “effects of scale” (whatever that ’d possibly mean). Mandel admits, too, rather awkwardly, that it is “Curious how often when I turn to write The Grand Piano, my mind offers me memories from the year or so I spent in Paris in the early 70s—rather than . . . the San Francisco years when most of [us] met and about which we have undertaken to write.” (Increasingly one senses the collective aspect of the The Grand Piano failing, each “member” dribbling off, re-running a conference paper here, digging around in some private Idaho there. Oughtn’t citoyen Watten or s.o. of similar Napoleonic mien muster the troops and prevent it all snowballing out of control?)

En effet, Mandel’s piece exhibits all the trademark Mandelesque puffery: the coy mention of “H      who later became one of the world’s most famous movie stars,” an inordinary number of the dead peopling a childhood (“a man, limbs splayed out across the bushes in a position they cannot have chosen but only wound up in” or “the day I rode my bike to Belmont Harbor after a seiche had receded; a body was laid out on the cement walkway tagged at the toe”), an encounter with the perfectly named “Angolan revolutionary” Carlos Bello-Belli in Paris (“he asked me for my passport, would I as it were lose it—into his possession?” and “he asked if I would agree to assassinate someone, an enemy of the Angolan struggle. I would be smuggled into another city; a gun would be put into my hands . . .”) (Sadly, for Mandel’s story, he refuses each proposal.) Oddly, there is a point in Mandel’s report where he cuts loose, drops pretence, and sallies forth into writing unconstrain’d by prop and nuance, unscript’d for effect, sheer lyrical outburst. He’s caught himself somewhere in a nether region between memory and the memory of a memory (“There is a line that cannot curve must always verge proceeding from an obscured Western horizon to straiten about me, my observation, my sight, the ‘what’ I see, this man or is it a body. Is that line ‘history’—already at that age—events in memory I constantly want to rewrite?”) and, as if suddenly struck by how untenably he’s perch’d (visible in the incoherency of the sentences), he launches into:
I need to think of something else, and so transfixed before the body’s awkward spread of limbs I devise an arc of thought, like a ball thrown rising then falling, that leads elsewhere in the park, to the softball field at evening, my face pressed against a wire fence watching the “clincher,” as Chicago softballers call the odd sixteen-inch circumference ball they employ, rise from the pitcher’s hand, slow-pitch, then fall towards the force with which a batter about six inches forward from his body but just within the batter’s box meet is in an instant of contact, a great simple sound that can be represented in memory but not described, and which at this moment seems akin to the force itself, the force I mean with which one alters memory; whereupon an abrupt change in the ball’s vector occurs as at speed it disappears into the night air of bugs swarming in arc lights while the batter takes off towards first base and the people around me rise taking in then giving back their breath and I hold mine to know whether I can until the ball is either caught or strikes the ground then turn to observe the four or five rows of bleachers where people hop up and down excitedly or sigh in disappointment I can’t remember which.
Up into the bleacher seats, courtesy of romantic desire and extend’d metaphor un-eschew’d. A Language writing foul ball, according to the ump.

Sarah Bernhardt in Hamlet

“. . . increasingly complex ways of framing things . . .”