Wednesday, September 12, 2012

Reading Notes (Chris Nealon’s The Dial)

Audrey Hepburn and Gregory Peck in Roman Holiday, 1953

How it is of late. Longing for nothing beyond the momentary skitter and dip. Begrudging the certainty of argument, the inflicting spiel. To be semi-comatose amongst half-reveries, revved like a shuttered terrapin by what’s occluded. I do not like things for themselves in their thingness, and solitary objects repel me. The logic of the pointedly discerned repels me. The hectoring juice repels me. (Hart Crane, that tiny sighing burst in the middle of “For the Marriage of Faustus and Helen”: “There is the world dimensional for / those untwisted by the love of things / irreconcilable . . .” Meaning dwells, if dwell it doth, in its refusals of the merely conciliatory, in its impertinence, its uprootings. Crane’s line akin, mayhap, to something Louis Zukofsky writes in “A”-19: “Intellect / resigned to / less is / susceptible at / least to / the range / of two / sides of / a coin.”*) Why, then, my discomfiture at the sense of emergent smug righteousness in lines out of Chris Nealon’s The Dial (The Song Cave, 2012), talking about what “my friends were up against”:
First: other poets

      the ones who’ve always said it’s arrogant to have
            a politics

      the ones who worry that we’re going to spoil
            the last untainted thing

Then: the police—bearing down on them on campus
      —later massed against them in the       squares

Finally capital—unconcerned with poetry—at least as
      long as poetry never became a metaphor for
            fighting back—

For years this meant my poems would settle on a
      mixture of defiance and wistfulness . . .
(An oddly inverted list—and, at its verge, surely, a species of grandiosity moos wildly, needing to be milked.) Evident un peu partout: the besieged “friends.” There’s “Anne // your poem about the restoration of the world—”; there’s “Joshua / . . . / . . . Installed in the customs house and barring the way”; there’s (echoing, without intending, Carolyn Forché’s terribly sentimental lines to a lost childhood friend in “As Children Together”—“If you read this poem, write to me. / I have been to Paris since we parted”) “Juliana”:
            Oh and Juliana if you read this—

            I tried to be a peasant looking at a picture
of an angel but I couldn’t believe in love until I got
                        to the creation of the animals—
How is one to read “The Dial”? It’s a roughly sixteen-page piece, diffuse, airy, wit-chocked. “‘I’m only the narrator, I can’t be everywhere at once’” it announces early, though that “narrator” voyages ceaselessly. He’s “humpbacked like a scholar on the train to / Baltimore . . . triumphantly scrawling”; he reports the “choppy water bouncing me toward Marco Polo— / . . . / —somewhere off to my right the grave / of Ezra Pound”; he’s avoiding “megachurches, chain hotels // & Concourse B” and—in a terrific phrase—the “arrogant—the arrogance of men who’ve really / only managed to be born / into the hegemon—”; he’s caught out in a shallow reverie of “late America” (“You with your tremors and your three-toed cane // You with your unmerciful athletic beauty”) and is excluded, peremptorily, cartoonishly:
Gradually I realized the other travelers were staring at
      me—the dead who had been white

            and the dead who had been black—

            My blood ran cold

The voice on the monitor had turned it gaze upon
      me too

I laid my pen in the fold of my notebook—slowly I
      removed my headphones

      I’d never felt such shame

The voice said, “You can go now”
That seemingly unappeased me at the center of a piece that begins, pertly (defiantly): “The purpose of society is mutual aid // There, was that so hard?” (Too, one notes at the beginning the rather sloganeering line “Never to forget your friends”—and its concluding ricochet:
And on the final page of the bright red book that
      dropped into the plaza I read the words,

“true freedom will always lie in the ability
      to make friends”
I read that without irony: the clatter of its sententiousness is deafening. Somewhere between the two lies some plain talk about friends (and “revolution”):
I’d been feeling bad about the way my fear of anger
      had so poorly equipped me for any kind of

      the way I always want to skip Joan Jett and get
            right to the Luther Vandross—

I’d been thinking about how my anger was perpetual
      and how only my friends could help       me find the
      context for it—

And I saw that in another kind of poem, right now
      would be the moment for a turn
            to the objective—

doves flushed out from under grasses—
Seeping homily only rescued by Nealon’s humor.

A few lovely things out of “The Dial.” One source of the title: the story of “masked figures in the alleys leading to the plaza”—“They’d been stenciling // T  H  E     D  I  A  L  E  C  T  I  C   all in caps / but ran off halfway through the word.” A Pynchonesque sort of story (the epigraph, out of Against the Day, reads: “The small-talk had turned to surplus wealth . . .”) Too, there’s the plausibly strange story of “little Sasha’s holding up a sign / for plutocrats that reads // Y  O  U
A  R  E     M  E  A  N / ‘and I will have to cut you in half’. . .” Or the damnably apt indictment of the costs of “our” technological prowess: “A fighter jet was landing on a dollar bill.” Or the Dantesque (or Buddhist) lines toward the end:
I’ve accepted that my mind works best when
      imitating vantages of paradise

With you in the square that day I saw the thimble
      where the mind is

Like the briefest waterfall behind my eyes I saw the
      ocean where the thimble was . . .
What to do with the end of “The Dial”? Reveries of revolution (“You know the stories of internal struggle—botched analysis and tactical defeat—”) dispelled, a few thanks to friends (“Lisa—Geoffrey”; “the warmth of Rob”) done with, the narrator’s final nod is to capital?
And reaching down into the world as it took shape
      again I felt—what were they?

Right. The dollars in my pocket.
Clunk. Dumbfounded. Just a romp? Roman Holiday (1953), anyone?
* Lifted in my skittery out of Benjamin Friedlander’s new One Hundred Etudes, where it is punctum and exemplum to a Zukofsky omaggio.