Friday, July 28, 2006

Odd Man Out

One-Eyed Red

Who is Louis Stettner? What Edmund White is good at—in My Lives—is rendering the details of a particular social fabric (in the process of coming undone) of the post-WWII Eisenhower years. He mentions Stettner’s photographs shot in that era “in the New York subway,” and how he (White) asked “why faces back then were so different from those one sees now.”
He said, ‘That was before the era of self-improvement. People just looked the way they looked. They had little idea about how to change.’ That was the era of baked potatoes, of vegetables boiled so long they’d go from green to tan, of Wonder Bread stacked on a plate and, for dessert, a dish of canned Queen Anne cherries . . . Men donned their brown or gray hats, cocked ever so slightly to the right or left, the sides artfully dimpled, the brim lowered just above the face, the crown reblocked every few months to maintain its stiffness. They wore their plain lace-up shoes and double-breasted suits and heavy overcoats and these uniforms elevated and concealed them in ageless anonymity—from twenty to fifty they were men, nothing more nor less.
I might murmur dissent in the form of a question—isn’t what “defines” the American individual, precisely a hearty unabashed changingness, that constant ability to reinvent oneself? All our heroes do so.

Pound: “tosh, unmitigated and blithering tosh.” There’s been some heaps of that around lately.

Scouted about rather half-heartedly (in secondary sources) for Stevenson-Pound links. Only today, rifling Guide to Kulchur, I uncovered a few. (There are more references to Kipling than Stevenson, according to the index.) Pound’s shorthand in the Guide makes for mischief (and I know little biographical data about Stevenson—other than something about a walk with a donkey in the Cévennes). What to make of these paragraphs:
Without bothering about Mr Maeterlinck’s The Bee or insisting on one’s preference for Gourmont’s method of conveying biological information one might, in considering the localization of sensibility either in apiary or human hive remember—“gli uomini vivono in pochi” [“humans live small lives”?].

The rest regret elegiacally. [Is there an echo of Thoreau’s “the mass of men lead lives of quiet desperation”?] Dr C. said Think of what that wd. have meant. To have been able to study under Stevenson. (R. L. S. having been denied not university preferment, but a place on the lowest rung of it in America when he was broke in that godawful country during one of its stinkingest epochs.) G. Rogers used to tell of the gt. joke on himself. He fired Kipling, I think before he had even taken him on to a Philadelphia daily abomination. G. R. was on the Inquirer when I met him.
Probably no more than the usual “The best lack all conviction, while the worst / get the plum jobs,” or howsoever Yeats put it.

At the beginning of the chapter headed “The Novel and So Forth”:
To distinguish between communication (of knowledge, transmission of wisdom, stimulation of perception) and the production of reading matter?

Stevenson had learned that: A man who can’t forgive any mortal thing is a green hand at life.
Hunh? The instruct vs. entertain scale aligns here rather skew with some sapped Christian piety. Yo, scholiasts! (As James Brown would say: He’p me!)

In a cloudy chapter-treatise, “Chaucer Was Framed?”—the single sentence: “Relative civilization of Stevenson, Kipling and Henry James.”

And, finally, under “Study of Physiognomy”:
I offer for Mr Eliot’s reflection the thesis that our time has overshadowed the mysteries by an overemphasis on the individual. R. L. Stevenson, whom no mystic has, so far as I know, ever mentioned, had more emotional wisdom than most men. (Virginibus Puerisque.) Eleusis did not distort truth by exaggerating the individual, neither could it have violated the individual spirit. Only in the high air and the great clarity can there be a just estimation of values. Romantic poetry, on the other hand, almost requires the concept of reincarnation as part of its mechanism. No apter metaphor having found for certain emotional colours. I assert that the Gods exist.

Off to the western hinterlands: returning in a week or so. Decisive battles anticipated (think the battle of the Plata, Cinque, the Bowie knife in the teeth, Kropotkin, Haystack Jones . . .)

Confusing Myself With John Ashbery

Of us
Two who

Called a
Black olive

My bête

Roils my
Martini so.

Confusing Myself With Ted Berrigan

Who’s the

Who predates
The leafblower?

Confusing Myself With Ron Silliman

I never confuse myself with Ron Silliman.

Louis Stettner, “Penn Station,” 1958

Louis Stettner, “Odd Man In, Penn Station,” 1958

Thursday, July 27, 2006



Read a little of Edmund White’s autobiographical My Lives. On the heels of my slow soak in the rotund immersion tank that is the Biographia, White here seems oddly drab. As if the prose is jacked down a notch, tossed off with consciously slenderer means. It rambles pleasantly enough, it’s just not fierce and full-throated, the way one wants prose. (Or I want prose. That is, as materially-gratifying as poetry.) White:
If today I have so few convictions and conceive of myself as merely an anthology of opinions, interchangeable and equally valid, I owe this uncertainty to psychoanalysis. Fiction is my ideal form because a character, even a stand-in for me, occupies a dramatic moment, wants one thing rather than another, serves the master narration. The novel is a story rather than an assertion, a development in time rather than a statement in the eternal present of truth. Fiction suggests that no one is ever disinterested. It does not ask the author to adjudicate among his characters. It is the ultimate arena of situationist ethics.
And, on that dirty little secret of American letters, that class matters (more than is admitted), that one’s social milieu may, in fact, determine one’s trajectory if not exactly one’s “taste”:
. . . as Midwesterners, and as the children of chemical engineers and homemakers or of real estate developers and practical nurses, we experienced the arts as so foreign, even so preposterously unreasonable, that once we’d decided to embrace them we did so with lots of conviction and little discrimination. Surely it was no accident that T. S. Eliot and Ezra Pound, the two great poetic synthesists of our day, the very men who had ransacked all of world culture and could refer in the same poem to the Buddha and Sophocles or to Confucius and Jefferson—surely it was no accident that Eliot and Pound were both from the heartland. Like them we were public-library intellectuals, magpies of all knowledge, but like most autodidacts we were incapable of evaluating our sources: we usually read the wrong book. We had no notion that most writers and painters emerged out of artistic families or at least conformed to the artistic tradition of their country, time and class.
I didn’t believe in the social history of art. For me . . . writing or painting was private to the point of solipsism; it was a romantic expression of stormy individualism, not a classical reflection of a serene social milieu. The suggestion that our goals were limited or even inflected by what our parents did for a living made us writhe with impatience.
Source, one supposes, of the vasty amplitude of the “stormy” that continues to inhabit one’s poetic cohort—denying what is, mostly, batches by the thousands, and interchangeable, the “serene social milieu.” Meaning, one sees a lot of probably uncalled-for whininess, a lot of poor-posing, a lot of histrionics. That’s one (easier) way to over-comb a bald spot. The other (harder): examine the connections, investigate the ways money shapes the canon.

(I love to go off like that, assigning homework, snootingly.)

Edmund White

Late Note to Joshua Clover

Without any pointer back to my squib of 20 July, readers scanning the beautiful and trivial Sugarhigh! today are likely to find themselves ensconced in (tarred by?) more than a usual amount of gibberish.

Out here in the Midwest, where our thuggish fathers occasionally lift “they” big heads up out of the accumulated drool in order to curse the smooth operators lately come to the penny arcades, we use the phrase “a good Joe” to indicate “un mec génial,” with not a midge-whiff, even, of the Stalinesque about it. That’s the kind of plain stuff (material) we are made of. City folks, jokes.

“In browns”? That’s easy: drab, “earth-tones,” an ordinary suit. Signifying a man without the kind of illusory “substance” a costume (or a pose) can provide. That’s how Jameson (the person) struck me, c’est tout.

The rhetoric is exactly my complaint. In the Frenchified “manifesto,” and in the poems. I, too, as a younger man, read heaps of “continental” theory. I, too, made compliant by the State (passport), and with the kind of undeniable wealth that accrues to those so compliant (growing up amongst the 4% of the world’s population who gulp down 40% of the world’s resources), voyaged mightily. I had sufficient sense to allow neither experience to become the kind of signal flag of my “work” that is liable to puff a man up so. Answer man, cancer man.

Clover, ain’t it your main man Walter Benjamin who pointed so clearly to David Octavius Hill? How it was with the little “anonymous” fishwife from New Haven, and not with the grand pre-determined pictorial compositions, that Hill tugged the new technology of photography into the world of art? Poems’ll get along fine without no theory doodads excresced, hein?

And how I love that word moron.

Mrs. Elizabeth (Johnstone) Hall, New Haven Fishwife, 1843
Robert Adamson and David Octavius Hill

Wednesday, July 26, 2006

On Pedantry

“Ceci n’est pas une pipe”

Coleridge: “If I am not misinformed, pedantry consists in the use of words unsuitable to the time, place, and company. The language of the market would be in the schools as pedantic, though it might not be reprobated by that name, as the language of the schools in the market. The mere man of the world, who insists that no other terms but such as occur in common conversation should be employed in a scientific disquisition, and with no greater precision, is as truly a pedant as the man of letters, who either over-rating the acquirements of his auditors, or misled by his own familiarity with technical or scholastic terms, converses at the wine-table with his mind fixed on his museum or laboratory; even though the latter pedant instead of desiring his wife to make the tea should bid her add to the quant. suff. of thea Sinensis the oxyd of hydrogen saturated with caloric. To use the colloquial (and in truth somewhat vulgar) metaphor, if the pedant of the cloyster, and the pedant of the lobby, both smell equally of the shop, yet the odour from the Russian binding of good old authentic-looking folios and quartos is less annoying than the steams from the tavern or bagnio. Nay, though the pedantry of the scholar should betray a little ostentation, yet a well-conditioned mind would more easily, methinks, tolerate the fox brush of learned vanity, than the sans culotterie of a contemptuous ignorance, that assumes a merit from mutilation in the self-consoling sneer at the pompous incumbrance of tails.”

“PEDANT—A man who likes his statements to be true.”
(Out of Bertrand Russell, The Good Citizen’s Alphabet, 1953.
Illustrated by Franciszka Themerson.)

Tuesday, July 25, 2006


Running Alphabet

The swirl-rehearsal of some stirred-up notions. (Meaning, I suppose, I whirl like the dog after a flea, and end up with a mouthful of my own tail.)

Coleridge (Biographia Literaria, 1817): “genuine admiration of a great poet is a continuous under-current of feeling; it is everywhere present, but seldom anywhere as a separate excitement.”

Pointing oddly to Emerson’s reading of Augustine in “Circles” (1841): “St. Augustine described the nature of God as a circle whose centre was everywhere and its circumference nowhere.”

And: “There are no fixtures in nature. The universe is fluid and volatile. Permanence is but a word of degrees. Our globe seen by God is a transparent law, not a mass of facts. The law dissolves the fact and holds it fluid.”

To Ezra Pound’s Fenollosa (1936): “A true noun, an isolated thing, does not exist in nature. Things are only the terminal points, or rather the meeting points, of actions cross-sections cut through actions, snapshots. Neither can a pure verb, an abstract motion, be possible in nature. The eye sees noun and verb as one: things in motion, motion in things . . .”

To Emerson (again): “The eye is the first circle.” (One could claim: “only the first circle,” “mere empiricism, mere sense-industry.”)

To Gertrude Stein (The Making of Americans, written circa 1906-1908, first published 1925): “Each one comes to be a whole one to me. Each comes to be a whole one in me. Some come very slowly to be a whole one to me. Some come fairly quickly to be a whole one in me. Some come fairly quickly to be a whole one in me. And then this whole one which was just outlines comes to be more and more filled up for me. Some come to be very slowly a whole one to me.”

Back to Coleridge’s On Poesy or Art (1818): “Remember that there is a difference between form as proceeding, and shape as superinduced;—the latter is either the death or the imprisonment of the thing;—the former is its self-witnessing and self-effected sphere of agency.”

Coleridge in a letter to Thomas Poole (1797): “My mind had been habituated to the vast, and I never regarded my senses as the criteria of my belief. I regulated all my creeds by my conceptions, and not by my sight, even at that age.” Against mere empiricism, he argues that those who rely solely on it “seem to want a sense which I possess . . . The universe to them is but a mass of little things.”

How does the Anselm Hollo line go? The one that Ron Silliman intends to use to pivot one sense-industry project (“The Alphabet”) into (presumably) another (“The Universe”)? “After the alphabet / comes the universe.” Something like that.

Coleridge (Biographia Literaria, 1817): “Our faulty elder poets sacrificed the passion and passionate flow of poetry, to the subtleties of intellect and to the starts of wit; the moderns to the glare and glitter of a perpetual, yet broken and heterogeneous imagery, or rather to an amphibious something, made up, half of image, and half of abstract meaning. The one sacrificed the heart to the head, the other both heart and head to point and drapery.”

The old dilemma: if a pinched fascicle of pieces (nouns) is not enough, one is faced with the imposition of something over-arching (Whole, God, under-current, a “vasty” something). If not, one is left with “mere” point and drapery. It is, certes, an unresolvable dilemma—only by putting the universe next to the universe does one outwit the ongoingness of it all, clamor and dash.

Samuel Taylor Coleridge

Monday, July 24, 2006



New American Writing, No. 24, edited by Maxine Chernoff and Paul Hoover (369 Molino Ave., Mill Valley, CA 94941 / $15 single copy / three issues for $36)

New American Writing is indispensable, unflagging, catholic and open: it caters not to any too narrow coterie. When combined with its Chernoff and Hoover-edited predecessor Oink!—its history now spans more than thirty-five years. Thinking of it, and looking for a couple of early issues (I failed to find), I uncovered a copy of Hoover’s Hairpin Turns, a mimeo’d and side-stapled thing (Oink Books, 1972). For unstinting service alone, Chernoff and Hoover ought to be declared world literary heroes.

A couple of highlights, pointers into the issue. Nathaniel Mackey (interviewed by Sarah Rosenthal):
Coltrane got to the point in some concerts where he would take the horn from his mouth and just start yelling. Rashied Ali, who was the drummer with his last group, talks about an occasion on which that happened. Ali was rather taken aback, and asked Trane about it later. Trane said, “I ran out of horn.” I’ve heard people who do in poetry something that emulates what Coltrane does. They’ll actually scream, do things of that sort. Certainly relative to that I’m very Apollonian. My screaming is going on in a different way. It’s the fraying of meanings; it’s the colliding of sounds that creates certain consternations of meaning that might be the counterpart of the scream, analogous to the scream.
Vladimír Holan, translated by Josef Haráček and Lara Glenum:

In the prekarióz air and with a kolapsedlý gřim
kloud in the background: a mowér is sharpnink hys scýthé,
aš if he wěře úžink a slíče of břed to eřase
centúries-old šmears on a wál in Ekbatan.

Aftěr áll, hošpitáblý nativ frút is not ment fór už,
and hárdly ani sentience kán reašuře už.
Evěn perfekt rezignation styl kňows sufrynk,
and it is sufrynk intimat with the děd, who řely.
Accompanied by a note: “we chose to suspend the language between Czech and English to give the English-speaking reader a sense that they are reading the poems in the original Czech. We have preserved Czech spelling and inserted Czech diacritics wherever possible. We constantly look for ways to drag the reader toward an experience of the foreign by introducing markedly unfamiliar features of the source text into our translations. By doing so, we hope to interrogate cultural boundaries rather than simply domesticate another culture’s literature into comfortable American idiom. We strive to expose the very act of translation, to make it visible . . .”

An argument I first encountered (I think) in the introduction to Pierre Joris’s translation of Paul Celan’s Breathturn. I like the effect of slowing the orthography demands; it “makes material” the words (as any poetry must); would it begin to cloy, suffer a malign cuteness, become “too much” in a larger selection? I don’t know.

G. C. Waldrep:
What Is a Hornpipe

(But when she called to me it was always Mr. Monroe Doctrine, Mr. Monroe Doctrine. I wanted to seize the moment very badly but the best I could do was Brazil. That, or plastic surgery. Or else my ragtime in cold cash. She crossed her arms: Wrong century! Ka-ching. I was devastated. She set a bonfire for my ruffles & jabots. All the small countries attended, even a few that weren’t really countries yet but had set up embassies in hope. It was hard to tell their flags from the flames, at least until I realized that some of their flags were flames. That’s right, I thought, but said nothing aloud. But then she was busy with her welder’s hood and her gemstones. I sauntered over to the concession booth and ordered an Ashoka Pillar with a side of fries. Looking back, that’s what I regret most about those years: the philatelophagy. I was sending messages to all my most elementary particles. Sometimes they would tap back, as if welded into a steel hull. Doomed semaphore! Can a part haunt the whole? I was absurdly coifed. All my friends were working for Parker Brothers. In the end I sold my collection of antique thuribles, no longer having any shelves to store them. She’d say Jump. I’d say How sly.)
More a kind of Dylanesque American high surreal (that of Greil Marcus’s “old weird America”) than anything so programmatic as the New Sentence. Put down a “he” and a “she” and you got yourself a narrative.


And a little Written Lives, by Javier Marías, encore and finale.

The names of some of Djuna Barnes’s siblings and ancestors: “Urlan, Niar, Unade, Reon, Hinda, Zadel, Gaybert, Culmer, Kilmeny, Thurn, Zendon, Saxon, Shangar, Wald, Llewellyn.”

Barnes’s fury when Anaïs Nin “took the liberty of using” Djuna for the name of one of her characters.

How the “then unknown” Carson McCullers besieged Barnes’s Patchin Place apartment, “moaning and sobbing at her front door, begging to be let in.” (Barnes herself spent an estimated “more than fifteen thousand days” alone inside that apartment, that is, more than forty years.)

Djuna Barnes

Lord Byron’s lisp.

Emily Brontë’s love of target shooting, with a pistol.


A dreamed sentence: “A book is both a ticket out of here, and a culprit-seizure of the inescapable.” (After shenanigans of searching for a lost boy, and a lost Tupperware container, and witnessing the expulsion of a couple of Pakistani, or Sri Lankan, women suspected of “gang activity”—via codewords in the CDs they played—out of a resort. An expulsion that left us comrades trudging along a dust-stirred road.)

Reading Art Spiegelman’s Maus: A Survivor’s Tale.

Rereading the Biographia Literaria.


And Mazen Kerbaj drawing with coffee and ink in Beirut:

Friday, July 21, 2006

A Swarm

Black Swallowtail

How I read. Javier Marías, in Written Lives:
The two men admired each other enormously, and James considered Stevenson to be one of the few people with whom he could discuss literary theory. Nowadays, almost no one takes the trouble to read Stevenson’s essays, which are among the liveliest and most perceptive of the past century.
Enough to pique. Odd alignment of Henry James, that snoot, and Robert Louis Stevenson, books for dogged boys, is there something there in the slipstream, piratically abob? Stevenson, in “On Some Technical Elements of Style in Literature”:
Now the first merit which attracts in the pages of a good writer, or the talk of a brilliant conversationalist, is the apt choice and contrast of the words employed. It is, indeed, a strange art to take these blocks, readily conceived for the purpose of the market or the bar, and by tact of application touch them to the finest meanings and distinctions; restore to them their primal energy, wittily shift them to another issue, or make of them a drum to rouse the passions.
Tight as the versifier may draw the knot of logic, yet for the ear he still leaves the tissue of the sentence floating somewhat loose. In prose, the sentence turns upon a pivot, nicely balanced, and fits into itself with an obtrusive neatness like a puzzle. The ear remarks and is singly gratified by the return and balance; while in verse it is all diverted to the measure.
Echoes of Pound, tiny hoofbeats of Pound. And here, too:
Music and literature, the two temporal arts, contrive their pattern of sounds in time . . . the true business of the literary artist is to plait or weave his meaning, involving it around itself so that each sentence, by successive phrases, shall first come into a kind of knot, and then, after a moment of suspended meaning, solve and clear itself. In every properly constructed sentence there should be observed this knot or hitch; so that (however delicately) we are led to foresee, to expect, and then to welcome the successive phrases.
Cf. Pound: “an intellectual and emotional complex in an instant of time,” “Rhythm is form cut into time,” “ply over ply.” Cf. Marianne Moore’s lovely phrase—“a counterfeiting verbally of the systole, diastole, of sensation” (in “A Machinery of Satisfaction”). Stevenson:
Each phrase of each sentence, like an air or a recitative in music, should be so artfully compounded out of long and short, out of accented and unaccented, as to gratify the sensual ear. And of this the ear is the sole judge. It is impossible to lay down laws. Even in our accentual and rhythmic language no analysis can find the secret of the beauty of a verse; how much less then, of those phrases, such as prose is built of, which obey no law but to be lawless and yet to please.
To be lawless and pleasing. The way reading is—aimless, unrestricted, knotting up and releasing. Connecting rivers by portaging, following out a succession of leads. (With a canoe for a hat.) Or, veering off suddenly, brain-wincingly. The odd book abandoned on the coverlet, dove into:
Cold and phlegmatic in their own nature, like damp hay, they heat and inflame by co-acervation; or like bees they become restless and irritable through the increased temperature of collected multitudes. Hence the German word for fanaticism, (such at least was its original import,) is derived from the swarming of bees, namely, Schwärmen, Schwärmerei. The passion being in an inverse proportion to the insight, that the more vivid, as this the less distinct . . .
The inimitable Mr. Coleridge. (Sometimes I think I’m “in love” with Coleridge.) He’s talking about “genius”: “A debility and dimness of the imaginative power, and a consequent necessity of reliance on the immediate impression of the senses, do, we well know, render the mind liable to superstition and fanaticism.” Yep. Just ask the bob-Google crowd hereabouts.

Robert Louis Stevenson

Thursday, July 20, 2006



I keep thinking about “Edge, the only unity.” And “Ten or fifteen words organized around two or three marks of punctuation.” Ray DiPalma, in “The Ancient Use of Stone.”

Not sure what to make of Joshua Clover’s Frenchified (“francais comme le février en Finistère,” as Nabokov nearly said) manifesto: first thought: rather dated, rather daft? Dated: It’s a short piece so bespangled by the “late theory” jargoned-up sweat of its exertions, it seems likely to expire, toppling into the shallow-dug pit of its own conclusion. Daft: As if there were a critical bloc (for poetry) worthy the name. Why one ought (or not) be “abashed” by adversarial puffery when there is no honorable opposition is beyond me. Abashed by critical jargon? Straw men fetch straw dogs.

Out here in the big muddy middle, one grows up admonished “not to make a spectacle of oneself.” A spectacle: akin to a tantrum, or a sloppy drunk. A temporary burden (embarrassment) soon shifted off one’s shoulders.

Reify and reification: that’s easy to locate. A steeply-pitched (back) auditorium at Cornell circa 1976, full of the steeply-pitched (forward) professoriat, all leaning expectantly at the good Joe in browns who spoke laboriously about Richard Rodriguez: Frederic Jameson. I am certain that’s where I first encountered the word. I associate it with res publica, no doubt some mnemonic inoculate needled in too recklessly. Thing. Pardonable (or not) public things.

What is the “poem-as-end”? (See, incidentally, yesterday’s Guston remark: the work as “abandoned.”) What is “the catastrophe of instrumental reason that defines Western modernity”? Why, reading that phrase, am I reminded of Mark Strand, a fine, white-haired specimen of a man, handsomely ineffectual. “In a field / I am the absence / of field.” (There was a period when we swooned to that kind of thing, yes.)

I agree, I think, that a poem is unlikely to do anything. Socially or individually (unless one thinks of that momentary pulse-rocket gained by reading some things a doing—(“I” “do” “not”)—the feather-slit of a cloud bisecting the moon’ll just as surely do the like).

Poem as debris of the having-been-done: one end. Processual aftermath, junked. What if, though, a poem (a poet) points continuously toward a desire for revolutionary mayhem? What if one’s poetry founders in a (used up?) verbiage of (call for) abrupt and total change? A poem (a good poem) implicates itself within a way of reading. Is an instruction manual (for reading itself), or folds such material—“ply over ply”—within. Is it admissible then to label that thing a poem-instrument?

Possibility that one’s poem (poetry) mimes all too readily the “current conditions”—that which (somehow) doesn’t replicate the (always) stultifying present is unavailable by definition: no reading manual legible to critic or poet accompanies such a text. That is, the without changes the within, and “art” is (most readily) an unadventuresome tagalong. The art that is not (and it is likely it exists) is invisible—“current conditions” disallow it its visibility.

These remarks a kind of hash. Root out of “hatchet.” Boeuf haché. Any woodcutter knows a hatchet makes a bloody mess, is ineffectual. Useful mostly for lopping limbs off downed trees. Liable to bounce off and nick one.

At the end of Written Lives Javier Marías reads author photographs, a sport not unknown hereabouts in Dittoland. Of the “histrionic” and “not modest” (he compares him to Twain) Nabokov in the photograph below, Marías writes:
. . . he is a joker who prefers not to acknowledge this openly, which is why his expression is one of passion and discovery. He does, however, dare to reveal a pair of hideous or perhaps damaged kmees and to wear a cap inadmissible in someone who never actually became a real American. He is in his Bermuda shorts, pretending to be hunting a butterfly, but his shirt pocket is full of pens or glasses or something: some object inappropriate for a person out hunting. He is already an old man, but this evident not so much from his excited face as from the fact that he is wearing a cardigan. Besides, no one ever bagged anything while standing with one hand on his hips.

Vladimir Nabokov

Wednesday, July 19, 2006



Morton Feldman, “After Modernism,” out of Give My Regards to Eighth Street: Collected Writings (Exact Change):
With modernity the painter no longer had to make that perilous transition from one world to another called “passage.” He had only to “relate” each area, and each idea. Yet it was in this transition, in this journey, that the artist learned a swiftness, a surety, a Nijinsky-like utterance of his limbs, an incredible utilization of sight, that we associate now only with the art of the past. This total involvement, this total coordination of the senses, this complete sensual experience has only very recently been captured again in Abstract Expressionism. Here, in reaction to modernity, there is an insistence that one can no longer take refuge in ideas, that thought is one thing and its realization another, the real humility does not lie in all this superrationality, but again, in trying to paint like a god.

. . .

It is becoming increasingly clear that there is no existing set of conditions on how to begin a work of art. One can begin with practically anything. This is just a matter of impetus, of energy, or wanting to “do something.” It is no longer even important how much work you put into it . . . In a sense, work is just another aspect of art’s polemic with the religious. Work is used to justify art—give it some degree of legitimacy. The main thing now is not where you begin, or even what you put into it. The main thing really is when is it finished.

Guston tells us he does not finish a painting but abandons it. At what point does he abandon it? Is it perhaps at the moment when it might become a “painting”? After all, it’s not a “painting” that the artist really wanted. There is a strange propaganda that because someone composes or paints, what he necessarily wants is music or a picture. Completion is not in tying things up, not in “giving one’s feelings,” or “telling a truth.” Completion is simply the perennial death of the artist. Isn’t any masterpiece a death scene? Isn’t that why we want to remember it, because the artist is looking back on something when it’s too late, when it’s all over, when we see it finally, as something we have lost?

The quotidian gets muffled here, the way I make my way. “Like a god.” Bicycling into the city, pausing to shoot cloud forms, that constant blue debauchery of prolix forming, deforming. Sky pieces. Some look for wires to clutter and plane the foreground. Photography is not about the “shot”—it’s about looking. Some mornings I leave the camera in the bag, and crop the sky with my eyes. If not the sky, walls, signs, surfaces. Little desire to make pictures of people. There, one moves beyond form and into “character,” slippery nets of summary and vise. Or vice. Only tableaux vivants possible: I picture something like Truman Capote’s “Black and White Ball.” Jubilance of shifting forms, unpeopled. Or I “picture” something like Goethe’s remarks on the mad playwright Jakob Lenz:
The primary purpose of this meandering manuscript was to juxtapose my talent and his; at times he seemed to claim he was my inferior, at times my equal; but the whole thing was carried off with so many humorous and felicitous turns of phrase that I gladly accepted the views he intended to convey, and all the more so because I truly held his gifts in very high esteem, and as a result was always urging him to pull himself together out of his amorphous ramblings and to exercise greater artistic control over his inborn creative talent.
Yeah. Texture pieces. None of that “intent to convey.” What I am “after” is the amorphous gathering of pinprick sharp particulars, and that they bounce on the table just so, tossed down like a bloody handful of tacks. Robbe-Grillet ain’t the first to claim a “writer has nothing to say, but only a way of saying it,” no? (And knew that that writer “a en tête des mouvements de phrases, des architectures, un vocabulaire, des constructions grammaticales, exactement comme un peintre a en tête des lignes et des couleurs.”) Rhythm, architecture, vocabulary, grammar—and a ferocious propensity to relate and arrange. (Yeah.)

Marisa Berenson and Cow (Black and White Ball, 1966)
Photograph by Henry Grossman

Tuesday, July 18, 2006


Tiger Lily

Reading Javier Marías’s Written Lives, translated by Margaret Jull Costa (New Directions, 2006). Brief biographies of writers—a few pages for each. As Marías puts it in the “Prologue,” he wanted to approach “literary figures as if they were fictional characters, which may well be how all writers, whether famous or obscure, would secretly like to be treated.” And—of the miniature portraits, Marías writes:
What I reveal in them is very partial, and it is precisely in what is included and what omitted that the possible accuracy or inaccuracy of the pieces partly lies. And although almost nothing in them is invented (that is, fictitious in origin), some episodes and anecdotes have been “embellished.”
So, one learns that “Conrad was so irritable that whenever he dropped his pen, instead of picking it up at once and carrying on writing, he would spend several minutes exasperatedly drumming his fingers on the desk as if bemoaning what had occurred.” Or that James Joyce once said that he “longed to copulate with a soul.” Or that the social life of Henry James was such that “in one season alone, 1878-79, he received (and accepted) precisely one hundred and forty dinner invitations.” (And that regardless of the fact that he could not bring himself to say the “actual word” for anything, so that on one occasion, referring to a dog, he ended up defining it as “something black, something canine.”)

Marías’s work is just now getting attention here in the United States—particularly the trio (thusfar) of novels collected under the title, Tu rostro mañana (Your Face Tomorrow) and the strange “book of digressions,” Dark Back of Time. Born in 1951, Marías published a first novel at the age of seventeen, and continues with an astonishing (and varied, it would seem—he is also translator into Spanish of works by Thomas Hardy, Robert Louis Stevenson, Conrad, Faulkner, Nabokov, and Laurence Sterne) output.

Out of Written Lives, witness the following paragraph on Djuna Barnes:
Among the men, it is worth highlighting her love affair with Putzi Hanfstaengl, a German who had studied at Harvard and who, twenty years later, became the official jester at the court of Adolf Hitler. Even though Djuna loathed him (Hitler, that is, not Putzi), they remained in touch, and Barnes thus became the first person among the allies to know about the lower abdominal shortcomings of the otherwise immeasurable Führer. A photo survives from 1928 which shows them together (Djuna and Putzi, not Adolf); he is wearing a bowtie, has a large nose and is very cross-eyed; that fact is he looks like a murderer.
Here tone and pacing make a stew of several historical “facts”—those clarifying asides serving mostly to sink all three “personages” in the same clown-murderous pit.

Javier Marías

Monday, July 17, 2006



Gathering Ground: A Reader Celebrating Cave Canem’s First Decade
Edited by Toi Derricotte and Cornelius Eady. Camille T. Dungy, Assistant Editor. Introduction by Elizabeth Alexander, Harryette Mullen, and the Editors. (University of Michigan Press, 2006)

Explanatory Preface material:
Cave Canem is a nonprofit organization for African American poets founded in 1996 by Toi Derricotte and Cornelius Eady. Each summer fifty-two poets (about seventeen new poets a year, with the remainder returning for their second or third summers) take part in a one-week workshop / retreat. Over the past ten year over two hundred poets have gone through Cave Canem’s summer program. Since they return to the workshop / retreat for three years during a five-year period, Cave Canem poets have built a network of connections and support that lasts well beyond the workshop week in June.
Meaning, presumably, that a poet who returned for three years would meet eighty and somebody-odd poets. The contributors here number roughly one hundred and twenty or so—more than half of the participants.

Contributors: M. Eliza Hamilton Abegunde, Opal Palmer Adisa, Elizabeth Alexander, Lauren K. Alleyne, Holly Bass, Venise N. Battle, Herman Beavers, Michelle Courtney Berry, Tara Betts, Angela A. Bickham, Remica L. Bingham, Shane Book, Angela Brooks, Derrick Weston Brown, Jericho Brown, Toni Brown, Gloria Burgess, C. M. Burroughs, Lucille Clifton, Taiyon Coleman, Lauri Conner, Curtis L. Crisler, Teri Ellen Cross, Traci Dant, Kyle G. Dargan, Hayes Davis, Jarita Davis, Kwame Dawes, Jarvis Q. DeBerry, Toi Derricotte, Joel Dias-Porter, La Tasha N. Nevada Diggs, R. Erica Doyle, Camille T. Dungy, Cornelius Eady, Michele Elliott, Phebus Etienne, Chanda Feldman, Nikky Finney, Reginald L. Flood, Cherryl Floyd-Miller, Krista Franklin, John Frazier, Deidre R. Gantt, Ross Gay, Regie O’Hare Gibson, Carmen R. Gillespie, Aracelis Girmay, Monica A. Hand, Michael S. Harper, Duriel E. Harris, francine j. harris, Reginald Harris, Yona Harvey, Terrance Hayes, Tonya Cherie Hegamin, Sean Hill, Andre O. Hoilette, Lita Hooper, Erica Hunt, Kate Hymes, Linda Susan Jackson, Major Jackson, Honorée Fanonne Jeffers, Tyehimba Jess, Amaud Jamaul Johnson, Brandon D. Johnson, Karma Mayet Johnson, A. Van Jordan, Carolyn C. Joyner, John Keene, M. Nzadi Keita, Ruth Ellen Kocher, Yusef Komunyakaa, Jacqueline Jones LaMon, Quraysh Ali Lansana, Carmelo Larose, Virginia K. Lee, Raina J. León, Doughtry “Doc” Long, Kenyetta Lovings, Adrian Matejka, Shara McCallum, Carrie Allen McCray, Ernesto Mercer, Dante Micheaux, Jonathan Moody, Kamilah Aisha Moon, Indigo Moor, Lenard D. Moore, Harryette Mullen, Marilyn Nelson, Mendi Lewis Obadike, Gregory Pardlo, Carlo Toli Paul, Gwen Triay Samuels, Sonia Sanchez, Tim Seibles, Elaine Shelly, Cherene Sherrard, Kevin Simmonds, Patricia Smith, Tracy K. Smith, Christina Springer, Christopher Stackhouse, Nicole Terez, Amber Flora Thomas, Samantha Thornhill, Venus Thrash, Natasha Trethewey, Lyrae Van Clief-Stefanon, Wendy S. Walters, Nagueyalti Warren, Afaa Michael Weaver, Arisa White, Simone White, Carolyn Beard Whitlow, Karen Williams, Treasure Williams, Bridgette A. Wimberly, Yolanda Wisher, Toni Wynn, Al Young, and Kevin Young.

One approach: a sampling. Not a cento—no dismally mechanistic dispersal of others’ work into some whiteboy notion of “multivocality”—that tenor gets voiced without my assistance. (Every African-American in the country grows up learning—at least—two distinct languages, is what I wager.) A few lines out of each piece, grabbed without prejudice, that is, no fore-notion or slant towards the “typical” or the “atypical” either. The selections follow the alphabetical list of contributors (above). (There is something like a crazy democracy at work in assigning each writer one poem: guarantee that nobody’ll be adequately represented. A riff offering a few lines out of each and every poem is, I suppose, a logical, if plod-prone, extension of that. Snapshot of a snapshot.)
My own mother passed this gift to me: the ability to simultaneously
lose my country, my self, my secure knowledge that I
owned the world.

i would do it again
work my way
through the hatred

In the early nineteen-eighties, the black men
were divine, spoke French, had read everything

skin like blood like wine like war binding tight the white flesh, the black pits
pressed into the narrow center sleeping like sin like sex

a blueblack star marked my birth
a razor blade cut my course
a razor blade cut my course

I ain’t got to whine to let him know his place.

I’d be starving if I ate all the lies they fed.

I remember like it was last Tuesday:
our mutual parting of the ways come
on account of a can of 10W40

elbow-high gloves gargantuan on the slender arms,
head tilted like a sunflower, legs spread,
and the sharp sucking against the teeth—

The landlord told Raymond’s mother that twelve dollars
would be deducted from their rent for every rat killed.

In the wake of my fifth bite
of pear, two women, a visiting cousin
and Marse’s new wife, were killed.

On Wednesday—pot roast and hotwater cornbread,
the cornmeal sifted as fine as loose road dust
lifting to settle on trousers and lace socks.

we’d say Wow to the crushed-can collector,
yeah, that funked-out guy we down with—
he one street off from cool now

On Saturdays twicedamonth after a breakfast of pancakes and sahshees we went to visit the sick and shut-in or the well and shut-out (of a right mind).

Time is your
hard breath
in the field.

Grandmother breaks to wring and squeeze the purification towel free of water, soap, and a bricklike, muddy dirt. Child, all that noise ain’t necessary. If you could see this nastiness, you’d be thanking me.

we dark still living
who crawled or
were dragged
hair matted flat

In angry mists, you see them, round hands
reaching, beckoning their beloveds.

Today, the sun burns through marine-white air

She wants sounds pinioned,
melodic as high-voiced
canaries carousing, half-

“the trees wave their knotted branches
and . . .”             why
is there under that poem always
an other poem?

and we fight over your
foolishness thinking love
can come in a redbone

and she went to work manufacturing lines of general foods
where she punched time until they forced her to retire

and in giving up work she opened her backyard bar

                                                We had lookouts
in the alleys and the tall kids jumped the fence and the runners ran
with the bags. Peaches were easy. In the graveyard we had no trouble

getting peaches from the dead.

the pulp of your carved initials
made with the solid grasp
of a still-forming hand

My arm, the arm
of all our fishing generations,
who knew land could be sold
from under you.

Hell, round them all up—in minutes
we’ll be standing knee deep in
the unselected poems of black literature.

Comfort is helping him pee, or lifting him
onto the toilet, waiting, wiping after his bowels
stir reluctantly.

Across the ocean and decades
before, two boys called each other
in Crioulo.

Gangly man, skin like red dirt,
you have let rip,
a streak of living
across these here United States.

Says she’s seen my kind and knows me well:
Seditty. Too stiff to get down.

                  he would load mustard on a saltine, lay a little
fish on top, & tip it with a juicy slice
of onion.

If he turns his sax upside-down
it curves like a question mark.
What is a true measure of music?

sip of—                    jet                   mighty joe young                       overgrown

            deep plum               baby daddy             DMX

crawling back to you naked over porcupines
selling my qualms and other precious possessions
giving you all the proceeds

Can’t say as I blame Miss Amy her grip on the house. Heaven knows, her husband’s a first-rate
scoundrel, and a groggy fool to boot, Master Jackson was in amongst the ’taters with that servant
girl name of Lena.

A deal with the devil
In blues terms, the tongue we use
When we don’t want nuance
To get in the way

The easy way out is, I am nothing.
I have nothing, so I collect things.

Blue jays caucused in leaves, vowing to conquer
berry fields as water rehearsed its verses.

Over dinner my mother talked stories
of her father stringing hogs
for November slaughter as segue
to discussing black family mobility

The idolized air
once loosed
is never free.

just one-day’s walk and this sumac and sagebrush church
could be worshipped hard in Latin under the most wild sky

in glyph, the mind of percival everett’s baby ralph asks, “is a photograph always present
tense?” as in here I am!

the few black boys here circle white girls
who sprout from these backroads, smell
of hairspray and floral alcohol of drugstore perfume

at once to be sly and unsly, no so
unlike those terrible dancehall bodies

I know the scratch of bark between my legs,
the dogwood’s smooth deception. Their guilt-stained
flowers ushered winter, the smell of death

            Song like marble spun
into silk. The human

Or teach us the phonics of bulleted speech       no
Blueprint would show how to build a new brick
To stitch a new tower from us to the voice       all

Hand on hip, I stood defiant.
How far could a broomswept
Head go anyway?

isn’t there a word
for yellow-husk morning
of coke-eyed soldiers

prep. 1. origin or cause: Aaron begets Helen, Laura, Ermine, Christine, Inez, Beulah, and Sonny. Sonny, he died of female complications. 2. material or substance: the house was built of bricks

yet Mingus caught Pres’s stride in ballads
easing of the glottals             his very song             eclipsed

in the high registers             down low in Kansas City

Now and again a hoopty livery cab would chuckle along, rolling its heavy engine: Goodie-bye, it would say like mythical Ibo flying away

They say . . . well, they say nothing about you, Mr. DogEared,
because you disappeared. Side rocking and silly toed,
Vanish man across the sideways bricks of buildings, hesitant.

Boxed-in from birth by the Boogie-Down,
“freedom” what could be taken in the streets,
from a bottle or a blunt.

I stumble in the memory
of Ohio, old names and faces
given me: Pecola, Dorcas,
Violet, Nel, First Corinthians.

I was to be taken somewhere and given a name
More bona fide and afflicted, I was to be shot

My name is Lovely
And I’m so
My hair is long
And yours is not.

red delicious red             but red
like redeye gravy on grits
at Gus’s or red like stoplights

spills tripe and bowels
like curses, like obeah
into the killing pan

oily, visceral proteins smell the air

Thirty years of marriage sits between them
like a bomb.

You have to
the world to
become its possessor.

                                    A flick of her wrist,
flap: “His eyes are on the sparrow
and I know he watches me.”

Because she was homesick for the smell
of Virginia tobacco and pit-roasted hog

                                    Hannibal grasps a Roman
monkeybar on history’s rung, and the mighty heroes at recess
lay dead in woe on the imagined battlefields of Halo.

Yes, these predictable fifths. O, the blues
is all about slinging those low tales out
the back door

leadbelly you say.
killer                   huh
singer                   huh

Long from those indifferent hours,
long from the doors of the Maison du jouir
and the affected gaze of his mistresses.

somewhere, lips print a cigarette, low tones chase
smoke from her mouth, crawl into the ear of another man

machete is our music, pianissimo the cut. I sing into the dip between
shoulder and spine. elucidate the nape. how the belly infuses the barren palm.

You no longer question
What kind of blue pulls a man’s skin
So tightly over the face.

I want to leave behind the icy surge,
The cold I felt some twenty year ago
In October, when coral leaves wither and fall

and she missed not a note, hunched over that microphone,
song after song sweating through her spangles
like a dockworker, as men slid to and fro in shade
In front of the box stage.

whisky in her treble some nights
moan making a slack belt
revival hymn to salt pork fingertips

Fathered by a white desire,
vials, by a quarter-T,
a lighter, needle, spoon.

mockingbirds arrive with stolen songs
& cries, their unspeakable lies & omens
as if they are some minor god’s
only true instrument & broken way

                                    She curses loud in thick
patois, then calls on Jesus, but no one looks away from the corpse

laid out in front of the rose settee.

mean             got dis suit fo ya john             aint nobody worn dese clothes befo
walk proud in dese clothes             dese is free mans clothes

Then with the severity of knives we drew seven from the bone-yard,
The common pile of thick and heavy permutations of dice.

rocks of rejection
were thrown at her because
of the yellow tone of her skin
not high yellow

humming a respirator song
                                    “I put slight faith in his own affirmation”
a man is as constant as the devil on holiday

devil chasing his wife
down the street with a stick
she trying to run with only one shoe on

Reluctant yellow light ties her fawn-colored lips shut. Behind resplendent fresh her teeth are clenched, her jaw is lantern.

                                    Nobody, woman
or man, knows how to handle Al Green.

That Girl from Ipanema would have
dug Al.

I am the woman at the water’s edge
offering you oranges for the peeling,
knife glistening in the sun.

Lionel Hampton
                      “Flyin’ Home,”
                      riffin’ on his

                neither the hustlers nor
the pharmacists peddle the elixir
that banishes the Wolf, the Butcher,
the Posse—

& sits on the floor pulling out her hair
one strand at a time,
trying to weave it into the carpet
with a piece of fingernail

is on her back cramming
my hand down cropped
denims. Her left leg,
a pine cone pendulum
knocking against the vanity.

You figure if you don’t “get” me,
I’ll somehow get you good—
invading and transforming the habitat forever.

Muddy Waters sprang whole, dry-
heaved from the knotted center
of a plank-wood shack.
Shook hisself loose of blood,
dirt, moonshine, the ass-dark end
of a mule

                                    how my father ducked rounds
beneath a sky like heavy blankets
that smothered soldiers in sleep

You thirsty? You buy us mojitos? You bring your yanqui dolor. We show our splendid squalor.

Or would you think her capable only of lies
because her hands are rough from scrubbing floors?

Dear Dear, what is this about? i want to know and don’t want to know.
Do you imagine here is also such a thing as an UNwilling reader?

I could see the dark Turnpike for miles, the somber
office buildings winking insomniac cells, the tarmac

spread before us like a picnic blanket and you, like a jade Buddha

Had an interesting conversation with a crew member.
He asked me which coast of Africa Haiti sits on.
I told him Haiti is an independent nation on the Atlantic
where you currently preside and showed him your picture.
Uncle, he laughed at the idea of a Negro president.

and scatter my ashes
all over Old Town,
once entirely owned by
my Free Mulatto Triay grandfathers
who built the seawall on top of
Seminole bones

i bled an owl’ s blood
shredding the grass until i
rocked in a choir of worms.
obscene with hands, I wooed the world
with thumbs

I gotta hand it to you though—
all the colors, the smells, tall,
petite, skinny-minnies or whoppin’
whale-sized motha’humphries—you
got variety

Should I waltz or shake
my hips in fast huckabuck
Is it minuet or juicy grind

For a franc, every stratum can view
the exhibition of the latest hottentot.
One would presume that Robespierre still
reigned over the tricolore, the fever for blood

He called Emmett Till a mansion,

a mansion of a boy
whose rooms we
must fill.

                                    Now when ’retha’s
fleeing screech reach been-done-wrong bone, all the
Holy Ghost can do is stand at a respectable distance
and applaud.

They defy gravity to feel tugged back.
The clatter, the mad slap of landing.

I remember him hyperactive lean.
Fragile as grinning watermelon
salt shakers nudged off of antique
store shelves when Black folks shatter
drop history for the sake of propriety.

That look, what undermines breath’s pace—
diadem, sloping, reticular hair, pronounced intelligence
how embellished the drunken curve of the moth’s

recursive slanting course

we bank our fires and wait.

eventually sleep scratches at the back door,
stubbled with radio static, barbed constellations.

I turn the dress loose—its hand-sewn collar,
its seven bodice buttons, the hem’s frayed edge.

I follow each stitch as it slips
from its hold.

I fed up wit she jokin me wet paper bag of a city.
Dis dotish Yankee gyul.
See she body drape ova de ledge so?
Watch me fix she.

Justice won’t be swift to rescue us
From the clutch of history’s dark lot

In 1965 my parents broke two laws of Mississippi;
they went to Ohio to marry, returned to Mississippi.

They crossed the river into Cincinnati, a city whose name
begins with a sound like sin, the sound of the wrong—mis in Mississippi.

Come and fry my catfish, baby,
                              But make sure the grease is hot.
Boy, I got your side meal ready.
                              Grits are bubblin’ in the pot.

Paper reads “Brown Pelicans Shot” along the coast
of Malibu. No one knows if it is a ritual sacrifice,
but birds are not harmless if one loves them

would not be moved when called nigger
would not from the lunch counter move

to eat at the Colored hole in the wall out back

I can see the white folks’ heads checking
available cash in front of naked Africans
chained, bereaved, and listening to
a cruelty yet to be born. I can smell
the congregation of odors

259 Brooklyn Avenue, WARWICK, named after a 14th-century
Military leader, is guarded by a band of black boys, conscripts
Of their own gang, where they’re forced to wear their blood

the two halves needing to be joined
back to themselves but only by you
the hum of her throttle but not her berserk
the pleasures in the sound s it makes
just before it buckles

                             Come Monday, I’ll dustmop, repaper with multicolor
Prints, zigzag zebra stripe rooms, fuchsias, no dark
Blue or sober gray, none of the colors that you love.

Se wo were fi na wosan kofa a yenki
It is not taboo to go back
And fetch what you forgot.

a jimmy choo shoe 99% off poem

a baby let me get that poem
a you don’t look a day over thirty poem

an I can still wear a belly shirt poem

Don’t call me rose baby, treat me like daffodil
Need some prunin’ and some trimmin’, I could give you such a thrill.

I’ve watch a humble church rock
with a congregation of one, sometimes two,
your bed a sinner woman’s pulpit,
your body an aisle for conniptions.

The uncle sat

in a dinghy nearby,
just quiet, the whole four hours
the rescue crew worked.

                                      To go for broke, in the gospel sense,
means giving up everything you’ve got (or thought
you had) to God. Give up everything you were (or thought
you were) to the Lord.

I tried but God’s
still unlisted.

I don’t mind using
love letters for fire

but at least leave me
some whiskey

to fan it higher.
Whew. Something a little dogged about that “mode,” typing up the material. Conversely, though, there is the way that, under such hard handling, the material exhibits soonest its durability, or, its friability. Burning hard, or coming apart in one’s hands. (The experience is even more intense in the task of job-stick typesetting for letterpress, a high-recommend to individual writers whose raillery and verbosity is fit to swamp the writing.)

Harryette Mullen remarks (part of a tiny history of Cave Canem wherein she explains how Cave Canem refers to a sign at the entrance of a poet’s house noted by Derricotte and Eady whilst touring the ruins of Pompeii—a sign meaning “beware the dog”) that “As African American poets traveling in Europe, they were aware that what is called “black experience” is only a part of the life that black people actually experience. They knew that pertinent experience of black individuals and communities often goes unrecognized and unrepresented in literature, art, and popular culture. They envisioned a productive space where black poets, individually and collectively, can inspire and be inspired by others, relieved of any obligation to explain or defend their blackness.” Too, Mullen writes: “What seems to characterize the current conversation is a greater tolerance of difference, uncertainty, and even confusion in our lives and in our work as poets. We can exist as black artists without hermetic definitions of art or blackness.” Something probably apt for all writers: it’s a restless era, one tending less to pronunciamento and certainty.

And I—whiteboy—read the collection how exactly? I see blues and blunts, and a mean sense of history, and the ornery (and ordinary) devastations and redemptions of sex. Or is that just seeing what being a whiteboy in the present historical moment taught me to see—after all, I grew up reading Piri Thomas, and Malcolm X’s Autobiography, and H. Rap Brown, and Eldridge Cleaver, and Dick Gregory, all that for just that reason: for the nitty-gritty lacking in my own liberal Midwest university town surround. Having found it (and loved it) once, am I “condemned” then to see it (and it only) forevermore? I see little form for form itself—though there are sestinas, rhyming quatrains, a pantoum, blues. I do see still (despite the expressed desire to leave blackness somehow behind), a nearly complete refusal / inability to do so. (Such is the power of representation’s past—without a determined rupture, it endlessly reproduces itself.)

Cave Canem mosaic, Pompeii

Friday, July 14, 2006

New York, New York


A morning without a canister. That hermetic bullet that contains my words. Trouble-spots in the ether? (The ether is a trouble spot.)

Here’s one: Jordan Davis says: “If only appreciators of New York School bons mots would add more to the effervescence supply.” Contextually void: it lands roughly in the breezeway between pittering about the Bhagavad Gita and pattering about George Saintsbury.

Admonitory in tone, though directed out aimlessly, that is, with no apparent target. There’s a detectable tone of turf-defense (“If only”), legacy-mongering (that tiny sneer in “appreciators”) (Is it only the right citoyens propres of the five burroughs who’re “eligible”—the way bachelors and bachelorettes are—for New York School status?), and a suave assumption that adding to “the effervescence supply” is something associable with the original New York Schoolers.

Unh-uh. I see FO’H—who didn’t suffer Pollyannaisms gladly—with something cattily rebarbative to say about that. I see little JA (in a Prospect of Flowers) “accepting / Everything, taking nothing”—that is, indifferent to effervesce and equinim alike.

Is that to say, the bonest mots sort out of the meanest bots? No, it’s only another tiny cry for—hunh!—clarity?

(End of morning-without-a-canister speechifying against obtundity.)

Reminded, too, of the “stance” of O’Hara—that crumple-up-the-English-Literature-anthologies one of, say, “At night Chinamen jump / on Asia with a thump”—in reading Eugene Ostashevsky’s Iterature (Ugly Duckling, 2005):
I Struck Rhetorical Poses

I struck rhetorical poses
around me rose various roses

they were my frame I their spectacle
Then I walked around very skeptical

Then I sat down, void of thought and emotion
gas was my only motion

I would like to know I would like to know
the difference between yes and no

knight and night, Kurd and curd
what l means in the word world

if a fiend in need is a fiend indeed
what is the maximum number of the dead

O you who are a) love
                          b) remove
                          c) fauve
                          d) none of the above

you’re not going to tell me anything I don’t already know
so I’m just gonna wait till my braincells grow
Ostashevsky seems akin here to the O’Hara of the poem beginning “It is 12:10 in New York”: “it is good to be several floors up in the dead of night / wondering if you are any good or not / and the only decision you can make is that you did it / yesterday I looked up the Rue Frémicourt on a map / and was happy to find it flying like a bird over Paris et ses environs / which unfortunately does not include Seine-et-Oise which I don’t know / as well as a number of other things” That swarming insouciance, that self-knowledge that knows its excellence (and simply doesn’t care), that odd tilt up out of nowhere that exposes (briefly) the dead.

Eugene Ostashevsky

Thursday, July 13, 2006


Yellow Light

Jane Austen (beginning a letter to her older sister Cassandra, 21 January, 1801):
Expect a most agreable Letter; for not being overburdened with subject—(having nothing at all to say)—I shall have no check to my Genius from beginning to end.

John Cage (“2 Pages, 122 Words on Music and Dance”):
To obtain the value
of a sound, a movement,
measure from zero. (Pay                                                          A bird flies.
attention to what it is,
just as it is.)

. . .

A sound has no legs to stand on.
And (out of “Indeterminacy”):
When I got the letter from Jack Arends asking me to lecture at the Teachers College, I wrote back and said I’d be glad to, that all he had to do was let me know the date. He did. I then said to David Tudor, “The lecture is so soon that I don’t think I’ll be able to get all ninety stories written, in which case, now and then, I’ll just keep my trap shut.” He said, “That’ll be a relief.”

Erik Satie (Reverie on a plate):
How white it is! no painting ornaments it; it is all of a piece.

Ludwig Wittgenstein:
Whereof one cannot speak, thereof one must remain silent.
When one does not force oneself to express the inexpressible, nothing is lost and the inexpressible is contained inexpressibly in that which is expressed.

Jacques Roubaud (The Great Fire of London):
The geography of the table . . . was conventionally arranged in relationship to her, her plate both locus and reference point, inspiring the use of such cardinal and mercatorian metaphors as “the salt is to the east of your plate,” “the orange is north-northwest.” This presumed a table direction-schema analogical to a Michelin map. A clock-based variation existed: “the salt is at noon,” “the bread is at nine o’clock” . . .
Showing obliterates.

Jacques Roubaud

Wednesday, July 12, 2006



Brush against snare drum—a patter-scratch of things. I’m flipping through Alan Lomax’s The Land Where the Blues Began and bump into Lomax talking to Muddy Waters about the origin of Waters’s song Country Blues. Nothing out of the ordinary in the words—usual (woman) trouble and proposed fix in innuendo, the nudge of the pun presumably subsumed by the (voiced) rawness of the presentation, all of it undergirded by a sense of “authenticity.” A couple of sample verses:
Well, it’s gettin late on the evenin,
I feel like, feel like blowin my horn.
I woke up this mornin, find my
My little easy, my little easy gone.

. . .

I b’lieve I’ll go back to Memphis, boys,
Gonna have some of this here hambone boiled.
I done laid round Clarksdale and
I’m bout to let my old, my little old hambone spoil.
And the snatch (si on veut) of interview:
Alan Lomax: Tell me, if you can remember, when it was that you made that blues.

Muddy Waters: I made it about the eight of October in ’thirty-eight.

A.L.: Do you remember where you were, what you were thinking about?

M.W.: Arkansas—I was changing a tire on my car. I had been mistreated by a girl, and it got running in my mind to sing this song. So I just felt blue and the song fell into my mind and come to me just like that and I started singing.

A.L.: Tell me the story of it, if you don’t mind, if it’s not too personal. I want to know the facts of how you felt and why you felt that way.

M.W.: I just felt blue, and the song fell into my mind and came to me and I started singing.
Now, the precision of “the eight of October” against the evasiveness of “fell into my mind” amuses me. Partly I am thinking of Joe Brainard’s goofy report that Ron Padgett says writing a poem is “a deep and mysterious thing nobody understands.” And partly I am thinking about Drew Gardner’s koanish burp about concentrating in lieu of (in attendance of) the poem’s arrival. Isn’t it in the nature of concentrating that if one notes oneself in the throes of it, one is no longer in that particular thrall? Partly I am tempted to sucker-punch a flarfist by suggesting that flarfing don’t allow no reverie-state, no more’n doing the Sunday crossword puzzle do, so why you askin’, no flarf poem never did fall on anybody’s head that way. And partly I am thinking about Lisa Robertson’s mention of Zaha Hadid’s distinction between “random” and “arbitrary.” (“Randomness in architecture is a visual translation of pure mathematical order and thinking which is guided by logic, whereas arbitrariness has no underlying conceptual logic. . . . Arbitrariness has to do with a generation which has been brought up on shopping for ideas. A catalogue exists from which they freely copy anything and apply it with little relevance to any situation.” Thus, Hadid, in 1982.) However—fast and furious—out of the catalogue: Dr. Johnson (Random: “Want of direction; want of rule or method; chance; hazard; roving motion.”) points out that random pokes up into English out of the French randon (elsewhere: “older form randrun; from the French, cf. randir, to run quickly, impetuously; generally taken to be of Teutonic origin and connected with German Rand, edge, brim, the idea being possibly of a brimming river”), related to randonnée, hike, walk. Whereas: arbitrary (Johnson: “1. Despotick; absolute; bound by no law; following the will without restraint. It is applied both to persons and things. 2. Depending on no rule; capricious.”) out of the Latin arbitrarius related to arbiter, the way caprice itself can become a despot. (Or the catalogue can.)

So speaks the riptide of the catalogue. Hadid’s distinction seems to depend on a fixity, a constraint—a strict mathematical random, one way to structure a sample, surely, though not likely to transport one anywhere. (Back to Drew Gardner’s “Staring at the tunnel doesn’t make the train come any faster—or does it?” If achieving an ongoing state of transport is, arguably, the primary pleasure of all writing, I’d wager against systematic or asystematic puttering in the catalogue—flarfing—and for that tunnel-trance. Eventually, brimful, one’ll go all floody, break the bank.)

If I putter along more in the Lomax, though, Muddy Waters’s “fell into my mind” reads a little differently. Turns out the first verse only is “original” to Waters, the other (quoted) is out of Robert Johnson’s earlier Walking Blues. And: “both songs seem to be derived from Gypsy Blues, earlier recorded by Son House.” Fluidity of an oral era. The kind of borrowing that is a nudge of recognition, needs no catalogue. Or one is so steeped in a lingo it percolates up unbid. Brims over. Oi!

Muddy Waters a.k.a. McKinley Morganfield

Tuesday, July 11, 2006

Rib Joint

Rip Jaunt

Edifying it be to get one’s (secret) (inadmissible) (anti-poetical) beliefs boosted. Some months back, commenting in Mark Scroggins Culture Industry I wrote:
I am beginning to be nagged (again) by the dirty little thought that, in fact, fiction’s got it all over poetry, that, after all, it is the “supreme” art. We shall have much to say about this.
“Much” to say—evidemment—“we” did not have—or did not elide ourselves to our inner feints and engorged gumptions long enough (industriously enough) to spell out. We were reading Stephen Wright’s Civil War era Amalgamation Polka, absolutely took by the lively prose, ferally nineteenth century and bodacious—so we backtracked to read the astounding Vietnam era first novel, Meditations in Green, equally gulling (to a poet), and eventually ripped through the MacGuffin’d-up romp that is Going Native. (A beat-up splotch-green Ford Galaxie—is that it?—I’m terrible with cars, caring the precise lacking prereq. to recall a thing like that, a big lug of machinery after all—that Galaxie provides the merest thread or tire-track—star-shine—to make out the shifting tableaux.

So, when Edmund White in “James Schuyler” in The Burning Library (the essay originally published in Dennis Cooper’s Little Caesar in 1981) goads it forth—that “much”—in high-receivables and licit uncounterfeit dander, I am more than ready for it, rocking forward for that knock on my prolix ambition, my post-poetical noggin. White:
Here’s an admission: I sometimes wonder why people bother with poetry. After all, the best novelists (Proust and Nabokov, to name just two) offer the reader page after page of language as precise, as unpredictable and as ravishing as the language of any poet—and the novelists simultaneously make their local delights serve larger structural or thematic ambitions (the generation of suspense, the play of ideas, the revelation of character, the depiction of society, the weaving of a thick, tragic sense of duration). In great fiction the language is not only satisfying in itself, but it also fulfils larger purposes of design: it is sculptural, in the round, gestural. Fiction makes a world, dense and social. Or, to change the figure, in poetry words are like notes from a flute, the tracery of a tune, whereas in fiction words are like notes of a symphony orchestra—compositional, the integers of a giant calculus.

I say all this, at the risk of seeming philistine, in order to demonstrate that I’m no friend to poetry unless it is indispensable to me, unless in does something no prose could emulate.
White proceeds, then, with something of a novelist’s clumsiness, to defend Schuyler’s shorter lyric poems on the basis of unrivaled “music” (“phrasing, breathing and the placement of patterns of sound”) while letting the longer meditative pieces triumph under a “novelistic sense of duration, of life being lived through slow accretion, change, repetition.” A cake and eat solution surely.

Maybe the feistiness, that whininess, is hard-wired in—long ensconced in refusals to admit the novelist’s precedence, one falls to querulousness and pique amidst one’s fellows, a sort of replacement therapy of the second-rater. Listen: howls. Elsewhere in White’s book, he quotes William Burroughs in The Job, a litany of investments: “The police have a vested interest in criminality. The Narcotics Dept. has a vested interest in addiction . . .” I want to add (knowing how hard it is to mount an opposition with none to oppose—I think of my years as an agreeably bashful naturalist in the untidy woods of northern Michigan): “the post-avant apologist has a vested interest in the School of Quietude. The poet has a vested interest in commercial fiction.” One needs, after all, a pretext for any oppositional practice, which is, too often, the shelter of the epigone, which is to say, most everybody—fons et origo once-in-a-blue-moon self-starter genius aside. Huh.

Edmund White

Monday, July 10, 2006



Behind a steering wheel, radio tuned to WGPR—“GPR, God’s Precious Radiations” is what I think I heard one deejay say. It’s a Detroit station, terrific gospel on Sundays, and the Reverend Dr. Dre’s “radio ministry.” He’s offering up, because it is “Couple’s Day,” weekend overnights at the Marriott in Southfield—he pronounces it Souf’field. He talks about a couple he knows—he’s “fifty and somebody-odd years old” and she likewise and they all crazy like kids, the usual high-hog sermonizing. I quit listening. I’m thinking about “somebody” as an intensifier, what it does for the rhythm, throws down a little cluster of vocables to make “odd” more pronounced.

Lately I’m reading a lot of fiction—particularly “just” lately Daniel Woodrell’s Ozark novels, Chandler in a pickup truck—and all because I ask for no more some days than rapturous sentences. (And the “post-avant” poetry league of late suffers a want of rapturous sentences.) It’s rhythm that drives the sentence, pure and simple. Pure rhythm. (See how I double pumped that one there—for oomph and majesty.) Between the shard-masters—syntactical cut-ups and fragment-splayers, with that Tinseltown approach to the poem—and the New Sentencers (who attend more to the gaps between sentence than the sentences propres, strewing out a series of solitary clunkers in the wake of a theory-ship), they ain’t no mess of rapture to find late-ways in Poetryland, no?

So, in search of sentences: fiction with its mock-orality (I gots to hear it). Or talk, interviews (note: danger of exoticism, the novelty of the lingo “carrying” the sentence—as opposed to sheer rhythm). Exempla:

John Lee Hooker (b. 22 August 1917):
Why that I have such a big soul when I start singin’ the blues, spirituals, anythin’, is because I was normally a spiritual singer. I reversed from spirituals to the blues and when I get that big feelin’ look like it’s somethin’ like a bombshell hit me. You know, you can turn it right around’. The spirituals and the blues is based on just about the same pattern.

Way back before you and everybody else and all the peoples was born, spirituals was the thing. Nobody can reach way back and find out just when it was born, but when spirituals was born it was born on the blues side.

There’s a lot of things that give you the blues, that give me the blues, that give any man the blues: it’s somewhere down the line that you have been hurt some place. I mean it’s no certain type of hurtin’ but you have been hurt some place and you get to playin’ the blues that reaches. And so that’s why when I sing the blues I sing it with the big feelin’. I really means it.

You can hear a certain type of record be playin’. You can be feelin’ very normal, nothin’ on your mind, period. But it’s somethin’ on that record hits you. It hits somethin’ that have happened in your life, and sometime if you can’t stand to listen to the record you take a walk or take a ride or get in your car because you don’t want to be hurt so deep that it cause heartaches and things. Because you’d rather not to hear it than to hear it. Because there’s some place in them records, there’s somethin’ sad in there that give you the blues; somethin’ that reach back in your life or in some friend’s life of yours, or that make you think of what have happened today and it is so true, that if it didn’t happen to you, you still got a strong idea—you know those things is goin’ on. So this is very touchable, and that develops into the blues.

                  (Interviewed by Paul Oliver in 1960.)
William H. Gass (b. 30 July 1924):
He had his hat. To rise? To doff one final time? good day, Madame—goodby—surprise— . . . to leave? He could do that. Run under it out of the rain. How many of his dreams had flight and freedom in them? Ham and eggs. Pie and cheese. Muff and sniff. She’d hear the Southern slurs of melting custard and be . . . entranced. He had his hat. He could do that. But noises he made deliberately to set her off, stomps around the room or weights he placed on the floor to make it groan, soda he shook and swallowed, screws he gave an extra turn to, fists he left printed in the air, the pounding he gave the coverlet, or conversely the squeaks he silenced with sewing machine oil, the har har hars he swaddled in socks, the lids he glued or the many things he simply removed in the trunk of their car to cast on the dump or drop in a lake or bury: none of these acts move her because, she said, under torture matter could be made to say anything. Mud, mold, matter—what one called it didn’t count—but it had neither courage, nor loyalty, nor conscience. In her husband’s police state matter would moisten its tongue for its own ass, and she didn’t believe that was right, she refused absolutely to consider it, matter alone meant nothing, a calf of slime, she said, not an object of experience, of piety or speech; it was a convenient carrier at best, a carton for cats, and so she thought of it the way typhoid must have thought of Mary, no more, not even as a necessary ambience or elevation or so much as a stand for music, pediment for a statue or tower with an aerial, though that was closer, and what was he, then, in his dense maleness, a series of surfaces like a stack of plates, what was he with his bowling and his beer and his business—charging the living for their life and paying off only when death was a winner—what was he with his busy pencil and greedy teeth, in the flesh of his flesh, but the purest muck, individuation driven to the point of indifference, asafetida not energy, sheer dumb disagreeable stuff, unworked, unrealized, raw, foolish in its lean and teeter, its oils, wows. and ouches, as an Evereadied dolly, yet with a prick which led him on his little trot though life like a leash held at the loop end in the Pope’s fist? Butterflies leave laces in the air like a courtier’s cuffs, she said. Faugh. Easy to say such, harder to prove so.

                  “Cartesian Sonata,” out of Cartesian Sonata and Other Novellas

Lists are juxtapositions, and exhibit many of the qualities of collage. The names which appear on them lack their normal syntactical companions. Most lists are terse, minimal, bald; they are reminders, commands, aspirations. We do not trouble to write: one medium head of nice fresh red Boston lettuce, two large slicing tomatoes if ripe, a small bottle of Dr. Bland’s salad dressing but only if it’s in that cute chef-shaped bottle . . .

                  “I’ve Got a Little List,” out of Tests of Time

Vying amongst treetops and other earthbound debris in an attempt to photograph the skies, I think of a story a bookseller named Garvin handed along. Common breed of windbag used-book dealer, opinion-plagued, borne up astride an oceanic font of “useless and pointless knowledge.” He related how one photographer—W. Eugene Smith is who I recall—up on a house ladder for a shoot of something or other, could see exactly the angle needed for the shot, out there, in mid-air. So, with camera, he jumped, fired the shutter, got the snap, and fell, fracturing a leg in the fall.

W. Eugene Smith, Country Doctor, 1948

The way fireflies seem to ascend up out of lawns at dusk, tailing light up to the still barely light-lit heavens.