Friday, December 22, 2006

The Thump of Angels

William Wetmore Story’s “Angel of Grief” (1894)

About ten years back, noises about a book by Jack Clarke, From Feathers to Iron (1987). Clarke, a Blakean and Olson-overlapper at Buffalo, who died in 1992. I think I attempt’d to uncover a copy of the thing, out of some celestially-descended belief that it’d render itself essential, and never did find it. The clamor of a single book so easily succumbs to other, louder bookish clamors, casualty of the age of books. So—good to bump against it again whilst rustling around in Robin Blaser’s essay, “Bach’s Belief,” in The Fire. He quotes Clarke’s insistence that one must “know with Homer, that home is not a location but a narrative activity,” ringing a change on Olson’s own “Movement or action is ‘home’—what I persist in wrongly remembering as “The way the way home is home.” (Or maybe that ’s me—didn’t I scrawl out something about St. Augustine of Hippo that went something like that? Boffo concerning all negligibles thieved or borrow’d.) (Slow snare brushwork for backbeat on my brainpan’s “trap” set: some previously Blaser-quoted Pagany-publish’d “Manifesto” of Williams, saying how, when “bizarre derivations multiply around us,” one turns to “the word, a meaning hardly distinguishable from that of place . . .” Think of Williams post-Pagany, skinting back to the States, nose-thumbing old addled Europe, determined to make the local trajectory “home.” Which is jim-dandy and admirable up to the point that the stench of home’s imperium sets up camp in one’s own nostrils, a stench metastasizing and bunion big. Where’s the imperative of “home” then?

Blaser, quoting John Thorpe’s “Prologue” to Clarke’s book, where Thorpe, ellipses-mad, cites Clarke’s lectures: “You apply textual pressure by using at least 5 different analogues simultaneously . . . Don’t take from systems which don’t have to do with your experience of otherness . . . If you want a text to be a door to the present your must posit the world of its construction . . . Only the heat of one’s own discarded elements can produce the proper fire . . . Otherwise it can become an occasion for speculation or, worse, fundamentalist belief.” Which is ample enough in its contradictory to warrant an exam. Clarke, directly, is equally mystificatory, though capable of throwing out projectiles of spark-showery prose (emend’d, here, by Blaser):
What I’m trying to do is clear poetry of religion. Images bind the mind to the “Wheel of Religion” (Jerusalem 3: 77, 13) directionally moving “west to east, against the current / of Creation.” If you have a burning desire to get past the “lyric block” [Olson], then you know you need, not the myth of America, but a way to restore narrative to image. You can’t do this by grinding out poems from a broken Sampo [the Mill for the Kalevala]. Nor can you look to European epic, Virgil to Milton, because after Whitman it’s not “ground” anymore, it’s all “figure.”
Blaser’s not terribly helpful here, though he does say being “clear of religion” one is “freed into uncentered relations among things—which may be as big as a cosmos or as small as a pebble—” before veering off into the dictionary—another kind of “home”—and claiming that “an ethic of otherness” resides—etymologically—in the word belief. Unnh. Miriam Nichols, in commentary, notes how Clarke, early in From Feathers to Iron, defines the Finnish “Sampo” as “‘the setting and scansions of time’” and continues: “He interprets this to mean the rhythm of a given cosmology. A “Sampo” can run down, at which point the Kalevala poets advise that ‘the only thing to do is make it into a harp, string it and sing songs of sadness at its passing and songs of joy heralding the new.’”

So one stands in the hard rain of what one clearly cannot comprehend out of what? I am not one for systems, not one, truthfully, for rationcinatory mugwumping anywhere. My sense of H.D., Duncan, Blaser, to some extent Spicer, too, (though I suspect he avoid’d the most deleterious effects of “system-building” by alcohol-the-redeemer, the way it dismantles the “wrought”) is one of a terrible need for the “imposition of an order.” Blaser, in “The Practice of Outside”:
For us, outside the strangeness of poetry, discourse has been accepted as an act of language between ourselves, an agreement of logical structure that turns out to be our imposition of an order. This amounts to a closure of language, which brings it into our own limit, and ultimately that discourse will die as a man does. It does not entangle us with the world. The death at the center of such discourse is extraordinary and begins to let us see the extremity of our condition.
Recognition of what Duncan calls the law of the “the”—a death in grammar, each word in succession in a sentence delimiting the possibilities for the next, diminuendo to vanishing. Is it that, stung by such recognition of loss of the world, trapped by language, one is prodded to seek out a different system? A system against a system? If one tends to terminal idiocy in the considering, batting at raindrops in the yellow slicker, writing oneself into a thicket of expletives, or horning The Fire into the fire in reluctant disgust—

The days go yellower.

Robin Blaser and Angel with Broken Nose

Thursday, December 21, 2006


A Bite

Thomas Pynchon in the voice of Ewball Oust, in Mexico, measuring the likelihood of change across the border:
“Fact of the matter,” Ewball growing gleeful with aggravation, “these folks down here at least still have a chance—one that the norteamericanos lost long ago. For you-all, it’s way too late anymore. You’ve delivered yourselves into the hands of capitalists and Christers, and anybody wants to change any of that steps across ’at frontera, they’re drygulched on the spot . . .”
The pleasure here—beyond the diminutive “Christers,” elbowing aside a whole uncharitable tradition with a noun-switch, beyond the saddling of one kind of aggravation with its proper rider Glee, beyond the historical reverb peddle wah-wahing that “too late” right into our own twenty-first century physiogs, the pig-eyed “Christer” in the presidency and all that—is that “drygulched.” Landscape and rhythm. The landscape of that particular frontera, the two-beat rhythm of casual violence. “Cold-cocked.” “Gunned down.” “Strung up.” And what Robert Hass calls “a very American form of terminal irony.” Recalling the still-valuable essay, “Listening and Making”:
A guy in a bar in Charlottesville turned to me once and said, loudly but confidentially, “Ahmo find me a woman and fuck her twenty ways till Sunday.” . . . A woman down the bar doubled the two-beat put-down. She said, “Good luck, asshole.”

Loudly but confidentially. In Paris in the mid-’eighties I work’d briefly for a translation-hound as a “rewriter.” Un rewriter. Ehnnh ruff-ride-air. Cleansing copy of its fautes. Faute de mieux, I rough-rider here, some lines of Wyndham Lewis, (there’s a man ’d admit the glee in aggravation, no?):
The placid empty planes of Silliman’s later ‘alphabets,’ the bric-à-brac of bits of descriptive language, mostly urban wallpaper, markedly poor puns, etc., tastefully arranged, wonderfully tastefully arranged, is a dead and unfruitful tendency.

These tours-de-force of taste, and DEAD ARRANGEMENTS BY THE TASTEFUL HAND WITHOUT, not instinctive organizations by the living will within, are too inactive and uninventive for our raw foundering time and climate, and the same objections can be made to them as to Bernstein Catskills-comedian one-snort schtick, or to the adolescent chortle-graph line-ups of Andrews.

The most abject, anaemic, and amateurish manifestation of this Bernstein ‘schtick,’ or Sillimanic plodding deadness and bland arrangement, could no doubt be found (if it served any purpose beyond re-bursting the déjà-punctured) in the curtain and pincushion factory maintained by the Flarf Boys and Girls, unaware though enthusiastic epigones to such dross sewing projects though they be.

The whole of the “post-avant” movement—en anglais: “past-avant”—is, we maintain, under a tanning lamp under a cloud.

That tanning lamp under a cloud is the cold, conceited and controlling, but gone disgruntled, sentimental and inactive, personality of Silliman.

We must disinculpate ourselves of Silliman at once.

Wyndham Lewis, A Battery Shelled, 1919

Wyndham Lewis, Self Portrait, 1921

Wyndham Lewis, Ezra Pound, 1939

Wednesday, December 20, 2006

Au fond


Loose ends. Bit-off revery-tailings. Cendrars: “À l’aube je suis descendu au fond des machines / J’ai écouté pour une dernière fois la respiration profonde des pistons . . .” Goundlings jeering in the aisles. Everything entails getting up a minor head of steam. Cendrars: “Do not look for a new art formula in these pages, or for a new style of writing, but rather for the expression of tomorrow’s general state of health: man will discard reason.” Hellth, it comes out, a soluble fish of a word. Down out of the ideological supersaturate. Envy: that a man’d see a mild spate of unclamor’d-for days in the offing. Down in the engine-clang of a steamer. Pound: “A fugue a week for a year wd. teach even a bullhead something.” Is it Walker Percy’s “last gentleman” who bumps around Central Park in a “fugue state,” the air full of “ravening particles”? When Poetryland gets ripping-officious or, differently, somniferous-predictable, is it anthropology one “turns” to? On était dans le faux? On a basculé dans le réel. So the acephalous mensch pull’d yelping, a mandrake, out of the historical dirt of centuries: “naked with arms outstretched, a dagger in one hand, a flaming heart like a hand grenade in the other, stars as nipples, and a skull in place of genitalia.” André Masson: “. . . what to do with this cumbersome and doubting head?—Irresistibly it finds itself displaced to the sex, which it masks with a ‘death’s head.’” An honor-bound arrangement, no doubt, outshone only, one thinks, by a purer exchange and replacement, penile and concomitant, a jutting where a head’d “lie.” Just as Tobacco be label’d askew “a Filthy Concomitant to Claret,” its mighty thrall of invention, so . . . and here, dear Reader, one’s got, no doughbt—(it comes out, a yeasty thing)—one’s metaphorickal Panties in a Bunch. Which is—note to the delivery system, that sort of species of Terrestrial Snail, notwithstanding—all the point and rage of proceeding at all, here in the funk’d out pomary shade, surrounded by apples, surrounded by apples.

André Masson, Cover of Acéphale, 1937

Figure d’un monstre femelle sans teste, c. 1585

Tuesday, December 19, 2006


A Tree

Stumbled into (and apparently it’s easy to stumble into, being part of Robert Duncan’s “Pages from a Notebook” statement in The New American Poetry, and, too, part of an earlier, obscurer piece of 1953) in Robin Blaser’s collected essays The Fire:
I make poetry as other men make war or make love or
make states or revolutions: to exercise my faculties at large.
Perfect for what’s bugging me tonight (synchronicity of the highest degree assails me, that is what I think whenever a quotable behoover ascends up out of the fundament so . . .), thinking about (I recall it’s being) Peter Culley’s suggestion somewhere that Blogland resembles the eighteenth century coffee house, that miscible rendering (undistill’d) of sheer barmy Discovery up against hare-brain’d Gossip, Petulance (and its child by Desuetude, Disgust) up against the moronic Starry-Eyed, jejune Rabble-Rouse spitting at the feet of Big Dictum, poetickal Offal joining ranks with Rank in combat against gin-soak’d simpering Servility and her tawdry Beau the Newly Canonical, and Decorum out back sweeping the luggage off the steps . . . scurrilous to get out to the carriage house where Irony spit-polishes unendingly ’s pony Lacklustre . . . Yes, yes, our own lovely Strand. And how few mayhaps do exercise quite fully (“at large”) they god-smitten faculties, and how, thus, Blogland careens off sideways, an “entertainment,” no better’n the frickin’ telly . . .

And abandon’d before I got going about “community,”—is, isn’t it, best when it’s a mutual egging on? A nudge to each to flourish?

And walk’d off into the city-spoilt dark with a grimace in my shoe, and Marianne Moore in my pocket.


A new
Fastidiousness is
What’s needed
To curb

The fat
Idiocy of
Spall’d off
Accumulate heart-

Narratives. Stuff’d
With stiff
Exordiums &

Codas (out
Of caudal,
Such tales

Big cod-
Pieces eye-
Catchably wrought,
Delivery naught.

Ah, the prickly effervescence of abandonment, compact local pressures, roiling incompatibility, fizz-smarty. Tiny bubbles that burst to leave the air itself pock’d with exclamation points! A world of nothing but exclamation points! And, somehow, hammering the dovetails together, in a fine fit of “making it fit,” for that is what one does, putting things next things, one retrieves the Duncan, who, foregoing a rampant appetite for myth and system, admits childlike credence in “the unfettered intellect that knows in [its] nobility none of the convictions and dogmas which human mind inflicts itself with” and asks, pointedly, “what is the human desire to humiliate even its own being?” Abandonment, think of Blaise Cendrars, face like a fillet of mackerel, going off “naked, new, total” into Dan Yack Land. Think of Moravagine, ungovernably in cahoots to a threnody of desire-throes, what?

Abandon’d in most dropsical threst. “Ydropsi held him sua in threst, that him thoght his bodi suld brest.” (“Dropsy got him gode, him thought he wode explode.”)

Blaise Cendrars and Robert Duncan

Monday, December 18, 2006

Ukulele Who?

A Violinist

The ukulele, strummed or unstrummed, shows up in Against the Day with near-equal regularity as the mighty moustache. One explanation is proffer’d by one of the aeronauts, Miles Blundell, relating a post-lecture (topic: “the four-note chord in the context of timelessness”) conversation he’d had with one Ryder Thorn at Candlebrow U.’s summer ukulele workshop:
“We had quickly discovered our common love of the instrument . . . and discussed the widespread contempt in which ukulele players are held—traceable, we concluded, to the uke’s all-but exclusive employment as a producer of chords—single, timeless events apprehended all at once instead of serially. Notes of a linear melody, up and down a staff, being a record of pitch versus time, to play a melody is to introduce the element of time, and hence of mortality. Our perceived reluctance to leave the timelessness of the struck chord has earned ukulele players our reputation as feckless, clownlike children who will not grow up.”
Exactly, one notes, the argument against narrative, and for the oft-derided-of-late death-defying lyrical outburst: anything putting things in relation simultaneously like, ahem, metaphor as opposed to, um, metonymy in its trudging serial boots. (I love to o’erleap the tracks the vehicule is riding down.) Exackly, erm, too, the cautionary note appended to so much review-gabble concerning the Pynchon, “feckless, clownlike,” refusing to grow up.

Ukulele: one around the house when I ’s a kid. Probably something my father’d acquired in tail-end-of-WWII San Francisco. (Too, he’d an ocarina—a “sweet potato”—another “joke” instrument, provided with naught in the way of a repertoire for the “serious player.” Concerto in D minor for Ukulele and Ocarina.) I recall now the ukulele’s “plectrum,” ever tuck’d between strings and fingerboard—a rather blunt monstrous felt-cover’d inflexible thing, about the size of a club cracker, not made for plucking, certainly—one could only bash aimlessly with it. And the tuning-mnemonic: “My dog has fleas.”

In my youth-rootless years, friends and I took to admiring Pynchon’s inveterate lack of “address”—stories skimmed off the airwaves of him staying here and there in cheap hotels, “prolonged periods of ‘no fix’d address,’” or going off in a sudden fever somewhere to ascertain for himself some precise shade of red brick, to see how a particular shadow got “thrown,” &c. In Against the Day painter Hunter Penhallow, in Venice, conscious of the ways of the airwaves, the ghosts, “staying in a hotel room in Dorsoduro,” arguing its efficacy against the pensioni, and adding:
“. . . one has the company of eminent ghosts, Turner and Whistler, Ruskin, Browning sorts of chap. . . ‘traces of consciousness’ . . . Transient beds for some reason are able to catch and hold these subtle vibrational impulses of the soul. Haven’t you noticed, in hotels, the way your dreams are often, alarmingly, not your own? . . . especially in these smaller places, where the bedstead tends to be of iron or steel, enameled to keep away the cimici [bedbugs, though also ‘bugs’ design’d for eavesdropping]. Somehow the metal frame also acts as a receiving antenna, allowing dreamers to pick up traces of the dreams of whoever slept there just before them, as if, during sleep, we radiated in frequencies as yet undiscovered.”
Penhallow’s encounter with Andrea (“To reveal the Future, we must get around the inertia of paint. Paint wishes to remain as it is.”) Tancredi, convert to Divisionism, a kind of motorized pointillism, Signac with animus, Seurat with heat. Tancredi:
“Of course it’s to do with Time . . . everything that we imagine is real, living and still, thought and hallucinated, is all on the way from being one thing to being another, from post to Future, the challenge to us is to show as much of the passage as we can, given the damnable stillness of paint. This is why—” Using his thumb against a brushful of orpiment yellow, he aimed a controlled spatter of paint at his canvas, followed by another brushful of scarlet vermilion and a third of Nürnberg violet—the target patch seemed to light up like a birthday cake, and before any of it could dry he was at it with an impossibly narrow brush, no more than a bristle or two, stabbing tiny dots among larger ones. “The energies of motion, the grammatical tyrannies of becoming, in divisionismo we discover how to break them apart into their component frequencies . . . we define a smallest picture element, a dot of color which becomes the basic unit of reality. . . .”
And Hunter notes how the “dots” ’re “behaving dynamically, violent ensembles of energy-states, Brownian movement. . . .” All that reminds me somewhat of however Frank Zappa talk’d about music, notes as “agitated pieces of air” or something, or, “adding air to the air?” How would that look caught on the tongs of mandibles (or the “mind-forged manacles”?) where poems break against the breakwater and’re squeezed into the world? A poem of changeable vocable hum? Chordally-adapting to circumstance? (See Emily Dickinson, her +’s and variants.) The damnable endings of poems when all’d better remain salt-spray and fever. Unh.

Three Ukulele Girls, Lue Wynne, Monica S. Kelly, and Lona Holmes, 1924

Friday, December 15, 2006

Pynchon Notes

A Dumpster

Thomas Pynchon inhabiting Dr. Nicola Tesla (“the thin young scientist with the hypnotic eyes and Wild West mustache”—mustaches play a hugely jocular rôle in Against the Day, there’s report of one the “wearer” of which had to turn sideways in order to pass through a doorway, all likely Pynchon goofing on the story of himself, post-V., lighting out of Mexico City and into the hills in some Pancho Villa get-up, Life photographers in hot pursuit):
“Underground . . . lies an entire unmapped region, a carrying into the Invisible of geography, and—one must ask—why not of other sciences as well? I was out in those mountains one day, the sky began to darken, the clouds to lower, I found a limestone cave, went in, waited. Darker and darker, like the end of the world—but no rain. I couldn’t understand it. I sat and tried not to smoke too quickly the last of my cigarettes. Not until a great burst of lightning came from out of nowhere did heaven open, and the rain begin. I understood that something enormous had been poised to happen, requiring an electrical discharge of a certain size to trigger it. In that moment all this”—he gestured upward into the present storm clouds, which all but obscured the giant toroidal terminal nearly two hundred feet above, whose open trusswork formed a steel cap of fungoid aspect—“was inevitable. As if time had been removed from all equations, the Magnifying Transmitter already existed in that moment, complete, perfected. . . . Everything since, all you have seen in the press, has been theatrical impersonation—the Inventor at Work. To the newspapers I can never speak of that time of simply waiting. I’m expected to be consciously scientific, to exhibit only virtues likely to appeal to rich sponsors—activity, speed, Edisonian sweat, defend one’s claim, seize one’s chance— If I told them how far from conscious the procedure really is, they would all drop me flat.”
Tesla’s “Giant Toroidal Terminal”

Open trusswork of the novelist at work, surely. The one who, in 1964, in a letter, in a (rare) moment of booming certainty, apparently wrote of four novels-in-progress: “If they come out on paper anything like they are inside my head, then it will be the literary event of the millennium.” Surely akin to Spicer’s Martians, that sense of one’s being a conduit for what’s coming down out of the agar-color’d atmosphere, or growing in the Petri dishes one’s got balanced on one’s Borsalino, er, Stetson. Amusing to see how the various contemporary “poetics” apologists and “players” for whom such lightning rod possession smacks of buncombe resort to systems. “Poetics” as “method” rather than the hustler’s egregious afterthought it mostly is. (See Alice Notley’s percipient toss-off against such prescripts—“I don’t have a poetics. I think that’s bullshit . . . I change my style all the time. I change the forms I use. The whole thing is in flux. I think that poetics is an industry. . .” and some ensuing impenetrables here.) Truth is, mostly one doan’ know what the fuck one’s doing, and unstoppably, and grippedly, and repeatedly so.

Or what to make of Pynchon’s mention of the “cowboy poets” who “along with confidence men, R-girls, and purse-thieves, could be encountered on every train west of Chicago.”
They rode in the parlor cars marveling hour on hour at everything that passed, introducing themselves as “Raoul” or “Sebastian,” chatting up young prairie wives traveling to or from husbands whose names seldom got mentioned. In the velvet-trimmed observation and dining cars everywhere, private and public, rolling and still, these birds smothered appetites and curdled stomachs. Coffee grew ice cold in the cup. Badmen out for mischief flinched, turned, and strode away, sleep crept like an irresistible gas, and those Wild West poets just went raving on.
An infest’d flock of poets? A flinch-worth of poets? A con of poets? A snore of poets? There’s something particularly right here, in the age of chapbook mania and over-publishing. Sorta like Son Seals, mid-solo, growling out “Go ’way, boy, can’t ya see I’m workin . . .’” to some over-eager interloper, dancing with himself no doubt.

Pynchon, with the Belgian nihilists at the Grand Hôtel of the Nouvelle Digue in Ostend, reminders of the Whole Sick Crew, the early story “Entropy” and, again, insistence on leading with “one’s heart”:
Everyone lay around in a sort of focused inertia, drinking, handing cigarettes back and forth, forgetting with whom, or whether, they were supposed to be romantically obsessed. . . . “Like the Russian nihilists,” Denis explained, “we are metaphysicians at heart. There is a danger of becoming too logical. At the end of the day one can only consult one’s heart.”

“Don’t mind Denis, he’s a Stirnerite.”

Anarcho-individualiste, though you are too much of an imbecile to appreciate this distinction.”
Max Stirner, who wrote, “Man, your head is haunted; you have wheels in your head!” and “All things are nothing to me.” (“Ich hab’ mein Sach’ auf nichts gestellt.”)

Against “camps.” In the hotel, too, a parallel company of mathematicians, including one Root Tubsmith:
“Maniacs,” cried Root, “every one of us! Fifty years ago of course more than today, today the real maniacs have gone into foundations work, set theory, all abstract as possible, like it’s a race to see who can venture out furthest into the borderlands of the nonexistent. Not strictly speaking ‘mania,’ not as we once knew it. The good old days! Grassman was German and hence automatically among the possessed, Hamilton was burdened with early genius and in the grip of a first love he could never get beyond. Drinking a lot, though who am I to talk, didn’t help. Heaviside was once termed ‘the Walt Whitman of English Physics’—”

“What . . . excuse me . . . does that mean?”

“Open question. Some have found in Heaviside a level of passion or maybe just energy, beyond the truculence already prevailing among the different camps in those days.”
Protests against that slung-about journalistic formula, inharmonious nomination. “Who’s the Elda Furry of contemporary American poetry?” is what I’d like to know. Pshaw.

Nicola Tesla and Franciso “Pancho” Villa

Thursday, December 14, 2006


A Sign

Materiality—how it sucks out one’s marrow, how one is transport’d into word, letter, jot, tittle. I open The Maine Woods to Thoreau’s chapter call’d “Ktaadn” and am nigh-absorb’d by the double a’s. And, wha? “Ambejijis Falls?” Pure visceral “tug” in the i and j conjunct. Think of a poem titled “Nijinsky’s Hijinx Fails at Ambejijis Falls.” Barthes points to the way any alphabetic letter “releases an imagery vast as a cosmography . . . (all poetry—the whole of the unconscious—is a return to the letter) . . .” And: “the letter is not the sound; all linguistics derives language from speech, of which it declares writing to be merely a particular disposition . . . the letter’s coming and becoming (its source and its perpetual goal) are independent of the phoneme.” Certainly. The sonically identical gigi arrangement moves me little compared with the mighty jiji and its variants. Or, one ’d argue, the American e play’d alongside the Italian i percolates out with little dissonance, howsoever quotidian that e be next the enormity of the pull of that i. Vai via. Go figure. Barthes: “Do letters serve to constitute words? Yes, but also something else. What? Abecedaria. The alphabet is an autonomous system, here supplied with sufficient predicates to guarantee its individuality: “grotesque, diabolic, comic, new, magical” alphabets, and even more; in short the alphabet is an object whose function and whose technical locus do not exhaust it: it is a signifying chain, a syntagm outside of meaning but not outside of the sign.” How’s the blackjack croupier put it? “One ace, no help.” It is not sound, it is not the shape or “look” of individual letters, it is certain (somewhat rare?) combinatory figures (ligatures, bindings, tyings up) that thrill so. (All art is “about” relation.) If “Ktaadn” reminds me of baseballer Jim Kaat, ex-pitcher for the Minnesota Twins, whom I “picture” as somehow “gappy-mouth’d”—the pleasure and relict of the associational chain’s got everything to do with seeing the pile-up of aa’s. The letters made me do it. (I call’d a book of poems Breeze out of love for the ungainly italic Garamond z, lower-cased.) Syzygy.

Barthes again: “Z, for Hugo, is the lightning flash, God, while for Balzac Z is the bad letter, the letter of deviance.” (He’s talking about Massin’s book Letter and Image. The “twenty-six letters of the the alphabet” are “animated, . . . put in a metaphoric relation with something other than the letter: animals (birds, fish, serpents, rabbits, some devouring others in order to form a D, an E, a K, and L, etc.), men (silhouettes, limbs, postures), monsters, vegetal structures (flowers, tendrils, trunks), instruments (scissors, sickles, tripods, etc.): a whole catalogue of natural and human products comes to double the alphabet’s brief list: the entire world is incorporated into the letters, the letter becomes an image in the tapestry of the world.”)

Erté’s Alphabet, Z

Zebra, “Z is for Africa”

Wednesday, December 13, 2006


The Pond in November

One of Guy Davenport’s arguments is that Browning’s “Sordello” is “the first modern poem” largely for its daring in “moving outside the frame provided by a normal education”: “It created a scandal, and many jokes about readers who thought they had lost their minds.” (Reminding me immediately of a story that scuttled by in the recent “savage sideshow” of Pynchon reports, how one reviewer’d read Against the Day in four days, and promptly’d suffer’d a nervous collapse.) Davenport: “When a density of learning began to appear in English literature, there came with it the understanding that the author would teach us what we needed to know as we read along.” Not only content gets provided; form, too. Thus the corollary to Davenport’s claim ’s become the nigh-bromidal: all authentic new work comes with built-in instructions how to read it.

Thinking about all that whilst reading the Pynchon. Formally, there’s little needing authorial intervention. Multiple intertwining switchbacks of plot-lines and sheer length—and the former—highly cinematic—’s a standard novelistic number since, oh, Emma Bovary and Rodolphe Boulanger make out in the upstairs “council-room” of the town hall of Yonville whilst the doings of the “famous agricultural show” continue below. Regarding “what we need to know” for reading Pynchon—most gets provided, is imaginable if not wholly explicable. Fur-balls of mathematics slide down with g-g-g-glycerin’d emollients, semi-palliatives of humor, near regular slapstick, palm slapping forehead, as here, at Candlebrow University, spread out somewhere in the Midwest along the banks of the “tranquil and famously canoeable river, the Sempitern” (see Heraclitus, see Hebe, the goddess with the ’tude), where an unnamed “Professor” is lecturing at a conference on time travel concerning ways to defeat “the siegecraft of Time and its mysteries”:
“Fact is, our system of so-called linear time is based on a circular or, if you like, periodic phenomenon—the Earth’s own spin. Everything spins, up to and including, probably, the whole universe. So we can look to the prairie, the darkening sky, the birthing of a funnel-cloud to see in its vortex the fundament structure of everything—”

“Um, Professor—”

“—‘funnel’ of course being a bit misleading, as the pressure in the vortex isn’t distributed in anything so simple as a straight-sided cone—”

“Sir, excuse me, but—”

“—more of a quasi-hyperboloid of revolution which—say, where’s everybody going?”

Those in attendance, some at quite high speed, had begun to disperse, the briefest of glances at the sky sufficing to explain why. As if the Professor had lectured it into being, there now swung from the swollen and light-pulsing clouds to the west a classic prairie “twister,” lengthening to a point, about to touch down, approaching, it seemed all but consicously . . . at a speed not even the swiftest horse could hope to outrace.
Turns out it’s a regular visitor (cyclical, animated, named, “always the same tornado,”complete with noticeable “dietary preferences,”—sheet metal high on the list—a sort of object-communicant, as found so often in Pynchon), and known as Thorvald.

Against such extravagant and vivificent mirth-objects, a counterforce runs, a parallel, stifling the human. Think of something like the leaflet touting the benefits of Snazzbury’s Silent Frock, found and read by the gorgeous mathematician Yashmeen Halfcourt, and, more importantly, the implications of such wild technology’s human application:
“‘Operating on the principle of wave interference, sound canceling sound, the act of walking being basically a periodic phenomenon, and the characteristic “rustling” of an ordinary frock an easily computed complication of the underlying ambulational frequency. . . . It was discovered only recently in the scientific laboratory of Dr. Snazzbury of Oxford University, that each individual toilette might be tuned to itself through certain structural adjustments in the tailoring—’”
Those whose job it was to keep track of any recent invention with any weapons potential, however remote, and to find connections, if any, to military and political events in Europe, observed the traffic in Silent Frocks, which had picked up in recent days, with due alarm, drawing up lengthy reports, bringing in everything from Balkan troop movements to the price of diamonds in Belgium.
The upshot is narrative-fear of a “hundred women on the move, all silent” leading to human (here, particularly, woman) as machine, or (maybe worse in the Pynchon pantheon of threats to individual liberty, human-officialdom alliance). Pynchon: “voices did shake just perceptibly with gynecophobia, or the fear of women, of silent women, in these absolutely silent black gowns, advancing along corridors which seemed to recede behind them without limit, perhaps also fear of these unechoing corridors themselves, especially under certain conditions of low light . . . with no least fragment of music in the distance, without the comforts of commentary, their hands unoccupied with parasols or fans, lamps or weaponry . . . should one wait, withdraw, turn in panic and run? What clandestine purpose? More unsettling, how much official support?” Later some character remarks: “on the face of it, all mathematics leads . . . sooner or later, to some kind of human suffering.”

Johannes Moreelse’s Heraclitus (c. 1630)

Tuesday, December 12, 2006

Ex Nihilo


Sleep got jettison’d early, along with its sandbags of dream-makings. Cue Roy Orbison. So I fuss and gulp coffee, aimless as a duck. I keep thinking a “neo-post-avant” is going to emerge out of the shambles of the moment before I recall—nothing ex nihilo. That’s a joke, pappy. “We” need Oscar Wilde here today, somebody to deflower the pomposities with ’s daisychain quips and witticisms. Daisycutter. “We?” Oh, us bald marauders, nincompoops, boomer sooners. Guy Davenport opines that the essence of a prose style is “good manners”—uh oh. Though I doubt he’d extend the notion of “manners” to the doltish slipper-kissing formalities of an Emily Post, or the plod-harmonics of the “five-paragraph theme.” The training wheels of the un-nuanced and obvious. Though one notes a lot of “neo-Post” post’d by some of the supposedly redoubtable conventioneers in the caravanserais hereabouts, no? (That’s a joke, gramps.) Great blaze of reading (Against the Day) last night, with some Belgian nihilists (“Young Congo”) now, in Ostend. At some point Pynchon mentions somebody’s being made an “honorary Negro”—I suspect concert’d examination into Pynchon himself’s unsentimental look at race ’d prove monumentally satisfying. Recall “Red”—the young Malcolm X—in the early pages of Gravity’s Rainbow going into the toilet after a dropped harmonica. (Or ’s my memory, that dark continent, traipsed all farfalla’d into “the dreadful Boojum of Nothingness” where candle-moths expire in tiny grease-roars of flame?) Think I’d better go back to finding reasons to dislike Henry James, no? How about how he goes off about mutton in a letter (1870, James is twenty-seven) to brother William: “English mutton was grazing in the lee of the hedges and English smoke rolling from the chimneys in low-latticed, steep-thatched cottages. À propos of mutton I wish I could enclose herewith one of those unutterable joints which daily figure on our board. You don’t eat it—you devoutly ecstatically appropriate it: you put a bit into your mouth and for the moment il n’y a que ça. It beats the beef. The beef varies—it has degrees, but the mutton is absolute, infallible, impeccable. With plenty of mutton and a good many walks and a few books I hope to thrive and prosper.” The mimsy fardellages of class-comfort, that’s probably enough to get my gorge up again. I suspect concert’d examination into the rampant class-privileges of a goodly cluster of American litterateurs ’d prove monumentally satisfying. Just off the cuff I’d say one’d do better ’n tamper with the ballast of sleep, it crimps the day’s hoving. Ballast: f. bar bare + last load, with the sense of ‘bare, naked, or mere load or weight.’ Sleep’s peremptory bare-assedness. Hoving: Swelling (of cheese), Pliny (trans. by the mighty Philemon Holland), ‘Like unto bladders puft up and hooved with wind.’ “It beats the beef.”

Gaius Plinius Secundus and Roy Orbison

Monday, December 11, 2006

A Dog’s Day

A Phone Booth

Funny, for years I imagined Henry James tedious, “unabideable”— kept him dangling on the end of a pair of tongs, arm outstretched, visage avert’d as if against a gaseous stench. I took Vladimir Nabokov’s line on the clumsiness of the sentences, “like an elephant trying to pick up a dime.” Then, boom, boom, boom. First, Pynchon’s got Pugnax, the Chums of Chance dog, reading The Princess Casamassima, second, someone calibrates Pynchon’s prose “Jamesian,” third, a handler in an “emporium” of used books proceeds to shelve a slightly “dog-eared” copy of The Princess Casamassima right in front of my nose whilst I ’s gandering at The Maine Woods. I admit: my ears prick’d up. My coins plunk’d down. And now I thumb at it, expectantly, unresignedly. Is it possible that Pynchon’s made James Pynchonesque? Here:
‘Now, Anastasius Vetch, don’t go off into them dreadful wild theories!’ she cried, always ungrammatical when she was strongly moved.
Or here:
And Paul Muniment, with his discoloured thumb, designated his own substantial person.
Or here:
Mrs. Bowerbank, in a leisurely, roundabout way, wandered off to her sister, Mrs. Chipperfield, whom she had come into that part of the world to see, and the whole history of the dropsical tendencies of whose husband, an undertaker with a business that had been a blessing because you could always count on it, she unfolded to Miss Pynsent between the sips of a second glass.
James, les trois. Partly, one senses, the effect of the names. (Others: Hyacinth Robinson, Captain Sholto, and the “poor, infatuated phrase-monger Eustache Poupin.”) Partly the effect of fussy precision, or its game counterfeit, legerdemain’d oddity—“discoloured,” “designated” “substantial,” “dropsical,” “unfolded.” Not one hundred dollar words, just purveyors off the streets of the usual ilk.

Noted, too, on the cheat-sheet supply’d for puppies of the Zone, the “back cover synopsis” (Apollo Editions paperback version, for you book “hounds”), how Pynchonesqueries find they way into the copy of the most dogged of copywriters. Here:
Exposed to both the lower and upper levels of London society, Hyacinth finds himself desperately struggling to reconcile Europe’s cultural accomplishments with the human suffering they engendered.
Uh-oh, hellooooo, as Martin Short’d say (Father of the Bride, 1991). Isn’t that—push’d to late Capital’s gargantuan levels—the collarable gist of Against the Day? A midwinter James splurge? Oooph!

Found in an old manila folder of prose. Offer’d up here out of sloth and turpitude, end of a motorish weekend. Percy, recently arrived in Sitka, Alaska, meets Joe Parsley in a tavern. Postmodern intruders in the form of subtitular literary jabs, a habit, a concealment, here, Auden:
The dogs go on with their doggy life

When Percy stepped (rather tentatively, he was full of burgundy and felt as if he carried—balanced carefully on its squat end within him—the delicate, smooth glow of something like a egg) through the lead-glass windowed door of the Farmer’s and Merchant’s, he breathed out a soft expletive, “Good night.” Night. He had listened to Joe Parsley’s feverish talk for eight or nine hours—until it had become his own fever, his fuel, his comfort. Joe had talked about Gustave Flaubert in long, caress-inflected tones, about his sentences, his great thumping fervors. On a bar napkin, Joe had written for Percy this—“La parole humaine est comme un chaudron fêlé où nous battons des melodies à faire danser les ours, quand on voudrait attendrir les étoiles”—and translated it as “Human speech is like a cracked cauldron we bang rude melodies against to make bears dance when we only long to touch the stars, to melt the stars.” He called it a “free” translation, closer to the esprit of the original. Joe had talked, too, in sudden willful seriousness choked off by hiccoughs of idiocy, of “the days in France, when the ladies wear no pants.” He had enumerated the odd officious benevolences of the café garçons, upright and uniformed in black and white. He had recited all eighty-something départments with spellbinding sonority and great relish—Oise, Aube, Yonne, Morbihan, Ardèche, Cher. He had tucked the bounty of French gastronomic pleasure into his talk like tucking a large white napkin under his chin—cassoulets, choux farcis, rollmops, huitres. He had translated his own name for Percy—as Joe Persil—and he had roamed breathless and breathtakingly over the landscapes of France—the cubist overlap and geometry of pines and low mountains in Alsace, the sedge-grass marshes of the Vendée, the oyster-pocked waterways of Locmariaquer, the stony goat-bewildering fastness of the Cévennes, the bucaneer-fabled sandy deposits of the Bouches-du-Rhône.

And he had, solemnly, with the piercing look—eyes like two holes in the shield of face—of a messiah, convinced Percy to “do a mission”—that was how Joe had put it—“do a trans-Atlantic mission” of conviviality and fortune. Joe wanted Percy to go to Paris for him—Joe Parsley—and contact a certain Monsieur Besse, a wine merchant, supplier of Joe’s wines, redeemer, it seemed, of Joe’s life. Joe himself could not go. He was certain of this. He explained it in terms of the musicality of the stars, the frozen light captured by Time, the long evident symphony of desire and belonging played out in the celestial maps. “That particular burst of star-fire has not—will not, not in this pickled lifetime—ever touch my soul,” he said. “But yours, your soul, I can see, yes, it has touched. You’re not among the dogs of the planet, Percy. You are not a dog.”
Curious, the select recurrent landscapes. How, in the brain-panorama, that country we keep to ourselves for high solace visiting purposes, a few locales sweep ever-readily into view. Curious, too, the evidence, hardly need’d one supposes, of why poets cannot turn to fiction. (Fictioneers who “begin” as poets, that’s another matter, they’s just building up stamina.) As oft-suspect’d, poems get writ by compleat narcissists, gents and ladies most apt to plummet into abject narcolepty at the mention of the Other. Here, the evidence of the author’s desperate measuring of hisself out into the caricatural voids of “Percy” and “Parsley-Persil” is found precisely in the pulchritudinous push of plot toward Dopplegänger-dom.

John Singer Sargent, Portrait of Henry James, 1913

Friday, December 08, 2006

Grand, Baby, Grand!

A Telephone Pole

There’s a famous photograph of Black Panther Party members raising their fists at the art deco monument of the Alameda County Courthouse. I was in the crowd of supporters that witnessed that salute.
It’s a little late in the day for throwing down one’s street credentials, is what my initial splutter is to Barrett Watten’s highly defensive reaction to Juliana Spahr’s first read, and reread, of The Grand Piano’s premier tome numéro un. Is there anyone who believes that admitting to being a participant in a “crowd of supporters” (as opposed, one guesses, to “a rubbernecking onlooker”) to a “famous photograph” (calling Baudrillard, calling Baudrillard!) is liable to any “political risk,” today, or yesterday? Methinks the import of Watten’s “actions” grows, mostly, inside ’s own big head. He writes: “I witnessed or was a participant in many political acts connected with the politics of Black and Third World liberation as a student in Berkeley in the 1960s, was tear-gassed at these demonstrations, saw myself as politically informed by their terms.” Tant mieux that all that tear-gas ’d come to “inform” life in a tony northern suburb of Detroit.

Admittedly, I am curious to read The Grand Piano, uncertain though I be regarding the rational behind the somewhat-vaunted (by Watten) serial dolloping out of its pages. Seventy-nine by count in the first installment: totting up to seven or eight pages per contributor. Room enough for what, broad-stroke sketchy impressionism? A quick insight-rigged anecdote? Incitement to a presumed following? I’d intend’d (and rather hanker’d) to subscribe to the thing, and may, though suddenly at $12.95 a pop, it seems so, well, meagre. Watten: “We . . . are writing an “experiment in collective autobiography,” whose nature is unfolding in the terms of the work itself, but also as we . . . will find out what it is we are doing through the eyes of others.” And, later: “As an act of serial publication, The Grand Piano continues—and part of its work is to open the text, in and as a construction of group identity in the past and in the present, to readings . . .” Dandy. And fits the Barthesque “writerly” model. (One ’d want to ask Watten, though: why the antiquated technological fanfare of print seriality, if what’s desired is something participatory and open? Why the one thousand bound “Mode A” documents dealt into a few mitts, when one could put it online for all?) (In the cold sleepless Michigan night I consider’d—giggling to myself—if the Watten / Grand Piano press oughtn’t rather be named “Model A”—indicating an advance stylish without being mechanical, “presenting a thoroughly modern face,” and “staving off competitors.” See Watten as Henry Ford.)

I find the fact of Juliana Spahr’s being “asked to withdraw” a comment curious. How is that done? Erasure? Justificatory waffling? Deceit? I find the fact of Spahr’s being “called out by 10 people” on the issue alarming. Is that evidence of a concerted campaign? Did each of The Grand Piano’s ten authors ask for that withdrawal? It’s ironic that the apologists for “language-center’d” writings, the theory-steep’d ones, those who’ve taught “us” that “we”—like action-figures hurling ourselves, hard-hat’d and workboot’d, into the site of the text—construct meaning, complete the edifice in partnership with the author—, it’s ironic that that should seem to break down nigh-completely at the point of personal history, individual or not. Perhaps, finally, the legacy of language writing’ll lie in a new model of “reception control,” the kind of innovation no true community tends to, or needs.

(A side note. A precedent to The Grand Piano is Leningrad: American Writers in the Soviet Union, a collaborative travelogue / conference report (1989) by Michael Davidson, Lyn Hejinian, Ron Silliman, and Barrett Watten. All that era’s glasnost—“we” recall that meaning openness—goes asunder if one believes Kent Johnson’s persistent tale of how, participant to the same proceedings, he is written out of the story.)

Barrett Watten

Thursday, December 07, 2006

Pynchon Notes


Thomas Pynchon (Against the Day), stirring the soul-clench of feeling (something he’s regularly accused of being incapable of, or refusing) writing about the risks and heartaches of invisibility—one alternative to the “suburban imperative”—for one Anarchistickal crew in New Orleans (who’d been arguing, earlier, “about Bakunin and Kropotkin, remaining for the most part . . . easygoing no matter what disagreement might arise, because it was important not to draw attention. It was the U.SA., after all, and fear was in the air . . .”):
The night before Wolfe sailed, he, Reef, and Flaco stood down by the river, drinking local beer out of bottles and watching the fall of night, “weightless as a widow’s veil,” observed the young Irishman, “and isn’t it the curse of the drifter, this desolation of heart we feel each evening at sundown, with the slow loop of the river out there just for half a minute, catching the last light, pregnant with the city in all its density and wonder, the possibilities never to be counted, much less lived into, by the likes of us, don’t you see, for we’re only passing through, we’re already ghosts.”
Though one’d note, all embourgeoisie’d up here with a clerkship (one “holwe, and therto sobrely . . . litel gold in cofre”), that the reason the passage moves one so, is how one, workday done, exits the library daily into just such abscond’d light, light blotter’d up, light that says another day’s done pulled into the station no train’ll leave again. A horrible four o’clock region when grease-shiny death stalks the matte world. Invisible glory dying in the dustbins of accumulated havocs ne’er wreaked . . .

Translated into a run of ska skippiness—uptempo, Brixton’d, interminable in the all-embraceable brainpan—Pynchon’s “suburban imperative” becomes a loop of “So you think that you’ll be happy / When you’re hanging out the nappies / If that’s a happy marriage I prefer to be / Un-hap-py!” With a sailing snappy under-lyric, the bit about Mr. and Mrs. William Blake in the garden: “Naked woman, naked man / Where did you get that nice sun tan?” (The Specials, c. 1979.)

I see Pynchon’s come to the defense of Ian McEwan, author of Atonement, accused of plagiarism, in a letter to the Daily Telegraph, stating simply enough that using the odd “engaging detail” is “simply what we do”:
Given the British genius for coded utterance, this could be about something else entirely, impossible on this side of the ocean to appreciate in any nuanced way—but assuming that it really is about who owns the right to describe using gentian violet for ringworm, for heaven’s sake, allow me a gentle suggestion. Oddly enough, most of us who write historical fiction do feel some obligation to accuracy. It is that Ruskin business about “a capacity responsive to the claims of fact, but unoppressed by them.” Unless we were actually there, we must turn to people who were, or to letters, contemporary reporting, the encyclopedia, the Internet, until, with luck, at some point, we can begin to make a few things of our own up. To discover in the course of research some engaging detail we know can be put into a story where it will do some good can hardly be classed as a felonious act—it is simply what we do. The worst you can call it is a form of primate behavior. Writers are naturally drawn, chimpanzee-like, to the color and the music of this English idiom we are blessed to have inherited. When given the choice we will usually try to use the more vivid and tuneful among its words . . . Gentian violet! Come on. Who among us could have resisted that one?
And where, is it in Slow Learner, or did someone relay it to me, the morsel about Pynchon’s reliance on an ancient Baedeker for the excrescence of local details in some of the earliest stories?

Pynchon, connecting one’s preferred Human Coherence Strategy with one’s preferred musical model, a discussion of Anarchist theory carry’d on amongst members of “Dope” Breedlove and his Merry Coons, Reef Traverse, son of the notorious (and apparently dead) mine-dynamiter Webb Traverse, and the “traveling insurrectionist” Wolfe Tone O’Rooney, at the Maman Tant Gras Hall, New Orleans:
“Your own Benjamin Tucker wrote of the Land League,” a young man was saying in an unmistakably Irish voice, “in such glowing terms—the closest the world has ever come to perfect Anarchist organization.”

“Were the phrase not self-contradictory,” commented “Dope” Breedlove.

“Yet I’ve noticed the same thing when your band plays—the most amazing social coherence, as if you all shared the same brain.”

“Sure,” agreed “Dope,” “but you can’t call that organization.”

“What do you call it?”

Elsewhere, self-reliance, the frontier, the standard northamerican value-stock, graft-sturdy, Mark Twain’s “lightin’ out for the territory” Jack Kerouac’s road, and hints of a ’sixties nostaligia in a (minimally chop’d) riff about various travels of Reef and Estrella “Stray” Briggs:
If you took a map and tried to follow them over it, zigzagging town to town, back and forth, it might not have been that easy to account for, even if you recalled how wild, how much better than “wild” it’d been not all that many years ago, out here, even with the workdays that had you longing for the comforts of territorial prison, yes hard as that, when whatever was going to become yours—your land, your stock, your family, your name, no matter, however much or little you had, you earned it, with never no second thoughts as to just killing somebody, if it even looked like they might want to take it . . . waking up each day never knowing how you’d end it . . . when any ailment, or animal wild or broke, or a bullet from any direction might be enough to propel you into the beyond . . . why clearly every lick of work you could get in would have that same mortal fear invested into it—Karl Marx and them, well and good, but that’s what folk had for Capital, back in early times out here—not tools on credit, nor seed money courtesy of some banker, just their own common fund of fear that came with no more than a look across the day arising. It put a shade onto things that parlor life would just never touch, so whenever she or Reef pulled up and got out, when it wasn’t, mind, simple getting away in a hurry, it was that one of them had heard about a place, some place, one more next-to-last place, that hadn’t been taken in yet, where you could go live for a time on the edge of that old day-to-day question, at least till the Saturday nights got quiet enough to hear the bell of the town clock ring you the hours before some Sunday it’d be too dreary to want to sober up for. . . . So in time you had this population of kind of roving ambassadors from places like that that were still free, who wherever they came to rest would be a little sovereign piece of that faraway territory, and they’d have sanctuary about the size of their shadow.
That’s part and parcel of Greil Marcus’s “old weird America” in its noise. It’s akin to what Amiri Baraka’s seeing gone missing of late in the spit-shined poetry parlors of these states (“The entire generation of artists who actually worked to register some understanding of ‘the great outdoors,’ i.e., the real world (outside the classroom) & all its bloody turbulence and contradiction, have been systematically kicked to the curb . . .” see the recent Poetry Project Newsletter (No. 209)). It’s not too skew of Randolph Bourne’s complaint of how “the real mischief” is “to get your infallible divine truth confused with your pragmatic human truth”—and that’s not just the imbecile Bush and cronies with they literal Divine, but anybody ’s thinking they got a Way to Proceed—something professedly Infallible like that ’s liable to end up first an Iron Boot (a stasis) and then an Iron Boot pressed against Somebody’s Neck (an obstruction and injustice). Stay nimble, cohorts, and move.

Amiri Baraka, 2002

Wednesday, December 06, 2006

In the Wash

Strip Mall

William James on ‘pure experience,’ (being “the immediate flux of life which furnishes the material to our later refection with its conceptual categories”):
Only new-born babes, or men in semi-coma from sleep, drugs, illnesses, or blows, may be assumed to have an experience pure in the literal sense of a that which in not yet any definite what, tho ready to be all sorts of whats; full both of oneness and of manyness, but in respects that don’t appear; changing throughout, yet so confusedly that its phases interpenetrate and no points, either of distinction or of identity, can be caught.
Exactly what one seeks to regain in the booze-stupor of writing itself, that continuum “ready to be all sorts of whats.” It’s a necessary diminishment (focus) of the world’s rabidness, its snarling thereness, that provisional trancelike state of writing. It’s arrived at through itself, that is, one writes oneself into it, though, once, I might’ve argued (and did), a squat sweaty tumbler of bourbon making rings on the table next the typewriter’d get one off into that hinterland. (Or, braining oneself with a dictionary.) (Or pushing one’s atrophy-self, replete with vestigial-sleep, to the ordinary workbench.)

My next book’ll be call’d “All Sorts of Whats.”

Deep-foundering in the ruckus-territory of Pynchon, and notes collecting without the wherewithal to typewriter them together (dent’d, ding’d, an’ sich’d they be, in the wash of attention, the tutelary goods—and gods, ye gods—abash’d, I never did read without seeing the material words, I start’d Nausea a good century of times, always shock’d that, reaching the second sentence, the first sentence ’d vanish’d, I want’d them all present and perceivable, not listlessly trailing along for “sense,” I want’d a simultaneity of sentences . . .)

A couple of “items” finagling my attention.

The energetic Mary Ann Caws ’s written a book call’d Surprised by Translation (University of Chicago Press, 2006)—what looks to be part memoir, part translation-theory, with chapters about Mallarmé translating Tennyson, Pound’s Rimbaud and Arnaut Daniel, Virginia Woolf’s Clara Malraux, Yves Bonnefoy’s Shakespeare, Keats, and Yeats, and Beckett’s Beckett. Caws’s focus is on the “wrong,” the “non-mimetic,” “slippage,” translations with “something odd about them.” A paragraph on Beckett’s rendering of the final line of Apollinaire’s “Zone”:
This “soleil cou coupé” has seen more ink running than any blood that ever poured from any severed neck. The sound “cou coupé” mocks us like a guillotined cuckoo and blazes with drama, providing the visionary verbal shock. The usual translations give just variations of the “sun severed neck.” But Beckett’s “Sun corseless head” of 1950 leaps from the page to strike the same harsh blow that the beheading itself does, and we hear in the “corseless” or necklace of that echo of a corpse so unmistakably marking the end of a beginning. For this 1913 poem was at the beginning of modernism as we know it, and this 1950 translation renders it, and modernism, newly.
(I’m not entirely convinced by some of Caws’s claims here—what is that “necklace” doing there exactly, and what “end” if the translation renders modernism “newly”?)

Chris Villars, whose archive of Morton Feldman works and related-texts is found here, ’s put together a book titled Morton Feldman Says: Selected Interviews and Lectures 1964-1987 (Hyphen Press, 2006). Villars, about the title:
In the early 1960s, the American composer Robert Ashley conducted a long interview with Feldman, part of which was published in the New York literary and arts quarterly, Kulchur. Ashley also made a performance piece out of the published excerpt—essentially a piece that recreates the interview. He called this piece, Morton Feldman says . . .
(The original interview is lost, the Kulchur-publish’d excerpt is included.) Feldman (in the Ashley excerpt (1964), finding a way to club himself on the head—see William James):
I find that the only way I can work today is not to think of the present, but only to think of the past, the past of my own life, where I worked without being conscious of the ramifications of my own acting in the world. I certainly don’t want to create the impression by those religious analogies that I think I was some sort of deity. But there was a deity in my life, and that was sound. Everything else was after the fact. All ‘realization’ was after the fact. Process was after the fact.
And, on the pointing of young composers towards the university:
. . . all the time you feel that the young composer has immorally been given the moral licence to lead a parasitic life. You find the same thing in the universities. You find it in important centres like Tanglewood, where they’re given this immoral basis for a really unproductive life. . . . What the schools and the important pedagogues are doing is just perpetuating a tragic syndrome, a tragic misunderstanding about what it is to be a composer. But then, perhaps they don’t think of themselves as composers. I think that composing for them is just an incidental activity in the power struggle of ideas. You used the word ‘sick’. The word ‘sick’ is not sick enough. There’s a perpetual cultural insanity feeding itself on everything it can use, without any feeling of obligation.

Samuel Beckett and Morton Feldman

Tuesday, December 05, 2006


Some Letters

“Rien,” as Mallarmé so aptly put it. Snow accumulating under Wallace Stevens’s hat. Thomas Pynchon talks about the “suburban imperative”—right up the alley with Thoreau’s “quiet desperation,” what most men live lives of. One makes a little niche for oneself, keeps a blank white notebook nearby. Nudges one’s furriest utterances to the cave-mouth, out into the unblinker’d lambency of spangled light. Morton Feldman: “When you play an instrument, you’re not only playing the instrument; the instrument is playing you.” Nidges and nods of agreement. The language: a fish-bone in the sun. We a nidgery to it, and its only begetter. Language acting like Marcel Duchamp asking John Cage, that terribly poor student of chess, “Don’t you ever want to win?” Of course not, bourgeois miscreant! One desires language to cook in its own juices like a cutlet, desires it malleable and off-putting, consistency of the brain of a small child. Baudelaire: complacency in a shoe, an abattoir of complacency. “A very nodypoll nydiote myghtbe a shamed to saye yt.” First cousin to lucid prose, no?

Thus unkempt, or dropsical, and needing a redeemer, I find one in a “Fickle Sonnet,” a fickle sonance, out of Geoffrey Young’s so-titled 2005 Fuckaduck number, a terrific book:

We have watched the anchormen age
We have paid to see Atlantis rise from a sandbar
In Nassau, witnessed shark technology and Lazarus
Bathing his genitals in the electron stream

But it’s like, before they can say “All Aboard”
We’re there already, we’re bi-coastals lined up
To buy porcelain dogs in galleries
Because love buckles our legs one moment

And in the next room projects Jungle Fever
Every great picture needs a wall
Then I catch myself highlighting “Ever Narrower
Bandwidth Seeks Hi-speed Search Engine

For Practice of Outside Versification,”
And I am become the plot, its sinuous turning
Hell, I find two:

As founder, chief theorist,
and sole member of “Pliny the
Younger’s Advantage,” I am up
in arms. I am up in your arms,

to be specific, applying volcanic
ash to the small of your back,
dusting for fingerprints. Ardor
thrives where a pen’s accuracy

would only sully Eden. How
unearth, how revive, how forgive
our long lost dead? We live
“All Nude, All the Time,” like

forest canopies, wearing our
sumptuous teeming on a sleeve.
A book of rewrites, according to Young’s short preface, thievery and rearrangement of one’s own source material (1976-2005): “Whether shorn, expanded, or merely reconfigured, each work’s mind changed, becoming newly svelte, normatively ample, or, like a Costco urn, functionally clunky, depending on the case.” Quick-witted and fleet in the hallowed lineage of the New York saints-sonneteers Berrigan and Mayer, or Shadow Train-era Ashbery. Covers and drawings by Donald Baechler.

Donald Baechler, Crowd Study (Legion) No. 27, 1999

Donald Baechler, Livsglede, 1984-1985

Donald Baechler, The Lisbon Beat, 1986

Monday, December 04, 2006

The Flats

A Wall

Out of Thomas Meyer’s translation of Laozi’s Daode Jing (Flood Editions, 2005):
when the recurrent momentum of things
completes itself nothing has an ending

. . .

ease the tensions
loosen the tangled

blur the glare
muddy the hand

this is the hidden joining
of what is alike
Trying to think about Brice Marden when I fell into that, though the mere placement, the disorder of its being “handy”—eye-level shelf, straightaway—propell’d me to it. Trying to think about Marden’s early-to-middle obligatory flat surface brushwork’d and scarred, patina to an understory. How it is that Marden, minimalist / conceptualist, ’s moved degree by degree out of that stance, and through something akin to abstract-expressionism toward a nigh-figurative style. Am I proceeding on the assumption that depth is the sign of figuration? Or is it that, looking at Marden’s recent intertwinings, I think first of Gaudier-Brzeska’s relief of two wrestlers? (Aside: what would a flat-poem-with-scars look like? how make a poem that is a history of its versions, the occasions of its making nigh-legible as understory?)

Henri Gaudier-Brzeska, Wrestlers, 1914

In 1972, Brice Marden talking to Paul Cummings about paintings grey and monochromatic: “. . . you try to get the most complicated color experience. So I was working to get a color that would be like grey and yet could also be considered green or red, working in a very close area.” (Aside: what would a poem, “complicated” and “working in a very close area” be like? Jack Spicer: “A really perfect poem has an infinitely small vocabulary.” I think of Robert Lax, or some of Ronald Johnson’s semi-visuals: that’s not what I mean. What I mean is a “large” poem, with “normal” language, about to become something other. Flickering in and out of . . . what? Material and meaning?)

Marden: “I did a group of paintings last year called the Hydra paintings from being at Hydra, you know, looking at the color there and very carefully making notes about it.

Paul Cummings: Are they word notes or drawing notes or color . . . ?

Brice Marden: I suppose I’ve thrown them out. Blue olive green with slight ochre tinge. Black green between, black green brown trunks, tree trunks.”

All art begins in seeing.

Brice Marden, Green Eaglesmere Set 3, 1997

Brice Marden, Attendant 2, 1996–99

Thomas Pynchon, in London, stretching out the (slightly) nasalized o’s and n’s, brandishing the sentence like a cutlass (“Or a cutlet,” ’s what he’d add): “Evening drew on, the vast jangling thronged somehow monumental London evening, light falling seemingly without a destination across the wind-attended squares and haunted remnants of something older, and they went to eat at Molinari’s in Old Compton Street, also known as the Hôtel d’Italie, reputed to be one of the haunts of Mr. Arthur Edward Waite . . .” Of the fayre Afton isle, its lingual verdancies, Pynchon speaks, in the voice of maths student Yashmeen Halfcourt, (though one’d think—and pardonably—he ’s yanking the reader’s chain re: the readerly response to the very words in the very book in hand): “On this island, . . . as you will have begun to notice, no one ever speaks plainly. Whether it’s Cockney rhyming codes or the crosswords in the newspapers—all English, spoken or written, is looked down on as no more than strings of text cleverly encrypted. Nothing beyond. Any who may come to feel betrayed by them, insulted, even hurt, even grievously, are simply ‘taking it too seriously.’ The English exercise their eyebrows and smile and tell you it’s ‘irony’ or ‘a bit of fun,’ for it’s only combinations of letters after all, isn’t it.”

Or, here, Pynchon about the goings-on on the Isle of Mirrors, one of the Terre Perse, “Lost Lands,” sunk off the Venetian coast: “The classical anamorphoscopes . . . were mirrors, cylindrical or conical, usually, which when placed on or otherwise near a deliberately distorted picture, and viewed from the appropriate direction, would make the image appear “normal” again. Fads for these came and went beginning as early as the seventeenth century, and the artisans of Isola degli Specchi were not slow in learning how to supply this specialized market. To be sure, a certain percentage of them went mad and ended up in the asylum on San Servolo. Most of these unfortunates could not bear to look at any sort of mirror again, and were kept scrupulously away from reflective surfaces of any kind. But a few, choosing to venture deeper in the painful corridors of their affliction, found after a while that they could now grind and polish ever more exotic surfaces, hyperboloidal and even stranger, eventually including what we must term “imaginary” shapes, though some preferred Clifford’s term, “invisible.” These specialists remained at Isola degli Specchi under a sort of confinement within confinement so strict as to provide them, paradoxically, a freedom unknown in Europe and indeed anywhere, before or since.”

Saturday, after a nap. (Typing th’above caught me in the reticular bag of sleep, yellow (canary in a mineshaft-color’d) “graph paper” with quarter-inch squares.) The air is pinging dub-molecular ’roundabout. Voices dredging for lost voices in the aether, or a voice struggling against an aether’d stranglehold, no rebuttals allow’d, applejack popping its cork in the coldbox. What sweet confinement to wake to an empty house. What it is about the Pynchon: he locates the affliction and pushes harder against it. Tarries with it, niggles it, makes it perceptibly worse (to make it perceptible). Akin to something I’ve quoted before, by the Italian painter Marco Celotti, in “Reflections of the Head Painter”:
. . . Clarity begins in the furrows.

It is fictional to think that art does not touch the sores, that it is afraid to put its multitude of fingers on the festering wounds of uninvolvement. Moreover, it is bad fiction.

To an aesthetic of buttery consistency, art could suddenly contribute its often rejected bag of rusty nails. Out of the blue the former concubine takes a road, an address. It dons its mottled robes, fishermen’s hooks, pulleys, ropes and winches. It discards its purses, its golddigger pans, its safes and vaults, the inner sanctum of the money-lenders. . . .

Ah, the beauty of these pulsating nostrils on the new proud head . . .

Who is to say that Titian’s brush (the same one picked up by the king) has not fallen again on the ground of broken teeth of the Bolivian miners?
Or Colorado miners, as the present “case” ’s got it? Is that it? Asymptotically approaching it? Here’s a story. In the verdancy of one’s years, one fell into mad pursuit of a piece of writing somewhat larger than usual, somewhat unratify’d by sense, or less ratify’d, somewhat perversely “flying off at the handle”—a broken back single of a metaphor—and the writing proved meet (and publishable) only because it fail’d at its intent: that of “breaking through” into some new clarity, some reduction, some marc tramp’d out of the leavings of the bottle-able red. One believed, with the negligent belief of youth, that one’d make clarity emerge out of the renegade hobblegobble of sound, that a limit-function ’d cause one to split some ripe seam through sheer malarkey-peddling, and out’d tumble, pared down and apt, once wash’d of the rosy complect, a searingly precise, uhh, couplet. (In the shallowness of my youth, what I overlooked: how long a row that is to hoe, how long one might hack and scrape up great dusty piles of weedy utterables with never a patch of clean-thinking in view. Akin, I say, to Pynchon’s mirror-makers. One shouldn’t, though, confine oneself to a single likeness . . .)

In “a Kontinuum of space and time” there’re bound to occur dismal reiterations, fandangos needing an “edge,” not unlike a Moebius strip or a (Franz) Klein bottle, topological jizz like ’at, chromatic scales weighing the eyelids shut, shipwreck’d in the estuary—
when the recurrent momentum of things
completes itself nothing has an ending

Jack Spicer, near Fort Bragg, 1955
(Photograph by Jonathan Williams)