Thursday, November 30, 2006

Rain Radio

A Graveyard

Brooklyn’s Archipelago Books prints mostly smallish volumes, in a handsome square format, design work done by David Bullen, who used to do North Point books. A bibliophiliack’s must, what with the classic laid covers, the sharp logo of a tiny “spray” of islands, like a bouquet, or a footprint. The one I examine here, Enrico Pea’s short novelette Moscardino, translated by Ezra Pound, originally done by New Directions (1955), carries a grim Modigliani (The Little Peasant, c. 1918), vacant skyblue-eyes, tiny pinch’d mouth, enormous hat and hands, awkward in the city.

Pound, quoted by Mary de Rachewiltz, out of an October 26, 1941 broadcast, “Books and Music”:
So a few weeks ago Monotti sez: ever read Pea’s Moscardino? So I read it, and for the first time in your colloquitor’s life he wuz tempted to TRANSLATE a novel, and did so. Ten years ago I had seen Enrico Pea passin’ along the sea front and Gino [Saviotti] sez: It’s a novelist. Having seen and known POLLEN IDEN, some hundreds, or probably thousands I was not interested in its being a novelist. But the book must be good or I wouldn’t be more convinced of the fact AFTER having translated it, than I was before. . . .

What’s it like? Well, if Tom Hardy had been born a lot later, and lived in the hills up back the Lunigiana, which is down along the coast here, and if Hardy hadn’t writ what ole Fordie used to call that “sort of small town paper journalese.” And if a lot of other things, includin’ temperament, had been different, and so forth . . . that migh have been something like Pea’s writin’—which I repeat is good writing, and was back in 1921 when Moscardino was printed. Moscadino is the name of the kid who is tellin’ about his grandpop, a nickname like Buck.
About Enrico Pea, Pound says:
Like Confucius, knocked ’round and done all sorts of jobs. Writes like a man who could make a good piece of mahogany furniture.
Pea, on Pound, whose poetry, “with its sudden interpolations of reminiscences, at time parenthetically incorporated in the rhythm of the song, at times abruptly detached from it,” he’d (c. 1941) barely begun to notice:
I admired his air of civility, and it hardly seemed that his imposing figure, at once primitive and refined, carried the weight of more than fifty years. His bearing was lively: he was dressed with apparent negligence, but actually in clothes of sober good taste. The original pale copper of his somewhat disheveled hair was mingled with the grey due to his years. And the beard, though it covered his chin but sparsely, gave length to his slightly Mephistophelean features.

He would not let me take the brown case that swayed in his left hand. Inside the café, when he opened it on the marble-topped table, the half-moon of a typewriter’s bars made its appearance. The metal clips held a sheet of paper on the roller, and on it were already listed words in the Versilia dialect that occurred in Moscardino.

On these we set to work immediately. As I explained their meaning, Pound typed the English equivalent beside each word.
The translation’s got all the stress-fatigue cracks and muddle of a man writing in a language botch’d by long-avoidance. Exactly what makes it “of use.” Look: “The men scratching for mussels in shore with iron pincers stood like the gold hunters in dime novels silently prying off shellfish amid the sieve of sand that the water left alternately dry; sousing in it the motherly water, bitter, pungent with the salt rinsing, then popped it into the wallets slung over their shoulders.” Fleet and rash with gunk’d up pronouns and a kind of Lilliputian Effect (man-shrinkage) occurring at the mention of the “wallets.” I do love what sentences can do.

Amedeo Modigliani, The Little Peasant, c. 1918

Through the rain tapping at the yellow slicker the smell of some Cafeteria of the Dead’s leguminous soup, cook’d down to a brick of coagulate, with fatback. Is it the rain itself that alerts the nostrils so? The underscent always that of sea-murk, an oysterish liquor. (A liquoriced oyster.) And, jamming so, I am back to Jard in the Vendée, torching the miniature Carnac of oysters we’d made to stand menhir-upright in the sand, cover’d over with pine needles. A piney residua, boil’d into shell-juices. Arranging oneself against the slight mania rain brings forth, longing for a day of arrangements, aligning huge rocks, moving smallish words into positions of adamance, or rue. Carking a page with the old little words, a word a “stout carl for the nones,” a mean meal of a Sunday, “gray peas steeped in water and fried the next day in butter or fat—” and Etta James shouting about the dead, or the rain.

Alignments of Menhirs, Carnac

Wednesday, November 29, 2006

Lapsing Back


Thomas Pynchon, partly in the voice of Miles Blundell, one of the Chums of Chance, talking about how naming a thing scoops it up momentarily—life of a sea-going almanac—out of the Invisible—here, the scattered Indian Ocean islands “of bare black rock, unpopulated, without vegetation”:
“At one time,” related Miles Blundell, “in the days of the first explorers, each one of these islands, no matter how small, was given its own name, so amazing was their abundance in the sea, so grateful to God were their discoverers for any sort of landfall . . . but nowadays the names are being lost, this sea is lapsing back into anonymity, each island rising from it only another dark desert.” As, no longer named, one by one the islets vanished from the nautical charts, and one day from the lighted world as well, to rejoin the Invisible.
And, one Fourth of July, discussing the sappy-histrionic tradition of blowing off fireworks and other loud pyrotechnickals, slapping down a perfect aphorism (“all aphorisms are perfect”):
“Explosion without an objective,” declared Miles Blundell, “is politics in its purest form.”
Gassing the gasbags, that.

Another smutch on the unnamable, language itself made off into an incendiary device:
The sun came up a baleful smear in the sky, not quite shapeless, in fact able to assume the appearance of a device immediately recognizable yet unnamable, so widely familiar that the inability to name it passed from simple frustration to a felt dread, whose intricacy deepened almost moment to moment . . . its name a word of power, not to be spoken aloud, not even to be remembered in silence.
This in the realms of “Iceland”—somewhere “north of the Arctic circle,” with various protags and antags, “among reefs of magnetic anomaly, channels of least impedance, storms of rays yet unnamed lashing out of the sun,” where there’s a “Ray-rush” in progress—“light and magnetism, as well as all manner of extra-Hertzian rays . . . there for the taking.” Ice everywhere, in “ceaseless drift” (“To return each night to the ice, as to home.”) One Hunter Penhallow—up there watching, among other things, for the moment when the shapes and sizes of the various ice floes and masses align to perfectly mimic, there in the “Venice of the Arctic,” Venice in Italy, and one is capable of a “transference” south—thinks about how:
When his grandmother was a girl, she told him once, the sisters announced in school one day that the topic of study would be Living Creatures. “I suggested ice. They threw me out of class.”
Impeccable comic delivery, a humorist’s timing. What made my neck-skin prickle up a little though: years back, in Ithaca, where one comradely (alma materishly sanction’d) sport ’s “Pynchon-tipping” (akin to the cow-tipping practiced at most state agricultural colleges, with the point being not a sprawling hoof-in-air moo-cow down the lane, but a convincingly incredulous jaw-drop “on” one’s interlocutor), I got “done” by a particularly unreliable cad name of Eddie whose third-to-fourth hand “story” was of how Pynchon, at a party in Buffalo, New York, had spent the evening conversing with an ice-cube. Even now, the napery-hairs jut out an all-alert . . .

Betwixt Against the Day splurges, I rustle about like a towhee in the dry leaves of Emerson’s journals, or Thoreau’s journals, looking for something like a sketch of a way to proceed (perennial question à go-go, now that whiskey’s off the list?) Curious note by Emerson (1847): “H. D. T. when you talked of art, blotted a paper with ink, then doubled it over, & safely defied the artist to surpass his effect.” Getting the jump on Hermann Rorschach, Henry?

Proceed? To do what? Gassing my own gasbag, that.

To, as the hotelier used to sing out between ’s teeth clench’d and white, shining out like Lightnin’ Hopkins’s white-wall’d black Cadillac, work.

Lightnin’ Hopkins (1912-1982)

Tuesday, November 28, 2006

Dryff-draff, mysse-masche, Sume was corn, & sume was chaffe.

Blue Man

Squirrel’d myself away in my own private Escorial and gulp’d down some pages of Against the Day in monstrous (for me) draughts. A few references logged in the manifest of those hours—they’ll out eventually.

I keep thinking about Alice Neel, mostly because the one of the Philly Sound bunch put the O’Hara portrait up, something I’d only seen (apparently, judging by its hyperventilative effect) in black and white. Neel’s a funny one, smart, and direct. In a conversation with Henry Geldzahler the day after a Johnny Carson show appearance (1985): “I knew a woman in California and her husband was the brother of a man I lived with for a number of years. She didn’t like me, though. She came into the house and turned on the TV and she saw me on the Johnny Carson show, and she dropped dead on the floor. Isn’t that strange?” And to Geldzahler’s remark that Grandma Moses was “clearly a primitive,” Neel says, flatly: “She was an American vegetable.”

Pynchon (to Bloglanders): “Think, bloviators, think!”

Morton Feldman, on John Cage: “My only argument with Cage, and there is only one argument, is with his dictum that, ‘Process should imitate nature in its manner of operation.’ Or, as he put it on another occasion, ‘Everything is music.’

Just as there is an implied decision in a precise and selective art, there is an equally implied decision in allowing everything to be art. There is a Zen riddle that replies to its own question. ‘Does a dog have the Buddha nature?’ the riddle asks. ‘Answer either way and you lose your own Buddha nature.’”

The problems with the positing of “the unpoetic” as a desirable category. First, it’s the oldest avant-gardist dodge there is, and recuperable—see, for example, Walker Evans talking about photographing a garbage can, seeing “the aesthetically rejected object.” Some few years later: trash partout. Second, it’s nigh-meaningless: its boundary-markers the twin pillars of Taste and Current Practice.

“The thin sonorities of disinfected poetasters.”

Alice Neel
(Photograph by Robert Baldridge)

Alice Neel, Self-Portrait 1980

Alice Neel, Frank O’Hara, 1960

Alice Neel, Frank O’Hara No. 2, 1960

Monday, November 27, 2006



Potted about down by the river one day. Walk’d the bush-hogged “post-buckthorn” fields to the pond another day. Spates of sweet lazy late afternoon napping. If the good burghermeister in me ’s present’d with a dollop of pure freedom, an afternoon’s bucket of it—I tend to squander it, lolling. Time in all its intricacy not so much sailing out in a hung expanse, a golden (sun-wizen’d) discus afloat as gnawing at the innards of itself, irreplicable, wha? A subliminal terror of uncommitted hours? (In the midst of my normal slogging quotidian drudgery I go into near-narcoleptic reveries of how I’d get up—straight out uninterrupted reading and writing—a line of days if only they’d be made free and available . . .)

Emerson: “We want fire; a little less mutton and a little more genius.”

What interplanetary conjunction, confluence of light-streams, it is to read (in Against the Day)—“The frontier ends and disconnection begins”—a Pynchonesque mini-theory of American history—amidst other (undemanding, portable, typo-clad) reading in Peter Barry’s Poetry Wars: British Poetry of the 1970s and the Battle of Earls Court and recall (of what little I recall of some months attending to the mid-’seventies goings-on there in the Poetry Society’s shady bastion) reading a poem titled “American History” (“A scythe of sectile / Retelling. . . . This is where science / Metes out credence. / Heat not languor / Raises valence: / Violence we can measure. / / Better to boil bad water and / Learn to cow ourselves / Into ability.”) My then-spout’d theory being that at the point our rip-snorting belief in our manifest destiny gets hemmed in, squelch’d, and our blinder’d western push hits the “wall” of the Pacific: that’s the point where Americans begin to go crazy, “disconnection begins.” An invisible conjunct, available to no one, barely, even, to me. What I keep trying to figure out—reading the Barry book—is how, if at all, the characters compare with the various tribal members I encounter’d. Who that shortish man who had “us” in a hand-holding circle intoning monosyllables—“me, me, me”—whilst he laid in some high-toned older noise, bounding around (I figured him for mad). Who the Scottish woman who talk’d to herself, seem’d to carry out conversational feints and dodges with several, shriller and shriller. How’d I come by the copy of Panjandrum with the Frank O’Hara supplement (1973), haul’d vers Wales when I fled one morning after a wild night of drinking with strangers, rushing out of an Indian restaurant, lost my hat, and lost myself, trying to foot it “home” through Putney Green, or Putney Heath. Finally flagged a huge black London cab whose cabbie took me for mad—turn’d out my door ’s but a flinch and hobble of steps away. How memory collapses in on itself, into a tiny stack of photographs, underexposed or whitening.

Thomas Pynchon, with all the mad furtive visions of a King Lear somewhere near East Halfmoon, Iowa, with Merle Rideout and daughter Dally: “Planted rows went turning past like giant spokes one by one as they ranged the roads. The skies were interrupted by dark gray storm clouds with a flow like molten stone, swept and liquid, and light that found its way through them was lost in the dark fields but gathered shining along the pale road, so that sometimes all you could see was the road, and the horizon it ran to. Sometimes she was overwhelmed by the green life passing in such high turbulence, too much to see, all clamoring to have its way. Leaves sawtooth, spade-shaped, long and thin, blunt-fingered, downy and veined, oiled and dusty with the day—flowers in bells and clusters, purple and white or yellow as butter, star-shaped ferns in the wet and dark places, millions of green veilings before the bridal secrets in the moss and under the deadfalls, went on by the wheels creaking and struck by rocks in the ruts, sparks visible only in what shadow it might pass over, a busy development of small trailside shapes tumbling in what had to be deliberately arrange precision, herbs the wildcrafters knew the names and market prices of and which the silent women up in the foothills, counterparts whom they most often never got even to meet, knew the magic uses for. They lived for different futures, but they were each other’s unrecognized halves . . .”

In besmudged memory-glades I thought first of Lear’s “what a bare, fork’d animal piece of work is man”’s everybody’s fucking everywhere constantly soliloquy (or whatev), some kind of seeing into the unbuffer’d heart of the natural world, escapades in the dirt with sowbugs and nematodes, though, on “reflection”—meaning I leaf’d through the play—maybe it’s Edgar’s speech, trilling about about the vertigoes of size, size that changes perceptibly, the kind of mad fever’d event of one’s own hands holding craggy mountainous ridges, dips and valleys, a hallucinatory child’s wold (sic):
                            How fearful
And dizzy ’tis, to cast one’s eyes so low!
The crows and choughs that wing the midway air
Show scarce so gross as beetles. Half way down
Hangs one that gathers sampire, dreadful trade!
Methinks he seems no bigger than his head.
The fishermen that walk upon the beach
Appear like mice, and yond tall anchoring bark,
Diminish’d to her cock; her cock a buoy
Almost too small for sight. The murmuring surge,
That on th’ unnumb’red idle pebble chafes.
Cannot be heard so high. I’ll look no more,
Lest my brain turn, and the deficient sight
Topple down headlong.
Somehow the ichor that runs through each passage is the same. ’S blood.

Finally, Theo Scratcher writes (of, one assumes, Against the Day, though crass Theo ’s an ungodly earbender): “Let’s not think of the novel any longer as a staged Russian dressing, panoramic, multigen’d, and fey, no, more a phat-vatic throwdown of objets trouvés out some Time-gangsta’s deep pockets, thrown down and project’d up into the immediately lowering celestial screen—Time become Space sapped of dimensionality. (I come into “work” today and find a spanking clean copy of Kenneth Fearing’s The Big Clock brooding there on my chair. Spoooo-ky.)”

Kenneth Fearing (1902-1961)

Wednesday, November 22, 2006

Into the Day

A Sailor

Some nights lay down a prospect, tracks to trundle along, boiler exploding hot steam of urgency and sorrow, a diabolical itch in the brainpan’s ingle, or, differently, swiftly, ladidah. The exertion is mostly that of staying put whilst moving. On track. Other nights a rift is seen, a gap in the teleo-haptic nuzzling of the glossy black, and one shoots for it. Incandescent roaming. Butter-color’d tendrils and tendresses of a hopped-up stranger. There in the word-glow. Whatever malleable instant transformer lays its warp into the weft is acceptable, Hoosier schoolgirl style. And that’s how one continues. Daily in the heart-shorn light.

It begins mid-speech: “Now single up all lines.” Which is perfect Greek ack-ack without a rub of context, exactly how a novel should start. We’re not looking for an instruction manual. Okay, I admit it. Convening I be with the Chums of Chance, aeronauts aboard the good airship Inconvenience, conveying one to cow-majority World’s Columbian Exposition Chicago, where we’ve just regain’d the fundament next a display of our own blast’d ballast bags (star-shaped) and one naked lady with clothed photographer, tripod ashoulder, sprinting into shrubbery. Acquainted I be with Pugnax (cf. George Herriman’s Ignatz Mouse—we’re back in the originary lands of High Postmodernism here, slap-happy as the “day” is long), the Henry James reading canine (The Princess Casamassima) and the lithe monkey-sized and dandle-able Darby Suckling. It may, I admit, my joyride, be the end of Dumpster Island as we know it.

I continue to insist on a likeness.

Thomas Pynchon and Marguerite Young

Tuesday, November 21, 2006

Blur and Thrust

Chrysler Building

Looking into two books (randomly, disjointedly, undecidedly) for a month or so now. John Keene’s 1995 Annotations (New Directions) and the recent 1913 Press book, Seismosis, a striking collaboration between Christopher Stackhouse (drawings) and John Keene (text). Keene is a member of the Dark Room Collective, and Annotations is label’d fiction by the publisher. However, its density (roughly seventy-five pages, in three parts, containing five, six, and seven titled “chapters” respectively) and its lightning-fleet proceeding—by sound, suggestion, or some unidentifiable jump—make the designation rather arbitrary. (Too, it tilts toward the autobiographical, howsoever one determines that.) Annotations comes with “References & Notes” at the end—“References” listing a dozen or so books (mostly historical guides to St. Louis and Missouri, where Keene grew up), “Notes” a terrific couple of pages of definitions, identifications, &c. (“Rudipoots: A colloquialism akin to ‘ghettoheads,’ meaning an ignorant or foolish person.” “I’n-Shta-Heh: Little Osage for ‘Heavy eyebrows,’ the name given to the French colonizers.”) Here’s the beginning of a chapter (in the third part) titled “Permanence or Evanescence, the Process of the Real”:
The studied obscurity of those avant la lettre poets derives primarily from their desire to conceal. In your eyes, however, she reckoned the plight of the artist, which seduced her even more thoroughly, though you protested rightly that such suffering pales in comparison to what most other human beings endure. Trumpet-in-the-morning. Then mother left for work as father was returning half-asleep from his shift, so bundled up we too set off along the longer route that passed the stately “Century” houses. Another path, across the train tracks near the home for “wayward girls,” where he leered and poked his crotch through the fence, until the stones began to rain upon him. Recall how before you had spent the afternoons with Nana, and how when you grew old enough to walk to school your peculiar cast of companions, though your dispositions often left you all at war. Our legs are the pistons that fire our march through life, or at night two pipes through which each previous day’s dramas drain. Circuits, circadia. The long way had led past Mr. Ward’s gas station, where Gandy, known as “Sarge” from his army days, repaired cars. The other way promised a leaf-canopied stroll through a modest residential section, which you imagined had been the haunts of the playwright’s “Toussaint,” and the store not far from the abandoned trolley tracks, where one could linger over stalls of tangerines and Chinese apples or on hot days purchase taffy and “Bomb Pops.”
Even dabbling in the book, I countenanced the notion (brow furrow’d with half puzzlement, half-Eureka) that here’s somebody hard on heels of La Hejinian, and admirably so. Keene’s jumps less programmatic, less reliably staked to the sentence, though clearly Hejinianesque’d. Turns out, the first part of Annotations is announced with three impeccably chosen epigraphs: Ashbery, Hejinian, and Clarence Major. I put them down mostly for the way they rhyme together. In order: “Just as drowning is said to be delicious when one stops struggling, so I tried to reproduce that delicious sensation.” “What memory is not a ‘gripping’ thought.” “Everything comes together in a novel, life is another matter.” Some kind of line—a clothesline, say—runs through Keene’s narrative, something he pins memory’s garments to, something pliable, strong, “grippable.”

Many of Christopher Stackhouse’s drawings resemble such a line, a strong directive, a tendancy, with secondary counter-tendancy (scribbles) pulsing off toward the margins. Salience and drift. Suasion and riff. (There’s a whole Ammonsesque vocabulary for how such figures work: one could even incorporate big American topics like “E pluribus unum”—that one : many distillate—how something thrusts forth a unity out of the many-finger’d strands. Clothesline and garment. Etc.) The difference is: the vocabulary of drawing—of “line” in its restless manoeuvres—is poorer than the vocabulary of a life. (See my own abstract joss-talk right here.) Where the power of the pieces in Annotations is precisely in the details, the “Bomb Pops”—here the details often go rather slack, repetitive, drawing-dependant, book-housed. Here’s a prose-shaped piece called “Love Waves”:
Shuttle never still but wander. Intensity drums in coils. As from a river, a field, as love waves, spirals darking at angles where concept begins. No sparks but marking where intent and content part. Simulations. Signs flicker, stimulating the stylus to record upper and lower registers. Once I asked what they captured and I still wonder. In the marks, nothing stalls and nothing falters, recesses fill and fade away. In their wake, subject. Wandering in tight arcs which compiled process as shimmering lattices, the gestalt trajectories. Models combine. Does definition point to moments where each image ravels. In dense expressions, the intersecting planes augur structure. Once presented as seismic clusters of negative light, black and whiter black, wavering knots. Within light, in grooves, what coils there? The traveling velleities folding, vibrating into themselves. Like phrases in a shuttle they spin and drum. I asked of these shimmering lattices, salvaging nets spun out from the thrumming, these last shaped, seismographs? Never still their notation—revolution.
Hints of how music (record-making) mimes drawing, the miscible arts, lovely things like “No sparks but marking where intent and content part”—where a sonic combustion burns a realizable gain into sense. And: a sense of too few handholds. I know velleity’s no kin to velvet, still I feel nestled, gauzed, cocoon’d. Thrumming.

Not all of Keene’s writings in Seismosis lineate as prose. And the deployment of the drawings and writings is haphazard: one is never tempted to read one as “illustration” of the other, or vice-versa. (Geoffrey Jacques, in an “Afterword,” argues that the “notion of the network (or the ‘rhizome,’ after Gilles Deleuze and Felix Guattari) is very much at play in these interlacing texts and drawings.” He continues, with a counter-argument pertinent to what I complain of here: “This polyform sort of collaboration between texts and images creates a textual environment where the groups of words themselves achieve a high level of abstraction, vis-à-vis the abstract drawings. Abstraction itself is destabilized in the decentered Seismosis field.”) My question: is it possible to destabilize abstraction through abstract practice? (I’d be more likely convinced by a barrage of the concrete (a flurry of the tangible) pulling back the curtain to reveal a stagy renegade “abstract.”)

Another poem:

Following invisible axioms, struggling to translate them.

Image stalling on the threshold of echo

                                                                                            enigmatic signifier

Yet the axes are visible and return, this echo that grows, reveals its profoundest sense, what
I strove to capture as a story of a vision (I once knew), an effortless music

                                                                                            of viewing

Now the tolling present pressing in, plaintive visions of chord and hinge (deeper)

What the singing connects and passes from string to finger or what lies, under

                                                                                            enigmatic signifier

Deeper, a rupture of retinal space, figure and surround, what was my station breaks


Suffering enters as figures, leaving their silvery trace, through darkness and flux the sound of
dreamt disruption

                                                                                            of visional logic

Yet I strove through angles, emotion’s topology or its distortion, how this pictorial vigor I
swim in reroutes my circuit

                                                                                            enigmatic signifier

Layer on forms to page, as a study of game, parsing tropes or playing private shapes to public significance

Deeper sill and yet superficial, rather than epic, this modest cycle alternately slack with
underlap and a rigorous absence

                                                                                            that is always turning

What is visible: the sign enigma that punctures the tried idioms
That “pictorial vigor I swim in reroutes my circuit” is undeniable: the poem doing its cyclical (“slack with underlap”) work. Meaning: here I am, if not utterly convinced, not unutterably unconvinced. No shuffle-off remark intended: there is a vigor and vamp to the phraseology here that undoes the expected, rehangs the unhinged door. Again, music and drawing, mimic-clash of titans (“rupture of retinal space,” and the punning “my station breaks”), and enough tintinnabulation of imagery to make a go of. Seismosis is terribly ambitious work, and one commends Sandra Miller, editrice of the excellent 1913: a journal of forms and its namesake press for the fearlessness of seeing it into print, and so handsomely.

John Keene and Christopher Stackhouse

Monday, November 20, 2006

Trace of a Ruckus

Table and Chairs

Here’s Randolph Bourne’s character Miro (in the essay, “The History of a Literary Radical”), how he senses himself “standing at the end of an era” (just prior to World War I):
He and his friend had lived down both their old orthodoxies of the classics and their new orthodoxies of propaganda. Gone were the priggishness and self-consciousness which had marked their teachers. The new culture would be more personal than the old, but it would not be held as a personal property. It would be democratic in the sense that it would represent each person’s honest spontaneous taste. The old attitude was only speciously democratic. The assumption was that if you pressed your material long enough and winningly enough upon your culturable public, they would acquire it. But the material was sometimes handed down, not grown in the garden of their own appreciations. Under these conditions the critic and appreciator became a mere impersonal register of orthodox opinion. The cultivated person, in confronting his judgments to what was authoritatively taught him, was really a member of the herd—a cultivated herd, it is true, but still a herd. It was the mass that spoke through the critic and not his own discrimination. The authoritative judgments might, of course, have come—probably had come—to the herd through discerning critics, but . . . judgment in the schools had petrified. One believed not because one felt the original discernment, but because one was impressed by the weight and reputability of opinion.
Is it that one is always “standing at the end of an era,” or is it that, a critical task—or series of tasks—completed, one senses a notable durcissement, a hardening, a limiting of the critical horizon, hunker’d down behind one’s own just constructed bunker (just as one sees, always, an open work kept viable and vital only by continuing, the final word cements it shut, kaput, finito)? Long question, and perennial, recurring, Jefferson’s need for a revolution every twenty-five years. Reminded of Barthes in Roland Barthes: “a Doxa (a popular opinion) is posited, intolerable; to free myself of it, I postulate a paradox; then this paradox turns bad, becomes a new concretion, itself becomes a new Doxa, and I must seek further for a new paradox . . .” Is it just here, now, in the post-language era (or post-post-language mayhem of terminal irony’s gilt Plimsoll line, the shoddy-built flarf-factory foundering “as” “well” “it” “must”), or is it its own terminal “position”—that howling need to change positions, indefatigably? Long question.

I prick’d up my ears at Van Wyck Brooks’s 1919 introduction, wherein he talks about Bourne’s late sense (he died of influenza in 1918) “of the precariousness of free thought and free speech in this country; if they were cut off, he foresaw, the whole enterprise, both of the social revolution and of the new American culture, would perish of inanition.” Lethargy, yes, though I like to think, silly, insipid, the inane, the horse’s ass, the donkey’s ass. Which some days seems just about where we find ourselves. Caught in a place where whatever is most inane gobbles up our few moments of attention—stuff to look at, undoingly. Stuff writ, smirkingly. Bourne: “Even accepting that one dropped eight of the best hours of one’ every day into a black and bottomless pit in exchange for the privilege of remaining alive, such a life was almost worse than none.” Or (he’s talking about the Londoner’s predilection for a “running fire of ideational badinage”—Bourne’s a brilliantly pithy writer), we spend ourselves talking with “a sort of exuberant irrelevance, a vivacity of interest about matters . . . quite alien to the personal and social issues of life.”

Curious to note Bourne’s reference to “the stream of consciousness, what individuals and also what groups are thinking and feeling” attributing it to the “Latin” (meaning French here) sensibility, as opposed to the “objective active” thinking patterns of the English (elsewhere he describes it as a place “where one lived shut in with ideas and attitudes that, like the proverbial ostrich, annihilated the rest of the world”). Which led me to ferret out early usages of the phrase in the OED. I should’ve known, after an 1855 Alexander Bain remark (in The Senses and the Intellect), it is William James, in The Principles of Psychology, in 1890 who grabs the baton: “Consciousness . . . does not appear to itself chopped up in bits . . . A ‘river’ or a ‘stream’ are the metaphors by which it is most naturally described. In talking of it hereafter, let us call it the stream of thought, of consciousness, or of subjective life.” First literary use of the phrase, apparently in a May Sinclair piece in The Little Review regarding Dorothy Richardson’s Pilgrimage (“In identifying herself with this life which is Miriam’s stream of consciousness Miss Richardson produces her effect of . . . getting closer to reality than any of our novelists.”) Tant pis. Reminding me though: there is a new biography of James out. By Robert Richardson (author of the 1995 Emerson: The Mind on Fire), it’s titled William James: In the Maelstrom of American Modernism.

Scribbled out against a sliver of paper whilst zupping my Cheerios today:

Theory’s tight-
Fitting costume:

What is
Shuck’d off

By practice’s
Antic demands.

Yesteryear’s theory:
The panties

Hanging off
The chandelier.

Roland Barthes

William James in Brazil, 1865

Friday, November 17, 2006


In the Street

Why is it that, if I carry two books with me, peeping into each successively, I come to think of them as having similar styles? (Why, thinking about the style, one of lyrical innocence and intelligence, that, possibly, of a bright rube, do I tend to imitate it?) The two books, accidentally colliding in my knapsack: Lyn Hejinian’s My Life in the Nineties and Randolph Bourne’s The History of a Literary Radical & Other Papers. Samples:
Under the direction of a professor who was laying out a career for himself as poet—or “modern singer,” as he expressed it—the class went briskly through the centuries sampling their genius and tasting the various literary flavors. As his candor and his appreciations refresh me, I wonder if the next best thing to producing works of art is not to be, like F—, a work of art one’s self. When I next looked up, I found that he had compromised by falling asleep in a curious diagonal and perilous position across his pillows—the trainman asleep at the switch.

I found myself following Fall Creek and thinking up courses, skies without “sameness,” perhaps something called “1899” in which we’d read Winston Churchill’s Richard Carvel, Charles Chesnutt’s Wife of His Youth and Other Stories of the Color Line, Edwin Markham’s “Man with the Hoe,” Elbert Hubbard’s Message to Garcia, Paul Lawrence Dunbar’s Lyrics of the Hearthside, Henry James’s The Awkward Age, Kate Chopin’s The Awakening, Jack London’s “To Build a Fire,” Booker T. Washington’s The Future of the American Negro, William James’s Talks to Teachers on Psychology: and to Students on Some of Life’s Ideals, and Ambrose Bierce’s Fantastic Fables. The apples rotting in the grass below scented the dust which two hovering bees very slightly stirred before darting off as I descended. Facts not only are but they are known, and from the time I was old enough to know the facts, remember sounds, require sense, I thought such work had as much similarity to reality as one could provide.
Three sentences randomly flagged, first out of Bourne, second out of Hejinian. Non-contiguous sentences. (Mostly to defeat the already-present non-contiguity of Hejinian’s sentences.) Is it a convention of American autobiography (or bildungsroman,) that it must declare itself in a negligently studied (studiedly negligent?), nigh-lofty, “decorously detached” style. It’s as if the prerequisite style for such writing consisted of a dash throwaway nonchalance reined in by dependent clauses, mock-rigorous grammatical constraints. Even in instances where a rash of speech-rhythms animates the work, there is no neglect evident in the writing, its propriety. It’s as if a “made it” hayseed’d written the sentences—a little too much white showing around the ears, fault of a recent haircut.

The dispersals of a fly-off (flown away) youth get encumber’d in autobiography, weight’d down, tuck’d in, kerchief’d (wisps of hair). Sifting the wash of the by-gone for the nugatory (all the past is a trifle to the present), the nugget (all the past weighs down the present—is a dense manipulable pocket’d piece), and the nougat (the past is a nut, is nutty view’d out of the high future prospect),—sifting the wash discards the slurry, its swirling multiplicity, its watery strata, its liquid deft occlusion of insistent retrospect.

Okay, I doubt it, too. I doubt the whole attempt to recover, the whole history of attempts. I see, though, a grown-up buying into the pervasive myth of self-reliance, self-improvement, tidiness, dexterity, compulsions against the slovenly. And I see it in the way of the writing. (And I bash at it with my own self-made scripting fist, trying to get it out, or get it to shout forth an admission of its too-dainty camouflage. How write the slop and impetus of a life, highball’d and hellhound’d, off-track and out of control—which is, I wager, every life.) Hejinian: “The non sequitur is something (which does not follow), the nihil sequitur is nothing (which follows).” Gah.

Finish’d Mark Binelli’s Sacco and Vanzetti Must Die! A couple of notes. One, my love of lists. Binelli’s detailing the contents of President McKinley’s pockets when shot by the supposed anarchist Leon Czolgosz: “$1.20 in small change; three knives; a lucky nugget; nine keys (six on a ring, two loose and the ninth on its own heart-shaped ring); a pair of gloves; three handkerchiefs (the weather in Buffalo having been barbarously hot); a god watch; a pencil.” And, a tiny list of sound-effect gags, rated for laughter-inducement value: “A judge’s gavel, for example, produces a rap satisfying in both resonance and authority, and so can be funny as a means of rudely interrupting a dull monologue or (say) of clubbing silly a loudly testifying Brooklyn gangland boss. Breaking glass: also funny. Hollow pipe on bone: uh-huh. Bone, snapping: never works. Industrial vacuum on face: only in extremely brief doses.” Too, appearance in Vanzetti’s unpublished journal (May 19, 1945, he’s touring with Bob Hope, finds himself in Pisa) of Ezra Pound. Vanzetti:
We’d only met once before, in fact, at a Futurist dinner banquet thrown in London, a number of years back, by Marinetti. “More Apician, myself,” Pound said. “Ad omne luxus ingenium natus, or so dixit Pliny. Give me pigs fatted on figs and honeyed wine, or a nightingale’s tongue, over Filippo’s zang tumb tumb. Though, linguistically, a terrific menu. ‘Immortal Trout.’ ‘Fisticuff Stuff.’ ‘Manandwomanatmightnight.’ Hee. The ‘Bombardment of Adrianopolis’ sent Miss Moos running to the toilet. ‘Phlegethon! Phlegethon!’ she cried. Meaning the river’s flow from a.h. Cum grano salis, these stories, save a dash for mon pot-au-feu. Signore Marinetti, in hindsight, appears a bit the huckster, no? Scribbler of manifestos. Professional barker. Stand him outside the ten-in-one. ‘She was once a beautiful woman! She was known as the Peacock of the Air!’ Brilliance notwithstanding. But that said: stunt dinners? OY TIΣ. OY m.f. TIΣ. Enjoys that shit.” He shrugged, then continued, “You still making pictures. I quite enjoyed your last one.”

Ezra Pound and Bartolomeo Vanzetti and Nicola Sacco (1923)

Thursday, November 16, 2006


Blue Ship

Emily Dickinson, in a letter (1877): “The vitality of your syllables compensates for their infrequency. There is not so much Life as talk of Life, as a general thing. Had we the first intimation of the Definition of Life, the calmest of us would be Lunatics!”

How the quotidian scribble is, it criss-crosses no vital boundary. Horseless and alee on the idiot ship. Thinking what it’d mean to find oneself a-horse’d. (Still, there’s the idiot ship.) Thinking how Wallace Stevens walk’d up and down the Palisades “among the locusts” and never got to Paris. He call’d Elsie Moll, in letters, “Bo,” or, “Bo-Bo.” A taskmaster (“abstain from wet-goods” and “smoke wisely”). Of sleep, he wrote (1902): “sleep only means red-cheeks and red-cheeks are not the fit adornments of Caesar.”

The privately brash and inimitable Guy Davenport—he who sweetly troubles my week, writing to Jonathan Williams—“Dear Thrush of the Nantahalas”—(1967): “As much about food in your letter as in an epistle from Robert Kelly. Food is the one thing (alcohol’s another) that makes me truly blush. Most of the human failings I can regard with an eye of ice (excepting meanness), but I shall go to my grave unconvinced that eating is wholly natural.” (Note for essay titled “Against Eating as Such”: how O’Hara, too, acquiesces to pragmatism in nourishment: “I have in my hands only 35¢, it’s so meaningless to eat!”) (Though he’s always got the tongue-in-cheek to masticate.)

And Theo Scratcher, in a rare handwritten letter (2006): “And regarding the little “sonically-brash” poems—if I do daresay: about as ambitious as making water bounce in a hot skillet.”

Marianne Moore’s letters: little meat, all potatoes, is my sense, defeated in my sputtery attempt.

Rain all night, rain today. Smell of the ancient seas seeping up through the bedrock, a scent to turn the odiferous receptors ablaze. Or swoll’d crimson, budding. Emerson, in a journal entry talks of Boston’s “poor-smell”—a passage that Robert Lowell could well’ve perused before sitting down to write “For the Union Dead”: “There is a certain poor-smell in all the lawyers’ offices, & the wharves, the same meanness & sterility, & leave-behind-all-hope, as one finds in a boot manufacturer’s premises, or a bonnet-factory; vamps, pasteboard, millinette, and an eye to profit. The want of elevation, the absence of ideas, the sovereignty of the abdomen, reduces all to the same poorness. One fancies that in the house of the rich, as the temptation to servility is removed, there may chance to be generosity & elevation; but no; we send them to Congress, & they originate nothing . . .” Time to read Montaigne, I think—see the way I get no traction in the mud of old quarrels today. Or old quotables.

It runs in the blood? Randolph Bourne’s middle name: “Silliman.” (Pas de blague.) Bourne (1886-1918): “Instead of fighting the Philistine in the name of freedom, or fighting the vulgar iconoclast in the name of wholesome human notions, it might be better to write for one’s own band of comprehenders, in order that one might have something genuine with which to appeal to both the mob of the “bourgeois” and the ferocious vandals who had been dividing the field among them. Far better a quarrel among these intensely self-conscious groups than the issues that had filled The Atlantic and The Nation with their dreary obsolescence. Far better for the mind that aspired toward “culture” to be told not to conform or worship, but to search out its group, its own temperamental community of sentiment, and there deepen appreciations through sympathetic contact.” Problem of the overweening public-ness of the age: any “band of comprehenders” is immediately up-suck’d into the maw of the moment. No opportunity (impetus, inclination) to lay low in the hothouse of low-circulation ideas, there where letters accumulate. (Is anybody working out ideas today sub rosa, through some years of letters (think Olson / Creeley), in a postal zone and clime—that is, with a send-and-receive rhythm that allows that slow-ripening focus and cogitation? I doubt it.)

Randolph Bourne and Louisa James, near Mont Blanc (1914)

Randolph Bourne (1916)

Wednesday, November 15, 2006

Gerald Murphy

Apple Peelers

Only Guy Davenport (once Archibald MacLeish’s graduate assistant, I learn) ’s capable of muscling together a paragraph of such density out of mere Ripley’s-aura’d factoids (shining like mica or quartz—or is it schist? some lamellar—in granite):
In July 1908 the thirty-two-year-old Gelett Burgess was in Paris working up an article on the new French painting. Burgess was a humorist, famous for having written a poem that has by now been quoted for a century (“I’ve never seen a purple cow”). He also invented the indispensable word blurb and gave bromide its meaning of a platitude. He was just the kind of American writer to amuse the readers of The Saturday Evening Post and Collier’swith the insane daubs of fauves and cubists. Both magazines declined his article, though, and it eventually got published in The Architectural Record for May 1910, which has the distinction of having scooped the whole world in running for the first time a print of the pivotal work in modernist painting, Picasso’s Les Demoiselles d’Avignon.
This in the Davenport afterword’d Americans in Paris (1921-1931): Man Ray, Gerald Murphy, Stuart Davis, Alexander Calder, by Elizabeth Hutton Turner (Counterpoint, 1996). Burgess was accompany’d (affably, companionably, apparently) by the wife of Booth Tarkington (Penrod and Sam seem’d a giant of a book in my childhood, and a movie version of it (or one of its sequels) made for my first movie viddy’d in school. (The second being And Now Miguel, is that it? Older brother is drafted—“Greetings”—and the kid Miguel is now in line to do the job of shepherding the sheep up the mountain for the summer. I recall Miguel ripping up the letter (stark white torn pieces carry’d off in a creek), a way to outwit the machinations of the state. Source of my draft-dodgerdom, I’d wager.) Davenport’s wry aphoristic bent comes up with (not about Burgess and the missus Tarkington—rather, later, about sculptor Isamu Noguchi’s father who “begat him, a bastard, on a Bryn Mawr student, laying out a fate that would take him to Brancusi’s studio in Paris, to being Calder’s friend, to Bucky Fuller . . .”): “A cultural history omitting the machinations of Eros lacks a natural strategy.” (Writing out of love of the eddy, the suasion, the drift—we’re in Ammons territory—writing positively bully’d by that kind of natural strategy.)

What is stunning here, in the book: the paintings of Gerald Murphy. A name (along with wife Sara) I associate rather vaguely as wealthy pals of the F. Scott Fitzgeralds. Davenport explains why: “Murphy is still an unknown painter, as well as a phenomenon in the history of art: a brilliant amateur who did fewer than fifteen paintings, all but eight of which are lost. [One—lost—being the enormous eighteen by twelve foot Boatdeck, dominated by three smokestacks, shown in the 1924 Salon des Indépendants at the Grand Palais.] Such restraint has few parallels.” Murphy’s paintings: precise, stylized, large-to-enormous, bright cohesions of objects, brashly exact in coloration. One is reminded somewhat of Léger (though the human figure is lacking in Murphy) and the precisionist Charleses, Demuth and Sheeler. (Oddly enough, some of Davenport’s own paintings—works, too, of a brilliant amateur—look rather Murphylike.) Turner:
Murphy worked slowly, methodically enlarging sketches onto prepared surfaces of airplane linen . . . His paintings began as descriptive phrases and color notes. Among the entries in his cahier (notebook) connected with completed paintings are these: “Picture: razor, fountain pen; etc. in large scale nature morte big match-box” [see Razor]; “Picture: an eye, lashes, brow, lids, etc. big scale,—even pores, hairs”; “Picture: hornet (colossal) on a pear, (marks on skin, leaf veins, etc.) battening on the fruit, clenched” [see Wasp and Pear]; “Picture: Nature Morte cocktail tray, shaker, glasses stemmed cherries, inside lemon, knife, corkscrew plate bottle red white black grey (cut by lemon yellow?)”; “Note: in Balkan Sobrani, cigar box, use blue govt stamp with engraved watered motif & numeral 7.” These excerpts indicate Murphy’s prime concern with the selection, combination, and analysis of objects. MacLeish once explained, “His passion was not for the abstraction of experience, but for experience itself, ‘the thing itself’—the ‘thing’ so like ‘itself’ that it would become its implications.”
Objectivism busting out partout, no? Though I’d put a bigger emphasis on the combination and arrangement of things: the painter foraging and gathering (a mindful activity—based on the cahier notes, Murphy is not “seeing what’ll look good together” in the studio—, and akin to Davenport’s work in all fields).

Gerald Murphy, Wasp and Pear, 1927

Gerald Murphy, Razor, c. 1922-4

Gerald Murphy, Library, c. 1920s

Tuesday, November 14, 2006

Raw Youth’d

In the Grasses

At play in the aster-stalk’d fields. I want to say “terebinth’d,” not knowing the terebinth. Guy Davenport uses it (with “dog rose, and oleander”) in a sentence about Knossos, “deafened by crickets.” In the early ’seventies, one took a shabby bus out of

Iraklion, and hardly a traveler descended. Terebinth equals “turpentine tree,” a Biblical shrub. One (unprepared, “a raw youth”) assumed the frescoes—polychrome and near-garish—lately “brushed up” and heeded little. Obvious patchwork in the stones.

Davenport: “There is no warning posted that they are twentieth-century reconstructions, yet they are, like practically all of the surrounding stage set. The charred originals, themselves pieced together by painted plaster to eke out the

design, are in Iraklion. “Eke out” does not adequately describe. Some frescoes are a tenth Knossan, as blackened as Sappho’s papyrus fragments, nine-tenths the extrapolation of the reconstructor. And these columns, rooms, stairs, balconies?

They are so much the work of Sir Arthur Evans, the Stalin of archeology, that one despairs of knowing Minoan from Victorian architecture.” Thus, the Sapphic fragments: “Wet handkerchief.” Or:
“The gods [                 ] tears [         ] / [                                 ].”
That’s one kind of gap. Another: “Not all Greek words have an equivalent in English. In a poem of Theocritus a goat is eating something. Look up what he’s eating in a Greek-English dictionary. The definition is “a plant eaten by a goat in Theocritus.”

So one stone is piled on another, though it—the first—go lacking. So whatever evanescence my first line comes up out of (Peter Matthiessen, of course, though why Peter Matthiessen one particular November morning arriving here—unprepared, “a raw youth”—

having squander’d my twilight hours yesterday reading and defiantly not scribbling against the glowering midshipmen of Time, its darker gloaming fallen “furth”—that is a mystery). A sentence squandering itself in explication of

itself. In my reading (Binelli’s Sacco and Vanzetti Must Die!), learning of the commedia dell’arte’s lazzi. A lazzo being a known routine, a gag. Rather akin to the epithets of oral-formulaic compositions. Moveable blocks.

Binelli (he refers to an “excellent reference book Lazzi: The Comic Routines of the Commedia Dell’Arte, edited by Mel Gordon”): “The section of Illogical Lazzi collects some of the book’s strangest routines. For instance, there

is the Lazzo of “There is No Knowledge!” In toto:
“Pantaleone, confused by the strange events and tricks around him, begins to go crazy, shouting after each bizarre action, ‘There is no knowledge!’”
And indeed, there is. Here in the swashbuckler’s paradise of flowers, dead flowers. Here in Senza Pantaleone.

Anonymous, eighteenth century, “Capitan Babbeo e Cucuba (scena di commedia dell’arte)”
(Museo teatrale della Scala, Milan)

Monday, November 13, 2006

Slapstick Revolutionists

Sprockets and Man

Reading Mark Binelli’s Sacco and Vanzetti Must Die! (Dalkey Archive, 2006)—Sacco and Vanzetti up out of vaudeville into film as slapstick comedians. The book proceeding by herky-jerky bits—“unpublished journals,” movie scenes, lengthy footnotes in the form of “Supplementary Materials,” newsreel—Time on the March—transcripts, excerpts out of The Comedy Film Encyclopedia, and excerpts of the two supposed anarchists’ trial proceedings. A rangy continuum of material “obviously invented” proceeding by degrees to the “obviously historical-factual” with a wide swath of uncertainty keeping the middle spry and exciting. Reminded of Thomas Pynchon by that radical re-writing of history, and, too, by some funny details in the mesh. In recounting a scene of the 1937 picture Ventriloquism and Its Discontents, Binelli writes of the Professore Scrotti, a ventriloquist “retreating into the realm of theory”:
He found performance to be impure, and this perfectionism had reached a level that made his own routine a perpetual disappointment.

. . .

      In-the-know types wishing to see a performance by the master would surreptitiously enroll in his workshops, during which he rarely used his lips while speaking, his lectures delivered by dummy, dog’s mouth, or the garishly painted nutcracker hussar standing at attention in the corner of his desk. A favorite trick involved pointing a book at the class and flipping the pages with his thumb while making it “speak” a passage from its pages. This was generally Keats. While reciting the poem, Scrotti stuttered in syncopation with the rustling pages. He once delivered a two-hour talk on the short-lived genre of ventriloquist literature (thrillers usually revolving around a ventriloquist who employs his powers for sinister purposes) entirely from a button on the dress of a girl in the back row.
Is it the speed of invention, or the bold reverse-telescoping of focus—literary genre to talking button—something here is Pynchonesque. (Think of the adventures of Byron the Bulb in Gravity’s Rainbow.) Binelli moves next to “speaking genitalia,” including Scrotti’s own which reportedly “once sang an entire verse of the old chestnut ‘Pucker Up, Baby (And Kiss Me Until Them Lips Give Out).’”

Binelli’s Sacco and Vanzetti Must Die! is Pynchonesque, too, in its sense of there being secret (undetected) orders to the universe, precise arrangements of fate, &c. though without the paranoia-songs. One of Vanzetti’s pastimes is underlining random lines in Dante’s Commedia,—the sortes Commediae betraying a writerly drive, propensity to make (anew) the (anarchy of the) world:
By “random” he meant quite literally, as in, “Any card.” He liked the idea of sliding splinters beneath the microscope—the notion that, through sheer diligence of observation, one might glean poetry from the dried starfish at the edge of a painted seascape, from the wizened creases of a second ballerina’s arched toe-shoe, from any number of seemingly forgettable details that accrue into a greater sublime. Of course, he also knew the Commedia back-and-forth enough to make him feel that, on some subconscious level, the selections were not random at all.
The other novelist I think of: Nathaniel West. Most obviously The Dream Life of Balso Snell. Though less purely black humorist.

The “assholier-than-thou”? Trust no one who poses the requisite wee musterable bumptiousness of the revolutionist in the signifying pronoun of royalty. (See, too, the ruckus in the comments chez Joshua Corey.)

Mark Binelli

Friday, November 10, 2006


The River at the Mill

Shanghai’d by the books come cartwheeling through my hands. Milton Babbitt in 1947 saying about the life of a composer: “It’s a mad scramble for crumbs.” (File under avant-garde entering the academy.) And Mondrian: “I enjoyed painting flowers, not

bouquets, but a single flower at a time, in order that I might better express its plastic structure.” And for several digital-bounty’d months now I am aiming to photograph a tree, and I cannot find a tree to photograph. A tree, whole, without

rickrack of house or road or cornfield. Its symmetry lax or disproport’d, no sweat. It’s greenery a-dangle or swat off by the breezes. A single tree in ordinary tree-ness. My emphatic half, though, that that’d find a tree in its

plasticity, is keel-haul’d by my own turpitude. School of turpitude. Ode to turpitude. Climbing Mount Chemisier. Ode to the French twerp poets. Now that I am in my dirt and can think. That erstwhile revery of pages and pages of titles. I

find that jamming a little (all channels) opens the pores. The poor ears. Morton Feldman wrote “For Frank O’Hara” in 1973: “My primary concern (as in all my music) is to sustain a ‘flat surface’ with a minimum of contrast.” How oddly wrong

(for me): what I look for (always) is the magnificently roiled surface. Words that jut and nudge and shame the reader into noticing. A boffo jarring against that turpitudinous resin. Oblique sketchiness and defiant rhodomontade. Curios jamming the

rimosity, chinks and fissures, barking. Yoik mulligans. Plain speech of the farm and the barn and the owl and the monk, no sir! (Though, is it plausible to argue that a continual Mighty Joe Young diction’ll drop one into mere-hum register, too? It is, it

is.) And if I think about photography (I try to avoid thinking about photography, I wager most artwork is accomplish’d most ferociously without the impediment of thought, no?): I note that what I do is burn the contrast in, near Kodalith (like a

stencil) style. Or make the colors yelp a little. (Though I see various fifty-seven varieties of gray works, like Henry Wessel Jr. or Jamie Tolagson and think, that’s terribly seductive, isn’t it? I want to rub around in that picture, its sempiternal velvety

folds.) Morton Feldman says he talked about painting with John Cage “every day for five years” in the Cedar Tavern: “The new painting made me desirous of a sound world more direct, more immediate, more physical than anything that had existed

heretofore.” (How write a poem direct, immediate, physical? One senses it occurs, rarely, in whiffs and jisms, momentary word-choice and alignment dictated by the gods. That’s the way it is, rarely. One attempts to locate that “state” through a

range of reckless experiments: fatigue, alcohol, post-run endorphins, coffee, hallucinogens, constant rutting, opiates, &c. Or writing itself—dreck, pulp, offal—calls the authentic forth. Rarely.) Feldman, elsewhere: “Music is not painting,

but it can learn from this more perceptive temperament that waits and observes the inherent mystery of its materials, as opposed to the composer’s vested interest in his craft. . . .The painter achieves mastery by allowing what he is doing to be

itself. In a way, he must step aside in order to be in control.” The “inherent mystery” of words? The way a mothy word’ll flutter down out of nowhere, a word whose meaning is a mystery, say, “sedulous” or “sodality,” and “fit” the moment, make right

the canvas of words? (That happens. Rarely.) Feldman, talking about Beethoven’s Grosse Fuge suggests that an “aura of danger, something gone amiss, hovers above this music; a suggestion of a final judgment turned against itself. One

suspects that Beethoven in this work was pushed aside by the music’s onslaught.” And asks: “Do I dare to suggest here that whatever transcendental quality this work possesses might be just because of this fact? Just because what we have here, in its

most volcanic and pathetic way, is a control in control of its master?” Consumed by one’s art, burnt on the pyre of one’s own offering, momentary complete self-immolation, how the writing of a poem’ll leave one feeling like a washrag beat

dry against a doorpost. (Rarely.) One thinks of Tom Clark: “The parts of your feelings // Are starting to know a quiet / The pure conversion of your / Life into art seems destined // Never to occur . . .” Lick’d clean by art, one’s own. All

reason enough to avoid the siren call of constructivism and collage, whose rhythms differ considerably, and results transcend only the tiny yelps of material displacement, a noisome noise, hardly heaven-reaching,—reason enough to demand of

oneself a diversion beyond mere sport, one sequester’d by fidelity to that awful unaccountable discharge in one’s head.

Mighty Joe Young

Thursday, November 09, 2006

Against Camps

Pipe and Brick

Rummaging around looking for ammo (in the form of the unfound—and probably less foundational than touted—“I HATE SPEECH” This) yesterday, I uncover’d two issues of Ray DiPalma’s Doones—Vol. 1 / No. 3 (1970) and Vol. 1 / No. 4 (1971) for you with checklists. “Editor: Raymond DiPalma” in Bowling Green, Ohio. “Subscriptions to DOONES are $3.50 for 4 issues. Single copies $1.00.” To the half-train’d printer’s eye, IBM Selectric’ly typed up on stencil masters, and run off on legal-sized sheets, fold’d and trimmed, a magazine of roughly seven by eight plus, near-square and comfy. Covers: black on white cardstock, one a pen and ink’d typewriter, unsigned, one a schematic detail of a Paris Métro map (“Doones” listed as the final stop after Port-Royal) by Stephen Shrader.

Why pounce so eagerly on Doones? Easy. Ron Silliman persists in writing a short, stilted history of post-New American Poetry writing in the U. S. in terms of two warring camps. If he admits to anything like a common ground between the two blast’d categories—call ’em Crips and Bloods, call ’em Sharks and Jets, call ’em Hoydens and Louts, just don’t call ’em the asinine monickers the Silliman (in Alexander Haig mask) proposes: we’ve known since Orwell (at least) how the terms of the argument determine the argument and he who names things’s won half a battle, that of the derisory term—. So: if Silliman grutchingly complies with the observation that, in the late ’sixties, Henry Rago made of Poetry, briefly, a place welcome to skunks of all stripes, if he makes it an exception (to “prove the rule”—he’s a veteran of that dodge), what Doones is for is precisely to urge a reconsidering, to posit another story outside the reductivist yarn of the Silliman, one where the plains of Parnassus are cover’d not by two armies, more a mostly affable conglomerate of (mostly) solitary campers in a wild variety of tents. Yugh.

Look, though, at the line-up in Doones: 1970—Ron Loewinsohn, James Welch, William Hathaway, David Rosenberg, Jarold Ramsey, Colette Inez, John Tagliabue, Joe Cardarelli, Robert Kelly, William Stafford, David Hilton, Stuart Peterfreund, James Tate and Bill Knott, David Ignatow, Greg Kuzma, Theodore Enslin, Rolla Rieder, Howard McCord, Ian Self, Tomas Tranströmer (translated by Robert Bly) and 1971—Tom Raworth, Claude Royet-Journoud (translated by Keith Waldrop), Robert Slater, Stephen Shrader, Frederick Eckman, Merrill Gilfillan, Nicolas Born (translated by Eric Torgersen), Jacques Dupin (translated by Paul Auster), John Unterecker, Larry Fagin, Peter Schjeldahl, Rosmarie Waldrop, Howard McCord, Pentti Saarikoski (translated by Anselm Hollo), James Bertolino, Ken McCullough, David Ball, Eric Torgersen, Keith Waldrop, David Adams, Simon Schuchat, Michael Lally, and Russell Edson. The line-up is not an isolated case. The sense of oppositional camps (with its dullard-hounds of divisiveness) emerged, or re-emerged (following the die-down of the original Allen / Hall &c. anthology wars), at the late-’seventies prodding of the Language boys, so don’t let’s take it for something scriptural and final at the persistent badgering of an insecurity.

Out of Doones, one (perhaps) pertinent quotable, a poem by perennial fave Merrill Gilfillan:
The Art of the Manifesto

      The first time you see one running across the water you simply stand and gawp. It makes you think of an outboard roadrunner from the arid Southwest walking on water. Then you recognize it as a Purple Gallinule, cousin of the coot and the English moorhen, and you know it’s stepping on lily pads most of the time, but.
      The next time you feel one roaming across the water and you stand and talk. It makes you think of an outboard roadrunner from the arid Southwest waltzing on water. Then you recognize it as a perfect yellow mule, cousin of the goat in the English morning, and what a morning, stepping on lily pads most of the time. Your butt.

Ray DiPalma

Merrill Gilfillan

Wednesday, November 08, 2006

The Uses and Abuses of History


Ron Silliman’s rather execrably self-center’d excursion into late ’sixties Berkeley poetry starring Robert Grenier: is that the kind of thing we’re liable to see in The Grand Piano? My copy of the first issue of This is back-row double-shelved somewhere, so I am unable to offer much in the way of assessment of some of Silliman’s grander claims. About Grenier’s “great works that would eventually make up Sentences . . . one of the crowning achievements of 20th century poetry”—isn’t it precisely the case that it is pure Creeley’s Pieces (1969) just as equally brought to a gaseous standstill by hundreds of other grass-smarmy’d potheads? Think of Aram Saroyan—who’d admittedly smoke gobs of pot and spend a morning writing a couple of succinct and flippant little numbers (“a dish / of Irish / setters” or “ex- / track / coach / dies”): Saroyan print’d Lines magazine beginning in 1964, wherein Grenier is rather Neanderthally represented by things like “A Sort of Plea” (“My lady, my lady, I’m a little dizzy this morning, / thinking on the various . . . say, not necessary / inconveniences? . . . you’ve brought me.” [Whew!] and Random House published a whole collection of Saroyan’s work in 1968. (And somewhat later, didn’t Saroyan take the next logical step in reducing the poem and publish a blank book?)

There are countless exhibits of similar miniature goofs. Look in Bob Perelman’s Hills (Number 2, no discernable date, though Perelman’s address is Cambridge, Mass. and he thanks Grenier for assistance, probably circa 1971): besides a goodly number of Grenier Sentences (“later” and “all over by the wind” and “sundown qualifies / speech as mere / excitement” and “the thugs”), there is Anselm Hollo’s “one leg shorter / she walked into me early” and Perelman’s own “the nearest nothing to slip on / dear blossom my eye.” Look in Paul Hoover’s Hairpin Turns (Oink Books, 1972) and read:

A mouthful of barbiturates at the bottom of the lake

You stir me to run away with your radio
Look in David Morice’s tiny Gum (Number 6, 1971) to see (again) Aram Saroyan (“an orange an orange an”) or Anne Waldman’s “For Ted Berrigan” (“I am speed at the head of the class.”) or George Mattingly’s “The sign at the brink of the world says / SCHICK TECHMATIC” or Clark Coolidge’s “Of What” (“the grained / pound / of what / sees seen”). Look in Bill Berkson’s Big Sky (Number 6, 1973), where Larry Fagin in a completely Creeeleyesque selection of “New Poems” writes:
Cloudy moon,
bumpy driveway.
Don’t want no
with no tires.
The sincerity
of Calypso
makes Americans
Or (again) Aram Saroyan’s “Marilyn Monroe”:
“What do you really think of her?”
I once asked Dick Avedon.

“She’s the best at what she does,”
He told me.
Another version of literary history ’d claim that post-Pieces, post-Berrigan’s “Tambourine Life” (in the Paul Carroll anthology), post-Saroyan’s Aram Saroyan and Pages, a slew of younger writers went after dopey miniatures (and the news got rather delay’d in reaching the West coast). (Or, history as simultaneity, as Steve Katz remarked somewhere about postmodern fiction, it was “something in the air,” or “we were all of us there and the light changed and we all crossed the street.”)

In the poems, the banal is pulled out for close examination: and truth is, nearly any particle or smudge of language will do. If one places “tree is so hazy” (Grenier) in the middle of a page (there’s nothing “in situ” about it, the words’re under the Klieg lights of the page, isolated, decontextualized), a kind of reverse-bathos occurs: the commonplace is elevated (through form) to deliver its (minuscule) charge. The result: “tree” wobbles with its two e’s, “is so” unencumbers itself of its z sound, “hazy” reverberates back z and e. More than sonic offerings, the visual is offered, the mere “posing” of a word or phrase is enough to trigger the tiny ostrenanie on which any claim to poetry is made. Certainly, deadpan inanity and dud profundity is right up the pothead’s alley toward dopey hilarity—and, truth is, some of the cards in Sentences are apt to illicit a snort or two, even late as the day is. However, to make of what is essentially a stack of minor giggles, all mostly characterized by a distinct lack of ambition, and no different in import than any number of other giggles the age produced, a “crowning achievement” is to exhibit a curious time-provincialism, occupy a blindspot, or willfully diminish one’s own era (outside of what small portion one witness’d oneself). Then again, that’s Silliman’s modus operandi: inflate the cultural capital nearest oneself in an attempt to get (oneself) swept up in the general boosterism. It’s a dishonest use of history.

Aram Saroyan

Robert Grenier
(Photograph by Alastair Johnston)

Tuesday, November 07, 2006


Black Dollar

Pedal’d through the skimpy driving rain to perform my citizenry, big turnout early in the neighborhood. And continued here with barest currency coined. Finish’d the Rexroth, rather crabbily. Note to myself: Randolph Bourne’s Untimely Papers

and The History of a Literary Radical. Note, too, the Hayakunishu anthology. Note (elsewhere, “scratchpad”) Hebe, the goddess of youth. “Her mother conceived her in a pleasant manner, without any acquaintance with a Male, for she

was invited to a sumptuous Feast by Neptune in Jupiter’s Palace, and there she met with a dainty Sallad of Lettice that moved her imagination, and caused her to conceive this Hebe.” (Apparently not related to hebetudinosity: blunt, dull, jowly.)

Later, in Guy Mannering, Sir Walter Scott’s got a Hebe delivering up a plate of “beef collops.” (The way one gets lost in words is rad, no?) “If there is one thing more hateful than another it is being told what to admire and having

objects pointed out to one with a stick,” is what the curate Francis Kilvert (of posthumous fame) reputedly jotted. One of Ronald Johnson’s readings, amongst others. Iain Sinclair (how come nobody in North America reads Iain Sinclair?) calls

Kilvert’s Diary a “great arc of material in a pre-literary state, not yet cooked & synthesised as poetry: delight, despair, social drama, landscape, weather. A meditative walker & hill wanderer who invented the autobiography that his words

(moving out on a generous curve) would require.” As opposed to David Jones: “I hate being out of doors.” (One—my shabby shoes steaming under the desk, drying almost vociferously—often rather thinks too few Bloglanders plod out into the physical

world, out where the Eastern pipistrelle flits and jerks . . . Pipistrelle a word reminding me invariably of Lorine Niedecker, though her word is pipsissawa, that tiny winter berry . . .) Bats. Morton Feldman: “Philip

Guston once told me that when he sees how a painting is made he becomes bored with it. The preoccupation with making something, with systems and construction, seems to be a characteristic of music today. It has become, in many cases, the

actual subject of musical composition.” The instinctual. Oddly, Feldman credits John Cage with a Duncanian “first permission” moment, showing Cage a string quartet and Cage asking “How did you make it?” Feldman: “. . . just a week before, after showing

a composition of mine to Milton Babbitt and answering his questions as intelligently as I could, he said to me, “Morton, I don’t understand a word you’re saying.” And so, in a very weak voice, I answered John, “I don’t know how I made it.” The

response to this was startling. John jumped up and down and, with a kind of high monkey squeal, screeched, “Isn’t that marvelous. Isn’t that wonderful. It’s so beautiful, and he doesn’t know how he made it.”

John Cage, Lejaren Hiller, and Morton Feldman
(Photograph by Irene Haupt)

Monday, November 06, 2006

Two Mustaches

The Anti-Guitar

Roberto Calasso (who for range and mastery and curiosity, I’d rank with Guy Davenport), talking about Flaubert’s Bouvard and Pécuchet, eponymous characters of “The Book of our century” in The Forty-Nine Steps:
They speak to us of a world that for the first time had been completely written down: in newspapers and recipes, in bons mots and condolences, bold paradoxes and fearful warnings, cold technical manuals and spiritual guides. And every element in this Scripture adhered to every other, thanks to a wonderful universal glue: Stupidity.
Somehow reminiscent—if I recall rightly—of Thomas Pynchon’s “universal bonding ingredient (UBI): canned mushroom soup” (in Vineland). Calasso continues:
Bouvard and Pécuchet, these two geniuses who are still misunderstood today (they had at least one indispensable quality of genius: They took everything literally) and who are even accused of being imbeciles, were the first to have a horrific vision of the solidarity of the Whole. They saw the Universal Equivalence produced by Stupidity the same way that visionaries once saw oneness in a speck of dust and the flaming stars. And they understood that in the face of that Ineffability, no word need be added. All that was left was a single act of devotion: to copy, because repetition, here as in any ritual, is commemoration of the Unrepeatable.
Alas, today even the devotee’s copious copyist—or copycat—activity (with its manually-induced revery-pleasures) ’s kaput, kayo’d by the cut and paste rigamarole of a redundancy of Google-evangelicals with divining rod search-strings rearing up out of the miasmas of computoidal geekdom, and the only scriptural glue made of the adherent itself, art a “social” skill. (You’d understand that better if you weren’t so stuck on yourself.)

And, serendipitously (which often means just a quickly-noted, un-“worked” connection), Morton Feldman, in Essays (1985) edited by Walter Zimmermann:
The question continually on my mind all these years is: to what degree does one give up control, and still keep that last vestige where one can call the work one’s own? Everyone must find his own answer here, but there is a story about Mondrian that may clarify what I mean.

Someone suggested that since Mondrian used areas of all one color, why not use a spray instead of painting these areas? Mondrian was very interested, and immediately tried it. Not only did the picture not have the feel of a Mondrian, it didn’t even have the look of a Mondrian. No one who has not experienced something of this will understand it.

The word that comes closest is perhaps touch. For me, at least, this seems to be the answer, even if it is nothing more than the ephemeral feel of the pencil in my hand when I work. I’m sure if I dictate my music, even if I dictated it exactly, it would never be the same.

A couple Nietzschean bones to chew (out of Calasso):

“In the effort to know its own instruments, thought necessarily destroys itself . . .”

On Nietzsche at the point of beginning Ecce Homo (1888), that is, at the point of writing what is later considered (by some) “clinical material, documents of the outbreak of insanity”: “What he seems to have wanted to demonstrate visibly is the passage, already implicit in his previous thinking, from a theory that is radical but still respectful of formal conventions to a practice of an unprecedented nature, which remains ever his most mysterious point.”

Flaubert and Nietzsche

Friday, November 03, 2006


Blue Pump

The implausible Mr. Rexroth (suffering solitary-child bigheadedness combined with lying through the teeth): “For a while, I wrote a good deal of music—polytonal, contrapuntal, heavily influenced by William Byrd, Orlando Gibbons, Tudor church music, and the early French lutanists. It hadn’t been played for years because it was so difficult that only Andrée could play it with proper phrasing. Cowell used to say of Hindemith that he took a Bach score and sprinkled it with accidentals, sharps, and flats. I did rather the opposite. I worked constantly to produce diatonic dissonances and modulated from mode to mode rather than from key to key. The only musician this ever made much of an impression on was during World War II—Charles Mingus.” Andrée: the first wife, not a musician, a painter.

On the following page (that is, before one “processes” the essential Rexrotheimer contribution to jazz) one is coached in the way the Rexroth pointed the way toward Abstract Expressionism. For Byzantine “Party” reasons too laborious to enunciate, having to do with various Leftist group actions for “the revolutionary development of the Simmons Mattress proletariat,” Rexroth reports that “It was necessary to put in a new organizer—a hardboiled diligent apparatchik—but he had to be an artist. Canvases were lined up around the wall of Party headquarters, and we all came down and painted pictures of free splashes of color and provided him with an oeuvre and an aesthetic, namely that painting was a commodity, an object in its own right, not a picture “of” anything, even an abstraction, and its value lay entirely in the “action” of the painter. Hence . . . —Abstract Expressionism, which was eventually to capture the California School of Fine Arts and grow and flourish like the green bay tree and produce some very fine paintings—the only American painting that the rest of the world had ever taken seriously.” For us no-breed dogs train’d to lunge at the merest whiff of snake-oil salesmen, Rexroth offers this biscuit: “I have no desire to play stool pigeon, but if this story makes anybody terribly wrought up, I could provide names and dates.”

Though: keeping one’s nose to the ground like a hound, it is possible to flush a covey de temps en temps. I read in Rexroth: “In those days Hiler was a tall, thin, gangly youth in a green velvet Navajo jacket, with a monkey on his shoulder who would clap his hands after each whorehouse piano number. Hiler was the only person I ever knew who could play just like an old-time piano player. He had large ears at right angles to his head and a terrible stammer, not just a stutter. Sometimes he would go, “wa, wa, wa” for sixty seconds or more before he could say anything. Otto Rank was then the fashionable psychoanalyst in Paris, and Hiler went to see him about his stammer. He came in his office and started “wa, wa, wa, wa.” Rank didn’t bother about the stammer. He said, “The first thing you do is go to a plastic surgeon and get those ears pinned back and then come and see me.” Who’s Hilaire Hiler? Mostly a painter. Too, author, with William Saroyan and Henry Miller of a New Directions book titled Why Abstract? (1945). Founder of Hiler College (later Fremont College) in Santa Fe and Fremont University in Los Angeles. Enough to stir one’s curiosity. Predilect for the overlook’d, the footnote, the odd-jobber. (Hiler, too, a jazz saxophonist, circus clown, and author of From Nudity to Raiment: An Introduction to the Study of Costume, in 1929. Born Hiler Harzberg, in St. Paul Minnesota, in 1898.)

Hilaire Hiler, Gray Shadow Series—Run (1956)

Hilaire Hiler (1898-1966)

Hilaire Hiler, Untitled (Dice)

All a spasm, uncontrollable, and glut of disfigurement is how Horace (tr. Burton Raffel) sees poetry, pointing back to Plato. That old deconstructionist prestidigitating of making it clear that what he says is exactly opposed to what he thinks he says. The lively way Horace says what not to do (“A painter who puts a horse’s mane / on a man’s neck—who pulls feathers / from canaries and doves and parrots and owls / and grows them on a sheep’s back—who lets / the upper half of a beautiful woman come / to a bad end, wriggling like a black / fish”) versus the “sensible” (“words wag on the stick / of substance”) way of proceeding he proposes.