Friday, March 30, 2007

Some Notes on Shin Yu Pai’s Sightings: Selected Works (2000-2005)

Palm and Door

Recently publish’d by Sandra Miller and Ben Doyle’s 1913 Press, Shin Yu Pai’s Sightings collects three sequences, “Nutritional Feed,” “The Love Hotel Poems,” and “Unnecessary Roughness,” and adds a fourth piece, a “play for four voices” (and installation, judging by pictures of a television monitor placed behind swinging “saloon-style” doors, and video stills out of “Wells Fargo”, often with words—“He cut a man’s hand off by an accident”—overlying what looks like a cowboy movie, that accompanies it) titled “Concave Is the Opposite of Convex.” According to the subtitle, the play’s lines come out of a Chinese-English phrase book. Characters: Wells Fargo, Sam Wong, Sam’s Assistant, Judge. Three scenes, only the second placed: “In the Court of You Do Things without a Just Cause.” A sample, directly succeeding a kind of Sam Wong oratorio of arrival (“I came at the first opportunity. . . . It suits me to come. I do so because I love to. . . . Well! I thought I would step in for a moment. Oh! I came because I had nothing to do at home.”):
(Enter Wells Fargo and Sam’s Assistant to conduct business transaction.)

Wells Fargo: The house was set on fire by an incendiary.

Sam Wong: I will rent the house if you include the water.

Sam’s Assistant: I will attach his furniture if you indemnify me.

Wells Fargo: Please tell me what is the name of my landlord?

Sam’s Assistant: (Whispered into Sam Wong’s ear.)
                                  I collect the bills.

Sam Wong: Are you sure of it?

Sam’s Assistant: Certainly, it is true.
                                  He is a tax collector.
                                  He is a money collector.

Wells Fargo: I don’t cheat, even a boy?

Sam Wong: What is your honorable surname?

Sam’s Assistant: (Aside) Permanent Employment.

(Wells Fargo exits stage.)

Sam’s Assistant: What did you dislike in him?

Sam Wong: He was intending to afflict me by telling me fibs.

Sam’s Assistant: Why did you dislike him?

Sam Wong: He squatted on my lot.
It’s hardly the first incidence of poetry emerging hotch-potch out of an instruction manual, but the “making strange” that occurs (by juxtaposition of varying speech registers, and somewhat curious word combinations, a sort of unsocialized diction that’ll use “afflict” and “fibs” in the same phrase) keeps the energy up. Sam Wong says Wells Fargo’ll go to court—what court? “You do things without a cause.” Recalling James Dean lying in the street, drunk, giggling about a toy, a jack-in-the-box, isn’t that how the movie begins? And I think of Shin Yu Pai’s piece (and book) as a kind of “Rebel Without a Cause” for the ’thousands.

What it is, Sightings, is a semiotic romp. A sign-hoard. Crossword puzzle, drawings (some with echoes of Joe Brainard’s deft draftsmanship), grids, typographical change-ups, Venn diagram, blacked out censoring, “offensive play” diagrams, dialogue boxes, trademarks, nutritional charts, rubber stamps, collage, stray keyboard symbols, photographs, cartoon speech bubbles, eye charts. What it explores, in its three major sequences, is sex, sports, food, and, or, the ways one is assault’d by signifiers and simulacra, the violence (and instability) of signs. Here’s one out of “Unnecessary Roughness”:
ice ice baby

assume the “ready”
position—target practice

for the opposition

pass-out play behind
the net, drop and smother

anything he can catch
he can control

a standing goal-tender
preferred to one who

flops to stop
going down

on bent knees
Making plain the sexual ways of the casual sporting event, the imperatives of the human tribe. (In another poem, titled “P.E.” one reads “a sense of team or / tribe, it’s cannibals / and rats who delight / in eating their own.”)

There’s something finally brutal about Shin Yu Pai’s world in the book: no nature, nothing (even seemingly) unmediated by language that pops with its lingual noise, no untemplated, unscored “musing,” no possibility for wholes—constructed and false as they must be. One sketch (opening the “Nutritional Feed” sequence) is of a human brain with three little placards stuck into it: one a computer monitor and keyboard, one a TV remote control, one a plant of sorts, a root vegetable by the look of it. It is the latter that jogs my own brainpan—is it beet? Or turnip? Or mandrake root, pull’d howling, humanoid, up? (See Shakespeare, in Romeo and Juliet: “Shrieks like mandrakes’ torn out of the earth.”) Uneasy with the “feed,” one thinks, is the “proper response” a taming mimicry, an aping? Or is it a turning away, a modest refusal. Shin Yu Pai’s choice is the former.

Shin Yu Pai

Thursday, March 29, 2007

The Bridge

Block and Line

Coldish, sun-hustled morning—clarity in the treetops. What I wrote—about Shin Yu Pai—uh, “my dog pee’d on it.”

“Left it in my other pants.”

All the lame fretting ways of stopping down Time—closer to the bridge’ll make it soar off into angelic registers. (James Brown: “Can I take it to the bridge?”) Truth is, I rather like jamming, bouncing off the nothing debris, no “project,” no “focus,” no “theme.” I like to collapse down in a mock heap of saying, and haul myself back up, sweat-pearls flung off by exertion, knuckles shining off the microphone stand, cape slipping off, the boys doing the riffs poker-facedly, no sympathy tender’d to the hundredth performance of mock-agony, and reprise. “Ain’t no scratch off my Cadillac.”

The kind of thing that makes Lorine Niedecker a solace. (I just noted that Penberthy’s Collected Poems carries a dedication “for Kenneth Cox”—what’s needed is a collected Cox, slim’s it’d probably be, something bigger ’n the Agenda-publish’d Collected Studies in the Uses of English.) Niedecker, out of “Next Year or I Fly My Rounds Tempestuous”—the calendar with the usual calendar platitudes (Penberthy provides one: “True bravery is / shown by performing / without witness what / one might be capable / of doing before all the / world.”) pasted-over with Niedecker’s own handwritten “versions”—“I can always / go back to / fertilization, / kimonos, wrap- / arounds and / diatribes.”

Or: “I talk at the top / of my white / resignment.”

Or: “Summer— / I don’t hum / the least of my / resistance, / I give it a fly.”

Rich musterings of nearly tactile vocables set against some larger unsung dramatic tension—Niedecker’s impeccable ear is a large part of it—though I think more pertinent is a ferociously “right” diction, and a persistent sliding off of expectations. Not talking at the top of “lungs”—not the usual agon of argument—it its place “white,” a blotting out, a refusal. And pushing ever further against the expect’d, not “white / resignation”—that would be a tailing off, poem ending as pout. Niedecker’s “resignment” (besides strengthening the high skirling long i in “white”) reminds one of “assignment” (and “reassignment”; and, distantly, “assignation”), and markedly points to the root “sign,” mark. The “white / resignment” becomes the mark of Niedecker’s determination “to make a sign,” to slough off the torpors of loss, to make the “white” her own.

Not “merely” ironic, like most of Robert “JOE JOE” Grenier. Not ironic at all.

Funny to come up out of the seeing and think “How’d that come about?” Harryette Mullen’s got a little thing that goes, “Night moon star sun down gown. Night moan stir sin dawn gown.” (In Trimmings.) And I can’t keep Apollinaire the flâneur des deux rives away of that thing. Mostly because in trying to translate the pear-shaped Guillaume’s “soleil cou coupé” oncet I wrote “moon sawn bone”—putting the “Zone” into the night of the twenty-first century. If last century’s mark’d by the bloody cut off neck of the sun, the current one’s moved into a more dedicated (licensed) butchery—with saws—by, apparently, more dedicated (licensed, if the paucity of any public incendium be a measure) butchers. Mullen, of course, is talking about a more personal transformation.

“I promenade, mostly, I make myself do the big promenade.”

James Brown and Lorine Niedecker

Wednesday, March 28, 2007

The Grand Piano

Covering Up

Reading The Grand Piano—the first part—in tiny doses, concentratedly. I’ll probably just toss out my notes, &c. in whatever form—rabid, nugatory, impercipient—avoiding any grander fanfare, or synthesis. I find it vaguely alarming that the collective decided to pursue the autobiography “thematically”—the first clump being about “love,” though what one reads is closer to a Shklovsky-kept Zoo, that is, “letters not about love.” (As if the “standard”—romantic love—were beneath contempt, with its centuries of banality.) My druthers’d be a less controlled book, or series—something slippery and idiosyncratic, less “pruned.” A pixilated free-for-all, rather than these tidily deliver’d livres. It’s not at all clear how the present books (I have the first two volumes) reached the “final state” they come to one in: Carla Harryman refers once to “the ‘violent leaps’ in my thinking, which have been pointed out to me in the course of our editing this material”—and I expect something far closer to the “true autobiography” of the present (determined, social, history-bidding) formation lies in the rubble of the raw correspondences that result’d in it. (If the work begins in the 1998 or 1999, why’s the opening volume seem so tentative?) (I am baffled, too, why the decision made to dribble the books forth, and so expensively? Surely one binding’s cheaper than ten.) That said, the books are handsome in wraps, and sized right.

Bob Perelman’s rueful admission: “Being a parent changed some of my stylistic priorities.” Er, no constructing / producing of meanings for that kid! There’s a rather odd sudden relationship with “permanence” in Perelman’s account. He says, “So, what is a vocabulary, what are the tunes to entail a permanent relation to existing conditions?” (So long, slippery signifier!) He asks, “how to say what stays put?” And: “love, in writing, does depend on some deep-set stance turned toward permanence.” Toward the end Perelman suggests that “invention” comes out of what he calls “desire-writing”—a place that smacks of impermanence, lightness, goofing around. Where’s “invention” now? Where’s the processual fevers of yesteryear? Surely any relation with today’s (the kid’s) “existing conditions” requires agility as one “priority.”

I have to admit it: about halfway through Barrett Watten’s piece I start’d being viscerally embarrass’d for him. Hollow disbelief registering in the gut as panic. The extraordinary fit of paranoia regarding, mostly, Barrett Watten’s own belatedness, and the competitiveness, the possessiveness, and one-upmanship he musters to dispel it is completely disconcerting to see. Watten, reflecting on meeting Perelman (“why does he act so competitive?”) at Iowa:
. . . this is the moment of contested belatedness. What writer has not felt it at some point in his or her life? I am always the last to arrive, but the first to record it. Or perhaps I was the first to arrive, and everyone has already published their memoirs. In any case, if I were to issue an injunction to stop writing autobiography, it would probably mean that one should stop deluding oneself in the terrible misrecognition of having arrived on the scene either first, or belatedly. There is always someone who has arrived before you, and always the arrivistes who want to act as if you were never there. Just as in liberal society, there are always those with huge social prestige and impossible real estate, and always the pretenders and aspirers to same.
Such dismal insecurity—and its attendant aggressiveness—riddles the thing. I want to say, faux-Britly: “Criminy, lad, cark it.” Thinking a little over-determined humor’ll knock it out of him. Later, complaining about Zukofsky’s “belatedly prefigured” trope of “love,” and how Z’s used it in a mustering of particulars—“guarantors of an immanent sameness of perduring experience, figured in advance”—to jump the modernist ship leaving the docks, Watten laments:
The rest, meaning myself and my friends—well, we would be forever outside the heavenly compact that would make literariness a matter of who got there first. Love, as the end of a poetic tradition at least in America, is authoritarian.
The theorizing of Watten’s own shirt-color, angelic blue for the Zukofsky “A”-24 performance, “ox-blood red” for picketing, that . . . whew.

Steve Benson is probably the writer here whose work I know least. What I like is the recognition of the absolute “sustenance” afforded by what he calls “the alienated province of art production.” Sustenance that is, finally, unsustainable, being located in a realm “discrete from that purported terra firma of an established actuality, wherein lay crouching responsibility.” Sense of “all that” being “there”—some distance off, pleasantly behind one who writes now “in the woods just off a bay on the coast of central Maine.” (If that province were not so alienated, outside the marketplace, the world of “tangible reward,” it would fail us gangly misfits. One turns to Blogland against the machinery that co-opts the monthlies, the weeklies, &c.)

Carla Harryman begins with a rather obligatory-sounding litany of military opposition before vaguely positing that all that’s got “something to do” with love and “discordant sentences”:
The theme of love in poetry recollects all the above in my mind and has something to do with my then investigation of discordant sentences that if at all romantic (were they?) stayed on the playful and jarring side of romance.
Next, she stages a Pierre Menard moment with a stanza of Robert Creeley’s “The Door” (“I will go to the garden. / I will be a romantic. / I will sell / myself in hell, / in heaven I will also be.”) in order to address the impossible gender relations and assumptions (“consider the masculine subjectivity of the poem as a fixture installed within my own mentality”) that inhere in the romantic tradition. Next, she relates a story of first meeting Creeley (1980) at a party, and how he “cornered me, more than once . . . and repeated the same question over and over again in an aggressive fashion. ‘Where are you from?’” Harryman, rather bizarrely it seems, explains away Creeley’s boorishness by suggesting that she’d violated the (male, in the tradition) authority of the poet, “he who makes”:
I came up with a theory, which given Creeley’s proclivity toward mean streaks in those years is to be taken with a grain of salt. It is this: upon introduction, I naturally identified with him as a person who makes. This was the violation that elicited the aggressivity of the question . . .
In spite of the minimal recognition that Creeley could be, well, an asshole, Harryman then proceeds to use the scene as basis for why the Language poets might’ve encounter’d opposition and antagonism in some quarters:
Doesn’t this have something to do with our critique of ‘the self?’ Of the authority and authorship of ‘the poet?’ Isn’t this why some of us experienced a great deal of antagonism and public attacks? That through ‘language writing’ the male authority of the poem was actively questioned?
Und so weiter.

Carla Harryman

Tuesday, March 27, 2007



Seasonal sloughing off of all the duff and dander—what sifts down in the piles, hid like William Blake. As Coleridge says (Notebooks): “The half knit Stocking in the Kitchen-table Drawer—” Time’s lesions be legion, I think, prodded by a gob of it upcoming, an evening’s thrust and murmur of it. (E. M. Cioran: “Time is corroded from within, exactly like an organism . . .”) It contains the plug of its own unstoppering, is another way to put it.

I keep trying to read Adorno—another in a number of one’s I keep trying to read. Isn’t he a mite tepid? The avuncular soul whose clever and “uproarious” games come down to being more or less insipid when not a colossal mighty bore? What’s this notion of The Silly as a gap in intention, so making a place for truth? Silliness, though, must be “genuine.” (Adorno says Albernheit. I am “using” “a” “crib.”) Silliness is a residue, of “amorphous, crude barbarity.”

So truth slips in all widdershins whilst I bop one of you “head-wise” with a large rubber mallet. I don’t think Pound ever talks about silliness. Stupidity, yes. He’s all up and down the stupids: “Nothing has been viler in our time than the sloth and hypocrisy of pacifist careerists who have pimped for the obscurantists.” I can get behind that thing. I can dog that dog. Lots of careerist pimping around here, lots of obscurantists, too. (Think of that too’s melodic aspirations bitten off short à la Otis Redding.)

Pound doesn’t know how to be silly. That requires an innocence he lacks. Requires a willingness to relent the reins on the hoss that’s carrying one out the hoosegow: loss of control is the butt of silliness, the fundament of silly. And Pound only gets there in that brief period of captivity when he thinks “execution’s in the offing” (though he’d never snort happily at that construction, the way I am liable to do, being a child of the “off the pigs” ’sixties, and not, never, having renounced “our” aspirations of those years the way several of the careerist obscurantists’ve.)

In Pound’s loss he goes monstrously lyrical about ants and the toss off of the Mint. Dross is what I mean. “Toss off” meaning something different, done privately, though crow’d about (if one is Philip Larkin in the grim post-WWII midlands). Silly’s not the only way to snuggle up to truth. Caging one like an animal works, too. Maybe it’s not “truth” at all one is looking for, one is perennially (like a swamp cabbage) looking for. Maybe “truth” is just another word for the burr on the wheel that scratches the alabaster one is polishing up for “show.” The flaw that cannot be denied (that always is denied.) Look at poor dead T. E. Hulme:

Hate it.
This is the obsession that starts all my theories.
Kapow. Thanks to WWI, we’ll never know exactly how he’d’ve “turned out,” smooth or rough. As Hulme says: “. . . the rest is cinders.” And Redding’s voice ripping sheets of paper in half.

Otis Redding, 1966

Monday, March 26, 2007


Rope in Shrubbery

Gulping down great draughts of cetacean sludge scents, what rises up out of the inland seas abscond’d, the ancient horsetail mires, slightly fishy, mostly muck—that’s how it is riding in in the bountiful warm wet morning air. Enough to want to press one’s tongue to the earth, or skedaddle off into the hills. Around five, stirred out of sleep to a rattling downpour and figured the worst: stopped by six. Love the matted down grasses, paperish and leach’d of color. Love the green spears that pierce skyward.

Reading around and about Philip Larkin, mostly out of a wild-eyed suggestion that I come to England for a Larkin conference, a thing I desist’d out of the librarian clerk class of perennial poverty (and no travel perquisites) and—less vociferously—out of knowing nigh nothing about the librarian of Hull. I recall Robert Morgan at Cornell teaching some Larkin—somewhere a copy of High Windows or The Whitsun Weddings exists in my double-shelved atelier (librarians lack ateliers, they just go big-headed about whatever little shelf they’s allotted)—though I retain next to no specifics of it. So, being a biography hound—one way in—I’ve been reading about Larkin in Andrew Motion’s 1993 biography. (I add that reading “against the grain” of what’s expected—reading in other fields, reading “the other side” is something partisans of both (sides) probably ought to do more of, sometimes I think of poets ’s being narrower than, oh, Harlequin housewife romancers when it comes to reading. It never hurts to beat one’s own inane and insipid—though we like to think of them as “hard won”—preconceptions with a stick every oncet or so, no?)

Somewhere I landed a water-rippled copy (50¢ in the inside cover) of Larkin’s Required Writing. Reading a “Statement” written for D. J. Enright’s Poets of the 1950s (a note is append’d wherein Larkin complains: “I assumed he would use . . . replies as raw material for an introduction; I was rather dashed to find them printed verbatim), dashed if I’m not struck by its similarity to Frank O’Hara’s 1959 “Statement for The New American Poetry.” Here’s Larkin:
I find it hard to give any abstract views on poetry and its present condition as I find theorizing of the subject no help to me as a writer. In fact it would be true to say that I make a point of not knowing what poetry is or how to read a page or about the function of myth. It is fatal to decide, intellectually, what good poetry is because you are then honour bound to try to write it, instead of the poems that only you can write.

I write poems to preserve things I have seen / thought / felt (if I may so indicate a composite and complex experience) both for myself and for others, though I feel that my prime responsibility is to the experience itself, which I am trying to keep from oblivion for its own sake. Why I should do this I have no idea, but I think the impulse to preserve lies at the bottom of all art. Generally my poems are related, therefore, to my own personal life, but by no means always, since I can imagine horses I have never seen or the emotions of a bride without ever having been a woman or married.

As a guiding principle I believe that every poem must be its own sole freshly created universe, and therefore no belief in ‘tradition’ or a common myth-kitty or casual allusions in poems to other poems or poets, which last I find unpleasantly like the talk of literary understrappers letting you see they know the right people. A poet’s only guide is his own judgement; if that is defective his poetry will be defective, but he had still better judge for himself than listen to anyone else. Of the contemporary scene I can say only that they are not enough poems written according to my ideas, but then if there were I should have less incentive to write myself.
I am mainly preoccupied with the world as I experience it, and at times when I would rather be dead the thought that I could never write another poem has so far stopped me. I think this is an ignoble attitude. I would rather die for love, but I haven’t.

I don’t think of fame or posterity (as Keats so grandly and genuinely did), nor do I care about clarifying experiences for anyone or bettering (other than accidentally) anyone’s state or social relation, nor am I for any particular technical development in the American language simply because I find it necessary. What is happening to me, allowing for lies and exaggerations which I try to avoid, goes into my poems. I don’t think my experiences are clarified or made beautiful for myself or anyone else; they are just there in whatever form I can find them. What is clear to me in my work is probably obscure to others, and vice versa. My formal “stance” is found at the crossroads where what I know and can’t get meets what is left of that I know and can bear without hatred. I dislike a great deal of contemporary poetry—all of the past you read is usually quite great—but it is a useful thorn to have in one’s side.

It may be that poetry makes life’s nebulous events tangible to me and restores their detail; or conversely that poetry brings forth the intangible quality of incidents which are all too concrete and circumstantial. Or each on specific occasions, or both all the time.
Is it largely the slipperiness of tone—both deploy an abrupt tongue to cheek stopping-down (near musically) with alarming rapidity—that makes the two statements vibrate. In a little roster, one’d put under “agreements”:

—the “experience itself” is what counts, “in whatever form”;

—other contemporary poetry is mostly of little use or interest—except as “thorn” or “incentive”;

—the impulse to write is mysterious and vague beyond some “impulse to preserve,” some restoring of “detail” to “life’s nebulous events”;

—a poem makes itself by something like blind grimace and gumption (“I make a point of not knowing what poetry is”)—is its “own sole freshly created universe,” “is found at the crossroads” between splendid overreaching and innocuous contempt.

Too, there’s apparently common rejection of something like a line of progress stretching forward (and back) with O’Hara’s denial of being “for any particular technical development in the American language,” and Larkin’s lack of “belief in ‘tradition’ or a common myth-kitty.”

The disagreements column’d collect most obviously a different attitude toward the past—O’Hara’s “all of the past you read is usually quite great” versus Larkin’s rather anti-modernist snap about the “casual allusions” of “literary understrappers.” Though that points more to a kind of spoil’d child petulance on Larkin’s part, whereas O’Hara’s mock-sneery contempt regarding literature’s rôle vis-à-vis anyone’s “state or social relation” strikes one as something more attractive, say, sassy irreverence, lyric defiance. (And defiantly lyric: two post-Poundians.)

Frank O’Hara, 1926-1966

Philip Larkin, 1922-1985

Friday, March 23, 2007


A Place

Because I start’d carrying a camera around (in Rome, nearly a year back, mostly for graffiti splashes and stencil pictures), now I look at photographs differently, consider things differently, contrasts, frames, depths of field, and serial intents. And because I only start’d a year or so back, I am completely took by Tom Phillips’s 20 Sites n Years (OBART) project. Here’s what he says: “Every year on or around the same day (24th May-2nd June) at the same time of day and from the same position a photograph is taken at each of the twenty locations . . .” Or, additionally, in the original notes (ca. 1973, printed in WORKS / TEXT):
The locations are situated on what is (in 1973) the nearest walkable route to a perfect circle a half a mile in radius from the point in the home of Artist 1 (102 Grove Park, London SE5) where the project was devised and where these instructions were written. The circuit is divided into sixteen equal sections in each of which there is a site selected by Artist 1. . . . The project book notes the times of the original photographs of 1973 and these should be adhered to as closely as possible (though all photos need not necessarily be taken on the same day). Artist 1 intends that the pictures should be taken by his family and their descendants, if they are willing, and that the work should thus go on indefinitely: the services of their friends may be enrolled or even from time to time that of professional photographers. Continuity is the most important factor.
There follow several paragraphs of more or less technical requirements, including “Accessories like lightmeter batteries should be stockpiled if they seem in danger of becoming unavailable.” And: “If it should become physically impossible to stand at the position noted the Artist must use his own discretion in deciding whether a relevant photograph can be taken (i.e. if it only involves a displacement by a few inches) or whether the site should be abandoned. If the latter, that location should be regularly reexamined to see whether resumption is possible.”

“Artist 1” because of the intent of succession: apparently Phillips’s son Leo, eight years old when the project began, works with Phillips now and—in Phillips’s words—“will carry on with it when I conk out.” OBART attach’d to the (rather utilitarian, straightforward) title because of an “enigmatic notice featured in the original photograph of site no. 15.”

The detail’d instructions remind me of some of Jackson Mac Low’s for various group voicing projects (“I cannot emphasize too strongly that performers must listen to, relate with, and respond to each other and to ambient sounds, including those of the audience.”) The ongoingness of it reminds me of Michael Apted’s heartbreaking series of documentary 7 Up films—49 Up (2005) is the most recent—following a (diminishing) number of individuals of widely disparate social classes, every seven years, as they age. (“Give me a child until he is seven, and I will show you the man.”) The setting of temporal parameters recalls The 3:15 Experiment (The Owl Press, 2001), with Bernadette Mayer, Lee Ann Brown, Jen Hofer and Danika Dinsmore, pointing pens to paper twice every twenty-four hours in a congruent effort to capture time’s own needs. I think of my own yearly migratory bird outings at Point Pelee, every May, slow ritual accumulations of data bespeaking a need for restraint, patience, differences mark’d in increments, scales that reach the human through generational constancy—all over and against a culture that demands constant hurry, over-production, too much, and now.

Because I am devil’d by the plucky idiot’s (or incorrigible narcissist’s) need to apply every artistic idea to my own work with words, I try to think of a way to write a series of twenty poems again and again, in precisely similar annual conditions. Factors to make regular and consistent: day of the year, time of day, place of writing, time expend’d writing, writing “instruments.” And I think: too few constraints. How about: outfit (“my regular fishnets and muffler’ll do”). How about: beginning with the same first line each year, and ending with the same last line, and a limit to total number of lines—all that to make a frame into which the “guts” of the poem get pour’d. Of course, truth is, I’ve exactly zero patience for any of it: I who would want to read all books simultaneously, who spare no tidbit of “thought”—no matter how minuscule—in my “notes.”

I like Phillip’s gentle humor, sign, too, of restraint, a kind of affection for the human animal:
Although the sites were chosen in rather a vague and hurried way within a mere skeleton of a system, there seems to have been some serendipity in their begetting. To take for example the urinal chosen as Site 13:—I seem to remember that the reason I chose it was as a memorial to a famous photograph of Degas coming out of a Paris pissoir: perhaps I thought my timing might coincide with a call of nature visited upon a Beckett or a Boycott. The days of urinals (I should have guessed) were already numbered, even in 1973, though I have not remarked a corresponding falling off in my need to use them.
And here, in a tight spot (or retrospecting it):
Two men at whom I had pointed my lens as they came out of the depot immediately crossed the road and threatened to smash the camera up (and me as well, as an afterthought). I hurriedly explained that this was just a project on local architecture. The milder of the two men cooled things down by telling the other that I was obviously not ‘one of them.’ I felt rather shaky but got on with my photos. I had a year in any case to ponder whether I was one of them or not.
Reminds me of seeing a veritable posse of prostitutes on the rue St. Denis in Paris emerge out a doorway and swarm across the street to harass a young American tourist into coughing up the film in’s camera after he’d snapped a picture of them.

The art and life limbo and collision: Phillips pictures a “frightening scenario” in which “the project became slowly more and more famous, until the sites themselves were developing into tourist attractions. In the appropriate season, as my great great grandson, let us call him Bill, is dutifully making his circuit, crowds swarm round him at each site as they do round famous golfers on the greens of Gleneagles.” And the corresponding fright: the crowds likely to congregate around the writer (remember the fishnets) due now for the daily “bout.”

Tom Phillips, 1992

Thursday, March 22, 2007

Black Hearts

A Tree

Here’s an idiotic subvert to the exult’d realms (read “reams”) of poetry: maybe the notes (guides) and the originals (sources) ’d prove worthier of the monicker than the thing (Ding) itself. That’s what I think reading around in George Butterick’s Guide to The Maximus Poems of Charles Olson. (Endless—though sporadic—is my attempt to “enter” Olson’s work.) That is to say: my druthers is to read the Butterick and skip the Olson. Is that the fault and danger of a poetry of facticity? Here’s the Olson piece corresponding to a random Butterick—that is the Butterick (kicking around near the desk, I dug it out for “one knows not what calling”) sent me to rustle up the Olson:
while on
Obadiah Bruen’s Island, the Algonquins
steeped fly agaric in whortleberry juice,
to drink to see
Vivid enough, the “whortleberry” being mysterious, somewhere between the chokecherry (harmless, pucker-mouthing, that “dull” teeth feeling if I remember, like what spinach does) and the serviceberry (which I don’t know well, it being a southern Appalachian tree, showy, white—is it the serviceberry that coincides with the striped bass run in the Hudson, or is it the shad run in the James, in Virginia; the problem of the mobile American life is forgetting the local lore, if indeed one ever learns it.)—point being the revery fills up the four lines, the “drink to see” is easy: vibrant air, a clarity that vibrates, or that story I read in a barbershop National Geographic about Amazonians of one tribe or another ingesting something that made only the monkeys (a source of nourriture, a monkey-eating tribe) color “up” startlingly sharp in the black and white of the jungle (or something, I exagggerate betimes, thank you, Steve Katz). Obadiah Bruen puts us in the Puritan-scar’d hands of New England, basically. The fly agaric—whether I recall’d its being another name for the Amanita muscariaor not—certainly it is the screw in the ointment (to coin a phrase) around which all the steeping (“ours” and Butterick’s) occurs. Here’s what Butterick says:
On the back of an envelope from drug researcher Timothy Leary postmarked 23 December 1960, Olson had written: “steep dried specimens of fly amanita in whortleberry juice / haschish & majoon”; while in an unfinished essay from ca. 1962 among the poet’s papers, entitled “Under the Mushroom,” there occurs: “amanita muscaria / fly agaric to Algonquin Indians who probably used same but without any such organization as the southern Indians who called one bite or enough mushrooms to get to the autonomic nervous system ‘God’s Flesh’ . . .”

Fly agaric or the mushroom Amanita muscaria, mixed with whortleberry juice, was sufficiently well known among primitive peoples for its hallucinogenic properties. It was used by the old Norse (from whence came the fury of the Berserks) and by the Siberians (first reported by Strahlenberg in 1730; English translation, An histori-geographical description of the north and eastern part of Europe and Asia, published in London in 1736. The Siberians, for example, according to Marshall, The Mushroom Book, p. 49—apparently the source of Olson’s note from ca. 1960 quoted above—“steep dried specimens of the fly amanita in whortleberry juice, and thus make a drink which produces an intoxication similar to that produced by the ‘haschish’ and ‘majoon’ of the East.” See also Wasson and Wasson, Mushrooms, Russia, and History, I, 190-214.

There seems to be no distinct evidence, however, to suggest that the Algonquins shared this practice. In conversation, August 1969, the poet explained that he was led to write the poem by the association of the method of diluting the mushroom’s potency with whortleberry juice with the name of Whortleberry Hill, a prominence on the east side of the Annisquam River a little below Pearce’s Island (formerly Obadiah Bruen’s Island) where shell heaps left by the Algonquins have been found.

Moreover, it does not seem that the poet knew from experience whether the whortleberry juice did make a proper mixture. He writes in a postcard to Albert Glover, 20 August 1969, who had sought his advice: “I can’t, for the life of my self tell you if whortleberry juice does cut Amanita. [I was told in Maine . . . that all one has to do is ‘skin’ fly agaric to take off its poison. But above all see the Wassons Russia, History & the Mushroom (for recipes).”
I like Olson’s bungled Wasson title. Why is all that so much more edifying than Olson’s four lines? (Is poetry meant to edify?) Is such poetry a mere interloper, a middleman retailing not itself but some promise of bigger delights like the flea-bit hireling barker outside the door to the peep shows, the GIRLS! LIVE! joints? And only to send one “off” into the source-books whence that poetry out’d? Poetry as condensary, as engine, as imploring mutter (or snarl)? I don’t know.

The other thought: where’s all the “shop talk” about the menace and delights of the “to drink to see” applications (to fall into the lingo of our pixilated age) amongst our current writers. The suspicion that—oh dear—such bedevilment could make one falter in the traipse? rush? bull-headed battering? along the career path—tiptoes across my brainpan. Yuh.

Final note: wholly wrong about the whortleberry’s resemblance to the serviceberry. Not a tree, a shrub, a bush. What I’d likely call, mistakenly, a blueberry or huckleberry: “closely related to North American wild and cultivated blueberries and huckleberries in the genus Vaccinium. The easiest way to distinguish the bilberry is that it produces single or pairs of berries on the bush instead of clusters like the blueberry.” Myrtilles in France. “They were called black-hearts in 19th century southern England, according to Thomas Hardy’s 1878 novel, The Return of the Native.” The longing for the factual, the “of use,” the tangible worm pull’d out the frangible earth, the names of things . . . against a poetry of social negligibles and the ruts of form.

Charles Olson, Talking to a Professor

Wednesday, March 21, 2007

Twentieth Century German Poetry

A Photograph

Is it curious that Michael Hofmann, of German parentage (father: novelist Gert Hofmann), raised in England, in the introduction to Twentieth Century German Poetry (Farrar, Straus and Giroux, 2006), considering “Who had the best poets in the twentieth century?” leaves out the French? (Probably not. Just troubling to my own Francophilia. How little I know about the Germans!) Look, here’s Hofmann’s answer:
For their size of population, the Irish and the Poles, absolutely, without hesitation. And under open rules? Well, then it’s more like the usual suspects, the Americans and the Russians, the Spanish (particularly if you throw in Latin America)—and (beefed up by the Austrians and the Swiss, and a few Czechs and Balts and Romanians) the Germans.
He adds—for us doltish glib self-center’d Americans—“If you’re a monoglot in English, you have to struggle mightily to make your Mercator look any better adjusted or more adequately representative that the famous New Yorker map of the States.” If the greatest periods in any literature are famously trigger’d by, or coinciding with, periods of rampant translation (as opposed to mighty-mouth’d insularity and “schoolishness”), then this Hofmann-edited anthology ought go a ways to kick off a revival.

Hofmann’s unapologetic in assessing German strengths. Rilke’s a kind of standard (to the Americans at least; apparently Rilke’s overwhelming popularity here collects no little incredulity elsewhere). Brecht, Hofmann argues, “took poetry into the twentieth century.” He is “its single most crucial figure” in Hofmann’s eyes. “I’ve come to think, without Brecht, would there have been poetry as a living counter-force in socio-political reality, where else would the poetry of dissent and fear and protest and rebuke and pleasure have ever begun?” And:
Unlike, say, T. S. Eliot or Paul Valéry or García Lorca, the idea of Brecht is heartening even if you have never read him. He represents utility, and private opposition; “Seid Sand, nicht das Öl im Getriebe der Welt” (“Be sand, not oil, in the machinery of the world”), as Günter Eich famously and Brecht-ishly said.
Hofmann quotes Brecht’s “Motto” (“In the dark times / Will there also be singing? / Yes, there will also be singing / About the dark times.”) and suggests: “If I were a poet in Asia or Africa or Latin America, he is the one “old world” poet I would go to. He synthesized, improbably, Kipling, Rimbaud, Waley, the Bible and later Horace to make something uttterly and radically new.” Certainly a conglomerate worthy of Pound.

I recall two things with some bearing on German poetry in the last century. One is how Günter Grass claim’d (of a condition that exist’d for more than forty years, the Wall—it, grafitti’d American-subway style, “graces” the cover of the book—), Grass claim’d that Berlin more than any place in the world represent’d the socio-political realities of the century. If so, it’d make sense that whatever writing emerged out under it—or nearby it—’d carry a notable tincture of the era. The other thing: the terrific Wim Wenders film Im Lauf der Zeit (1976), a road movie of sorts, a movie-house projectionist repairman trundling through small burgs along the East-West border, with a younger, distress’d man, an on-the-run sort—he’s shown in the opening shots driving a VW beetle at excessive speed around and into a lake—apparently in a self-destruct urge: shallow lake, car conk’d out, sheepish shrug of fellow climbing out. The line I recall, at the end: the younger man in some no man’s land looking into East Germany, listening to American rock ’n’ roll on the car radio, says something like: “The Americans, they’ve even colonized our subconscious.” There are now how many places in the world wherein that, precisely, is the case?

(Since I am drifting, I’d like to make the argument that the imperium writes naught of excellence. The imperium consumes itself in various internecine frenzies (and manic exportation, everywhere and obligingly) and—without tending to whatever meagre goods—writing—makes its way in, becomes sere, unrefulgent, pitiable, limp.)

The anthology is bilingual (facing), and includes writers Else Lasker-Schüler (b. 1869), Christian Morgenstern, Rilke, Paul Klee, Gottfried Benn, Georg Heym, Georg Trakl, Hans Arp, Kurt Schwitters, Franz Werfel, Nelly Sachs, George Grosz, Brecht, Peter Huchel, Günter Eich, Johannes Bobrowski, Paul Celan, Friederike Mayrocker, Ernst Jandl, Inge Müller, Ingeborg Bachmann, Oskar Pastior, Grass, Günter Kunert, Hans Magnus Enzenberger, Jürgen Becker, Reiner Kunze, Sarah Kirsch, Kurt Bartsch, Nicolas Born, Elke Erb, Volker Braun, Durs Grünbein, Hauke Hückstädt, and Jan Wagner (b. 1971), amongst some others. Though the intent here, the “range”—a century, is vastly different than that of the 2002 issue of Chicago Review titled “New Writing in German” (there, the focus ’s on “younger writers who have emerged since 1989 and older writers not well-represented in English translation”), it would be interesting to compare the two. No Thomas Kling here, to mention just one poet recently and enthusiastically praised.

Because I love the alignment of “micturate” and “bawl”—the high Latinate down to the near Saxon grunt—in Hofmann’s translation of Brecht’s “Of Poor B. B.”—I’ll put that here, in a hurry, sort of dud curio, a “review” of a poetry anthology with no poems, no?
I, Bertolt Brecht, come from the black forests.
My mother carried me into the cities
When I was in her belly. And the chill of the forests
Will be in me till my dying day.

The asphalt city is my home. Furnished
From the outset with every sacramental perquisite:
With newspapers. And tobacco. And brandy.
Distrustful and idle and contented to the end.

I am friendly to people. I put on
A top hat because that’s what they do.
I tell myself: They are animals with a particular smell.
And I tell myself: What of it, so am I.

In the morning I like to set a woman or two
In my empty rocking chairs
And I look at them insouciantly and I say to them:
In me you have someone on whom there is no relying.

Towards evening it’s men I gather round about me
And we address our company as “gentlemen.”
They park their feet on my table
And say: Things are looking up. And I don’t ask: When?

In the grey pre-dawn the pine trees micturate
And their parasites, the birds, start to bawl.
At that hour I empty my glass in the city and throw away
My cigar end and worriedly I go to sleep.

We have settled, a whimsical tribe,
In dwellings it pleased us to think of as indestructible
(In the same spirit we built the tall constructions on the island of Manhattan
And the thin antennae that underwire the Atlantic Ocean).

Of these cities there will remain only what passed through them, the wind.
The house makes glad the eater: he polishes it off.
We know we are provisional,
And that after us will come: really nothing worth mentioning.

In the coming earthquakes I trust
I will not let my Virginia go bitter on me,
I, Bertolt Brecht, removed to the asphalt cities
From the black forest in my mother in the early times.

Bertolt Brecht, 1898-1956

Tuesday, March 20, 2007

Sleeping and Waking

Two Trees

Michael O’Brien’s Sleeping and Waking (Flood Editions, 2007) opens with a prose sequence titled “Certain Evenings,” a kind of paean to human needs and practices, praise for how the world offers up its images, praise for the “savage sideshow” (Rimbaud), the “parade. That ends at the cemetery” that is both New York City and “a man sitting in a room writing everything down.” Something Beckettian in that man in the room, though O’Brien’s world is rather hushed in comparison, precise, constrain’d, accepting. Here’s a paragraph of “Certain Evenings”:
In Penn Station an archaic music so serene it cannot be happening fills the great rotunda with snow. Something drags on the escalator, some impediment, the metal howls as each step lifts to its level and disappears. Two sentences proceed in parallel, indifferent, wearing away the listener’s attention. The travelers and their purposes have come to rest, waiting for the great trains. On the concourse new arrivals drift in numbers past the watchers, immobilized, practicing stillness, each attending the announcement of the one event, forsaking all others.
Even the screech of metal scraping against metal is subsumed here, buffer’d by snow, the drift of new arrivals. It’s as if the world, citified, is—under the spell of O’Brien’s writerly attention—forced to exist in a fine stasis for our looking, as if every sentence produces an equal and opposite counter-sentence, so holding the moment in ever-ripe abeyance.

City imagery is predominant here, and mostly the strongest—some of the conveyances for natural landscapes, lacking the human form and O’Brien’s affection for it—us—to sharpen the focus, goes a little vague. (Maybe there’s a pinch of O’Hara’s famous dictum in “Meditations in an Emergency” sprinkled here: “One need never leave the confines of New York to get all the greenery one wishes—I can’t even enjoy a blade of grass unless I know there’s a subway handy, or a record store or some other sign that people do not totally regret life.”) I like lines like “the highway’s stoplights / hooded like falcons” and “grass / flattened by love, its color exhausted, a rain-spent morning glory // passing radio, rosary / drone of a rapper” (“As It Happens”). I like the Eliot-inflect’d lines—possibly spurn’d by the shake—of “Opens her Times like a / logical argument / shaking the pages as / if to be rid of the / worst of the news” (“Local”). O’Brien’s ear for demotic lingo-rhythms catches the syncopated stutter of “work against correspondence, the / world is not a / book, everything is / not something else, you / could look it up” (“Once”)—nodding to Casey Stengel there in the final phrase. Elsewhere (“A Pillow Book, Continued”) he notes “Pshaw! says the huge truck, braking” and “The blur of whatever. Hands thrown up, the hopelessness of words.” And:
Two men stand talking on the corner of 24th, waiting for the light to change so one can cross Ninth Avenue to the newsstand and buy a lottery ticket. As he starts out his friend says Don’t pick nothin’ strange.
Bouncing around the book, sampling is never enough: here’s a whole piece:

Fake Greek temple
corner of Eighth &
14th used to be a
bank now sells carpets


Wrapped in
It means


stand clear of the
ing do’s
William Carlos Williams number-crunch’d by Creeley, snafu’d signage and clipped p. a. blarings, the way the city communicates its history to itself. Which is what a city is—a kind of living human dump, all fate and fracture, what’s gone glimpsed always—palimpsest—through the breakages in the notational now, and what’s upcoming, too, both the old fluencies and the future “do’s” abiding in ghostly demarcations. (Too, “Ghosts” grabbed my attention partly because of Vancouver photographer and art critic Christopher Brayshaw’s terrific ongoing series of photographs, “One Hundred Famous Ghosts.”)

Michael O’Brien (b. 1939) is part of a kind of missing generation of American poets—a band of mostly rather late-blooming isolatoes, no generation at all in some sense. Certainly not the way the “Generation of ’26” (roughly, O’Hara’s) or the post-WWII hordes make (too) visible clumps. Mid- to late-’thirties births: Charles Wright, Robert Kelly, Clark Coolidge, Susan Howe, Russell Edson, Kathleen Fraser, Bill Berkson, Gustav Sobin, Tony Towle, Clayton Eshleman, Rosmarie Waldrop. In the short biographical note in Sleeping and Waking it is written that O’Brien was “one of the Eventorium poets, where his first book was published in 1967.” Which—because the Eventorium poets never cross’d my range—provides me with a history lesson, in the form of an interview with Rachel Blau DuPlessis (by Jeanne Heuving, in a 2004 Contemporary Literature):
In the mid-sixties, I was in a very small New York poetry scene, The Eventorium, on 100th Street. There were readings, including surrealist plays and prose poems, a magazine, and relationships. A scene provides an intent audience, an audience that cares about your work and that applauds a new poem or a new departure. You get mixed reading lists, poets whom you have to run off and read; what you may get is publication, because little magazines and small presses are begun in those venues, like The Eventorium Muse. This was a surrealist-based scene centered on a productive but underknown collage-maker and poet named Frank Kuenstler, who has similarities to the slightly better known figure Ray Johnson. Other denizens were Michael Benedikt, Michael O’Brien, Serge Gavronsky, Barbara Holland; it was French-oriented with a lot of people working on translation, and quite a literate and literary group of people we were. An uptown scene. I did not go downtown, as those terms play in the New York sixties.
Aucune idée, as one says. The American surreal’s mostly worn off O’Brien these forty years later.

Christopher Brayshaw, One Hundred Famous Ghosts (47), 2007

Christopher Brayshaw, One Hundred Famous Ghosts (45), 2007

Monday, March 19, 2007

Daily Sonnets

Yellow House, Storm

P Dictionary Sonnet

Puddling or converting pig iron
Dragging or tugging
To pull one’s leg
Book using rough-
Surfaced paper made of wood
Pulp sensational
Pugnacious belligerent nature, a slightly
Concave bridge and flattened nostrils
To draw a gun
To pull a crankshaft
To blow in short gusts
A very small pool of dirty
Worked into a compact
Covered with fine short hairs
I just wrote that in a few minutes with words and definitions spray’d across two pages of my dictionary, pteryla (“one of the definite areas of the skin of a bird on which feathers grow”) to pulpit (“an elevated platform or high reading desk”) Grabbing whatever my eyes lit up, rejecting some (false cogitanda), mostly punctuating (or hardly) after completing the fourteen lines. All because I received Laynie Browne’s Daily Sonnets in the mail, and read, in the “Notes”:
All dictionary sonnets are based on the same chance procedure, which I call a dictionary divination. Open the dictionary at random. Write a poem using only the text that appears on the facing pages in front of you.
Fun, though rather un-edifying in the final go. To me. What I think about nearly all such pressure-cooker devices. Preferring the slow cook of blurring my optics out and seeing the miniature Poetryland splay’d out in front of me, the tiny god tapping my shoulder to point out the gist of it all, the particulars, the white shine of the birches, the sere yellow leaves, the peaty bogs. Likely I’d tamper with it—putty knife scrape-down, get my rewrite hombres (they, decidedly, not gods) in with ticklish manoeuvres, final fine-tunings, all whilst keeping a large percentage of the skeletal diction, if nothing else. That’s one way to do the hokey-poke.

Here’s Laynie Browne’s “P Dictionary Sonnet”:
He (or she) painted (it) formerly
Any evergreen, conebearing pistolwhip
A game played by two, three, or four
Pirates conveying baseless fancy
Used for trimming edges and seams
Of light sailing vessels
One of those who first enter or settle a
Long series of pipes, having leaflets
Arranged on each side of a common
Piscatorial whirling about on one
Pious foot or an archaic ant used
In singing for a teammate in the brain
Of all vertebrates which revolves when
Blown upon a pin

I like Daily Sonnets (Counterpath Press, 2007) immensely. It’s got heft, and variety, and no dishonesty. As such, it is probably the friendliest book of these wearing-down ’thousands. It also sports (the word is wrong, it is tuck’d discretely into the back, just before the notes) one of the finest statements of—not “theory”—the work is too audaciously pragmatic for that—“practice” ever: “The Permeable ‘I,’ A Practice.” Some excerpts:
This is a collaborative experiment in time. Consider ways to rearrange your time and space tendencies as a method (write yourself out of whatever existing parameters you fall into) and see what happens.
. . .
And finally after many years of controlled circumstances, the allowing in of all voices , all time. Deep and scattered fragments of time. Loud and physical time.
. . .
I have collaborated with the daily news, with other poets, with the bumpiness of days passing in real time and with children’s voices, books, and sense of time. . . . When time is unhinged anyone or thing can speak: the dead, the imagined, the dictionary, he found. There is an openness I attempt to enter as an experiment, as a salute to, or recognition of time passing.
And later, Browne, mother to two small boys, calls the stance “a plea against the invisibility of the guardian”—only to immediately revise that to make it more all-encompassing:
A plea against invisibility or blindness to whatever circumstance you find yourself within. The circumstance may also become, inform, or suggest the poem and the practice.

All mental states, traps, games, and assemblages are welcome here. My sonnets are an approachable unruly gathering. What the poems have in common is that they practice permeability.

I think of the modern sonnet as an increment of time within a frame. Something that often physically fits into a little rectangle (but not in thought). Something you can utter in one long convulsive breath or hold in your palm. When my hand covers the page, it disappears. It’s a controlled measure of sound and space within which one can do anything.
Coalescing here is O’Hara’s “you go on your nerve,” Williams’s typewriter attached to the desk, swung up at a moment’s lull or notice, Apollinaire and “Lucky” Pierre Albert-Birot’s insistence on immediacy and coterie, Dada’s disclosing enclosures of silliness and goof. And, with that “breath” and the hand-sized page, Olson’s bodily poetics, Duncan’s open field. All that ladled over the oldest and commonest of forms of the European tradition. Formidable!

Besides the dictionary works, there are innumerable smaller series within Browne’s 151 sonnets (roughly a Shakespeare’s worth, with a double and a triple tuck’d in probably a perfect Shakespeare): “protector” sonnets—“guarding one from all manner of current cultural malaise”; homophonic translations (of Rilke, of the Chris Daniels-translated Josely Vianna Baptista); sonnets of Baron Marc Selys Longchamps (1875-1963), “the last scientist, before [Browne’s husband], to study the evolution of the ascidian [Tunicata subphylum, a marine chordate, the “sea tulips” and “sea squirts”] heart; sonnets beginning with a line borrow’d (off Ted Berrigan, Anselm Berrigan, Elizabeth Robinson, Jordan Davis); and several lovely—seemingly early-morning composed—“love sonnets to light.” Here’s one:
My love for you is not circumstantial
As an after-breakfast sonnet may
Summon the day but rather
Influential as the weather
I adorn myself with your greetings
Your circumstantial skin contains not
Your being but a form of your
Iconographic substance
With which you pierce all encounters
Anyone will permit
Themselves to be hidden within
You alliterate, you borrow time
From leaves, you calm me with
Your voluminous absence
A kind of solid calm tone play’d on by syntactical probes, so that some phrases (as if lit) read differently, shine with ambiguity. There’s ample humor (“We’re in the thick of early sentences”, la vita domestica (“Late-night pick-up of small plastic objects”), the abject polis (“Remember, you’re a bad guy / I want my head on / My hood / Even in death, “daring man”)—and some sonnets get cut short, lovable duds (or child’s play) like “Vinegar Sauce and Cauliflower (or 6/14 Sonnet)” that goes:
And some’re nigh inexplicably perfect, or as perfect as anybody’d want—nobody wants a thing without a burr or two. I’d put forth number 108 as one amongst many:
So as not to wake you I undress on the stairs
Bulb extinguished as I write like a bee
upon the controversial table
My absence is something
I cannot explain by white space
and yet your look misunderstands
what the children resemble as they sleep
Remembering the charm of responsibility
is as inexplicable as human form
Further than habits gathered or dropped
There is no permanence in
devotion of that kind which does
not require a guardian even in rest
Your may undo or walk away from anything else
Stunning, the range and trajectory of intelligently-limned feeling between that “undress” and “undo.”

Jordan Davis ask’d me—referring to my Barbara Guest back cover evidence (see March 16)—what to make of Burning Deck’s, that is, the Waldrops’s “shift from ecumenicals to doctrinaires, albeit international-minded ones . . .” Which got me thinking an ungodly number of things. Do presses become doctrinaire because people do? Meaning that the model (usual) trajectory (shape) of a life is a kind of winnowing, a narrowing of focus, a distilling out? I think about the catholicism, the eclectic bagginess of Ithaca House. Publishing Ron Silliman, Tom Mandel, Maxine Chernoff, Christopher Buckley, William Hathaway, Deborah Tall, Ray DiPalma, Bob Perelman, Albert Goldbarth, amongst (many) others. Had the press continued beyond the mid-’eighties, would it, too, ’ve sliced and diced itself into an identifiable niche? (I recall distinctly, and angrily, being confront’d by somebody I now keep brain-pickled as singularity and jerk, and maybe wrongly: James Sherry at a New York Small Press Fair circa 1982. He paw’d a little at the recentest Ithaca House wares with no little disdain, condescension beginning to cover him like a rash. Proceeded to announce how we’d “started off right” but’d lamentably fail’d to see it out, whatever “it” he pictured. Maybe it wasn’t James Sherry, it doesn’t matter—one of the jeunes cadres moyens of the Segue enterprise, deck’d out like a personnel manager. The remark stank of faltering off something like The Way, and fundamentalists and ideologues’ve always struck me as paltry. Safeguarding the very dribble. Ungenerous.)

A point arrived in the small press “world” when one start’d noticing an influx of something like “professionalization”—Toothpaste Press stopped doing letterpress, dump’d its name, coterie, and terrific logo, moved to Minneapolis and became the duller Coffee House, that kind of thing. Letterpress d.i.y. replaced by offset. The piecemeal fun for the fuck-of-it, get-the-hands-dirty model got replaced by something smoother, clean-cut, put away childish things. People decided maybe they could “make a living at it,” and the stakes got higher. One way is to ply oneself to market conditions. I recall a period when Coffee House seem’d a little stuck on ethnic identity fiction, riding that multicultural wave. (They weren’t the only ones.) In the early ’eighties a slick (think Fine Woodworking, maybe) trade magazine call’d Small Press even sprang up, featurettes and buzz, salve for the fact that the review media mostly ignored most of us.

Finding a niche and exploiting it. It occurs rather without plan, “natural happenstance” in some cases. One publishes something that gets a little attention and similar writers come around with similar “wares.” A press gets a reputation and no longer attracts X kind of writer, it’s busy with the Ys and any X doing the homework of reading the wares’d avoid it. I think the “doctrinaire” comes along then—not just for Burning Deck, if it does for Burning Deck, I paid less attention over the years—but in a wider way. Clearly, if one’s got limited resources, it’s easier—cheaper—to pour them into a hole wherein amasses a consolidated audience. It’s cheaper and very likely more “effective” to place a series of ads in, say, The Poetry Project Newsletter than one there and one in TriQuarterly and one in The New Criterion, &c.

Too, the high-intent goofiness and self-amusements that defined some scenes (the “because it’s a gas” schools) got not-so-pleasantly scold’d for lacking theory-clot (or something) by the Language boys, all business and serious dub. Along with trickle down theory talk out the university it no longer appear’d “natural”—the way one “natural” replaces another in succession—to stick oneself out in the random outskirts as a half-crazed isolato mmmpfing in one’s linen. I don’t believe for a minute that outstanding periods of literary “progress” come about by doctrinal coup. Without the soak and fuss and intermingling of a terrible batch of styles, without the sight to see through the gaggles of the like-minded, and pull down the oddballs out of the lumpen-vanitous, benign inertia results.

Truth is, there are too many writers, too many publishing too much, too quickly. And in the mêlée, even a minuscule throng’ll stand a better chance of outing the scuffle than a solitary porker in a porkpie hat, or a confused troop of such porkers (in fez, in Stetson, in Homburg, in watchcap, in pillbox, &c.) Individual porker knows it; Troop of Porkers Press knows it. So the narrowing.

(Which is all rather inchoate and miasmic, writ in too many sittings, stew’d up during too many walks. For what it’s worth.)

Laynie Browne

Friday, March 16, 2007

Indubitable, Inexorable

A Wall

One of the minuscule nutritious gods—about dinoflagellate-sized, sometimes ratcheting up to a veritable red tide of gods, a booming bloomlet of gods—one, I say, of the little fuckers who perch on my shoulders and talk (with low raspy bedroom voices, sweet nothings of indubitable and inexorable import) into one of the (two) ears attach’d to my addle-pate, point’d out how’s I’d miss’d an age. (I thought immediately back to my bourbon-ply’d youth and ready’d myself to agree.)

He meant, however, in my audacious sass of yesterday. “What about the Age of Aquarius?” is what the godlet chirp’d, bumptious as a lout.

“’S true,” I construed. “Circa 1967. Excellent, my flag. The secret of the ages is alliteration.”

The godlet vamp’d and smarm’d. Did a hoity-toit. I knew he’d a gut-buster under that tunic he wore. “Soooo,” says he, pumping the O’s a little, vibrato-ing almost cruelly, “what we need is a melodious replacement for that abrupt hiccup of a title, The Age of Huts, lest it—and Master Silliman—fail to enter down into the high historical monickers of History, no?”

I admitted he’d pretty darn near primed that pump. And when the water gurgled forth it was cold, clear, and aerated by the godlet’s sly laughter. “How about,” he gasp’d forth, “The Age of Arrogance,—cuck—kuk—kwai—kash,” he went apoplectic as a plectropterine, “(compleat)?”

Looking for something, a book, I uncover’d another, Barbara Guest’s The Countess from Minneapolis (Burning Deck, 1976). Struck by two things. One, how those who like to make the story of American poetry one of two distinct camps at odds, ought to look again. How explain the fiercely ecumenical “list” of Burning Deck of the era (print’d back cover of the Guest)? Names among the authors of “Letterpress Poetry Pamphlets”: Tom Ahern, Bruce Andrews, Andrew Crozier, Ray DiPalma, Edwin Honig, Harry Mathews, Peter Riley, Stephen Sandy, Ron Silliman, Terry Stokes . . . Huge absence of women. However: Honig and Andrews? Silliman and Sandy? All just prior to the niche-marketing assaults of the Language boys, unh hunh.

The other thing about the Guest book is how its list-tendency prose pieces ring against Ashbery’s of the same era, thinking of The Vermont Notebook (1975), mostly. Kenward Elmslie’s Z Press being the common denominator? (Guest’s only acknowledgment in the Burning Deck book is to ZZZZZ.) Here’s Guest:

Grain Belt Beer, He Who Gets Slapped, Vikings vs Dolphins, ice skating, fishing, Japanese food, meat, square dancing, collage, Rimbaud, New York Painting, Showboats, Baskin-Robbins ice cream, La Strada, Basement Studios, renting a house, visiting lecturers, tourist flights to Scandinavia, Crystal Court lunches, Dayton’s cotton undies, leather shops, Indian crafts, jazz, blizzards, mosquitoes, Betty Crocker recipes, Lake Superior Poetry, silos, covered bridges, Artichoke Hall, brawls, aftermaths, forecasts, illegal turns, incontinent highways, building, building, building, razing, razing, razing, Milwaukee complexes, abandonment, lost frontiers, height, girth, pride, prejudice, toughness, agoraphobia, agoraphilia, alewifehood, navigation, symphonies, tornadoes, sauna construction . . .

Nostalgia for the days when one searched for furniture those pre-Saarinen days. For some the pre-Aalto decade.
Versus a page out of the Ashbery book, an inhabitual homogeneity in evidence:
Paraphernalia, Tapemeasure, Dorothée Bis, La Boutique Alice Schweitzer, Crouch and Fitzgerald, Gump’s, Sibley, Lindsay & Curr, Strawbridge & Clothier, Hecht’s, Sutter’s, the Eighth Street Bookshop, Plummer McCutcheon, Ovington’s, Révillon, Hector’s, Nathan’s, Soup Burg, Blum’s, Nedick’s, Fraser-Morris, Charles & Co., Fauchon, Colette’s.

Grey, ocher, mauve, gentian, tabac, beige, greige, buff, taupe, mastic, fawn, havane, verdigris, smoke, amber, russet, outremer.
The other thing I note in The Vermont Notebook is the fierce ecumenism of Ashbery’s lengthy list of (mostly) writers. More evidence (of a sort) of the bunging up of History’s open hole by those who’d like to cut and run with an attenuated version of a bigger (swell) time, no? Ashbery’s list begins: “Anne Waldman, Tom Veitch, Hilton Obenzinger, Jack Marshall, Kathleen Fraser, Sandra MacPherson, Anne Sexton, Maxine Kumin, Robert Lowell, Elizabeth Bishop, A. R. Ammons, Ed Sanders . . .” and ends “. . . Carolyn Kizer, Russell Edson, Hugh Seidman, Charles Simic, Bill Zavatsky.” Not narrow, not parochial, not limited, not begrudging.

Jean Dubuffet, “Perdeur de Temps,” 1955

Thursday, March 15, 2007

The Ages

A Wall

Wet splat of overnight snow, and a finicky morning, hoofing it in a good part of the way. Night revery: addressograph foul-ups, Xerox jams, labels of all sizes gumming together, inky gobs of mismatch’d papers and envelopes—I probably need to answer my mail oftener, is what I think. Deliver’d into sleep prior to reading a single page, is the source, is what I think. Though I am indisposed to such “analysis.” A certain Henry Stubbe, seventeenth century author of The Indian nectar, or a discourse concerning chocolata (1662), writes: “I tryed some Analysis of Bodies by letting Ants eat them.” Which’d be the limit to my approach to interpretorial adventurism where revery and writing’re “concerned.” (They’re not. “Concerned,” I mean. The writing cares not a whit if anybody reads it or not. It deigns not “court its Missus with mumps & mows as Apes & monkes doe.”)

E. M. Cioran gets it right, the contempt for the heart’s own codes, the renegade slapstick scorn writing itself calls down to itself, wraps itself in, banana-skirted like Josephine Baker, or lisping happily like Alcibiades. (Plutarch tells “us”: “‘How like a colax he is,’ says Alcibiades, meaning a corax—so it is remark’d, ‘How very happily he lisped the truth.’”) Cioran (“Directions for Decomposition”):
How could we bear the weight and sheer depth of works and masterpieces, if to their texture certain impertinent and delicious minds had not added the fringes of subtle scorn and ready ironies? And how could we endure the codes, the customs, the paragraphs of the heart which inertia and propriety have superimposed upon the futile and intelligent vices, if it were not for those playful beings whose refinement puts them at once at the apex and in the margin of society?”

The Nanaimo poet, tree-photographer, and cultural digger Peter Culley point’d a few days back to an appreciation of essayist George W. S. Trow, somebody I’d never heard of. So I pluck’d up a copy of Trow’s 1984 novel, The City in the Mist. Completely odd somehow, the prose:
The old city lowered itself onto the newer one. Men came into the streets who wore the bloody pelts of dead animals pinned to their shirts; also men who wore bowler hats at a rakish angle as though to say, “See how we like the sport”; also redheaded men, shining like noon, cruel-looking, covered from head to toe with buttons of mother-of-pearl.
Or, if one likes to consider everything as allegorical ammo to lob at the upwardly-mobile, the go-getters, the art society pugilists amongst us:
William Guin had discovered that the city was essentially backward-looking; from a very early age he had ceased to believe in its future. He saw that the future-promoters were priers; with violent tools they pried apart some existing connection (roof to walls; floor to joists) so that they could squeeze themselves or other persons into position. This done, they turned backward and paid no attention to new thoughts.
There is a character, amongst a slew, named Miss Quality.

Not to be a vigorous controversialist, just a nudge: is it entirely accidental that, comme titre, and twice, Ron Silliman chose The Age of Huts, or does it betray a serious, though inept—the phrase is too clumsy—, longing to define an era, not unlike W. H. Auden’s 1947 The Age of Anxiety?

W. H. Auden and Ron Silliman

Wednesday, March 14, 2007


Opus 14

Dove-stain’d memory: that perfect composure that allows one to continue with one’s warring. How thinking abuts it. Thinking about Pound of a day suddenly clad too heavily by spring. (Sitting here, zoom, zoom, zoom, in my four-corner’d room tossing off the Campari and bitters, so angrily, bye-the-bye at the Villa Hermitage where the pout-fisher’s go to pout, oh yeah.) Pout: “a fish with a large head.” I am working “through” Dante—whatsoever that means. I am “in the process of” “accumulating” my “final” de Kooning notes. (“Irony” stuck to me “like a burr to a jarhead’s butt.”) “Stop it.” “Nah.”

Painting as a record (trace) of brush velocity, tempo. Joan Levy reports de Kooning (early ’eighties) saying, of the late and terrific “figures emerging out of landscapes” (or “figures merging into landscapes”): “They just poured out of me like water.” (See Bukka White, “That song’s ’s old as water.”) And de Kooning, about how he handled the built-up lush material of the paint: “Miles Davis bends the notes. He doesn’t play them, he bends them. I bend the paint.” (Late Davis, performing with back to the audience. There’s a model some of the “locals” ought try, no?)

De Kooning quoting Constantin Brancusi: “All sculpture is water.”

De Kooning’s preferred painting au Louvre: Jean-Baptiste Pater’s cow with “eyes in the back of its head.” (For all the various Pater paintings of “fêtes champêtres” and other country doings, I locate no wild-eyed bovine.) Joan Mitchell loved it, too.

Triggers for forms other than drawing with eyes closed—being ways to subvert the hand’s own knowing facile draftsmanship (akin to “automatic writing,” scribbler’s intoxicants, thievery, &c.): drawing upside down, drawing with “wrong” hand, &c. The curse of ease and accuracy.

De Kooning’s often lovely orthography. “All the noice and continuous shatter of the men.” In a letter. (Bustle of workmen in unfinish’d studio.)

“I don’t want to be new anymore.” (Approaching sixty.) And: “I don’t know the names of trees but I see things in nature very well. I’ve got a good eye for them, and they look back at me.”

In Rome, liking “the melodrama of vulgarity.”

Theory versus whatsoever may erupt out of some (inner, uncontrollable) necessity. (See the enormous numbers of, say, poems, that exhibit no need of existing beyond vanity of a bibelot, another cursory pebble in a careerist’s “pile.”) De Kooning: “The group instinct could be a good idea, but there is always some little dictator who wants to make his instinct the group instinct.” Versus:
Spiritually I am wherever my spirit allows me to be, and that is not necessarily in the future. I have no nostalgia, however. If I am confronted with one of those small Mesopotamian figures, I have no nostalgia for it, but instead I may get into a state of anxiety. Art never seems to make me peaceful or pure. . . . I do not think of inside or outside—or of art in general—as a situation of comfort. I know there is a terrific idea there somewhere, but whenever I want to get into it, I get a feeling of apathy and want to lie down and go to sleep. Some painters, including myself, do not care what chair they are sitting on. It does not even have to be a comfortable one. They are too nervous to find out where they ought to sit. They do not want to “sit in style.”
Rejection of any “esthetic beforehand.” Rejection of purity in lieu of tension.

How de Kooning remark’d of Frank O’Hara: “I liked him immediately, he was so bright. Right away he was at the center of things, and he did not bulldoze.” (Hint for the current crop of bulldozers.) O’Hara’s deft unslinging of the too taut hunting bows of the fatuous, the loud, the besottedly showy (in a 1957 letter to Kenneth Koch):
As a result of reading Howl I have written two little meditations which are so quiet as to be absolutely vaporous and as indecisive stylistically as the orchestral part of a Chopin piano concerto played by itself. It’s like one of those missing solo recordings where the reader has to supply everything on his 88 key home set. I’m calling it “Play-a-Part-Poetry.”
And managing to prick the silly pretensions of that whole L=I=N=G=U=A=L rigmarole re: the reader’s participatory pant after the producting of meaning, yeah, and precisely avant la lettre. (In a note in Lytle Shaw’s Frank O’Hara: The Poetics of Coterie.)

“Play-Apart Poetry.”

Constantin Brancusi and Bukka White

Tuesday, March 13, 2007


A Wall

Unprepared, like a piano. The days requiring a dash here and there, finicky reading—pages zupped up against the onslaught of the hours, and duty—de Kooning done and now the wrassling about what comes barking up next. Or a stillness lit by bees, the way the weather’s cooperating, making a little thing John Wieners wrote a grace note to the morning, palpable in its Z’s:
At Big Sur

Lizard under stone,
bees buzz around us
through two trees full of canaries
and in burnt grass
yellow poppies.
Fort humble wonder, there’s a thing that is missing in these inadequate ’thousands, measurably so. A campaign against “novelty unleashed”—see the Futurists—’d be just the ticket, prolegomenon to a writing wholly in league (related to lieu, locus place) with the world. (“Nature” is what one says, though I rebel against the way that puts it “out there,” “out in Nature,” as if it were another stop along the trolley-line, when what I mean is what brings us—trifles and triflers—to the worldly spot of becoming just another illimitable suasory force, like the nimble lacewing, like the hurricane. We, that is, is it.

How drab the excrescences of the new century can be, can be witness’d simply, just look to the excrescences of the old century:
In the Theater of Surprises, the novelty unleashed by the author must be capable of:

1. Shaking an audience’s sensibilities utterly, through pleasurable surprise.

2. Suggesting a continuous stream of other hilarious ideas, just like a jet of water spurting a great distance, or like circles rippling outward on water, or echoes resounding.

3. Stimulating in an audience words and behavior that are quite unforeseen, so that each surprise spawns new surprises in the stalls, in the box circle, throughout the entire city the selfsame evening, the day after, and so on ad infinitum.
(Out of a manifesto by F. T. Marinetti and Francesco Cangiullo, published in Il futurismo in 1922.)

What strikes me is how determinedly (earnestly, with no humor whatsoever) the “effect” is sought. There’s a nigh-dictatorial thrust to the desire here to “épaté la bourgeoisie” or howsoever one wants to put it—the point is to make a big rumbustiousness that somebody’ll note. (One sees the same today in the various self-serving and ever-up-grimping groupuscules: that word “hilarious” is still the favor’d specie of exchange, even when it patently and obviously is no longer (and out of the narcissisus-orbital optics of the beholders rarely, if ever, was) the case. (Meaning “hilarious.”) Think a minute—against such self-flattering push-ups (say, the underwired brassieres of the poetry “world,” say it out loud) of the humility in Frank O’Hara’s absolutely sincere statement in “Personism”: “Nobody should experience anything they don’t need to, if they don’t need poetry bully for them.” Shouldn’t a poem be at least as humble as a lizard under a stone?

Argument for the pull of John Wieners’s poems, that humble and tentative restlessness that obliterates the ego-yelps, the pushiness. Even the rhymes participate in the act, usual, dislocated, not garish. No agenda beyond a moment’s utterance, celebratory, rather mysterious, truly exploratory.
Removed Place

                          When the echo falls
                          one will dismiss it.
                          When it calls again,
                          one will miss
it, falling in love with the present,
                          while one is able of it.
When the shadows enlarge, will one
                          enter it, or stay where
he is now. What will one do, how

John Wieners

Monday, March 12, 2007


Opus 47

Photographer about painter. Robert Frank, living nearby, and able to see into de Kooning’s Tenth Street studio, writing of the painter: “I’d see him with his hands behind his back, his head bent, pacing up and down the length of his studio. I could see the easel standing there and I’d wonder if he ever would get to paint and stop walking up and down. Quite often I think of that image now. That was the time when I was a photographer, doing jobs or going out on my own to photograph in the streets. Then it seemed to me I was making a big effort. Now thinking of de Kooning, I understand better what it is, to face a white sheet of canvas; to face something which does not respond to my movements, all will have to come from inside me. No help looking through the viewfinder and choosing the Decisive Moment . . .” See de Kooning’s practice of putting letters to paintings—particularly in the black paintings of the early ’fifties—something to begin with. See the practice of “blind” drawing—figures limned without looking. Overcoming inertial tendency. See writers “beginning with a line by . . .” “After Baudelaire.” “After anybody else so long’s it need not ‘come from inside me.’” Translating, of course, puts something in the viewfinder. So does reading.

Painter about writers. De Kooning: “I don’t think writers are necessarily more intelligent or better speakers than artists, but I find their conversation very stimulating. Sometimes I could say of my self that I painted with a good ear, because their talk, the words the used, made a picture in my mind.” What’s that remark’s relationship to Frank O’Hara’s short ditty titled “Radio”? It begins:
Why do you play such dreary music
on Saturday afternoon, when tired
mortally tired I long for a little
reminder of immortal energy?
. . .
Longs for Prokofiev, and ends:
Well, I have my beautiful de Kooning
to aspire to. I think it has an orange
bed in it, more than the ear can hold.
What, too, is the relationship between “more than the ear can hold” and Charles Olson’s syncopated dictum (in “I, Maximus of Gloucester, to You”) instructing how as “facts to be dealt with . . . / . . . they must / be played by, said he, coldly, the / ear!” George Butterick, in the Guide to The Maximus Poems says of the piece: “Probably written in May 1950 in Washington, as a letter to Vincent Ferrini in Gloucester . . . The original version beginning “By ear, he sd,” appeared in the first collection of the poems, The Maximus Poems / 1-10, published by [Jonathan] Williams in October 1953.” Also published in the first issue of Origin in the spring of 1951. Likely enough that O’Hara-the-attender would’ve seen it.

One finds out in the notes to O’Hara’s Collected Poems that “Radio” is dated December 3, 1955. And that Kenneth Koch wrote in a letter to O’Hara (March 22, 1956), presumably after reading it in the March issue of Poetry: “RADIO is perfect. I was in the Cedar Tavern last night and Bill de Kooning was there, so I asked him if he’d seen your poem about his picture. He said, Yeah, is that right? He said, Yeah, but how can you be sure it’s about my picture, is it just about a picture? I quoted him ‘I have my beautiful de Kooning / to aspire to. I think it has an orange / bed in it . . .’ He said, ‘It’s a couch. But then it really is my picture, that’s wonderful.’ Then he told me how he had always been interested in mattresses because they were pulled together at certain points and puffed out at others, ‘like the earth.’”

The de Kooning remark about painting “with a good ear” is traced back to a publish’d interview with one Storm de Hirsch of October 1955 (Intro Bulletin) making it likely that it’s O’Hara latching to de Kooning’s lingo? O’Hara—for all the unabash’d sonic fervor of’s verse—unwilling to diminish the clout of the visual. De Kooning—in the conversation with Koch, opting for the near tactile, “pulled together,” “puffed out.” (See, too de Kooning’s move in the early ’seventies into wet-clay sculpting.)

Philosopher crank about artists? E. M. Cioran: “Every project is a camouflaged form of slavery.”

Yesterday afternoon the opportunity to peer down out of the heights of the mezzanine at the diminutive violinist Midori, with Robert McDonald (piano) accompanying. Beethoven’s “Spring” sonata, the commission’d by Midori “Lost Landscapes for Violin and Piano” by the Finnish composer Einojuhani Rautavaara (b. 1928), the “unfinished” Hindemith “Sonata for Violin and Piano in E-flat Major,” and the sleep-inducing Strauss “Sonata for Violin and Piano in E-flat Major.” Two encores: Glazunov’s “Meditation” and Fritz Kreisler’s “Syncopation.” If the untrain’d ear had to select one highlight? The final movement of the Rautavaara, titled “West 23rd Street, NY”—high lilt of violin over a fast rolling quasi-atonal’d perpetuum mobile undercarriage of piano. A perfect invisible city.

Einojuhani Rautavaara and E. M. Cioran