Tuesday, July 31, 2007

Against the Current

Summer Sky

Boats against the current toujours, in a deplorably puppyish kind of way, muzzle-awkward, paddling mightily, here in the turbid waters just off East Egg. Nobody reads F. Scott Fitzgerald nowadays. I just snuck down into the cellar and fetch’d up—not Gatsby—a thirty-five cent paperback copy of This Side of Paradise with pearls-trailing-in-the-champagne-buckets flappers, a wide-open roadster in a hurry, and a brooding thin-lipped perfectly waspish specimen—“The Famous Novel of Flaming Youth.” Trying to retrieve some sense of it—what I recall of its fine restless bravado—what one’d “easily” label experimental harum-scarum nowadays. “Easily.” Nowadays. Here’s Amory Blaine, the Romantic Egotist, son of Beatrice O’Hara, in “dangerous” self-assessment:
If his reaction to his environment could be tabulated, the chart would have appeared like this, beginning with his earliest years:
        1. The fundamental Amory.
        2. Amory plus Beatrice.
        3. Amory plus Beatrice plus Minneapolis.
        Then St. Regis’ had pulled him to pieces and started him over again:
        4. Amory plus St. Regis’.
        5. Amory plus St. Regis’ plus Princeton.
        That had been his nearest approach to success through conformity. The fundamental Amory, idle, imaginative, rebellious, had been nearly snowed under. He had conformed, he had succeeded, but as his imagination was neither satisfied nor grasped by his own success, he had listlessly, half-accidentally chucked the whole thing and become again:
        6. The fundamental Amory.
Simple turgidity of contemporary versions of the self as over-inflect’d saloperie (and fire sale) of “selves” notwithstanding, the trajectory is sound enough, and the charting itself a prose elixir, no?

Periods when I’d announce to the surrounding upturn’d yellow welts that clack’d into place in slide-project’d rictus-grin order under the beer tents—they were faces, jovial littérateurs consumable, braid-wearing harpies comestible, gross-bunion’d porters of Yuengling and pretzels—I’d announce how the novels that I loved were all first novels, and the spittingest overlook’d first novel of all ’s This Side of Paradise. That uncanny bouffe of invention, delicatessen without impoverishment (nowhere in sight!), the fundamental F. hisself! Consider how that book rewritten for today, for “us”—who long to tap into a mere “formal” romp against the pitiable listing of story—what’s that?—a romp “clapped and stamped and tumped and da-da’d” against the thief-jockey’d nigh-total blitzkrieg of our sinking ship of state, why it’d be a “natural,” that book. Look (I love the tiny prose poems that tumble one after another like puppies):

        The war began in the summer following his freshman year. Beyond a sporting interest in the German dash for Paris the whole affair failed either to thrill or interest him. With the attitude he might have held toward an amusing melodrama he hoped it would be long and bloody. If it had not continued he would have felt like an irate ticket-holder at a prize-fight where the principals refused to mix it up.
        That was his total reaction.
And, brightly, follows the piece titled “Ha Ha, Hortense!” (Rimbaud’s Hortense, or Frank O’Hara’s, or Jacques Roubaud’s (“Ha Ha”), one’ll never know.) The poetry the Romantic Egotist writes is watery Eliotic rhapsodying (“Prufrock,” 1917, Paradise, 1920). One hears every occluded nasal pedantry sharp:
Still—still I meet you here and there . . .
When Shakespeare’s played you hold a chair,
And some defunct, moth-eaten star
Enchants the mental prig you are . . .
A radical comes down and shocks
The atheistic orthodox?
You’re representing Common Sense,
Mouth open, in the audience.
(For the update, the rewrite, one’d want something “uproariously” squid-kittenish here, no doubt.) A name-naming bout of slapping down the over-rated and -wrought contemporary “set” ’d “fit” precisely with the current temper. Scott Fitzgerald’s model in “Tom the Censor”:
. . . Tom, wreathed in smoke indulged in the slaughter of American literature. Words failed him. [A brilliant aside.]
        “Fifty thousand dollars a year,” he would cry. “My God! Look at them, look at them—Edna Ferber, Gouverneur Morris, Fanny Hurst, Mary Roberts Rinehart—not producing among ’em one story or novel that will last ten years.
And et cetera, as they say. Harold Bell Wright, Zane Grey, Rupert Hughes (“barbarous”), Ernest Poole and Dorothy Canfield (“absolute lack of any sense of humor”), and—in “free verse”—the poets strung up for all to see:
Walter Arensberg,
Alfred Kreymborg,
Carl Sandburg,
Louis Untermeyer,
Eunice Tietjens,
Clara Shanafelt,
James Oppenheim,
Maxwell Bodenheim,
Richard Glaenzer,
Scharmel Iris,
Conrad Aiken,
I place your names here
So that you may live
If only as names,
Sinuous, mauve-colored names,
In the Juvenalia
Of my collected editions.
(To Tom’s verse, “Amory roared”: “You win the iron pansy.”) Wallace Stevens, oddly enough, call’d Maxwell Bodenheim, “our Junius.”

If the gallant charm’d youth of the day (along with the happily “set” portion of the retiree “mob”—I see Charles Bernstein’s newest “project” is to collect oddities of Chinese English, wow . . .) [provide here some “mauve-color’d names”] think only to rut in the theoretical mirey of formal invention, or mock in low satirical review the plug-ugly, the great democratic unbound illiterate, the un-charm’d and unwash’d whilst state powers run roughshod and the clock winds down . . .

For years I confused “So we beat on, boats against the current, borne back ceaselessly into the past” with “The worlds revolve like ancient women / Gathering fuel in vacant lots” with “The Yachts / / contend in a sea which the land partly encloses . . .” Ends with beginnings, though not ends with means.

F. Scott Fitzgerald and Zelda Sayre, c. 1920

Monday, July 30, 2007


A Pole

Dog days. Run the vacuum and plop back into a débile sleep. High up in the pulmonary rafters of my right lung a small boy is winding tight a ball of string he intends to make the biggest ever. At the core of it is a rubbery chunk scalpel’d out of the left frontal lobe of my brain. I read vaporously “at” Absalom, Absalom and rotate indistinguishables under my paws at a higher than usual rate. Curious Wallace Stevens snip’d out a 1943 letter:
What a poet needs above everything else is acceptance. If he is not accepted, he is wasting time, so far as his readers are concerned, although not so far as he himself is concerned . . . By being accepted I mean the sort of the thing that is meant when you ask for a book by so-and-so. That this element is lacking in my own case is demonstrated by the fact that no one seems to enjoy the poems. Apparently you feel that I am satirical, but I am not. No one could be more sincere than I am about poetry.
Acceptance meaning a degree of predictability? Meaning not having to wonder where—or if—one’ll ever see fit to get one’s work into print. My ability to think about acceptance limit’d to the degree my intellectual capacity today equals that of a piece of toast: I accept that. I accept the falsity of saying “there’s a viceroy fanning itself on the Echinacea” when it’s clearly a monarch, all to pull the diphthongal i up out of the first a in Echinacea, to southern it a spell. I accept the story of the stem borer the neighbor tells, how it’s doing in the elderberry, browning its leaves mid-summer. I accept the hog-squeal of a chainsaw cleaving the still bedusk’d air, dumb over-tool’d city folks: halving a limb a ripsaw’d make quicker work of.

“Acceptance” is an intangible, a slippery bait. Accepting the rôle of laughingstock. The rôle of oddsbody. The rôle of coot. The rôle of gadabout. The rôle of gadfly. The rôle of prick. Used to be one’s finest efforts bust’d forth out of contempt, a sneering precisely at the foul “acceptability” of all that surround’d one. (A sort of sassy “war is the health of the state” refusal to do whatever is expect’d of one, even when it’s expect’d that one’ll go terminally sassy, so one pulls up short with a kind word, as supercilious as a slingshot, as governable as a kite.) It is also the case that “acceptable” is the mark of the majority hootings in any age, aim of the monstrous mediocre, darling of the yea-sayers, defines the period style. Oh to be willing to gun the engine of one’s contempt forth ceaselessly, spinning one’s tires in the ever-deepening ruts of one’s unacceptability! Everyone’ll grow tired of that hog-squeal sound, and leave. The way it s’posed to be. Some confederate’s of late making noise about “the crises” in poetry, the one “in,” the one “out,” all heady breathless stuff ending with “weapons”: another political ploy and gimmick, always “newsworthy,” good “copy.” Follows the script of the most recent criminals in the White House to a T: alarmist juddering’ll always distract attention off of the outstanding unrehearsed inadmissible failures of what’s gone before. Poetry exists in zones without crises, in the interstices, off behind the hen house, under the floorboards, up in the canopies, in the backwash, zones in continual roil and havoc where time’s outward and inward motions are indistinguishable, where the only sign of too proud human trajectory and effort and ambition is mark’d by untoward ripples in the drifting black silt that plays along the passages, and the acceptable goes loudening down into empty caverns like a tossed away stone, and no need or cry to rake that echoing unbidden noise up as hazard or sign, nor—damn the gods—as some foul aesthetic to prop up one’s lazy sniggering, one’s vamp larking, one’s ethical rascality. (Oh Faulkner, that rascal.) An idiotic stunt, to cleave to a style stuck to (unburdened of oneself into) by simple reading. Spinning in that rut. Though: No one could be more sincere than I am about poetry.

A rationalist I am, you see by my square hat. A “hopeful monster” (now there’s a Stevens title, no?) “One of their distinguishing marks might be that they would not want to destroy.” Is how Nicholas Mosley puts it. I see where there’s out now a critique of the endless tantrums of art. Of the endless saleable identical claims to outsiderhood. Derrida’s il n’y a pas de hors-texte become il n’y a pas de hors de commerce, nothing’s not never unsaleable, for the point of outsiderhood, when outsiderhood becomes duffer’s credence for art, is saleability. The new motto’s I, too,’ll be a horse’s ass. Endless markets, a pure self-satisfying manufactory of scorn, grown up out of a nihilism no longer autochthonous, but self-aware, plaintive, cuddly with its fiduciary cohorts. Is that a crisis? I doubt it. At least I am unmoved by the machinations of it. I find crisis in the bewilderment of Stevens that: “no one seems to enjoy the poems,” there. In the doubts of the painstakingly able, in the collisions of individual talent with the posses of self-proclaim’d outlawry. As the Ingres (either the harem’d up “La petite baigneuse” or the plainer “de Valpinçon”) knockoff in one Frank O’Hara / Joe Brainard comic—“Hard Times (After Dickens)”—thinks: “I just hate men who fantasize about me—they’ve been phonies for—ah, centuries.” And as the (same comic) male buttocks hard at “work” “say,” “A central nervous system has to put up with a lot.” And as the (same comic) increasingly scratch’d out figures say: “But am I truly relating—I wonder if I truly am—” and so on into a narratively “earned” blotto-mess with “All narcissists seem to be such slobs!!!” for end-tag.

De toute façon, writing’s just my violon d’Ingres, and my ardor for it’s that of an amateur. I accept that.

Jean-Auguste Dominique Ingres, “La Baigneuse,” dite de Valpinçon, 1808

Friday, July 27, 2007

Jonathan Williams

A Sign

Jonathan Williams: “I’ve discovered most of the people I publish despise each other.”

That out of Against the Grain: Interviews with Maverick American Publishers (Iowa University Press, 1986), edited by Robert Dana, something Kyle Schlesinger [correctly, Ryan Murphy] noted somewhere with enough fervor to make me claw it out of the stacks. So that: pitch’d back in my hammock, doubting that I’ll survive my bacillary (sounds meaner than “viral”) onslaught, I laugh to read one Williams reply (to a query regarding the prevalence of preparatory schoolers become said mavericks—James Laughlin, Harry Duncan, David Godine, Jonathan Williams). The reply: “I wonder. I believe that’s what Ronald Firbank said about everything, “I wonder.”

And find out that Williams went to St. Albans in the District of Columbia, and continued, Episcopally, to Princeton (for three semesters), missing Delmore Schwartz and John Berryman by a few years, though “I think Galway Kinnell would have been an undergraduate about the same time.” (One fine autumnal day I spent a day interviewing at St. Albans for a kind of “honorary” position—some post-MFAer-fill’d writer-in-residency, with a room, a cafeteria punch-card, viddying rights to the National Cathedral, and something like $5000 thrown in for, oh, booze. I bought a pair of “slacks” and a plain herringbone number and, deck’d out like a prize hen, I rode up out of Charlottesville with my squad of Tennesseean drinking buddies. I made small noises at lunch. I attempt’d (successfully, mid-interview) to thwart my initial impulse to throttle the Nixonian headmaster, who need’d only to pull out an impossibly white and fold’d handkerchief to dab ineffectually at upper-lip sweat to complete the reenactment of Nixon announcing an “incursion” into Cambodia, in order to make my distrust complete. I did not “get” the “job.” On the way back to Charlottesville with my gang, a spit-shiny officer in blue stop’d us for speeding in Culpeper County and we’d sudden need to dribble the yellow contents of some open containers into the chicory’d verge.)

The extent of Williams study in the graphic arts, with Stanley William Hayter in New York, at the Institute of Design in Chicago (direct’d, then, by Moholy-Nagy), and going off to Black Mountain mostly to study photography with Harry Callahan. And why Jargon:
It was this guy, Paul Ellsworth, fellow student, painter, at the Institute of Design. He was barely articulate at all. He would throw words around, and he kept talking about jargon. “Life’s jargon. Jargon.” I said, “What do you mean?” and he’d say—he did have it right, in a way—he said, “I mean in my own speech. My language, as opposed to the tribe’s language.” Actually, that is one definition. But then I like the irony of the word. And then I happened to be checking in a big dictionary, and there was the word “jargonelle,” a kind of spring pear in France. And jargon in psychiatric jargon is the language of the infant before it learns social conventions. And, also, in French jargon means twittering of birds. So when you add all these things up, it seems just fine. But the twittering of birds is about the best definition. People who need to be put off, it does put them off—the Jargon Society.
Noting of the “Society” part: “It’s not a one-man band, it’s a backwoods symphony.”

Williams reporting an Olson line: “The artist is his own instrument.” And, of the Black Mountain period: “He was forty-one, in full vigor, writing The Maximus Poems like mad and cranking them out. Full of himself, as he always was. Full of himself, full of it, but great, you know. . . . Olson was not casual.” (The inkling that Olson tend’d toward the tendentiously dogmatic, the prepossessed, the authoritarian is unmistakable when measured against Williams’s larkingly omnivorous sensibility: “He didn’t stop me reading Ronald Firbank, or Stephen King, for that matter. I still read widely and stupidly. I like to read anything.” (Later Williams comments regarding the limits of Olson’s knowledge of natural history: “Olson knew there was something called “rhododendron” and something called “grass,” and he had trouble even telling those two things apart. One was bigger than the other, but that was about it.”

Story of getting, whilst in Stuttgart with the military, a couple thousand dollars after the death of a friend, and committing himself to printing books:
Maybe it was only fifteen hundred “Do with it what you like, but Charles liked the idea of your publishing.” So it was a choice of three things. Either buying a Porsche, which all the dudes in Germany were doing, two thousand in those days would nearly have bought a Porsche. I also had my eye on a Max Beckmann portrait that could have been had for two thousand dollars. Or starting to print some books. So, being a good Southern boy, I printed some books.
Another book to fetch. Louis Zukofsky’s Some Time (mark’d “Jargon 15” and “Jonathan Williams, Publisher, Stuttgart, 1956), an exceedingly lovely thing. With a note by Ezra Pound: “I now divide poetry into what I can read and what I cannot. I hv/ read thus far and expect to read to the end.” And a piece print’d with music (by Celia Thaew) for a cover:
Little wrists,
Is your content
My sight or hold,
Or your small air
That lights and trysts?

Red alder berry
Will singly break;
But you—how slight—do:
So that even
A lover exists.
First part of “So That Even a Lover.” How similarly sound some pieces of Williams in the splendid Jubilant Thicket. Here’s the second part of—referring to Mahler—“Symphony No. 2, In C Minor,” sub-titled “Moderately slow: ‘Schubertian’”:

summer sun

paeans of
Intimate bricks of sound to build a simple structure ringing.

Jonathan Williams
(Photograph by Reuben Cox)

Thursday, July 26, 2007


A Wall

Sidelined by a bug. Fiery rhinopharynges and slump’d demeanor. Nap’d to no effect. Which may explain the colossal fits I had yesterday trying to construct a sentence, or limn a Miyazawa Kenji that’d seem capable of inventing new garb for agriculteurs (something he did). How’s the old slog go? “Writing knows before the writer’s nose?” (“Gepetto, I think something’s amiss here.”) Still, there’s that mirey unintelligibility for “proof.”

Today, home to Jennifer Moxley’s memoir, The Middle Room (Subpress, 2007), a book of the heft and demeanor of a safety deposit box. A gorgeous stirring thing. Something in excess of six hundred pages in pristine 11 pt. Bembo, covers severe (unillustrated), red and black type against a faintly “French” (think Gallimard) creaminess. Undoubtedly, I’ll need to allow it to expend its impenetrable (untouchable) aura before I approach it (think black stone of 2001: A Space Odyssey). My de rigueur fussiness under the lights of high expectations is evident, I suspect.

Wrong memory mystery. Found a copy of Lipstick Traces yesterday in the stacks and carry’d it off to paw at during lunch. My memory says I read the book in Baxter Hathaway’s cellar (where I lived in the early ’eighties, surround’d by disjecta of various kinds, a game of Go, a many-volumed Johnson’s Universal Encyclopaedia, a collection of Thomas Jefferson’s letters bound in blue, a hot plate, a selection of various homemade chutneys.) I “see” myself in my ’fifties comfy chair reading it. However: the book seems to’ve been publish’d (Harvard University Press) in 1989. In 1989 I am likely in Portugal (Cintra) or Virginia (Charlottesville), not reading Greil Marcus. The upshot is, I now got a kind of guarantee: a book I enjoy’d to look forward to reading.

Rewarding to find kinship for one’s perennial nay-saying at a point where one’s incapable (unwilling) of saying anything. (“The opposing nostril’s caught fire now, thanks all the same.”) In Enrique Vila-Matas’s Bartleby & Co., a history of “the No,” one reads of a fine Blanchot rebuttal:
“What we cannot speak about we must pass over in silence,” wrote Wittgenstein. Clearly this remark deserves a place of honour in the history of the No, but perhaps it is a place of ridicule. Because, as Maurice Blanchot says, “Wittgenstein’s far too famous and overused precept in effect indicates that, since in expressing it he has been able to impose silence on himself, to be silent we must speak. But with what kind of words?” To put it simply, he might have said that there was no need to make such a song and dance.
And I immediately think of Dylan saying “Money doesn’t talk, it swears,” for inscrutable fiery unfathomable reasons, and trust I’d better quit.

The insect order Blattaria includes the cockroaches.


Wednesday, July 25, 2007

Miyazawa Kenji: Selections


What to make of a piece titled “Crows in a Hundred Postures”:
Along the snowy paddy ridge
crows shuffle on in a row

Body bent on the snowy paddy
a crow utters two calls

Head down on the snowy paddy
a crow eats snow pecking at it

Head up on the snowy paddy
a crow takes a look around

On the snow in the snowy paddy
a crow waddles, waddles

Reaching the end of the snowy paddy
a crow eats snow pecking at it

At a height of the paddy snow
a crow has her mouth agape

His beak in the paddy snow
a crow keeps himself still

Onto a dry ridge of the snowy paddy
a crow gives himself a jump

With a rudder over the snowy paddy
a crow makes a slow flight

Over the snow ridge in succession
crows fly up toward the west

Left behind in the snowy paddy
a crow keeps his legs apart

The crows flying toward the west
are now just like sesame seeds
Written circa 1926 by Miyazawa Kenji, three years after Wallace Stevens self-publish’d Harmonium with its “Thirteen Ways of Looking at a Blackbird.” (Not a result, rather, a near simultaneity, something “in the air.” Who—Ronald Sukenick or Steve Katz—suggest’d that the turn to a high degree of self-reflexity and hijinx in postmodern fictions occur’d exactly so: “as if all of us were waiting for a light to change, it did, and we all crossed together.”) And: it’s unlike Stevens’s poem in a number of ways, exhibiting both a diminish’d variety of poses—no “bawds of euphony” here—and a narrative gist—of emptying out, of shifting scale—that is seemingly not a “poem of the mind in the act of finding / What will suffice.” Rather (a poem of) a rice paddy with crows in the observable (exterior) world.

The poem’s out of the fifth volume in the Pierre Joris and Jerome Rothenberg edited series “Poets for the Millennium,” a book titled simply Miyazawa Kenji: Selections, edited and with an introduction by Hiroaki Sato (University of California Press, 2007). Sato is, too, the translator for the majority of the pieces. Geoffrey O’Brien provides a foreword (“A Modernist in the Mountains”) and there is a short final section “On Miyazawa Kenji,” with critical pieces by Tanikawa Shuntarō, Yoshimasu Gōzō, and Michael O’Brien. Glossary and bibliography. A tidy pack of essentials.

Kenji, born in 1896 to a somewhat affluent family, as a young man apparently reject’d a mercantile career and turn’d to a decidedly radical (and nationalistic) school of Buddhism, the Nichiren-shū, and began identifying himself as an ashura, one of the “unenlightened beings” of this world, above beasts in the “six realms,” though below humans. Such ashura (or asura in Sanskrit) are, as Sato notes, quoting one glossary to the Lotus Sutra, “fond of fighting and quarrels . . . constantly at war with various heavenly beings,” though, too, quoting Burton Watson’s translation of The Lotus Sutra they “constitute one of the eight kinds of nonhuman beings who protect Buddhism.” (Poet as ashura, quarreling, “protecting” the language.) Kenji’s only book—self-publish’d in 1924—is titled Spring & Asura. In a letter to a friend in early 1920, Kenji worries about ending up in a position where he “wouldn’t be able to read a single page of a book,” and talks of working for ’s pawnbroker and used clothing shopkeeper father amidst “old cotton for futon, grimy cold children’s clothing, blackish pawned goods, a frozen store curtain, blue envy, dessicated calculation . . .” And writes:
Anger flares up and my body feels as though it has entered alcohol. Sitting at a desk and remembering someone saying something, I suddenly feel like smashing the desk with my whole body. Anger looks red. When it’s too strong the light of anger becomes so luxuriant it rather feels like water.
Truncating a truncated life (Kenji died of tuberculosis in 1933 at the age of thirty-seven): he left shopkeeping, he taught, he determined to become a “real peasant”:
Next spring I will quit teaching and become a real peasant and work   Out of various bitter hardships I foresee things like burrs of blue vegetables and flashes of poplars   I have changed quite a bit from what I was in the Morioka days   In those days I was only thinking of a flow of water like transparent cold water nymphs now I pray for rice seedling beds and faintly muddy warm water by a grass-growing dam in which many microorganisms pleasantly flow my feet dunked in it my arm dunked in it myself repairing the water outlet.
Wherein is hinted the kind of language Kenji’s poems come to inhabit—an odd combination of direct, colloquial speech and the languages of agriculture, science, “technical” matters. (The section in Sato’s introduction on the Japanese “movement called genbun-itchi, meaning “unity in speech and writing”—a decided shift from bungo, “literary language,” to kōgo, “colloquial or spoken language,” one of the outstanding moves of Japanese modernism (and one seminally attach’d to nationalism, too, largely in its relation to a movement to abolish the use of Chinese characters in written Japanese), is excellent.

Remind’d again of Stevens’s “poem of the mind in the act of finding” in reading of Kenshi’s idea of the mental sketch, (Kenshi’s English) or shinshō sketch, what he claim’d to be doing in writing, insisting that all ’s pieces were “no more than coarse and hard mental sketches I write down under various conditions while no legitimate study is allowed, as long as circumstances allow, every time I get a chance, in preparation for a certain psychological work.” Continuous furious scribbling in pocket notebooks.

First piece in Spring & Asura is “Proem”:
The phenomenon called “I”
is a blue illumination
of the hypothesized, organic alternating current lamp
(a compound of all transparent ghosts)
a blue illumination
of the karmic alternating current lamp
which flickers busily, busily
with landscapes, with everyone
yet remains lit with such assuredness
(the light persists, the lamp lost)

In the twenty-two months, which I perceive
lie in the direction of the past
I have linked these pieces on paper with mineral ink
(they flicker with me,
    everyone feels them simultaneously)
each a chain of shadow and light
mental sketches as they are,
which have been kept until now.

About these, the man, the Galaxy, Asura, or the sea urchin,
eating cosmic dust breathing air or saltwater,
may each think up a fresh ontology,
but any one of them too will be no more than a scene in the mind.
Yet certainly these landscapes recorded here
are as they are recorded;
if they represent nothing, that’s the way nothing is;
to some degree this holds true of everyone
(because just as everything is everyone in me,
    so I am everything in everyone)

But while these words, supposed to have been copied correctly
in the accumulation of the vast bright times
of the Cenozoic era and alluvial epoch,
already change their structures and contents
in the light and shadow that’s equal to a dot
            (or in Asura’s billion years)
the tendency could be there
that both the printer and I
perceive them as unchangeable. . . .
Truncated by half. Typing, I think of A. R. Ammons (“So I said I am Ezra” and the changeable self in the changeable landscape, that flux and suasion, and the technological claptrap of the age never avoid’d, see Garbage), I think of Whitman (Kenji apparently read the work of the “mystical socialist” Edward Carpenter, follower of Whitman), and I think, again, of Stevens (“no more than a scene in the mind”).

Prolix, inconclusive, tordu.

Wallace Stevens and Miyazawa Kenji

Tuesday, July 24, 2007

Like Spiders

A Wall (Yves Klein)

Movement here and there. One night in a shack-row style motel, big stink of Lysol, unlock and bang into the bed, toothy joviality out of the grease-spot’d proprietor, I expect’d to see Cormac McCarthy bleary out pomaded the next morning with a crush of manuscript in a paper sack, the one he’d carry’d a bottle in in the preceding black’st night. Effect of reading a couple of pages of Darren Wershler-Henry’s The Iron Whim: sleep coming down like a sledge. A concert in the piney woods (Interlochen Center for the Arts)—Joshua Bell ripping into Max Bruch’s Violin Concerto No. 1 in G Minor, with Jung-Ho Pak conducting the World Youth Symphony Orchestra. Bell playing with a kind of controll’d fire (one never consider’d anything’d burst, one’s heart—tant pis—never leap’d up into the danger zone of possibly throttling one’s own throat, for all the pyrotechnics though). Bell did play with ferocity exceeding the usual, egg’d to it by the big, loose, mouth-aid’d, wild propulsive choreography of Pak, a nigh-unpardonably energetic conductor, reaching high to hover a tremolo, pushing it down to a sob, flinging out a monstrous right arm flailing to muster forth a sweet-temper’d bray of brass, turning to the half-snarling black figure of Bell, to mock him, to push him, Pak white-shirt’d, tipping Bell’s weightier rips aloft, balloon work, or summoning the full orchestral beast to quash Bell’s nimble attempts to caper off up the scales into the whim-pickled registers. Yeah, that’s how it went. Remind’d, for a few precarious moments, of, say, Richards and Jagger making monkey-faces at each other, each daring each to break or continue the spell. The voodoo of music. And periodic cahoots: Bell’s tiny elision-smiles, nods to the principals, keeping it whole.

A bizarre moment in the clatter of usual pre-concert self-congratulatory gesturing. A man summoning Dana Gioia to the podium with the usual high chthonic (feign’d funereal tone) adulatory rubbish. Prick’d up ears, and out of what I recall—x, y, z stack of accolades and titles, blah blah blah—heard something pointing out, too, how “politically astute” Gioia is. And Gioia strides forth in khakis and blazer and begins speaking like a Britisher or a yacht-owner. Bizarre, like an Italian hoyden convinced that he is waspier than a hornet, going all clip’d and nasal. Okay, we all do the masks. Except, he, Gioia-the-politically-astute sounds like a drunk. Meaning, after pointing out how proud he is to be at Interlochen, he makes it exemplary: for one, it’s “intrinsic excellence,” and two, “the importance of it as a model for the importance of a curriculum of arts education important to an important national sense”—some gobbledygook like that, nigh squirmy-making for its extempore breakdown. “Politically astute” apparently means “talks like a politician,” cotton-mouth’d with intangibles, and marble-mouthing meaningless zero-abstracts.

Finish’d As I Lay Dying. Perfectly and unrelievedly grim, a Job story. And is it a wrong note there in the final paragraph when Pa shows up with “Meet Mrs Bundren,” the new wife? That’s a stumper. No prior inkling of it. Faulkner’s distrust of words, the limits of language in the mouth of the first Mrs Bundren:
That was when I learned that words are no good; that words dont ever fit even what they are trying to say at. When he was born I knew that motherhood was invented by someone who had to have a word for it because the one that had the children didn’t care whether there was a word for it or not. I knew that fear was invented by someone that had never had the fear; pride, who never had the pride. I knew that it had been, not that they had dirty noses, but that we had had to use one another by words like spiders dangling by their mouth from a beam swinging and twisting and never touching and that only through the blows of the switch could my blood and their blood flow as one stream.
That, and how (about the word love) a word is “just a shape to fill a lack . . . when the right time came, you wouldn’t need a word.”

Jung-Ho Pak and Joshua Bell

Friday, July 20, 2007

Sudden Address Repris’d

Some Shoes

Yesterday with its “nobody ever was that man” leap into the historical light, a dazzling way to forego ending. What I mean is, I intended something else—intended a “rangier” look into Berkson’s Sudden Address, got hung up by the O’Hara stories in a kind of willing bliss—and puddled (into) myself. A sort of “I wonder if I’ve really scrutinized this experience like / you’re supposed to have if you can type” thing (I love that grammatically correct insert of “have” there, raising irony’s bar). So, seeing’s how I cannot breach the psychoanalytically-soggy reports of Steve Benson’s early manhood pangs (replete with thirty year old journal “entries”) that open the latest volume of The Grand Piano, I elect to continue prowling the Berkson book.

If more proof’s needed of Berkson’s sense of “method”—in the middle of prefatory remarks to a slide lecture (present’d at the Poetry Project (1984) and New Langton Arts (1985)) titled “Idealism and Conceit (Dante’s Later Thought)”—he remarks that the talk “is meant as an entrance to the topic with banged-together quotations; a roughing-out, a spillway, a pounce, a show and tell with pictures as points of refraction as if we were speaking at your house / my house with concomitant ‘wild surmise.’” The way all discourse ought to be. After all, it’s only us blowhards pushing our gassy inconsequentialities into the whistle holes of a runaway train, just to see if they’ll sound loud enough and with enough “leeway” that that flapper (who is ourselves) tied to the tracks’ll be able to unknot inscrutable knots . . . (she won’t, we won’t, death’ll “greet” us all). Just horses running the field, nicking the turf nick’d by horses ruining the field. (A spillway is not a metaphor race.)

Metaphors. Berkson quotes Williams’s prologue to Kora in Hell. Williams may or may not be talking about marriage to Flossie. He’s certainly talking about one’s early spurts and drenches of “poetry”:
I have discovered that the thrill of first love passes! It even becomes the backbone of a sordid sort of religion if not assisted in passing.
(And one could “tick off” any number of poets of the current “order” for whom “first love” never did get the comeuppance it required. Legion, indefatigable, tiresome repeaters they be.) Against that impulse (need) to rid oneself of one’s initial adorings, those “oddball” burgeonings forth that led one to the act of “making art,” Berkson puts “returning to that original rock”:
Artistic vitality is partly a sporadic re-acquaintance, a reconnoitering of one’s original feelings about art, turning them over and seeing what’s inside and under them.
(And, though Berkson’s thrust is toward the individual, one’s allow’d—ontogeny reciprocating phylogeny—to apply the continual re-circulating back to source to ever larger entities: literary history spiraling in lieu of flat-lining.)

Truth is, I return, I am no better off—Berkson’s bounding through quotables like a pup. He says: “My mind feels like St. Jerome’s little terrier; not as well-groomed, I suspect, but at least sparking upright, a kite in the fog” and proceeds to will that the talk “tumbles somewhere between connoisseurship and oratory.” Elsewhere, he notes, approvingly: “Guston’s ‘I want to end with something that will baffle me for some time.’ Where baffle is a transforming device that deflects, furthers circulation, heats shot with gleams, “the mirror living which art is.” The apparent motto is: ‘Quit quoting.’” All velocity and muster, and, yes, “sparking.” Maybe it’d be of use to suggest the range of material and leave it for readers to rush it together. Poetry and painting intertwinings, Guston, Alex Katz, Franz Kline; Philip Guston, memoirs of (with comments on particular works, and quoting, amongst others, Robert Smithson and Clark Coolidge); the “Idealism and Conceit” piece, with a handy summary of “sources of quotation and / or allusion”:
Osip Mandelstam, Joseph Anthony Masseo, Ted Berrigan, Clark Coolidge, William Carlos Williams, Dante Alighieri, John Thorpe, Jack Spicer, Erwin Panofsky, Wallace Stevens, Adrian Stokes, Samuel Edgerton, Francis Ponge, Philip Hendy, Philip Guston, Juan Gris, Henri Focillon, Alex Katz, Willem de Kooning, Morton Feldman, Albert Blankert, John Montias, Roberto Longhi, Paul Cézanne, Samuel H. Monk, Oxford Dictionary of the English Language, J. Robert Oppenheimer, Alfred North Whitehead, Justin Kaplan, Walt Whitman, John Ashbery, Tom Clark, Edwin Denby, Carter Ratcliff.
“History and Truth” with Stein, Creeley, Diderot, Auden, David Antin, and “Frank O’Hara’s most cogent political statement, “the only truth is face to face”; a piece about Whitman, with Baudelaire, Courbet, Williams, Reznikoff, Bernadette Mayer; the O’Hara piece; and a final piece titled “‘The Uneven Phenomenon’—What Did You Expect?” that is—partially—a memoir of Kenneth Koch.

Morning. Spent a little while looking for “St. Jerome’s little terrier” amongst the scads of St. Jeromes, with tepid result. Us bang’d up necessary contemplatives need a dog named Sparky. Dürer’s beast certainly looks perky enough, though not what I expect’d. I want’d to find a Dutch terrier, noted out the slant window of Jerome’s “cell,” implausibly leaping for a miniature halo’d insect, a lightning bug.

Long weekend upcoming. À mardi.

Jan van Eyck’s St. Jerome

Albrecht Dürer’s St. Jerome

Antonello da Messina’s St. Jerome

Somewhat later. Bill Berkson writes to identify the long-sought terrier, the rather demure beast of Vittore Carpaccio. One sees each—St. Jerome and dog—stunned by seeing. (What each sees is another matter.) Note, too, the various volumes upend’d and splay’d here and there, and the flung-down fold’d letter. The dog’s work or St. Jerome’s? Ah, the fits of the contemplative . . .

Vittore Carpaccio’s St. Jerome

Thursday, July 19, 2007

Sudden Address

Some Lilies

One’d think one’d scumbled the dusky patina of “days off” to a pale grey bashful hue beyond opportunity by now. Or importunity. Except, mucking with a salubrious (meaning, one “assumes,” “loose”) connection, and a doggy sort of in-between life: one decides to leave the days a prevalence, a worth exceeding worth, and call down the imp-dogs of the improvisatory rosters, and see if I cannot muster up an operable field with nothing “at hand.” Okay?

A lie right off the bat. There’s Bill Berkson’s terrifically handsome (cover a 1969 sketch by Philip Guston of an open book with emphatic marks marking its pages, a sketch titled “Matter,” perfect for a book) new book, Sudden Address: Selected Lectures 1981-2006 (Cuneiform Press, 2007). Berkson himself, in a prefatory note, says, “All of these texts were written to be talked, some with slide projections”—exact, gracious, with none of the cool get-up of over-nuance, or theory-derive. Or theory-drive. Precisely how the lectures proceed, with affable commonsense, a thrilling rare honesty, and plenty of room for maneuverability, whatever it is that allows things to grow unfussily in the interstices, to shoot up unbid and terribly welcome. Berkson on “method” immethodical (in “Travels with Guston”):
I always have Clark Coolidge to remind me that the best thing a writer can do in the way of criticism is “continue the dialogue.” The theory of the Parallel Text, where the truest response to a painting or poem is another poem and not an accumulation of idea and description. I subscribe to that theory. For one thing, it keeps you out of the pulpit where the morals of art seem more attractive than engaging it head-on or doing the job. For another thing, once you’ve honestly looked enough at something, you do sort of figure out everybody else has seen it that way too. I do. Everybody agrees on what it is, so the question becomes, what are you going to do about it?
How I love the matter-of-fact modesty: “I subscribe to that theory.” (Part of criticism, too, is the “portrait of the critic as a trustworthy dog,” or, even, “a lovable cur,” rather than “a greasy stopper at the bottom of a sink” or “a fishwife hurlante”—trusting the voice going a long mile toward trusting that voice’s choices.)

Add to Berkson’s critical persona the fact that—contre the claim that “everybody else has seen it that way too”—he regularly offers up stunning and inestimable aperçus. Here, just thumbing around. After noting of four painters (Piero della Francesca, Vermeer , Chardin, and Cézanne) how little biographical material for each exists, “and how little it seems to matter,” Berkson adds the afterthought: “The exception is Cézanne, maybe the first painter about whom an entire biographical drama develops almost exclusively from recounting his work habits and thoughts about painting!” Just what modernity is, it turns out, is the skank in the solitary brainpan (and how it makes the hands “perform”) rather than a goonily “interesting” life.

Everywhere Berkson refuses the sweepingly totale gesture, deferring to the work itself. In a piece titled “Frank O’Hara at 30,” he considers three extraordinary O’Hara poems written that year (1956), hinting that one impetus for what is the beginning of a prolific period culminating in the annus mirabilis of 1959 is, precisely, turning thirty, measuring achievement, age, and ambition, deciding it’s “time to get going.” He reads “Sleeping on the Wing,” begun, apparently, on O’Hara’s putative thirtieth birthday (June 27) and finish’d four days later. Here’s the poem with its thrilling velocity, because it is lovely and I long to linger with it:

Perhaps it is to avoid some great sadness,
as in a Restoration tragedy the hero cries “Sleep!
O for a long sound sleep and so forget it!”
that one flies, soaring above the shoreless city,
veering upward from the pavement as a pigeon
does when a car honks or a door slams, the door
of dreams, life perpetuated in parti-colored loves
and beautiful lies all in different languages.

Fear drops away too, like the cement, and you
are over the Atlantic. Where is Spain? where is
who? The Civil War was fought to free the slaves,
was it? A sudden down-draught reminds you of gravity
and your position in respect to human love. But
here is where the gods are, speculating, bemused.
Once you are helpless, you are free, can you believe
that? Never to waken to the sad struggle of a face?
to travel always over some impersonal vastness,
to be out of, forever, neither in nor for!

The eyes roll asleep as if turned by the wind
and the lids flutter open slightly like a wing.
The world is an iceberg, so much is invisible!
and was and is, and yet the form, it may be sleeping
too. Those features etched in the ice of someone
loved who died, you are a sculptor dreaming of space
and speed, your hand alone could have done this.
Curiosity, the passionate hand of desire. Dead,
or sleeping? Is there speed enough? And, swooping,
you relinquish all that you have made your own,
the kingdom of your self sailing, for you must awake
and breathe your warmth in this beloved image
whether it’s dead or merely disappearing,
as space is disappearing and your singularity.
And some of Berkson’s remarks:
The last stanza is a sonnet, fourteen lines, and the lines throughout lean toward rough Alexandrines but they’re really just variables of anywhere from eleven to fourteen syllables. One could write a book on just that poem and how the terms of it—space, speed, “in,” “for,” sleeping and wakefulness, sculpture and personality, “and was and is”—carry into the textures of later works. I have a chart for just such a text, whereby some years ago I annotated every word—one page poem, nine pages of handwritten annotations, marvelously inconclusive.
Perhaps it is just to “get to” those final two words that I decided to write about Berkson. What better to aspire to than to be marvelous and inconclusive! And if, along the way, one learns that “At his birthday party the night of the same day the poem began . . . Frank wept wildly, considering the smallness of his achievement to date compared with those of Keats and Chatterton, both of whom had died well before reaching 30,” and that, by way of “contemporary reminders and goads” (of mortality, for “achievement”), there was the example of “Allen Ginsberg’s ‘Howl,’ in circulation in New York by spring ’56 by way of ditto copies typed in San Francisco by Robert Creeley,” and that Ted Berrigan, some years later, in a similar situation, wrote a poem titled “30” that reads (in its entirety), “The fucking enemy shows up.”—if one learns all that on the wing, in a gust of address, what’d possibly be better? and the lines and lineages sloop out unstopperable:
no there is no precedent of history no history nobody came before
nobody will ever come before and nobody ever was that man

you will not die not knowing this is true this year
Perfectly alert and in a tangled heap of roaring voices, and unrecognizably one’s own . . .

Patsy Southgate, Bill Berkson, John Ashbery,
Frank O’Hara, and Kenneth Koch in O’Hara’s loft, 1964
(Photograph by Mario Schifano)

Wednesday, July 18, 2007

La machine à écrire

Spool and Girders

Darren Wershler-Henry’s The Iron Whim: A Fragmented History of Typewriting is precisely the kind of book to sop up the illimitable travel run-off, that sedulous (seducing) fluidity of focus, that random ease into “upstanding” somnolence, that breezy hayseed rhythm. (All, too, a result of being “between books.”) Skimming around in it, I land (mid-book) twice here:
Consider the sentence “Amaranath sasesusos Oronoco initiation secedes Uruguay Philadelphia.” The meaning of this sentence has nothing to do with the normal logic of syntax and everything to do with the logic of how the letters appear on a typewritten page. It was usually the first thing ever typed on each new typewriter, and its sole function was to check the alignment of a typewriter that had just rolled off the production line before it was shipped. Unlike most sentences it was rarely spoken, and no one particularly cared what it might mean in the conventional sense.
Which immediately recalls another bit of nonsense—pure materiality, what “type” is all about—Hugh Kenner’s opening paean to “Etaoin Shrdlu” in The Mechanical Muse:
You never see Etaoin Shrdlu in the newspaper now [“now” being circa 1987—newspapers’d long abandon’d linotype composition]. Time was when you’d come across a whole line of print—
Rsoovelt etaoin etaoin shrdlu shrdlu shrd
—where you saw how the linotype operator had botched the start of the line (“Rsoovelt”). Then his shortest way to get the botch out of his machine’s system was to fill out the line with nonsense, and cast it like any other line, intending the throw the cast slug away the instant it was cool enough to handle. But he’d get distracted and forget to throw it away, and if proofreaders got distracted too the line ended up in the paper.
And why that particular P. Inman-like (or the David Melnick of PCOET-like) species of nonsense? Mechanics. The linotype operator’s “quickest way to obtain nonsense was to run his finger down either of the two leftmost columns of his keyboard, triggering ETAOIN or SHRDLU in that order.” Mechanics that put the commonest letters in a bunch so’s to allow the brass matrices select’d by each punch of the keys a shorter traveling distance than the rarer letters—the mechanics of efficiency determining the arrangement of keys.

Wershler-Henry’s sentence provides its own efficiently mechanical trial (human eye viddying up the evenness of the sentence’s keel)—that’s its raison d’être. He writes:
“Amaranath,” the misspelled name of an imaginary flower, checks the alignment of the vowel “a” between a number of common consonants. “Oronoco” checks the “o” key, while “secedes,” “initiation” and “Uruguay” check three vowels that are among the most commonly used of all letters, “e,” “i,” and “u.” “Sasesusos” not only compares four of the five vowels in the same word against the baseline of the letter “s,” but also “includes several of the most common letter combinations in twentieth-century business English.” “Philadelphia” checks the horizontal alignment of “i” and “l,” the narrowest letters on the keyboard.
Such a vowel-heavy vocab puts one under the considerable press of Christian Bök’s Eunoia (or perhaps it’s some rude Canadian oulipovian Pavlovian response, a vowel-trigger’d salival romp), so I look in the index under “B.” Only to find one Edward Bok, “editor of the Ladies’ Home Journal and himself a former amanuensis” to Mark Twain. Bok is asking Twain for “a whole autograph letter,” with a weather-eye out, no doubt, to posterity (read: prosperity). To which Twain responds with a sheet “in full typed gothic capitals” (early type-machines being unable to produce lower cases), “signature and all.”

Off into the nineteenth century gloaming, pondering machinery, its palpable knurl and satisfying push. How easily one’d disassemble a typewriter, or simply dig the accumulated ink out of its keys. That satisfying release of an impact’d half-sphere out of an “o,” popped out with a pin. The pleasing clatter and line-ending ding, the high thin screech of the roller if one yank’d free a (spoil’d, Rsoovelt’d) sheet of paper. I always peer’d into its maw. Admired the constant angular attack of the keys. I compared it to racing a car, accelerator jammed home, eyes pinned to a rather narrow width of two-margin’d action. Action writing. Beast with a machine. Inevitable bourbon tumbler sweating myriad rings on the table. Stub out cigarette and expel smoke into the maw, fingers landing precisely, the tree toad’s spatulate suct-cupped toes finding the leapt-for limb. Is it Wordsworth who pieced together “Tintern Abbey” whilst tramping, return’d to scribble it, finish’d, down? Yes, I allow that: the body ahum with itself, priming the machinate mind. The body imposing itself in the composition. And now? With the slithery lizard-tick of keys, the bland effortlessness, the maw a flat deniable blankness? Should one compose to the metronomic blink of the cursor? (It is adjust’d to the beat of my heart.) I return to the scribble sheets of my boyhood, the assembling of execrably script’d lines off tiny scraps. (Though I “compose” Isola notes “straight.” (Though I do it in stolen swatches, “on the run,” under the lash of that goon, the taskmaster Time. Hence the muddy irregularity of “tone,” the corner’d shrew in combat “voice.”))

Clarity of morning. (Though what sentence beginning the “Hath . . .” dangled above me like a spider whilst I slept?) All the romantic gush about the typewriter: returnable to Jack Kerouac who used to attach an “F. P.” to ’s signature: “Furious Poet.” It’s easier to be angry (when) “at” a typewriter, easier to bang away loud and long and brash (with a modicum of control—less danger of final illegible paper-puncturing spastic handwriting emerging). When Kerouac rent’d that Underwood in Hartford, Connecticut, he (right off, spur’d to disgust, finally identifying as writer—“I am grown dead serious about my letters, my work, my stuff, my writing”—he could hardly say it enough ways—) machine-authentic, wrote: “America is sick as a dog, I tell you.”

Clarity brook’d: “America is sick as a dog, I tell you.”

Darren Wershler-Henry

Tuesday, July 17, 2007

Ballast Expell’d


A funny thing to stop writing. Nary a word for ten days. No notes. A little reading (Faulkner, nights, under a bulb the size of a thumbnail, or an epiglottal flap.) No photographs. Lazy squinch-eyed sun-passivity. Pawing through watery pebble heaps. Lackadaisical walks here and there aimless. Severe looks across the bay towards Old Mission. (Severe thunderheads black-browing back.) Long stretch’d-out breast-stroking lengths in the shallow East Arm waters. One morning helping man the seine: killifish, shiners, one tiny (four-five inch) prehistoric-looking long-nosed gar, an (invasive) round goby. (Hitchhiked in in ballast water in the ocean-going tankers.) Bald eagle above the red pines.

Faulkner, in Flags in the Dust, with a hint regarding how one must (noisily) proceed: “Shakespeare had no sense of discriminations and no instinct for reticence. In other words, he wasn’t a gentleman.”

One excursion into Traverse City to fossick amongst the remainders downstairs in Horizon Books. Bought a copy of Burton Raffel’s 2004 Pure Pagan: Seven Centuries of Greek Poems and Fragments, mostly for Guy Davenport’s introduction:
Burton Raffel calls these Greek poems “pagan” because they were not written in Chicago or Aberdeen. Pagan is defined by Samuel Johnson as meaning “heathenish”; both words, pagan and heathen, mean “living in the country.” The Greeks, like all civilized people, felt that country life was more authentic, more earthy and forthright, sexier and healthier, than life in the city. It was more natural. So these poems are pagan because the past is another country. The pagan is always other, over yonder, or way back when, interesting because different.
And Davenport recalls how Greek lyric poetry emerged rather late, “and counts as a salient inspiration for modern poetry,” naming (along with obvious imitators H.D. and Pound) Edgar Lee Masters’s 1915 Spoon River Anthology as a “conscious imitation of the epitaphs in the Greek Anthology.” Raising Masters to Pound’s level, unwilling to make silly distinctions based solely on supposed formal excrudescences. Davenport provides, too, a succinct definition of Pound’s word paideuma:
The Greek word that means “the content of a culture” . . . what you know just by being a Greek, a Dogon, an Icelander. All the tacit assumptions of daily life constitute paideuma. So poets compose for an audience that understands them. This dimension of difference is what Burton Raffel is calling “pagan.” Difference creates information; that is, the crossover from what we know to what we don’t.
And what if the culture is so completely (in myriad ways) fractured that all tacit assumptions are off, bungled, contradictory, botch’d? What if audience is so shrunken, “difference” so enormous, and crossover so negligible that any paideuma (Davenport notes that the word derives out of pais, “child”—it’s not a culture of specialists or experts that’s refer’d to) attributable to these States is shallow, disputable, penny-ante, of little worth?

Idling south, late afternoon on the two-lanes. Grawn, Buckley, Mesick, Cadillac, Farwell, Clare, angling for one of the “dual carriageways” (a term that persists in my lingo for unfathomable reasons, a British-speak excrudescence out of my hitchhiking years). In some peculiar way thinking about “audience”—meaning: I see the hand-letter’d signs for firewood for sale, for lawn mowers sharpen’d, for nightcrawlers for sale, for “fill wanted”; I see motor vehicles of all kinds prop’d in the greenswards, park’d in the ditches, angled against the barn; I see innumerable garage sales, yard sales, flea markets, “antiques,” junk yards and junk sales: the paideuma of the backroads is the swapping of junk. Literacy of cash. Literacy of the drive by. Literacy of the money clip. Literacy of the shrug and spit and scuff boots in the gravel. Literacy of the satellite dish and the remote. Unbridgeable distances.

The story of Faulkner’s marking up (three-color coding) a manuscript of Benji’s discourse in The Sound and the Fury. An intend’d (color) printing gone astray. Said manuscript gone missing.

Long-nosed gar (Lepisosteus osseus)

Friday, July 06, 2007


“Singin’ in the Rain”

Winding out of contending, out of most minuscule attending, unspooling the energies, I knew its beginning a few days back, longing to be sopped up by the language itself, or the scenery, or the road, longing to avoid the niggardly parse and parcel. Tomorrow off “up north,” a Michigander’s literal redundancy—for years a restaurant exist’d down the street call’d “La Piñata” (a tipping Manhattan with a cherry in burnt orange neon on the façade, a “lounge”)—it changed one day to “Up South” (ribs and collard greens, catfish and dirty rice, an affable waitress with terrible teeth): a backhand’d linguistic honorific, a nod to the lingo. Didn’t last, nothing lasts. (Make that: “Nothing fuckin’ lasts,” see what it does to the “tone.”) Tore down the poor-begotten cinderblock’d thing and put up a bank, architecturally doodad’d, local, “correct as any bank’ll ever be” (make that: “any fuckin’ bank, &c.)—and somehow I’d druther the cigarette-soak’d post-bowling league washup of the crummy “Mexican” joint. All the authenticity of the edge-of-town auto warehouse strip. Didn’t I one night, maybe twenty years back, meet a former high school girlfriend there? And turn about to see my own self belaboring a stupendous boredom, mutual politesse caning the evening away? Whack that piñata to see Sisyphean dung beetles and many-legged larval vermiforms bounce curling across the stain’d carpet? Sizeable galls and skeptical bust’d up pods of no pea known? I did, I did. Nothing lasts. Nothing f—.

Not even the nothing of not seeing. Strange Parisian revery cough’d up by the night. Adolf Loos says, “Every art is erotic.” Which is dandy, ’cept this morning I’m thinking about how I ought to’ve bought some more dog food for the kennel. That quotidian itch to throw bunkum at the lofty, first pretext. Ed Dorn probably had it right: “And it Is the supreme form / of the argument that foreign Policy / has always been an Internal policy / at the heart of the american Inability / to propagate a Central Thought.” And soothsayingly “later”:
In this case it is poco a poco
in the fabrications of the aer
turning back the sunlight
promoting the early return of the glacier
and it is Also possibly,
in line with our habitual craziness
absolutely nowhere.

We do not even yet
know what a crisis is.
“Inability / to propagate a Central Thought”—that indispensable mock-repartee with the world, “bully-good,” romantic and excessive and sound. (La haine du bourgeois est un phénomène romantique, excessif, comme tous les phénomènes romantiques, mais très sain. [Hatred of the bourgeois is a romantic phenomenon, excessive like all romantic phenomena, but very sound.] Élie Faure.) I don’t, of course, know what it is I’m saying—pure pleasure of textual hair-mussing, cap-thieving, firing up the bystanders for a chase. Which is more or less what a tiny respite is for: to gabble idiocy (in order) to recoup. A week or so.

Élie Faure, Ed Dorn, Adolf Loos

Thursday, July 05, 2007

The Sign

A Wall

Finish’d Faulkner’s Mosquitoes. A drab perspiring Fourth of no accomplishment. Standing in front of bookshelves, idly pulling down odd volumes, in a mirey of a fleet skedaddle of whatever “passes” for thinking. Meaning, a disorder, a restlessness, the taxonomy of “between books,” “out of sorts.” (A typesetter’s term.) (So is “dingbat.”)

That’s my hooded lizard eye on the cover of Empire of Conspiracy: The Culture of Paranoia in Postwar America. It’s a book I never read (copy sent gratuitously—“if they uses a body particular, they’s obliged,” is how that law goes), though here “within” I see Kathy Acker (out of the 1988 Empire of the Senseless) saying:
Ten years ago it seemed possible to destroy language through language : to destroy language which normalizes and controls by cutting that language. Nonsense would attack the empire-making (empirical) empire of language, the prisons of meaning.
        But this nonsense, since it depended on sense, simply pointed back to the normalizing institutions.
        What is the language of the “unconscious”? . . . Its primary language must be taboo, all that is forbidden. Thus, an attack on the institution of prison via language would demand the use of a language or languages which aren’t acceptable, which are forbidden. Language, on one level, constitutes a set of codes and social and historical agreements. Nonsense doesn’t per se break down the codes; speaking precisely that which the codes forbid breaks the codes.
Aiming largely at Burrough’s “cut-up” methods, applicable, one thinks, to all the sorry derivatives of such that push up out of the swol’n earth regular ’s mushrooms after a rain, and with comparable nutritional “value.” (Though, too, is Acker’s argument foolproof? If cut-up “sense” (“nonsense”) points to inevitably back to its sensible source, isn’t it also the case that “speaking precisely that which the codes forbid” is meaningful only in relation to the flaunt’d codes?) I admit: the “taboo” barely moves me, likewise the “unconscious.” I am attract’d mostly by the “speaking precisely,” seeing in that (its terrible lack) the sad ignoble gabble of “us” “here” “now.” Writing against the lying and the brutal impercipience of the “era.” (Though: how do that and maintain a necessary receptivity, how do that without becoming “engrained,” absolute, dogmatic, shrill?)

Burroughs talks about (in “On Coincidence”) how, walking about, attending to things, “the world”—“You will observe that what you were thinking about just before you saw the sign relates to the sign. The sign may even complete a sentence in your mind. You are getting messages. Everything is talking to you.” Which betrays an enormous narcissism (that writerly thing). Which is used to argue that a “person” exists not as a solitary thinking machine, but as a node in a communicatory grid (subjectivity turn’d off, &c., &c.) Which seems utterly familiar (I rather like the challenge of making whatever comes within reach part and parcel of my “communication,” (I am always communicating (I am utterly narcissistic))). Which sheers off “speaking precisely” in lieu of “speaking erringly.” Which is what writers do, pursuing the gimcrack baubles in the mists, wrench’d around by bathos, by any new light shining up, a mountain where a lake stood, you know the ropes. Addictedly. Obsessedly. (David Foster Wallace writes of how “substance” addicts may also be “addicted to thinking, meaning they have a compulsive and unhealthy relationship with their own thinking . . .”) Isn’t it the case that most writers I admire (admit to my mirey) be obsess’d, addict’d, “worse”? Enough. The work ship arrives. (“Down out of the succulent clouds.”)

Faulkner’s Flags in the Dust begun. A sentence:
There were once crepe-myrtle and syringa and lilac and jasmine bushes without order, and massed honeysuckle on fences and tree trunks; and after the first house had burned these had taken the place and made of its shaggy formality a mazed and scented jungle loved of mockingbirds and thrushes, where boys and girls lingered on spring and summer nights among drifting fireflies and quiring whip-poor-wills and usually the liquid tremolo of a screech owl.
Faulkner’s precise naming, knowing the bird noises (“liquid tremolo” is perfect). I must’ve sought out “perspiring” (and “mirey”) out of that “quiring”: the sign relates to the sign.

William S. Burroughs

Tuesday, July 03, 2007

Black Stone

“American Idle”

Black Stone, by Dale Smith (Effing Press, 2007)

One of the many ways that pregnancy and childbirth pull the ordinary quotidian into monstrous and lovely shapes, and compel one “out” into a world unceasingly new is through language—a whole different vocabulary suddenly enters (with everyday ease) one’s household: amniotic fluid, lanugo, linea negra, vernix, bilirubin count. And one thinks one’ll never forget any of it, just as one thinks one’ll never forget the newborn’s particular tiny-mouth’d pout, or the sensation of its first weight, or its clench, or any of it. And of course it slips, some of it remains, most of it goes, replaced by the oncoming versions, a succession of changes, though the intensity—palpability—of that new language acquired is strongest early.

That’s one of the things I think about, reading Dale Smith’s Black Stone, a kind of daybook of prose poems (though some lineate, tufts of verse emerging as if spontaneously, a different way to measure, a sudden finer calibration). Smith writes, in a prefatory note:
I began Black Stone on the first day of the Christian observance of Lent. My second son, Waylon, was born during that period, and I wanted to explore the narrative of days around his birth. The poem ends on Easter, the end of Lent, the day Christ is said to have come back to life on earth. Christ is beautiful, but he cast an extraordinary shadow. I think of that shadow as a kind of stone, and I find it more useful and scary than the sweet piety of the crucified god.
The weightiness of that stone (I love the unspoken connection between “casting a shadow” and “casting a stone” that evidence of passivity become activity, “useful,” fraught, dangerous) is essential: Smith pointedly refuses any manner of Christian high skippiness, any possibility not root’d fiercely and lovingly in the tangible earth. The first piece begins: “Here swims the earth-bound babe, moving day and night.” To dispel any doubt, there’s the D. H. Lawrence provided epigraph:
All that we have, while we live, is life;
and if you don’t live during your life, you are a piece of dung.
What Smith details, with canny accuracy, cleanly, without unnecessary jawing and outburst, is as precise a texture of life in these States in these citizenry-wallop’d ’thousands as I’ve seen. There’s a whole sense of citizens living within fragile self-made tenuous communities, tending one another, trying to comprehend and quell forces larger than themselves. Against a plutocracy pursuant of its own (nefarious, brutal) ends. Here’re two pieces in sequence:
Bright yellow blossoms float on a primrose jasmine’s tangle of foliage. Grey mist turns to light rain. Ground coffee beans and poured hot but not boiling water into a glass canister for good, strong coffee. Suddenly I’m reminded of Hemingway’s relish for sensual details. The taste of food and drink, or the complex social rituals of consumption. He possessed a vivid appetite. And now Hoa says she feels something, surges coming every ten minutes or so. The linea negra separates her belly into two spheres. She inspires me with her lovely, fierce determination. K cries in protest and fear. Outside power lines criss-cross a silver sky. Or perhaps it’s a gunmetal sky there behind a thick range of pecan and hackberry branches. A friend wants to know the names of the tools of our utility grid, much as an amateur ornithologist desires knowledge of birds. She wants the name of each individual wire and bolt. What rocks mix into the asphalt or concrete? Where is metal smelted for our cars, or the screws and nails that keep our houses and furniture together? Do people still even smelt? Smelters the OED calls them. What plastic makes this pen? Which chemicals blacken its ink? And the surges continue. A strong cramping force brings out this earth-bound creature.

Waylon Hart arrived in creamy vernix. Now he sleeps and K plays in bed with Hoa. The rain comes light and then heavy, a day of steady drizzle. 3:52 p.m. he came, crying out before completing his womb exit. Now he’s calm, quietly wrapped in a blanket. He pissed and soiled the sheets with rich black excrement, adjusting as he can to this suddenly new world. Friends came to watch Keaton. Others brought food. Drank a couple of beers. Washed dishes. Made tea. Tended Hoa and Hart. She delivered with full devout courage, to quote a friend, the babe coming quickly. A little pumpkin head with the face of a bruiser. There’s music in the house and it’s dark out. Played with K in his room a while, easing him through the stress of new life—the intrusive awakening coming to him. Swept mud clods off the floor. Took him in the rain for ice cream hoping he would fall asleep. The moon hid behind clouds, sky moving. Quiet now, K resting. Hoa sips tea, looks at me.
Extraordinary sense of interconnectedness, of “right simplicity,” and of human-scaled needs and possibilities. If Hemingway’s clean-burning intensity, that deft clarity (I think of how he’d go hungry, empty-stomach’d, to the Louvre, to see the paintings better) keeps keen Smith’s prose, it may, too, contribute to its understory of combativeness, anger, lament. (I think of that gut-punch line in “The End of Something”—“I feel as though everything was gone to hell inside of me”—marker for a usual lover’s spat translated into that for a whole damn country’s betrayal.) For there’s something of Hemingway in Smith’s grim examination, under “this gorgeous mundane sludge of wet sky,” of the “unique abstraction: America”:
Living as if under siege, hidden by new purchases. Assaulted by food and gadgets, the rain comes like an acid spray to pull our flesh back. Melt like salted slugs. Shed skin or die, reptilian and cold, and then enter a new world in these forming days. Last night a grackle corpse rotted on a Blockbuster sidewalk, its black neck feathers caught in a strong breeze. It lay inert, decomposing in a neon-reflecting puddle of light.
Or something of Kerouac—he, too, invoked, allow’d an epigraph. And Creeley / Olson exchanges—out of these Smith forges something closes to a declaration of method, (no, “method’s not it either”), a way to proceed daily, a means of continue (the thing a writer needs, not “voice,” not a “project,” not the usual dopey “texts” to “write through,” not some downloadable muck to jiggle about in . . .) Smith writes, figuring it out, responding to Creeley’s own figuring it out (“the oblique: afraid of conclusions: sound: and the oddness”):
By way of the root—or by way of my black coarseness—that negative deposit beneath intent. Clarity, but also a method to relate the conflicting pulses of acceleration and accretion. Maybe method’s not it either. The turning on toward achievement, no goal exact. What can be gained, you get by the radical will in step with the day.
(Elsewhere Smith admits to writing in what Céline call’d the “American style”—“lyrical and confused.” Though, after putting Herakleitos hard on Céline’s heels, “The untrained mind shivers with excitement at everything it hears,” Smith insists on slowing down the tempo, noting how the “Kerria blossoms burst forth yellow under a desert willow,” and “There are cheese sandwiches with mustard,” thus puncturing any possible full-tilt bombast with pragmatics, with precise identifications: “I take my time with the day.”)

Black Stone’s a splendid balancing act of concerns: greeting the new whilst confronting the old, demanding that it meet its promise. It selects its details with surety and grace, picking and choosing, as Marianne Moore says (quoting Xenophon), “a right good / salvo of barks.” “Only,” she says, “the most rudimentary sort of behavior is necessary / to put us on the scent.” It’s clear that Dale Smith doesn’t suffer fools, even momentarily. How it balances: against the patience and tenderness and care is a wild percipience, quick and derisive. Here’s Smith at the playground encountering a mother who’s (overly) “inquisitive,” full of “good-natured hostility,” “wants to pry in and take something”:
I’m braced for her world opinions. She seems like the kind of person eager to share them. She discourses on the National Good and her Private Gods. In her diaper bag there’s a bottle of juice for her toddler and a package of chips. I give her the quick backgrounder: one tot, one infant, recovering wife. Full time pops, occasional private eye. I feel cheap for having told her anything.
Terrific interplay of things here. In an “age” wherein the line between public and private is nigh-sunder’d, the public playground becomes the locus classicus for a private eye, just as it becomes a hazard for anyone, like Smith, who (as he writes in a biographical sketch) “practices the art of invisibility.” In an “age” wherein one’s compel’d to flaunt publicly (yea, “officially,” in the highest reaches of the government) one’s “Private Gods,” that sure sign of fundamental righteousness, where’s an “occasional private eye” to turn? One feels “cheap” for having enter’d into a “public” exchange under the banner of another’s (wrong) assumptions (“a package of chips”).

Note, too, the excellent and lengthy Hoa Nguyen and Dale Smith pages in the new Origin (Sixth Series), just released by Bob and Susan Arnold of Longhouse. It’s a whopping five hundred plus pages, the fourth and final issue of a bang-up homage to Cid Corman.

Dale Smith

Monday, July 02, 2007


A Woman

Lazy weekend, bicycle’d here and there, attempt’d a few photographs, nap’d big naps. Sometimes during the week I think how the weekend with its stretch of no particulars’ll foster up a streak of something, get a volley going, something sustain’d beyond the quotidian gulp and plunge, the highdiving one shots. No, the bottomland to the watery depths is sleep, bang’d down ineffable unriotous sleep. Fiery narcoleptic fury and thrum. One of my brothers used to furnish a noise for such rhetorical overcookery: Ppffsssure.

Faulkner’s Mosquitoes: the epigraph talks about the furious insects without admitting of the word mosquito, providing a minor summer life-cycle of the onerous tribe: “In spring . . . they were little and young and trusting: you could kill them sometimes. But now, as August like a languorous replete bird winged slowly through the pale summer toward the moon of decay and earth they were bigger, vicious; ubiquitous as undertakers . . . a biblical plague seen through the wrong end of a binocular: the majesty of Fate become contemptuous through ubiquity and sheer repetition.” Language that cannot decide whether its borrowing King James rhythms for lofty purpose or to mock itself and its intent. And later in the book, is the word mosquito ever used? Not that I see. What one gets is a recurring occasional bout of slapping, or high whine—a kind of missing McGuffin. It reminds one somehow of Chekhov’s odd offstage noises, sounds to no account, a violinist in a neighboring street, the sound of an ax splitting wood. In the midst of the Nausikaa (yacht)’s setting out, with no prior referent: “All the jollity of departure under a perfect day, heatridden city [New Orleans] behind, and a breeze too steady for the darn things to light on you.” And, later, up a sluggish river at nightfall, one of the moroser characters “slapped suddenly at the back of his hand, with consternation . . .” “Then, as if at a signal, they were all about them, unseen, with a dreadful bucolic intentness, unlike their urban cousins, making no sound.” A general buggy melée ensues: “At the companionway the ghostly poet joined them hurriedly, flapping his handkerchief about his face and neck and the top of his unnurtured evaporating head.” (An image that pulls up some early cut of John Dee with ’s head spouting flames, and, of course, Emily Dickinson’s line . . .) Faulkner makes good sport with the ghostly poet, seemingly about to expire instanter, dasn’t go in the water, cannot endure the sun, mostly found horizontal, plank’d by lethargy, name of “Mark Frost.”

Other notable Mosquitoes lines:

A belief about Conversation (not talk): “Conversation—with an intellectual equal consisted of admitting as many socalled unpublishable facts as possible about oneself.” (See Blogland mores.) A corollary: “Desire . . . had long since become an unfulfilled habit requiring no longer any particular object at all.”

A good deal of art-mockery. Corollary to the corollary about “desire” is one about sculpture, or, broadly, “art”: “. . . it is not necessary that it have objective significance. We must accept it for what it is: pure form untrammelled by any relation to a familiar or utilitarian object.”

Some mockery of norteamericano holier-than-thou-ists, those who’d shoulder God aside in they own righteousness: “God must look about our American scene with a good deal of consternation, watching the antics of these volunteers who are trying to help Him.”

Some Molly Bloom talk by the “genius” sculptor:
starts in my hair in my hair and beard I am crowned with starts christ by his own hand an autogethsemane carved darkly out of pure space but not rigid no no an unmuscled wallowing fecund and foul the placid tragic body of a woman who conceives without pleasure bears without pain
      what would I say to her fool fool you have work to do you have nothing accursed intolerant and unclean too warm your damn bones then whiskey will do as well or a chisel and maul any damn squirrel keeps warm in a cage go on go on then israfel revolted surprised behind a haycock by a male relation fortitude become a matchflame snuffed by a small white belly where was it i once saw a dogwood tree not white but tan tan as cream what will you say to her bitter and new as a sunburned flame bitter and new those two little silken snails somewhere under her dress horned pinkly yet reluctant o israfel ay wax your wings with the thin odorless moisture of her thighs strangle your heart with hair fool fool cursed and forgotten of god . . .
That anatomical snail imagery (“horned pinkly”) worthy of Lautréamont, exactitude that announces its source in monstrous apprehension and fear, crank’d straight out of nightmarish rut chronicles?

Story of a man met in Mandeville (portrait of the artist):
He was a white man, except he was awful sunburned and kind of shabby dressed—no necktie and hat. Say, he said some funny things to me. He said I had the best digestion he ever saw and he said if the straps of my dress was to break I’d devastate the country. He said he was a liar by profession and he made good money at it, enough to own a ford as soon as he got it paid out. I think he was crazy. Not dangerous: just crazy.
The informant initially cannot remember the name (“Walker or Foster or something”). And when she finally recalls it, her interlocutor says “Faulkner? . . . Never heard of him.”

Faulkner-sport: “He’s a fairly intelligent man, more sensitive than most, and yet he too labors under the illusion that Art is just a valid camouflage for rutting.” Somehow reminding me of the line someone had about so-and-so’s movement to the Left: “He discover’d more opportunities for sex there.”

William Faulkner