Friday, August 31, 2007

The Grand Piano Notes

Framing a Frame

Carla Harryman writes: “A politics of memory . . . speaks to not denying the material conditions under which the work is produced. The material conditions are the work’s memory.” And: “The dilemma of memory, the demand of remembering to fix meaning has always troubled me.” Adding that that demand’s “at times” made her “reluctant to continue” with The Grand Piano project: “when I was a child I threw away my diaries after I filled them up.” (Presumably, Harryman continues out of obeisance to the “work’s memory,” that of her own works, 1975-1980.)

Truth is, Harryman’s a deft memoirist, adept at “producing the language of narrative,” and offers several autobiographical sketches of no little oomph. One of her work with (and mourning of—he died in 2005) actor and director Philip Horvitz, with whom Harryman staged a piece call’d Memory Play. (Horvitz’s performance of Yes, I Can, “a version of the life of Sammy Davis, Jr., complete with appropriated memoir and familiar songs”—with text and images that “went around twice in an exact repetition” recalls somewhat the Jean Eustache film titled “Une Sale Histoire,” a twice-told story of voyeurism, related first by Eustache’s friend Jean Nöel-Picq, and second, identically, by actor Michel Lonsdale playing Nöel-Picq. Simulacral doodadery. Farce repeating itself as farce.)

One (memoir) of a tediously stiff-sounding (“We sat in straight-backed chairs facing the audience, speaking without looking at each other as if we were trying to get the words of the text as animated by voices to meet at the apex of the imaginary triangle situated between the two seated performers and the audience”—a sentence one need only utter in robot-speech to explain the post-performance upshot) production of Harryman’s Percentage, after which “we all went outside to stand in a nicely lit and quite large yard, which might have also been a corral, around which Jill Scott rode a horse.” (And a commentary about “Jill Scott”—horsewoman in Ethiopia, malaria survivor in Central Africa, brave and savvy sneak-thief of Disneyland’s backstage secrets—follows: “it was hard for her to be taken seriously by male artists in San Francisco”; “Jill believed that I was far more fortunate in this respect than she. Perhaps it was this frustration that caused her to package herself in a crate and ship it through the mail to an address I believe was 80 Langton Street.” Is it incorrect to read palpable envy clothed in a tiny snub in those lines? A few sentences along Harryman writes: “There was a kind of magicianship exercised by some of the San Francisco performance artists of that period, but I never wanted to be a magician.” Maybe not.)

It’s the leaking (textbook-y) theory that rankles, particularly put against a story that’d seem to contain the whiffs of negativity and competition that the “Jill Scott” one does. Harryman subjects O’Neill’s A Long Day’s Journey into Night and Williams’s Cat on a Hot Tin Roof (“where traumatic and endlessly rehearsed, yet unprocessed, memory produces the drama of interpersonal dysfunction”) to a kind of parody of California psychobabble:
Memory in these dramas produces negative life stories, narratives trapped in tragedy and melodrama. Such negative life stories of the American Way, whether they are about self-idealization or horrible shame, are often obsessed with childhood and particularly adolescence—as if the adult were merely an unfortunate vessel for the torment of youth. These works are among those that our culture recognizes and reveres as great representations of its ethos. What they represent is adult management of despair in past fantasies and a corresponding incapacity to change one’s psychic life to the degree that everything “outside” becomes one’s psychic life—stuck in rather than engaged with the past.
The “outside”—seemingly akin to Lyotard’s “master narratives”—is where, as Harryman writes, “everything has already been said then rehearsed many times as if it were true that there are only a few stories to tell, that get told over and over again. The performer enters the groove of the already given and discovers her unique unfolding inside the suffocating legitimacy of the sanctioned story.” And: “the performer is producing the language of narrative rather than identifying herself as a part of the narrative.” Isn’t any claim that one is somehow “using the language against itself,” always suspect? Simple irony in a new hat, ostentatious in its displays of provenance, its designer labels and codes? There’s that old simulacral petard of the self-justificatory language sampler, my toot isn’t like everybody else’s toot. It reminds me somehow of W. H. Auden’s famous quip: “‘After all,’ sighed Narcissus the hunchback, ‘on me it looks good.’”

Carla Harryman

Thursday, August 30, 2007

The Grand Piano Notes

Two Dolls

The usual dilemma: apply myself to writing something about the dilatory third part of The Grand Piano or rehash the recent hypotheses regarding hominid denudation as dispatch’d by the Journal of Zoology. (Full of such wonders as “the hunting ape took off his hairy coat to avoid becoming overheated in the hot savannah” and “clothing made hairlessness inconsequential” and the neotenic “humans are a juvenilized form of ape” and “hominids were forced by interspecies competition from an arboreal life to feeding on the seashore . . . gradually becoming more adapted to swimming . . . increasingly aquatic, [hominids] therefore lost their long, shaggy coat of fur, which is typical of primates but not of marine animals” and “because man is another messy eater, it would somehow be helpful if he were naked” and “a naked primate would be less liable to harbour ticks and other noxious parasites.”) Notable is the fact that, since skin and hair differences fail to get acknowledged by the fossil “record,” no one knows when the event—the “great denudation”—occurred. Ah, history, bad history.

To The Grand Piano then. Steve Benson: “Typing had long been a species of realization to me, whether of absurdist fantastical daydreams channeled into stories at pubescence, letters to beloved friends that assured me when in doubt that my relationships were genuine, or poems that turned careless momentary wrinkles in my imagination into tentative gestalts. The poem appeared, at times, to portend me, yet it always pointed somewhere else, its insistence on difference as necessary as that of a Warhol detergent carton or the Beatles cover of an R&B song.” That is one portentous “insistence on difference,” methinks, though, in the great denudation of what appear to be levels of simulacra, I’m not at all certain of the difference between a “cover” and a apparent portent pointing “somewhere else.” A gestalt thing, no doubt.

I am rather intrigued in Benson’s sketch by the lecture “Views of Communist China” wherein Benson moved Benson “décor” into Perelman “railroad apartment” and conduct’d a tour “bracketed,” Benson writes, “by my two deadpan recitations from memory of speeches by contemporary Chinese peasants, which I had transcribed from a New Yorker article by Orville Schell.” Is there something of a transcription of the talk itself in Michael Palmer’s Code of Signals, or one of the Writing / Talks books? I think so. One response: proto-flarf, mockery by recontextualizing. Another: If the tour is model’d after “tours of the palace at Monaco and the White House that Grace Kelly and Jackie Kennedy had given on TV, which,” Benson, oddly enough, says, “I had never seen,” and it is “ruptured” (a seemingly too emphatic verb) by words out of The New Yorker, who’s zoomin’ whom? The “model” differs hardly a jot from one of the contemporary Connecticut masses—that revolutionary crew—poolside with drinks, reciting the doings in the latest John Cheever story.

Something grates in the transitions, a form of cheerleading, Oscar night repartee. Benson goes “You always seemed so mature and worldly” and next batter up, Tom Mandel goes (winning boyish grin), “I was.” Self-portending one could cut with a knife:
Steve’s characterization of me as worldly seemed apt the moment I read it, and now that I’ve acted out the aptitude, making it present rather than figuring upon it, I see that as with any syntactic figure, from juxtaposition to the most complex trope, this use of language both represents and also invokes the destiny of its object. You know me now, dear reader, as Steve knew me then.
If you say so, Tom.

Though, for a few paragraphs Mandel recalls, too briefly, living some months in Paris in 1973, studying—what, he does not say—with an old Chinese philosopher and poet who tells him, in a tidy anecdote, that Paris is “old, filled with the past and death. The past makes me young, but it will make you old.” Enough, narratively, to return Mandel back to the States and, bizarrely, a discussion of the heights (and undergraduate alma maters) of various Language poets. (“At 6’ 1”, Barry was right up there . . .” Which, I find reassuring, knowing I got some on him, to say nothing of my reach with the hirsute and weedy ape-arms I inherited.) I suppose it could be construed as an uncommon breakout of parody, though to what intent . . . too dismal to consider. (I do like the two-sentence novel of: “Rae often wore big platform shoes that made her seem tall. She wasn’t though, when they came off.”)

Mandel, on being asked “Why do you write?”: “I answered that writing was the only thing I found difficult, really difficult. That was my reason to write.”

Two Bonobos (Pan paniscus)

Wednesday, August 29, 2007

O’Hara’s Auden

A Newspaper in the Street

Funny to come across little O’Hara homunculi whilst perusing Auden’s The Orators: An English Study (1932). Benefits of the epigone. (There’s no correlate between “hindsight” and “hind tit,” that latter’s reserved for litter-runts.) So, if Auden, in a categorizing spree, rambling along about “the excessive lovers of self,” identifies these as “they who even in childhood played in their corner, shrank when addressed,” do we immediately think of “Autobiographia Literaria”? (“When I was a child / I played by myself in a / corner of the schoolyard / all alone.”) Maybe.

What if we read “Are you just drifting or thinking of flight? You’d better not. No use saying ‘The mater wouldn’t like it,’ or ‘for my part I prefer to read Charles Lamb.’ Need I remind you that you are no longer living in Ancient Egypt? Time’s getting on and I must hurry or I shall miss my train”? Except for a few hoity Briticisms, isn’t that the fleet Frank?

Another. Auden, in a terrific ranging slippery catalogue of unity in diversity, with high scrutable side-commentary (the Zen-etch’d “Life is many; in the pine a beam, very still: in the salmon an arrow leaping the ladder” or the Stein-romping “An old one is beginning to be two new ones. Two new ones are beginning to be two old ones. Two old ones are beginning to be one new one. A new one is beginning to be an old one. Something that has been done, that something is done again by someone . . .”) writes:
One charms by thickness of wrist; one by variety of positions; one has a beautiful skin, one a fascinating smell. One has prominent eyes, is bold at accosting. One has waster sense; he can dive like a swallow without using his hands. One is obeyed by dogs; one can bring down snipe on the wing. One can do cartwheels before theatre queues; one can slip through a narrow ring. One with a violin can conjure up images of running water; one is skilful at improvising a fugue; the bowel tremors at the pedal-entry. One amuses by pursing his lips; or can imitate the neigh of a randy stallion. One casts metal in black sand; one wipes the eccentrics of a great engine with cotton waste. One jumps out of windows for profit. One makes leather instruments of torture for titled masochists; one makes ink for his son out of oak galls and rusty nails . . .
Brilliant and grace-inflect’d and various. Is there a relationship one’d draw between that and O’Hara’s great burst of “sordid identifications” in “In Memory of My Feelings”?
to be born and live as variously as possible. The conception
of the masque barely suggests the sordid identifications.
I am a Hittite in love with a horse. I don’t know what blood’s
in me I feel like an African prince I am a girl walking downstairs
in a red pleated dress with heels I am a champion taking a fall
I am a jockey with a sprained ass-hole I am the light mist
                                                                          in which a face appears
and it is another face of blonde I am a baboon eating a banana
I am a dictator looking at his wife I am a doctor eating a child
and the child’s mother smiling I am a Chinaman climbing a mountain
I am a child smelling his father’s underwear I am an Indian
sleeping on a scalp
                                    and my pony is stamping in the birches,
and I’ve just caught sight of the Niña, the Pinta, and the Santa Maria.
Thirty or so years later, in the bowdlerized 1967 “First American Edition” of The Orators, Auden is dismissive of the work, saying—not discounting the coy rubric, nor the revisionist’s tendency to overkill—that the “name on the title-page seems a pseudonym for someone else, someone talented but near the border of sanity, who might well, in a year or two, become a Nazi.” Turning to “literary influences,” he says:
The sections entitled Argument and Statement [whereof I quoted] contain, as Eliot pointed out to me in a letter, ‘undigested lumps of St-John Perse.’ I had recently read his translation of Anabase. [My recollection of the sea-froth and gush of Anabase is apparently fictitious, or inaccurate.] The stimulus to writing Journal of an Airman came from two sources, Baudelaire’s Intimate Journals, which had just been translated by Christopher Isherwood, and a very dotty semi-autobiographical book by General Ludendorff, the title of which I have forgotten. [Is it just because I am in the midst of Nabokov’s The Gift that I find that detail suspect, Ludendorff too like any number of veal-flesh’d lumberers, strictly, “oafs,” in the Nabokov oeuvre?] And over the whole work looms the shaow of that dangerous figure, D. H. Lawrence the Ideologue, author of Fantasia of the Unconscious and those sinister novels Kangaroo and The Plumed Serpent. [Another lumberer, a prose-lumberer and bête-noire and I am sorry to see him mention’d.]
Auden sees a “central theme” of “Hero-worship” in The Orators, “and we all know what that can lead to politically”—something that strikes me as more revisionist mumbo-jumbo and less noteworthy than the piece’s brash stylistic sources and how O’Hara succumb’d to it. (“From these stony acres, a witless generation, plant-like in beauty.”)

W. H. Auden, 1907-1973
(Photograph by Cecil Beaton)

Tuesday, August 28, 2007


A Flag

Early in one of Auden’s Shakespeare lectures, he says: “The first question to ask is what is the interest, the central kind of excitement inducing an author to write a work, as opposed to the wayside stimuli that may have amused him along the way.” (He’s talking about the history plays, and points to “the search for cause and pattern” for an answer.) The line, though, remind’d me of something snotty I used to say about, oh, some eighty-five percent. of the pieces I read here and there. The snotty thing: “There’s certainly nothing there to indicate that that needed to be written.” (Back to yesterday’s esprit de tohu-bohu, that Romantic gut-heave, that blaze of letter’d anguish, the work essential to the essential self in all its fibrillating . . .) “Need” is a funny thing. I need to write every day. (Pas vrai.) I certainly needed to write that, just to expel it like a cork. (Rarely. A solitary chore for a particular, or a private conveyance.) Though: there’s no doubt that a huge number of pieces—out of all the creeks and sluice-channels and meandering tributaries high and low, right and left that add up to the big river of “our” writing—get put together with no excitement beyond the dutiful, the habitual, and counting, too, that meretricious secondary gleaning of one’s gleanings against the onslaught of ennui, or that cynical whiff of lobbing anything up into the light just so’s it mirrors back down to that “self, fibrillating.” (Pinch me.) Against the dire spookdom of seeing oneself cease to matter, here’s my existential philippic, it is made of some words I found in a book. Or, variously, it is made of a thing muster’d up, les devoirs (my homework) of me, incessant and vain écrivain, just as I am you, hypocrite lecteur, mon semblable, mon frère.

Not sincerity, sincerity is an easy fit. (Direct look into the camera.) Authenticity, a bloody heart dangling off a smoldering poker. Or, the way Nabokov puts it, deriding the fancy, that palmier au bout de l’esprit, noting a phrase (“a mass of noises whose origins are hard to explain”) stuck in ’s brainpan “forever”—“full of the amazing music of truth because written not by an ignorant poet but by a naturalist of genius.” All part of the argument for turning the gulls and cormorants of the simulacra’d dumps and pits out of the temple. Nabokov:
In Chang during a fire . . . I saw an elderly Chinese at a safe distance from the fire throwing water assiduously, determinedly and without tiring over the reflection of the flames on the walls of his dwelling; convinced of the impossibility of proving to him that his house was not burning we abandoned him to his fruitless occupation.

Bah. I grind my heels into shoes worn down. I hate it that Auden toss’d out the early vehement things, all that sweet soar of rhetorical finery that does move one into a place nearer the authentic:
Today the inevitable increase in the chances of death;
The conscious acceptance of guilt in the fact of murder;
                    Today the expending of powers
On the flat ephemeral pamphlet and the boring meeting.

Today the makeshift consolations; the shared cigarette;
The cards in the candle-lit barn and the scraping concert,
                    The masculine jokes; today the
Fumbled and unsatisfactory embrace before hurting.

The stars are dead; the animals will not look:
We are left alone with our day, and the time is short and
                    History to the defeated
May say Alas but cannot help or pardon.

Stumbled up against a man whose singing is utterly impeccable and convincing. The old Chambers Brothers thing.

Monday, August 27, 2007

Esprit de tohu-bohu


Weekend of a little swimming, the usual chores and errands, some regular irregular walks, and a stop at the Saturday morning rummage emporium to uncover a reissue of Sontag’s Death Kit and a Grove paperback of Beckett’s Malone Dies, thinking for about the number four hundredth coup how I ought to’ve found myself a citify’d young cafeteria loiterer, “a great strapping lad with terrible teeth,” circa 1956 when that book got publish’d. (If only I could’ve arranged it. That or an eighteenth century North American botanist, ornithologist, thief of bird eggs and paleontological specimens.) For a dollar apiece. “A minimum of memory is indispensable, if one is to live really.” That versus: “Gurgles of outflow.” (Beckett.) On the Sontag: hard it is to skim through a book with the name “Diddy” jumping out nearly every page . . .

Squatted becalm’d for a hour in a bookshop late Sunday, looking over a fat Auden Collected, the Edward Mendelson-edited thing. Pick’d it up to see what (if anything) it included of The Orators (1932), a book I do not know, a book Frank O’Hara preferred of all Audens. (A prose and poetry miscellany miscible, not unlike the terrific MacNeice-Auden Letters from Iceland.) Slowly jigged by the vernacular, the conversational in Auden, that series of hooks and cross-stitchings against the fetter’d metric embroidery that comes to sound like a source for the O’Hara offhand equal to Williams. (My periodic retreat to Auden, the “era” of a whole raft of little sixteen-liners that, embryonically at least, resemble the ditty, “The Fall of Rome”— “Caesar’s double-bed is warm / As an unimportant clerk / Writes I DO NOT LIKE MY WORK / On a pink official form.” Because I thrill so to its nonchalance.)

Reading Nabokov’s The Gift, the last of the Russian books. (For years I directed my attention only to the works written in English, reading for Nabokov’s rapturist style, thinking the translated pieces’d divulge that only rather waterily. Considering, though, the way the vigilant lepidopterist stood mutability’s sentinel over, particularly, the French and English versions of those works, rewriting here and there, I suspect the raptures soak the oeuvre throughout, American sun splashing off the samovar. I love Nabokov’s habit of nimbly exfoliating the bare twig of metaphor, leafing it out, running it through a summer season of witness to, say, some boys sawing off a nearby branch for the perfect Y it contains, perfect for a slingshot (and here, a short digressory featurette regarding a smooth pebble and a windowpane no longer containing its tidy parallelogram of blue sky), and finally dropping it in a satisfying heap, sere and brown in its place beneath the tree of the story (though, often, one finds oneself in the laconic company of the groundskeeper, raking at that exact pile of mortuary foliage). I love how Nabokov unabashedly speaks of inspiration as “a conversation with a thousand interlocutors, only one of whom [is] genuine, and this genuine one must be caught and kept within hearing distance.” Though, frankly, who talks these days (and so breathlessly) about such an ossification of the spirit as “inspiration”? We post-moderns bound forth fully amused by such inaccuracy, completely wind’d by the mere process of rearranging our wordstuffs in the ever-meagre pantries of our “imaginations.” No more the second-hand god with garlicky breath and nose-pores agape coming close to mutter imprecatory nothings at us. (We got our own second-hand suppliers, whole lumbering retinues of word-soldiery, amassable at a click. Who needs the potency and tom-tom of the great long upsuck of the radiant spiritus?)

And I love the offhand literary slights of Nabokov: a refusal of obeisance to that particular clumsy god. So, the pomp of one character’s poetic output is recall’d with revulsion, “word-fissures, the leakage of poetry.” So, one “clean-shaven old man rather resembling a hoopoe” is notable for ’s “eyes which were too good-natured for literature.” So, one editor of a Berlin émigré rag good-humoredly accepts poems because it’s “absolutely immaterial to him what adorned the nonpolitical part” of the paper and, “poems, since they were mere trifles, passed almost entirely without control, trickling through openings where rubbish of greater weight and volume would have got stuck.” How refreshing a snarly skepticism is against endless humdrum plaidoyant defenses of poetry’s “special case.”

Is The Gift the novel most likely to please the sleeping entomologist in the midst of one’s clamoring selves? Pages of insect lore, the poet Fyodor Godunov-Cherdyntsev’s report of ’s great collector father’s teachings:
He taught me how to take apart an ant-hill and find the caterpillar of a Blue which had concluded a barbaric pact with its inhabitants, and I saw how an ant, greedily tickling a hind segment of that caterpillar’s clumsy, sluglike little body, forced it to excrete a drop of intoxicant juice, which it swallowed immediately. In compensation it offered its own larvae as food; it was as if cows gave us Chartreuse and we gave them our infants to eat.
Worthy (particularly by way of the anthropomorphism) of the terrific Jean-Henri Fabre (though Nabokov elbows him out of the way with a putdown—“popular works, full of chitchat, inaccurate observations and downright mistakes.”)

Vladimir Nabokov, 1899-1977

Friday, August 24, 2007

Julien Gracq’s Reading Writing

Some Clouds

Signs of end of summer wall-eyed drift and insouciance: a new hero daily. (Ah, my durable adolescence, one half-century of indiscriminant literary rutting!) My new hero: Julien Gracq—“whom” “I” “do” “not” “know”—as James Tate, hero of my youth, so memorably put it, prior to the onslaught of the mud-blood terminal irony that ails “us” now. Truth is, I confuse Julien Gracq with Julien Green, who is, I think, of norteamericano parentage out of Virginia, who in the ’twenties manoeuvre’d, yea, pilot’d Southern gothic into the French literary landscape. (Say nothing of Juliette Gréco, up out of the Hérault to become chanteuse of the Saint-Germain boîtes and lover of Miles Davis.) Whom I do not confuse with Juliet Berto, “bell’ attrice,” as Frank O’Hara’d put it, fetchingly. (A complete inhabitable morosity of proper names is about to solicit me into endless anxious troping—as if I were looking into Chapman’s Iliad: “Hath any ill solicited thine ears / Befall’n my Myrmidons?” Whatever that means.)

Julien Gracq. About whom: nearly nothing. He refused the Prix Goncourt in 1951. Born in 1910 in Saint-Florent-le-Vieil. Still, apparently, “with” “us.” “Julien Gracq is a majestic, retiring, and misunderstood figure in French literature.” (I am reading cover copy.) A handsome fat loaf of a book titled Reading Writing (Turtle Point Press, 2006). Being a translation by Jeanine Herman of En lisant en écrivant. Gracq, too, tends toward the aphoristic, the pert and point’d. Here, out of a piece titled “Writing”:
Even in prose, sound has to be able to stand up to meaning. You cannot be a writer without a sense that sound, in words, comes to ballast meaning, and that the weight it is then endowed with can lead it legitimately at times into strange centrifugal excursions. Writing, like reading, is movement, and as a result the word behaves like a moving object whose mass, however reduced, can never be taken for granted, and can noticeably inflect the direction.
Apt, succinct, that is, not overwrought, scientism pushing its physical nose up against the cloud chamber of literature, just to see how the particles behave.

One senses a number of pertinent arguments against Valéry, the Valéry who wrote, “I am too swift—too precise, to tell stories. I operate in exactly the opposite fashion, sweeping the narrative aside. The glittering outcome weights down on me. I am not good at lingering.” The Valéry who complain’d about the novel’s arbitrariness and “multiplicity of possible variation.” What Gracq says about the novel in reply points back:
What is truly irritating about the novel to minds obsessed with precision—Valéry’s, for example—is not what they say it is (and what it is not), it is the imposing delay in elucidating its methods, in comparison to poetry, which is more finely dissected. It is not naïveté or the vulgarity of its procedures and pretensions, it is the unequalled complexity of interferences and interactions, premeditated delays and modulated anticipations that work toward its final effectiveness—a complexity and entanglement such that they seem to add a dimension to the literary space, and, in the current state of “the science of letters,” allow only instinctive piloting and the hazards of navigation with no visibility. Everything counts in a novel, just as in a poem: Flaubert knows this (though Valéry thinks him stupid), and he does not cross out any less, or any less meticulously, than Mallarmé. But the field of combined forces that the novel represents is still too vast and too complex today for any sort of precise intellectual seizure, and the calculus it would require has yet to be invented.
I love that. Any partisan of the “supreme fiction” of la poésie’s generic unassailable superiority to the novel ought better measure what size “intellectual seizure” ’s own “mind-forg’d manacles” be capable of. (To put it indecorously.) There’s nothing inherently undoable in any kind of writing.

Elsewhere Gracq asks, regarding Stendhal, “who read The Red and the Black when it first appeared?” And notes: “The book used one of the recipes that will allow a masterpiece to go unnoticed for a long time: an archaic packaging entirely undermined from within by a corrosive temperament and an original sensibility.”

Julien Gracq

Thursday, August 23, 2007


A Window

Is it that the French writer is an indefatigable moralist, is that the source of one’s attraction? Moralist and misanthrope both, isn’t that the usual combo? (I thieve, broadly, out of Robert Pinget’s Monsieur Songe.) If Paul Valéry’s Monsieur Teste—head dragging a vestigial body along behind—is so regarded, why’s Pinget’s Monsieur Songe nearly unknown? (Is it “nearly unknown”? Is Monsieur Teste “so regarded”?)

That photograph of the nouveau roman authors, choreograph’d (rather poorly—it looks as if they’re all about to walk away muttering imploringly about the absent gods, or the goddamn random autobus en retard) by Jérôme Lindon of Les Éditions de Minuit, where Robert Pinget is trying to expel enough smoke to hide himself behind. “It’s a pity he didn’t think of becoming an author. At least he’d have one certainty today, that of being unknown.” Says Monsieur Songe.

“Monsieur Songe says I am gradually losing my hearing, my sight and my memory. What shall I have left to die with? My sense of smell? How ghastly.”

Pinget insists that the aphorisms and sketches of Monsieur Songe accumulate out of laziness. “For twenty years I have been finding relaxation from my work in scribbling these stories about Monsieur Songe.” Stories “which, I repeat, are a divertissement.” Adamancy that carries a dodgy charge, a self-mystificatory lurch, a side-step. (Is it obvious to everyone how apt the Pinget stance is, considering Il Consigliere Isola’s scribbling here? Adamant dodge against the requirements of ever writing another poem again?) Pinget:
He is obsessed by the idea of it being his duty to tackle a work of the imagination in order to forget his journal, which is enfeebling him. But isn’t this just an illusion he is cultivating? What good would it do him to abandon his little daily jottings to go cultivating chimeras? Wouldn’t that be trying to bite off more than his nature can chew? Has his nature any chance of rising about that level?

Is David Markson a Pinget reader? (Something about the tone—half-whine, half-monkeyshine—of the aged narrator in Monsieur Songe.) And the clip’d off syntactical abrupt:
Does the boredom of the duty to express oneself exceed that of the duty to remain silent? You’d need to have your back to the wall to be able to decide this, but it wouldn’t be the same wall in the two cases.

Nothing to do with the dilemma ought he or oughtn’t he to.

And what momentary slippage in the neural fortress makes the ending of the following, one of many beginning “Note for novel,” so capacious like an empty summer day fill’d up with insect noise, that dying summer solace of sneer and chitter and solo?
Note for novel.

To take the place of the plot, to fill out the text, an accumulation of little actual experiences, the whole accompanied by commentaries on the hazards of existence or even spiced with psychological interpretations. Introducing psychology. And here and there slip in a scientific term, a literary reference, an interpolation by the narrator, in short enough to provide the would-be enlightened reader with something to think about. A certain obscurity, the fruit of misguided reasoning or alembicated syntax, will do no harm. And then make up for it with a delightful phrase that opens out on to distant prospects, as evanescent as they are nostalgic.
Inevitably, reading that, I am in my own sweet fern and swamp-water olfactory din of childhood, troubled by precisely what word or combo deliver’d it up. “Distant prospects” goes a little Proustian, though Nietzsche’s “From what you would know and measure, you must take leave, at least for a time. Only after having left town, you see how high its towers rise above the houses” lifts up its shaggy occipital for a grunt, too, and some Etonian horror out of the dull annals of British verse . . . A pleasant mystery to me, knee-deep in black river-mud, here where the damselflies go laboring by, working disjoint’dly . . . As Williams says: “The secret of life is to do useless things with the utmost vigor.”

A morning stir in the cranial muck. How Milan Kundera (another moralist), after noting the French weight the word “collaborator” carries, saying: “All those who extol the mass media din, advertising’s imbecilic smile, the neglect of the natural world, indiscretion raised to the status of a virtue—they deserve to be called “collaborators with modernity.”

Alain Robbe-Grillet, Claude Simon, Claude Mauriac, Jérôme Lindon, Robert Pinget, Samuel Beckett, Nathalie Sarraute and Claude Ollier (1959)

Wednesday, August 22, 2007


A Door

William Carlos Williams: “I thrive in a matrix of confusion (balance).” And: “Good writing is a matter of integrity to the materials . . .” The self (in its mesh and mess) disintegrating into its materials, “words and words only.” Is style form? (Along the unstinting technologically-derived superficies of the early twenty-first century?) I divagate, I dwell. (I divvy-up, I hunker down.) Thomas Traherne: “In Order to Interior or Contemplativ Happiness, it is a Good Principle: that Apprehensions within are better then their Objects. Morneys Simile of the Saw is admirable. If a man would cut with a saw, he must not apprehend it to be a Knife, but a Thing with Teeth; otherwise he cannot use it. He that mistakes his knife to be an Auger, or his Hand to be his Meat, confounds him self by misapplications. These Mistakes are Ocular • but far more Absurd ones are unseen. To mistake the World, or the Nature of ones soul, is a more Dangerous Error.” In a soul-less period, is style become form? Horkheimer and Adorno suggest that style is a mere “surrogate identity,” concomitant with “obedience to the social hierarchy.” “. . . the great artists have retained a mistrust of style, and at crucial points have subordinated it to the logic of the matter.” (Integrity to the materials.) Though: in a fluid (irresolute, planar, depthless) “era” of masqueraderie and brim inessentiality, is style form?

Am I beginning to resemble Eliot Weinberger’s report’d Mandaean “Dinanukht, a half man, half book, who sits by the waters between the worlds, reading himself”? (I am beginning to Eliot Weinberger’s report’d Mandaean “Dinanukht, a half man, half book, who sits by the waters between the worlds, reading himself.”) And pause I do, to recall N., who report’d seeing a band in London call’d Half-Man, Half-Biscuit. Why do I confuse that with R., who report’d betting on a horse named Half-Man, Half-Biscuit at the racetrack in New Orleans, and how the horse stopped, mid-straightaway, dead?

Morning’s lower’d cloud bank, solid and contemptuous. Part of what caused my intemperate outburst “Is style form?”—Robert Pinget. A note in a recent Context, heft’d into my shoulder-bag yesterday in Shaman Drum, whilst maundering my way home. (Rare late afternoon aimlessness.) Perused with my soup. Now I locate my copy of The Libera Me Domine (Red Dust, 1978), translated by Barbara Wright. Against Traherne’s ocularity (against “description as such”), Pinget admits, “it would be a mistake to consider me a partisan of any ‘school of observation.’ If we are thinking in terms of objectivity, the ear has equally tyrannical exigencies.” And:
It is not what can be said or meant that interests me, but the way in which it is said. And once I have chosen this way—which is a major and painful part of the work, and which must therefore come first—it imposes both composition and subject-matter on me. And once again, I am indifferent to this subject-matter. The whole of the work consists in pouring it into a certain mold, and I have learnt from experience that it is the mold which, line by line, makes the pudding. I am always being surprised, on re-reading my work, at having written about various things which I should have thought did not come within my province.
Is style form? Not the array, not the “shape,” not the “interlock of parts,” not the narrative trajectory, not the untroubled free-running artesian well of the spirit, not the alphabetic stricture—scripture, meaning the “words and words only” scratched out in incumbent orders aurological. (Somewhere a Pinget narrator asks whether there’s “anything else to note besides this accumulation of drifting trivialities,” and, yes, there no longer is . . .)

Robert Pinget, 1919-1997

Tuesday, August 21, 2007

My Yatter

Coil and Pole

An unreasonably resolute electrical blackout, inexplicably sans tonnerre, blew a hole in my tiny quotidian writing slot (early evening), so I tuddle’d about in bougie-light, repudiating all my former selves, and thought hard (“for us all”) about the eight-year-old Colette, the way she got enamour’d with the French word for “presbytery”—presbytère—“with its harsh and spiky beginning and the brisk trot of its final syllables.” A private word, a curse word, a maledict, a spell—though it, too, apparently lost is luster (the way any Toledo-made jeep will): “I began to suspect that ‘presbytery’ might very possibly be the scientific term for a certain little yellow-and-black striped snail.” Truth is, I welcomed the blackout, sip’d a vermouth and ate a turkey sandwich, and consider’d how I’d lost my way. How, say, I am beginning to suspect the considerable efforts of daily utterance might possibly be idiot-work, a jumble or a growl for the merest jumble-Effekt, growl-Effekt. Or is it just August dog days condensing out into the usual autumnal morass, that annual degradation of service prior to winter. Verlaine: Les sanglots longs / Des violons / De l’automne / Blessent mon coeur / D’une langueur / Monotone. Enough long sobbing o-sound to make one go itchy with grief, or echt-grief. (LeRoi Jones’s report of Frank O’Hara, heckled at a reading by Kerouac, walking off stage “singing / ‘My silence is as important as Jack’s incessant yatter.’”) Or, O’Hara’s self-assessment (prognosis), regarding the work: “Mine is full of objects for their own sake, spleen and ironically intimate observation which may be truthfulness . . . but is more likely to be egotistical cynicism masquerading as honesty.” (I can get behind that, in a kind of historickal memoirs of the late fight at Piggwacket kind of way.) What I mean is what’s beckoning (always beckoning) is a dissolving (see Ronald Johnson):
to white cloud,

& swan, & clod.
Though, imperturbably, that, too, gets its invariable comeuppance, in what follows:

one river running . . .
The old agonizing fix of merger and conglomerate mud, it’s all one “writing” . . . Yeah.

Finish’d Andrew Epstein’s Beautiful Enemies. At the risk of sounding like “some aficionado of [O’Hara’s] mess” by saying it, I question whether Epstein is correct in assigning “Finding Leroi a Lawyer” to O’Hara. I say, “‘That’s not like Frank!’” with the merest whiff of evidence, and no way of ascertaining it. (I do note that Kevin Killian calls it the “singlemost dumbest poem O’Hara ever put to paper,” my reaction, too, and there’re some clunkers here and there in the “opus” for comparison.) Epstein says the poem’s “never been published or collected, commented on or acknowledged, and I am aware of no copies other that the one in the Koch archives. Like other fugitive O’Hara pieces, it is very possible that it simply fell through the cracks, as it was not included in Donald Allen’s meticulously edited posthumous collections of O’Hara’s poems, including Poems Retrieved. (Are there other “fugitive” pieces, found after Poems Retrieved?) Here’s the poem, out of “the O’Hara papers in the Kenneth Koch archive at the New York Public Library”:
Finding Leroi a Lawyer

So you’ve finished the Locus Solus poster, Jane,
and I must write to Richard Miller, thanking him
for his having done it for nothing—we could use more of that! but meanwhile
I stop in a flowershop on 8th Avenue and buy Patsy Goldberg a print by Hokusai
(they knew the meaning of snow in those days!) and also I look,
a little, into the opened cups of the flowers, don’t get fresh! and I realize that Norman is probably out of booze
by now, so I stop in Parente’s Wines Whiskey Spirits
and buy him a little schmootz, it will go well with the tomato paste
he likes so much to use in his smaller paintings. And I go to the newsstand
to get Joe his copy of Pash, Bill his Opera Guide, and Joel Oppenheimer a pack of Gauloises,
even though I have by now a lot more than I can possibly carry
since I have been shopping for people for hours, and I am beginning to feel very Machado-esque
like having little chapters instead of trotting about all day in one big museum
and I run to the nearest phonebooth
which is hot and sweaty, I think because you are not in it, Vladimir
Ussachevsky, and I pull off the mouthpiece but not the receiver, which I will give to Leroi Jones
because he is in trouble
over something the postoffice says is obscene in The Floating Bear and I know that he needs one,
although he does not need the receiver, but when I try to call him
there’s nothing but the horrible silence, which is Dietrichesque,
and when even screwing the mouthpiece back doesn’t do any good
I decide that nothing will, and I take a drink of the schmootz
which tastes like the vodka I put in Stevie River’s Koolade the night Fabian collapsed in Hoboken
and which I wrote a poem about which Ned Rorem set, but I am very sorry anyway
at how things have turned out, and I discover, besides, when I am outside the phone booth
that I have lost my shopping list. Well, if nothing happens to me in the next two minutes
I can stop here and make another.
Epstein admits that the poem “almost reads like an intentional self-parody of O’Hara’s famous shopping trip in “The Day Lady Died.” (And parody of other O’Hara pieces—the Lana Turner one, certainly.) My bet: a Kenneth Koch spoof. The rhythms, particularly in the first few lines, lack O’Hara’s incisive speed—they lumber, full of the clumsy (“thanking him for his having . . .”) and the extraneous (“but meanwhile”). Does O’Hara, elsewhere, ever get LeRoi’s name wrong, the way the poem does (twice). (For all’s fierce quickness, O’Hara is usually meticulous—no skimping the details.) What’s that coy curiosity “schmootz” (O’Hara’s rarely coy). I am curious: a handwritten copy? Typed? Whose typewriter?

Frank O’Hara by Alex Katz

Monday, August 20, 2007


A Posy-bank

Rain, a sloth-slow drubbing rain, lasting through the night and into the day. A few days home—puttering through the expendables, empty-head’d. “Everything is expendable.” Summer is disgathering, it deployments unbunching. Emerson writes how “one man is a counterpoise to a city,” a marked solitude “more prevalent and beneficent than the concert of crowds.” Yeah, there’s that. Hermitry’s suck at the addlepate. Memories of The Underground Man, that inevitable circle and recircle out into community, the stolid refusal of its terms. 2 + 2 = 4, c’est un mur. One is banging one’s square inhabit’d head against. And there’s Williams’s taunting of Eliot in “East Coocoo,” seeing, though, how we “split / hairs in internecine wars” and go, disgathering:
And we too shall die
among the rest and the brave
locomotive stand falling apart
untended for a thousand years.
Or (Williams again, out of Spring and All):
It is only in isolate flecks that
is given off

No one
to witness
and adjust, no one to drive the car
Though (there is) the rare muddle caught in the updrafts of speech, or the downturns of a slaughter’d music. Overheard, witness’d, hence “antennae.” The stamina of the art lies beyond its claimants impractical, its jokers doctrinaire, its practitioners mere. Lies in the clots of words unclotting at its great centers (these do not necessarily overlap with the self-assured grinding metropoles), in the hubbub chaotickal of its users, not its meagre miners and groupthunk no-longer-attentives. Emerson to Margaret Fuller: “at the name of a society . . . all my repulsions play; all my quills rise and sharpen.” The old clowns continue clowning, done with the uses of provocation. Enough about that. (Polite form of “Sod off . . .”)

There’s, too, that thing about the self one keeps circling, poking its slipperiness with a stick, trying to apply it to the present moment, one of seeming full-fledged political and ethical flight, considering the lack of any mass movement against the illegal, unprovoked war in Iraq: “the difficulty of maintaining one’s integrity and trustworthiness—of holding any coherent or consistent aesthetic, political, or ethical position—once mobility has been canonized as a supreme value.” Mobility: an unfix’d self, an inessential fluidity. To weigh (counterpoise) against which, one’d put Emerson’s own words (out of “Intellect”): “How wearisome the grammarian, the phrenologist, the political or religious fanatic, or indeed any possessed mortal whose balance is lost by the exaggeration of a single topic. It is incipient insanity. Every thought is a prison also.” Out of Andrew Epstein’s Beautiful Enemies: Friendship and Postwar American Poetry (Oxford University Press, 2006). Where’s the balance between a defiant position took unsubsiding, press’d forth in “incipient insanity” against the insanity of the war, and the

And up out of the river sludge of recent rains cometh high-floatingly a bottle, green-glass’d Coca-Cola, stopper’d, containing a mysterious note:
Like a Tibetan monk endlessly spinning a prayer wheel, Ron Silliman, with prodigious virtuosity, goes over and over the whole history of la poesía norteamericana from Poe to The New American Poetry, dropping down into abandoned gorges and irrevocably twisting the meanings of accepted terms. The history of poetry in these States, a history that is, accordingly, a destiny has never attained such terrifying clarity as in Silliman’s analyses. It is, to be sure, a clarity gained at the price of much violence and injustice; it is a destiny retouched by a masterful cosmetician so that its line leads directly to the threshold of Silliman’s place in Paoli on the Main Line outside Philadelphia.

Ralph Waldo Emerson, 1803-1882

Wednesday, August 15, 2007

High Wankery

Train and Signal

Laura (Riding) Jackson’s sporadic—uneven—mighty writings. A whippet-quick tongue interrupt’d by smudgy vagaries, the wash’d out residue of too certain certainty. Certainly (to carry forth like a mimic thrush that particular bird-twitter of a word—after all, (Riding) Jackson did complain that “As the best in language we hold up to ourselves high-purposed verbal models, that, intended to lift up the hearts from the down-weighting of ordinary speaking-custom, swell them up with the vanity of the word, which turns a human being into a speaking bird and the listeners into would-be changelings”—and she didn’t like that one iota, it bother’d her rectitude, unbalanced her truth-seeking)—certainly, I say, the 1928 Contemporaries and Snobs is pack’d with audacity, a happy romp through the pale pretensions of the era. “Ought to be required.” I suspect, though, the later (Riding) Jackson would’ve mock’d every poetickal word I write, and’ve written. She—with her own yowser’d verbal panache, mocks “solemnified linguistic frivolity,” all displays of “verbal ingeniousness,” “poet-idiosyncracy of statement-style” and “extravagant auditory enterprises”—amongst other poet-ruses as unbefitting, indeed, blocking, any “way-of-access to truth.” Which is, to my way of thinking (“my way of thinking”?—rich, that is, considering the way I am pelt’d by noisome cadaverous shells of former words, dropping down into the brainpan like locusts, fat-saturated satyrs of truth incombustible, meaning, do I even think?)—which is to say, is (Riding) Jackson calling for something akin to buttering one’s daily bread with Hans Arp’s famous “bladeless knife from which a handle is missing”? Perhaps she is, “and wouldn’t be the first.” Nevertheless, reading (Riding) Jackson in a troubled minor funk, fed up with lies and slurs and showboating and power prestidigitations (“disappearances and refusals”) and self-appoint’d high wankery and (mostly) obsequious toadies, I cotton’d nigh-absolutely to a (Riding) Jackson piece titled “Poetry As Image of Poetry,” here in its entirety:
I have declared that poetry had exhausted the possibilities envisaged in the vision of the utterable that engendered it, and become a stage for postures of poetic utterance, contests of skill in exhibiting vision of oneself, and oneself, as theme of the uniquely all-utterable. And I have pronounced on the male temper of this invention, this poetry of a relativity of innumerable absolutes, varied with female reiterations of it in the proud rhetoric of a new petulance of the self. The literary consequences are disguised in poetic ceremonials in which the striking of notes of the music of the self is mingled in with the sounding of rhythms of meaning, as if enhancing them. But the music of the self devours the music of meaning. The product is neither something spoken nor something sung. It is a playing upon language, as an instrument borrowed from life, to make the players seem alive.
Damnably correct in a certain milieu. And I am willing (able) to do it, too. It’s sure to draw a crowd, “everybody loves a self splay’d out talk-tawdry.” What I prefer, though, is listening to the finger-sized bugs drop out of the big oaks into the drench-stories of under-noise (that constant babble). What I prefer, is making a kind of mild goulash, paprika’d with wit, of that mess. I prefer writing with no inkling of audience, in trance-apple quietude wherein, I can note the exact moment when the quivery probe of the yellowjacket pierces my skin, red (I am the apple). What I prefer, is the aimless (reckless) drone-hebetude—the son filé, that long-sustain’d bowing of the tiny quotidian, minuscule event after minuscule event, and no meniscus of self-music intervening. “And yet.” (To quote Theodore Dreiser, the worst of the “majors.”) Push’d into the political world—the world of actions deplorable undeplored (“complacency reigns in the avant-garde suburbs and all is right with the world”)—I’ll push my bee-stung physiog—a red welt’d, knobby, weltanschauungen’d horribilis thing right into the heart of the music, and spit.

Here’s a little story. Yesterday I sent another note to the Poetics List. Here it is:
Date: Tue, 14 Aug 2007 10:26:21 -0400 (EDT)
From: John Latta
To: UB Poetics discussion group
Subject: Isola di Rifiuti


“Bernstein with a Monicker, (Silliman, No Cigar)”

“The Hydra-Head’d Self and State Power”

“A Petulant Child” (Comment Boxes, Sandboxes, the Hegemony of “Me”)

“Feckin’ Merchants” (Fear of the Commons)

On David Markson’s *The Last Novel*

“Collect’d Offal” (Poems for Today!)

and more . . .

John Latta
An announcement. Unpost’d. Zilch. Nada. Rien. Niente. The obsequious toadies refused it for reasons not forthcoming. Is it because I post’d a picture of Charles Bernstein wherein he bears an uncanny resemblance to Dick Cheney? (Perhaps. The avant-garde is known for its overblown self-regard as much as for its cupidity in some quarters. Vanity, thy name is legion.) One can only guess. (Perhaps it’s a form of anarchy, brilliant aleatorick’d quashing, tipping the apple cart at odd hiccupy moments, Dame Tyche-Fortuna frowning down like Edith Sitwell—“not that post,” as if it were a turd—just to remind one how art is like life, unpredictable and wayward.) Again: Write to the deferential toad. Write to the king of the anurancy, she who does the job of snagging incoming bugs with a long sticky tongue. Open the list to all. End the censoring.

Because in the cobwebby reaches of my cranial cave-system, something perk’d in thinking about (Riding) Jackson. All that questionable nonsense (a term used loosely) about accessing “truth.” As if poetry were “design’d” for that. Somehow it remind’d me of William Matthews’s “short but comprehensive summary of subjects for lyric poetry”:
1. I went out into the woods today and it made me feel, you know, sort of religious.
2. We’re not getting any younger.
3. It sure is cold and lonely (a) without you, honey, or (b) with you, honey.
4. Sadness seems but the other side of the coin of happiness, and vice versa, and in any case the coin is too soon spent and on we know not what.
Against which cartoons of the “essential verities,” one pimps for truth-access in “form”—“Language sure is a mess and so is my poem.”

[The (Riding) Jackson material is out of The Failure of Poetry, The Promise of Language, edited by John Nolan (University of Michigan Press, 2007).]

Laura (Riding) Jackson

Tuesday, August 14, 2007

Bernstein with a Monicker


Charles Bernstein wheels himself around into a momentary plotz’d akimbo
Stance, all persevering unctuousness, with a radical weather-
Brow out, and asks me if I think my biliousness’ll score big
With the little gods, the sky-troopers of night’s final measure.

Against the stance’s persevering unctuousness, my own radical weather
Dogs the bunch who hack it, and smarm leaps off the shelf
With my little gods, sky-troopers of night’s final cocksure pleasure,
Parachuting down into a hat not entirely fill’d by Charles Bernstein’s head.

Dogs bunch up at the smarmy lack of it, leap for the throat of that self
With its smug comedic Nowheresville convictions, into the spit of its conniptions,
Parachuting down like hats, though not entirely. Charles Bernstein’s head
Is somewhere nearby, speechless, and it’s not due to exuberance.

Out of its Nowheresville convictions, it spits its conniptions,
Fit to be tied at the way it gets ramp’d up for a takeoff and stalls out in vacuo or
Somewhere nearby, speechless in the vade mecums, and it’s not due to exuberance.
More likely it’s due to a devilish ambition that clamps down honest criticism,

“Unfit to be snide.” Then all tied up for a “takeoff,” Bernstein’s head stalls out vacuous
As a cigar store Indian, all tête de bois with wooden incisors like George Washington’s,
Due to a devilish inhibition that cramps up and clamps it down. Honestly, criticism
Is no help in a case like that. And if he commits the noble fault, jetting

Like a cigar store Indian, all Woody Woodpecker like George W.,
Where’s the harm in that? Long’s the reputation’s safe. Long’s selling continues. A bad attitude
Is no help in a case like that. If, twitted, one’s notable fault is infantile vetting
(In the French sense) all conversational patter, and parlaying small humor into academic industry,

Where’s the harm in that? Long’s the reputation’s safe. Long’s selling continues. A badass attitude’ll
Browbeat any investigatory others out. I ask him if he’ll bill me as “Big Score
et les ordures policières” at the next academic parlay of the conversational control industry,
And Charles Bernstein wheels himself around into a minute heap, plotz’d, a tiny perfect Dumbo.

Every comedian’s heart—the laugh muscle—conceals a killer. The fault of the hair-trigger difference between thinking in one guffaw, “I’ll make him laugh,” and its sudden obverse, “Make him stop laughing. He’s laughing at me.” And Charles Bernstein’s first a comedian: it is there, in the giddy subversions of a mostly sophomoric (Greek for clever moron) humor that he pooh-poohs and nyuck-nyuck-nyucks, a veritable clown in trousers. Or a klupzy girl. “Who’s on first?” The thing about comedy is, it brooks little argument, little half-measure, little slow-harsh subtlety of sidelong cancerous wit; it is rarely reveal’d casually, with joyous finesse, by degrees. The comedian’s unwilling to proceed by increments, who ever heard of an incremental laughter? Because comedy, like murder, is about control. And control that is slow to exhibit itself is no control at all.

Okay, the reason for the plangent and heart-rending melee (I call it that because it’s a pantoum, ha ha, “twice the poem, half the lines”) I wrote in a fit of derisive expediency whilst the sun did a brusque reportage in the cloud cleavage above: I accuse Charles Bernstein of “sudden obverse” killer instinct in the administrating of the Poetics List. (He is the “list owner”—it’s beyond me how a mechanism located at the University of Buffalo—a public state institution—is manhandled whimsically, irresponsibly, and censoriously against the public and poetic good by a clown employ’d by the state of Pennsylvania.) He, through the nefarious dirty hands bunch of hench-mensches and hench-wenches, Amy King, Joel Kuszai, Nick Piombino, Lori Emerson, and Julia Bloch, blocks whatsoever he sees fit, including, in the latest round, a simple URL pointing to a correcting essay—after a misinform’d slur against him—by Kent Johnson regarding ’s ouster in 1999 by clown Bernstein. Including, too, a “corrective interpretation” I wrote of some insinuations Nada Gordon made against that same Kent Johnson, everybody’s preferred whipping boy, particularly favor’d by the know-nothing sycophants who like to dumbly “pile on” after he’s down. Including a protest regarding the removal of Jon Leon’s poems out of MiPoesis. Unbelievably self-serving, that bunch. Unbelievably timid, refusing congress in lieu of a static stultifying commerce. The Emersonian parable of the circles applies directly to “First Speaker” Bernstein:
There is no outside, no inclosing wall, no circumference to us. The man finishes his story,—how good! how final! how it puts a new face on all things! He fills the sky. Lo! on the other side rises also a man, and draws a circle around the circle we had just pronounced the outline of the sphere. Then already is our speaker not man, but only a first speaker. His only redress is forthwith to draw a circle outside of his antagonist.
Bah. Premature is that self-pleased belaurel’d look, Charles. Open the list to all. End the censoring.

Charles “Baby Face” Bernstein

Monday, August 13, 2007

The Hydra-Head’d Self and State Power


Grump’d off into the weekend world of leaf-debris’d streets and persnickety, recalcitrant, yea, cuss’d Toro mowers, and sun sledging down molt’d-yellow into the steely mold of oneself, its hot animosity-replicant reciprocal touch—see “Sun, A Somewhat Imperious Account of Talking Down to. . .”—and just as surliness calls us to the things of this world, I grump’d off thinking I’d go back into Faulkner’s mossy belabor’d tourbillons and meanderings, back under the consoling song of something simple, like fratricide, or miscegenated offspring, or warfare in the trenches . . . And found myself, oddly enough, trucking with Andrew Epstein’s Beautiful Enemies: Friendship and Postwar American Poetry (Oxford University Press, 2006). It’s cleanly writ and musters together a fine compendium of material to bounce against in considering, oh, how people in self-proclaim’d hoity-toit groupuscules (and they tender adversaries) behave today. (That’s not exactly the book’s intent—it is doing a historical job, considering the ties and rifts in a number of writing relationships, O’Hara’s with Ashbery’s, O’Hara’s with Baraka’s, Baraka’s with the New York School, and, largely, how the individual talent does commerce with the social realms as they manifest themselves in writing communities, self-conscious or not.) That’s not, though, the lens I determined, willy-nilly, to examine the book through.

Which is to say: all the reading I did (not even too terribly much) and writing (here) is under the cloud of a historical moment almost completely bouleversé in the intervening fifty or sixty years. And it’s the difference that swept me up and toss’d me down exhaust’d on the black sands of my reckoning. One’s (“our”) historical consciousness is such now—percipient, perspicacious, prepossessing—that one proceeds (thinks one ought proceed) by aping the old models. The upshot is, the scene requires (accepts) nothing beyond apery, fine-tuned irrelevant apery, the scenes of “our” former aperies.

Into the Epstein. There’s Ralph Ellison’s sentient remark that “true jazz is an art of individual assertion within and against the group. Each true jazz moment . . . springs from a contest in which each artist challenges all the rest; each solo flight, or improvisation, represents . . . a definition of his identity.” Which “cruel contradiction” (as Ellison call’ d it), Epstein smartly applies to “the dynamics of avant-garde poetic communities.” What Epstein points out—“one of the central paradoxes built into the avant-garde itself”—proceeds thus:
Instead of merely opposing individuality and thriving on cohesion and collaboration, as we are so often told is the raison d’être of vanguard movements, the avant-garde actually features an ongoing tug-of-war-between its demand for group solidarity against a hostile larger society and its simultaneous commandment that its participants must be anarchic rebels who resist conformity and convention. These two impulses cannot easily coexist, a fact especially glaring to American avant-garde artists, steeped by birthright in a powerfully individualistic mind-set, which leaves them particularly torn between the compulsion to be an idiosyncratic nonconformist and the desire to be an avant-garde team player.
Hence, according to Epstein, the marked ambivalence of the New York School “players” about working jointly—and he reads and reveals superbly some of the competitive tension-undertows that roil some of the collaborations.

What I think, though, reading those lines, is elsewhere. I mock Ron Silliman’s “post-avant” tag as meaningless, as just another burning arrow of gratuitous nomenclature shot out over the poesy’d plains by Chief Silliman, demonstrant mostly of a desire to control the terms of the debate—but: is the scenario of the “vanguard” Epstein mounts imaginable in the clubby ’thousands? Isn’t it more to the point that today there’s nothing but “group solidarity”? Everywhere the clamor of the social, particularly in the semi-noxious and irréel environs of cyberspace—network joining network joining network, any veritable self inevitably wholly crosshatch’d out by the lines of social force “under” which the self “operates.” That “powerfully individualistic mind-set” of the “American”—where’s that? Nowhere except in the mythical damps of a perceived “self-reliant” history, and, notably, in a damnably selfish sense of “self-preservation.” (That impulse to run off, to rub out, to disappear when threaten’d.) (See, for example, John Ashbery noting thirty or so years back—“We feel in America that we have to join something, that our lives are directionless unless we are a part of a group, a clan . . .” Bewailing exactly the kind of willful squandering of one’s autonomy one sees to a hugely exacerbated degree today, not only in social clumping, but in a narrowing of writing tendencies, of aesthetic approach.) Today, in lieu of groupuscules band’d together against the siren songs of conformity, one sees bands forming for something akin to product placement power, marketing heft. So maybe Silliman’s correct, maybe there is no avant-garde anymore, though it looks, too, as if now it’s all avant-garde. We’ve enter’d the era wherein we all be “anarchic rebels who resist conformity and convention”—the “tout-avant.” Though, certes, no consensus’d fly up there—except silently: one by one in our camouflage clothes we’re saying—“yeah, I’m an angelic upstart, even though none of the rest of those fucks be.”

The other thing that struck me in reading Beuatiful Enemies: how pervasive the “splatter’d self” ’s become. It’s getting found everywhere, its lineage traced back and back. Epstein writes a terrific summary of how the Cold War culture of containment and conformity led to oppositional strategies: “To counter the tremendous emphasis placed on stabilizing and containing unruly energies, participants in the avant-garde devoted themselves to values diametrically opposed to containment: motion, disorder, flux, speed, change, and action.” And, too, how, under the repressive post-war political and cultural forces—what Baraka, in The System of Dante’s Hell calls “the torture of being the unseen object, and the constantly observed subject”—the concept of identity shifts to become a malleable, protean, camp thing, a no-identity, temporal, performative, slippery. It’s a persuasive reading. What concerns me, though, is how that notion of identity’s become doxology now; a half-century along, we all lack a reify’d sense of identity, any essence, we all move to survive. Which makes us both hard to hit, empty targets, indestructible, and perfectly ineffectual, hydra-head’d, of no concern to the State, representing nothing, without danger, ciphers and codes, not worth the cracking. Nuts. A nation of nuts, acceptable (no need in the ’thousands for containment, even the outlawry is in containable lock-step with the aping masses aspiring behind), non-threatening.

Arnold Schoenberg, Fundamentals of Musical Composition: “Methodical variation is no substitute for invention, but it may be stimulating, like the athlete’s ‘warm-up.’”

Speaking of “That impulse to run off, to rub out, to disappear when threaten’d,” I see by a Monday morning look into my box, that the Buffalo Poetics flunkies and cutthroats refused to post another of my e-mails, one chiding the use of innuendo to continue a long-orchestrated campaign of character assassination against Kent Johnson. Therein I did say, “By the way, it’s high time that Kent Johnson be allow’d to return to full participation in the Poetics List discussions. Nearly nine years of exile.” Maybe therein lies the problem. Query the “bosses.” Demand an open forum.

Hercules and the Hydra

Friday, August 10, 2007

A Petulant Child

A Tank

My sandbox. It’s my sandbox and I own all the toys in it. All collage is hegemonic. You come in my sandbox and I get dibs, the triumphs of our era’s arts are due to appropriation. That’s my toy there. I call it ersatz man . . . media infoglut. It’s in my sandbox so I own it. Even with no concept of a sandbox, you—Louis Zukofsky! Cockchafer!—got to admit it: we do live, after all, in an age of conceptual art. In my sandbox I am unpredictable. That’s who I am—Kamau Brathwaite! Cow dung!—Mr. Unpredictability in my sandbox. Our average poet . . . is lucky to be something like a liver fluke progressing through the guts of a sheep. In my sandbox where I own all the toys if I see a Kickapoo I step on it, I step on that Kickapoo, allow me—Vicente Huidobro! Ass in the sky!—an autochthonous squeeze at my good sense. I know that nothing is owned and that borrowing or outright stealing has been our mark of Cain from the beginning. We live in an ocean of language and . . . it is hard to separate one wave from another. You come in my sandbox and I get hard to please. You—George Quasha! Smegma head!—come in my sandbox I clean it up. Ha ha ha, I say. I clean it up, autochthonous in my own sandbox. Under hegemonic conditions, what universalism or internationalism remains is internalized. If one day I am acting like an imbecile in my sandbox, I clean up. I am like a public intellectual—Gertrude Stein! Butt belly!”—self-confessedly and outspokenly “appropriational” art movements seem to be the latest miracle in my sandbox. Some days I put all my toys in my hat—Paul Blackburn! Picayune prick!—in my sandbox. Some days I doff my hat, “content” being unanchored now by any implication, legitimacy goes to formalism à outrance, and a toy flies out. I break my toys whenever I want, unlikely that there is any taboo against repetition, I find it liberatory—Kathy Acker! Snivelpurse!—the broken is open, the broken is open, open on the verge of solipsism and tautology. There is no censorship in my sandbox. Censorship—Allen Ginsberg! Rural prurience!—is a big serious thing and I have nobody like that in my sandbox. You ought to find a sandbox—Malcom de Chazal! Colonoscopy!—use the terms as gingerly as possible, I mean, mi polis es tu polis, though in my sandbox I can bust up any “signifier” I “feel like,” I think polis is Greek for “police,” isn’t co-optation into a previous or ongoing “signified” inevitable this side of revolution and, frequently, beyond? So, that’s my sandbox, where I rub off anything I dislike—Charles Olson! Priapus snout!—an act of abnegation . . . subjugation of the tedious ego, and the ultimate democratization of the world. I do it for me, and for my friends, and for my country, America,—Ron Silliman! Size queen!—and if I don’t like something I throw it away, I dispose of it, I tell it to “fuck off”—Barrett Watten! Management goon!—though anything that can hush the “me-me” generation certainly deserves a hearing.

[Random select particles out of The Embattled Lyric: Essays and Conversations in Poetics and Anthropology, by Nathaniel Tarn (Stanford University Press, 2007) got Hoover’d up here, apparently by the sheer self-center’dness of the idiot-child who speaks the odd Tourette’d discourse.]

Witold Gombrowicz: “To contradict, even on little matters, is the supreme necessity of art today.” And how there is so little (contradiction). The tuneless brigands band together, singing endless indistinguishable yé-yés in the sun. Everybody’s join’d the clannish outlawry, with a nudge and a blindfold, and irony is the cheapest hammer there is, a tiny thing. One used to dissemble the pieces of pieces, a poiēsis self-center’d, perfectly certain of its grand middle-class “fit,” and bodacious as bodacious is, a poetics of gamy red-knobbed vultures dress’d up like black-skirt’d penises at a funeral, pecking away in jocular derision at roadkill—say it’s the corpse of Mary Oliver, or Louise Glück, aww yeah—whilst unbeknownst—who cares, I got mine!—a semi truck chockablock with the larger derisions of the State careens out of control down the center lane straight for the assemblage of prick’d out assemblagists. That’d be one way to say it. Another’d be: there’re some who think art today ought to exhibit all the legible and legitimate moral authority (now there’s an old fashioned “note”—how silly) of a Sisyphean dung beetle rolling its self-assembled turd back and forth with its companions in a stupor of glee. “Everything is temporary anyway.”

Priapus with Scales, House of Vetii, Pompeii

Thursday, August 09, 2007

“Feckin’ merchants

Open Agenda

Ah, the pettifoggery of the shopkeepers, that mercantile class always polishing up the wares, keeping it clean. They band together for mutual assurance, future Rotarians, “the business of business is our business,” cower against any unfamiliar light, any hint of the untoward unflappable. They mimic the old ones, whose spawn they be, little candles, tremulous and guttering, having known only sweet approbation and its tender ruin. They do not know the pamphlet, nor the lash, and fear both uncommonly. They fear the commons itself. It’s okay, I want to say, the world runs forth out of the skulls of tiny birds too. The world is fuel’d, too, by the minions and kin of fools. And it’s too late. The hummingbird’s forsook the trumpet vine in a greeny blaze. The chicory blues sour the spunk-water’d ditches. Le livre est sur la table. And in the final puckish orange of yonder sits a huddle of accountants, Watten tabulating the wrongs, Sullivan balancing the slights. “Moon, be new to night.”

Not curios of the now, nor its measure—the now itself in all its truculence and imperturb. As Williams says: “round, round, a round world E pur si muove.” He’s pointing to a way of proceeding, and to Shakespeare, “a man stirred alive”: “The unemployable world of his fine head was unnaturally useless in the gross exterior of his day—or any day.” So that when he (Williams) gets to the recognition (in The Descent of Winter) that
The difficulty of modern styles is made by the fragmentary stupidity of modern life, its lacunae of sense, loops, perversions of instinct, blankets, amputations, fulsomeness of instruction and multiplications of inanity. To avoid this, accuracy is driven to a hard road. To be plain is to be subverted since every term must be forged new, ever word is tricked out of meaning . . .
he’s decidedly not calling for mimickry of that gimcrack jerkwater world, the kind of thing one’ll haul down off the flat screen and bottle for an elixir (recall how “cupidity . . . blights an island literature” and how Britain is only one of Williams’s targets, others’d be the “mediaeval, formal, dogmatic, the scholars, the obstinate rationalists—“). Williams is clear what’s required: “a man stirred alive, all round not minus the intelligence but the intelligence subjugated . . . to the instinctive whole.” Not—one assumes—piecemeal afterthought assemblaging, not tweezer’d up oulipovian delicacies, not handholding coteries gumshoeing through cyberspace for words, not anything that lacks the core thrash and meat and cranny of a brainpan afire.

And: “The art of writing is all but lost . . . it is to make the stores of the mind available to the pen—Wide! That which locks up the mind is vicious.”

And: “I will make a big serious portrait of my time.” Against the inevitable endless sniggering and ribbing of the merchant class (bonhomie’s always good for the market), try saying that.

William Carlos Williams, 1954

Wednesday, August 08, 2007

The Last Novel

A Sign

Ended Absalom, Absalom! with the distinct sense that the thing one ought do is recommence, putting it’s finely-accrued revelations to use immediate. And didn’t. I am stingy about rereading. And, truthfully, Absalom, Absalom! ’s got its longueurs, its spots where the hardpan road goes a little soft with repeat traffic. I fetch’d north with Go Down, Moses in my rucksack, and the John Wieners Selected Poems, 1958-1984, and the new David Markson, The Last Novel (Shoemaker & Hoard, 2007). And end’d up nibbling away at the latter, perfect snack stuff. Truth is, I grow increasingly less enamour’d of Markson’s late fiction, or “seminonfictional semifiction . . . with its interspersed unattributed quotations” as he particulars it, here. Combination of interchangeability of content (I swear some of the factoids repeat, and the bemused-at-one’s-own-ironizing pedantry certainly does) and the limits of its form. A sense of which—starting, negligibly, or less baldly, with Wittgenstein’s Mistress (1989), and coming into full force with Reader’s Block (1996), This Is Not a Novel (2001), and Vanishing Point (2004)—is retrievable in a short excerpt off nearly any page:
      Albert Pinkham Ryder dressed so shabbily that now and again people attempted to hand him loose change as he walked the streets near Greenwich Village.

      The artist must live to paint and not paint to live. He should not sacrifice his ideals to a landlord.
      Ryder said.

      Nobody wants his mule and wagon stalled on the same track the Dixie Limited is roaring down.
      Said Flannery O’Connor—apropos of being a Southern writer as a contemporary of Faulkner’s.

      Among the many paintings in her Paris flat, Gertrude Stein had two exceptional Picassos.
      If there were a fire, and I could save only one picture, it would be those two. Unquote.

      August 15, 1967, René Magritte died on.

      Victor Hugo constantly made notes about everything—and would turn aside in the middle of a conversation to scribble down something he himself had just said that he realized he might possibly later be able to use.
You see. And interrupt’d de temps en temps by lines regarding “Novelist.” Such as: “Moments in which Novelist does something like leaving his desk to retrieve a book from across the room—and finding himself staring vacantly into the refrigerator.” Interrupt’d even more rarely by “Old. Tired. Sick. Alone. Broke.” Which keeps reminding me of Ian Hamilton Finlay’s Poor. Old. Tired. Horse., a magazine in which Lorine Niedecker appear’d. Causing Reader to think Novelist ought to count his blessings he’s not scrubbing floors in a county hospital.

Markson’s anticipated the charge of repetitiveness. He slaps it off untroublesomely with some high-spunk’d auto-puffery:
      Reviewers who protest that Novelist has lately appeared to be writing the same book over and over.
      Like their grandly perspicacious uncles—who groused that Monet had done those damnable water lilies nine dozen times already also.
Though rather unconvincingly. Considering the aggrandizement necessary to equate Monet’s études nymphéatiques et nénuphariques with a gambit of biographical tidbits for short attention spans. Reader is tempt’d to mention People magazine, or supermarket checkout lines.

Okay: what I hold roughly against Markson (or Novelist—the seam between the two may be more evident than I allow) is an unseemly sense of self-worth, entitlement, that sterling presumptuousness. There’s a point where Markson indicates that Nathanael West’s Guggenheim application got turn’d down—“Guess.” is how it’s put in the litany of obvious failures and oversights—even “with recommendations from Scott Fitzgerald, Edmund Wilson, and Malcolm Cowley.” Which Markson humbly follows with:
      Novelist’s own Guggenheim applications, plural, with references equally as impressive.
      Guess—six or seven times.
Too, a damnable tendency to ape what sounds like right-wing talk radio idiocy:
      A post-Mao version of the Long March—which implies that forcibly conscripted porters carried him on a litter for much of the 5,000 miles.
      Yasser Arafat was reported not to have read one book in the last forty years of his life.
      But to have spent innumerable hours enrapt by Tom and Jerry cartoons.
Possibly part of a trend of anti-Arab sentiment in evidence in The Last Novel. Reader ’d note. Markson’s maligning of Wallace Stevens’s work (its “percentage of pure drivel) and smug mockery of Bob Dylan’s, is no help.

Still, a couple of prizes in the crackerjacks. My unfound’d general distrust of Dryden found meagre confirmation here:
      Scarcely intelligible, Dryden labeled Shakespeare’s language.
      Quote: His whole style is so pestered with figurative expressions that it is as affected as it is coarse.
And learning that Byron’d manage’d—in Don Juan—to rhyme “intellectual” with “hen-pecked you all” served me undue dollops and degrees of merriment.

David Markson

Tuesday, August 07, 2007

En ré mineur

Some Junk

Shostakovich’s blasty D minor, fourth movement, the Allegro non troppo with the timpani banging away, the frenetics of that pounding a sure sign that whatever victory there is, is false—or, as Shostakovich writes in Testimony “What exultation can there be?” A question pertinently brought to the thrones of the mediocre, asking What to do with the minor poets?

Lawrence Ferlinghetti (in Robert Dana’s 1986 Against the Grain: Interviews with Maverick American Publishers) put rather smartly something that—throughout the post-Beat period—went largely unsaid, pointing to the poem wherein “form is defined as a graphic consciousness”:
If you have a genius mind and a really interesting consciousness setting down what’s going through his mind, transcribing as directly as he can what comes from his consciousness that moment, then you get a very interesting piece of writing. Because when mind is comely, what mind says is going to be comely or interesting.
Ferlinghetti puts Ginsberg at the origin of the “Graphic Consciousness School” and includes Philip Whalen and Gary Snyder amongst its capable practitioners. It’s the drab know-nothing recruits and epigones he disparages, the ones lacking Ginsberg’s “omnivorously packrat intelligence”:
Whereas when younger followers of Ginsberg use the same techniques, not having interesting minds in the first place, what comes out isn’t very interesting. So you get enormous, dreary amounts of modern poetry following this technique.
Pages and pages of illustrations out of the AB Dick’d and rust’d staples numbers of the “period.”

The problem today is no longer that of consciousness—the accept’d gospel is that consciousness is splay’d out in the nigh-sentient garbage of the massy intercommunicative “system” that is the planet and its ongoing conversation is all one need tap, with a lightning rod to bring it down out of the ether, attach’d to a writing arm that reproduces it in duplicate with a series of strings a la Thomas Jefferson’s at Monticello . . . Consciousness itself a pig of the twentieth century, a palpably “dumb” thing, with a snout the size of a dinner plate with one sausage bouncing about in it, call it a self, call it a soul, call it esprit, call it a spritzer or a schnitzel, out consciousness is—out to lunch, out of the running, turn’d out, as foolish a thing to consider as the works of Archibald MacLeish, that old conquistador, that piebald crow! As the cant academick’s got it, one is a many-self’d thing (starring William Holden, 1955), and caught up between the Rimbaldian “Je est autre” and the Valérian “Je suis l’instable” and the Whitmaniac “Do I contradict myself? / Very well then I contradict myself, / (I am large, I contain multitudes.)” and the contemporary “avant” drone ’d better cut and run (off at the mouth, to extremes), cut and paste, “pull down thy vanity” meaning “get it off the ’net,” slap it together with fish-glue, and off to market, to market.

In lieu of the works of “graphic consciousness,” one finds the works of “cull’d offal,” the works of reassembling the parts. And, again, some do the culling (think of the relationship between the French cueillir to gather, to pluck, and the Latin colligere to bind together) with admirable facility, making a judicious thing, drawing with fearless stingy care items out of experience render’d (a cooking term) useful and severe and potent by time and memory. A distillate proprietary hum, musical and apt, with a tincture of self to bind it. Others, it seems, do the culling (think of the relationship between the French cul ass, asshole, and cul-de-sac dead end, a blind diverticulum) with all the historical sense and means and propriety of a scrannel scrapper, or a nosepicker, or an automaton, piling up methodical stacks of highly-machined bounty with sophomoric gusto. If the “graphic consciousness” dud hoi polloi suffer’d a kind of slow stoner’s minimalist mentality “trucklight off my hookah / diesel fumes / oh / man,” the replacement purveyors of Ferlinghetti’s drear, the cullers-of-offal millions retort with a kind of Dexedrine’d up frantic churn of “poetry”—at least a book a year, aww yeah—unavoidable stuff, no exulting in the onslaught, no, of the king’s minor minions, with they logorrhea’d “phat booty jism skirt bravado aww yeah.” As Philip Levine says, a man who’d the good sense and grace to call a motherfucker a motherfucker: “you can have it.”

I’ll try to put it as gently as possible. Funny to go off for a couple days and return to see K. “Stalin” Mohammad’s “Slime Treecompletely “cleansed” of any signs of aesthetic struggle. “Hollywoodland,” indeed, where air-brushing’s routine. What smidgen of it (the struggle) that remains is found here, along with Kent Johnson’s terrific and astute writing, “I Am Interested.” As is so often the case, Johnson is big enough (and good-humor’d enough) to act as the community’s conscience. Said before, though it needs repeating: probably the most noxious thing the Flarfy kids learn’d off the Language boys is the brute readiness to control not only production, but reception.

Dmitri Shostakovich and Joseph Stalin