Thursday, July 31, 2008

Merging Traffic



Beached, and the sun’s light lay out across the sound like a plank, burning, ferric and white, beyond whence inhuman shouts delivered with apostolic fervor sounded, pitiable and minatory. Ambience collided with style, style absconded with narrative “thrust,” Fanny Brown wrapped a derby chocolate (shaped like a horse) in cellophane, the Ngs would be by to return the violin later. Merchants, armed with magnetized “cards” for ready “access,” scold the secondary “playas”—Homeric be the evasions of men lit by the wedges of light pouring out of Frigidaires—advertisement become warning, warning something a competitor might kite against a momentary indifference, pull down a ruckus about one’s ankles, such is the fear. Quintana Roo.
So prose is made particular
                        by miserly rhythmic hooting,
                                                desists telling completely,
weeds out its specificities
                        in accordance with (a merger)
                                                a series of undeliverable
oughts, looting the dipthongs
                        of the circus shouters, moving
                                                off daily, away and out
of reach of the recording
                        angels who track a quotidian
                                                itch to its source
in loveliness: the “accidental skin”
                        of majolica hindering,
                                                hindering rescinding. Prose utile,
c’est ça.
So one clobbers
                        it for its restraint, barks its
                                                shins against its possibles.
And the sun go “hang,” as Ezra Pound liked to say, damaged goods. Everybody’s out looking for a pot big enough to keep all the stuff, galoshes and goulashes, they end up encumber’d with, not that a pile makes a perusable landscape. The British say “tip” and the French say “tas” and the British say “ta” and the French say “ciao” like a large-proportioned catalogue ceasing to stimulate the sense of anything bursting forth beyond a series of comeuppances, listless, end-directed, and proctological, I mean, eschatological, where getting somewhere is a skittish attainment only scoffed at for its least human aspect, that of stopping on a dot. The white-
haired neighbor’s out nozzling shrubbery
with kinetic forbearance, I’m waiting
for rain itself to tumble
down precipitant and catch the
lawn with its sunsuit off
I suspect Doctor Williams got
caught up in categories—“The
inundation of the intelligence by
masses of complicated fact is
not knowledge”—and sought fluidity
in dependency itself, the way
a droplet must hang together
and gather all of itself
up into a plummeting sphere
even in order to plummet,
the visible means of its differentiation (stuck to a twig, or bent blade of grass) a tensile thing lost in the brooking. It falls, and so one falls with it, sod-hearty, unclogged, in a pastoral myopia of green. There’s a devilment to the seasons, the cyclical bushings of which buffer loss as regainable, intermittent, dormant the way music is: venting its entire history with each successive note. Or summer just lies in a heap of itself, unencroaching and sour, no emergency freighted enough to make it pull the collateral of a bond out of its hat (or mitten), or reproach another for leaving. Its boundlessness ticks, its tumblers fall endlessly into place in a rut cacophony, brusque and indifferent and unaligned.
The animal urge of
                        autumn spits its cat-
                                                noises against the officiating
trousers of the men
                        who move through the worldly
                                                smear and continuum
culling particulars, charting
                        and dividing. Meagre
                                                the need placental, to pocket
something that it remain
                        identifiably one’s own meagreness
                                                and not of the continual of-
ness unslakeable.
                        Or morning bounds down off the limb where it stretched itself out, sleeplessly hurdling z’s put up in the “higher branches”—a tenuous array like an alphabet. We dawdle with the material, its elasticity, its condensary, its sweats. Draw figures in the mirrors of our own indifference, combinatory padlocks rusted by spit.

Aucune, one wants to claim, idée, though it is never so easy. One’s not wholly certain what Ron Silliman’s harrumphing about in yesterday’s beef (or cow, “unslaughter’d and untrimmed”) about the 1970 Frontier Press Spring and All. It, Silliman’s stock in hand, versus the New Directions Imaginations, a book that “crams together” five of Williams’s prose pieces into “a more or less unreadable crowd.” Silliman’s habit of gross overstatement (“tactical,” he’d say) fills up the obvious holes in the argument, which reaches closure before there is anything to close: “That collection is so poorly done as to constitute an act of vandalism.” (Ignored in the tantrum: the Spring and All with notes that graces the pages of the 1986 A. Walton Litz and Christopher MacGowan-edited first volume of The Collected Poems of William Carlos Williams, covering the years 1909-1939. Shouldn’t a poem—any piece of writing—be completely “platform independent” (a phrase I seem to recall Silliman bandying about re: recorded readings deliver’d up electronically)? Why make the Frontier Press printing into a fetish-object? A rehash of Silliman’s own plangent history follows—I like “all the great books of that hinge moment in American poetry” in particular—something Walter Cronkite’d intone solemnly, voice-over to The Ron Silliman Story—except, it all reads like copy for a rare book catalogue. Then there’s the Sillimaniac excursion into the notoriously viperous backwaters of current copyright law: he, though, casually—“the nature of the law”—’s got it all figured out.

It did, I admit, point me back into the Williams. And I worry’d the implications of these sentences:
The only realism in art is of the imagination. It is only thus that the work escapes plagiarism after nature and becomes a creation

Invention of new forms to embody this reality of art, he only thing which art is, must occupy all serious minds concerned
(Note the echo of Pound’s “serious character” there.) It’s nearly flopping over into aestheticism, that stance. How compare it to Meyer Schapiro’s claim in “Nature of Abstract Art” (1937)?
There is no passive, “photographic” representation . . . All renderings of objects, no matter how exact they seem, even photographs, proceed from values, methods and viewpoints which somehow shape the image and often determine its contents. On the other hand, there is no “pure art,” unconditioned by experience; all fantasy and formal construction, even the random scribbling of the hand, are shaped by experience and by nonaesthetic concerns.
Experience itself dooming the invention of “new forms”; the scorn’d “plagiarism after nature” an impossibility. It’s the meshing together of stances inextricable that thrills me—prose and poetry. Williams says “The fixed categories into which life is divided must always hold. These things are normal—essential to every activity. But they exist—but not as dead dissections.” That, precisely after XXII, the piece that’s come to be call’d “The Red Wheelbarrow” with its singular cohesion inextricable, fraught with precisely a lack of category. It is Williams’s followers (nous sommes tous des pendatifs de Williams) who seem struck by (stuck in) categorical imperatives (“dead dissections”), new and old, invention and rehearsal, fit and fixity, construction and mimesis.

And that makes me bereft.

William Carlos Williams, c. 1940
(Photograph: The Beinecke Rare Book & Manuscript Library)

Wednesday, July 30, 2008

“Narrative Noise”

“In a Siding”


All my verbal aptness is
borrow’d, and if I twine

my fingers thro’ the tight
jacket of black curls somebody’s

unbuckled or razor’d off temples
shorn white in an act

of remorseless momentary pining or
spontaneous religious mopery, it is

only to thwart a more
explosive need, like the good

burgher’s help dashing the cutlery
down in a rage amidst

general unclarifiable sorrows that render
dubious and mute the vocables

belling in one’s throat, or
like being mark’d absent at

a formal inquiry, or needing
a wicker armchair “from which”

to view the landscape one’s
gathered up around oneself like

a shawl. That kind of
thing, talk made formal by

its desire to ornament itself
with precision, when a savvy

grunt in the cattails’d do.
Nor is love indifferent to

its own makeshift weathers, a
scanty tempest to re-exert

one’s ardors out under high
white colonnades, the busboy’s hand

batty and convulsive, hid swimming
in a trouser pocket, does

any of the stupefying patter
of our tongue-gimmickry, loud

’s rain on dirt, ever
assuage the need interminable to

surmount such a boundary, hie
off with proof of uncommonness

breach’d beneath one good arm?
I doubt I’d know. Here

in the supply’d fiefdom, villagers
stroll up unbid, hulking Sid

and two-doubloon Sue, all
for an opportunity to grate

against one’s usuals for a
morn, whilst the unmilk’d cows

bawl, and the radiant jism
of the sun splashes about

uncontrollably, the shutters wide open,
jitney greetings snatch’d in passing,

regicide-wagers trading hats in
the bushes, disgrubbl’d private animosity

meting out its royal licks.
We the people, slipping through

the Copperplate Gothic refractory of
our storm, looking for huge

savings in liberty’s byproducts, looking
for a way to boost

up a populace, nudge it
into nay-saying with lingual

stunts, cold-bloodedly borrowing against
its crazy talk, its rev’d

up spendthrift speech, we’re doubling
up to sing together, and

the garbage is piling up
higher and higher, standing here

like Huck’s Nigger Jim, a
hairball in my trembling hands.

That one did not uncoil itself like a massasauga (Sistrurus catenatus catenatus) in smooth royal linkage and loud concatenations, no—it need’d be pull’d forth segmentally like a tapeworm. (We need a new critical language for poetry.) And if I remain “uncertain,” why, uncertainty is what keeps me rooting about my soul like a truffle-pig, one ought never become “merely officious” about love. (You do love writing, no?) Seeing some of my coevals rail about “firstness,” or “the new,” making of that love a sweaty competition, I am remind’d of Frank O’Hara’s cheeky translation of a tiny René Char explodable title’d “L’Amour”—rendering “Etre / Le premier venu” as “To be / The first comer.” As Mayakovsky says in “I Love”: “Adults have much to do.”

Richard Hughes’s A High Wind in Jamaica is terribly odd, the way things occur so swiftly, swept away, gone, a boy (whose every misadventure is heretofore recount’d) falls forty feet to ship-deck off a yard-arm, conk, and dies. End of boy. A child’s continuous present closes the wound in the scenery. (The grown-up world is equally mysterious. A ship’s captain is asked by a child to relate “about when you were little” and one only gets: “When I was a boy, . . . it wasn’t thought lucky to grease your own sea-boots. My Auntie used to grease mine before we went out with the lugger.” And then, after a pause: “We divided the fish up into six shares—one for the boat, and one for each of us.” “That,” Hughes writes, “was all.” End of being “little.” Brilliant sly asides abound. About a child’s bunk-wall artwork: “The fun was to find knots, and unevennesses in the paint, that looked like something; and then with a pencil to make them look more like it—putting an eye in the walrus, or supplying the rabbit with his missing ear. That is what artists call having a proper feeling for one’s material.” About a child telling herself stories:
. . . the strings of words she used to utter aloud had nothing to do with this: I mean, that when she made a sort of narrative noise (which was often), she did it for the noise’s sake: the silent, private formation of sentences and scenes, in one’s head, is far preferable for real story-telling. If you had been watching her then, unseen, you could only have told she was doing it by the dramatic expressions of her face, and her restless flexing and tossing—and if she had had the slightest inkling you were there, the audible rigmarole would have started again. (No one who has private thoughts going on loudly in his own head is quite sure of their not being overheard unless he is providing something else to occupy foreign ears.)
Elsewhere Hughes admits it (with relief and admiration, one senses): that children “differ in kind of thinking (are mad, in fact).” One hunch: that James Schuyler might’ve admired the thing. Something High Wind about Alfred and Guinevere, though I’d need to re-peruse the latter to say.

René Char (1907-1988)

Tuesday, July 29, 2008

Peter Culley’s The Age of Briggs & Stratton

A Tree (Leamington, Ontario)

        . . . where rising fuel costs
temporarily trump
the fear of creosote & coalsmoke

to re-enable the choking fogs
that had disappeared
with the industrial base—

that all of this is safely tracked
from space, indeed,
to be lost is ultimately

economic, those people
under the rubble assumed
their cell phones

would save them, an island
held in place
with mirrors, they

can hear you, they
can see you, they
just can’t help you.
That’s Peter Culley (with probably the spookiest 9/11 ref one’ll ever see or need) in the second half or so of a piece call’d “The Fourth War,” being the twentieth part (of twenty-three) of a sequence titled “Dowsing for Dummies” that leads off Culley’s phenomenal new book, The Age of Briggs & Stratton (New Star Books, 2008). Just to lodge the words into place within an even bigger—quietly and astutely burgeoning—structure: the book’s subtitle is (Hammertown Book 2), and continues, thus, Culley’s terrific 2003 book of that name. The back cover of Hammertown pictured what seem’d a crude and corroded gear-wheel, with each of its teeth flinging off a title in a centrifugal fit: in the wheel’s center one read: “Writer and art critic Peter Culley lives in Nanaimo, on Vancouver Island.” Terribly apt design for a poem or series of poems that here, in its second “installment”—the mind behind the writing is too restless and indefatigable and curious for the word—seems suddenly and absolutely capable of most defiantly rippling out through the various juggernauts of the twentieth century’s collapse and into the present to encompass the brute history and giddy trials of a whole finicky continent, and beyond. And Culley’s range of cultural reference and keenest renegade curiosity seem clearly up for the task.

“Dowsing for Dummies,” with its dedication “in memoriam / Robert Creeley” and epigraph touting the raw-boned White House misfit Andrew Jackson—in Albert Gallatin’s words “. . . a tall, lank, uncouth looking person, long hair hanging over his face, a queue down his back tied with an eel skin . . .”—explores recent (and not-so) American history with the tamp’d down precision of Lorine Niedecker, the rumpled reach of Charles Olson. Look at the pleasures (and truth-talking) here in the tenth part, “Last of the Mohicans”:
Good country this
for lazy fellows

(wrote Wilson from

Kentucky); they plant
corn, turn their
pigs into the

woods and in
the autumn feed upon
corn and pork.

They lounge about
the rest of the year.

But sometime between

then and now,
despite flip books,
Jack Spicer bootlegs,

Miltown, Motown, Milton
the race of tavern
loafers, customs-house flaneurs

wall holder-uppers
& Virginia eye-gougers
died out, wagons

full of keeners,
enthusiasts, stereoptical
estimators & paint-chip

matchers darkened
the passes, planting apples
for roughage not cider.
Which is affable and just. Which strikes one “of the era” (Culley, b. 1958; Latta, b. 1954) as full of honorable deft (“right”) particulars. An unprepossessing and various sampling is integral to Culley’s work. He’s a magpie, a devourer (and savourer), undoing the tatter’d embroidery out of the dull’d back panels of Time, retrieving the shiniest threads, the brightly color’d. Though the work is not by any means so programmatic as suggest’d by the note to “Homage to David Holzman,” an eight-part sequence, it partakes readily (and pertinently) of the info-glut. The note reads:
In Jim McBride’s 1967 fake documentary DAVID HOLZMAN’S DIARY there is a scene where Holzman (L. M. Kit Carson) mounts his 16mm camera in front of his television sometime before the evening news, firing off one frame every time the shot changed until sign-off. On film this lasts for a second or two but slowed down on VHS it became a clickable photo album of mid-60s TV. These timed readings are offered in that spirit.
As that “spirit” is discrete (“one frame”) and ambling (end-stopped only by “sign-off”), so Culley’s riffs. An inventory uncovers “the head of Greer Garson / acidly advises Joan Crawford”; “Michener’s coffee-table USA”; “Let me put a dime / on the tone arm of / that for you, dad”; “Ektachrome gullies”; “riot footage / with nosegays of rifle fire / & wreaths of red wire” (all out of “26.04.06           1133-1147 HRS”). In another sequence, “Life History,” Culley works up material out of Arthur Cleveland Bent’s great ornithological Life Histories, the standard studies of North American birds, put out by the Smithsonian between 1910 and 1954. So, one reads (under “Eastern Sparrow Hawk”):
                    . . . sometimes
      with a precise adjustment

to the force of the wind,
      it stops the beating of its wings

and hangs as if suspended
      in complete repose and equilibrium,

seeming to move not a hair’s breadth
      from its position.
Which balances and hangs said kestrel itself by the lines’ own deliberately placed pinions, above the field’s own plow ruts of (rework’d) prose.

The cover of The Age of Briggs and Stratton pictures a shabby looking vehicle, what we used to call a “dirt bike,” a sputtery thing about the size of a beagle, or a little bigger, one pint-sized boy after another’d straddle and crouch and rev to buzz around the gravel pit. And, verso, other—“small gas engines” is how they call’d it in the schools—remnants of a two-stroke paradise (or hell, there’s a row of lawn mowers, too) for kids, pre-electronic everything, pre-Game Boy, pre-“organized” everything. The heart of Culley’s work is elegy—and how quickly it is needed!—that is to say, how change’s own pure animal velocity knocks the wind out of us, leaves us either blindly welcoming the “new” as it broadsides us, or, more grandly, trying to take the measure of what’s gone. Culley is constantly noting what’s “gone” (“who remembers Bobby Sands / & Frederick Forsyth paperbacks // & Walken / in the snow”; “Dimes for the parking meter / in bolwls at the Bank of / Montreal downtown (now / gone, the Harewood branch gone) those little dusty mints / as we left the taverna / just as everyone’s back was turned”; “the age of Laing gave way to / the age of Foucault / while we slept”; or, “a song we all know / encourages wordless grunting / suffused with emotion & / the heavy wine of childhood.”)

The Age of Briggs and Stratton is a big book—long and with the sense of some big drafty echoey structure, a grange, a firehall—though its parts move with a lithe grace, neatly filling up and out, using the available floor showman-style. Which is to say, look how Culley cuts a figure (in “Crazy Rhythm,” out of “Pages from the Children’s Encyclopedia”):
To speed up
or slow down at will
like that
like Anita no matter
the lyric’s ‘arcs’
or who you’re playing with
or in what vehicle careering
depends on the services
over decades
of a drummer—
Roy Haynes & Sassy
would be another
example—capable of lowering
six whirring brushes
onto a linseed-darkened
dream sideboard
while defending a perogy
supper from a platoon
of gibbons—imagine
having such a pedal to press!
messing with the band
would just be the start—
to feel the tin-pan-alley world
snapping like a green twig
but how tough after
negotiating now that speech
is king again the cabless dawn.

Peter Culley
(Photograph by Ben Friedlander)

Monday, July 28, 2008


Fire Escape


Corrupt be my opinions, like those broached by brain-
sick men, kept ‘away of the Light by a Dogge tyed to the Candlestick,’

discerning nothing beyond a cur’s circle of covetousness: that’s
one manner of seeing it. Another festoons my mess with the green

reek of jealousy, thinks I founder against the strong rocks of
actuality, unable to steer around a massy indifference without a cat-

call, a harpoon, something soil’d and predictable, as if meaning
were no more than a sapling one shimmies up and swings off of, bending

it by degrees so that one’s feet return to ground, its dirt. I’d rather fly up
in a fluster like a crow, or a dust-mop, indifferent and furious,

letting pieces of my toilsome getaway adhere to the chops of
the fox I just outwitted, with one single useable black primary

loft’d against the inimitable blue field of sky like a quill,
sleek pliable wildness domesticated by man, pinch’d between

two fingers and dip’d, scratching out against newsprint or foolscap
an impertinent inventory of fautes inadmissible, green-

horn strivings reach’d, tongue itself a chewable lump of muscle,
adherent of cheek. Why lose it to comparison, why not go full

throttle and if the jalopy rattle to pieces, if the high gilt caparison’d
horse slows—dignity the unintend’d upshot of ornament—rip it off,

make a gift of diatribe, a discursive seizure’s good for the hotness
it blows back down off the self-appoint’d mountains, that guild!

make it blow down here by the sea where meaty fruits lodge in
a tumult of rocks and begin a process of breakage, that animal rooting

into crevice, vegetal ruptures guided by water, by light! They, those
who stand solider than air, they are baffles and buffers, and mite-cover’d

like the sea-wall where the cormorant shits its combustible rancors,
seed to an apt pungent nay-saying out of which flowers grow, these flowers.

It’s a terrible thing to conduct a motorcar in a transverse (out and back) course of several hundred miles between lines of verse: one tends to find oneself re-invent’d in the interval. I hadn’t intend’d to mimic-suture my lines (again) to those of “Mr. O’Hara”—first name Frank I once heard. It did come appealingly down (lightning-boltishly) out of the sky though, in this, my second attempt at “using” the form: that poem (“Ode: Salute to the French Negro Poets”) is, I find, a “big ass sonnet” (term for the handbooks: sonnet with fourteen monster-long—doubling over to examine they own selves—lines). Two tercets, volta—“blood, blood”—two tercets, couplet: more Italian than English, though not, of course, sticking to the hen-peck’d syllables of Petrarch. (I love to throw the lingo around. It’s why I “became” a poet. Even as a kid I could knock an anapest out of a tree at two hundred yards, and with a BB gun!)

I don’t know why I am so jizz’d. I fought that “Critical Chops” piece to a draw, and I rather doubt it “worth” my implacable final minutes of totally burst discursive machinery—I suffer’d some “losses” in the writing of that thing, “let” “me” “tell” “you.” I’m not certain it’ll ever be repair’d: that’s the danger in art. Brokedness everywhere. Men gone before they time. Women empty’d out of pungency, standing in bus terminals, constrain’d to spook-talking and jitters. I finish’d Jaimy Gordon’s excellent Bogeywoman. My sense is that if Gordon’s publishing history weren’t so “checker’d,”—Shamp a sort of “underground” hit; the Burning Deck novellas lost in an age that habitually loses miniatures; the 1990 She Drove Without Stopping (Algonquin Books of Chapel Hill) publish’d by a press mostly known for Faulkner spawn, and so, invisible to most “innovating” fictioneers; and 1999’s Bogeywoman itself caught in the Sun & Moon / Green Integer collapse and resusce, howsoever that story goes. There’s a satisfying (satisfying in the way the picaresque demands, toujours à la fin, bittersweet romantic disengagement in order to leave the protagonist ready for the next misadventure, seriality a mark of the genre) end to Gordon’s Ursula Koderer, her misadventures at Camp Chunkagunk, and in the Bug Motel where she’s sent for drawing maps (with a knife) on her arms:
My arms don’t resemble raw meatloaf nowadays. Instead they’re sorta like two slim, egg-dribbled, unbaked loaves of bread—two baguettes of thready, shiny white scar flesh from elbow to pinky. I have to admit they don’t look human. You’d be surprised how few people ask me what happened to them, and when strangers do, either I silently smirk them down, from the dignity of my new mysteriousness, or, practicing to be a dreambox mechanic, I ask them—affecting a vaguely trans-Ural accent—Why is this of interest to you? I think of my arms, in the privacy of my dreambox, as the last sweet vestige of my monsterhood—sorta like the Queen of Sheba’s goose feet, which Solomon glimpsed, to his fright, at the bottom of her gown as she daintily stepped across the floor of mirrors—or the swan-feathered forearm of the sixth brother in the fairy tale, whose left sleeve wasn’t ready when the liberation came. I think of my arms as my monster ticket, you might say, in case the whole world should go the monster way and monstrosity comes into its own. I’ll be there. I’ll be ready.
And launch’d myself into Richard Hughes’s A High Wind in Jamaica, who’d a thunk the life of the Bas-Thornton children in Jamaica—the “general round energeticalness” of it, to use a Hughes tag—’d enthrall so compleatly. Odd dub: the thirteen-year-old Martin Amis act’d in Alexander Mackendrick’s 1965 movie of the book, though with dubbing by an actress: Amis’s voice having changed during filming.

Martin Amis in A High Wind in Jamaica (1965)

Friday, July 25, 2008

Something Abuts

A Wall


And waking up to sunlight slanting in in creamy bars of gold, teeming
with accumulation and indecision, the released and public air circulating

in normal lazy circles the way air will, rife with what makes it visible,
the century’s dust stallions riding the currents, though the need to make

a myth of the imperial comes not naturally, is predecessor to a lie
forming all the way down under the ottoman, under the antimacassar—

what clothes form hides a discontentment, dolls up an unpalatable truth
in a preening dandyism, makes the warrior glad enough to battle “unto” death

the way fouled patriotism congeals and becomes a scab picked off regularly
just to see if one’s bloodless enough or not to continue with the faulty

identifications of lust and pride as if indolence unsutured might arouse
one’s bit-down spirit to join something bigger than itself, and die for it

Blood! it’s always blood that moves to upturn the sleepy domestic heaven
where potted plants vie with the orneriest quotidian chores, where

unruliness is found not in a philodendron’s refusal, not in the mobs of
the heart’s—it’s not the heart’s—peccant rehearsal of hatred, buoyed up

by a category named in advance and handed down preemptively, as if
the Tigris and Euphrates never flowed like golden honey down through

us, where square-hatted kings stood carved into mountains, and black-
green gardens hung gloriously feculent in the air aerated only by the sun!

and all one can reply is I will not hate the “abhominable” haters, in-
human beasts of the black riches, the lies that disallow a merger, that make

of living a concoction apart, I will not move to any command to wake,
to deliver, to deliberate, and if love itself slides off the rampant earth,

I, too, shall lift up a foreleg and a sneer, wild, bucking, improbable,
and out of slumber feign a profligacy not my own, to keep justice

provident, and quash the immoral ruse of biting open one’s own black
veins in the radiant vacancy of an empty room, with no one attending

The feint of misdirection, what tophat’d magicians and governments encourage us to fall “for”: unless one attends to a particular event, one nearly never sees it. How well I recall riding back across the southern tier of New York with a couple of semi-crooked bookmen, a Jamestown library sale—and about ten straight hours of book-picking—behind us. One of the guys (he’d nabbed a first edition Kerouac Tristessa out of the fifty cent paperbacks), flopping a local newspaper across the dash, mutter’d something about, oh, whatever got the big type—probably some ongoing “featurette” whose thralldom was likely compound’d of religiosity and sap, or a starlet’s bruises, some fur-besmirch’d yelper down in a well—and trumpet’d / lament’d: “Anything to keep our minds off the real problems!” Which was even before the “era” when one began to nurture the distinct impression that there exist’d a compliant governmental manufactory to do exactly such! Meaning, the war continues. Everything must mean today “the war continues” or it is distraction, “loose lip”-ism. Even one’s “heroic lyric on a grand scale” (Jakobson, on Mayakovsky) patches up nothing, mounts up into a sky fill’d with dirt. One likes to think of grabbing Bush by the teensy jug-ears and—with a sharp rap against the pointy-nose of some neighboring sub-presidential dick—lopping off the top of the tiny Bush skull, like an egg, just to determine if its empty or not. (Cartoonery is another distraction, though it may serve for a sketch and indelible warning to the magnitude of the fix we’re in.) So I walk it off in dawn’s mimic-complacency. See a hummingbird hanging idle above a spirea—then, it, too, shoots off in a perfectly straight line, moving like a MEDEVAC helicopter. Emergency infuses the world and its citizens sleep. At the loading dock, a fat black man in shorts hefts a wooden pallet up into the bed of a pickup, repeating in a high tenor, baseball, baseball, baseball, baseball, measuring off the summer, that voice of resign’d happiness, proviso’d by overwhelming and unspeakable defeats. U. S. confirm’d deaths in Iraq: 4,124, with more than 29,000 wound’d.

Iraq War Dead

Thursday, July 24, 2008

“I Have Lost Touch with the World”

Pole and Cloud Event

The green earth is teeming, even in its throes of being much too trod “upon”—a word I rarely use. There is nothing for it except to allow its best denizens the rack and weal, to follow out directions, hints & feints, to move with the giants if the giants move us. David Shapiro suggest’d that one of O’Hara’s poems to James Dean is “utter homage” to Rickert’s (or Rykert’s, orthography’s as slippery as anise in some precincts) “I Have Lost Touch with the World,” and he repeat’d it enough that it commenced a banging in my brainbox. “Who’s Rickert?” turn’d into a clip of Kathleen Ferrier singing Gustav Mahler’s “Ich bin der Welt abhanden gekommen” (out of “Fünf Rückertlieder”)—all that through the mysteries of search technologies even the giants cannot comprehend. And out of there some strong Ariadne-manufactory’d string (“I trust the sanity of my vessel”) led me to Liedermeister (I doubt the ineffability of that word) Friedrich Rückert (1788-1866), and the following:
Ich bin der Welt abhanden gekommen,
Mit der ich sonst viele Zeit verdorben,
Sie hat so lange nichts von mir vernommen,
Sie mag wohl glauben, ich sei gestorben!

Es ist mir auch gar nichts daran gelegen,
Ob sie mich für gestorben hält,
Ich kann auch gar nichts sagen dagegen,
Denn wirklich bin ich gestorben der Welt.

Ich bin gestorben dem Weltgetümmel,
Und ruh’ in einem stillen Gebiet!
Ich leb’ allein in meinem Himmel,
In meinem Lieben, in meinem Lied!
(Easy, methought, I need only retrieve the O’Hara James Dean poems and look for lines somehow echoing “I am the world’s abandon’d, a gecko-man . . .”) I tiptoe’d about in the Cutter-number PT’s (I am a kind of quasi-librarian, quand même), volume “upon” volume of Rückert-Werke, none, alas, English’d. I return’d to the black box, the spit-joy device of the seemingly daunt’d, good (to a point) even for the technologically clubfoot’d. I scratch’d forth code. Finally, giddy, I peer’d over one hillock, white sails of a ketch galloping east, to some scrawls in the sandy beach below (“eager to be everything / stopped short // Do we know what / excellence is? it’s / all in this world / not to be executed”)—a kind of Yeatsian “The best lack all conviction” written in the sand, “and remembered” (heartbreaking be even the afterthoughts of the giants). Optics blurring (tears of relief), what I found: a straightforward Englishing of Rückert’s piece (translated by one Emily Ezust):
I am lost to the world
With which I used to waste so much time,
It has heard nothing from me for so long
That it may very well believe that I am dead!

It is of no consequence to me
Whether it thinks me dead;
I cannot deny it,
For I really am dead to the world.

I am dead to the world’s tumult,
And I rest in a quiet realm!
I live alone in my heaven,
In my love and in my song!
Home, I flopped down with my O’Hara, the indispensable Collected, preparing to inhabit that holy sepulchre for some wanton hours. And no! Nigh immediately it fell out—how right the giant Shapiro is! One of the “Four Little Elegies” (there be, actually, seven with the fourth comprised of four of its own—4A, 4B, 4C, and 4D), reads (listen for the unbearably soft flugelhorn intro):
Yes, I am no
                        longer going out
                                                into the world.
I used to be
                        with it so much
                                                of the time.
For so long, it
                        hasn’t cared to ask
                                                what is my name?
maybe it would
                        like to think
                                                I’m already dead.
But then, wouldn’t
                        it ask? Well,
                                                it doesn’t matter.
It doesn’t matter
                        that I’m already dead
                                                to it, not living,
it doesn’t even matter
                        if it thinks me
                                                among the early dead.
I can’t really tell
                        that I’m alive, except
                                                I name the world.
I can’t deny it,
                        I am among the noble
                                                dead, the famous,
most of the time—
                        and this world named
                                                them for me.
I’m not at peace
                        though I am out
                                                of this world.
I fail to find rest,
                        the place is so
                                                unnaturally quiet!
I think I am in
                        the heavens! waiting
                                                to be formed,
to have my love
                        and my self given
                                                a name, at last.
Donald Allen notes that the poem is dated February 21, 1956 in one manuscript, June 21, 1956 in another. James Dean’s death in the Porsche Spyder near Paso Robles: September 30, 1955. Age of, one shudders, twenty-four. Perhaps the earliest piece for Dean is “To an Actor Who Died”—Allen says “Probably written in late summer or early autumn of 1955 on Great Spruce Head Island off the coast of Maine.” Though one manuscript carries a “canceled earlier title, ‘To Laura Riding,’ and epigraphs: ‘I have set poetry aside’ and ‘Heaven susteyne thy course in quietness.’” Too, two final lines (coming directly after “rocks address no sun” and earlier line, “your head is clear as a rock”):
sea, star, nor swell; and I now move away from love as from
a lobster- and berry-laden table, not hungry for my time.
How the giants swarm together! Pre-echoes of Mayakovsky’s pre-fatal Russian roulette (they say he’d play’d and won twice before) deliver’d bullet-piece:
And, as they say, the incident is closed.
Love’s boat has smashed against the daily grind.
Now life and I are quits. Why bother then
to balance mutual sorrows, pains, and hurts.
The refusal to play: Laura Riding’s famous renouncement, James Dean’s surly indifference (“a spirit eager for the punishment / which is your only recognition”). The utter difference, certes, between the Rückert ditty and O’Hara’s rewrite: the poet’s insistence on “naming” (it constitutes life, it constitutes and reconstitutes the world: “I can’t really tell / that I’m alive, except / I name the world.”) And isn’t there a patter of Apollinaire there in O’Hara’s version of unshapely death as “I think I am in / the heavens! waiting / to be formed”? (See the French-Pole’s “Cortège”: “Rien n’est mort que ce qui n’existe pas encore.” Isn’t the gritty sand (the rivers! the clouds!) of Apollinaire wash’d throughout O’Hara? Where’d I read lately of the “debt”—no giant ever owes another giant a thing!—O’Hara’s epithalamiums, in particular “Poem Read at Joan Mitchell’s,” owed to the French-Pole, and the whole thing without even noting how “At last you are tired of being single” partook saucily of “Zone”’s “A la fin tu es las de ce monde ancien”?) (I begin, typing, to know not whose voice is here, Dean’s, or O’Hara’s, or Mayakovsky’s, or Riding’s, or poor Rückert’s.) The giants teem, greening the deposit’d earth. As David Shapiro, giant and legator who bequeath’d the connection to me—or anyone, such is the o’erbrmming generosity of the man!—out of the fecund metropole of a truly omnivorous and unapportion’d mind: “I care so little for these sudden discoveries that I have thought of stringing them together in a poem or story.” Here, then, is that story:
Letter to John Latta: The Melancholy and Splendor of Attributions

Here’s a story about attributions. One day I read James Shapiro, for many reasons aside from the obvious linguistic connection, and praised his new book on one year of Shakespeare’s life. I am jealous of James because he teaches wonderful kids at Columbia, where I used to think, and Kenneth thought, I would always be, except for my sentimental idea that stopping it for a few days might help (it did) in the thousand demonstrations against “the” war. Vietnam for us, now Iraq.

I didn’t think I had the right to say this, but I asked him what he might be writing about next. He said that—I hope this is no secret—he planned a book about the controversy regarding Shakespeare and the authorship. I thought it brilliant, I said, that he would not be taking sides. He again reiterated he would be writing the history without partisanship. Recall that I have spent almost every day of my life reading some Shakespeare and trying to memorize the 37 or so plays. My father, a sculptor, violist and dermatologist, became obsessive in my childhood about Shakespeare and the possibility of a shrouded “other” author. My mother before she died would often tell me this obsessive period of Shakespeare-as-X was worse even than his sudden love for guerilla warfare analysis under T. E. Lawrence. However, of course, I have always delighted in the snobbism of Clare College’s Robert Greene (say around l592?) (I went to the same college as did the DNA master Watson). But I have not agreed with Bismarck that no one but a general could write such war stories. I also have declined to agree with those who think each ballad is the Bard’s. I have come close to a mania for the “Tom O’ Bedlam” song that seems written by someone as good as Rimbaud—that poem startled me, shocked me with the tone of genius, led to a rare book by Graves, and stills seems to Uncle Harold Bloom and myself to be Bard-ish. I know no “better” poem in English. Copy that. “I know more than Apollo . . . etc.” Anyway, I was speaking to a true scholar, so I said that I thought he had himself in his book added a good punch for the de-attributors, those idiots.

He asked what I meant. I then said that in his book the Queen and others torture a playwright by saying again and again, as he twists in torture: “Who really wrote it? who really wrote the play?” etc. I said: Don’t you think if this scene is solid and researched by you, that it means that at this time it is a life-and-death matter that plays and things were not so simply authored and that a man could lose his life for a persona. James agreed and said he would footnote me in his book. He hadn’t seen it that way, and he is one of my favorite Shakespeare scholars. I only mean to say while bragging that of course, proud as I am to have seen a jigsaw in someone else’s puzzle, I did and this is what Meyer called “communal seeing.” You help me see something I hadn’t seen, like putting together the endings of “Harbormaster” and “True Account”—it matters. I still do not believe in the de-attributions. I would think sometimes that only an idiot wouldn’t hear strange tones in Pericles that seem suddenly to be arrested and Shakespeare’s tone takes over. This to me is simple, even without a computer that proves that Shakespeare hated dogs.

Dubito. But of course, as in Warhol or Renaissance studio practice, there’s nothing wrong with realizing some of the last Shakespeare plays were written with others. Let us all get such help! Paul Resika tells me that many good paintings are secretly by Hans Hoffman from his class—where he often worked over a student’s work convincingly enough, but not everyone sees it. Fairfield Porter told me he was influenced so much by de Kooning and he knew it though others didn’t. But it does mean that authorship, collaboration etc., are complex things. In China, there is a fortune to be made for scientific hoaxes. I do think that the issue of this poem was never in doubt, to me. But, as you can see, some things float into focus and some do not. As my father was a footnote in the history of dermatology, so I am now a footnote in the passion according to Shakespeare and James Shapiro, who once wrote about passion-plays.

Some go crazy on account of masks. Some love to dress up and fool others. Some are like my middle sister and cousin who teased me relentlessly sometimes in the scary basement by saying that they were not Nomi and Allan but Nomi3 and Allan4, and that their demonic transformation took place instantaneously and when I wasn’t looking deeply enough. I screamed at this early self heteronymic style.

Example: I was reading Descartes’s Meditation number 2 and came upon a phrase I remembered very well. Descartes says that God could do a thing because he was subtle, but he would not do that malicious thing because he was not malicious. Anyway, I realized that it was very much a syllogism like, congruent with The Lord is subtle but not malicious, ascribed to Einstein. I even wrote to Pais, whose book Subtle Is the Lord, used the quote in thunder. I got a reply that the scholar: thought it was an unusual example of overlapping. I do not think so. I have thought of sending it in to Princeton, where the Physics Dept. has it carved as a central theme and aphorism of gold. I have told physicists, who usually respond that they are not interested at all in Einstein’s sayings. Some paper I saw once was about the seeming plagiarisms of Einstein, but I wasn’t suggesting THAT. I just think that the Descartes is the Jewish joke (almost) opened up. There is no doubt from the literature that Einstein acquainted himself with all the normal canonic philosophers, thus Descartes. But for Descartes to say He could do this because He is subtle but won’t do it because He is not malicious . . . Hm. But I thought: What if Einstein read it in Latin? It turns out it would still be the subtilis of the joke. But it is not a joke, it is the most memorable affirmation of Einstein. How could I, little New York poet, have seen this? Because unlike physicists I try to memorize as much of the history of physics as I can. My friend Ken Snelson was ridiculed for 40 years for saying he knew what an electron might look like. Physicists laughed at me for even mentioning him. Electrons, in those days, could have no sculptural analogue. Last few years Scientific American has crowned Snelson’s work by saying it may not be the structure of electrons but explains dazzlingly the structure of cells. (Bucky attempted to allude very little to his student Snelson, who actually invented the tensegrity in sculptural terms.)

It seems to me unreasonable to suppose that Einstein got up and said, God is subtle but not malicious, which is embedded with so many possibilities at once. When one reads the Descartes, one immediately sees the same words, the same proposition, but even more, the syllogism that makes it all utterly logical and philosophical and not a Jewish joke, as if God also threw dice with words. Now, that is a last authorial thrust of mine. I retreated with the full authority of Pais, who has since died. But I assure you, when you read Descartes, you will be reading a text that was since collaged by Einstein consciously or unconsciously. Does it matter? Yes. It may make you string together without string theory Descartes and Einstein. Auden loved Scientific American. Because of the controversy over Frank’s magisterial poem, I may just have to send this off to Scientific American, with a dim hope that electrons now seem geometric and only 4-dimensional to some new theorists. I used to know that electrons behaved like waves and particles and it didn’t matter that I couldn’t see that. Snelson once told me, “Of course, physicists don’t see well enough.” So realize that the secrets of the universe may be locked up in muscular seeing, first important for catching fish. Look and think, like Frank in his “Heroic Sculpture.” For all his magnanimity and sociality, think of the loneliness of Frank O’Hara and, as the musician Feldman correctly underlined, Frank’s classical sense of limits and death. They’re calling to us in a language that is not a magazine.
One final call. Ian Hamilton Finlay knew something about rocks, & the sculptural. And, too, things “with us every day / even on beachheads and biers”; like words, “They’re strong as rocks.” Here’s something I found (in Hamilton Finlay’s The Dancers Inherit the Party, c. 1960):
Glasgow Poem

Airship poet Guillaume (Angel) Apollinaire
Wrote poetry something rer.
It was back in the Future. What the Scotch call ‘auld Sol’
He called the ‘sun airplane.’ It would drive you up the wall.

Frank O’Hara

Wednesday, July 23, 2008

“With a Quaver”

Pole and Cloud

David Shapiro to Kent Johnson (dated 22 July 2008, with subject line “How criticism, attribution quarrels, etc. are good for one’s mind’s muscles”). He cc’d me, and I ask’d him if I could post it here. It largely concerns recent moves (by several correspondents, here, here, here, and here, and erupting partially out of even earlier talk about O’Hara’s hand in another poem) to identify the circumstances whereby Frank O’Hara’s “A True Account of Talking to the Sun at Fire Island” got written and, beneficently, proposes several “areas for continued research”:
Dear Kent,

Paying attention will always be rewarded, but “one day.” Anyway, Meyer Schapiro once teased R. P. Blackmur and said: “When you use your mind, you don’t use it up.” “Talking to the Sun” needs attention. De Kooning said something like “A painting needs a lot of conversation around it.” De Kooning told me he wanted another visit from Meyer, they had had a great one to save an early WOMAN. The painter told me: “He tells you that what you are doing is what you should be doing not like those others who tell us not to be doing what we’re doing. Tell him to come again, tell him to come again!”

This has become a difficult case, because of all the “emotion” you mention, and for me of course (like others) part of the history of my life (and love for “the poets,” which of course you share.) Try to feel proud that you stimulated this rather vast re-reading of a poem and also a retelling of what an author is.

To answer your question about my supremely vague (I now see) comment: Kenneth Koch, either in or out of class, told me (and I’m sure some others) that he had written the first “strophe” of “When the Sun Tries to Go On” and showed it to Frank—as was these poets’ wont (me too, I loved to show what I did to Kenneth whenever I could, as when for instance a subway broke down, I was sad and KK said: “Well, now I can read your poems!”) When Frank saw it, KK told me, he suggested that Kenneth “go on,” and write a hundred more stanzas. I simply wanted to make a connection between Kenneth’s sense of scale and Frank. One might say that Frank’s comment was “in the air,” a phrase KK used a lot, because of the maximalism of American painting. (The sense of scale in “Second Avenue,” also, and perhaps the theme of scale in Mayakovsky’s amazing lyrics about his own size and scale: “In what ailing and delicious night was I sired by Goliaths I so large so unwanted”—I type the lines here without a copy about me.) Oh by the way, KK once joked that O’Hara had given him the idea of a play all about Mexico or Spain and then of course KK laughed, “he then did it himself.”

By the way, I think that the best about these questions of authorship or attribution comes not so much from the attribution itself but whether that gives us new sense of things. For example, you inspired me to think again (Tony says this too) of what genius Frank had to change from the formal “Ode” to this homage to Mayakovsky: such different styles, such Picasso-like facility in different styles. Yes, and the letters will be helpful, too, particularly if they don’t “swamp” the poems.

You ask whether Frank would have smiled, but that puts me in a difficult world. I can’t “represent” Frank or his moods and modes. When I hear myself saying, as I sometimes do, “Oh X would have loved that,” I am appropriating a whole universe, like a poor biographer filling a book with “might have beens.” I note how precise you are. I never, for example, would have considered KK, like a Chinese poet-scholar using T’ang ink, to have used Frank’s typing paper. For me, the important mystery that remains is:

1. I’d like to see that particular Mayakovsky translation(s?) that Frank used and have you write about the relationship between and betwixt.

2. I’d like someone to take me up on what I think no one has guessed, that one of the poems to James Dean is an utter homage to Rickert’s song “I Have Lost Touch with the World.”

3. Then I’d like someone to compare those homages with other “poems as homages” in Frank.

4. I would actually just like to see someone make a good normal reading say of “A True Account,” in the mood of Jarrell saying everyone thinks a good normal naturalist novel so easy, but it isn’t. Maybe everyone thinks “A True Account” is so clear by itself—but I think I have never seen a good essay on the poem and Mayakovsky, and for example, the theme of self-destruction in M and FO’H without sentimentality.

5. And then I’d like to see a good PS to that study concerning Frank’s politics. Yes, LeRoi or Amiri and both will be important here, formally, biographically, etc. I’m speaking of the Frank who turned to me and LeRoi (l962 summer) and said of a “race riot”—“The good side finally got the guns.” A statement I put into a poem (in Poems from Deal: “Tracks”) because I was so inspired by hearing an adult without shame speak of violence.

6. So to sum up: I hope that Frank wouldn’t have sneered OR smiled—his response might have been as mysteriously surprising as he always was, as when I praised (!) at fifteen or so “Hide and Seek” and Frank said: “Why do you like it?” I said tentatively and scared now: “The high colors?” He said and I couldn’t have predicted it: “Oh you should have seen it BEFORE the fire”—which in one sentence & smile demolished any sentiment towards it, added a very good bit of historical detail I didn’t know or use, and took it all for granted that a choice of taste was arbitrary and often ridiculous. He might have said: “Well, Kent, you seem to be a real fan of my poem. How’s your Russian?”

The early version I wait for, and your own “poem” of reading need never end. I sometimes catch myself thinking that you should elegantly end, but I also realize that would be a four-line poem by Bolaño, not your own: “Naked Detectives in the Sunlight.”

By the way, I awarded myself some Napoleonic crown because I suggested the relation of the “Ode to the French” and “A Talk” long before I knew or you knew that they had been written in the same weekend. Like any other critic, I wanted my laurels. But not more than the truth. I have often thought of Fire Island and Frank’s death—wrote a book with Leslie about The Killing Cycle—Al’s very good drawings of that death—some small things with words that I love even more than his (Leslie’s) gigantic cycle. (Which do look up, I have no copies, St. Louis Museum produced it.) (It has some of my senses of Frank’s poetry as well as Al’s painting.) So one result of your reading, and Tony’s geography, is that though we are not dealing with the exact spot, it is certainly hard not to mention that all this intimacy, party, etc. atmosphere, was the place for Frank’s terrible accident and a properly haunting place for Mayakovsky’s sun to give what I think is the best advice within a poem since Pessoa’s “Counsel.”

But I agree that everyone can get so caught up in thinking the other is full of evil intentions that literary disagreements and hypotheses—even Bacon as my father loved that hypothesis—are filled with rancor. Well, who isn’t? I’m actually moved that I thought about the poem hard for a month and also of Frank. It’s true that for those who know a poet there comes a time when it seems they own or possess the poet. Partly they do, because they remember that tone, face, eyes. But of course, just as I had to suffer everyone claiming a bit of the rights to the poetry, I recall Pasternak’s congruent theme: that the poet Mayakovsky was always moving ahead of him, down the street, full of death and dictatorships, and turned into the compulsory, “like potatoes in the reign of Catherine the Great.”

By the way, it was John Forbes of Australia who had a dream that influenced me in which Frank is still writing. And isn’t he? As long as poets read him and quarrel (and make up) about him. Frank once said of Art and Literature, it was very beautifully produced, you know, he said, “belles lettres and dead.” I had always loved the design till then. And I still do, with a quaver. Ron Padgett once said to me that he didn’t care what Meyer Schapiro had said about illustration, but I do want to end by saying that (I may have mentioned this in a note)—attribution, said Meyer, sometimes makes us learn something or see something we hadn’t. I was able by this controversy to learn even more the difference between KK’s tone and imagination and Frank’s. Keep that a mystery? Well also things fall and fly into focus. I keep looking for his great last 4 lines in Sophocles, but what I realize is Frank could carve in Pentellic marble, when he wanted to.

Dear Kent, I’m sure you know very well that the forthcoming election is more important than all this—maybe that would be a response. Poetry is never a waste of time (Proust’s title) but let’s not forget the Dreyfus case, either. Once I was gossiping too much for Frank and he told me the dire consequences of my being like another poet who gossiped too much. I cried a bit and left the party. The next week Frank had forgiven me or forgotten. I worshipped him, of course. I think Diane di Prima thought I was absurd to call him Mr. O’Hara, but I was 15 and he was in his late thirties (!)

One day you might want to talk to Frank Lima about Frank. Just doing your research. Don’t forget to send me the New Directions “True Account.” Imagine making a book with that and ten dull versions and then Frank’s Mayakovsky poems. With some paintings and drawings. (Rivers’s “Russian Revolution”—a big collage I didn’t like in the Jewish Museum) why is IT never mentioned? Lots of work to do.

I do think that “A True Account of Talking to the Sun” is an example of the genius of Frank O’Hara, like Mayakovsky, to bring the most vasty things into his personal-personist dialogue. Long before KK wrote odes to orgasms and stuttering—masterpieces—Frank had dazzled his friends with his seemingly natural gift, the corazón in his pocket, just as the sun counselled him, to be flexible and free, with an appropriate sense of embracing everything. It turns out that Frank (O’Hara) had Whitman’s profound sense of a new YOU, and his handprints are all over it, like his voice. I trust the sanity and magnitude of his vessel. If anyone thinks it easy or “natural,” let them try to talk to the moon and also get a reply.

Here (for reading with the O’Hara piece) is the George Reavey translation of Mayakovsky, out the 1960 Meridian Books The Bedbug and Selected Poetry. Couldn’t, today, put my paw to the 1941 New Directions in Prose and Poetry wherein a version of “An Extraordinary Adventure” apparently first appear’d.

(Pushkino, Akula’s Mount, Rumyantsev Cottage, 27 versts on the Yaroslav Railway.)

A hundred and forty suns in one sunset blazed,
and summer rolled into July;
it was so hot,
the heat swam in a haze—
and this was in the country.
Pushkino, a hillock, had for hump
Akula, a large hill,
and at the hill’s foot
a village stood—
crooked with the crust of roofs.
Beyond the village
gaped a hole
and into that hole, most likely,
the sun sank down each time,
faithfully and slowly.
And next morning,
to flood the world
the sun would rise all scarlet.
Day after day
this very thing
to rouse in me
great anger.
And flying into such a rage one day
that all things paled with fear,
I yelled at the sun point-blank:
“Get down!
Stop crawling into that hellhole!”
At the sun I yelled:
“You shiftless lump!
You’re caressed by the clouds,
while here—winter and summer—
I must sit and draw these posters!”
I yelled at the sun again:
“Wait now!
Listen, goldbrow,
of going down,
why not come down to tea
with me!”
What have I done!
I’m finished!
Toward me,
of his own good will,
spreading his beaming steps,
the sun strode across the field.
I tried to hide my fear,
and beat it backwards.
His eyes were in the garden now.
Then he passed through the garden.
His sun’s mass pressing
through the windows,
and crannies;
in he rolled;
drawing a breath,
he spoke deep bass:
“For the first time since creation,
I drive the fires back.
You called me?
Give me tea, poet,
spread out, spread out the jam!”
Tears gathered in my eyes—
the heat was maddening,
but pointing to the samovar
I said to him:
“Well, sit down then,
The devil had prompted my insolence
to shout at him,
I sat on the edge of a bench;
I was afraid of worse!
But, from the sun, a strange radiance
and forgetting
all formalities,
I sat chatting
with the luminary more freely.
Of this
and that I talked,
and of how I was swallowed up by Rosta,
but the sun, he says:
All right,
don’t worry,
look at things more simply!
And do you think
I find it easy
to shine?
Just try it, if you will!—
You move along,
since move you must;
you move—and shine your eyes out!”
We gossiped thus till dark—
till former night, I mean.
For what darkness was there here?
We warmed up
to each other
and very soon,
openly displaying friendship,
I slapped him on the back.
The sun responded!
“You and I,
my comrade, are quite a pair!
Let’s go, my poet,
let’s dawn
and sing
in a gray tattered world.
I shall pour forth my sun,
and you—your own,
in verse.”
A wall of shadows,
a jail of nights
fell under the double-barreled suns.
A commotion of verse and light—
shine all your worth!
Drowsy and dull,
one tired,
wanting to stretch out
for the night.
shone in all my might,
and morning ran its round.
Always to shine,
to shine everywhere,
to the very deeps of the last days,
to shine—
and to hell with everything else!
That is my motto—
and the sun’s!
“Rosta,” editor Patricia Blake notes, is “The Russian Telegraphic Agency, where Mayakovsky was employed drawing posters and cartoons. During the period of his most intensive work for Rosta, from October 1920 to February 1922, Mayakovsky made 2,000 drawings and 280 posters on all kinds of domestic and international events. He captioned his drawings with jingles and slogans that became famous at the time.” Another version of the poem (no translator identify’d) is here, with a copy of the Russian original, and a recording of Mayakovsky reading it. I do note that Blake, in the introduction, relates how, on some excursion or another with ’s forest ranger father, “Mayakovsky glimpsed a rivet factory stunningly illuminated in the night. ‘After seeing electricity,’ he wrote in his autobiography, ‘I lost interest in nature. Not up to date enough.’” Which “Not up to date enough” is tonally consonant with O’Hara’s famous “I can’t even enjoy a blade of grass unless I know there’s a subway handy, or a record store or some other sign that people do not totally regret life,” isn’t it?

Pavel Tchelitchew (1898-1957), “Hide-and-Seek,” 1940-42

“Poem (The eager note...)” illustrated by Alfred Leslie, In Memory of My Feelings (New York, Museum of Modern Art, 1967)

Tuesday, July 22, 2008

“Mary Hartline, Mary Hartline”

Two Cones

In a terrific interview (c. 1983) in Gargoyle, Jaimy Gordon discloses Keith Waldrop’s impeccably taut definition—“A novel is that literary form into which you throw everything that’s captured your attention in the last five years”—and delineates a fine crosshatching (amounting venerably to a “mount,” an implacable hillock, an uppity rearing steed of a place, good for seeing) of English idiosyncratic rhetors (Francis Bacon to George Meredith by way of Richard Burton, Sir Thomas Browne, and other such renegade “writerly” types—none’d cop to speech as a viaduct for the sentence, or the way it burrows in all twisty and athletickal and brute, like a mole, to follow the grand excursionary force of the mind it is out doing the “scouting” for, unsure of its end . . .) It’s a sublime and intelligent romp, the interview, puts a genial cuffing to the critical boosterism of “deceptively simple style,” that kind of pathetic glomming (by editors and readers alike) to the systematically dull under the faux assurances of “clarity.” Besides, Gordon quotes Meredith’s “Essay on Comedy” to the prescient nip of “any intellectual pleading of a doubtful cause contains germs of an idea of comedy.” (When the American Bolaño revs up to the novelistickal tales of late ’seventies San Francisco poetickals, The Savage Defectives, there’ll be a veritable comedic outbreak, surely . . .) Is it that Jaimy Gordon’s sassy Besonnenheit (I don’t speak German either) combined with hernia-threatening scholarship (no matter how “heteroclite and unsystematic”) seems particularly need’d in these dumb’d down ’aughts? She says—
This will sound odd, but I like having a mind, I like thinking, though I am aware that I think eccentrically and often ridiculously, so that my thoughts threaten to isolate me even though they take shape in the common tongue. I do have confidence that what goes on in my mind, including but by no means featuring its review of personal experience can be turned into something made of language that will be arresting to those who are susceptible to splendors of rhetoric.
That and the way she says “momps” ’s got me hook’d: “I yanked off my Camp Chunkagunk jersey . . . Stood up straight. Now to go the way my naked momps were pointing me. I looked down at them. They’re kinda duck-footed: one said north, one said south.” Or the “dreambox mechanics” and “thinkbox adjustors” populate the bughouse wherein the Bogeywoman is confined following misadventures at Camp Chunkagunk. Gordon’s ear for the rhythms of American speech: “I never oink her,” said Chug, “this he-she? It take another kind of freak to figga out how to oink sumpm like that. I never oink her. I pity her.” And: “Cheap,” Tuney pointed out, “fi dolla to you and she can have these dry goods here, she owe me a Abe for the lot.” Gordon’s way with titling, the wry (and heartbreaking) repetition of the subtitle: “How Love Got Me Out of There.” Gordon’s love of Mary Hartline in Super Circus, walking on knives clench’d in hands.

What about coterie? Thinking about coterie and its meanings whilst reading, intermittently, Lytle Shaw’s Frank O’Hara: The Poetics of Coterie. Shaw sees it, the word, as participating in a somewhat “fluid rhetoric,” oscillating in meaning between something like a precise empirical (historically defined) “context”—X, Y, and Z in a clump, that particular inextricable ball of snakes found under that rock—and something like a “style of referentiality”—like how the boy goes off to camp one summer and returns talking all funny for a few weeks. (Coterie wearing off.) Then I see somewhere Kristen Hanlon (of Xantippe) call coterie “cozy.” Is there a difference between “coterie” and “community”? The latter so widely laud’d, the former poked at—that writhing bed of snakes. Isn’t, though, community just what coterie becomes—one snake dares brave the sun? Is community what coterie becomes with the inevitable arrival of disagreements, air’d “out”? Or with the arrival of others—interlopers, toadies, sycophants? Whence beginneth the dullard codification of coterie behavior? Is a community a coterie with a law enforcement agency? (Pages of illustrations out of the historical “books.”) Isn’t it normally the subaltern, the epigone, the late-joiner (and -“bloomer”) who so deftly, nay, viciously fills the “boot” of enforcement. (One can witness the behavior in the comment boxes of any of the major “playas”—those happy policemen, acting with only the doggedest promise of being noticed. As Jordan Davis comment’d somewhere: “the web makes everyone a cop.”) Makes one want to slip off into “the belle indifference of an habitual solitudinarian” (Jaimy Gordon), and choose not to work “with” anyone, no?

Mary Hartline

Monday, July 21, 2008

Tony Towle’s “True Account”

“In Laura (Riding) Jackson Territory”

Tony Towle, replying to recent attributings and de-attributings (and hellishly irresponsible and inappropriate chicanery, some might say) regarding Frank O’Hara’s “A True Account of Talking to the Sun at Fire Island”:
Dear John,

I have in my hand a copy of a one-page letter sent by Frank O’Hara to Hal Fondren, signed “Frank” at the bottom of the sheet. The heading reads: 90 University Place, NYC 3 // July 19th, 1958. It begins: Dear Hal, // I meant to write sooner to thank you for the lovely time I had in your country home. . . . This is the second paragraph: In the rush of leaving, martini in hand, I forgot to leave you copies of the 2 poems I wrote out there but I will send them to you now. I think I may still make a couple of changes in each so if you feel like making any for your own reading pleasure please feel free to do so.

I also have copies of the only two poems the sentence above could refer to, in the versions found in Frank’s loft after his death, the first of which is “Ode: Salute to the French Negro Poets” with the title written in French: “Ode en Salut aux Poetes Negres Francaises” (without the appropriate accent marks that would have had to be written in by hand). At the bottom is typed: Frank O’Hara // Fire Island, 7/9/58. The second, of course, is “A True Account of Talking to the Sun at Fire Island,” with Frank O’Hara // Fire Island, 7/10/58 typed at the bottom of the second page. These versions (except for the title of the first) are identical to those in my Collected Poems, so they either reflect the “couple of changes,” or he didn’t make any. That Frank could have written two such dissimilar but powerful poems on successive days is remarkable, though when considered in tandem the line in “A True Account . . .” beginning: “Maybe we’ll // speak again in Africa . . .”—reads as a “carryover,” conscious or not, from the poem of the day before.

From Hal’s, according to the letter, Frank and Joe drove “back” (drove with whom? neither Frank nor Joe had a car) to East Hampton (possibly via New York; it’s not clear—though it would have made no geographic sense to do so) and spent a few days with Patsy, Mike, Norman, Kenneth, et al., before coming back to town on Friday (the 18th). He sent the two poems to Hal, and that was it. He didn’t show them, or at least “A True Account . . .,” to Joe, or to Kenneth, or to anyone else. “Ode . . .” was published relatively quickly, in Don Allen’s The New American Poetry 1945-60—Allen certainly had selected the book’s contents by 1959. He didn’t send “A True Account . . . ” to Allen then, or include it in Lunch Poems in 1964. It is hard to comprehend that someone could write something that good and then misplace or forget about it or, even stranger, choose not to publish it—yet that is what happened.

Let me give another quote from this letter that bears on a statement of Joe LeSueur’s in Digressions on Some Poems by Frank O’Hara, in the “A True Account . . .” chapter: Joe and I are trotting out to Bob Cornell’s boat Monday and returning Thursday morning, or perhaps earlier. I hope we don’t miss you here if you come in. Gee, maybe we’ll stop by Fairharbor and take you for a ride . . .

Fair Harbor is one of the 17 communities spread along the length of Fire Island (13 of them are on the western half), and is quite a few miles west of Fire Island Pines. Water Island (a community, not an island), where Frank and J.J. Mitchell were staying on that fatal weekend, is east of the Pines, so the beach taxi was taking them in the opposite direction from where the poem was written when it broke down. LeSueur is incorrect in placing Hal’s house in the Pines and “not far from the spot where he would be hit almost exactly eight years later.”

I will digress and mention that the letter to Hal clears up a minor mystery for me, personally. I and my wife (with our four-year-old daughter) were invited by Hal to visit him for dinner in one of the Fire Island communities in 1971, but I had long ago forgotten which one (I know the year because North had recently been published and I brought Hal a copy). I and my family would have been coming from the Pines, in fact, where we rented the same house for a couple of weeks every year—we must have got to Fair Harbor and back by water taxi. Joe was definitely right about Hal being a superb cook and there would have been many cocktails to go with the food, as well as conversation that was delightful and stimulating. I can say from my own experience that Hal Fondren was wonderful company.

As your readers by this time know, the original of the letter I have quoted from is being offered for sale by James Jaffe Rare Books, at 790 Madison Avenue, for $6,500. Some of the text in the letter that I have not quoted can be found in Jaffe’s description of the item, and it would seem that one could go there and see it in person during business hours.

This closes the book on the authorship of “A True Account . . .” as far as I am concerned, and I don’t intend to say anything further about it. Frank gets his extraordinary poem back and Kenneth was not demented after all.

With best wishes,

(Tony Towle quotes out of O’Hara’s letter to Hal Fondren with the permission of Maureen Granville-Smith.)

Here’s what I’d add. There is, apparently, an O’Hara “Selected Letters” (as assembled some years back by Donald Allen) in the Frank O’Hara Archive in the Dodd Center at the University of Connecticut, Storrs. I know none of the reasons why it remains unpublish’d. I do know that of all the archival materials of the New American poets and poetries, the ones connect’d with O’Hara and the New York contingent—they who so honorably refused to hammer together anything so tacky’s a manifesto, a poetics without first making obvious the bulge a tongue’ll make when lodged firmly in a cheek (“pants . . . tight enough . . . There’s nothing metaphysical about it,” etc.)—’d seem at the present “juncture” the ones most likely to steer the big ship of contemporary poetry off the ideological smutch-clad and impercipient shoals of the late-dying twentieth century, that late century’s effusion of marketeers that is dirtying up the twenty-first with its puritan constructivist regulations and dull clattery “ears” when what’s need’d (“‘mes poèmes lyriques, à partir de 1897, peuvent se lire comme un journal intime” // yes always though you said it first / you the quicksand and sand and grass / as I wave toward you freely / the ego-ridden sea / there is a light there that neither of us will obscure / rubbing it all white, / saving ships from fucking up on the rocks”) is a return to the sniggers of the “perpetually ardent”—“some . . . sign people do not totally regret life.” Or poets—the way they bend so humorlessly to they self-appoint’d tasks “et” befuddlements—either. James Schuyler’s letters allow’d a peek. What’s need’d—if I obscure it, making companionable doilies in anticipation—is, of course, that someone muster together those letters (adding late-arrivals, subtracting whatever’d misconstrue or torment), and get them publish’d. Reading Frank O’Hara: The Poetics of Coterie (University of Iowa, 2006) and noting the use of a number of pertinent excerpts out of the letters (plus an able reach across O’Hara’s omnivorously wide “milieu”), one’d think Lytle Shaw a good candidate for the job. Thus ends my public pleading to Maureen Granville-Smith . . .

A funny weekend of untidy dirty-hoof’d napping (fell’d amongst the rusty tin cans like an old goat—? I’m just jammin’—) and a relentless spate of tidying up. So completely enclabber’d in it, and by it, the various trappings, the recently-mail’d, the print-outs, the scuttled-up-for-a-looks, all the hypen’d or hyphenable detritus of a too curious soul—I had to unclutter a little. Whaled through a ream-sized stack of loose sheets that ought to’ve remain’d mere pixels in the soundless winds of cyberspace, tedious arguments of insidious intents, “Politic, cautious, and meticulous; / Full of high sentence, but a bit obtuse; / At times, indeed, almost ridiculous—”; that cover’d most of it. What comes down is a stoppage—the accumulated drift of readables thwarts all excursus, all discourse: I poke at one thing, I fling away another, my commendatory (or not) utterances get muffled by drossy ambiance, by sheer blotto numbers. I cut back, I quell, I disperse. (There be the heroics of my weekend. Hence, I tell myself: the naps.)

What I proceed to read, juggling the two: Frank O’Hara: The Poetics of Coterie (University of Iowa, 2006) and Jaimy Gordon’s Bogeywoman (Sun & Moon, 1999). The latter the coming out story of a “* Unbeknownst To Everybody,” reminiscent of Nabokov’s Lolita and Violette Leduc’s Thérèse et Isabelle, particularly in its early parts at Camp Chunkagunk, Tough Paradise for Girls. And, here, seeing what the Bogeywoman learns to note of the world per counselor Willis Marie Bundgus, the camp “Wood Wiz” in charge of “Tracking” (“She had appetites—I could tell”), reminding one of Shakespeare’s King Lear:
        Dead? dead? but then I screwed down my nose and saw the corpses all over the place, everywhere I looked: crumbs of green lacewing, two links, then three more, of a salamander spine, tiny teeth, dry eggs, claws, half a beetle carapace, rust-red frass of the hornworm—a lone whisker sticking out of a bit of snout leather, all that was left of some least weasel the hawk ate—a whole skull the size of a freckle—all this carnage epochs beyond its original disturbance, part of the calm sand itself. You just had to get down there to see from the wreckage what a 20-table grange hall ham & oyster supper that sand was, what a feast run amok the whole earth was, only how could you tell the eater from the eats? You couldn’t. And what but your own greedy appetite led you out there on the bonewhite tablecloth in the first place, where every passing turkey buzzard could get an eyeful of you? It was a wonder anything ever came out of its hole—and suddenly I saw this: only merciful hunger blanks out death.
        “The whole sand pit’s an oinking boneyard,” I said.
See Lear’s great vision of the worldly stink of mortality (crown’d inseparably by rutting), how it clings to all appetite:
                Die for adultery? No,
The wren goes to’t, and the small gilded fly
Does lecher in my sight.
Let copulation thrive; for Gloucester’s bastard son
Was kinder to his father than my daughters
Got ’tween the lawful sheets.
To’t, luxury, pell-mell, for I lack soldiers.
Behold yond simp’ring dame,
Whose face between her forks presages snow;
That minces virtue, and does shake the head
To hear of pleasure’s name—
The fitchew nor the soiled horse goes to’t
With a more riotous appetite.
Down from the waist they are Centaurs.
Though women all above;
But to the girdle do the gods inherit,
Beneath is all the fiends’: there’s hell, there’s darkness,
There is the sulphurous pit, burning, scalding ,
Stench, consumption. Fie, fie, fie! Pah, pah!
Give me an ounce of civet, good apothecary,
Sweeten my imagination.
Sweeten, indeed. I’ll be doing the “Fie, fie! Pah, pah!” all day. In Lytle Shaw’s coterie book, I’ll note how Morton Feldman’s words regarding O’Hara (quoted out of the Berkson-edited Homage) mimic David Shapiro’s fine flurry about O’Hara “dead and still making new poems” (“A person told me once that he had dialed Dial-a-Poem and gotten Frank’s voice, though Frank was dead. The voice was so obviously Frank’s that the person had to shudder at the living dead. . . . Like Joe Hill, I’m still alive, Frank said. I can die and write as well, etc.”) Feldman wrote:
In an extraordinary poem Frank O’Hara describes his love for the poet, Mayakovsky. After an outburst of feeling, he writes, “but I’m turning to my verses / and my heart is closing / like a fist.”
        What he is telling us is something unbelievably painful. Secreted in O’Hara’s thought is the possibility that we create only as dead men. . . . Death seems the only metaphor distant enough to truly measure our existence. Frank understood this. That is why these poems, so colloquial, so conversational, nevertheless seem to be reaching us from some other, infinitely distant place. Bad artists throughout history have always tried to make art like life. Only the artist who is close to his own life gives us an art that is like death.

Morton Feldman, 1926-1987