Thursday, October 30, 2008


Yellow Snapdragons


E sin falcones and without
A hood’d peregrine, stump-still
On my fist, America, e
Sin pieles
unfurred and smooth,
E sin mantos, uncoat’d, naked
In the new world rosy-
Buttock’d and bestir’d to rapery,
America, thy innocent gambolry is
Done, thy spoil’d child mayhem.
With a crossbow I wing
Besar la mano, nick thy
Meddlesome hand, prick thy God-
Cloud’d portent, America, burst thy
Long-claim’d peerless rapture, force
The beast thou art become
To its bloody’d black knees.
Tan fuertemeintre llorando, I weep
At vainglory deservingly sack’d, at
Fierce antiquity’s runt rehearsal, you
America, every slick’d back hair
In place, strutting impeccably down
Through the accumulated nausea of
Century of misdeeds, poor actor,
Ya se parte de sus
unhand’d by history, un-
Marvell’d, rabid, corrupt, wonder-mongering,
Gluttonous, crowd-badgering, and ill.

Reading Thoreau’s early and minuscule Journal note (1839) titled “The Poet”:
He must be something more than natural—even supernatural. Nature will not speak through but along with him. His voice will not proceed from her midst, but breathing on her, will make her the expression of his thought. He then poetizes, when he takes a fact out of nature into spirit—He speaks without reference to time or place. His thought is one world, her’s another. He is another nature—Nature’s brother.
And thinking how William Carlos Williams’s lines in Spring and All (1923) is rather that intensify’d: “Poetry is something quite different. Poetry has to do with the crystallization of the imagination—the perfection of new forms as additions to nature—Prose may follow to enlighten but poetry—” (I like how the crystallography inserts itself into Williams—pure Thoreau.) (How likely it is that either a) Thoreau is riffing against something Emerson says somewhere with increased clarity and concision—and everybody knows it except dilatory Emerson-reader me—, or b) there’s a precedent for Williams’s pronouncement “somewhere” plainer—Williams with ’s poetries of human dynamism—“out of the mouths of Polish mothers”—hardly strikes a Thoreauvian “stance.”

Dallying with the Williams of Spring and All now that it’s propped open here. That next paragraph: “Is what I have written prose? The only answer is that form in prose ends with the end of that which is being communicated—If the power to go on falters in the middle of a sentence—that is the end of the sentence—Or if a new phase enters at that point it is only stupidity to go on.” And thinking (again) of Ron Silliman’s ingenuous smokescreen of an opening to “The New Sentence” in Talks (Hills 6/7)— “The sole precedent I can find for the new sentence is Kora In Hell: Improvisations and that one far-fetched”—neatly dodging Pound whose imagistic juxtaposing is everywhere therein—, isn’t it precisely the Williams “faltering” that Silliman exploits (ad tedium) claiming for the sentence both measure itself (“Sentence length is a unit of measure”) and (in “What”) capable of measure within itself (“The line tends to scratch (the advantage of prose is / or, I should say, may be / not that it has no line—each word, each letter / holds the line—but / that its linebreaks being hidden / demands the reader work).” (Signs of rhythmic infelicity took for scriptible reader-empowering “difficulty.”) (Somewhere in “®” Silliman manages to echo Williams’s version of the sentence precisely: “The impulse of the sentence is to extend, never to close off.”)

Ah, October, the colding nights, the between-season ambivalence tilting its rakish hat at all one does. Is there something like “anxious indifference”? That’s rather what I am feeling. And now I note that Morty Sklar of The Spirit That Moves Us is out with a sort of selected call’d The Smell of Life. Book copy identifying it: “natural-voice aesthetic of the Iowa City Actualists” and Sklar as one of said Actualists—“seminal writer and editor”—and though I confuse The Spirit That Moves Us just slightly with another Iowa City “sheet” call’d The Lamp in the Spine somehow the copy (written by Sklar) points out just how inept “our” categories and histories be. Voice versus the signifying monstrance of the stubby pencil squeezed up in a fist. Iowa à l'époque (’seventies, roughly) was full of Williams-Creeley-Berrigan-Grenier imitators (I think “little one-hinge quotidian stoner poems”—see Grenier’s “nobody to talk to anything about”—remarks as literature), decidedly not (on surface) viable kin to the writerly leanings of the language poets. The common ground: ambivalence to the teeming and evident artifice of the epiphanic constructs of “the others” (the majority), and its heavy commitment to metaphorickal transformations: think of Charles Simic’s “Fork”: “This strange thing must have crept / Right out of hell. / It resembles a bird’s foot / Worn around the cannibal’s neck” and how it culminates in implicating the reader—who becomes some odd, implacable raptor: “like your fist . . . large, bald, beakless, and blind.” Bah.

Another Friday on the road. Alors, à lundi.

Robert Grenier, 1985
(Photograph by Alastair Johnston)

Wednesday, October 29, 2008




Man with a raspy way
Of saying so-and-so
Stop’d “deigning to attend” the
Board’s annual meetings and something
About a “factory in Mississippi”—
He’s making kayaks “new polymers
And whatnot.” In Grand Rapids,
Michigan, there’s a street call’d
Wealthy and a few blocks
North of it the homeless
Spill out the doors of
The Guiding Light. Some, even
Though it’s only nine o’clock,
And even though it’s thirty-
Eight degrees Fahrenheit, put down
Bedraggled blankets a couple doorways
Down, “ain’t goan sleep in
No shelter.” At St. Cecelia’s
Music Society where Midori’s just
Play’d a George Enescu sonata
“Dans le caractère populaire roumain,”
The relief of the men
Emerging to fetch the SUVs
(The women scent’d and exclamatory
In the lobby) is palpable:
Enough of that itchy “cultural
Stuff.” One recalls the silver
Hip flask he’d carry’d at
State. In the park stands
One enormous maple tree, half-
Leaf’d and obscenely red. Under
It, an uncanny blue container
The color of sky. “For
Hours the mail-clad legions
Tramp’d doggedly forth under a
Black night, and when the
Sun hoist’d its one pennant
In uncloud’d splendour, the towers
And pinnacles of Jerusalem shined
Up fierce: the brute fan’tics
Fell to sod, become meek
And humble pilgrims pressing full
Length against the redeeming earth.”

“I just been to the baggage car where the engine is been toss’d.” How the ornery details of the everyday interrupt the writing of the everyday. Write that.

George Enescu, 1881-1955

Tuesday, October 28, 2008

The Gaseous Irregularghz

Leaf Debris


One cloud smudges out a
Considerable way, is lost behind
Black and fire-breach’d Max
Beckmann trees, “without distraction of
A literary nature.” One wants
To hint at depth through
Simple accumulation, make a mosaic
Of transience, blues and indifferently
Stain’d whites. Deep irregularghz. Years
Of it, and plotz’d Merzbilden.
A goodly sheen off that
Sex “organ” there, the one
Construct’d out of a broken
Umbrella, red silk.—Do you
Mean it?
I am tying
My jumbo human consciousness to
The nearest star, in order
To meet—if meeting it
Is—the edge of the
Abyss, its bravura three-dimensionality
All raffia armature and plâtre
Laid thick in a mound
And crevice arrangement, a heavenly
Greensward where the light, diffuse
And riffled into gauzy pleats
And rills, settles against one
Like a dress, and like
A dress, is lift’d off.
—Yes. I mean it completely.

Okay, back to my gaseous irregularity of laze and ooze. I think of something every four weeks or so, and a giant bubble containing it ascends through the mud I squat at the bottom of, and makes a nauseating sound—slow flap and hiss—on escaping. I josh. Truth is, any number of things need attending to—I am a terribly slow reader—I am finicky, abstract’d, a lexical butterfly. I miss’d my nap. I took, a few days back, to trying to read a few pages of Thoreau’s Journal each day (along with Coleridge’s Biographia—“the one that I am in a minor slump regarding”), along with whatever I am “officially” reading (The Recognitions, a hoot and a book that one knows immediately on breeching that its truest pleasures’ll lie in rereading). “Rereading,” fat chance this life, I think, unconsciously mimicking the classic double two-beat put-down of Robert Hass’s woman in the Charlottesville bar, “Good luck, asshole” (in “Listening and Making” in Twentieth Century Pleasures, one of my prefer’d essays on metrical dexterity and infelicity). My sense is that the Journals begin slow and ameliorate, the richesses in the higher percentages of natural history observations, with a concomitant diminuendo in the aphoristic. Thoreau’s odd concerns: crystallography, the vista or prospect, distancing oneself out of the range of idle human speech. Happiest with the human caught integrated into the phenomenal smear: “the prophane haymakers in yonder meadow.” “Men are constantly dinging in my ears their fair theories and plausible solutions of the universe—but ever there is no help—and I return again to my shoreless—islandless ocean, and fathom unceasingly for a bottom that will hold an anchor, that it may not drag.” Reminding me of the recurring idea in The Recognitions of “maybe we’re fished for”—that somebody in a larger celestial-sailing “craft” trawls overhead, its anchor catching against tombstones, we, creatures at sea-bottom. (The notion apparently out of one of Charles Fort’s books skeptical of marvels and oddities and anomalies, Fort responding cheekily to a report of a UFO with chains hanging down off it: “I think we’re fished for. It may be that we’re highly esteemed by super-epicures somewhere. It makes me more cheerful when I think that we may be of some use after all.”) (Is that the same kind of reversal ’s that play’d out in the mighty scribbles of Gaddis’s Esme regarding painting? Cf. “It does not seem unreasonable that we invent colors, lines, shapes, capable of being, representative of existence, therefore it is not unreasonable that they, in turn, later, invent us, our ideas, directions, motivations, with great audacity, since we, ourselves having them upon our walls. What rude guests they prove to be, indeed: although paintings differ from life by energy a painter can never be a substitute for his paintings, so complete so independent as reality are they. Imagine the pleasure they enjoy at this.”) (I note: for the high academic constructivists and Sunday flarfists in the crowd: “The mere coincident of materials at one’s disposal cannot make a painting, nor even a journey where nothing had been selected, nor lost by traveling, a journey, indeed, that might as well never had been taken.”) Harrumph.

Henry David Thoreau, 1817-1862

Monday, October 27, 2008

Kent Johnson’s Homage to the Last Avant-Garde

Two Hollyhocks

I think I’ve begun about fourteen reviews of Kent Johnson’s new and terrific quasi-select’d Homage to the Last Avant-Garde (Shearsman, 2008) by now, all stow’d up in my tiny brainbox. It’s a big mystery why I can’t put any of it down on paper. Kent Johnson keeps saying, “I’d love to know what you think of the book,” and I say, “Patience, Master, patience” as if I were cloistered in New England with a slightly puffy physiognomy behind which I build little spring-traps of syntactical ingenuity about trapping God, or someone rather “like Him.”

Is Kent Johnson a nervous Nellie, or what? I think he positively thrives on yatter and scorch, that version of the lyrical big itch that accounts for Art and Trouble (two manifestations of one compulsion) amongst all us humankind. He’s always looking to “mix it up a little,” flinging down the fat puff’d up old-style boxing gloves of ego for a little delight in exchange and engagement. Man least likely to consider (or care) about the possibility of looking a little foolish. Besides, he likes people, in all the muddle and mayhem and mopery. And then there’s Kent Johnson backing off a little, peevish and bewilder’d: “I must be the biggest pariah in Poetryland by now.” “Nobody’ll even talk to me.” Endearing crazy vulnerability and that obscenely huge grease-slick of high ambition. And all of it highly nuanced and terrifically “up front.”

One thing I love here in the Homage: how some of the select’d pieces—old “rocks” out of the now-classic pamphlets The Miseries of Poetry and Lyric Poetry After Auschwitz—get new settings, to shine slightly abashedly and askance in a book model’d pertly after Jack Spicer’s Book of Magazine Verse. Here’s the old Skanky Possum chapbook of Greek poems “drawn from glorious antiquity,” aimiably English’d with the assistance of Alexandra Papaditsas, “victim of the rare syndrome Cornuexcretis phalloides, wherethrough a large keratinous horn grows from the head,” become “Twenty Traductions and Some Mystery Prose for “C”: A Journal of Poetry. (One only misses the forty some “blurbs” for the work Kent Johnson coerced out of an equal number of comrades through, undoubtedly, promissory puling and sexual shenanigan.) And here’s the brute avant-castigatory mode of the Effing document with the Adorno title become “Seven Submissions to the War for The World. One is forced to consider (imagine) the alignment of lines like Kent Johnson’s “Listen, Tawfiq, you tafila, / OK, so you’re a sorry-assed academic with a Ba’ath mustache, / but put your brains back into your head” next to early World-fodder like Ted Berrigan’s “The true test of man is a bunt” or Joel Sloman’s piece listing the measurement of each part of ’s body, and wonder at how irremediably the world’s changed. It’s an audacious move, part of Kent Johnson’s continuing project of swiveling the telescope back around to examine its own makers.

Continual restlessness, constant reprise, incessant renegotiation of a poem’s place vis-à-vis the world, its audience, its mise en scène: the grand upshot of Kent Johnson’s energetic tampering with the status quo is a kind of radical confoundedness. “Uh, where the hell am I?” Kent Johnson’s admiration for (some ’d claim emulation of) the heteronym-donning Fernando “Person” Pessoa is well-known: during one period in the late ’nineties I suspect’d a whole slew of rather ordinary people of being somehow “projections” of Kent Johnson—Kazim Ali, Patrick McManus, Paul Murphy, Ron Silliman, Jacques Debrot, Jeffrey Jullich, Jordan Davis, Geoffrey Gatza, Millie Niss, Eliza McGrand, Mikhail Epstein, and innumerable fleeting “others.” (Anybody recall one “Ammonides” writing in to the Poetics List?) Setting aside, though, the rather tiresome subject of “the subject,” (multiplicity of, author-function no longer singularly assignable to, &c.), what one encounters in the shifting panoply of works of Kent Johnson is something like what Harold Rosenberg call’d an “aesthetics of impermanence,” wherein circulation and intervention become of primary concern. Not the static masterpiece unchanging, but the pertinent (potent) gesture for the current moment. As such, what one sees come forth in Kent Johnson’s Homage is adamant certain re-contextualization: how it needs read now. The effect is often vertiginous: every piece seems familiar, every piece seems “off,” and sublimely new.

One of the “Five Sentimental Poems for Angel Hair” is a piece about fishing, and fathers and sons, and truths and falsehoods, and making do, and it’s about John Ashbery’s poem “Into the Dusk-Charged Air” and Frank O’Hara’s “Why I Am Not a Painter,” countless things. It’s titled “Sentimental Piscatorial”:

The fishing was good this morning, though
we never made it to the Mississippi. The Apple
is a lovely tributary; once I almost drowned 1

in its green, but that was a long time ago,
and I didn’t, because I guess life still
needed something there. Well,

for instance, as I said to my son Brooks,
who is starting to be a poet, many times
(as I’ve said many times to him, that is), if 2

you are going to put your life into
poetry, make sure you stay low, walk slow,
and lay the fly right along the velocity

changes. The sun was just starting to burn-
off the fog, and a doe walked across the riffle
right upstream and didn’t startle. A hereon stood

in the next pool, shimmering, “like
some kind of religious lawn ornament,
when you think about it,” my son 3

said. And so I watched my son fish,
covered in an actual gold, like his
drug-inspired poem of the alcoholic man

with the burning city in his heart. I 4
watched him fish, trying so to impress me,
his back to the sun. 5

1 The first stanza is, perhaps over-obviously, an allusion to John Ashbery’s “Into the Dusk-Charged Air.”

2 The second and third stanzas are prosodic glosses on Frank O’Hara’s “Why I Am Not a Painter.” Interestingly, the following email response was received from Hilton Kramer, editor of The New Criterion, to whom this poem (sans footnotes) was originally submitted: “Dear Mr. Johnson, I like the poem quite a lot; it has an easy and laconic sound breaking elegantly across an unusual and complex meter (the ionic as base foot is idiosyncratic, to say the least, and quite impressive). Still, I am afraid I have to pass this time around—Guy Davenport, who has the last word with all poems submitted to NC, felt that the poaching, as he put it, from O’Hara in the second and third stanzas was too cute and obvious. But I will tell you that Mr. Davenport found the poem’s ending “strangely moving,” and I can tell you, too, that he doesn’t often offer up such words as “moving” in his reports to me. Please do send us more of your poems. —HK.”

3 When Brooks was a child, I would read him poems at bedtime. Wallace Stevens (the Stevens of Harmonium) and Kenneth Koch were his favorites. I now realize that Brooks would never have said what he did about the heron appearing as a lawn ornament had it not been for Koch’s line in that love poem about the parts of speech, where the garbage can lid is smashed into a likeness of the face of King George the Third.

4 This is an allusion to St. Augustine’s City of God, which is the theme, if you will, of my son’s painting. In the upper corner of the canvas, in tiny, calligraphic lettering, my son has written the following passage from Augustine’s Soliloquia, which he copies from Doubled Flowering: From the Notebooks of Araki Yasusada, the heteronymous masterpiece of “Tosa Motokiyu,” of whose manuscripts, it is by now widely known, I am one of the caretakers:
For how could the actor I mentioned be a true tragic actor if he were not willing to be a false Hector, a false Andromache, a false Hercules? Or how could a picture of a horse be a true picture unless it were a false horse? Or an image of a man in a mirror be a true image unless it were a false man? So if the fact that they are false in one respect helps certain things to be true in another respect, why do we fear falseness so much and seek truth as such a great good? Will we not admit that these things make up truth itself, that truth is so to speak put together from them?
5 This is an allusion to an image in a poem by Whitman, where the sun behind a man standing in the water forms a golden aura around him. But I cannot now recall the exact poem.
All that makes for a reading experience that simply teems with possibility and complexity. There is, undeniably, something “moving” at the center of it—though the evident knowledge of the “false Andromache” that produces that emotion be unstinting, ineffable. There is, too, the complicated play between private and public Kent Johnsons: whole vasty degrees of difference ranging from denial-stealth (“almost drowned / in its green, but that was a long time ago, and I didn’t”) all the way up to something like braggart-exhibitionism (“the heteronymous masterpiece of “Tosa Motokiyu,” of whose manuscripts, it is by now widely known, I am one of the caretakers”). And interlard’d with that complexity, is one of degrees of truth and falsity (“how could a picture of a horse be a true picture unless it were a false horse?”) And that (complexity)’s most acute pressure point is—both here, and generally—for Kent Johnson the place of the writer’s habitus, the charm’d and charmless, petty and fetter’d, large and withholding multitudes milieu of the writerly “scene.”

What Kent Johnson does—unlike anybody else—is interrogate (badger) that place, that “situation,” its ways and functions, how its writers behave and misbehave, lie to others and themselves, trade favors and insults, pose, vindicate, prance, vilify. So that: a note (apparently) written by The New Criterion’s Hilton Kramer, mark’d arch-nemesis on some presumptive rulers’ cosmological maps becomes an integral part of Kent Johnson’s “sentimental” poem. And yet: that radical confoundedness (“where the hell?”) raises up like a myrmidon: that “laconic sound breaking elegantly across an unusual and complex meter (the ionic as base foot is idiosyncratic. . .)”: uh, who’s zooming whom? One’s enter’d a world where the usual landmarks may be topsy-turvy, the nemesis may be correct, “Mr. Davenport”’s report additional proof, and the fact that “the sun behind a man standing in the water forms a golden aura around him” noteworthy only for the its being the case for anyman, or Everyman.

Or: here’s what William Gaddis (in The Recognitions) had to say about the poems of Kent Johnson:
Like a story I heard once, a friend of mine told me, somebody I used to know, a story about a forged painting. It was a forged Titian that somebody had painted over another old painting, when they scraped the forged Titian away they found some worthless old painting underneath it, the forger had used it because it was an old canvas. But then there was something under that worthless painting, and they scraped it off and underneath that they found a Titian, a real Titian that had been there all the time. It was as though when the forger was working, and he didn’t know the original was underneath, I mean he didn’t know he knew it, but it knew, I mean something knew. I mean, do you see what I mean?
“Something knew.” One of the reasons why Jack Spicer is so central to Kent Johnson’s poetics—that ability to allow the “radical confoundedness” (“This is getting good, isn’t it?”) to out (and it may do so over the erring wanton interventions of several occasions—like sending a poem to The New Criterion). The Jack Spicer, who says (in the 1965 Vancouver lecture “Dictation and ‘A Textbook of Poetry’”):
. . . there are plenty of times when you're so busy writing it and you have to wait for two hours because the thing is coming through in a way that seems to you wrong. It may be that you hate the thing that’s coming through so much, and you’re resisting it as a medium. Or it may be that the thing which is invading you is saying, “yeah, well that’s very nice but that hasn’t anything to do with what this is all about.” And you have to figure that out, and sometimes it takes a number of cigarettes, and occasionally a number of drinks, to figure out which is which . . .
Or a number of “presentations.”

Is Guy Davenport right? About the “cute and obvious”? Yes, of course. Guy Davenport’s always right. And yet: it is by means of such ploy (faux-innocence gamboling) that the stage is set. (See Kent Johnson’s opening query to “The Best American Poetry”: “Am I the only idiot here, on this hill, surrounded, as I am, by rutting rams and heated ewes?” And moments later one sees James Tate and Dean Young approach, with one loud “Baa-a” and another loud “Baa-a” in return. About as “cute and obvious” as an AWP Conference or an evening reading at the Poetry Project. The honest-to-God fun comes—as it generally does in a Kent Johnson poem—when, confront’d with a burning house, the poets on the hill “squint and espy the ant-like people, running around or passing water buckets in a line. And there goes the little red fire truck, speeding towards its fire, pulled by Gertrude, the ancient Clydesdale.” The house, of course, belonging to one Hejinian.)

If I find a hero in Homage to the Last Avant-Garde (a funny thing to look for in a book of poetry), it’s Arkadii Dragomoshchenko. In a poem in the form of a letter to David Shapiro, Kent Johnson writes “Yes, it’s true, the Language poets air-brushed me out of Leningrad” (see the collaborative book, Leningrad by Michael Davidson, Lyn Hejinian, Ron Silliman, and Barrett Watten about the August 1989 “international conference for avant-garde writers”). And, while offerings of official “formal toasts to the ‘American Poetic Friends of the Soviet Union’” continue “in a vast hall in a vast, ornate czarist building made all of marble, crimson-draped windows towering to the ceiling, looking out onto the Neva, swarms of cherubs fat and hot for Aphrodite above, a U. S. avantist facing me across the great mahogany table in a kind of late pinkish glow, dapper Aeneas in a polo shirt,” it is reported how hero Arkadii Dragomoshchenko “leaned over to me and with booze on his breath said in heaviest accent, ‘Is this a great quantity of such repulsive fucking dog shit or what?’” (Though not—and here’s Kent Johnson’s genius—to skip out on the indictment, Kent Johnson offers a reply: “‘You think so?’ I burbled, my mouth full of bread and sturgeon eggs. ‘Why, it’s the first time in my life that I feel like a real Poet . . . I think this is fantastic!”)


The orchestra conductor tells the drummers that the beat needn’t be loud so long as it is inexorable. “I love that word, in-ex-or-a-ble,” he says, weighing it, tongue-ing its syllables unmitigatedly.

Kent Johnson in La Paz, Bolivia, with Flowers, 2004
(Photograph by Forrest Gander)

Friday, October 24, 2008

Eirin Moure’s Sheep’s Vigil by a Fervent Person

Leaf Debris


“Sheer Matter with no Standards
At all” is how a
City is, or a chaos,
A laboratory for seeing: look
Off to that distant prospect
Whereat the stymie’d soul is
Tether’d like a hot air
Balloon, or collapsed against the
Greeny earth that cannot release
It, and “tumble up and
Down what thou find’st there”:
A habit, lying and of
Times at, one summer allowing
Blank, is except to get
Activity, handle of a loving.

It is a kind of
Sheer madder misprision’d, rubrick’d annotations
Of a foundering scholiast, a
Discrete series deliver’d by arrangement:
One blank habit is, and
Of lying activity to get
At, time’s handle except of
A summer, allowing a loving.

The huge yellow ball of
Sun gains circumference and wobble
As it settles oblong against
The black cut-outs of
Trees that line the plate
I stand in the middle
Of, and the light diminishes,
Draining out of a puncturable:
Time’s activity is allowing a
Summer, a handle lying blank,
To get except at one
Loving of, and habit of.

Antic maxims, homely and untamable,
Little urchins of the vasty
Seas of meaning. The true,
The entire, cause is none
Of these meagre causes took
Up singly, each adjoining mess
Is necessary for any particular
Mess; the proximity of a
Thing remote is variable, bent
By pliable circumstance, that elastic!

Where rivers go in cities. That’s one concern of Eirin Moure in her “transelation” Sheep’s Vigil by a Fervent Person (House of Anansi, 2001). Think how the Bièvre, Seine tributary, creek that supply’d the tapestry manufactory of the Gobelins with water for dye-making, no longer exists in Paris (though a rue de Bièvre does). In Ann Arbor, Malletts Creek dives underground to run with the stormwater, forty per cent of its natural basin made impervious by human structures, eventually dumps into the Huron. Eirin Moure, in “Notes in Recollection”:
I spent a winter on Winnett Avenue in Toronto where a small creek crosses, nameless, flowing under the road into Cedarvale ravine near the Phil White Arena. A manhole cover, the real McCoy, marks its passage. A portal, round, of fer forgé. In Montréal these covers would say Montréal égouts, or aqueduc, or égout pluvial, in accordance with their function; in Toronto they read McCoy, after their foundry. Or just bear a year. 1965. Beneath them, I started to find creeks, riding my bike that spring; for on a bike, you can hear the water. Travelling up Wychwood past the old shut streetcar barns, the sound of Taddle creek can be followed all the way up to Vaughn Road before it’s lost.
Something thrilling about such investigations. Context for Moure’s transelations of O Guardador de Rebanhos (The Keeper of Sheep) by Alberto Caeiro, one of Fernando Pessoa’s “masters” (Pessoa: “In me, there appeared my master,” about Caeiro; he wrote thirty of the forty-nine poems March 8, 1914, “in a sort of ecstasy.”) Moure, a sample:

Como um grande borrão de fogo sujo
O sol-posto demora-se nas nuvens que ficam.
Vem um silvo vago de longe na tarde muito calma.
Deve ser dum comboio longínquo.

Neste momento vem-me uma vaga saudade
E um vago desejo plácido
Que aparece e desaparece.

Também às vezes, à flor dos ribeiros
Formam-se bolhas na água
Que nascem e se desmancham.
E não têm sentido nenhum
Salvo serem bolhas de água
Que nascem e se desmancham.

XXXVII Like a huge blotch of sullied fire

Like a huge blotch of sullied fire
The gone sun hangs in the last of clouds.
A vague whistle far off touches the first calm of evening.
It must be a train south of Davenport.

At that moment I’m touched with a vague wistfulness
And a vague lulled desire
That flickers and amends.

Just as, at times, at the riverbank’s edge
Bubbles of water form
Are born and set loose
Not ever meaning.
“Bubbles of water.” Just this,
Born, set loose.
How I love “flickers and amends” for “aparece e desaparece”; how those saudade’d and unmeaning “bubbles of water” capture both the rivers diving under cities and the “masters” who emerge for a while, fret and scribble and “amend” (desaparece). “By Way of Postface” tangles the whole ever more diligently. It presents an interview with Alberto Caeiro “in Vigo, Spain attributed to Alexander Search, with footnotes by Teresa Sobral Cunha”—the kind of fetchingly nimble track-covering (I think!) that allows one mirth without guilt, appropriate to a book whose cover’s adorn’d with an old hand-color’d carte postale of Galician women in regional dress with collaged-in shiny new milk buckets (I think!) on their heads. “Born, set loose”: one might track the “real” here, but it becomes somehow wholly negligible, beside the point. In the interview, after a few snorts at contemporaries (“When I read Pascoaes I laugh till the tear roll. I can never read anything of his to the end. A man who discovers hidden meanings in stones, human feelings in trees, who anthropomorphizes sunsets and sunrises . . .” and “Junqueiro isn’t a poet; he’s a friend of sentences. Rhythm and metre are all you’ll find in his work. His religiosity is just blather. And his admiration of nature is more blather. How can you take someone seriously who says he’s a hymn of mysterious light in the gravity of God’s orbit. Huh? It’s entirely vapid . . .” and, referring to João de Barros, “Joe who? Trendiness in writers doesn’t interest me. The only good thing in any person is something of which he or she is not even aware . . .”), Caeiro is ask’d if he’s a materialist:
      “No, I’m not an artist with any doctrine at all. I’m a person, who one day opened the window and discovered something momentous. Nature exists. It’s clear: trees, rivers, stones are things that truly exist. Never before had anyone grasped this.
      “I don’t pretend to be anything more than the greatest poet in the world. I made the most vital discovery, one made by no one before me, and beside which other discoveries are child’s play, frivolities. I gave to the universe. Even the Greeks, with all their farsightedness, didn’t do as much.”
As somebody (maybe Eirin Moure) says, “Alberto Caeiro is a consummate impossibility.” Or, better, and more ecstatically:
That boy Virgil’s out blowing soap bubbles again
into the windy avenue,
A pure philosophy of translucination, out of a straw!
Clear, useless and transitory as Nature
Greeting the eye as coisas do.
They are what they are
With round and aerial precision
And no one, not even Virgil with his dark curled head,
It’s cold out today—where’s his sheep coat”—he’ll catch a chill,
Pretends they’re more than they appear to be.

Some can’t be seen in the blazing light;
They are like a passing breeze that ruffles the flower
So that we only know its passage
Because some chose or coisa grows lighter in us
And accepts all, oh ache, with rising clarity.
The word “thing” made thing by leaving it un-transelated as chose or coisa.

Eirin Moure

Charles Marville, “Banks of the Bièvre, at the Bottom of rue des Gobelins, Paris,” 1858

Thursday, October 23, 2008

Gab, Limit’d

Leaf Debris


Ointment in the dog’s ear, antibiotic caplet the size of a kidney bean plunged down the dog’s throat. Nap. Dump in a load of clothes, dark-color’d only. Boy’s all-cotton black sweater drying flat, arms comic-akimbo. A world of nouns, one thinks, inconsequent and unmouth’d without the blunt anima of the I inserting itself like a tongue, to stir things up. Call it abject lyricism, putting oneself forth in lieu of form’s formality. In Karl Marx’s London of 1849, fifty-four signatory X’s (pronounced I’s): “Sur,
We beg and beseech proteckshion
And power. We are Sur,
Living in a Wilderniss, we
Live in muck and filthe.
We aint got no privez,
No dust bins, no drains,
No water splies, and no
Drain or suer in the
Whole place. The Suer Company,
In Greek Street, all great
Rich and powerfool men, take
No notice watsomedever of our
Complaints. The Stenche of a
Gully-hole is disgustin. We
Al of us suffer, and
Numbers are ill, and if
The Colera come Lord help—”
And still the dunning creditors come, the clothes in hock, the lights doused, the food scraps and remnants, and one of the kids’d displace herself unhesitatingly to the stoop and yell: “Mr. Marx ain’t upstairs.” Thrips and cutworms, wasps and centipedes, the plot is simple: get or get got. The world is a verb, and the sun intelligence itself.

Noting what look’d like crocuses, lavender, upspringing out in the cold. Is it a false bloom, trigger’d by seasonal myopia? (Probably a mimic-crocus.) Thoreau: “With man all is uncertainty. He does not look forwardly to another spring. But examine the root of the savory-leaved aster, and you will find the new shoots, fair purple shoots, which are to curve upward and bear the next year’s flowers, already grown half an inch or more in earth. Nature is confident.” Nature’s confidence: found in incessancy, the leaf-hoppers springing earthward off the scuppernongs, the fine muslin bags tied around the buds. Citational gab. Inability to focus. Long period of flipping through Felisberto Hernández’s Piano Stories looking for a particularly stunning line: something like “I heap’d up all my memories on top of my head like extra clothes.” That stops me dead.

Felisberto Hernández, 1902-1964

Wednesday, October 22, 2008

Tender Raillery

Virginia Creeper


Disjoint, a rebus, a petroglyph,
Randoming the outskirts of everything,
The air addled with cold,
The Lumina hoar-hood’d with
Rime, I leaf through a
Book of heroes. “Here is
Huckster Hedinn the Big, mean-
Temper’d and a braggart, he
Snatches back what he sells.”
Hourly marches down long corridors
Like a lobbyist, that is
Commerce in the twenty-first
Century, the cat-pitying peddler
With “trusse of tryfles at
Hys backe” shoo’d off by
Monopolists. “Another woman, named Sonnet,
Stretch’d herself out on a
Red-hot brazier without flinching,
And acquired for herself the
Approbatory epithet of The Salamander.”
The everyday rattletrap kind of
Vehicular must fires a head-
Long urge to voyage and forswear
The scant genius of place,
To rework the field guides,
To deposit accidental invasive exotica
In the planter-boxes of
The ordinary with a bosky
Freedom unshod by “exiguous patents.”
No truck with it. No
Mock-bindlestiff off-track mobbing.
Here it’s mighty cold for
October, and the scissor-snip’d
Red maple leaves plummet down
To line the streets. The
Cold makes of the mind
A singular fierce cautery apply’d—
Poker in the fire awaiting
The mad searing bite, the
Sealing off of day’s flesh.

Yadda, comme on dit, yadda yadda. Quoth Herr Sauerwein. Better Beckett himself:
      “There is a shortness of poetic sight” he proceeded wildishly “when the image of the emotion is focussed before the verbal retina; and a longness of same, when it is focussed behind. There is an authentic trend from that short-sightedness to this long sightedness. Poetry is not concerned with normal vision, when word and image coincide. I have moved from the short-sighted poem of which you spoke to a long-sighted one of which I now speak. Here the word is prolonged by the emotion instead of the emotion being gathered into and closed by the word. There are the two modes, say Marlowe and Chaucer, keeping the order, and who shall choose between them? When you say ‘he will do better’ you may mean: ‘he will write a poem of a more perfect short-sightedness’, or again you may mean: ‘he will express himself more totally in the long-sighted mode’. Already, I repeat, I have expressed myself more totally in the long-sighted mode. I dislike the word better.”
      There seemed no reason why he should stop, and doubtless he would not, had not her instinct (this time I suppose we might say, her taste) broken the silence and she moved.
      “Yes,” she said “but don’t do yourself an injury trying to circumvent it.” Suddenly, flickering out at him like a sting, putting it up to him, the hard word. “And verbal retina” she said “I don’t get. Can a word have a retina?”
      He stiffened his neck against her at once. Observe how their relation already is thickening, soon it will be a monstrous tangle, a slough of granny’s-bends.
      “I could justify my figure” he said, with a great show of fatigue and altitudino, “if I could be bothered. Words shall put forth for me the organs that I choose. Need I remind you how they relieved themselves under Apollinaire?”
Ah, sweet Sam. Always a reference to sweet “relief.” I think all that (out of Dream of Fair to Middling Women) locks up (as with a quoin in a chase) all the necessary type and furniture of my “poetics.” “Words shall put forth for me the organs that I choose.” No more hoity-toit about the “experimental.” No more raucous catcalls for the “innovatory.” (My “poetics”: avoid the Latinate shun and shush.) It’s not only seeing that matters, it is whether one is myopic or hyperopic (and how well certain prescribed writs for “relief from Dioptrical Aphorisms” obtund the tender raillery of one’s eyes). And the audacity of one’s silence. And the stock of one’s pottage.

Samuel Beckett, 1906-1989

Tuesday, October 21, 2008

A Sticking Point

In a Hockshop


“Somebody yell’d ‘The tide’s going out!’ so we went running along the muddy red inlet looking for things strand’d by the chance vacancy of water draining out. A leathery-looking duck, a long-neck paint’d turtle, a big black frog splash’d with fiery oranges and yellows. Down under the newly-construct’d bridge where the dredgers work’d, two horses clash’d wildly, hooves flailing, one down’d and the other falling into red-wash’d shallows, a terrific splash and brute congress with piercingly sharp whinny-noise and no footing. A backhoe loader, sun-yellow, gingerly manoeuvre’d its scoop under one of the horses and lift’d it out of reach. Through woods violently green we careen’d in a pickup, plunging down hills after hill into muddy red dirt cuts and washouts. Through sweet gums and tulip poplars, serviceberry and choke vines the size of a bicep. Inside a burlap-wall’d shack, compleatly flour-drench’d, John Cage’d concoct’d a tremendous variety of dumplings. Fritters, beignets, pączki, Berliners, garakjibbang, bear paws, zooloobiya, gravy rings. Some complicated translingual joke went around about a recipe ingredient and a man who look’d like “late Stevens” report’d that a cup of that’d end anybody’s day ‘for sure.’”

Nosing around in the newish Joel Bettridge and Eric Murphy Selinger-edited Ronald Johnson: Life and Works (National Poetry Foundation, 2008), essential for Peter O’Leary’s memoir “Gilding the Buddha: My Apprenticeship with Ronald Johnson” if for nothing else—and there is, happily, much “else”—Mark Scroggins, Andre Furlani, Logan Esdale, Rachel Blau DuPlessis, Graham Foust, Devin Johnston, the 1974 Vort interview with Barry Alpert (somebody ought to reprint that whole Vort series, no?) amongst it. What caught my attention—Guy Davenport’s pertinent assessment of Johnson’s “eye” (written originally for an introduction to the 1969 Norton volume Valley of the Many-Colored Grasses):
Much that is new and rich in Ronald Johnson’s poetry can be traced to his having seen the contents of his poems with his own eyes, out of his own curiosity. This charming doggedness, which Mr. Johnson shares with our best poets writing today, may have saved American poetry from a dismal return to the academic slush into which it is constantly threatening to sink.
And isn’t that “slush” un peu partout of late, and evidenced in all the various (or not so various) “schools”? Isn’t one danger particular to the lament’d disposal (oh dustbin of history) of the “lyric I” a failure to note that it is itself the primary vehicle for the essential seeing “eye”? How much of the contemporary verbiage (and not “just” the mechanical contructivist groupuscules) reads as if the writer did not ever pause long enough to look at anything? A nation a-tumble with mal vu mal dit attempt’d coruscations of the incurious? A kind of poetickal “Big Stickism,” jumping violently in without seeing. “Because Theodore Roosevelt’s eyesight was so poor, he never became adept with the lasso.”

John Cage, 1912-1992

Monday, October 20, 2008

Caressing a Noun

“Leisure in America”


Sunday at Costco a trio
Of off-work Mexican roofers
Hog the CD listening head-
Phones, rotating a paltry number
Of norteña throwaways out of
The international bin. Undocument’d workers
Leisure in America. Or night
Comes down like a sledge
Hammer, and a slew of
Bach violin concertos is being
Play’d in a hall miles
Away with a gamut of
Baroque instruments accompanying. One notes
The harpsichordist’s blank blue killer’s
Eyes and patchy hair, invidious
The placid wiry sounds, complaints
Of the dead, tedious and
Unreverb’d. The soloist is all
Pinch’d off agony, intensity clench’d
Up indiscriminant against merciless rigors.
Face like a wrung-out
Washrag. Scent of bladder campion
And ditch-water. Against unending
Insidious rent woodenness and insuperable
Anguish, one longs for a
Two horse music of relief,
A sloppy gaitless buckboard slapping
Syncopat’d patter against such Gethsemane,
Its inestimable sweats and pressures,
Its taint of mimic-blood.

Colossally encumber’d of late. My reading of The Recognitions trudging along, or skittering along, minute by odd minute. There’s Esme who locks herself into a room to write and self-administer a spoon’s worth of heroin, and how I find myself in agreement with Esme’s reading and writing habits and claims:
Even so she had never read for the reasons that most people give themselves for reading. Facts mattered little, ideas propounded, exploited, shattered, even less, and narrative nothing. Only occasional groupings of words held her, and she entered to inhabit them a little while, until they became submerged, finding sanctuary in that part of herself which she looked upon distal and afraid, a residence as separate and alien, real or unreal, as those which shocked her with such deep remorse when the features of others betrayed them.
Or, perhaps, reading less to “submerge” the words, and more to (momentarily) submerge oneself within the verbal arrangement itself, untemper’d by meaning, the visceral thrill of something (a word) like sforzando. William Gaddis again:
The sole way, it seemed to her often enough when she was working at writing a poem, to use words with meaning, would be to choose words for themselves, and invest them with her own meaning: not her own, perhaps, but meaning which was implicit in their shape, too frequently nothing to do with dictionary definition. The words which the tradition of her art offered her were by now in chaos, coerced through the contexts of a million inanities, the printed page everywhere opiate, row upon row of compelling idiocies disposed to induce stupor, coma, necrotic convulsion; and when they reached her hands they were brittle, straining and cracking, sometimes they broke under the burden which her tense will imposed, and she found herself clutching their fragments, attempting again with this shabby equipment her raid on the articulate.
Rather like Gaddis’s “damned Mona Lisa” and how invisible it is “with a thousand off-center reproductions” intervening. Or like Gertrude Stein’s claim (in Four in America) regarding “A rose is a rose is a rose is a rose” where she “caressed completely caressed and addressed a noun” that “I think that in that line the rose is red for the first time in English poetry for a hundred years.”

Gertrude Stein, 1874-1946
(Yale Collection of American Literature, Beinecke Rare Book and Manuscript Library)

Thursday, October 16, 2008

Big Shoulders

Wheat Stalks, Sunflowers


One plan is recurrent: to muster together all the accumulated verbal scraps, all the useable ones—and what, in the lingual deeps and morass, down amongst the monstrous unnamed who mob the vents where the fiery core of earth is impeded by water, what amongst the luminous barbs and incisors, is not useable?—things typed poorly and stuck in manila folders with chip’d corners and coffee stains, things in obsolete versions unprocess’d and incompatible now opening all dingbat’d like code. To muster all that into a necessary arrangement (with nothing extraneous, nothing left behind) and be complete for a moment in a mild and undemanding tabula rasa’d light. If only to make out a resurgence uncheck’d by words sully’d by use, invent everything anew: random wog-vocable mayhem.

A crepitant rain
Is getting through.
Like radio static,

That muscular wash
Of noise punctured
By sharper tickings

Irregular. The mind
Is intently shorn
Of itself, inveterate

Effacer, a doughy
Gomme rubbing out
The world, its

Pinions and its
Labels. A baseball
Game goes scoreless

For innings, a
Motorcycle cop works
A fat tongue

Back between molars,
Writing under Remarks:
PoStED 25 MpH

PAced .8 MiLe,
Annoy’d by how
The slender pencil

Jumps unpredictably against
The meatiness of
A hand. The

Mind brushes off
What it cannot
Hold, nor hold

Itself against, rebuffs
Opacity and indigence
And hatred alike.

And yet, it
Is mind amidst
Roil and ravage—

The gutter spewing
Forth a roister
Of water—that

Sidelines the blaring
Equivocals, attunes itself
To seize defeat

Out of roaring
Emptiness, buoying up
A mean sallying

Ease and plenitude
Out of what’s
Marginal and virginal.

Stray item of Henri Bergson (out of Time and Free Will): “The poet is he with whom feelings develop into images, and the images themselves into words which translate them while obeying the laws of rhythm. In seeing these images pass before our eyes we in our turn experience the feeling which was, so to speak, their emotional equivalent: but we should never realize these images so strongly without the regular movements of the rhythm by which our soul is lulled into self-forgetfulness, and, as in a dream, thinks and sees with the poet.” On that “rhythm by which our soul is lulled”: “The symmetry of form, the indefinite repetition of the same architectural motive, causes our faculty of perception to oscillate between the same and the same again, and gets rid of those customary incessant changes which in ordinary life bring us back without ceasing to the consciousness of our personality: even the faint suggestion of an idea will then be enough to make the idea fill the whole of our mind. Thus art aims at impressing feelings on us rather than expressing them; it suggests them to us, and willingly dispenses with the imitation of nature when it finds some more efficacious means.” Which is alarming: to rid oneself of “the consciousness of . . . personality,” is that the aim of art? To rid oneself of the “customary incessant changes” of ordinary life? I never cotton’d to that malarkey about “feelings” being represent’d (in some sure exchange—“develop into”) “images”: how’s a “feeling” identify itself except through imagery? (How’s an image identify’d except by means of words?) (How’s a word arrive except through a sudden fierce concatenation of rhythms?) Henri “Backwards” Bergson.

And (out of An Introduction to Metaphysics, the T. E. Hulme translated thing): “It is true that no image can reproduce exactly the original feeling I have of the flow of my own conscious life . . . Now the image has at least this advantage, that it keeps us in the concrete. No image can replace the intuition of duration, but many diverse images, borrowed from the diverse orders of things, may by the convergence of their action, direct consciousness to the precise point where there is a certain intuition to be seized.” And immediately I think of Frank Mouris’s Frank Film, something I think I encounter’d originally on “The Smothers Brothers Comedy Hour,” a perfectly manic attempt to “replace the intuition of duration.” “I thought maybe I would write letters to people as a profession. That’s something I enjoyed doing.” “Sidelines the blaring / Equivocals.”

Off to the “City of the Big Shoulders.” Monday.

Frank Mouris, “Frank Film,” 1973

Wednesday, October 15, 2008




A VOICE: What is it not to say? A pearly little hot shut, that’s what. No choking in any sign. That’s what it is. How the world begins to know not what the what is for. And for what? Bold houses. Maps of a mediocre Florida. Conjuncts unloos’d.

A PEACH: Peels heap the red bench. Woe is a grand penchant for grief.

SLEEP: White white.
               Shape it with a round.
               Round it with a shape.
               White and white.

THE COMPOST: The white of rootlets and tubers. Exactly how it is, the world begins in white embryonic light. Sun notes and neglect, splints and preparatory hobbles, Sergei Prokofiev, waxy sealants of jam jars: all white. Point clear: the way to say it is to say it. Chucking out muck, fortifying. Renegade Fridays with all hands hot and callous’d.

A VOICE: The grammar of lake holds the hold. Sun-chips skipping, the lacerating daylight. No more than the more you kowtow to it. And it itself.

A KEY: I heed the consequent unpocket’d.
              Therefore gusto.
              Therefore pout perfect.
              Therefore a straight long eyelash bat.
              Therefore milk.
              Therefore bucket.
              Heretofore cow.

DORMANT RED: Thinking of film and its casualties and jams. Thinking of the movies and its fetchable Brahms. Thinking of cinema and its haphazard lizards flickering by like lightning, its prominent zig-zags of spill’d blood shining white. Some days I can’t tell the difference between a reading jag and a crying jag.

A PEACH: Vacant lots of blow’d out puffs of goldenrod down at the dark end of the street. Something I know: been happy. Radio got done in by words intolerably writ. The new is camp photography put up with music and hardly any rattle.

DOMINANT RED: Dignity is wit: toss me a cigarette.

THE EVERYDAY: Monday, for shirters, Tuesday, unstable, Wednesday, a tenement, Thursday, say pennywhistle, Friday, lump aggregates, Saturday, Byzantium, Sunday, the of.

SLEEP: The sad archivists in sour disarray.

THE THREAD: “Prune and cleanse every leafe and spray.” Tie them together in a bundle, they’ll work to keep one another straight.

A VOICE: What is a gap? Cinders in ash. A shirt collar.

William Gaddis in The Recognitions: “Most forgeries last only a few generations, because they’re so carefully done in the taste of the period, a forged Rembrandt, for instance, confirms everything that that period sees in Rembrandt. Taste and style change, and the forgery is painfully obvious, dated, because the new period has discovered Rembrandt all over again, and of course discovered him to be quite different. That is the curse that any genuine article must endure.”

And, regarding early fifteenth century Flemish paintings, how every object’s imbued with its “own form and density”: “Because they found God everywhere. There was nothing God did not watch over, nothing, and so . . . in the painting every detail reflects . . . God’s concern with the most insignificant objects in life, with everything, because God did not relax for an instant then, and neither could the painter then. . . . There isn’t any single perspective, like the camera eye, the one we all look through and call it realism . . . the Flemish painter took twenty perspectives if he wished, and even in a small painting you can’t include it all in your single vision, your one miserable pair of eyes, like you can a photograph, like you can painting when it . . . when it degenerates, and becomes conscious of being looked at.
. . .
      —Like everything today is conscious of being looked at by something else but not by God, and that’s the only way anything can have its own form and its own character, and . . . and shape and smell, being looked at by God.”

And, stray aphoristickals: “Originality is a device that untalented people use to impress other untalented people, and protect themselves from talented people . . .” “Most people are clever because they don’t know how to be honest.”

Apply to contemporary poetics where needed.

Detail of the Ghent Altarpiece, Hubert van Eyck (c. 1366–1426) and Jan van Eyck (c. 1395-1441)
Jan van Eyck, “The Marriage of Giovanni Arnolfini and Giovanna Cenami,” 1434
Jan van Eyck, Detail of “The Marriage of Giovanni Arnolfini and Giovanna Cenami,” 1434

Tuesday, October 14, 2008

Et Puis

Some Leaves


Disdain for the mechanical clock-
Work’d inventory of study’d recklessness,
Contempt for the “I want
To be a machine” gewgaws
With promissory notes regarding human
Agency, humbug to the collateral
Management of the pure word
By performance-enhancing ha-has:
A sunken fence is still
A fence. No more wooden
Pratfalls, no more smarmy stupidity,
No more supping meagrely at
One’s own uncauterized wounds, nothing
So presumptuous as that! If
You ain’t got no story
To tell, get a stick
And poke around a hole
With it, find an ant
And follow it, write down
Everything about that ant. And
Nobody hoot one blue second
About “the physically durational act” of
That pursuit (back broke down, knees
All blood, eye poked out):
What is of use is
The story of the ant.
It, too, is a social
Beast, dividing up labor, working
Various ecological niches, some running
In tandem with uninitiated others
To indicate new forage spots.
The Japanese consider the ant
An insect of moral rectitude,
Some ants in the Saharan
Desert steer by sidereal orientation
And step-counting (pedometer, internal),
The way one jaunts forth
To dance to no music,
The dance making the music.
A crush’d ant emits a
Pheromone of “alarums & klaxons”
Urging nearby ants into attack
Configuration and frenzy. “Several ant
Species appear to use propaganda
Scents to confuse enemy ants
Into purely internecine combat.” Ants
Deliver messages for the gods.

Regular and rarely prevaricating increases in dissatisfaction on all fronts. The dire “community.” The clown mentality of the up-and-coming versus the entrench’d defensive (and ineffectual) postures of the vieillards gâteux. Diminution everywhere, no spunk, little fervor, soft-in-the-headism rampant. That’s how it seems. I like Banksy. (I like how he points to a “manifesto” and one sees only a chop-shot by comedian Emo Philips: “When I was a kid I used to pray every night for a new bicycle. Then I realised God doesn’t work that way, so I stole one and prayed for forgiveness.”) I like the legions of stencil-interventionists who operate outside the art cartel, hit and run without interference in the form of “curators.” I like Blogland for that reason, though it seems increasingly dull, increasingly becoming a wing of the publishing cartel. The “independents” clothe they blog-skins with self-advertisements directing one to the same old same old plus ça change print “outlets”; or, officialdom itself, from The Poetry Foundation all the way “up” to the New York Times, selects and hires individuals to write bloggery, subsuming (taming) the independent impetus whilst making for hierarchical havens (what “officialdom” always does). One swat at the hierarchy and resistance stiffens. Note how eagerly the regulars jump to expose themselves in the “pages” of the bigger “venues”; note how quickly the “venues” sop up the obvious regardless of propriety: see how Inside Higher Ed “turn’d to” Ron Silliman for a question regarding the recent brouhaha over American writers / publishers lack of internationalism—a more laughable choice could hardly’ve been made. Somewhere William Gaddis points to various “lines” of argument regarding art and patronage and what printing provided and the Benjamin catch of reproduction:
      —But it can’t really be that simple . . . (a discussion: did the coming of the printing press corrupt? Putting a price on authorship, originality). —Look at it this way, look at it as liberation, the first time in history that a writer was independent of patrons, the first time he could put a price on his work, make it a thing of material value, a vested interest in himself for the first time in history . . .
      —And painters, and artists? Lithography, and color reproductions . . .
      —Yes, I don’t know, if one corrupts the artist and the other corrupts . . . that damned Mona Lisa, no one sees it, you can’t see it with a thousand off-center reproductions between you and it.
Which is precisely how I experienced seeing the Washington Monument at the age of fifteen or so—it seem’d like an exercise in pointless mimicry, “just like the picture postcard.” So: one dodges the benign patronage, one divests oneself of oneself—there is no money in poetry—and one plays the Banksy card, putting out words “to the free skies unpent and glad and strong.”

Et puis, et puis as French pre-schoolers say with timely narrative thrust, I truck’d off to grump over some more of William Gaddis’s The Recognitions. Wherein, amongst innumerable lights, I found Gaddis’s heroic simile (apparently adapt’d straight out of The Golden Bough) applied to one “Esme,” who after a long impromptu high-provoking tango with one man, pertly explains to another how the first man “teaches dancing,” whilst “smiling like the Baganda woman smiles in Central Africa, lain in the thick grass with a plantain flower between her legs, flower dislodged by her husband’s rearing member before he takes her to dance in the garden of friends, to encourage the plantain trees that grow in their gardens.” Et puis.

Two Works by Banksy

Monday, October 13, 2008

The Burn

Wing’d Burning Bush

How, in The Recognitions, a man, a painter, “bent over a cup, where he held the egg yolk suspended between the squared fingertips of one hand, and a pin in the other, about to puncture it”—to make tempera (he’s using the last egg)—says, repeating the counsels of a former art teacher in Munich:
That romantic disease, originality, all around we see originality of incompetent idiots, they could draw nothing, paint nothing, just so the mess they make is original . . . Even two hundred years ago who wanted to be original, to be original was to admit that you could not do a thing the right way, so you could only do it your own way. When you paint you do not try to be original, only you think about your work, how to make it better, so you copy masters, only masters, for with each copy of a copy the form degenerates . . .
And one nods fiercely over some lines of Wallace Stevens, thinking—“Is it possible to copy a piece of writing without diminishing it (making a “mere” parody)?” Or is that to dodge what is the literal demand of the task: that what is needed is copying tout court. (Think of what one learn’d about, say, Maxine Chernoff’s prose poems in New Faces of 1952 by typesetting each, letter by letter, line by line, into a job stick, and printing, and proofing.) (Think how the new technologies militate against copying and recopying in the individual plunging punctum par punctum style.) (What is need’d “in the schools”: copying work. Not the banal and obvious ninny-work of Kenneth Goldsmith “doing” an issue of The New York Times—daily press newssheets being unsuitably by definition “copy of a copy” work—but something of a master (Wallace Stevens’s Collected Poems, say, and in order, not all higgledy piggledy) and preferably with a manual typewriter, or hand-setting type.) What I learn by simply pecking out (with impeccable care):

Two wooden tubs of blue hydrangeas stand at the foot of the stone steps.
      (Repeat’d an nasals in “hydrangeas stand.”)
The sky is a blue gum streaked with rose. The trees are black.
      (Repeat’d “blue”; “gum” nodding up at “tub,” that plodding soft u there and, echo-y, in “wooden” and “foot” triggering the sluggish banality of the title.)
The grackles crack their throats of bone in the smooth air.
      (Repeat’d ack in “black,” “grackles,” “crack” all adding up to (by hint and mimic) the bone-caught-the-throat hacking of the “throats of bone.”)
Moisture and heat have swollen the garden into a slum of bloom.
      (Beginning to ascertain the lulling l and double-l running a dulling song throughout: “blue,” “blue,” “black,” “swollen,” “slum,” “bloom,” “bloated,” “bliss.” The l in the final “malady” trio: its dumb mimic-lolling.)
Pardie! Summer is like a fat beast, sleepy in mildew,
      (Idiotic quasi-French self-rousing oath and interjection—“Pardie” anglicizing “Par Dieu”—first of several failures to hoist oneself out of the banality, of weather, of words. The emphatics of “fat beast” immediately subsumed by (again) the douceurs of the l: “sleepy” “mildew.”)
Our old bane, green and bloated, serene, who cries,
      (What is the relation of the maledicting “bane” to the commonplace “banal”? Beginning of the long e-soundings and plenty of buzzing m’s and n’s: ease of “green,” “serene,” “heave,” “seasons,” &c.)
“That bliss of stars, that princox of evening heave!” reminding of seasons,
      (“Princox”: a coxcomb, a pert (impertinent) youth, upstart. Under-echo of praecox in its uses, dementia praecox, or ejaculatio, as in the sudden fore-shout’d “Pardie!”)
When radiance came running down, slim through the bareness.
      (Which reading needn’t put a sexual turn to that “radiance” “running down.”)
And so it is one damns that green shade at the bottom of the land.
      (What is the “green shade at the bottom of the land”? Is it inevitably the case that a poem that proceeds according to its musickings—think of Zukofsky’s imperative: “music, itch according to its wonts”—must eventually be subsumed by its saying? That is, push’d into a perceived discursive (semantic) slot by its writer, a meaning?—its music-conduit more or less stopper’d?)
For who can care at the wigs despoiling the Satan ear?
      (What is the Satan ear? What exactly is being hid? One “damns” a “shade”; “wigs” “despoil” something; the longing is for the “unfuzzed”—how avoid the hints of sexual malady? What to do with the earwigs pincering around in that “ear”?)
And who does not seek the sky unfuzzed, soaring to the princox?
      (&c., &c.)
One has a malady, here, a malady. One feels a malady.
      (One is beginning to experience symptoms oneself. Somewhere Joseph Tabbi, I think, talking about William Gaddis says something about the old “ability to hold in mind two opposed meanings”—and posits “O Dio and odium, heaven and repugnance” as exemplary—the kind of malady of the soul (preeminent in late summer?) that oppugns the redresser here . . .)


Capable quotidian music, its doublet all unbraced and stockings
fouled. What if the everyday is only appendix and indices,

an agate-typed footnote to the main story that is the monstrous hurtling
surge and onslaught of time itself—and none of its momentary

featurettes? Consolatory gimmick, booby prize, some stock
frippery for entering the race so uncomprehendingly, so against

the odds? Wallace Stevens: “There is no pith in music / Except in
something false.” He’s looking for the fish in the gubbins, the shine

shine in the maraud of the thingummy and he’d rather be doing
up a pure frog of Aristophanes: brack-ki-ki-wax, brack-ki-ki-wax, oh!

Wallace Stevens, 1879-1955

Friday, October 10, 2008

Hybridity & Alchemy

Cloud and Pole


Hybridity’s not exactly a bottleneck
Of prudish indecision, like attempting
To decide whether one maybe
Ought to change one’s name
To Bob—there are so many
Bob’s (and mostly doltish unelectables)—
It’s the ineluctable way the
Music wells up promiscuously at
The escarpment at the end
Of the cul-de-sac
Whenever we approach it, and
Drenches us with the rubble
Of its making. Of course
We are trying to get
Out into the open where
The road’s less trammel’d by
Sheer odious dignity of Bobs
All doing the work—they
Call it work—of writing
Up a storm, all perspicacious
As parliamentarians and militantly managerial.
            The age demand’d a vigil
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And if the music of
The interior pages falters, there’s
The grip of the copula,
The cut of the swank
Journal, the drab study of
Hours and hands, awkward points
Of suspension, histories of timidities
Parcel’d out of blanks and
Fogs, sources cursory, borrow’d or
Far, far off.
Bob jettisoned the haggard lover look and stood to the helm. Caroline stooped to the poodle’s duty, radiating implausibility. Helen dolefully clattered an ever-shrinking Certs against her teeth while awaiting for the drop. Jim sheepishly admitted that he’d misplaced the chicken permit. “Hedge,” Jacqueline snarled, “is not exactly the word I’d use.” Thomas, efficacious to the end, sought a kind of priapic comfort up against the lichen-covered rock. Madeleine combed the helmet of her hair down into her eyes and spoke up unpleasantly: “That kind of smoldering reticence’ll backfire one day, and then you’ll see.”
Ah, the novelists, so bounteously
Working innumerable registers to ring
Up what one used to
Get yammer’d into oneself gratuitously
By tiresome drunks, or out
Around the blaze of camp-
Fires! Ah, the obscene purity
Of a posit’d poetickal lineage,
The mock-eugenic heft of
It! What one’d roundly damn
In human behavior—strains immiscible—
Becomes fodder for two kinds
Of cows in some barns,
Cows in distinct and stinking
Stalls, as if some shit-
Shoveller of the future is
Opening its doors . . .
                                        There is
Always ever only one, and
Vatic, and unform’d, and sings
Out, or perches like a Cumaean
Outside the cave we keep
Fleeing to approach, our musicking
Hissing scintillants of wild assembly.

Oh, I do not know. I think of William Gaddis’s story of Raymond Lully, known, too, as Ramon Llull, flooding into the story of Wyatt, a painter, in Paris amongst the rather noxious “transatlantic visitors”:
And the shadow he cast behind him as he turned away fell back seven centuries, to embrace the dissolute youth of Raymond Lully, and infatuation with the beautiful Ambrosia de Castello, which she discouraged; and if she seemed to succumb at last, offering to bare her breasts in return for a poem he had written to their glory, it was to show him, as he approached in that rapture of which only flesh is capable, a bosom eaten away by cancer: he turned away to his conversion, to his death years later stoned in North Africa, and to his celebration as a scholar, a poet, a missionary, a mystic, and one of the foremost figures in the history of alchemy.
Idly wondering where Gaddis, who jam-packs The Recognitions with such largely recondite data, encounter’d it. I see Arthur Schopenhauer (in 1819’s The World as Will and Representation), used “Lull” to exemplify a kind of “After great pain a formal feeling comes—” conversion narrative (is, it occurs to me suddenly, Tom Clark’s masterly “The parts of your feelings // Are starting to know a quiet / The pure conversion of your / Life into art seems destined // Never to occur . . .” a late peripatetic echo of Dickinson?) Schopenhauer:
Hence men who have led a very adventurous life under the pressure of passions, men such as kings, heroes, or adventurers, have often been seen suddenly to change, resort to resignation and penance, and become hermits and monks. To this class belong all genuine accounts of conversion, for instance, that of Raymond Lull, who had long wooed a beautiful woman, was at last admitted to her chamber, and was looking forward to the fulfillment of all his desires, when, opening her dress, she showed him her bosom terribly eaten away with cancer. From that moment, as if he had looked into hell, he was converted; leaving the court of the King of Majorca, he went into the wilderness to do penance.
Or did Gaddis dive into something like Francis Barrett’s The Magus, or Celestial Intelligencer (1801) with its romp through alchemy, the Cabala, magnetism, &c, and its “Biographia Antiqua” ranging through (amongst others) Hermes Trismegistus, Appollonius of Tyana, Paracelsus, John Dee, and the convert Lully? Beginning with a consideration by the Dutch botanist and physician Herman Boerhaave (a man biograph’d by Samuel Johnson)
“I have perused (says Boerhaave) the best part of his works, and find them, beyond expectation, excellent: insomuch, that I have been almost tempted to doubt whether they could be the work of that age, so full are they of the experiments and observations which occur in our later writers, that either the books must be supposititious, or else the ancient chymists must have been acquainted with a world of things which pass for the discoveries of modern practice. He gives very plain intimations of phosphorus, which he calls the Vestal Fire, the Offa Helmontii, &c. and yet it is certain he wrote 200 years before either Helmont, or my Lord Bacon.

He travelled into Mauritania, where he is supposed to have first met with chymistry, and to have imbibed the principles of his art from the writings of Geber: which opinion is countenanced by the conformity observable between the two. The Spanish authors ascribe the occasion of his journey to an amour: he had fallen in love, it seems, with a maiden of that country, who obstinately refused his addresses. Upon enquiring into the reason, she shewed him a cancered breast. Lully, like a generous gallant, immediately resolved on a voyage to Mauritania, where Geber had lived, to seek some relief for his mistress. He ended his days in Africa; where, after having taken up the quality of missionary, and preaching the gospel among the infidels, he was stoned to death.
I suspect the Schopenhauer, though one concedes the impulse to lose oneself in odd and aimless figures of antiquity (Evan S. Connell does it too) against being subsumed by the dull compulsory yatter of the present “squad.”

Raymond Lully, c. 1232-1315

Thursday, October 09, 2008

Kerr Pronounced Car

Virginia Creeper


The day’s shot, and little
Compleat’d, night walks right up
To the door and knocks.
Whitman’s “momentary pulsation of a
Liquid & structureless whole” is
All that’s possible, a snap-
Shot pull’d dripping out of
A bath of chemicals, hung
Up wet, one clothespin pinching
It to a line, one
In a row of others,
Black and white. A picture engages
One’s sympathy or refuses any
Despotic claim of saying the
Unsayable, proceeds by smudge contrapt,
Or delinquent roundabout bat: a
Swing and a miss that
Nonetheless allows the runner to
Advance. I recall the lost
Years I hunch’d and huddled
Firing point’d blanks, blunt digits
Into the typewriter, a mechanical
Clatter drubbing the erasable bond,
Making something inky and nonplussed,
The gorgeous lie of youth.
“The way the day’s got
Of taking off its hat
And offering it to you
Is tease and propaganda for
What the day is not.”
And it proceeds with freight
Of such insincere foppery in
The guise of honest exploratory,
I end up admiring the
Blockheaded gusto of it all:
“The head a hat’s just
Bared does well in air
And is not square but
Peevish and scouting, a ham
With shoulders, a croissant with
Ears, or Deborah Kerr with
A man, a beach, and
An ocean.”
                    That’s the sudden
Way we did it then.

Blankness in the ossuary, meaning unpreparedness coddles me in its rancorous soup. I see that William Gaddis claim’d—like Samuel Butler before him—that he wrote in order to have something to read when he got old. And there’s a Frenchman (Jacques Roubaud) doing a riff De la mort de l’auteur by re-revving up Ted Berrigan’s slight and funny and objurgating note to the “people of the future”: “while you are reading these poems, remember / you didn’t write them, / I did.” (Berrigan drawing a dong-nosed “Kilroy was here” on pal Ron Padgett’s lines in “Tone Arm”: “You people of the future / How I hate you / You are alive and I’m not / I don’t care whether you read my poems or not,” who no doubt copped the rhetorical geste out of some French ditty—maybe one of Pierre Reverdy’s, non? for, as Padgett says somewhere, “Oh those French!” There’s John Ashbery’s “academy of the future” tromping the same back-alleys.) Uh. Mighty, mortifyingly, distract’d I am today. Pierre Reverdy, is he a French “objectivist”? John Ashbery says he “succeeds in giving back to things their true name, in abolishing the eternal dead weight of Symbolism and allegory so excessive in Eliot, Pound, Yeats and Joyce”—and refers to Reverdy’s “transparency without philosophic meaning.” And one Mortimer Guiney relates that Reverdy’d tell “the story of his friend Braque, whose habit it was, after finishing a painting, to take it outside and place it alongside natural objects to see how his created object fit in with them.” Reverdy himself, who end’d up in the monastery of Solesmes, exhibit’d a kind of sublime indifference to nature, referring to its “hostile indifference,” claiming: “There is no beauty in nature, just what we are able to project into nature.” Using the phenomenal world, not to mimic, but to make. Who is Mortimer Guiney? (I am looking at a terrific little off-handed piece call’d “Reverdy in New York” out of a 1985 issue of World Literature Today.) Guiney quotes lines of a 1962 Frank O’Hara letter he received, how “John Ashbery drew my attention to Reverdy’s poetry about ten years ago”; how he was “very influenced by it, though I suppose the poems were not really good enough to show this influence very clearly”; how he “at least for a time was taken over by that lovely quality of walking-along-the-street-conscious-of-moment-by-moment in some of Reverdy’s poems”; how Bill Berkson’s “pushed further in a technical and formal direction.” Too, he quotes Kenneth Koch saying of Reverdy: “He is one of a few poets I often read in the morning when I am planning to write. The way he detaches things from their ordinary contexts and rearranges them so they seem beautiful and new usually sends me quickly to my typewriter, though the results are not usually recognizably Reverdyesque.” And, to “torque” my impression of Reverdy as a kind of semi-somnolent puffy-eyed larker, Guiney writes: “He was a notoriously difficult man in everything, stubborn and opinionated, and was just as apt to respond to what he didn’t like with his fists as with a nasty, acerbic comment.”

Pierre Reverdy, 1889-1960