Wednesday, November 26, 2008

William Carl Latta, 1925-2008

William Carl Latta
18 May 1925–19 November 2008

There is nowhere any apology for despondency. Always there is life—which, rightly lived, implies a divine satisfaction. I am soothed by the rain drop on the door sill—every globule that pitches thus confidently from the eaves to the ground, is my life insurance—
—Henry David Thoreau

Wednesday, November 19, 2008

Forrest Gander’s As a Friend

On the Road (Gary, Indiana)

Somewhere in the middle of reading Forrest Gander’s short novel As a Friend (New Directions, 2008) I start’d thinking of Tom Clark’s soul-renderingly memorable lines: “Like musical instruments / Abandoned in a field / The parts of your feelings // Are starting to know a quiet / The pure conversion of your / Life into art seems destined // Never to occur.” It’s the implacable Orpheus-like sundering and disintegration (in the opening lines) combined with that lean premonitory plaint and recognition (“Never to occur”) that makes me yelp so. A yelp for art’s ancient capacities for myth-making. Now why that occur’d—my little moment of, well, itchiness, about that particular usage of art in the folderol of contemporaneity—is directly related to how I was reading Gander’s novel—that is, as a kind of skinny roman à clef, a version (with all the fat skimmed off) of some part of Arkansas poet Frank Stanford’s short life. Which is, admittedly, probably the “wrong” way to read anything. And, I admit, it made me itch a little—even in my admiration for the way Gander so deftly turn’d that life into art.

The book is structured rather like (clumsy metaphor warning) the reverse of Michael Snow’s 1967 film “Wavelength”—that forty-five minutes of excruciatingly slow zooming. Here the movement is out: a highly-detail’d beginning chapter records “The Birth”; the second chapter (the lengthiest, titled after the Poussin painting “Landscape with a Man Being Killed by a Snake”) uses conventional novelistic devices (summary, ellipsis, scene, &c.) to flesh out the narrator Clay’s relationship to his sometime surveying partner, the poet and charmer (and, finally, suicide) Les; the third chapter (“Beyond This Point, Monsters”) gets told by Les’s ex-lover Sarah in a mostly fragmentary hindsight’d reverie mark’d (calibrated) both by references both jazz’d (“You said that the world must listen to living things the way Miles Davis listens to music, marking everything that might be left out”) and sexual (“The Transverse Lute Position,” “The Goat and Tree Position”); and the final chapter (“Outtakes from the Film Interview”) presents the canned detritus of a life, snippets of Les talking, the “recovery” of a life, its parts (corner’d, pinned down, and (re)-construct’d by the “invention” of a myth). That Gander is wary of foolhardiness and gross imprecision of the chore is perfectly evident. One “outtake”:
Think of all the shit that insulates us from the real encounter. When Rimbaud writes I is another, I for one always figured he meant I is the imaginary. Your sense of self, my sense of self, it’s always imagined. Constructed. We can’t picture some objective reality any more than a photograph pictures what’s there, right? You know people in tribes that haven’t seen photographs, when they see one, even one that shows them their own face, they don’t always recognize the image. It’s miniature and flat and maybe black and white and it doesn’t have a smell, and the kick of being isn’t in it at all.
Which, being speech-mimickry, doesn’t capture the entirely lush pleasures of Gander’s prose. I got hook’d immediately—in the opening paragraph—by the rhythmic nimbleness of the sentences, the changeable explanatory drive to “answer” the initial query, moving from the bark’d out “States away” to the nigh-sneery dawdling of the final sentence, running through its excuses, as if changing its own mind mid-stream:
And where is he, the biological father of the unborn child? States away. One a New Orleans tugboat in violent Gulf water. Nor will he make it so far up the river again, with five weeks’ pay and anaconda boots, looking for a lovely girl’s ear to nibble, and with half a notion, steadily declining, to betroth his charismatic loathsomeness to whatever sad someone might part her lips for him, take in his torrent of lies, and mistake him for whatever he surely is not.
Truth is, the character Les—Frank Stanford stand-in or not—is a terrific piece of work, a complicated divergent bundle, a fascinator. Somewhere Sarah says, and it’s not clear if she’s longing for the everyday to dull the pain of loss, or repeating a thing Les (whose tremendous capacity for all things) said: “If only routine would brush sensation aside.” And Gander’s book is that sort of thing: I read it in a gulp, one sitting. It is prose pump’d up to a high pitch with no release—a gusto-prose, and Les-fitting:
His face was so weighted down by its brooding handsomeness that he seemed older and more convincing than the rest of us. His gravitas sucked us in. He could lock his eyes on you and draw you toward an alien realm where you were given to suspend you habits of thought. It was as if he’d come from a place where excitement wasn’t taken to be a reverse indicator of intelligence and where it was normal to mention Cocteau and blue-channel catfish in the same sentence. None of us had his range, none of us had read so much. The opal blackness of his eyes was magnetic.

Forrest Gander


The Reverend Gilbert White records that field-crickets crink, early in May, a verb I put down with other words—Leeuwenhoek, fescue, dibble, smallage, bittern, vetch—in a notebook, something to worry and sample tottering through my cooking chores. Leek soup and potatoes, Saturday’s Chinese dibs and stunt’d pear salad, a presumptuous feast. Is crink a period noise, a shiny black vagary of early summer, or is it a slight and pliable indent push’d, a mechanism, a corner, a thing echolaliack’d and bent against itself? A pertinaceous pre-crease? John Keats, keeping it simple in a field of stubble in September, notes that “Hedge crickets sing,” daft impresario of the imprecise and florid—he thinks, too, that “small gnats mourn,” a verb the unlordly rampancy of midges staggers under. There under the gristle-gnaw’d skies in a funk of word-turpitude, a fever coming in with its iron-manacles to clutch the lungs, I see precisely how Keats is fighting off a plangent call simply to list the fetch’d impecables off the dump—osso buco, Pleistocene, fennel, Marmite. Champfleury, catamaran, whelk, Tituba. And Henry David Thoreau, out cricketing near Concord, records a scald cricket piping a Nibelungenlied. Ah, the pre-Christian armor-plated cricket with a poniard, a dirk! Knightlike it solos an incessant quire. The words pile up: Purslane, chaffinch, adamant, pleurisy. Wheatear, lanolin, Hellespont, veery. Salvia, limpkin, Katzenjammer, clerihew. I better go scrub the pots.

Tuesday, November 18, 2008

Gaddis, Mopping Up

On the Road (Near Michigan City)


Unruly the beastly
Barrage lobbed up
Into the fo’c’sle

(I rarefy it—
What it is
Is a measly

Plank-built shed,
A republic of
The bloody-minded),

A massy verbal
Plenitude demanding bulk
Delivery in order

That it attain
A creditable speed.
So a mouth

Requires a high-
Toned compliant pucker
Just to make

An oboe, high-
Wood, creditably wail.
In the debit

Column: the republic
Of lost bearings
And sudden gales,

A sheltering bay
Strewn with rocks,
A mainmast shot

Away, midshipmen punishing
The hand-pumps.
A funny way

To talk about
How writing deposits
A low unassignable

History of itself,
Upends an intolerable
Regularity by defiant

Means doctor’d: borrows
Against its own
Commission, weighs futurity

An unsuitable raw
Recruit, with its
One song undone.

Finish’d William Gaddis’s The Recognitions. And, funnily, whilst I squeezed out the last dribbles out of it (si vous voulez), I kept, in skimming the slew of recent notices of Roberto Bolaño’s 2666, thinking how odd the nigh-unanimity of emphasis therein, that what Bolaño excels at, is a kind of lateral storytelling—sliding off the unfinish’d edifice of one tale and into another running parallel, rather endlessly. Which is more or less what Gaddis is doing, too. So that each character remains in bas-relief (part of the “stance” of continual smear requiring multiple perspectives Gaddis early alludes to: “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 . . .”), before quoted). It is just one of the means Gaddis employs to keep the reader off-balance: for through (by means of), as he claim’d in an unpublish’d prefatory note to the novel that he composed in 1949, “the taking of the work and live of others,” he intend’d nothing less than “to work [all that] into a pattern to betray the lack of the pattern and still its final, if seemingly fortuitous persistence.” To “betray the lack” in art (and life) through “working” (manipulating the artifice) of art: what’s more perfectly Bolañoesque? (It damns us all for making art of misery, human misery—the bleak human condition—in the Gaddis / Bolaño percept.) So that: one ends The Recognitions (numerous gratuitous and implausible (and plausible) and somewhat blackly humorous deaths) with Stanley, a “minor character” (one finds one’s character sense and allegiances boffo not only due to the myriad narrative strands, but, too, because of the way Gaddis allows speech mannerisms to cue identity—who exactly is the man who interjects an annoying plethora of “Chrahst”s and where did one see him previously?) Stanley’s written an organ concerto and’s come to Fenestrula in Italy to perform it. He arrives there (everything is “off”—he first enters a “dimly lighted and possible private chapel of some sort: it turned out to be a public convenience”; dressing, he is “dismayed to find moth holes round about the crotch”; he sees the score “with sudden malignity, as though in that moment it had come through at the expense of everything, and everyone”; a priest attempts to prevent the concert saying: “—Prego, fare attenzione, non usi troppo i bassi, le note basse. La chiesa è così vecchia che le vibrazioni, capisce, potrebbero essere pericolose. Per favore non bassi . . . e non strane combinazioni di note, capisce . . .” [“Please, pay attention, don’t use too much bass, and low notes. The church is so old that the vibrations, you see, could be very dangerous. Please, no bass . . . and no strange combinations of notes, you understand.”]) To no avail:
      When he was left alone, when he had pulled out one stop after another (for the work required it), Stanley straightened himself on the seat, tightened the knot of the red necktie, and struck. The music soared around him, from the corner of his eye he caught the glitter of his wrist watch, and even as he read the music before him, and saw his thumb and last finger dome down time after time with three black keys between them, wringing out fourths, the work he had copied coming over on the Conte di Brescia, wringing that chord of the devil’s interval from the full length of the thirty-foot bass pipes, he did not stop. The walls quivered, still he did not hesitate, Everything moved, and even falling, soared in atonement.
      He was the only person caught in the collapse, and afterward, most of his work was recovered too, and it is still spoken of, when it is noted, with high regard, though seldom played.
(That “even falling, soared in atonement” cranks up the mysterious Frank O’Hara line writ in the notebook he carry’d into the Fire Island vehicle’s path: “He falls; but even in falling he is higher than those who fly into the ordinary sun.”) And isn’t that Gaddis himself, “caught in the collapse,” the way any work finally comes down around the head of its maker? And, because it is rather sourly funny, (isn’t it, too) a gentle prod into the ribs of those who’d see great paroxysms of heroics in art, the (model being the Poundian) work left unfinish’d (“unfinishable”) at death, what a laughably paltry achievement, that? “The devil's interval” refers to “the tritone, the interval of the augmented fourth”; in Steven Moore’s excellent guide (with annotations) to The Recognitions it is noted: “Its use was prohibited by early theorists.”

Earlier in the aforemention’d (unused) prefatory note, Gaddis points (somewhat distractingly, that is, ingenuously) to story-sources in nigh-tabloid journalism, the low-brow popular “rags”:
Regular readers of the New York Daily News, the Continental Daily Mail, and France-Soir, may feel the sudden blurt of familiarity with (certain) situations that arise in the following pages . . .
      On the other hand, readers unfamiliar with the above or similar periodicals—or those who read nothing but market reports, the sports pages, and the news ‘that’s fit to print’—may credit me with an (imagination ) of infernal consequence: suffice it to say that no single (imagination) is completely aberant [sic] to concieve [sic] of the abundance of phantastical (horror) which exists on all sides today as reality. But these are the people who find (horror) only in fiction, which they consider a waste of their time and the time of the lunatic who set it down; while they accept the (remediable) disaster around them with indifference . . .
So reads the draft, ditch’d. Bolañoesqueries again. The low trumping the high. And today, what one reads (for highbrow “sport”—it “distills the world media’s discharge”) in Harper’s “Weekly Review” (“British researchers found that obesity may be socially contagious, a council in London banned the placing of foster children in households with smokers, and 700 couples were married in a mass wedding in the Eurasian separatist territory of Nagorno-Karabakh. Scientists in Japan produced clones of dead mice, a feat they say brings them closer to resurrecting extinct species, and author Michael Crichton died. Spanish authorities deported one of Osama bin Laden’s sons after denying his asylum application, monks brawled at Jerusalem’s Church of the Holy Sepulcher, where Christ was crucified and buried, and Israel’s Supreme Court ruled in favor of the destruction of parts of an ancient Muslim cemetery, where some of Saladin’s warriors are buried, to make way for a new Frank Gehry-designed $250 million Museum of Tolerance.”) is pre-echo’d in some of Gaddis:
The thirty-third person leaped from the Eiffel Tower (though unofficial figures had it nearer a hundred), this time from the 348-foot second platform, and after a twenty-year investigation the Friends of Cleopatra found that the remains in her grave, in the library garden of the Louvre, were not that queen at all, but the body of an Arab soldier killed in a Paris café brawl, and the mummy, looking like a tight bundle of rags, gone to a mass grave eighty years before, and all joy of the worm. . . .
      In San Francisco, seven strands of barbed wire were strung at the jumping-off place on the Golden Gate Bridge, which one hundred and fifty people had chosen as a point of departure from this world since the bridge was opened in 1937.
      In Moscow, Pravda announced that Hawaiian guitar music had been banned in Russia.
      . . . Three hundred lepers were reported marching on the capital city of Columbia from their colony at Rio Agua de Dios. Nine Pilgrims were trampled to death, and twenty-five injured, jamming the gates of the Shrine of Chalma in Mexico. A Baptist minister in Rocky Mount, North Carolina, burned two copies of the new revised version of the Bible because it substituted the words young woman for virgin, and a Lutheran minister said they were both wrong: the word should be maiden. In Chicago there was a crime every 12.5 minutes. Some chickens exploded in a town near Hanover, Germany (they had eaten carbide dropped by British troops on maneuver and drunk water).
Etc. Reminds me, too, of a lecture by Isabel Allende claiming (with numerous press citations) that the much-vaunt’d “magical realism” of the Boum “merely” reflect’d the everyday “real.”

The Recognitions

Monday, November 17, 2008


On the Road (Hommage à Claude Monet)


Century of the two Johns—
Cage and Ashbery—for whom
Being interrupt’d is a centrality,
Means and preference. I am
A little distract’d just now.
Syntactical control abeyance system regrets.
Emily Dickinson call’d the sun
A “yellow Whip” and fear’d
A silent man. Numb is
What one’s become—denatured by
Continual broach interruptings spiling off
The continuum, its pleats and
Privies, its roil and rupture.
So that: the daily rife
Ongoingness turns precise and plosive,
Point-by-pointedly vague, particulate
And fluvial, the sun’s whip
Knot’d up, and the knots
Undoable—not by sun nor
Sluice nor any of light’s
Rump confederacy of lights, that
Snap combinazioni di note unstrewn.
Unfetter’d. Uncheck’d. Unassailable. Unallay’d. Uncapped. Unblemish’d. Unvouch’d. Unfinger’d. Unattain’d. Unbuck’d. Unamend’d. Unwarrant’d. Unbundled. Unfold’d. Unberth’d. Un-angel’d. Unembroil’d. Unconciliatory. Unfoul’d. Unbled. Unbow’d. Uneligible. Unbreaking. Unweigh’d. Uncash’d. Unveil’d. Unreviled. Undung’d. Unbedung’d. Unceasing. Undismay’d. Unchain’d. Undividedly. Uneasy. Unequal. Uneradicable. Unfailing. Unfeignedly. Untameably. Unweary’d. Unanchor’d. Uncaught. Unversed. Unvouch’d. Unanswer’d. Unbent. Unfurl’d. Underhung. Unalloy’d. Uncomely. Untenable. Untattoo’d. Unannex’d. Unencyst’d. Unbanner’d. Undeplored. Undecidable. Unavenged. Unflesh’d. Unappellable. Undeliver’d. Uncollect’d. Unappendaged. Unforlorn. Unwalk’d. Unassured. Unparallel’d. Uncivil. Unbenight’d. Unapplaud’d. Unfiled. Undoctor’d. Unapprehend’d. Undamp’d. Unelapsed. Unattend’d. Under-goad’d. Undress’d. Unflappable. Uncommercial. Uncompass’d. Unfox’d. Unexamined. Unexceeded. Unconvincing. Unenviably. Unending. Unbagged. Unhamper’d. Unletter’d. Unclean. Unmock’d. Unimplored. Undauntedly. Unabating. Unbound. Unerring. Unprank’d. Unhesitatingly. Uncouth. Unbalanced. Ungodly. Unavail’d. Unchid. Underided. Unhasp’d. Underslung. Unblock’d. Unleash’d. Unlatch’d. Uncut. Unburnt. Unkeel’d. Unmesh’d. Unhallow’d. Ungarbled. Undenuded. Undeleted. Unloosed. Undesiring. Unmarketable. Uncinctured. Undies. Unheed’d. Unclimb’d. Unimpeachably. Unjadedly. Undimmed. Undefeat’d. Ungloss’d. Undisjoin’d. Unbloody’d. Unink’d. Unapproachable. Undinting. Unwilling. Unarm’d. Unlimber’d. Unattired. Unmisinterpretable. Uncontain’d. Unmaggled. Undecay’d. Unhack’d. Unkempt. Uncomprehending. Unrehearsed. Unwrit. Unintermittently. Unknotted. Unhinged. Unlikeable. Unprincipled. Unarray’d. Unh-unh. Unblack’d. Unmodern. Unyoked. Unwielding. Unmemorably. Uncloth’d. Unbark’d. Ungall’d. Unmanned. Unleaf’d. Unbrick’d. Unmediated. Undignify’d. Unwinnow’d. Unreckon’d. Uncurb’d. Unplumb’d. Unnatural. Uncover’d. Unharness’d. Unreasonably. Uncanny. Undelineated. Unmaintain’d. Unsheaf’d. Unpath’d. Unspeakably. Unbesieged. Unplugged. Unprepossessing. Ungovernably. Unscore’d. Unwritten. Unignited. Unplotted. Unmeaning. Unpack’d. Untaint’d. Unorderly. Unjaunty. Unrotted. Ungraspable. Ungrounded. Unascend’d. Unspot’d. Unlist’d. Unascertain’d. Unavoidable. Unaware. Unbath’d. Untooth’d. Unclog’d. Unransack’d. Uncraft’d. Ungirdled. Unnamed. Unpeel’d. Untill’d. Unpardonable. Unzipped. Unrunkled. Unswerving. Unhymn’d. Uncrowd’d. Unbecloud’d. Unsighing. Unbecoming. Unyielding. Unvacillating. Unworkable. Unmoist. Unrigged. Unbeknownst. Unpiteously. Unsalvable. Uncultured. Unobligingly. Unbelieving. Unbemoan’d. Unrein’d. Unconditional. Unconcluded. Unseemly. Unsully’d. Unsoap’d. Unprintably. Unrhythmic. Uncontrollably. Unnerving. Unmovable. Unrepentant. Uncaged. Unbolt’d. Unstooping. Ungentle. Unbottled. Uncircumspect. Unpent. Unquench’d. Unpretendingly. Untoward. Untruss’d. Unperspiring. Unconnect’d. Unfussy. Unschool’d. Unget-at-able. Unmoor’d. Unthinkable. Unutterably. Unrelenting. Unperturbed. Un-pin-downable. Unpucker’d. Unplat’d. Unrevengingly. Unstuck. Unstable.

As James Wright noted—reviewing in immediate “unforgiving” hindsight what one suspicions a not dissimilar bout (though somewhat more “genteel” despite the Midas-touch’d horse turds): “I have wasted my life.”

Claude Monet, “Impression, soleil levant,” 1872
“Landscape is nothing but an impression, and an instantaneous one . . .”

Thursday, November 13, 2008

Nerve’s Faith?

A Wall (J and Cross)


The last of summer is
The light deter’d by no
Untoward inadmissible prospect, a ratiocinatory
Causeway uninterrupt’d, pure jarring endlessness—
Like a kite going up
And up into a zone
Undetermined but by the tug
Of a string tied to
A finger, a way of
Recalling it. One is full of
Doubts about the feasibility of
Such tactile conventions, connecting with
Anybody is so fraught with
Hazards and disappointments in these
Gloaming late-empire days and
Besides, there is now empirical
Proof: the mail system sucks.
Delight isn’t talk’d about much
Any longer—it wars with
The deadpan irony that’s become
The physiognomickal default setting, duh.
And besides, it sounds hokey.
“Delight’d was I / with my
Ample pie.” Sounds like a
Lobbyist. Or something one’d spout
Up in the celestial mall
To an anarcho-syndicalist electrical
Co-worker, a union bloke,
The both of you trying
To hang a nativity scene
Up “amongst” the stars, a
Poor earth-temper’d retrospect on
Some helluva thing. Audacious, it
Is, a complete knockout, though
Nameless and unreveal’d be the
Artists who walk under it.

Re-directing some words and phrases of Emily Dickinson’s:
The last of Summer is Delight—
Deterred by Retrospect.
’Tis Ecstasy’s revealed Review—
Enchantment’s Syndicate.

To meet it—nameless as it is—
Without celestial Mail—
Audacious as without a knock
To walk within the Vail.
Why, I do not know.

Even with previously knowing the dim outline of Jack Spicer’s “stance” regarding the “circulation” of poetry in the world—the strictly San Francisco-area J magazine and all that—I am wholly “took” by the line quoted here (out of a letter to Robert Duncan, and regarding, apparently, a late détente in Spicer’s ornery refusal to allow any willy-nilly poetic dispersal—like letting Lawrence Ferlinghetti sell Spicer books at City Lights): “I still think I was right and poets don’t really need a middleman and a middleman fucks up poetry.” The line recalls Frank O’Hara’s cheekier—though arguably equally serious, O’Hara’s nonchalance about publishing (he stall’d Ferlinghetti’s call for Lunch Poems with a sly “Still cooking”) is attest’d un peu partout—lines in “Personism” about using the telephone instead of writing: “It puts the poem squarely between the poet and the person, Lucky Pierre style, and the poem is correspondingly gratified. The poem is at last between two persons instead of two pages.” Making of the poem a thing ephemeral, direct, uncontaminated by commerce. See, too, the Rimbaud of the late-writ “Solde” (“For Sale”) for the vehemence of the disgust point’d directly to the fact that there exist precisely zero “things that will never be sold”—including, bien sûr, poetry:
      For sale: anarchy for the masses; irrepressible satisfaction for superior amateurs; atrocious deaths for disciples and lovers!

      For sale: habitations and migrations, sports, spectaculars and perfect comforts, and the noise, the movement and the future they make!

      For sale: arithmetical applications and the unheard-of harmonic leaps. Unsuspected discoveries and terms—immediate possession.

. . .

      For sale: bodies, voices, the immense unquestionable opulence, things that will never be sold . . .
Which sent me off to re-read Spicer’s “A Fake Novel about the Life of Arthur Rimbaud,” looking for what exactly? Frankly, the thing is a mess—vacillating between crabbed surrealistic flourishes that bump against the ground, too-ballast’d (“Apollinaire used to play golf while other people were shooting machine guns. Big butterflies tried to liberate him from the liberal mineded. But Rimbaud crawled to the page that lifted him up from his nephews.”) and obscure homiletics (“‘Surrealism is a coat of many colors,’ Rimbaud is supposed to have remarked long after everything was over. To love is not to continue with the Zanzibar slave trade. To continue with the Zanzibar slave trade is not to love. It is similar.”) (The alcoholic in Spicer is both obsessively reiterative (“the tiresome drunk”) and always going off somewhere else, hard to “follow” (“the ‘incoherent’ drunk”). Try tracing the local meanings of “the Dead Letter Office” through Spicer’s novel of Rimbaud—of course it’s full of inconsistencies. (As Spicer says in Chapter I of Book III, “An Ontological Proof Of The Existence Of Rimbaud”: “This is called Occam’s Law or Davy Jones’ Locker. // If they call him up into being by their logic he does not exist.” Which is not unlike Escoffier’s maxim “Faites simple”—“Keep it simple,” ratiocinatory mayhem (“Reason”)’s got no truck in matters of faith.) That’s Spicer the “blind” drunk. (Akin to, of course, O’Hara’s “You just go on your nerve.” And to Rimbaud’s “un long, immense et raisonné dérèglement de tous les sens,” inexplicitly, and with a pull’d punch—that “raisonné”—a call for “faith.”) On some level though, the Dead Letter Office is simply a “blank check,” useless as currency (though, too, of huge use in an economy of faith, where fraudulence rests within), tabula rasa to a ghostly legion (a “host”) of poets. Spicer’s Chapter II of Book III, titled “The Dead Letter Office”:
      Sentiment is not to the point. A dead letter is there because it has no longer real addresses.

      If President Buchanan sent a letter to Cordell Hull (also dead) it would remain there. No thanks to the spirit of things. A dead letter is exactly as if someone received it.

      What Rimbaud knew or someone else knew is no incidental. Sentiment is not to the point. These dead poets knew what was coming to them.

      There was a blank book where the ghosts or the ages of them kept listening. Or what the others said. As in the gold in an earring.

      A blank check.

      Or what the others said. President Buchanan pledged his truth when he died.
James Buchanan, 1791-1868; Cordell Hull, 1871-1955. And somewhere in the dingy corridors of the brainbox, I recall Bill Bathurst’s heart-breaking “How to Continue” that I put down here at Hotel Point, that big red structure unfading. Is Bathurst echoing Spicer in its defiant opening lines? “Don’t sell anything inside yourself for money or whatever it controls; remember legal tender only affords temporal control of material goods & treat it like dogshit you scrape off your shoe . . .” Which recalls Rimbaud’s lines in “Nocturne vulgaire”:
      —Et nous envoyer, fouettés à travers les eaux clapotantes et les boissons répandues, rouler sur l’aboi des dogues . . .
      —Un souffle disperse les limites du foyer.

      —And, whipped through the splashing of waters and spilled drinks, send us rolling around on the barking of dogs . . .
      —One breath blows away the boundaries of the hearth.
Which recalls “poetry—a machine to catch ghosts.”

No Friday. Toodaloo, a Cockneyfied bastardry meaning toute à l’heure, meaning “within the hour,” or “soonest,” meaning Monday.

Jack Spicer, 1925-1965
(Photograph by Helen Adam)

Wednesday, November 12, 2008

Oyer and Terminer

Deaf Child Area


Series after series the waves ashamedly and slavishly approach the shore to break and break countenance, tuck the curl’d lip behind a lavish meerschaum pipe, straighten the green sneer, unfog the vacant opticks. A sentence gels no prior sense, forms no barrier to its own end of endless arrangement. So a sentence whose modus vivendi is a genial caterwauling against the “vile Flux” empties itself out into oceans of meaning by undoing (like “a mower blade a grass in the field”) all that lies before it (and rakes it in, and buries itself up to the neck in its compostables, its offal). Every word put down in writing is a plum trop mûr, overripe, befoul’d, a pannus purpureus tending toward riotous blastulas of decay. A word cover’d with the smeary yellows of bee-probe and bee-suck. So pronounceth the oyer and terminer. So insisteth the mad artificer who shouts imprecatory mayhem against all who “nip like a bird and void like an ox” (Djuna Barnes) down where the shore meets the river that draws down the remorseless morsels of each word’s niggardly use and usage and deposits it, uncanny usufructory, into the brackish and fertile and terribly “het up” gulf. Wave after wave, a monstrance and a rhythm. Word after word unpitiably struck, a coinage, a brass tack. And down in the streets:

Great humming inseparables. The orphans
Cry, We perish, we die.

Admonitory notice out of, again, the Joseph Tabbi-edited book of William Gaddis’s disjecta membra, The Rush for Second Place: Essays and Occasional Writings. Here, opening pertinences of “How Does the State Imagine? The Willing Suspension of Disbelief”:
        We who struggle to create fictions of various sorts, and with varying success, must regard the state with awe, for the state itself may be the grandest fiction to be concocted by man, barring only one.
        The collision course on which we as writers frequently find ourselves with this Leviathan lies in the efforts of the state to preserve and protect its own imagined version of itself, confronted by the writer’s individual imagined version of what the state—what life in the state, that is to say—could and should, or at least should not be.
        Thus much of our fiction, going back well over a century, has been increasingly fueled by outrage or, at the least, by indignation. Curiously enough, this is often coupled with and even springs from the writer’s perennially naïve notion that through calling attention to inequities and abuses, hypocrisies and patent frauds, self-deceiving attitudes and self-defeating policies, these will be promptly corrected by a grateful public; but the state is the public’s fiction, and gratitude is not its most prominent attribute.
        In our work we are all familiar, overly familiar, with that injunction regarding the willing suspension of disbelief on the part of the reader, and here the great irony emerges: The more ingeniously, the more humanly and even the more comically, especially in the exaggeration of satire, we attempt to embrace reality—you might even say truth—the more vigorous the efforts of the state to flee from reality in fictions of such magnitude and audacity that we are swamped in admiration and dismay.
        The most sweeping feat of the human imagination dwarfing even that of the state itself, where the state historically seeks refuge and in fact may well have been born, is that invisible realm of revealed wisdom, revealed truths, divine revelations. Expressed in extremes ranging from passive resistance to indiscriminate murder, this phenomenon overwhelms us today in all sorts of national regalia, speaking in tongues of every register, under the common name Fundamentalism. It is often hailed in laudatory terms of a religious awakening. It often, recalling its bloody forebears in the late Middle Ages, presents itself as a crusade.
        There is no end to its variety . . .
Present’d, as the state itself would claim, as a “public service announcement.” Recalling a “truth” I found myself in command of some few years back whilst hitchhiking in northern Michigan: “I lied to everybody and they liked it.” Or, one is remind’d of a tiny line quoted in Peter Sloterdijk’s Critique of Cynical Reason. Label’d “testament of an aristocrat,” it serves to guy up the state’s grim fatuity and fool’s beneficence (particularly in post-bailout U. S. terms): Je n’ai rien, je dois beaucoup, / je donne le reste aux pauvres. (I have nothing, I have many debts, / I give the rest to the poor.)

Peter Sloterdijk
(Photograph by Peter Rigaud)

Tuesday, November 11, 2008

Richard Owens’s Delaware Memoranda

The Turning

Proper care of the materials, human, historic, and natural, a respecting attunement: that’s one place to begin. Everywhere in Owens’s notes and accumulations that make up the six sections of Delaware Memoranda (BlazeVOX, 2008), a poem of the river that pours through the eponymous Water Gap, there is the insistence: “to strike an appropriate key.” Or: “the dire need / to repurpose the trash so rightfully ours.” Or:
                  & his—letters from the plant
covered in gear grease & soluble oil
                  arrive with books my mother
patiently pulled from bedroom shelves
—Whitman & Williams
                                    Crane & Pound.

Think again through early models
behaviors shaped by—
            church fathers inscribed in flesh
exhausted—not possibilities
but the mind handling these materials
That stagger’d list provides a sense of predecessor and heritage: one ought rightfully add: Paul Metcalf’s stripped-down historickal particulars (become mythic), Lorine Niedecker’s terse laconic detail, Basil Bunting’s chisel, and (in counter-current, thrusting against the tendency) a boisterous willingness to include all (“to speak in other words”), to collect and witness the roiling turbulence of what water gathers to itself, how “the river comes to mean / outside nets cast wide / beneath spanning bridges / the river comes to mean // —in other words.” Or the words of others. The sheer range of material is audacious enough—a fluvial mimickry at work bringing together tributary detritus (contributor and tribute there in the shallows). As Owens puts it amidst a bare-knuckled story about one Boney Quillen—“Rafter songster prankster”—who’s seen “running at times / shouting ahead ‘Cut ’er loose, boys’” (the shout a kind of commandment for the Memoranda’s poetic strategy):
not to know but announce
in the measure between words

that which is otherwise lost
in the dance of exchange.
There is, in the river’s flotsam and jetsam, its sweepings and leavings: reports of bar talk (at the Tom Quick in Milford, Pa., Charles Peirce and forester Gifford Pinchot territory); lines out of the old sea shanty call’d “The Golden Vanity” (descend’d out of a Child ballad—“He swam upon the ship / & he beat upon the side / crying Captain pick me up / for I’m weary with the tide”); remarks by the eighteenth century Quaker Richard Smith on “Manners and Customs of the Indians” (“They know Nothing yet of Hours or Miles but point to the Sun as to say they will perform such a Journey by that Time the Sun is in such a Position counting their Fingers for Days and using notched sticks for Almanacs . . .”); lines out of an obituary (in The Narrowsburg Democrat) for one river guide and “cave dweller Coxie Blivens, b. 1862–d . 1912” (“He eked out a meagre existence working around the village and for the past two years had lived in a cave across the river from Narrowsburg. It was hardly a cave but simply an over-hanging rock with a few boards as a shelter.”); some patches of “stark mad” lingual strutting mestizo compost talk (“nae sayin’ molestiae consequatur / occupé d’un problème’ / earfeþa gemyndig”); imperial etymologies (the “murderous endorsement” of a name: “Delaware. Third Earl de la Warr. / Title like any other—Peerage / of Great Britain”); letters—“John Adams to Abigail—May 1, 1777” (that is, “King Tammany’s Day,” Adams writing of Tamanend, one of the chiefs of the Lenni-Lenape, who, old, blind, forsook, “made him up a large Fire and threw himself into it.”); a piece of John Darnall’s “outline” for the Charter of Pennsylvania, wherein, under a Greek alphabetical listing, he details all the natural assets of the land and waters he believes William Penn ought gain control (“α. Lakes. rivulets / streams:”); signage (“TRENTON MAKES / THE WORLD TAKES”): and some terribly moving letters address’d “Dear Ric” and apparently written some few years back by Owens’s father “working abroad,” union labor for Reynolds Metals (“I am on nights again. Seems like this is the best time to write you. Emmett has stated working. He seems to be doing alright. He is working on the palletizers. He already had one accident. He caught his hand in the end fence when it comes out to pack the cans. The chipboard was folded up in the back. He put his hand in the back of it, hit the button and the end fence went back and caught his hand. He cut his fingers pretty good, but now he will learn not to put his hand in back of anything that comes out because it has to go back.”) Too, some reproductions, union letterhead paper. Throughout: nudges to how it all relates to the present predicaments:
& today the boiler broken
flooding the basement—
socks wet from snow
shoveling away what the city left behind
split wood
for fear of the cost of crude
levels rising
through moments of interminable conflict.
That put down next to (“Caritas & agency ensnared”)some lines pointing to an historical spasm of justifiable rage:
& the following winter Cpt. Devries
finds uncultivated fields
strewn with the dry bones of settlers
encounters Theunis Willemsen
sole surviving witness of Lenape rage.

                  Settlement devastated
                  on beheading sachem
                  falsely accused of stealing.
There’s something supple, all-including, and, most rare, highly moral about Owens’s work here in Delaware Memoranda: unhesitant witness he is, turning up the river’s sluice and item with measure and respect, all the while refusing to make a bright something where there is nothing: “Not to fetishize the fucking river / but to think through the transformation / —how we come—to be to mean / encountering others along the banks.”

Richard Owens
(Photograph by Michael Kelleher)


Comply meaning bend into agreement
With others, plaintiff moves to
meaning the cop probably
Fibbed, suspension of privileges meaning
Hang out a shingle, the
Roof’s about to cave in.
Pitfalls of the everyday: issuing
Officers, preternatural apes, et cetera.
Overlook’d by the non-proceedings:
Tendency of the et cetera
To loom up like looms,
Shuttling up and tamping down
The low saturnaliack’d reveries of
The man at the wheel,
That God’s-body of a vibe-
Conductor, that interloper, that variant!
I fib, I cut “up.”
I drove that car like
A dipsomaniac through the airport
Not for the husbanding home
Of some errant ditty, no,
Not for “art,” that improbable
Term us denatured layabouts use
To cover “up” the faulty
Products of our daily crazes,
I drove that car because
Fifty-five mph is pure
Prudence, mystically right Wednesday morning
At ten with no traffic
Along a one-way stretch
Three lanes wide: see Voltaire,
See Lichtenberg, see Fichte, fuck
          The everyday with its
Cops, its controls, its con-
Jobs. Carelessness appeal’d gets re-
Assign’d to doubling up under
The singling zone
at twice
The fine. The Pharaoh’s army
Got routed: injustice arbitrary make
Me weep, make me moan.

Monday, November 10, 2008

The No’s

Cosmos Leafage


Nostalgia for mud,
For the bloody
Usines of raw

Meat, for tankards
Of ale and
Whole halves of

Whitefish plank’d: how
Easy it is
To winch up

The pieces dangling
Off the mighty
Crane, to guy

Each into place
To moot havoc
By assembly, remaking

The common machinery.
One paints a
Bundle of smear’d

Mauve lilacs toss’d
Down the empty
Elevator shaft. One

The lassitude of
A black-stocking’d
Dance-hall girl

Flat out gin-collapsed
In a stain’d
Ruckle of yellowing

Sheets. One a
Maori band of
Rotorua with pounamu

Pendants and skin-
Carved chin moko,
Blanket cloak’d, with

The brazen and
Contempt-heavy look
Of the repeatedly

Colonized. How quickly
The everyday catches
In the exigent

Recursive maws of
History, its fool-
Proof white sincerity,

Its peccable bleeding
Utterances, its gaunt spoilages
And vasty bouts

Of things broken
Up and torn
Down, places unpeople’d

With no’s and
No nostalgie de
La boue,

And here, bicycling here, I found myself thinking of how each down’d leaf cupped a little miniature snowfield—collecting what the weather deliver’d, a little smutch of snow, early. I am singularly unprepared (for weather, for momentous (coherent) delivery here today—what little pre-sleep reading I managed (approaching the end of The Recognitions) swamp’d by sleep itself. And the other hours of the weekend subsumed by duty, errand, the odd visit, the yard with its high-layering oak-leaf detritus awash up to the ankles, the misfiring Lumina battery, the bicycle pedal beginning to “slip.” Le parti pris des choses. I did pause for a moment (“for a liver sausage sandwich”) over a remark Joseph Tabbi makes regarding William Gaddis’s characters (he’s talking in particular of Oscar Crease “immobilized amid boxes of ‘evidence’ for his original play in A Frolic of His Own”) and how each “struggles against time and entropy and an increasingly mediated culture that largely succeeded, in Gaddis’s lifetime, in redefining the creative artist as a performer.” And I think, yes, there’s that certain sort of pudding-headedness that makes of poetry a reader’s art—“The Art of the Poetry Reading”—as if to suggest the making itself insufficient. Or I think of all the ones (legion) who’d rather be rockers, and “settled” for poetry. I always liked William Matthews’s lines about that (in “The Penalty for Bigamy is Two Wives”): “I have a friend who writes poems who says he really wants to be a rock star—the high-heeled boots, the hand-held mike, the glare of underpants in the front row, the whole package. He says he likes the way music throws you back into your body, like organic food or heroin. But when he sings it is sleek and abstract except for the pain, like the silhouette of a dog baying at the moon, almost liver-shaped. . .” Later, Matthews approvingly calls the friend “a beautiful fake, like a planetarium ceiling,” but me, I’m not so sure. The readings, the recordings, the patter, the stand-up, the slam, the (oh Lord) videos, all the addled fulsome truck of delivery: I rather bow to the hermits, the agoraphobic, the crowd-contemptuous, the pure. Words display’d against “page.”

And: to read a paragraph (by Gaddis, it appear’d in Esquire back in George H. W. days), a one-sentence paragraph that so decisively seeks out the black-raisin heart of a daft rich-boy punk politician and skewers it—to read it is to long for Gaddis’s miraculous return, if only for the time required to push through a whole shish-kebob of hearts of the current mob of mediocrities (and worse), that they not re-emerge (like locusts, like palmerworms, like thieving Acridiidæ) out of the current euphoria:
J. Danforth Quayle, that dangling initial tells the story: the pompous self-importance of your small-town banker who forecloses the farm, your Gulf War general with the $5 million advance whose selective chronicle of slaughter is being written by someone else; J. Danforth Quayle, the acolyte of the reigning prince of hypocrites (two patrician middle initials this time): J. Danforth Quayle, who has in fact got principles of his own, derived from an abiding confusion of an elitism based on merit with a midwestern country-club version embracing the empty privileges of unearned money; and who is not the public joke so frequently portrayed but rather, in being smart rather than intelligent, using the vested interests that are using him, could, if allowed by a skipped heartbeat or a dazed electorate, emerge as quite a dangerous fellow.

William Matthews, 1942-1997

Friday, November 07, 2008

Obscura & Lucida

Honey Locust


The clock “strains at” six and a tawdry yellow
Light stains the trees. Black crow-shaped cutouts unfold
And gust aimlessly toward town, impertinent
            And straggly refuse.

Now one is inclined to herd the evening
Home, Hesperus with a bramble switch, a dog,
And a comfortable fib, working the edge
            Against dispersal.

1 Girl: Like the highest honey-color’d quince way up
In the tree, hard-bit by frost, it’s out of reach:
No long quince-thief’s pole jabbing “at” it’s going
            To knock it down, nope.

2 Girl: Think of a hyacinthine blush, merest trace
Of rose-madder in the mountains, bruise and smudge
Of tiniest slip and petal where the ploughboys
            And shepherds trudged: yup.

Who’s that white-trash Republican all deck’d out
In high water pants and suspenders I see
You rubbing up against? What a hick! Artless!
            How’s he get it up?

Pre-winter songs of everyday introspect
And regret, prodding the foul rubble-slopes of
One’s descent into unaccomplish’d memory:
            New materials.

End of day throws an enormous tarpaulin,
Shiny and black, atop what it salvages,
Straps it down against any consummate breeze
            With one thousand ropes.

Autumnal trafficking in Sapphics (thank you, August Kleinzahler). The second stanza a reworking of Sappho’s fragment 16. The third and fourth of 34, what Mary Barnard calls “Lament for a maidenhead.” Fifth stanza a happy butchering of 74. Final two up out of my own misprisionings.

In a fine outburst one Basil Valentine, late in The Recognitions, after a general thrashing and pooh-poohing of any notion of the exceptionalism of the past (“Vulgarity, cupidity, and power. . . . Is that all you see around you, and you think it was different then? Flanders in the fifteenth century, do you think it was all like the Adoration of the Mystic Lamb? What about the paintings we’ve never seen? the trash that’s disappeared? Just because we have a few masterpieces left, do you think they were all masterpieces? What about the pictures we’ve never seen, and never will see? that were as bad as anything that’s ever been done . . .”)—concluding that “vulgar ostentation”’ll “stifle beauty everywhere . . . the way it’s doing today,” whoring away genius, glorifying the rich, wasting one’s talents, at the mercy of those one holds in contempt. Next: a grim refutation of the “God-tetch’d” lines I quoted some weeks back about how the immaculate detail in each painting “reflects . . . God’s concern with the most insignificant objects in life, with everything,” what Valentine calls an “insane upside-down apology for these pictures, every figure and every object with its own presence, its own consciousness because it was being looked at by God!”
Do you know what it was? What it really was? that everything was so afraid, so uncertain God saw it, that it insisted on its vanity in His eyes? Fear, fear, pessimism and fear and depression everywhere, the way it is today, that’s why your pictures are so cluttered with detail, this terror of emptiness, this absolute terror of space. Because maybe God isn’t watching. Maybe he doesn’t see. . . . Separation . . . all of it cluttered with separation, everything in its own vain shell, everything separate, withdrawn from everything else. Being looked at by God! Is there separation in God?
I like that “upside-down apology”—how it predicts some of David Hockney’s arguments, in Secret Knowledge: Rediscovering the Lost Techniques of the Old Masters, that optically-assisted painting, using combinations of the camera obscura, the camera lucida, and mirrors (a concave mirror’s got the optical quality of a lens and is capable of projecting an image—upside down—onto a flat surface) begins in the early fifteenth century in “the Low Countries.” Hence the era’s “rich & strange” sea-change in verisimilitude.

And us? today? pissing away one’s abilities? filling the monstrous reaches of (cyber)-space with verbal drivel and ostentation, so uncertain that God (or anybody) sees us? Well, yeah, there’s some of that around. Difference between the continuum of night and the separate (distinct) anxieties (objects) of day. One dwells in the interstice call’d the real, tossing Zeno of Elea out on ’s ear—though, certes he’d never actually land because, as Aristotle puts the paradox: There is no motion because that which is moved must arrive at the middle of its course before it arrives at the end. That’s the kind of thing makes me enormously tired. We do what we do, we attend and keep eyes wide. A fine Gaddis-delineated dawn:
In the daylight’s embrace, objects reared to assert their separate identities, as the rising sun rescued villages from the throbbing harmony of night, and laid the world out where they could get their hands on it to assail it once more on reasonable terms. Shapes recovered proper distance from one another, becoming distinct in color and extension, withdrawn and self-sufficient, each an entity because it was not, and with daylight could not be confused with, or be a part of, anything else. Eyes were opened, things looked at, and, in short, propriety was restored.

David Hockney

Thursday, November 06, 2008

“Erudite Fangs” Is Mina Loy



How humanity stands it without
A paint’d paradise
: light twines
Through the honey locust, up
Half the fence, a crease
Running down the page where
The book of the day
Thuds shut. “Freedom comes cloth’d
In a clownish garment, is
The man that will turn
The world upside down.” A
Black sun, a red sky,
Black the light bounding off
The newel post, making in-
Distinct the banister, the risers,
The openwork of a clock
Plunged ticking into the earth
Like a flannel-wrapped heart.
The enormous tragedy of ungovernable
Incorporated machinery loos’d cutthroat and
Indifferent into a world govern’d
By “the meaner sort of
Men, drones and snakes,” so
That one stoops into God-
Prattle apocalyptic with greasy duds
Agreeable, easy with the match,
The song of the gunpowder:
Hast ’ou seen the rose?
It blooms up out of
Great mirey wash of things,
Grog-blossoms the nose, madders
The fat asses of Capital.
Red is the dog who
Crimps unspeakably up the stairs,
Head like a rutabaga, beat
Dog of no master, stoop
To that, the peasant’s bent
slump’d of a Sunday
High in the mezzanine of
La Teatro Municipale in Piacenza
For a performance of Ponchielli’s
La Giaconda. Dispersal and commingling,
He stoops to music itself,
The way it disburdens, its
Carnal levity, its martial gravity.

“At a loss.” Meaning, oddly enough, “overwhelm’d.” Tipping (tipped, capsized, “whelved”—“I whelved a pot over it, to keep off the sun.”) into a ditch with some incalculable number of others, or other things, “stuff.” Writing “about” music with some (on the tiptoes of some) “intent” versus writing (riding) “the music” (a “heavier” thing, a beatific (beat-ridden) thing. (I used to attempt to dance note by note as opposed to “with the beat”—or the feet ’d keep a rhythmic steady whilst the body “above” flail’d and shimmy’d and unwound (lounging into whole notes, heightening up crescendo’d impermeables) to the gorgeous plowing of saxophone, pull’d “blue” guitars.) I read (keep reading) William Gaddis, overwhelm’d by the fangs of ’s erudition (though, mostly, they (the fangs) laugh-rattle in the mouth). (Maybe erudition is simply a matter of looking for amusements in the least likely of places.) I first had that thought whilst thumbing a talk call’d “Old Foes with New Faces” in Gaddis’s The Rush for Second Place, something present’d at a (1994) symposium on “The Writer and Religion.” Gaddis is delving into writings of “popular apologist Andrew M. Greeley” who apparently relishes “the fact that Catholicism ‘is not a democracy,’” extolling the church as “resolutely authoritarian.” The part that caught my eye:
“Catholics have sex more often than other Americans,” Father Greeley persists, ever divisive, and “are more playful in their erotic amusements than others.” The Decameron bears him out in many of its tales: a woman is tricked by an imposter priest into believing that he is the angel Gabriel and has fallen in love with her; after solacing himself with her, he escapes in a cloud of feathers, leaving his wings behind; elsewhere, an abbess surprised in delicto pulls the errant priest’s pants over her head, mistaking them in the dark for her cowl. Then there is the story of the nuns who coax a youth feigning mutism to service the entire convent—till one hot day the abbess finds him stretched out, apparently asleep. But “the wind lifting the forepart of his clothes,” she discovers his attraction and seizes upon him for herself.
I truck not with religion one way or another, but foibles and faults and the idiocy of claimants I love. What I’m wow’d by about Gaddis is the extent he’ll stretch looking at (the sides of) a thing. Critics of The Recognitions got they cowls in a twist about it all. See Jack Green’s (a pseudonym) legendary book Fire the Bastards! It collects pieces originally print’d (1962) in a mimeograph’d magazine call’d newspaper, a one-man sheet, pieces that damn’d the poverty of The Recognitions’s initial reception. (Though, amazingly, the book received something like fifty-five reviews.) (Mostly all saying the same thing.) On the books “erudition” (as collect’d, stylishly lower-cased, by Green):
an encyclopedia is not a work of art. (berger)

Unfortunately, into its 956 pages the author has apparently tried to cram everything he knows (burnette)

the polysyllables, sentence fragments and foreign words give the novel too “arty” a tone. (dixon)

. . .

excessive deployment of the author’s phenomenal erudition (rolo)

too frequently obscured by unnecessary erudition. (mcalister)

repetitious parade of erudition (laycock)

. . .

      Somebody arrives in Paris, and we get the whole background of Paris history before we go on with it. (wagenknecht)

Wyatt Gwyon and Wyatt’s creator, whose combined erudition is as annoying as Philo Vance’s (o’hearn)

a hail of erudition poured like boiling oil on the defenseless heads not of his enemies but of his readers (or does he intend an identity?).
      It is precisely this last question which makes us uneasy: is it just the others whom he is assaulting, or is he after us too? (swados)

. . .

The reader scampering to catch the ever-defaulting hero in his many guises through bordellos and monasteries is exasperated by Author Gaddis, as Ancient Mariner, waylaying him with lectures on the Church Fathers, the Antichrist, Descartes or the “Book of the Dead.” (powell)

. . .

a writer of showy if spotty erudition and a determination to exploit it (o’hearn)

a wealth of religious reference which, meaningful as it may be to the expert, too often seems like so much theological name dropping. (newsweek)

[A list of books] may let you know that old Gaddis is a whiz with the reference cards in the library, but it adds very little to the novel in information about characters or insight into events. (bass)

. . .

as we press on through Mr. Gaddis’s heavy artillery fire (I counted eight different languages en route and there may well have been more), we begin to suspect that his contempt may extend to all those who know less than he.
The final quote: Harvey Swados in The Hudson Review, again. The others: John Berger in The Nation, Frances Burnette in The Baltimore Sun, George Dixon in The Pittsburgh Press, Charles J. Rolo in The Atlantic Monthly, Durwood Mcalister in The Atlanta Journal & Constitution, Edward A. Laycock in The Boston Globe, Edward Wagenknecht in The Chicago Tribune, Walter O’Hearn in The Montreal Star, Dawn Powell in The New York Post, and Milton R. Bass in The Berkshire Eagle. All circa 1955, on the book’s—Gaddis’s first—publication.

As for Philo Vance: Ogden Nash wrote, “Philo Vance / Needs a kick in the pance.” A foppish intellectual detective appearing in several novels by S. S. Van Dine (pseudonym of Willard Huntington Wright), author of The Gracie Allen Murder Case (1938), amongst others.

As for erudition: I think of Tom Clark’s little poem: “I was born with this body / So I use it.”

William Gaddis
(Photograph by Jerry Bauer)

Wednesday, November 05, 2008

“Like the Things of Man”

Light and Shade


Detritus found in books: a
Slip of paper stuck in Paul
Gauguin’s Intimate Journals, a beat-
Up 1958 paperback edition, identifying
One Anna Kuchta of Haggerty
Road, b. 1939, a blond.
On the flyleaf: Detroit, 1960
(Traveled to Europe with me).

Underlined: Nail up some indecency
To be rid of respectable
and Only the sign-
Painter copies
—how is it
Such earnest impieties a half-
Century old and so eagerly
Wrought ought distress me so?
It’s not unlike Father Hopkins
Transliterating the woodlark’s mischievous song
“Teevo cheevo cheevio chee,” making
A bird out of nothing,
A beeswax’d encaustic of noise
Laid down with a palette
Knife directly, with merest hint
Of permanence, that color. Anna
Kuchta in black and white,
A smudged rotogravure, a plate
Unsliced of its binding, unleaving
“Like the things of man.”
Abandon’d is the definition of
A thing, motility the bruit’d
About lack it sounds like
A pistol shot ripping through
A coal mine, or wild
Laughter big as a circus
Tent in a tornado, everyday’s
Constancy moving along with a
Ticket to leave one behind.

Fidgeting in the aftermath, the morning.

“The poem will resemble you” (Tzara) versus “The poem is you” (Ashbery).

Stay’d up for the returns and the speeches and the colossally jubilant Grant Park crowds—recall’d the police riot there, the Chicago of 1968. Tears of disbelief and gratitude, relief and joy versus lacrymogènes in canisters—how impossibly different.

“Cautiously optimistic” fits to a T.

“To—and now comes the hard part—work.”

Paul Gauguin, “D’où venons nous? Que sommes-nous? Où allons-nous?” 1897-98
(Museum of Fine Arts, Boston)

Tuesday, November 04, 2008

Le scrutin

Some Abandon’d Works


That poaching that Rich Owens point’d out in Michel de Certeau: I love that. “Everyday life invents itself by poaching in countless ways on the property of others.” Poach: meaning both “to poke” and “to thrust into a bag.” See the French pocher “to poke out (an eye),” usage possibly (originally) out of an analogy between an empty eye socket and a bag or pocket. “The critick threw away ’s Flayl and betook himself to poaching in the River, a more Gentleman-like way of Life.” The everyday bagged. Pocket’d. Poked down off a neighbor’s apple tree with a long stick. Gill-netted out of the brown-running sluggish river-washes like a carp, or spear’d in the spawn-roil’d shallows. Oaks, bark and branch, scour’d up and haul’d off out of the kingly woods, those “Nurseries and Receptacles of Thieves and them of beggarly Aspect, dung- Scrapers and the petulantly Lewd.” Hath not th’advantage. There’s a blunt militancy and demand to the everyday: that out of the common trough a meal be made. Beastly nourishment, what all narrative hangs off like a stol’n slab of beef in a body shop. Or an unrepentant motorist hacking a hind quarter off a big-belly’d doe with a jigsaw. I knew a man who’d unvariably bend any ear that ask’d for a cigarette: “Sure, a cigarette’s a free commodity. Like salt. Like water. Things that circulate under the auspex of need, a flightless bird.” He relay’d a story about the blue-foot’d booby of the Galapagos too: how the bigger of two nestlings’ll smartly beak its runty sibling “upside they head,” settling with no uncertainty one limit’d food-supply crisis on the guano-splash’d rocks.
                                                            Ah, the day puffs up adder-mouth’d, “no clear demarcation”—the everyday shaped like an egg, uvular, constricting, caught it the blood-red throat of its rising to no occasion beyond its daily invention. Plunged into a fury of water, it half-tatters into rags of white: scenes of capital cohering and nuptial doom. What New Lanark’s Robert Owen want’d: angelic order, rational workingmen, ever-attainable happiness. Macaulay call’d him “a gentle bore,” and claim’d he intruded “on the dancers.” One wag report’d: “Robert Owen is not a man to think differently of a book for having read it.” Another call’d him “pertinaceous as a mole.” Jeremy Bentham declared: “Owen begins in vapour and ends in mist.” One makes a momentary utopia out of what falls to hand and the day writhes and settles, or flails out again like a snake in a sack, hog-nosed, puff’d up, and hissing or gone belly up, mouth agape, playing dead amidst a musky scent of breath held for a day of national scrutiny.

Spent too long yesterday imploring the Muse, “ravish’d with an Enthousiasmos or divinely poetic fury” (“and it shows” in the discountenanced sprawl of what end’d up writ). I did wake in the pitch black night with the line “day of national scrutiny” butting at my brainbox like a goat, and managed to scribble it down, something I never do. And to think it must needs “go” right up there right away: probably a mistake. I did read in Thoreau’s Journals (he’s talking about how the etymologies of words contain ample semantic fruit—to put it rather oddly):
Language in its settled form is the record of men’s second thoughts; a more faithful utterance than they can momentarily give. What men say is so sifted and obliged to approve itself as answering to a common want, that nothing absolutely frivolous obtains currency in the language. The analogies of words are never whimsical and meaningless, but stand for real likenesses— Only the ethics of mankind, and not of any particular man give point and vigor to our speech.
Which reminds me (particularly the final sentence) a little of V. N. Vološinov’s ever-flowing “stream of speech” in opposition to random individual utterance. Isn’t there, too, a sense of the difference between “what men say” (“answering to a common want,” that is, with a limit’d semantic currency) and writing (“Language in its settled form”), wherein a word’s allow’d to “stretch” in all its, oh “furriness” (“shaggy and ecstatic” as Ronald Johnson says)? The danger: thinking one ought “control” the meanings, or simply be caught in the malarkey that they’ll never change. Too, late, reading well into William Gaddis’s The Recognitions (surely a “shaggy and ecstatic” thing if there ever were)—and built to an immoderate degree out of pure human speech—reading of the poet (he is legion, even “today”) who disavows that language itself thrives in such extravagance and erring:
And they passed under the eyes of the Paleolithic poet, glittering open from features whose prehistoric simplicity was faintly shadowed with apprehension at the sight of the opportune mutations going on around him, denying, by their very existence, the finality of his old-world wisdom, and suggesting, as they took to the air manipulating the baubles so helplessly evolved with a pretense of having designed them themselves, that perhaps, for all his belligerent cooperation with environment, that environment itself was changing, and not only he, but the entire species upon which he depended while living, and rescue from anonymity, perpetuation afterward, was to become part of the sodden floor, and the mat, and finally only traces on the crust itself.
My druthers in the convention of the “Paleolithic poet” routine, the creeping onslaught of Procrustean conformity and sour conservatism amongst the “post avant” “set” (or any other): to recall (continuously) the dictum of Oscar Wilde: “To get back to one’s youth, one has merely to repeat one’s follies.”

Terrific numbers at the local precinct today at seven when the polls open’d, longest lines and absolutely the most varied, and excited, crowd I’ve ever seen there. Time now for our “surge.”

John Cranch, “Portrait of Robert Owen,” c. 1845

Monday, November 03, 2008

Dean Young’s Primitive Mentor

Some Leaves

It’s probably a little under-hand’d to assign to chance the remittances of “the dancing of an attitude” (what Kenneth Burke call’d “symbolic action”), but what happen’d is I went to the Friends of the Library emporium and uncover’d a spanking new polyethylene-wrap’d volume of Dean Young’s Primitive Mentor (University of Pittsburgh, 2008), obviously a discard’d review copy, complete with cover by Dean Young (half-Basquiat, half Ernst of La femme 100 têtes, all mess) and picture of Dean Young (looking a little like a complacently disconsolate cockatoo) on the back. And, at $2, had to drag the thing home. (Oh, maybe I had just the inkling of a plan.) To explain to the world “at large” just why Dean Young is, to coin a jingle: “about as lethal as a flarfist.” Primitive Mentor is, I note, Dean Young’s ninth collection, and he’s copped a number of awards, teaches at Iowa, is widely imitated by squads of careerists and know-nothings, and is, seemingly, if one believes the piece “What Form after Death” with its lines “And Stan Rice, just now / 7 or 8 books no one talks about but / when I reread still frighten me / into delight,” ready himself for a kind of premature post-mortem-style assessment: what those who worry a legacy in lieu of a poetics end up getting.

I want’d to point to the cartoonery of Dean Young—all cause and effect (anvil drop’d off cliff drilling the antagonist deep into an anvil-shaped hole) with no effect (antagonist flatly climbing up out of the jagged hole, reconstituted in a sketch). Which is the way it is, apparently, for certain bairns of the self-satisfy’d late twentieth-century the U.S. seem’d to breed in numbers. Young: “Put some words in the word balloon, hardly / matters what as the cartoon concerns a conversation / between a trashcan and a duck.” Which gets right to it: form (“balloon”) and content (“hardly / matters”). Or there’s the casual (wholly without consequences) mayhem of “me and Fucking Dickhead / running along the forest”:
                            Tyger, tyger, says Dickhead
which he always says when he gets another idea:
cling wrap, smart bomb, mechanical bull,
and because he’s half god, half cartoon,
Fuckhead keeps blowing himself up and putting
himself back together wrong . . .
Replete with obligatory literary nod (just like Warner Bros.—who’d forget the building demolition company named “Edifice Wrecks” in some old Bugs Bunny cartoon?), though, here, rather inert.

My temptation—is it because the poems all seem “of a cut,” all clones of a Dean Young ur-poem?—is to count things. Say, how many times does “off-one’s meds” occur? Here’s someone about to “fall / for a tombstone-filching off-his-meds young gun”; here’s a line address’d to someone whose head apparently just roll’d by: “You haven’t gone off your meds again, have you?” Probably two too many (unless one thinks that that is the equivalent of what comes nowadays “out of the mouths of Polish mothers”). And while one’s looking: is being “off-one’s meds” just a variation of a bigger ploy, that of the “another saga of my personal failures” Young litany of self-deprecations, all, paradoxically, highly-vaunt’d? And there it is—again and again—what the “constant plumbing of the spirit” finds: self-admitted dopey rejects and dullards, unfathomably disinterest’d in anything beyond a world defined by jokey indifference. Read: lines about how “I tried to solve / the why-am-I-so-dumb problem by reading books / I couldn’t understand”; or about “a curious crew, prone to slam-dance depression” (half-concluding that “maybe so / much hilarity is a strain on us”); or a claim how “I like the parts in my brain best / that can look at a puddle of blood / and reach for a mop”; or a poem that begins, “You are toilet head. / No, I am toilet head.” Titles like “Wheelchair Race,” “Gawker,” “Lives of the Orphans,” “My Itty Void.” Here’s an egregiously moronic sample (out of “Admissions Policy”—who says academia’s effect on American poésie is negligible?): “One / of our most promising freshmen didn’t have a skull, / his brains held together by, you guessed it, / duct tape. Duct tape occupies a significant /portion of our curriculum in the school / for people with pieces missing / as does reading original poetry aloud / and being rewarded with grapes.” Catch the “you guessed it”—this is accessibility with a vengeance; not only is the reader swept up in Young’s superior “comic” disdain, that reader is deem’d capable of anticipating it, saying it for himself. (Of course he is: it’s that comfort of the familiar—mimicking the sit-com, the stand-up routine—that makes the work popular and imitable.)

Another thing to count: references to the “other”—something beyond the usual American detritus, a “world out there.” Mmm: Caravaggio “skipping rent” through a hole knock’d in the ceiling (“explains the light source of those late works”); in “My Outlook on Life”—“people must always be allowed avenues / of escape that can be perked up with colorful names. Rue of Laughing Livers. Boulevard Rimbaud / where Rimbaud was beaten and arrested”—and, “Chinese handcuffs, bullwhips, / qat to chew”; in “Liverwurst”—“czars and czarinas / are sitting down to a giant swine dinner / and wolves chase troikas on the steppes / and idiots play flag football in the mists”; somewhere there’s a reference to how “you’ll want to go to Mexico, / get so drunk that you think what you’re doing is a dance.” If everything becomes material for stock-mockery and caricature, is there any reason to trust a turn that apparently intends to address present predicaments? Here’s “Triage”:
Fatally, the boy picks up a what he thought
on the occupier / insurgent fractioned
road. Fatally, the man goes out for popsicles
in the storm not for himself for his two
days later from the mudslide pulled he’s
given a kind of super power, drive a nail
into his chest he won’t care or notice.
The deluge greens the hills, the world
is full of wailing, concussions, unnerved
stillness, hushed discussion, then more
wailing but a birdsong still fits through
two quick notes sailing then what to do
how what needs stopping stop, speed what
needs now not? Check trickling through
the mail, joining an envelope-gush fed
into a machine that slits them open
counting. Groups of same-thinkers praying
which seems okay unless you study history
where such behavior’s often preparatory
to raving, attack, more slaughter. Somehow
a bicyclist fits through, bell on handlebars.
Then mother comes home, syntax stays intact,
a lie begins to wither. The man can’t fit
through barbed wire but his poems do, hidden
in his breath. Laughter fitting through at first
seems monstrous. “She’d be your age by now.”
Time fitting through a fruit tree, an owl.
A string quartet of kids, a room with a
chocolate on the pillow. Outside, an un-
frozen river for those still alive.
“A lie begins to wither.” I don’t trust “Triage”—I don’t trust its ratatoille’d syntactical mush at the beginning; I don’t trust the clarity “un- / frozen” of its conclusion. Nor its aimless talk of “fitting through.” First its “two quick notes” of “birdsong” and, somewhat later, “poems, hidden in [a man’s] breath.” Splendid: truth’ll out, &c., &c. Except: what’s the “Check trickling through / the mail” doing there? (Unwitting sign of one’s most basic concern?) Is that a “fitting through”? Is there a triage evident here, a sorting according to degrees of urgency, of who or what’s salvageable? The details range from the perverse (“a room with a chocolate on the pillow”) to the confusing (“Time fitting through”) to the incoherent (“‘She’d be your age by now.’”) The upshot is that “Triage” seems a mere topical exercise, or, more cynically, a kind of poetic résumé-builder, some sign of Young’s tackling the big subjects. (I say that largely because of the paucity of such address elsewhere.)

American surrealism’s always been a mostly giggly affair, big silly hijinx and high penetrable hyuk-hyuk-ing shenanigans, works of surface bedazzle all seemingly new without the concomitant fundamental change that the new requires. Usurp’d by advertising, it’s become pervasive in American life; we all indulge in it now effortlessly (and with none of the primary or tertiary claims of, say, Blaise Cendrars’s call for the “naked, new, total”). The problem with such effortlessness is miasma and discharge: strings of impartial details, conglomerate fuzziness. So, one begins “Wheelchair Race” in fine Dean Young self-styled dodo-bird (or “blockhead”) style:
You can’t understand how everyone else
walks around in flames, how they get through
the vapor locks, the persistent mazes
and partitions between you and the flowers
and the ideals and sprays of life
and goodness exhibits.
It feels like there’s a gray box on your head.
It is your head.
And goes through sentimental narratives (“You leave a gasp on the hotel pillow”) and canned jokes (“your fundamental experience was a hybrid / of boredom and dread you wouldn’t get / to the bathroom on time”) and bonhomie’d asides to the knowing reader (“If only you had one of those penlights / that’s also a penknife”) to end with:
Right now the only place air gets in
is where your mother kissed your head
when it was still soft as mucilage,
and she still a shiny dragonfly.
Remarkable enough lines, and completely unwarrant’d, a ditzy gratuity to lift the poem out of its slog.

Dean Young


Ambient sound: water running into a jug. A little kid asking what “contested” means. The clipped, nearly human chatter (in bursts) of keyboarding. Water is a mercy in the desert. “A blatantly illegal and immoral example of state terrorism.” Rain gearing up for a night of it. And the immemorial rat-tat-tat of half-thinking, that clip-fed Browning (funny how one associates an automatic rifle with random particle movement, Brownian) hammering throughout the day: Where’d Dina Lisha go after leaving the rue Marguerite near the ineffable Parc Monceau? Is the unfinish’d a “field mark” of the Romantic? And loud bells parrying the slowing orchestral slurry, becoming the punctae into which the strings “submerge,” belling out wildly themselves. All the Donna mi pregha apparatchiki. The mesh and commingling of thinking and ambience, and how writing tongues each indifferently, here, there, slow with pressure, high-fluttering in a hint-barrage of saying the unsayable, curtain’d off by fever-noise, or amalgamates of desire, linsey-woolsey, a sound like a pinafore, a kneecap with a crookedly-askew Band-Aid smirk, and muddy: improbably equal to the fleet harriers thinking noiselessly runs with.