Tuesday, December 23, 2008

“With a Squeak”

Some Reds


The world is pretty much
Stuck with us, so I
Peek into the new Spicer “volume”
And right where he says “The fix
Has the same place in junkie-talk or real talk
It is the position
They’ve got you in,” I think of how Jennifer
Moxley’s got the word “fit” in a similarly dire
Situation and how
I point’d it out with vehemence—
What’s the etymological
Scoop behind
The word vehemence?
I’d like to think
It’s like “abominable” with a man
Hiding within, holding the nose
That turns (ab) away,
“Abhominable” is what one reads in the old
Books. If I could find the Moxley—
Is it call’d The Secret-
? No, it’s call’d The Sense Record
(I had to look it up
Because of my lack of mental
Vehemence): is its etymology
The outcome of a V
Driving its wedge into a man
Hiding within it? Ahem.
It’s only in the vicissitudes of such fit
Composures that one
Notes the way Amen echoes Ahem,
Though the one
Is generally used to elicit
Attention, a rude and semi-
Bestial prompt, and the other makes good
To “sign off,” shutting
Down the open line, all done for now.
Bernadette Mayer reports
“Tumbled down an incline at Bash Bish
Broke many things”—who’d refuse
To agree with that? Why is it
That therefore I think
Of Ernesto Cardenal sitting cross-
Leggedly on a beach, eating turtle
Eggs, saying again and again Nicaragua
Is screw’d, is completely screw’d . . .

The world’s nonesuch is
Within us, we cannot ape a coterie,
We cannot whoop out
Satiety for what’s wrong’d and patch
Together a new tendency—you
Shoot straight or you shoot not.
(I love rhetoric and its sully’d
Copain song, what spews
Out the mouths of les bons
spit-encloister’d melodicks
Of Sunday gummers
Falling to a table of bloody’d meat.)
Rhetoric is capable of saying that
Nature (the world) is so handcuff’d
That its intractable matter comes under
A kind of juridical
Terror, and is thus willing to give up
Evidence (much
Of it false)—and so be it.
Grifting and thieving
Against the day’s sordid boom, we
Muster up
For no coming inspection, prate
And deliver against the tuneless
Deities, mock hardships, finagled purses, Joes.
We live and die like pagans, creedless,
Sucking off the conceptual lie
Whilst the real lurches
Forth against the pin-stuck bias
Of the world’s scant covering,
And shreds it. I think
Of poor Robert Browning, the rose-mesh
Of flesh sloughing into earth—
He is holding a miniature orrery,
A tiny solar system
With a squeak to it, holding it
In the palm of one hand, nudging
It into movement with
One long nicotine-stain’d fingernail.
The weeklies display pages of
Chronological “gear,” doodad-
Encumber’d wristwatches for the time-
Warriors among us—as if the year
Need’d a push to get going
Out into the wild shrubbery of the out-
Back where it’ll snare a few
Rabbits, or make a mash of ground
Nuts and peccary scat to smear
Against itself becoming invisible.
Or it’ll nail a doubloon the size of a dinner-
Plate to one kneecap and bathe
In the gush of rude blood
With a kind of fervency
For its own malign’d historical
“Edge.” It moves us not.
I think, too, of the audacious
Finesse of a starker hubris,
The marketeers of the faux-fires
That burn no man, raw
Grunts of the incorruptible sky,
Implacable star-arrangers, maté-
Sniffers, thieves
Who make a sport of letters—
Against such changeable voracious
Goons I lift the dirty green brass
Horn of my scorn.


Tumbled down an incline at Bash Bish
Broke many things; it was still spring

Clouded over, it was too rainy to walk annually
At Bartholomew’s Cobble; a coneflower appeared

As did a lupin, even some alyssum
Be forewarned: the eternal perennial

Is not immortal, though rooted in the ground
& coming back, it might disappear

In a wild fire, tornado or apocalypse
Or move over in a spring flood

Or earthquake; you move over & you’ll see
The same thing you saw yesterday, maybe

It’s the welcome wagon, here’s
A cherry pie; the cherries are eternal

                                Bernadette Mayer
                                Poetry State Forest (New Directions, 2008)

Back in—gulp—2009. Thanks for reading.

William and Samuel Jones, Hand-crank’d Orrery, 1794

Monday, December 22, 2008

Lay and Independent


Ezra Pound, in the “Praefatio Ad Lectorem Electum,” the preface to The Spirit of Romance (1910): “My criticism has consisted in selection rather than in presentation of opinion.” And I am busy recalling something I wrote “for” James McConkey, pure quotation unadulterated by the vicissitudinous “input” of a sophomoric (literally) mind not at ease with itself, something like “all the lines I liked in Werther” (or maybe Augustine’s Confessions, I get the two mixed up, they end so similarly, each in that stylized turning away of life’s roseate unstomachableness . . .) I’d “got” the idea off of, I think, William Matthews, who’d review’d a book by Paul Metcalf (probably Apalache (1976), in just that manner, probably in the pages of Lillabulero, the magazine he and Russell Banks “did,” begun at Chapel Hill. And McConkey, the dear man, didn’t fuss or bludgeon, took my laziness in stride, suggest’d that (the forgotten American novelist) Herbert Gold’d done the same thing, made it all an acceptably “viable” way to proceed.

Roberto Bolaño (in 2666, translated by Natasha Wimmer):
In 1920 Hans Reiter was born. He seemed less like a child than like a strand of seaweed. Canetti, and Borges, too, I think—two very different men—said that just as the sea was the symbol or mirror of the English, the forest was the metaphor the Germans inhabited. Hans Reiter defied this rule from the moment he was born. He didn’t like the earth, much less forests. He didn’t like the sea either, or what ordinary mortals call the sea, which is really only the surface of the sea, waves kicked up by the wind that have gradually become the metaphor for defeat and madness. What he liked was the seabed, that other earth, with its plains that weren’t plains and valleys that weren’t valleys and cliffs that weren’t cliffs.
And Ezra Pound, again in the “Praefatio Ad Lectorem Electum”:
Art is a fluid moving above or over the minds of men.
. . .
Art or an art is not unlike a river, in that it is perturbed at times by the quality of the river bed, but is in a way independent of that bed. The color of the water depends upon the substance of the bed and banks immediate and preceding. Stationary objects are reflected, but the quality of motion is of the river.
And the recurrent image of the “great celestial sea” in Gaddis’s The Recognitions—that man climbing down the rope to free the anchor hook’d on a tombstone. “Some people coming out of a church were surprised to see an anchor dangling by a rope from the sky, which caught in the tombstones, presently a man was seen descending with the object of detaching it, but as he reached the earth he died as we should if drowned in water . . .” as one of Gaddis’s sources puts it.

Or Pound (“Praefatio”): “Good art never bores one . . . it is the business of the arts to prevent ennui; in the literary art, to relieve, refresh, revive the mind of the reader—at reasonable intervals with some form of ecstasy, by some splendor of thought, some presentation of sheer beauty, some lightning turn of phrase—laughter is no mean ecstasy. Good art begins with an escape from dullness.” (I cannot help myself. I think of Ron Silliman’s recent re-hooplah-ing of Barrett Watten’s “test of poetry” claim (advocating for Silliman’s Tjanting) that “A bus ride is better than most art. . . . To enter the work might be possible anywhere, as one gets on or off a bus. It is possible in fact to read this book on a bus.” A false dichotomy. One is not, in fact, riding a bus whilst reading Silliman’s opus interminablilis, one is reading about riding a bus, a far duller thing.)

Roberto Bolaño (in 2666, translated by Natasha Wimmer):
Chance or the devil had it that the book Hans Reiter chose to read was Wolfram von Eschenbach’s Parzival. . . .
      Wolfram, Hans discovered, said of himself: I fled the pursuit of letters. Wolfram, Hans discovered, broke with the archetype of the courtly knight and was denied (or denied himself) all training, all clerical schooling. Wolfram, Hans discovered, unlike the troubadours and the minnesingers, declined to serve a lady. Wolfram, Hans discovered, declared that he was untutored in the arts, not to boast of a lack of education, but as a way of saying he was free from the burden of Latin learning and that he was a lay and independent knight. Lay and independent.
      . . . Wolfram’s pride (I fled the pursuit of letters, I was untutored in the arts), a pride that stands aloof, a pride that says die, all of you, but I’ll live, confers on him a halo of dizzying mystery, of terrible indifference, which attracted the young Hans the way a giant magnet attracts a slender nail.
Effect of repeat’d “Wolfram, Hans discovered”? Reiterating a clumsiness, D.I.Y.

Roberto Bolaño (in 2666, translated by Natasha Wimmer):
When the Aztecs came out of the pyramids, the sunlight didn’t hurt them. The behaved as if there were an eclipse of the sun. And they returned to their daily rounds, which basically consisted of strolling and bathing and then strolling again and spending a long time standing still in contemplation of imperceptible things or studying the patterns insects made in the dirt and eating with friends, but always in silence, which is the same as eating alone, and every so often they made war. And above them in the sky there was always an eclipse . . .
Roberto Bolaño (in 2666, translated by Natasha Wimmer):
Ivanov had been a party member since 1902. Back then he had tried to write stories in the manner of Tolstoy, Chekhov, Gorky, or rather he had tied to plagiarize them without much success, which led him, after long reflection (a whole summer night), to the astute decision that he should write in the manner of Odoevsky and Lazhechnikov. Fifty percent Odoevsky and fifty percent Lazhechnikov. This went over well, in part because readers, their memories mostly faulty, had forgotten poor Odoevsky (1803-1869) and poor Lazhechnikov (1792-1869), who died the same year, and in part because literary criticism, as keen as ever, neither extrapolated nor made the connection nor noticed a thing.
Or the way Bolaño uses Ivanov (a character at innumerable levels of “remove” from “the main story”—Efraim Ivanov (a Soviet social-realist turned science-fiction writer—model’d, apparently, on a Soviet sci-fi writer named Ivan Efremov)’s life is being report’d by one Abraham Ansky, who fled the village of Kostekino, leaving behind a sheaf of notes, a sheaf being read by Hans Reiter, a German soldier (and boy-seaweed) who may or may not grow up to be the mysterious Benno von Archimboldi) Bolaño—in that deep pit—uses Ivanov to talk about writing. Here’s Ivanov sensing “something missing” in himself and those others on “the official lists of Soviet creators”: missing: the “moment at which the larva, with a reckless smile, turns into a butterfly”:
And then he began to think about how repulsive adolescent artists or pseudoartists were when viewed from up close. He thought about Mayakovsky, whom he knew personally, with whom he’d spoken once, perhaps, twice, and his enormous vanity, a vanity that likely hid his lack of love for his fellow man, his lack of interest in his fellow man, his outsize craving for fame. And then he thought about Lermontov, and Pushkin, as puffed up as movie stars or opera singers. Nijinsky, Gurov. Nadson. Blok (whom he’d met and who was unbearable). Remoras on the flanks of art, he thought. They think they’re suns, setting everything ablaze, but they aren’t suns, they’re just plunging meteors and in the end no one pays them any heed. They spread humiliation, not conflagration. And ultimately it’s always they who are humiliated, truly humiliated, bludgeoned and spat upon, execrated and maimed, thoroughly humiliated, taught a lesson, humiliated utterly.
For Ivanov, a real writer . . . was basically a responsible person with a certain level of maturity. A real writer had to know when to listen and when to act. . . . A real writer had to be someone relatively cool-headed, a man with common sense. Someone who didn’t talk too loud or start polemics. He had to be reasonably pleasant and he had to know how not to make gratuitous enemies. Above all keep his voice down, unless everyone else was raising his. . . .
. . .
Ivanov’s fear was of a literary nature. That is, it was the fear that afflicts most citizens who, one fine (or dark) day, choose to make the practice of writing, and especially the practice of fiction writing, an integral part of their lives. Fear of being no good. Also fear of being overlooked. But above all, fear of being no good. Fear that one’s efforts and striving will come to nothing. Fear of the step that leaves no trace. Fear of the forces of chance and nature that wipe away shallow prints. Fear of dining alone and unnoticed. Fear of going unrecognized. Fear of failure and making a spectacle of oneself. But above all, fear of being no good. Fear of forever dwelling in the hell of bad writers. Irrational fears . . . especially when the fearful soothed their fears with semblances. As if the worth (or excellence) of a work were based on semblances. Semblances that varied, of course, from on era and country to another, but that always remained just that, semblances, things that only seem and never are, things all surface and no depth, pure gesture, and even the gesture muddled by an effort of will, the hair and eyes and lips of Tolstoy and the versts traveled on horseback by Tolstoy and the women deflowered by Tolstoy in a tapestry burned by the fire of seeming.
Against “semblance”: Archimboldo’s painting of the four seasons. “Happiness personified.” “The end of semblance. Arcadia before the coming of man.”

Some of Giuseppe Arcimboldo’s “composed heads” of the four seasons: “Winter,” “Spring,” “Summer,” and “Autumn.” The originals were painted c. 1563, for the Hapsburg emperor Maximilian, to whom they were formally present’d in 1569.

Friday, December 19, 2008

Inchoate, Without Scraps

Tree With a Cloud Behind It

A dedication, print’d George Herbert-style, shaped like a chalice:
the Red-Headed Cerberus, regardant between the Pont Royal and
the Petit-Pont; to the Frothing Vorticist; to the Harpy behind
the Little Grille; to the Bilious but Gaitered Platonic; to
the Surgical, Hairy, yet invisible Troll of the Dieppois; to
the Stout Love-Child of the Pierides who Believes Aquinas
to be a Mineral-Water; to the Bouncing Benthamite of
Bloomsbury who is Unaware of the Medieval; to That
Other, the Cramoisy One; to the Dodging Lutheran
of the Rue de Grenelle; to the Pythoness of Bays-
water; to the Commandant of Infantry who Babbled
of the Grand-Orient; to the Lady with the Hard
Grey Eyes; to the Levantine of London who Did
Not Think Poetry Would Do; to the Military
Character who Sacked the Lot; and to all pratt-
ling Gablers, sycophant Varlets, forlorn Snakes,
blockish Grutnols, fondling Fops, doddi-
pol Joltheads, slutch Calf-Lollies, cods-
head Loobies, jobernol Goosecaps,
grout-head Gnat-Snappers, noddie-
peak Simpletons, Lob-Dotterels,
and ninniehammer
And ending with a musical strain, unh: “Fleurs de gaicté, donez moy joye et hoye! Et my donez allegement.” That, out of Wyndham Lewis’s 1928 François Villon: A Documented Survey. Not that Wyndham Lewis (Percy), but Dominic Bevan, he who is, too, behind The Stuffed Owl: An Anthology of Bad Verse. I assume, though, the “frothing Vorticist” is our asshole Percy (somebody call’d him “asshole” some months back when I attempt’d to read the works of the weak-kneed bombardier, and fail’d, presumably not my most egregious rout at the cruel hands of literature.) D. B. Wyndham Lewis (whatever the relationship to Percy) apparently hung with Hilaire Belloc and G. K. Chesterton. Belloc writes the airy (“I am putting these few words introductory to a work of great scholarship and research wherein the author has discovered all that Villon was, within and without. I myself pretend to no such scholarship.”) “Preface” here to the Villon “survey,” pointing particularly and repeatedly to the “quality of hardness” in Villon’s work:
Mr. Wyndham Lewis says it in this book . . . in three words: “clarity: relief: vigour:”—and these are the marks of hardness: of the hard-edged stuff: the surviving.
      They say that when men find diamonds in primitive fashion, they scrouch and grope in thick greasy clay till they come upon something hard, quite different in material from its surroundings; that is the stone. In the monuments of Europe, when they fall into ruin, there survive here and there what seem almost imperishable things; it is marble, it is granite which survives.
      Now in letters the simile applies. I heard it well said by a great critic weighing one of the best of our modern versifiers (and “the best” is not saying much), that he liked the stuff well enough, but that it had no chance of survival because it was “carved in butter”: an appreciation profound and just. It is with the production of verse as with the chiselling of a material. You handle a little figure of the fourteenth century in boxwood; it is smooth, strong and perfect. So is the cut oak of the medieval stalls. But the pine has perished.
      Now this quality of hardness in any poet or writer of prose is difficult or impossible to define—more easy to feel.
      It is to be discovered by certain marks which are not the causes of it, but are its accompaniments. Of these the chief is what the generation before our own used to call “inevitableness”: the word coming in answer (as it were) to the appeal of the ear: the conviction, when you have read the thing, that the least change destroys
it; the corresponding conviction of unity through perfection.
      Villon has that.
Which mostly made me think of Basil Bunting, whose poem “Villon” must’ve been written about then (it appear’d in a late 1930 issue of Poetry) with its lines:
precision clarifying vagueness;
boundary to a wilderness
of detail; chisel voice
smoothing the flanks of noise
. . .
                        unnoted harmonies;
name of the nameless;
                        stuff that clings
to frigid limbs
                        more marble hard
than girls imagined by Mantegna . . .
And Bunting recalling it all thirty-some years later, coming to write “Briggflatts” with its admonition: “Pens are too light. / Take a chisel to write.”

Ah, conjecture and sweet flailing. One points to Bunting’s writing of “Villon” in 1925. What about (tout à coup I am struck) Pound’s Villon, or “Montcorbier, alias Villon” as he writes it in The Spirit of Romance (1910). Pound’s version: “Villon is destitute of imagination; he is almost destitute of art; he has no literary ambition . . .” and “Villon has the stubborn persistency of one whose gaze cannot be deflected from the actual fact before him: what he sees, he writes.” And “he is the only poet without illusions. There are désillusionnés, but they are different; Villon set forth without the fragile cargo. Villon never lies to himself; he does not know much, but what he knows he knows: man is an animal, certain things he can feel; there is much misery, man has a soul about which he knows little or nothing.” Nothing about style or form (rare for Pound), Villon is all “behavior” (he is “shameless”—one suspects that young Pound is a little mystify’d, half squeamish, half longing to shed middle-class veneers (“Much of both the Lesser and the Greater Testaments is in no sense poetry; the wit is of the crudest; thief, murderer, pander, bully to a whore, he is honored for a few score pages of unimaginative sincerity; he sings of things as they are.”)

Et puis, there’s a late essay by William Carlos Williams that largely rehashes Pound (“Villon had only one poetical theme—himself: his life and his sorrows about Paris . . .”), though noting that the refusal to “lie” in Villon is flung wide, covering the dodges of “art” too: “any ruse, or indirect approach, even at the excuse of art, savored of the lie.” Okay, I am not getting anywhere in my summary of Villon thinking (and what about the Robert Louis Stevenson essay—one ought to stop thinking he’s just for Boy Scouts, no? I “dabbled” (the extent of my ability of late—largely because I am “devoting” energy (like a candle) to reading Roberto Bolaño’s 2666 every night, the final “Part About Archimboldi” is draped in mystical Kafkaesque gauze after the flat out forensics of “The Part About the Crimes”—Hans Reiter is the boy who resembles seaweed), too, in Bernadette Mayer’s Poetry State Forest (New Directions, 2008). Is she “our” Villon? Here’s “In America”:
so far most of us
don’t have to go to jail for long
or be killed for our beliefs yet

I remember when a crazed nun in fifth grade
during the mccarthy era said to us
how may of you would die for your faith
if the communists came, raise your hands

of course we all did
now it’s different
this is a sonnet

people are astonished if a poet
in america can live long & not be destroyed

it makes no sense to anyone, none of this
all of us are all wrong.

Portrait of François Villon, woodcut out of the first edition of Villon’s works published by Pierre Levet, 1489. The ballade “Faulce beaulte,” printed below the portrait, is an acrostic, the initial letter of each line spelling out “Francoys.”
(Bibliothèque Nationale, Paris)

Thursday, December 18, 2008

Inchoate, With Scraps

Along the Tracks

The excellent Jacques Roubaud, talking, in Poetry, etcetera: Cleaning House (Green Integer, 2006), about the incroyable longevity of Oulipo (found’d in 1960 by François Le Lionnais and Raymond Queneau, and rollicking still today, nearly a half-century later), may he not offer a leçon for all budding inchoate formers of groupuscules, and them who’ve sunk they incisors into such a formation (only to find how delimiting market savvy finally is)? A few words (translated by Guy Bennett):
Since the Renaissance if not before, the history of literature in our country is characterized by a very particular modus operandi. In a recurrent way, generation after generation, literary groups appear (or are invented after the fact by literary historians). They always share the following characteristics (that I shall describe briefly and basically):
        a—These groups form in order to renew and recast French literature, which has fallen into a deplorable, degenerative state (according to them).
        b—Their watchword is: everything that was done before us is worthless. Everything that will be done after us will owe us its existence. (That which was done in the past can only prefigure what the group is going to do. What the group proposes defines what will be good in the future.)
        c—The structure of these groups is very hierarchized: there is one or many leaders, epigones, minor figures.
        d—The group deeply despises all of its contemporaries, especially rival groups that its very existence and literary program inevitably generate.
        e—The very mode of existence of the group brings about its rather rapid destruction, through divisions, divergences, “deviations,” and exclusions.
        f—During its generally short life, the group, surrounded by enemies and attacked on all sides, develops traits typical of sects, mafias, gangs, or more modestly, mutual admiration societies.
Roubaud proceeds to identify some groups (in the French context), la Pléiade, the Classics, the Romantics, the Surrealists, and—excellent barb—“though forgotten today, the Tel Quel group.” Next, after a paragraph regarding Oulipo’s tie with the Surrealists (through Raymond Queneau—“he left the Bretonian group in a huff”), Roubaud spells out the “few, original rules” that Queneau, mostly, “‘invented’”:
        a—The Oulipo group is not a closed group. It grows by co-opting new members.
        b—No one can be excluded from Ouilipo.
        c—On the other hand (you don’t get without giving) no one can quit Oulipo, nor cease being a part of it.
        d—it follows that whoever was ever a member of Oulipo is always a member. In particular, that implies:
        d′—The dead are still members of Oulipo. (Thus Luc Étienne, co-author of “la Méthode à Mimile,” inventor of the phonetic palindrome; Latis, punctilious pataphysician; Albert-Marie Schmidt, specialist of 16th-century literature; Marcel Duchamp, painter, inventor of RRose SSélavye . . .)
        e—There is an exception to the excessively restrictive aspect of the last rule. Membership in Oulipo can be terminated by committing suicide in the presence of a bailiff, who can certify that the suicide of the Oulipian in question is, according to his explicit last wishes, intended to get him out of Oulipo, that he might enjoy full freedom of movement for the rest of eternity.
Roubaud, too, points to the Bourbaki group (“an avant-garde group of mathematicians”) for a model for Oulipo (“Oulipo is an homage to and imitation of Bourbaki . . . It is also a parody if not a profanation of Bourbaki . . .”) He cites the Octavio Paz axiom that homage and profanation are the two breasts of literature. Roubaud’s explanation of Bourbaki: “Bourbaki’s founding Project—rewrite all of Mathematics, giving it a solid base derived from a single source, the Set Theory, and from a rigorous method, the Axiomatic Method—is serious, admirable, imperialist, sectarian, megalomaniacal and pompous. (Humor is not its primary trait.)” (I find Roubaud’s tone there a little mystifying.) And, continuing:
The Oulipian project, which “translated” the Bourbakistic aim and method into the realm of the language arts is likewise serious and ambitious; it is not sectarian, however, and is not persuaded of the validity of its processes to the exclusion of all other approaches.
What I find salutary in Oulipo: that refusal of exclusion. That stubborn polymathic openness. Here’s a piece of a report call’d “Twenty-Five Years with Nicolas Bourbaki (1949-1973)” by Armand Borel:
Later I was invited to attend (part of) a Bourbaki Congress and was totally bewildered. Those meetings (as a rule three per year: two of one week, one of about two) were private affairs, devoted to the books [the original impetus for the group’s formation: to rewrite the standard (and wanting) differential and integral calculus text, Edouard Goursat’s Traité d’Analyse]. A usual session would discuss a draft of some chapter or maybe a preliminary report on a topic under consideration for inclusion, then or later. It was read aloud line by line by a member, and anyone could at any time interrupt, comment, ask questions, or criticize. More often than not, this “discussion” turned into a chaotic shouting match. I had often noticed that [Jean] Dieudonné [a founder of what’s officially known as the Association des collaborateurs de Nicolas Bourbaki, (Bourbaki himself being a pseudonymous “nobody” rather like the Luther Blissett of Q) along with Henri Cartan, Claude Chevalley, Jean Delsarte, and André Weil] with his stentorian voice, his propensity for definitive statements, and extreme opinions, would automatically raise the decibel level of any conversation he would take part in. Still, I was not prepared for what I saw and heard: “Two or three monologues shouted at top voice, seemingly independently of one another” is how I briefly summarized for myself my impressions that first evening.
What Borel notes both how “everyone was expected to take part in everything” and “all decisions had to be unanimous,” and how such a cumbersome process stemmed, it seem’d, directly out of a belief that new ideas occur out of strife and confrontation.

Why am I telling you about Bourbaki? Apply to the poesy norteamericano at will. A note here reads (torn scrap of paper): “thing to do is / To plow the matted roots.” Another: “The cook Escoffier’s Faites simples (‘Keep it simple’) versus the Faites quelque chose d’autre.” Another: “lodged in it like / innocuous heaven- / Breach’d geometries.” Another:
except to get
in 1918: “I
Studied the
The about

organic and
One recent number of the fascicles print’d by La Bibliothèque Oulipienne is Jacques Roubaud’s “Les perplexités onomastiques d’Olivier Salon, oulipien, dans les rues de Paris” and consists of photographs of street signs coupled with couplets like:
Je me souviens d’un soir d’hiver avec sa neige
Un énorme bouchon se formait rue de Liège.
Say something along the lines of:
I remember one snowy winter’s night
The traffic on rue de Liège jammed in tight.

Jacques Roubaud
(Photograph by Olivier Roller)

Wednesday, December 17, 2008

A History of Speech

Construct Under Wraps

Out of Kostas Anagnopoulos’s handsome chapbook, Various Sex Acts (Insurance Editions, 2008), a piece call’d “Accident Prone”:
In the Polaroid I’m slouching
I usually vote for anything strange
That book over there, the one on the shelf?
That’s me
There’s some broken toys too
Do you need them?
No but those are things of habit
Of drive, lament
I shouldn’t have mentioned it
Tell you what, I’ll throw in this sprig
Bet you keep chewing on it
Long after the flavor is gone
Here’s Broadway
Take my arm
It’s on the mend
Ten years ago I broke my big toe
And it still hurts
There’s the curb that did it
Pure jittery (quasi-manic) speech: I think of some (mostly late) Frank O’Hara (a good percentage of “Biotherm”—“and pretty soon I am smiling and doing just what I want / again / that’s very important / you put the shit back in the drain / and then you actually find the stopper”) out of William Carlos Williams (although with Williams one perceives speech most readily as something out of the mouth of the other—“from the mouths of Polish mothers”—“Doc, I bin lookin’ for you / I owe you two bucks.”) Or I think of Ted Berrigan in, for example, “Bean Spasms”—“Now this picture is pretty good here / Though it once got demerits from the lunatic Arthur Cravan / He wasn’t feeling good that day / Maybe because he had nothing on / paint-wise I mean.” Poet as slightly addled percept-machine, yakking (recording) at near percept-speed; poetry as what comes out of the mouth of the dexedrined body of an extraordinary mind. The quality (and style—“demerits” coupled with “lunatic” constitutes one measure of style) of the percept combined with the relation of percepts to each other is largely what determines the quality of the piece. I find Anagnopoulos’s poems herein a measure, partly, of how distant (and ignored) the salvos of things like Robert Grenier’s “I HATE SPEECH” outburst in This 1 turn out to be.

There is, I’d argue, and ad infinitum, a constant vacillating between a speech-based poetics and its opposite. A capsule history: Pound & Co. returning speech to the sclerotic Georgians (who’d attempt’d, vaguely, to resuscitate the dull sonorities of the Edwardians); the Agrarians (with Eliot’s aid) putting the kibosh to Pound’s version of Modernism by tepidity and withdrawal; the Beats and Olson and the other New Americans militating against such writ formal strictures, returning to speech; the watery post-New American / post-confessional lyrical “I” ditch’d (along with the body, the breath, and speech) by Language-writing. The paltry Flarf groupuscule and the “Conceptualists” (“ça existe vraiment, la conceptualisme, ou ç’est une plaisanterie de mauvais goût?”): both of Language-writing tendency: the Flarf body exists only to snicker at, a source of toddler pipi caca talk and poop-humor (see, offhandedly, Drew Gardner’s “marketing poopy will make about $20K when / you take Lloyd’s advice and DRINK THAT SEAWEED”); for the Conceptualists the body is a mere machine, robotic. (Various Sex Acts itself is square, with a rough brown cover stock, a “handmade” look. The cover typeface (letterpress’d) mimics some embroidery-style needlepoint, cross-stitchery in linsey-woolsey, to swell effect.)

The poems in Allison Power’s You Americans (Green Zone, 2008), a side-stapled, xerox’d number, with a fine Al Held painting in color gracing the cover, while less consistently speech-based, could be summon’d up, too, to push forth the argument for “the turn to speech” (thank you, Barrett Watten). Here’s “I Went There Then I Came Here”:
I’m not shaped yet. When the factory died the outer world crumbled. Boredom all life long. I know you’re suffering too. And I don’t feel sexy or even safe. More is less I guess. Sleep now. I’ll get into bed myself just for practice. I do adore you but then again it could be food poisoning. Something else about the factory: it was made of sticks so it’s no wonder. Those Cinderella mice moved out and got jobs in town. Grandma’s collage won an award. They were all there, shook hands and wagged tails.

Speech Exercise at Northwestern University School of Speech, 1940
(Photograph by Hansel Mieth)

Tuesday, December 16, 2008

Devin Johnston’s Sources

Embankment and Treeline

Though Sources (Turtle Point, 2008) is Devin Johnston’s third book—Telepathy (Paper Bark, 2001) and Aversions (Omnidawn, 2004) preceded it—there’s a somewhat tentative, off-stride sense to it. Johnston’s blessed with a naturally keen and unwavering sonic delivery—one I associate with Basil Bunting’s chisel-edged clarity—so that any diminishing of that standard looks immediately awry, noticeable, out of sorts. Here’s “Thunderheads”:
Days spent in the shelter of work
blow apart at dusk:

skirts rustle mimic rain
as shadows bloom across the draw;
a five-ton hammer taps
a crimped leaf; cutterheads
dredge voices through the wall.

Over Chattanooga
some latent thought unfolds:

heaped clouds detonate
a cauliflower dome,
topographies of doubt,
redoubt, lit by leaders
cloud to ground.

As the first thick drop
clings to thorn, a core
of purple cabbage stirs
Bonny James Campbell
from Cumberland Gap,
pelting river pearls.
What, I ask, is actually occurring here, bruit’d up and dash’d forth in what is, undoubtedly, a fine reticular phantasmagoria of sound? On verra. Work finish’d, out into the cloud-busk’d dusk, the titular thunderheads piling in a kind of cloud circus all along (above), presumably, the Tennessee River at Chattanooga, no? That’s the general sense. I “accept” the second stanza’s “skirts” and “draw” (drawbridge?) and “hammer” and “leaf” and “cutterheads” without difficulty: all likely river mayhem and scenery, large and small; all, too, likely cloud forms. I gulp momentarily at how the “five-ton hammer taps / a crimped leaf” (balking at an imprecision of scale—no “five-ton” “taps” anything—though I succeed in shooing it off by putting the hammer and leaf into cloud-cuckoo-land, “up there”). I am a little more disturb’d by the “cutterheads”—though to picture a cloud shaped like one, massive and thready and bladed and a spiral, provides a fierce delight—how they “dredge voices through the wall” (I’d hate to think of the voices being distant thunder, and the wall, what wall?) isn’t that a wrong note? The Chattanooga stanza locates one, and allows for the dispersal that follows (just as the title’d done for the earlier lines). The “latent thought” made cloudlike, or vice-versa. It’s in the next stanza that (for me) Johnston’s sonics overwhelm (engulf) its semantic push. Accepting pour le moment that thought manifests itself in, say, billows and explosions (as opposed to proceeding more or less linearly, with spur tracks off the trunk road, back-ups and roundabouts, &c.), the detonations into “a cauliflower dome,” or something topographically unmappable provides no particular difficulty: it is at the point where “redoubt” echoes “doubt” and “leaders” (rhyming with “heaped”) balls up into a knotty syntactical rat’s nest that one sighs, or scratches the implausibles, bereft. The lines turn in, become a kind of stronghold, withdrawn (a “redoubt”). (Part of my difficulty is in persisting in reading “crowd” for “cloud” and / or “readers” for “leaders”—as if Johnston’d suddenly took it to spoof Ashbery’s silly “Chinese” number, “On Autumn Lake” that begins: “Leading liot act to foriage . . .”) (One could argue that that’s entirely appropriate to the “action,” a kind of clot before the storm, intensity before the release of “the first thick drop” of the final stanza.) I read the final lines though with equal difficulty: why “thick”? how reconcile “core” and “stirs”? what is the relationship of “cabbage” and “Campbell” (there is a ballad that refers to a Bonny James Campbell whose horse returns without him), is “pelting river pearls” simply a way of representing the splash of rain against water, the way tiny grey spheres ricochet back up with each drop?

A semi-insane way to approach a poem, to be sure, to say nothing of a whole book. My sense is, though, that my response to the book is shaped by my difficulties in seeing beyond the riffs. As if there’s a choice unmade: that one make (out of audacious and rampant sound) in clear scenario, or, that (if one desires a slippery mischievous scenario), one keep the sounds and syntactical sleights mostly clear and evident. (Avoiding, that is, the temptation to load the veins with unnecessary ore, for the upshot is: the clottedness of, say, early Robert Lowell.) Here’s another, tinier, example:

Starlings plunge through cold fog;
a pitchy xerox chafes the dawn chorus.
The first line is clear enough. The second, though—if one reads the poem as equation akin to Pound’s “In a Station of the Metro,” as one nearly must, particularly with the presence of the rather archaic semi-colon there—although splendid in its music, particularly in the tch, z, ox, ch sequence in “pitchy xerox chafes,” is undeniably difficult to see. “Pitchy” catches the blackness of the birds, with hints of viscosity, “xerox” smudges the scene (“through cold fog”), “chafe” is, one supposes, allow’d if one notes the stickiness of “pitch,” but “chafes the dawn chorus” (that is, sounds of all the other birds, &c.) seems preposterously synaesthetic, the viddy’d battling the heard.

Nevertheless, in spite of my niggles, there are big pleasures in Sources. Johnston attends exceedingly well to details out of a variety of milieux: birds and the beckonings of the natural world, geographies domestic and wild, histories personal and not. He reworks some Propertius with terrific results (“Ghosts do exist: death is not entire. / A cloud of smoke escapes the funeral pyre.”) Here’s a finely work’d piece, two Homeric metaphors falling out rather effortlessly into a two-line tenor, the whole replete with subtle rhymes and hints of two kinds of “happiness to savor” in recall—one wallowing and splattered, one a little demure, restrain’d—the way it is with the ones we love:

As wild hogs, fresh from a wallow,
      scrape against the trunk
of a telephone pole while rushing past
      smearing their flanks
with creosote and leaving behind
      stiff bristles and splattered mud;

or a cardinal intently crushes
      carpenter ants in her bill,
then rubs their formic acid along
      her coverts and tail,
staining that dim blush
      with a streak of gloss:

you kiss hard, sure to find
some happiness to savor on the plane.

Devin Johnston

Monday, December 15, 2008

Post Refused

Along the Huron

Oddly reassuring it is to note how perfectly the new gatekeepers of the “community” resemble the old—no messy adjustments to the nausea level is required, the spleen direct’d “at” those who’d rescue “us” out of the grips of “official verse culture” is so precisely like that that one formerly point’d “at” that moribund culture that the whole shift—non-Kuhnian, non-paradigmatic—becomes easier than a brand-name change: buy now, better than ever, “New Official Verse Culture” (in the innovative pop-lock box)! Here’s the story.

On Thursday, prowling through and unloading a stack’d pallet’s worth of verbiage (posts) deliver’d of late by the Buffalo Poetics List, I bang’d up against one by list-mistress (some call her the Commissar) Amy King, calling rather plaintively “out” for “Poets’ Books of 2008.” (Did the plaintive lilt I detect’d grow out of the slow-blooming monstrosity of a fact—that (I burn’d hot) not a single (Incroyable! Pas possible!) reply’d been proffer’d? Maybe.) Did the “phrasing” of the call, that echo (in “Let Us Now Praise Poets’ Books of 2008”) of the Agee / Evans muckraking into the abject rotting core in the heart of plenty dissuade the usual mouthy masses, or did the majority of the Listers simply not give a rat’s ass in a buttercup what anybody else’d writ, ever? I check’d the Poetics “guidelines”—noted the sour emphasis on self-reliance:
We strongly encourage subscribers to post information, including web links, relating to publications (print and internet), reading series, and blogs that they have coordinated, edited or published, or in which they appear. Such announcements constitute a core function of this list. Brief reviews of poetry events and publications (print or digital) are always welcome.
Core function echo’d too perfectly with rotting core. I proceed’d nevertheless. I post’d the following in direct reply to Amy King’s “call”:
Date: Thursday, 11 Dec 2008 16:15:47 -0500
From: lattaj@umich.edu
To: poetics@listserv.buffalo.edu
Subject: RE: Let Us Now Praise Poets’ Books of 2008!

Irony’s got it that possibly the most praiseworthy book of 2008 is by the banned-by-the-Poetics List (for combatting censorship) wunderkind Kent Johnson, whose Homage to the Last Avant-Garde (Shearsman, 2008) is impeccable, alert, funny, a select’d, and absolutely right for the “era.” Here’s what William Gaddis (in The Recognitions) had to say about the poems:

“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?”

I review’d the book here:


End of post. Receipt confirm’d by the usual “standard (automated)” reply to the effect that it’d got “submitted to the moderator” (poetics.list@gmail.com, if anybody’d like to ask into the gruesome particulars of the situation), a thing that did not “constitute special handling.” And now it is Monday and it is clear that it is not going to be post’d. And it is clear just how pitiably insecure the running dogs and lackeys of the “New Official Verse Culture” must be, they and putative helmsman Charles Bernstein. I am certain that—were one to ask for an explanation for the latest example of censorship, of unwarrant’d control of news particular to the “community” (a specious and sophistic word, that, considering)—that one would be point’d to the Poetics List’s “Refocussed List Policy” (dated June 2008), thus:
In line with our editorial focus, we do not automatically post submissions but select those we think are most useful for sustaining this online community. We appreciate all submissions, but will be more selective in what we choose to post. Queries for contact info, messages intended for just a few subscribers, messages that are not on topic, “flame” messages, and free-standing personal poems or journal entries will, in general, not be forwarded to the list.
Which is, of course, both paternalistic and a subterfuge, condescending and a catch-all: the criteria of “use” is one so vague as to pre-exempt it under any accusation of the policy’s misuse. Rather akin to a threat to “national security”—unassailable, a tidy dishonest way of preempting the community’s (or nation’s) own judgment. It is, too, a policy of total and unquestionable control perfectly fit for the “era”—a kind of Poetics Patriot Act (of vastly increased powers of surveillance and denial). It—the policy, and they who enforce it, the refusal of the particular post, continuing denial—shameless, simply shameless. Too, it is a fine legacy for Bernstein, who’s construct’d—like a one trick pony—what career he’s managed—a considerable one, in terms of plum academic jobs, I recall how I’d had to fetch my jaw up off the floor after learning that, in the early ’nineties at Buffalo, he pull’d down something like 130K plus some discretionary funds—on the exact question of who’s in control. See, for proof, see the latest shtick call’d “Recantorium (a Bachelor Machine, after Duchamp after Kafka)”:
I Charles, son of the late Joseph Herman, later known as Herman Joseph, and Shirley K., later known as Sherry, New Yorker, aged fifty-eight years, arraigned personally before this Esteemed Body, and kneeling before you, Most Eminent and Reverend Readers, Inquisitors-General against heretical depravity throughout the entire Poetry Commonwealth, having before my eyes and touching with my hands the Books of the Accessible Poets, swear that I have always believed, do believe, and by your help will in the future believe, all that is held, preached, taught, and expressed by the Books of Accessible Poets. I was wrong, I apologize, I recant. I altogether abandon the false opinion that National Poetry Month is not good for poetry and for poets. I abjure, curse, and detest the aforesaid error and apostasy. And I now freely and openly attest to the virtues of National Poetry Month in throwing a national spotlight on poetry, so crucial to keeping verse alive in the twenty-first century.

. . .

I was wrong, I apologize, I recant. Midway in my journey as a poet, I have given my name in encomium and book-cover endorsement, both for ads and announcements, catalogs and brochures, print and digital, to works that are not of the highest order as established by Time, Authority, and Fashion, lapsing into stubborn selection based on personal preference or appreciation or liking, on intuitions and hunches, rather than rational principle and promulgated theory.

. . .

I am with regret filléd and by errors o’erwhelmed, having chosen the broken path over the righteous, the warped over the erect. I cant and recant. I altogether abandon the false doctrine that poets can remain radical while working as academics. After it had been notified to me that the said doctrine was contrary to the Books of the Accessible Poets, I wrote and published works in which I discuss this new doctrine already condemned, and adduce arguments of great cogency in its favor, without presenting any negation of these, and for this reason I have been vehemently and justly rebuked. I abjure, curse, and detest the aforesaid error and aversion. Academic employment is the mark of a compromised poet who has sold out. Radical poets prove their authenticity through poverty.

I am with regret filléd and by errors o’erwhelmed, having chosen the broken path over the righteous, the warped over the erect. I cant and recant. I altogether abandon the false opinion that advocacy or partisan positioning has any place in poetry and poetics. Poetry and poetics should be reserved for those who look beyond the contentions of the present into the eternal verities, the truths beyond this world that never change, as represented in the Books of the Accessible Poets. I further stipulate that I recant, categorically, that poetry is an activity of the intellect and herewith and hereby declare and proclaim that true poetry is an affair of the heart and only the heart.
And tediously thus it continues, whilst the few drinkers in the dim little club call’d Critical Inquiry sop up manifest sorrows, slumping. One a smart-aleck chorus boy named Jerome McGann goes the elbow-rubbing distance with a reply:

Do you think that one schooled for eight years in the insidious ways of Jesuitical discourse would be deceived by this deceptive text? Not likely. Midrash indeed! We know the literary heritage on which St. Ignatius and his warriors erected their rhetorical skills. Unam, sanctam, catholicam. A.M.D.G.

But truth will out. “Confess and abjure and recant” as you may—these are mere airy nothings, words, wordswords, turdsworth, as a true poet once knew. A cold eye will note this telling (and cunningly repeated) phrase: “now and in the future, in this life and in all subsequent lives, on earth as well as on other planets populated by intelligent beings.” To that the scrutinizing soul will ask, And what, sir, of heaven! . . .
Whatever. None of it is of a very high satirical calibre. McGann wins an even more meagre-mind’d reply:
Exalted Examiner—

Pour moi, poète chétif, c’est impossible pour parler du ciel. . . .
All too sadly fucking predictable for words—the self-satisfy’d white men yucking it up, smarm quotient high, repeating the old stories of the old battles. One recalls Jerome McGann at Virginia, an academic who fancy’d himself a cowboy, or a desert father—he sport’d a grand leather Stetson. Rumor’d to publish language writings under an assumed name, oh sweet calvary. Charade-city breakdown, how clear it is Bernstein’s become the butt of ’s own self-same monstrously tiresome joke. Who needs it?

The minor brouhaha surrounding Linh Dinh’s interpretation of the late Wallace Stevens poem titled “The House Was Quiet and the World Was Calm”—a spat mostly about editorial gangsterism (or suggestion if one prefers), or not (I suspect that there’s little point in clumping editor / writer doings into a pile of any size; like, oh, say, marriages, such be presumably too various to make general)—is one that hocks its phlegm only rather sparsely into the doings of the poem itself, though, if I comprehend the uproar, Dinh’s calling the poem a “period piece” isn’t what’s being debated. He argues that one’s house is no longer “rarely quiet, calm or even a refuge anymore” thanks to “the increasing intrusion, to the point of madness” of the “outside.” Which caused one to turn one’s mild eye at Stevens’s piece, a piece that’s seem’d (to the mild eye) mostly caricature-soak’d, an example of Stevens writing a Stevens poem. Isn’t “The house was quiet and the world was calm” simply a poor cousin to “Gubbinal”’s “The world is ugly, / And the people are sad”? Isn’t the second line, “The reader became the book,” another of the endlessly iterated verbal joineries found in Stevens, like “Loneliness in Jersey City”’s “The deer and the dachshund are one”? Stevens’s tics getting an unwont’d airing, is how the piece seems (thus it attracts ephebes to its exegesis even whilst, by means of its extremely small vocabulary, it defends itself against interpretation, the way a riddle might). Frankly, I think it a dogged little piece of dishonesty, wanting “much most” to be the “truth.” (Per contra, and in opposition to Dinh’s assertings, I doubt it needs a world “outside” to buoy it up (or plunge it down) at all: it is pure artifact of a mind over-accustom’d to itself and its wiles. Whether such a mind required something other than “the great unraveling” that Dinh says we’re experiencing: that I doubt, too. (I find suspect claims that one or another age demand’d more—or less—human tenacity to stomach.)

The marvelous new “Faits Divers de la Poésie Américaine et Britannique”—its Fénéonesque roots noted Friday—is up, work of an anonymous collective. Un mets exquis.

Linh Dinh

Friday, December 12, 2008

Parole in Libertà

Thorn and Berry

So who is Roberto Bazlen? Who is Pierre Michon? Ad fontes, that is to say, reading, reading anything, one looks indefatigably for necessary keys to continuing. So Roberto Bolaño in 2666 in “The Part About the Critics” mentions Michon (along with Olivier Rolin) along with Javier Marías and Enrique Vila-Matas. And, snout to trail, off one goes. (Pericolo: chance of a plant’d scent, a dud, an invention.) So Enrique Vila-Matas in Bartleby & Co. (New Directions, 2004) writes:
Bobi Bazlen commented: “I believe it is no longer possible to write books. That is why I no longer write them. Virtually all books are no more than footnotes, inflated until they become volumes. That is why I write only footnotes.” [Long, one thinks, in advance of Jenny Boully’s The Body: An Essay.]
      His Note senza testo (Notes Without a Text), collected in notebooks, were published in 1970 by the Adelphi publishing house, five years after his death.
      Bobi Bazlen was a Jew from Trieste who had read every book in every language and who, while possessing a vey demanding literary conscience (or perhaps precisely because of this), instead of writing preferred to intervene directly in people’s lives. The fact that he never wrote a book forms part of his work. Bazlen, a kind of black sun of the crisis in the West, is an extremely curious case; his very existence seems to signal the true end of literature, of the absence of output, the death of the author: a writer without books and therefore books without a writer.
Roberto Bazlen, b. 1902-d. 1965. There seems to exist a Scritti, publish’d in Milano by Adelphi in 1984, edited by the inestimable polymath Roberto Calasso. It includes “Il capitano di lungo corso” (1973), the “Note senza testo,” some “Lettere editoriali,” and “Lettere a Montale.” Bazlen brought both Italo Svevo and Ernesto Saba to the attention of the Italian (and international) public. Bazlen recalls one to Félix Fénéon, the enigmatic anarchist, editor, writer of faits divers (translated by Luc Sante in Novels in Three Lines (NYRB, 2007), and “false Yankee” (according to Apollinaire) or “Yankee Mephistopheles” (according to Remy de Gourmont)—Fénéon, a tall, gaunt, severe-looking chap, sport’d a small goat’s-tuft of a beard (Alfred Jarry claim’d he look’d like “a satyr born in Brooklyn”). According to Luc Sante, Fénéon (1861-1944), is “a great literary stylist who wrote little and published less” (“he never published a book in his lifetime, and a large number of his writings were anonymous or pseudonymous”). He writes:
His accomplishments all took place away from the limelight, and were frequently in the service of others’ work. He more or less discovered Georges Seurat, and had a great deal to do with his success and those of other Postimpressionists and Nabis: Signac, Pissarros père and fils, Maximilien Luce, Félix Vallotton, Toulouse-Lautrec, Bonnard, Vuillard, Maurice Denis. He edited Rimbaud’s Illuminations—he was responsible for establishing the order of the sections, among other things—and produced the first public edition of Lautréamont’s Chants de Maldoror. He founded several magazines and edited several more, including the Revue blanche, arguably the most important literary-artistic journal of its time (1893-1903).
Regarding the nouvelles en trois lignes, composed by Fénéon in 1906 for the Paris newspaper Le Matin, in numbers of up to twenty per day (“there are 1,220 of them in all”) Sante quotes Apollinaire writing anonymously in 1914 in a Mercure de France column, “La vie anecdotique”:
M. Félix Fénéon has never been very prodigal with his prose, and his conversation is rather laconic. Nevertheless, this writer so bare-bones that he so to speak invented, in his immortal three-line stories in Le Matin, the words at liberty adopted by the Futurists, has been silent for too long.
And Sante quotes lines out of one of F. T. Marinetti’s manifestos that “suggest a common essence” with Fénéon’s doings in the faits divers: “Literature having up to now glorified thoughtful immobility, ecstasy, and slumber, we wish to exalt the aggressive movement, the feverish insomnia, running, the perilous leap, the cuff, and the blow.” So one reads (randomly select’d):
Madwoman Brugnet, of Asnières, pulled into the water Petit, who had held out a pole: both rescued; in Alfortville, though, Kovopodski drowned.

. . .

Well! Neither the duke nor any representative, people observed at the funeral of Riehl, run over by the automobile of the Duke of Montpensier.

Four times in one week farm servant Marie Choland set her employer’s farm on fire. Now she can burn down Montluçon prison.

. . .

Couderc, of the 129th Regiment at Le Havre, requested discharge on account of deafness. In vain. So he committed suicide.

. . .

A bottle floated by. Mauritz, of Sèvres, leaned over to grab it and fell into the Seine. He is now in the morgue.
The relentlessness, the laconicism, the tone of contempt and bemusement combined (shrug c’est la vie-ism)—it is perfectly difficult to put a name to it—it recalls somewhat Bolaño’s tonal range in 2666’s “Part About the Crimes” (the catalogue of the murder’d women of Santa Teresa). Fénéon comes up (for me) of late largely by way of a couple of plum anonymous remarks in the comments to a recent post by Don Share at Squandermania and Other Foibles. Brashly and delightfully, it seems as if some brave soul’s took the Fénéon insouciance and Futurist parole in libertà to “the body” of contemporary American and British poesy, with sublime results:
From: Faits Divers de la Poésie Américain et Britannique (a forthcoming collective (anonymous) blog devoted to very brief sociological observations of the poetry field):

“Ouch!” cried the cunning oyster-eater, M. Goldsmith. “A pearl!” Someone at the next table bought it for 100 francs. It had cost 10 centimes at the dime store.
With its horrible monsters and efflorescent skin diseases, a traveling carnival show burned down in Montgeron. Even as the embers glowed, The Symposium on Conceptual Poetries was called to order, in Tucson.
Sick of it all, poet M. Bertin, 34, blew out his brains. A tragedy, yes . . . But then again (as the townsfolk of Vannes murmured to themselves), if you were only a poet, wouldn’t you blow your brains out, too?
Snout to trail, one breathlessly awaits additions, audacious and pure.

Félix Fénéon, 1861-1944

Roberto “Bobi” Bazlen, 1902-1965
(Portrait by Carlo Levi)

Thursday, December 11, 2008

“Accost’d by None”

New Bridge (Wrap’d)

Paul Celan: “a man who walks on his head sees the sky below, as an abyss.” That amidst Celan’s talk—in “The Meridian,” a 1960 speech made in Darmstadt on the occasion of receiving the Georg Büchner Prize (out of Collected Prose, translated by Rosmarie Waldrop). Vertigo of looking down into the mirror on which one stands. Part of Celan’s argument: that art—poetry—“makes for distance from the I” in order to be accost’d by none but itself—“poetry, like art, moves with the oblivious self into the uncanny and strange to free itself.” Two possibilities of the uncanny: “the road to Medusa’s head”—silence, the stone—and “the automaton”—hubbub, chatter, pandemonium. (The Beckettesque diminuendo to nothing, the pared down, the minimal versus the rampancy, the exfoliancy, the mechanical masturbatory excesses of, say, Joyce in Finnegans Wake.) Celan: “it is very common today to complain of the ‘obscurity’ of poetry. Allow me to quote . . . a phrase of Pascal’s: ‘Ne nous reprochez pas le manque de clarté puisque nous en faisons profession.’ This obscurity, if it is not congenital, has been bestowed on poetry by strangeness and distance (perhaps of its own making) and for the sake of any encounter.” So: “Atemwende, a turning of our breath” becomes the sign of the turn. Or two turns: one that literally takes one’s “breath and words away” and a second (“there may be, in one and the same direction, two kinds of strangeness next to each other”) into the cacophonous abyss. Celan:
      Poetry is perhaps this: an Atemwende, a turning of our breath. Who knows, perhaps poetry goes its way—the way of art—for the sake of just such a turn? And since the strange, the abyss and Medusa’s head, the abyss and the automaton, all seem to lie in the same direction—it is perhaps this turn, this Atemwende, which can sort out the strange from the strange? It is perhaps here in this one brief moment, that Medusa’s head shrivels and the automatons run down? Perhaps, along with the I, estranged and freed here, in this manner, some other thing is also set free?
      Perhaps after this, the poem can be itself . . . can in this now art-less, art-free manner go other ways, including the ways of art, time and again?
Admittedly, one stumbles along, flailing. What is the “some other thing” freed? (Balancing act of the obfuscatory: regarding the poem’s ability to “be itself”? Here I think of Jack Spicer’s claim (in one of the Vancouver lectures) for the poem as self-generated entity: “Words are things which just happen to be in your head instead of someone else’s head. . . . The words are counters and the whole structure of language is essentially a counter. It’s an obstruction to what the poem wants to do.”) What, too, to make of Medusa’s death at the neck-severing sword-blow of Perseus, what to make of the offspring Pegasus—horse of the Muses, winged stallion at the service of the poets—what sprang forth out of that neck? Or brother Chrysaor, father of three-head’d Geryon? Do the two undeniable signs of excess of stone-turner born point to a balance: pause and containment versus a reckless slurry of winds? Celan (after talk of “‘Speed’, which has always been ‘outside’” and its endless tendency to gain ever “more speed”): “the poem today, shows—and this has only indirectly to do with the difficulties of vocabulary, the faster flows of syntax or a more awakened sense of ellipsis, none of which we should underrate—the poem clearly shows a strong tendency towards silence.” Which is nearly contradict’d in the next few paragraphs:
      The poem holds its ground . . . the poems holds its ground on its own margin. In order to endure, it constantly calls and pulls itself back from an ‘already-no-more’ into a ‘still-here.’
      This ‘still-here’ can only mean speaking. Not language as such, but responding and—not just verbally—‘corresponding’ to something.
      In other words: language actualized, set free under the sign of a radical individuation which, however, remains as aware of the limits drawn by language as of the possibilities it opens.
      This ‘still-here’ of the poem can only be found in the work of poets who do not forget that they speak from an angle of reflection with their own existence, their own physical nature.
      This shows the poem yet more clearly as one person’s language become shape, and essentially, a presence in the present.
Which is the anti-Spicer speaking, and, seemingly, a refutation of what Celan’d posit’d just previously regarding the poem’s “own margin.” Though, again, Spicer, too, for all the “radical individuation” of the poem in its trajectory of becoming, he, too, might be “accused” of relenting to notice that a poem may “speak from an angle of reflection with [one’s] own existence”—a continuing existence. Spicer, in “the most important letter” Robin Blaser ever received: “It was not my anger or my frustration that got in the way of my poetry but the fact that I viewed each anger and each frustration as unique—” And:
Things fit together. We knew that—it is the principle of magic. Two inconsequential things can combine together to become a consequence. This is true of poems too. A poem is never to be judged by itself alone. A poem is never by itself alone.
Dire cold, keys stuck in locks, Bartleby and Vila-Matas in the air. How strange to sit to the table and find oneself caught by the maelstrom of Celan / Spicer. Vila-Matas: “I drift, sailing across the seas of the wretched confusion of Bartleby’s syndrome: labyrinthine theme which lacks a centre, for there are as many writers as ways of abandoning literature, and there is no overall unity, it is not even simple to hit on a sentence that could create the illusion that I have reached the bottom of the truth hiding behind the endemic disease, the negative impulse paralyzing the best minds. I only know that to express this drama I sail very well among fragments, chance finds, the sudden recollection of books, lives, texts or simply individual sentences that gradually enlarge the dimensions of the labyrinth without a centre.”

Paul Celan, c. 1960

Wednesday, December 10, 2008

Jitter, Continuing

A Tree

Some untrammel’d stretches of unmitigated fussing, dire do-nothingness, that unfocus’d jitter of book after book incapable of offering sustenance, that’s how it is. I do keep returning to Joseph Stroud’s Of This World: New and Selected Poems 1966–2006 (Copper Canyon, 2009) with its direct unpretentious lyrics. Here, a couple out of a sequence titled “Suite for the Common”:
In This Flesh

The bluebottle fly lit next to the scratch on my arm
and with its probing tongue began to sip at the blood—
what Hamlet would call a reechy kiss. I brushed it away
into its brief world stewed in corruption where the sun breeds
maggots in a dead dog. No more marriage, Hamlet told Ophelia.
No more honeying and making love over the nasty sty.

The Words of Chilam Balam

On the first night of the world’s last days the foreigners come.
The quetzal sings no more, the jaguar flees, the deer are headless,
trees hang with the fruit of corpses, no priests can read the signs.
Gone the great wheel with its rose on whose petals are inscribed
the book of years—now these strangers with beards and pale eyes.
Prepare for whips and fire and blood and sorrow and sorrow.
With the note: “Chilam Balam: ‘Jaguar Priest / Prophet’—Mayan prophet of Apocalypse who lived to witness his prophecy with the coming of the Spaniards. The Books of Chilam Balam are all that have survived of the principal sacred texts of the Mayans.”

Recalling somehow details of reporter Oscar Fate’s Detroit in Roberto Bolaño’s 2666, a mural, a jump rope rhyme. The mural:
It was circular, like a clock, and where the numbers should have been there were scenes of people working in the factories of Detroit. Twelve scenes representing twelve stages in the production chain. In each scene, there was one recurring character: a black teenager, or a long-limbed, scrawny black man-child, or a man clinging to childhood, dressed in clothes that changed from scene to scene n but that were invariably too small for him. He had apparently been assigned the role of clown, intended to make people laugh, although a closer look made it clear that he wasn’t there only to make people laugh. The mural looked like the work of a lunatic. The last painting of a lunatic. In the middle of the clock, where all the scenes converged, there was a word painted in letters that looked like they were made of gelatin: fear.
And in the jump rope song:
There was something about a woman whose legs and arms and tongue had been amputated. There was something about the Chicago sewers and the sanitation boss or a city worker called Sebastian D’Onofrio, and then came a refrain, repeating Chi-Chi-Chi-Chicago. There was something about the pull of the moon. Then the woman grew wooden legs and wire arms and a tongue made of braided grasses and plants.
The mural reworking the Edsel Ford-order’d Detroit Industry fresco cycle of Diego Rivera in the Detroit Institute of Arts, the jump rope song a chill hint of the onslaught to come with the lists of women murder’d in Santa Teresa, los desaparecidos.

Eugène Delacroix, in a journal, dated 14 May, 1824: “Men of genius are made not by new ideas, but by an idea which possesses them, namely, that what has been said has not yet been sufficiently said.” That quoted by Evan S. Connell, in the terrific Francisco Goya (Counterpoint, 2004) He’s talking about the six years between the Madrid executions (by French troops under Lieutenant-General Murat—Connell’s chisel’d version of the triggering May second (1808) outburst: “Whatever the provocation, Madrid exploded. Never mind the disparity: unarmed civilians confronting Napoleon’s experienced troops. Madrileños snatched up anything lethal—ox-goad, butcher knife, rusty sword, blunderbuss, cudgel, bayonet, hammer, pitchfork.”) and the “execution” of Goya’s paintings of the events, titled The Second of May, 1808 and The Third of May, 1808. Connell’s assessment of Goya, though, points to no exemplary hero, noting how he only start’d work on the paintings after seeing a print titled The Third of May by “a minor artist, Isidro González Velázquez.” And:
Except for a growing hatred of war he may have been uncertain how he felt. He saw the result of French occupation; he knew the Spaniards retaliated with equal ferocity. In 1808 he was sixty-two years old, not an age when he would be expected to cut a Frenchman’s throat. Nor did he publicly declare himself. The important thing was to go on drawing and painting. He kept no diary, nor did he confide in anyone; if he did, his thoughts and feelings weren’t recorded. Good capitalist that he was, few matters concerned him so much as preserving his wealth.
So goeth the fussing, unmitigated. Plink-plankingly the winter rain chortled through the night, or, muzzling itself, turn’d to snow and deliver’d up a birdless morning, and somewhere in the geography of sleep a mouse-thief stole the smudge of peanut butter off the trap, the spring-action wound too tight, the lever too wedged-in, it’s okay, it’s the continuing is what counts, reechy and wet and besieging . . .

Francisco de Goya y Lucientes, “The Second of May, 1808 (El Dos de Mayo o La Carga de los Mamelucos),” 1814

Francisco de Goya y Lucientes, “The Third of May (Los Fusilamientos del Tris de Mayo),” 1814

Tuesday, December 09, 2008

Andrew Joron’s The Sound Mirror

Along the Huron

I remain disappointedly unconvinced by the work in Andrew Joron’s The Sound Mirror (Flood Editions, 2008), a book that announces its method in its title. Joron is doing with words in English something akin to what I like to think of Ezra Pound doing with the ideogram’d Chinese character in the corridor of St. Elizabeths—looking deeply into its commotion of strokes in order to ascertain its range of meanings. In Joron’s practice—the looking is in order to determine a word’s echoes, reversals, homonymics, and mimics—the slew of words contain’d within (what Vladimir Nabokov’d call the “laughter in the dark” whilst thinking “slaughter in the sun”). So: “rife fire”; so “Spilt into split, as sigh unto scythe—”; so “O tome, O tomb, I hum a hymn to home, to whom”—that kind of thing. Propel’d almost solely by such means (though there is a decided tendency toward the aphoristic, the maxim, too), Joron’s poems in The Sound Mirror begin to—as he puts it—“seem same seam.” Here’s the second piece in the book:
I Am the Door

I, my
        being to begin, my die
To decide my deicide, am

Gone again to distance, & sand, & stand

        by fear
Entranced before the door.

Or do I travel as travail of a veil?

This science
Is that séance of the shore, the unsure.

All word-dawn
        is downward, so I raise
Reason to look to lack.

No & no, where the word runs red—

No (cure for suffering): no (furious core).

Because cause
        is curled
In a burning world—
        fact is also
        act, a faked effect.

Call of the best beast, as mind is moaned—

As one commands the other.

        The news comes wrapped
        already ripped.

        (The system of a mystery
Threw this through that.)
Being of a bent and opprobrium that sees only lack of grace in any untoward refusal to pursue the music of a piece, I ask myself: why isn’t Joron’s a radical, constantly key-changing kind of music? Isn’t “Because cause / is curled / In a burning world—” working the hard c (echo’d later in “Call” and “command” and earlier in “cure” and “core”) against the r-color’d vowell’d er / ur sound (descending down out of “cure” and “furious” and “core”)? It is, it is. So? (I itch, I burn.) Against the recognition that all language is unnatural, I claim it—the pursuit of such rote and “seeable” music—is “unnatural”—a “faked effect.” The writing’s music must needs be something beyond “the system of a mystery,” must needs be the hot simoom battering its sandy abrasives at the howling ear, streaming in, must be trigger’d by (and trigger itself) a wilder, irregular “meaning.” Here, in Joron’s work, oddly enough, “system” reaches out to the nonsensical, eschews the vatic (“my die to decide my deicide” summons Lear, not Blake; “I travel as travail of a veil” is simply awkward). Hence, the unpersuadedness.

The final piece in the book is a longer sequence of eight pair’d items call’d “Citations from Silence.” Pairs (sound and its silence), bifurcations, or, as Joron puts it elsewhere, “two facing mirrors = infinity.” (The pieces put en face to mimic such mirroring.) Here’s two contiguous parts:

I tries trace (the right root), if & only if self falsifies (kite caught in the trees). He who looked to locked room. Trace to entrance.

I’s blindness bleeds to bells. To here, the banishment of sound. (To round, the bound of ruined.). Or mirror or mire, fire before ash.

All meaning about meaning (accepted but excepted X) cancels to reconcile.

End by and & end—

By words (the birds of startlement), by salivating stars (salvational), the very nations end, the destinations send themselves.

Sixth Silence

“The Absolute Book will be composed of citations from silence.”

“Silence is at once immediate and remote. Its middle is missing.”

“Noise is not the antithesis of silence, but merely its most minor modification.”

“Silence is interior to itself.”
If the sound-work in the number’d parts is generally more subtle and various, less formulaic than in some of the other works, what is one to make of the citatory parts, each comprised of several axiomatic declarations, gnomic apothegms present’d as first principles? (Some of the lines traceable: see Blaise Pascal’s “Le silence éternal de ces espaces infinis m’effraie”; most, apparently, not.) Is one to read these in the manner of, say, the meditations of Edmond Jabès, or small essays of Ernst Bloch (whom Joron’s translated)? Or is the compilation—in its excess—meant mockingly: “There is only one silence” or “Silence always means more than it says” delineating a species of faux-profundity? (I recall a period in American poetry when the ephebes of Charles Simic fill’d notebooks with similar portents ostentatious regarding stones: “The stone needs no translation.”) Somewhere in Silence, John Cage notes: “Sound has four characteristics: pitch, timbre, loudness, and duration. The opposite and necessary coexistent of sound is silence. Of the four characteristics of sound, only duration involves both sound and silence. Therefore, a structure based on durations (rhythmic: phrase, time lengths) is correct (corresponds with the nature of the material) . . .” Andrew Joron is, in The Sound Mirror working emphatically with “the nature of the material”—reforming sounds by looking, “End by and & end—” What I miss though: the soul-impinging blast of the midnight freight, the outside barreling through with its sudden and unexpect’d delivery, something beyond the “mind-roofed rift” or riff, a turn away from the spectacle of the sounds.

Andrew Joron

Monday, December 08, 2008

Barbara Guest and Roberto Bolaño

Uproot’d (Huron River)

Fewer lake effect doings than foreseen, though one did see a few cars straddling ditches or oddly angled vis-à-vis premonitory trajectory, with cuts plow’d into the snowy earth precisely up to the point whence the earth and snow “brought” one to a bewildering halt. Not oneself, though. One return’d and crammed a weekend’s worth of chores into a grim Sunday, though the bout of perusing the Friend’s emporium at the library and uncovering a copy of Barbara Guest’s novel, Seeking Air (Black Sparrow, 1978), for a greenback, that prickled the neck-hairs. I find Barbara Guest absolutely mysterious: mannequin or candidate for sainthood or czarina of Muscovy, she is otherworldly. Is it a class difference (I sense something of the “ilk” with Caroline Knox, too—someone I “associate” with Newport, Rhode Island; she, too, is loopily nonchalant regarding the nomenclatures of the “good life”)? Here’s Guest (in the novel):
      They ate the silent things that had been patient in the cupboard. Waiting “the right moment.”
      Quenelles in a can, brandade de morue from a can, black cherries, Mexican chocolate, white asparagus that had been in the back of the ice box for God knows how long, still the bottle hadn’t been opened. The food came from all over the world and tasted as if it had been travelling a long time. They drank Red Label Johnnie Walker. Morgan read from off the bottle where its awards had been bestowed. Sidney, Paris, Adelaide. Melbourne, Dunedin, Jamaica, Kimberley, Brisbane. What a history of empire building! Jamaica 1877! Probably tippled by one of the Robert Brownings!
      And now have terminé our geographical deenay it’s off to the flicks with you. I want to catch the smörgåsbord in Scenes from a Marriage.
Isn’t there a tone there that is saying all art is essentially frivolous? So Eustace Worthal arrives, so the bachelor “Mortashed spent a week with us which he pretended was only a weekend” and at supper one night says “Let us never be bedeviled by ecclesiastical squabbles” (and the narrator assesses: “and I knew he had been with Eustace.”) So, earlier, a chapter reads (in its entirety):
      Over the bridge and abandoned to the city. The infantry passes us by. The hobbled and poor greeting at the gate. The toasts lifted to us as we enter, toasts of scraggles and zarencies ferencious and disporging . . . (where no one speaks English) . . . we enter the important city like mercenaries creeping homeward to our hovels.
Is it simply another example of the “poet’s novel”—that determinedly minor genre, “lacking all conviction,” toy untoilsome of the unprepossess’d? Is it that the stuffing of Guest’s farce disbelieves in its own constructedness (the novel’s) and so can only mock itself? (Though I do love that “zarencies ferencious,” I do love that in my most meagrely foolish and shallow aesthete way!) Or is it that its “habitat” encounters little of plaint, little beyond the malarkey of the random, the harmless, private conversations of (mostly) ineffable cheer? (“Let’s take a plane, said Miriam. That way we won’t have to think.”)

Per contra there’s Roberto Bolaño (in 2666) and the character (misplaced Chilean academic, in Santa Teresa) Amalfitano’s make-believe “idiosyncratic ideas about jet lag” (which is to say, ideas about novel-writing—see “the exhaustion of the people who would still have been asleep if you hadn’t traveled”):
. . . these ideas or feelings or ramblings had their satisfactions. They turned the pain of others into memories of one’s own. They turned pain, which is natural, enduring, and eternally triumphant, into personal memory, which is human, brief, and eternally elusive. They turned a brutal story of injustice and abuse, an incoherent howl with no beginning or end, into a neatly structured story in which suicide was always held out as a possibility. They turned flight into freedom, even if freedom meant no more than the perpetuation of flight. They turned chaos into order, even if it was at the cost of what is commonly known as sanity.
Which would seem to damn the whole writing “enterprise” pretty thoroughly up and down no matter what the hustings. Which is not to say Guest isn’t spook’d, too, by the paucity of the endeavor—see the divagation into Coleridge riff’d whilst one character—Mewshaw—is busy hesitating “before priming forth the next syllable” (nous sommes tous semblables, tous précieux). Guest:
      Samples, mere samples. Between the negative mere and the positive sample what an interval!
I look on the stops not as logical Symbols, but rather as dramatic directions representing the process of Thinking and Speaking conjointly . . . . [the speaker] pauses—then the activity of the mind, generating upon its generations, starts anew—& the pause is not, for which I am contending, at all retrospective, but always prospective—that is, the pause is not affected by what actually follows, but by what anterior to it was forseen as following—

                                          COLERIDGE: Notebook
. . .

      It may seem that I am taking those pauses, those lapses in a lapse, as if they were part of an intimate, even sentimental game. But I mean what I have said. Life affects me this way. I need the game, as well as the joke being played on me.
Guest continues with a remark about the interval’s being turn’d into a “fragment of time,” signal’d by usage of the dash. And all I think of is how Roberto Bolaño’d point out succinctly, raffishly and with utmost seriousness that that dash contains the dead bodies of three prostitutes murder’d inexplicably in the border town of Ciudad Juarez. So, even in 2666’s attempt to rescue poetry, hoist it up out of the degradations of the world and its uselessness—“Poetry is the one thing that isn’t contaminated, the one thing that isn’t part of the game . . . Only poetry—and let me be clear, only some of it—is good for you, only poetry isn’t shit.”—he (Bolaño) puts the words into the mouth of a man named Guerra, a minor thug who likes nothing better than to go into “bars you can’t even imagine” and pick fights by pretending to be an “arrogant little faggot with money,” “smooth, stuck-up, sarcastic, a daisy in the filthiest pigsty in Sonora” (“I need the fucking release”). Or he (Bolaño) notes how the “bookish” “clearly and inarguably” prefer “minor works to major ones” being “afraid to take on the great, imperfect, torrential works, books that blaze paths into the unknown. They choose the perfect exercises of the great masters. Or what amounts to the same thing: they want to watch the great masters spar, but they have no interest in real combat, when the great masters struggle against that something, that something that terrifies us all, that something that cows us and spurs us on, amid blood and mortal wounds and stench.” So implicating himself (Bolaño), and 2666’s excesses and torrents, the paltry human ambition, insatiable and intolerable, of it all.

Barbara Guest, 1920-2006
(Photograph by Donna Dennis)

Roberto Bolaño, 1953-2003