Thursday, February 26, 2009

A Fly Tempo (The Cave, &c.)

Hydrant, Marker, Arch


Talk’s all big talk,
murmurs terwilliger’d up into
blazes, shouts cupboard’d, moot
pleas and Augustinian trebles.
If there’s one monkey
nobody routs out of
the banana tree it’s
rhetoric. Its mighty conjunct
is voice. The writing,
with its quantifiably richer
mix, tempers its edge
to an oily hardness,
opaque, dependent, no penis . . .
(Such point’d little juts
of randy static just
make the rheostat jump
with resistance: the gab
itself bags the wonk
who design’d it.) So
if I claim that
a lofty criminality shoehorn’d
into my natural reticence
led to a way
of speech that de-
emphasizes the utterance ratio
in wry favor of
a spiegeleisen (pig iron)
of snook-popping scuff
and verbal blunder, just
call it all talk.

Blank cartridges in the pan. One thinks, uh oh, fell asleep perusing The Cave (Adventures in Poetry, 2009) two nights running. (A quality of the flat drumming: “Caves are warm as words and drift an inch. A looksee in the Far North. They aren’t you. We keep going and come out with my name wrong. I’m using the energy of words to pass through here. Some farmer stands out behind his house in back. Wittgenstein’s got the wrong name. Words keep going in and coming out a dirt maze opening into an inch. We all go back in hibernation. My name is in the right direction still. Like ice the bees pass. . . .”) Thinking Glen Gould, thinking the cave of Zeus’s borning up in the mountains of Crete (slipped into after dodging the sleepy attendant and “explored” with no illumining device, toss a pebble, step, toss a pebble, step, toss a pebble, splash, retrace steps.) Thinking of talk’s directional pile-ups (“out behind . . . in back”). Thinking of seeing a dusky yellowish scarlet tanager (the misnomer’d female of the species) repeatedly dive-bombing a bee-hole up in a maple, gobbling bees. Thinking of how vocabulary replacements (a limit’d vocab) work like Bach. Thinking: “Is Clark Coolidge “our” Gerard Manley Hopkins?” (Compare “what buck last cattle lap form pits / righting whelm       left lung       gallery imbroglio” in Space’s “Leaving Rattle Bar” with, oh, the opening lines of “That Nature Is a Heraclitean Fire and of the Comfort of the Resurrection”: “Cloud puff-ball, torn tufts, tossed pillows flaunt forth, then chevy on an air- / built thoroughfare: heaven-roisterers . . .”) (“Chevy”: to run or career gaily, like boys in sports—“like we say in the dragoons ‘Chevy’ them back again.” I love it, particularly with the second serving of the motoring company ladled over it.)

Is it too mandatory Thursday to suggest that The Cave opens up into a larger “world historical” space late in the doings? It is, with its welter of gaga specificity, my prefer’d place (or “movement”) in the poem. Randomly (out of “Passage or Abruptness”):
So does the Wittgensteinian cello of Mondrian hang in my room, the water clock of Gluck, and the soccer shirt of John Hollander. The emblems may collapse, but the bicycle, hung by its geometry, is not lost on the bottom of the sea. The film dividing the mind from the world is not lost on Rick, a glass jar of acorns on his oakum desk, photograph of the light inside water, a sweater over her head. The Seven Points of John McPhee on a blue cobalt shelf, a red ball is every color but red. A cave has no thought of cover. I look restless & guilty filled up with light, as shady as wood, tripped over the stream in balsam shorts, a triangular thinking the opposite of Rodin. Green is a tempo of light, a canoe we load to the throat with no blouse on. Sexual liberty is sometimes a ghost of the capacity of the observer to receive. Only our clothing joins together the disparate distances of flight. We see Cocteau in the Vermont hills on a Schwinn bike with phreatic eyes.
One meaning of “phreatic”: “Of, relating to, or designating a volcanic eruption in which steam or mud is expelled as a result of the sudden heating of underground water when it comes into contact with hot magma or rock.” Krakatoa. Liberty being “a ghost of the capacity” of the reader to receive. Ludic hetero-mayhem and a blast. In the Talking Poetry interview, Coolidge says: “Part of Pound’s logopoeia was that some words lead you to expect certain words following others, and so you should as a poet try to disrupt that habit.” (There’s a kind of nod to the Poundian demand for accuracy of definition here. Think of the impeccable specificity of something like “Green is a tempo of light, a canoe we load to the throat with no blouse on,” no shilly-shallying with abstract impertinences, no. Like Pound says: “Get your ‘red’ down to rose, rust, cherry, if you want to know what you are talking about. We have too much of this talk about vibrations and infinites.”) (Though, going “off” about Coolidge’s Fr. Hopkins or Coolidge’s Pound, puts one scuttling “off” for Coolidge’s Kerouac. Ought I doubt? Coolidge: “Kerouac is the writer I have reread most often, excepting possibly Beckett Melville and Shakespeare.” No Fr. H, no P.) In The Cave, in “Cave of Metonymy,” an exchange between Melville (Coolidge) and Hawthorne (Mayer):
Melville: Hold it ! Hold it, Nate. What does “phreatic” mean?

Hawthorne: I see souls poised on the end of a pin; “Phreatic” is not in my dictionary. Maybe he meant phrenetic of freakish.

Melville: Let’s stake out a section from memory, the part beginning “Who are these water striders?” up to “neat as a knife.” You read it through once & then write down what you remember.
“Phrenetic”: Delirious; mentally deranged; insane; crazy. Affected with excessive excitement. And Coolidge’s sense of Kerouac: “More of the second to second matter transformation of world into mind is there in his lines than in anyone else’s that I have seen. In this sense he comes closest to being the total writer. There is the sensation that nothing is missing or lost. Reading his books is like being handed another mind, myriad-filled and ceaselessly sending. There’s a momentum of mind-voice that otherwise might be found only in Proust or certain Bob musicians. A speed of pick-up on the fly that includes so much, a poet’s energies to make of every thought of the world a great ringing edifice.” So the task of Melville “stakes out” for Hawthorne in the exchange, one deft measure of the speed and quality of one’s “pick-up on the fly.”

Points west domani.

Clark Coolidge, c. 1967

Wednesday, February 25, 2009

The Cave, &c.

My Desk


Thumbing the alumni bulletin, rubbing
up loss to a premonitory
sheen, shiny like a capsule
or a lozenge: what is
the point of absence burnish’d?
“The legend is Raoul Dufy
possess’d a terribly cunning tongue.”
The lousy February dusk is
flapping its skirts, driving off
the crows, each trailing crêpe-
paper streamers of light behind.
Whatever one is suffices one
plein air moment, a plenary
systolic, disgorging in a hurry
to push the heart’s song—
incomplete, dislodged, and abrupt—along.

Clark Coolidge, in an interview in Talking Poetry, says, riffing / explicating a totemic line of Maurice Blanchot’s—“One can only write if one arrives at the instant towards which one can only move through space opened up by the movement of writing”—,“you have to be writing in order to write.” To be a machine à ècrire, veritably, churning. So one notes how, doodling out spells of “dignify’d nonsense,” one sees emerge a writing. (Another Gallicism: comme la mayonnaise, l’ècriture prend où ne prend pas. Uncertainty of the emulsifying “agent” lying, one wagers, in the yolk of the egg. Where is writing’s yolk? In the yoke of writing itself.) In the introduction to Coolidge and Mayer’s The Cave (Adventures in Poetry, 2009), Marcella Durand reports Coolidge saying: “We were all interested in writing thousands of pages every day.” And adds (or maybe Mayer adds—it’s difficult to determine): “A feeling of everything being kept on forever . . . we didn’t understand endings.” (One question: Blanchot’s “movement of writing,” is it trigger’d by “constructivist” recopying? by arranging spit-out anagrammaticks, by, yuh, “sculpting”? In spite of the smarm-tags, I ask the question innocently: if the point is that “space opened up”—I identify it only in its aftermath, in the “return to the body” sense, or the “haul’d out still dripping after the immersion” sense—can that point—it’s a kind of trance-automatism—be “got at” by busy-work? Or does it require the pretense of “original exploratory” pilot’d by that niggardly hoosegow-buster, the Self? “I” “don’t” “know.”)

So one writes, one “keeps” writing. (Somewhere, Edna St. Vincent Millay, complains about how reading “Paradise Lost at three gulps makes one long to spring hysterical puns,” and adds pertly: “I say ‘one.’ The one is I.” A kind of load’d-for-bear anti-Rimbaud. No?) Or one reads waywardly (half The Cave, half Savage Beauty, half Radical Vernacular, with veritable toppling “stories” of books impinging), unfocused, in off hours, and fretting. (That’s not writing.) Does Edna St. Vincent Millay’s cheekiness match Gertrude Stein’s (sighingly “preferring not” to do the exam proctor’d by William James) when she writes (Vassar entrance exam): “I was prepared in American History at my home in Camden, Maine, in the hammock, on the roof, and behind the stove.” (She flunk’d. And got admitted.) And if Louis Untermeyer (literary editor of the Literary Supplement of the Chicago Evening Post, what one wag call’d “the most brilliant literary sheet published in America”) warn’d Millay against the perils of Bohemianism in New York, and she replies that she is “not so Bohemian by half as I was when I came,” explaining that “here one has to be one thing or the other, whereas at home one could be a little of both,” doesn’t one long to nod knowingly at the provincial miss’s swell dexterous palpating of core metropolitan provincialism and wager it ain’t so different today?

Is The Cave all about reiteration in deformation (try tracing the uses of the words “sneakers” and “alphabet”—first appearing in the line, “I’ve got my sneakers on. Alphabet,” to open “Modular?”—throughout the book)? Too, it is sheer rhythm:
Whats the elegance of any crush whats the space of 4 people moving depending somehow on you & new ones to enervate on your way home—only the real strong & obvious are shared, like blind chickens bared for frying or something but the real small defining ones small so are wasted, wasted out to sea, wasted one by one wasted out one by one one at a time by one or another one a different one by the way what work do you do so the reason I mention work is there’s some things I learned from you & i don’t stop to listen normal I steal & sink ships & yours aspect just seems to be one of them oceans no grudges against what they receive in a storm so such is not of their doing hard away from their design they have none endless they fill the frame
Stein (in the “one by one one”), and O’Hara’s “To the Harbormaster” (“oceans no grudges against what they receive in a storm” and that “hard away” sounding “hard alee”) and ending up—since one’s “in the vicinity” with O’Hara’s “Today” (“they fill the frame” echoing off “They’re strong as rocks.”) Why do I think it’s Mayer doing that (is it the sassiness of “i don’t stop to listen normal I steal”? hard to think of Coolidge as “sassy.”) The reiterations (“alphabet,” &c.): evidence that the whole sequence is more “work’d” than I would’ve thunk. (The collaborative forays of my “youth” were done in the sprightly buzzing temporality of bars—and remain’d in those bars, foreign the idea of permanence beyond the momentary whim, or gas.) Okay, still spelunking.

Clark Coolidge Reading in Orono, Maine, 2008
(Photograph by Tom Orange)

Tuesday, February 24, 2009

Whose Niedecker?

Snow, Peels


Dud revelry                 “I forgot”
some boggy area                 where Muvver go
a dub torch singer                 stamp & spit curl
demur meaning up against it                 the empty hacienda
tacky photographs of clouds                 a curtsy, or two curtsies
that churlish blue of apathy                 pomander & couch
the customary rush                 up into uncanny Dominion
counter-tenor’s instability                 immobile, bereft, in Dutch
“soaking the pot roast pot”                 a chaise longue overturn’d
angular like a mantis                 intervening in the beef
all the hardness diminish’d                 up to high C sharp
“a voluble hack”                 the usurer’s name enter’d in
xenophobia of the state                 its monkey shines & minced words
a critical hollow (nape)                 feet of kiln’d roseate clay

Where did Emily Dickinson write that “Transport is not urged—”? One urges in the daily work, precisely. And “transport” is rare. Slung in one’s chamber in a morass of books, unfocus’d, in some remedial grubbing-around stage, larval viscosity word-immiscible, all grunt and holler. That’s how it is. “How can one have an intelligent air without thinking of anything intelligent?” Eppur si muove. So I peer into a book of photographs only to begin sneezing abruptly. Slits between planks boarding up the wall of a barn: merest parallels of light.

If I turn to the Elizabeth Willis-edited Radical Vernacular: Lorine Niedecker and the Poetics of Place (University of Iowa, 2008), I learn that Niedecker’s T & G, title of the 1968 collect’d, “is a condensation of Lawrence Durrell’s ‘tenderness and gristle.’” And think how odd that fact (isolated) is, and how thoroughly one (by the act of noting its “oddness”) puts Niedecker into the seemingly colossal indifference of her surroundings. That is, “peripheral” to someone so internationalist as Durrell. Which is, partly, what the “vernacular” essays investigate: how deeply ingrained the chauvinisms of the “centers” can be. So, one reads Michael Davidson’s essay, “Life By Water: Lorine Niedecker and Critical Regionalism,” with a wariness born of stubborn Midwestern distrust of uppity city-folks. And witnesses something akin to the slicker who call’d in a semi to move a dug-in stickler of a mule when a parsnip and sweet-talk ’d sufficed. Davidson borrows “critical regionalism,” “a term from architecture that has been used to describe the role of local, vernacular traditions against more universalized . . . alternatives,” and tries to muscle it around the Niedecker corpus. Thus, “regionalism,” rather than reinforcing “populist, even xenophobic cultural agendas,” if “used as a critical vehicle . . . can, by its exploitation of the vernacular and local, create an alternative to . . . ‘world culture.’” Davidson quotes Kenneth Frampton’s “Towards a Critical Regionalism: Six Points for an Architecture of Resistance”:
In this regard the practice of Critical Regionalism is contingent upon a process of double mediation. In the first place, it has to “deconstruct” the overall spectrum of world culture which it inevitably inherits; in the second place, it has to achieve, through synthetic contradiction, a manifest critique of universal civilization.
Tall, um, order. Overlook’d in the folderol of getting Niedecker’s verse into the fold to align with some imaginary ‘world culture’: any possibility of a Bartlebyan stance of “I would prefer not to,” or of the possibility that Niedecker is precisely the Fort Atkinson figure of O’Hara, a strong and independent force who (Ashbery’s line) “does not attack the establishment,” but “merely ignores its right to exist.” “And is thus a source of annoyance to partisans of every stripe.” Niedecker work’d with the materials at hand (not unlike O’Hara). Witness, though, Davidson’s discomfort with the materials. He says: “The detailed botanical descriptions of plants and flowers often resemble Marianne Moore’s catalogues—fits of taxonomic exuberance that satirize the will to evidence.” To claim the “fits” “satirize” is to dismiss the material itself, that is, the particular flora and fauna of the region, and to overlook the possibility of the presence therein of an “extolling” culture in itself. (Elsewhere Davidson remarks Niedecker’s “use of hardy plants or tenacious waterfowl”—the latter a kind of city-prose cartoon figure, hardly assimilated, a Dutch Pieter Ten Duck, the “tenacious waterfowl.”)

One danger of my argument here is that Niedecker returns to what Gilbert Sorrentino call’d (warning against it): “that astonishing creature, the true pastoral poet, naive amid the glades and rills and humming bees,” the “bumpkin savant,” a kind of Black Hawk Island John Clare. No. But to burden Niedecker work with the work of opposing globalism seems farfetch’d. (In a curious list, Davidson offers some other “alternative histories” written around “marginal spaces”: “Charles Olson’s Gloucester, Gwendolyn Brooks’s Brownsville, James Wright’s Dakotas, Cherrie Moraga’s, Central Valley.” Except for “Outside Fargo, North Dakota”—whose generic silo and “three heavy white horses” ’d thrive anywhere in the Midwest—did James Wright write anything about the Dakotas?) The reverse strategy—of seeing the local Wisconsin landscape &c. play’d out neat in Niedecker’s lines—is probably equally farfetch’d, a back-formation. Davidson sees Niedecker “finding a kind of vulcanized language, resistant to unitary semantics yet embodying the almost tectonic pressures of its formation” and claims that “the fusion of language and landscape manifests itself in the adoption of a triadic stepped line and increasingly broken syntax and heavy enjambment, as though lineation itself could embody something of the geology of the region.” And William Carlos Williams’s triadic line mimicks the slant and stepped Rutherford escarpments of the houses he did the doctoring in?

Rutherford, New Jersey Houses
(Out of Robert Coles’s
House Calls with William Carlos Williams, MD)

Monday, February 23, 2009

“The Author of Anticipation



Events assuming a shape
that is newsworthy enough
to make golden a
rule-bound economy of
shapeliness, or “event.” Stump’d
by the tautological. That
is the project of
the novel. Perfume testifying
to a love that
went up (or off)
in a puff of
smoke: Jim, and Bert,
and Melissa; or, Bert,
Melissa, and Jim.
A filament (a thread,
coil’d within a bulb)
is one distillation of
starlight, earth-lash’d and
snug’d in by man’s
own terrible faulty progress.
“Isn’t it, golden boy?”
It’s all irreproachable fondling,
miasmic self-effacement, slough’d
down exponential lucre snatch’d
out under colossal stone
noses, a wink of
misdirection, and obedience to
a course mark’d by
debt and wrong-doing.
A new shape riotous
shilling a non-event.

Along the perennial lines of inquiry (rais’d, of late, here) regarding the permissibility of the negative assessment of miserably bad verse (or what, rather nicely, elsewhere—in London, in 1778, in a treatise by “the author of Anticipation” call’d “The Wreath of Fashion, or, The Art of Sentimental Poetry”—got label’d “a misapplication, not a defect, of talents” which “seems to have betrayed their Authors into some degree of false Taste” (he provides a stunning example: how the three late compositions by a “Noble Author” consist’d of “One, an Ode upon the death of Mr. Gray; the two others, upon the death of his Lordship’s Spaniel”—spaniel being, one thinks, the eighteenth century’s equivalent of the sad twenty-first’s squid)) I throw my lot with miserable assessors, the mockers of the meretriciously inert, the supercilious feverish, the simplest achievers of high repute, the old inspecificity bedung’d by gewgaws and bauble, all that rates a frown (or a snarl) under the barely literate sun.

There is, first, the general approach (useful for flushing out small bands of vituperators, covens of fakes, and self-satisfy’d groupuscules). Our correspondent ably writes, pricking the unseemly coterie with a select barb simultaneously combining the horridness of French form, the inestimable and out-maneuverable Greek claim to lyric originality, and character in the shape of Mr. Geoffrey Chaucer’s lumpish and bristly wife of Bath:
The reigning fashion in modern poesy is Sentimental Panegyrick on Married Beauties. This appears in a thousand various Shapes; from Bouts Rhimeès on the wou’d-be Sappho of Bath, up to Doggerel Epistles to the lovely Amoret.
As such, no closer inspection, or verification, or “closer reading” is necessary. Though, pointedly, our correspondent, seeing recriminatory belittlings and grievous cursing coming up in advance, makes clear that in addressing (or “attempting to ridicule”) any such “modish folly,” “it is scarcely necessary to apologize to the several Personages of the Sentimental train, for introducing their names.” Whoo, whooooo. I hear it coming ’round that bend, the sentimental roisterers with ambivalence in tow. I, though, like Johnny Cash, the man in black, so crank’d up downing white crosses by the paw-full he’s strumming that ax way up the neck, choking a slash rhythm out of it, with that torn piece of paper wove into the strings—“I like a snare drum sound, so I put it there”—, I walk the line. The redoubt’d “author of Anticipation,” a Mr. Tickell (first name Richard I once heard) puts it so:
When a Poet announces himself, and publickly wears his Laurels, He is lawful game for the Critics: And it makes no difference, whether his works come from the Press, or, according to Sir Benjamin Backbite’s system, “circulate in Manuscript.” Besides, to canvass the slighter imperfections, either of stile or of conduct, seems to be the limit of poetical censure. It is only the desperate Satyrist, whose invenomed pen strikes at the character and honour of Individuals, that perverts and disgraces Poetry:—such aspersions, if well founded, are too gross for the tribunal of the Muses; and if, (as is generally the case) they are utterly false, they recoil not only on the Author, but on the very art itself, which can so easily be perverted to so bad a Purpose.—But who can be hurt by Critique on his Charades and Rebusses?—An imputation of false Taste may not be very pleasant, but it never can seriously offend Men of sense and good-breeding: Both which qualities, as the Author agrees with all the world in acknowledging his Personages to possess in the highest degree, so he requests that not only they, but the few others who may happen to read his Ravings, will acquit him of any intention to give the slightest offence.
If that would seem to absolve any who claim the negative “review” hurts the wilting flower that is poesy (“too gross for the tribunal of the Muses”), one ought recall, the Muse’s grosser lot nowadays, her great flinging of sashay and pose, her snout-in-garbage tribunalism, her increasingly desperate Satires, oh ye indelicate fleurs! Besides, ain’t we all “Men of sense and good-breeding”? (I know I am), and who, darling, could ever offend an imputation (or impute offense) to such? We shall (we must, oh for throaty-hoarse and hortatory saber-rattling in honor of manifestoes everywhere) continue to bad-mouth the Dudleys, besmirch the Hoosiers, and generally cop to a fettle of unencumber’d agon against “reigning fashion” and “Noble Author” alike.

Ah, the weekend. Slumbers and gnashings, inveterate the both. I did read a thin volume of memoirs by Lord Berners (1883-1950), a.k.a. Gerald Hugh Tyrwhitt-Wilson, call’d Dresden (Turtle Point / Helen Marx, 2008). Lord Berners, composer (“the English Satie”), novelist (he wrote a notorious roman-à-clef call’d The Girls of Radcliff Hall depicting himself and buddies Cecil Beaton et al. as memebers of a girls school), painter, “the versatile peer.” He writes a kind of impeccably dry prose, nigh-priggish, quite funny. (The book, one in a series of autobiographical pieces, suffers only by reference to earlier events—what happen’d in Résenlieu, &c.—though one “ought” begin at the beginning, and thwart the complaint . . .) I rather liked a tiny prelude to a report concerning the ascent of “The Brocken”:
There are two excellent descriptions of an ascent of the Brocken, both by poets. One by Heine in the Harzreise. The other by Coleridge. The two accounts are very different. Coleridge describes with a wealth of poetic detail the scenery observed during the ascent and the descent of the mountain, but of the Brocken itself he says practically nothing. Except for a short poem in which he speaks of his longing for England and the ubiquity of God, he passes it over in silence. Heine, on the other hand, gives an elaborate account of the scenes of jollity and dissipation that took place in the Gasthaus on the top of the Brocken, ending with the incident of two intoxicated youths saluting the night in Ossianic language before an open cup board which they mistook for a widnow.
Lord Berners is rather disappoint’d to find no liveliness at the Gasthaus, finding “orderly and behaved” schoolboys and tourists: “The rest of the crowd was composed of bourgeois families all very placid and cow-like.” And a report of reading the ubiquitous Goethe, and Eckermann’s Conversations with:
Among other curiosities there was a strange account of Schiller’s rotten apples that had an almost Freudian flavour. Goethe visited Schiller and, finding him absent, seated himself at Schiller’s writing table. Almost as once he began to “feel queer.” “At first I did not know to what cause to ascribe my wretched and unusual state—until I discovered that a dreadful odour issued from a drawer. I opened it and found to my amazement that it was full of rotten apples. His wife told me that the drawer was always filled with rotten apples because the smell was beneficial to Schiller and he could not work or live without it.”
Remind me to tell you of the time I seat’d myself down at Ron Silliman’s desk in the Tenderloin, and what I found there. I’d enlist Lord Berners against the quaint bearers of earnest toddies any day. He says: “In contemporary novels I had read of young men who were in the habit of discussing in the profoundest manner their souls, their religion and their plans for bettering the world. I was rather glad that I didn’t know any such young men.”

“Lord Berners Painting a Picture of Mrs. Betjeman and Arab Pony, Berkshire, 1938”

Friday, February 20, 2009

Charles Wright in Conversation

Smudge and Spill


A Bible near
Mobile’s lodged in
a sorghum stump-
hole, cover’d with
snakeskins, venom, and
blood. A urine-
ruin’d Qur’an rots
in an Iraqi
dump. Thud of
the Talmud into
the Gaza mud.
“Oh” “my” “God.”

A sketchy Friday. Charles Wright, talking to Willard Spiegelman (in Charles Wright in Conversation: Interviews, 1979-2006, edited by Robert D. Denham):
      People are always trying to pin Wallace Stevens on me. Which is all right, as he is not the tail to my donkey. Though I do read him, and admire him more and more the older I get. He’s one of the poets, as I said earlier, I go to the shelf for at night when I feel like a drink of poetry. But I still don’t—or haven’t—read him in a systematic or nefarious way, i.e., he’s not a house I’ve burgled very often. Just the odd plastic flamingo or wooden duck from the lawn over the years.
      Still, the little repetition riff in what you call the third stanza (and I would call the third section) is most probably Stevensian—at least it’s the sort of maneuver he would do from time to time. I find I do it from time to time, though not thinking, or (more importantly) knowing it came from Wally World.
[Wright is talking here—and slyly acting out through the point’d repetition of “from time to time”—about lines that go:
Nothing prepares the brain
                                                    for the heavy changes in the heart.
Nothing prepares the soul for metaphor’s sleight-of-hand.
Nothing prepares the left hand—luminous twin—for the sins of the right.
Nothing prepares the absence of pain for the presence of pain.
Nothing prepares what is for what’s not.
Context making Stevensian what I’d call “merely” King James biblical in its rhetoric?]
Maybe on one of those nights I went to the bookshelf I had a couple of drinks too many from The Collected Poems. As usual in such cases, I hadn’t meant to, if I did, and didn’t want to as well.
      I suppose one of the reasons I like to read Stevens now (and Yeats and Celan) is that there is in them a kind of acceptance of the stanchezza profonda, the deep exhaustion, at the center of things which most of us come in contact with as we get older [the interview’s print’d in 2000; Wright aged 65], I don’t mean a physical tiredness (though there is some of that), but the spiritual weariness we bump up against in middle-age, a weariness, I might add, we never really grapple with and certainly never conquer, but which we acknowledge and give its due. So I suppose if that’s “a new, different” way of reading Stevens, when I read him, I confess I have done that. But, as I say, I do it with almost all the older masters I tend to read now. Hardy, for instance, recently. Donald Justice has expressed this common failing and inevitability very beautifully in his later poems.
      As for the “desire” line of mine in the last section, I have no inkling that that was / is Stevensian. Of course, if you’re looking, everything sounds like Stevens. He did touch all the bases, you know. He went all the way around.
Wright is talking about the final part (of a half dozen even) of “Night Rider”:
Snuff end of February, no moon and
                                                                      cold tongs to the touch,
Year of the Rabbit, 15 degrees.
Crunch, crunch goes grass like broken head hair,
Our breath like Apache smoke signals
                                                                        —they come, they come—
From one yard to the next. But they don’t come, Lord, they don’t.

If I had, as Robert Johnson says, possession over Judgment Day,
No stone would rest unrisen,
And life, which promises only that we will desire
Only the things we can’t have,
Would be rolled away,
                                            cool dark of cave mouth first exit,

Crocus heads gazing quietly at the distant southern hills.
As one absorbed in looking around,
                                                                    each time I’ve looked, each time it’s new—
Each time I said it, I got it wrong.
In front of me, two plus two, behind me, two plus two.
If I could do what I thought I could do, I would leave no trace.
Later Wright identifies such a beast a “fifteen-line, three stanza unit . . . that’s been my favorite . . . in my earlier, surely pre-Stevensian (if I am now, as you hint, in my Stevensian mode) days.” Dunce with broken head that I be, I don’t see beyond the half-lines, the drop-downs, and muss the count. Wright compares the form to “a basketball player who feels most comfortable shooting from a certain spot on the floor. . . . It, in my case, seems to have evolved, like the duckbilled platypus, to a condition of ease and Dasein that nature intended me to have whenever I needed it.” (I love a man without formal pretense, or fetish.) I used to “identify” with a three-lined stanza; now, a three-word line. What puddles up for me in the “Night Rider” section above: the array’d repetitions: “Crunch, crunch”; “they come, they come”; “they don’t . . . they don’t”; “each time . . . each time . . . / Each time”; “two plus two . . . two plus two”; “I could do . . . I could do.” Extraordinary and bold maneuver, teetering between comical and ominous (as, similarly, the funny-gruesome of underfoot crunching of “grass like broken head hair”—presumably the sound of hair matted with blood).

About Pound (earlier in the interview—seems Wright’d jump at mention of Stevens for all the ambivalence he shows regarding Pound), and “lifelong ‘imagist’ tendencies (small i, however)”:
I have . . . in a younger, more naïve period, cited Pound as my first major poetic influence. At least from a writer. And, boy, have I been hoisted on that halyard ever since. I read Pound forty years ago. He was the first poet I ever read seriously, and I haven’t had much to do with him since (though I did teach a seminar at UC Irvine on him about twenty years ago). I wasn’t sophisticated enough at the time to keep my mouth shut, to, as Robert Frost advised, leave no track. In any case, sure, I learned a lot from him. I’m proud to have learned from a great poet and not someone popular from the generation above me, as is so often, and unwisely, the case. [There you go, acolytes and sycophants.] And from whom one has to go about unlearning over the years. I’ve said what I have to say about Pound—the great poet gone wrong, botching his own work, unable to keep his public mouth shut (as Eliot did, as others did), a small-time Lear ranting and temporarily insane in the cages (where, ironically, he wrote some of his most beautiful stuff), all that . . . Old loves rise up from the dark every so often, but it’s best remembered that the dark is where they live now. Whatever it was I got from him I got decades ago, and have since assimilated or subsumed into my own manner. Whatever that manner is. I thank him for early advice, I thank him for opening the poetic impulse in me that until I read him had found no outlet, but I carry no torch.
I probably related here before how, late ’eighties one evening at the Guggenheim (a shiny black Volkswagen beetle park’d in front, absolutely cover’d with tiny lightbulbs that went on and off in “waves,” a man who look’d like what I imagine Giorgio Armani looking like lounging petulantly near it—maybe a better show than what went down inside), in a reading of—I think—“Southern writers,” Wright, in a garish tie (comportment in cartoonish accessories related to thin line between comic and ominous?) at the podium related how he’d “got” the tie off Ezra Pound, “who’d got it off a man named Yeats.” Ah, lineage. First it’s a lifeline, then it’s a strangling rope. What O’Hara call’d “the divine trap.”

A terribly pertinent letter to Peter Schjeldahl here. Pertinent to “everything and everything,” the way anything one prefers is. (I do like the Bartleby-inflect’d scrawl of Schjeldahl’s reply to Modern Painters.) What is art that ’d “prefer not to” be art? or judged so?

Charles Wright

Thursday, February 19, 2009

Jeff Hilson’s The Reality Street Book of Sonnets

Red Dolly


The vetting of the ephemera’s finish’d,
The original slips and indices
Pack’d into saddlebags, the horses girt.
Off to the mountainous districts, with dirt
Under nails, with hair uncomb’d, appraisals
Make no difference to our reprisals,
We’ll cut outrageously, bleed the flirt.
Chopin’s in Corsica with George Sand and
A Hun servant by the name of Rude Gert,
Hen-assiduous, ox-strong, fable-bland
With a five-stud unreasonableness
About law and order. What makes a mess
Of music is a sired music, all muss’d
With counts, the melody a total bust.

The Reality Street Book of Sonnets (Reality Street, 2008), edited by Jeff Hilson, land’d in the new books here and I snatch’d it up, drug it home, thumb’d it up and down, read through Hilson’s bounty-bag of an introduction and am here to say it is terrific, a bigger, woollier beast than I’d imagined, absolutely trophy material. Hilson provides a short history of twentieth-century “linguistically innovative” sonneteering next to a short (miserable) history of sonnet anthologies “of the period” and smartly concludes:
As a form the sonnet is fiercely guarded, as a read-through of the introductions to many of these anthologies testifies. Just as its varied structural features—14 lines, octave and sestet, rhyming couplet, volta, etc.—are metonymic of the whole form and can’t be disturbed without destroying its integrity, so the sonnet itself stands as a metonym for the kind of poetry published by the big publishing houses. To disturb the sonnet’s form too radically therefore is not just to disturb the sonnet itself, or the sonnet tradition, but to endanger the foundations of the wider poetic tradition. I wonder whether this doesn’t also go some way towards explaining the recent spate of mainstream sonnet anthologies. At a time when linguistically innovative poetry has been making inroads into the public consciousness—in spite of fierce opposition from some quarters—the anthologies appear, one after the other, to shore up the ruins that such a move threatens.
Hilson’s right: the culprits are legion. He mentions—sentries and marks—a half dozen or so sortie’d since the millennium dawn’d up new, all “effectively the same anthology . . . a survey of the sonnet from the beginnings to the present day,” and containing, at best, token nods to the “other tradition.”

Ted Berrigan is (rightly) pinned with the boostering of the “latter-day sonnet renaissance” amongst the hip cognoscenti, if not exactly with its origin. That falls seemingly to “the example of Edwin Denby, whose In Public, In Private appeared in 1948.” Hilson’s fine assessment of Denby’s work (“he rarely wrote using any other form. His achievement was also realized without fanfare, the poems being radically misunderstood on initial publication. Reviewers were unprepared for their “compressed, quirky, big-city, stop-and-go rhythms” [quoting Ron Padgett] and criticised them for their lack of ‘control.’”) ends with the sharp (and challenging) remark that “The poems’ elliptical syntax and sudden shifts in direction appealed to Berrigan, however, who published them in a special edition of his “C” Magazine though in many ways Berrigan’s own sonnets have obscured Denby’s considerable accomplishment with the form.” (My own peeve, that Frank O’Hara’s own sonneteering—flippant mastery with assort’d and sassy casual backhand to the face rhymes—goes unnoticed, is treat’d in a footnote. Hilson says: “The first half of O’Hara’s Collected Poems is punctuated by them.” And notes Kenneth Koch’s sequence in “The Railway Stationery” in the 1962 Thank You along with some near-sonnets in John Ashbery’s Some Trees. One begins to think the resurrect’d sonnet a nigh-pure New York School phenomenon.)

Later, though, after noting the modernist dismissal of the form (“Pound considered it little more than a mistake, a form invented ‘when some chap got stuck in the effort to make a canzone’, and held it responsible for the subsequent decline in metric invention. Williams rejected it on the ground that it offered nothing new. ‘All sonnets mean the same thing’, he wrote . . .”), Hilson points to both Cummings and Zukofsky (and, in a perfectly intriguing footnote, John Wheelwright) as precursors working toward a “radical defamiliarisation” of the form. Talking about the sonnet sequence in the seventh part of “A”, Hilson quotes the iamb-mocking lines, “Not in the say but in the sound’s—hey-hey— / The way today, Die, die, die, die, tap, slow,” and says: “What . . . breaks down is the poem’s syntax which become increasingly disjunctive, disturbed by the full panoply of interruptive punctuation—hyphens, dashes, question and exclamation marks, italics, parentheses . . . etc. The overall effect is the opening up of a traditionally closed form.” (What form closes up more tightly than the “little room”?) The Wheelwright line, out of the 1938 Mirrors of Venus: A Novel in Sonnets, is, in Hilson’s words “a clarion call for the formally disruptive sequence.” Wheelwright says: “When, with habitual knack in versifying or with superstitious shunning of all but conventional thoughts or notions, a poet comes across with ‘perfect’ sonnet after ‘perfect’ sonnet for any length of time, a sonnet sequence is a bore.” Which sounds terribly like Williams’s complaint (which, publish’d, appear’d only in 1974, in The Embodiment of Knowledge, though I suspect WCW repeat’d it elsewhere, earlier, too.) And Hilson adds: “Wheelwright’s ‘habitual knack’ has echoes of Williams’ ‘apt use,’” referring to Williams’s term for “the sonnet as practiced by parlour-room sonneteers who stultified the form ‘by making pleasurable that which should be removed.’” (A line that one’d like to use to cane the parlour-room flarfists with, too.)

One side-note. Hilson reads Craig Dworkin’s Reading the Illegible about “how poetic form ‘must always necessarily signify’” and about “how to read poetic texts which foreground illegibility,” and writes:
I think we can usefully reverse the poles of his thesis and suggest that certain forms also become illegible through their very legibility. The sonnet is a case in point. Because it is such a well known form—its form qua form can after all be taken in at a glance—it is overdetermined and its very recognisability makes it impossible to read.
(Again: “cane the parlour-room flarfists with.” What is more immediately and deadeningly recognizable than that brand of squid?)

If I had my druthers (and Reality Street the budget), I’d argue for inclusion of the mention’d precursors, the New York School figures, Zukofsky, Cummings, Wheelwright, maybe at the risk of unwieldiness. What Hilson does includes, however, is superb, both in range and the hefty selection of each (twelve sonnets by Denby, the first contributor—arranged by age; ten by Sophie Robinson—b. 1985, the last; with comparable goods between). And, after the typical wind-down sketch of who’s included, pointing to variety in the field (“Lyn Hejinian’s are baggy and capacious”), Hilson ends the introduction with a line to disarm and abash all critics: “And some of the poems are not sonnets at all.” Brilliant.

Here: a delect of two sonnets. Harry Gilonis’s “Mountain Lodge,” with a note, part of a group of translations under the title Quite a way after Wan Wei (c. 700-760 AD):
hills pretty, vacant after rain
sky climbs into autumn
moon between / among, pines
clear stream, stones over-flow
movement-rattle of bamboo
boats stir water plants
the time of grasses passes
‘behold the universal imagery’

The Chinese original alludes to the anonymous ‘Summoning the Recluse’ (from the 2nd-century AD anthology Ch’u Tz’u, ‘Song of the South’); I’ve substituted, quite reasonably, a line from Wordsworth’s ‘The Recluse’.
In a different note, Gilonis slyly observes: “The Sinologist A. C. Cooper famously called the shih, an 8-line verse form, “the Chinese sonnet.” I like how the Sex Pistols slip into the opening line, fine balance to the Wordsworthian rhetorical weight at the end. And, randomly, Gavin Selerie’s “Old Redding”:
Some would make this threadbare, even
by aureate terms, but I must sing
from the heart-root, unclotted and clear,
naming how the plain builds to a height
which is special for all it holds.
We walk and lie in this last preserve
with its elbow paths and shaggy bushes,
watching from the pillared shade—
as masked horsemen—a sort of real day.
Grass stretches up from Copse Farm
and the Brick Field, while the sun catches
one spire on the hill. Windflowers here
are a drift of white and the yaffle pecks
his way north to Grim’s Ditch and Levels Wood.
(Yaffle, lovely word, a green woodpecker.) One’d like to argue that The Reality Street Book of Sonnets is undeniably need’d, essential, a bomb contrivance to the cauterized “era.” Drawback: the difficulty of getting it (and a gob-highwayman’s sack of other stuff coming out of the UK) for us norteamericanos.

Jeff Hilson at the 2005 Cambridge Poetry Summit, with Sarah Haggarty
(Photograph by Peter Manson)

Wednesday, February 18, 2009

Guy Davenport’s Letters

Joist and Brace


One is drench’d
with the shill
personificatory restlessness of
a volatile woofer
who practices nightly
a bridge between
Order and Disorder,
or is caught
up and beshat
by a clampdown,
sign of state
insecurity. One is
a shakedown cruise
artist, a bunco
bum, “truckling, servile,
with no fall-
back mode besides
cheek. One is
an empiricist’s fudge.
One is monopthonging
a way up
that dippy brat
in the thong.
One is djinn
material out to
lunch. One is
a shank-wielder
in a dumpster,
maestro of mayhem.
One is at
the till imbibing
scorn soup. One
dock’d between civil
admonitory wit and
its residuum clarity.

One readerly companion notify’d me recently that a third selection of Guy Davenport’s letters (after the 2004 Thomas Meyer-edited A Garden Carried in a Pocket: Letters 1964-1968, publish’d by Green Shade, containing an exchange between Davenport and Jonathan Williams, and the 2007 W. C. Bamberger-edited Guy Davenport and James Laughlin: Selected Letters, out of W.W. Norton) had appear’d in the Winter 2006 issue of Arion. So I dug it out, found it a sprightly selection of letters address’d to Nicholas Kilmer present’d in lieu of an “appreciation.” The first letter, its gist, and identificatory detail:
      So the translator of those rime of Petrarca is the grandson of Joyce Kilmer! And you’re bringing out a Ronsard. Genius, they say, skips a generation, though it’s unfair to say that, as I know nothing about your father. James Joyce’s grandson Stephen is an actor in a TV soap opera, but Pound’s granddaughter Patrizia has turned poet.
      I’m relieved that you approve of the Op Ed essay. I wrote it because I’d found that sentence of Margaret McMillan’s, which—surely—Joyce Kilmer was unconsciously remembering when he wrote the famous lines. My theory of poetry starts from the audience, as intended or the one that responds: I began figuring this out when I noticed that Whitman did two elegies for Lincoln, a rhymed one for school children and the great “When Lilacs Last” ode. Conversely, I think we may recognize the power of a poem by its popularity. I also like the Statue of Liberty as a piece of sculpture.
      Has JK’s literary criticism been collected? That period of American poetry is now antique enough to have acquired tone. It is, God knows as compared to the slither and dribble we’re getting nowadays, well written and has a coherent intellectual history. Granpa was quite right to see that Vachel Lindsay was a sincere artist. Verbal Art Nouveau, I would say.
That in 1978. The spark being Davenport’s New York Times piece call’d “Yes, ‘Trees’ Is Popular with the Rotarians, Yes, It’s Vulnerable. But, Then . . .,” later collect’d in The Geography of the Imagination under the title, “Trees.” As Nicholas Kilmer notes in Arion: “The essay, in the course of a mediation on the staying power of a mild poem, disclosed the probable source for the thesis (not yet discredited as of this writing) advanced in Joyce Kilmer’s final couplet: a sentence in Margaret McMillan’s book Labour and Childhood (1907), ‘Apparatus can be made by fools, but only God can make a tree.’” The essay begins in Davenport’s inimitably anecdotal way (in a later letter-fragment, Davenport talks about “kerygma, which is how you tell things when you’re feeling good” and uses the example of Jesus walking on water, “a whopper told by somebody trying to say how wonderful Jesus was”):
In June, 1918, the Cincinnati poet Eloise Robinson was in the wasteland of Picardy handing out chocolate and reciting poetry to the American Expeditionary Forces. Reciting poetry! It is all but unimaginable that in that hell of terror, gangrene, mustard gas, sleeplessness, lice, and fatigue, there were moments when bone-weary soldiers, for the most part mere boys, would sit in a circle around a lady poet in an ankle-length khaki skirt and a Boy Scout hat, to hear poems. In the middle of one poem the poet’s memory flagged. She apologized profusely, for the poem, as she explained, was immensely popular back home. Whereupon a sergeant held up his hand, as if in school, and volunteered to recite it. And did.
That’s Davenport’s kerygma, working like a mojo. I am astonish’d by the throwaway (throwing off) of ideas, whole unfrugal theories anybody without the genius’d plod off grinning with like a dog with a hamhock, in Davenport’s merest slips of letters, not even considering the thrill of rapid-fire “factuals.” (He says, a little complainingly: “How can I shake and dispel the awful reputation of being an “erudite” writer? I’m about as erudite as a traffic cop. I like to know things; what’s so two-headed peculiar about that?”) That off-the-cuff remark about how poetry “starts from the audience”—isn’t that exact kin to the yammering of the Language boys about how they’s a “provisional” social enterprise responding to, practicing, affiliating, making whoopee (and gossip) within a particular “alternative system”—social text shenanigans that is no different (beyond say-so) to any other historical “movement” (or not)? The difference: Davenport’s slight tongue-in-cheekiness (suggesting it’s not so simple, and no place, certainly, to bunker down in or construct an immoveable mountain “fastness”)—the world is too big for it.

So off I went to pursue Edna St. Vincent Millay, in Zelda-biographer Nancy Milford’s Savage Beauty. (Zelda, whom I model’d my daredevil youth of dashing myself naked and drunk off cliffs into black liquid pools of water—the Ithaca reservoir—on.) (Milford, who admits that the biographer “requires not only the tact, patience, and thoroughness of a scholar but the stamina of a horse.” “Virginia Woolf called it ‘donkeywork.’”) (Millay, of whom “Thomas Hardy once said there were really only two great things in the United States, the skyscraper and the poetry of Edna St. Vincent Millay.” “She marched for Sacco and Vanzetti in 1927 and was arrested for protesting their death sentence, a protest she took all the way to the governor of Massachusetts.” “In the heart of the Depression her collection of sonnets Fatal Interview sold 35,000 copies within the first few weeks of its publication.”)

Guy Davenport, 1965
(Photograph by Ralph Eugene Meatyard)

Tuesday, February 17, 2009

Contrary Genius

“Jazzy Santa”


The prissy mouth of Larry
and the way the work-
shirt collar wrinkles and splays
out shapelessly, and Frank’s seersucker.
“Happy to. Though rumor’s got
it, it’s way below average.
Limberness’s got a lot to
do with it, and mettle.”
Under the priapic plunge of
sun into its westerly slot,
the snow, stiff’d, rouges admissibly
up, tailing off into soi-
blue. And standing invisibly
in a flat-bottom’d notch
cut out of the half-
range of mountains, gum-color’d
sneers just beyond the story’d
city and its canyons, a
man announces a tempest of
mediocrity, a short-peevish dullard
of a man, a bedung’d
cock hallooing up the adulterous
folly of art, its formal
excellence plump’d against the works
of nature, the life of
that fly, bestially-stoop’d behind
a cloacal rim of shit,
rubbing its legs, its legs!

A note: yesterday morning I sent a comment to Ron Silliman that read: “Apparently the third of the Jennifer Moxley essays at mark(s) is currently incomplete (glitch’d). I post’d a note about the essays (and Digger Emmett Grogan) here.” Control of what exactly is in effect here by Silliman’s petty refusal to allow that through the gauntlet of The Moderator’s ham-hand’d fist? Misapprehension of Moxley’s piece call’d “Secret Meaning” in the period before a fix is made [it is, here] (by which time the Silliman Million Hitters Club’ll’ve moved on)? Clearly somebody is persona non grata—Latin for “what a grating personality!”—chez Silliman. It’s all about the singer with that particular precinct boss, isn’t it, and never about the song, no matter whose. Henceforth, one ought to work (at everything) anonymously (or under the name of Thomas White): only way to proceed with any kind of affable purity, or accomplish anything.

And, morning, the night hours “spent” badly, reading in lieu of putting down any raw thing, a piece (again) about Stephen Rodefer’s Call It Thought (Carcanet, 2008) begun, and abandon’d, something I hardly do (abandon). (One part, the Baudelairean, Rodefer epigraph’d succinctly, “To fornicate, the artist stops working”—though I didn’t; I, as I announced, read.) There is colossal mischief in the world, and too much of it sneaks off unseen, which is as it should be, it was not put there for “our” amusement. Hardly. Rodefer, in early conversation with Lee Bartlett (in Talking Poetry, still one of my prefer’d collections of interviews). He’s talking about seeing Miles Davis in Cleveland in 1957 (with, though then unbeknownst to Rodefer, John Coltrane—“Clark Coolidge assures me”):
The question is, if you heard Coltrane play in Cleveland in 1957 but didn’t really listen to him intensely till five years later, is it true that you heard Coltrane as a teenager—I mean literally at the same time you were first waking up to poetry you heard that elevated elegiac tone? Well part of me wants to say no, you were ignorant of it. But also I think, well yes, obviously you did. Because you couldn’t miss, no matter what, what that must have been.
      The world is more than itself and has being, apart from you knowing what it is. This is true for any “world.” And I mean this question, odd as it may sound, quite seriously. It is almost the question of poetry. The poem makes this thing. Now you hear it. Then you don’t. But you do. Because thought does. At first, knowing precedes naming. Then they become identical.
“Nerve,” comme on dit. Everywhere in Rodefer’s the turn to both the world and that pre-lingual knowing, call it “barbaric intuition” (as Rodefer did in the Chicago Review piece, reprint’d out of the 1985 Jimmy & Lucy’s House of “K” 4, call’d “Prologue to Language Doubling”—“the real exploration of new territory is constantly marked by abrupt change and barbaric intuitions, calling for still other contrary geniuses to appear, intuitively and without notice”—vive les anonymes! Complete with a warning against the programmatic, prescribed, proscribed skunks of all stripes: “too much rationale can turn an original idea into so much ration, ignoring the richness yet to be mined.”) Which is terribly smart advice in a niche-era, when so many look precisely for the brand, identifiable, cow’d, peaceably munching the munch. Seemingly against that pasturage, that fence, in the same essay, Rodefer remarks: “an account of almost everything, inside or out, in any given historical era, is hardly too small a goal for any art to embrace.” And, gulping air, “Perhaps embrace is just the point. Passion, not compulsion is what is meant.” Which “points” one back to “To fornicate, the artist stops working,” only to suggest that, perhaps, it is precisely and antithetically in the copulatory meet (hic) that art begins—in that stay against what? the ravening tumults of the absolute? Rodefer, in the early interview, bluntly, on art’s (writing’s) “purpose”:
To heighten your perception and to give you pleasure. If it doesn’t give you pleasure, what’s the point? It seems that sometimes the bottom-level response to writing is “did you like it?” But I think that’s a very real take after all. If you say that something pleases you without reservation, that carries great weight. I’m certainly interested though in more than just some sort of visceral response. I guess it goes back to the fascination of making, out of some found mess, some sort of momentary, stationary order that will reveal the nature of experience. That sounds grandiose, but that’s the intent. To make out of an urban morass, that seems out of control, some kind of lucidity. Often we just go around feeling mistaken and lost, torn in several directions at once. One tries to incorporate, in writing, that experience . . .
One notable difference between the Talking Poetry interview and the one in Chicago Review: talk and writing. The latter occasionally roils up in a muster of puns &c., becomes performance of what it asserts (Nabokov had it right: why’d any writer agree to forego writing? Aren’t most of the great ones—writers—verbal freaks, incapable of uttering a single sentence under the reddening spotlight of speech?)

Okay, here, the abandon’d. What to do with something like Stephen Rodefer’s “Albatross” (out of the Fever Flowers: Les fleurs du val part of Call It Thought? To wit:
Starbucking pennies for amusement the guys at Equipage
      grab the white truss, vastest of the sea birds
which attend the ship like indolent companions
      gliding on the SEA’s abyssmal gulf

But when they plank them on the deck
      they quarry these KINGS of manhandling Azores
splaying pitifully their great white wings V’d out
      like a ludicrous aviator trained beyond the sea

The ailing voyager, once surmounting beautiful! now is gauche
      unhomely, tortured, sailor-fucked and widowed
One sadistic NAVIE sticks a scalding pipe into its beak
      another mimes limping, at the infirmity which flies

Poets resemble Prince when he’s an albatross in cloud trousers
      his haunt the Tempest, laughing at the Archers
exiled on the floor below milieus of knickerless hooters
      but our giant wings’ impeachment HALTS his fleeing . . .
Coming rather obviously out of Baudelaire:

Souvent, pour s’amuser, les hommes d’équipage
Prennent des albatros, vastes oiseaux des mers,
Qui suivent, indolents compagnons de voyage,
Le navire glissant sur les gouffres amers.

À peine les ont-ils déposés sur les planches,
Que ces rois de l’azur, maladroits et honteux,
Laissent piteusement leurs grandes ailes blanches
Comme des avirons traîner à côté d’eux.

Ce voyageur ailé, comme il est gauche et veule!
Lui, naguère si beau, qu’il est comique et laid!
L’un agace son bec avec un brûle-gueule,
L’autre mime, en boitant, l’infirme qui volait!

Le Poète est semblable au prince des nuées
Qui hante la tempête et se rit de l’archer;
Exilé sur le sol au milieu des huées,
Ses ailes de géant l’empêchent de marcher.
Translation neither homophonic, nor “straight,” it lurches about, refusing even to stick to a single language (so albatros get to be “white truss” by seeing alba as Latin white, and tros goes to the homophones. Elsewhere, and, curiously enough, at the very beginning, the connection’s loose: “Starbucking pennies” out of souvent a mystery (as is the verb starbucking, though I picture pitching pennies into Starbuck’s cups for sport, or “for amusement.”) The guys at Equipage is a sweet nod to Rod Mengham, editor of Equipage in Cambridge, and author of a fine foreword to Call It Thought. The (tiny) point is: no “system,” no stultifying quasi-ideological jacket is evident here, there’s Rodefer’s “demeanor” and play, and a great flinging off of license itself. (It makes permissible the too-clever too: things like “Poets resemble Prince when he’s an albatross in cloud trousers,” a line that probably is trying to cram too much down its gullet.) Okay. Out of here.

Stephen Rodefer in Krapp’s Last Tape, Cork, 2007
(Photograph by Tom Raworth)

Monday, February 16, 2009

Sequential Things

A Drain


Oughtn’t worry about Sumer,
obligatory kin to square-
jaw’d men with gout
who down eggnogs and
“effect” purges, keep geographical
atlases a reach away.
Oughtn’t cinch a girder
to a field of
dittany, or complacently dodge
a cough with glycerine
or slippery elm bark
like a mail carrier
front-end-loading coquilles
St. Jacques, desire upending
any caprices of belief.
Oughtn’t reign in knotty
impudence with enemy succor,
wha? Oughtn’t is not
aught where naught oughtn’t
contract to willingly err
into one’s senses ja,
with gambols, horse tricks.

Clarity’s lack, in the form of a too long weekend, with its odd trajectories and mishaps and slumbers, oh, is “clearly” slagging off the whole body of one’s divinity today, woe to the unprepared, shucking in dim improvisatory light where an ear-boxing’s mistook for a diadem, a nudge in the gut for a yearning. Erasmus says: “All madness is not miserable,” so I open my Mary Butts: “The first thing that I remember is a puddle of yellow mud.” (The Crystal Cabinet: My Childhood at Salterns) Which, in its incalculable simplicity, is perfect for the gel’d moment. It proceeds (languidly) into a kid’s geophagous experiment, the obvious quench’d:
The mud in the shallow puddle was lovely, like something you could eat. It happened when the ivy on the porch and on the walls was smooth and glossy and shiny and dripped. You ought to be able to eat it—like cream or the yellow out of the paint-box; you ought to spoon it up. Perhaps something that isn’t food and looks as if it ought to be food will taste all right this time. Nurse was a few steps ahead. Perhaps if it isn’t sweet, it is yellow like egg. I have my best green coat on and a bonnet to match with fur round its edge that came off a beaver in the picture book. Dark green. With the gravel it would look like egg and spinach. Pretending (not quite to myself) that it was a real tumble, I splashed full length, and for the quick second, close to the ground where I should not be allowed to stay, my nose in the smooth wet, I put out my tongue. No good, and not so soft. Gritty. So that was mud-taste, the lovely yellow mud that gravel makes. The king—I developed early a child’s sense of categories—the king of the muds.
Sensory interlock, a child-sized investigating machine, is what one sees. And I am remind’d of the only other incident of geophagy in “the literature”—Guy Davenport’s wonderful wry confession in “The Anthropology of Table Manners from Geophagy Onward” (in The Geography of the Imagination):
One of my great culinary moments was being taken as a tot to my black nurse’s house to eat clay. “What this child needs,” she had muttered one day while we were out, “is a bait of clay.” Everybody in South Carolina knew that blacks, for reasons unknown, fancied clay. Not until I came to read Toynbee’s A Study of History years later, did I learn that eating clay, or geophagy is a prehistoric habit (it fills the stomach until you can bring down another aurochs) surviving only in West Africa and South Carolina. I even had the opportunity, when I met Toynbee at a scholarly do, to say that I had been in my day geophagous. He gave me a strange, British look.
      The eating took place in a bedroom, for the galvanized bucket of clay was kept under the bed, for the cool. It was blue clay from a creek, the consistency of slightly gritty ice cream. It lay smooth and delicious-looking in its pail of clear water. You scooped it out and ate it from your hand. The taste was wholesome, mineral, and emphatic. I have since eaten many things in respectable restaurants with far more trepidation.
The mineral world, that kind of tangibility. Mary Butts, a chapter or so later is talking about stones, “the stone drawer,” where she collect’d up and put pieces of the earth—“my pebbles”—that in “chink and shine and color and lick, or the hot smell and the flash that came when you knocked one kind called a fire-stone on a flint, [one] began to learn the meaning of stone. The life, the potency that lives in the kind of earth-stuff that is hard and colored and cold. Yet is alive and full of secrets, with a sap and pulse and a being all to itself.” A hunch and proximity says Lorine Niedecker’d agree. Think of how “Lake Superior” begins:
In every part of every living thing
is stuff that once was rock

In blood the minerals
of the rock
Think of the geological references in (what’s available of) the three hundred or so pages of trip-notes accumulated in preparation for that poem, “Doty: Mackinaw country? Island: Many of the rocks are crusted over with calcareous spar, particularly at Robinson’s Folly.” And: “Why this fascination with rock terms, name, probably because we like to think the first geologists took their finds and created them? name to thing? out of the nature of things? plus sometimes their sound or reflection of colour that delighted their senses.” Or, purely out of love, a sliver of a sequence (indeed, it is epigraph’d, “‘strange feeling of sequence’—S. M.”) out of Niedecker’s “Traces of Living Things”:

Having met the protozoic
                here is man
Leafing towards you
        in this dark
                deciduous hall


Far reach
        of sand
                A man
bends to inspect
        a shell
part coral
        and mud
Clarity and the fine-tuned molecular hum of (possibly divine) transformation.

Lorine Niedecker, 1903-1970

Thursday, February 12, 2009

Moxley’s Essays



A contrapuntal air:
Titian and Madagascar!
Dog to some
ha’penny desire
to flaunt imperturbably
the unsound junctures
of a soul
blemish’d by luck.
What the fuck.
Put a triptych
in a casino
or add centavos
discretely to hyper-
inflate the till—oh
a panhandler’s life
is the life
for . . .
The song
fends off all
the blanch fusillades
of the wincing
philologists, and is
its own fill.

One thing I love dearly: sudden serendipitous conjunctures. So: I read Jennifer Moxley’s three essays in the new mark(s). I like something I call “easy-going” about the prose. It is a quality I find in Lyn Hejinian’s prose, too. Matter-of-fact, explicit, drawing down all of language’s clumsiest resources un-self-consciously, making a virtue of the crotchety wayward uglinesses of prose explicatories, anti-“poetic.” Moxley (in the second of the essays, titled “La Peau de Chagrin”): “A talisman which will grant all his desires. The catch is, of course, that for every wish granted, the skin, and by association Raphaël’s lifespan, shrinks.” Unremarkable and serviceable. (My attention to the language, though, oddly enough, is heighten’d exactly by Moxley’s (I assume it is Moxley’s) claim that here is an “essay” (and that each is so short). Inflicting a genre, defying its terms. (I am somewhat remind’d of Anne Carson’s “Short Talks”—here, two to consider—though I random entirely away, erring haphazard in the unshapeliness of my telling:
Short Talk on the Total Collection

From childhood he dreamed of being able to keep with him all the objects in the world lined up on his shelves and bookcases. He denied lack, oblivion or even the likelihood of a missing piece. Order streamed from Noah in blue triangles and as the pure fury of his classifications rose around him, engulfing his life they came to be called waves by others, who drowned, a world of them.
That “blue triangles” (“called waves by others”), a fancy, something Moxley’d not cotton to in any of the essays. The sheer writerliness of Carson’s “talk” here, another instance of defiance. And:
Short Talk on Who You Are

I want to know who you are. People talk about a voice calling in the wilderness. All through the Old Testament a voice, which is not the voice of God but which knows what is on God’s mind is crying out. While I am waiting, you could do me a favour. Who are you?
With, I’d wager, less pronounced distance between seeming intent and execution . . .)

I drift, I stall out, nosedive. “Sudden serendipitous conjunctures.” First, I read Moxley’s “Fetish” (with its accompanying pieces, “La Peau de Chagrin,” and “Secret Meaning,” an interlocking set:

Put aside childish things for the moment to think about the commodity. It is, according to its master definer, “a thing which transcends sensuousness.” Not just a useful thing to be bought and sold, the commodity has mysterious metaphysical qualities.

Use-value does not explain this aura. We do not worship and create an entire social system around a thing because we find it useful. In fact, use may even reduce the fetish quality of some things (like a red pickle dish).

Marx: “Whence, then, arises the enigmatic character of the product of labor, as soon as it assumes the form of a commodity? Clearly from this form itself.” In other words, when does a made thing become a fetish? The moment it becomes a commodity. Commodities are things that leave us behind, that erase the “human brain, nerves, muscles and sense organs” that went into their making. Zombie-like, they replace social relations between men with relations between things. And thus men become the proxies of things, and things magical, because they have cast a spell over their makers.

The feudal system had no commodities. Men were not bound by things but by a rigid, transparent, social system. But things were still magic, because of God’s power over them, over all things. The religious veil removed by the Enlightenment rethreads itself in the factory, and is once more drawn over things, which, regaining their lost aura, turn back into fetishes. How different Marx’s veil from Mallarmé’s. In the latter’s tremble the neglected aesthetic asserts its independence.

In his analysis of the commodity Marx reawakens medieval mysticism in the heart of the Industrial Revolution (the very same vein that John Ruskin and the Pre-Raphaelites will tap). Perhaps the secret of the commodity’s fetish-like quality is nothing but this: a nostalgic desire in the bourgeois romantic mind for social relations to be fixed once again (whether backwards to feudalism or forward to communism), that he might be free of both the anxiety of longing for things and the fear of losing them.
(Note: that “like a red pickle dish”—is it a “blue triangle” gumming up the stylistic works? It is a fetish countersunk amid talk of the fetish. (Run a hand there: it is entirely smooth.) And, reading, exhaust’d with the rustle of print-outs, what I daily drag home to fluster about and attend to (happily thinking of a whole book of tiny Jennifer Moxley essays, digging away at, or launching up into the pure blue sky for aerial inspecting, the mysteries of the commodity and its fetishes and fetishists, not unlike the book Moxley translated by Jacqueline Risset call’d Sleep’s Powers (Ugly Duckling, 2008), I turn’d back to Emmett Grogan’s Ringolevio and read about Kenny Wisdom in the throes of a post-“psychedelic storm,” coming down off 600 microgram’s of lysergic acid diethylamide (with pal Billy Landout) and confronting the stark magic of the commodity:
      He walked over to the sink, picked up a nearly empty bottle of Cott orange soda and finished it. He studied the empty for a moment and ran his thumb across the “Deposit” impressed in raised glass. He slammed the bottle against the porcelain, and the glass shattered into the sink. The noise startled Billy and he came into the small kitchen to see what it was. He saw Kenny standing over by the sink. There was a funny, intense look on his face which made Billy a bit apprehensive.
      Kenny: Why was that bottle worth five cents?
      Billy: Because it was a re-usable commodity.
      Kenny: Why wasn’t it worth a dollar?
      Billy: It didn’t have enough value . . .
      Kenny: Magic.
      Billy: Magic?
      Kenny: The magic of property. Inanimate objects have no intrinsic value except what they can do for you, but in our culture they’re invested with all sorts of magical properties, and cops protect that magic by making sure property has to be paid for—the unimaginative flunkies. Everything revolves around profit and private property. Those are the premises. I just questioned the logic by destroying the magic.
Moxley says (in “Secret Meaning”), seemingly about “our” “own” devotions: “The Platonic view: poets ‘are not in their right mind when they make their beautiful songs, but they are like Corybants out of their wits dancing about.’” Is a poem “a made thing become a fetish,” endow’d with magical powers? Another view, that of Orpheus, torn apart and thrown to the winds by the Bacchante, the maenad pacifiers, a way of questioning the logic of one’s witless constructs. And so we fight so.

Jennifer Moxley, Paris, 1998

Wednesday, February 11, 2009

Emmett Grogan’s Ringolevio

Laundry Tub


Scorch-mouth’d like
a fire burning
duff off hills,
that raw red
earth-color’d scar.
Known, though, to
doff a hat
that look’d like
a plate of
of scallops surround’d
by salad greens.
What’s the point
of shill depicting,
making things up,
fancy itself raking
out a dirty
claw? Dogsmeat it
is, and unflow’ry,
I diffide its
prankish score, its
impudent hurrahs, its
truck with invisibles.

And so, feint’d off into the reliquary of self-myth by grabbing up Emmett Grogan’s 1972 Ringolevio: A Life Played for Keeps and breezing through a goodly half of it: it tumbled out of my sleep-collapsed hands. And I emerged in a matt’d-hair fever. Grogan (in the early pages call’d Kenneth Wisdom) is ringolevio champ, smack addict, brilliant boy-scholar uptown Park Avenue, tattoo’d basketball star, jewel thief and safecracker (in homes of uptown Park Avenue crowd), on the lam in Europe, mountaineering in the Italian Alps, honorary brother in “La Petite Birdland” juke joint out in the country near Raleigh, North Carolina (he’s waiting to “shred” one Mr. Squint Laszlo’s brainbox with a shotgun placed in its near-proximity), film student in Rome, IRA tagalong blowing one-lane bridges up in Ireland, all long before he arrives in San Francisco in the late ’sixties and becomes a Digger, issuing mimeograph’d papers like one call’d “Take a Cop to Dinner” with Mickey Mouse patter (“Mr. Answer Man / what is / a weapon / worse / ten times / worse, / than the Hydrogen Bomb? // Why a cunt / which is / ten times / larger / than the largest / cock / extant, / Mickey. // Degoutante, / said Mickey / kissing cops / to hedge the bet.”) follow’d by:
Take a cop to dinner.

Racketeers take cops to dinner with payoffs.
Pimps take cops to dinner with free tricks.
Dealers take cops to dinner with free highs.
Business take cops to dinner with graft.
Unions and Corporations take cops to dinner with post-retirement jobs.
. . .
Neighborhood Committees and Social Organizations take cops to dinner with free discussion offering discriminating insights into hipsterism, black militancy and the drug culture.
Cops take cops to dinner by granting each other immunity to prosecution for misdemeanors and anything else they can get away with.
Cope take themselves to dinner by inciting riots.

And so, if you own anything or you don’t, take a cop to dinner this week and feed his power to judge, prosecute and brutalize the streets of your city.
Grogan partly “took” by Gregory Corso’s 1956 (with 1958 addenda, “1958— / Power is still with me! Who got me hung on Power? / Am I stuffed in the grizzly maw of Power’s hopped up wheel . . .”) poem “Power” (“Standing on a street corner waiting for no one is Power”):
Since I contradict the real with the unreal
Nothing is so unjust as impossibility
Outstepping myself as a man in Azerbaijan
I forge a rocket lion
And with a heart of wooing mathematics soar to passion a planet
Which, down in the greasy coils of the brainmeat, triggers up lines I always loved in Albert Camus’s The Plague:
Query: How contrive not to waste one’s time? Answer: By being fully aware of it all the while. Ways in which this can be done: By spending one’s days on an uneasy chair in a dentist’s waiting-room; by remaining on one’s balcony all a Sunday afternoon; by listening to lectures in a language one doesn’t know; by traveling by the longest and least-convenient train routes, and of course standing all the way; by lining up at the box-office of theaters and then not buying a seat; and so forth.”
Emmett Grogan, isn’t he a cross between Ned Rorem and the talent’d Mr. Thomas Ripley in the Patricia Highsmith novels? Something of pure rampant charm and its indices of worth in the world-at-large. Ringolevio is full of odd stuff. Here’s the upshot of Squint Laszlo’s framing Grogan / Wisdom: jail in Rome:
Afterwards, he was booked into the Regina Coeli jail. The name means the Queen of the Heavens jail. It was built at the orders of the king of Italy back in the nineteenth century and when he saw what a magnificent jail his royal architect had constructed, he was so pleased that he told the man he could have anything that he desired, within reason of course. The architect replied that his only request was for the king to spend the first night there before it was opened to the public, and then the architect hanged himself from the Garibaldi Bridge which is less than a hundred yards from the prison’s entrance.
End of story. There’s a who’s zoomin’ whom quotient, too. I know Dylan dedicated the 1978 album “Street Legal” to Grogan, who’d been found dead in April of that year on a subway car of the F line. That’s two years after “Desire” comes out, with the Joey Gallo song containing the lines: “What time is it?” said the judge to Joey when they met / “Five to ten,” said Joey. The judge says, “That's exactly what you get.” Is that detail pluck’d out of Grogan’s book, where it’s the defender of the Scottsboro boys Samuel Liebowitz who pulls the stunt in a courtroom where Grogan’s awaiting sentencing, “justice tempered with mercy” and watching the proceedings of a kid up on two counts of armed robbery?
Liebowitz asked him to look at the clock which was on the wall over the door leading to the judge’s chamber, and, please, to tell him what time is was.
      “It’s five to ten, Your Honor,” replied the youth.
      “Well, that’s what you get,” the judge told him,” “Five to ten years at the state penitentiary of Ossining, New York.”
Or is the story one of legend, available in any hock shop of the trade? Early, Grogan makes palpable a love of poetry, noting how, in jail, anthologies of poetry were most “highly prized by long-termers because you can read them over and over without getting bored; the abstract phrasing of the words stimulates your imagination, and gives your mind opportunity to think for itself.” (So much for the newness of the canned cant of the “reader participating in the construction of meaning” of some high theory epigones.) One thinks of how poor insular with a vengeance Jack Spicer’d react to news that Grogan, briefly in New York after the Squint Laszlo episode, goes into a bookshop on Eighth Street and comes out with a “bag full of prose poetry,” naming, amongst all the Beats, “Jack Spicer.” Too, he tells a whopper of a story about the death of Borstal boy “Brendan Behan, himself.”
He came into the place besotted and slammed the door with loud shouts of “Bejasus!” and “Bullocks!” There were two women and five men sitting at the back end of the bar and Paddy the barman told Himself to shut his yap and show some respect for the ladies who were present or he’d serve him nothing to drink. Himself belched and nodded his head, agreeing to the demand. After he was served his pint of porter and double glass of Powers’ Irish whiskey, Himself stood in front of the empty stool next to one of the women whose back, like the other’s, was turned on him. While he downed his whiskey and gulped his pint, Himself quietly unzipped his fly and took out his bologna of a penis and laid it out flat on the seat of the empty stool without anyone noticing. When he finished his whiskey and had only a little porter left to his pint, he tapped the woman on her shoulder and she turned her head towards him, and Himself took his right hand and without saying a word he pointed down at the stool, and when the woman craned her neck and saw what he was pointing at, she screamed so loud even Himself had to cup his hands over his ears to keep them from being split. Then she fell off her bar stool and onto the floor in a dead faint, revealing the sight which had startled her to the other lady, who also shrilled and took a dead fall, leaving the long, fat, round, uncircumcised muscle resting on the stool for her gentlemen companions to stare at with eyes bulging and mouths gaping. They didn’t faint, and Himself thought they had a poor sense of humor indeed when they dragged him outside and gave him a thumping which left him in the gutter with a cracked skull. He was taken to the hospital and there his liver failed, due to the lack of proper alcoholic sustenance which it regularly required.
Oh, Ireland.

Brendan Behan, 1923-1964

Emmett Grogan, 1943-1978
(Photograph by John Dominis)