Friday, May 29, 2009

Adina Hoffman’s My Happiness Bears No Relation to Happiness: A Poet’s Life in the Palestinian Century



Abashedly admitted to naming it privately throg-necking. ¶ One unintended consequence of the single unit placement wars. ¶ A questionable little book of spurious quotes parcel’d out of newspapers Canadian and foreign that he propped up to serve for a drivel-bib. ¶ Number the pauses, anchor the metaphors, name the hazards something chummy: the dog Shanks mysteriously lost in childhood, the Franklin half dollar-sized turtle Ben for whom you mash’d up all those flies, tweezering out the wings, the scorn’d girl Wilhelmina who soil’d herself during the state-required examination, a puddle ineffably yellow suddenly there under the chair. ¶ Offer up something lightly-salt’d and mouth-watering in the victual line near chapter-endings. ¶ Wagering that the clang certitude of a contemporary rondeau redoublé’d nab the thing, she mark’d out ‘something something Cheney something heinous’ and took off, in a plausible fit of lyric destiny. ¶ Visible bystander cringe and its replacement: the group shrug. ¶ Thumbing Certs at the zoo ducks. ¶ Numb Nuts and the RVs or Numb Nuts and the Recreational Vehicles. ¶ Who recalls the deceased minor jazzman, the Québécois alto saxophonist Hiccough ‘Hic’ Jacquet, isn’t he bury’d here? ¶ ‘Anus’ fits, too. ¶ Is it the vaporous pouring-forth of questionable utterance that ticks you off, or the unctuous smarm of the pre-guaranteed compliments? ¶ Quechua derives out of the Quechua word for plunderer, or robber, kkechúa. ¶ Imperialism hits home. ¶ Unaffiliated redneck, or hipster Doppelgänger? ¶ Fitting advice in the Captains of Industry boutique, its dressing rooms fill’d with hand-me-downs. ¶ Tantamount to the slings and arrows of your outrageous fortune maybe. ¶ At the sign of the Catamount Foutu. ¶ Towards a literature of anti-post-foreplay paroxysms—‘Folgend den Bomberschwärmen / Komm ich nach Haus.’ ¶ He put toxins to mouth (en su boca), y empezo a cantar (and vamp’d like a cantor). ¶ A nose for knowing exactly how to tweak the info-nose.

Reading, amongst too big a heap of other things half-cock’d and sprawling, the tremendously moving My Happiness Bears No Relation to Happiness: A Poet’s Life in the Palestinian Century (Yale University Press, 2009), by Adina Hoffman. A biography of Taha Muhannad Ali, author of Never Mind: Twenty Poems and a Story (Ibis Editions, 2000), translated by Peter Cole, Yahya Hijazi, and Gabriel Levin, and So What: New and Selected Poems, 1971-2005 (Copper Canyon, 2006), the latter an expand’d version of the former, with the original Arabic en face. I recall reading a New York Times notice of Hoffman’s book wherein Dwight Garner, the reviewer, complain’d of Hoffman’s “waging a sit-down strike against linear storytelling and narrative momentum,” adding that “the book takes 300 pages to bring us to where Mr. Ali publishes his first poem.” As if a poet’s biography is about publishing something! What Hoffman’s book is clearly “about” is place, milieu, particularly Ali’s home Galilee village of Suffuriya, and the way place dawdles in memory—particularly, as here, place destroy’d (Suffuriya, completely razed by the Israelis in the wake of the 1948 war, no longer exists, though it—and a whole shifting Palestinian way of life, under the Turks, under the post WWI British Mandate—is heartbreakingly summon’d in Hoffman’s pages.) (Taha Ali, then aged seventeen, fled to Lebanon during the 1948 war, returning to settle in Nazareth a year later. Hoffman: “an autodidact, he has operated a souvenir shop near Nazareth’s Church of the annunciation for more than fifty years.”) I find myself full of some aching bittersweet nigh-physical pleasure reading Hoffman’s report of how Ali’s father, Abu Taha, (lame, unable to work) talk’d and told stories, “smoked cigarettes and drank unsweetened black coffee, sada, served in little cups” in one small “humble” room (“its minimal contents—a few straw mats, several thin wool-stuffed mattresses, a low stool, the worn shoes of the men cast off by the door”) in the house, a gathering place call’d a madafeh for just such ritual activity. Here is where Ali, as a child, gain’d a love of story, language. Hoffman: “It was the place where he first heard poetry and pre-Islamic legends, first encountered local history and world politics, first absorbed how men talked to one another, first learned how to listen. It was ‘the university of the fallah’” (literally, “peasant,” “villager”). What call’d up the ache, Hoffman’s description of the coffee being prepared:
The preparation of the coffee itself was an elaborately prescribed way of passing the time in the madafeh, very different but no less intricate than a Japanese tea ceremony, and Abu Taha was acclaimed for his excellent brew: he had small iron brazier filled with lit coals, over which he would first roast the greenish beans with a long-handled flat pan and spoon made for him by the gypsies who sometimes pitched camp in the bayader and were known for their metalwork. Then he’d transfer the hot beans to a small wooden scoop where they’d cool, then would move them again to a narrow-necked wooden mortar in which he’d pound them to a fine, aromatic dust. After transferring the grounds to a bird-beaked pot, he would add the water from a jug, and when it had boiled, he would let the liquid sit and intensify, then move it to another, smaller pot, to which more water would be added. Again Abu Taha would boil the coffee and only then, after pouring it into the third and smallest pot, would the coffee by served in thimble-like cups, know as abadi, which contained just a few precious sips—the pungent essence of all that work, time, and concentration. No matter the number of guests, these vessels were always arrayed on the tray in odd numbers, three, seven, five, though no one in Abu Taha’s day could recall the superstitious reason why.
Is it the ritual itself here, that regular knowingness and certainty, or the way it bespeaks a leisureliness completely gone that makes one find longing burst up like a scent? I often think the reason for our incipient madness is loss of dawdle . . .

I’ve hardly read any of Taha Muhammad Ali’s writings, though I do love the little poem that is the source of Hoffman’s title, how it talks of “What seems to you / so nimble and fine, / like a fawn, / and flees / every which way, / like a partridge, / isn’t happiness.” (Something of the simplicity, and the creaturely metaphor, recalling the poems of the Song of Solomon.) Here’s another, longer, in its entirety, engaging with some ferocity cut with humor, the facts, one thinks, personal and political, of the Palestinian century:
Post-Operative Complications Following the Extraction of Memory

In an ancient, gypsy
dictionary of dreams
are explanations of my name
and numerous
interpretations of all I’ll write.

What horror comes across me
when I come across myself
in such a dictionary!
But there I am:
a camel fleeing the slaughterhouses,
galloping toward the East,
pursued by processions
of knives and assessors,
women wielding
mortar and pestle for chop meat!

I do not consider myself a pessimist,
and I certainly don’t
suffer from the shock
of ancient, gypsy nightmares,
and yet, in the middle of the day,
whenever I turn on the radio,
or turn it off,
I breathe in a kind of historical,
theological leprosy.

Feeling the bonds of language
coming apart in my throat and loins,
I cease attending
to my sacred obligations:
barking, and the gnashing of teeth.

I confess!
I’ve been neglecting
my post-operative physiotherapy
following the extraction of memory.
I’ve even forgotten
the simplest way of collapsing
in exhaustion on the tile floor.


Taha Muhummad Ali

Adina Hoffman

Thursday, May 28, 2009

“Damp and Inconsequential”

“. . . This leaving-out business. On it hinges the very importance of what’s novel
Or autocratic, or dense or silly. It is as well to call attention
To it by exaggeration, perhaps. But calling attention
Isn’t the same thing as explaining, and as I said I am not ready
To line phrases with the costly stuff of explanation, and shall not,
Will not do so for the moment. Except to say that the carnivorous
Way of these lines is to devour their own nature, leaving
Nothing but a bitter impression of absence, which as we know involves presence, but still.”
                                                                                                                                           —John Ashbery, “The Skaters”


Making a sappy jab at discomfiture’s buss, and getting a leg up.
Heroic loquacity, and lip gloss, peach-tint’d. To rue one’s Gott-ruin’d
Militancy. The one counting cadence linger’d, and had to be cut
Out of the briefing. Three thousand fucking ducats! Going
All the way to Moscow and back in my space-annihilating headgear
(Another example is Kafka). The shrapnel’s way of smothering the dys-
Functional blanketing surmise that ‘nothing is / But what is not.’
High rhetorical hootings
In pieces, a
Scamp way of
Dazzling the eructing
Electorate, though un-
Patent’d by me.
I am thinking
Of the trochlear
Groove the rope
Runs along, its
Way of knowing
Each echt stitch
And cable of
Immodest ropery. All
The immaturely circumstantial
Fuckers just bury
The works under
In orgillous rejoindures
And pedant implausibilities
The likes of
Which’d blow doors
Off the kingly
Bed-chambers provided
He didn’t sleep
Standing up. They
Cry ‘Idiom! idiom!’
With moral anguish and copacetic delight. One brother had to be cut
Out of the silk briefs he’d donned for R & R in Tokyo, blood-gush
In the pitch of the Huey, and never evacuat’d be until
Great Birnam Wood to high Whatsisname come, shit
Bouncing everywhere. I wrote Spaceman on my pot. Cross’d it out
And wrote Mowgli. Got out of there without being turn’d into jungle-
Broth. Brother, ‘my heart hath but one string to stay it by.’

“Little Sadie” lyrics dogging the humid air coming up off the bicycle tire, shout’d to nobody in particular: “I run right home and I went to bed. With a forty-four smokeless under my [drawn out signifying diminuendo’d moan] head . . .” Solipsism’s only got itself to drag down into the flaccid varietals of amusement, no? I did finish off that Lopate book, Notes on Sontag, with increasing skepticism and disenchantment. Lopate talks about Hippolyte, the protagonist of Sontag’s early novel, The Benefactor, a man self-admittedly “in the enviable position of being entirely at my own disposal, free to pursue my own questions . . . and to satisfy . . . my passion for speculation and investigation,” and suggests that Sontag’s “bravery is in insisting on the allure of solipsism”:
I submit that I made a choice, admittedly an unusual one. I chose myself. And because of my absorption in myself and relative indifference to other people, my inward ear became acute enough to hear a mandate from myself which isolated me from others. The mandate was, so far as I understand it, to live out to the fullest the meaning of privacy.
(William Matthews’s riff off Polonius’s lines to Laertes in Hamlet trots up, tail going furiously—it is “Homer’s Seeing-Eye Dog” who talks:
                                                I think you bipeds
have a catchphrase for it: “To thine own self
be true, . . .” though like a blind man’s shadow,
the second half is only there for those who know
it’s missing. Merely a dog, I’ll tell you
what it is: “. . . as if you had a choice.”
Which is awkwardly put, the way any one-line joke insert’d (storyboard’d) into or, say, graft’d into, the trunk of a piece, is liable to fail to deliver the solid gut-grab it did when ad lib’d corner of the mouth E. G. Robinson style in the bar the night preceding.)

(Windbaggery: sign of trying to sneaky-Pete away without another look at the Lopate Sontag?)

What the book accomplishes, no little thing, is to turn one back to the works, particularly the brilliant early essays (though, admittedly, one turns so out of impatience and discontent with the character “Susan Sontag” herself: that is to say, she sounds simple insufferable, vain, obsess’d with stature, meanly serious, dismissive). Though, anti-up to an aperçu like—
Lately, the appetite for the truly great work has become less robust. . . . Stripped of its heroic statue, of its claims as an adversary sensibility, modernism has proved acutely compatible with the ethos of an advanced consumer society. Art is now the name of a huge variety of satisfactions—of the unlimited proliferation, and devaluation, of satisfaction itself. Where so many blandishments flourish, bringing off a masterpiece seems a retrograde feat, a naïve form of accomplishment.
—(out of Sontag’s essay on Hans Jürgen Syberberg’s film “Hitler,” in Under the Sign of Saturn) and one is reluctant to fold early. Or, what about the line out of On Photography: “Television is a stream of under-selected images, each of which cancels its predecessor.” (Ah, so, too, the steady gratificatory miasma of Blogland . . .) There’s a fierce morality to Sontag that defines itself in contempt for something like a mass lack of selectivity (it’s a dangerous stance, knowing what’s “good for” hoi polloi). In “At the Same Time: The Novelist and Moral Reasoning,” she says:
The so-called stories that we are told on television satisfy our appetite for anecdote and offer us mutually canceling models of understanding. (This is reinforced by the practice of punctuating television narratives with advertising.) They implicitly affirm the idea that all information is potentially relevant (or “interesting”), that all stories are endless—or if they do stop, it is not because they have come to an end but, rather, because they have been upstaged by a fresher or more lurid or eccentric story. By presenting us with a limitless number of non-stopped stories the narratives that the media relate . . . offer a lesson in amorality that is antithetical to the one embodied by the enterprise of the novel.
Though, of course, novel follows novel, “fresher or more lurid”—there is mention by Lopate, too, of Sontag’s constant push to be first “fashionista” out of the shoot with news of what’s “the real thing and the rarest”—her approbatory nod for Roberto Bolaño. As Lopate puts it: one sees such a tendency either “in a negative light, as an insecure need to be always on the cutting edge, or, in a positive light, as a demonstration of her curiosity and unquenchable enthusiasm for making new discoveries.” (And, with that—and vaguely wondering if I know that dude—and a growing opprobrium for my own unfocus’d—lens smear’d with Vaseline making everything seem “damp and inconsequential”—spouting, I move “off.”)

Susan Sontag, c. 1962

Wednesday, May 27, 2009

That New Thang (Again and Again and Again and Again . . .)

“Moving Images”


A thrasher in the choke-
cherry, doing its twice-told
mimic deliberations while rainwater off
the eaves makes a crease-
mark in the mulch. The
Tyvek stretch’d around the Mulberry
Street addition hangs slack and
the leaves of the honey
locust look toxic, jaundice-yellow
in the drench. May: through
the fingers like water, or
money. X: “If anybody asts
yo’ ass to expend it’seff
for time against money, you
gonna choose time eb’ry time—
it nebbe lose.” A Panamanian
up in the Crimean yayla
with a butterfly net, squared
off and terribly white. It
reminds me of the cream-
color’d lozenge, the “pocket handkerchief”
of the black-throat’d blue,
coming through about now. Grief
lodges in my throat. Grief’s
hard lozenge in my throat.

Isn’t Stephen Burt, in racing, apparently, to score a follow-up success in trend-spotting (see the “elliptical” poets—first sight’d in 1998), stacking the deck with “The New Thing” (in the May/June 2009 issue of Boston Review) gambit? How’s the old argument go? “Elliptical” = “the most imitated American poets” of the last decade or so (a stretch) = “slippery, digressive, polyvocalic” poems with airy whiffs of narrativity-defying “life stories” or of argument-empty “continental philosophy,” poems “full of illogic” and “associative leaps” (echoes of Robert Bly?) = “sparkling bursts of voluble utterance.” No examples provided (though Fence “(founded 1998)” is offer’d up as “emblematic magazine”). Nevertheless, Burt, straw props in place, solemnly intones: “Their good poems were good indeed: we are going to keep reading them.” And adds (presumably mimicking Edgar Poe): “And yet the pendulum has started to swing.”

Burt next proceeds, with a nod to Tony Hoagland’s recent caning (in Poetry) of “the skittery poem of our moment” (that “moment” being, according to Hoagland, when “the poetic pleasure of elusiveness commits itself, inadvertently, to triviality”—as if the elusive—as opposed to the brute tangible—had a direct line to the trivial—one need only recall that “era” of the early ’seventies when it seem’d every American poem had its “stone” and poetry readings demand’d the husky voice, the “weight’d” cadence, material seriousness abounding)—Burt proceeds to reject Hoagland’s “nominee for a replacement” (poetry, the democratic art)—narrative—and, hoisting the blinders, (narrowing the field), trots off in search of the Next Big Thing. It’s no surprise that Rae Armantrout’s work provides the template for the excursus—the bandwagon for Armantrout’s so overload’d of late that it risks tipping all its riders into the creek. She is, of course, the easiest of the historical Language-crowd to rescue, to recuperate. Burt notes how her “compact, sharp work, too-long conflated with Language-writing-in-general [what is that?], now seems to some younger poets worth emulating on its own.” What Burt sees in Armantrout is “brevity and the skeptical pressure she puts on each word.” And he makes a point of quoting an interview wherein she says “I’m phobic . . . about ‘making things up.’” Her “difficult poems strive for accuracy,” says Burt, and “take bearings from real events.” The upshot, the payoff pitch, unarticulated by Burt, is: the New Thing is that old thing—sincerity and authenticity, “craft” and honor and seriousness. That (and here the enunciation is emphatic) “distrust of the unaided (or unchecked) imagination” informs Newthingism (and, presumably, Burt’s Newthingists).

Off of that beginning, model to hand, Burt attempts to “constitute a tendency.” He points to minimalist (Creeley) and Objectivist (Oppen, Niedecker, Zukofsky) forerunners, and Williams’s “No ideas but in things” and “small (or large) machine” front the parade; he jaws about the “well-made, attentive, unornamented” (casually linking the restrict’d, the humble, the faithful to durability, as if all lofty structures fall down). And just when one’s about to quote a completely “skittery” Armantrout poem out of Versed, as counter-exemplary proof,* Burt tosses down an escape hatch, skittery enough in itself: “The poets of the New Thing eschew sarcasm and tread lightly with ironies, and when they seem hard to pin down, it is because they leave space for interpretations to fit.” Those airy nothings. (Or: “Why, those airy nothings.”) Though, a few paragraphs later, that ’seventies “stone” gets wedged in tight to the fit: Burt rehashes an argument that sees classical antiquity’s lyric poetry oscillating between “fleeting song” and “an inscription in stone,” and declares: “The New Thing represents a shift from the first idea of lyric to the second: from performing art to hard craft, from air to stone.” What’s need’d, it is imply’d, is restraint, hard work, control, severest measure, and, fidelity. Poetry is no longer an exploratory means, a testing (as one gingerly—or brashly—swings oneself up into a tree to see if the limb’ll hold); it is a religion. (Burt: “Fidelity implies limits; it implies self-restraint.”) Oh dear.

There follows some exemplary figures and presses: Devin Johnston’s poems and Flood Editions (and some of its roster, Graham Foust in particular) get tout’d, as does Jeffrey Yang’s recent An Aquarium. (Flood Editions’s Lisa Jarnot is mention’d, who’d conceivably “fit” the scheme—though not always—not in the Night Scenes naming binges and neologistickal archaisms romps; Jennifer Moxley, particularly in the new Clampdown, is completely beyond the terms of Burt’s argument. See the opening of “The March Notebook”: “The intellect at work can alienate the world. / Should, during the progression of your life, / the fashions change and the young, / ever capricious, abandon you, it may be / because they know better than to follow / the compass of an unpopular idea, / upon which the most rarified needle / risks leading them away from the source.” William Fuller (a Flood Editions stalwart), writer of wily and difficult attempts to put down the shifting transfers and runs of consciousness in language liable to jump register mid-word, fits no “right basinski’d” New Thing agenda, unh-unh. Ange Mlinko’s musically lush and linguistically baroque maneuvers soar maximally faithful to no mere “thing”; the poets print’d by Rod Smith’s Edge Books pull together contemporary—often highly politicized—bric-a-brac, speech acts, popular detritus, noise, and effusions. Little “brevity, self-restraint,” or “material objects as models” there (though both Kevin Davies’s The Golden Age of Paraphernalia and Chris Nealon’s Plummet show amazing handiwork with large malleable structures, lattice-works capable of terrible expandings and embrasures). One could assemble a colossal heap of such errant practices, each countering the wan and pre-stress’d New Thing mirey categorical.

And, as if aware that the New Thing model’ll account for only that tiny slice of contemporary practice, midway through the essay, Burt attempts to expand the definition to include forms of documentary, apparently on the theory that “material conditions” is kin to “materiality”—thingness—tout court. Call it The New Fact. Or The New Condition. So Mark Nowak’s transcriptions of workers in Shut Up Shut Down is ink’d in under the New Thing rubric. Even more absurdly, Juliana Spahr’s Steinian grammar-exercises get roped so, too (Burt: “she . . . connects the material conditions she observes to her own inner life”). Don’t we all. (And Burt quotes some versets of Spahr’s “The Incinerator” about growing up in Chillicothe, Ohio, warning that if “read too fast” the lines “look like prose memoir. But they are not.” Neither, though, are they restrain’d, or compress’d, or Williamsesque. Nor (“We worried a lot about my father getting fired”) do they exhibit the incisive clean-cut measure Burt extols / calls for. How square it with Burt’s (rather awkwardly-phrased) pronouncement that: “The opposite of showy insubstantiality is not . . . narrative, but inscription: a poem that fits an object designed to last.”

Toward the end of “The New Thing” Burt turns sociologist, attempting to locate a reason for the claim’d shift in sensibility and means. The usual culprits tick’d off:
Is the New Thing—with its documentary cousins—related to 9/11? To the rise of the Web, where most texts seem ephemeral, and where short texts (but not long ones) circulate easily? To the depredations of the Bush administration, which cast as irresponsible a Clinton-era poetry of free play? Or simply to the exhaustion of the effusive, associative, neo-Baroque mode that came just before? These are questions better answered later on. For Wright, as for Spahr and Nowak, poetic attention to facts and things—emulated, reclaimed, quoted, re-framed—speaks to the material conditions a left-wing politics works to change. For other makers of the New Thing though, the solidity they seek is not so much economic as phenomenological: the poem finds, and emulates, some permanence—it is, and describes, something with weight and “measure,” small enough to hold in the hand.
The Wright refer’d to is C. D. Wright, whose work in Rising, Falling, Hovering, is described as “by turns documentary, thing-like and songlike.” Meaning, yakking and wild, and unrestrain’d, stone and air and hardly New Thing at all. I’d quarrel with the suggestion that short texts somehow circulate with facility (opposed to those lumbering billion-pixel’d long poems). I’d quarrel with 9/11’s having changed a thing. I’d quarrel with the idea that “poetic attention to facts and things—emulated, reclaimed, quoted, re-framed—speaks to the material conditions a left-wing politics works to change.” (As if only clarity and plain speech—and not satire, not caterwauling, not opulence, not music, not inebriation and excess—lent weight to change: that’s Pound’s use of Confucius—“making words precise” makes for durability and use.)

*A poem by Rae Armantrout, out of Versed. Consider how it fits (or refuses) Burt’s rejection of the “skittery” in favor of “accuracy” and the taking of “bearings from real events.” I’d wager there’s less concern with “thing” here, than a concern with the feints and parries of conversation, with relations, with the miasma of choices language itself always supplies. Its beauty is precisely in the tenuousness of its syntax (and imply’d situation); it is hardly an “inscription in stone.”

The intentions come

Little apron leaves,

what are you
covering up,


and forgotten on a
woody stalk?

Will itself



These dark tunnels

and through
the loving look.

Reaching both
and neither

always makes me hot.

“Did you have fun
playing with trains,

Phantom Stallion,

Rainbow Frog?”

Stephen Burt
(Photograph by Jessica Bennett)

Tuesday, May 26, 2009

Devin Johnston’s Creaturely

“What’s past is prologue”

Isn’t it one of the perennial (impossible) reveries of art to return things to thing-hood and beings to being-hood, stripped of any human (cultural) décor or use or encrustation? Such a dream haunts Devin Johnston’s Creaturely and Other Essays (Turtle Point Press, 2009)—signal’d by an epigraph out of David Malouf’s An Imaginary Life, “The creatures will come creeping back—not as gods transmogrified, but as themselves”—long fermata bass note holding against the high treble passacaglia-work (or understory low-stealth to canopy gymnastics). For Johnston’s means of getting at the nature of beasts creaturely here is roundly (read: solidly, and layeredly, a musical round) digressive: in the spirit of Guy Davenport (capable of assembling and aligning the beams of a lecture—the walling-in accomplish’d in situ—while walking to teach at the University of Kentucky), or of A. R. Ammons, who claim’d “a poem is a walk” (and recalling, too, the terrific finely-observed natural histories of Merrill Gilfillan), Johnston writes:
In keeping with the etymology of the word digression, I drafted these essays walking around St. Louis and its environs, where I have lived since 2001. As Henry David Thoreau would say, I acted for a time as self-appointed inspector of thunderstorms and starlings, sycamores and squirrels, making my daily rounds. Weedy species and volunteers—common forms of life, opportunists like ourselves—I took as my particular charge. I sought out their local haunts, imagining what they saw, heard, smelled, tasted, and felt. En route, a poem would often come to mind, my private anthology serving as a wayward field guide to whatever I found. In that sense, the poems quoted here are less objects of study than “equipment for living” (in Kenneth Burke’s phase).
So one is offer’d wondrous randoms through things like animal senses of smell (starring the dog Chester), urban crow gang behaviors, how birds see “hues entirely unknown to us,” mouse riddance (and the Cretan “Apollo Smintheus, mouse god”), and owl ossuaries. Each essay, with modesty and patience—that is, with consummate deliberation, without flaunting one’s lore—assembles and concatenates a marvelous set of tidbits into a prose condensery (Lorine Niedecker’s word, there is a kinship between Johnston’s decant’d and finely-alloy’d prose and Niedecker’s late pieces). Along the way, one finds quoted apt penetralia out of writers as various as Robert Adamson, James Thomson, Emerson, Yeats, Basil Bunting, Marianne Moore, Robert Burns, Tom Pickard, Chapman’s Homer, Jane Harrison, Aidan Higgins, and Coleridge (“A dunghill at a distance sometimes smells like musk, and a dead dog like elder-flowers.”) There’s a piece at the end of Johnston’s “Murmurations” (about starlings—present in North America only because Shakespeare had Hotspur, in Henry IV, say he’d have “a starling shall be taught to speak / Nothing but ‘Mortimer’” and nearly three centuries later “A drug manufacturer named Eugene Schieffelin decided that New York should be home to all the songbirds mentioned in Shakespeare and joined the American Acclimatization Society for that purpose”—resulting in the late nineteenth century release of half a hundred breeding pairs into Central Park) where an enormous shifting flock of starlings descends to become “a concentrated darkness in the oak limbs,” and Johnston’s own essayistic meander and mustering method seems spell’d out in the murmuration’s collective self-organizing banter and rustle and squawk, its “pastiche of motifs”:
The starlings begin a dusk chorus, condensing all they have heard of relevance or curiosity. Just as dreamwork transforms the body’s stimuli and residues of desire, the birds’ song sifts the ambience of this day. Their chorus accrues much that we will never hear, learnt from unpopulated grain fields, parking lots, and unlivable spaces that we have built. It rises to a great cacophony against the last light before diminishing.
One motif that recurs in the essays: the liminal, the border, any division between inner and outer, home and away (or two fields, all that activity in the demarcating hedgerow between). In “Mouse God,” Johnston reports finding (one winter night in a St. Louis kitchen) “a deer mouse frozen in panic on the floor, forefoot suspended midstride,” and reflects: “The sudden manifestation of this creature—tiny yet intense—carried an uncanny charge. Unheimlich, the German for ‘uncanny,’ literally means ‘unhomely,’ something from outside that has crept indoors.” Elsewhere, in “Specific Worlds,” Johnston refers to biologist Jakob von Uexküll’s model of particularly “creaturely” scales (“We are easily deluded into assuming that the relationship between a foreign subject and the objects in his world exist on the same spatial and temporal plane as our own relations with the objects in our human world”), and writes:
More than mere organism, an animal gets constituted in its essential activities of perceiving and doing. . . . von Uexküll describes the organized experience of a particular creature as its Umwelt, a German compound meaning “a surrounding world” or “milieu.” . . . The Umwelt . . . is not a shared environment but an entirely subjective, phenomenal world. We can enter the Umwelt of another creature—its particular world of time and space, cause and effect—only through imaginative forays.
And there Johnston—rather like that deer mouse, “forefoot suspended midstride,” moves to consider the etymology of foray, and uses its “roots in foraging” to move off in a fine mode of aimlessly considering.

Particularly enjoyable, the recurrent (and various) references to classical writings and myths, making casually wise and “homely” connections. Here’s that mouse god and its appearance in George Chapman’s translation of The Iliad:
Apollo Smintheus remains familiar to us through the Iliad. At the epic’s opening, Agamemnon enslaves the beautiful daughter of Chryses, priest of the mouse god, and refuses any ransom. Chryses prays,
                                                                    O Smintheus, if crownd
With thankfull offerings thy rich Phane I ever saw, or fir’d
Fat thighs of oxen and of goates to thee, this grace desir’d
Vouchsafe to me: paines for my teares let these rude Greekes repay,
Forc’d with thy arrowes.
Smintheus answers this prayer after the manner of rodents, spreading through the Greek army a plague transmitted on the tips of his arrows. In Chryses’s temple, nearly a thousand years after the fall of Troy, Scopas carved Apollo with a mouse beneath his foot. Coins from the region depict the god cupping the little creature in his hand.
And, because writing is something of a braid or fabric of seeings, I find myself perfectly enchant’d by Johnston’s working together (in “Second Sight”) into a single piece of bright cloth, notes about the seventeenth-century Scottish minister and seer of fairies Robert Kirk, author of The Secret Commonwealth, an account of fairy life record’d, the suggestion is, by one of “hypersensory vision” (“Some have bodies or vehicles so spongeous, thin, and defaecat that they are fed by only sucking into some fine spirituous liquor that pierces like pure air and oil”), along with Robert Hooke of the marvelous Micrographia and William Blake. Johnston:
According to Kirk, the senses of these refined spirits are attuned to vibratory hints of distant events, even those yet to occur. In this respect, they share with animals the intuitive powers that we have lost:
As birds and beasts, whose bodies are much used to the change of the free and open air, foresee storms, so those invisible people are more sagacious to understand by the Book of Nature things to come than we who are pestered with the grosser dregs of all elementary mixtures and have our purer spirit s choked by them.
Like the fairies themselves, “men of second sight” and seers of fairies have a spectral sensitivity that surpasses “the ordinary vision of other men.” They witness the hidden world through improvements “resembling in their own kind the usual artificial helps of optic glasses (as prospectives, telescopes, and microscopes).” Robert Hooke, the father of microscopy and a close contemporary of Kirk, argues in Micrographia that such instruments might compensate for the human loss of both sensory perfection and Adamic knowledge. A century later, William Blake conceived of our fall from full sensory awareness in similar terms. In The Marriage of Heaven and Hell, he tells us that the senses were “enlarged and numerous” until contracted into five: “for man has closed himself up, till he sees all things thro’ narrow chinks of his cavern.”
Another way by which unobstruct’d full human knowing of things and creatures is quash’d.

Creaturely is a terrific book, exquisitely design’d by Jeff Clark (an enigmatically crop’d full-bleed detail of Hans Holbein the Younger’s early sixteenth century painting, A Lady with a Squirrel and a Starling graces the cover).

Hans Holbein the Younger, “A Lady with a Squirrel and a Starling,” c. 1526-8

Devin Johnston


A method coughs
up its loud
caucus and succumbs

to mannerist hair-
splitting: the sun
clangs down reverberant

like a big
brass cymbal, its
width precisely that

of the length
of Prester John’s
foot. All night

I dog-trot
the Asian periphery,
olive drab clad,

scooping up scolds
of rust’d dog-
tags in bazaars.

If art is
the conquistador of
naught, why flank

it with imperial
gusto? It commemorates
everything or nothing,

marshals itself against
the trudge-particular
dudgeon of high

martial music and
its inveterate squad
or company: art

patrols no edge.
Out of green
jungle and ‘unwholesome

fen,’ the wound-
sucking sun pulls
clamor and rot

twinning cancerously, strips
art’s radiant carcass
inch-meal clean.

Friday, May 22, 2009

Phillip Lopate’s Notes on Sontag

Two Tulips


Here (doubtless passéiste sloganeering)
is my bullying counter-
command apropos of loud-
speakers: that you refuse
to allow any (agreeable,
benign, simpatico, or just)
to speak for you.
Authority (and hierarchy) loves
a designee, a mouth-
piece, and a glare,
whereas ‘a smattering of
prebends rends Scripture itself.’
(In unlit medieval Paris
anybody out at night
had to identify himself
by carrying a light.)
Bachelard: ‘The lonely dreamer
who sees himself being
watch’d begins to watch
the watcher. Hiding one’s
own lantern exposes the
lantern of the other.’
Ah, the brute whelm
of dispersal, the hang-
dog intimacy of base
surveillance! (Melville instruct’d Hawthorne:
‘go to the Soup
Societies.’) What I mean
is, be one who
unendingly disembarks, one who
mans a spectre-boat
in a loudening gay
flotilla, keeping the security
apparatus and engine nervous
(with its uncanny representations
of men), ‘a process of counter-
surveillance trigger’d everywhere a
surveillance lantern is lit.’

Splay and angst (a general condition). I paw the pristine (invariably, it is a book), trying to consume it. The balance, the tidy of it, compels and mocks: how-lock’d down and impeccable it is! How nail-bit and distract’d am I! Counter-clock’d cart-wheeling eye activity unleash’d on cue. Wood rasp roughing up the oily brain-lobes. A palsy and wobble of thinking loos’d like the belt-slipping squeak-chatter of a chipmunk, who finally streaks off with its tail stuck straight up, a one-idea man, like a man with a sandwich-sign.

Reading (finally, cavalcade and uproar of fidgeting subsiding) a little of Phillip Lopate’s new Notes on Sontag (Princeton University Press, 2009), inaugural number of a series of “Writers on Writers.” The sufferance of the essayist in a (compensatory) world of novelists:
I, who revere the art of essay writing, and who can never regard literary nonfiction as even a fraction inferior to fiction, find puzzling Sontag’s need to be thought primarily a novelist. But not unusual: postwar American writing featured a number of writers arguably better at nonfiction who preferred to be thought of as novelists: James Baldwin, Mary McCarthy, Gore Vidal, Norman Mailer, Truman Capote. Novels were considered the Big Game, essays the minor pursuit.
(And poetry? Only the foolish hunt the “queenly” poem—its reward is cachet, that majestic seal, pizzazz, what, one supposes, we now call “cultural capital.” One suspects the poet who “turns” novelist of some baser grub-instinct.) What Lopate’s book allows (in its notational, digressive way): a way of looking at Sontag’s contradictory moves. In “Thirty Years Later . . .,” a piece reconsidering her own 1966 classic, Against Interpretation that she publish’d in The Threepenny Review in 1996, she says “My idea of a writer: someone who is interested in everything,” and (as Lopate notes) “rues what she sees as the present moment, as ‘age of nihilism.’” Lopate: “while loyal to the Sixties, her honesty forces her to consider that its irreverence may have planted the seeds for the undermining of seriousness, while ‘the more transgressive art I was enjoying would reinforce frivolous, merely consumerist transgressions.’” Not that Sontag is assuming blame. She says:
Writing about new work I admired, I took the canonical treasures of the past for granted. The transgressions I was applauding seemed altogether salutary, given what I took to be the unimpaired strength of the old taboos. The new work I praised (and used as a platform to relaunch my ideas about art-making and consciousness) didn’t detract from the glories of what I admired far more.
And, later: “To call for an ‘erotics of art’ did not mean to disparage the role of the critical intellect. To laud work condescended to, then, as ‘popular’ culture did not mean to conspire in the repudiation of high culture and its burden of seriousness, of depth.” Which sayings inevitably require that I thump a little at “the age” (as I am wont, for at heart, “at heart I am an American moralist and I have no guilt,” as Patti Smith nearly said . . .) in its shallower manifestations (see the maximum gagas of FlarfCo® and company), recalling how, even in the original pages of “Against Interpretation,” even with its puckish Wildean epigraph “It is only shallow people who do not judge by appearances,” Sontag is clear: art’s job is refusal, the refusal to be buffalo’d by sheer consumptive ardor, mere fatting up on hilarity like medieval grotesques:
Ours is a culture based on excess, on overproduction; the result is a steady loss of sharpness in our sensory experience. All the conditions of modern life—its material plenitude, its sheer crowdedness—conjoin to dull our sensory faculties. . . .What is important now is to recover our senses. We must learn to see more, to hear more, to feel more. Our task is not to find the maximum amount of content in a work of art, much less to squeeze more content out of the work than is already there. Our task is to cut back content so that we can see the thing at all.
As Lopate puts it: “style as morality” is one of Sontag’s recurring concerns. As Sontag says in “On Style”:
All great art induces contemplation, a dynamic contemplation. However much the reader or listener or operator is aroused by a provisional identification of what is in the work of art with real life, his ultimate reaction—so far as he is reacting to the work as a work of art—must be detached, restful, contemplative, emotionally free, beyond indignation and approval.
That, against excess, formal or contentual. Lopate, recalling how Sontag’d approvingly quoted Jean Genet’s line that if his works arouse readers sexually, “they’re badly written, because the poetic emotion should be so strong that no reader is moved sexually. Insofar as my books are pornographic, I don’t reject them. I simply say that I lacked grace,” insists that
. . . grace is all, in Sontag’s cult of art. Sontag remains on some level a classicist, an Apollonian, embracing balance and harmony. Perhaps there is no contradiction here, like the teacher who writes on the blackboard in Godard’s Bande à Part, “Classique = moderne.”

Steve Evans is putting up the 2008 Attention Span. Select’d books that dogged or compell’d somehow, territorial marks of the preceding year or so with a clinging whiff. I stuck to poetry.

Phillip Lopate

Thursday, May 21, 2009

Opera (Aperta)

Red Palm


How about some operatic mewling:
how the completely feasible—cost-
efficacy a must—dry storage
and continual delivery of sheer
gaseousness awaits its Edison, though
compression canister-bombs en forme
de l’écriture « post-Idlewildienne »
a limit’d work-around. Like
changing one’s name for art!
van de Beeck to Torrentius!
Every affair develops on two
planes (and ends up in
an airport lounge, surround’d by
a forest of giant bamboos
mold’d out of recycled truck
tire Ho Chi Minh sandals).
Tango Uniform Victor Whiskey. I
think you know the story
of the feeble Dutch medical
student by the name of
Jan Swammerdam with the mania
for insect life. Bee-stung
lips, veins crawling with ants,
he shat out black beady
heaps of Coleoptera. There is
no end of human folly.
How I loved seeing brick
factories—so artisanal!—in Mexico.
“And then we towel’d each
other off and dash’d out
nakedly, into the green rain.”

Hunh? Off I went hier soir to see mezzo-soprano Elīna Garanča in the Metropolitan Opera’s recent do (record’d “live in HD”) of Rossini’s La Cenerentola, a version of the Cinderella story, liking particularly the broad comedic moves (think of Art Carney) and impeccable timing of Alessandro Corbelli (who play’d Don Magnifico), irreparably addled by the ongoing reverie of marrying off one of the two haughty daughters—gawky, horse-faced Clorinda (Rachelle Durkin) and Tisbe of the pinch’d snout (Patricia Risley)—to the princely Don Ramiro (Lawrence Brownlee). Garanča: mischievous, exquisite, and capable of singing tremendous soaring runs and flights of notes nigh-effortlessly, without any sign of temperamental vanity, recalcitrance, or any of the freights of the prima donna-ish. One question (ask’d in mighty and resonant basso profundo): how come the tenor always ends up with the girl?

Alessandro Corbelli in the Rôle of Don Magnifico in Rossini’s La Cenerentola

Elīna Garanča

Wednesday, May 20, 2009

Chris Nealon’s Plummet (II)

Some Clouds


Isn’t Frank O’Hara’s “minute bibliographies of disappointment” akin to
Pound’s “dim lands of peace,” that abstract genitive
Superfluous and dulling, spooning off adequacy? Though I think
O’Hara’s putting it to Ezra’s patootie a little when he says in “Personism”
How “the decision involved in the choice between ‘the nostalgia of
The infinite’ and ‘the nostalgia for the infinite’ defines
An attitude towards degree of abstraction.” I think he’s harrumphing
Out with a little malicious glee there, something he did with the ease
Of a gasp. When he plow’d through Sir Thomas Browne’s Religio
(juggling a tumbler of gin and a Camel cigarette, sunk down
Slouch’d in a canvas butterfly chair) and noted “when I
Survey the occurrences of my life and call into account the finger of God,
I can perceive nothing but an abyss and mass of mercies,” he leap’d
Up like a rodomontade knocking the philodendron alee to write
That thing about the “natural object” of church Sundays and The

Truth is, in my own “parade / of a generalized intuition” (how I “judge” the poetry-beasts that trundle down the thoroughfares dropping hot steaming turds of a maniacal variety of inconsistency), Chris Nealon’s Plummet is nigh-terrific. He works a supple long line (“I know prose is a mighty instrument but still I feel that plein-air lyric need to capture horses moving” he writes in “Poem (I know prose . . .)”) and, in a world seemingly divided between the jaunty and the raunchy (and no Mark Twain mete enough to refuse it all), Nealon chooses both (“Your job? Just keep cracking Demeter up” slides uneasily into “At the gates of Arabic I enter, illiterately // Actually I know two words // shaheed / habibi // I watch depictions of electrocution under bright fluorescent lighting with a slightly elevated heartbeat” into “Do I have an astral body or a tapeworm?”), and provides the humor himself. Nealon’s got verve and wit, and it regulates (without throttling) the underlying political rage of the book. Here’s “Sunrise,” one of the longer pieces in Plummet:
—and the felt-tip pen of the spider etches a message on the wall

message in oxygen and light         a hand gropes past me—

it says, nothing you read will help you now

not the pig-poetic snuffling behind the image
not the trampled earth behind the sun

helicopter buzzsaw bicycle bell

slammed door footfall schoolkids

the war is on


why does universal
matter peddle itself in packets when
we could take it harder?

slight convexity that used to be
the flat screen,

flatness that was once
a curved screen,

pleated fabric
on the walls and the movie so unmagical

not the moving image
not the immanent translation

not the hem who touched the hem


so noon is when the spoken
and the written touch

in chants, in shouts—

and the ease in your voices
and the glottal struggle in your voices
and the cryptogrammatic slur

all touch—

glyph of the beautiful
throwing a bouquet

glyph of the black flag
held aloft in schools


now into walls of fortresses

across the strange black vinyl of the shitting-stalls

on the lenses of the egrets poised above the freeway

with the edge of an Xacto

they carve SUNRISE

a shaft of it in shopping carts
the motes of it around their ears

matter itself now hauled in plastic bags to the Federal Building and mixed there
        with water and a little food dye

by the scrawl on the sidewalk that reads Go Ahead Honey Touch It


we’re here to puke in many colors—

elf-puke, witch-puke, giant-puke

disco puke and punk puke

vomit on the apron of the government
vomit on the boots of the police

it’s January 17, 1991
it’s March 20, 2003

It’s morning
Puke and sing
(The dates, obviously, of the beginnings of “our” two illegal and preemptive incursions—wars—against the sovereign state of Iraq.) If the piece begins in medias res and in writing (“felt-tip pen”), that never-casual and unceasing thing, it also begins with a terrible helplessness, the minuscule “spider.” (Recall “new forms of compositional helplessness”—the writer in / against the state is equivalent to “pig-poetic snuffling,” air, and theory.) I like how quickly human and local the cacophony of noises becomes: “helicopters” to “bicycle bells” to “schoolkids”—the beginning of the war’s got all the everyday nonchalance of an ice cream truck toodling by, against which—is it the academical self who’s indict’d?—“nothing you read will help you now.”

In the second section of “Sunrise”: a tiny jagged essay on the varieties of screening (screening off, screening in order to see) by way of television and movie screen shapes and sizes. “Packets” of “matter” (that hardly matters), only its shrinking (and our distance) makes any difference (“we could take it harder,” a lament for the simulacral ease that allows such farce). “Peddle”: the sale of the war, its image made palatable to the public by (or through?) “immanent translation”—that stupid inward glow of the nightly news, its acceptable drone, no hem (of stage curtain, of actress’s skirt): we’ve not even the chamber’d proximity of “live” theatre.

Three. Is “noon” akin to “high noon,” that old Western confrontational convention? If Nealon’s writing (partly) about the efficacy of the written word versus what, mobilization of bodies? the protesting crowds of the manif? speech? is it here that some rejection of writing occurs? Why “your voices”—that distance? Still: the physical world—the “cryptogrammatic slur // all touch—” fails, too, and becomes mere “glyph” (and glyphs out of a rather Hollywoodish, popular imaginary, “Molotov” and “black flag” cartoonishly dispelling even the “ease”-reality of any crowd).

Four. Another parable of writing. Sunrise itself turn’d to writing of a particularly vivid and rather gruesome kind. That “Xacto” recalling, one supposes, the “box cutters” of the “shahid” (martyr, witness; plural, apparently, šuhadā) of September 11. Writing become a kind of vandalism (“shitting-stalls”), not even the natural world (“egrets”) exempt, the “all touch—” tiny dream of communitas reduced to a slovenly plea: “Go Ahead Honey Touch It,” whilst something slightly ominous and “Federal” is done to the war “matter” (plastic bags evoking body bags?)

The paroxysms of puke in the final section occur, then, against a backdrop of the uselessly writ, the ineffectual—(I want to say the consciousness itself colonized by image-production, glyph’d-out). Against such helplessness, writing reduced to crude “carvings,” thwart’d and contain’d: illness and refusal, and the bodily joy of rebellion. Puke-music. Is it a form of infantilism? Probably. I did find some remarks that Nealon made about “Sunrise,” apparently for a class of Brenda Hillman’s. He refers to it as “that embarrassing thing, a political poem,” and continues:
—or, worse, a “topical” poem, involved in the recent war; in particular, it’s a poem trying to understand what kinds of writing and speech war generates, or captures. Basically I found myself, in March, thrown unexpectedly, in my political anger, into a kind of glyphic mode of seeing and reading: back in March, things—like events, and actors, as well as material objects—for a while things seemed both legible and conceptual to me, on the one hand, and like blunt, brute stuff, on the other. And somehow this seemed like the effect of the political situation.
        So I thought I’d test out, from the vantage of witnessing mostly, what it meant to live through a moment glyphically, to stumble between the articulate and the inarticulate facets of outrage and hope. One way of thinking about how the “form” of the poem tries to do this, then, is to think of the five sections as offering different approaches or occasions for this glyphic outlook. First, as a kind of epiphany; second, in a humbling recognition that the distribution of images or narrative (I’m at the movies in this stanza I guess) is off-kilter; third, in the realization that sometimes the way to grasp both aspects of the glyph is in a “moment”: in a chance: when things congeal: as when people’s togetherness, all at once, works. The fourth section presses on that a bit, to imagine the activity of politics-as-“writing” as distributed across space, not just trapped in that one flash-place where a political demonstration is taking place; and the last section, with the “we,” imagines grappling with political meaning as a comic mismatch between the articulate and the inarticulate, in vomit, that un-formal thing.
One final piece, sans commentaire, because I admire it, its variable antics and celebratory / consolatory swagger / limp:

The body is amazing

You could just decide, I want really strong ankles

Various plastic and rubber devices can be used to train it

A movement of the limbs can say, this is how much space there is in business for

        Leather Nikes in the 90’s, signifying triumph over technical obstacles

“It also has that wet look”

Depending on your nationality, your body can be “packed in ice and wrapped
        in cellophane”

I may or may not be able to find it

        Packed dance floors in slow motion / everybody on their cell

The body “has been announced so many times that it cannot occur”

        But it comes to life in carnival situations
        It is capable of feelings incommensurate with personhood

From the pagan version it has gone from being sculpture to being vector, but for what

        Dashed hopes in the little Parthenon
        Karaoke glory and “a touch of the gai savoir”

When the body goes limp so limps the world

        Soft as the slug’s antenna

Though my hair turn white I will not harden against it

Chris Nealon’s Plummet
(Cover by Liliane Lijn, “Waveguide: a counterpoint in 15 parts,” 1977-78)
(Design’d by Justin Sirois)

Tuesday, May 19, 2009

Chris Nealon’s Plummet (I)

Bounty Offer’d

Disconcerting—and possibly “wrong,” though I only detail a trajectory—to open Chris Nealon’s Plummet (Edge, 2009) and see its epigraph (“—yet leave the tower”) and be swell’d momentarily along some populist gamut by lines (in the first piece, “Jackhammer Namaskar”) like: “I want to send a message to the multitude / I want to spread beatitude but the animals are afraid of me.” One readjusts for “tone” and (eventually) figures out that Nealon’s “plummet” is less a rejecting of the long-chided ivory tower with its fickle scholiasts, than it is Hart Crane’s “plummet heart” out of “Recitative” (with all the declamatory ambivalence toward the ordinary that poet employ’d, and that title recalls). Crane:
                                                            Then watch
While darkness, like an ape's face, falls away,
And gradually white buildings answer day.

Let the same nameless gulf beleaguer us—
Alike suspend us from atrocious sums
Built floor by floor on shafts of steel that grant
The plummet heart, like Absalom, no stream.

The highest tower,—let her ribs palisade
Wrenched gold of Nineveh;—yet leave the tower.
The bridge swings over salvage, beyond wharves;
A wind abides the ensign of your will . . .

In alternating bells have you not heard
All hours clapped dense into a single stride?
Forgive me for an echo of these things,
And let us walk through time with equal pride.
I want to read it—Plummet in general—as a struggle to talk sensibly about “the age” to “the masses”—or somebody “like” them, I use the word, a terribly weight’d one, unadvisedly, though Nealon himself is prone to touches of revolutionary chic: “glyph of the beautiful / Molotov-thrower / throwing a bouquet // glyph of the black flag”—(for it is inform’d through and through by recent and abominable U. S. history and it keeps nodding in the direction of the radical impossibility of doing so—that is, talking sensibly—without a complexity of register-shifts, both self and “project”-deprecating.) That is to say: Plummet is smart and smart-alecky and fun: it is, too, beleaguer’d precisely by the “nameless gulf” of “no way to say it.” See it in the opening lines of “As If to Say”:
So I’m digging these new forms of compositional helplessness

“I bring to this project an immense wind”

I try to write descriptively,

But it all comes out a calligram: check-mark inanition: flicked wrist of creation

        the gaming movement of vowel sounds
        chorus and apostrophe

Only your prettiness is keeping you free
The trouble with such clever knowingness is that it threatens to become mere snottiness (later, the comedy-club Stevensesquerie “I seriously have a mind of winter” is follow’d by “I don’t know         it was spring”). It is poetry of the sleight-of-hand man, “pretty,” charged with audacity, and, for all its pump’d brave admittings of “inanition,” rather inane, and so (heartbreakingly, for one dreams of a poetry efficacious enough to make change) “free.”

“As If to Say” is not the only example. The preceding piece, “Headless,” reads, in part:
—I read your poem as a record of thirst, yes,
but also as a glass of water carried wobbling on a tray the length of the party

I experience your poem as learning to make do with its placement in a super-
      organized and mercilessly chaotic arrangement of contracts

I think your poem is hot

. . .

All the jottings in my notebook bore me

But there’s something touching in your little letterpress of capitals and stars
There’s an un-appalling touch of universal truth in watching how you almost
      come unbound

So I read your poem as a fumbling virtuoso throwing up of hands

There is no flag for its emotion but it has songs
That natural sass and fluidity of line recalls O’Hara (Nealon: “You pray: // I want / To be O’Hara / Lord, but it’s / Duncan where / We’re headed”—though one encounters none of Duncan’s pinch’d-to-fit esoterica here, or tendency to bombast). If the poetry loudly doubts its own efficacy, it does so with a wink and a nudge, wisecracking and promiscuous (I want to make a claim that it “falls” to something akin to “keeping the coterie amused”). (Not a quarrel with coterie-poetics, a quarrel with the dispatch of, say, the Iraq war to coterie-inflect’d ironies. See something like “Period Piece,” with lines like “the letter is the form in which the literary can still smile” or “I tried to write you sonnets but they sounded courtly” or “For your sake now I ignore the war, though I hope you will teach me the Latin for torture,” and ending—too knowingly caustic—with “Continue to love me. Send us your army.”) Fiddling whilst Rome burns? At its worst, it partakes of the empty-hand’d gaming of the clown-troupe FlarfCo® product. In poems like “Events and Happenings” (“The system was breaking down and we were lost in the maelstrom / The system was breaking down (which the mathematical theory says must happen) // They still weren’t acknowledging the system was breaking down, not to mention screwing people over and having them banned for life on LIVE, look it up!”), and “A Piece of It” (“The closing passages include Jake’s crisis of pure despair / Nine inches of pure despair // Wrenched into pure despair by a cowering husband, by a duplicitous, vile God, and not being able to afford £30+ for the so-called miracle moisturizers”), and “‘Most Gracious Channel’” (running similar basic data-mining moves on the phrase “this song” and pruning the imprudent—or impugning the impudent, or seeding the insedulous—out of what results), the borrow’d form itself mires down each piece. How quickly the Google-sculpt’d poem’s become an empty form, a shrug unreadable beyond itself, not unlike how WCW noted of the sonnet (though only after some several centuries) that every sonnet says “I am a sonnet”—every Google-sculpt says Google-sculpt. (Williams also noted how “Forcing twentieth century American into a sonnet” is “like putting a crab into a square box,” cutting off the legs to make it fit—a kind of fit image of the parsimonious low slapstick shtick that is FlarfCo®.)

“Janus-faced.” It’s in “Recitative” (“Regard the capture here, O Janus-faced, /
As double as the hands that twist this glass.”) And, too, I am thinking of O’Hara’s lines (out of the 1950 “L’Amour Avait Passé Par Là”):
a candle held to the window has two flames
and perhaps a horde of followers in the rain of youth
as under the arch you find a heart of lipstick or a condom
left by the parade
of a generalized intuition
it is the great period of Italian art when everyone imitates Picasso
afraid to mean anything
as the second flame in its happy reflecting ignores the candle and the wind
Unsuccessfully ignoring the brazen voice of Elton John calling out of that final line and mucking up the O’Hara, I am trying to say that tomorrow a different savage parade’ll go by. And it’s banner’ll likely read: “What I Like about Chris Nealon’s Plummet.

Chris Nealon


Diaphanous the light
propellant against cranny
and cave. It

dispels drear, rousts
it out like
speech: ‘Who heareth,

seeth not form /
But is led
by its emanation.’

Pound. A shapeliness
sprung of wavelets
slapping a tympanum,

forg’d in that
sanctum wherein pound
hammer and anvil.

Form is musical
or it is
nothing, a sidelong

look, changeable, shredding,
like a loop
of yarn nail’d

up and undoing
itself somewhere within
a distant nook.

Monday, May 18, 2009

A Mechanical Grunt (Sur la beauté)

Gaping, Yellow


Ephemeral, like the caddis-
fly that emerges up
out of its debris-
cover’d sac. Attach’d with
spittle to some down-
river side of rock,
its larval cairn marks
the imago’s hatch, synchronous
and en masse, design’d
for maximum sexual provender.
Oh the social ditties
of the formicary, apiary,
honeycomb, dewy and meagre—
it adds up nothing,
one isn’t the color
of the wood louse
roll’d up the size
of birdshot, one isn’t
the shrike-hung mouse
in the hawthorn tree.
Down in the dead
oak leaves, matted, under-
runnel’d with millipede holes,
the mayapples upthrust, provide
a sudden interrogatory green.
What is the point
of the ongoing cycle,
the abiding render’d stoic
by loss, the prissy
pure convert’d to God-
teeming morbid excess by
loss? The shaky crapulent
hand in the margin
is appraisal and testament.

The stretch’d out weekend, reading Larry Heinemann’s 1977 Close Quarters in between bouts with the Goncourt’s Journals. (I like my juxtaposings fatuous.) And dabbled in Daniel Kane’s new thing, We Saw the Light: Conversations Between the New American Cinema and Poetry (University of Iowa Press, 2009), with chapters on Kenneth Anger / Robert Duncan, Stan Brakhage / Robert Creeley, Frank O’Hara / Alfred Leslie, and John Ashbery / Rudy Burckhardt, amongst others. Out of it is Stan Brakhage replying to the question “What’s your response to the postmodern aesthetic that seeks to break down the boundary between art and pop culture—in essence, that anything can be art?”
With the addendum:
Created by a lot of lazy people who want to have their childhood kicks and have it sanctified as it was something tremendously serious. It’s not church-worthy. And they have infiltrated the colleges to an enormous extent where they’re even more pernicious because they know perfectly well that how to become a popular professor is to give all their student the sense that they can have all their easy movies, where they can escape and bug out, while at the same time having a profound art experience. The students lap it up, and both them of serve each other, sitting in lazy land. You know art is a hard pleasure, and that’s the beautiful thing about it. The appreciators are as hard-working as the maker to comprehend and unravel the enigmas and the complexities of a poetic cinema.
(Ah, all that whoop’d up Poundian struggle, the drawstring of the Beardsley line to Yeats that is work’d into the hem of the Cantos, “So very difficult, Yeats, beauty so difficult.” Pound:
Les hommes ont je ne sais quelle peur étrange,
                  said Monsieur Whoosis, de la beauté

La beauté, “Beauty is difficult, Yeats” said Aubrey Beardsley
          when Yeats asked why he drew horrors
          or at least not Burne-Jones
          and Beardsley knew he was dying and had to
          make his hit quickly
The Beardsley who perish’d of tuberculosis at age twenty-five, who aver’d: “I have one aim—the grotesque. If I am not grotesque I am nothing.”) That’s one thing I think, and parry Brakhage’s thrust to make of any art a religion. (Kane himself initially counters the Brakhage with lines out of O’Hara’s “mock manifesto ‘Personism’”—“Nobody should experience anything they don't need to, if they don’t need poetry bully for them. I like the movies too. And after all, only Whitman and Crane and Williams, of the American poets, are better than the movies,” seemingly putting O’Hara in the “popular culture” camp—a move that may not adequately read the ferocity of O’Hara’s contempt for the assumption of any need to make the distinction.

The other thing I think: how Brakhage’s lines might well apply to the Flarf / Conceptualist drill squad (whose only discipline, “sitting in lazy land,” is point’d toward the maintenance of tight ranks). Surely the “kicks” available there, if not exactly matching those of one’s childhood, mimic precisely—fatuous juxtaposings front and center again—those of the childhood of the “art.” What if one were to bring the Goncourts into play?—“There have been many definitions of beauty in art. What is it? Beauty is what untrained eyes consider abominable. Beauty is what my mistress and my housekeeper instinctively regard as appalling.” Is that a difficult beauty, or a class’d beauty? One is, I suppose, caught between rejecting the taint of religiosity, puritanical, the gnash’d teeth art-struggle, and rejecting the hoydens of gaping boorish “humor” at all cost (with its meretricious claims to profundity or “the age.”) Where turn? Nowhere. Vietnam novels. Who cares about beauty anyway? Edmund Burke says “Beauty is . . . some quality in bodies acting mechanically upon the human mind by the intervention of the senses.” Ah, these robotical clods . . . Why are you reading this anyhow?

Strips out of Stan Brakhage’s 1963 Film, “Mothlight”

Stan Brakhage, 1933-2003

Thursday, May 14, 2009

The Goncourt Journals

The Tolls


According to the Goncourts,
to whom he shout’d
it whole one day
‘in a stentorian voice,’
Flaubert’s early novel, Fragments
of Unremarkable Style,
the autochthonous melancholy of
youth unassuaged, even by
an ‘ideal whore.’ Later,
after a plausibly indifferent
meal, one unremark’d in
the Journal, the hermit
of Croisset pull’d out
“oriental trappings,” hoist’d a
red Turkish tarboosh, look’d
with morosity and tenderness
at leather breeches worn
in Egypt: ‘a snake
contemplating skin it’d shed.’
What any writing is.
If the soul of
any other is so
monstrously dark, what hilarity
we muster is a
dodge. So we gird
up repute with stupefying
feints and rent residuals,
sluice convulsedly through howler
unabash’d and wisdom infecund
alike, dropping a word
here, hoisting one up
for assay or proof
there. And out walking,
dog at heel unbid,
recall the imponderabilia of
‘this worldes transmutacioun,’ how
that other, too—the
one jotting cuff-notes
mid-ruckus—’d ‘seyn it
chaungen up and doun.’

Books invariably pointing to books, ganglionary knots of convergence and divergence: that’s how I end up prancing like a Firbank through the Journals of the brothers Goncourt, Edmond and Jules (in the 1962 Robert Baldick translation and selection, recently reissued, call’d Pages from the Goncourt Journals). Edmond, who lived long after Jules succumb’d to syphilis, prefaces one volume (in 1872) by claiming it “the confession of two twin spirits, two minds receiving from the contact of men and things impressions so alike, so identical, so homogeneous, that the confession may be considered as the effusion of a single ego, of a single I.” Which I find terribly refreshing after all the late twentieth century hoopla and avalanche of the shifting, discursive, unstable, “positioning” self, the common cant of it. “I am half an I.”

The fun, though, is in the snips of table-talk, the literary sightings. Here’s Baudelaire à table in October 1857 (a couple of months after being fined 300 francs for offending public morals with Les Fleurs du Mal, and having six poems therein suppress’d) at the Café Riche (which “seems to be on the way to becoming the headquarters of those men of letters who wear gloves,” where “none of the guttersnipes of literature would venture”—rather like, say, oh, the Kelly Writers House today—one learns how one “Murger . . . is rejecting Bohemia and passing over bag and baggage to the side of the gentlemen of letters . . .”):
Baudelaire had supper at the next table to ours. He was without a cravat, his shirt open at the neck and his head shaved, just as if he were going to be guillotined. A single affectation: his little hands washed and cared for, the nails kept scrupulously clean. The face of a maniac, a voice that cuts like a knife, and a precise elocution that tries to copy Saint-Just and succeeds. He denies, with some obstinacy and a certain harsh anger, that he has offended morality with his verse.
(The Journals rather casually note how, at a dinner “with Flaubert, Zola, Turgenev, and Alphonse Daudet” at the same café in 1874, “We began with a long discussion on the special aptitudes of writers suffering from constipation and diarrhoea,” which, it occurs, may possibly prove a distinction at least as useful as Ron Silliman’s two scat-heaps of “post-avant” and “quietist.”) (Too, one notes Turgenev’s remark about the limits of the French language: “an instrument from which its inventors expected only clarity, logic, crude and approximate definition, whereas today it so happens that this instrument is being handled by the most highly strung and sensitive of writers, and the least likely to be satisfied with approximations.” Ah, for the days of concerns about precision and intent, about the “reach” of one’s, gulp, lingual tool, something more than the squabbled-up offal of mere “attitude” . . .)

Talk with Flaubert and the literary critic Sainte-Beuve about copyright, Sainte-Beuve reacting to someone’s call for “perpetuity of rights”:
Sainte-Beuve protested violently: ‘You are paid by the smoke and noise you stir up. You ought to say, every writer ought to say: “Take it all: you’re welcome to it!”’ Flaubert, going to the opposite extreme, exclaimed: ‘If I had invented the railways I shouldn’t want anybody to travel on them without my permission!’ Thoroughly roused, Sainte-Beuve retorted: ‘No more literary property than any other property. There should be no property at all. Everything should be regularly renewed, so that everybody can take his turn.’
And the Goncourts (aristos non placables) subsequently see in Sainte-Beuve “the fanatical revolutionary bachelor”: “he seemed at the moment to have the character and almost the appearance of one of the levellers of the Convention. I saw the basic destructive urge in that man who, rubbing shoulders with society, money, and power, had conceived a secret hatred for them, a bitter jealousy which extended to everything . . .” Usual tiresome ploy of the “made” to upstart sneerers, wholly disbelieving that one might not aspire to “making.”

Off to remake myself into a half-man (half-biscuit). À Lundi.

Edmond and Jules de Goncourt
(Photograph by Félix Nadar)

Wednesday, May 13, 2009

The Gape of Class

Red, Gaping


Nodding yeses anent the particulars
collars a few victuals, collard
greens in a vinegary heap,
a blimp’d-up snout-color’d
sausage, makes a low cant
meal of wordy attrition unmouthable.
Say it with flowers, is
what René Daumal suggest’d, imbibing
ether in the form of
carbon tetrachloride, the lepidopterist’s killing
solution, attempting to see beyond.
Isn’t that what the lingo
itself’s for? A brash cantilevering
out into the nay-saying
void unending of a hungry
new world without torpor or
mimic? So that if one
makes a bold consumptive termagant
to snatch a periwig off
a gent, there’s no particular
anent to yes to, no?
In ornery-proper reverie I
reproach my parasitic lollard life
of making things up where
there’s none: all tenets of
use and necessity fiasco’d like
a shatter’d flask, the writer’s
parity with the usurer. Bacon:
“Places where men urine commonly,
have some smell of violets.”

Two things. (One is so “took” by one’s own fiasco that one is inseparably stuck to it, or admiringly, and, hence, unprepared.) Lazing through Lyn Hejinian’s remarks to Manuel Brito (in The Language of Inquiry), how Proust’s “astonishing style is a representation of the tension between momentum and lingering that a mind, wanting to be conscious it’s alive, experiences.” A lovely pairing, though putting the brainbox on high alert like that results, too, in circular inanities (dumb ditties about a bear and a mountain, say, or spastic grass, alas jingoes), no? And if one attempts to ambuscade the mind’s unsightly doings by suddenly “turning” one’s “attention” to it: one finds nothing, only the undertow and wake of the turning itself, a bit of ruffled foolishness and wide-eyed “hey, where’d everybody go?” If “we” invent’d sentences to resemble the mind’s minding activity: they are nothing like it, and likely cannot be. I’d forgotten, though, how Hejinian points to a phrase of Proust as source of “the opening pre-text of My Life (“A pause, a rose, something on paper”). Some “description of an approach to Combray, which the narrator sees emerging from the distance, bit by bit suffused with what he knows: the plain, the spire, a radiance anticipating the color of the streets.” (Interject and obsess in impatience. Looking for a badly-recall’d aphoristical utterance of Nietzsche that any mental picture of “plain with spire” instills. I finally locate two, that I persist in collocating:
In parting.—Not how one soul comes close to another but how it moves away shows me their kinship and how much they belong together.

When taking leave is needed.—From what you would know and measure, you must take leave, at least for a time. Only after having left town, you see how high its towers rise above the houses.
End of interject.) What Hejinian says: “Proust’s style of accretion, of accumulation, meditation, and release (release into consciousness and as such into the book) was and is inspiring to me.” And one senses a nearly mechanical pleasure (“machine made of words”) in assembling and fitting, the mind hovering nearby in half-abeyance, half-torpor, ready to alight. And (because Hejinian is stretching out, doing the very manœuvres she is so percipiently discussing)—she appends:
By the way, Proust’s early literary work (maybe even his first) was a translation of John Ruskin’s The Bible of Amiens, and it was under the influence of Ruskin’s prose style that Proust developed his own. Ruskin’s prose is the result and complex reflection of an obsession with particulars and the ramifications of particulars. This was not solely a Victorian interest in things but an epistemological one, and from it he developed his radical (and some would say eccentric) social politics, one that coincide at many points with Marx’s. The prose style that we find in Ruskin and subsequently in Proust is sometimes taken as a sign of privilege; this is a serious misunderstanding.
(A terrific density to Hejinian’s thinking here, likely to spin me off-course—as if I hold to a course. Turning to Stein, she notes how Stein’s “phenomenology,” a “rejection of memory as a medium for perception,” vitally contradicts Proust’s working through what he calls “the vast structure of recollection”) But that “sign of privilege”—so readily (and unconvincingly) dismiss’d by Hejinian, that rather stalls one. After all, Stein, Ruskin, Proust, (would one add Hejinian?)—hardly hoi polloi. How not identify the writing with the privilege? In Thomas Stearns Eliot, the little 1931 study Beckett’s pal Thomas McGreevy wrote, he points (wonderfully) to Eliot’s general sourness as result of the burdensome excesses of “gentility”:
One need not be a vulgarian to find something to write gratefully about. Dante did, and Shakespeare and Ronsard and Keats. Mr. Eliot scarcely ever does.
      It would be wrong, however, to accuse him of living wilfully in sadness. He is not like Cocteau, who after writing Thomas l’Imposteur, the prettiest trifle that the Great War produced, turns out drawings that are merely indifferent echoes of the authentic macabre that that very great artist Pablo Picasso is sometimes driven by his genius to produce. . . . In the same way Mr. Joyce who, in Ulysses, showed himself as a master of the macabre can be gay on ‘a happy-go-gusty ides of April morning,’ and with an Anna Livia Plurabelle who is like a nymph on a sunlit mountain, and in a thousand other lovelinesses. If we have got to live through a woeful world, at least we ought to be grateful for the odd shelters from the woefulness that we come upon, and be willing to hang up our crutches for the time being. Mr. Eliot’s gaiety so far has been rather perverse, a scoring off of life. But I think we may put it down to the over-long youthfulness that is imposed on educated Americans by New England gentility.
Even whilst being a congenital sourpuss, I find that rather refreshing, and instructive. “Say it with flowers,” indeed.

Thomas MacGreevy, 1893-1967