Friday, October 30, 2009

Jean Daive’s Under the Dome: Walks with Paul Celan

A Wall


Vive l’imprimerie! Its nul
outlandishness! Its typos!
Need for a hooplah
to rev the lyric
kine. They moo so.
Or too. Henry James’d
say “indigenous vogues
and literary flurry” and’d
prooffe to bee ryghte:
I am wow’d by
each spec and spectre
of unleash’d orthographic tort.
Gregariousness in the slips,
the lexicographers hiss. Cow’d
by sublimity, they louver
up the jalousie slats,
destriping the chambre austere.
I go about recklessly
hymning the perceptual flux,
the green-tendril’d philodendron’s
slow motility, the un-
mapped plat quiddity of
the bleat’d sonorous Hwaet,
a word I like
for its haecceity, its
its brusque way of
saying “What the heck,”
and beginning to begin.

Read a chunk of Jean Daive’s Rosmarie Waldrop-translated Under the Dome: Walks with Paul Celan, (Burning Deck, 2009). The book is part (Volume 5) of a prose series titled La Condition d’infini Daive wrote and P.O.L. publish’d in the mid-’nineties (other volumes, novels: 6, Americana and 7, Un délinquant impeccable). Sous la coupole is an odd-genre’d thing: neither “biographical / autobiographical document” nor “art” (meaning roman / novel, the label provided other part of La Condition d’infini)—Daive simply calls it a “récit,” an account. Daive examines a friendship—conversations, walks, tensions, silences (the work is punctuated with ellipses—“[ . . .]”—the unsayable, the memoryless)—with the Paul Celan of the late ’sixties, just prior to Celan’s suicide in 1970. Intertext’d: Daive’s “present”—in a spanking white house on the Aegean (“One whole summer long I look at a donkey upright against the sky. The meadow is by the sea, and the donkey stands stockstill in the abundant light.”) Memory’s way of sprouting in the interstices of the present, though that donkey returns in Daive’s narrative with such persistence it becomes a kind of totem, sign of something unspeakable: “The motionless donkey looks out, and I think he looks beyond time at a kind of stupor that suggests sainthood.” Something hallucinatory in the text: its willing wayward gaps and repetitions, its stuttering “jaggedness.”

A glimpse of Celan, he most rarely glimpsed. “Impeccable gray-black suit.” “His ironed handkerchief: white square, perfect square, square without fold.” Though, too:
      Walking on the Rue d’Ulm, by the Cinémathèque, he seems to be fighting with himself, hands thrust forward, menacing, convulsive, fingers snapping in the air. Fingers with black nails. Earth underneath.
Or odd fragments of speech:
      Bizarre references in conversation:
      —Nowadays, Jean Daive, it takes 1500 francs to buy a pair of shoes (1969).
      I go out into the snow, and the sides of beef that redden the butcher shops in Rue Coquillière remind me of this remark Paul made while staring at the pond of the Ecole Normale:
      — Autobiography is a goldfish . . .
Or things coming (to Daive) in a tumult:
      Subjects and conversations: the scandal (“Todesfuge,” “Death Fugue” “I immediately became the target of the antisemites . . . no . . . I became the target of all Germany”)—nazism—deportation—the scandal: the plagiarism affair, how it wounded him:* “It’s a conspiracy”—the carpenter Zimmer—Hölderlin’s tower—intransigence—guilt—friendship betrayed—Antschel, Ancel, Celan—the Neckar—work camps—the Bukovina—the plagiarism affair: “an outrage”—Auschwitz and poetry: “Man will continue to talk, man will continue to bear witness with or without Adorno”—the camp (two lines, the one on the left, the one on the right, and changing lines)—public readings—Gisèle—Nicolas de Staël—Giacometti (“Sometimes one has to be worldly like Giacometti”)—The Ephémère**—André du Bouchet—Ezra Pound—the Kabbala—Meister Eckhart—Rosa Luxemburg—Paris—the Seine—the Contrescarpe—Walking in the Luxembourg Gardens—Rue du Pot-de-Fer—Rue Tournefort (on the threshold his ritual formula: “I won’t ask you in because my cleaning woman didn’t come today”)—“I want to translate you: I want to translate Décimale blanche . . . right”—Heidegger—Visiting me in Rue Coquillière: “This is a real poet’s place”—Rue de Longchamp—Berlin—Avenue Emile-Zola—the Russian Revolution—Mandelstam—Peter Handke—Prague—Hölderlin—Klaus Demus—Vienna—Tristan Tzaza—Mai 68—We are all German Jews—Nelly Sachs—Daniel Cohn-Bendit***
What is, certes and indubitably, of incalculable use in Under the Dome: the momentary fleeting looks at Celan writing. Evidence of its exactitude and speed (something I’d never picture—such density proclaims a plod). Daive: “The poem he writes in the street and then telephones to her from a public phonebooth.” And (later, after Celan’s death): “Gisèle offers me a page torn from a notebook of Paul’s. It is the page with the poem he gave me for the first issue of fragment. In one stroke, Paul sets down lightning, all the words seized with unheard-of speed.” Or, opposing offices:
      Back from London, Paul shows me in his office a postcard of Géricault’s horse struck by lightning: the horse is peaceful, and lightning strikes.
      —A poet is one who touches lightning: he knows it can strike two meters off.
      —According to you, energy is a structure and develops according to numbers . . . And according to you eternity is a grid, the grid of the human.
      —You are lending me a ladder here, Jean Daive . . .
Speed and that neutral gris-de-France:
      I’ve come to understand that a silence—is—the negative of a moment of thought and that it needs to be heard attentively. The moments of his identity thus told have echoes of an epic. Everything falls into place: the father, the mother, Judaism, languages, disappearances, the dismembered family regrouped in the camps, then destroyed, the war, poetry. Tours, Paris. Neutral voice, always. Nothing too much.
Reading the composites, the neologisms:
      Chapter of translations.
      Apropos Windgalle and Treckschutenzeit.****
                        Wind gall         Bargetrekking time

      All the words are composites. The second term always the more important. The verb is tied to the second tem. There is a vertical sense.

      Paul Celan chews a word like a stone. All day long. It produces word-energy. It all goes into the energy of his composite words. Here we have his biography.

      Paul Celan invites the reader to travel inside the word (voyage, labyrinth).
The ranging, the arranging of Celan’s Sprachgitter, the Speech Grid: the world parcel’d out by sound. Daive:
      Being incapable of speaking had long made my life impossible when I met Paul Celan, who had written Sprachgitter (1959): a grid, language. Not of words or images, but gathering the world into a grid to elucidate it.

. . .

      How could a grid contain madness?

. . .

      How could a grid worry about the locus of a language it seeps in a final emulsion?
I quote endlessly, trying to align what cannot be align’d. Translating’s no-grid. No compression. The smeary (messy) emulsion of any word. I keep thinking how Celan’s body’s found trapped in a “sluice-gate.” Jean Daive:
      After her return from the morgue, Gisèle described his corpse to me: “Paul was black. His head was all black.” And I immediately visualized “the Savior’s dark head platted in thorns,” for his presence always had the feel of a person possessed by intense spirituality. This presence of the spiritual determines the poetic emulsion according to the quality of attributes, images, lives, readings, the moment of memory, information, news, the day, in short of all the chance happenings that it generates and sorts out.
Align’d against it, that “black,” that “all black” (Daive): “A word turns like a sun. Mirrored fullness that blinds words.”

*Waldrop’s note: “In 1953, Claire Goll accused Paul Celan of having plagiarized poems by her late husband, Yvan Goll. The charge was groundless.”

**Waldrop’s note: “L’Ephémère: literary magazine edited by the poet André du Bouchet.”

***Waldrop’s note: “Daniel Cohn-Bendit: leader of the student protests during May 1968 in France.”

****Waldrop’s note: “In Lichtzwang.

Jean Daive

Thursday, October 29, 2009

The Grand Piano Notes



Obligatory braggadocio: I just
finish’d off the varnishing
of the boat. Feckless
social below-the-dam
putterings next, no? I
got made a standard
“card” and sent it
to all and sundry,
rec’d the sour reply
instantaneous of Mrs. Neighbour,
the bitty one with
the Pekinese. Verfremdungseffekt hoedown,
is what I say.
I am certain I
read Mrs. W’s Last
amidst haptic distracting
bouts, drawer-rummagings, &c.
Leaving me unprepared for
the roadster-thralldom of
Scream in a Cave,
though it mollify many
an impotent with its
poor-thing chirping, its
“my métier, my monkey
wrench” code-switching and
futz’d bravado. Remind me
to tell you about
Slurp the mechanic next.
If one’s looking for
what’s uncanny within the
banal, I suspect jargon
is where to begin.
Primitivism-versus-uplift scenarios,
try to render something
like that intelligible. The
only person I know
who land’d a job
in the recent round:
a Romantic almanac maniac.

Ted Pearson in The Grand Piano (#8):
      78s had a playing time of about three minutes per side (as did the later 45s). Unlike the extended choruses permitted by live performance, the technical limitations of the medium imposed a strict economy of statement on soloists. Where classical music required multiple discs to present a complete work (whence record “albums”), musicians in other genres were expected to work within the medium’s constraints—and often did so to brilliant effect. Such recordings were object lessons in brevity, a value that continues to inform my poetry.
That—in miniature—is exemplary of Pearson’s method in the supply’d “etude”—what he calls it—the second half of “Some Intermittent Music” (of #7). Lengthy, encyclopedic explainings of (mostly) obvious truck—see the nearly four pages detailing language acquisition, fetus to toddler (“In its nineteenth week, a human fetus can hear its mother’s heartbeat”), with a tenuous Pearson connect somewhere trailing in the aftermath. One marvels at the apparent lack of editorial intrusion on the part of the gross lot of other Pianists (didn’t the squibs get swap’d around for comment? isn’t it permissible, intra-gang, to say, “Ted, you’re talking down to the reader here”?). One wonders, too, who Pearson thinks the Grand Piano audience is? (One apparently accustom’d to a disconcerting mix of sentence-registers (and I ain’t talking about New Sentence shenanigans): “Semantic development is essential to socialization” nigh-abutting (regarding the “lyric”): “Further, as I argue in Grand Piano 7, its method is not inherently restricted to the representation of lyric subjectivity; it is equally apt to address subjectivation, in which claims for an originary, much less permanent self are revealed as the narcissistic residue of the ideal ego.”)

Pearson’s argument (“simply intuition”) is to “suspect” that “even in early childhood, writers exhibit a ‘set’ toward either aural or visual phenomena.” “Such predispositions are surely overdetermined, but may contribute to a subsequent emphasis on sound or image.” (Pearson begins by relating Pound’s melopoeia, phanopoeia, and logopoeia to “Aristotle’s discussion of melos, opsis, and lexis” and makes the statement that “For melos, opsis, and lexis I read “phoneme,” “grapheme,” and “morpheme,” which, in concert with syntax, determine “the minute organization of the words and their relationships.” (The quote is Williams). Something to pursue, though Pearson simply drops it. One is left to picture to oneself the writing laboratory wherein Pearson works with such infinitesimal delicacy.) The story Pearson tells is, again, “My Years in Music.” It begins “My earliest memories are distinctly auditory” and ends roughly twenty years later with “Thales” (1968), a one-hour long Pearson composition / recording of “water-related sounds . . . domestic, industrial, and natural” sampled and sequenced, and perform’d “at the Manhattan Playhouse in East Palo Alto”: “The first performance featured solo tape; the second, a duo with alto sax; and the third, tape and string quartet.” Oddly, no report of audience response, composer’s response, no report at all. Twenty years of musical trajectory culminating in a sentence. Next paragraph please:
      Soon after I was done with “Thales,” I sensed that my involvement in music was also done. This realization, hardly an epiphany, reflected my growing interest in semantics and poetic discourse, features singularly absent from music as I hear it . . .
There’s that bell out of O’Hara’s “For the Chinese New Year & For Bill Berkson” going off again: “I wonder if I’ve really scrutinized this experience like / you’re supposed to have if you can type . . .” I suspect Pearson’s being “done” with music of being somewhat more complex (O’Hara: “I have often tried to say goodbye to strange fantoms I / read about in the newspaper and have always succeeded / though the ones at ‘home’ are dependent . . .”) The Grand Piano booklets, though, hardly shrive to introspection and regret; the manner is (mostly) too temper’d by the whatnot of “famous long ago” celeb sightings (and rub off) for that. So one learns that Henry Cowell’d been a childhood friend of Pearson’s “great-aunt Margaret,” or that the sixteen-year-old Pearson “briefly studied” with Lee Konitz after encountering him (with bassist Peter Ind) in an adjoining practice room (“each note was being weighed on the spot, albeit at the speed of sound”). Or that saxophonist Paul Desmond, “met . . . through a mutual acquaintance earlier in 1963,” a year later “kindly recalled our first meeting—‘You’re into poetry, right?’—and handed me a copy of Creeley’s For Love.” A lot of that kind of thing, particularly amongst the boys. Portents of what exactly? Boosting whom?

“My earliest memories are distinctly auditory . . .”

Of Note

Richard Owens is working through the debris—there’s a considerable heap of it—of the wholly populist (and anonymous) balladeers (something Bob Dylan, too—for one obvious example—’s been doing for a number of decades). To the debris—the form—all re-engaged form is debris—Owens adds contemporary markers, political and rough. Owens did up a fine broadside graced with a claret / blood-color’d cut of Clint Eastwood in one of the Sergio Leone numbers print’d athwart a ghostly Civil War-era engraving of Lincoln clenching a flag, surround’d by Union soldiers, and call’d it “Two Ballads.” Here’s one:
Wayfaring Stranger

tidings dost thou tether
ill will aerial bombings

marked from above
burly spear & brand

clamorous paean to place
ingratiate the local

diminutive—dull thud
do not remove the rubble

parse out a passive voice
in the present perfect
Shreds of a body politic’s impolitic imperial maneuverings (global) is what remains. In the initial number of Alessandro Porco’s new corner-stapled mag, Pork (josh-logo’d the meat that matters) one sees (with work, too, by Daniel f. Bradley, Jason Camlot, and David Hadbawnik) three additional Owens ballads. Here’s “Old Tom of Bedlam”:
cut them down to size
pay them back in kind

with tools & tackles
furiouslye laid out

forth from our cell
for pity is not common

out of the compound
cocked & leveled

blind agency but could
turn into the yard

underpinning all of it
swallow to bleed

in an angrye mood
a small walled village
Balladeering as a form of community-making, or communally-made lament for community: Owens’s seem a matter of reassembling pieces, somber, sobering, post-glorioso warnings to the polis.

Richard Owens

Wednesday, October 28, 2009

L'oreille est l'organe qui sert à capter le son



Sense of a dénouement,
my unraveling. Some divergence
of the ecliptic, sunny
yclept’d languor become terror,
all meaning a ruse.
Orange-color’d the rain-
lash’d pine trunks, what’s
access’d by the senses
a tort, a rouse,
all likeness temper’d by
some off-register pitch
un-hummed, hardly exhumed.
Mi fa sol fatso
canvassings of the sinewy
dragon-fires so forkedly
unfolding out of what
sky there is, that
trapezoidal blue splinter paper’d
up, star-tack’d. Empedocles
claim’d the eyes whoop’d
the ears, and threw
himself into Vesuvius’s fiery
siren hole. Mornings make
me literary and tumescent,
flush’d like a grouse
out of the ceaseless
flux, untemper’d, radiant, plow’d.
And so I attend
the barrage of sun-
noises, the massy hurlements
of strife and its
lit particulars, the quill-
satanic shysters of feign’d
chicanery nix’d by song,
its gong’d radical shine
an unquench’d whole. And
I am all ears.

Ah the flatulences of maintaining the daily writing. One sees it un peu partout. Baggage and barrage of goods rifled off the whatever cargo carrier’s handy, that boat with the drooping sails. “Nothing serious can happen here.” Thus, Dr. Johnson: “Almost every poem, consisting of precepts, is so far arbitrary and immethodical, that many of the paragraphs may change places with no apparent inconvenience; for of two or more positions, depending upon some remote and general principle, there is seldom any cogent reason why one should precede the other. But for the order in which they stand, whatever it be, a little ingenuity may easily give a reason. It is possible, says Hooker, that by long circumduction, from any one truth all truth may be inferred. Of all homogeneous truths at least, of all truths respecting the same general end, in whatever series they may be produced, a concatenation by intermediate ideas may be formed, such as, when it is once shewn, shall appear natural; but if this order be reversed, another mode of connection equally specious may be found or made.” Ah, long circumduction, flatulence’s other name. Dr. Johnson’s warning in the succeeding: “As the end of method is perspicuity, that series is sufficiently regular that avoids obscurity; and where there is no obscurity it will not be difficult to discover method.” Method. My method is quotidian disburdening of the brain-pan’s smoky rashers. (The obvious retort is that truth “lies” in the circumductory act itself, the way sex lacks aim, is pure untarget’d frisson. Inexpertly (one’d say, accidentally) the OED manages to hint at such complicity of deeds in quoting Thomas Heywood’s Gynaikeion: or, Nine bookes of various history. Concerninge women inscribed by ye names of ye nine Muses: “One Martha whom Marcius most honourablie circumducted in a horse-litter.”) Oh dear. Scholarly frittering, another kind of circumducting.

Jean Paulhan’s barrage (out of The Flowers of Tarbes, or, Terror in Literature), talking about Rémy de Gourmont, who “studies authors in the same way that an entomologist studies caterpillars,” and writing modes, one that reproaches “ready-made sentences” (Gourmont complaining how “Words fail to arrange themselves into any new positions. They are presented in the same familiar order in which the writer’s memory received them,” thus dragging the same old same old “shamefully resigned thoughts” behind) versus another that fires potshots at the expected defiance and gracelessness of the “literary” (“we are reassured by the awkward aspects rather than the successful ones, and vaguely disappointed if we are not disconcerted”). Barrage:
And who could not in some way feel affected by it when Taine and Renan, for example, condemn half of all writers—but especially classical writers—for their “literary preconceptions.” And then Proust in turn calls Renan—as Faguet does Taine—a “cunning sentence repairman.” Pierre Lasserre writes of Claudel that he “abuses the most material aspects of speech.” Pierre Lièvre says of Morèas: “He called metaphors and noble words to arm themselves.” Paul Valéry likewise says of Stendhal that he “knew how to get around writing sentences per se . . .” Charles Maurras of Victor Hugo: “It’s the words themselves that rise up . . . he is no longer the one writing them.” And Julien Benda, about men of letters in general: “What is particular to them is that they revel in nice-sounding phrases.” Verlaine: “Above all, avoid style.” By which we understand an accomplished style, a style that is just words and phrases. And who wrote the following: “Trying to represent authentic men these days is an exceptional undertaking. Just look at the books that have appeared recently: it’s all just printed words derived from other printed words.”?* But indeed who has not written, or wanted to write this sort of thing? Goethe said: “We read and write so many books that we end up turning into one.”
Fare strage di cuori. To be, if nothing else, language’s caddish heartbreaker, disconcertingly clumsy in the rut. The stinker.

*Jean Prévost, Nouvelles littéraires (4 September 1926)

Jean Paulhan, c. 1967

Tuesday, October 27, 2009

Writing Nothing

A Window


“Wrote nothing today.” Defeatism
at the Arcadia colloquy,
a fever disgorging its
heft and onslaught with
incessant turpitude and in-
direction like a tattoo’d
story stippling a calabash.
A discourse succumb’d, “bent
to content,” materiality scorn’d.
Sentimental in the moot
allegorical woods probably means
nothing in the pants.
Reading of prick’d in
stains (tincturae injuriam), scatter-
shot, constellatory, Benjamin’s “adorable
detail”: my unclean historical
skin. Or Kafka’s twentieth-
century compleynts: “1. Digestion.
2. Neurasthenia. 3. Rash.
4. Inner insecurity.” Me,
I scrub right up
unmediatedly, tuck myself determinedly
in. If the beau
of the ante-
chamber’s détourne’d to summary
pocketing of the foul
lucre—anticipatory to glad-
handing the snatch—that’s
hardly a crisis of
signifying, is it? Say
“I mean” and kablooey,
there it is, palpable
and red, a complete
rash abundancy of signs.
Lassitude with ydropesie—ys
vnweldy, vnlusty and slo.

“Gummed it all out.”

Thomas Hart Benton with Self-Portrait, 1969
(Photograph by Alfred Eisenstaedt)

Catarrh. Mal à la gorge. Turpitude. Doubt. Barthes, out of Sade, Fourier, Loyola:
The truth is, there is no longer any linguistic space outside bourgeois ideology. Our language comes from it, returns to it, stays locked in it. The only possible riposte is neither challenge nor destruction but, simply, theft—to break up the ancient text of culture, of science, of literature, and disperse its features in unrecognizable patterns, in the say way stolen merchandise is faked.
Sourness. Beleaguer’d. Fretting. Thomas Hart Benton:
It seemed to me that I must make a choice. Either I would paint in the realistic tradition of Western art with some kind of identification with the natural world, and thus risk being ‘unprogressive,’ or I would follow the new movements toward an unknown goal, a goal which a number of far-sighted critics were already saying might turn out to be an empty square of paint. . . . What I wanted now was to see clearly the nature of American life as it unrolled before me and to paint it without my vision being distorted by any generalities of (Marxist) social theory. The exposition of this change of mind caused my radical friends to see me with a jaundiced eye. I became for most of them a ‘reactionary’ and a ‘chauvinist,’ in addition to again being an ‘opportunist.’
Benton to Jackson Pollock (c. 1938):
Before I get started on my own stuff and forget everything else I want to tell you I think the little sketches you left around here are magnificent. Your color is rich and beautiful. You’ve the stuff old kid—all you have to do is keep it up. You ought to give some time to drawing—but I do not somehow or other feel the lack of drawing in the stuff left here. It seems to go without it.
Duped by history. Sore-heart’d. Regaled by the current ruckus. Inept. Fervent. Plow’d. Ad Reinhardt, three statements:
[The Black Square Paintings]

      A square (neutral, shapeless) canvas, five feet wide, five feet high, as high as a man, as wide as a man’s outstretched arms (not large, not small, sizeless), trisected (no composition), one horizontal form negating one vertical form (formless, no top, no bottom, directionless), three (more or less) dark (lightless) no-contrasting (colorless) colors, brushwork brushed out to remove brushwork, a matte, flat, free-hand, painted surface (glossless, textureless, non–linear, no hard-edge, no soft edge) which does not reflect its surroundings—a pure, abstract, non-objective, timeless, spaceless, changeless, relationless, disinterested painting—an object that is self–conscious (no unconsciousness) ideal, transcendent, aware of no thing but art (absolutely no anti-art). (1961)

      The painting leaves the studio as a purist, abstract, non-objective object of art, returns as a record of everyday (surrealist, expressionist) experience (“chance” spots, defacements, hand-markings, accident—“happenings,” scratches), and is repainted, restored into a new painting painted in the same old way (negating the negation of art), again and again, over and over again, until it is just “right” again. (1960)

      A clearly defined object, independent and separate from all other objects and circumstances, in which we cannot see whatever we choose or make of it anything we want, whose meaning is not detachable or translatable. A free, unmanipulated and unmanipulatable, useless, unmarketable, irreducible, unphotographable, unreproductible, inexplicable icon. A non-entertainment, not for commerce or mass-art publics, non-expressionist, not for oneself. (1955)
Childish. Inane. Overripe. Banal. Scuttled. Karl Marx (out of The Eighteenth Brumaire of Louis Bonaparte):
Alongside decayed roués of dubious origin and with dubious means of subsistence, alongside ruined and reckless castoffs of the bourgeoisie, were vagabonds, discharged soldiers, discharged jailbirds, escaped galley-slaves, swindlers, impostors, lazzaroni, pickpockets, bamboozlers, gamblers, maquereaux, brothel keepers, porters, literary hacks, organ grinders, rag-pickers, knife grinders, tinkers, beggars—in short, the whole amorphous, disintegrated mass of flotsam and jetsam the French call la bohème . . .
A mess. A polarity. Apprehend’d at my laziness. Recondite. Imbecile. Futile. Tax’d. W. H. Auden’s “Macao”:
A weed from Catholic Europe, it took root
Between the yellow mountains and the sea,
And bore these gay stone houses like a fruit,
And grew on China imperceptibly.

Rococo images of Saint and Saviour
Promise her gamblers fortunes when they die;
Churches beside the brothels testify
That faith can pardon natural behaviour.

This city of indulgence need not fear
The major sins by which the heart is killed,
And governments and men are torn to pieces:

Religious clocks will strike; the childish vices
Will safeguard the low virtues of the child;
And nothing serious can happen here.

Thomas Hart Benton, “The Poet,” 1938

Ad Reinhardt, “Black on Black,” 1967

Ad Reinhardt, “Painting,” 1954-58

Monday, October 26, 2009

After Paradise

Some Lines


Onerous the grind of
the infallible, how any
slight repute’ll make canny
a style, or ossify
a categorical bump, limiting
a man’s work, its
opposably-thumb’d pluck, its
likelihood of stenches nay-
saying and committed, its
rush of contrary erring.
“That’s not like Frank.”
In 1942 Grant Wood
dying in Iowa of
a cancerous liver insist’d
he’d live. Told Thomas
Hart Benton he intend’d
subsequently to rid himself
of the curse of
history, go off somewhere
“naked, new, total,” re-
commence unaccoutre’d, unaccount’d for.
An august American wrecking-
ball approach, no jimmying
up the hung sash
without busting the whole
stuck window out: smash
relief against the sallying
cumbrous binds of rue’d
social spew and conjuncture,
an unfitting rude fit.

Onerous the cock-eyed grail of travel, “man alone of creatures upon earth transforms dull glory into lively glory.” The leaf-color, peak’d, dash’d off the trees by an unrelenting Friday rain, mostly yellows—incandescent yellows, buttery yellows, stain yellows—though with lilt tones of lavender here and there, something about the hard suddenness of the October frosts bit the maple reds off mid-stride, so, yellows. Reading: mostly continuing half-listlessly with Richard Holmes’s The Age of Wonder: How the Romantic Generation Discovered the Beauty and Terror of Science, a “shallower” book than, say, Holmes’s terrific two-volume Coleridge biography. That, and Jon Thompson’s discourse-dodging After Paradise: Essays on the Fate of American Writing (Shearsman, 2009). Thompson’s capable of turning out (arranging) some marvelous conjunctions. In a chapter call’d “The Treason of an Accent: Emily Dickinson’s Letters” (epigraph’d by Benjamin: “A chronicler who recietes eventd without distinguishing between major and minor ones acts in accordance with the following truth: nothing that has ever happened should be regarded as lost for history”), Thompson, reading the wildness of Dickinson’s third Master letter (“to recipient unknown,” that is to say futurity itself, “open your life wide, and take me in forever”) aligns Eliot, machismo, and Williams, a partial imperfect sum of responses:
The fevered isolation of this letter echoes through subsequent generations of American writing. Recall Eliot: “‘Speak to me. Why do you never speak? Speak. / ‘What are you thinking of? What thinking? What? / ‘I never know what you are thinking. Think.” (“The Waste Land”). The American genius for isolation matures a strange, rare—and desperate—variety of desire. Desire that cleaves the self, transfigures the word and seeks, in its desperation, to transfigure the world. The elegy of the invocation to the other, the other who is silent, who does not speak, cannot speak, but whose presence is nonetheless acutely felt: the terrible distance, is equal only to the terrible proximity, the imagined proximity, of the object of desire. The Master letters are also an elegy to the self, marooned between the flesh-self and the word-self, each isolate, each desiring a consummation beyond the self . . .

Dickinson’s American machismo. The lover to her beloved, with the machismo of the Indian fighter: “but I dont care for that—I’ve got a Tomahawk in my side but that dont hurt me much.”: the American bravado of it! Violence as love, love as violence—the wound as the emblem of faithfulness, the token of fidelity. The violent penetration of the body as the sign of love: only a frontier culture, persuaded of its righteousness, accustomed to conquest, and the strange intimacies of blood-letting, could so confuse love and violence.

William Carlos Williams: “Never mind; the great event may not exist, so there is no need to speak further of it. Kill! Kill! The English, the Irish, the French, the Germans, the Italians, and the rest: friends or enemies, it makes no difference, kill them all. The bridge is to be blown up when all Russia is upon it. And why?
      Because we love them—all.” (Spring and All)
Where Thompson ends up: in Vietnam with Michael Herr’s brilliant Dispatches (“the most curious of love letters”). Manifest Destiny, that founding idea, run out of itself, gone bonkers (still going bonkers). Thompson, corralling into the mosaic the reluctant imperialist Conrad, and Nietzsche:
Conrad: “The conquest of the earth, which mostly means the taking of it away from those who have a different complexion or slightly flatter noses than ourselves, is not a pretty thing when you look into it too much. What redeems it is the idea only. An idea at the back of it; not a sentimental pretence but an idea; an unselfish belief in the idea—something you can set up, and bow down before, and offer a sacrifice to . . .” Herr has few illusions; the idea, for him, is ruinous, not redemptive. In the context of conquest, irony can no longer afford the luxury of outright self-contradiction.

No empire thinks of itself as an empire; it is always something else, something benign, ultimately, an expression of love. Nietzsche: “One has watched life badly if one has not also seen the hand that considerately—kills.” (Beyond Good and Evil)

Dispatches: A lover’s discourse, full of ambivalence toward his beloved.

The tragic achievement of a frontier nation is that it must continually invent new frontiers. Woe betide that which inhabits the space of the new frontier.
Irony’s “luxury of outright self-contradiction.” Prevalence of irony the mode of “self-expression” in the arts of the current (colossal) imperium. Thompson’s quoting of D. H. Lawrence (out of Studies in Classic American Literature): “But you have there the myth of the essential white America. All the other stuff, the love, the democracy, the floundering into lust, is a sort of by-play. The essential American soul is hard, isolate, stoic, and a killer.”

Jon Thompson

Thursday, October 22, 2009

Roger Snell’s The Morning / Jon Thompson’s After Paradise

Leafage and Tendril


Affinity and repulse, branching
nervy root mimick’d up
high by twiggy wind-
roil’d top, magnanimously unmatch’d
by a trunk’s columnar
adhesion and sundering is
how we go. How,
indubitably, I am drench’d
within and without, a
suddenly saturnine op, wholly
uncontinental, dagnabbit. How I
find myself pinch’d unequip’d
between two aboriginal pun-
makers, shunning straight antagonisticks
with puerile glee. Today
I see somebody’s yelping
about how meagrely sex
is tiger’d out (unleash’d)
in American poetry. I
go cahoots with Emerson’s
aviso: every fucking vessel’s
a romantic object, except
when in we sail
combustibly big, with boarding
planks out. The body’s
a wash. Dross launch
and choir ephemeral for
what unferry’d illimitable music
streams unceasing out, up.

A scavenger’s morning, gull at the dump. End’d up reading a chapter out of Free Verse editor Jon Thompson’s After Paradise: Essays on the Fate of American Writing (Shearsman, 2009)—“Ghost Writing: Whitman’s Specimen Days”—result of browse-noting a quoted line by Edmond Jabès: “O day everlasting within ephemeral day.” Which seem’d pertinent to how quotidian attendings—technology of the “signifying monstrance” of the hand pinching its eternal implement and screeving mightily away—how that beckons forth the everlasting within the daily. (Thompson’s Jabès-provided epigraph lends credence: “Everything is again set in motion—called into question—by writing.”) Truth is, I’d been reading through some of Roger Snell’s The Morning (Plein Air Editions / Bootstrap Press, 2009) and trying to think about dailiness and writing, and in the aftermath of booting my paean to “O—” out the door, finish’d with that assignment. Snell’s book is full of fiercely notes daily particulars—“Day’s ordinary activities,” he says—with all the solace of constellatory notational arrays. See it in a swatch out of a several-page piece call’d “The House: A Domestic Novel”:
. . .
Last night’s rain.
Green hills.
A toy boat.
Woods around pond.
To wander again.
A bell at dinner.
Sun, clouds, stars.
Tide pools.
Far-off edge of sea.
Oppen’s wooden corners.
Day’s ordinary activities.
A vibration in the ear.
The human eye.
An outward negotiation
of fact not psychology.
See it on the page.
Thinking, thinking.
Nothing is known.
“Perfectibility in rough strokes.”
Echoes. Yesterday’s airmail.
The Greek pun about how
the moon’s light
is not its own. (See notes.)
Roast eggplant, shallot, garlic, onions.
Blue ball cap on doorknob.
. . .
And Thompson, talking of Specimen Days (“a notebook for a republic to come”), what Whitman himself call’d “little note-books for impromptu jottings in pencil” and “these soil’d and creas’d livraisons, each composed of a sheet or two of paper, folded small to carry in the pocket, and fasten’d with a pin”—Thompson noting that “For Whitman, writing is not a form of violence, but a form of tenderness, indeed, ministry.” (Snell’s enumerative “House” is full of such tendernesses, the searing love witness’d in particulars: “Roast eggplant, shallot, garlic, onions. / Blue ball cap on doorknob.”)

Snell’s “To wander again” and “‘Perfectibility in rough strokes’”—isn’t that, too, part of a long’d-for Whitmanic commonwealth, that “vision of national accord, in which the parts are give expressive freedom, whilst still resonating with one another . . . Separate, semi-autonomous, . . . interconnected” (Thompson)? Waywardness and cohesion, the daily reverie, domestic and national. Thompson, writing in our own “era” of embeddedness and credential, of canned obligatory response, Adorno’s “administered world” replacing one of ministry, writes of Whitman’s wandering:
Wandering and home: in nineteenth-century America, wandering was possible in a way that assassination, terrorism and mistrust have since made impossible: the relation between the individual and the government—his representative—was more physically intimate. Whitman wanders between the border of battle and make-shift hospitals with an ease and freedom unheard of in the sealed-off, restricted, zoned spacial world of early twenty-first century America . . . With television many more see, but fewer witness. Where once witnessing was a way of life, now witness has been professionalized to a few specialized priesthoods. What happens to souls uneducated by witness? Do they become adamantine? Or simply boorish?
Snell: “Whatever space there was / one went far to see it—Lookout point, Fisherman’s Island / Slippery Rocks—until looking back meant / any imagined self was beyond home” (in “The Morning”) and (in “Place”), the perfectly enigmatic play of forces (“Affinity and repulse”)—“Far from home: / the wet leaf clinging / to the door.” Thompson’s own systole / diastole, the cringe and cut loose, jagged piece and round’d whole:
For Whitman, war is beyond full representation: only snatched, broken fragments, put together in a lyrical helter-skelter idiom, can begin to address its unspeakable violation—and its unspeakable beauty. Only fragments of the horror can be offered up; anything else is impossible. Again Jabès: “Only in fragments can we read the immeasurable totality.”
Who writes, who ever can write the story? The story is that which always escapes the telling. The burden of the writer is to accept this limitation—and continue to write. What is written always carries with it traces of that which did not get written, the story untold. Hence the necessity of writing . . .
And Snell, echoing, out of “Aperture” a gathering of impeccably field’d bits of sonic light (“care / makes / habit”): “Loss— / is the first / draft, is sounding” and “Eyes & ears / where they / are, yr lines / cohere.”

Off tomorrow.

Jon Thompson’s After Paradise: Essays on the Fate of American Writing

Walt Whitman, 1819-1892

Of Note

Out of Roger Snell’s The Morning (Plein Air Editions / Bootstrap Press, 2009), a piece without title, sans commentaire. It is placed at the beginning of the book’s fourth section, immediately succeeding two epigraphs—Paul Celan’s “This ‘still-here’ of the poem can only be found in the work of poets who do not forget that they speak from an angle of reflection which is their own existence, their own physical nature” and Bernadette Mayer’s “I sit at the family table where it’s a struggle / To create both staminate and pistillate in the same / Inflorescence of cluster”:
Vertical passage
edge of window
looked at in reflection—
light on across street
cat by door
This still here
dog-eared phrase
this angle
lost in craft
this slow day going


Ann & Duncan asleep
Sesshu’s Long Scroll
veils & mists
a constant theme
pleasant to walk around
this word-compress
these undulating
hills of green
stone foundations
thru wood (absent
this far west


this half-light
of mineral wealth
lower earth
of value, this
insular drift
inward draw
seed translation
laboratory of poems


lost car comes
in on the morning
light, off reflecting pool
of Creeley
quiet as is proper for such places
this space between
each bale of words
a fistful of green shoots
tansy on hill
fissures of blue


we inhabit fours rooms
a series of forts made
from discarded fabric
measure light
thru Eucalyptus
dappled sunlight
on wooden floor
there’s a lot of lacto-fermentation
going on in this house
this city squeezes it out
like a Fanny Howe poem
green leaves are like pages, waterized


to be simply moved by
dispersal of light
books & papers
spines just read
on desk—
my dream diary
is blue
“I read it tangled up
in sound sense
of the language
more than logical”


a spongy dream reflection—
I carry the sentences
lug them up
this hill
a bundle of sticks
for the fire
sirens in distance
sea far-off
cliff swallows
skiff on waves


Ann’s portrait
by dried flowers—
apparent as light
enters room
the edges
where lines
blur, press
upon letters
outward into blue sky
this would be a novel
if the names were invented


Jewitt’s covert journal
written in blackberry juice
Great Blue Heron
on neighbor’s roof
a carousel of simple words
in far corner—
the installments
secure ring of wet
glass from water
the apple pie cools
off by window
in all the stories


tree’s line margins
yellow grass to sea—
summer is a handbook for children
the locust singer
reproduces sound of cicada
a leg-of-mutton-rig
does not kick up
pictures in people’s homes
do become what they say
as Williams sd


Melville probe
this morning—
infinite Pacifics
pagoda of self

word-traces in air
porous odors
from sawed off sentences
leak into dustbin
of half-notes


no word-flow today
without slippage—
beyond reading ambitions
I look outside for
kitchen activity
discernible edges
transfixed by
this fire

Roger Snell’s The Morning

Wednesday, October 21, 2009

Jack Spicer’s Hokku Notebook



Distaff leakage expenditures, wool
skinny’d off the spindle
collect’d in a pail.
Bub with the downy-
tongue’d orchid hobby, Sonny
with a commanding post-
racial post high up
in the gubernatorial echelons.
(Fanny working the floor.)
If I pause with
my brassy cornet slant’d
up to purse out
the embouchure and wet
down the lip-chafe,
is that you half-
moonishly peeking the blues
up to supplement the
Harry Yee-concoct’d (1957)
white rum cocktail call’d
the Blue Hawaiian you
hold like a horn?
No. No it isn’t.
Every sentence ought somehow
contain its own half-
plausible alibi, some accounting
for the history of
its proceeding, its measure
a headlong groundswell itinerant,
thereby never nothing new.
(Fanny, remarkably, is holding
her own.) Truth is,
too potent the lenses
in the fly’s eye:
the skippy fandango of
residuals in a glance
makes for a sheer
constitutional bewilderment, so I
plunge like a feral
communicant, vivacity’s slobberer, back
into the musical fold.

Jack Spicer’s mention of “Jo Miles” (“a local poet. Without location. . . . prone to lovely whoredom”) coincided with a mention by A. R. Ammons (in a 1980 issue of The Manhattan Review) of “Josephine Miles”:
I don’t think that she and I have ever shared very much in regard to the theory of poetry. But I loved her as a person. She seemed to me so majestic. You know she’s crippled and had been from the age of five. She so totally rose above that without denying it that I always had a tremendous respect and love for her.

I never did take any classes with her, but when I was out there (Berkeley) I used to show her my poems, and she would read them and comment on them, and that was a very valuable thing to me. By the way, she continued to do it, and she was the one person I chose out of the world to hassle. So I kept sending her poems, having no idea what a drain this was on her. But I would say on the average of two or three times a year, I would send her one or more poems to read and say something about. And it was a lifesaver to me, because in south Jersey I knew absolutely no one else in poetry.
Causing me to idly consider the chance of Spicer and Ammons crossing paths, two misfits. Ammons notes later in the interview that he’s trying to “reach the absolutely crazy point where what is happening in my mind and what is happening on the page seem to be identical . . . The problem is that once you get there, it no longer seems necessary to write.” In Spicerean lingo: the “what’s coming through.” Ammons:
I’ve never been interested in single discursive statements as such, as explanation, but I’m interested in clusters of those, because then they become, they sort of come to be the thing they represent. They’re many-sided.
Presque New Sentence alors! And: “. . . you don’t want the poem to amount to no more than what you already knew when you began to write. Whatever kind of instrument it may be, it must be one capable of churning up what you didn’t already know.”

A. R. Ammons, 1926-2001

Of Note

Out of Jack Spicer’s Hokku Notebook (North Beach Yacht Club, 2009), Ryan Murphy’s latest in a series of finely-design’d and -print’d chapbooks (under a number of “imprints,” each apt to its particular book):
The skull is not the bones. The Ro-
Mans discovered this. The eighteenth-century classicists
Dropped their hats and cheered
The skill
At making things is not the sure
Body of bones.
The skeleton stays
Says, “Mary Murphy sumus.
We grow.”
A piece originally print’d “in J Number Four under the pseudonym “Mary Murphy.” (Another piece in the Notebook is reportedly out of J Number One, and by “Mary Murphy” too. Suggesting a smattering of continuity as opposed to spur-of-the-moment whim.) A finicky music: skull / skill, cheered / sure, stays / says, classicists / sumus. Hokku Notebook includes nine shortish (ten lines or less) poems, one a little longer, and a prose half-mock essay / review (of John Wieners’s The Hotel Wentley Poems and two others) call’d “In One Arm and Out the Other.” (Spicer clothespins the dirty sheet of the essay to a narrative clothesline of nigh mystery-novel tautness by three perfectly placed mentions of the “two others”—“These three books (two of which I haven’t read but will before I finish this review) were not written by nice guys.” “First Wieners, the only poet of the three whose book I read up to now. The Hotel Wentley is a landmark.” [Not, notably, the book; the hotel.] And, final paragraph: “I have decided not to read the other books. Call this an essay.”) Spicer’s contempt is acrid and jocular à la fois. And suffused un peu partout equally:
      Leo Durocher spoke for all of us poets when he said nice guys don’t win ball games. What is unfortunate is that the opposite of nice guys (poets) don’t often win them either. But oftener than nice guys.

. . .

      To expand a bit, the Richard Wilburs and the David Meltzers [and the] Bob Kauffmanns will remain nice guys in their respective worlds of the university and the little magazine and the Bread And Wine Mission and the newspaper and these not-nice-guys will remain poets even when batting .037 in the Sally League teams, through all the shit they have shat, through all the bad balls they have fouled off or struck out on, they have known themselves as poets and not authors or gentlemen or minority figures or Buddhists. There is a chance, at any time, that they will hit one lovely ball and be called back to the majors.
And, oddly enough—tonal miasma here—that contempt’s got a briny kindness soak’d through it.

Spicer’s latest—after Robin Blaser—editors Peter Gizzi and Kevin Killian provide a succinct “Afterword” to the book, though one that raises some questions. They begin: “Among the dozens of Spicer’s notebooks we pored through in May 2004, this one stood out,” and proceed to argue both that the work in Hokku Notebook “illuminates a transitional period in Spicer’s writing, the push from the initial serial poems like Billy the Kid and A Book of Music toward the longer and more involved projects of his later years” and that it makes visible “the depth of Spicer’s Asian interests.” They write:
      Spicer’s use of the term “hokku” echoes his commitment to the serial form, since the hokku was generally seen as a single component in a longer form, the renga. (In tandem with the poems of the present notebook, Spicer was also working up a serial piece called “Ten Hokkus for Dorrie,” which remains unpublished.)
“Dozens” of notebooks? Is one witnessing the initial dribbles here of something about to become puddle and gush? Why, I idly consider, weren’t the stray pieces—particularly the ones print’d previously—included in the Gizzi and Killian-edit’d My Vocabulary Did This to Me: The Collected Poetry of Jack Spicer (Wesleyan, 2008)? Why not, too, the excellently titled “Ten Hokkus for Dorrie”? Why insist that the notebook indicates a sequence, albeit “transitional”? Is there a sense that Spicer’s “commitment to the serial form” may inhibit one’s looking? That, a thing casually identify’d begins to be found everywhere? I don’t know. Another piece of the notebook:
You have to make moral decidisn. With your
            hands, your arms. Anything meaning stay in
You bet wrong you lose your life. They don’t
Shoot you.
They bore you with how your life is already lost
            with your con-
And let the poem get out of hand
Which tells nothing to everyone. How painful.
That broken-field punning “con- / Sequence” recalls for me a notion of William Matthews, the “beautiful fake,” a feeling I suspect Matthews identify’d with, and that innumerable poets do. He slipped it into a prose poem call’d “The Penalty for Bigamy Is Two Wives”: “I don't care what anybody thinks or writes, I don’t care if my friend who writes poems is a beautiful fake, like a planetarium ceiling . . .” My sense of Spicer’s long been that he’s a mess, and likely ought be allow’d to remain a mess without any prefab slottings in the retrieval. Gizzi and Killian write: “Soon Spicer’s hokku was to give way to its successor, the jingle-jangle children’s verse syllabics of “Homage to Creeley,” and then to the mixed originals of Lament for the Makers.” A sequence definite and unconned. Which’d seem to belie Spicer’s stance of inconsistency and foolishness, as he calls it in “In One Arm and Out the Other”—“Flirting with the edge of things”—gaseous play. Isn’t “the depth of Spicer’s Asian interests” spell’d out most succinctly in “The Unvert Manifesto”: “All the universe is laughing at you.”

Jack Spicer, 1925-1965

Tuesday, October 20, 2009


In a Window


Marvelously packaged commonplaces, is
how everything ends up,
that Hoosier love written
off entirely. One ditches
the personal by going
up into a town
call’d Poisonville, hanging out
a shingle, and weathering
unslaked the onslaughts of
honey’d laughter. Canned anxiety
like a Manx without
a tail, all caboose.
Where’d that oyster-eyed
killer go? He’s down
by the river with
a tin of Sterno,
and two fat slices
of bacon wrap’d around
a coat hanger or
a yard of coaxial
cable. Dasein surrenders its
projectile force, comports itself
in the guise of
post-primordial Being-in-
the-world. The world
wins, we throw in
the towel. Hobo day-
labor sots line up
like deceiving gods and
the rhetoric of love
totals the whole order.

Odd to scribe that and be plunk’d down in front of the other, coincident “totally” affirming. Reading Sianne Ngai’s Ugly Feelings (Harvard University Press, 2005)—who manhandles the lingo academickal like a rodeo rider and zooms in with brilliant close readings. That, and regain’d my sleep, that inconstancy . . .

Sianne Ngai’s Ugly Feelings

Of Note

Out of the initial (Michaelmas 2009) issue of the Cambridge Literary Review, ably edited by Boris Jardine and Lydia Wilson, and jam-pack’d with items beguiling, edificatory, and “norysschaunt,” Marianne Morris seeing the Jeffersonian roots of Situationist thinking:
On Disorder
Those who want to overcome the old established order in all its aspects cannot attach themselves to the disorder of the present, even in the sphere of culture. One must struggle and not go on waiting, in culture as well, for the moving order of the future to make a concrete appearance. It is its possibility, already present in our midst, that devalues all expression in known cultural forms. One must lead all forms of pseudocommunication to their utter destruction, to arrive one day at real and direct communication (in our working hypothesis of higher cultural means: the constructed situation). Victory will be for those who will be able to create disorder without loving it.

(Guy Debord, ‘Theses on cultural revolution,’ Internationale situationniste 1 (1958) § 6)
Those of us who identify with “Those” presented in the first sentence already understand how to create disorder. And we may instinctively coat that understanding in an affirmation of love, recalling Zarathustra’s chaos as the product of intense affirmation. Given that the Situationists also fully advocated the most passionate and immediate force of living as a mode of political action, what, in the thesis above, is the significance of not loving disorder.

The focus of ‘Theses’ is on the creation of chaos rather than chaos itself. To overcome the established order, one must understand it as something that will continue to reinvent itself indefinitely. There is no single revolutionary event; there is a series of revolutionary events.

The emphatic moment for disorder therefore needs to exist in constant implementation. Unless chaos is consistent, and its products refined, contaminated or abandoned, what was originally the will to chaos will become bourgeois convention, put into practice by the Former Radical who sits in his tree-house clinging to the formerly-radical relics of things he was once capable of creating, before his radicalism stopped believing in itself as something beyond ornament. The resounding affirmation of chaos-creation comes with a warning, live in the eye of the storm, but don’t try to cling to anything that finds its way into the centre with you.

Victory will be for those who will be able to create disorder without loving it. But what kind of “loving” is this? “Loving” disorder on these terms means growing out of the impulse to find it again in a new place, the implication being that to love is to stop. Once “loved”, disorder will want taking to bed for purposes not of rebirth, but reproduction. This aesthetics of monogamy has no place in the context of cultural renewal. It must be refined and abandoned—hung in a tender and self-sufficient frame. We can no more create what we intend to love than love whom we intend to manipulate.
Emphatic and brilliant. That injunction to “live in the eye of the storm, but don’t try to cling to anything that finds its way into the centre with you”—makes a cavernous hollow wherein pours that warning of Bill Bathurst in “How to Continue”: “Don’t sell anything inside yourself for money or whatever it controls; remember legal tender only affords temporal control of material goods & treat it like dogshit you scrape off your shoe / should lovegleam in eye of friend or lover be available as possible alternative.” And: “Should love open your heart like a feather of gentlest wind / your bedroom door left ajar, make room for the flesh, effects & whims of a recent stranger without worrying whether you take as much as you give; remember to love & to own are verbs as diametrically opposed in meaning as the nouns life & death. And: “Don’t sing love lyrics wrongly or more than once in public; don’t try to fan dead feelings aflame with words. // Ignore the above warnings & risk drowning in the undertow of your own rhetoric . . .” Particularly apt, ain’t it, with the recent “compleat” and indubitable changing of the guard of “Official Verse Culture”—see, in these States, the recent “crop” of National Book Award finalists in poetry—(though I am certain that “our” hanging-ornament Former Radicals’ll deny it with the usual hokey-pokey).

Too, Marianne Morris’s riff recalls the end of Ron Padgett’s tiny “After Reverdy” (out of Great Balls of Fire):
I would never have wanted to see your sad face again
Your cheeks and your windy hair
I went all across the country
Under this humid woodpecker
Day and night
Under the sun and the rain

Now we are face to face again
What does one say to my face

Once I rested up against a tree
So long
I got stuck to it
That kind of love is terrible
Which, running along the riled-up stream of my combining—one way to avert the sodden reek of stasis—recalls that folk-epithet insert that shows up in a number of pieces, including something Dylan calls “The Water is Wide” (sung with Joan Baez during the Rolling Thunder days):
I leaned my back up against an oak,
Thinking it was a trusty tree.
But first it bent and then it broke—
Just like my own false love to me.
Which finds its source in the gloaming oral “foam” of seventeenth century Poly-Olbion and surrounds north and west—skim’d off into miscellanies and songbooks by intrepid collectors and printers in the eighteenth century:
I leaned my back unto an aik,
I thought it was a trusty tree.
But first it bowed, and syne it brak:
Sae my true love did lichtly me.
Or, what Robert “Hellhound on My Trail” Johnson says regarding “a series of revolutionary events”: “I got to keep moving, I got to keep moving / Blues falling down like hail, blues falling down like hail.” (Or, what Frank “Khrushchev is coming on the right day!” O’Hara sings joyously out, “foolish enough always to find it in wind”: “the cool graced light / is pushed off the enormous glass piers by hard wind / and everything is tossing, hurrying on up / this country / has everything but politesse a Puerto Rican cab driver says . . .” That, and a primordial sense of the dogged need for a constancy of inconstancy.

Robert Johnson, 1911-1938

Monday, October 19, 2009


In a Window


“On the neighbouring shore
Whim rises up
the coral-roof’d
of Quintessence”—a rose-
besmirch’d succulence of truth
lies therein though exactly
how chance accommodates essence
is a pliant mystery,
of use, a snatch’d
remnant, a tramp’s hat
pricker-doff’d unbeknownst whilst
he stagger’d lit up
through a bramble patch.
One navigates a mighty
arithmetic of raindrops hitting
the notebook’s page, blotting
the serviceable, scripting
a categorical affect unpredetermined
and the heart bangs
concord at reconnaissance, fit
to mimic a singularity.
Weed chopper’d kudzu extravagancy,
dying copper-color’d burdock—
vytryol wherof the ynke
is made
jammed against
the shack’s footings, ten
thousand sentences rip’d off
unbeguiled by number, unthwart’d.
Something impermanent emerges, a
wry tatter’d barterable, a
picayune and piecemeal story
with a tint salmon-
color’d in the vasty
burning concupiscent red of
the unriled unreadable sun.

Empty’d out Monday. Stuck with the story of how story itself in the language of the Pirahã Indians in Brazil requires a seeing, or a direct connect to it. “A culture concerned only with matters that occur under the aegis of direct personal experience.” No myth, no history, no fiction. That and a habit of napping throughout the day and night—in lieu of a lengthy slumber. And Williams, out of The Embodiment of Knowledge (1974):
      Objectified, it is place itself—on which all arguments fall.

      From this earliest emplacement of thought springs the individual sanction to hold himself superior to all thought without which every practice is baseless. Unless a man be thus placed as all men are in their past—everything subsequent is without foundation.
      It is unescapable that on this, emplacement of the understanding everything rests, every action, thought, system.
      Order is nothing else than one of the kinds of affirmation of the same thing: “place.” That is the basis—not order is some charm in itself. It affirms man as the judge of all his own activities. Conscience—dual because impure—that is imperfection of man, the duality of his conscience: pity and ruthlessness, feeling and the lack of it: we seek a place for judgment.
Or, one’d say: story and its lack. Language constructing one’s temporal sense. Language mapping place.

Martin Schoeller, “Pirahã Grid,” 2005

William Carlos Williams, 1883-1963
(Beinecke Rare Book and Manuscript Library)

Thursday, October 15, 2009

Bhanu Kapil’s Humanimal

A Wall


Hortense “unfoundedly” is what
pops up, or Humphrey,
some guy’s dog or
cat. Wildly unabash’d trouvailles
of the “lyric sensibility,”
meaning trivial gewgaws interr’d
within a prose matrix.
Druther be hammering “semi-
mechanically” at a breviary
“to a lark’s twitter.”
Finicky is my pencil
grip’d in attendance to
whatever hot contagion “outs.”
It sings my distrust
of praise, heart’s fleece.
Unwieldy and big its
letters, writ unsoundly, unpoliced.

A spell of looking into Pound’s ABC of Reading, mostly for the quoted Arthur Golding Ovid—“And likenesses of ougly beastes with gastful noyses yeld. / For feare whereof         in smokie holes the sisters were compeld / To hide their heads,         one here and there         another for to shun / The glistering light. And while they thus in corners blindly run / Upon their little pretie limmes         a fine crispe filme there goes / And slender finnes         instead of handes         their shortened armes enclose. / But how they lost their former shape         of certaintie to know / The darkness would not suffer them.” More feral transforming and shame. And, browsing, cropping the grasses down to nubs, stray’d into the dichten = condensare purlieu, with its troublesome “That did not mean it was something more wafty and imbecile than prose, but something charged to a higher potential.” All that proscrib’d clarity makes me fuss and fume: “an equal limpidity in poetry, where the perfectly simple verbal order is charged with a much higher potential, an emotional potential.” Somehow I connect that with Pound’s hamstringing analogy (and Aristotle):
      You can prove nothing by analogy. The analogy is either range-finding or fumble. Written down as a lurch toward proof, or at worst elaborated in that aim, it leads mainly to useless argument, but a man whose wit teems with analogies will often ‘twig’ that something is wrong long before he knows why.

      Aristotle had something of this sort in mind when he wrote ‘apt use of metaphor indicating a swift perception of relations’.

      A dozen rough analogies may flash before the quick mind, as so many rough tests which eliminate grossly unfit matter or structure.
Whence radical uncertainty, and doubt? Whence Keats’s “uncertainties, Mysteries, doubts without any irritable reaching after fact & reason”? I am propel’d precisely by the “wafty and imbecile,” and the vexatious shuddery reflux. Clarity shills commonplaces.

Off tomorrow.

Bhanu Kapil’s Humanimal
(Design’d by Jeff Clark)

Of Note

Out of Bhanu Kapil’s Humanimal: A Project for Future Children (Kelsey Street Press, 2009):
15. Coming over a ridge, Joseph saw two pale animals, their heads hanging down and thick with brown dreadlocks. There were drinking from a river with a pack of wolves. A twig snapped underfoot as Joseph strained to look but at that moment, the animals fled, in one sharp curve, back into the green. At night, the animals came once again to drink. In his hide, Joseph shivered. He could not see them clearly but he knew they were there. In the moonlight, the wolves and their companions were whitish, with eyes that shone when they turned toward him, mildly, reflexively. Blue.

G. Wet, wet, green, green. I mix with them and prosper. Sticky then my mother licks me clean. The nest is brown. Best is brown next to yellow. Best is blue then brown. Best yellow. Where will the sun go when it is finished? I ask my mother. I put my lips against her skin and drink. Her milk is white and then the sun goes in the ground. Because my mother does, she does so every night. We watch her disappear and then we disappear. Blue as blue then brown then green then black.

16.i. In the bedroom, he tried to feed her with a copper spoon, a mineralized utensil to replenish her blood. He made her eat, watching the pink food—a kind of semolina pudding mixed with jam—pool in her mouth. Her mouth was an O and with his fingers he tried to press her gums and teeth together. “Eat.” In the time I am writing of, villagers from the settlement of Midnapure came regularly to the orphanage, lining up at the gate to catch a glimpse of the two jungle children. For a few minutes a day, Joseph’s wife, the Home’s Mother, let them in and they swarmed to the room where the youngest girl was failing. They watched her fade and jerk in her cot, the spittle coming down over her chin. From these stories, I constructed an image of the dying girl as larval; perennially white, damp and fluttering in the darkness of the room.

16.ii. “She was buried in the churchyard of St. John’s Church, Midnapure, on the twenty-first of September, 1921. Her death certificate ran as follows: This is to certify that Amala (wolf-child), a girl of the Rev. Singh’s Orphanage, died of nephritis on September 21, 1921. She was under my treatment. September 21, 1921. sd / -s.p. Sabadhicari. Indian Medical Service.” —Joseph Singh.
A difficult book to “see” by quoting. Read in a couple of long draughts. Bhanu Kapil went (in 2004) with some French filmmakers to Midnapure; they—making “a documentary on human-wolf contacts”—want to film her doing research for Humanimal. That’s one story. Kapil’s work begins with “the true story of Kamala and Amala, two girls found living with wolves in Bengal, India, in 1920.” She writes:
My source text, the diary of an Indian missionary, Reverend Joseph Singh, was first published in 1945 as a companion text to Wolf-Children and Feral Man, a book of essays by the Denver anthropologist Robert Zingg. In the jungle, on a Mission to convert the tribal population, Singh had heard stories of “two white ghosts” roaming with a mother wolf and her pack of cubs. He decided to track them. Upon discovering the “terrible creatures” to be human, he killed the wolves and brought the children back to his church-run orphanage, the Home, in Midnapure. For the next decade, he documented his attempts to teach the girls language, upright movement, and a moral life. Despite his efforts, Amala died with a year of capture, of nephritis. Kamala lived to be about sixteen, when she died of TB.
Singh’s story is another, some of it quoted directly. Another is some quasi-identificatory imaginary, rarely narrative in impulse, language-floods in letter’d sections. (In a wonderful “poetics” Kapil says: “In a companion text, intrusion functions as an organizing principle. As an adult, for example, I take pleasure in the well-ordered house with the furry dog on the floor and the leg unaffectedly balanced on the mantelpiece. It’s a human leg. It’s art.”) Another is Kapil’s father’s story, a story of another “corrupt, humanimal landscape”:
29.ii. The legs: as a child, my father ate butter straight from the cow. Once, when his mother caught him red-handed at the churn, she beat him to blood with a bamboo cane. My father, a tiny, wiry boy, was smoking by age seven. Switching the cows home through fields of rape, his chest level with the sharp yellow blossoms. Barefoot, his feet resembled those of a goat’s: hard, rough, and smooth . . .
31.ii. My father’s legs were covered with silver pockets where the flesh had been scooped out then varnished to a high sheen. My father herded goats, supporting his family, for a time in its entirety. His own father had died of an opium overdose; I don’t think then exactly, but later. My father’s mother built a shelter out of tin and wood and straw and mud for the children. The second oldest child, my father, sold goat’s milk and tended the animals in the world of fields that extended in all directions for hundreds of miles. A twelve-year-old, illiterate boy, my father was standing in a field when he had a vision. He said: “I suddenly knew that when I grew up I would be a teacher in England. I said, ‘I will go to England and teach English to the English.’” And he did. He dragged himself out of the field and into the sky.
Or a story, later, Kapil a child, seeing her father emerge “out of his headmaster’s office with a cane” to beat a boy who claim’d he’d done “Nuffink.”

There’s something condemnatory and helpless here. The way the stories impinge and begin to echo back and forth—echoing, too, every story in a long history of humanimals, Gilgamesh’s friend Enkidu, Romulus and Remus, &c. One cherishes one’s animality (“Each feral moment is valuable”), one indicts one’s lack of humanity. In some sense Kapil’s father’s story comes to displace that of Kamala and Amala. It comes to witness larger injustices, larger societal traumas:
My father died young, in his fifties, though the doctor told me privately that his body was clearly ravaged by the debilitating effects of poverty, early malnutrition and the multiple muscular-skeletal traumas that he appeared to have sustained as a child. “On the contrary, Miss Kapil,” he said in a theatrical whisper next to the bed, “it is a miracle he lived this long. He should really have died as a child.” “You should go home, ducks,” said the nurse, and I did, passive to the ward’s routines.

Bhanu Kapil
(Photograph by Margaret Randall)

Wednesday, October 14, 2009

The Grand Piano Notes



Mid-stride a dallying
walk, I am stuck
by a premonitory jitter:
what if my quotidian
itch unceasing is the
engine of my self-
deceit? I continue wildly
eliding the days, I
scratch at the assy
eruptings of the plump
and beastly now, sundering
it into manageable pieces.
(Ass, dogging pieces of.)
Curtailings. Roots (pronounced ruts).
Heraclitus says breathing is
a kind of root
pulling up the world-
fiery divinity of logos,
barely maintain’d in sleep,
a tenuous connect, a
thin blue filament knot’d
with a worry of
perceivings. Who is it
says every sentence runs
out into expiry, asserting
its own sudden mimickry
with no cautionary vendible
date stamp’d, the sentence
“firme et proportionaliter iuncta”
to the world it
rubs against for gain?
I don’t know either.
Not knowing is no
temerity, I rake my
hand up through unruly
hair and think of
my ungirt’d and untenable
conjuncts, bullying the word
into some fix’d momentary
occasion. Tea and bibs.
Weeding the sheep sorrel.
Chopping chives, sautéing liver.
Aloof and cranky protocols
of “verbo” butt’d up
into “sermo” whilst hellishly
the vernal world churns.

Bob Perelman, in The Grand Piano (#8), begins:
Different routes to the ocean. Big as it is, you might think you could meander in any direction and be standing there, the sublime horizontal communicating icy thrills direct to feet and legs, but no.

Most times the ocean is not available to the senses
You can’t see it
You can say you do
You can look

But no. No ocean. Inland chaos of arbitrary routes the other way, all of them long it turns out. “You can’t remember this stuff,” sage advice or R. Crumb on film (Crumb) getting driven around photographing one densely anonymous gas-station-infested corner after another . . .
Which beginning registers as a breezy squib of post-genre fishing with hints of Spicer’s white and aimlessly signaling ocean providing a barely perceptible backbeat: “This ocean, humiliating in its disguises / Tougher than anything. / No one listens to poetry. The ocean / Does not mean to be listened to.” One might replace—in Perelman’s case—“listens to” with “remembers”: “You can’t remember this stuff” is consistently Perelman’s own complaint in the booklets. (Indeed, he ends here with a nod: “[—memory supplied in many cases by Francie Shaw].”)

“But I never owned a camera.” Perelman—running with what’d seem the “theme” of #8—mashes up a visit (or two? or several?) to “The Giant Camera behind the Cliff House” (a large-scale “walk-in” camera obscura built in San Francisco in 1946). Camera obscura, literally “dark room,” a box wherein entering light is focus’d and project’d against a parabolic surface, making the outer surroundings visible (though upside down). Perelman, rather breathlessly, sees therein a “dish of concentrated color, not a painting, a photograph , or film, but a picture, alive, with the motion not immediately apparent, because often it was only tiny bits of the picture that might be moving, when I could make myself recognize that it wasn’t some very accurate floor painting of the oceans I was seeing, but a concentration of what was actually visible outside, the same light, same proportions, the exact colors, more exact in being concentrated.” Extemporaneous riffing is what “we” do when “the exact colors” of memory fail. And Perelman does it with a likable lightness: considering the way “Ibn al-Haytham (Alhazen, 965-1049 C. E.)” clarify’d the gizmo’s principles whilst admitting “Et nos non inventimus ita, ‘we did not invent this.’” Which bumps Perelman into a Williamsesque cautionary that rather renders the whole heroic canonical ambitions of The Grand Piano’s “bad history” a little moot:
No literary lawyer will be able, my townspeople
to pin down the invention of any of the techniques
      in a fully final manner
At best, a harmless hobby
Name and place, initial publication
The very paper
This living hand, typing these very words. See, I
And of course it breaks off there. The difference between the “seeing I” and the “seeing eye” is routinely claim’d and incommensurable: it’s all light (and lightness). New paragraph to Perelman’s ditty:
and if light is substance in any sense then it’s the same substance touching both inside and outside with the same shapes at the same time. Object and subject, ménage à deux. Art, inexhaustibly fresh but full of the slowest transitions: after all, no one invented the eye.
Light, too, “humiliating in its disguises.” And, like writing, “Tougher than anything.” (“Tougher” doing its own dual ménage à deux duty.)

The second half of Perelman’s piece concerns itself largely with “Before Water” (which “survives variously: as a poem in 7 Works, then in a shorter version in Ten to One, then a still shorter version Francie used as one element in her ten 96 x 36” panel piece at her 2004 show at A.I.R. gallery in New York”), one of “a pair of collaborative pieces” perform’d with Francie Shaw at 80 Langton Street in 1977 (Regarding the other piece, a lovely self-puncturing deflate-note at the end: “What was the name of the first piece we did? As if that would be anything.”) “Before Water”: film’d waves project’d at a long roll of prepared paper (“some light washes of blue and green and some wave lines”) pull’d down and work’d by Shaw whilst Perelman read (“At times she would have me pause the projector while she traced the wave lines in the now-stilled movie with a thick ink brush. (I never paused the reading.) Other times she would draw as the wave kept moving.”) All rather of the moment, that robust foolishness “happening” un peu partout in the gallery “scenes.” What I find excellent though—largely for its humor and inevitability—is Perelman’s stated “concept” for the written part of the piece:
The formal constraint for me became to say the same thing (more or less ) (variety a minor condition) forever.
That’s as wonderfully succinct (and right) as Robin Blaser’s “The whole thing: just trying to be at home. That’s the plot.” (A line Kate Greenstreet dubbed “Every Other Day” with.) And result’d in:
The clear completed sentence the world is blue
Sense leans nearer over sentence noise
Forethought comes to the edge and spills
This time it’s water that’s complete
A loop makes no noise of the completed edge
Water makes blue makes white
I made each time line up in order . . .
The sentence is a line of water in order to read my mind through once
The sentence in a noise of falling order green extent
Once it’s done the world dries
I made death green only to think
The world is made of sentences
Once again the noise ends with time made blue
White time lines the sense with noise
There was no vocabulary in the water
Every once the time rolls in vocabulary
Once I edit sense I end
As Perelman says, “The simple and preposterous koan . . . to imitate the ocean, simultaneously taxed my invention and dismissed it.” Ah, for any self-immolating constraint! I suppose, being a sucker for variants within series, Perelman’s exercise (and result) is “simply” “appealing.” I like to think of the two ends of the “barely variant”—a continuum with one “end” occupy’d by niggles of difference (a single letter changed), the other by niggles of similarity (only a single letter unchanged). In the midriff one posits the jokes. Here’s one out of Markson’s Springer’s Progress. Here’s Lippman Pike, presumed versifier, accosting Lucien Springer in the bar:
      “Hey, Loosh, how long since you read Joyce? You hear what the newly amputated chef told Stephen’s friend he was serving on the fancy silver platter?”
      “Plately stump, Buck Mulligan?”
Here’s, malheureusement, another:
      Bar conversation edifying, likewise. Town called Murcie in Queensland, learns, exotic potion habitually brewed from the koala. Imbibe it rank with surfacing bones and hair however.
      Say that again?
      Koala tea of Murcie is not strained.
Badda bing. I’m here all week.

Camera Obscura (San Francisco, California)

“We did not invent this . . .”