Wednesday, December 22, 2010

How to Continue 1

Letter Box

Snow tatting the land-
scape, audibly abrupt, piling
up. Samuel Beckett loved
how Samuel Johnson, whose
Dictionary he’d dip into
constantly, like a snuff-
box, defined lamentation ‘audible
The kind of thing one amuses oneself with, and abandons to the lolling season. Beckett apparently fond, too, of Dr. Burney’s story (record’d by Boswell):
‘He had come down one morning to the breakfast-room, and been a considerable time by himself before anybody appeared. When, on a subsequent day, he was twitted by Mrs. Thrale for being very late, which he generally was, he defended himself by alluding to the extraordinary morning, when he had been too early. “Madame, I do not like to come down to vacuity.”’
Or coming down with vacuity, that recurrent blankness. Oddly enough, “vacuity” is a term undefined by Johnson’s Dictionary, though it lifts its snout in defining the words bolster (“A pad, or quilt, to hinder any pressure, or fill up any vacuity”), chasm (“A place unfilled; a vacuity”), fully (“Without vacuity”), gap, hole, hollow, plenitude (“Fulness; the contrary to vacuity”), vacancy and voidness. Recall Gertrude’s query to Hamlet:
                              Alas, how is’t with you
That you do bend your eye on vacancy
And with the incorporal air do hold discourse?
(Recall the joyous ferocity of shouting along to The Sex Pistols doing “Pretty Vacant”—gauding up the absences. Or recall Frank Zappa’s line about filling the air: “I decorate time for my own amusement . . .I just go around decorating pieces of time, with physical activity, notes, agitated air, and things like that.”) Hamlet, too, is populating the chasms and gaps, augmenting the empty air. Gertrude (continuing):
Forth at your eyes your spirits wildly peep;
And, as the sleeping soldiers in the alarm,
Your bedded hair, like life in excrements,
Starts up, and stands on end. . . .
I love how the two similes attach’d to the hair come around (transitivity breakdown: a=b, b=c, therefore a=c) to meet, so that “sleeping soldiers” jumping up = “life in excrements,” how it is compell’d to spring forth . . . “We” too, we recoup, we fill (and refill) the repeatable voids—the elementary writerly task. (Beckett’s phrase for Giacometti’s theory of failure—“l’échec à récupération”—“recuperated failure”—“I can’t go on, I'll go on.”) So James Lord (A Giacometti Portrait), recording Giacometti’s repeat’d “undoings” of paintings, sculptures (“Now I’ve got to undo everything. One should try to succeed in undoing everything and then doing it all over again very quickly, several times in the same sitting. I’d like to be able to paint like a machine”):
This constant expression of self doubt is neither an affectation nor an appeal for reassurance on his part but simply the spontaneous outpouring of his deep feelings of uncertainty as to the ultimate quality of his achievement. In order to go on, to hope, to believe that there is some chance of his actually creating what he ideally visualizes, he is obliged to feel that it is necessary to start his entire career over again every day, as it were, from scratch. He refuses to rely on past achievements or even to look at the world in terms of what he himself has made of it. . . .
So the loll retrieves its continuum, snow-nick’d and dickering, a door banging in the wind:
            Against the self-
doubt and angst, its
way of undoing, put
the social toys of
the ludibrium, writ play-
things one tosses out
into a common space,
its cut off purlieus
purloin’d for that moment.
Beckett call’d poetry “that
intractable beast, an un-
tamed horse.” Regarding art:
Il faut retrouver l’ignorance.

Off into the omniferous panniers of the “stretch.” À l’année prochaine.

Samuel Beckett, 1906-1989

Tuesday, December 21, 2010


Some Clouds

A kind of blank sullen rebelliousness, a refusal to allow the gears of thinking to “catch”—making moment of serendipitous lurches here and there. (Think of writers currently exploiting the data-stream by pulling sentences individually out of it like prize-winning fish. Whyn’t a critical practice diligently mimic that?) Leading me to think of “sentence-ry.” There’re parcels roundabout of Anselm Berrigan’s larger piece call’d “Primitive State”—some of it collect’d in the “What Where” chapbook series under the title Primitive State (The Corresponding Society, 2010)—defiantly insisting on the intact individuality of each of its sentences (rather recalling Ezra Pound’s remark to Donald Hall: “The only chance for victory over the brainwash is the right of every man to have his ideas judged one at a time”):
Touch the art.

Cross out plague, fill in doggie treat.

Quixotic hand lotion wrenched into stark relief or timely injection of equity?

It was hard to submit to the difficulties, or the various layers of marketable air.

I am assuming one knows what it is to be a shaman.

I understand my debt is an investment in my future.

I have trouble relating to the commercialization of foreplay.

I should be more fucked up than this horrible phone.

Regionally speaking, we shit the bed.

She will devour any object placed low enough.

Restitute beacon hoagie undercut by starlit felony grin trickle.

Amphetamine tests giving the game back to the kids, thwarting heathens no longer operable.

The replay indicates a sneak in under the tag.

That surreal twang, the baiting of articles into a contextual wipe system, does believe in love.

In a museum gallery a book dismembered & splayed across a wall.

I was less than bolstered by the center, the bobbing head, an overheated constellation lashing out, coma rich.

My memory of accomplishment routinely exercises its liberty to strike.

Same build evolution in truly high code.

Getting picked off take the breath away.

For I examine my appropriations’ triplets and give them purpose.

For my disparity’s attenuated drool, impressed by the willful poverty of the alchemist, considers a local solution.

For the ache within you that may only be muted if your payments are timely deserves a stake in our urgency.

For confidence is a stain of tangibility.

Foliage shakedown.

Cheers erupted, and their echoes bought property.
And so forth. One notes Berrigan’s nod to a plausible precursor in the tiny string of sentences beginning with “For . . .”: Christopher Smart. Though the ready abandonment (“Foliage shakedown” implying both the use of force and a momentary giddy revel) makes the nod into no more than a temporary node in the data-stream, an exemplary local clump-up. What’s the relationship here with the supposed “New Sentence”? I think of Marx’s lovely sotto voce to the first sentence of The Eighteenth Brumaire of Louis Bonaparte: “He forgot to add: the first time as tragedy, the second as farce.” And I think of Gertrude Stein’s insisting that “paragraphs were emotional and sentences were not. Paragraphs are emotional not because they express an emotion but because they register or limit an emotion.” And I think of Ron Silliman’s bare schema of New Sentence qualities (how unnaturally indifferent to feeling its tenets seem, as if language were an inert and rather nonhuman thing):
1) The paragraph organizes the sentences;
2) The paragraph is a unit of quantity, not logic or argument;
3) Sentence length is a unit of measure;
4) Sentence structure is altered for torque, or increased polysemy / ambiguity;
5) Syllogistic movement is (a) limited (b) controlled;
. . .
8) The limiting of syllogistic movement keeps the reader’s attention at or very close to the level of language, the sentence level or below.
“Second as farce”: by sheer roil and plenty, overstocking, Berrigan’s sentences refuse syllogistic movement (and force an attending to, each by each). The difference: a feeling of whole-dog engagement with the info-bombardment, a trucking with it, unhinder’d by any formal registry. Berrigan: “I trained my instincts to turn away from the banal and discovered I could no longer order my sentence.”

Other sentences. Graham Foust, in both To Anacreon in Heaven (Minus A Press, 2010) and To Graham Foust on the Morning of His Fortieth Birthday (The Song Cave, 2010), is working a similar, if less manically info-echt vein. Here’s a slice at random out of the latter book:
Allow me to pull that mouth off.

You and I are one another in the ways the closest whisper might be called a kiss, and here we are—kiss or no kiss, kiss or not—up close and vanished as per standardized desire.

That said, I’m both camera and satellite, so let’s go live now to where it’s night and catch crowds rushing out of various overpriced events converting their initial impressions into speech they can’t be bothered to commit to memory.

In your sad and American manner, you get as choked up about the collective as you do over the individual.

When it comes to songs you’re up and down for them, whether anthem or unfathomable murmur.

When it comes to poetry, prose is the World Trade Center of language, free verse the Goldman Sachs.

One day the role of me will be played by no one, the role of you by a slice of meat.

Here’s the warmed-up chorus: “You sore excuse of penis / You fucking dim Wisconsin ghost.”

Odd to be referred to as the real one, yes, but it’s not so difficult not to name things.

“Rain-bright paint”; “some idea of what I’ve done”; “smudged tobacco on the hospital steps.”

There was a time before you’d forgotten such words, which means that at one point your mouth was probably warm from having used them.

I’ve not accused you of repose in a field of unknown results at noon on the first Tuesday of each month, nor have I accused you of suicide, of loving the void so much that you thought you’d make another one up, but if you’re alive—even if you’ve achieved complete amnesia—I’d like those words with you.

And if not, just tell me—I’ve got some perfume.

A little bird hit you.
The address’d “you”—Foust or other—making local, nigh-personal, the strange vortex of desires (note how Berrigan’s sassy global “commercialization of foreplay” is only a more public exemplifying of Foust’s close-up “standardized desire”), that ineluctable rampancy of being “both camera and satellite”—recorder and transmitter, constantly able—as the newsroom donkeys say—to “go live now” wherever, and indefatigably. In spite of the slippery focus of the address (“you”), there’s the sense of one’s consciousness completely invaded: Foust’s opening line straight off the airwaves: “There is a town in north Ontario.” (See, too, the funny blip—“ sad and American manner”—in To Anacreon in Heaven: “Often I am permitted to return a few phone calls from a meadow.”) (And, toward the end of To Graham Foust . . .: “Remove the gears.”) Some pervasive communal longing to slip the reins of the “era” . . .

And the nigh-un-sentenced. Out of Tom Pickard’s lovely memoir More Pricks Than Prizes (Pressed Wafer, 2010), “Ex Wing Commander” Basil Bunting’s pre-verdict letter (the “almost innocent” Pickard’d got scoop’d up in a drug raid: “I opened the door and six hefty guys stormed into the narrow corridor, two of them armed, and pinned me to the wall. ‘You’re bust, bonny lad.’”):
Prison is hard to bear, but it is not unbearable, and if you want to keep your eyes open to what is around you (as I’m pretty sure you will) you’ll pile up a stock of experience you can make good use of in poetry eventually. Keep objective. Your own unhappiness is not capital stock, but what your eyes see and your ears hear is . . . I quite expect neither to hear from you nor to be able to write to you if you are sentenced . . . I have always admired your courage against odds, your readiness to learn whatever there is to learn, your goodwill even toward people who have earned no good will; and I value your ear for rhythm, your readiness to cut down to what’s essential, the way you evoke an emotion without a word that isn’t concrete and factual.
Pickard “found not guilty by a majority verdict.”

Tom Pickard

Monday, December 20, 2010


Some Clouds

Limping along here like the cricket the one-eyed Jack Russell captured in a corner of the cellar, mouth’d with utmost daintiness bristling, and spat out in some homely combo of inert terror and unabash’d disgust, a shiny black semi-chirping intricacy, or indelicacy. No florilegium , no flourish, nabbed by the cold. “Like the wild grass fetch’d up by the wind unto the roof, it withereth before it come forth.” Odd moments occupy’d by reading Stendhal’s The Life of Henry Brulard (my lit capability brown’d down to the to-and-fro plungings of its horse-play, its sheepish reiterant sketch helter-skelter, its matte refusal of encomia to itself)—its dog-ear’d pages marking an unlikely chrestomathy. The writerly text:
A novel is like a violin-bow, the box which gives off the sounds is the soul of the reader.
Early literary criticism, of “a poem by a Jesuit about a fly drowning in a jug of milk”:
The whole point turned on the antithesis produced by the whiteness of the milk and the blackness of the fly’s body, the sweetness it was looking for in the milk and the bitterness of death.
And a “horror of verse”:
Even in Racine, who strikes me as very eloquent, I find plenty of padding.
Stendahl’s story of using the Gradus ad Parnassum, a primer for the composition of Latin verse—“Lines were dictated to me, leaving out the epithets, for example:
Mosca ep[ithet] duxerit annos ep[ithet] . . .
      I opened my Gradus ad Parnassum; I read all the epithets for flies: volucris, acris, nigra, and, to get my hexameters and pentameters to scan, I chose nigra, for example, for mosca, felices for annos. . . . Emulation is absolutely essential if we are to be got to swallow such ineptitudes.” (Noted: how Stendhal scripts the Italian mosca for the correct musca.) I recall how some years back, “testy and crimping like some arthropod or arachnid” up the lower slopes of Parnassus (all Sensurround and gimmickry), being ask’d by some temporary magister or other to redact a piece using the syntactical armature of another, and how I “took” a Philip Levine poem and changed both principals and epithets so that the brute redundancy of Detroit factory work turn’d (like cider) under the spell substitutory of mere words to a tiny working diorama of Beetle Bailey lazily misbehaving, with a Sarge who “fart’d in thunder”—a nod, I see now, to Ashbery’s “Farm Implements and Rutabagas in a Landscape.” Emulatory rot, though it, too, “shall not perish from the earth.” (That Lincolnesquerie hinting that such substitutory provoking—“far above our poor power to add or detract”—may well serve to test what “can long endure.”) Stendhal:
I had . . . a violent liking for optics, which led me to read Smith’s Optics in the Public Library. I made some spectacles for seeing the person next to you while seeming to look straight ahead.
(See, too, Bob Perelman’s “Essay on Style”: “A composer must do precisely what a composer is nearest to. I close my heart to momentary whim, which as far as I can see, I always guess.” It replicatory and derive of Jack Spicer’s “When I translate one of your poems and I come across words I do not understand, I always guess at their meanings. I am inevitably right” out of the second letter to Lorca . . . Or, see: “Some agreeable piece of boreal lingo screwed on quietly to itself miles away.” “Words are what sticks to the real.”) Stendhal: “. . . where my childhood is concerned I only have very clear mental pictures, without dates and without any physiognomy. ¶ I write them down more or less as they come to me.” That swell antic hay of Stendhal: writing as grasping at straws. (Or grabbing at a straw man.) “I entreat the reader, should I ever find one, to remember that I have no pretensions to truthfulness except in what concerns my feelings; as for the facts, I have never had much memory.” (As if Stendhal’s The Life of Henry Brulard provided a critique of autobiography, its stately proleptic chronologies. Giorgio Agamben’s calling of criticism: “the reduction of works to the sphere of pure gesture.”) Thus, randomly:
My skin is too delicate, a woman’s skin (later on I always got blisters after having held by sabre for an hour); the least thing takes the skin off my fingers, which are very good; in a word, the surface of my body is that of a woman. Hence maybe an insurmountable revulsion for whatever looks dirty, or damp, or blackish in colour.
The difficulty, my profound regret at describing things badly and so spoiling a heavenly memory in which the subject surpasses the teller makes writing genuinely painful for me rather than a pleasure. Later on, I may very well not describe at all my crossing of the Mont Saint-Bernard with the army of reserve (16 to 18 May 1800) and my stay in Milan in the casa Castelbarco or the casa Bovara.
Stendhal’s endless sketches of rooms and maps, label’d. Amiable writerly breakdown. Bah. Cricket in the brainbox.

Johan Olaf Sodermark, “Stendhal (Henri Beyle),” 1840

Thursday, December 16, 2010

“To the Random”


Yesterday, bush’d, knock’d down and pummel’d by the cheer-compell’d season, by the snow and cold, and a lingering cold: writing a piece call’d “To the Random”—“Roughly two hundred snow / geese havoc the open / water . . . something, something, the word houck (mimicking a noise) in there somewhere . . . Timbre of a snit . . . something, something . . . Tenue of a reprobate.” Random seizures of focus: “The age demanded an image / Of its accelerated grimace . . .”

I think, too, of Stendhal’s admitting in The Life of Henry Brulard to a “liking for pulling faces”: “I often laugh at the expressions I put on when I’m alone.” Me, too. Stendhal, in Memoirs of an Egotist: “I hate material description. The tedium of having to do it stops me writing novels.”

Tedium of material description—out of Ron Silliman’s “You” (The Alphabet): “As the pop foul descends from the heavens into the crowd, hands and gloves shoot skyward, bodies thrusting themselves up, straining, grasping, parody of a scene on Iwo Jima, while below others cringe & cower, popcorn, beers, sodas spilling in all directions, the sculptural effect complete (at least half of the participants appear to have their eyes shut), a phenomenon that repeats in smaller and less hysterical numbers again and again as the loose ball bounces untouched from section to section until a boy with an oversized blue glove smothers it against his chest.” Tedium and imprecision: one attempts to discern a sequence of diminishing Iwo Jima memorials in the stands (“a phenomenon that repeats in smaller and less hysterical numbers”) and cannot do it, the ball itself is elsewhere, angling off oddly, and too low for the upward thrust.

(Think of how Williams undercuts the nonchalance opening sweep of “The crowd at the ball game / is moved uniformly // by a spirit of uselessness” with the insist’d “in detail”: “It is alive, venomous // it smiles grimly / its words cut—”) Useless and venomous: a severity of lack. It is loss of control—a will’d and slovenly incising—that makes of the “descripting” of material a sudden wilderness and a return revivify’d to “the brutality of fact” (the obvious, the illustratory . . .) Francis Bacon (talking to David Sylvester in 1962):
When I was trying in despair the other day to paint that head of a specific person, I used a very big brush and a great deal of paint and I put it on very, very freely, and I simply didn’t know in the end what I was doing, and then suddenly this thing clicked, and became exactly like this image I was trying to record. But not out of any conscious will, nor was it anything to do with illustrational painting. What has never yet been analyzed is why this particular way of painting is more poignant than illustration. I suppose because it has a life completely of its own. It lives on its own, like the image one’s trying to trap; it lives on its own, and therefore transfers the essence of the image more poignantly. So that the artist may be able to open up or rather, should I say, unlock the valves of feeling and therefore return the onlooker to life more violently . . .
And: “There is a possibility that you get through this accidental thing something much more profound than what you really wanted.” Accident and loss, a dogged / lazy impercipience. I long to muscle all that up against Robert Duncan’s prehensile dictum (Fictive Certainties) of poetry as “the weaving of a figure unweaving, an art of unsaying what it says, of saying what it would not say.” And Walter Benjamin’s note (under “Baudelaire” in The Arcades Project): “The new ferment that enters into the taedium vitae and turns it to spleen in self-estrangement.”

Spleen itself a “prehensile dictum” (with opposable thumb plant’d against nose). See how it unsays what it says, being regard’d variously as “the seat of melancholy” (“The splene or mylte is of yl juice, for it is the chamber of melancholy”), “the seat of laughter or mirth” (“for by þe splene we laugȝhen”), “whim or caprice; changeable temper” (“Out you madhedded ape, a weazel hath not such a deale of spleene as you are tost with”), &c.

Sir Philip Sidney, talking of the poet-hating Misomousoi, “all that kinde of people, who ſeek a prayſe by diſprayſing others” (“An Apologie for Poetrie”) inculpates the spleen in negligence, fatuity, profligacy, and worse: “they doe prodigally ſpend a great many wandering words, in quips and ſcoffes, carping and taunting at each thing, which by ſtyrring the Spleene, may ſtay the braine from a through beholding the worthines of the ſubject.” Splenetic, random, seiz’d.

Francis Bacon, “Self Portrait,” c. 1969

Francis Bacon, “Self Portrait,” 1971

John Deakin, “Francis Bacon,” 1952

Wednesday, December 15, 2010

The H.D. Book Notes 1

Some Clouds

Early in The H.D. Book (University of California Press, 2011) Robert Duncan unleashes a lovely line that occasions its own rhythmic syncope. Of an H.D. piece (“Heat”), he says it exhibits “form not by convention kept but by the pulse of its own event.” The line is deftly limn’d against a summary of how—conventionally—schooling provides a precisely work’d up and wholly acceptable set of cultural props, common supports, grace notes for the (c. 1960) burgeoning middle class (“We were in the proving ground of the professional middle class, where we were to learn by heart the signs and passwords of that class.”) And:
In each of our histories, we were to repeat the historical victory of the Rise of Capitalism. Were there “Charm’d magic casements, opening on the foam / Of perilous seas, in faery lands forlorn,” we were schooled not to be taken in by them but to take them in, to appreciate the poet’s fancy, even as our forefathers no longer worshipped grove and fountain but exploited wood and water power as public utilities. . . . Work by work, author by author, the right roads were paved and marked, the important sights were emphasized, the civic improvements were pointed out where the human spirit had been successfully converted to illustrate the self-respectability of civil men, and the doubtful, impulsively created areas or the adventuring tracks into back-country were deplored.
Event’s pulse that of “impulsively.” Versus the civic prompt, acceptably deliver’d: think how Keat’s “Ode” ends: “Fled is that music.” Where Duncan’s particularly good: making distinct the original meaning of the Poundian image—“an intellectual and emotional complex”—by noting, reiterating, how “the complex does not proliferate but is realized ‘in an instant of time’”: “For Pound, as for H.D., as for Lawrence or for Williams, the image was not an invention but a numinous event in language, a showing forth of a commanding Reality in the passing personal real.” Using the now wholly debased Joycean term epiphany. Duncan counterweights the strip’d and fleet image-event (“the nexus of an experience”) with what he calls “the opportunity of an expression, of a striking figure in the author’s rhetoric”:
Whatever else they were, the images—in Hulme’s poem “Autumn,” the ruddy moon that may be like a red-faced farmer peering over a hedge, or in Eliot’s “The Love Song of J. Alfred Prufrock,” the evening that may be like a patient etherized upon a table—are not mythopoeic in their operation or intent, not deepening our sense of the reality of moon or of evening, but present extension of their author’s wit, personal conceits.
Rhetoric the dissipating angel. Though Duncan’s intent, too, is seemingly to reject the “economy” of Pound’s imagism, “the perfectionist drive,” the “imperative toward perfection that haunts the aesthetic propositions of Imagism,” a kind of limit’d range of numina—that “passing personal real.” A way of making room for H.D.’s—and Duncan’s own—raptures ungainly, diffident, wilder. Think of how Duncan quotes Williams’s Preface to the 1954 Selected Essays—“Poetry is a dangerous subject for a boy to fool with, for the dreams of the race are involved in it”—and, too, how Williams sought in Paterson (according to the Autobiography) “to find an image large enough to embody the whole knowable world”: Duncan’s sheer insistence that the world is large, and that one be not mere, or restrain’d, in its depicting:
There was no thing that was not, given the proper instant in time and intent in vision, Image. There was no image that was not, properly rendered, the nexus of divine and elemental orders in the human world. Anguish and ecstasy gave presence to, and were aroused by a presence in, the natural world. Rocks and sea, thunderous surfs, gardens and orchards actually exposed the soul to the spiritual presence, flooded it with the presence—all but unbearably—and yet, at the same time, sheltered it within the presence.
(Duncan’s own verbiage tends to go washy and vague in the presence of the presence. . .) He quotes (apropos the rhetor’s river-like gush?) a lovely line—“H.D.’s proposal in the Imagist Anthology of 1915”: “A new cadence means a new idea.” (Recalling a thing I just read by Bhanu Kapil: “Cadence allows the writer to discharge a narrative from her nerves.”) “Cadence” out of the French cadence, out of the Italian cadenza, “falling.” “The literal sense is ‘action or mode of falling, fall.’” “Cadence is in form a doublet of chance.” The prompt serendipity of cadence. One is subsumed by it. See, too, Duncan’s sense of falling under the spell of the writing (extend’d, here, boldly, to the writing life):
The work of art is itself a living presence in which its creator stands. . . . “Am I the god?” Pygmalion asks:
or does this fire carve me
for its use?
Just as there are certain events in actual life that are so charged with the information of a content that is to be realized in the maturation of the soul or form of the total lifetime, and as there are certain dreams that flood our active consciousness with the forms of unconscious, as yet unborn, facts of our identity, so, for the poet, there are poems that are prophetic of a poetry that is to be realized only in the fullness of the poet’s life . . . As the artist works to achieve form he finds himself the creature of the form he thought at first to achieve. The role of the poet, his craft, is to seek out the design in the carpet, to come to know and then to acknowledge his identity in the terms of a poetry he but belongs to. The fire is indeed to carve the poet for its use.
Struck by something like Duncan’s “megalomaniac largesse.” (A phrase that wants to praise and to damn.) Determined to fossick the whole territory, unabash’dly. What he notes of Pound’s self-assessment (of The Cantos, in the 1938 Guide to Kulchur), one’d possibly apply to the marvelous rangy fatuity (”to praise and to damn”) of The H.D. Book: “the defects inherent in a record of struggle.”

H.D. (Hilda Doolittle), 1886-1961

Tuesday, December 14, 2010

Propensity Amok

Some Weeds

Marianne Moore quoting William James: “Man’s chief difference from the brutes lies in the exuberant excess of his subjective propensities. Prune his extravagance, sober him, and you undo him.” And Charles Olson, quoting Herman Melville in Constantinople (where “He ranges the polyglot city wildly, writes about it extravagantly”): “You loose yourself & are bewildered & confounded with the labyrinth, the din, the barbaric confusion of the whole.” (Kit Robinson, in a piece call’d “Live Air” in the new Gerry Mulligan, says “But literature is only that which isn’t, cut into / strips and wrapped around that which is”—papier-mâché swelling the complacent present armature—and, later: “Spontaneous reboot.”)

Lacking all spontaneity, I used to try to run a botch’d red Toro around the yard (mostly gone to crab—some locals say “quack”—grass and weeds, sorrels and plantains and mosses) that required exhausting and strenuous yankings to catch—choke in, choke out, done flood’d the fucker—wore my arm out. One thinks of that, trying to ignite thinking—or its mossy “manse”—with little piles of borrow’d language, feeding it continuously in lieu of . . . what? Seeing what the sluggard self’s drug up out of its leafless pantomime of sleep, tree’d by the hounds of desire? Suffering under the williwaw of a cold, its conjunct and vise-grip, forceps against the temples. That explain anything? Damn mower.

Walter Benjamin begins one early piece with the sentence: “Sheet of paper has gone missing; must look for it at home.” With a summary of purport’d content, inadequate (“1. The discussion of the concept of ‘system’ and the doctrine of the extinguishing of intention in the truth, explained in terms of the veiled image of Sais. 2. Discussion of the concept of ‘essence’ as the mark of truth.”) Is it a joke? (A footnote refers one to a parallel remark: “Truth is the death of intention. This, indeed, is just what could be meant by the story of the veiled image of Sais, the unveiling of which was fatal for anyone who thought to learn the truth thereby. It is not some enigmatic cruelty in actual meaning that brings this about, but the very nature of truth, in the face of which even the purest fire of the spirit of inquiry is quenched.”) And shouldn’t every writing begin so? Saying “I left it at home”—one way of accounting for the way intent’s burn’d off (that is to say, “fuel’d”) by writing.

Lisa Robertson, in R’s Boat: “I look up from my style.” Truth’s antiquarian ring. How little occupy’d the American writer is with the thus and such of “truth.” “Spontaneous reboot.”

Out of Robert Duncan’s The H. D. Book (University of California Press, 2011):
Something of what we are is up in the air, beyond our grasp, and wherever we are not sure of what is going on—as in the heavens then—a phantasy of our selves appeared.


Otherwise, other ways (as Charles Olson gave me the lead in his “Against Wisdom As Such” that our wise is not more or less than our ways), if there are not these roots in the sky, this place that is also a time of what must be—otherwise poetry is a litter. “Litterature,” Lewis Carroll called his collection of bits and starts out of which he put together Sylvie and Bruno. “The reader will overlook my spell,” he added.


In our time, Joyce, gathering up his mountain of litter, sorting and re-sorting, accruing scraps upon scraps, took a patron in that “Dodge-son.” He too made out of the mound of twenty-five years’ labor a pun upon literature and wrote a crawling language that must enter here, if only to play the adversary, for I have taken thought in this ground too. Like Milton, Joyce was blind. Finnegans Wake has its roots among letters and in the body, as if it were not moved by the stars. The work has intestinal fortitude, true to an internal chemistry. Its seasons are rounds of digestion. He had lost sight of the heavens.


In a man’s guts there are no gods . . .
The body’s shill demands. The body’s litter. The body as litter. Incidents drawn out of the story of the body as litter. (Lewis Carroll: “And thus it came to pass that I found myself at last in possession of a huge unwieldy mass of litterature—if the reader will kindly excuse the spelling—which only needed stringing together, upon the thread of a consecutive story, to constitute the book I hoped to write. Only! The task, at first, seemed absolutely hopeless, and gave me a far clearer idea, than I ever had before, of the meaning of the word ‘chaos’: and I think it must have been ten years, or more, before I had succeeded in classifying these odds-and-ends sufficiently to see what sort of a story they indicated: for the story had to grow out of the incidents, not the incidents out of the story . . .”) Olson, writing to Williams (“These Days”):
whatever you have to say, leave
the roots on, let them

And the dirt

              just to make clear
              where they came from
“He had lost sight of the heavens.” Looking for “the heavens”—the hid, the beyond, the “up in the air.” How little occupy’d the American writer is with the heavenly thus and such, the hid. Georges Perec’s two ways—“nostalgic (and false)” (Olson and Duncan):
To put down roots, to rediscover or fashion your roots, to carve the place that will be yours out of space, and build, plant, appropriate, millimetre by millimetre, your ‘home’: to belong completely in your village, knowing you’re a true inhabitant of the Cévennes, or of Poitou.

Or else to own only the clothes you stand up in, to keep nothing, to live in hotels and change them frequently, and change towns, and change countries; to speak and read any one of four or five languages; to feel at home nowhere, but at ease almost everywhere.
Nonce magisterial veering, and for naught, here umbrella’d by the botch of un-recuperant return. How one’s (subsequent, numerable) returns (to a writing) mar its sheen (making depths illisible?) That or the (diminishing, thanks) respiratory rout of phlegm, that etymon: how it allows my thus and such to ape my wildness so imperturbably, yea, self-possessedly. What begins by opening the throttle (upping the din), ends by damping it wholly down. Wittgenstein (Zettel): “Attention is dynamic, not static—one would like to say. I begin by comparing attention to gazing but that is not what I call attention; and now I want to say that I find it is impossible that one should attend statically.” Bah.

Lewis Carroll (Charles Dodgson) and Robert Duncan

Friday, December 10, 2010

Style and Its Discontents

Some Clouds

The plumb bob end of a skinny’d out, too taut week. Banging up against the lathwork newly tack’d down, undaub’d. Or drawing a tiny inclement arc, marking a limit. Somewhere Witold Gombrowicz says: “My art has shaped itself not in confrontation with a group of people related to me, but in relation to the enemy and confrontation with the enemy.” And there’s Stendhal (out of The Life of Henry Brulard):
      My relations were forever extolling to me, ad nauseam, the beauty of the fields, the greenery, the flowers, etc., ranunculi, etc.
      These worthless phrases have given me a distaste for flowers and flower-beds that still survives.
And, a few sentences along: “Thus it was, all those years later, that the rhythmical and pretentious phrases of Messrs Chateaubriand and Salvandy made me write Le Rouge et le noir in too jerky a style. A great foolishness, for who in twenty years’ time will have a thought for those gentlemen's hypocritical twaddle? As for myself, I am taking a ticket in a taking a ticket in a lottery first prize in which boils down to this: to be read in 1935.” Is style (merely) a reactionary impertinence, some recalcitrant thumping of the period’s usual? O’Hara talks (“Sudden Snow”), with usual “stylish” sass, about “the terrible limitations of poetic style ‘as we know it’” and concludes “Essay on Style” with the mock-petulance of the unabash’d tutelary god shrugging it off:
                                                no I am not going
to have you “in” for dinner nor am I going “out”
I am going to eat alone for the rest of my life
Style expounding itself contre tous in a temporal fit of refusing to fit. Compare such a “stance” to the derogatory use, style’s propriety (descending down out of Swift’s “Proper words in proper places, make the true definition of a stile”) and predictability. Joan Retallack (The Poethical Wager), essaying the nature of the essay, falls under the spell of style’s “service” (malign):
      The history of opinion on the essay is as full of disgust as admiration. Samuel Johnson evokes gastrointestinal disorders gone to the head: “A loose sally of the mind; an irregular undigested piece; not a regular and orderly composition.” A century before, Francis Bacon had referred to his own essays as “dispersed meditations.” Addison, of Spectator fame, remarked on “the Wildness of those Compositions that go by the Names of Essays.” The Petit Larousse . . . denotes essais as first drafts or “titres de certains ouvrages qui ne prétendent pas épuiser un sujet.” Think of the degree to which prose styles with built-in grammars of persuasion service the pretense of exhausting the subject. If one avoids this pretense, if the subject is questionable or constantly shifting or densely complex, there is the risk of frustrating the reader who has been trained by the cultural marketplace to expect attractively packaged exhaustion. Every element of style is saying, Don’t worry, there’s nothing more to it than this. If this is called “essay,” it’s a misnomer.
(I see, too, that Dr. Johnson, in a later edition of the Dictionary quotes Sir Joshua Reynolds, tout seul in the O’Haraesque dining car—“The great stile stands alone, and does not require, perhaps does not as well admit, any addition from inferior beauties.”) And there’s Émile Zola’s remark, out of The Experimental Novel (1880), quoted by Lyn Hejinian in The Language of Inquiry: “Today we are rotten with lyricism, we wrongly believe that a great style is made of a sublime disorder, always ready to tumble over into madness; a great style is made of logic and clarity.” And: “No more lyricism, no more big empty word, but facts, documents.” Reactionary fervor (against too-floody Romanticism) and a call for style’s essential propriety, a scientist distrust of vagary and excess (I am tempt’d to say, of speech). Grenier’s “i hate speech” outburst: (merely) a salvo in a style war.

Sir Joshua Reynolds, “Samuel Johnson,” 1775

Thursday, December 09, 2010

Hump and Rapture

Some Weeds

And colder, five degrees F. Still’d crows blacking the branches. One reads how the West Nile virus, rampant amongst New York City crows a decade back, lost its virulence moving west: “a crow in a diverse habitat is less likely to come down with the disease than a crow in a species-poor area.” Implying that, “a diverse ecosystem is more capable of mitigating a pathogen’s effects on highly-sensitive species.” Like a poet who reads inconsistently, flightedly, yea, rapturously, beyond the inevitably proscribed bounds of “the cohort”? (Two crows flaps off ungainly, impercipient, torn paper lift’d by a valedictory wind.) (What one desires is to mean “anew” with every word one utters.) What caught my morning attention: Michael Palmer’s note in “The Danish Notebook” that reads, “Robert Smithson’s idea of ‘a surd map,’ that is, a map without a central logic.” A writing of grand vacillatory vocables, un-nuanced. A writing with massive, ineluctable and sudden shifts of temporal (or spatial: the lid of the matchbox lying out in the Atacama sand) scale. (One thinks of Flaubert’s sixteen year gap limn’d with ballsy restraint in the 1869 L’Éducation sentimentale
      He traveled.
      He came to know the melancholy of the steamboat, the cold awakening in the tent, the tedium of landscapes and ruins, the bitterness of interrupted friendships.
—how it’s somehow reprised by Toni Morrison in the 1973 Sula with Sula’s return after a ten-year absence to the Bottom, “accompanied by a plague of robins . . . little yam-breasted shuddery birds.”) Gaps and shudders. Suspending oneself up above some voluntary abyss: trying to “make use” of the most wanton disparity. How’s it go in Wittgenstein’s Philosophical Investigations? That splendid fail’d retreat out of “actual language” (the point where one seeks “something pure and clear-cut”—or “falls” to grunting inconsolably, mouthing pig-syllables)? Wittgenstein:
We have got onto slippery ice where there is no friction and so in a certain sense the conditions are ideal; but also, just because of that, we are unable to walk. We want to walk: so we need friction. Back to the rough ground!
That is to say: in language, any map is “surd.” One walks not with some propositional idea of language, complete with “legend,” but with the clumsy mouthfuls of dirt we deposit here and there, markers of some use without legitimacy or preconceit. Hunh? Or we fall in heaps. Not out of the pitch’d glissando of clarity (clarity’s a major beef): out of the irreducible vacuity of the crowd’d field, the lingo hump’d up inexplicably, the beaver’d terrain. No better. Reading Agamben’s The Man Without Content, how he opposes the consumatory innocence, aesthetic distance, of the spectator of art in front of the beautiful object (quoting Nietzsche quoting Kant’s “That is beautiful . . . which gives us pleasure without interest” against Stendhal’s blunt rejecting of “le désinteressement by calling “the beautiful une promesse de bonheur,” a promise requiring activity and pursuit) to the “increasingly uncanny experience” of the maker of art (quoting Artaud, in The Theater and Its Double: “To our inert and disinterested idea of art an authentic culture opposes a violently egoist and magical, i.e., interested idea.”) Agamben:
For the one who creates it, art becomes an increasingly uncanny experience, with respect to which speaking of interest is at the very least a euphemism, because what is at stake seems to be not in any way the production of a beautiful work but instead the life and death of the author, or at least his or her spiritual health. To the increasing innocence of the spectator’s experience in front of the beautiful object corresponds the increasing danger inherent in the artist’s experience, for whom art’s promesse de bonheur becomes the poison that contaminates and destroys his existence. The idea that extreme risk is implicit in the artist’s activity begins to gain currency, almost as though—so thought Baudelaire—it were a sort of duel to the death “où l’artiste crie de frayeur avant d’être vaincu” (“where the artist cries out in fright before being defeated”); and to prove how little this idea is merely one metaphor among those forming the “properties” of the “literary histrio,” it suffices to quote what Hölderlin wrote on the brink of madness: “I fear that I might end like the old Tantalus who received more from the Gods than he could take,” and “I may say that Apollo struck me.” Or the note found in Van Gogh’s pocket on the day of his death: “Well, as for my own work, I risk my life in it and my sanity has already half melted away in it.” Or Rilke, in a letter to Clara Rilke: “Works of art are always the product of a risk one has run, of an experience taken to its extreme limit, to the point where man can no longer go on.”
I love that note regarding the “literary histrio.” What I see being a kind of supposed rapturous histrionic, the madness of the poet, &c. Rubbish’d by the pseudo-scientism of Language writing and the mechanickals of Conceptualism alike. Reading Agamben’s assemblage of limit-quotes, though, one sees how perfectly Jack Spicer’s “My vocabulary did this to me . . .” fits the rubric. Or even O’Hara’s final “Oedipus Rex” note: “He falls; but even in falling / he is higher than those who / fly into the ordinary sun.” (What one desires is to mean “anew” with every word one pulls out of one’s hat, or scours off and recovers . . .) Smithson’s idea of “taking of a discarded system and using it . . . as a kind of armature”:
I always had this urge toward all this civilized refuse around . . . I remember I was impressed by Nabokov, who says that the future is the obsolete in reverse. I became more and more interested in the stratifications and the layerings. I think it had something to do with the way crystals build up too. I did a series of pieces called Stratas. . . . I thought of writing more as material to sort of put together than as a kind of analytic searchlight, you know . . .
“Hump’d up inexplicably, the beaver’d terrain.”

Robert Smithson, c. 1969
(Photograph by Jack Robinson)

Wednesday, December 08, 2010

Throwing Off Sparks . . .

Some Clouds

Cold. Bicycling through the streets, skittish, odd phrases keep appending, like caudal fins: “chiliastic mastodon,” “contumely of a mesmerist,” “the mannerist mindfield.” Thus the ponderable words of Lord Bacon append’d to a story attach’d to an anonymous piece call’d “Hints to Authors” in the initial issue of that sterling rag, John-Donkey (1848):
“Oysters are quiescent, bibulatory of seawater and bearded. The human mind luxuriates in the vague and mysteresque as a pike in a fish-pond. Hence springs that longing after the immortal which pervades the universe. Hence lovers engrave the names of their heart’s idols upon gate-posts, with their jack-knives.”
The piece itself: snotty and unjust. “Preface your production by a number of quotations, from as many languages as possible. It is not necessary that these should have any reference to the subject, indeed, that they should have any meaning. Your purpose will be sufficiently answered, if you impress your reader with a belief that you are a profound linguist and an untiring reader.” Add’d, amongst numerous, exemplary:
“Iak ptak oknem przszcznztzskczjzmnkscznlwy.”
                                          —Spiewy Hystorycne.
“But to my story.” Isn’t it of consequence—and “normally” pooh-pooh’d royally all up and down the continent—that such unwill’d effusions (fleet magnanimous soundings in the dark) be the entablature of one’s own particular column of truth, the soi-disant froth of its days (l’écume des jours)? Think of Henry Miller’s sentence in Tropic of Cancer: “Last night Boris discovered that he was lousy.” How it is only explain’d by its subsequent: “I had to shave his armpits and even then the itching did not stop.” Miller’s book arrives with a tidbit of Emerson append’d in the way of pleading sophistick: “These novels will give way, by and by, to diaries or autobiographies—captivating books, if only a man knew how to choose among what he calls his experiences that which is really his experience, and how to record truth truly.” Big if. (Mid-romp one jostles up against some Miller lines to Anaïs Nin (dated 21 February 1939), pertinent to the raffish and unrefined hellboundedness of the “occasion”:
      The most solid materials perish, as do the mightiest thoughts. And the greatest book ever written can convey only a tiny fragment of the artist’s real emotion. No, we are only building tombs for posterity to admire with our words. We are trying to record the changing ego, but the Self will not be revealed thus. We are only throwing off sparks. . . .
      While one sits in the body of the Whale recording the changing temperature, mapping and charting the inner dynamism, the great whale itself is plowing through the deep. We must drop the pen, the pencil, the brush and become the whale itself. The real experience lies yonder, in the deep waters through which the whale is swimming. You think you are nourishing the world—but you are only nourishing the whale . . .
Limits of the Jonah perch.) Truth is, I batter about consumingly, pulling krill and copepodal swarms up out of the constant watery broth: it is one manner of attending, will’d. Honoring the idiocies of the rapture, its origin in the unprompt’d accidental. Giorgio Agamben notes (in “Poiesis and Praxis”) how the Greeks, making poiesis and praxis distinct, claim’d “the essence of poiesis has nothing to do with the expression of a will.” The “poor dumb slob who can’t help writing” perch. I swim with that.

Too, contra Emerson’s “captivating books” ditty (stuck here in the burgeoning squalid “age of autobiography”), there’s Friedrich Schlegel (“Athenaeum Fragments,” c. 1798):
196. Pure autobiographies are written either by neurotics who are enthralled by their own egos, a class that includes Rousseau; or out of robust artistic or adventurous self-love, like that of Benvenuto Cellini; or by born historians who consider themselves nothing more than the raw materials for historical art; or by women who are playing the coquette with posterity as well as with their contemporaries; or by worrisome people who want to clear up the least little speck of dust before they die and who can’t bear letting themselves depart this world without explanations. Or else they are to be viewed as nothing more than plaidoyers before the public. A sizable proportion of autobiographers are actually autopseudists.
Lovely. Mocker of the categorical though one be, oughtn’t “we” be assigning Schlegel’s here to the numerous vain plaidoyers of The Grand Piano, now, apparently, “finish’d”? On verra. (The subsequent remark found in the “Athenaeum Fragments”: “Hardly any literature other than ours can exhibit so many monstrosities born of a mania for originality. Here too are we proved Hyperboreans. For among the Hyperboreans asses were sacrificed to Apollo who would then take delight in their marvelous leaps.” Mysteresque.)

Giorgio Agamben

Tuesday, December 07, 2010

Carol Szamatowicz’s Blasting Through a Hole in the Universe

Awning and Slot

Carol Szamatowicz’s Blasting Through a Hole in the Universe (Green Zone, 2009) works the durable ruckus mode of Clark Coolidge (“Squid eyes look upwind. / There’s sand in my gum”) up against the complacencies of the demotic of John Ashbery (“The flowers recover from their dicky condition / . . . / We’re not going to live here, put the knitting down”). That’s one way of approaching it, albeit missing completely the adamant requirement that a woman is writing (“Why we differ has a lot to do with ovaries, / Auguries, flags and pickles”). A woman with both a wry and feisty sense of humor (“It’s a backward covenant, gallantry— / A caterpillar poses a riddle, a cabbage has rights, / A centipede puts a thorn through its “arm”) and a minor pleasing weakness for the high surreal (“Milky fires of thorns under her nails”). Blasting Through a Hole in the Universe contains seventy-eight sonnets, jittery, imperfect and unpredictable, hammering formal residue into a malleable thing, a series of containers each made of the various marvels it contains. Here’s one:
Red Breasts Afield

Birds study their map to the fist heist
In clouds of blinding lint
With blue pounding their ledge.
Turn me and you shall see I am a wooden boat
Languishing in my rocker. The wind swivels
And waggles, too bashful to lead.
It’s a harpooning contest between foot and rake.
There’s still a trunk hidden in the weeds.
Wisteria crawls up the trading post.
I don’t know why I mess with these knees,
How much weekenders have already lost in their lives
To come. We run sea, sand and sky into idioms
But allow the birds to write their own speeches,
Racking up the islanders in the reeds.
Something, one thinks, about the world’s hardy tentativeness. The way tempting descends out of the same Latin root, temptāre, to touch, to try the strength of. One talks in circles around such a piece, alighting gingerly, noting the off-rhymes, the uncanny surety of the rhythms (making the whole inexplicable and convincing). Energy’s odd throttles and ralentissements: “blue pounding” and “boat / Languishing.” One thinks of Virginia Woolf (To the Lighthouse): “Often she found herself sitting and looking, sitting and looking, with her work in her hands until she became the thing she looked at—that light for example.” A balance of mystery and intent, or attention and its laxer suasions. Another:
Artificial Assault on Sensibility

I might have another accident.
It has nothing to do with intent
Or the recording of distortions, making amends.
Can we turn the painting to the wall?
Or even the people, such as they are . . .
Time wanders off to its obsessive compressions.
Action slows in the duck blind.
I wrest rightness from its attack on stillness.
Of course it’s true there are very few
To help me with my work.
I would be pleased if they liked it at all
But otherwise don’t care much.
It’s fancy work, near enough to disappear.
Finally I leave it undone, offering it my throat.
“Fancy work,” a sewing term for fine ornamental needlework, hinting at the stitch-by-stitch inability to see the whole. “Obsessive compressions.” Everywhere here figures of stilling, “finish” versus the undone, the accidental, the more vulnerable “offering.” “Rightness” resides not in the stop’d down measure (“duck blind”), but in what Ted Berrigan, misquoting O’Hara, call’d the “mess and message.” (O’Hara’d claim, in “Biotherm,” to be “guarding it from mess and measure”—a kind of mock-midpoint between extremes, rather akin, here, to the way Szamatowicz’s “Time wanders off to its obsessive compressions,” the dilatory wandering meeting the constricts of those minute “compressions.”) Another piece:
Degrees Not Vertical

Three four-year olds mime peeing
Against a wall.
Allure, submit, escape.
What crude blood wood gives up.
The kids come out of the bath
On waivers, punchy—
A close second to wandering in viaducts.
I sit down soft and runny to write.
If you blink I hear it.
Baskets of oysters and grapes
Wet and dusky at once.
A tripping way to talk,
Each word comes up lucky
In light of each puddle here.
Unmissable: motherhood and its necessary, fraught (or freight’d), stolen moments. And: ordinary kid mischief. (The pricelessness of “out of the bath / On waivers, punchy”—how little kid roughhousing and mayhem finds its way into la poesía norteamericana . . .) Samatowicz is the author, too, of the terrific Zoop (The Owl Press, 2001), a parlay of prose poems, accumulatory in a way counterpart to the Blasting sonnets.

Monday, December 06, 2010

Steve Katz’s Time’s Wallet

Two Faucets

Steve Katz’s Time’s Wallet (Counterpath, 2011) pulls a subtitle along behind: “Volume 1 / 54 memoirrhoids out of 137.” And, sure enough, it contains fifty-four shortish chapters, arranged alphabetically—“Arunchala in India,” “Babbadoodoo,” “Baxter,” “Belgrade Whoops,” “The Berryman Blot,” “Big Flub,” &c.—chapters offer’d mostly without date-stamp: a slurry’d concatenation of nodal swellings. The number 137 is explain’d in the final chapter (“137.x”) thus:
      Perhaps because physicists call it God’s number I’ve set my ambition at producing one hundred and thirty-seven of these memoirrhoids. The number is large enough that it might force me to open some doors I didn’t intent to. . . . It’s called the Fine Structure Constant, or α (alpha). The number is mysterious because it isn’t the product of measurement, as is Pi or Planck’s constant. It’s just a prime asserting itself. . . . Somehow it figures in all transactions between light and matter. 1 / 137, for instance, is the probability that a photon will be absorbed by electrons. In natural sequences that arrange themselves according to the Fibonacci series, like the whorl of the sunflower, or the conch or snail shell, the angle between one level and another is usually 137°. I don’t know how to read this in the language of mathematics or physics, but it pleases me to infer from this that there is always part of what we look at that is ineluctable. This accounts for the darkness in everything manifest. It insures the imperfect that is our paradise.
I love that “just a prime asserting itself.” Recalling somehow Friedrich Schlegel’s dictum that the perfect writing’s both “wholly intentional and wholly instinctive.” Katz’s long exhibit’d a numerological tendency: I recall him reading, in Ithaca, a story call’d “Parcel of Wrists” wherein the narrator receives a brown-paper containing forty-three wrists mail’d, according to the postmark, out of the seemingly nonexistent town of Irondale, Tennessee. (One can look up the story in Katz’s 1992 collection call’d 43 Fictions and read how the wrist recipient wheels a yellow Mustang along Tennessee roads looking for Irondale—“To get to Iron City you take Route 431 out of Nashville to Franklin, where you get Route 31. Take Route 31 to Columbia until Route 43, which you take to St. Joseph, and from St. Joseph you take an unmarked dirt road to Iron City.” I recall the story concluding with a magnificent “cosmic” gesture, though, rereading it now, I see a little echo of Frost (“that could have made all the difference”) and a something like a shrug—“If I had done that my life might have worked itself out by an entirely other set of priorities”—likely a measure of the way time’s money’s got spent out of my back pocket, too.)

Katz’s pieces (the memoirrhoids)—inhabit’d with the likes of Vladimir Nabokov, Richard Serra, Steve Reich, Rudy Wurlitzer, Ed Dorn, Baxter Hathaway, Ron Sukenick, &c., with Thomas Pynchon and Kurt Vonnegut, among countless others, dashing (should one say vestigially?) through—mimic memory’s common form: a kind of uncall’d-for (though retrievable by means of epithet, see Homer) erupting, a presence body’d, palpable, whole. So that repetitions become a necessary parcel of any whole (the kind of thing that’s stripped away in a conventional autobiography with its imposition of chronology): here, for example, one learns on several occasions that Katz’s former wife, Jingle, achieved the moniker by being born a Bell (and, oddly enough, that Katz, being a city kid sent off to a Catskills farm one summer years prior to meeting her, a particular fondness for a cow named Jingle). No matter, context each ref pertinent and different: the old story told drunk surround’d by drunks is not the story breathed out lazily between sheets. Katz (on how “the act of writing erases its own moment”):
Moment gather ias if on a platter of offering. This book is a presentation of narrative snacks . . . that disappear as I consume them by writing them away. The past can be tasted only in the onward rush of the present. I’ve written a lot of them so far, and sometimes fear I am writing the same memoirrhoids over and over. My memory of what I have done so far is imperfect. But memory is never a perfectible mode. It is no disaster if I write something twice. Even J. S. Bach did that. Contradictions can only be enriching.
And, too, with the ache of time’s brute velocity, writing’s mercurial registry:
I speak to the individual with whom I speak though there is none, but this protospecific continuum of potential but never realized manifestations, so much like myself aching for time. It’s from this place, though to call it a “place” is overreaching and understating the condition, but it is from let us call it “here” that I transmit the dispatches that I call Memoirrhoids, formed of this dust that presents as light, in order to broadcast the notion that there is a modality to be called life, and that life can be mine, lived with some intensity and confusion, and I hereby smack open the illusion that some of this is real. I offer Memoirrhoids as token of existence. Once I have discharged 137 of these, if 137 is possible, the agreement is that I shall be released.
(Katz’s wry pragmatism secure. I recall in the 1973 Cheyenne River Wild Track, a kind of bare-bones novel of making a film in Sioux country along the Cheyenne River, the clip’d affirmation of “it is written / that Crow Dog’s Paradise / locates wherever Crow-Dog / happens to be.”)

Beyond the brilliant exigencies of form, Katz’s stories, too, “present,” wonderfully lit. There’s visiting the ashram of Ramana Maharshi (model for the guru in Maugham’s The Razor’s Edge) with Rudy Wurlitzer, and being tail’d by a disciple who’s “like the rip tide of rupees”; there’s fetching the completely slosh’d John Berryman at the Ithaca airport for a reading (“He had pissed himself in flight . . . his expression was that of a frightened POW”); there’s Ed Sanders reaching the self-limitations of hip at Peace Eye Bookstore (“He looked at my copy of The Exagggerations of Peter Prince with a mixture of confusion and contempt”); there’s visiting George Schneeman in Rencine, Italy (“A kid, maybe three years old, barefoot, in tattered shirt and pants, arrived to stare at me. ‘Un Ameri(h)ano an(h)orra,’ he aspirated the c’s like a good Tuscan. ‘Dio senza (h)ulo.’ Translated roughly that means, ‘Another American, God without an asshole’”); there’s Richard Serra running “yowling down the beach,” hand smash’d by the door of a “heavy old cast-iron cook-stove” that Katz is moving to some land he’s bought on the western shore of Cape Breton Island (after transporting it some fourteen miles along the seacoast in a fourteen-foot aluminum boat with a “twenty horse power Evinrude outboard”). And, comme on dit, many, many more. Parcels of stories: rueful, funny, incisive, mordant, dispatch’d with wit and style.

Steve Katz

Friday, December 03, 2010

Lies and Exposures

Some Clouds

Flagging diligence. One raging part of me says: “To the streets.” I doubt anybody’d overly tout the nuance of my political thinking, but the late diplomatic documents verifying what one’s suspect’d all along—that the U.S. government routinely and regularly, with compleat dog-grinning cynicism, lies to its citizens—and the tepidity of that citizenry’s response to the news: one festers, roars, splutters out a “It’s fucking inconceivable . . .” whilst it’s all too “conceivable”—it’s rampant and systematic. Reading, pugnaciously insomniac late into the night, I encounter’d a brief paragraph in Steve Katz’s new and autobiographical Time’s Wallet (Counterpath, 2011)—he’s careening around with one Leo Garen, director of LeRoi Jones’s The Slave and The Toilet now making movies, trying to muck together a script for a film call’d Grasslands, the story of a “wandering pack of misfits, like an Ur-motorcycle gang” dodging around the Nebraska prairies in 1919:
Once we visited an old guy in Hoboken, who was an expert on vintage motorcycles. He had a complete manual for and expert knowledge of the 1919 Indian, among other bike info. His small parrot hopped around the apartment, landed on the table, and said over and over, “Government bullshit.”
“Government bullshit.” Too benign for the present. (And I recall a sunburn’d man with a large green parrot ambling up to a yard sale we had some years back. Man says to the parrot, “Goddamn.” And the parrot, repeating, with impeccable pauses, each pregnant with the faint gist that he’d quit: “Goddamn.”       “Goddamn.”       “Goddamn.” The sunburn’d man claim’d he’d relaid the flooring in the house, that a murder’d occurred there, and blood’d stain’d the boards. I nodded, narrow’d my eyes in fiercely ambivalent seriousness. A neighbor’d told a story of an early morning stake-out and raid, amphetamines or something. A shot of nervousness a few years later when we pull’d up the rugs: old carpentry throughout, unstain’d and unbreach’d. “Goddamn.”)

Leaving one pawing momentous at the snow-involucre’d air. If one rejects the usual, what next? Some writing call’d “To a Painting” “about” a piece by John La Farge that Roger Shattuck writes about somewhere, detailing “how Vasari or Apollinaire would have begun La Farge’s story”:
By heritage and education—he was bilingual in French—La Farge should have become a diplomat. One strong aversion blocked that career: He hated to shake hands. To stand in a receiving line at an official reception would have exceeded his physical capacities. Fairly early, he found that he could resolve at the same time his handshaking problem and his choice of profession. As a painter, he could greet his guests with both hands occupied—brush in one, palette in the other, or perhaps a rag. . . .
He study’d law in New York, painting in Paris with Thomas Couture and Jean-François Millet, and met Henry and William James as fellow art students in Newport. (“The brothers from Boston were enormously impressed by La Farge’s powers as a conversationalist . . . He spoke in long, digressive, yet well-formed sentences that displayed wide knowledge and an adventuresome intelligence. Henry James called La Farge ‘quite the most interesting person we knew.’”) Close friend of Henry Adams, La Farge travel’d with him for three months in Japan following the suicide of Adams’s wife. Later the two spent a year or so in the South Sea Islands, “particularly on unspoiled Samoa,” living with the natives. Left Tahiti just a week prior to Gauguin’s arrival. The painting’s call’d “Hillside, Long Island”—paint’d in the early 1860s—and recalls Francisco Goya’s “Dog” (c.1820) The low angle, the mischief / terror of concealment. The marvelously scrutable majesty of depth in the brushwork, over-smudge and vagrancy. Patches that seem to absorb one’s looking, exfoliating into a skein of possibles. (Steve Katz speaks of breaking pieces off “the insurmountable falaise of memory”: “I free some piece into its own form and there is a scintillation, a sparking of energy on the face of the language stretched across the page . . . a glow of significance, a presence.” He talks about what’s call’d “the clark”—a quarry workers’ term: “When they cracked, split, and separated the large block into halves there was, on the surfaces formerly fused, a glow, an electrostatic scintillation across the new exposed faces.”) Leaving one pawing the moments, and uselessly, at the involucre’d air . . .

John La Farge, “Hillside, Long Island,” c. 1860-65

Francisco Goya, “The Dog,” c. 1819-23

Thursday, December 02, 2010

Jarry Story Breakdown

Some Grasses

Easily distract’d, rarely distraught. The dry hygienic sound of nail clippers at work, snipping off cellular chits, coded with the chromosomal misalignments of somebody or other the memorious. Imago mundi, anima mundi: like being caught up and pummel’d by a bully, all senses become one: a moment of complete reifying, everything an uproarious and implacable thing. Stuck in the simulacral gruel. The world in a seizure, its “mix” of sunder’d particulars squeegee’d out into one endless smear, the color of oatmeal. Ever it commenceth thus: the roil of immediates, the dog’s slavering noises, the distant lavatory machinery, the night’s snooker’d reverie’s final nose-thumbing of day. Petulant tug of Tiresias. To confront the stony void. Whence one might slip under the lip of earth. Giorgio Agamben (The Man Without Content):
In Les fleurs de Tarbes, Jean Paulhan takes as his premise a fundamental ambiguity in language—namely, the fact that it is constituted on the one hand by signs that are perceived by the senses, and on the other by ideas associated with these signs in such a way as to be immediately evoked by them—and makes a distinction between two kinds of writers. There are the Rhetoricians, who dissolve all meaning into form and make form into the sole law of literature, and the Terrorists, who refuse to bend to this law and instead pursue the opposite dream of a language that would be nothing but meaning, of a thought in whose flame the sign would be fully consumed, putting the writer face to face with the Absolute. The Terrorist is a misologist, and does not recognize in the drop of water that remains on his fingertips the sea in which he thought he had immersed himself; the Rhetorician looks to the words and appears to distrust thought.
One hauls things “out” of the continuum, word’d bibelots (jewels of thinking in commonplace duds) or gaud’d ornamental words (dragging, one is certain, something like thinking along behind). Fire and water, each capable of extinguishing the other. (Think, though, of Rémy de Gourmont’s “verbal amnesia,” how “men think in ready-made sentences . . . 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.”) Or, I keep thinking about Alfred Jarry. How he carry’d a Bulldog pistol. How Ossip Zadkine sculpt’d him writing (notebook splay’d out across the handlebars of Jarry’s beloved bicycle), pointing the Bulldog off behind into le néant. A story of a 1905 dinner chez poet Maurice Raynal where Jarry fired the gun at the Catalan sculptor Manolo. Raynal’s report (written with twenty-eight years intervening), out of Jill Fell’s Alfred Jarry (Reaktion Books, 2010):
That evening several friends had got together at my little place in the rue de Rennes. Among these were Apollinaire, Maurice Cremnitz, Picasso, André Salmon, Manolo, Max Jacob, Alfred Jarry and three young women who were all expecting, I think. The dinner had been quite lively. A hunting friend had sent me some magnificent wild duck, which were the pièces de résistance of the dinner. When they were put on the table, Jarry offered his services. ‘I’m an expert at carving these birds,’ he said, then grasped the birds with both hands and tore them to pieces.
Apparently—everybody blotto—Manolo’s stubborn sobriety trigger’d Jarry’s opprobrium: “If your Manolo doesn’t get out, I’m going to kill him.” Raynal:
Out of his pocket he all at once produced a foul rusty little Bulldog revolver. Greasy as an old wallet, it had no shine on it and I assumed that it was fortunately in too bad a state to work, the idiot, when suddenly he brandished it in the air and fired two shots at Manolo.
Raynal, writing out of the banal ephemera of a possibly slipshod memory, claims nobody—presumably “in the hubbub”—took any notice. Apollinaire writes of the incident “within four years” of its occurrence:
We had been invited to a dinner in the rue de Rennes. During dinner, someone having wanted to read his hand, Jarry proved that all his lines were double. To show how strong he was, he turned the plates over and broke them with his fists, ending up by injuring himself. The aperitifs and wine had gone to his head. The liqueurs were the last straw. A Spanish sculptor wanted to introduce himself and was politely complimenting him. But Jarry ordered this bouffre to get out and not come back again, assuring me that the fellow had just made him some disgraceful proposals. After a few minutes the Spaniard came back, and Jarry immediately fired a shot at him. The bullet embedded itself in a curtain. Two pregnant women who were present fainted. Nor were the men happy with the situation and two of us took Jarry out. In the road he told me in Père Ubu’s voice: ‘Wasn’t that just beautiful as literature? But I forgot to pay for the drinks.’
Apollinaire’s story omits Picasso, though it does refer to an unnamed artist friend who keeps (the now-disarm’d) Jarry’s Bulldog for some months following the incident. In Max Jacob’s draft version of the incident, he and Picasso went together to Raynal’s dinner:
Picasso and Jarry took to each other immediately and stayed friends thereafter, without seeing each other very much . . . I remember having been drunk . . . and, after regrettably falling asleep on the stair carpet, I was woken by shots from a revolver. Jarry was yelling ‘Death to the bugger!’ or ‘Out with the buggers!’ The following day I learnt that he was after Manolo! . . . Well, this was the revolver that became Picasso’s. Jarry give it to him. It is possible that Picasso has it still for from that moment on he was never parted from it.
I love that story (is it a story, or several stories?) According to Jill Fell, one Picasso expert (Pierre Daix) “claims that there has never been any question of either Jacob or Picasso having been at Raynal’s dinner.” Whole cloth Max. Picasso deny’d—to Hélène Parmelin, who wrote it down (“he had gone to see him one day with Apollinaire, but Jarry was out”)—ever meeting Jarry. Jean Paulhan (The Flowers of Tarbes):
      We had to admit that Terror has one particular merit: it relies solely on observation and experience, without ever asking us to surrender meekly to feelings, or to the taste for surprise or mystery. It is, in short, perfectly scientific and wise (despite appearances to the contrary) and worthy of an age—our own—in which nothing is certain, except for one clear idea. Only this idea makes our discovery all the more disconcerting.
      For Terror, when it was put to the test, was found to have been mistaken in what it observed. Its experiment was false, and its conclusion fanciful. What science shows us is the exact opposite of what we were told. We have, then, come up against the strangest of obstacles. . . .

Alfred Jarry, 1873-1907

Wednesday, December 01, 2010

Excess and Rupture

Some Bananas

Kafka’s lines to Max Brod: “My whole body puts me on guard against each word; each word, even before letting itself be put down, has to look round on every side; the phrases positively fall apart in my hands, I see what they are like inside, and then I have to stop quickly.” And that sequence in Wittgenstein’s On Certainty:
617. Certain events would put me into a position in which I could not go on with the old language-game any further. In which I was torn away from the sureness of the game.

Indeed, doesn’t it seem obvious that the possibility of a language-game is conditioned by certain facts?

618. In that case it would seem as if the language-game must ‘show’ the facts that make it possible. (But that’s not how it is.)
Or Laura (Riding) Jackson’s plaintively cognizant shrug of unknowability, banging up against the limits of language, in The Telling (1972): “We know we are explainable, and not explained. Many of the lesser things concerning us have been told, but the greater things have not been told; and nothing can fill their place. Whatever we learn of what is not ourselves, but ours to know, being of our universal world, will likewise leave the emptiness an emptiness. Until the missing story of ourselves is told, nothing besides told can suffice us. We shall go on quietly craving it.” Snow moving Brownian bumper-car style in the cellophane-color’d cones the streetlights toss down, stochastic battlefields of brunt cold zigzagging. What some weather front drug down out of Canada unseen. Morose crows. One clamors with the ready explicables, tidy mercenary substitutes, what outs of a Wednesday. Of course it says nothing, mere marginal creep attempting to enter the text. In the red maple, skinny’d down by incremental dying, a swart candelabrum: three waxwings, taper-smooth. (I made that “up.”) Barberry hedges the color of battery acid. (And that.) The event of the writing calls out against hesitancy (and directs itself astray).

Or it stops. Ruptured, débile. In agony with its utterances. Self-jitter’d, a jitney. (A conveyance and a coin.) Is it a failure to attend (to the corpuscular demands of the moment—its seizures, its resistances, its sudden distendings)—or is it some Heckle and Jeckle insobriety of attending, a gazetteering magpie’s constant wayward gleaning of facts and foibles? Truth is, there’s too much of it. If—a phrase I cotton’d to in my janitoring days—“dirt breeds dirt” the way money makes money—one might note a kind of usury of the word. Rampant excess. Ineffectual rehash. Briefs without portfolio. (Pound’s late “Tempus loquendi, tempus tacendi”—quoting, Guy Davenport says, “Ecclesiastes, Malatesta, and Thomas Jefferson simultaneously”—is travail’d acknowledgement of such.) And so one turns to books, preying / praying, as to a voluptuary, or a curve. Out of Stevens’s odd “Arcades of Philadelphia the Past”:
. . . A man must be very poor
With a single sense, though he smells clouds,
Or to see the sea on Sunday, or
To touch a woman cadaverous,
Of poorness as an earth, to taste
Dry seconds and insipid thirds,
To hear himself and not to speak.

The strawberries once in the Apennines . . .
They seem a little painted, now.
The mountains are scratched and used, clear fakes.
Recalling somewhat Stevens’s “The poem reveals itself only to the ignorant man.” (Cf. Ammons’s remark that “A poet ought to keep himself just a little stupid.”) Too, and pertinent to the writer’s dawn-rosy nigh-excretory need irredeemable (versus the public-burdening burgeoning of writing’s innumerable “traps”), there’s Steven’s reply to a Partisan Review questionnaire call’d “The Situation in American Writing” (1939): “I do not visualize any audience. To me poetry is one of the sanctions of life and I write it because it helps me to accept and validate my experience. Writing poetry is one thing; publishing it is another. Often I wish that I did not publish it, because the act of publishing it invokes a seriousness different from the seriousness of writing it.” (Imagine, for a moment, Wallace Stevens parading “hit”-numbers à la Ron Silliman . . .)

Ludwig Wittgenstein, 1889-1951

Tuesday, November 30, 2010

A Carousel Not for Carousing

Horse, Merry-Go-Round

I don’t know. I “eschew”
knowing, knowing that it’d inevitably
be the end of something.

At “loose” ends. The disrupt of travel, hauling nine hours “back” through glorious high sun, and muddling down into sleep, late. Reading a few pages of Ted Mooney’s 1981 Easy Travel to Other Planets with its opening of love-making between woman and dolphin. Claude Lévi-Strauss’s Tristes Tropiques provides the succulent epigraph:
It was more or less in the area where we were now sailing that Columbus encountered mermaids. “The three mermaids,” he relates, “raised their bodies above the surface of the water and, although they were not as beautiful as they appear in pictures, their round faces were definitely human.” The manatees have round heads and their breasts are at the front; since the females hold their young close with their paws as they suckle them, it is not surprising that they should have been taken for mermaids, especially at this period when people went as far as to describe (and even draw) the cotton plant as a sheep tree, that is a tree bearing not fruit but whole sheep hanging by their backs with wool ready to be shorn.
The electrifying thing about Mooney’s writing: sudden cinematic shots “off.” Interpellatory reachings elsewhere. Mid-conversation one scoots to a thing spliced-in: “A sea turtle caught sight of a plastic freezer bag floating on the surface of the deep waters just beyond the cove and, mistaking it for a jellyfish, attacked it.” Or: “At the airport an Irishman with a bottle of Jameson’s in his back pocket had climbed out on one of the hundred flagpoles overlooking the main lobby and was trying to pull down the South African flag.” Evidence of the radical complacency of the routine skittishness of what Henry James call’d “our barbarous hearts”: simultaneity’s neural overhaul complete. We nod and continue. We scoot laterally—or backwards, like a crayfish—several hundred miles and return unbaffled, casually unbroken.

Read, too, Michael Palmer’s oldish (1986) remarks in Active Boundaries: Selected Essays and Talks (New Directions, 2008) call’d “Counter-Poetics and Current Practice.” Jennifer Moxley refers to it in the Joshua Marie Wilkinson-edit’d Poets on Teaching: A Sourcebook (University of Iowa Press, 2010)—unabashed proof (if any were needed) of the now ineluctable glomming together of poetry and the Academy into some banal and unexamined exchange, superfluous and mere—“a liege for mutual ayde on bothe sydes”—fill’d with brandishable two-or-so-page hortatory loud havockings signifying its exploratory nothings, its dead-end at the schoolhouse door. To wit: there’s an entirely telling few lines in Palmer’s talk—deliver’d at the tail end of the bonkers “This Year’s Model”-ism decade when uptown money made for a junky’s extravaganza downtown in the East Village art world (and its innumerable epigoni, that “multytude of Reteynours”). Palmer talks of the trappings replacing the work, one’s doings becoming “referential to ‘the literary’” as opposed to “the actual exigencies and demands of the poetic.” He writes:
      Take, for example, the fashion world of American Art at present, specifically the East Village (it’s fun if you think of it as rock-n-roll, very boring if you think of it as anything more than that), where every two weeks you have a new graffiti artist or a new somebody or other who enters into all the great collections, an instant millionaire, who has paid his or her dues by working in a loft for three weeks. The reference is so entirely to the world of art and to style rather than to the demands of figuration, let’s say, or representation (all of those real problems) that the entire gesture is utterly diminished. We get this all across the board in what we think of as the throwaway world of poetry, which is referential to minor accomplishments of style, and to telling little experiences that we’ve all had together, and to reflecting, in that respect, to engendering that little shiver of recognition and then passing out of one’s memory.
And twenty-five years down the road, isn’t that precisely where one finds oneself? What is vaunt’d “hybridity” beyond the pack’s scribblings gone compleatly “referential to minor accomplishments of style”? If Palmer’s language betrays one era’s foibles (“little experiences that we’ve all had together” and the epiphanic “shiver of recognition”), it’s nevertheless worth noting just how “throwaway” any era’s literary trappings be.

Michael Palmer, c. 1988
(Photograph by Thomas Victor)