Friday, March 26, 2010

James Schuyler’s Other Flowers

Out a Window

James Schuyler, in the Diary (“Great Spruce Head Island, July 30, 1969”):
Fog continues. Humidity in my hair, my knee, my ears, my sinuses, my clothes. More gracious rain for which we return ungracious thanks. Bruno taken to the garden while we pick peas gets tied up and sits and barks reproachfully. Lizzie is in the kitchen wrangling with her mother about nothing at all. I’m as cross as two sticks—also about nothing at all. Maybe Maine doesn’t have an ideal year round climate. Wonder how much Ebby paid, or is paying for his houses, the stone house in Pennsylvania and the one they just got in Nova Scotia? Only Fairfield goes irresistibly on absorbed in his painting: “I think I learned a lot from that de Hooch-Balthus picture.”
I return’d to the Diary in the aftermath of reading the new James Meetze and Simon Pettet edit’d Schuyler book, Other Flowers: Uncollected Poems (FSG, 2010), a thing seemingly drop’d down out of the gentian-color’d celestial vault, unexpect’d (though now I think: how’d I miss the cues of its offing with tiny pre-splashes like the one Poetry made?) The story is, early in 2005, James Meetze—of Tougher Disguises—went to San Diego in order to study the James Schuyler Papers deposit’d in the Mandeville collection there, and found “boxes marked ‘Miscellaneous Collected Poems,’ each containing folders noted ‘Unpublished.’ Meetze: “Over the following four months, as I read through the myriad typescripts—many of which appeared in multiple drafts—and handwritten notebooks, I began to truly understand the melancholy of unfound treasures . . .” A phrase nigh-Schuyleresque in its combo: melancholia and treasure. Simon Pettet arranged the book: “not entirely according to chronology, not entirely according to theme,” though “keenly respectful of both.” “Some sort of narrative is proposed so each poem follows logically the poem that precedes it. Sequential constellations propel ‘the story’ along, but there is no insistence.” Result: one is continuously diving into the “Notes” at the back of the book, trying to determine the date for each piece. Pettet’s prefatory remarks call attention both to Schuyler’s epigraphic use of an Ashbery line—“Poems are written under many conditions”—and, too, to the way “Schuyler’s poetry delights in occasions.” What one sees in the Diary is how plainly the writing makes itself its own occasion (whilst, in Schuyler’s affably sardonic way, returning “ungracious thanks” with a shrug of refusal: the July 30 entry ends: “Not a day worth memorializing.”) One’s struck by how it mimics Schuyler’s poems—detailing (impeccably, jokily) weathers inner and outer, offering wit in the form of a conversational tidbit or a mite daffy homespun mot (“cross as two sticks”), grace in the arrangement of the various bodies (dog, Lizzie), and with hints of grumpiness or slightly mordant exaggerating. Compare with something like “Under a Storm-Washed Sky” (of December 8, 1962):
The grass is a yellowing green,
ready for the bleaching snow.
The shadows are violet blue under the hedges
of forsythia frenziedly whipping their canes
in the wind and the trickling sunlight
that lured out one, no, two blooms that grip
and ride the intimate tempest like bees
blazing with pollen. The big gray house with the white trim
shows on its shadowed side as violet blue, too.
An elm and its shadow are one.
The twigs of a pear tree are knotted
and glazed with light. The clothes pole
stands empty of purpose, a faint green
on its shadowed side. A cloud like a slice of mist
slides under the sun and the shadows momentarily fade
in a thinner shadow that spreads over the grass.
The trumpet vine has been chopped back
to bursts of stumps of stalks.
The wind eddies and veers, drops and lifts
just the branches of a sycamore
and shakes its seed-ball ornaments. A dog
and a puppy lope on the lawn.
If you spoke in your sleep and said,
“We are dying!,” at any rate,
we are not dead. Life goes on.
That exhibits a deft painterly ability of color-seeing (“violet blue under the hedges”). And precise words (“canes” for the wild shoots of untrim’d forsythia; “bleaching snow”—how its effect is to pull all color right out of things; the somewhat awkward “empty of purpose”—awkward enough for a “clothes pole.” (The line “An elm and its shadow are one” indubitably recalls Stevens for the merest instant—then no longer.)

There’s, too, goodly evidence of goofing off (what “we” dignify now with the term “experiment”). Sentences (stack’d semantic units) in the undated “Sentence (or Sentences),” whose opening reads: “Stir them up and they won’t stick. / The. / We will let you have our thinking on it timewise pronto.” A number of sestinas, including one (call’d “Kennexth,” undated) seemingly made up of word-scraps, or sentences diced and reassembled, a paste-pot mosaic:
Lemon village with walk foot gorilla
burnished Miss Thirst. The. And. Tea
have are drunken look shop China
uncups, is hunting Jane-John for eat Grace-hoops
honey-money bee-haven happy-un-bee
wear winter season summer light lice Kennexth.

“Isn’t is gnats midges, sorry Kennexth,”
Oh un-city club . . .
And so forth, keeping the word-rotation and sashaying off with “A gorilla we see in an extra line of tea / unvitrifying a china cup-saucer hoop / from which June Bee drinks secret Kennexth.” (Not the kind of thing to make a pointedly marketable ideological or political fuss about—that’d arrive later, and elsewhere—just a thing to try.) Prose poems, miniature plays in verse, acrostickal encomia, translations (of Giacomo Leopardi), collages and ventriloquisms (see the vaguely cowboy camp of “Twilight, West New York” that begins “Put her tits back, boys, we’re coming into town. / The sky sweats, massaging a banker’s bottom cloud. / The sun goes out like a butt in a urinal . . .”). There’s a poem in two columns (or is it circular? the final two lines—like the title—span the in-between)—an array to be read numerous ways: “make it up”—“irritability, hello”—“itchy and smeared”—“April again.” There’s fit argument with the poetic poppycock of others (see “The Village” of 1959, with its gentle mockery of Ginsberg’s pseudo-shamanism: “Dear Allen: / just to’ve thought of / “The Eagle That Is Forgotten” / is quite something. And sincerely I admire you / and haven’t a clue / when you say ‘poet is priest.’” And, at the end: “you go big for Americana: where / is Vachel Lindsay buried anyhow? He used to give readings / in the Hotel Mayflower in Washington, / which is like finding a fat book in a tank full of trout. / Allen, it’s Sunday, and like the song / I just dropped by to tell you, / I hate the Village and like you, / and what you said to me once / at the San Remo, may it burn to the ground, / and— / honest injun— / poets are people.”)

Humor: thrilling and throughout (I’d rarely thunk of Schuyler’s humor). See these lines of “Semi-Erudite” (defined in the piece as “near beer”), punctuated with lyrical outburst O’s):

the worst word in English
the first in primers and novels for children with 17-word vocabularies


I suppose it means yoni
I can speak plainer than that
in the short words kids use because they’re hungry or happy or
        “my hanth cold, my feetth cold, an’ I hathta pith”
or, to a plein air painter painting the smog-loaded light
        “It’s O.K. to eliminate if you want to, mister?”
Or see the elegy to the undaunt’d on-stage onanist (dated July 1971):
Jim Morrison

of The Doors
fame the Ad-
miral’s son hit
the enfevered deck
burning: pee-
its wiggy name.
Goodbye Jim.
I remember him
singing, sig-
waving a hand-
ful of meat.
How proudly
we hail! Dying
and living
salute you
dead. Wave on
Jim’s dong.
Some part of its humor in the narrow’d restraint, the dopey rhymes. (Is it that Schuyler’s skill at pure descripting o’erwhelms the laughs? Note the Diary too: “A scrim of cloud bisects the sky on a diagonal into a nautical flag and under the white hangs one curled up tinted cloud like a shelled shrimp, a “deveined” one, of course. We can’t have shrimp shit in the sky.” (August 30, 1970). Or the one-liner (April 14, 1988): “A morning like a dead sheep, with cold mutton in the offing.”)

Not all the pieces in Other Flowers are beauts, (nor need they be). If I’d quibble, though, it’d probably be about some of the “Notes.” Occasionally a little farfetch’d, conjectural, unlikely. Example: “Kennexth”—“mocking a lisp perhaps, or a passing allusion to the American poet Kenneth Rexroth (1905-82)?” Rexroth so little part of Schuyler’s realm somehow—and a title and repeat’d word hardly seems “a passing allusion.” Some problems with dates: for “Semi-Erudite,” the editors note, “Undated, but internal evidence dates it to the late 1950s.” In an additional note (to the poem’s “after Roger Shattuck, The Banquet Years” subtitle) the editors identify Shattuck’s book: “the classic study, published in 1968, of the Parisian avant-garde from 1885 to World War I, known as the Belle Époque.” Implying, uncountenanced, that Schuyler’s sous-titre must’ve arrived in advance of the book itself. (My sources show The Banquet Years publish’d by Doubleday, in 1961—a further confusion.) Similarly, a poem call’d “To Kenneth Koch”—“Dated August 19, 1965” according to the editors, refers in its opening lines (“‘Drinking a morning cup of coffee is one of the pleasures of peace,’ / I thought as I drank my morning cup of coffee while reading The Pleasures of Peace.”) to what the editor’s call “Koch’s 1969 collection, The Pleasures of Peace and Other Poems.” Quibbles of a notes hound: not to distract or harry. A longer, stunning (I think) piece to close, with hints of O’Hara (is the Dubuffet smell “Naphtha”?), and primordially fearless confidence. Here the notes simply say, “Undated. René Grousset (1885-1952) was a French historian specializing in Asian history.”
Grousset’s China (or Slogan)

Of course Tu Fu knew whom he sang to about beauty, sex and power:

                                        they killed her on the far frontier
                                        between capitol and capitol
                                                            douce et tendre

Paintings, too, exercise the senses,
an Albers, white between pale yellow, pale gray,
singing as though nipples under matted March grass sighed for spring,
receptive, fecund with a nearly inaudible clear tone,
transparent as fraying mist in Cat King

Dubuffets that smell of germicidal liquid soap polluted with pine
blend an effluvia of urinals and wool
sur la plage, sur la plage

Kline’s Siegfried and Requiem
                    the bus a fat and leaping Greyhound
winds down on beaded Scranton, and in the station Wagner lifts the roof
                    off, what has muzak come to, in the Polish Pennsylvania night?
                    Take an elevator to the black coal corridor and see

Freilichers that entice like chubby roses and sleek banana leaves
under the trade wind-scoured sky a Vend-O-Mat says TACOS
a Schwitters (cherries and blue) essence of Ajaccio violets toilet-water
                                        after Barbasol
(Some people can’t look at chicken wire without thinking
of flower arrangements, crumpled chicken wire is a swell flower holder
(household hint))

Goldberg, raw and suave, laughs cacophonously at the macaronis
pronouncing Billie Holiday: vraiment, elle n’est pas artiste

the French forties
and doesn’t Giacometti make you want to slip an Ingres girl a feel ?
or La Source’s navel make you think of salt and celery?
We will lift our thoughts higher. Now they are very high
up to the dandruff line in the wildroot-scented air
with a big-orbed de Kooning Woman. Miss Orange Crush, whose
                    eyelids come in three flavors
and in the window of course it isn’t a window but smell in the night
blue snow and stars shooting roots
a precision of multiplicity

                    in a dark house sleep is sweetened by the Reinhardt
past passage of a new broom indistinguishable from air and silence
                    sleep knows as your nose knows aired linen
And if Brancusi made marble cry
                    “don’t touch, just you
                                                    kiss me”

and cursed Despiau, still:
those lustrous bronze you might go dancing cheek-to-cheek with—
Step down.
I want to think about Niles Spencer’s factory buildings
and a well-packed lunch box. Sandwiches wrapped in wax paper.
Hot coffee. An apple. Not a Delicious. A crisp yellow with flawed skin.

James Schuyler at the Chelsea Hotel, c. 1989
(Photograph by Robert Giard)