Friday, April 30, 2010

Chienne de vie


Odysseus’s dog is call’d Argos. Betick’d and listless, it nevertheless thumps its tail at its master’s long-delay’d return, seeing through the big O’s Athena-provided get-up. Virginia Woolf, in 1933, wrote a story call’d Flush, a biography of Elizabeth Barrett Browning’s cocker spaniel. Flush hates the sight of intruder Robert Browning’s yellow gloves. Paul Valéry: “Animals, who do nothing uselessly, refuse to comtemplate death.” Charlie Chaplin the tramp’s dog is call’d Scraps. Romain Gary had a dog―who regard’d humans severely, reproachfully―by the name of Pancho, hit by a car in Majorca. In my scuffling days, one chum had a little black tuft of a dog, some wee terrier breed, he call’d Snatch. Stendahl, in Citavecchia, writes to a friend: “I have two dogs, which I love tenderly. One is a black English spaniel, a handsome dog, but sad and melancholic. The other, Lupetto, is café au lait, gay, lively―a young Burgundian, in short. It made me sad to have nothing to love.” Adolf Hitler’s dog: Blondi. Joséphine de Beauharnais’s dog: Fortuné, a pug. Napoléon Bonaparte had to share Joséphine’s bed with it. Apollinaire (writing filler for the Mercure de France) claim’d that Suening—a dog of uncertain breed—’d been proclaim’d king of Norway circa 230 AD. Martial, regarding Publius’s pooch Issa: “naughtier than the sparrow of Catullus.” And: “et desidero coacta ventris / gutta pallia non fefellit ulla / sed blando pede sucitat toroque / deponi monet et rogat levari.” “Compell’d by bladder-pressure, not a drop befouls the covers, with a paw-nudge it warns one that it needs to be put down . . .” (One wag suggests—“levari”―“and asks next to be wiped off.”) Franklin Delano Roosevelt: Fala, a Scottish terrier. Nixon: Checkers (and a poodle call’d Vicky). Another Scottish terrier is Valery Larbaud’s Barty. Samuel Butler: “The great pleasure of a dog is that you may make a fool of yourself with him and not only will he not scold you, but he will makes a fool of himself, too.” Picasso: Elft, a fox terrier; Frika, a dachshund; Loump, a Dalmation; Yane, a boxer. And an Afghan hound call’d Kazbek. Thomas Bernhard: no dog. (Thomas Bernhard hated dogs, and, in Concrete, accused Schopenhauer—who loved dogs—of having a dog for a head: “I don’t have to be demented to assert that Schopenhauer had a dog on his shoulders and not a head.”) Gertrude Stein’s dogs: Basket. I, II, and III. In Tender Buttons Stein writes “A Dog”:
A little monkey goes like a donkey that means to say that means to say that more sighs last goes. Leave with it. A little monkey goes like a donkey.
A. R. Ammons had a mule call’d Silver. André Gide had “the most neurotic dog imaginable”: Toby. Herodotus, of animals in Egypt: “In whoever’s house a cat dies naturally, those who dwell in the house all shave their eyebrows, but only this; if the dead animal is a dog, they shave all their body and head.” Edward Dahlberg’s orphanage buddies: “Mugsy, Prunes, Shrimp, Bah, Mooty, Spunk, Pummy, Bonehead Balaam, Moses Mush Tate, Phineas Watermelonhead, Mushmelonhead, Sachemhead. . . .” Nick and Nora Charles’s dog in The Thin Man (1934), with William Powell and Myrna Loy: Asta. Ask’d by a waiter to leave a restaurant:
nick: Oh, it’s all right, Joe. It’s all right. It’s my dog. And uh, my wife.
nora: Well, you might have mentioned me first on the billing.
nick: The dog’s well-trained. He’ll behave himself.
Racine’s The Litigants is a staging of “a satiric and burlesque trial of the dog Citron, accused of having eaten a capon.” Mimicking Aristophanes’s Wasps wherein a dog call’d Labes (or “Brigand”) is accused of devouring a Sicilian cheese (or “a pot of money”). Used to be, drunk, I liked to bellow out, “Je m’appelle Anubis, dog-head’d warrior, bodyguard of Osiris!” Alexander’s dog, so little known next the horse Bucephalus: call’d Peritas. Alexander founded a city at its death and gave it the dog’s name. (“Sotion says he got that from Potamon the Lesbian.”) Virginia Woolf’s dog Tinker: “He is a human dog, aloof from other dogs.” Robert Southey’s spaniel Phillis: “And they have drown’d thee then at last! Poor Phillis! / The burden of old age was heavy on thee / And you thou should’st have lived!” “The Greeks had a word kunosparaktos, meaning ‘torn apart by dogs.’” Groveling in a Jacques Brel’s “Ne Me Quitte Pas”: “Laisse-moi devenir . . . / L’ombre de ton chien” (“Just let me be the shadow of your dog.”) The French word for riffraff: canaille (out of L. canis, dog.) Dog, n. 7. A name given to various mechanical devices, usually having or consisting of a tooth or claw, used for gripping or holding. “To Barnard the Smyth for x doggs of Iryn for the Steple weying lxx lb.” “An instrument called a Dog for the more easy drawing the Poles out of the ground.” “He saw the defenders throw a dogg at each other.” “Monsieur Du Boysaimé, a graduate of the École Polytechnique who participated in Bonaparte’s expedition to Egypt, devised an equation for “the curve made by a dog running after its master. His memoirs, published in 1811, are referred to both by Lautréamont and Jules Verne.” In Faust, Goethe’s got Mephistopheles springing forth in the form of a water spaniel (or a poodle). Dogging it.

Largely out of Roger Grenier’s The Difficulty of Being a Dog (University of Chicago Press, 2000), Alice Kaplan’s translation of Les larmes d’Ulysse.

Roger Grenier

Thursday, April 29, 2010

The Scattering

A Scattering

Up early, out into the scattering. The light’s like syrup in the corridor where I―surreptitious ’s a continental op―xerox Zoltán Kodály’s “Serenade for Two Violins and Viola,” Op. 12. I am thinking of the innocent dirt of Frank O’Hara’s childhood:
We loved our bodies,
navyblue sneakers,
          Frank Sinatra
                    and pistachio frappes,
It’s all in our heart and dirtied there

without a bath of
tears or war,
          with the help of
          the Zeit and of the
Geist on the western divan in the bare

cupboard where
adolescents plot;
          never have so many
                    been so happy with so
little. We loved the bright first pot.
Straight out of Wystan. (“The things I did could not / Be so shocking as they said / If that would still be there / After the shocked were dead . . .”) The yellow sun carry’d in that “bright first pot.” Mark Polizzotti says Dylan—“Just Like Tom Thumb’s Blues—“got” “Housing Project Hill” (“You must pick one or the other / Though neither of them are to be what they claim”—Dylan’s wild form sneering at the categorickal op) off of Jack Kerouac. Cul de sac. Edward Dahlberg (The Flea of Sodom):
Nations without stable forms and deities are brutish. A populace, mad for novel raiment and bizarre amusements, breaks antique idols and proverbs and canonizes trash. ‘Whom Jupiter desires to destroy he first drives mad.’ People that are not Janus-faced remember little, because they are always changing their customs and calling it Progress which is a sly word for Mammon.
Smells like l’esprit avant-gardiste, its Nirvana replete with “claims adjusters,” completely “beholden unto themselves.” Cul and “pot”—there’s a possibility. Dahlberg:
Ezekiel makes expiation for Judah and Israel by taking into his mouth the parable bread of cow-ordure. Dropsical Heraclitus covered himself with stable-dung.
      Paracelsus asserted that all the disorders of the mind emanate from the bowels. Vespasian’s niggardliness was apparent in his face that always looked as though he were straining for defecation.
      Epimenedes kept his food in a bullock’s hoof and ate meagerly as possible so that he would have no evacuations. . . .
Ah, and Heraclitus: “The sun’d better avoid overdoing its measures. If so, the retributress Erinyes, emerged up out of the bloody genitalia of Uranus, sever’d by Cronus, find it out.” (Straining myself now, culpable of “prissy verbalisms”—see Dahlberg to Olson: “You damage your lines repeatedly because you want to be the vernacular clown or to be the jolly outhouse versifier, it gives you, you think, the common Touch.”) If Shakespeare says: “th’ unthought-on accident is guiltie / To what we wildely do,” isn’t that reason enough to pursue it? And “wildely”? Three stories to end (I am getting nowhere). Aldo Buzzi, architect, traveler, gastronome and raconteur of ingenious miniatures, out of Journey to the Land of the Flies & Other Travels (1996):
Lichtenberg wrote of a man who “was working on a system of natural history in which he had classified the animals according to the shape of their excrement.” He singled out three categories: cylindrical, spherical, and cake-shaped. “Where he jokes,” Goethe said of him, “there a problem lies hidden.”
      Georg Christoph Lichtenberg was a German wrier of the eighteenth century. He was a hunchback. At thirty-five he fell in love with a girl of twelve, and he lived with her until she died, five years later. He was the inventor of an object that became famous, nearly as famous as Galileo’s pendulum or Newton’s apple or Möbius’s strip: the knife that has no blade and whose handle is missing.
      When I was a high school student, my old philosophy professor often cited Lichtenberg’s knife and smiled. He smiled on his own account, because the students were too young to appreciate this wonderful invention: it seemed a joke that wasn’t funny, and they laughed at the professor’s smile. To understand something it is necessary to have lived a long time, perhaps to die . . . and to live again. A dead man coming out of the tomb would be the best master of life. Seated on his own name incised in the granite slab as shiny as a mirror, and turned toward the sun that has warmed the stone—now, finally, he understands the value of a ray of sun, and he could, I believe, make us understand it.

Aldo Buzzi, 1910-2009

Wednesday, April 28, 2010

Charles Bernstein’s All the Whiskey in Heaven

Bar and Cone

In a salvo of interviews of late, undoubtedly design’d to promote All the Whiskey in Heaven: Selected Poems (FSG, 2010), Charles Bernstein’s made a point of the supposed variousness of the collection, calling it “a sampler or array.” “It’s a constellation of approaches to poetry. Beyond the experience of the poems themselves, I hope the book brings to mind the possibilities of poetry.” Okay, pioneers, on commence. Here’s one possibility. It’s call’d “The Measure” (1983)*:
The privacy of a great pain enthrones
itself on my borders and commands me
to stay at attention. Be on guard
lest the hopeless magic of unconscious
dilemma grab hold of you in the
foggiest avenue of regret.
Semi-lyric, disjunct, seemingly abandon’d halfway. A kind of poor man’s Frank O’Hara (Bernstein probably thinking of “Sleeping on the Wing”—“Perhaps it is to avoid some great sadness, / as in a Restoration tragedy the hero cries “Sleep! / O for a long sound sleep and so forget it!” / that one flies, soaring above the shoreless city . . .”) Even the “stay at attention. Be on guard” is O’Hara’d. A poetic approach that, shtickless (“foggiest avenue of regret” nods a slight smirk “at” Pound’s “dim lands of peace,” though the reference isn’t obvious enough for broad slapstick), diminishes mightily with the years, replaced by less sincere, crueler forms. Exemplary of the type: “The Kiwi Bird in the Kiwi Tree,” beginning “I want no paradise only to be / drenched in a downpour of words, fecund / with tropicality. Fundament be- / yond relation, less ‘real’ than made . . .” and ending, “The first fact is the social body, / one from another, nor needs no other.”

Bernstein’s work begins with broken up arrays of jittery particulars, mimicking Olson / Duncan composition by field techniques. “Asylum” (1975) arranged found material, attending largely to the semantic possibilities where sentence-seams (normally mark’d illegible by the presence of periods, &c.) occur:
undressing, bathing, disinfecting, haircutting

                                  nakedness. Leaving off

                                                                    on, with

clothing, combs, towels, soap, shaving sets, bathing facilities

                                  disfigurement, beatings,
                                                  shock therapy, surgery,


                                                  integrity. At admission

                                      way. Give

                  movements, postures, and stances

                                                              demeaning. Any
Roughly fifteen pages. (Rule of thumb: Bernstein’s pieces dither interminably.) He pursues a similar method in “Dodgem” (1978) (“some / opens       & our / brought luck / place, before / cash. The / I live . . . / too! / my hand / clarifies”) and “Standing Target” (1980)’s got a page or so, a shotgun blast of idle prepositions and vocables (“fatigue / of         of / open for / to             , sees”). A finer-mesh’d array of core samples of language—“little irritating isles” one’s supposed to think (one supposes)—is Bernstein’s “Islets / Irritations”:
sealed         topiary delights, topological regressions
current as of         noisome targets         toe tapping tabulation
        exquisitely contoured schmuck         mistrusts what alone
abjures         indecent confidence         flaunting their contusions
        I describe a square, a parking lot, a battering ram—you
begin to cast         archeologic tires         rhythms, braces
        awash to climate torque
Torque is where I turn off that period piece. Stupefyingly enough, Bernstein’s still reworking Olsonesque splay techniques in the ungodly long—roughly thirty pages—“The Lives of the Toll Takers” (1994). Here, syntactically “normalized” utterance (largely) reigns, doggerel strains impinge, and faux-folksy verbiage, and impudent homily, along with puns and some equivalent of mental doodad-making. Excerpt:
Phone again, phone again jiggity jig.

            I figured

they do good eggs here.

                            Funny $: making a killing on

junk bonds and living to peddle the tale

                    (victimless rime)


(Laughing all the way to the Swiss bank where I put my money
in gold bars
                            [the prison house of language]
                                                    .) Simplicity is not


same as simplistic.
Of note in “The Lives of the Toll Takers”: the “field” as late typographical annoyance à la e. e. cummings—
        hness is it
                              s own rewa
and some pseudo-lettrist rabble, monkey with a keyboard gobbledegook reminiscent of Bernstein’s early “Lift Off” (1979). Here it reads: “[p- / =]ovwhiu2g97hgbcf67q6dvqujx67sf21g97b.c.9327b97b987b87b87j7 . . .” Another “approach” in the constellatory mayhem! The echoes of the earlier (possibly overwork’d, mannerist) “Lift Off”: un peu partout. One recalls with fondness its opening line, like a houseboat moor’d below the bouquinistes along the Seine: “HH/ ie,s obVrsxr;atjrn dugh seineopcv i iibalfmgmMw.” Sophomoric hoots and cleverness notwithstanding (one’s “supposed” to figure out that the letters were transcribed off a spool of typewriter correcting tape—one presumably “used” by poet Bernstein himself), “Lift Off” is here only one of a series. It strains to outdo the masterly “Azoot d’Puund” (1979) with its swatch of mock speech-impediment’d vocables:
iz wurry ray aZoOt de puund in reducey ap crrRisLe ehk nugkinj
sJuxYY senshl. ig si heh hahpae uvd r fahbeh aht si gidrid. impOg
qwbk tuUg jr’ghtpihqw. ray aGh nunCe ip gvvn EapdEh a’ gum
riff a’ eppehone. Ig ew oplep lucd nvn atik o im. ellek Emb ith ott
enghip ag ossp heh ooz. . . .
Und so weiter for another page or so. Funny stuff. So funny that Bernstein’s at it again (a mite’s worth less strenuously) in the late “Johnny Cake Hollow” (2001): “Xo quwollen swacked unt myrry flooped / Sardone to fligrunt’s swirm, ort / Jirmy plaight org garvey swait ib / Giben durrs urk klurpf. Sheb / Boughtie bloor de dazzy dule dun / Fruppi’s . . .” The hell with Fruppi. City slicker scoffing “at” bumpkin ways. A similar strategy (or tic?) is evident in “A Defence of Poetry” (1999): “My problem with deploying a term liek / nonelen / in these cases is acutually similar to / your / cirtique of the term ideopigical / unamlsing as a too-broad unanuajce / interprestive proacdeure.” Misfiring typists, incomprehensible speech, dumb stuff: one begins to ascertain a Bernstein modus operandi, a “comic” poetics of make fun of. Repeatedly, with a limit’d number of shticks. Refuge of the insecure, and the insincere.

Another “approach”: ventiloquism and mimickry. Mock voicings (a means of policing sentiment). Seems as if—“through with” the found language of “Asylum”—Bernstein, with “As If the Trees by Their Very Roots Had Hold of Us” (1979), latch’d onto Ashbery. A few lines (note both Ashbery’s voice and Ashbery’s way of allowing other voices—and ironic’d bits of Doxa sententiousness—to intrude):
A new place, under different circumstances:
& yet we don’t seem to have changed, it’s
As if these years that have gone by are
All a matter of record, “but if the real
Facts were known” we were still reeling from
What seems to have just happened, but which,
“By the accountant’s keeping” occurred years
Ago. Years ago. It hardly seems possible,
So little, really, has happened.

We shore ourselves hour by hour
In anticipation that soon there will be
Nothing to do. “Pack a sandwich
& let’s eat later.” And of course
The anticipation is quite appropriate, accounting,
For the most part, for whatever activity
We do manage. . . .
Clumsy Ashbery. Ashbery unlikely to’ve repeat’d that “Years ago”―that’s aimless ventriloquistic hysteria approaching. Unlikely, too, to’ve plugged that emphatic “really” into “It hardly seems possible, / So little, really, has happened,” slowing the thing up so. And he’d likely erect (like a pup tent) something tangible: a boat show, a regatta, anything to convince of we weren’t in the hands of an accountant turn’d versifier. Ashbery rehash drops out―beyond one key model―of Bernstein’s work rather quickly—in “Matters of Policy” (1980) there’s dimming notes of it—“‘If the / great things of religion are rightly understood, / they will affect the heart.’ Still, what an absurd / figure a poor weak man makes who in / a thunder storm goes against the flashes of / lightning with sword in hand. ‘No vision of / loveliness could have touched me as deeply / as this sad sight.’ In the summer / blackouts crippled the city & in the winter / snowstorms . . .” The Ashbery who becomes central to innumerable late Bernstein pieces is the Ashbery of “Paradoxes and Oxymorons” (1980):
This poem is concerned with language on a very plain level.
Look at it talking to you. You look out a window
Or pretend to fidget. You have it but you don’t have it.
You miss it, it misses you. You miss each other.

The poem is sad because it wants to be yours, and cannot.
What’s a plain level?
Et cetera.Here is the root for Bernstein’s many “talking down to the reader” (Ashbery’s affectionate, cuffing tone replaced by Bernstein’s smarm-hectoring) pieces. How “Thank Your for Saying Thank You” (2001) begins:
This is a totally
accessible poem.
There is nothing
in this poem
that is in any
way difficult
to understand.
All the words
are simple &
to the point.
There are no new
concepts, no
theories, no
ideas to confuse
you. This poem
has no intellectual
pretensions. It is
purely emotional. . . .
Or see the earlier “This Line” (1999), même combat: “This line is stripped of emotion. / This line is no more than an / illustration of a European / theory. This line is bereft / of a subject. This line / has no reference apart / from its context in / this line. . . .” Ashbery’s “What’s a plain level?” likely informs, too, Bernstein’s “A Test of Poetry” (1999), indeed, Ashbery’s name graces its opening line:
What do you mean by rashes of ash? Is industry
systematic work, assiduous activity, or ownership
of factories? Is ripple agitate lightly? Are
we tossed in tune when we write poems? And
what or who emboss with gloss insignias of air?

Is the Fabric about which you write in the epigraph
of your poem an edifice, a symbol of heaven?

Does freight refer to cargo of lading carried
for pay by water, land or air? Or does it mean
payment for such transportation?
Und so to its unenviable ending—five we-got-the-point pages later!—“In No end to envy, does the envy refer to admire or / in the bad sense?” (Mocking studentry, a sport amongst one breed of academic.)

Hardly constellatory, Bernstein’s work, hardly stellar. (Is it hommage or rip-off to write: “this poem intentionally left blank” (2001) across one page (see Tom Raworth’s “University Days” with its neatly box’d “this poem has been removed for further study”). In the later work, a species of intentionally execrable doggerel’s arrived like a curse: “Rivulets of the Dead Jew” (2000) with its opening, “Fill my plate with boudin noir / Boudin noir, boudin noir / Fill my plate with a hi-heh-ho / & rumble I will go . . .” “Doggy Bag” (2001): “have you seen my doggy bag / hate to nag, hate to nag / have you seen my emerald chain / hate to brag, hate to brag . . .” “Boy Soprano” (2001): “Daddy loves me this I know / Cause my granddad told me so / Though he beats me blue and black / That’s because I’m full of crap . . .” Zukofsky work’d such forms a little, though without the condescending mien. Even the “envoi” (and title poem to the collection, the only piece previously unpublish’d) couches its sentiment in doggerel’s semi-goof: “Not if you paid me in diamonds / Not if you paid me in pearls / Not if you gave me your pinky ring / Not if you gave me your curls . . .” Usual “never stop loving you” rodomontade.

Someone ought to examine the nature of Bernstein’s voices, measure of what? the American oaf? (See “Dear Mr. Fanelli” (1999):
                        I’m sorry
I can’t get your attention
Mr. Fanelli because I really
believe if you ask
for comments than you
ought to be willing
to act on them—even
if ought is too
big a word to throw
around at this point.
Mr. Fanelli
I hope you won’t
think I’m rude
if I ask you a
personal question. Do
you get out of the
office much?
Do you go to the movies
or do you prefer
sports—or maybe
quiet evenings at a
local restaurant? Do
you read much, Mr. Fanelli?
I don’t mean just
Gibbons and like
that, but philosophy—
have you read much
Hanna Arendt or
do you prefer
a more ideological
A peculiar combo of naïveté condescendingly deliver’d and taunt.) The voice-mimicking is such a predominant “approach” that one wonders if it isn’t a scrim, mockery filtering a nervousness “at” unabash’d delight? (In “Standing Target” (1980): “Much / of the time he is a pretty serious / fellow, but more and more we see Charlie / forgetting his mien and living the / life of a pretty frisky little boy.”)

Enough. If Bernstein’s All the Whiskey in Heaven is “a sampler or array” of poetry’s possibilities, it’s rather tinier than the average Whitman’s.

* Dates refer to the date of the collection wherein the poem, according to the contents listing, appear’d. The book is arranged chronologically.

Charles Bernstein

Tuesday, April 27, 2010

The Sign in the Window

Woods, Pennsylvania

If I pause for a moment, tired of thumbing through enigmatic reveries align’d in a hard-nosed architecture, with a double-spaced sparseness guaranteed to waylay the bogged-down’s perusal and doubt—
Beneath the culpable excesses, the whole process depended on this same

      problem of decay latent within my attention.

An absurdly dominant wakefulness structures the light.

A style creeps up the hills, it is not true either, but it is made from local

—lines out of Lisa Robertson’s “Utopia,” in R’s Boat (University of California Press, 2010), though, in truth, I thumb’d many a “number,” and my countenance’d begun it quasi-retrograde curl of contempt in advance of the initial’d punt. Though, admittedly, I am rather put off my feed by Robertson’s tandem epigraphs, arriviste-city hoedown style:
The ebb and flow of this water, its sound continuous but also marked by motions that ceaselessly patterned my ear and my eyes, supplemented my own emotion, calmed now by reverie, so that I felt in myself, so pleasurably and effortlessly, the sensation of existing without troubling to think.
jean-jacques rousseau

We have now reached a stage of experimentation with new collective constructions and new synthesis, and there is no longer any point in combating the values of the old world by a Neo-Dadaist refusal. Whether the values be ideological, artistic, or even financial, the proper thing is to unleash inflation everywhere.
michèle bernstein
Fitting, one supposes, the ineluctable moment (reach’d—see Robertson’s “This work was made under the auspices of opulence”) when “we” must now loudly proclaim, soixante-hiutard-style, that “nous sommes tous des avant-gardistes” (there’s neither solace nor victory in the cry, though there is, assurément, an assuaging sort of aesthetic mystery to struggle’s collapse, to the cascading evidences of complete—and seemingly remorseless—failure.)

What I mean is caught up in the other Bernstein’s doing a faux-futurist gig in a New York museum, wielding a hammer “at” a music stand, the “threat” of art become a Sunday matinee lark for the Connecticut “masses”; in the palpable farce of ascendancy (recall Serge Gainsborough’s album “L’Homme à tête de chou,” a choux farci is akin to a stuff’d shirt, eau et gaz à tous les étages, is French for “we finally got a piece of the pie”); in the self-congratulatory hosannas un peu partout of arrival, some thirst of exteriority slaked, some combatant lick’d. Morton Feldman, in “After Modernism” (Give My Regards to Eighth Street):
In Either / Or, Kierkegaard describes the man who has not “achieved reality” as capable of every point of view, even the most profound—but no point of view can hold him, since he is at the mercy of constantly changing, shifting moods. . . . Describing in contrast the man who truly “exists,” Kierkegaard says,” He is not moody, he is not ‘in a mood’—yet he has mood. One may say, in a sense, that his whole life has a mood.
See Bernstein chatting up the new book chez Harriet: “I wanted All the Whiskey in Heaven to stand up in its own right as a book . . . in which there was a marked contrast of styles, approaches, tones, and moods, poem for poem. . . . a collage of discrepant works . . .” As if achievement lies in mere aesthetical skitteriness, zany, ain’t it. (After my rehearsals yesterday of the misogyny at the unsplendid heart of American letters—it is, too, right alarming to read of Bernstein’s “ongoing motif for the book, which has to do with closed systems—social systems as well as linguistically closed systems (what I’ve come to call, following Duchamp and Kafka, bachelor machines).” [Plenty-plenty dirty rice evidence for Bernstein’s liking of “closed systems”: see the yanking of perceived malfaiteurs off the Bernstein-administer’d Poetics List, an ouster widely interpret’d as Bernstein’s kibosh of ideological difference; or note how, about a year back now—I ask’d that my own “pacific trash vortex” (Isola di Rifiuti) be placed amongst the vaunt’d “Critical and Constant” blog-listings at Bernstein’s EPC: no go. Initial stalling and dissembling’s become no reply to repeat’d queries. No getting into that camp.])

Another Morton Feldman impertinence (out of the jocularly titled 1967 piece, “Conversations Without Stravinsky”):
The truth is, we can do very well without art; what we can’t live without is the myth about art. The mythmaker is successful because he knows that in art, as in life, we need the illusion of significance. He flatters this need. He gives us an art that ties up with philosophical systems, an art with a multiplicity of references, of symbols, an art that simplifies the subtleties of art, that relieves us of art. Whether it does this by the power of persuasion or the persuasion of power, I leave to the social pathologists.
(And Bernstein—prompt’d by one of Bernstein’s loyal minions (brightly saying things like “The selected poems is obviously a genre at this particular cultural moment”) —promptly flatters that need, with some fit prestidigitatory guff and hoopla about how, in the Whiskey book, he:
. . . wanted variations of long and short, part to whole, and the possibility of potentiating recombinations among parts. That was my premise. It’s like stringing and restringing a charm bracelet. Then there’s a question of how many elements you can string together as a constellation, since there is always that moment when the constellation shatters, when a centripetal force turns into a centrifugal one. And can that turning itself be articulated as a rhythm, a kind of hyperrhythm of the pops at the points where frames shift or break (both within poems and at points in a string of poems).
As Pynchon’d say: “Think, bloviators, think!” The truth is, Bernstein’s book makes perfectly evident the paucity of the man’s approach, the constancy of the shtick.)

I got here (wherever “here” is) out of my own particular “disillusionment of ten o’clock” (“None of them are strange”) seeing a wash—an expertly pre-shredded fabric?—of current poeticisms (“I am confusing art and decay”) in Robertson’s Boat, seeing the marketplace shilling for the editor’s desk in Bernstein’s Whiskey. Wherein, in flight, one re-reads Feldman. Two anecdotes (Feldman loves to tell a story). One, out of “Between Categories”:
      I once had a conversation with Karlheinz Stockhausen, where he said to me, “You know, Morty—we don’t live in heaven but down here on earth.” He began beating on the table and said: “A sound exists either here—or here—or here.” He was convinced that he was demonstrating reality to me. That the beat, and the possible placement of sounds in relation to it, was the only thing the composer could realistically hold on to. The fact that he had reduced it to so much a square foot made him think Time was something he could handle and even parcel out, pretty much as he pleased.
      Frankly, this approach to Time bores me. I am not a clockmaker. I am interested in getting to Time in its unstructured existence. That is, I am interested in how this wild beast lives in the jungle—not in the zoo. I am interested in how Time exists before we put our paws on it—our minds, our imaginations, into it.
The other, out of a lecture in Johannesburg in 1983 (out of the Chris Villars-edited Morton Feldman Says: Selected Interviews and Lectures, 1964-1987):
I just thought of a marvellous story Kierkegaard wrote. Not a real story you know, but an incident where he was walking down the street in his neighbourhood and he comes across a new establishment with a sign in the window and the sign says: ‘We press pants.’ So he goes back to his apartment, gets hold of a few pairs of pants, brings it down to the store and hands it to the clerk. And the clerk says, ‘Well, what are we supposed to do with this?’ And he said, ‘Well, press them of course! You’ve got a sign in the window that says “We press pants”.’ ‘Oh we don’t press pants here, we only sell the sign in the window.’
Feldman’s version of a few lines in Either / Or (1843) reading: “What the philosophers say about Reality is often as disappointing as a sign you see in a shop window which reads: Pressing Done Here. If you brought your clothes to be pressed, you would be fooled; for only the sign is for sale.” And it’s there, in that signage, that I stumble with Robertson’s book. Here (out of “The Present”):
You step from the bus into a sequencing tool that is moist and carries the

      scent of quince

You move among the eight banner-like elements and continue to the edges

      of either an object or a convention

And in Cascadia also

As in the first line of a nursery rhyme

Against cyclic hum of the heating apparatus

You’re resinous with falsity
Balance of “the poetic” (“scent of quince”)—one kind of signage, and the weight’d mysterious (“a sequencing tool that is moist”), splay’d into a series (repeating lines within and without) that is pester’d by doubt whilst remaining unremittingly fragment’d. And, thumbing, one encounters, repeated references to the false, the farcical, the ornamental: “Calm and hostile and alien / In the chirring from the yard / And in the appropriation of falsity”; “And this has seemed poetical / When it is the ordinary catastrophe”; “It charms impotently like a dialect”; “I wish not to judge or to dawdle. / I took part in large-scale erotic digressions. / I wished to think about all that was false. / . . . / I withdrew from all want and all knowledge. / In the strange shops and streets I produce this sign of spoken equilibrium. / I write this ornament, yet I had not thought of rhyme.” I find a nigh oceanic complacency swelling out of the lines. Satisfy’d with ornament, calculated and lazy, words and sounds unpaw’d by beastly Time:
I was drunk on well-cut gabardine, jets and failure.

I took literally everything that transpired.

About poverty and ambition:

The account was probably inaccurate.

Morton Feldman, 1926-1987

Monday, April 26, 2010

The Sluttish Word

Woods, Pennsylvania

A wan Herculean effort to expurgate my “holdings” of the insignificant, the laps’d, the temporary, &c. (All the truck I drag home out of the library, rocket’d up into the stacks at the crack of any bat, a Fulke Greville of the left field wall, chasing even what’s so obviously pulling foul . . .) That, and work diligent at adding some sophistical whatnot and gauds to my late “Obloquy to a Beetle.” I am remind’d of Dahlberg’s assessing Edgar Allan Poe a somewhat shrewd “charlatan,” making him—Poe—precursor and contemporary to “our” own age of snatch and file. Dahlberg points to Increase Mathers’s Remarkable Providences with its condensary of “Sir Thomas Browne, Robert Burton, Dioscorides, Hesychius, Ovid,” &c. and calls it “loot for a man of letters who wants to be a sage.” (Dahlberg knowing of what he speaks?) Lovely sentence: “Poe was a genius whose awe of knowledge was as great as that of the ancient Jews, who could not see God face to face, but were told that if they looked upon his hinder parts they could be prophetic.” And thus finish’d Alms for Oblivion. “One should save stones for the mercenaries of letters, and not cast them at a broken Ishmael of truth.” (One mercenary band—in Dahlberg’s loveless planh—the Dadaists, who “had resolved to be outrageous.” Attention, tender bourgeoisie of the Flarf odium et tedium: if one needs resolve, one’s likely not. Dahlberg: “When everybody wants to paint or write, the arts are very bad.”)

The singular essay in the book: “Moby-Dick: A Hamitic Dream.” In it—is it fallout, in part, of the earlier Olson / Dahlberg imbroglio?—Dahlberg says “I have changed my mind about Herman Melville, for I once loved this Cyclops whose father is Oceanus.” And, in a blast still resounding—just try plugging any gull’d and earnest critical goon’s poet-of-the-moment into the slot occupy’d by Philip Freneau or Charles Brockden Brown—Dahlberg writes:
It is natural that we should have a wizened, intellectual literature—and who would want to empty our little Hippocrene?—but it is malignant to feign that we are the new Attica of literature. When poeticules assert that Philip Freneau is a bard or that the pages of Charles Brockden Brown are not hellebore to the reader, he is establishing a republic of letters for solemn apes. How much noise is made for a drumbling poetaster or a Thersites of scatological fiction! Let a man, as Rabelais writes, “chew ordure” in twenty novels, and for such coprology he is wreathed in tamarisk as though he were a god instead of a sweeper of privies. We venerate size and bulk and the surest way to be accounted a genius is to write the same big, ignorant book many times.
Attention, size queens. (Dahlberg’s consistency loves that pairing: in “Laurels for Borrowers,” the 1951 defense of Olson against the thievish ravagings of Newton Arvin, he notes how the “pedagogues were too busy with such wights as Freneau, Brockden Brown, William Dunlap and the Peabody sisters to pay heed to Emily Dickinson, Melville or Poe.” And: “It would have taken the bold simplicity of a Goya kitchen trollop to weep out such gnomes as Freneau and Brockden Brown.” Attention, criticules of the minor marketing agents of “our” fustian “era.”) So, according to Dahlberg’s late screed, the book―Moby-Dick―is too long, a watery malform’d deluge (“a rabble of words which could not have been excreted without much travail”). It is fill’d with “the scantiest humdrum minutia” (the chapter titles tout seul the equivalent of “a bill of lading of a clerkly Triton sitting in a shipping office on lower Wall Street.” The book is shrill, repeating (“he had a pelting memory and repeated the same desiccated, gothic descriptions frequently,” thus glutting the “huffing treatise” with the “fifty phrases, more or less” that label Ahab a monomaniac: “‘the whole grim aspect of Ahab,’ ‘he was a raving lunatic,’ ‘moody, stricken Ahab,’ ‘his delirium,’ ‘the old man’s delirium,’ ‘Ahab’s full lunacy,’ ‘madness sat brooding on his brow,’ ‘the whale’s direful wrath,’ ‘all the subtle demonism of life,’ ‘the demoniac waves.’”) Dahlberg: “One might say of Melville what Swinburne said of Byron: “Much of the poem is written throughout in falsetto.” (A fine counter to Byron’s heaves at Keats, calling the poetry: “mental masturbation―he is always frigging his Imagination” and “Johnny Keats’s piss-a-bed poetry.”) Melville is one of a number of misogynist littérateurs (of “no likerish palate”) of these States (“Perversity is the black angel of our century, and the hatred of the clan of females, so deep in Melville, Poe, Whitman, and Thoreau, is our Atlean inheritance,” writes Dahlberg, and insists that “Melville composed amorous canticles to an oceanic brute, and the sea was his hymeneal bed. Leviathan is a ‘luxurious Ottoman,’ with ‘all the solace and endearments of the harem’; the Sperm Whale has a ‘beautiful and chaste-looking mouth . . . glossy as bridal satins.’”) Sounds like a reprise―Moby-Dick: A Hamitic Dream” work’d up in 1959 and print’d in The Literary Review in the autumn of 1960―of Leslie Fiedler’s 1948 Partisan Review essay, “Come Back to the Raft Ag’in, Huck Honey!”―precursor to Love and Death in the American Novel with its talk of hint’d at homoeroticism between men, and misogyny towards women in the classics of American literature. In Dahlberg’s vain and flighty (and mighty) opprobrium, the notion becomes a clout—one attends to the thrashing of Melville with a kind of awe, dispel’d only by a sense it is Dahlberg’s undoing of Dahlberg that is at stake. Toward the end:
There is now a pederastic hagiography composed of people who prefer the bad to the good, who like excrements instead of pond-apples, sumach, dogwood, or hyacinths, and who choose men rather than women to be their paramours. Intellectual sodomy, which comes from the refusal to be simple about plain matters, is as gross and abundant today as sexual perversion and they are nowise different from one another. This kind of pathic in literature has wan, epicene affections. A misologist, he takes ophidian pleasure in the misuse of words, and his sacerdotal gibberish sounds more like the cries of animals than the holy Logos or the alphabet of the god Thoth. Is there a genius in Christendom whose holy credo is not: “In the beginning was the Word”? Specious rebels, they are the advocates of the rabble arts.
What is, of course, lovely (and sobering) about that―is how Dahlberg “doth protest too much”―the faults of splendid misuse and unreasonable misology (if they be faults) too obviously “fit” to Dahlberg’s own tizzy and bombast. He writes in one paragraph how “Melville’s jadish vocabulary is swollen into the Three Furies, and we flee from them as Ben Jonson in his Poetaster took flight from ‘furibund,’ ‘magnificate,’ ‘lubrical,’ ‘fatuate,’ ‘turgidous,’ ‘ventosity.’” And in the next writes: “The atrabilious Ahab is only wicked in the sluttish, supine words with which the author depicts him.” Atrabilious: “Affected by black bile or ‘choler adust’; melancholy, hypochondriac; splenetic, acrimonious.” My question: who is’t calls a particular word “sluttish,” a vocabulary “swollen”? (Mightn’t one argue “plain speech”—the Wordworthian “real language of men in a state of vivid sensation”—the most acrimonious of all? And what if one’s prefer’d “state of vivid sensation” is gain’d by the sluttish word?)

Herman Melville, 1819-1891

Friday, April 23, 2010

Blake, Crèvecœur, Dahlberg

Out of Rock

“Makeshift rude serendipity and lazy jerkwater hap reconnoiter to accrue a trencher’s worth of Blake,” is how one begins―and notes how, in annotating Bacon’s Essays Moral, Economical and Political (London, 1798), Blake [makes] and writes “[A drawing of] The devils arse [with a chain of excrement ending in] A King.” (And Robert Walser suggesting that “No one is entitled to behave toward me as though he knew me”—words Roberto Calasso hints being “tacitly posted at the beginning of everything Walser wrote.”) Still’d by the unraveling interruptory onslaughts, the beast jimmying at the door. Ought not I flee the concubinous city, trod a green-upswelling cakewalk in the bottomlands? I love that thing of Crèvecœur’s out of Letters from an American Farmer, where he talks of happiness plowing, the plow keeping to the furrow, the mind avoiding it:
After all, why should not a farmer be allowed to make use of his mental faculties as well as others; because a man works, is not he to think, and if he thinks usefully, why should not he in his leisure hours set down his thoughts? I have composed many a good sermon as I followed my plough. The eyes not being then engaged on any particular object, leaves the mind free for the introduction of many useful ideas. It is not in the noisy shop of a blacksmith or of a carpenter, that these studious moments can be enjoyed; it is as we silently till the ground, and muse along the odoriferous furrows of our low lands, uninterrupted either by stones or stumps; it is there that the salubrious effluvia of the earth animate our spirits and serve to inspire us; every other avocation of our farms are severe labours compared to this pleasing occupation: of all the tasks which mine imposes on me ploughing is the most agreeable, because I can think as I work; my mind is at leisure; my labour flows from instinct, as well as that of my horses; there is no kind of difference between us in our different shares of that operation; one of them keeps the furrow, the other avoids it; at the end of my field they turn either to the right or left as they are bid, whilst I thoughtlessly hold and guide the plough to which they are harnessed.
I both welcome the jump-furrow’dness of thinking, and work to hinder my own skippiness. (Apropos the “salubrious effluvia of the earth,” Edward Dahlberg, in “Our Vanishing Cooperative Colonies,” mentions—“among the nineteenth-century sex and vision shakers”—one Abner Kneeland, who “founded a contraceptive colony which he called Salubria.”) And Blake, who’d naught for the man who “closed himself up, till he sees all thing s thro’ narrow chinks of his cavern”: “Improvement makes strait roads, but the crooked roads without Improvement, are roads of Genius.” He’d, too, the monstrously good sense to know—he noted it on a pencil drawing of Nine Grotesque Heads—that “All Genius varies Thus Devils are various Angels are all alike,” with syntactical oomph presiding. (On a scrap, in a book: “May 1810 found the Word Golden.”) Hardly a trencher’s worth—one is flog’d by duty, made deficient by means. Blake: “I always thought that Jesus Christ was a Snubby or I should not have worshipd him if I had thought he had been one of those long spindle nosed rascals.” (No noun’d “snubby” in the OED pre-twentieth c.’s “snub-nosed revolver” and the adjectival nose-referring “snubby”—“What a snout he turns up to the morning air . . . pimpled, snubby, and snorty,” occurs in a popular magazine issued in 1828, a year after Blake’s death. . .) In, evidently, a tawdry (“snorty”) un-spieling way here. Dahlberg (The Flea of Sodom), a prophet to Beliar:
‘Spleen is a sickness, for after a man has loosed his bile, he must walk in the valley of Kidron for a year to be quiet again. Three things you should heed and do: return to the world, but as a timorous stranger with a precept in his mouth; second, be as nimble as a gazelle to run to a proverb, and as fierce as the lion to devour its meaning; third, know that forgetting is the depravity of sloth.’

William Blake, “The Stygian Lake with the Ireful Sinners Fighting,” c. 1825
(Illustrations to Dante’s “Divine Comedy,” 1824-27)

Thursday, April 22, 2010

“Uncalculable Turns”

Woods, Pennsylvania

In the undeploy’d moments of the day’s madding dispersal, between walks with the dog and pitchings-forth into the arcades of the metropolis to hire a man to hack “at” my semi-grey’d hirsutulousness—I love a sentence freight’d like heavy water (with delirium’s own deleterious onus—“Toda afectación es mala,” says Cervantes, a man, however, fond of its dissembling heart)—in such moments I read Edward Dahlberg, collector and purveyor of the aphoristick (see “A sneeze absorbs all the functions of the soul as much as the sexual act.” —Pascal.”), and squinch my rictus grin. Of late: Alms for Oblivion (1964). The pleasures: Dahlberg’s “goatish appetite”; the joy-inflect’d damning of “philisters,” “sophisters,” and “noddies”; the certainty that style is “but” another name for wisdom; the—as Herbert Read notes in a foreword—“conviction he shares with Henry James, namely, ‘the very obvious truth that the deepest quality of a work of art will always be the quality of the mind of the producer’”; Dahlberg’s unstinting sympathy for the orphans of American letters; the refusal of the usual categorical mulct and mummery: “Like Rabelais, he will list a hundred particulars, but never risk a generalization” (Read). He calls money “a species of senilia,” laments the “purblind hysteria which is making us automobile barbarians and a nation evilly cursed by actors, or what Plato called the vileness of a theatocracy,” and damns the “malignant sodality of commercial litterateurs that govern ideas, reputations, renown, and whose index expurgatorious is dictated by bile and mammon.” (Sounds exactly like the “preferred norm” of “Strategic Silence”—ruse of the “literary merchant” and the “Parnassian grammar boy” alike.) Herbert Read: Dahlberg’s “pose is Gargantuan . . . Like Rabelais, he will list a hundred particulars, but never risk a generalization. It is not possible to define pleasure or truth.” And quoting Dahlberg: “Since knowledge is chimerical, the academic stench is more horrid when the cabal of grammar is passed off as metaphysics.” How succinct (and apt, and prescient) Dahlberg is considering “the American poet”: quoting Samuel Butler here (“The reason that dullness is so much farther advanced than genius . . . is that it is so much better organized . . .”), or, there, offering a look at the braying protean “outsider” beast tout à coupin”:
The American poet is double, his character chameleon, and he has double moral hands, unlike the philosopher Charles S. Peirce who wrote out his questions with one hand and answered them with the other. As for [to update with an exemplary contemporary cake-eater used to having it, too: Charles Bernstein], it is impossible to know what his affections or his morals are; he so constantly changes his shape that he is like that ever-changing debtor in the comedy of Epicharmos who refuses to pay his creditor because he says he is no longer the same person who borrowed the money. We cannot be in moral debt to [Bernstein] because we do not know what he owes us either in negations or in a strait honest yes. . . . The distinction between art and ethics cannot be so considerable as to make it almost impossible to know the difference between the false and the true, between Acheron and the tender growing earth. Either we are to get health from a poet or else all this sick water-verse will drive us mad.
Ah, Dahlberg. He wrote to Jonathan Williams (1957): “As I belong to no literary merchants’ sodality I do not know what will happen to my own book or where it will be reviewed. I have fought too many pecuniary street-gamins of literature to get balm or even the smallest moiety of justice from most places.” Guy Davenport, who recognized that “If a man works in a disjunct mode it goes hard with him,” wrote of Dahlberg’s one-two punch-up of “whore Publicity”—that shaky guarantor of “our best literature”—“in cold blood and with bewildering authority”:
He is that most difficult of things to be in the United States, a man of feeling. Nor is he sweet or compromising or hypocritical: the secondary modes we most frequently use to run interference for any sensitivity whatsoever. In a world that counts more the manners with which a thing is said than the sentiment or fact itself, he is gloriously boorish . . . He is earthy and overcivilized all at once, smooth and bristly by uncalculable turns, and wildly melancholy at all times. We do not know what to think of such an Habbakuk; he does not play the game. Politics, religion, fads, movements, groups, styles, editorial boards: they have all failed to touch him. Like all stubbornly personal men he seems fetched on, decidedly curious and unaccountably outlandish.
And Davenport proceeds to corral him off with honor’d misfits—Doughty, Zukofsky, the American geologist and explorer Raphael Pumpelly. A Dahlberg reading list (found in the 1970 Jonathan Williams-edit’d Edward Dahlberg: A Tribute):
Shestov, In Job’s Balances.
Shestov, Penultimate Words.
Rozanov, Solitario.
Grote, History of Greece.
Amiel, Journal.
Diogenes Laeritius, Lives of the Greek Philosophers.
A. B. Cook, Zeus.
Sallust, Catiline.
La Bruyère, Characters.
I. D’Israeli, Curiosities of Literature.
I. D. D’Israeli, Miscellanies.
Charles Lamb, Letters.
Coleridge, Letters.
Ruskin, Unto This Last.
Postgate, Out of the Past.
Kropotkin, Mutual Aid.
Rosa Luxemburg, Letters.
Pausanias, Description of Greece.
Quevedo, Visions.
Theodor Gomperz, Greek Thinkers.
Lucian (tr. Jasper Mayne).
Burnet, Early Greek Philosophy.
Diodorus of Siculus.
Strabo, Geography.
Maxim Gorki, Remembrances of Leo Tolstoi.
Merezhkowski, Tolstoi: Man and Artist.
Book of Psalms (tr. Christopher Smart).
Morris Jastrow, The Book of Job.
Plautus, The Comedies.
Epigrams from the Greek Anthology (tr. Mackail).
William Hazlitt, Liber Amoris.
Franz Oppenheimer, The State.
J. A. Stewart, The Myths of Plato.
Erasmus, Familiar Colloquies.
P. F. Brissenden, IWW.
Sylvanus G. Morley, The Ancient Maya.
Morris Jastrow, The Gentle Cynic.
Morris Jastrow, The Song of Songs.
Livy (tr. Philemon Holland).
Plutarch, Moralia.
Wallis Budge, The Book of Treasuries.
Wallis Budge, The Mummy.
Josephus, Jewish Antiquities and the Jewish Wars (tr. Whiston).
Charles Baudelaire, The Intimate Journals (tr. Christopher Isherwood).
Thomas Traherne, Centuries.
Alexander Gilchrist, The Life of William Blake.
Montaigne (tr. Florio).
Buffon, Natural History (1603 edition).
Gustave Flaubert, Letters.
Pío Baroja, Egolatry.
Miguel de Unamuno, The Soliloquies and Conversations of Don Quixote.
Garcilaso de la Vega, Royal Commentaries of the Incas.
Dionysius of Halicarnassus, Roman Antiquities.
Sir Thomas Browne, Enquiries into Vulgar and Common Errors.
Sir Thomas Browne, The Garden of Cyrus.
Hazlitt, Lectures on the English Comic Writers.
Winterslow, Essays.
[NB: A kind reader’s point’d out that the final item’s likely Hazlitt’s Winterslow: Essays and Characters Written There.] Lacking: one of Dahlberg’s heroes—the repeatedly tout’d Randolph Bourne. Unclear whence precisely cometh the list. Williams, in notes to the volume, says: “The reading list is one of many that Dahlberg might quickly prepare for students and friends. Such a list as the present one reminds us that Mallarmé was dead wrong when he said: ‘La chair est triste, hélas, et j’ai lu tous les livres.” Nobody has read all these books, perhaps including even E. D.” Of the snips of letters (E. D. to Williams), Williams writes: “I would have been more interested . . . in the letters of Dahlberg to the young Charles Olson. They well may no long exist—I am in no position to ask. As Mae West tells us: ‘The first thing to learn is to use what’s lyin’ around the house.’” And, in a fine shuffle-off, says of himself (after hinting that the recent “An Ear in Bartram’s Tree . . . would probably sell better as A Queer on Batman’s Knee”): “To quote Dahlberg: “I don’t know what I’m doing, but continue to do it.” He’s shipboard, compiling contributor’s notes, seeking the reader’s indulgence: “because (1) the seas are running very high, (2) there is not even a paperback dictionary on the ship, (3) the Bols gin is marvelously cheap, and (4) I am surrounded by Midianites, Laodiceans, cordial Dutchmen, Plastic Hydrangea People and jabbering admirals’ wives from Jacksonville, who make the editing of a Festschrift seem an odd business indeed.” On y va.

Edward Dahlberg, 1900–1977

Wednesday, April 21, 2010

Tom Clark Notes (I)


Tom Clark’s The New World (Libellum, 2009) is one of a recent blessèd onslaught of Clark books: there is, too, Trans / Versions (Libellum, 2009)—works “after” Baudelaire, Reverdy, Mallarmé, Rimbaud, Brecht, and Vallejo. And Something in the Air (Shearsman, 2010) with its counterweight (Clark calls it its “‘other side’ companion”), Feeling for the Ground (BlazeVox, 2010). And a sterling chapbook of prose, Problems of Thought: Paradoxical Essays (Skanky / Effing, 2009). All seemingly sprung forth with the forsythia. (Though, the attending soul’d note that Clark’s formidable and resolute drives and manœuvres at Beyond the Pale—concurrent, semi-overlapping with Vanitas—is “behind” the sudden tumulus, any magnificent heap the upshot of regular daily work.) I intend to random and divagate amongst the lot, straying where need’d. Took, d’abord, by the Trans / Versions, that insuperable splendid need to work (re-work) the textual “other,” to inhabit another, to fiddle—re-adjusting, gunning it a little—with the gears of the machine he (or she) assembled. Here’s Clark’s Rimbaud:
Tear (after Rimbaud)

Far from bird noise and lazy cattle and chatty girls
I knelt in a drowsy glade to drink
As the purple mist of the afternoon closed
In on the green growing things around the lake.

Was there something in the water there
Under those phantasmal mist-cloaked trees,
A golden liquor, barley colored, jewelled,
Under shrouded skies, that caused me to break out

In a strange feverish sweat? You could
Have made a Motel sign out of me I was so lit up,
With half the neon on the fritz
Spelling out VA*AN*Y into encroaching evening.

Then storm changed the sky: dark nations,
Poles, columns, shelves and terminals of cloud
Blown in a vast wave across the blue night.
The stream escaped away through the woods

To white sands. A sharp wind came up.
Sheets of isinglass spilled across the lake. To think
That intent as a searcher after Eldorado or a pearl
I persisted still in stooping to imbibe!
Two mimick-moments: “closed / In on the green growing things” and “break out / In a strange feverish sweat?” That WilliamCarlosWilliamsian (thank you, Frank) “VA*AN*Y” spritzing its fritz’d solenoids like soda! The perfect foreboding of “dark nations” of cloud is akin somehow to the tawdry manufactory’d “Sheets of isinglass” (the “new world” inimical to even common natural phenomena). Here’s Rimbaud’s 1872 original (though apparently a somewhat lopped off version accompany’d the Alchimie du verbe prose of Une Saison en Enfer):

Loin des oiseaux, des troupeaux, des villageoises,
Je buvais, accroupi dans quelque bruyère
Entourée de tendres bois de noisetiers,
Par un brouillard d’après-midi tiède et vert.

Que pouvais-je boire dans cette jeune Oise,
Ormeaux sans voix, gazon sans fleurs, ciel couvert.
Que tirais-je à la gourde de colocase?
Quelque liqueur d’or, fade et qui fait suer.

Tel, j’eusse été mauvaise enseigne d’auberge.
Puis l’orage changea le ciel, jusqu’au soir.
Ce furent des pays noirs, des lacs, des perches,
Des colonnades sous la nuit bleue, des gares.

L’eau des bois se perdait sur des sables vierges.
Le vent, du ciel, jetait des glaçons aux mares . . .
Or! tel qu’un pêcheur d’or ou de coquillages,
Dire que je n’ai pas eu souci de boire!
In Wyatt Mason’s fleet translation:

Far from birds, herds, and village girls,
I drank, crouched on a heath, surrounded
By hazelnut trees and
Warm green afternoon mist.

What was in this infant Oise I drank?
Voiceless elms, flowerless grass, cloudy sky?
What was in this colocasian gourd?
Its dull golden liquor makes me sweat.

As it was, I would have made a miserable tavern sign.
Storms kept changing the sky until nightfall.
These were dark lands, lakes, and poles,
Colonnades beneath the blue night, harbors.

Water from woods disappeared in virgin sands.
Wind from the heavens tossed ice onto ponds . . .
As if that would stop me from wanting a drink,
Like a panner for gold or diver for shells!
In larme, literally “tear,” a sense, too, of the faux-modest drinker’s “drop” or “splash,” un tout petit peu (not meaning it). Clark’s Rimbaud is one of particulars (see, “chatty girls” fleshing out villageoises, or the lovely “golden liquor, barley colored, jewelled” for the straightforward liqueur d’or, fade.) And, supremely, see how mauvaise enseigne d’auberge expands to fill Clark’s whole third stanza, becoming a miniature of Clark’s sense of things, self and the “dark nation” both: “lit up,” and “on the fritz,” with the end of something “encroaching.” (One thinks of the plaice, the flatfish that turns colors dying.) That “VA*AN*Y” “reads,” beyond the hosteller’s usual “VACANCY,” as an unletter’d Johnsonian “VANITY,” what flourishes amidst our human, too human wishes.

In The New World: aging (“time now opens up its eyes, / Yawns, stretches, struggles in dark to discover / Where it is among whirling things, places, years”); “the fading vestiges of the American dream”; the “Persistence of Memory” (“The not remembering / Is not so bad, it’s the resurgence of not / Forgetting that ruins everything”); childhood’s way of returning unbid (or through music—“Is That All There Is? Peggy Lee sounded / Justifiably disappointed. Fever / Kindled in me such heat that, after hearing / It in the back of a convertible en / Route to a softball game in La Grange, or some / Such western outpost, my suppressed and / Unacknowledged passion for unsuspecting / Fourteen-year-old Jan D. so distracted / Me that, playing first base, I lost a popup / in the lights . . .”); loss of friends and cohort (Philip Whalen, Robert Duncan). The terrific final piece:

To one about to leave it, how beautiful and large
And familiar—as the old saying goes
Almost like home. And yet, the almost sticks
In one’s throat, just as one was leaving,
Why was it never better or more? What was
The real thing one expected? Always somewhere
Else and never here? And where do those
Winding roads go, and what’s around the next bend
And can this really be the end?

Never thought to skywalk, had doubts
That got in the way of transcending self
With its dumb momentary occupations,
Timidly and confusedly entered caves
To find the firelight on the wall dimly signifying,
Felt awkward with the ins and outs of thought,
Cheered inwardly oft for little reason,
Was shy of others, never to draw near
Yet longed for some company to be found
Down the line, can’t recall now where, in the end
Hoped only one day to find feet planted firmly
On this ground, wanted only to be here.
Affirmatory against an omnipotency of odds. (I note a lovely rhyme between “the almost sticks / In one’s throat,” and yesterday’s line in William Fuller’s “Reply to Experience”: “in that small excess of ‘almost’ clouds appear.”) I love the acknowledgment in “our” era of rampant selfishness (and its self-serving multiples) of the commonest self, the one of “dumb momentary occupations.” Sense of a sloughing off of all “display”: how refreshing. Another, an elegy:
Nasturtiums and Eucalypti (for Philip Whalen)

The plum-lacquered woven Japanese basket Phil
Lately back from Kyoto gave us,
Juliet’s baby bed on Nymph and Cherry,
The year Phil dwelt over on Larch with Don A.
Beyond the shimmering silver dollar eucalypti,
Still packed away in the basement to this day.

Sometimes strolled two dirt road blocks to visit.
People mad at him if he came over, or if he didn’t,
He averred. Even in paradise poverty is a bother.
Tones if not words are always recollected.
Portly Bodhidharma mendicant
Toting his laundry downtown, two sad sacks.

Later on he camped down on Terrace tender
Dear heart crotchety and all alone as a song
In the same town with his vivacious Muse,
The elusive butterfly diva, Joanne K.,
Not quite on the outs and not quite on the ins with her,
Impatient amid nasturtiums as the day was long.

Time fills in the holes, cement in the ocean,
Dark parts of memory shading into bright.
One day when on acid the eucalyptus tilted,
A circus of silliness shimmering into play,
Phil sternly informed me, Thomas Clark,
Poetry will never get written this way.
To note: an earlier version of the poem (call’d “Phil”) appear’d in Clark’s Light & Shade: New and Selected Poems (Coffee House, 2006):
The plum-lacquered woven Japanese basket Phil
          lately back from Kyoto gave us,
                    Juliet’s baby bed on Nymph & Cherry
The year Phil dwelt over on Larch with Don
Beyond the shimmering silver dollar eucalypti,
Sometimes strolled two dirt road blocks to visit,
People mad at him if he came over, if he didn’t
                              he later recollected.
Toting his laundry downtown, two sad sacks.
Later on camped down on Terrace tender
                dear heart crotchety and alone
In the same town with the vivacious Muse
Not quite on the outs & not quite on the ins with her,
                                          amid nasturtiums
One day on acid sternly informed me, Thomas Clark,
Poetry will never get written this way.
The notational style mimicking Whalen’s, the piece is fleeter, refusing to spell it all out. The fragmentary and singular “impatient / amid nasturtiums”—rather heartbreaking in the context—isn’t a thing to lose. (Though it is—to me, the gossip-challenged—of some note that Whalen’s “vivacious Muse” be “The elusive butterfly diva, Joanne K.,”—I think it bulks up a streamlined poem.) The one place where Clark’s adding of material here seems apt: the portly awkward mouthful “Portly Bodhidharma mendicant”—strengthening the intent that Whalen himself is one (the other’s laundry) of the “two sad sacks.” Risible quibbles.

Tom Clark
(Photograph by Mark Gould)

Tuesday, April 20, 2010

“The Unseen Colossus”

“A Rip in the Fabric”

Or the day succumbs to intermittent fuss and perusal, errancy the only means undiscard’d to redeem the unseen colossus (what pushes imperceptibly against one, that immeasurable surge that drives flower through the rock, that flenches meagre thinking itself of its fat, or the great miasmic undertow of sheer bookery . . .) Meaning, I thumb’d about “without purchase” for an abhorrence of hours (“It was in conformity with some such induction as the forgoing that I had to feel myself . . . in the midst of abnormal wintry rigours, take in at every pore a Southern impression,” as Henry James’d say) and finally “lit” on a paragraph out of Forrest Ganders’s “The Strange Case of Thomas Traherne,” in A Faithful Existence: Reading, Memory, and Transcendence (Shoemaker & Hoard, 2005):
In 1967, a passerby yanked a large, leather-bound book of neatly handwritten pages from a burning rubbish heap in England. In 1982, it was authoritatively attributed to seventeenth-century poet Thomas Traherne and identified as his last consuming project. Only recently has it been restored enough to handle. Unpublished still, smelling faintly of smoke and rot, part encyclopedia, part poetry, part visionary exposition, it lies in its own tray in the British Museum not just like a fossil, but specifically like Hallucigenia, one of the strangest, never-to-be-seen-again creatures discovered in the Burgess Shale. . . . Thomas Traherne’s full title for the work is:
The Mysteries of Felicitie
are opened
to be
Objects of Happiness.
Created & Increated
being Alphabeticaly Represented
(as it will appear)
In the Light
Wherin also
For the Satisfaction of Atheists, & the Consolation
of Christians, as well as the Assistance & Encouragement
of Divines: the Transcendent Verities
of the Holy Scriptures, and the
Highest Objects of the Christian Faith are
in a Clear Mirror Exhibited to the Ey of Reason:
in the Realitie and Glory

Hallucigenia sparsa

Beyond the simple felicities constru’d of a sudden in the midst of my tergiversations by such a fine laddering of material titular (unh-hunh), is Gander’s swoop to align Traherne with the phenomenologists, ably connecting “the Advent of Christ to being, in Traherne’s terms [“be / A Bliss to others like the Deitie”], to ‘the advent of being to consciousness,’ which is how Maurice Merleau-Ponty defines the concern of phenomenology.” Gander:
Merleau-Ponty . . . blasted rational thought for its limitations, arguing that “intellectualism and empiricism do not give us any account of the human experience of the world.” Like Traherne, he was obsessed with “attentiveness and wonder,” going so far as to claim that the best formulation of the phenomenological reduction [“Husserl’s premise that it is necessary to bracket off the world in order to study its effects.”] was articulated by Husserl’s assistant “when he spoke of ‘wonder’ in the face of the world.” When Merleau-Ponty makes his own case for a primary consciousness, he imagines a state akin to Traherne’s “original simplicity,” a pre-reflective awareness that reveals the “coexistence “ or “coincidence” of an embodied subject with the world. It is the world, more specifically the body in the world, that structures perception, Merleau-Ponty insists, and he quotes Cézanne’s boast that the landscape though itself inside him and he was its consciousness. Traherne makes a declaration just as bold and intuitive when he writes, “The world was more in me that I in it.”
Visceral thrill to think that (see “flenches meagre thinking itself of its fat”). As William Fuller says—see “Reply to Experience,” in Three Replies (Barque, 2008)—“Facts team up.” And: “Streets twisted themselves into a cocked, teeming ear.” And:
Hopes, and the conditions on which hopes are based, cannot be gathered under anything but loose headings, and so are of almost no benefit. But in that small excess of ‘almost’ clouds appear. Recognizing that the stacks of materials stuffed into the horizon withdraw themselves as soon as they are reckoned with, or even at the mere suggestion—overt, implied, rumored, or hidden—that a reckoning might occur—late at night, as images snake across the rug and words leap out of books to join in a half-dance, half-declaration, while the enemy peers in at the window, the moonlight nearly decapitating him, and the yellow lines drawn over his face frame the fears you’ve echoed and your echo ring—at that point you wonder if the withdrawal may have already occurred, whether it may have happened primordially, irrevocably. Or perhaps there may never have been anything present that could have withdrawn itself; hence the tragic mode is clarified. . . .
(Recalling Ashbery’s Three Poems in its utterly sure-handed roundaboutedness, its discursive joining of worlds.) Fuller’s other “replies”: “Reply to Traherne,” “Reply to Parson Platt.” The latter being John Platt, seventeenth-century Puritan minister and landlord, notably denounced by Digger Gerrard Winstanley, he who call’d the earth a “common treasury” and rally’d for a world of direct experience, an “experimental knowledge of Christ” (“What I hear another man speak is nothing to me until I find the same experience in myself. The testimony of others is known to be true by the testimony of the same experience within myself.”) Out of “Reply to Parson Platt”: “Hands in pockets, old school universals kick rocks at the flaming forehead of song.” Out of “Reply to Traherne”: “These are the rules, revised in glare and fluttering in the hand of necessity. We indicate below the scope of their application. Be well human thought / I hear you working . . .” And:
when suddenly everyone gets up to leave
they all have names into which they creep
there’s no harm in having a name

to the name I delegate
selfhood that’s
who’s too busy
to care when my eyes
are shut tight

an open economy
tears me in half
as phyllyp sparowe’s
goldfinch sets up
on a small square of cloth

to rule the stars
who ask and answer
for a common world
of lightness and exuberance
so I don’t mind
(Recede unsolemnly with endless quoting: “curious rhyming snails / gild hippocrene’s crank / strictly construed . . .”) One notes, too late, how the “replies” reply, too, to pieces—one call’d “Parson Platt,” one call’d “Traherne”—in Fuller’s own Watchword (Flood Editions, 2006). “Traherne”: “you were / nothing before you came into // being, you become nothing / when you have ceased to be // a few evenings later only / absurd things survive . . .” (Continue with the recessional . . .)

William Fuller

Monday, April 19, 2010

FlarfCo® Pro


Age of info, info spurious and supreme, info’s Golden Age, a glut and carnage of info. Against which: a counter-rational hysteria, trump card of the thwart’d and incommensurate: attempts to hijack info’s demeanor. Attempts—smarmy, flaunting, with the grease-coagulating calculatedness of a cold-eyed killer—to turn info against itself by plagiary: debased info is info one need no longer heed. A lazy (and popular) way of reckoning. So: a kind of madness and enfeeblement, a counter-opulent sloth in the camps (see Latin campus, plain, field, akin to Old High German hamf, crippled, Greek kampē, bend), miserly thinking accompany’d by onslaughts of re-released disjecta, imprudent, unspurn’d, urban. A kind of rural-spurning prurient bedlam insisting that any contemplatory slackness—“to walk leisurely into the city”—or metaphysical accountancy, double-entry or not, is starry-eyed and wholly alien. So: miles of smiles today in our high jocular greenback-imprint’d (or word-imprint’d—c’est plus la même chose) three-piece suit (sans chausettes, sign of a “tol’able” hoi polloi affinity, up to the point of seeing one “own” words fed back into the loop . . . that brings a scowl into the usual complacent void of the conceptualist’s phiz.) Scowl away.

“Anton Mesmer, discoverer of animal magnetism, believed that the universe was filled with a mystical fluid which permeated everything and was the conduit of the influence of the stars—an alchemical connexion between the Shakers’ effluvium and the modern notion that our bodies are made of stardust.” So that’s where we be.

Or: “The fin de siècle had produced new prophetesses, women such as Elspeth Buchan, a contemporary of Ann Lee who claimed that God’s power ‘wrought such a wonderful change’ that she was able to live without food for many weeks. She too employed holy breath, decried marriage as ‘the bondage of the law,’ and bid her Buchanites sleep on heather bundles in a barn. She would stand in a circle of young men and touch each with her palm, at which they would swoon away and lie about her like some human crop circle, springing upright when touched again. She also set a date for the Second Coming in July 1786, when her followers, their heads shaved save for tufts by which angels could pluck them up, waited on a wooden platform built on a nearby hill—only instead of the Lord a wind arrived and sent them crashing to the ground.” (Philip Hoare’s England’s Lost Eden: Adventures in a Victorian Utopia)

Or: “The very sign of its energy is that it doesn’t believe in itself; it fails to succeed, even at a cost of millions, in persuading you that it does. Its mission would appear to be, exactly, to gild the temporary, with its gold, as many inches thick as may be, and then, with a fresh shrug, a shrug of its splendid cynicism for its freshly detected inability to convince, give up its actual work, however exorbitant, as the merest of stop-gaps.” (Henry James’s The American Scene, talking about New York, and “newness.”)

“The Leduc brothers, real little snakes in the grass; if you weren’t careful, before you knew it they’d be at your throat.”
      The inventors of the miniature fish-tank disasters were to follow diverging paths. Shortly after Guderian and Kleist’s panzer divisions broke through the front, Alphonse went out into the street and put a bullet through his head. In fact, during the Phoney War, that is, from October 1939 to April 1940, he had threatened to kill himself dozens of times. When did he not act on those threats? Perhaps because the situation was not yet sufficiently desperate to make him pull the trigger. His twin brother tried to dissuade him but knew deep down that whatever he said, Alphonse would not be deterred. In 1947, Charles Leduc was able to board a ship bound for Buenos Aires, where, as in Paris, his fish tanks were completely ignored by the public. From then on his life was one long, slow migration, with halts that sometimes lasted longer than he would have liked, toward the magnetic, icy, tranquil north. He spent his last years in Vancouver, dealing in furniture and antiquarian books.
(Robert Bolaño, in Monsieur Pain, demobbing the Leduc twins, artist-conceptualists: “On the bottom, resting on a layer of very fine sand, were miniature boats, trains, and planes arranged to depict calamities, disasters simultaneously frozen in an artificial moment, over which indifferent goldfish were swimming back and forth.”)

“Portraits”—one’d say—of some of the Conceptualist playas. Funny stuff encounter’d of late in the aftermath of the professional circus that is the AWP, its “reports” (by its clowns and clown-aspirants). One of the funniest: a photograph of the earnest and besuit’d panelists presenting “Flarf and Conceptual Poetry”—what Kent Johnson’s call’d reminiscent of an “obscure archival shot from the 23rd Plenary Session of the Korean Workers’ Party in Pyongyang.” (“Forward, Brave Avant-Garde of the Academy!”) (How quickly the orange haz-mat suit is exchanged for the non-toxic wearables of the pro!) (“Genius, like truth,” says Edward Dahlberg, “has a shabby and neglected mien.” “And Miguel de Unamuno tells us: ‘It is time to call a fool a fool, a liar a liar, and a thief a thief.’”) Below, a report of another silencing (“Recognize the cunning man not by the corpses he pays homage to but by the living writers he conspires against with the most shameful weapon, Silence . . .”) written by Kent Johnson:
Pusillanimous Conceptual Poets?

Whither, forsooth, the brave poets of the Conceptual / Flarf United Front?

Kenny Goldsmith claims that Conceptual poetry is all about engendering thought and discussion around Ideas. He proposes, in his criticism and appropriated work, that these ideas have no ultimate Authorial location or purview, that Conceptual writing leaves traditional notions of property and control in the dust. Ideas unmoored in the digital realm are the new thing and everything, says he.

Except, apparently, when an Idea has been placed under Signature of a Conceptual or Flarf poet, in which case the text in question is no longer open to question insofar as its proper property is concerned. The function of Authorship and its paratextual rituals, it seems, are sacrosanct, beyond the bounds of direct conceptual dare.

For example, Goldsmith has not, to this day (if you’ll forgive the bad pun), and despite considerable discussion elsewhere, said a word about the conceptual reframing of his book DAY by this and this. Christian Bök is the only one among the Conceptual / Flarf front to have acknowledged it, twitting on Twitter that I am a “troll” with the temerity to “rip-off Goldsmith’s book.” This being a tweet by the same writer who has prodigiously extolled the virtues of “theft” in literature . . .

I promise that this collective reaction from the Conceptual / Flarf front does not piss me off. In fact, I promise it was exactly what I was hoping the reaction would be.

On Saturday, April 17th, I posted the following informational, gently tweaking comment at Kasey Silem Mohammad’s blog, Lime Tree, under a post announcing and describing a new course (“Writing 399: Conceptual Writing”) that Mohammad will be teaching in the fall. It was the first time I’d sent a comment his way in close to three years.

The comment appeared (as Dale Smith is my witness!) and was then deleted by Mohammad, less than five minutes following.

Of course and true, it’s merely one more lost remark in another poetry blog comment box. But I thought I’d make note here of the little, pathetic affair. But why, you ask, if little and pathetic it be? Well, I will say why: Because such sadly defensive policing, such timorous posture towards real-time written challenge of their work seems more and more the adopted mode for the members of this “subversive” wing of the post-avant, even as such clamp-down behavior brazenly flies in the face of everything these “libertarians” of the Word claim to uphold . . . And even as they’ve attained more and more position and capital inside institutions like the AWP, MLA, the Poetry Foundation, and so forth . . .

I promise, also, that this process of legitimation does not piss me off. In fact, it is exactly what I suspected the outcome would be.

Maybe the last “even as” above sort of begs the question, actually. Recuperation is, after all, the deep plot of the game. And Strategic Silence, as the game moves on, becomes the preferred norm, when it comes to facing down critique. Their now Pulitzered and Ivy Leagued Language mothers and fathers have taught them well. In any case, this instance is but the latest in a venerable string of blog erasures and Mum’s-the-Word dodges by this brave new Po-Pop brood of “delinquents.” They are guided, one might say, by their sub-cultural genes.

Here, for the record, is the comment that was deleted. The links are to the announcement of “my” DAY and to the production video of that book by Geoffrey Gatza (the latter being indisputably—though some are obviously displeased by the fact—perhaps the most sublime Conceptual gesture of the current century [One, one’d note, wholly missing in the archives of the Ubu, the Ubu Roi’s self-gratifying greed and gluttony—see Jarry—apparently stopping at any hint of Ubu-mockery . . . JL]):

Any chance you could assign this, too? Trying to move some books . . .

And this, as well, contained on the above page?



FlarfCo® Pro: Katie Degentesh, Christian Bök, Vanessa Place, K. Silem Mohammad, Mel Nichols, and Mathew Timmons
(Photograph by Lisa Howe)