Thursday, June 24, 2010

Zambra / Nabokov


Post-storm, pre-departure dilatory haze, the sun doing its cut-ups up and down the street. Gambols and pirouettes, unwilling to accede its exclusion. Out of Chilean Alejandro Zambra’s Bonsai (Melville House, 2008), translated by Carolina de Robertis, a parsing of early love (and its ending), and Proust’s In Search of Lost Time, “one of those books that still seems pending after reading it”—the way early love gets reread endlessly in subsequent incommensurate loves:
They stopped on page 372 of Swann’s Way, specifically the following sentence:
Knowledge of a thing cannot impede it; but at least we have the things we discover, if not in our hands, at least in thought, and there they are at our disposal, which inspires us to the illusory hope of enjoying a kind of dominion over them.
It is possible but would perhaps be abusive to relate this excerpt to the story of Julio and Emilia. It would be abusive, as Proust’s novel is riddled with excerpts like this one. And also because there are pages left, because this story continues.
      Or does not continue.
      The story of Julio and Emilia continues but does not go on.
      It will end some years later, with Emilia’s death; Julio, who does not die, who will not die, who has not died, continues but decides not to go on. The same for Emilia: for now she decides not to go on, but she continues. In a few years she will no longer continue nor go on.
      Knowledge of a thing cannot impede it; but there are illusory hopes, and this story, which is becoming a story of illusory hopes, goes on like this:

They both knew that, as they say, the end was already written, the end of them, of the sad young people who read novels together, who wake up with books lost between the blankets, who smoke a lot of marijuana and listen to songs that are not the same ones they separately prefer (of Ella Fitzgerald’s for example: they are aware that at that age it is still acceptable to have recently discovered Ella Fitzgerald). They both harbor the fantasy of at least finishing Proust, of stretching the cord through seven volumes and for the last word (the word “time”) to also be the last word foreseen between them. Their reading lasts, lamentably, little more than a month, at a pace of ten pages a day. They stopped on page 373, and, from then on, the book stayed open.
Beckett up in there, and Nabokov’s inexorably pressing note (where?) regarding the way a whole personally catalog’d book of knowledge is irrecoverably lost at every human death. Looking for that, I find (Speak, Memory, originally, Speak, Mnemosyne):
Whenever I start thinking of my love for a person, I am in the habit of immediately drawing radii from my love—from my heart, from the tender nucleus of a personal matter—to monstrously remote points of the universe. Something impels me to measure the consciousness of my love against such unimaginable and incalculable things as the behavior of nebulae (whose very remoteness seems a form of insanity), the dreadful pitfalls of eternity, the unknowledgeable beyond the unknown, the helplessness, the cold, the sickening involutions and interpenetrations of space and time. It is a pernicious habit, but I can do nothing about it. It can be compared to the uncontrollable flick of an insomniac’s tongue checking a jagged tooth in the night of his mouth and bruising itself in doing so but still persevering. I have known people who, upon accidentally touching something—a doorpost, a wall—had to go through a certain very rapid and systematic sequence of manual contacts with various surfaces in the room before returning to a balanced existence. It cannot be helped; I must know where I stand, where you and my son stand. When that slow-motion, silent explosion of love takes place in me, unfolding its melting fringes and overwhelming me with the sense of something much vaster, much more enduring and powerful than the accumulation of matter or energy in any imaginable cosmos, then my mind cannot but pinch itself to see if it is really awake. I have to make a rapid inventory of the universe, just as a man in a dream tries to condone the absurdity of his position by making sure he is dreaming. I have to have all space and all time participate in my emotion, in my mortal love, so that the edge of its mortality is taken off, thus helping me to fight the utter degradation, ridicule, and horror of having developed an infinity of sensation and thought within a finite existence.

Off into the roaring—for a week or so.

Alejandro Zambra
(Photograph by Alexandra Edwards)

Wednesday, June 23, 2010

Dan Gutstein’s non / fiction


What’s evident in a hurry: Dan Gutstein’s impeccable ear for speech. Consider a paragraph—out of “There’s a Shallow Bend,” one of the short pieces in Gutstein’s terrific rookie gathering, non / fiction (Edge Books, 2010). A man at the River Jordan “whose t-shirt reads ‘Tax me—and I’ll shoot’” is tossing pretzels out into the water at the place “where John the Baptist first baptized folks, and now the Israelis sell postcards, ice cream sandwiches, and vials of holy water”:
“Lookit the size a them catfish,” says another man in the party, as the shadows swimming the bend come up, whiskers and all, for the small treats. “Catfish’ll eat ennything,” continues the man, who is possibly wearing all the colors of creation. “Shoot, I once caught me a catfish with nothing but a shoelace, a safety pin, and a Krispy Kreme doughnut . . . In a hundred year flood, off my back porch, in my pee-jays.”
I love the timing there: that ellipsis signaling how the man knows he’s hook’d an audience that knows he’s running out the line (playing it out for a whopper), so the man obliges, crazier and crazier in the details. A perfect sense, too, of how crowds of Americans abroad (“pilgrims”) ’ll knot up ostentatiously around any suddenly identify’d familiar, a way of disavowing the new by claiming its repertoire—“Nothing like the American perspective,” as a Gutstein character puts it. (Thinking of “the ear”: Gutstein’s extends to sounds, whose textures seem to populate the stories—not unlike Chekhov: so a cough is “a sheet of paper torn in half, into quarters, eighths, sixteenths,” a bullet cutting the air’s “a strop of static, a hard metal bee,” noises get calibrated into a “one huff laugh” or a “demi-glug of milk,” or one reads of “the sound of hundreds of utensils clanking the plain white china.”) Here’s Gutstein’s “Kissing”:
      The two girls said they’d kiss us if only we’d steal them a couple cigarette lighters from Drug Fair. “And not no cheap ass Bics, either,” the blonde one yelled, beneath the street lamp, in the middle distance of the parking lot, as Kev and I pushed through the glass door. I knew Courtney, the cashier, who’d been offered a basketball scholarship, but when I nodded, “Hey, man,” he just watched us walk up the tobacco and candy aisle. Kev busied himself examining the different sizes of peppermint patties—a classic diversion—while I stuffed two brass-looking zippos, enclosed in hard plastic, like batteries, into a specially-torn part of my coat’s lining.
      When we went to pay for the peppermint patties, Courtney said, “What you got in your coat?”
      “Nothing, man.”
      “Oh yeah?”
      “Yeah, man,” I replied, as Kev slid him four baseball-sized candies.
      “Cause I seen you in the mirror,” he said, ringing up a dollar fifty. “Both of y’all.”
      We paid, but Courtney held our change. When the manager came striding up to the register, we booked toward the doors, Kev shooting through the one marked “Exit.” I clattered, full body, into the entry door, then followed Kev into the parking lot, sprinting past the knot of cars parked outside Drug Fair. All the other stores had closed, except Sammy’s and the bowling alley, on the short strip of the L-shaped mall.
      “Does he have the fucking lighters?” said the blonde, who stood defiantly, arms folded underneath her breasts.
      “Yeah, he does,” said Kev. “Y’all gonna kiss us?”
      The blonde said, “I’m gonna kiss you. She’s gonna kiss him. But there ain’t gonna be no kissing until we see the lighters. Does he have the fucking lighters?”
      I reached into my coat for the zippos and both girls went to work tearing open the plastic, and with limber wrists, whipping the small flames to life. Kev and the blonde walked out of the street lamp. A minute later, they broke the quiet only by saying, “mmmm,” or smacking their lips.
      The dark haired one, my girl, finally said “Hi.”
      I said “Hi.”
      We positioned our legs about shoulder width apart, we tried arranging our hands on the other’s body, we both leaned in at the same time, clashing our foreheads. She applied some strawberry lip gloss. We started to kiss, closed-mouth. I felt as if I were on ice, my lips sliding all over hers. Just then, a police cruiser came to a stop outside Drug Fair, its lights flashing.
      “Kev,” I shouted, and the four of us began to run, the girls, their asses in jeans, toward an apartment complex, The Point, Kev and I toward the woods behind the mall.
      “Did she French you?” he cried.
      “Yeah,” I shouted, my breath before me, “yeah, she did.”
      We hunched down as the cruiser drove by, a few times, playing its spotlight across the tree trunks. Eventually, the policeman drove off. A voice behind us yelled, “Get yo’ hands off yo’ puss!” Kev and I both startled, jumping into the air. “Whoo hoo hoo hoo,” said the voice, until I went and found it. The voice belonged to Bobby Mason, a little guy, ninth grade like us, with an older face, like he was thirty-five or forty years old. “Y’all was scared,” he said. “Y’all was like, They’s a Negro in the hedge.” I tried to say, “It’s not like that, Bobby,” but he kept going “Whoo hoo hoo hoo.”
      After he calmed down, he produced a short pipe and a sandwich bag full of brown powder he called hash. We smoked the stuff, one of us lighting the pipe as another toked, even though the pipe’s filter failed, and bits of burning powder caught in our throats. I kept meaning to say, “This ain’t hash. I don’t feel a thing.” I tried to express a correlation between the opposite gender and a police action, but we stood there, the three of us, shivering in our paper-thin shirts, for hours.
A story shear’d down to tiny particulars: perfect details like “their asses in jeans” caught by the protagonist in full half-panick’d, half-reluctant flight, evidence of thinking’s lag against the body’s preternatural rip. A number of the pieces in non / fiction proceed with less kow-tow to straightforward narrative convention. (I suspect the title’s a shrug: Gutstein’s way of saying genre’s a negligible thing.) Here’s “Note To Self”:
Listening for the faucet-drip bird or the palm-buzzer bee in the death we call “a conspiracy of dreams.” Not true.

I’d sat on the stone bench with Mrs. Kelly, the black landlady who recalled the nervous white boy stepping, bayonet-first, into the lamplight across the street, beside the convenience mart. Part of the town bruised, she explained, her grey-black hair combed into a grey-black knot. Part burned, part prospered, part got doused, and part of the town burrowed into brick and flotsam. Quick a few hellos and goodbyes or quick a few semis throwing brake drums.

“Give me a scotch and a wash.” The bartender, Bobby, asleep standing up, in his dirty apron. He doesn’t charge us for our second drink so we kiss, the salt of the lip to the salt of the lip. We could hydrate in this way or we could play people-watching: Miss Communication arguing with her cell phone; Miss Behavior spilling off her stool; Miss Conception twirling a black ringlet with her index finger.

The drawl of the aircraft above the cloud and its complexion. Not true.

You left sneaker-sock down the street sneaker-sock. Your horoscope read, “Lunar position highlights emergence from emotional cocoon,” while my fortune cookie told me to check all electrical sockets. At the convenience mart, I reach into my billfold for a dollar, one that spent sixteen years inside the change box of a muddy bus. It unwrinkles where the brown fingers of the clerk snatch it from a square foot of bullet-proof air.
Again, one could argue, some less-defined “correlation between the opposite gender and a police action.” Isn’t that “nervous white boy stepping, bayonet-first, into the lamplight” likely something—a National Guard militia member—out of the 1968 post-King assassination riots that erupt’d in the District of Columbia? A community become subsequently a place to shoot through (“quick a few semis throwing brake drums”). If, though, “genre’s a negligible thing,” a set of conventions and conveniences, it’s likely less the case that all writerly truths impinge equally. Hence: “The drawl of the aircraft above the cloud and its complexion. Not true.” There’s a balance here—a weight’d balance, one that judges—between Mrs. Kelly’s story and the astonishing tangibility of that “dollar . . . that spent sixteen years inside the change box of a muddy bus” offer’d up and snatch’d through “a square foot of bullet-proof air.”

Dan Gutstein’s non / fiction
(Cover design by Justin Sirois)

Dan Gutstein

Tuesday, June 22, 2010

Creeley’s Pieces

Some Clouds

Scuttling along half-cock’d, morning itself baldly covetous of its vapours. And its sweats. A thunderstorm approach’d around three a.m., sneaky-pete style, though the dog dug it out of its distance, ear to earth Indian-style, and whimper’d loudly for a good hour. Only calm’d when the rain itself arrived, shushing. (Williams: “Whatever ‘life’ the artist may be forced to lead has no relation to the vitality of his compositions.”) I read through Creeley’s Pieces, straight through fungo-hitting style (Williams—talking about Henry Adams: “pure style: never to be understood”), left the balls all out there in the field. A denatured thing, its terribly limit’d vocabulary, its peaked reiterations, it wholly sapped populace (figural, bloodless, myth’d, “Hermes, in dark glasses”). No sudden gallop down a stretch, no intrusory heave of the beyond (“Here is all there is, / but there seems so / insistently across the way”), no uncanny lyrical outburst: “Never write / to say more / than saying / something.” Though: one did rather willingly commit to memory a line (out of “The Finger”)—“attention the whip of surmise”—without knowing exactly who’s driving what team of wild-eyed horses. Is it that attending bolsters conjecture, or that a hunch is condottiere (mercenary) to seeing?

Look’d into, too, Creeley’s A Day Book (“precisely what it says it is, thirty single-spaced pages of writing in thirty similarly spaced days of living” is the claim). Daily writing it isn’t. Gaps in the fabric un peu partout, the thing running November 19, 1968 to February 27, 1969 (“But time and space may well be subjective impressions, like they say.”) Tout à coup a recall of reading Cecil Giscombe’s Into and Out of Dislocation, up north (East Jordan) summer of 2000, a book point’d (brickwork) with that, a Creeley vernacular: “like they say.” Creeley begins one entry (February 13, 1969):
“To tell what subsequently I saw, and what heard. . . .” Williams—also like Allen’s “What did I notice? Particulars!” Brought again and again to fact of, what is it—here, there. The time of it. Agency’s modality, i.e., my own.
And ends it:
Gap then of some fifteen, twenty minutes—no evidence of same immediately clear, to me at least. So could write one word, say, wait ten minutes, twenty, hour, hours, day, days, weeks, months, years,—but there the limit does begin to be manifest like they say—and so on. . . . You thought I just wrote it straight out, like. But I didn’t. I wrote one word. Waited five days. But think of the arithmetic and / or is it possible, mind you, is it possible to write (how much?) in what length of time, given that means of proceeding. Can we wait for it. Would you rather sit in the car. Are you tired, of waiting. What, are you waiting for? Why wait. A simple downpayment secures our order.
Spinning a temporal obsession into a kind of desultory humoresque. (Isn’t Creeley’s “default” a kind of wry, chisel’d abstract dealt out with a deft economy of means? How rare the “tips of celery” of Creeley’s “The Farm”! That sudden particular tangible thing.) The initial Creeley-quoted Williams line (out of “The Desert Music”) continues “—to place myself (in / my nature) beside nature // —to imitate / nature (for to copy nature would be a / shameful thing). . .”

Though: my turning to Creeley jump’d (largely) out of a thrilling riff he’d got himself into in conversation (mid-Berkeley Poetry Conference) with John Sinclair and Robin Eichele (collect’d in Contexts of Poetry: Interviews 1961-1971), talking about Red Pygmy Pouters (and the “lovely democracy” of bird-breeding—“all that really meant anything was the particular bird and that bird did have or perhaps not simple parallel but actual parallel with the circumstances in poetry: it was human attention given to the possibilities of human life. The bird was as perishable, as fleeting and as useless an anything can be . . .”) Creeley:
A bird that gets to be a champion is a show bird; it’s a very careful vocabulary. But then you have what are called stock birds and stock birds are the birds that are used, frankly, in breeding show birds. Stock birds may have overemphasized characteristics. Then you do get into genetics. But a stock bird is a very distinct bird in that it is used in breeding the qualification, the qualities you want to have in breeding a bird that will then be used for show. But a show bird is oftentimes of no use as a breeder at all. I mean, he’s just a moment in time. I remember one instance of pigeons I was given as a kid—I had an interest early—a pair of fantails, a very common bird around New England. Once you got past icehouse pigeons, the pigeons you could get by climbing up into icehouses or whatever they nest in, and taking the young two or three week old birds out of the nests, getting young squeakers as they call them—once you get past that you then went to homing pigeons, homers we used to call them, or fantails—these were very common varieties. Well, this one pair of fantails I was given suddenly bred a fantastically good fantail. But I was a kid; I didn’t know anything about banding, and you can’t show birds without having them banded; that’s part of the etiquette in the show scene. This bird was what we call a sport; he was suddenly a lucky strike in the genetic situation. But I mean that taught me to pay attention to a lot of things. I’m surprised now; I haven’t been engaged with pigeons for almost fifteen or more years—almost twenty years now—and yet the habits of that attention as we’re now talking is so precise, that they give me the vocabulary immediately. I mean, I couldn’t tell you the same kind of detail about the method of scanning a line of poetry or various systems of metric that are involved with descriptions of poetry. Now I found that one information was useful and felt right in my environment; not that I wanted to be only a pigeon man but I mean that kind of information taught me a lot. It taught me how to pay attention to an awful lot of things.
Poundian, that “lucky strike in the genetic situation,” that show bird who’s “just a moment in time”—see “an intellectual and emotional complex in an instant of time.”) There’s an agility—call it love—here in Creeley’s monologue (it continues), tongue “more current and slipper” than in so much of the seemingly pincer’d (cramp’d) pieces of the “era.” Ammiel Alcalay, in an Afterword to the Lost & Found booklet, The 1963 Vancouver Poetry Conference / Robert Creeley’s Contexts of Poetry With Daphne Marlatt’s Journal Entries, talks of “one of Creeley’s favorite quotes by Olson: ‘we do what we know before we know what we do.’” (Akin, maybe, to the J. H. Prynne dictum Rich Owen supply’d the other day—out of “Star Damage at Home” (in 1969’s The White Stones): “we must mean the / entire force of what we shall come to say.”)

Robert Creeley, 1926-2005

Monday, June 21, 2010

Creeley’s Contexts

Tarp and Clouds

Never wholly moved by Creeley: the mastery of enjambments seem’d mere—and pointlessly minimal—technique, ontological querying the concern of a fussbudget. I look’d to excess, coo-coo rococo like the jimmy-French rooster who sings out a cocorico. That kind of thing. Reading, though, the pieces collect’d in the Donald Allen-edit’d Contexts of Poetry: Interviews 1961-1971 (Four Seasons Foundation, 1973) and the Ammiel Alcalay-edit’d Lost & Found booklet, The 1963 Vancouver Poetry Conference / Robert Creeley’s Contexts of Poetry With Daphne Marlatt’s Journal Entries, I find myself confront’d with some less crass redoubts, some urgings to reassess. (Gulp.) Though: Creeley’s talk / exchange (Ginsberg is a minimal interlocutor of sorts) at the Vancouver gathering (July 24, 1963), is a strange piece of work, a confessional of an attempt to accede to something beyond a neurotic need for command and control. Creeley’s “Contexts” is largely concern’d with the technologies of writing—the means of putting it down:
I write always with a typewriter. I get very nervous about using a pen, because pens run out of ink in a way . . . ball points are what I would use, as and when I do write that way . . . pencils have to be sharpened, I get so involved with the sharpening of the pencil. Also, I think it goes back to a sense I had when younger, that typewriters, typewriting, implied a “professional” context. If you were going to be serious, or going to claim seriousness for yourself, the instrument that you used in writing had to be particular to what the act of writing was. So that I had, I think, a basically naïve sense of this kind. I wanted to be able to do it with a typewriter. Now, equally, I never learned to type. So I mean my typing is a habit that’s developed, with two fingers. I never took a class in high school or any other place that taught me how to use the full, you know, all your fingers when you’re typing. Think again—that begins to be a qualification of how fast I can write. In other words, I find that the pace of my writing is concerned with the speed with which I can type. Now, I can type actually about as fast as I can talk, with two fingers. I find, for example, if I have to work on somebody else’s typewriter, I’m displaced, because there may be a slight variation in the space between keys. I find that now I can use the typewriter I do use without looking at it, so that I can be thinking of something without consciously wondering where my fingers are. I find . . . let’s see, I want to keep on a little bit in this sense of what the physical conditions are . . . because again, I started writing in a context where I was embarrassed. I didn’t want to bother anybody. I didn’t want, you know, like, don’t mind me, but just go right ahead with what you’re doing, with your serious business, with your serious preoccupation. I was primarily in a former marriage, and the problems thereof . . . I didn’t want to call attention to myself, because doing that might force me to define what I was trying to do—which is obviously impossible. So, the next thing I would do would be to create a context in which there was a residuum of noise, constantly present. So that my own noise wouldn’t be intrusive. . . .
(Version out of the Allen-edit’d book—it differs in a few minor particulars, compared with that of the Lost & Found document.) Lengthy quote: extent of Creeley’s mania for a workable order and method. The upshot: a belief that “particular habits of writing . . . have, curiously, a great significance” for what one writes (“If you think I’m fooling, you might for example try to see what happens if you write with different kinds of media. In other words, try writing with large crayons. . .”) (A rather superstitious attitude that continues to be purvey’d—see numerous remarks in Ron Silliman’s talk about writing technologies here: “Using two different journals with the same pen will yield very different poems . . .” or “Writing on the bus—I was using legal tablets—was an exceptionally liberating experience for me. Later when I bought my new machine, I typed up the manuscripts and discovered that every single text I’d written came to a single page, typed single space. I had really internalized that frame without realizing it. From that point forward, I started to make notebooks part of my practice . . .”) (What internal “frame” determines receipt? That is, is a poem print’d in Helvetica in a journal going to differ compared to the same poem print’d in Goudy in a collect’d edition?) Creeley, in a postscript to the talk, some five years along (April 14, 1968), at the occasion of the thing’s printing in Audit:
The preoccupations here evident were, in fact, more decisive than I could then have realized. I had trusted so much to thinking, apparently, and had gained for myself such an adamant sense of what a poem could be for me, that here I must have been signaling to myself both a warning and the hope of an alternative.
      Not too long after I began to try deliberately to break out of the habits described. I wrote in different states of so-called consciousness, e.g. when high, and at those times would write in pen or pencil, contrary to habit, and I would also try to avoid any immediate decision as to whether or not the effects to such writing were “good.”
      . . . I also began to use notebooks, first very small ones indeed, and then larger—and I found many senses of possibility in writing began consequently to open. For one, such notebooks accumulated the writing, and they made no decisions about it—it was all there, in whatever state it occurred . . .
(That refusal of assessment, akin to Williams’s defiance in the Prologue to Kora in Hell: Improvisations: “There is nothing sacred about literature, it is damned from one end to the other. There is nothing in literature but change and change is mockery. I’ll write whatever I damn please, whenever I damn please and as I damn please and it’ll be good if the authentic spirit of change is on it”—and in some sense, Creeley’s “scribbling . . . writing for the immediacy of the pleasure and without having to pay attention to some final code of significance” is what is noteworthy, beyond the notebook sizes, &c. Some of the poems so written” become part of Words (again, one thinks of Williams, how, in editor Webster Schott’s words—in Imaginations, regarding Spring and All—“a fooling around book” becomes “a crucial book.”) (Exceeding affection in the world for one’s own “fooling around” work: see the innumerable mentions of the happy malarkey of “Instead of ant worts I saw brat guts” chez some of the Grand Pianists.) Creeley’s examples:
A Piece

One and
one, two,
They (2)

They were trying to catch up.
But from the distance

between them, one thought
it would be a long time

even with persistent
running. They were walking

slower and slower
for hours and hours.
And (preternaturally lovely, the way Lorine Niedecker’s work is):
The Farm

Tips of celery,
clouds of

day I’ll go away.
One notes, though, that—except perhaps for the audaciously minimal “A Piece” (forewarning of “Numbers” in Pieces)—there’s little to earmark the poems as particularly different, or broken out of Creeley’s habitual.

Robert Creeley, 1926-2005
(Photograph by Jonathan Williams)

Friday, June 18, 2010

Mysteriosos (Glean’d and Dispers’d)

Some Clouds

Glean’d (rashly) a couple of things out of Stein (randomly). One is out of “Portraits and Repetition”: “Melody should always be a by-product it should never be an end in itself it should not be a thing by which you live if you really and truly are one who is to do anything . . . I had begun again . . . working at grammar and sentences and paragraphs and what they mean and at plays and how they disperse themselves in relation to anything seen. And soon I was so completely concerned with these things that melody, beauty if you like was once more as it should always be a by-product.” That, and the run-up to “I am I because my little dog . . .” in “What Are Masterpieces . . .”: “The thing one gradually comes to find out is that one has no identity that is when one is in the act of doing anything. Identity is recognition, you know who you are because you and others remember anything about yourself but essentially you are not that when you are doing anything.” Akin to Fenollosa’s line that “Art and poetry deal with the concrete of nature, not with rows of separate ‘particulars,’ for such rows do not exist.” That is, any noun’s simply by-product of a verb, a stopgap, snapshot, a momentary expedient against the ongoingness, the sempiternal flux. Fenollosa: “We are forced, for the sake of quickness and sharpness, to file down each word to its narrowest edge of meaning. Nature would seem to have become less like a paradise and more and more like a factory. We are content to accept the vulgar misuse of the moment.” And: “A late stage of decay is arrested and embalmed in the dictionary.” I read, though, the writing body’s dispersal into that “no identity . . . when one is in the act of doing anything.”

Numerous testimonials. Here’s one out of Creeley (interview’d by Linda Wagner in Contexts of Poetry: Interviews 1961-1971): “Poetry seems to be written momently—that is, it occupies a moment of time. There is, curiously, no time in writing a poem. I seem to be given to work in some intense moment of whatever possibility, and if I manage to gain the articulation necessary in that moment, then happily there is the poem.” And, later, insisting that the writing abolit le temps: “. . . if it goes—or, rather, comes—in an opening way, it continues until it closes, and that’s usually when I stop. It’s awfully hard for me to give a sense of actual time because . . . I’m not sure of time in writing. Maybe to me it seems a moment and it could have been half an hour or a whole afternoon.” Or there’s Michael Palmer, replying to a query by Lee Bartlett (in Talking Poetry), mopping up some of the arguments (and culpables):
If you are speaking through language, it is after all not only your voice. . . .
      It’s like the question of Blake. When he says a fairy sat down on his desk and whispered “Europe” to him you wonder did it really happen, or is this simply a metaphor for the poem which arrives from “outside,” a case of pure inspiration, breathing in? Jack Spicer represented that notion of dictation by talking about Martians and spooks arriving and giving him his words. For Yeats there are the famous other-world figures who gave him his metaphors. For me this represents virtually a linguistic model—an abolition of pure subjectivity. You become receptive to a whole variety of language that is more expansive than your own, that can see more than you can see. When you do enter into the poem in that respect and trust to it, in looking at it afterward you wonder, did I do that? Well, the answer is, of course, that you didn’t. Various selves, aspects of a heightened attention, did it in a certain way, but not your self.
Concatenations of ages and identities, the ductile motility of years. Species cacophony (Lear’s “poor, bare, fork’d animal” lines intrude: “Thou owest the worm no silk, the beast no hide, the sheep no wool, the cat no perfume. . . Thou art the thing itself . . .” proceeding to unbutton the “lendings” that clothe him, identity accommodated by dismissal.)

Notes (gleanings) apt to scuttle off into meagre remnant pulsing like the Crab Nebula. Unsettling a trajectory merely sketch’d. Michael McClure—in “Double Moire for Francis Crick,” out of Mysteriosos and Other Poems (New Directions, 2010)—says:
on ripples, and among the moons of Saturn.
Everything burns for the eyes that will
come into being. The twisting shapes
are hunting their forms, the big ones
grow and shrink and in themselves are the answers.

WE ARE ACTIVITY—membrane edging under membrane . . .
And, in a Learish self-portrait (with some echo of Pound’s “caged Panther” to it—“‘When every hollow is full / it moves forward’ / to the phantom mountain above the cloud / But in the caged Panther’s eyes: // ‘Nothing, nothing you can do . . .’”), a piece (#20) out of McClure’s “Dear Being”:
for Robert Creeley

        with gleam of varnished wood beneath them.
                      The garden does not sleep at night.
                  Depths of darkness intricately mottle
          themselves in the smell of hollyhocks and jasmine.
                        The flashbulb snaps off and on—
              again, and again, and again, right in my face.
                              Four pictures are shot, and there
                                    ARE SPOTS IN FRONT
                              of my eyes. Now I am
                                an old man with freckles
                            on my high forehead. (Almost forgotten
                        is the way the wolf moves on entering
                              a restaurant.) Now there is no
                                    pretense, just the bright
                      oranges, browns, blacks, and blues of the photos.
                                      The lilt of coyness hides the predator’s
                                             intent sneer. Long white hair is the head
                                                  of an eagle. There is the faintest
                                                bruise of wisdom in the bags
                                          under my sliver–ringed, dark irises.
Or, proceeding with intent bent by attention to the constant forging: “THERE IS A FIRE AND TRAJECTORIES / OF ENERGIES bare of knowing or thought / where black inferno meets meat in bliss. / . . . / Here beings (all is beings) mutely perceive themselves first.”

Michael McClure, c. 2009
(Photograph by Brita Brookes)

Thursday, June 17, 2010

Dale Herd / David Schaff

Some Clouds

Sather Gate

      She was a non-student, a runaway from smalltown lowclass Oklahoma, she said, come to Berkeley she didn’t know why, her boyfriend was into an off-the-wall movie trip, like we were into this thing where the camera is your brother so you’re free to do anything , do any thing, every thing you can think of, a sex thing, everyone was up on acid, and I began thinking, shit man, we’re into this thing where all learning is considered good, like that brought us the hydrogen bomb, you know.
      Later, leaving her apartment, that’s the real problem, she said, it’s too damn bad everything has to be so casual.
That’s a story by Dale Herd—out of Early Morning Wind and Other Stories (Four Seasons Foundation, 1972)—one of the shorter pieces in the book (though the majority number only a page or two—the longer two, “The Normal Girl” and “Lucy in the Sky” running up to a mere dozen or so pages). Here’s another:

      “Do you think there’s someone like that? I mean someone who would know how to be with me when they were with me? That’s not being sentimental, is it? I mean someone who really wanted what I have to give. That’s not too much to ask, is it? I mean they wouldn’t have to stay or anything. I’m not silly enough to ask that. I mean I’m not the only woman in the world, am I. I certainly don’t think that.”
Herd’s ear for the period’s speech is impeccable (along with a paring down of extraneous incident to some nub where pure inflect musters up a whole history unwrit). Loss interject’d with yearning, toughness cut with unsteady contempt for it. Or street-bravado (with its lingo and trappings):

      He was peddling speed and coke, a very flashy dealer in tapestry bellbottoms, yellow ruffled shirt, leather coat, leather headband, long hair flowing down to his shoulders. We walked together for a minute going up past City Lights Bookstore.
      “Naw, that’s bullshit, man, cause I’ve been hassled with too much, I’m not going to be hassled with again. If they come they’d better come in pairs cause one isn’t going to do it and if he shoots he’d better kill me cause I’ll shoot the fucker if he misses and if he kills me then I’m free cause when you’re dead you’re free.”
      Then: “I want to be free and we can’t be free as long as one of those pigs is alive.”
      Then: “No narc would come up here, man, cause if they did they’d be killed with fucking butcher knives.”
      Another cat with long hair and narrow stovepipe bells was standing at the corner waiting for the light. He overheard us.
      “With machine guns, man,” this guy said, “every fucking one of them.”
A whole attitude (the judgment of “withholding judgment”) in the curt economy of the “Then”: the narrator seeing the dealer for the blusterer he is.

I went looking for Herd’s work after Michael Lally put up a note about the Blue Press edition of a chapter of Herd’s Dreamland Court, a novel of voices (overlapping, simultaneous, present’d typographically so). Serendipity of the library: Early Morning Wind—being “Writing 29” in Donald Allen’s terrific series—ends up “bound with” David Schaff’s The Moon by Day (Writing 28) and the Allen-edit’d Creeley document, Contexts of Poetry: Interviews 1961-1971 (Writing 30). Schaff’s seemingly unsung of late (though Ron Silliman mentions him in the course of arguing for a “New Western” clump). (There’s a note too, elsewhere, saying Schaff’d read at the Berkeley Poetry Conference with David Bromige, James Koller, and Ken Irby, tape lost. No biographical sketch append’d to the volume, though there’s “Also by David Schaff”—Tables and The Ladder.) The Moon by Day collects a number of “Dedications”—dated 1967-1969—for (amongst others) Robin Blaser, Bromige, George Stanley, John Wieners, Charles Olson. Here’s a piece:

            for George Stanley

‘You might as well get into it because
you’re not going to get out of it’

By it you meant
flesh       and its opposites

thin notes
on a roulette wheel

confusing one ‘you’
with another

I rode off to the Fillmore
In the middle of a set my eyes
weren’t mine but closed they wandered

to you       Cloudy
you answered       ‘I

don’t believe in meta-physics.
By the word is meant after

I spun off, could not
make it there or make sense

You were in the bar
I lay on the dance floor
with no wheel but this:

a dark sun
in the center of a card
around which a herd circles and dances

to no-one reading
to a hand unyielding
Set into a forehead
upset and flowing over oilcloth
blood at the root
blooms matched reaching inside you
red or read or red
It is laughter

a door you won’t lock
accumulating power
through ungirded windows.
Veers off into what I’d call “Duncan-land” there at the end. Tutelage to a magus, blood rituals, who knows? (Though it emerges, naturally enough, out of some variant of flesh-malady, what to do with it, an onus comparable to that of knowledge?)

Cover of Dale Herd’s Dreamland Court (Blue Press, 2010)

Wednesday, June 16, 2010

Prynne / Dorn

A Wall

Humidity’s way of making one irresolute (meaning insipid and washy, or wash’d up?) I keep poking (with unsatisfactory consequent, or none) about in whatever various J. H. Prynne “items” I am able to muster. For rhetorical ferocity (one’d think it aim’d “at” the ready consumables of la poesía norteamericana, Flarf command), there’s a paragraph (out of Prynne’s “A Letter to Steve McCaffery”—dated 2 January 1989, print’d in 2000 in The Gig #7). Prynne’s admitting—regarding McCaffery’s “Lag”—that he is “more interested in the implicit constraints for the production of this text than . . . in the personal experience of its consumption”and (of the 1987 Evoba: The Investigations Meditations 1976-78) that it “seems . . . to set indexed margins for resuming the possible field for a consequent or secondary consumption, the consumption of how it would be produced” seems apt matériel de guerre utile for combating the actual longueurs of such trivial assemblages as’ve become the marvels and commonplaces of the age. Prynne (for “fascination”—commentators never tire of pointing to its mutual rootedness with fascēs, meaning “bundle,” stem, too, of “fascicle” and “fascist,” whether there’s any truth there or not—for “fascination” read the much-vaunt’d “hilarity” spout’d routinely at headquarters):
      As for fascination, that’s a helotry chiefly reserved by snakes for rabbits, which is why the TV screen which looks like an emission surface is clearly an engorged sink for even partial variability of attention, consuming viewer intelligence by homogenising and neutralising its interface. Well and truly is the fetish of value avoided: the first stage being to attach that first noun to the second, so that the one can then replace the other. Yet trivia and profundity mingle constantly but don’t “naturally” blend, because the activity they jointly provoke is adversarial and mediated by valuation; but a trivial emulsion can be induced to form by use of apt detergent, e.g. “humour” as you put it, thereby further reducing value to fetish. I for my own part have a positive addiction to the meanest trash and to unmitigated urban pollution; but uncontrolled, self-replicating triviality is genteel and necrotic, a true language-cancer and well able to invade across the mind / brain barrier.
“Genteel and necrotic”—there’s considerable integrity in that slap. Uncover’d a fine essay call’d ‘his brilliant luminous shade’—Ian Brinton on Dorn and Prynne—in the Brinton-edit’d A Manner of Utterance: The Poetry of J. H. Prynne (Shearsman, 2009). Brinton quotes lines out of Prynne’s “A Gold Ring Called Reluctance”:
                                                And so slowness is
interesting and the dust, in cracks between
boards. The old ones have their senses
in the elegant droop they sometimes con-
trive, the knowing falter that makes it
all like some trick. Fluff, grit, various
discarded bits & pieces: these are the
genetic patrons of our so-called condition.
And, with identical notch’d purposefulness, lines out of “In the Long Run, To Be Stranded” (The White Stones, 1969):
            This isn’t a wild comment: there’s no
good in the brittle effort, to snap the pace
into some more sudden glitter of light:
            hold to this city or the slightly pale
            walking, to a set rhythm of
            the very slight hopefulness. That
is less than patience, it’s time or more clearly
the sequence of years; a thickening in the words
as the coins themselves wear thin and could
            almost balance on the quick
            ideal edge.
Brinton ably registers a connection in the poem between “movement (tread) and the exchange of commodities associated with ‘trade’”—and discerningly notes “the filling out of language that almost clogs the tongue.” (The “clog”—and how it slows (and eventually) prohibits fluidity—is that a point’d Prynnean concern? Is it a way of approaching the high-density artifacts of the later verse? In the Prospect review of the Douglas Woolf novel, Fade Out,Prynne talks about the rhythms of Woolf’s narrative: “the earlier life in New York is depicted in great density of detail, which clogs it and weighs it down to a standstill.”)

And, later, reading Dorn’s By the Sound I am struck by Dorn’s own “walking, to a set rhythm / of the very slight hopefulness”—Carl Wyman’s job in a silo:
The work consisted of walking around and around, tramping silage as it was blown into the top of the silo. The work was as uneventful and regular as that of a horse pulling a pole around a gear exchange to elevate ears of corn. . . . There was nothing to it, you simply got in the silo when it was empty and walked your way up, as it filled. Walking. That was all. At noon the men inside, usually three, climbed down the ladder on the outside, going through one of a series of holes which, as the silage piled higher, was plugged up with a wooden door.
Prynne’s line (out of “Thoughts on the Esterházy Court Uniform”) “With such / patience maybe we can listen to the rain / without always thinking about rain”—some “unassertively musical” grace of being—forks up out of that silage . . . Some bliss-fed days of inconsequential Prynne-reaving to come, I am certain. The early Agneau 2 (1982) Poems ends:
What do you say then
well yes and no
about four times a day

sick and nonplussed
by the thought of less
you say stuff it.
Being final curd in the whey of a sequence call’d “Down Where Changed” (1979)—with the epigraph: “Anyone who takes up this book will, we expect, have down so because at the back of the mind he has a half formed belief that there is something in it.” Out of C. Thorpe, Practical Crystal-Gazing (1916).

J. H. Prynne’s Poems

Tuesday, June 15, 2010

Dorn’s By the Sound

“Wild Peas”

Spent too long dickering with something about the way seeing’s a gash in the registry, a machine with a limit’d number of selectors (corresponding to available linguistic resources), and didn’t make a maquette for today. Modello abrupt: Dorn’s lovely assessment of the post-WWII years “before the propaganda of want—which crowded out the circumstances of human affinity. That was when everybody was under the same bleak outlook, no inside trades, no vomiting into the system of purely verbal claims . . .” (In the 1991 “Preface” to By the Sound—reissue of the earlier, lamentably-titled Rites of Passage (Frontier Press, 1965). That “vomiting” of “purely verbal claims” likely refers to the ongoing academicizing / professionalizing of la poesía norteamericana, particularly that brand begun in the late ’seventies—and awash amongst “us” now.) Dorn: “I never met anybody in those days who didn’t know what time it was. Now nobody says anything.” The book—I did manage to tuck into a few pages late—is alarmingly Hemingwayesque (up to the point that one recalls how every young man’s book for a stretch there is “alarmingly Hemingwayesque” in its sentence-ry). Exemplary (of the sun): “Then it flashed through a group of hemlocks across the vacant lot. The trees surrounded an old house and the rays diffracted into spikes and hit the hills for a few minutes making of the aluminum-sided grain elevator for a while a bright mirror.” Conjunct’d verb phrases awkwardly stitch’d into a sequence—“for a few minutes” and “for a while” heel-and-toeing it one to the other so closely several discreet actions get made out of a (mostly bland, unblandishing) continuum. Which punches the story along. Or see the interior monologue of Carl Wyman (the Dorn character, who, with wife Mary and kids, is about to leave one Pacific Northwest town for no other reason than because he can manage, with a few dollars, to do so). A man notes how early it is that “the pussy willows are out in that ditch back of camp” and Carl agrees:
Yes it is, Carl said. He thought yes, that’s very early. It’s like that here. Everything, early and late, and hopeless and hopeful and light and dark, mild and harsh . . . but slow, everything slow and then in April there won’t be any more willow buds . . .
(I think of the waiter in “A Clean Well-Lighted Place” continuing “the conversation with himself”: “What did he fear? It was not a fear or dread. It was a nothing that he knew too well. It was all a nothing and a man was a nothing too. It was only that and light was all it needed and a certain cleanness and order. Some lived in it and never felt it but he knew it all was nada y pues nada y nada y pues nada.” And the displacement of Hemingway characters mimick’d in Carl’s “It’s like that here.”)

Dorn, in the “Preface,” claims that “By the Sound, masquerading as a ‘novel,’ is simply a sociological study of the basement stratum of its time: the never ending story of hunger and pressing circumstance in a land of excess.” (Echo of the 1974 Collected Poems statement that—“From near the beginning I have known my work to be theoretical in nature and poetic by virtue of its inherent tone”?) I am remind’d of a line by Olson quoted in a 1963 Vancouver letter to El Corno Emplumado by A. Fredric Franklyn (append’d to the Ammiel Alcalay-edit’d Lost & Found booklet, The 1963 Vancouver Poetry Conference / Robert Creeley’s Contexts of Poetry With Daphne Marlatt’s Journal Entries): “I am just an old scoundrel on fiction. I mean I abhor fiction. I mean, in the sense of making up a story.” I ruminate a little regarding that distrust of “making up” (amongst the “New Americans”)—is that “output” of the age of Sputnik and technological go-getting, seep’d down to its poetickal citizenry? To what degree’s the “standard” persist still, that alliance of something hard-nosed (“objectivist”), undistort’d by the “flighty” (that femininity!) amongst the malingerers along that continuum (its proclaim’d “lineage”)? Isn’t it all story’d by degrees? (Jeremy M. Davies, in Rose Alley on how “failure of imagination is what dooms most reform”: “The radical must make the case that he’s been assigned his uniform unjustly—that he’s always deserved a better. To say instead that each outfit is just as counterfeit as another brings allegations of self-importance. It’s quite natural to want a clown punished for reciting tragic verse . . . Better to stay on as the fool. An old law protects the zany, the half-wit, the loon.”) It’s Dorn’s canny “sociology” though that makes By the Sound something beyond a Hemingway knockoff (and a harbinger of late Dorn’s “everlasting no”). So: “When a man has nothing it would be senseless to censure him for petty thievery. Even major crimes are not so definable as they are said to be, many crimes are that only by definition of who is the transgressor.” Or:
The unemployed man has not been born to anything. At the same time that is his fate, it is also, never forget, his salvation. For practically no matter what is proposed for him to do he will do it, but money is the crux of his whole search, and he will never be misled by false propositions such as a “good, steady job” or a slogan such as “work your way up.” No, there are two levels and two only in which money declares itself. The highest of course, is that in which there is such an amount that its “activity” is what makes money interesting, what it can do, like a toy train that can be switched, and made subject to elaborate signals. But then there is the level of the man who has none at all, and then the money he can get by whatever means takes on some qualities of this same operation. The smallest amounts, say two or three dollars, can suddenly become the levers with which he makes his little realm go . . .
(Dorn allows one character, the perennially drunk carpenter James McCarty, who lives with Ramona the Esquimau woman in “two pea-shacks,” a story of driving—“asleep or . . . dulled from drinking, possibly both”—a car into a river one night. McCarthy, car submerged, rolls down a window, climbs out, and bobs up the the surface. The current deposits him ashore; he walks to town. Dorn: “He spoke of this affair very often with the conclusion: See, that’s the difference. And whether one were really aware of it or not, there did seem to be a difference. A tale that has no more of the logic left in it.” Phrase lovely in its mystery.)

Edward Dorn, 1929-1999
(Photograph by Ira Cohen)

Monday, June 14, 2010

Dorn / Prynne

Some Clouds

“Breasts,” he said. “They look like great breasts.” I had nodded off for a bit and thought that I had missed a conversation, but after inquiry some hours later I found that that was the conversation. Prynne was watching the Idaho foothills. The driver drove. (It is this kind of story that Hazlitt might have had in mind when he observed, “The difficulty of forming almost any inference at all from what men write to what they are . . .”) Being the smallest figure of the group, not by much, I was saddled in between Martin, gazing out the window to my left, and Keston who, like me, was still in a fit of reckoning from the night before. He jolted about and made sharp sounds. Prynne laughed back, “You o.k. old boy?”
Being the terrific opening to Steffen Brown’s “Prynne in Boise” (out of the Boyd Nielson-edit’d A Thing Terrible to Publick Traytors (Property Press, 2010). Writers wedg’d in cars, the behaviors of—I’m sure there’s a whole sub-genre there (beyond the “for / christ’s sake, look / out where yr going” beat). A. R. Ammons used to repeat—with somewhat increasing savor as high reputes visibly slip’d the publick hawsers (as reputes invariably will)—how he’d had to fetch Robert Bly, James Wright, and Galway Kinnell for a weekend of readings (early ’seventies) at Cornell. The giddy three deposit’d in the car, the highway merge negotiated, one of the three sang out: “Drive with caution, you’ve got the future of American poetry sitting in the backseat of the car!”

Prynne’s Idaho, a place he’d apparently visit’d with Ed Dorn. Brown reports how Prynne prefaced one reading “with short Idaho-esque anecdotes and poems by both Pound (reading part of the Pisan Cantos) and Dorn” and, later, “passed around photocopies of the entire chapbook, Idaho Out (Fulcrum Press, 1965), and proudly pointed out the copyright page on which it is written, in a staccato cursive, Numero uno / For geronimo / from Edwardo / ocho de enero de 1966.” Brown’s short reading of Prynne pushes Dorn’s writerly concerns (and the way Idaho itself—more than Black Mountain—“shaped the loose and dispossessed lyrics that scar the entirety of [Dorn’s] work”) into Prynne’s own: “Dorn’s aesthetic and political concerns in regards to the stretched and disenfranchised Being blotted out by the Western Machine can be darkly traced through much of Prynne’s earlier work.” And:
Each of Prynne’s books . . . disassembles and adds to the parlance of a growing political shape-shifting of the same. Prynne . . . distills the diction, corrupts his syntax in correlation with the corruption of system-politics and opens the entirety of language to dispense a still clear echo of Dorn. What is different though, is that Prynne constricts the vast physical and emotional space that is found in Dorn’s work and opens up a vernacular that punches into almost every particular mode of being on the late 20th and early 21st century playing field.
I’m not entirely convinced that either Dorn or Prynne’d cop to syntax-corrupting’s being a useful combat to “system-politics”-corrupting (that’s Johnny-come-lately Language schoolboy talk)—the one-two “punch” of the two’s vernacular reach, though: precisely. Brown: “One of the great triecks of Prynne’s poetry is that he is able to catalyze each of the many language persona’s he adopts to affect a singular voice. He does this sonically and with the idea of economy. . . . And economy for Prynne stretches wide: economy of Capitalism, economy of word, and economy of emotion.” And Brown registers how thus, Prynne’s poems (particularly late Prynne) manage to rally whole ranges of diverse lexicons “into common orbit.” So: Dorn and Prynne, side by side:
Petrol in search of flame hardly a ham sand-
wich, where the draft pulls out neither fear nor
care less, any cap provokes lateral adventure call
it tip to tip brownfield rematch. Eyelid passion
blinks at a stab, ability and growth packed tight
in cat litter. Born and live wiring, get native
cover shots askance. Flimsy torn muscle will lie

gaunt to blood supply on a spiral, late shifting
derelict pincers meet the press corps. Run a hand
back-linked for aid review, go on faster to storm
the house of engagement, boarded up justly. Flicker
shot won’t say, picked on the vine to claim kin
and cost more, wrecked private parts in banana
recruitment. Don’t ever now take heed of that.
Being one part—out of fourteen—divided in two clumps of seven—of Prynne’s Unanswering Rational Shore (Object Permanence, 2001) And Dorn (out of “Phaethon’s Daughter”):
      From the cabin in the sky
spread out below the swept alcoa wing
sweeps the vast retrotransit where Mother earth bared
her breast of verdant wheatgrass in irrigated circles,
the irrigating nipples of agrabiz where I-80 skirts and elevates
the fierce little beams of westering traffic
through fields of broken shale
around the shoulder of broken terraces
and over hills of loess laid down
at 500 miles per hour off the face of the ice sheet—
It is quiet out there now—the taste of dog
raised on Friskies, a revolutionary food,
a predator’s windfall—the Spam of concocted dogs,
the moral equivalent of chicken soup. But
a dog like that is rarely let out, therefore
such an encounter is deep in the books.
Verisimilitude rules the Dog world. The scent of dog
permeates the cabin, Old Smokers, off the weed for years,
take it in, the original southern, State Narcotic.
Too big to ban: too bad to smoke.
Is there an identifiably similar “stance”? begrudging iterations of the unspeakably crass and unvanquish’d world? Is Prynne’s quoting of Coleridge’s “critical but importantly correct view of Wordsworth, formed early on” apt? Originally recorded by Hazlitt (in Prynne’s 2007 Field Notes: “The Solitary Reaper” and Others) it goes: “there was a something corporeal, a matter-of-fact-ness, a clinging to the palpable, or often to the petty, in his poetry, in consequence. His genius was not a spirit that descended to him through the air; it sprung out of the ground . . .” I’d intend’d to look at earlier poems by each, thinking—trigger’d by Brown’s nod at Hopkins—of something like Dorn’s “The Rick of Green Wood” with its balladic weave of vocables (“something strong / and thin, or thick if dry, but I don’t / want the green wood, my wife could die”). (See something like Hopkins’s “Ribblesdale”: “the heir / To his own selfbent so bound, so tied to his turn, / To thriftless reave both our rich round world bare / And none reck of world after, this bids wear / Earth brows of such care . . .”) Wouldn’t Dorn’s “Rick” echo up against something like Prynne’s “Bronze : Fish”—gather’d right randomly, originally in The White Stones (1969):
We are at the edge of all that and
can reach back to another
matter, only it’s not back but
down rather, or in some involved
sense of further off. The virtues
of prudence, the rich arable soil:
but why should ever the whole
mercantile harvest run to form
again? The social cohesion
of towns is our newer ligature,
and the binding, you must see, is
the rule for connection, where we
are licensed to expect. That’s
the human city, & we are
now at the edge of it. Which way
are we facing. Burn the great sphere:
count them, days of the week.
Nothing concluding. (In Dorn’s 1966 The Shoshoneans: The People of the Basin-Plateau, he quotes a paraphrase of a prayer record’d at Wind River in 1937 by anthropologist Demitri B. Shimkin: “May this one here go well, protractedly go well, eating food go well, drinking go well. That he here will protractedly be feeling well, indefinitely keep on going well, I pray. That on this Earth he will keep on feeling well, I pray. That is all.”) (A simple necessary economy of being, that ongoingness.)

J. H. Prynne

Friday, June 11, 2010

Rukeyser’s “Gibbs”

A Tree

The way notes fit so poorly into the unguard’d splay of the quotidian. (Or is it that my foreshorten’d—time-cramp’d—ruckus of compiling disallows a proper fulgency of means.) (Allows a roiling turgidity and “bounce.”) Poking around in Muriel Rukeyser’s work—a poem call’d “Gibbs” (curious what impel’d her to write the biography, Willard Gibbs)—reading:
It was much later in his life he rose
in the professors’ room, the frail bones rising
among that fume of mathematical meaning,
symbols, the language of symbols, literature . . . threw
air, simple life, in the dead lungs of their meeting,
said, “Mathematics is a language.”

. . .

There is no disorganization, for there is no passion.
Condense, he is thinking.       Concentrate, restrict.
This is the state permits the whole to stand,
the whole which is simpler than any of its parts.
And the mortars fired, the tent-lines, line of trains,
earthworks, breastwork of war, field-hospital,
Whitman forever saying, “Identify,”
Gibbs saying
                          “I wish to know systems.”

. . .

                                                        Years of driving
his sister’s coach in the city, knowing the
rose of direction loosing its petals down
atoms and galaxies.       Diffusion’s absolute.
Phases of matter!       The shouldering horses pass
turnings (snow, water, steam) echoing plotted curves,
statues of diagrams, the forms of schemes
to stand white on a table, real as phase,
or as the mountainous summer curves when he
under New Hampshire lay while shouldering night
came down upon him then with all its stars.
Gearing that power-spire to the wide air.

. . .

                      It will be an age of experiment,
or mysticism, anyway vastest assumption.
He makes no experiments.       Impregnable retires.
Anyone having these desires will make these researches.
Laws are the gifts of their systems, and the man
in constant tension of experience drives
moments of coexistence into light.
It is the constitution of matter I must touch.

Deduction from deduction : entropy,
heat flowing down a gradient of nature,
perpetual glacier driving down the side
of the known world in an equilibrium tending
to uniformity . . .

. . .

                                                            He knew the composite
many-dimensioned spirit, the phases of its face,
found the tremendous level of the world,
Energy : Constant, but entropy, the spending,
tends toward a maximum—a “mixed-up-ness,”
and in this end of levels to which we drive
in isolation, to which all systems tend,
Withdraw, he said clearly.

. . .

                                                                    Withdrew, but in
his eager imperfect timidities, rose and dared
sever waterspouts, bring the great changing world
time makes more random, into its unity.
Typing what moves (tacking it down to the drying board). There’s a line about “a streak of brightness / bland on the quartz, light-blade on Iceland spar / doubled” that sent me off to Pynchon’s Against the Day (wherein Iceland spar’s associated with “bilocation”—a person’s ability to inhabit two places simultaneously, and where one of the Traverses (Kit) studies mathematics with Willard Gibbs). Too, I think, typing, of Ronald Johnson’s terrific Ark (beyond the “Gearing” of “that power-spire to the wide air,” Johnson’s way of seeing outs in the minuscule’s aping of the gigantesque, that “rose of direction loosing its petals down / atoms and galaxies,” or the way the “shouldering horses” turnings mimic “shouldering night” and its star-whorls.

“Gibbs” is part of a group of five “Lives” that appear’d in Rukeyser’s A Turning Wind (1939), the others being pieces about painter Albert Pinkham Ryder, labor organizer (in the New England textile mills) Ann Burlak, writer John Jay Chapman, and composer Charles Ives. Rukeyser wrote that the batch “is intended to stand with “The Book of the Dead” as part of a projected work, U. S. 1. The five people around whom it is written are Americans—New Englanders—whose value to our generation is very great and partly unacknowledged.” (Thus Rukeyser’s biography of Gibbs—publish’d in 1942—succeeds the poem.) Rukeyser—in the late ’thirties—is investigating the kind (Ryder, Ives) of individuals Guy Davenport and Jonathan Williams (along with Johnson), amongst others, adopt (and extol) shortly thereafter: and there’s little (if any) mention made of Rukeyser. (Who reads Rukeyser? It’s entirely possible that my sense of that readership—or its lack—is “off.” The failure (and subsequent sense of Rukeyser’s being caught between partisans of the various warring “clumps”) may be my own.) Isn’t Rukeyser (particularly in “The Book of the Dead”) central to a whole documentary writing thrust that flourishes in the ’thirties and includes things like John Dos Passos’s Manhattan Transfer (1925)—follow’d by the terrific trilogy U.S.A. with The 42nd Parallel (1930), 1919 (1932), and The Big Money (1936), Charles Reznikoff’sTestimony (1934), and James Agee and Walker Evan’s Let Us Now Praise Famous Men (1941)?

Diminish’d “bounce” today.

Muriel Rukeyser, 1913-1980
(Photograph by Oscar White)

Thursday, June 10, 2010

Niggling the Factitious

Some Clouds

Sun-shedding hours spent niggling Roethke’s line “Wren-song in trellis” (sonic-comparable to Keats’s “Hedge-crickets sing” to my ear, with the add’d pleasure of the spouting form of the trellis mimicking that of the wren’s hazardous up-bubbling spray) to no end (a daub of a piece that “gets to” Zeus falling down in the form of a miser’s pile of gold “eagles” into the lap of Danaë, you can see reason for its perennial squib-status, I suspect)—resulting (gulp) in a morning need (now) for the manufactory of “an outlandish garment of my own devising” (Melville, White-Jacket)—isn’t it ever so? For some days now, thinking, too, of Melville’s late (1888) prose-sliding-into-verse piece “John Marr” with its “lone-hearted mariner” stuck amongst an inland bunch—“hard-working endurers of the dispiriting malaria—men to whom a holiday never came—and they had too much of uprightness and no art at all or desire to affect what they did not really feel.” Marr’s attempts out there in the prairie (with its “long, green, graduated swells, smooth as those of ocean becalmed”) to recount a story (“to divert his own thoughts from sadness, and in some degree interest theirs, by adverting to aught removed from the crosses and trials of their personal surroundings”), to “slide into some marine story or picture”:
. . . would soon recoil upon himself and be silent, finding no encouragement to proceed. Upon one such occasion an elderly man—a blacksmith, and at Sunday gatherings an earnest exhorter—honestly said to him, “Friend, we know nothing of that here.”
And (what I keep thinking of):
Such unresponsiveness in one’s fellow-creatures set apart from factitious life, and by their vocation—in those days little helped by machinery—standing, as it were, next of kin to Nature; this, to John Marr, seemed of a piece with the apathy of Nature herself as envisaged to him here on a prairie where none but the perished mound-builders had as yet left a durable mark.
The “apathy of Nature”: my dog—lacking any robust sense of factitiousness—woofs no notice of any “garment of my own devising,” the trellis’d wren continues its insipid liquid song. (I think of Stein’s “I am I because my little dog knows me,” late dog-agency skint’d out of its original “What is a sentence for if I am I then my little dog knows me” (in How To Write, 1931), wherein—as Ulla Dydo’s noted—“the ‘I,’ not the dog, is the agent of recognition and identity.”) Dydo also quotes (in Gertrude Stein: The Language That Rises, 1923-1934) lines out of Stein’s How Writing Is Written manuscript, talking about how “When the success began and it was a success I got completely lost”:
So many people knowing me I was I no longer and for the first time since I had begun to write I could not write and what was worse I could not worry about not writing and what was also worse I began to think about how my writing would sound to others, how could I make them understand, I who had always lived within myself and my writing.
Success itself—it, too, “lacking any robust sense of factitiousness”—become the agent of identity. Between the two, Melville’s word-annulling “apathy” and Stein’s success that “was a success”: mean row to hoe. Apropos: Bernadette Mayer’s endlessly repeatable admonishing (in these days of careerist-bleating): “Work your ass off to change the language & dont ever get famous.”

Alert’d by correspondent Robert Gibbons to the William White-edit’d three volumes of Whitman’s Daybooks and Notebooks print’d circa 1978 by New York University Press. Volume III’s full of Whitman’s notes about words (“Words,” “The Primer of Words,” “Other Notebooks, &c. on Words”—things glean’d off stray papers, lists of words, &c.) (Too, it prints a “Diary in Canada” and a few scant pages of “Autobiographical Notes.”) Out of “The Primer of Words”:
      In most instances A characteristic word once used in a poem, speech, or what not, is then exhausted;—he who thinks he is going to produce effects by piling freely using strong words, is but a ignorant of words.—A great true composition in words, is returns the human body, male or female—that is the most perfect composition, and shall be best-beloved by men and women, and shall last the longest, which slights no part of the body, and repeats no part of the body.—To make a good great perfect composition in words is more than to make the best building or machine, or any the best statue, or picture. . . .
Loud Whitmanic chord pound’d (elbows flung out to bang the keyboard). Within it a small reverberant note continuing (driving itself wedge-like) into Williams’s: “A poem is a small (or large) machine made out of words.” I doubt Williams’d seen the note, though Horace Traubel’d printed the material in 1904 in An American Primer, by Walt Whitman, With Facsimiles of the Original Manuscript. Edition of 500. (City Lights reprint’d that in 1970.) Notable, too, lines out of Traubel’s Foreword, wherein he claims to quote Whitman (referring to the Primer material):
“This subject of language interests me—interests me: I never quite get it out of my mind. I sometimes think the Leaves is only a language experiment—that it is an attempt to give the spirit, the body, the man, new words, new potentialities of speech—an American, a cosmopolitan (the best of America is the best cosmopolitanism) range of self-expression. The new world, the new times, the new people, the new vistas need a new tongue according—yes, what is more, they will have such a new tongue—will not be satisfied until it is evolved.”
“Language experiment.” Thus the hours, shed of the niggling sun, get spent.

Thomas Eakins, “Walt Whitman in Camden, New Jersey,” 1887

Wednesday, June 09, 2010

Marcia Roberts’s Autumn’s Slant and In the Bird’s Breath

Some Clouds (Ann Arbor)

The difficulty: to capture the nature of the amass’d, succeedingly add’d particulars (without simply redoing the whole). The book: Marcia Roberts’s Autumn’s Slant (Effing Press, 2009). Some random “captures”:
¡Así hagamos nos todos         justos y pecadores!

followers of el Cid learn to ride la jineta like the Moors
dropping heavy armour and raising stirrups

Estas son las nuevas         de mío Cid el Campeador

the one who carves notches in a coral plank sings

how in the heck can I wash my neck
if it ain’t gonna rain no more

. . .

the woman’s soft voice         west of Albuquerque
I am a tough old bird         a child of WNAX
                                        where land meets sky

in the cradle of the Tigris
oil is thicker than barbed wire

and on the plains         horses’ names begin
Baldy, Bobby, Babieca         and the blue roan

brothers ride bareback, dodging prickly pear and prairie dogs
damn, you got old, the deaf one says to the other

. . .

framing begins by shaping one’s hands then by making close-ups
of prickly pear blooms or rust splotches on rocks         because
of framing writing is difficult         however         watering dune
tansies is no longer prohibited

. . .

the earth shakes its anger on the ocean floor
9.0 and a tsunami         300,000 lost

it is winter
troops in Mosul die at their meal

the grotesque mouth on the spine of the Goya book moves
I look again         it’s the face and arm of the maja desnuda

Steve laughs about falling
I laugh too because it’s what we do
laugh until we cry and can’t breathe
then we laugh some more

. . .

Mother and I see JFK the day he dedicates the Oahe Dam. His
motorcade drives by the intersection where we wait to get on
the paved road. He stands in the Lincoln convertible and waves.

The day he is shot, mother breaks the news to Dad, who says,
“Why? That boy never hurt anyone.”
Something completely disarming about the voice here: a whole mix of registers—innocent, undaunt’d, discerning, opprobrious, funny—that allows a seamlessness to the “framing” (and makes the writing seem hardly “difficult” at all). Hence, the radiant combo of percepts personal and political, a diffusing of the all throughout (see Pound’s “All ages are contemporaneous” in The Spirit of Romance—Roberts’s book is construct’d of four cantos: a series of bags capable of being endlessly fill’d, or extend’d by new cantos: the fust imperator in me says: do it)—the words of El Cantar de M ío Cid entangling the anonymous ditty “It Ain't Gonna Rain No More,” exactly the way crying entangles laughter (or “prickly pear blooms” become interchangeable with “rust splotches,” the naked maja’s “face and mouth” transform into a “grotesque mouth.”) ¡Así hagamos nos todos         justos y pecadores! = So do we all       the just and the unjust! The echoes of El Cid throughout (Canto I carries the epigraph: “estas son las nuevas         these are the deeds”) make for a ready trajectory—the incidents of a life (in all its legendary meagernesses and / or horrifying public impingements) and, in Roberts’s case, provide a parallel / counterpoint to the vaquero-story’d place (“en este lugar . . . / there is no goodbye”)—the American West—of the piece.

A sense of endless lament—for the lost, the dying, the country’s old ways—pervades Roberts’s work (combat’d by: screwy humor). Effing Press’s Scott Pierce sent a copy, too, of Roberts’s In the Bird’s Breath (Effing Press, 2009), a sequence that’d seem “of a piece” with Autumn’s Slant, a sequence looking to find its place in a trajectory of one grand writing. In its final part—“(an epilogue)”—Roberts writes: “I may be the last of our kind. a field of goats, an uprooted tree, and Texas is green. André Gide said poets should never use therefore . . .” And, earlier: “one can grieve for a landscape, a day in Segovia, dinner at Viejo Leon. this grief is not staccato. it is lento and soft . . .” Against the quotidian anarchy and mischievous (serious) interrupt of:
read a little Tolstoy, read a little Berrigan
read a little . . . . watch out for dicks with guns

the army doesn’t want you
to have a tattoo
my advice: get out and get one fast

you ordinary citizen, you know
you can survive a shotgun blast
(And: wry counter to a “homeland”-secured epoch whence “ordinary citizen” seemingly equals “expendable, discard”: “a sign on the light pole tells us ‘Venom is more important that you.’ I am not disheartened by this missal because I’ve been told that I’m an ordinary citizen.”

A final note. That Marcia Roberts is unmistakably a woman writing (and the different “catch”—meaning what, entanglement, anchor, snag, acquisition?—of “woman writing,” of being caught in a succession of making women / made offspring) seems perfectly put in two couplets (out of Autumn’s Slant) present’d (pure unostentatious stripped-down joy, and deflating, marvelously retrograding grief) on facing pages:
the beauty of the daughter overwhelms her
she wants the child to be her art, herself
when the mother dies, the daughter is 54
she looks and feels twelve

Marcia Roberts

Tuesday, June 08, 2010

Rukeyser’s Darwin and the Writers

Some Clouds (Lake Michigan)

Read Muriel Rukeyser’s Darwin and the Writers, edit’d by Stefania Heim, a number (Series 1, Number 3) in the Lost & Found booklets of the Poetics Documents Initiative. Rukeyser attempts to disentangle the response of various writers to “the powerful and ramifying influence of Darwinism”—quoting largely. Thus, James Russell Lowell, of science: “I hate it as a savage hates writing, because I fear it will hurt me somehow,” and, of evolution, “Such a mush seems to me a poor substitute for the Rock of Ages—,” part of a sentence in a letter of September 12, 1879 (to one Grace Norton) that continues, “by which I understand a certain set of higher instincts which mankind have found solid under their feet in all weather.” Rukeyser’s argument is that Darwin allow’d writers—beyond exemplary attendings and observational tact—a muster’d leaning toward a processual approach to the world and its writ authority: “Darwin turned loose the threat for those who could not let themselves see transformation as a preserver of form.” (Rukeyser asks emphatically: “What does inner security rest on? . . . Does it rest on dogma or transformation?” and makes it clear—a thing “of use” in the “era” of shouting loud dogmas today—that “If the answer is dogma, then every writer who wants to write with authority, to say This is the way things are, is threatened.”) So Whitman, who, according to Rukeyser’s reading, found Darwin’s “refusal to deal with ‘hopes and fears’”—“the omission of soul” in what one’d call Darwin’s objectivism—an incompleteness and a disappointment. Rukeyser:
In the superb passage, part of Specimen Days, where we find Whitman’s “Truth consists in the just relations of objects to each other,” he goes on to say that while Darwin—and Fichte and Schelling and Hegel and Kant—are indispensable “to the erudition of America’s future, I should say that in all of them, and the best of them, when compared with the lightning flashes and flights of the old prophets and exaltés, the spiritual poets and poetry of all lands, (as in the Hebrew Bible,) there seems to be, nay certainly is, something lacking—something cold, a failure to satisfy the deepest emotions of the soul—a want of living glow, fondness, warmth, which the old exaltés, and poets supply, and which the keenest modern philosophers so far do not.”
Which may be Whitman’s version of being content with (seeing the necessity for) “half knowledge”—those “lightning flashes and flights” akin to any “fine isolated verisimilitude caught from the Penetralium of mystery.” (Darwin’s own “poetic” stance is caught in the story—possibly apocryphal—of the gardener who, ask’d of Darwin’s health, reportedly reply’d: “Poor man, he just stands and stares at a yellow flower for minutes at a time. He would be better off with something to do.”)

Rukeyser’s essay is fleet, sparing of connective tissue (and full of similarly skint remarks—she quotes George Bernard Shaw’s preface to Man and Superman : “Effectiveness of assertion is the Alpha and Omega of style. He who has nothing to assert has no style and can have none: he who has something to assert will go as far in power of style as its momentousness and his conviction will carry him. Disprove his assertion after it is made, yet its style remains. Darwin has no more destroyed the style of Job nor of Handel than Martin Luther destroyed the style of Giotto,” and adds, leaping with utmost faith, “The juxtaposition of Darwin, Job, and Handel is a fertile one: we are back at “the rare union.” (The essay, found in the New York Public Library’s Berg Collection archives, went unpublish’d, reject’d by The Nation in 1959—editor Heim suggests in an excellent “Afterword” that Rukeyser’s onus and “failure” is the result of “the way she mixed fields and registers”—she wrote a biography of the reclusive, little known mathematician and “father of physical chemistry” Willard Gibbs, only to see it disparaged—by Joseph Wood Krutch, in The Nation (1943): “A climax of absurdity seems to be reached in the fifth chapter from the last, which is entitled Three Masters: Melville, Whitman, Gibbs, and in which, by implication at least, we seem to be asked to see the relation between the second law of thermodynamics and the White Whale”—to which Heim retorts: “Ironically, Krutch put his finger on one of the most radical, important, and, here, relevant aspects of Rukeyser’s book . . . the articulation of a “meeting-place” between scientific and literary imaginations.”) It is, as Heim reiterates out of Rukeyser’s The Life of Poetry (1949), “the dialogue of separation which begets separation.” Applicable to the internecine fronts, too.

Rukeyser ends—rather inconsequently, I’d think, though it allows her to say “The poet is a scientist, a doctor”—by quoting Williams’s mention of Darwin in “Asphodel That Greeny Flower”:
. . . There is no power
                  so great as love
                                    which is a sea,
which is a garden—
                  as enduring
                                    as the verses
of that blind old man
                  destined to live
Few men believe that
                  nor in the games of children.
                                    They believe rather
in the bomb
                  and shall die by
                                    the bomb.
Compare Darwin’s voyage of The Beagle,
                  a voyage of discovery if there ever was one
                                    to the death
                  in the electric chair
                                    of the Rosenbergs.
It is the mark of the times
                  that though we condemn
                                    what they stood for
we admire their fortitude.
                  But Darwin
                                    opened our eyes
to the garden of the world
                  as they closed them . . .
I turn’d to Lorine Niedecker’s late and terrific “Darwin” that begins:
His holy
                                    mulled over
not all “delirium
                  of delight”
                                    as were the forests
      of Brazil

“Species are not
                  (it is like confessing
                                    a murder)
And ends:
I remember, he said
                  those tropical nights at sea—
                  we sat and talked
      on the booms

Tierra del Fuego’s
                  shining glaciers translucent
                                    blue clear down
      (almost) to the indigo sea

(By the way Carlyle
                  thought it most ridiculous
                                    that anyone should care
      whether a glacier

moved a little quicker
                  or a little slower
                                    or moved at all)

sailed out
                  of Good Success Bay
                                    to carcsss-

the universe
                  not built by brute force
                                    but designed by laws
      The details left

to the working of chance
                  “Let each man hope
                                    and believe
      what he can”
Niedecker’s stripping out the verbiage of Darwin’s May 22, 1860 letter to Asa Gray:
I cannot persuade myself that a beneficent and omnipotent God would have designedly created the Ichneumonidae with the express intention of their feeding within the living bodies of caterpillars . . . On the other hand, I cannot anyhow be contented to view this wonderful universe, and especially the nature of man, and to conclude that everything is the result of brute force. I am inclined to look at everything as resulting from designed laws, with the details, whether good or bad, left to the working out of what we may call chance. Not that this notion at all satisfies me. I feel most deeply that the whole subject is too profound for the human intellect. A dog might as well speculate on the mind of Newton. Let each man hope and believe what he can. . . .
Hence Whitman’s disappointment. Hence, too, the flux Rukeyser sees. Heim: “As Rukeyser writes in The Life of Poetry, ‘Growth is the security of organic life. The security of the imagination lies in calling, all our lives for more liberty, more rebellion, more belief.’”

Muriel Rukeyser, c. 1945
(Photograph by Imogen Cunningham)