Friday, July 30, 2010

Aorder’s Content (and Discontent)

Some Clouds

Morning’s high chop and froth of clouds off in the lemony east. A bird making a noise like “hyacinth, hyacinth” again and again, like a tiny cutlass slicing the air. Found in a note: “To stop pretending that it’s the word that thwarts the poet’s delivery of pure poetry.” Reading Cage (the 1961 “Lecture on Commitment”):
Now we come to the subject of discontinuity in relation to commitment. Say I’m committed. Say somebody interrupts me while I’m working. If I let him . . . then I get discontinuity. I can of course say: No, don’t bother me, thereby losing the opportunity of renaissance.
Akin to Ashbery’s peremptorily loose commitment—that anticipatory-rehash-of-some-upcoming-salient sort of thing—in league with the damnably thwart-the-contemplatory “era” (he’s talking—in Michael Palmer’s Code of Signals—about the “clash of the voices” in the two-column poem “Litany” and the resultant loss of “enormous amounts of the text”): “I think we’re constantly in the middle of a conversation where we never finish our thoughts, or our sentences.” Intermittent signal, perennially disrupt’d. (Ashbery admits to writing “best when there are a lot of distractions around just because that seems to be the situation of life. I always answer the telephone when I’m writing, and it very often helps me with what I happen to be writing.”) The sitch. Commitment to that. (Cage uses the word “aorder.”) Fine for a mimesis, for a way of weathering the extravagant weather of the “era”: what if, though, some prairie-jerkwater sees anomie and dyspepsia in the hurry-scurry clip of distracts? What if utopia lies in constancy? What if one longs for a life “tranquilly Titicaca” (Williams), for the long cold slake of thinking untorque’d by the random disconcerting niggles of the actual? (Williams: “Life’s processes are very simple. One or two moves are made and that is the end. The rest is repetitious.”) What if one longs, repeatedly, to avoid the repetitious, to allow the formulaic renaissance monkey its run unleash’d, somewhere out beyond the usual frenetic cavortings there in the “zoo of the new” (Plath)? The “hyacinth” bird of the morning newsreel’s quit. Neighbors gun truck-engines and shout. Olson, in The Special View of History (1956), culling statements to get Hegel’s “picture of Dialectic”:
                                      “the extreme of one state of action suddenly
shifting into its opposite”
                                          “it is the dynamic which lies at the root of
every natural process, and, as it were, forces nature out of itself.
A final phrase that I find, frankly, creepy. Retro-dominant. (Olson, too: “If order is not the world . . . then order is man.”) In Pound’s versions of Rémy de Gourmont’s 1915 Poudre aux Moineaux, a lovely thing:
In the near-arctic, the pale oblique sun and the whitish unanimity of the landscape either suppress shadows almost altogether, or give them excessive value. The gods of Scandinavian mythology may have for origin these colossal figures, fantastic, disproportioned, which the early Norsemen saw before them in the indefinite perspective of the snowscape.
(“Poudre aux moineaux”—powder sparrows—is used largely in a phrase meaning to spend recklessly to no end, vainly, uselessly, profusely. Rather like writing poetry.) What I love: the blankness of the world vacillant with the sudden colossal excess, the self mere vehicle for plenitude’s delivery. Another de Gourmont (evidence of the world’s order):
There are insects whose life is more logically proportioned than ours: one act for eating, one for sleep, one for l’amour. For the first act they have a sort of repugnance; for the second they fold up, seem oldish, become dry as one’s boot soles, but for the third they put on their finest raiment, and having supressed the horrors of digestion, they can hardly be persuaded to suck the honey from flowers to keep from dying of thirst.
Full up sun newly invent’d, a caustic pour’d over a dime. Or pour’d to cauterize a bleeding wound in the sky (Apollinaire’s “Soleil cou coupé”). Or in the ground: a flower springing up out of the dark blood of Hyacinthus slain, its petals mark’d with grief-script’d letters: aïe, aïe. Hardly even a word, it is.

John Cage, 1912-1992

Thursday, July 29, 2010

Rosa Alcalá’s Undocumentaries

A Tree

Williams (Spring and All): “and that ‘beauty’ is related not to ‘loveliness’ but to a state in which reality plays a part.” And a poem by Rosa Alcalá—out of the “American Recycler” section of Undocumentaries (Shearsman, 2010):

A burden stirs this economy. This business
we call “me.” An endless travesty of goods beneath the skin

of the poorest embrace. Salt stirs there, an admirable mineral
at a miserable price. Too, a faint reminder of coal,

of industrial custom. The rest is stock eulogy,
a paycheck clean of union dues.
Marvelously dumbfound’d at that. How completely Alcalá merges personal and public economies (“This business / we call “me.”) “Endless travesty of goods beneath the skin” somehow manages to call forth something akin to Samarkand, and funny Europeans insipidly clothed in newly-bought silks along the medieval trade routes. Scents inhabit the piece nigh-undetect’d (“a faint reminder of coal”) and the emptying out (“stock eulogy”) that occurs is a wholly ambivalent cleansing (like the “admirable mineral / at a miserable price”—meaning finesse’d by sound—“a paycheck clean of union dues” is a compromised thing). (Williams enters into Alcalá’s Undocumentaries in a poem call’d “Deformation”: “The foot inherently / was to Dr. Williams / of more interest / who knew in the uneven gait / the hip / would jostle the mind / to set fire / first / to the archive.”) (In defiance of Anne Waldman’s backcover blurb-assessment that “Alcalá’s Undocumentaries is Archive made Poetry,” I’d maintain that she seeks foremost to trouble that capital-A Archive’s sovereignty by expanding it—“Remembering is a trucking / yourself in”—if not “set fire” to it.)

A sense of unbelonging, of the imperfect, of the temporary (the ardors of play-acting, of double consciousness) pervades Alcalá’s work. Here’s “What It Means to Be Civilized”:
Such guilt. Such pandering to antiquity. These Colima dogs wear our faces, but for them nothing is worth translating from the Latin. That we’ve invented forms for the epic means we depend on the largesse of plaster and paint to mask our own pitiless story. What we translate into is a heroic suffering, always a hexameter wide from ear to eye. These dogs look to a place that expands, and we will clutch to them in our graves, reciting the conditions of our exile. They will leave as our bones pile up around them, proudly for a room full of still lives, somewhere far from Europe.
Or one finds oneself “Among weeds, among variants of native crab grasses” (“Everybody’s Authenticity”), or noting that “Somewhere out there / a bail bondsman and meat flipper lie profligate / in a bed of divided territories, / confident the fence will hold against / recessive traits” (“National Affair”). It may be of use to recall Williams’s reminder—“The inevitable flux of the seeing eye toward measuring itself by the world it inhabits can only result in himself crushing humiliation [sic] unless the individual raise to some approximate co-extension with the universe. This is possible by aid of the imagination.” Lines that arrive directly following the adage “for everything / and nothing / are synonymous / when // energy in vacuo / has the power / of confusion // which only to / have done nothing / can make / perfect,” a sort of retort to the “Let be be finale of seem” citizenry for the sloppy and ungovernable. Alcalá, too, makes distinct the restless unendingness of constant struggle and the “brighter but stiller” work of the “archive”:
Documentary: The lyric of unrehearsed chemicals
acts out the tensions of progress
into a brighter but stiller image
called fact or archive

Undocumentary: The man who joined
old world industries of textile
to dirt trucked in from the Ramapos
is not a video
to behold
And, ending the same poem, talking about “the roundabout mess” of “this type of architecture”—that is, one provisional, off-kilter, unlovely:
There is no retelling the desire to be pulled into a condemned building by a man who will soon live in exile, or the nest of baby swallows in the handicap stall of a public bathroom in Mesilla. You offer it and everyone’s a little uncomfortable with this type of architecture. The night we took the train to Newark to eat rabbit there was nothing anyone could do about the rain. We were subject to families greater than nature, yet there it was every time we left New York. From the PATH station to the restaurant, the houses tried to tell you about me, but even now the details distill to a fringe of dented aluminum. So all this roundabout mess of trying to describe a machine that never shuts down, a father standing in two inches of water or sitting on a wooden stool, a racket of heat, is proof of nothing, except the drive of what can’t be told, a screen pushing off the pile up of bodies.
That Alcalá persists in telling “what can’t be told” (think of Williams’s lines, “Somehow / it seems to destroy us // It is only in isolate flecks that / something / is given off // No one / to witness / and adjust, no one to drive the car”—the thump and dare of the one-word lines, “Somehow . . . something”—and look to Alcalá’s plaintive outburst (in “Child Interpreters”):
Have you ever seen the common nude?
Nude taxi drivers? Nude subway striker
and strikees? The bagel guy nude in his ambulant deli?
Or the uncommon: someone riding out
their dying year—nude? We think beauty
a rabble, so we organize clubs against and for it.
The doughy shirtless bang tensions
from the skin of a drum,
a suffragist lesions a remarkable ass
or a portrait of Henry James.
One final piece, uncomment’d:

This here is the paraphernalia called valediction, or
to validate speech (what we speak now, what our dead
can’t understand), we must place on the table
the noise-makers and the cork, let out the evils, the gasses,
turn sea-change into grip of land. This here
is the mime running the show, this holiday we throw
sand against it and the sound is gradual
losses, the right level of water
to rice. A spit-salve for rashes.

We count backwards until all is gone with a bang.
At least sleep is interchangeable, we shed
into the other with little discernment. These are the sheets
forgotten to a trunk, the music of a girl’s future
chamber. We tuck her name beneath our
chins and carve her recipes deep into muscle. Off we go,
the bed pulls into harbor. But our hands
grown big on corns translate her intuitions
of salt poorly.

Rosa Alcalá

Wednesday, July 28, 2010

Tom Clark Notes (II)


Out of Tom Clark’s elegiac Feeling for the Ground (BlazeVox, 2010):

Two gospel hummingbirds
I thought I saw in the rainsoaked redwood
Microworld dollhouse spaces weren’t

They were mere remnant hummingbird memories
Cold green heaven perpetuum mobile dreams
Zipping among the fogshroud needle masses

Some kind of thought process husks
Containing the liquidated thought dust
Of long since vaporized summers
That nigh perfect four-square spondaic pile-up of “rainsoaked redwood / Microworld dollhouse” (adjectival city breakdown) delivers a terrific sense of diminishing spaces, Russian doll-style. Popped shut by the dud “weren’t” (abrupt cut-off to expectancy), the “gospel hummingbirds” turn out to exist only as memory expunged (“thought process husks”—a thing less than memory). If I say “expunged” it is because the cyberworld invades the piece (“redwood” next to “Microworld” calls forth the unstoppable incursions of that “space” into the quotidian), just as the remnants of old-style “gospel” religion do. I begin to think of Clark as the poet of the various luminal empires—borderlands between wakefulness and sleep, the present and what’s gone, bardo’d reveries of ascent (or—in the case of the American empire) descent. Here’s “Night Shift”:
The moon coming through the curtains
makes geometrical patterns in bars
a calligraphic grid through which pass
the ever vigilant ones
the souls of “my” dead though of
course they’re no one’s
not even their own any more merely
messengers of the mirror negative
dispatched from a mute past
to efface a haunted present
Slightly caustic intimations of a world wherein even the core fleetingness of the gone world (and its messengers) goes barely announced. Compare Clark’s ineffectual defeat’d dead—“no one’s / not even their own”—with Pound’s Homeric heroicisms:
Souls out of Erebus, cadaverous dead, of brides
Of youths and of the old who had borne much;
Souls stained with recent tears, girls tender,
Men many, mauled with bronze lance heads,
Battle spoil, bearing yet dreory arms,
These many crowded about me; with shouting,
Pallor upon me, cried to my men for more beasts;
Slaughtered the herds, sheep slain of bronze;
Poured ointment, cried to the gods,
To Pluto the strong, and praised Proserpine;
Unsheathed the narrow sword,
I sat to keep off the impetuous impotent dead . . .
Some measure of a sense of decline. Everywhere in Clark’s Feeling for the Ground hints of human agency and license gone: a “post-natural” robotic world in charge:
Southeast Wind

Nobody’s home, but the For Sale sign
speaks of a collapsed urban economy
and parked just down the block
in an undelivered future
is an abandoned car
with idiotic beeps emanating from it
messages to the past
from the absence where we are
the wind setting off mechanized alarms
an animated bedlam
in the night
Stuck (“undelivered future”) here in the purgatory world of early twenty-first century, in a kind of asylum (“bedlam”) of our own making, compleat stasis reach’d in the ceaselessly klaxoning night. Look, too, to the brilliant “We Can Take This Moment and Freeze It”:
When X reached out, earnest, intense, bewildered,
To extend a helping if trembling hand
To Y, lost in the reified nightstreet void,
Prefiguring the data thicket plunge

Of everything into Total Recall
Where nothing that’s living is remembered
Because in the instant life turns into
Information it dies, stays forever dead—

Eyes red and burning with radiation shimmer,
One’s failing sense of self in wigged out trade winds
Shifting minute by minute to a sense of everyone
As blind automata, compelled by need and drive—

The street preachers argue among themselves
About the Rapture, the when and how, not the why.
I don’t think anybody’s writing with such severe condemnatory demeanor as Clark in “freeze it” mode, like some Isaiah of the “reified nightstreet void.” To write “the instant life turns into / Information it dies, stays forever dead” in the vacant heart of the “Information Age” is to snarl out a warning. I think (“One’s failing sense of self . . . / . . . a sense of everyone / As blind automata, compelled by need and drive”) of D. H. Lawrence’s note of the American sense of “masterlessness”:
      They came largely to get away—that most simple of motives. To get away. Away from what? In the long run, away from themselves. Away from everything. That’s why most people have come to America, and still do come. To get away from everything they are and have been.
      “Henceforth be masterless.”
      Which is all very well, but it isn’t freedom. Rather the reverse. A hopeless sort of constraint. It is never freedom till you find something you really positively want to be. And people in America have always been shouting about the things they are not.
Clark refuses to acquit himself, or absolve even the morning mania for writing (another kind of “info”)—making, he hints, is not being. “Opus” begins: “Sacrificing to the limiting demands of the opus / is no way to start your day. The opus / itself is like a kind of canvas, with what / has not really been lived through, only idly imagined, / splattered more or less randomly / upon it . . .” (That mock highbrow’d use of “opus” suggests, too, that making a career is not being either—“far from it!”—as Frank O’Hara’d say.)

Not all of the pieces in Feeling for the Ground are so unabash’dly lyrical, or deftly notational. A fine prose piece call’d “Market” (“only the one line is open on a Saturday night and the line has stopped moving”) churns the resultant mayhem through one enormously long sentence (I think of some of Robert Walser’s miniatures) to end: “the night is long, here comes the night, here it comes.” And moments of grace do emerge. Here’s one:
Some Late Johnsoniana

September 12 1783
Anna Williams was buried
who’d sat up blind to
drink tea with him
in the small hours
mournful conversation
“I do not know
that I have anything
to forgive you
I have set my house in

113 sq. inches


hot sleepless
disturbed at night
got up & slept in a chair


was dejected
prostrate mind
opium lassitude
but remembered
the Latin word
for gooseberries
Liminal worlds, a sweet merging of Dr. Johnson and Clark himself (who is it that “got up & slept in a chair”?) Somehow that remembering of “the Latin word / for gooseberries” is a perfect victory, dispelling by a little of the oblique (and explicit) violence of the “era.”

Tom Clark

Tom Clark’s Feeling for the Ground
(Photograph: Cristina Bozzoli, “Tunnel,” 2009)

Tuesday, July 27, 2010

The Usual Fruitless Ruckus to Avoid the Unexpungeable Acquittal

Some Clouds (Thirteenth Lake)

Sense of a lag, unfocus’d. A buoyant refusal to offer the usual distill’d critical sour mash, the unconfound’d debris of a moment’s “literary” acquittal. That “sedulous as I have been to trace / How Nature by extrinsic passion first / Peopled the mind with forms sublime or fair, / And made me love them” (Tintern Abbey meets Tin Pan Alley) kind of pre-finger’d squeeze-box ditty repeatable: no thanks. I am certain the precinct news is of use, I am sure its use is limit’d. So I throw casuistry to the breezes, dun my own persistence with a sneer. Shimmy blackly-expectorant in sloppy nihilist light. Some days one’d rather read—in the Notebooks of Henry James—nothing beyond the interspersed lists of names, skipping the ham-hand’d vulgarity of plot, numbering the exorbitances of the world mark by mark, pixil by pixil:
Names. Dedrick—Emerick—Bauker—Flickerbridge—Marsock—Sandbeach—Chirk—Rivory—Reever—Dirling—Catchmere—Catchmore—Cashmore—Pewbury (place)—Gallery—Mitchett—Mitcher—Stilmore (place)—Tribe—Pinthorpe (place)—Cutsome.
Such implacable data-jotting, the remaining pages largely fill’d with skinny summary, dopey “treatment”: “There is no harm in him save that he’s an ass and a snob. His wife is really much more of a person, clever, independent, whimsical and easily-bored. She tires of him, and of his platitude, and of that of the world they live in, and takes a lover. She has already had 2 children. She commits herself, is compromised, discovered and divorced. The lover is an homme sérieux, he marries her. Change of scene and situation. She becomes a serious ‘earnest’ woman—deploring the levity of her 1st husband, the way he brings up their children, whom he has been able to keep. He marries again and has another child—as she has. 2d wife a goose but ‘good.’ She dies.” How is it that one who’s capable of writing that percolates up like light (floody with promptitude) could render such unconstrain’d mawk? Perhaps the story of a “goose” is akin to the fourteen lines of a sonnet—a canned plan, trigger and constraint. James: “We may traverse acres of pretended exhibitory prose from which the touch that directly evokes and finely presents, the touch that operates for closeness and charm, for conviction and illusion, for communication in a word, is unsurpassably absent. All of which but means of course that the reader is, in the common phrase, ‘sold’—even when, poor passive spirit, systematically bewildered and bamboozled on the article of his dues, he may be but dimly aware of it.” That, in a curious “Preface” to The Golden Bowl in the 1909 New York edition. (How routinely it occurs “today,” one hundred years down the unswerving road—that one be “systematically bewildered and bamboozled” by exactly such “unsurpassably absent” prose. The patchwork unreadable, the merely concoct’d, the modishly gull’d, the poindexter’d up . . . So little evidence of lurch and retrieval, of blunt propulsory thrash through brack and sustenance undwindling: one settles for the little, the inane, the clever, the tidy, the glean’d . . .)

Another Jamesian sheaf:
It is scarce necessary to note that the highest test of any literary form conceived in the light of ‘poetry’—to apply that term in its largest literary sense—hangs back unpardonably from its office when it fails to lend itself to vivâ-voce treatment. We talk here, naturally, not of non-poetic forms but of those whose highest bid is addressed to the imagination, to the spiritual and the aesthetic vision, the mind led captive by a charm and a spell, as incalculable art. The essential property of such a form as that is to give out its finest and most numerous secrets, and to give them out most gratefully, under the closest pressure—which is of course the pressure of the attention articulately sounded. Let it reward as much as it will and can the soundless, the ‘quiet’ reading, it still deplorably ‘muffs’ its chance and its success, still trifles with the roused appetite to which it can never honestly be indifferent, by not having so arranged itself as to owe the flower of its effect to the act and process of apprehension that so beautifully asks most from it. It then infallibly, and not less beautifully, most responds; for I have nowhere found vindicated the queer thesis that the right values of interesting prose depend all on withheld tests—that is on its being, for very pity and shame, but skimmed and scanted, shuffled and mumbled. Gustave Flaubert has somewhere in this connexion an excellent word—to the effect that any imaged prose that fails to be richly rewarding in return for a competent utterance ranks itself as wrong through not being ‘in the conditions of life.’
And so one is shunt’d off to the bear (“I am a bear and want to remain a bear in my den”) of Croisset’s nights of striding, endlessly voicing an imperfect sentence into the Seine-lull’d air, running it up against the permutatory of sound itself, growling it down to an acceptable mean registry. James calling for sounding against the morass of the quotidian belittlers, constructors of the usual myopic dull. (I love the finessed casualness of that sentence: “I have nowhere found vindicated the queer thesis that the right values of interesting prose depend all on withheld tests”—with no hesitancy one’d suggest it apt to Ron Silliman’s minable (Fr.) maunderings attempting to prop “up” the “New Precisionists”—some “withholdings” being conceived not in liberty, but in deficiency, lack, or dire complacent competency . . .)

Oh dear. “Chirk—Rivory—Reever—Cachegrief . . .”

Henry James, 1843-1916
(Photograph by William M. Vander Weyde)

Monday, July 26, 2010


Some Clouds (Lake Champlain)

Peter Schjeldahl says that “taste” is the “sediment of aesthetic experience, commonly somebody else’s” and claims, too, that, “If you don’t consent to understand a little, on its own terms, what you dislike, your love loses muscle tone.” *

Jeni Olin says: “I personally am a fan of form & ruin. / Drawing connections at the same time / decrying them.” And, Homeric and metaphorical: “As an insomniac compulsively flips a pillow / to cool the cheek, I turn you over again & again / & again in my mind when I need the cold side / of the said affair to rail against / ‘the ruinous work of nostalgia.’” **

Maurice Blanchot says: “I must admit I have read many books. When I disappear, all those volumes will change imperceptibly; the margins will become wider, the thought more cowardly.” And: “Sometimes a vast solitude opened in my head and the entire world disappeared inside it, but came out again intact, without a scratch, with nothing missing.” ***

Merrill Gilfillan says:
The Art of the Manifesto

      The first time you see one running across the water you simply stand and gawp. It makes you think of an outboard roadrunner from the arid Southwest walking on water. Then you recognize it as a Purple Gallinule, cousin of the coot and the English moorhen, and you know it’s stepping on lily pads most of the time, but.
      The next time you feel one roaming across the water and you stand and talk. It makes you think of an outboard roadrunner from the arid Southwest waltzing on water. Then you recognize it as a perfect yellow mule, cousin of the goat in the English morning, and what a morning, stepping on lily pads most of the time. Your butt.
      viva la causa ****
Roberto Calasso says: “The power of the abstract begins as a rejection of that epic encyclopedism where every element, whether it be a comment on the power of the gods or instructions on how to fix the axles to a cart, has the same importance, the same impact on the mosaic surface of the narrative. Anaximander and Heraclitus aimed for the opposite: sentences that subsumed whole cycles of reality and almost eclipsed them, dazzling the reader with their own light. The lógos, when it appears, annihilates the particular, the accumulation of detritus typical of every experience, that obligation to repeat every detail. Like the cipher, like the arrow of Abaris, the logos transfixes in the merest atom of time what the rhapsodies had strung together and repeated over and over for night after smoky night.” *****

Hugh Kenner, regarding “Pound’s conception of what the poet’s job is”: “The rendering, without deformation, of something, within him or without, which he has clearly apprehended and seized in his mind:
as the sculptor sees the form in the air
            before he sets hand to mallet,
and as he sees the in, and the through,
                                          the four sides . . . ******
Ralph Waldo Emerson says: “Poet sees the stars, because he makes them. Perception makes. We can only see what we make, all our desires are procreant. Perception has a destiny.” *******

Robert Bly says (in “Some Thoughts on Lorca and René Char”): “Even the Imagists were misnamed: they did not write in images from the unconscious, as Lorca or Neruda, but in simple pictures, such as ‘petals on a wet black bough,’ and Pound . . . continues to write in pictures, writing as great a poetry as is possible . . . using nothing but pictures, but still, pictures are not images. And without these true images, this water from the unconscious, the language continues to dry up.” And: “In all men there is a struggle between the reason and the unconscious. In Eliot and Pound the mind won over the unconscious without too much struggle—the old Puritan victory. What they needed to balance their Puritanism is what France needed to balance her puritanism—namely, poems in which the unconscious wins out over the mind consistently, and that is precisely, of course, what ‘surrealism’ is.” ********

Some reverie of perfect limpidity soil’d and sully’d—my temptation is to conclude with a few lines of Julien Gracq (out of The Narrow Waters): “Only Chinese painting (Song Dynasty landscapes in particular) has been haunted by the humble theme of a solitary rowboat moving through a wooded gorge. Clearly the great charm of such an image derives from the contrast between the sheer physical effort evoked by the steep slopes and the level, incredible ease of the river flowing eternally between peaks: the jubilant feeling born, in the dreamer’s consciousness, of the discovery of an effortless solution to contradictions here becomes fixed in reality . . . one abandons oneself to the water which, unfailingly, cuts a passage . . .” *********

Isn’t the perennial argument—writing—precisely that of that necessary (though not itself sufficient) abandonment? Writing on the verge of some radical loss of control, efflorescent and mimsy’d, a kind of pre-intelligible lalling half-thwarting the brainbox’s sturdier minions. Isn’t the truly “ruinous” work (I, too, “a fan of form & ruin”) that that arrives just when the “unconscious wins out over the mind consistently”: one goes on autopilot amidst the greeny asphodel (Bly says: “As Lorca says, ‘Green, green, go deeper, green’”) or see, too, Williams’s own version of Spicerean Martian talk—or Keatsian “uncertainties, Mysteries, doubts, without any irritable reaching after fact & reason—”—any of the ways (constant, reiterant) we talk about what is essentially an ecstatic blur and piecemeal holding up of the world for examination, that writing:
I have forgot         .
                and yet I see clearly enough
central to the sky
        which ranges round it.
Or (Williams again, in “The Desert Music”): “as in the mind a vague apprehension speaks / and the music rouses.” Inchoate messiness unbeleaguer’d by sense, a “perfect yellow mule.” (The weekend a wash.)

* Let’s See: Writings on Art from The New Yorker (Thames & Hudson, 2008)

** Hold Tight: The Truck Darling Poems (Hanging Loose, 2010)

*** The Madness of the Day, translated by Lydia Davis, (Station Hill, 1981)

**** Doones, Vol. 1, No. 4 (1971), edited by Ray DiPalma

***** The Marriage of Cadmus and Harmony, translated by Tim Parks (Vintage, 1994)

****** The Translations of Ezra Pound, with an Introduction by Hugh Kenner, (New Directions. 19—)

******* Selected Journals, 1841-1877 (Library of America, 2010)

******** The Fifties: A Magazine of Poetry and General Opinion, No. 3 (1959), edited by William Duffy and Robert Bly

********* The Narrow Waters, translated by Ingeborg M. Kohn, (Turtle Point, 2003)

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

Friday, July 23, 2010

Kent Johnson’s A Question Mark Above the Sun

Announcing, out of Richard Owens’s terrific Punch Press, Kent Johnson’s forthcoming book, A Question Mark Above the Sun: Documents on the Mystery Surrounding a Famous Poem “by” Frank O’Hara. Some few of its possibly dangerous documents originally appear’d here at Isola di Rifiuti.
“Kent Johnson’s basic claims about Kenneth Koch’s relation to “A True Account of Talking to the Sun at Fire Island” are completely fascinating—and at least convincing enough to make me take seriously the element of doubt he introduces about the poem. Without taking sides, I find the gaps and questions worth thinking about . . . And I find the idea of Koch having done something as extreme and inventive as what Johnson suggests to be quite enthralling, even if the hypothesis turns out to be wrong.”

—Lytle Shaw, author of Frank O’Hara: The Poetics of Coterie (University of Iowa Press, 2006)


I.               Introduction: A Case for Reasonable Doubt

II.             Corroded by Symbolysme: An Unfinished Novella
1.       The First Ring
2.       The Garden of Pembroke
3.       In the Wunderkammer
4.       The Bloody Plum Tree

III.           Appendix
1.       Tape-essay
2.       Letter to Tony Towle
3.       Correspondence from David Shapiro
4.       Notes on an O’Hara Document
A Question Mark Above the Sun, roughly 140 pages in length, is to be print’d in a limit’d edition of 100 copies, at $20 ($30 overseas). Subscribe here.

The Daily Gnin-gnin

Thirteenth Lake

Fatigue undoes its boots whilst a thunderstorm (currently adjusting its suspenders and harrumphing loudly in Jackson Co., moving easterly at an amateur bicyclist’s top velocity) approaches: “a temporally evolving, nonlinear system that is descriptively noncompressible and subject to pattern bounded unpredictability . . . a thing mark’d by the rubric ‘deterministic chaos’” (paraphrasing Joan Retallack). One local unpredictability: what the book—splay’d out in a fell hebetude like a “half-clad reeling whiskerando” (Melville)—is going to offer up against the rump disorder of the brainpan with its unsung policy of a commensurable containment, ouch. Or “arch.” Emerson says, “Every new writer is only a new crater of an old volcano,” so likely one oughtn’t so readily go mercantile and avid to fire up the angelic multitudes of the “new” regarding the daily gnin-gnin. Or “nyah-nyah.” It’s likely clear “by now” that—here, soldiering forth (art’s own little mercenary—or “contractor”—comme tout le monde) I got little in my kit bag, a sock without a mate, a breeze off the Adriatic, a pouch of dirty rice, a book, a bust’d blues harp, key of C. (Everything of need—or “use”—lies in the book.) Somewhere Klee hints that “only the transitory remains”—that is, the world is the subject, just not the visible world. Georges Perec, out of Species of Spaces / Espèces d’espaces (1974), a piece beginning with “The Page”—and Henri Michaux’s epigraph, “I write in order to peruse myself”—and ending with “Space” (“Since 1984, small planet No 2817 (1982 UJ) has borne the name of Georges Perec”):
To see something in reality that had long been an image in an old dictionary: a geyser, a waterfall, the Bay of Naples, the spot where Gavrilo Princip was standing when he shot at Archduke Franz-Ferdinand of Austria and Duchess Sophia of Hohenberg, on the corner of Franz-Josef Street and the Appel Quay in Sarajevo, just opposite the Simic Brothers’ bar on 28 June 1914, at 11:15 a.m.

. . .

To cover the world, to cross it in every direction, will only ever be to know a few square metres of it, a few acres, tiny incursions into disembodied vestiges, small incidental excitements, improbable quests congealed in a mawkish haze a few details of which will remain in our memory: . . . a covered gallery in the souk at Sfax, a tiny dam across a Scottish loch, the hairpin bends of a road near Corvol-l’Orgueilleux. And with these, the sense of the world’s concreteness, irreducible, immediate, tangible, of something clear and closer to us: of the world, no longer as a journey having constantly to be remade . . . but as the rediscovery of a meaning, the perceiving that the earth is a form of writing, a geography of which we had forgotten that we ourselves are the authors.
And how is it (the thunderstorm pass’d, now off east finicking its damp and roil’d skirts) that—gaze falling here and there (damn’d post-geographic vacancy), in a desert of thinking, I’d pull down Peter Russell’s The Elegies of Quintilius (vaguely wondering if Peter Russell’s kin to the Peter Russell Javier Marías model’d ex-MI5—or MI6, or both—Sir Peter Wheeler “on”) and read (Russell’s appending a note regarding the words oleo foetido coci: “Mr Robert Graves informs me that the coconut palm was not introduced into North Africa until the 7th or even 8th century, that is after the Islamic conquest. He is of course absolutely right: the text has oleo foetido coci—which, with the clamorous ‘ground-nuts scandal’ of the Socialist Government in Britannia in 1948 / 9 in mind, but considering ‘ground-nuts’ or ‘monkey-nuts’ beneath the dignity of the sublime style of Quintilius, I anachronistically chose to substitute “coconut palm” (for which as far as I can tell there is no word in either Classical Latin or Greek—for Cocos nucifera is definitely post-Linnaean)—the coconut seeming apt in this case for its overtones of Quintilian buffoonery.” Excellent high satire à la Alexandra Papaditsas and Kent Johnson’s The Miseries of Poetry. One expects a Marx Brothers reference at any moment.) A page or so along:
On the other hand it is equally possible that Q. by a lapse of his pen, or of his at times defective memory (especially during the residence at Sfax—vide infra), had in mind oleum coci, for oleum coqui—a vernacular misspelling common enough among slaves and the baser sort—and so simply meaning inferior cooking oil. That it was foetidum, that is rancid, tends to bear out this theory, particularly since the occasion is called forth in the plebeian and marcescent city of Sfax.
Ah, congruity and efflorescence! Oughtn’t that pensée pascalienne read: “When I consider the brief span of the night and its morning, my life absorb’d by writing—the small space I occupy swallow’d up in the immensity of spaces, I am alarm’d and astound’d at writing this rather than that: there is no reason for writing this thing rather than some other thing. Why did I do it?”

Georges Perec, 1936-1982

Thursday, July 22, 2010

Bruce Serafin’s “Avant-Garde Mentalities”

Some Flowers

Out of a short essay call’d “Avant-Garde Mentalities” in Bruce Serafin’s Stardust (New Star Books, 2007)—commentary dogging the heels of a quote by Steve McCaffery (out of an interview included in North of Intention) that reads “I’ve personally come to see humor as a useful tonal-ideological destabilizer, an agent of relativization, dispersal and inversion (similar to Bakhtin’s notion of the carnivalization of literature). Humor tends to operate as a visceral, or tactile investment upon the level of the verbal order; it is not entirely ‘of’ language.” Serafin:
        This is practically self-parody; but what really interests me here is the stolidity of McCaffery’s response, the unblinking assurance, the complete reliance on a kind of “secured” vocabulary. Here you see the house style not only of the avant-garde, but of any large government corporation, a style whose chief purpose is to mask the individual writer and give him a kind of group sensibility.
        At bottom, it is an unfree style. In prose, at least, you get across the sense of a freely speaking voice by using dramatic arrhythmia—digressions, questions, changes in register, the interruption of a mass of complex sentences with a short declarative one. But almost none of this linguistic drama appears in McCaffery. Instead he uses a colleague’s sentence—long, impersonal, jargon-ridden—that imposes its rhythm on the work to the exclusion of any other. This effectively masks McCaffery as an individual, while making him stand out as a heroic representative of a project and program of work.
That “colleague’s sentence”—see the enforced bonhomie in the buoyant smarm of the “current” groupusculars—means, too: dutiful prose of the “collegial sensibility”—the kind favor’d—then (the piece appear’d in Books in Canada in 1990 under the title of “Colonial Mentalities”) and now—by academics of any stripe: “Like an astronaut, or a tenured sociologist, he is a colleague, someone involved in a project that he develops in a “responsible” manner for others who are similarly involved. His writing is determined and given shape by an extremely strong sense of solidarity . . . he writes for a group, a group to which he is wedded, right down to the style of his prose.” (Regarding the “colonial mentality” of the former title, see Serafin’s apt-to-a-whole-generation-or-two-of-criticules-norteamericanos remark that labels McCaffery’s work “as colonial—as work that mimics a body of ‘master texts’ originating elsewhere. Seen in this way, McCaffery resembles those early Canadian poets who wrote in the style of Swinburne or Tennyson: as with them, the chief thing you notice in his work is an unconscious pathos, the pathos of whatever is derivative or second-hand without meaning to be so.”) (In a rebuttal, McCaffery writes—in apparent innocence of the way he replicates the original charge—“Well, what is jargon? It is the necessary vocabulary of a skill determined by factors of linguistic economy that intersect with the exigencies of specific expertise.” Yow.)

I repeat all that not out of any particular animus or besmirch towards McCaffery. I recall reading through—nigh twenty years back—North of Intention with some assent. I wrote a piece (originally call’d something like “A McCaffery Sandwich”) that Dagwoods in several layers of gussy’d-up malarkey between two slices of a McCaffery sentence (one that reminds me a little of Duncan’s law of the “the”—that inevitable a diminuendo to vanishing death in grammar, each word in succession in a sentence delimiting the possibilities for the next.) Here: handy enough (out of Breeze):

I read “Grammatically realized meaning is a postponed reward . . .”
And think how rewarding a scoop or even larger helping of vanilla
Ice cream can be after the loud and long rain delays and postponements of a broadcast
Double-header, Sunday afternoon, a little lazy, the tiny rug of grass, all dew-

Besmirch and ringlet, cut in a few idle minutes this morning, cut
By starting at one corner (call it A) of the rectangle and moving to the one adjacent (B)
And pivoting the roaring mower ninety degrees
To proceed to corners C and D with the practiced indifferent maneuvers of a man

Who knows the book he is reading begins on page one and proceeds
Step by pleasant step through a tangle of signifiers, each
Shorn by the blades of vision and usual procedure, the clippings collected in the grass-
Stained bag of ratiocination (a reassurance), though not reasonably sorted

Are they, but kept unkempt just as he keeps to a comfortable stride
Marking a pattern, a ziggurat in the yard, cornering
Well, making boxes within boxes in order to finish before the game starts
Because the game offers its own rewards, like a pitcher who discusses with the baseball

The baseball’s incipient trajectory, where it should arrive
Being where it desires arriving,
Though in practice (that is, in the real game
Being played out there now on the rain-soaked diamond) it

(The baseball) will always miss by a few gaping inches, that gap
Being where the batter swings and misses with a sheer undifferentiated
Discharge of energy (accompanied by a grunt) just north of
Intention, just south of where the ball thwacks the mitt

Of the hunkering untalkative catcher who knows nothing anymore of desire now
Because that strikeout (a kind of erasure) ends the game
And he is easeful in loping to the dugout, to the showers, thinking
How terrific a scoop of ice cream is, or how a book

A woman—a red-haired fan in short shorts and halter top—had one day
Read to him seemed then like everything in the world, just as she did,
And later like only what (and not, he thinks, much it was) had been “. . .attained
By arrival at the end of a horizontal, linearized sequence of words.”
Too, I recall attending a reading and screening of some pieces McCaffery’d made using TV techniques, words slowly rolling “up” end-of-movie credits style: works that seem’d to mimic the way TV commercial writers, attempting to combat the boom in remote control devices with “mute” buttons, were just then cluttering ads with words. (Remind’d of that by Serafin’s aside—genius resides in the aside, that residue, that excess: “A lot could be said about the language poets for instance, especially about their relationship to mass media such as radio and TV; but it simply won’t get said unless a genuine tension exists between the critic and the writer being discussed.” Sad lack of that tension un peu partout in the current “era”—effect of the wholesale balkanization of la poesía norteamericana . . .)

I suspect (largely through reading some of the other essays in Starburst) that an enormous commitment to the local and a stubborn d.i.y. mentality (Serafin help’d found and edit the Vancouver Review) accounts for some of the thinking here. (Too, there may be a niggling matter of turf: McCaffery’s Barthes is Barthes the structuralist, assured and public—the Barthes Serafin prefers is the late Barthes of Roland Barthes, the “insecure” and personal and novel-writing Barthes.) Serafin work’d some years as a mail-handler in Vancouver’s Postal Station J, and writes fondly of the people there. I think the split that exists between the language that daily surrounds one and the discourse of books, &c. is one that needs be harness’d, an energy source akin to that “genuine tension” between critic and writer. Two (or more) audiences: that’s what keeps one balanced, “in the world.” And two (or more) word-hoards (enough of that “I HATE SPEECH” nonsense). Serafin puts it down with excellent, wisdom unlock’d, clarity:
. . . Where is the audience? Is it the audience that knows the same jingles you know? Or is it the audience that shares your ideas?
        This question is particularly hard for intellectuals. Again and again they find a gap between the discourse they hear around them and the discourse they turn to in books to keep them stimulated. For them, the temptation to give up on the local or even national scene, and hence to give up on its language, can be overwhelming—as overwhelming as the complementary temptation to join forces with a like-minded group.
        So a paradox arises: seeking the largest language, the language that seems most international, most part of an over-arching intellectual project, the critic ends up writing for fewer and fewer people. Wanting to be significant, he first of all loses his “place,” then his sense of proportion, his ease with his native speech, and finally his pleasure in the use of words.
        The loss of speech: one keeps coming back to that. The pathos in McCaffery’s work is the pathos of baffled effort, of a voice muffled by a kind of plate glass of borrowed styles. His texts are as misshapen as they are because he has lost the writer’s intense connection to his own language. And I believe that this is a function of writing for a group. Do that—write for a group—and you gain security. Your writing becomes protected: you no longer know the anxiety of writing “blind,” of wondering whether your work will be entertaining, or read. And without that anxiety the work turns bad. Intensity drains away: your writing becomes tedious, right-minded. You go to books for your ideas; you learn what you are supposed to say. Ultimately, you become unfree.

Bruce Serafin’s Stardust
(Cover design’d by Clint Hutzulak)

Bruce Serafin, 1950-2007

Wednesday, July 21, 2010


Some Flowers

Tempt’d by a little essay of nothing, a larking in the street going nowhere. That’s how the grand puffy apricot-color’d clouds tailing off to Mandelbrot-hump’d cloudlets, some nearly roseate peach-tint’d where the sun’s backlash is hitting—that’s how that is. Though it isn’t that at all. What’s here is a festering, a made intelligibility, a fire consuming the fire of its making. Rhetoric mounting the stump of rhetoric, forever “about to speak.” A way of making the day itself. (Paul Klee says (in The Diaries of Paul Klee, 1898-1918): “Human animal, timepiece built of blood.” And, too: “One eye sees, the other feels.” Though I’d revise that: “One eye sees, the other essays its own frolicsome extravagant gibberish.” Probably what Frank O’Hara, juddering (with flagging intensity) through a dictionary, meant in saying: “Mon ange, tu as un œil qui dit zut à l’autre.”) Klee, too, worrying the availing provender:
        Nature can afford to be prodigal in everything, the artist must be frugal down to the smallest detail.
        Nature is garrulous to the point of confusion, let the artist be truly taciturn.
Isn’t the fetch’d particular found precisely in the onslaught and slurry? Joan Retallack (in “Wager as Essay”) talks of the essay’s (the writing’s) need “to approach the liminal spectrum of near-unintelligibility—immediate experience complicating what we thought we knew.” One never gets there piecemeal, by constructivist tatting and hammering, no? Isn’t the aim precisely the hell-bent garrulity of the fuddler? Thus the commonplace of the writer who drinks and yammers in lieu of writing—a fine and lacerating substitute, see Shakespeare (The Merchant of Venice):
A substitute shines brightly as a king,
Until a king be by; and then his state
Empties itself, as doth an inland brook
Into the main of waters.
Retallack quotes Samuel Johnson’s definition of “essay”: “A loose sally of the mind; an irregular undigested piece; not a regular and orderly composition.” And Addison’s remark concerning “the Wildness of those Compositions that go by the Names of Essays.” (Calling up Kerouac’s “wild form”—that outburst in a letter to John Clellon Holmes—“What I’m beginning to discover now is something beyond the novel and beyond the arbitrary confines of the story . . . into realms of revealed Picture . . . wild form, man, wild form. Wild form’s the only form holds what I have to say—my mind is exploding to say something about every image and every memory. . . . I have an irrational lust to set down everything I know.” That garrulity—like Faulkner’s “writing on the verge of losing control.”) It (irregular, undigest’d) need not be large, it need only be all. See O’Hara’s Klee squib (out of the Bill Berkson-compiled and edit’d What’s with Modern Art?) where he asserts that Klee “is fortunate in never having done a major work.” In lieu of prodigality: “each individual thought as it comes to us trembling with wit and sensibility seems to be all of him. . . . Some of them are beautiful and amusing, others are phlegmatic and puerile.” And: Klee’s “constant nagging at the attention by petty and often vapid titles is a sign of his own nervousness and of a documentation which is perhaps too thorough . . .” Extravagant minims. Jots of the trembling hymeneal chorister, joining thing to thing with a nudge! See William Carlos Williams’s satyr-wing’d outburst (Paterson) “leading to the rout of the vocables / in the writings / of Gertrude / Stein”:
                                you cannot be
an artist
                by mere ineptitude
The dream
                is in pursuit!
The neat figures of
                Paul Klee
                                fill the canvas
but that
                is not the work
                                of a child       .
the cure began, perhaps
                with the abstraction
                                of Arabic art
                with his Melancholy
                                was aware of it—
the shattered masonry. Leonardo
                saw it,
                                the obsession,
and ridiculed it
                in La Gioconda.
congeries of tortured souls and devils
                who prey on them
                their own entrails
The essaying swallows its own entrails: one ends up tatting, making a doily for the day, a parasol cover. Is it the result of the contemporary means—info à go-go—that data-plethora with its siren song calling? (One ought return to the hand-scrawl’d notebook, hunker’d between hills, the sun finally “up” and the peach-color’d light gone stellar and vapid . . .) Retallack:
Forms that move the imagination out of bounds toward pungent transgressions piquant unintelligibilities intrude into our tangible surroundings. They maintain an irritating presence, pleasurable or not, as radically unfinished thought. They give the reader real work to do. If the essay is a worthwhile wager, it is about startling the mind into action when much is at stake and intelligibility is poor.
The other question. Is anything at stake here? (No, nothing is at stake here.)

Paul Klee, “Pfeil im Garten (Arrow in the Garden),” 1929

Joan Retallack

Tuesday, July 20, 2010

Chris Daniels’s porous, nomadic

Some Clouds

Translator and poet Chris Daniels, in porous, nomadic or, para encontrar o acontecimento impalávrel: (Airfoil, 2010), a chapbook who’s Portuguese sub-title renders subtle homage to Daniels’s own work, and means, roughly (I think, with brio unswooning, unforswunk) “to meet the thing unpalaver’d”:
* The Sake *

Teenage Bernini tried to sculpt living flames in marble. That his failure resulted in near-parodic representation of martyrdom by fire in no way diminishes the beauty of his rejection of impossibility. I realized fairly recently that this has always mirrored my rejection of the grand social impossibilities trumpeted by demagogues. What I do is tiny. But I wouldn’t want to be without it. Language, our million-year collective endeavor.

I didn’t know how to say it for the longest time, but while the Baroque inhabits my many nomad mansions, I believe it was Lippi who painted the Nativity which impolitely forces my eye stage left, where a peasant, at play with his dog, is missing the whole millenary event. Sometimes I imagine that peasant to be Remédios Varo, or Franz Marc, Lygia Clark or John Heartfield, among others, especially you—is that strange, do you think?—it’s just that we love to experience beauty together. It’s for our sake: the realest beauty is always among others.
Triggering, by turns, in the typing: stray inklings of V. N. Vološinov’ s “stream of speech”—how one’s own tiny impossibility abrades into that murmurous runnel with nary a ripple or knot; a hint of Auden’s “Musée des Beaux Arts” obligatory (“not an important failure”) nod at Brueghel’s Icarus reconfigured here to point away (and thus “impolitely” renounce, or condemn) “the whole millenary event”; and Ashbery, marvelously, too: that direct address of “is that strange, do you think?” (see “Paradoxes and Oxymorons”—“The poem is you.”)—the way it draws the reader right up, tenderly close, so that the final admission pierces right in, a living flame: “the realest beauty is always among others.” I recall, too, recently reading Ron “The Namer” Silliman’s claim that “language poetry would be more accurately called ‘social formalism’” and wonder, who’s zooming whom? Where in the “corpus” of that self-proclaim’d “movement” (il ne bouge guère), a moment so daringly humble (“What I do is tiny”) and moving and direct and conceivably answerable to all?

Daniels’s porous, nomadic (the title page upends the usual map of the Americas, making the U. S. an appendage to a dominant southern continent—in “Other Sources,” Daniels notes: “Brazil is bigger than Australia, yet in planetary terms, writing Portuguese is more or less the same as keeping quiet (Leminski)”) seems to ask by its arrangement that every piece be read equally—“Other Sources” is print’d mid-chap, along with “Acknowledgements” and the finely-paced “* Dedicatory *”:
when we’re dead and gone
then may our children’s
children’s children
—however long—
translate our ash

that we reside at last
where once technocrats
weave baskets and all

master the changes
on harmonica, the family of viols
and the categorical imperative
of cleaning our own toilets
however long it takes
No division of labor (even in the structural integrity of the book). So that: one reads the pages titled “Epigraphs” (the half-title page offers its own several lines of Attila Jószef—“What reader would I most want to have / but you who understand your friend through love . . .”) in the manner of a poem, its select’d utterances arranged in a manner radical in its intent, without any smarm or condescending smirking, for maximum semantic pop:

An animal is in the world like water is in water.
                        —Bataille, Theory of Religion

When a boat reaches a certain speed, water becomes as hard as marble.
                        —Deleuze, The Fold

If water has been metaphorized into crystal, crystal will appear as softly solid water.
                        —Sarduy, Written on a Body

Only the difficult stimulates; only challenging resistance can raise our eyebrows, provoke and maintain our powers of knowing, for in reality ¿what is the difficult?, ¿the submerged, so solo, in the maternal waters of the dark?, ¿the originary without causality, antithesis or logos?
                        —Lezama, Américan Expression

But however much professional poets may be shocked by such carelessness, I consider it an advantage, since our brood of epigonous poets have nothing left but formal polish.
                        —Marx, Letter to Ferdinand Lassalle

This new art is incompatible with pessimism, with skepticism, and with all the other forms of spiritual collapse.
                        —Trotsky, Literature and Revolution

“Who do you write for?” means in the first place: “Do you know who you write for?” It next means: “Do the social consequences of your writing correspond to the intentions that animate you while writing?” And for this reason I think that we must maintain and tirelessly repeat the question: “Who do you write for?”; we must even respond in the place of those who don’t themselves respond.
                        —Georges Politzer, speech to Association des Écrivains et Artistes Révolutionnaires

The present, due to its staggering complexity, is almost as conjectural as the past.
                        —George Jackson

I aspire to a poetry that amid suffering and helplessness has the power to generate light, any light neither given us nor come down from heaven, but a light born of the hands and spirit of people.
                        —Ferreira Gullar (paraphrased)

By thinking in images the artist cognizes the world in order to change it.
                        —Frederick Choate on A. K. Voronsky

. . . not for a seat upon the dais,
but at the common table.
                        —Reznikoff, Te Deum

The fright of change, not readiness. Instead
Inside our wall we will today pursue
The man we call the alien, take his print,
Give him a taste of the thing from which he fled,
Suspicion him. And again we fail.
                        —Genevieve Taggard, Ode in Time of Crisis

Domenico: What kind of a world is this if a madman has to tell you to be ashamed of yourselves?
                        —Tarkovsky, Nostalghia

This irreducible refusal of unlived poetry.
                        —Vinícius de Moraes, O Haver

I yearn for a love split away from power.
                        —Murat Nemat-Nejat, Eleven Septembers Later

no gesture without a past
no face without the other
                        —Josely Vianna Baptista, Corpografia

it starts when you say We
and know who you mean
                        —Marge Piercy, The Low Road

Your voice slays doubt,
Takes heart.
                        —Hafiz, trans. Ken Bullock
A terrific assemblage, drawn out of no mechanized Google-hoohah—rather, a commit’d subfusc of regular reading, exchange, and examination. The book—it includes a lovely bit of doggerel “for use” call’d “The Birth of a Pejorative” (“We are beginning and end and / you are just the latest ampersand,
/ for one day we’ll learn again . . . we’ll stop thinking like solitary wankers—
/ and on that day we’ll take back what we’ve made, you fucking BANKERS”)— offers up its history under the imprimatur of:

Primeiro de Maio—São Paulo
Read it.

Chris Daniels

Monday, July 19, 2010

“In murmurous runnels . . .”


Hadn’t I shy’d off the late Faulkner of the Snopes trilogy, caught by some incorrigible hint of inferiority, a diminuendo snag’d off what airwaves of post-literary gossip, the kind that goes about untend’d and extreme, opinions bouncing up off the grand barrier reef of œuvres unexamined, illegible to the everyday breezes of discourse—usually put: he had a falling off? And hadn’t I always fail’d to discern the roots of “el boom” (magical realism cadre) in Faulkner? Entraining to Schenectady, New York so that I could—with no surcease of motility—volte-face in mid-decay industrial and resume trajectory behind the wheel of the Vibe, point’d, though, into the opposing westerly (and soon-to-be sinking) sun (long story), I read Faulkner’s The Hamlet (1940), with bec bouché, meaning (I doubt) stupefy’d by its excellence. The idiot-boy Isaac Snopes and the stolen cow he so inescapably loves walking into the westering sun, caught by rain (writing on the verge of losing control):
That afternoon it rained. It came without warning and it did not last long. He watched it for some time and without alarm, wanton and random and indecisive before it finally developed, concentrated, drooping in narrow unperpendicular bands in two or three different places at one time, about the horizon, like gauzy umbilical loops from the bellied cumulae, the sun-belled ewes of summer grazing up the wind from the south-west It was as if the rain were actually seeking the two of them, hunting them out where they stood amid the shade, finding them finally in a bright intransigeant fury. The pine-snoring wind dropped, then gathered; in an anticlimax of complete vacuum the shaggy pelt of earth became overblown like that of a receptive mare for the rampant crash, the furious brief fecundation which, still rampant, seeded itself in flash and glare of noise and fury and then was gone, vanished; then the actual rain, from a sky already breaking as if of its own rich over-fertile weight, running in a wild lateral turmoil among the unrecovered leaves, not in drops but in needles of fiery ice which seemed to be not trying to fall but, immune to gravity, earthless, were merely trying to keep pace with the windy uproar which had begotten and foaled them, striking in thin brittle strokes through his hair and shirt and against his lifted face, each brief lance already filled with the glittering promise of its imminent cessation like the brief bright saltless tears of a young girl over a lost flower; then gone too, fled north and eastward beyond the chromatic arch of its own insubstantial armistice, leaving behind it the spent confetti of its carnival to gather and drip leaf by leaf and twig by twig then blade by blade of grass, to gather in murmurous runnels, releasing in mirrored repetition the sky which, glint by glint of fallen gold and blue, the falling drops had prisoned.
A final sentence wherein the storm-mimicking rhythm of the whole proves likely of more mean pertinence unreproof’d than the particulars of its sayings. Regarding what the various South Americans mark’d, see, say, the bay horse the canny trader Stamper dyes black and inflates (“it even put its feet down like it couldn’t even feel them”) in order to sell it back to its original owners with the premonitory nudge compleatly miss’d: “‘Sho now . . . That horse will surprise you.” A rainstorm (“we rode in it for two hours, hunched under the croker sacks”) rinses out the color: “Then there was a sound like a nail jabbed into a big bicycle tire. It went whish-hhhhhhhh and then the rest of that shiny fat black horse . . . vanished.” Eventually a “bicycle pump valve” is found “under its hide just inside the nigh fore shoulder.” See, too, the figure of Ratliff, “the sewing machine agent” and news-purveyor, who travels a four county area in a buckboard “drawn by a pair of shaggy ponies as wild and active-looking as mountain goats and almost as small”:
To the rear of it was attached a sheet-iron box the size and shape of a dog-kennel and painted to resemble a house, in each painted window of which a painted woman’s face simpered above a painted sewing-machine . . .
Something of the meretriciousness thereof hints of the marvelous wares of the annual gypsy peddler Melquíades in the Macondo of Gabriel García Márquez. Or see the recipe provided to cure a man of “stock-diddling”:
“You take and beef the critter the fellow has done formed the habit with, and cook a piece of it and let him eat it. It’s got to be a authentic piece of the same cow or sheep or whatever it is, and the fellow has got to know that’s what he is eating; he cant be tricked nor forced to eating it, and a substitute wont work. Then he’ll be all right again and wont want to chase nothing but human women . . .”
Isn’t something of the story of the House of Atreus (Atreus tricking Thyestes into eating the cook’d flesh of ’s own sons) hovering nearby? If one reads for sentences (and I do, for varietals and fervencies and those all out of composure and echoes), one marvels. One that begins somewhere in King Lear and ends with Emily Dickinson:
He would lie amid the waking instant of earth’s teeming minute life, the motionless fronds of water-heavy grasses stooping into the mist before his face in black, fixed curves, along each parabola of which the marching drops held in minute magnification the dawn’s rosy miniatures, smelling and even tasting the rich, slow, warm barn-reek milk-reek, the lowing immemorial female, hearing the slow planting and plopping suck of each deliberate cloven mud-spreading hoof, invisible still in the mist loud with its hymeneal choristers.
Or (anchor’d by the biblical “pismires”):
What he felt was outrage at the waste, the useless squandering; at a situation intrinsically and inherently whirring by any economy, like building a log dead-fall and baiting it with a freshened heifer to catch a rat; or no, worse: as though the gods themselves had funneled all the concentrated bright wet-slanted unparadised June onto a dug-heap, breeding pismires.
Or the way “a tiny machine-made black bow which snapped together at the back with a metal fastener”—the absurdly inutile bowtie (“ceremonial heterodoxy raised to its tenth power”) interloper and storekeeper Flem Snopes takes to wearing daily is call’d “a tiny viciously depthless cryptically balanced splash like an enigmatic punctuation symbol against the expanse of white shirt.” Uncomprehending I am, of that curious breed of poet—particularly the sentence-writer, “new” or old—who scorns the novel (or any word-made thing): always there is that combo, incombustible and unblast’d, a tiny blastula of words making a wild-eyed circumambient music, something to cling to . . .

William Faulkner, 1897-1962
(Photograph by Carl Mydans)

Thursday, July 15, 2010

Jean Frémon’s The Real Life of Shadows

A Wall

Who’s got that line about Gerard Manley Hopkins “tonguing some irrevocable Rodney”? That’s what the sloth of summer brings, mischievous rabbitings on, chortles to oneself. I read the Cole Swenson-translated The Real Life of Shadows by Jean Frémon (The Post-Apollo Press, 2009). Frémon, novelist and art critic, is author, too, of the terrific Island of the Dead (Green Integer, 2003), and of The Botanical Garden (forthcoming out of Green Integer, see an excerpt here), translated by Brian Evenson. In The Real Life of Shadows Frémon, deftly and sparingly retells a number of stories of artists (painters and others). Out of “Giotto’s O”:
It was said that Giotto, always a clown, had once painted a fly on the nose of a portrait that Cimabue was working on. The master, returning to his painting and simply thinking that the fly had been attracted by the egg in the tempera, tried several times to brush it away before he realized the trick.
Frémon relates the story (out of Vasari) of Giotto’s response to a papal messenger’s request for a drawing demonstrating the artist’s skill: how he drew, in red paint, a perfect circle. Frémon’s veering final paragraph: “‘Rounder than Giotto’s O’ became the term for a dullard who could be easily duped. In Tuscan, the same word is used to indicate both a circle and a limited mind.”

In “Anthea,” Frémon tells the story of a couple who, in Italy, taxi out “to Capodimonte for the sole reason of looking one more time at a full-length portrait of an unknown young woman.” Returning, they dine (“sea bream done in wild water and a bottle of Greco di Tufo”) and argue a little, made restless by the inescapable memory of the portrait. That “wild water”—“They call cooking water wild when they’ve added sparkling Asti wine and a good dose of aromatic herbs—parsley, basil, oregano, fennel, and minced garlic”—is made counterpoint to “the uncanny gift of the fixed image . . . ubiquity, the paradox of a double nature.” Frémon:
Who was she? What was she to him, the painter from Parma, carried off by his love of the alchemical? We would have liked to know. Of what crime she’d been accused that made her, with her hand poised low on her chest, so silently protest her innocence as she looks you straight in the eye. And how this arm, just slightly completely out of proportion as it starts to come forward, makes her so close, as if the image had been startled out of itself, out of its two dimensions, to take on a body and almost reach us.

Parmigianino, “Antea,” c. 1531–34

Oddly, though there’s a number of pieces included that are out of it, Swenson’s The Real Life of Shadows is not a translation of Frémon’s La Vraie nature des ombres (P.O.L., 2000), a book about twice the length—including the long piece call’d “Proustiennes” [I see now that Proustiennes, translated, too, by Brian Evanson, is an announced title for Fence’s La Presse Books collection]—and append’d with both a list of “livres cités” and an index, the latter a lovely measure of Frémon’s range of reading and writing. See (randomly):
Ptolémée, 79.
Baronne Putbus, 258.
Raimu, 194.
Alexandre Ramanovitch Louria, 183.
Ricardo Reiss, 93.
Rembrandt, 155.
Joshua Reynolds, 134, 135.
Rainer Maria Rilke, 276.
Arthur Rimbaud, 199.
Jean-Paul Riopelle, 166.
Colonel de la Roque, 277.
Noël Roquevert, 277.
Barney Rosset, 166.
Joseph Roth, 97.
Mark Rothko, 164.
Jacques Roubaud, 98, 183.
Jean-Jacques Rousseau, 127, 128, 182.
Raymond Roussel, 178, 179, 182.
Claude Royet-Journoud, 130, 158, 203, 266, 267, 272, 278.
And so forth, with Keith Waldrop preceding Robert Walser and the whole ending with Zo. (Too, one notes that “Anthea” and at least one other story, “Hapax and Apocatastasis,” are not available in the French collection, though some paragraphs of the latter appear to be rehearsed in its “Proustiennes.”) The paragraphs point to a secondary note that recurs in Frémon’s work—a postmodern (“Borges, who defined himself as baroque (baroque to me, he said, is the final stage of any art during which it displays and squanders its means), is perhaps the first postmodern writer”) concern for originality, permutation and repetition:
While Hieron was the tyrant of Syracuse, Archimedes astounded the prince’s court by claiming that, though considerable, all the grains of sand found on all the shores of all the seas are not innumerable. He went on to say that if one can establish the number of grains of sand, it is then easy to imagine a number larger, for example that of all the books that could be written by assembling all the words that can be formed with all the letters of the alphabet submitted to all the permutations conceivable by logic. As this number is finite, it follows that if the human race lasts long enough (and without this optimistic postulate, the whole argument collapses), a moment will come when almost all the propositions that can be stated have been stated, and we’ll need to start repeating them in order to continue to give ourselves the illusion of thinking, which will prove Terence’s prediction that nothing is ever said that has not already been said.

Gottfried Wilhelm Leibniz, who loved the combinatory art as Uccello did the perspectival, established that if the alphabet had 100 letters rather than 26, the number of all their possible arrangements, both sensible and not, would amount to a 1 followed by 7,300,000,000,000 zeros—a number that’s rather long to write out entirely; it would take 20,000 writers 37 years of work if each produced 1,000 pages every year with 10,000 zeros on every page—a tedious job, but in no way impossible in the era, now past, of the accountant-scrivener.
Lovely assemblagist monkeying. (A “hapax” or “hapax legomenon” is a word occurring only once in either the written record of a language, or the works of an author, or in a single text.) That repeating necessary to “continue to give ourselves the illusion of thinking” gets its (partial, stall’d) comeuppance in a lovely piece call’d “The Words of Others”:
Despite the rationalizations that he managed to construct, the analogies with portraiture and other flimsy theories invented for the occasion, he couldn’t help feeling a bit guilty for taking recourse in the words of others, the phrases of others, the paragraphs of others—for sometimes it went as far as that—to shore up his inventions, those ordinary situations and characters, more or less similar to the ones that you encounter every day, but constituted of words. A weakness he put down to a lack of talent, a lack of inspiration (which, they say, doesn’t visit the lazy), a lack of application, or simply a lack of patience. And above all, a lack of courage. To an impulse to gain time by stealing material here and there rather than nurturing them. At the same time, he reassured himself, why not? One might as well shamelessly use whatever is at hand. When Picasso picked up a toy car to make a monkey’s muzzle, a cake mold for the chignon of the nurse pushing her baby carriage, or the seat and handlebars of a bicycle to create a bull’s head, what else was he doing? One could even claim that material found, selected, and blatantly borrowed is more powerful because it’s less labored, more virgin. This didn’t keep him from endlessly giving himself grief for lack of imagination and willpower, not to mention ethical feeling. Although he said to himself that a group of words is not, anymore than a single word is, the property of the one who uses it. That all words are by nature the words of others because if they weren’t we wouldn’t be able to learn them, and even if we could learn them, they would be useless because no one else would understand them. Words are what we have in common, and it must be admitted that it’s not with ideas, but with words, that one writes. But these elegant arguments weren’t enough to assuage his guilt. He still felt like a thief acting dishonorably, even though only he knew.
The sort of thing one ought put in a place of reminder, up where one sees it, next to one’s tack’d up calligraphy of durable speech (xìn, 信). That “tonguing some irrevocable Rodney”—I think the previous line is “kneeling between semis”—I’ll quit the “who’s got” goofing: I wrote that.

Jean Frémon

Wednesday, July 14, 2010

Indurable Speech”: Kent Johnson on Ron Silliman’s Prevaricant Cant

Some Clouds

On That Alphabet Thing: Being A Few Further Poetical A-Musings

“Eliot Weinberger is an ultra-leftist with a touch of Pat Buchanan.”
—Ron Silliman

Come to think of it, I can imagine someone objecting to what I wrote here Monday, 7/12 [“A Rather Ugly Juncture in The Alphabet”], in something like the following way:
Those are all quoted materials from conversations I heard . . . Likewise interesting that you automatically assign every statement in the work directly to me in such an instrumentalist fashion . . . My intent in quoting those originally was just to note the incredible cattiness of the poetry world . . . Nothing you ascribe to those lines appears anywhere but in your head.
To which I could imagine the following, if longwinded riposte (I quote from Boswell):
This is poppycock, Sir, as my stern Mme Thrale so enjoys putting it. And how very convenient and most disingenuous, this, your plea of defense by recourse to quotation’s indifference: That you, forsooth, a legend of cattiness in our lyrical world, would blithely presume to proffer this unmarked “quotation” in such dark measure—you who evoke violent death upon another by name, I do mean, and for whose person you have yourself most infamously displayed such open and virulent displease in times past—and then yet proceed so earnestly of protest, when you be upbraided on the topick: that such black view in your Book, you remonstrate, is but animus of nameless others, that of course you neither mean nor feel any such objectionable thing as the tribunal of good and obvious sense would impugn, nor that, mercy be, your paratactik choice to enter such nominal suggestion has any thing [sic] to do with the ubiquitous records of your “affections” . . . Why this, Sir, is most disingenuous indeed. [The grossly overweight and profusely sweating Johnson pauses here to savagely cough and draw labored breath, then continues, hoarsely] “O, No, no,” protesteth you, our Most Innocent Poet: “My hands are clean and beyond reproach, for these are not my words . . .”

Truly, Sir, do you not see that your poetick appears, by all lights, to be the poetick politick of “I don’t mean anything I say, except when I mean it”?

You should be Ashamed, Sir! Now, may I trouble you to pass the relish and the brandy, both, for their taste does please me greatly.
Be such fancy as it may, I’d say it is also worth asking:

To what extent has a flippant and self-serving attitude towards the materials one “collects” come to inflect, let us say infect, a good chunk of current avant aesthetic, vacating it of any discernible sense of ethic or moral claim?

Think Flarf, for example.

(And please, if I may anticipate, spare me any dumb, irrelevant complaint about Yasusada.)

Actually, I should come clean: The passage in bold above is constituted of direct quotes from another person, from messages he’s sent me today, 7/13. Is it wrong for me to share them? Perhaps. But I’ve chosen to do so in the casual poaching spirit that seems to rule the day. It’s a free-for-all, catty comrades; it is the new dispensation.

Ah, that old-fashioned Pound, whom I’d recalled, without whose troubled poetics the notion of the “New Sentence” would never have been conceived (and how he loved to quote others!) Here he is, on the visualization of the ideogram for Truth:

“Man standing by his word.”

Now that’s a quote the dissembling Mr. Silliman should enter into the second edition of The Alphabet.

—Kent Johnson

Durable Speech (xìn, 信): man (rén, 人) standing by word (yán, 言)