Tuesday, November 30, 2010

A Carousel Not for Carousing

Horse, Merry-Go-Round

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

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

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

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